Magic grows wild in the hills of Rigel. There are strange plants thriving in the forests and glowing mushrooms growing in the caves. There are animals that talk living among the ones that don't, animals with temperaments just as varied as any human. There are villages of fairies nestled deep, deep in the woods where humans have never gone, past thickets of brambles that keep anyone from trying. There are are automatons made of rock and enchantments that may kill you or may not, depending on a lot of things. There are predators, wolves and bears and mountain lions bigger and stronger and smarter than normal that will sate themselves on unsuspecting travelers as easily as they would deer. And rumor has it there's a dragon sleeping in a cave, or perhaps a lake, or maybe a grove, every rumor is different.
But it isn't just the hills. There are creatures everywhere— there always has been. There are creatures in the wilderness around train tracks, under the piers, on abandoned rooftops. The smaller the monster, the easier it is for them to blend in, and for the most part, in cities, you'll rarely see signs of the supernatural. But everyone knows they're there. And even in cities where the biggest creature one might see is a three-eyed cat that speaks in riddles, you hear whispers of the witches.
They're inhuman, people say. They're strange. They're freaks of nature. But nobody knows; the precious few who've had encounters with witches are rarely believed, and by the time said gossip reaches the cities, it's grown to ridiculous proportions no matter how true the story was. There was a time in the past when witches lived with humans, and records still exist of such, but there was a point where the witches retreated into their covens deep in the wilderness, and to this day, no one knows why. Perhaps they decided that, with technology growing as it was, the humans had no need for magic, or perhaps it was that there was some falling-out on a societal level, or perhaps they simply drifted apart from humanity, but whatever the case was, most people will go their whole lives without seeing a witch.
Rinea lives in a small city, on the outskirts, in a family home that's still stately but a shadow of what it once was. Her parents are aging but in good health, and their fortune is stable even if their place in noble society is not, and Rinea doesn't help with that. She thinks it's because she's the wrong kind of daughter, and how well she dances or how good her embroidery is isn't enough to make up for it.
The woods loom on the edge of the property, and Rinea can see them from the back garden. She sits among the rosebushes with her sketchbook full of drawings of flowers and she looks at the woods, waiting for dusk to fall so she can start seeing the moonflowers glow in the shade of the trees. She's forbidden from going into the woods, but there's nothing wrong with looking at it.
The first time Rinea sees the witch, it's the winter, and she is nineteen. It's just a glimpse at dusk from the back garden, but Rinea creeps close, close to the edge of the woods, and she sees the golden eyes of a witch that sears itself into her mind, even though the witch is gone the instant she blinks.
The second time, it's the summer, she is twenty-two, and she is breaking the rules. Her curiosity got the better of her, and in the night, in her dressing gown and slippers, she sneaks out to the back garden in hopes of picking one moonflower, just one, so she can sketch it for her book. She steals down the stairs and out the back door with practiced silence, her eyes focused wholly on the glowing petals of the moonflowers shining like tiny stars from the woods. When she finds one she kneels on the ground before it and takes out her sketchbook and pencil with trembling hands.
Around her, the woods are alight.
Glowing bugs float through the night air. Insects sing, both familiar cricket chirps and other sounds that Rinea doesn't recognize. Moss shimmers with magic veins of blue and purple. Vines grow up the sides of the trees, heavy in the summertime with fruit glowing in bright yellow that Rinea's never seen before. A huge, huge hollow log, half caved in and on its side but still twice as tall as Rinea, dominates her vision with the glowing moss and the fruit vines and the moonflowers covering the ground like patches of clover. The moonflowers are so bright that Rinea can see the bugs silhouetted on their petals. A squirrel with green fur skitters in front of her, wiggles its nose, and scampers off. Rinea's breath stills.
And before her pencil can hit the page, the witch appears.
In the colored light she looks resplendent and eternal, in the arc of the hollow log. She has deep brown skin laced with the signs of magic carving shapes into her skin with its scars, sculpted into curves and swirls evoking the wind. Her scars glow gold as they climb her arms and trace her temples, her eyes alight to match, and they curl up her neck and across her bare chest until petering out further down. She hovers above the flowers. Her gown is crimson and flowing, and jewelry made of glowing crystals and pieces of bark carved with runes and reliquaries with tiny magical items wraps around her neck and wrists in layers that clatter against each other. Her hands are wreathed in fire.
She is the most beautiful creature Rinea has ever seen.
Rinea's mouth feels dry. The witch regards her for a moment, and very slowly, clutching her sketchbook to her chest, Rinea stands.
"Are you here to kill me?" she asks. She's not afraid, not exactly, but— curious, and it's strange why she's curious but not afraid. Rinea startles at sudden streetcar bells and chairs scraping too loudly and catching sight of her own shadow if she wasn't expecting to see it. One would think she would be terrified out of her wits, but she's impressively calm.
The witch tilts her head. "No," she says. "You're not afraid of me."
"I don't know why I should be," Rinea replies. "You're not scary."
"All humans fear the unknown, and the monsters that may lurk in the darkness," the witch says. "But you do not."
"You seem perfectly normal to me," Rinea says. "If I ignore the…" she gestures vaguely. "Glowing scars and magic jewelry and flaming hands and floating."
The witch chuckles. Her laugh feels like cinnamon cookies and hearth fire. "I suppose so."
Rinea swallows. "Might I know your name, miss…"
"I am Sonya," the witch says. "You're quite curious for a human. What brings you here?"
Rinea remembers her sketchbook. "My name is Rinea," she says. "I… like to draw flowers. My parents won't let me go into the woods, but I wanted to sketch the moonflowers, so I snuck out."
"Oh?" A smile curves across Sonya's lips. "Are they as beautiful as you imagined?"
Rinea breathes. "More," she says reverently, crouching once more to admire the one she was going to sketch. "They're incredible. Like primroses, but they glow. I've never seen anything like…" she pauses and glances around. "Well, like any of this."
Sonya hums. She pads over to the flower and cups the bloom in her hands. Rinea can feel the magic radiating off of her. She's never felt that kind of magic before— any kind of magic, really. She tells herself that that's why her heart speeds up; Sonya is so close and her magic is so strong that it must be having an effect on her heart rate.
"It suits you," Sonya decides. "Glowing in the darkness, beckoning curious souls."
Rinea doesn't know what to say to that. She settles for "oh," and hopes her cheeks aren't burning too much.
Sonya chuckles. The glow fades, leaving little pale furrows. Her eyes close and open again, and in the cool light, they're an impossibly warm, deep brown. Rinea coughs and looks at the flower. This only amuses Sonya more.
She whispers a phrase in a tongue Rinea doesn't understand. For a moment, the scarring on her hands glows gold, and then it fades. She picks the flower, leaving plenty of stem, and carefully tucks it behind Rinea's ear. Rinea's cheeks feel hot.
"Take it with you," Sonya says. "Put it in water and leave it in partial shade. It'll guard you from nightmares."
Rinea feels the subtle hum of magic in its petals. "I thought these favors came with a price," she says.
"For you, sweet moonflower?" Sonya traces Rinea's cheek. "I wouldn't dare."
She stands, leaving Rinea reeling, heart pounding in her chest. Her face burns. And then Sonya steps away, and Rinea feels an impossible coldness despite the fact that she met this woman five minutes ago. She stands, as if to chase after her, but hesitates.
"You're leaving?" she asks instead, her voice small and pleading.
Sonya stops. "For a time," she says. "You oughtn't stay here much longer, either. I wouldn't want you to get in trouble."
"Oh," Rinea says. "Oh, yes. Of course. But—" she hesitates. "Will I ever see you again?"
Sonya is quiet, as if she's considering this. "Keep coming out to the great hollow log here, and I will find you," she says. "Will you do that?"
Rinea nods. "I will," she says. "And— I'll tell you how the flower works out."
And Sonya leaves, and Rinea is alone in the grove facing the hollow log and the spot where Sonya vanished, with a magic flower in her hair and nothing in her sketchbook.
But she goes home and puts the flower in a jar of water, and she leaves it in the shade on top of her vanity. It thrives, its glow gone in the daylight but bright in the night, casting a gentle glow over Rinea's bedchamber. And true to Sonya's word, she sleeps better than she has in a long time.
All through Rinea's twenty-second year, she sneaks out to the hollow log to meet with the witch that's become her dearest and only friend. They discuss magic, talk about their families, compare human and witch society, and Rinea sketches the flowers and plants she sees while Sonya tells her their uses. Moonflowers are for headache tonics and painkillers. Glowfruit is the base for many poison antidotes. Stinging cattails are vicious to collect, but their stems make a wonderful addition to any soup. Sonya's fascinated by Rinea's notes on the plants from her family's garden, and often asks her questions, listening with rapt attention as Rinea happily tells her all she knows.
By the early autumn, when Rinea's turned twenty-three, her friendship with Sonya has turned to something that must be love. They share their first kiss in the hollow log while the moonflowers, newly opened for the spring, glow pleasantly in the night.
"I don't want to go back to my family," Rinea murmurs into Sonya's neck. Sonya holds her close while the forest crickets chirp. "I don't suppose I could just stay in this forest with you forever, can I?"
"If only, my sweet moonflower," Sonya replies. "I wish these nights were not moments we must steal, but moments we have simply because we can."
"That would be nice," Rinea says. "But let's not talk about such things. Kiss me again?"
And Sonya does, and Rinea's troubles melt away.
They steal nights together through the autumn and the next winter. When the spring comes, Rinea meets the first suitor who'll have her, and he's a young man with a resting scowl, an intense love for military history, and a very, very important family. He's civil enough, but Rinea finds it very difficult to be enthused about the only suitor not put off by her "strangeness" when her heart belongs to another.
It's for the family, she tells herself. It's for mother and father.
So they begin the wedding plans. Rinea knows she should be happy to finally secure a safety net for her parents in their senescence, but all she can think of is Sonya and those long conversations and kisses in the hollow log. She feels wretchedly selfish, but there's no one she can turn to for support, so she retreats further into herself and weeps it out into her pillows when everyone else has gone to bed.
The last time she goes to Sonya, she is twenty-three and the weight of her engagement weighs heavy on her chest as if the ring on her finger were an anvil. Sonya is there when she sneaks away, and her face lights up warm and golden like the sun. She sweeps Rinea into her arms and Rinea wants to cry at how gentle it is, how kind, how warm, how loving. She wants to throw her engagement to the wind and vanish into the woods with Sonya, to spend her life in the magic woods with the moonflowers and the green squirrels and to never see another human face for as long as she lives. She wants to be selfish. She wants to be reckless.
"Sweet moonflower," Sonya says to her, her voice soft and impossibly tender. "Whatever's wrong? You look upset."
Rinea's fists grasp at the fabric of Sonya's crimson gown, holding desperately to the last semblance of love that she knows. "Oh, my love," she murmurs. "We can't do this anymore."
Sonya's face falls. For a woman who can turn stone to ash with a flick of her wrist, she looks remarkably like a sad puppy. "What?"
"I'm engaged," Rinea says, her voice thick. "My parents have found a suitor that'll have me, and he's rich enough that our house will stay alive. But oh, my love, I can hardly think of marriage to another when all I can think of is you."
"Marriage," Sonya murmurs. The witches do have marriage; Sonya knows what she means. "So you won't be able to come see me anymore. Not without breaking your vows to your suitor."
Rinea nods. She tries to speak but words won't come. Sonya's skin is warm under her cheek, magic flowing like blood just beneath her skin. She doesn't want to leave. Rinea feels the worst pain she's ever felt, the pain of leaving the woman she loves, and she hasn't even left yet.
"This— this is the last time," Rinea chokes out. "My love, my Sonya… I need your kisses now more than ever."
"And you shall have them," Sonya promises. Rinea cups Sonya's cheeks to kiss her, to give in at least for another moment to the rushing feelings inside her. It's the last time, she tells herself. The last time, as they move to sit against the inside of the hollow log. The last time Rinea will feel Sonya's hands on her waist, feel Sonya's kisses on her lips, her face, her neck. The last time. The last time.
"Sonya," Rinea murmurs, the name profound in its simplicity, short on Rinea's tongue and yet saying more than just the word ever could. "I need all of you. It's the last time I can ever see you. Please…" her voice trails off. She swallows. "Please."
Sonya brushes a strand of hair off of Rinea's cheek. "My sweet moonflower," she says. "Are you sure?"
She shifts herself onto Sonya's lap and takes her cheeks in her hands. "Please," she whispers again.
They don't speak any more than that.
The months go by, the wedding coming ever closer like the second hand of an alarm clock slowly ticking closer to the inevitable harsh wake-up call. Rinea feels tired and ill, and figures it's nerves for the big day. Her mother says as much, patting Rinea's back as she recovers from another bout of horrible nausea. It's natural to be nervous leading up to a wedding, she says. It's a big commitment, after all. A lifelong partnership is nothing to take lightly.
Rinea understands what she's saying, but it just makes her feel worse. She wishes she could tell her about Sonya and the love they shared, love of a kind Rinea had only read about, love that she'll likely never find again. But although Rinea knows her parents love her, she doesn't want to test the limits of that love by telling her she was spending her nights with a witch.
It's a combination of things. Her sickness. Her tiredness. Her aching back, her aching feet. And then it comes with a tightness in the waist of her dresses and the chilling realization that she hasn't had her monthly cycle, not since she saw Sonya last. A few weeks later, a look in the mirror confirms it— Rinea is twenty-three years old, just a week and a half from her wedding day, and she is pregnant with a witch's child.
She's certain of one thing: whatever happens to her, her parents can't know about this, and neither can anybody else. Which means that she absolutely has to get out before the tailor comes to fit her into her wedding dress, because she'll have to let it out at the waist, and everyone knows what that means. If the tailor finds out then her parents will know, and then her would-be husband will know, and his family, and the people they talk to, and then word will get out that the Yildiz heir is a whore who got pregnant out of wedlock and the house will be so irrevocably disgraced that her father will probably drop dead of a heart attack.
Rinea isn't sure how much of that will actually happen, but given what she knows of the society she lives in, it's at least plausible, and either way, she's not about to try and find out. In another two days she has a case packed and money for a train ticket as far away from the city as possible, and absolutely no plan. But she doesn't have the time to stay around and make one. So in the middle of the night, when everyone's asleep, Rinea moves to sneak out like she has so many other nights.
The glowing of the moonflower catches her eye. Swallowing hard, she takes the flower, dries it, and presses it between the pages of her sketchbook.
She didn't read the town name on her ticket— she just knows it's the end of the line. And she doesn't let herself think about it as she sits down in a seat, clutching her case, until they've left the city behind. When she does she thinks about the woods and the great hollow log and the last hours spent there with Sonya, loving and being loved. And then, then she lets herself cry once more.
The train ride is two days long. Rinea's hands tremble too much to sketch and her mind wanders too much to read. She dozes uneasily against the train window, soothed somewhat by the steady rocking, and eats very little. With each telephone pole the train passes, she's further away from home— further from her parents, further from her marriage, further from every promise she's made, further from the idea that she was ever something resembling a good daughter. Further from her home. Further from her garden. Further from the woods. Further from Sonya.
The train comes to a stop in a little town just a mile from the ocean with four streets that turn into dirt roads as they stretch back into the countryside. She's on the western edge of Rigel, close enough to the Zofian border that they have milder weather. The only thing really of note about the town is its train station. The telephone and electric lines are ill-maintained. There is one gas station, a few shops and businesses, a tiny chapel, a road down to the ports, and several tractors. The land surrounding the town is all farmland, wheat and rye and lavender, covering the low, gentle, seaside hills. Rinea smells salt in the air, and there are seagulls perched where one might see pigeons in a city. One of them, perched on a bench, looks at Rinea when she stops. It's too intelligent to be a normal seagull.
"You gonna eat that sandwich?" it asks.
Rinea looks down at the wrapped sandwich in her hand that she'd meant to eat. Food is the furthest thing from her mind. "Take it," she says, tossing it to the gulls, who flock around it excitedly. Rinea moves on.
She doesn't really have a plan, but if anywhere is a place to start, it's the church. It's small and crumbling, with weather-beaten bricks and weeds growing in the cracks of the steps, but its doors are open and its stained-glass windows are clean, and inside, the candles before the altar of Duma still burn. Duma himself, the Hearth-Father, presides with his spear, shield, and helm, casting his protection over the town. Trinkets and coins are piled at the statue's feet. Rinea wishes she weren't out of money— she could use a bit of protection.
"Oh, hello," says a soft, gentle voice. A young woman in priestess robes emerges from the side rooms. "Come to send a prayer to the Hearth-Father?"
Rinea shapes her mouth around the words before any words come. "I'm looking for a doctor," she says. "Is this… there?"
The priestess furrows her brow. She picks up her pace as she hurries over to Rinea. She's short (Rinea's height, rather, which is quite short) and made of soft, warm shapes, with pale green hair and rosy cheeks. She reaches out and cups Rinea's face with her soft little hands.
"Are you ill?" the priestess asks. "Is there an emergency?"
"No, I'm—" Rinea's voice fails her. Her hands tremble. The priestess notices her case, the fine make of her traveling cloak, the shadows under her eyes.
"You'd better come in," she says gently. "I'm Sister Tatiana. Whatever you're running from, you're safe here, in the home of the Hearth-Father."
Rinea's chest feels like it's full of syrup. She nods, and lets Sister Tatiana lead her back through the quiet church halls and into the little clinic. She tells the Sister, in short, tense sentences, that she's from a big city, she's pregnant, and she can't go home, probably ever. Sister Tatiana, who Rinea is sure must be an angel in human form, promises her that she doesn't have to, and doesn't ask her any more questions.
In the morning, Tatiana finds Rinea room and board at the inn mending soldiers' uniforms for the military garrison just up the road, and Rinea settles into living a new life where nobody knows her and where she's just a woman without a husband for reasons that are obviously her own.
The months pass. The baby grows, and so too do the calluses on Rinea's fingertips. She's growing quickly and it's big enough that Tatiana guesses it must be twins— which is just what Rinea needs, but nothing too unexpected; twins run in the family.
Rinea has never been one to complain, but there are limits, and nearly blacking out if she has to stand for more than five minutes is probably a reasonable one. Work quickly becomes impossible. Rinea spends many, many long hours in pain in the clinic while Sister Tatiana says reassuring things and mixes a baby-safe painkiller tonic that every mother in town swears by, which doesn't do much but it does make her drowsy, which is a welcome break. Her waking hours, she thinks of Sonya less than fondly. If she'd just pulled out...
In the spring, the rains sweep in from the ocean, cold and harsh like winter trying to revive itself, and in the spring, Rinea has twins, a baby boy and a baby girl. They're tiny, red, squalling little things, new to the world and not very happy about it, and the midwife tells her that they'll be like that for a while yet. She's not sure what she feels but she does feel something— maybe she's a little attached to them. She's always been empathetic.
It's a lot to get used to. And really, it feels to Rinea like the past several months have been foggy and uncertain despite the fact that they're happening right then. Rinea had always figured she'd bear children someday, but she never could've pictured it happening like this. She'd imagined a husband, for one. She'd imagined lying with him in a way that'd be decent at best and painful at worst. She'd imagined lacy maternity dresses and picking baby clothes and choosing names when they were old enough to name, holding an infant in her arms with a mix of her features and her husband's, and doing her job as the daughter of a noble house and the wife of a nobleman. Love didn't have very much to do with it, and she mostly hadn't thought of it because, until Sonya, she figured it would never happen to her.
And now, here she is, learning to nurse and balancing two babies that didn't ask to be born, mending seams and sleeping in a side room behind the furnace of the inn, waking up what feels like every five minutes to tend to one of them. And when the twins' eye color finally settles into a warm, deep brown, she realizes why— they're the last thing she has to remember Sonya by.
The seasons go by. The twins turn six months old and get their names— her son is Kliff and her daughter is Genevieve (Genny for short). They're built small and slight like Rinea, with curly wisps of pale blue hair that grow faster than Rinea can keep them trimmed. Once they're old enough to sit up and crawl, Rinea decides that they need a space a little bigger than a side room.
There's a little house a ways from town, nestled near the edge of the woods, that has three rooms and a pocket of land. Rinea's scraped together just enough to cover it, but she has food and goods to buy, and she obviously can't keep working the same job if she's a mile and a half outside of town.
She says as much to Tatiana, who she's become quite good friends with. Tatiana hums and nods thoughtfully. "That is an issue," she admits. "But! It's not impossible."
Rinea doesn't believe her. Tatiana's younger than she is, newly-married to an officer in the army, and there are times Rinea thinks she's far too optimistic for her own good. "Really?"
"Don't worry about a thing," Tatiana promises. "Just buy the house. You know you and the babies need it. The rest will get sorted out, you'll see."
And Rinea doesn't really see, but she buys the house anyway and borrows a ride on an outgoing hay cart to save herself from having to carry two babies and a suitcase. It's not overly dilapidated, for how cheap it was. The foundation's still stable and the walls are still standing. It's just a little dirty, is all. Rinea can handle that.
She opens up all the windows and doors, pushing the shutters out wide and propping them open so the wind doesn't blow them back. She scrapes the layers of dust and dirt off every surface with a broom and a dustcloth, and whatever clings after that she gets with a real wash. With the cobwebs out of its corners and the creatures out of its rafters, the grime shaken off and the walls wiped down, it's actually kind of nice. She finally lets the twins come inside to see the new house once she's built a fire in the furnace and the house is warm and inviting. Rinea thinks all houses ought to be, especially if they're going to be homes.
In the evening, Rinea finally finds out what Tatiana meant. She brings over what seems like the entire village, all bearing food, both to eat then and to store for later, and tools and things she'll need for a life on her own, and it's almost enough to bring her to tears, but not quite. Which is short-lived, because the second Tatiana's husband comes through the door carrying a rocking chair (she's going to need it, with the babies and all) that the town carpenter made, she forgets every bit of noble composure that was beaten into her from the time she was her childrens' age. And it's then that she realizes the blessing in disguise that all of this was, because she's miles and miles away from anything she's ever known before with two children she didn't expect to have, but she has a home and a family and friends and she is happy.
Through the winter, the house shelters them well, its walls insulated tightly against the ice and rain, and Rinea teaches herself through trial and error how to heat up the leftovers that the village brought her so she doesn't go hungry and her children can still nurse. She sits them in her lap and reads them fairy tales of ages past, of knights and dragons and, funnily enough, witches. They're good stories, but Rinea can't help but feel pangs of sadness thinking about witches. She wonders if they'll ever stop.
When the spring comes again and the twins turn one, babbling and cutting teeth and slowly getting better at taking shaky, toddling steps across the floor, Tatiana's husband Ezekiel watches the twins while Tatiana teaches Rinea how to dig a garden and sow seeds for herbs and vegetables in the newly-thawed soil. Rinea gets dirt under her nails and between her fingers and all over the knees of her stockings, but it feels like it's where she's supposed to be— her hands in the ground, placing seedlings into holes so they'll grow in the spring and ripen in the summer and fall, the sun on her back, looking at a field of tiny green plants nestled in the dirt.
With every inch her children grow, Rinea discovers something new about them. She forgets which is older— she was a little busy giving birth to them— but Kliff is shy where his sister is inquisitive, and both of these things present their own challenges, especially when he cries for her attention while she's trying to stop Genny from pulling down the curtains. Rinea's heard many stories about motherhood, but none with twins, and none mentioned anything about the ridiculous things very small children cry over. It seems she's learning all kinds of things this year, and that's not the end of it.
In the summer, Rinea starts to notice a shimmer in her childrens' palms, and Kliff sneezes with such force it knocks him backwards. Suffice to say, this distresses him greatly, so he starts crying, which makes Genny start crying, and the gas lamp on the table across the room shatters, leaving Rinea to comfort two sobbing toddlers while realizing with dread that the eyes aren't the only thing the twins got from Sonya.
When they're calmed and the wind's no longer blowing and Rinea's cleaned up the broken lamp, Rinea looks at their tiny, baby-soft palms. And she sees spirals shimmering in lavender on Kliff's fingertips and solid rays in pink on Genny's, indistinct and near-unnoticeable but present nonetheless. It adds another layer to the headache that seems to wax and wane depending on what new thing the twins discover that day, but she has no choice but to adapt. They'll grow around this. They always have.
So life goes on, and she marks the twins' height in scratches on the wall beside the back door. They're the same height for now, but she's sure that'll change. They're beautiful children, little and slight but with heads full of messy blue hair and Sonya's warm brown eyes, and Rinea didn't plan on this but they're hers. Three years ago, perhaps Rinea would've buckled at the idea of carrying and raising children— much less half-witch children that scare themselves with their own magic— and at living a mile from town, working for a living and growing herbs and tulips and vegetables. But Rinea is a different person than she was three years ago. Her arms are stronger, and her shoulders are straighter, and her cheeks are rosier. She is twenty-five, and she is someone that she would admire.
The moonflowers thrive on the coast, Rinea finds. She remembers her notes and her sketches and what Sonya told her, and she starts to figure out how to cultivate them herself. They're hardy and fast-growing, and they fascinate the twins. Little Kliff crouches in front of them and pokes them, and then jumps when they give off their sparkly pollen, and Genny sneezes. By the autumn, Rinea's garden is full of magical plants that Sonya told her about, and Tatiana marvels at the extra kick they've given her poultices and tonics.
"It's like it all works together to make something stronger," she marvels, admiring one of the bundles of dried moonflowers that Rinea's handed her. Even dried, they still give off a faint glow when the moon is up. "How'd you learn about this?"
Rinea thinks of long conversations of plants and their applications in the shelter of the hollow log with a witch— and not just any witch, the mother of her children. She doesn't say this. "Here and there," she says instead. "It's all real things, things in the magical realm. We've just fallen out of touch with them."
Tatiana nods. "Well, whatever your method is," she decides. "Keep growing them! The other Sisters keep clamoring for more so they can try them in other medicines."
And so Rinea does, and grows moonflowers and fireheart and wyvern's horn and witchvine, which thrive under her care alongside her tomatoes and carrots and rosemary and basil. Her children toddle after her, watching her pull weeds from the garden and sing while she works, idle little tunes she picked up here and there. Rinea talks to the plants and she talks to the twins, responding to their babbles mingled with the occasional real word. They can't say a lot of the plant's names, but they can say plant and flower and dirt and worm, moon and bird and star and tree, mama and Kliff and Genny and love. Important things, you know.
The seasons change and she adds more marks to the wall. The twins go from toddling to running, and they track dirt into the house on their little bare feet when they come back inside from playing in the summer sun, and Rinea has to comb the leaves and twigs out of their hair. Rinea's garden blooms and flourishes, and her plot grows too small to hold them all, so she digs another. The children grow and play and learn about the world by putting their tiny hands on everything they can see and their magic by learning to play with it, even if it startles Rinea half to death. Rinea sees freckles start to pop up on their cheeks and shoulders and arms, and it's strange for a moment before she catches sight of them on her own cheeks in the mirror. Rinea didn't know she could freckle. She must not have spent long enough in the sun before to know.
The twins turn two in the spring. She keeps Kliff's hair short because he hates having to deal with it when it's long, and she brushes through Genny's and pulls it back from her face with a ribbon because Genny likes the way it looks. They're quiet and calm but even they're not exempt from the struggles of toddlerhood like the new understanding that the world is big but they're too small for a lot of it. But Rinea does what she can, and the twins grow being held and rocked and sang to while they fall asleep, holding on to one of her fingers while they walk, and read stories about the magic that permeates the world they live in. The wind taps gently at the shutters and the sunlight feels a bit warmer.
When Rinea is twenty-six, she sees Sonya again.
It's the summer, because these things tend to happen in the summer. A tall woman in tinted glasses and a fine, well-fitted gown steps off the train. She inquires about the herbalist that she's heard good things about, the one who uses magic flowers and old recipes, and makes the walk down the road to Rinea's house seeming completely unbothered by the heat.
Rinea's in the garden and doesn't hear the knock, but the twins do. Kliff, who's always wary of visitors, clings to her skirt, and Genny, fearless, toddles back through the gate and out to the front.
The woman on the porch blinks behind her tinted glasses. She walks out to meet Genny halfway, and crouches.
"Hello, tiny one," she says softly.
Genny ducks her head and balls her tiny hands in the skirt of her toddler gown. "Hewwo," she says quietly.
Rinea, Kliff still clutching her skirt, comes out from behind the house. "Genny!" she says. Genny toddles over to Rinea and clings to her leg. Rinea runs a gentle hand over Genny's hair, and then she notices the woman that Genny went to investigate in the first place.
In the summer light she looks warm and homely, in the bluish shadow of Rinea's house. She has tinted glasses and long sleeves and gloves covering the magic scars Rinea knows are there, elegant curves that match the beginnings of ones on Kliff's little fingers. On her cheeks and curling up to her temples, they're just a shade paler than her skin, tiny furrows cut into her form that magic runs through. She stands with dirt on her shoes. Her suit is black and her shirt is deep crimson, and it suits her remarkably well, and around her neck is a small golden pendant etched with runes on a cord. Her hands are by her sides, empty and slack as she stares right back at Rinea.
She is the most beautiful creature Rinea has ever seen.
She pushes her glasses up to her forehead. Her eyes are warm and brown and in them Rinea sees her children. Her smile is as gentle as it ever was, but Rinea can see the emotion behind it— relief and anxiety and love all twisted into a conflicting mass threatening to tear itself asunder.
Rinea swallows. "Sonya?" she whispers. "Is it…"
"It's me," Sonya says. Her smile turns sorrowful. "It took me far too long to return to you, my sweet moonflower. But when I heard of a woman growing magical herbs, I… I knew it had to be you. I've met no other human who the moonflowers glow so brightly for."
Rinea feels like she's been punched in the chest. "You left the woods for me?"
Sonya's eyes sparkle. "Well, they're right there. Who says witches have to hide in the forest all the time? Some of us are just very, very good at blending in."
And Rinea laughs, breathless and relieved and tired, tired as if a weight's been lifted from her shoulders and she can finally rest. And then tears start dripping down her cheeks before she can try to stop them. She wipes them away from her eyes and shakes her head.
"This wasn't how I expected a reunion between us to go," she admits. "I'd expected I would either kiss you or slap you. Potentially both."
Sonya smiles wryly. "Well, I probably deserve that. But I would very much like a kiss, whether it comes with a slap or not."
"You talk too much," Rinea tells her. She reaches up and sets her hands on Sonya's cheeks, and Sonya cups her hands and closes her eyes, sinking into her touch. Her hands are so warm, so gentle around Rinea's own. And her lips are as soft as ever, and all the sweeter for how much she'd missed them.
Sonya pulls away with that gentle smile of hers, holding one of Rinea's hands in her own. "You've got dirt under your nails," she notices.
"A garden will do that," Rinea replies.
"A garden?" Sonya repeats, arching an eyebrow. "You have changed."
"Everything changed," Rinea says. "And it changed me. And speaking of…" She looks down, down to Kliff still hiding in her skirt and Genny staring up at Sonya inquisitively, though she still has a tiny hand in the fabric of Rinea's apron.
Sonya blinks. "Ah, yes. And they're yours?"
"They're yours," Rinea says pointedly, poking Sonya in the chest. "And— and— I know I left suddenly, but I would think witches have some magic or other that'd tell them when they've reproduced. Do you know how much carrying twins hurts, Sonya? And it's not just that, they're magic! I have magic children and it's your fault!"
There's no malice or real anger in her words, and whatever irritation she felt leaves her the moment the words are out. She sucks in a breath, looks at Sonya again, and then gives up and pushes herself into her arms, resting her head on Sonya's chest and feeling four years younger.
"You have no idea," Rinea murmurs. "How much I missed you."
Slowly, gently, Sonya's arms come to rest around Rinea. "If it's anything like how I missed you, my love, then I think I can guess."
My love. Rinea's chest flutters. As loathe as she is to pull away, Kliff is starting to get upset, so she crouches and picks him up, bouncing him on her hip and smoothing down his messy hair. Kliff sticks his thumb in his mouth, looking at Sonya from the safety of his mother's arms.
"Are you staying?" Rinea asks. "I know you must have… witchly obligations, or suchlike."
"I do," Sonya admits. "But they can wait. I missed too much of your life, sweet one— all of your lives. I cannot hope to make it up, but I can try."
Rinea smiles, her chest aching with fondness. "Then let me show you the garden," she says. "It wouldn't be where it is without you."
She takes Sonya's hand and leads her, perplexed, back around the house. Genny lets go of Rinea's skirt to toddle around to Sonya, holding her own skirt and staring, wide-eyed, at this stranger her mother apparently likes.
Sonya sucks in a breath. "Moonflowers," she says. "And wyrmsaid, and phoenix down. How did you manage to cultivate these here?"
Rinea shrugs. "It wasn't any harder than growing any other flower. Plants just need a bit of love and attention and they'll thrive." She reaches down and cups a moonflower blossom.
"So that's your magic," Sonya murmurs. "Nourishing. Growing."
"If you want to think of it that way," Rinea shrugs.
Sonya nods. Rinea gently sets Kliff back down. He keeps clinging to her skirt, but he seems less apprehensive than he did right at first. Genny toddles along the gravel path between the rows of plants, chasing after movement that catches her eye.
"How old?" Sonya asks. "The children."
"They turned two in the spring," Rinea says. "They have your eyes, you know. And your magic."
"Oh?" Sonya arches an eyebrow. "I'd think they wouldn't have any, being partially human."
"Well, they're partially witch, too," Rinea replies. "And trust me, they have magic. The wind kicks up whenever Kliff cries, and Genny's blown up several lamps."
Sonya hums. "Promising," she says. "They'll need training, of course, when they're old enough. But don't worry, the involuntary magic should calm down in the next year."
Rinea sighs in relief. "Thank goodness."
"I'll have to train them myself," Sonya decides. "Unless they're ready to learn among the witches by the time they're old enough to start learning. Perhaps I ought to stay around, just to be sure."
A smile grows on Rinea's face. "Perhaps you ought to," she agrees. She reaches out and takes Sonya's hand, lacing their fingers together. "Perhaps you ought to stay around for me, too."
Sonya chuckles. "That's the other reason."
Rinea hums. Genny's taken Kliff by the hand and dragged him out of the garden in pursuit of a fleeing butterfly. The wind rustles the leaves of her garden plants and the sun shines warm and bright, and she loves Sonya so much it aches even worse than it did when she was gone.
Rinea turns to her. "Will you kiss me, my love?" she asks.
And as always, Sonya does.