The lieutenant followed a narrow trail through bare pines, moving quietly and purposefully. It was a singularly unwelcoming midwinter day: gray, so brittle and cold the air felt like it could shatter into shards. Iron will alone kept the lieutenant from hunching his shoulders and blowing into his hands for a little heat as he strode grimly on, through dead underbrush and clinging, skeletal branches.
He was on duty. A ridiculous duty, an unlikely one, but the woods and the mountain surrounding them were dangerous nonetheless, with bears and cougars and the occasional dragon. And a soldier on duty did not grumble or rub his gloved hands together or warm the air with blistering curses.
A lesser man might turn back, the lieutenant thought darkly when once more he found himself facing an impenetrable thicket of thorns. He backtracked yet again.
This was a trail untrod by any man or woman, witch or not, in many years. It was a thin, easily missed thing, twining sneakily between the leafless trees and visible only at times by the mossy smooth stones, like paving slabs, still showing here and there at its edges under drifts of old, grayish snow. Just as the local legend insisted—long ago, there was a witch who lived deep in the woods in a stone house, and one might visit her and buy a charm, or a curse, or a vision of the future.
If this had ever been true, judging by the sad remains of the pathetic path, it had been true a long, long time ago. Whatever stone house was at the end of this forsaken lane, it was likely to be little more than ruins.
The old man who’d seen her, Jonsey Hillock—he was an old man, addled by pain when he’d stumbled into the light of the watchtower the previous night, slurring incoherently about witches. The man was blue with cold and had lost at least two pints’ blood through a gore to an inexpertly bandaged leg. “The Stone Witch is back, she’s come back,” he’d moaned. “And she made me fly.”
Hardly a star witness, but Tom’s captain had listened gravely, and then turned to Tom with no evidence of the sadistic glee Tom knew he felt at sending him on these stupid errands, and said, “Well, Lieutenant Orthocetes, you’d best go investigate.”
Investigate an old hunter’s ravings on the coldest day of the year. Of course. Why not. He was half-convinced this was yet another way of hazing a demoted lad from the city, even though he’d been in Stonevale half a year now, and had done bloody good work in that time, too. A witch’s cottage, in the middle of the wild western woods, abandoned centuries ago. Please.
Tom was glad he had not given in to the urge to trudge, because he was still standing proud and tall and walking smartly when he rounded the bend and suddenly the cottage appeared in front of him. Somehow, he managed not to start or stumble. It appeared like magic, he thought, and then banished the thought sternly. It was merely an optical illusion created by the steepness of the path and a chance of shadow from the overhanging trees. Nothing magic about it.
The chimney had a thin plume of blue smoke rising from it and unseasonably green vines creeping around it. He was frowning and wondering at them when he finally noticed the witch standing in the open doorway, head cocked, watching him.
A wind blew around and through him, streaming his coat out and gusting leaves and branches with it. It was a cold so intense that it might have been hot, a knife slicing through him and leaving him gasping.
He was certain looked very correct and poised when he made her a bow, though his heart was pounding and his blood was chilled. At least he wasn’t stamping his feet and cursing the weather like a child.
“Ma’am,” he said, voice cool and level, and for a long cold moment they only stared at each other. The witch huffed out a little cloud of breath, narrowing her eyes, and then suddenly she smiled. Tom blinked.
“Fuck, you must be freezing, hello,” she said brightly. Tom felt his façade of calm slip slightly. “Suppose that poor hunter gave me away, did he? Well, and I didn’t mean to stay a secret so long anyway, it was just I swear I haven’t had a moment to think for, oh, years now. Come in, lord, but you did walk a long way in the cold, didn’t you?”
A response from Tom didn’t seem to be necessary; she continued on almost absently, as though used to talking to herself.
“Really wouldn’t have thought I’d merit a trek on such a day, not on the word of an injured addled man, but do you want some tea? I’d offer coffee, but my son’s gotten a taste for it, I think to spite me. He sees me drink it, and you know boys, they want to be older than they are. He keeps trying to sneak it. I’ve had to keep it out of the house. Worst sacrifice yet, I’ll tell you that, I feel dead on my feet. Oh, you think you’re cute, do you?”
“I beg your pardon?” Tom was startled into responding, and then had his hand on his sidearm before he even realized she was lunging—at his feet. There was a slight prickle and then she stood, making clucking sounds and clutching an armful of black fluff to her chest. It wriggled and mrowed pitifully, batting her hair.
“Escapee contained,” she said, lifting the kitten and narrowing her eyes at it. “Back inside, laddy me buck, it’s far too cold out for little cats today. You too, mister.”
“He just wanted to see,” a small solemn voice said from behind them, and Tom nearly jumped out of his boots. Behind him was a large-eyed young boy regarding him with deep suspicion. “Who are you?”
“Ohhh, as if you didn’t want to see, too! You fool no one. Inside! Maybe our visitor will come with us, and you can bother him all you like then, mm? Sorry,” she called over her shoulder, ushering the boy inside. “They’re a bit hard to control at the moment. All fired up about meeting Jonesey. We don’t get many guests, you see. You’re our first, actually.”
Tom Orthocetes, son of General Orthocetes and veteran of skirmishes in the Eastern Zone and now possessed of several dragon kills in the Western territories, hesitated.
He checked his hair, and his sidearm, and his dress sword, then followed her inside. He realized now, indoors, how very small she was, how much he towered over her. She barely reached his shoulder in height, though she’d seemed taller from a distance – probably due to the hat, pointed and tall. She also looked much more tired up close, with dark circles beneath her eyes and a strain to her smile. She swept the hat off suddenly, and it landed neatly on the back of a chair. As Tom’s eyes instinctively followed the trajectory, he took his eyes off her and saw, for the first time, the rest of the room he was in.
It was all Tom could do not to gape. The ruined cottage of legend was less a cottage, more a chalet—and it wasn’t in ruins, precisely. It was, however, in many ways ruinous.
The rooms in front of him were a frank disaster—dishes here and there left un-cleaned, a blue coat with one arm missing and a needle left in the sleeve on the floor, a disarticulated and unidentifiable skeleton in a heap of ribs and leg bones and skull in a corner, a brace of rabbits not yet skinned on a table, books left open or worse, crumpled face down, on the floor and countertops and shelves.
And above all, flowers. Flowers everywhere, in tea cups and hanging in bunches from the ceiling. The witch herself had one bright yellow buttercup tucked behind an ear, impossibly yellow against her black hair.
It was like walking into a hothouse, the sudden shock of warmth and green. Like a storybook transportation from a colorless winter forest to—this.
This was a riot of color—climbing vines threaded through with unseasonable purple blossoms, potted plants with ripe, red fruit. There were stoppered jars with metallic-winged insects buzzing against the glass, and a cauldron simmering on the fire.
“Er,” said the witch into the sudden silence. “Let me, ah, there.” She cleared a chair of a bird’s nest and what looked to be a doublet of dragon scales, which left behind a stain of which Tom was deeply suspicious. He noticed for the first time a slow trickle of blood from her fingers, from beneath a ragged bandaged. He remained standing, kept breathing carefully and slowly and tried to remember what he’d come here for. To ‘investigate.’ What a stupid, pointless, useless instruction that was.
“Sorry,” the witch continued. “It’s just, I was raised by my father and I gather I missed a few of the more feminine graces of house-keeping. And really, it suits me fine, I know where everything is. I’ve far more important things to do most of the time than tidy, and when I’ve time to tidy I’d rather sleep. But it is appalling when guests visit, I do know. Look at you, you’re completely appalled, aren’t you?”
She was smiling as she said it. Tom wasn’t nearly as appalled as he might be. As he should be.
“Could I just—” he said helplessly, finally unable to bear it a moment longer, and snatched up the nearest book—a treatise on celestial navigation?--smoothed the crumpled pages, and laid it carefully on a clean corner of the desk. “Sorry, that was—my manners are what’s appalling. Lieutenant Tom Orthocetes, at your service, ma’am.”
“Cherry Stone,” she said, and for a moment he thought she was casting a spell, or asking for an ingredient—there were cherries growing from a miniature tree potted in a kettle by the window. Then she flushed. “Oh. Bit silly, isn’t it? Well, nothing to be done now. It’s my name. There are worse names. I have a cousin named Hematoma—her mother thought it sounded pretty, no idea what it meant, can you believe it?”
“Good lord,” Tom said faintly, and she laughed.
“Cherry?” the young boy said, tilting his head. The cat, which had winding about Tom’s feet and leaving black hair on the neatly pressed trousers, also pricked its ears up.
“Cherry,” the witch said, sounding amused. “Did you think my name was Mum, little cat?”
There was a faint flush on the kid’s cheeks now. “…no,” he muttered.
Tom stifled a smile. “And what’s your name, young sir?”
“Me?” The boy stared at him, eyes wide and dark. “I’m—”
“Cat,” Cherry interjected, and both Tom and the boy turned to look at her. “It’s, well. Ah, he was named for his father. Requiescat. Requiescat Stone.”
“Does that not get confusing?” Tom asked without thinking, and mentally marshalled himself. He wasn’t a green soldier to be overset by an unexpectedly cheerful potential opponent, and this conversation wasn’t the sort of investigating he was meant to be doing, he was sure.
“With the actual cat about?” Cherry asked, and bit her lip, then shrugged, smiling wryly. “I suppose, a bit. But it’s just us, so it’s never been a problem. The cat’s named Brother.” Tom felt his other eyebrow creeping up. “I admit I didn’t think the names out very well. I was, ah. It was a stressful birth, if you must know.” She met his eyes dead on, and Tom felt a cold chill run back through his bones, like he was standing back in the cold wind once again.
“I mustn’t know,” Tom stammered hastily. Childbirth was most certainly not his area. “I wouldn’t intrude, ma’am.”
“Mm. Polite, for a soldier, aren’t you, Lieutenant Tom?” she asked, and settled in a rocking chair by the fire, scooping her son up in her lap and hugging him close. He made a protesting noise as she kissed the top of his head, then wriggled free, scrubbing at his hair and flushing bright red.
“I’m not a baby, Mum,” he scowled, and stomped over to a pile of ribbon and bone. “Brother, stop bothering, come here.”
The cat gave a last twine around Tom’s thoroughly furred legs, propped its paws on Tom’s knee and peered at him, then went over to roll in the ribbons, making ferocious kitten-sounds while the young boy continued to scowl, talking to his companion in low tones.
“They grow so fast,” Cherry murmured, watching them with a wrinkle between her eyes. “Ah, listen to me, I sound like such a mum. You don’t have any children, do you? You’ve got that look. How do I talk to this small person? Can it understand me? What does it want, will it bite?”
Tom’s spine straightened and she shot him a sideways grin.
“Not that I’m impugning your courage, Lieutenant. I used to have the same look myself, I’m sure. Didn’t expect to be a mother, no idea what I’m doing. But they’re alive, and reasonably well-socialized, I hope. You know, I was upset at first, but I suppose the wind knew its business, bringing us to your Jonesy. Probably high time the lad met other people. Couldn’t keep him holed up in the woods forever.” She stared over Tom’s shoulder, looking distant and Tom noticed again the deep hollows beneath her eyes, before she shook herself and laughed again. “Besides, we’re near out of clothes, and I can’t weave or mend worth a knotted rope.”
“Ah. Yes, ma’am,” Tom settled on finally, and then sat gingerly on the edge of the cleared chair. “And the outpost thanks you very much for your assistance. The doctor says Mr. Hillock is mending well.”
“A long way to thank me for helping an old, cold-addled injured hunter,” Cherry said thoughtfully, and rocked back and forth, staring up at the ceiling. “No, I suppose you’ll be wanting to see my registration, Lieutenant, won’t you? Trying to remember where I stuffed it, to be honest.”
“You do have one?” Tom asked, startled and pleased. That would be one hurdle skirted around, at least. He hadn’t been looking forward to the fuss that would result from reporting they had a Wild witch in their woods after all.
“Oh yes,” she said, and her voice was still light and airy, but there was some resonance to it that set Tom’s spine straighter again. “I learned Structured Magic at the Academy, and I can do it if it suits me. But it doesn’t often. Still,” she continued, eyes glittering as she turned her gaze back onto the soldier in her den. “I hear it’s likely to become law for all witches to possess one. So it’s lucky I’ve got it, isn’t it, Lieutenant Orthocetes?”
“Structured Magic doesn’t suit you?” Tom drawled into the humming air, nerves alight and ready to move if he had to. He didn’t want to have to, so he exaggeratedly glanced around at the sprawl of life and filth and sparkling around them. “I’d never have guessed.”
She snorted, and the room seemed small and cluttered and warm again. The fire crackled, and green leaves rustled in an unseen breeze. “Well, I won’t deny a wand can be a handy crutch,” she said. “But no. It doesn’t suit me often. Is Wild magic likely to become illegal in and of itself? That would be a bother.”
“Not illegal as such,” Tom said cautiously. “But I’m sure my captain would be glad to see your Academy papers, if you can, ah. Determine their location.”
“I think I used the damn things as a bookmark a few years back,” she said thoughtfully. “It would be nice if they’d actually be useful for more than that, I suppose.”
Tom resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Well, as it happens, we don’t have a witch, here in Stonevale. And I think a registered one, whether she uses her registered magic or no, would be more than welcome at our market days.” Cherry tilted her head, and Tom was aware of intent eyes on him from the other side of the room. “I’m sure that our weavers would be happy, too,” he continued, hands behind his back. “To trade stout cloth for a charm or two against the mice, or illness.”
“Hm!” Cherry said, and the cat and boy and edged closer. “Would they, at that? Are there… bakers? I’m not any great shakes at baking bread, either. Am I, Cat?”
“Mum makes rocks,” the lad said matter-of-factly, and then smiled a very little when his mother squawked and threw her hat at him.
Tom had fought politicians in the Capital, and suffered for it—he was here in Stonevale, wasn’t he? About as far from making political trouble as he could possibly get. He’d fought three dragons, and lived to tell the tale, and perhaps it was arrogance—a personal flaw, and one that had him busted down to rank in a forgotten town—but he still fancied he had decent intuition and a good sense for danger. He didn’t think there was any here, besides that of any mother cat with her kittens. He’d met many witches while at the Capital, starched and proper ones, none of whom would spit on you to put a fire out.
Cherry, he thought, was different. Dangerous, maybe, but not without provocation, he was sure of it.
He’d already made up his mind, he realized, a little amused at himself. He’d get a demerit for this. For not asking permission before inviting, for going beyond his own authority. But he thought the village folk would be delighted to welcome Cherry Stone, and her boy, and after that it would be too late to revoke it. And wouldn’t that annoy his captain something fierce?
Tom stood, brushing futilely at the cat hair on his trousers.
“Come Sunday,” he said authoritatively, and made Cherry Stone a bow, proper and correct. “Come to market. Bring your papers, and whatever you’ve got for trade. There will be bread to buy, and cloth, and—toys, for your boy. We have an excellent toy-maker. Should you be interested.”
Wood crackled, and there was the faint sound of buzzing, as though beetle-wings were beating against a glass. And the sound of ribbons rustling as a cat’s tail lashed through them.
“I see,” Cherry said. “Well. I will attempt to find said papers, and also to teach my son manners in the meantime.” She smiled up at him. “And see what we can come up with to trade. Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“Your servant, ma’am,” he said, settled his hat back on his head, and set back out into the winter wood.
Perhaps it was just the sun a bit higher in the sky, but the wind at his back seemed a little less cutting.
The witch watched him go from the window, her chin in her hand. The boy and the kitten had clambered onto the table next to her, kicking aside candles and scrolls to press their noses to the cold glass. The kitten chattered and chirruped, bird-like, as he pressed a paw, then two, against the pane, tail lashing furiously.
“Mum,” the boy said, very deliberate and thoughtful over the feline din. “You gave us new names.”
“Mm, yes, I did. And thank you for not contradicting me about it when we had company, Rowanberry, that was very well done, keeping our secrets. Very clever of you.”
“’M not a berry, Mum,” came the automatic protest. Rowan wrinkled his nose crossly at her, and the witch felt a stupid swell of helpless love in her breast, and scooped him to her side and bent to kiss the top of his head. He submitted to it with good grace before squirming free and pawing at his head with the back of his hand. Adorable, in her mind, but—perhaps she should curtail that particular fidget of his, if they were going to be going out in public soon. Bother.
“You gave us new names,” Rowan continued, stubborn as ever when he had his teeth in a thought. “Because... Ebby has the body on Sunday? And he can’t be called Rowan then.” A mmrow of agreement from the brother in question, and Rowan nodded at him. “Yeah, it wouldn’t be fair. You’re not me. So we have to have a name to share. Just like the body. I understand.”
“I wonder if it’s quite normal, how clever you are,” the witch said, and ruffled her son’s hair. Then, as Ebony complained loudly, rising on his hind legs and pawing the air, she added, laughing, “How clever the pair of you are, my apologies.”
“Are other children not clever?” Rowan wondered aloud, eyes wide, and the witch shrugged.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said, and cast a longing look at the chimney, where she’d hidden the last of the coffee beans. Gods, she was tired. “You’re the first children I’ve spent much time with. Obviously I’m biased, but I do think you’re quite out of the way, the two of you. You’re very insightful, Rowan-non-berry.”
“Mum,” he complained at once, and shook his head at her, sighing exaggeratedly, and she realized with a pang she recognized her own exasperated expression, fit to his tiny face. How awful and wonderful, to love someone so simply and completely, even when one felt like a boot with the soles worn through with worry and wear. She pressed a finger to the end of Rowan’s nose, and laughed when his eyes crossed. “Stop! Mum, will there be other children at the market?”
“Oh, yes,” she sighed, and flung herself over to the rocking chair in front of the fire, staring at the ceiling. A starling skull stared back, empty sockets, empty bird brain. That’s me, she thought. “I suppose there will. And that’s part of the problem. But names, first. I admit I wasn’t really thinking, there – I thought we’d have more time to ourselves, or that I’d have found a solution by now. But! Needs must, and it’ll be fun. It’s like a game, yes? Cat you’re called, when you go to market as a boy. I call you both kitten-cats often enough, it should be easy to answer to, mm? And then you’ll call your brother – Brother! See, simple. Easy as pie.”
“Pie’s hard. You said so, after it caught fire,” Rowan reminded her.
“A good memory on you, too. It’s a saying, kitten. Sometimes sayings don’t always make sense.” This sat about as well as expected with Rowan, who frowned and looked at her with an amusing amount of dubiousness. “Well, more on that later. Let’s think about this boy, this boy called Cat – what’s he like?”
Rowan and Ebony both tilted their heads at her, then looked at each other. Ebony trilled, then began nervously washing his tail. “Cat has to be the same person every day,” Rowan said slowly. “So he’s… like us. Both of us, smushed together. Like making a new flower out of two old ones. Ebby, stop,” he said, disgruntled, as his brother climbed his shirt and began chattering into his face. “Your breath smells like mouse.” Ebony sneezed on him and then nodded, and turned to their mother, tail lashing and eyes wide.
“Ebony’s right, Ro. You’ll have to practice talking a bit more. And you, Ebony, you try talking a little less. We’ll practice on that tomorrow. I don’t think anyone will notice if a cat has dramatic moodswings, that’s just cats. But a boy…”
Rowan gave her a miserable look. “Mum, I don’t know how to talk like Ebby. I only know how to talk like me.”
An ache, like putting a knife to her own belly again. “Only in public, baby boy. And you can practice! Besides, we’ll tell people, oh, I don’t know. Something mystical about the moon affecting your moods on different days, people believe all sorts of silly things about witches. We just need to be suitably forbidding and mysterious and then no one will want to ask us questions.”
She wiggled her fingers at Rowan and put her hat over his head, and heard Ebby do a trilling delighted cat-laugh as his brother’s face disappeared from sight.
“Mysteeerious,” she repeated, and heard a disgruntled huff from inside the hat.
“Silly,” he countered, voice muffled, then tilted the hat up, big dark eyes beneath the ragged rim. Ebony, butt wiggling, took a flying leap and landed scrabbling on Rowan’s shoulders, biting at the hat and meowing loudly.
“Ow,” Rowan said mildly, steadying his twin with a small, chubby hand. “I’m glad it’s your day, for market first.”
“Ah, I wish it were both your days,” the witch said, holding onto a bright smile by the barest thread. Her son considered this as she began gathering up bits and bobs – a mouse skull, a handful of pheasant feathers, a branch covered in cherry blossoms.
“No. I’d rather watch as a cat, the first time. So I can get it right when I’m human,” he concluded, and then smiled faintly as his brother tore around the room, talking wildly all the while – it was uncanny how near he got to speech, sometimes. “Mum?”
“Yes, darling? What do you think – you pretend to be Ebony today, while we make up some charms for market?”
“But Ebby doesn’t like making charms. He likes flying. I like making charms,” Rowan pointed out, then shook his head, the hat sliding back down over his eyes. “Mum. Is Cherry a name like Cat? Or is it like Rowan and Ebony.”
“Too clever by half,” the witch said, and tipped the hat down until it covered his nose. “No. It’s a new name.”
“Why do you need a new name? There’s just one of you, all the time.”
The witch closed her eyes. For a moment, she heard rich laughter, the clink of crystal, the lapping of water. “Literally, yes. Metaphorically, well. I suppose there was another of me, once. Sorry,” she said, and opened her eyes again to see her two sons staring up at her with identical looks of confusion. “That was a bit much, wasn’t it? Yes, there’s only one of me. But I had a different name in the past, and it’s better no one know that the person who had that name is still alive. Part of our secrets, alright?”
Boy and cat exchanged a long look.
“We have a lot of secrets,” Rowan concluded finally. “What’s your name, Mum?”
“I’ll tell you one day,” the witch promised, looking out the window. It was beginning to snow. “When you’re older.”
Silence from Rowan, while Ebby yowled in protest, as he always did. The witch smiled, and set the memory, her old self, aside.
“Now, who wants to work some magic?” She rolled up her sleeves and wiggled her fingers.
“Me,” Rowan said, and the kitten’s tail lashed, and for a moment, everything seemed warm and bright and possible.
“What a surprise.”