TEN YEARS AGO
The world returned to life with every step Gale put between herself and the dead witch’s cabin.
Two years of blight and famine had left her village and the mountain forests that surrounded it starving. Dying. Now the curse was broken, and as she and her brother Hawk walked home, ferns had sprouted around their feet, leaves had burst forth on the trees, and the woods had filled with birdsong that had been absent for too long.
But Gale walked with her head down, focusing on the squish of newly fertile soil beneath her too-large boots as she and her big brother crossed Mister Coldstream’s wheat field.
Almost home. Mama. Papa. Home.
It was all her seven-year-old mind could handle, so it was all she allowed herself to think. Even questioning why her heart didn’t leap at the thought of seeing her parents again was too much.
Hawk took her hand and pulled her forward. “Almost there, little bird. We’re going to be heroes for killing that witch, you know.”
Gale glanced up at him. He was still skeleton thin and too pale, just as he’d been when Father took them into the woods and left them there. Though Gale had been just as gaunt when they’d left home, she’d gained back every stolen ounce as she’d eaten at the witch’s table, and her skin glowed tan and healthy from long days in a bountiful garden that hadn’t been touched by the curse.
A flash of laughing eyes came into Gale’s mind.
Don’t think of her.
She focused instead on Hawk’s words and tried to make the word hero in her mouth, just to try it on and see how it fit her.
It tasted bad.
Hawk deserved to be called a hero. Not her.
The shocking green of the fields, the riot of life and noise and God-given goodness that had sprouted around them since the witch’s death were all the proof Gale needed that he’d been right to want to kill the witch.
And Gale had been wrong to trust her. To eat at her table. To embrace her as guardian after their own parents had placed the siblings in God’s hands when there was no food left for them at home.
Her throat closed at the thought, choking her.
I’m glad to go home, she told herself, desperate to believe it. Mother and Father will be pleased.
The curse is broken. God’s will has been done. We are heroes.
Bright Hollow would be in view soon, past these sprawling fields, cradled in its sheltered space on the mountainside.
It had been a sour, dull place when they’d left. No snow forts this past winter, no dances, no candies and songs, no candles in the windows to chase the darkness away on the longest night of the year. But maybe now, if enough folks had survived, it would be like before. Classes in the big schoolhouse. Harvest festivals. Friends playing in the streets.
Gale’s chin trembled as she forced herself to take in everything around her, to make it all fit what she remembered from before the curse.
For Gale, the world had changed. Her time with the witch, with magic, had made it different. Where once she’d seen and heard and felt and tasted and smelled, now there was something else that she experienced beyond those natural senses.
Magic. Not everywhere. Not here. But it had been present in patches of the land as she and Hawk walked home, in the new forest plants and the animals that fed on them. She was glad to find there wasn’t any magic near Bright Hollow, though its loss made her feel strangely empty. In the woods near the witch’s home it had sung, called, teased, beckoned.
Sinful. Corrupting. Vile. The words Hawk had whispered to her when they lay in the loft at the witch’s cabin echoed in her mind. He’d tried to warn her. She hadn’t listened.
It hurt to remember magic flowing through her body, a river of warmth and light.
It hurt to think something so lovely could be so bad.
She cursed the land and Bright Hollow. The curse ended when she died. I was wrong. Wrong.
Someone shouted—a man’s voice, high and reedy. Across the field a thin figure in a grey shirt and bib overalls ran toward them, waving his straw hat in one hand. Mister Coldstream. One of Bright Hollow’s farmers.
Someone had survived. There would be others. Mother and Father, if God had willed that they live out the curse. The Luminary, surely, waiting to hear the story of their victory over evil.
Gale fought the urge to turn and run away. It wasn’t sensible, and Mister Coldstream would think it odd if she was afraid to go home.
Besides, there was nowhere to run back to anymore, even if she’d wanted to go. The witch was dead, the cabin burned.
Hawk slowed and turned her to face him. “We need to get our story straight. I swear I won’t tell anyone what you did.” He crouched slightly, placing his eyes at her level. “I’ll protect you, Nightingale. No one needs to know.”
Gale scrunched up her face to keep tears back as Hawk’s words broke through the dam she’d built around her memories.
The sleeping potion, perfectly made. Madrigal would have been so pleased to know how her student had used proper magic, but it had to be a secret.
Madrigal collapsing to the floor, her golden curls spread out around her as the potion subdued her magical protections enough to make her fall asleep.
Hawk’s knife, hidden in his belt, then pressed to her throat.
Madrigal’s eyes opening, meeting Gale’s. Widening. Understanding.
Gale’s breath hitched, and she pinched herself to call her mind back to the present.
She tried to answer Hawk, but words wouldn’t come no matter how badly she wanted to speak.
Hawk nodded. “Probably better if you just let me talk for the both of us. I’ll say we worked together, that we both defeated the witch and ended the curse, that it was our plan. The two of us, all along.”
Gale wanted to ask what would happen if anyone found out about her sin, but it didn’t matter. Hawk knew best. He’d proved it, and he’d keep his word. All she had to do now was follow him back to town, learn how to be a better girl, and forget.
The garden. The cabin. The warm fire. Secret lessons. Fresh rosemary bread.
The knife. The blood po v coling on the floor, staining it the colour of death.
“Ready to go home, little bird?” Hawk asked, raising an arm to wave back to Mister Coldstream.
The farmer continued toward them, calling their names.
Gale’s legs trembled. She sank to her knees and sobbed as though she would never stop, telling herself it was because she was so happy to be home.
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