Princess Abigail sat in the study, the window overlooking the town below and all of its residents; all the streets, buildings and lives within; all of which, as she was no longer a boy, she could not inherit. Or so she believed.
Along the corridors echoed fast footsteps. Abigail turned her head to see her friend Gwendoline arrive, red-faced and panting from running, sword hung in its scabbard at her side. She stood to greet her.
“Abigail! You’re safe!”
Without explanation, Gwendoline threw herself forward and caught Abigail in a tight embrace. Abigail wriggled in her grip, and patted her on the back reassuringly.
“I’m safe, Gwen. What’s wrong?”
Gwendoline leant back and looked her in the eye. “I’m so sorry, Abigail. Your father is dead.”
All the blood drained from her face as she stared back.
“What? Th-that can’t be true. How?”
Gwendoline stepped back and started to pace the room. “It’s your uncle. He attacked the royal carriage on its return from the pilgrimage. My…”
She hesitated, face clouding over for a second. “My father rode here as fast as he can to warn me. Your uncle will be coming for you next. He wants the throne.”
Abigail leant against the desk in shock. Her uncle was a shrewd man, and had never passed up a moment to belittle her, to refer to her as the confused little prince.
“I gave up my claim to the throne,” she said. “You know that, Gwen.”
“I know. Your uncle doesn’t see that, Abigail. He sees — forgive me — he sees Prince Aaron and he sees a threat.”
She stopped by the window, suddenly frozen. Abigail heard distant shouts from outside, and gasped.
“Quick!” said Gwendoline, “Pack to flee. Take only what you can’t leave behind. I have basic supplies already, and a horse in town at the stables.”
Abigail darted around the room, picking up possessions she loved — clothes, jewellery, books — and dropping them each time with a hard heart. None of this she could carry on horseback. She picked up only a heavy jacket, and ran over to Gwendoline.
“Is that it?”
“I have you already,” Abigail replied. “If we can live together, and eat, and breathe, that is enough.”
Gwendoline blushed and took her hand. “Then we leave, together.”
They ran down the stairs in unison, Gwendoline leading the way. At the base the castle opened out, a long broad corridor going both ways. As they stepped out, shouts came from one far end, and Abigail turned to look.
“Prince Aaron!” came a cry. The two of them turned quickly and ran, down the opposite way out of the castle. Cries came from behind her as guards yelled, and Gwendoline drew her sword in preparation. They darted around one corner, another, passing by maids and castle staff in shock. Abigail apologised as they pushed their way through the kitchen, snatching a loaf of bread and some cheese from the counter. Gwendoline spotted it and smirked.
“Good thinking,” she said, “But I’ve got it all planned out. It’s three days’ ride to Whitehall, then we restock and move onwards. My cousin will give us food and shelter.”
“I can always count on you,” Abigail replied. “Where would I be without you?”
The two of them pushed open the doors to the servant’s entrance, and darted out the back of the castle. It was a short run across the grounds to the wall and to the main gate; from there, the path led through the woods to the town, where the stables awaited them to flee. Abigail watched the gateway with relief as they crossed the distance, nearly there…
Four guards stepped out from the gateway, and one spotted them. With a cry the four of them readied arms, two with swords and two with crossbows. Abigail shrieked and darted to the side as Gwendoline leapt forward, a swing of her sword knocking away one crossbow. She span to put herself between Abigail and the rest, backing away with speed. The three remaining guards closed in on them as they slipped through the gateway to the bridge over the moat. Gwendoline parried each guard’s sword with practice, and with a kick knocked one over the wall into the water below. As a guard stepped in to replace him, Abigail grabbed his dropped crossbow and swung it upwards in defence, parrying a sword strike that cut through the taut rope with a snap. The sword tangled and she yanked it downwards, throwing the guard off balance and tumbling down to the ground. Gwendoline let out a cheer, blocking a swing of the other guard’s sword and barging into him, sending him flying backwards.
She turned away and grabbed Abigail’s hand, pulling her along to safety as they reached the end of the bridge and fled to town.
Too late, Abigail heard a sharp whistle from behind them. She turned in time to see a bolt strike Gwendoline with a sickening noise. Her friend let out a cry of pain and stumbled forward, collapsing to her knees, the bolt protruding from the back of her tunic.
Abigail grabbed her hand and pulled Gwendoline to her feet through cries of pain, and the two of them stumbled forwards. Abigail glanced backwards to see the crossbowman standing in the gateway, starting to reload.
“Into the woods!” she exclaimed, and ushered Gwendoline along to the treeline. They trampled across fallen branches and bushes, pressing forward into the trees for cover. With each step Abigail fought the urge to look back, hearing bolts thud into trees behind them as they ran, and they continued until the only noise was their own footsteps and Gwendoline’s ragged, agonising breath. They came to a dip in the ground behind a fallen tree trunk, and ducked under the branches to hide from their pursuers.
As her chest ached with each breath, Abigail looked at her friend, her love, and cried. Gwendoline reached a hand up to stroke her face.
“I’m not dead, love. Save your tears for now.”
“How can you say that?” she cried. “What do we—“
Gwen pressed a finger to Abigail’s lips. She smiled and spoke with a tired, strained whisper.
“Quiet,” she said, “Lest they follow your sweet voice.”
Abigail let out a single sob and leant in to embrace her. Gwen took a deep breath, and Abigail felt her shoulders shake in pain.
“We’ll, we’ll go through the woods,” Gwendoline said into her ear, “to the town, and my horse."
"Can you ride? With that -- that bolt in your back?"
Gwendoline leant back and shook her head. She closed her eyes and grit her teeth before replying in a small and scared voice.
"I cannot," she said. "You must get it out."
They reached the stables as darkness began to fall. Gwendoline tried to take the lead, but with her jaw set and posture awkward, a torn strip of Abigail’s dress bandaged around her. It was not enough to stop the bleeding, and within the wound was something dark, a poison from the bolt already festering. A dark patch on the back of her tunic grew with creeping certainty, and at each corner Gwendoline stopped, sword still on one hand but the other leaning on the wall for a moment.
“There is is,” she whispered. “Our horse to safety.”
Abigail put her hand on her arm. “Can you ride?”
Gwendoline looked across at her, bravery draining from her face.
“I — I daren’t,” she said. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I must ask you—“
“Stop it,” Abigail said. “No Your Highnesses. I can’t bear it.”
She tugged her along towards the stable, glancing around for any strangers in the street. Quietly they opened the gate and snuck in, several horses quietly whinnying in response. Gwendoline tried to hush them in a whisper, before reaching out a hand to a mottled grey horse with a smile.
“Hey Bucky,” she said. “Time to stretch your legs.”
She sheathed her sword and the two of them led the horse out. Gwendoline stood swaying for a moment, and hesitated before trying to mount it on her own. Abigail leant with her hands locked in response.
“Sorry nothing. You’re hurt.”
Gwendoline placed a muddy foot in her hands, and Abigail helped her up onto the horse’s back, climbing up afterwards in front after wiping the mud on her dress. The horse whinnied in response to the extra weight.
“Come on, girl. Let the Prin — let Abigail take the reins.”
Abigail led them out quietly, and they started down the street. Gwendoline wrapped her arms around her waist, and leant in close and tired. Abigail felt her friend’s body grow heavier as the energy started to bleed out of her in relief.
“Stay with me, Gwen,” she pleaded. “I need you.”
By the time it grew too dark to ride, Gwendoline had barely said a word in an hour. As Abigail tugged on the horse’s reins and brought her to a stop, Gwen stirred briefly, looking around in confused concern.
“Al… already? Surely we, we aren’t… far enough…”
“We have to stop. The path is too dangerous in the dark.”
She helped Gwendoline down, catching her weight as she all but collapsed. Abigail led her off the path and to the eaves of a large oak tree, resting her down on the ground with her rucksack behind her head.
“I’ve never… known the pa, the path to Whitehall to… be dangerous…”
Abigail returned with Bucky’s reins, and tied them to a neighbouring tree with a soft bit of ground by its side. She returned to Gwendoline and lay next to her, draping her coat over the two of them.
“Gwen…. Forgive me. We’re not riding to Whitehall.”
Gwendoline turned in shock.
“Shush. Save your energy, please. I fear you won’t make it three days untreated.”
Gwendoline closed her eyes and leant her forehead against Abigail. For a minute she was silent, the only noise the slow breaths of the two of them. Then she spoke again, slower and quieter.
“When you took the bolt out… you saw the tip. You must… I saw it too.”
“No,” Abigail lied, voice weak with denial.
“You saw and smelt what it… it was coated with.” Gwendoline took a deep and shuddering breath. “Grey Rot. Your uncle’s men… mean to be sure of your death.”
“Just hold on,” Abigail replied, “and we’ll get help, find a cure—“
“There is no cure!” Gwendoline said, coughing afterwards from the effort. “No one has ever survived it. You, you have to go on. Else I will slow you down, and the soldiers will find you clutching my corpse.”
“No,” Abigail cried, and wrapped her arms around her. “I never want to hear you say something so awful. I’d sooner be caught than trade your life for safety.”
Her words brought a shudder to Gwendoline, and her resolve finally cracked. The bravery melted away with hot, painful tears soaking the jacket draped over them, and Abigail held her as tightly as she dared without hurting. Abigail spoke into her side as they embraced, words fearful.
“I’m taking you for help,” she said. “I’m… if anyone can keep you with me, if there’s any chance for us, it’s her.”
“Who… who do you mean?”
“The last Great Witch.”
The road grew steadily narrower, the branches on every tree reaching lower, wrapping the two of them as if in a tunnel. Gwendoline barely talked. Occasionally Abigail would say something reassuring, put a hand on her shoulder to steady her, but the further the two of them rode north, the more they road in horrible silence.
Just as she thought she could no longer stay upright — as the dizziness and the heaviness that was building in Gwendoline threatened to overcome her entirely — Abigail let out a cry of relief, and pointed over her shoulder, reins in hand, to a bridge. Gwendoline dragged her gaze up with difficulty.
Dancing in front of her vision was a long, dark bridge, leading across a shallow gorge to what remained of Finch Castle. Once a bastion against invasion downriver, over the years the meltwater had lessened and lessened, to the point the river bed was so shallow no ship could ever sail it again. At that time, four decades ago, it had been abandoned.
Yet a light still flickered in one window, and a post hammered into the ground by the bridge held a scrap of parchment nailed to it, curling at the edges but still readable. Abigail carefully dismounted and leant down to read it.
“What…” Gwendoline managed, but the effort to speak any more was too much. Abigail glanced up at her with fear, and read the sign out.
“Enter at thine own peril,” she read, “Once past the bridge you will not return to this world.”
Gwendoline leant forward against Bucky’s neck for support.
“Are…” she said, breathing shallowly, “you sure…”
“I would not have ridden here if not,” Abigail replied. She walked back to her and raised her arms to help Gwendoline dismount. She all but tumbled off the horse, Abigail catching her like a sack of flour. She took her friend by the shoulders, trying to meet her gaze as Gwendoline struggled to focus on anything. She leant close and spoke softly into her ear.
“There is nothing in this world for me,” she whispered, “Except for you. And I will do what I must to keep you with me.”
From exhaustion, from emotion, and from pain, Gwendoline sobbed onto her shoulder. Abigail’s arms held her close, and after a moment helped her to straighten back up. She draped Gwendoline’s arm over her shoulder, and supporting her with one arm and leading the horse with the other, Abigail crossed the bridge.
As the three of them approached the gatehouse, the portcullis was already open, no signs of life save for the single window flickering in the twilight. Yet despite its age and emptiness, the structure was sound, each stone free of moss or damage, the metal in the gatehouse clean of rust. When Abigail took the final step off the bridge, she placed her foot to the ground with apprehension, and felt cold. Sounds she had not been conscious of — the rustling of leaves in the forest behind them, the tiny trickle of water below — all vanished, replaced by silence, and a low, rumbling moan. Abigail swallowed and continued ahead.
In the castle courtyard, Bucky tossed his head in the air with a nervous whinny. Try as she might, Abigail could not lead him any further towards the main building; he pulled against her with all his strength. She looked around the courtyard for somewhere to leave the horse, and spotted the empty husk of a stable behind them. Bucky allowed himself to be led back again, and stared at her with wet eyes as she fumbled with the reins. Gwendoline leant against the wall to stay upright.
“I’ll come back with some food for you,” she said quietly. “And something to rest on. You’ve been good to us.”
Bucky blew out a hot, damp breath in response, and Gwendoline chuckled. The chuckle turned into a groan, and Abigail took her by the arm again to lead her into the castle proper.
Inside, Abigail tried to follow the direction of the one lit room. The castle’s corridors were still, the carpet runner darkened by a layer of dust. A single pair of footsteps led away from her, and Abigail followed them.
The footsteps in the dust led the two of them down another corridor, this one thinner and twisted, and as they rounded a corner the faint edge of light spilled across the floor from a door slightly ajar. Heart starting to beat quicker, Abigail shifted her grip on Gwendoline’s waist, and gently patted at her own, where a dagger lay secretly tucked away. After a moment she pulled her hand away from it, clutching it into a fist in front of her and praying she wouldn’t need the weapon. Instead, she walked towards the door, and reached out to push it open.
The first thing she saw was a low fire, burning in a wide metal bowl in the centre of the room. Used now to the dim corridors, Abigail raised a hand to shield her eyes as they adjusted to the brightness. Gradually, she saw more and more of the gloomy room surrounding the fire, saw more of the desks and heaps of books, and beyond them to thick curtains drawn over the windows. After a few seconds, she saw a figure reclined in an armchair to her right, all but hidden in the gloom. They stared at Abigail in silence, their face shrouded in darkness save for the dancing fire reflected in their eyes. After a long, tense silence, Abigail swallowed and spoke.
“Are you the witch of Finch Castle? The last Great Witch?”
The figure nodded their head slowly without speaking.
“Then please,” Abigail continued, “I have come for your help. My name is Abigail. My — my friend, she is sick with poison. I fear she will not live—“
Abigail’s voice cracked as she spoke out loud her fears for the first time, having denied them the whole journey. She stopped speaking, trying to control herself. As she did so, the figure placed a hand on each arm of the chair and pushed themselves upright. Abigail twitched as she realised that the figure was tall — nearly a head taller than her. Slowly, they came around the bowl of fire, walking towards them until their face became clearer to read in the light.
As the last Great Witch stood in front of her, Abigail became startled, and words jumped out of her mouth.
“You’re young,” she said. The witch looked barely older than her mother, not even past childbearing age — not the ancient, centuries-old woman she had expected. Abigail frowned in concern.
“You must — you must have magic to control your age,” she said. “Or health, or — something. Please, you must help Gwe— my friend. With whatever your great magic is.”
The witch stayed silent, and reached out a hand. Abigail jumped as she caressed her cheek, fingers cold and small, and she felt frozen to the spot in sudden fear. Her hand slowly crept towards her belt.
“You are like me.”
Abigail’s eyes widened as the witch finally spoke. Her voice — it was hard at the edges, the shapes and angles outing her as —
“You were not born as Abigail,” the witch said. “And I chance that your friend changed her name also.”
The witch turned her attention to Gwendoline, whose eyes were barely open, face grey even under the firelight. The witch touched Gwendoline’s cheek for a moment, eliciting a small murmur of protest before she withdrew her hand.
“Our—“ Abigail stammered, “Our, our names are not important. Even if you are the same. Please, she is ill even as we speak. You must help us.”
The witch turned back to face Abigail, and her face slowly grew sad. When she spoke again, it was with regret.
“You seem to know of the famous Great Witches, young miss. Tell me the names you remember.”
Abigail shifted on her feet. The names and syllables came to her quickly, familiar from study and from childhood songs. “There is Yvanna, who could control the leaves; Patricia, who was at home at sea; Lillesta, whose skills were fire; and Rebecca, who knew every liar.” She took a breath. “Emmalla, her fingers frozen; Amelia, controlled the heavens; Suspira, her skills in health; and Godatha, with magic wealth.”
The witch nodded in response, a twitch of a smile at her lips. Abigail continued talking.
“Of the witches, all are confirmed as dead, except for Suspira. I came here… we came here for you. But…”
With a building realisation, Abigail knew what had gone wrong in her plan, what information she had not had. Every Great Witch she named had been born female. The one who stood in front of her was like her, and so could not be —
“Suspira is long dead. I do not know how many years exactly. Her powers of health could not save her against slaughter by the agents of the King.”
“The King?” Abigail exclaimed. “I have never heard of this—“
“Your voice,” the Witch interrupted. “Your accent. Even your cheekbones are royal. Tell me, Princess, who your Father is.”
Abigail swallowed. Besides her, leaning now on the doorframe for support, Gwendoline coughed gently and without energy.
“My Father was King Hammond the Third. Two days ago, he was killed—“
“And who was his Father?”
Abigail faltered. “King Judenne the Second. And his—”
The witch raised a hand to stop Abigail in her tracks. She glanced away to look at the fire for a moment before speaking.
“It was King Xavier the Fourth, many generations prior, who sent his men against Suspira. There were fourteen. She died, and I, her partner, fled.”
Abigail shook her head in confusion. “That cannot be,” she said. “You are so young. Are… are your powers in life itself?”
The witch shook her head and turned back to face her. When she spoke again, her voice was hard and strong.
“When you crossed the bridge, you left the world you knew. Between these walls, on the barricades, even in the courtyard, every breath you take counts for a thousand or more outside. In the span we have spoken, the adults you once knew are grey or dead, every child now older than you are. Abigail — Princess — you have come here seeking my help to heal your partner in vain. For my powers are not in health.”
With a sweeping gesture, the witch raised a hand and swept the curtains from the windows.
“They are in time.”
Outside, the sky Abigail had known for all her life was ablaze, as the stars swept from one side to the other not gradually but like flies across a pond, and the sun danced up and down on the horizon, its yellow light chasing the white moon across the firmament, the cycle of each day and life, each birth and death, each minor moment of history made and passed in the blink of an eye.
Gwendoline woke to a dim room. Her head felt heavy and thick, and she tried to look around, noise and fog muffling each of her senses. Nothing made any sense, and a dark feeling came to her, that she could have been abandoned after all, to die in confusion in the woods.
“Gwen,” came a voice. She turned her head to follow it, but dizziness made it impossible to tell the direction. After a moment, she felt a hand on her cheek, and finally forced her eyes to focus on something for a short time.
Abigail leant over her friend and stroked her forehead. Gwendoline stared up at her, relief flooding through her mind, one speck of light in the otherwise dark room.
“Ab—“ she croaked, coughing out the rest of the word. Talking seemed to be so much effort, and Abigail moved a finger over her lips to quiet her.
“Shush,” she said quietly. “I’m here. Just try to relax.”
Gwen tried to nod, but the energy to even move her head seemed impossible. She stared at Abigail’s face for a moment before her eyes defocused again, and the world became a mess once more.
“I’m going to give you something,” Abigail said. “Take a sip and try to swallow.”
Gwendoline felt a cup held to her mouth, and feebly tried to drink from it. A bitter liquid stung her tongue, and she retched in reaction. Abigail stroked her forehead again and pleaded with her to swallow at least a little, and over a few minutes, Gwendoline managed to drink what seemed like all the seawater in the oceans.
“You’re doing well,” Abigail whispered. “Try to sleep again and let it work.”
Gwendoline felt a wave of anxiety, of fear, at the prospect of being left alone in the noise and the dark. Abigail must have sensed something from her groan, and touched her cheek once more.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll be here when you wake up again.”
The next time she woke, Gwendoline felt cold. She felt to the very core of her bones that she would never become warm again, that the ice had set so hard she would freeze to death even though she had enough heat to think. She opened her eyes and the room was just as dark as she remembered — from a few minutes ago, from a few hours ago, she couldn’t tell. Her lips felt numb as she tried to call out, but only managed a whisper.
“Gwen,” came the answer. She looked around, room still a blur in front of her eyes, and saw warmth against her cold. Abigail stepped closer and put a hand on her forehead, and Gwendoline cried at how burning hot each finger felt against her skin.
“You’re cold,” Abigail said, and reached down to add another blanket. “Here. You’ll stay warmer this way.”
“Ab…” Gwendoline croaked, and Abigail shushed her again.
“Save your energy,” she said. She moved her hand down to her cheek, and Gwendoline felt like she would press against that heat, no matter how uncomfortable, just for the reassurance she felt from it. Her vision span out again as Abigail started to talk, everything doubling.
“Do you think it’s working?”
From somewhere, Gwendoline heard a reply, but it sounded so far away.
“…I don’t think so either.”
Two Abigails turned back to face her, and reached out with something in their hands. Gwendoline tried to look at what it was, but saw only that each Abigail seemed to stretch upwards, her hair far longer than it should be.
“Gwen,” the two of them said softly, “I’m sorry, but I’d like you to eat this. It’s going to be sour, but it might help.”
Gwendoline closed her eyes, feeling too weak to reply, but let her mouth fall open after a few seconds. Abigail fed her something, and it felt slimy against her dry tongue, and sour. Gwendoline screwed up her face and retched, but Abigail stroked her forehead and whispered to her, each word comforting and making whatever she’d fed her more bearable. Gradually, Gwendoline chewed, each movement of her jaw exhausting, until she swallowed whatever it was.
“That’s it,” Abigail whispered. “You’re stronger than this poison. Now, try and rest again.”
Gwendoline turned her eyes to look at Abigail, at both Abigails, and wanted to beg her to stay beside her still, to talk to her even if she couldn’t reply, to be that one source of something known in the dark. She felt a tear roll down her cheek, burning a path down the cold skin.
“Don’t worry,” Abigail said, “I’ll be here when you wake up again.”
When Gwendoline next came back to consciousness, the room seemed to spin slightly slower. She tried to look over at the wall, hoping for a window to tell whether it was day or night. Every window was covered in a thick curtain, and the only light came from a single candle set into the wall. Asides from the flicker of the flame, everything was still.
“Abi,” Gwendoline croaked, and the last syllables turned into a wheeze. Pain spiked through her lungs and back, and her vision turned pale and unsteady for a moment. She closed her eyes tightly, and pleaded to the shapes that danced behind her eyelids that Abigail would be there when she opened them again.
When she did so, the Witch stood beside her, one arm on the bedpost.
“She is not here,” the Witch spoke. “Sleep, Gwendoline, and she may yet return.”
Gwendoline could not bring herself to close her eyes again, and rather than return to the dark, she wept, staring at the ceiling as her stomach heaved. The witch remained standing, impassive, and silent. After what seemed an eternity, she drew up a chair and sat beside the bed.
“The Princess cares about you deeply,” she said. “The two of you are not merely friends.”
The witch’s words were not a question, but Gwendoline shook her head anyway, tears dripping across her cheekbones. From somewhere within her came a deep, painful surge of emotion, and her words found strength to push through the pain in her lungs.
“She is everything to me,” she said, each syllable stabbing her throat as she spoke it. “I would give a year of my life to see her smile for a minute.”
After a quiet moment, the witch replied.
“I know she feels the same.”
She stood to leave, returning a few minutes later with a cup of water.
“Drink,” she said, “and rest. Hold this wish, deep in your heart, that she is here when you wake up.”
When Gwendoline next woke, the room was still dark, her vision still blurry, and the pain in her chest growing. This time, she feared even trying to call out, preferring ignorance to the chance of knowing for certain that Abigail was not there. She stared at the ceiling as it warped and pulsed in her vision, until gradually she became aware of a quiet breathing beside her.
With difficulty she turned her head and stared. In the seat next to the bed, asleep and her head bowed low on her chest, a woman ten years older sat at rest. Her hair was cropped short, the thin strap of an eyepatch making a tuft stand up above her ear, the patch covering her right eye. Between the patch and the other eye, wrinkles had formed from years of frowning, and freckles from the sun crested the nose and cheeks below. Only as she let her gaze wander downwards to a birthmark across her chin did Gwendoline recognise her.
“Abigail,” she whispered. With a start, the woman jolted awake, and leant forward to the bed. Gwendoline stared up at her in confusion, eyes defocusing again to blur her friend’s face above her.
“What happened to you…” she croaked. Abigail put a finger to her lips to shush her, and reached across to the table.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said. Her voice was harder than Gwendoline remembered, coarser, as if a thousand shouts had forced their way out of her throat. “I’ve found a cure for you.”
She picked up a small wooden box from the table, and opened it. Gwendoline raised her head off the pillow a fraction, to see a tiny glass needle, sharp at one end and bulbous at the other, the sphere end filled with an amber liquid.
“This will make you well at last,” Abigail said. “But I’m afraid it will hurt a little.”
Gwendoline closed her eyes and felt herself smile weakly.
“Nothing could hurt as much as waking without you here.”
Abigail took a sharp breath, and raised a hand to cover her face for a moment. When she let it drop, her eyes were wet and sorrowful.
“I’m sorry I left you,” she whispered, “but now I promise, Gwendoline, that I will never leave your side.”
Gwendoline closed her eyes as her heart felt warm once more. After a second, she felt a sharp pain in her neck, and then a second later, darkness again.
“Where will you go?” the Witch asked.
In front of her, Abigail and Gwendoline stood together, hand in hand.
“I have land,” Abigail replied. “Out west, in Sheer Lakes, near what used to be Helmtree. Two houses, and acres of forest.”
Gwendoline frowned. It had only been two weeks since she could walk, and eat, and live a life outside of confusion and sleep. Two weeks of stories had barely covered even a few months of her partner’s life. Where the land came from, she hadn’t yet said.
“What about you?” asked Abigail. The three of them knew the answer already, but she asked it as a formality.
“I will stay,” the witch replied. “And continue working on my last spell.”
Abigail nodded solemnly. “I hope the books I have brought you help. There is the latest in scientific advancements, in the analysis of magical methods, as well as historical records going back to Xavier the Fourth.”
The witch bowed her head for a moment, clasping Abigail’s hand between hers.
“I do not know what price you have paid for these. You know I have nothing of fortune to repay you.”
“You have repaid me already, many times over,” Abigail said. “By keeping Gwendoline safe, in place and time.”
As she said it, Gwendoline felt her squeeze her hand, and Abigail glanced over at her with a fond smile.
“In fact, I am in your debt still,” she said. Abigail turned back to face the witch, and reached into her satchel for a sealed letter. She presented it to the witch whilst talking.
“If ever you are to succeed — if you are able to pluck Suspira, out of time and fate, and be reunited — there will be a house, and land, and all you could ever need, as my debt to you.”
The witch held the letter still for a moment, considering the blank outside.
“It may be many weeks,” she said, “maybe years even within the castle. Generations outside of it. I do not know if we will ever meet again.”
“I do not know either,” Abigail replied. “But you may meet our children, or their children. However long it takes, as far as our family’s fortunes hold, I will ensure it.”
The witch met Abigail’s gaze, and swept her eyes across the Gwendoline. “Your children?”
Abigail tightened her grip on Gwendoline’s hand again, and nodded. This time, Gwendoline spoke.
“There is an orphanage near Abigail’s estate. Or so I hear. She has asked me to marry her, and adopt, when my health is up to the task.”
Abigail’s eyes sparkled in happiness. “Perhaps one day, the children will love her as much as I do.”
In Sheer Lakes, the carpenter’s daughter worked outside in the last rays of the sun, sawing at a plank of beech. Across from her, just outside a house closer to the shore, the carpenter himself worked, carving the pattern that would be a tableleg. As he worked, he listened to the sound of the fire crackling in the kitchen, and the soft bubbling of soup in a pot for the evening’s meal. He let his eyes raise from the carving for a moment to see his sister and his wife, both returning across the lake in a small boat, the day’s catch lain out in front of her. He smiled and raised a hand in greeting, and the two called back.
The carpenter’s daughter glanced up at her aunt and her mother, seeing them wave at her father, and she felt herself smile to think about dinner that evening; when she would see her cousins again, who worked on the boats on the far side of the lake and came home half as much as they should. She thought about the way that grandma would surely smile, to listen to her cousins’ wild and implausible stories of huge fish and adventures; and she thought of how her other grandma would laugh and respond with her own larger and fishier tales, of adventures that seemed impossible, places she’d never heard of, places that she’d looked up in a history book to be so many years ago that they were half forgotten.
As she smiled, and looked forward to sharing food and laughter with her family, the carpenter’s daughter looked to her side at the path coming down from the town, and she saw the witch and her lover, approaching hand-in-hand.