“Two pinches of antimony — no more, it’s very poisonous — what on earth are you doing?” I paused, spoon hovering over the bowl. Rafia was scratching at her arm again.
“It’s nothing, Maret. Just a bug bite.”
“Bah. Not just a bug bite, or you wouldn’t be scratching that arm raw. Let me see it.” I set down the antimony and rounded the table.
Reluctantly, Rafia held out the arm for me to look at. I took it in my hands, turned it over. “Aiee, girl! When did this appear?” Two red and raised bumps, with dark lines radiating out along her branching veins: a Shadow-Spinner bite.
Rafia was talking, something about checking on the goats last night and finding the bite this morning. I was not really listening. A Shadow-Spinner was stalking my village, and I hadn’t known.
I should have known. I went to all that trouble to set up the wards, protection and warning both. Nothing should have been able to pass through — certainly not a Spinner — and regardless, I should have felt it.
But all spells degrade over time, and must be renewed. How long had it been since I walked the wards? No more than two years. No, three, was it?
“Bah,” I said again. My lip curled in disgust at myself.
“Maret?” Rafia looked at me, brown eyes wide and worried. “What is it?”
Did I even have the strength to renew the wards? The power in me shriveled more with every turning of the year. What had once been a deep well of strength had parched. I struggled to light a candle. The girl, though…she had strength to spare.
“We’re going to the woods.”
It took longer than I remembered to reach the first sigil. I don’t move as fast as I used to. After twenty minutes of walking I am reduced to an uneven hobble – not good for covering much ground. Still, we reached it eventually. It was carved into the trunk of a white pine; the angry gashes made by my knife had long since healed, so that it was barely visible among the natural rugosity of the bark, but that mattered not. The sigil’s strength did not lie in its visible manifestation.
Rafia lifted her hand, tracing the sigil’s loops and whorls with one bronze finger. Good. I hadn’t been sure she would see it. Power is one thing, Sight another. But it seemed she had both.
“Give me your hand,” I said, and she obligingly rested her palm against mine. I looked down at them: her deep brown hand was smooth against the wrinkled yellow parchment of my skin. I turned it over.
She did not flinch when I cut her palm, just hissed slightly as the cut opened and the blood welled up. I pressed her hand over the tree bark, the copper-salt scent of blood mixing with the sweet honeyed smell of pine sap.
“Close your eyes,” I said. “Feel how your hand throbs. Follow it back to the center of your self, and draw out the power that lies there.”
She drew forth the power and I shaped it, binding it into the shapes of tooth and claw and horn, the weapons of the woods. Then I bound it into caw and roar and whimper and scream, the sounds that signal danger.
We renewed them all, the wards to the east, and the south, and the west, and finally the north. Then we walked down the path to the town square.
One foot followed the other down the dusty road. It had been a long time since I had entered the town, too. It had not changed: the same neat and humble cottages bordered the same slightly overgrown green.
The people had changed, though. They came out to stare as we waked by, the old witch and the little girl. If I searched their faces I could see traces of people I had once known, ghosts of my past clinging to the bodies of strangers.
Witches live a very long time.