The rat lay flat against the ground, pinned beneath a black paw the size of a tea saucer. Its sides were heaving with panic and the effort to breath. Its black eyes were fixed ahead, unblinking towards the only direction it wanted to go—away.
Schrätlein’s yellow eyes narrowed to slits. Millicent asked the question with an almost bored inflection. But Schrätlein recognized the insubordination behind the words.
Millicent looked up at her mentor and sighed. “I mean, this is the sixth one today. The forest is going to run out of rats and Gertrude should be around anytime now.”
Schrätlein didn’t reply. Instead, she pressed her weight down on the rat, causing it to squeak in pain as its ribs cracked.
Millicent winced. “Alright.”
She took out a small vegetable knife and pricked her forearm. Blood welled up from the pinprick. She took it and dabbed it on the rodent’s lips. Instinctively, it licked at the warm liquid.
She pressed her fingers back to the wound and stared at the rat. After a few moments, Schrätlein felt the muscles in the rat’s body begin to relax. Millicent’s blood sang to her as it passed into the rat’s body. She called back to it, called to the rat to calm itself, to sleep, to dream.
The rat’s beady eyes drifted closed. It fell asleep with the black cat still perched atop it. It soon fell into a deeper sleep, from which it would not wake. Schrätlein felt it’s breathing become shallow, the pulse beneath her palm slow to a crawl. Millicent’s blood was singing a lullaby; singing the rat to death.
The rat’s breath ceased entirely. Its pulse beat once and stopped.
Schrätlein released the rat’s corpse. Millicent picked it up and put it in the basket alongside the wild vegetables and mushrooms she’d been gathering. She sighed again.
“You’re getting faster. But rats are easy. They’re small, and have not much will to live.”
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
Schrätlein swallowed her frustration. It would only turn the girl against her. “It died in its sleep, at peace. A better end than most rats meet.”
Millicent was nothing like her mother Hera. A wiser witch there never was, attuned to the ebb and flow of the world even more so than Schrätlein, built more of shadow than substance though she was. The pair walked back to camp, for all appearances a young girl of sixteen with her admittedly large black cat at her side.
Schrätlein tried to believe because she loved Millicent’s mother. But the girl was barely an herbalist, let alone a witch. She was growing older and past the age of learning. She’d be no cunning woman, but she’d have the gift; a dangerous combination in a world which only sometimes tolerated their kind. That’s why so many rats had to die, though Millicent seemed loathe to believe it. Because someday, they might come for her, just as they did for her mother. And Schrätlein wouldn’t live simply to watch another witch burn.
Gertrude was waiting for them by the time they reached camp. A natural alcove in the rock with a tarp stretched above the mouth had been Millicent’s home since she was a babe. She’d never complained and Schrätlein never bothered to ask if she wanted a house with a proper roof or hearth to doze beside; that is, never asked if she wanted what she couldn’t have.
“I’ve got to be getting back to help with supper.”
Gertrude was the kind of woman who didn’t spare greetings for girls who lived alone in the woods. She was only a little older than Millicent, tall and lanky, with wrists as thick as birch twigs. Schrätlein found her rather homely; but then, Schrätlein found most humans homely. It wasn’t so much their appearance as how they carried themselves. Masquerading with none of the pleasure. Even now, this woman was pretending to be Millicent’s better; despite the fact that she desperately needed something from Millicent, and that Millicent knew twice as much at sixteen as she ever would in her life.
Millicent didn’t reply, and simply went about organizing her forest harvestings. Once she was settled, she went into the alcove and retrieved a small clay jug with a brass stopper. She returned with all the reluctance of a physician proscribing an errant treatment. “Remember, this isn’t a guarantee. Slip it into his ale, the bitterness will cover the taste. Make sure you stay in the room with him. He needs to associate the euphoria with you; not his fiancé, or God forbid, his dog. It’ll help, but it might take a few doses. That’s up to you.”
Gertrude took the jug with poorly concealed greed. She passed Millicent a bag of flour in response, and without another word, turned and started back through the woods, clasping the jug in both hands.
Millicent sighed and stored the flour on a dry shelf inside the alcove, next to some bird feathers and a carbuncle she’d come across in her wood wanderings.
Schrätlein licked her paws and cleaned her face as Millicent milled about the camp. There was a tension in the air they were both pointedly ignoring. Schrätlein was content to let it go on. The girl was grown. If something was bothering her, she should say so. But she thought again of Hera, and what she would say about a three-hundred-year-old spirit punishing a sixteen-year-old girl with silence.
“Something the matter Millicent?”
She didn’t respond right away. Still busying herself with chores, she answered “If you’d teach me something other than killing rats, I might be able to actually help people, instead of just selling them mushroom milk.”
Schrätlein quelled her temper. She wasn’t quick to anger, but the girl brought it out in her in a way her mother never had.
“What about the Dürer boy? You healed that crooked leg. Now he can run with all the rest of the children.”
“That was last year.”
It was hard to keep track of time after the first century. She’d genuinely believed it had only been a few weeks, or a month at the most. Schrätlein continued cleaning herself, more from habit than necessity.
“What do you want to learn?”
Millicent’s shoulders tensed. She shifted from one foot to the other, her back still to Schrätlein. She finally sat heavily on a stump and began preparing the vegetables she’d gathered. “I shouldn’t have to ask.” There was a pause as she used her knife to violently cut away the chaff from wild onions and young leeks. “Teach me what she knew. God’s wounds, that’s what you’re supposed to do right?”
Schrätlein stopped, her paw halfway to her mouth. “What she knew didn’t help her.”
Millicent ceased her cutting. “What?”
“Your mother didn’t know enough. That’s why she’s dead.” Schrätlein crossed her paws, not looking directly at Millicent. “I’m trying to keep you alive.”
Millicent digested her words. She scraped the knife along the edge of an onion. “And what happens when I’m not useful to anyone? Just a strange little girl living alone with a cat in the woods?”
Schrätlein didn’t answer. The only sound was the soft cutting of the knife.
Schrätlein heard them coming long before their torch light came into view. She met them in the darkness, another shadow among shadows. A haggard man bent double carrying a small, bundled body. The woman beside him carried the torch, stifling sobs in a canvas headwrap. They were desperate, not dangerous, as most people were. She recognized them as locals, but did not know their names. This was their first visit to the forest.
Schrätlein returned to camp and stood above Millicent as she slept. After a moment, Millicent woke of her own accord.
“What is it?”
The fire was kindled and waiting for them when they arrived. They seemed surprised to see Millicent waiting for them. They were afraid, and it was a good fear, a respectful fear. Schrätlein hid away, watching from a distance. No good could come from advertising the presence of a familiar.
Millicent had intended to appear sagely as they approached, but upon seeing the bundle in the man’s arms, she rose and crossed the distance between them without a word. Inside the bundle was a boy, no more than five, blue in the cheeks, his breathing hollow and faint.
“He caught a chill. We been keeping him warm, fed, but it’s not worked. He’s not breathing, he can’t breathe.” The man’s words spilled from his mouth in a whisper, as if he were afraid to wake the darkness of the woods. Millicent looked between the parents and the boy grimly. “I don’t know that I can help.” Their faces fell, and the mother choked, covering her mouth. Millicent nodded. “I’ll try.”
She bid the couple sit and walked away from the fire. She found Schrätlein in the darkness.
“Fenugreek and peppermint.” Schrätlein said. “Even then, chances are good he’ll be dead before sunrise. His breath stirs nothing.”
Millicent hesitated. “What if I lay hands on him?”
Schrätlein cursed inwardly, words known only to spirits of the aether. Her tone was taut as she replied “That’s a very bad idea. You’re not practiced enough. You’d just as easily kill him as save him.”
“You said he’ll probably die anyways.”
Schrätlein didn’t respond.
“Fenugreek and peppermint won’t be enough, not at this point.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re tired of killing rats.” Schrätlein couldn’t keep the venom from her voice.
Millicent pressed her lips into a thin line. She turned and strode back to the fire. Schrätlein wanted to call after her. She wanted her to stay in the shadows, wanted the boy to die before she even walked back to the fire, wanted the world to leave the girl alone. More than anything, she wanted Hera.
Millicent knelt by the fire and the boy next to it. His face seemed even paler in the dim light, like boiled bone. Millicent looked up at his parents, dark eyes pleading. “He’s beyond the point of traditional remedies. I’m going to have to try something—extraordinary.” The father said nothing, staring at the body of his child. The mother met Millicent’s eyes. In them Millicent saw forty years of hardship; days spent in hot fields, nights without warmth, and stillborn babies buried without names. “Save him.” She whispered.
Millicent drew her knife and prodded a drop from her hand. A runnel of blood rand down her fingers and into the boy’s mouth. His parents watched with equal horror and fascination.
Millicent wasn’t sure how much she’d need. A rat took a pinprick. She thought a human would need more.
When the boy had what she thought was enough, she clasped her hands together as if in prayer. Then her blood began to sing.
With the rat, she’d intended a lullaby, to soothe, and send into eternal slumber. Now, she sang to her blood of life; of balmy summer days, warm cider on a cool morning, the protective heat of a hearth in winter. She sang to warm his limbs, to shake lose the phlegmatic elements which had settled in his lungs, to remind the boy of what was lost in the cold, and everything to be gained by lying in the sun.
She couldn’t say for certain in the darkness, but it seemed that the color began to return to his cheeks. After a few more moments, his breathing became more regular, and the rattling in his chest loosened, dissipating. Millicent felt as though she were watching the life return to a corpse. She could see it in his parent’s eyes too. Tears ran down the father’s face, one hand clasped over his mouth. The mother quietly sobbed, too afraid to be joyful. Millicent beamed at them, almost gave them reassuring words, almost told them it was going to be okay.
Then something slipped.
She wasn’t sure what, would never be sure what it was. Her blood singing became a choir. Then a chorus. Then, a cacophony.
She couldn’t stop what had started. She stepped back, terrified, covering her ears as something less than sound called to her from the boy’s body. The warmth of the sun became the sun. Hot drinks became boiling springs. Hearth fires turned to forest fires.
The boy began to convulse. Hope turned to horror as a choked scream escaped his lips. His eyes flew open, looking at nothing in terror. A spurt of hot, black blood shot from his lips, ran from his nose. His father knelt to hold him just as his back arched and his mouth opened in a silent scream. A squeal escaped his throat, clenched in heat, in agony.
Then, he went limp, the cords of life cut like the hangings of a puppet.
There was silence around the camp. Then an animalistic scream escaped the father. He grasped helplessly at his son, staining himself with sticky black blood, desperately waiting for another breath that wouldn’t come. The mother wailed and prostrated herself over the body, burying her face in his small, still chest.
The father turned to Millicent.
There were no words. He stumbled towards her, calloused hands reaching for her throat. Stunned, she fell back, knocking the wind out of herself. The man fell on top of her and she was suffocating. She bit down on the large hand that covered her face till blood filled her mouth. The man’s grip didn’t loosen. Eyes glistening with tears and fear, she could only see the boy, back arched, terrible architecture in the light of the fire, bathed in blood as if birthed again.
There was the sound of a cat screaming and the father cried out in surprise and fear. Fifty pounds of black feline slammed into his back and bit into the base of his neck. He fell from Millicent, rolling over Schrätlein as he did. The familiar remained locked onto his neck, burying her fangs deep into his flesh as blood ran in runnels down his face.
The mother rose from her place by her son’s body, and still weeping uncontrollably, tried to pull the giant cat from her husband. Millicent tried to speak, but could only mouth the word “Stop” as she got unsteadily to her feet.
In an instant, Schrätlein flew from the father to the mother, latching onto her front and mauling her face in a muffled scream. There was a spray of blood as the woman beat helplessly at the sides of the beast, her face disappearing in a mass of red viscera. Millicent could only squeak a warning as the father picked up a fallen branch and swung it full into Schrätlein.
The familiar was knocked clear of the beaten woman. Schrätlein tried to dart away, but the club was fast and hateful, cracking ribs and breaking bones. He brought it down again, and raised it for a fourth blow. The branch was raised over his head, but to his own surprise, he couldn’t bring it down again.
Sweat broke out on Millicent’s forehead with the effort of restraining the man. His blood was in her, and she sang to the blood within him. But he was large and the song was soft. Sheer will and the desperate need for the club not to fall on Schrätlein again kept him in place. It would not last.
The club began to come down, awkwardly. The man’s cheeks puffed with the effort of holding it. He saw Millicent out of the corner of his eye. He was afraid, but no longer respectful. There was only hatred in his fear. The hatred of prey.
Schrätlein leapt from the ground and buried her fangs in the man’s neck as the club went spinning away. He thrashed on the ground, and Millicent could hear more than see him struggle in the darkness beyond the fire light. After a moment, the struggle stopped.
Schrätlein limped into the firelight. Gone was the great old black cat. Her muzzle was soaked in blood, as were her paws. In the dim light of the fire, Schrätlein appeared a demon from hell, as perhaps she truly was.
She missed a step and collapsed to the earth. Millicent rushed to her side, but didn’t quite reach out to her. Schrätlein stared up at her ward with the eye which was not swollen shut. There was nothing to be said.
Gertrude tramped back through the woods with what she hoped was an imposing expression. She carried another sack of flour stolen from her father’s mill. He wouldn’t miss it, and even if he did, it was for a good cause. The potion had worked. Heinrich was falling for her. He’d placed his hand over hers the same evening she’d given him the love potion, looked deeply into her eyes. All she needed was for him to say “I love you,” however many potions it took. If it meant giving away her father’s whole mill, so be it. The little wood witch frightened her, but it was more than outweighed by the prospect of being bed and wed by the best looking man in the county.
As she approached the camp, she slowed. She smelt that something was wrong before she saw it. There was death on the air, and lots of it. Cautiously, she approached.
She came upon the body of the father first. His throat appeared as though it had been ripped out by a wild animal. His clothes, arms, and face were covered in deep claw marks now covered in flies.
Gertrude vomited in a nearby bush. His name had been Evrard; a tanner, well-liked in spite of his profession.
A little past him lay his wife, Chriselda, and what she thought had been their son, Mikel. What dark ritual had occurred, what being had been summoned she could only guess at. But of the witch, there was no sign.
Schrätlein was torn. On the one hand, she was slowing her ward down. On the other, she was terrified to send her on ahead, or worse, leave her alone. Millicent for her part said nothing of their slow pace. She carried a pack along with a few meagre possessions. They were leaving for anywhere but here. There was no plan, no purpose but survival. Every moment was pain for them both.
Schrätlein couldn’t remember the last time she’d been in such agony. She’d kept her body in exceptionally good condition since having been summoned by Millicent’s great-grandsire all those years ago. It had been so long she’d almost forgotten what it was like to be without a body. To roam the world as a formless force, a name only, waiting to be called. She felt cold at the thought. It drove her to walk as every step protested.
Millicent was crying. She had not stopped. It was silent, barely a sniffle. But her body had been shaking since they left the camp, her childhood home.
Schrätlein still recognized the woods when they settled down that evening. Still, she was relieved. Another hour walking might have killed her. She wasn’t entirely sure she would be alive tomorrow to do it again. They lay in the darkness together, no fire to advertise their presence to passers-by. For the first time in a decade, Schrätlein was exhausted enough to sleep.
Through heavy eyes, she looked across the space which separated her from Millicent. She thought of curling up next to the girl, but decided against it. She needed to stay awake and alert. The girl’s warmth would only lull her to sleep.
“If they find us, cut them with your knife, and sing to their blood. A man is only a rat twice over.”
Millicent was still crying, still shaking. Her voice was soft, muffled by the dirt. “I know.”
Schrätlein felt herself being shaken awake. As her eyes fluttered open in pain, Millicent stood above her. For the first time, she appeared worried for her familiar. It was, after all, the only time her familiar had ever failed to watch over her as she slept.
Schrätlein got to her feet only with an effort. Once standing, she could ask her body to do no more. Millicent reached a hand out towards her, but stopped, unsure.
“What can I do?”
Each breath came with a sharp pain. There was too much broken inside to know where to begin. With time, perhaps she could mend it. But there was no time.
She felt them coming. Just as she had felt them coming for Hera.
She peered at Millicent with her good eye, and tried to summon up her old authority. “You can help by getting away from here.”
Millicent sat back on her haunches. “And leave you?”
Schrätlein nodded. “They’re coming for us. I cannot run, and you cannot hide.”
Millicent’s red, swollen eyes glistened with tears again. Her voice was husky as she asked “Run to where? And how will we find each other again?”
“Flee eastward. These states bray for the blood of young witches. Flee till you no longer understand the language. Home can be anywhere for you.”
Sensing Millicent was awaiting an answer, Schrätlein added “Neither of us will be prey for the wolves today.”
Millicent looked around, swallowing against the lump in her throat. It was the first time in years Schrätlein felt that Millicent was truly afraid to be without her.
“I can only walk so fast. They’ll find me, catch me before I get anywhere.”
Schrätlein nodded. “You wanted me to teach you more. So, here’s your last lesson, for now. You will have to learn in hours what takes most witches weeks to master. But you have something they don’t.”
An imitation of a grin passed painfully across Schrätlein’s feline features “Me.”
The bodies of the butchered family were collected by those they’d called friends. Hounds were summoned, huntsmen called to seek the fugitives and deliver justice, not for king or country, but for themselves, for vengeance, for hatred. They brought rope and torches and what form death would take was unknown, even to them. Perhaps they could suffer a witch to live longer enough to purge her sin with pain. Surely this would bring God joy and peace to the dead.
Into the forest they dove, man and hound one in the same, a single pack, a single purpose, bloodlust and venom in equal measure.
She carved the wind fall into a smooth staff. On any other day it would have made a fine walking stick. Now, it was her only salvation. Schrätlein explained as she carved.
“Usually, you would craft your broom during your cycle. Anointing it with your moonblood would ensure it would sing with enough force to give you the powers of bats and birds. But we don’t have time for that.”
“So how will it fly?”
“There is another way.”
On any other day, Millicent may have challenged her laconism. But she found comfort in simply doing what she was told, as she had when she was a child.
She held the broom beneath Schrätlein’s gaze for inspection. A bramble bush was tied around the base with rope for the bristles, the best she could find under the circumstances. Schrätlein nodded approvingly. “That’s the easy part. Finding the balance to remain upright on a pole no thicker than a maypole as it soars through the air is difficult. Usually, witches take several weeks to practice, rising a little higher off the ground with each attempt. You will have to master it on your first.”
The reality of flight settled upon Millicent. Far from ecstatic, as she might otherwise have been, she began to sweat despite the cool shade of the forest.
Schrätlein gave her a wry grin. “Don’t worry. Like I said, you have me. First, take the mortar from your bag. Leave the pestle.”
Millicent’s brow furrowed, but again, she did as she was told. She retrieved the small stone bowl, cupping it between her hands. Schrätlein did not meet her eyes as she returned.
“Do you trust me, Millicent?”
It was the first time Millicent had ever heard something approaching vulnerability enter her familiar’s voice.
“Tell me the truth. I need you to say you trust me.”
Millicent nodded. “I trust you Schrätlein.”
“Hera did as well. I wanted to die with her. But she knew someone would have to watch over her child. Ensure she wasn’t raised by peasants, ignorant of her heritage, her gifts. I have always believed that she had no choice. However much she may have loved me, she knew I was no mother or father or guardian of any kind for a child. Let alone a witch.”
Schrätlein shook her head. Her shoulders slumped, as if her strength had left her, a burden unloaded. All that was left was age and pain in her voice. “We were both right. Had I not had you killing rats, that boy might still be alive. And if you hadn’t killed all those rats, I might be dead now, and you with me. The world is not kind to witches. Or their familiars.”
“What are you saying?”
Without looking at her, Schrätlein said “You need to cut my throat, and catch the blood in the mortar. I will anoint your broom. You will drink of me and sing to me in the broom. It is the only way to fly now The only way to flee.”
Chill water ran down Millicent’s back. She shook her head. “No.”
The voice which boomed from her familiar scared birds from the perches and sent rodents skittering through the underbrush. Millicent looked around, expecting to see hunters leaping from the bush.
“I may only die to protect you. Anything less would break my oath to your mother. This is the only way.”
Millicent threw the broom stick down, her back to Schrätlein. “I don’t believe you.”
“You said you trusted me.”
Millicent turned on Schrätlein. “You’ve wanted to be rid of me since the first day you took me, you practically said it yourself! You want to return from where ever you came and leave me to fend for myself. You think you’ve done your duty. Well, I’m not ready to be alone! I’m not ready to be my mother!”
Millicent wrapped her arms around herself, furious at the tears running down her cheeks. Schrätlein simply stared at her with usual aloofness. “Millicent, you’re all I have left of the woman I loved. Why would I want to be rid of you? We’re all each other has.”
Millicent stared at her old teacher, seeing in her a kindling of warmth she had never seen before. Perhaps it was too little now, perhaps it had never been enough. But in that moment, Millicent fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around Schrätlein’s battered neck, burying her face in fur the color of pitch. Schrätlein nestled her chin in the crook of Millicent’s neck. And for once, she didn’t imagine Hera in her place. She felt only the child she had raised from swaddling cloth, the child she had fed from her own mouth, and taught to speak in tongues foreign to her own.
“They’re going to kill as Millicent. I can’t fight, and there will be too many for you to fend off alone. One of us will live. It will be you.”
With a struggle, Schrätlein withdrew from their embrace and gathered the instruments of her own demise, placing knife, mortar, and broom before Millicent.
“If you ever loved me, or loved your mother, you will kill me.”
Millicent took up her knife, considering the edge of the dull iron blade. It was worn with use, but she was practiced. The cut would be swift, painless. Almost like going to sleep.
“What will happen to you? Can I summon you again, when I know how?”
Schrätlein hesitated, as if deciding whether or not to tell the truth. “I don’t know.” She finally answered. “Centuries have passed. I no longer remember the ritual with which I was first called. You have my name. All name’s have a power. But beyond that…”
Millicent’s fingers clenched white on the knife, as she stood, shoulders hunched against the darkness to come.
“There is no later child. There is no future without bloodshed. This is the brutal truth of it all. But take it now. Take it when it is willingly given. Take it with a clear conscience and know that the dead died thinking of you.”
Schrätlein had never been able to comfort her. Now was no different.
Mechanically, Millicent lowered herself to the ground and positioned the mortar below Schrätlein’s neck. In her ear she whispered. “I’ll make it fast. Spill the blood, drink the blood, anoint the broom in blood.”
Schrätlein nodded with each instruction, eyes closed so she would not see the blade. “Make sure to douse the staff. You don’t need to go fast, only far. Once you’re in the air, no one can hurt you. If you sing to the blood for balance, not speed, you can keep your seat as well as any knight.”
Millicent nodded. All she could think to say was “Thank you.”
Schrätlein opened her mouth to speak one last instruction. The blade slipped beneath her chin, opening a red gash in sickly imitation of a mouth. Her last words were lost as sharp pain gave way to black clouds at the edges of her vision. She felt herself fall to the ground, distantly heard Millicent crying far too loudly for hunters to hear. Broken bones and lacerated muscles all melted away. Whatever she’d been spilled onto the soil, the mortar, and the broom. What she was disappeared into darkness, becoming mist, then aether. At the last she was a name, known only by those she’d loved.
The blood which spilled from Schrätlein was black like ichor. Millicent stumbled away as Schrätlein collapsed, the light fading from her eyes. Millicent had seen all manner of death in her short life. But as Schrätlein collapsed, she became more than a mere corpse. Blue mist began to stream from her eyes, mouth, and nose. This stream became a fountain, erupting into the air above her body. As ichor leaked onto the ground, and mist exploded into the air, the shell which had housed her deflated, becoming little more than a mummer’s imitation of a cat, a play suit of black fur and oversized paws.
The blue mist slowed and dissipated. As it’s light faded, Millicent came back to herself. The ichor was soaking into the ground. Not a drop should be wasted.
She took the broom in hand and began anointing it, rolling it in the ichor on hands and knees till the wood was soaked black with the blood of her mentor. Thoroughly dampened, she turned to the second portion of the incantation.
The mortar was full to the brim. The inky black substance was light, like water, not at all like the blood of humans or animals. Taking the mortar between both hands, she stared into it, until her face appeared in the blackness. She’d never seen her mother. She was dead almost from the moment Millicent had been born. But now, Millicent saw familiar features; low cheekbones, small round nose, dimpled cheek, and errant strand of hair which refused to be placed. She felt sure these were her mothers. But the eyes were not.
There was a coldness to them, a skepticism of everything that came into their view, an understanding of the inexorable ebb and flow of seasons and cycles, death and rebirth, pain and joy, of the constant middle ground where mortals were forced to dwell. They were a cat’s eyes; a demon’s eyes. They were the eyes of a witch.
She drank the ichor, rivulets running down her cheeks, her chin, turning her mouth black. It was flavorless, like drinking fog or the stillness of a pond.
When she was done, she was changed. The blood sang to her like never before. It wasn’t merely a tug she felt deep in her center, or a subtle force on the edge of consciousness. She heard it as clearly as birdsong, inhuman, voiceless, a thrum of energy in the world around her. She spun in a circle, eyes wide as she took in the sound, heard it moving through the heartbeat of squirrels and birds, in the growing of trees and the creeping of grass across the forest floor. She felt like laughing and crying, so beautiful and terrifying was the whole world now brought into view. She would never feel this way again. But for a moment, she was merely part of a whole, in equilibrium and ecstasy.
Then she heard them. The braying of hounds coming from the deep woods. In her revelry she almost discounted them as threats. They were only animal like herself. Let them be animals, let her be their prey. But the blood on her face and clothes was Schrätlein’s. She had given it for Millicent. She had died to let her live.
Millicent came down from her equilibrium and felt fear and sorrow again. Now she heard the hounds with her own ears, in the distance. They were getting closer.
Quickly, she mounted the broom There was no room for her pack, her knife, anything that might weigh her down. There was only herself and the broom. Clasping it firmly between her knees, white knuckles strangling the haft, she closed her eyes and felt the ichor rise within her. Blood sang to blood and she willed the ichor to rise into the sky, high enough to join stars and darkness in an eternal black sheet, to carry her into the bosom of night and the rest of all witches.
Her heart fell as she remained planted firmly on the ground. Opening her eyes, she looked down at the broom.
She stared into the canopy of an oak. A bluebird exchanged a stupefied look with her. Far below was the clearing she’d just left.
She should have been terrified. But her hands were warm with the reassurance of her familiar. With a nudge, the broom sailed ahead, slowly, steadily, like a ship leaving port. Behind her, the hounds bellowed, deprived forever of their prey. Millicent looked about her, suspended at level between heaven and earth, floating through clouds and sunbeams with elegance unknown even to birds.
She was not afraid. She was kept aloft by the blood of all those who’d come before her. Eastward beckoned. She could not fall.
Harrison Hurst is a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, with a particular emphasis on the human elements lost in the translation of historical fact. Unsurprisingly, he has a B.A. in History and the Liberal Arts, having graduated from, and still living in, the city where he learned to tell stories, Chattanooga, Tennessee. He has previously been published in Coffin Bell and is drawn to other publishers of dark and unique fiction, as history lends itself to these themes.