The witch's cottage sat in a nest of overgrown grass and wild bushes. A brown goat grazed on a patch of stubby grass. Nearby, a pair of chickens scratched in the dirt.
Tom stood, mouth dry, his three-year-old son cradled in his arms. The boy clung to the front of his threadbare shirt and looked up at him with wide, solemn eyes. "Easy, Gwin," Tom muttered. "She won't hurt us. Why, just last month, Emily Tidd came here to have that swollen hand looked at, and she came back as good as new." He wet his lips. His heart knocked against his chest like a fist.
Aside from the animals, the cottage looked abandoned. Time and weather had bleached the walls to a dingy white-gray, and dust caked the single window. A torn scrap of curtain hung limp.
Tom walked to the front door and lowered his son to the porch. Gwin stood on his good foot and clutched his father's pant-leg for balance. Tom took a deep breath, balled one shaking hand into a fist and knocked. A moment later, the door creaked open.
He had never seen the witch before, nor heard her described. People only referred to her in furtive whispers. He'd imagined a stooped, grizzled old woman with beady eyes. This woman was young, with a sharp, thin face and straight, dark hair that just brushed her shoulders. She wore a ragged patchwork dress, and her feet were bare and dirty. She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear and peered at Tom with large, dark eyes. "Good morning," she said. "Tom Swick, if I'm not mistaken."
Tom snapped his jaw shut. He cleared his throat, took off his hat and bowed his head. "I, uh, yes. That's me. Good day, miss. I mean, ma'am. Are you ..." He paused. He didn't want to call her 'the witch' to her face. "Are you the one who healed Emily Tidd?"
"I am. And a good thing she came to me when she did. If she'd waited any longer, she might have lost the hand." She waited, hands on her hips, then said with gentle impatience, "Is there something you need?"
"It's my son, miss. He needs help. I'm willing to pay, of course."
She looked down at Gwin, who stared back with round eyes. "All right, then. Come in." She held the door open. Tom hesitated, then stepped in. The inside looked like any country cottage, with a dirt floor, a table, a bed, and a cupboard.
She pulled out a rickety stool. "Sit."
Tom sat and pulled his son into his lap.
Gwin sucked one tiny fist, then pulled it out of his mouth. "Are you the witch?"
"Hush, Gwin!" Tom wrung his hat. "Sorry. He doesn't know any better."
To his astonishment, she laughed. "'Witch' is as good a word as any." She studied Gwin. "He looks healthy enough. What's the trouble?"
Tom hesitated, then rolled up the right leg of his son's trousers. The limb beneath was shorter than its mate, withered and twisted, the foot bent inward at an odd angle, the toes fused together into a club-like clump. "He can't walk," said Tom, "only crawl. He's pretty fast when he sets his mind to it, but he can't even stand up without holding onto something. He'll never be able to work the farm."
"I see," she said softly.
"His mother didn't want me to take him here," Tom said. "She doesn't ... well, she doesn't know what to think of the sort of healing you do. But the way I see it, we have to take any chance we can. Times are hard. Once he gets older ... if he can't work ..." He swallowed, squeezing his hat in both hands. "We're a poor family, Miss."
"I understand." She crouched and probed the deformed leg with her fingertips. Gwin watched her, his face open and alert.
Tom waited, holding his breath, until he could bear it no more. "Well? Can you help him?"
Yes," she said. "Yes, I believe I can."
His shoulders slumped with relief. "Thank you, Miss. Ma'am. What should I call you?"
"Elina will do fine," she said. "That's my name."
"I don't know how much you want, but whatever the price, I'll come up with it, somehow."
Elina stroked her chin. "Molly," she said. "That's your wife's name, isn't it?"
His chest tightened. "Yes, m ... Elina. But what's she got to do with any of this? Beg your pardon. I don't mean to sound that way, I'd just rather not get her involved."
"That's a shame, because I've heard she makes the finest biscuits in town. I'd like a basket of them. With strawberry jam, if you have it. I haven't had biscuits in awhile. I've run out of that corn meal Emily gave me, and I'm sick of living on eggs and goat's milk."
"Biscuits? That's all you want?"
She grinned. "What would I do with money? I'm a witch. The shopkeepers don't want me in their stores. Now, let's not waste time. Lay him down on the bed."
Tom lifted the boy and lay him on the narrow, hard pallet. Elina rummaged through the cupboard until she found a wooden bowl and a small jar filled with fine, dark powder. She opened the jar and shook some powder into the bowl.
Tom watched. "Beg pardon, but is that ...?"
"Tarrot leaf," she said. "Don't worry. It's harmless in small amounts. I've used it a great many times, on many people, and I've never seen any ill effects."
"The elders say it's an evil plant."
"The elders are fools. No plant is evil. If people misuse it and it causes harm, it's the fault of the people, not the plant."
Tom chewed his lower lip. "What's it for?"
"To ease the pain and keep him calm."
Gwin tugged his father's sleeve. "Da, what's going on?"
Tom forced a smile and patted Gwin's head. "The w ... Elina is going to fix your leg, just like I told you. Don't worry. It'll be over in no time, and you'll be able to run and play with your brothers."
"Don't promise him anything yet. I'll try my best, but flesh-shaping is tricky business." She held the bowl over the small hearth fire until the powder began to smoke. Then, she lay a cloth over the boy's stomach and set the bowl atop it. "Wave the fumes toward his face," she said.
"It won't hurt him," she said. "I promise. And he will need it. If he's not given something for the pain, this will be very difficult."
Tom nodded. He held his breath and waved the steam toward Gwin's face. "Breathe in deep. That's a good lad."
Gwin inhaled and coughed. His eyes lost focus, and his lids drooped.
"Hold him steady," said Elina. She grasped Gwin's leg in both hands, one at the foot, the other at the knee. "With luck, this will take only a few minutes, but he must remain still." She closed her eyes. Tom stared at her hands. If he squinted, he could almost see a faint, greenish nimbus around them. The light wavered and danced like heat-shimmers.
Gwin twitched and whimpered, and Tom waved more steam toward his face. He must have breathed in a little himself, for he was dizzy. He felt suddenly, oddly disconnected from his body, as if his mind floated somewhere in the air above it.
"Da?" Gwin murmured.
"Easy there," he heard his own voice say. "Everything's all right."
Someone pounded on the door, and Tom gave a start.
Elina's eyes snapped open. "Damn," she whispered.
"Open this door, in the name of the Order," said a clear female voice.
Tom looked at Elina, his eyes wide. "What's going on?"
"Tell them nothing," she whispered. "Tell them I am a simple healer, an herb woman, and you brought your son here to have his cough treated." She stood, grabbed a shawl and wrapped it around herself, and suddenly, her whole presence seemed to change. She appeared somehow older, and stooped. She faced the door. "What is the meaning of this?" she called, her voice quivering and cracked. "Who are you? I've never heard of this Order."
The door sprung open and slammed inward, as if blown by a powerful gust of wind. A woman in a fur-lined cloak stood in the doorway. She lifted her head, and the hood of her cloak fell back, exposing a perfect, white oval face, lustrous brown curls and cool blue eyes.
Tom stared. She was the loveliest woman he'd ever seen, but there was something cold and relentless about her face, something that sent chills to his marrow. She looked as if she could break a man's neck without hesitance, without guilt, without her calm expression ever wavering. He pulled Gwin into his arms and held him tight.
The woman's eyes flicked toward them, then settled on Elina. "You are a fool," she said, "if you thought I wouldn't see through that feeble glam. How long did you think you could hide from us?"
Elina cast her shawl aside. "Damn you, Lalandri!" For an instant, Tom glimpsed that shimmering green nimbus around her entire body. The hairs on his neck stood on end. Elina thrust out a hand. A bolt of blinding green light burst from her palm and raced toward Lalandri. Tom gasped.
Lalandri stood calmly. The green lightning stopped a few feet from her, as if it had hit an invisible wall, and dissolved into nothing. "Don't try to fight me," she said. "You know you can't penetrate my shield."
Elina's feet left the ground, and she floated straight up, as if pulled by an invisible line. For a moment she hovered in midair, arms and legs flailing. Then an invisible forced slammed her against the wall, spread-eagled. She grunted. Her jaw tightened, and the cords in her neck stood out. Her face gleamed with sweat. "Let me go, Lalandri! For the child's sake! Let me help him!"
"You seek to shape flesh? To change what Fate has ordained?" Lalandri asked. "No majin may challenge the will of the Fate."
Elina panted. Her eyes were wild with fear, the whites showing all around. "You won't take me back alive. I'll never serve the Order again."
"You think we would grant you the honor of serving us, after you abandoned the Order? No, Elina. You have lost that privilege." Her eyes narrowed. The air around her shimmered. Something shot across the room, like a cold gust of wind.
Elina stiffened and gasped. Her mouth opened. She screamed.
Gwin burst into tears.
Lalandri turned toward them. Tom's arms tightened around his son. He didn't dare speak.
Elina slid to the floor and crumpled into a ball. She moaned. "It's gone. Oh, Fate. It's gone."
Lalandri stood quietly, studying Tom and Gwin. "Interesting," she said.
A deep chill penetrated Tom's flesh, reached down into to his bones. His muscles locked in place. He couldn't move, couldn't speak.
Lalandri crouched, looked into Gwin's eyes and smiled. "Don't be afraid, little one," she cooed, her voice suddenly butter-soft.
Gwin shrank away, but the woman caught him and lifted him. He wailed, a thin, high, piteous sound. She touched his forehead with two fingertips, and he fell silent. His small body went limp, though his eyes remained open.
Tom watched, helpless. His mind commanded his body to move, but his muscles would not obey.
"Don't worry," Lalandri said. "I'll not hurt the boy. I have plans for him." She stroked Gwin's soft, dark hair. "He's lucky we found him. Where I'm taking him, his leg will not be such a hindrance."
A low, pained moan slid out through Tom's frozen throat.
"I know you will hate me for this. But rest assured, your child is in capable hands." Lalandri cradled Gwin against her chest. She glanced at the wretched form curled in the corner.
Elina had stopped crying. She rocked slowly back and forth, forehead against her knees.
"And you," said Lalandri. "You will come with me."
"Kill me," said Elina.
"I think not. The High Mother will decide your fate. Come with me." Another gust of wind-that-was-not-wind blew past Tom, across the room.
Elina twitched. Then, slowly, she uncurled and stood, shoulders slumped, head bowed. She shuffled across the room and stood at Lalandri's side.
"Now, say goodbye to your father, little one."
Gwin didn't respond. His normally wide, alert eyes were dull and heavy-lidded.
Lalandri carried him out of the cottage, followed by Elina, who moved like a sleepwalker. The door creaked shut behind her. Moments later, Tom heard the dull thudding of hoof-beats as they rode away, taking his youngest son.
His voice was frozen, but in his mind and heart, he screamed.