Impractical Witch


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Chapter 1

            Edith Mellangruda was a master of firsts: first daughter, first in lessons, first of her peers to fly on broomstick. She was the first of her coven to dare wearing white lace and the first to cut her hair. She was a born pioneer, and like most pioneers, she was often the first to be scolded as well.
            “Edith!” her mother Iris screeched, slapping the deck of divination cards on the table with a loud thump.
            Edith merely blinked. Her mother’s tirades had long lost their power to frighten, and it was only boredom that kept her from saying so. Hecate save her from that lecture.
            “So sorry, Mother,” she said sweetly. “My thoughts merely flitted away from me for a moment. What were you saying, pray tell?”
            “Hecate’s Teeth, girl!” Iris said, flinging her hands up. Somewhere in the cottage a bottle broke. She was more annoyed than usual, Edith noted perking up. When her mother really lost her temper, one could count on a good show. Last year, when Edith’s familiar had revealed herself to them as a small, grey, yapping dog rather than a respectable cat or owl, their cauldron had exploded and nearly blown the roof off the cottage. Kursa, the dog in question, was now watching the argument from the safety of a far corner. She never approved of Edith’s wicked jokes on her mother.
            Ignoring Kursa’s disapproving stare, Edith prodded in a simpering tone, “Whatever seems to be the matter, Mother Dear?”
            “Don’t you dare use that kind of speech in my house!” Iris snapped, fists clenched. She was fighting the rage, trying to get her powers back under control, Edith surmised. That was no fun.
            “Oh, but I so enjoy pretty words.” With a lazy hand, Edith picked a piece of lint off her new cape and flicked it off her nail into the air.
            “It’s that cape!” her mother wailed, pointing a scarred finger at it. The pink lint floated down to Edith’s eye level, and she blew at it demurely. “What do you mean by wearing such an eyesore?”
            Edith smoothed a sleeve. “I believe the color magenta means ‘universal love’.”
            Another bottle shattered. With delight, Edith saw tadpoles beginning to leak from the cabinet above the hearth and spill, sizzling, into the fire.
            “Love?!” It was all Iris could do not to hiss in revulsion. “Of all the ridiculous…Edith, if you don’t stop with these, these peculiarities of yours, the entire coven will riot when you ascend to Grand Sorceress at the solstice.”
            Edith ceased petting her cape. “You don’t know I’ll be Chosen.”
            “Like hell I don’t,” her mother grumbled as she squatted to gather up the few tadpoles that had not met a fiery end.
            “Careful, Mother,” Edith said, trying half-heartedly to goad her into breaking something else. “You seem to be up in spirits today. Why, you’re practically emoting.” She put extra honey in the last word, but it was no use. The act of scooping up squirming tadpoles seemed to have a calming effect on Iris. The Augury witch merely took a few deep breaths as she transferred the singed amphibians to a bowl.
            Ignoring her daughter’s last remark, she said, “At the time of the Choosing, the most talented young witch ascends to the throne. Edith Mellangruda will soar higher than the rest.” Iris’s tone was as smooth and cool as a frozen lake now; the Voice of Prophecy had taken over, as it sometimes did when least expected. Even though divination was her specialty, Iris could never completely predict when the Voice would manifest, and it would often make declarations about fellow witches and villagers in the middle of supper or when they weeded the garden. Edith thought the Voice was an awful busybody.
            She rose from her stool in one elegant movement. “Well, I may soar higher, but everyone knows it’s Bonia Toadswallop Mistress Everoth really likes. Hecate will probably like her better too.”
            Her mother’s hazy eyes cleared. The Voice had gone. “Ungrateful child! Hecate blessed you above all your generation! You hear me? Blessed! You think you can throw a blessing away so easily?” Iris exclaimed. Edith sneezed three times.
            “Mother! You know how sensitive I am to such words!” She fastened her cloak tighter. “Now that you’ve thrice sanctified the damn place, I won’t be able to return for at least an hour.” She spun on her heel with a flourish. “Come, Kursa,” she called to her familiar.
            “Yes, take that creature out with you,” Iris said tiredly. “It and that disgusting cape, I can’t take the sight of them together.” She waved a hand at them and turned to clean up the rest of the broken crockery.
            On the forest path, Edith swung a branch back and forth with each step. Neither she nor Kursa said a word to each other for a time, which suited Edith just fine. This latest argument with her mother rankled her more than usual, and she wanted to delay Kursa’s advice as long as possible. Though she valued her familiar’s opinion, the dog had a habit of making too much sense for comfort.
            Edith lifted the branch in her hand to eye level. She winked at it, and it became a long, jewel-encrusted scepter. Somewhere in the world, a king or queen now gripped a mossy, wet stick. The thought amused her for a moment but not a second longer. She waved the scepter about; the rubies and pearls looked dull in the grey, overcast light.
            Edith sighed and tossed it in the underbrush for Kursa to go fetch. “Magic is so very boring these days,” she said as she took the wet scepter from Kursa’s mouth a minute later.
            “No, it’s not,” her familiar yipped. “You’re just a brat.” Kursa’s innocuous appearance irked Edith’s mother less than that sharp, barking voice. Unlike the haughty purr of a black cat or the eerie whisper of the owl, Kursa simply barked her opinions, and in as few words as possible. Edith winced. In general, Kursa’s blunt manner amused her, but it was less pleasing when that tongue turned on her mistress.
            “The Grand Sorceress must work. You don’t like work,” the dog said, her black eyes calmly fixed on Edith’s as if Kursa were the Black Guardian himself. “You are lazy,” she added.
            “Oh, what do you know?” Edith snapped as she threw the scepter again. Kursa chased after it without another word. “You’re just a dumb dog.”
            Just then, Edith heard the clatter of wheels racing down the main road not far from the forest path she wandered. It was odd for travelers to be out this way so late in the year with snows approaching, and any villagers who sought Iris’s prophecies usually came alone and on foot.
            Edith tapped the shoulder of her cape with a finger, and blackness spread out underneath it, staining the garment as quickly as ink soaking through a napkin. She pulled the hood she had conjured over her brown hair, and she crept, shadow-like, to the edge of the road.
            Witches under twenty-one winters, those whose powers had not yet crystallized at their generation’s Choosing, were forbidden from interacting with mortals, though Edith had never cared to learn why. She was surprised to realize it was one of the few rules she hadn’t broken yet. Until now, the mortal world had simply held no interest for her, but with her mother’s stern lecture on witch propriety nettling her, she wanted nothing more than to scare some poor human off their horse just out of spite.
            She hid behind the trunk of a pine and spied a white carriage thundering down the road toward her. Edith’s eyes glittered as she coveted the highly lacquered paneling and the lace curtains fluttering in the windows. She wondered how hard it would be to enchant the cottage into looking the same. With glee, Edith imagined her mother setting the house ablaze in her fury.
            Tittering over the future prank, her breath suddenly hitched as she saw two riders in black galloping hard to overtake the carriage. “Bandits?” Edith breathed. The mortals’ incessant murdering and pillaging amongst themselves was such a well-known fact that it hardly interested her when she’d read about it in Mistress Everoth’s dusty texts. Seeing such chaos happening before her own eyes, however, was a different matter entirely.
            The carriage driver, threatened on both sides by crossbows, ground the horses to a halt. The bandits dismounted, and while one kept a bolt trained on the driver, the other pounded on the carriage door. A handsome young man then appeared, medals and sashes hanging off him like a Yuletide tree. His face paled as his jewels and silks were roughly torn from his body and thrown into a bag. Soon the man was nearly naked, and when it was clear there were no more baubles to steal, the bandits forced him to his knees amidst his feeble protests.
            A thud at Edith’s feet made her jump. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until she saw the slobbery scepter lying in the grass.
            Kursa looked up at her and yipped loudly, “You shouldn’t be here.”
            At the sound, the bandits abruptly looked to Edith’s hiding place.
            “You stupid dog!” Edith hissed, snatching her and the scepter up in her arms to make a run of it.
            But it was too late. A crossbow bolt thudded into the tree mere hand-lengths away from her body. Edith felt her legs seize up in fear. The mortal world, it seemed, was far more exciting than she had ever imagined.
            It was when she heard the bandits’ feet crunching slowly toward her that she regained her senses. What human could challenge her, Edith Mellangruda, likely future Grand Sorceress of the Northern Coven?
            Edith set Kursa down and pulled the bolt free. She focused on the feeling of searing summer suns and red-hot coals, of burned fingers on kettles and dripping candle wax. Hot, she thought. Make it hot, hot, hot!
            The bolt in her hand glowed ember orange but did not burn her. A witch could defy reality if her will was strong enough, and Edith, who had never known the bite of failure in her life, simply did not believe wouldn’t succeed.
            Scepter in one hand and flaming crossbow bolt in the other, Edith strode out from the shelter of the tree. “Stand back!” she ordered, in a voice edged with power. She thought of the blood moon and made her eyes glow red for good measure. Humans feared the Craft when they weren’t paying for its services, she reasoned. The bandits would run off if she put on a good enough show. She made the fire in the bolt brighter and lengthened her black cloak into a pair of towering raven’s wings. The effect was satisfying: the crossbows clattered loudly in the bandits’ quivering hands, and she saw one of them take an involuntary step back. Any moment now, they would turn and—
            “It’s a demon!” one cried.
            “Quick, kill it!”
            The snap of two bolts being released was the only warning Edith had to throw up a hasty protective charm, throwing all her memories of brick walls and locked doors out in front of her in less than half a second’s time. The bolts shattered on impact, and Edith lost her patience.
            As the bandits put new bolts in their clips, she crossed the flaming arrow and scepter in an X over her chest and sang in a low, echoing susurrus, the language of wind through leaves and dreamless nights of sleep. Behind it she put the feeling of her own feather bed, its warmth and softness surrounding the bandits and pulling them under. Edith could feel the lure of sleep calling to her as well, but she resisted. The bandits swayed and dropped their arms to their sides limply. With one last lullaby word of power, they fell unconscious.
            Edith uncrossed her arms and took a deep breath before whooping, “A fine adventure!” She panted with the rush of excitement the altercation had caused. “Kursa, come here, girl!”
            The dog padded out from behind the tree, sniffing the air and keeping her tail firmly between her legs. “I didn’t like that,” she whined.
            “Don’t worry, the bandits will sleep until I release them, the driver has fled, and this one…” Edith prodded the robbed man with the edge of her boot. “I believe they call this a fainting spell. The only magic a human can cast, so I’m told.”
            Kursa sniffed at the man’s fingers, which the bandits had stripped of its rings. “Smells of city. Of offices and dining rooms and ports. A busy smell.”
            “Must be an important fellow down at Wynne,” Edith said, touching the clasp of her cloak and transforming black wings back into magenta wool. She crouched over him to study the mortal, using the now cold crossbow bolt to gently push and poke at the fleshy parts of the young man’s face. “Never seen one close up like this,” Edith remarked through the examination. Her mother had always sent her out on an errand or to the workroom upstairs whenever she had mortal visitors. Edith had never minded before; whenever a human came to call it always meant the Voice would be making an extended manifestation as well.
            Now she was fascinated. She turned up the young man’s nose and peered in each nostril. She lifted an eyelid to see if she could find the mortal’s soul hidden in his eye as one text she’d read claimed.
            “This fainting spell is powerful,” she concluded, rising and dusting off her skirts. “There are more to these mortals than I thought, wouldn’t you say, Kursa?” The dog was snuffling the man’s hair with rapt interest. She sneezed.
            “Yes,” she agreed. “But I think we should go. What will you do if it wakes?”
            “Why, I don’t rightly know,” Edith said thoughtfully, resting her chin on her hand.
            She didn’t have long to wonder. His eyes began to flutter with wakefulness, and Kursa jumped backward and scampered back behind the tree to watch from a safe distance.
            The young man blinked several times and unsteadily propped himself up on his elbows. He rubbed his eyes to dispel his double vision, saw Edith, and gasped.
            “Bless my soul!” he cried. Edith was immediately seized by a coughing fit. She waved the scepter at him.
            “Please, don’t,” she wheezed. “I’m terribly allergic.”
            “But you can’t be!” the young man sputtered, scrambling to his feet.
            “Yes, well, I am, so if you’ll kindly refrain—”
            He rushed toward her, and in her surprise, Edith made half the hand gesture for the ward against misfortune, a clumsy feat with the crossbow bolt still in that hand. Before she could complete the charm, the young man had grabbed her hands tightly in his.
            Edith squeaked, an alien sound to her. An odd flare of something had passed to her in the moment the mortal’s flesh had touched hers. It was gone before she could even gather just what it had felt like.
            The young man had not noticed, for he continued to stare at both the bolt and the scepter in Edith’s hands with tears in his eyes. “It is you,” he whispered. Abruptly, he released her hands and knelt down before her, head bowed in reverence.
            Perplexity was not a state in which Edith regularly found herself, and she found it all rather vexing. “Now, hold on. Just who do you think I am, might I ask?” she demanded.
            “The one who is prophesized,” he said, looking up at her with two of the bluest, most earnest eyes she had ever seen. “The Angel of Wynne.”
            Edith opened and closed her mouth several times before she found her voice again. “The angel of…?” Somewhere amongst the bushes and trees, she could hear a loud, uncontrollable panting­­—a dog’s laughter. Edith frowned and put her hands on her hips, looking down at the mortal with suspicion. “Terribly sorry, but you’re mistaken.”
            The young man was not deterred. “But who else could have slain that horrible demon? I must have fainted before you arrived, but I saw no one else.”
            Now Edith became annoyed. “For your information, mortal…” she began heatedly, already preparing a new frightening glamor in her imagination.
            “You have the arrow and the scepter!”
            Edith held up her trinkets. “What, these? Why, I just got them by accident.”
            “They are the holy symbols of Wynne,” the young man said solemnly. Again, Edith began to cough and sneeze.
            “I asked you not to—”
            “Let me show you, my lady.” Again he took Edith’s hands, and she felt the brief rush of strange, painful sensations. He led her to the side of his carriage, where a coat of arms was painted on the door.
            Sure enough, crossed over the silhouette of a maiden, was an arrow and a scepter, the same scepter she held in her hand. Edith grimaced. Another look at the Wynnian lord told her that he had been raised to believe this prophecy was doctrine, trained from birth to recognize this legendary scepter and most likely knew its dimensions gem by blasted gem. It was the wide-eyed awe that spoke louder than his words. Perhaps she should have taken more care about where in space and time she had stolen the damn thing. That was the problem with natural talent. She’d never seen the point of discipline.
            She pulled her hands from the mortal’s grip, leaving the bolt and the scepter with him. “Look, why don’t I let you keep them, then? It’s nothing to me. You can be the Angel of Wynne. Now, isn’t that nice?” She began to back away. “Farewell, then!”
            “No, please!” he exclaimed. “I am Lord Draekean Ashcroft, counselor to his majesty the king of Wynne. It is my duty to bring you back to your city, my lady.”
            Edith paused. “My city?”
            Beaming, Draekean replied, “Yes, the city belongs to its Angel. She needs you. Please say you’ll come to her aid.”
            “To rule?” Edith wrinkled her nose.
            “Well…no,” he amended. “As a figurehead. She who is promised will bring peace and prosperity so long as she remains under the protection of Wynne,” he recited, smiling with hope. “And in return, she will be given everything she desires—every comfort, amusement, an occupation, even. If she wants.”
            Edith’s hands began to itch. She could feel fine satins beneath her fingertips, hear the tinkling of faraway music boxes, every pretty, delicate thing her mother and the rest of the coven would never let her have. And all of it in a palace far away from the Choosing.
            The corner of Edith’s lip began to curl.
            “Your tale intrigues me,” she said in a lofty tone she thought the Angel might use. “Perhaps I shall visit your—I mean, my—city. When do we leave?”
            Draekean clapped his hands together. “Wonderful! Before I was accosted by these rogues, I was on my way to Laseah to see to some matters of state. If your ladyship wouldn’t mind waiting a few days, I’ll come back for you with a proper escort upon my return. Would that be sufficient for the Angel?”
            “Suits the Angel just fine.” A few days to convince or deceive dear Mother, she thought.
            His belongings recovered, Edith led Draekean to the edge of the mortal village where he would find new transport to Laseah. She allowed the counselor to take the scepter and crossbow bolt, as proof of the Angel’s discovery. “Where shall I find you again, Lady?” the Wynnian asked.
            “There’s a cottage not far from here. If you inquire at the village, someone will direct you.”
            “A cottage! What humble circumstances. That the Angel resided in a mountain cottage all these years…no one could have guessed.”
            “Yes, well.” Edith shrugged, looking up at the darkening sky. Another hour without a word to Iris, and she’d be brushing glass shards out of her hair at home. She took a step backward to make her exit. “Probably why you didn’t find her.” And still haven’t. Draekean chuckled, a light pleasant sound that reminded Edith of wind chimes. She turned to go.
            “Wait, please,” Draekean implored, grasping her elbow. Edith stiffened at the jolt of another contact. She resolved to visit Mistress Everoth’s again to brush up on her mortal lore. If she was to spend an extended period among them, she needed to get to the bottom of this strange reaction.
            “Yes, Lord Draekean?”
            “Do call me ‘Drake,’ my lady.”
            “Drake, then. What is it?” She looked up the path anxiously. She hoped Iris hadn’t gotten to all the crockery yet. The thought of conjuring up more for supper made her exhausted.
            “I’ve dreamed of this all my life,” Drake said softly. “To meet the Angel of Wynne…I never thought I’d live to see the day. And now that I have, please do forgive my impertinence when I say that you are more beautiful and courageous than even the prophecy described. It is truly an honor.” Edith hardly noticed this time when he lifted her hand; she was too busy worrying over Iris and the depleting china cabinet.
            “Again, forgive my impertinence,” Drake was saying.
Then he did a curious thing: he pressed his lips to the back of Edith’s palm.
“Until next we meet, Angel.” He bowed and strode into the village.
When he had gone, Edith stared at her hand for several moments, turning it over this way and that, looking for sigils or runes Drake’s strange gesture might have left behind. There were none.
“What was that, you think?” she asked Kursa as she trotted out to meet her. She’d been following closely in the underbrush beside the road.
“Did he lick you?” she asked.
“Oh,” Kursa yawned. “Then, I don’t know."
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Chapter 2

            Edith discovered her worries to be unfounded when she returned to the cottage. Iris calmly sat before the hearth, laying out divination cards on the floor in a wagon wheel spread.
            She padded past her mother and dropped herself into their big purple armchair. Her eyelids immediately began to bob and quiver.
            “Tired, Edith?” Iris chirped. She always perked up as darkness fell. “It’s only dusk. Was your meditation stroll very trying?”
            Edith was too tired to embellish. “Nothing special,” she murmured, to which Iris narrowed her eyes.
            “Well, if you won’t tell me…” She raised a hand palm down over her card spread.
            “Mother, no,” Edith protested.
            Iris ignored her. She turned over the first card: a Red Cup.
            “Ha!” she cackled. “Excitement. I knew it. Now what has excited you, I wonder? Hopefully not another hideous cape.” She flipped another card. “A trick? No, thievery is the ascendant meaning. Edith, I swear, if you are stealing from the villagers…” Another card. “Oh no, sorry. The Ancient Doctor. So you were helping…” Iris went quiet. She seized the next card quickly: the Traveler. After that, card after card revealed itself under Iris’s nimble hands, and Edith knew her mother was rapidly mapping the afternoon’s events as nimbly as a seamstress pieced together a patchwork quilt. She really hated having an Augury witch for a mother.
            When there was only the center card left, Iris reached slowly out for it.
            “I’m not conjuring more dishes tonight, just so we’re clear,” Edith said tiredly. Scowling, her mother whipped the last card up into her hand.
            The cupboard in the corner shook with the sound of hundreds of porcelain chips rattling around within, but that cacophony was dwarfed by Iris’s screech of revulsion.
            She dropped the card as if it were some scuttling creature, allowing Edith to get a good look at it. She didn’t read fortunes often, but she imagined she could grasp this card’s meaning easily enough.
            As it fluttered to the ground, Edith’s suspicions were confirmed: in the center of the card gleamed a perfect pink—almost magenta, she thought—rosebud.
            She expected to hear another wave of tiny explosions popping about the cottage, but none came. Through the haze of her growing exhaustion, she felt Iris’s hand on her forehead and the probing magic of an incantation swirling in her head.
            “Hecate’s Fire, girl. What have you done?” Iris whispered, rushing to the cabinet. She cursed as a cascade of shards spilled out of it upon opening a door, and finding no cups left she gathered a handful and carried them over to the table. Hastily, she scrawled the alchemic symbols for a regeneration spell into the wood.
            Edith watched her, mystified. Her mother’s magic was purely of the premonitional variety, with a smattering of common hedge craft. Her destructive outbursts were further evidence of her middling witch skill. A spell like this, even to reassemble one broken teacup, would drain her energy considerably.
            That was as far as Edith’s musings wandered before she felt herself slipping into sleep. She had finally let her eyes close when cool porcelain against her lip startled her back into feeble consciousness.
            “Drink, Edith,” Iris ordered, tipping a flavorless liquid into her mouth. A numbing sensation spread down Edith’s spine and out into her arms and legs. She flexed her fingers and toes as the numbness flowed out of her. A second later, she felt fully awake again.
            She sat up straight in the armchair. “How curious,” she remarked. “I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so tired before.” Kursa yipped happily and jumped into her lap, wagging her tail in a frenzy. In her daze, Edith hadn’t felt her familiar’s frantic attempts to revive her with whining and licking. Now she scratched Kursa’s head contritely. “Sorry for worrying you.”
            “Strange magic,” the grey dog said.
            “Indeed. Mother, just what was that you—?” She stopped.
            Iris stood before the hearth with her arms crossed and head down. The fire’s light behind her cast her features into shadow. If I looked half as demonic on the highway as Mother does now, I can hardly blame those bandits for shooting at me, she thought with awe. She could hear the tinkling sound of the cottage windows spiderwebbing with cracks, but for once Edith had no desire to bait her into another rage.
            “You’ve met with humans,” Iris said in a low voice. Edith was unsettled to see her mother’s hands shake as they gripped her elbows.
            “Oh, that?” She tried to sound nonplussed despite her growing dread. She had never feared her mother before. “Why, that was nothing more than a serendipitous—”
            Edith’s lips pressed close instantly, whether from magic or from her own instinct, she was so startled she couldn’t be sure. Her mother had slipped into the Ancient Language, also called the Speech of Centuries, the hallowed tongue of gods and those who practiced the Craft. No witch could use its words lightly, and no witch could ignore them when intoned. Edith’s nose itched at the very thought of its sacredness.
            “Do you know what you’ve done?” Iris asked, reverting back to their common mountain language.
            “Broken some archaic coven law, I gather?”
            “You nearly lost a line of power with Hecate.”
            Edith paled. “I what? How?”
            Her mother put a hand to her forehead. The black mood that had darkened the cottage passed suddenly as Iris shook her head and sighed tiredly. “Honestly, Edith. Why did I bother sending you to Mistress Everoth’s at all?”
            “I thought it was to get me out from underfoot,” Edith offered unhelpfully.
            “And a lot of good it did me.” Out of habit, Iris made the sign against misfortune over them both. Then she placed a stool before the armchair and sat in it.
            Edith slouched. She was familiar enough with her mother’s lectures to sense a fierce one coming.
            “Before a witch’s Choosing, she is vulnerable, Edith. Her power has not yet been claimed by Hecate.”
            “I thought all the Craft came from Hecate.”
            “Yes, but in those twenty-one winters, her power is simply on loan, and at a price.”
            “A Price?”
            “Mortal tetherings. The things that keep humans rooted firmly to the ground while we are able to touch clouds. Passions like rapture, misery, l-l-lo-lov…”
            “Love, you mean.”
            Iris again made sign against misfortune. “We don’t suffer mortal passions because we have sacrificed them to the Goddess. And in return, we are blessed with her Craft. It is called the Choosing not merely because a new Grand Sorceress ascends, but because it is when every young witch chooses to remain bound to Hecate’s pact. You were lucky I caught the infection before it could do lasting harm.”
            Edith rapidly spun a thread of understanding between her mother’s words and the strange sensations she’d felt at Drake’s mortal touch. “When he held my hand, I was affected by his tetherings. He must have called to my own, and that is why my power became so weak.”
            Iris flinched. “Held your hand? This is monstrous! Child, you came closer to breaking Hecate’s bond than I realized!”
            Edith ignored her. Her mind was racing. “But that means…with enough exposure before the Choosing, I could become mortal as well.”
            Iris very nearly fell backward from her stool. “What blasphemy you speak! Wicked, impossible notions!”
            Edith grinned. Her mother’s talk of blasphemy had only strengthened her. “Oh, but it is possible. Your horror tells me it is so. You start because the words I speak ring true!”
            The crackles heard around the cottage abruptly ceased. Her mother was no longer enraged, but fearful. She seized Edith’s shoulders.
            “Listen to me carefully for once in your life. Heed my words! If you continue to court these base passions, you will indeed lose Hecate’s gifts. But it will not end with your rebirth in mortal flesh.” She held Edith’s gaze solemnly with her own. “You will die.”
            The grave truth embedded in the Ancient Language vibrated within Edith’s head like a bell toll.
            Iris continued, “You never possessed mortal tetherings of your own. They were given up to Hecate before you were born. To evade death, you would have to form new ones, and for a witch, that is impossible.”
            Edith then looked so crestfallen that Iris believed she herself had done the impossible persuading her errant child to listen to her. But she had underestimated the Goddess’s gift. Natural ability with the Craft was undoubtedly a strength of hers, but Edith’s true talent lay in her indomitable imagination.
            “I’ll fall in love, then,” Edith said.
            Iris turned red as a tomato, as if the very word had caused her to break out in hives. “You’ll what?” she gasped, scandalized.
            “It’s simple. Lord Drake is a kind enough mortal. He’ll thank me for saving his life by agreeing to marry me before the Choosing. As the mortal tales say, ‘true love’s kiss will break the spell’, whatever a kiss is.” With that, Edith sprang up from the armchair and darted for the door. She needed to research at Mistress Everoth’s before the counselor’s return.
            Still reeling from her daughter’s declaration, Iris tried to bar her path. “What is this madness you’re speaking? It can’t be a witch’s tongue. It must be a malignant spirit possessing you, a demon!”
            “That’s the second time I’ve been called a demon today,” Edith said, putting her hands on her hips. “Listen well, Mother. Magic has long since become a bore. I would rather be happy having pretty things and a short, pretty life as the Angel of Wynne rather than half-heartedly ruling a stuffy old coven for a few centuries. Tell Bonia Toadswallop she’s as good as Grand Sorceress now. There, everyone should be satisfied, wouldn’t you say?” She sidestepped Iris with a flourish of her magenta cape.
            “The Angel of…?” Her eyes glazed over. Edith thought she had finally overwhelmed her mother’s senses when the echoing, sexless Voice of Prophecy issued from her mouth.
            “The Angel’s path ends only in desolation and pain,” the Voice warned.
            “Ooh, I should have known you’d butt in,” Edith growled.
            “Beware of this being. The Angel is a liar, a charlatan, and a trickster.”
            “Well, you’re a nosy cow!” Edith yelled. She’d spent years wanting to say so. The Voice said no more. As abruptly as it had appeared, it left. Perhaps she had actually offended it, Edith thought with triumph.
            Even with the Voice’s departure, Iris’s eyes were still unfocused. The two uses of the Ancient Language along with the conjuring she’d done earlier were finally taking its toll.
            “I can’t let you go,” she said, swaying on her feet.
            “I’m afraid, Mother, you don’t have it in you to stop me.”
            “I only need enough for a speaking spell.”
            Edith’s nostrils flared. “You’d sic the coven on me? You really want to bring those clucking hens into this?”
            “It’s their future you’re toying with, child. But if you won’t consider their fate, then consider yours. This foolish notion you’ve taken on will destroy you, Edith!”
            “You don’t scare me. And we both know it’s not my life you wish to protect, but your own. As if the prestige of becoming the mother of the Grand Sorceress did not occur to you!”
            “That’s not—”
            Iris froze. The Ancient Language was expected to be beyond the prowess of young witches, but Edith had not let that impede her innate cunning. Compelled to always remain a step ahead of her teachers and the other students at Mistress Everoth’s, she had picked up just enough words to stop a grown witch in her tracks. And a weakened one like her mother could be paralyzed long enough for Edith to enact a binding spell.
            She made a cage with her hands. “You will not hear, touch, or speak with another living witch except for me. You will see only what I order you to see, and you will speak only when I command you to do so.”
            “Edith, my child, please think…” Iris croaked, trying to fight the Language’s hold.
            “Your weakness will be your jailor. And executioner, if need be.” Kursa, hiding under the table, began to whine. Edith ignored her. There was only one piece of glass in the cottage she could be sure was unblemished, and that was the mirror above the washstand in their bedroom. Edith focused in on it. “Rage or scream to your own peril, for if you break your prison, you fragment your very soul.”
            Edith collapsed her hands with a resounding clap. Her mother disappeared, to manifest again in the bedroom looking glass, she knew. If she broke the glass with her usual outbursts, she’d risk destruction. She could be counted on to stay put until Edith released her.
            A sharp prick, similar to the jolt she’d felt with Drake, pierced her chest at the thought of her mother staring out from the glass, hurt and defeated. Alone.
            Edith banished the image. “Come, Kursa,” she ordered, storming out of the cottage.
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Chapter 3

            As Edith crunched through the dead matter surrounding the cottage, Kursa nipped at her skirts with each step.
            “Stop that, will you?” Edith snapped.
            “Bound your own mother. Very bad.”
            “Oh, I only said that soul-fragmenting bit so that she wouldn’t try to escape. She’ll be perfectly fine. The Voice will keep her company until I get back.”
            Kursa grunted with disapproval. “Still not nice.”
            “Since when are witches nice?” Edith asked, throwing open the woodshed door. She had to tear at spider webs and push aside stacks of firewood to find the broomsticks. It had been an age since she needed one.
            “You don’t want to be a witch,” Kursa said snidely.
            Edith bat at the sticking fibers around the corner where the broomsticks leaned. “Your point?”
            “Prove it.”
            Edith’s hand hovered over the broom handle.  She had an idea what was coming next but tried to play dumb anyway. Familiar or not, a dog had no business out-maneuvering her. “What do you suggest, my silly little puppy?” she baby-talked.
            Kursa did not give in to her mistress’s implied invitation to wag her tail and play. She sat, back straight and ears pointed forward. She stared at Edith with her black eyes, unblinking as glass marbles. “Do not fly. From here to Mistress Everoth’s castle, no magic. Live as a mortal.”
            Edith gaped. “You can’t mean that, Kursa! It’s a day and a night’s journey on foot. I’ve never walked so far in my life!”
            “Cannot do this, then cannot be mortal.”
            Edith hesitated a second too long. Kursa stood and shook herself, twitching the end of her tail smugly. “Release Mother now?”
            Edith slammed the woodshed door. “You’re a right annoying little ankle biter, you know that?”
            Her mistress drew her magenta cape a little tighter to herself and rubbed her hands together. It was going to be a long walk.
            Eventually, Edith had to ball her hands up into fists to keep from making magical gestures. Her fingers and nose were numb with cold, her knees creaked, and she felt the beginnings of sores forming on the backs of her heels.
            Kursa, by contrast, trotted happily ahead of her, sniffing every mossing stone and urinating on every other tree along the highway.
            “Just one heat charm,” Edith begged her familiar.
            “No,” Kursa replied before chasing after a hare. When she returned, she repeated for the third time since their journey had begun, “Mortals don’t need magic. Neither should you.”
            Edith scowled. “A mortal would have died in this chill an hour ago. Besides, this isn’t the kind of life I’ll be having in Wynne. As if the Angel would be expected to traipse along the side of the road in the winter.” She tried to laugh, but it was dominated by the sound of her teeth chattering.
            “You’re not the Angel,” Kursa remarked.
            Edith thought of the Voice’s latest prophecy: “The Angel is a liar, a charlatan, and a trickster.” She usually didn’t put any store by what her mother’s master said, but this time the words had stung.
            Edith shivered. Night had fallen quicker than she had expected, and still she was nowhere near the base of the mountains, where she had wanted to be by this late hour. How was she going to reach Everoth Castle without freezing a limb off?
            Edith was so absorbed in trying to find loopholes for her familiar’s no-magic challenge that she didn’t hear the grating roar until it was almost upon her. Kursa’s frantic barking finally made her turn around. “Can you hold off for a moment, you insufferable—?” Edith’s eyes widened at the sight of a metal beast with glowing eyes racing toward her.
            Never in all of Edith’s most outlandish imaginings did she dream a more fearsome creature. It was enormous and shining, moonlight glinting off its silver muscles like sparks. It didn’t run or fly, but skimmed the earth in an alarmingly straight path, which at this moment was directed straight for her.
            In her terror, she forgot Kursa’s challenge and threw up her hands. She didn’t have time to focus on vivid images; all she could think was one word over and over: Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop!
            The metal monster made a sound like a cough and skidded to a halt a mere fingernail’s length away from touching Edith’s cloak. She could feel it’s hot breath on her ankles.
            “Oh, in the name of all that’s holy!” an angry voice cursed from within the beast.
            Edith was overtaken by sneeze after sneeze. Her eyes puffed and watered. With a yelp, she cowered before the creature. It knew her weakness! “Hecate save me,” she whimpered, waiting to be eaten. Instead, she heard a sharp click followed by a metallic slam. The sound of heavy boots crunching on the road toward her made her look up.
            A woman her mother’s age, in trousers and a long coat, stared down at her through curious glass eye adornments. “Just what do we have here?”
            Edith shot up and quickly wiped her eyes. A witch she could handle. On standing, she found she was a head taller than the woman, which made it easier for Edith to use an imperious voice when she demanded, “Do you tame this creature, sister?”
            The woman simply stared at her as if she’d used the Ancient Language. “I’m sorry?”
            “This monster, it answers to you?”
            At that, the woman laughed, an unbridled guffaw that made Edith wince. Witches were fond of a good laugh, sure, but the woman’s exuberance struck her as almost unseemly.
            “You backwoods country folk!” she screamed. “I simply cannot get enough of you. Monster! How very quaint!” Edith bristled. Even for someone as eccentric as her, this was a strange witch.
            The woman lifted her eye ornaments and fanned herself. “Do calm yourself, girl. This is no sorcery. It is my invention.”
            Edith had never heard the word before, but it had a familiar, enticing sound. “But you are a witch, are you not?”
            The woman chuckled again, but not as violently, to Edith’s relief. “Good gracious! Do they believe in such things here?”
            Edith nodded, bewildered. She must be very foreign indeed, she thought. Though Edith had seen few mortals, it was not as if her existence were a secret to them. Mortals often sought the assistance of the Craft for their own problems, and many a witch relied on their custom. It unsettled her to hear her race spoken of as mere myth.
            “Well, rest assured my precious Automover is not the product of witchcraft. She is a miracle of cogs and pipes and elbow grease, the only true magic.” She winked. “But how would you like to see for yourself? Doubtless you’d like to be out of this dreadful cold. I know I would! A wonder you haven’t caught your death already. Travelling by foot in this weather. Lord! Where were you headed, dear girl?”
            Edith’s head spun in the whirlwind of the woman’s chatter. “E-everoth Castle,” she said after a moment.
            The woman nodded. “Yes, I believe I saw that on my map. A small detour should not delay me long. Come along, then!”
            Before Edith could protest, she was pulled toward a door that had appeared in the side of the Automover. Thankfully, Edith did not suffer another jolt at the mortal woman’s touch for she wore thick leather gloves.
            The woman thrust her into the carriage-like vehicle, onto a bouncy red velvet seat. Edith ran a hand down the soft fibers, making a wave pattern in the cushion. “This is wonderful,” she said.
            The woman smiled. “Not half as wonderful as what’s under the bonnet, which I should go check, now that I mention it.” She retrieved a metal tool from the belt at her waist. “Some quirk with the engine just now, but lucky it stalled, eh? Elsewise, I would have run you over! What a mess that would have been.” She laughed and disappeared.
            “Lucky,” Edith repeated. No one really used that word. Uncanny good or bad fortune was always the result of magic, it was widely believed. A rustle in the woods announced Kursa’s approach. She leaped into the Automover and onto her mistress’s lap.
            “This lady will take us to Mistress Everoth’s. Isn’t that lucky?” she said, using the woman’s expression.
            Kursa bat at her chest with a paw. “I said no magic.”
            “She said it wasn’t!” Edith argued, though she couldn’t say she was entirely sure. It was possible that magic was simply called by a different name where the woman came from.
            She returned a minute later. “Strange. Not even a blown fuse. Hello,” she said, spotting Kursa. “Who’s this?”
            “My…pet.” Kursa made a low growl at the affront, and Edith jostled her to keep her quiet. If the woman didn’t believe in witchcraft, doubtless she wouldn’t understand the concept of a familiar, the spiritual guide a witch was sometimes blessed with. Some even called them a witch’s conscience, which in Kursa’s case proved true more often than not.
            “I don’t like the look in that animal’s eye. Far too intelligent for my comfort.” She then pulled a series of levers and pressed a collection of colored, button-sized gems. The metal beast shook with restored life.
            She consulted a map spread onto her lap. “Everoth Castle...Ah, here we are. That’s not far at all! We’ll be there in less than an hour.”
            “Less than an hour?!” Edith exclaimed, her last word drowned out by the Automover’s roar of acceleration. Kursa turned a black stare on her mistress, and Edith could only reply with a guilty headshake.
            “The miracle of machinery, dear girl!” the woman declared as she turned a wagon wheel on the panel, leading her mechanical monster into the night. “By the by, what is your name? I don’t like to spend such long stretches in silence. Always up for a good chat to pass the time, me.”
            Edith thought the woman’s concept of time was horribly addled. They were flying faster than even her broomstick could travel. “E-edith,” she ground out. She clutched the velvet cushions when the woman rounded a corner at a skid. She closed her eyes. “W-what’s yours?”
            “Mine? Hm. Why don’t we go with Maddie for now? Yes, Maddie is a fine name. Fitting,” she said with a chuckle to some private joke.
            “That’s not your real name?”
            “Heavens, no.” Edith sneezed. “Bless you.” She choked back another sneeze and blew her nose in a handkerchief the woman offered. “You know, if you’re prone to hay fevers, you really shouldn’t have a pet.”
            “I inherited her,” Edith said, wiping her nose. From the witch goddess, she added silently.
            “Ah. Suppose it can’t be helped, then. Where was I? Oh, yes. Can’t be giving away all my secrets on these little outings I have. Keeps me from being followed. I’m on a sort of quest, you see.”
            “Oh? I am too, actually.”
            “That so? Then tell me, Edith, what prize awaits you at this castle? No, don’t tell me. A legendary sword? Perhaps a dragon’s treasure?” Maddie grinned.
            “Nothing so silly. I seek knowledge,” Edith shot back. She didn’t like her superior tone.
            “Ah, a noble pursuit,” Maddie said with genuine approval. “Forbidden knowledge?”
            Edith nodded. “Very. But it’s only forbidden because they all think what I’m trying to do is impossible. But I can prove them wrong.”
            “A very noble pursuit, then. Never listen to naysayers, Edith. I don’t. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to build my beautiful Automover. Good thing I had faith in the powers of combustion and simple physics. Science will always win out in the end, I say.”
            “Right,” Edith said carefully, dumbfounded by all the strange words Maddie seemed to throw about like confetti.
            “So what is it?” Maddie asked. “This impossible thing you’re trying to do?”
            Edith thought for a moment. Despite her strangeness, Maddie was human. Perhaps she could point her in the right direction concerning mortal tetherings. Aside from what she could try to glean from the libraries, Hecate knew she’d get no help from Mistress Everoth and the other scholarly witches at the castle.
            “I wish to fall in love.”
            For the first time since she’d met her, Maddie fell silent. Edith looked over to see the woman pursing her lips, as if she were holding back some unpleasant thought threatening to escape. “What?” she asked sharply. “You think I can’t do it either?”
            “No, no. It’s just…” she trailed off.
            “Oh, it’s not as noble a pursuit as building a metal carriage? I’ll have you know, now that I’ve seen it, I could conjure up one just like this one easily.”
            Maddie chuckled at that. “A feat I’d pay good money to see. It’s not that either, however. Edith, do you know the first thing about love?”
            “No,” Edith scoffed. “That’s why I’m going to the castle to research, of course.”
            Maddie shook her head. “Now, I know I’m the last person who should be doling out advice about it, but I do know love is unpredictable. You’re not going to find a magic manual about it in any library that I know of.”
            Edith slumped in her seat. That was precisely what she had been hoping to find at Mistress Everoth’s. “I thought humans fell in love all the time. Like getting a cold.”
            Maddie laughed. “That’s one way to put it. Some people fall in love as often as seasons change, but they also fall out of it just as often. Others can spend years in the company of another person and find they’ve fallen in love with knowing it. And others, the mad ones,” she said with a smile, “they can even hate a person so much it transforms into another emotion entirely.”
            “But that’s nonsensical!” Edith cried, more confused than she’d been when Maddie had been nattering on about machinery.
            “That’s just it. Love is nonsensical, which is why I don’t partake.”
            “You’ve never been in love?”
            “I didn’t say that.” And Edith could suddenly see in Maddie’s face a kind of sadness, a pressure around her eyes as she looked out onto the road before them. She was looking at someone Edith couldn’t see.
            Trying to reassure Maddie, she said “Well, I wouldn’t say your advice is so bad. It’s a start, anyway.”
            “Yeah?” Maddie said, her brightness returning. “Not going to give up your noble pursuit after all, then?”
            “Not a chance.”
            “Good. Your path will be an interesting one at least.”
            The Angel’s path ends only in desolation and pain, the Voice’s prophecy echoed in Edith’s ear. “Can love make a person miserable?” she asked.
            Maddie’s answer was immediate. “Yes,” she said. “But for some people it’s the source of all their happiness. Hard to pin it down, you see. Dangerous if you’re not careful. Or too careful, in some cases.”
            This baffled Edith. If the act of falling in love could prove so hazardous, why did so many mortals allow themselves to fall prey to it? It seemed an awful gamble to make.
            Maddie sensed the damp her words had put on the girl’s spirits and steered the conversation to lighter shores. She told Edith of her land, where machinery and science dominated everyday life and cities made of metal stretched to the sky. It all seemed so fanciful to her, but then again, the Craft was an impossible construct to Maddie as well. If her own world was just as real as trees and dogs and fire to Edith, there was no reason Maddie’s couldn’t be too.
            Soon, the black towers of Everoth Castle rose before them in the distance. Edith looked at them with a twinge of reluctance. She had begun to like the mad, chattering craftswoman.
            “Thank you for taking me so far,” Edith said as she climbed from the Automover. “I can pay you for your troubles…” She thought rapidly of a way to perform the difficult magic of conjuring gold without Kursa seeing.
            “No need,” Maddie stopped her, waving a hand. “I enjoyed your company, Miss Edith. I hope your quest is a success. Everyone deserves to fall in love once.” Edith thought it an odd thing to say, considering what the woman had told her of love’s many pitfalls, but she nodded politely. Maddie continued, not one for being concise when there was even one thing left to say, “Like I said, I’m not an expert, but I hope—oh!” She paused, an idea apparently occurring to her. She abruptly dove into a wooden chest she kept under the control panel and produced a red leather book.
            “If you insist on research, start with this. I’ve never been one for poetry, so this thing is wasted on me, but it may be of help to you.”
            Edith took the volume in her hands and scanned the cover: An Endless, Fleeting Spring and Other Poems by Samuel Ketch. “Curious title,” she said.
            Maddie shrugged. “Poetry. He’s supposed to be this famous wordsmith. ‘Wynne’s Great Lover’, he’s called in that city, I hear.”
            Edith smiled knowingly. “They like their figureheads there.”
            “Indeed. In any case, it’s a gift I cannot use, so I gift it to you. Perhaps Mr. Ketch has some wisdom hiding in those pages.”
            “Thank you,” Edith said, flipping through it. Each chapter contained narrow columns of writing, some short, others winding through several pages. To her eye the book looked akin to a collection of spells.
            “Good luck,” Maddie said finally, lowering her glass eye coverings. Edith nodded. If the volume proved half as useful as spellbook, she’d be conjuring some good luck for herself after all.
            As the Automover sped off into the darkness, Edith turned to the tall, black doors of Everoth Castle and climbed the steps.
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