Don’t tarry, the wicker witch had ordered Bekka. I’m out of pixies. Last ones died yesternight.
And so, Bekka bounded down the country path, an empty basket dangling from the crook of her arm. The wicker witch’s words had been soft mumbles, as if talking pained her, but Bekka doubted the witch could actually feel pain, and in any case that wasn’t a question a good apprentice asked. You did as told, and that was that.
Nevertheless, Bekka planned to enjoy her errand; amongst all the chores given her, pixie-picking was the rare delight. The little pixies were cute as babes, cuter even for their size—tiny as hummingbirds and twice as quick. Of course, Bekka would be gathering the unripe ones still on the trees, not those flitting to and fro with the wind.
Halfway to the orchard, a familiar shout brought her short. Over her shoulder, she found Joakem running down the path, and her heart tripped a beat despite herself. The witch would disapprove of any distraction, especially Joakem. Boy casts trouble like a second shadow, the witch once warned her.
With a single swipe, Bekka brushed a mousy brown lock from her eyes and an itchy bead of sweat from her brow.
Joakem’s gangly limbs looked scarecrowish, a likeness bolstered by his frayed and baggy clothes. The hand-me-downs were faded, a contrast to his ever-chipper grin. Bekka’s own lips were threatening to smile, but she composed herself before he could see.
In age, he was a year older than her fourteen years; in maturity, several years younger. His hair was mussed, like he’d been attacked by cows in want of something to lick. He finger-combed it in a vain attempt to tame the unruly strands. “Where you off to?”
“Someplace boys aren’t allowed.” She pitched her tone between taunt and rebuff.
“Don’t you know the story about the wolf who asked too many questions? The woodcutter chopped off his tail and gagged him with it.”
Joakem grinned. “That’s a big basket. You’re gathering for the witch, aren’t you? Herbs and worms and dead stuff?”
Nearly all the village youth were terrified of the wicker witch, despite that she was also the midwife who had delivered them, who’d made the wicker bassinets and cradles that were their first beds. But if Joakem feared the old woman, he never showed it. Bekka was secretly impressed, even if his courage was born of ignorance. If he ever saw the witch in her true form, I bet he’d be scared yellow.
“You shouldn’t ask questions about the witch,” Bekka said. “She doesn’t like that. And she’ll know because she can hear anything, even a spider hiccup.”
He burst out in laughter that quickly resolved into a lopsided smirk. “Well, you don’t have to tell me where you’re going. Long as you let me tag along. That’s okay, right?”
Bekka exaggerated a sigh. Along the path, the springtime sun bathed everything in rich golden warmth. Birdsong shared the air with the scent of hyacinths.
“Come on,” he begged. “Let me tag along.”
She didn’t tell him no.
The Storm’s Darkest Moment
Rain whips down, the stinging drops driven by wailing gusts. Water streams down Bekka’s long hair.
Her mouth feels full of burning briars as she starts the spell, the magic words flaying her tongue.
In her arms, Joakem lies dead; his sweet face, once rosy with life, now gray and twisted as ginger root. The weight of him makes her sink in the mud. She knows they will share this grave.
The buzz of angry wings approaches from the trees. The drone rumbles even over the wind and rain.
“Retri mowrana...” she says again between sobs, pouring all her will and energy into the words as she continues the casting.
She closes tear-drenched eyes, thinks back to a time when a word, a look, a nod could have made a difference.
She has done what she can, and her limbs spasm as strength flees her dying body. She feels the course of the venom, oozing towards her heart. There is a bone-shaking roar, as if she has been swallowed by a waterfall.
Thunder booms, unending, above her and within.
Clouds in the distance
Joakem scooped up a pebble, aimed right but lobbed left at the last second. “Miriam says the witch came to your folks on the Eve of Wintersoul, asked if she could train you as her familiar.”
Bekka snorted at the absurdity, then clamped a hand over her mouth at the unladylike noise. Joakem didn’t notice. “I’m an apprentice, not a familiar. And Miriam Cow-nose doesn’t have enough sense to fill a baby’s belly-button. The witch chose me because I’m smart and talented.”
“Miriam has smarts, too.”
“She wouldn’t know smarts if it laid an egg on her face.”
They looked at each other and broke out laughing.
“I think she likes me,” he said, out of the blue.
Bekka felt her smile slip. “Just proves what I was saying.”
For a long while, they said nothing. The green grass ebbed on both sides of the road, like tides. Clumps of purple wildflowers stirred with the breeze, trembling to share forbidden secrets.
Joakem finally let loose a long stream of chatter. He talked about David, the baker’s son, who ate more pastries than his father could sell. He mused about why his cat liked her head scratched back to front but not the other way. (“I think her eyes get stretched if you scratch her wrong”.) He warned about gremlins that wore the skins of snakes and hid under piles of leaves (“But don’t worry, Bekka. I’ll protect you”.)
“You talk a lot.”
“Like all those words are hornets inside you, and you keep beating their hive with a stick.”
He gave a tiny laugh. “Maybe I talk ’cause most folk are so quiet. I hate that. Like there’s holes in the air that need filling.”
“Well, you get me dizzy,” she said. “When people talk too much, I can’t say what I think.”
“Is that why you’re so quiet, because you are saying what you think?”
Bekka felt her cheeks redden when she finally caught his insult. He laughed in the face of her glare.
Their path wended through a standing of elms, and the woods soon thickened. Clouds gathered in the distance, dark and fat; the wicker witch had warned her it might rain. Fortunately, the pixie orchard lay just a little farther ahead.
“Are you sure you don’t have chores that need doing?” she asked, her annoyance only partly feigned. “Wouldn’t want your dad to give you a whupping and make your backside shine.”
“Chores will keep,” he said, then mused on why flowers smelled good but tasted terrible.
As they passed the next bend, they came upon a dead tree lying across the path. The bark was painted with repeating white symbols: doors and x’s. Bekka was relieved to see them.
“Do you know what those markings mean?” she asked, testing him.
“I’m not a mooncalf, you know. Those are witch-runes. Means common folk shouldn’t pass, but I’m not afraid. Being with you and all.”
“No, no exceptions. You have to go back. Now.” She dropped her basket at her feet and crossed her arms to show she was going no further until he left. Maybe later she would seek him out and endure his rambling, but now she had work to do.
He frowned. “I guess the witch would be pretty cross if you didn’t follow her rules, huh?”
“But I bet she’d be even more cross, maybe give you a whupping, if you didn’t finish your chores?”
Before she could react, he snatched the basket from the ground and leapt over the first marker and its symbols of warning.
The Storm Begins
She tries to stand, but pain bursts in her ankle like wildfire. In her frantic flight, she has tripped over the second marker, its red symbols now ablaze. Stupid, stupid, stupid. To trip on something she had known was there. She curses the relentless rain, obscuring her vision, turning the footing treacherous.
“Joakem, wake up! You big brainless oaf. I can’t drag you anymore.” She struggles just to drag herself.
When she looks at his face, the blank stare and gray skin, she realizes he is beyond listening. A terrible icy ache pierces her heart. She wipes at her face, blinks to find her hand wet with blood—her blood—though the rain washes it away instantly.
This is my fault. He was just a stupid boy, and I... I should have known better.
There is one last thing she can try, though the gash in her head makes it tough to concentrate, and she can feel the venom, hot and thick, crawling through her blood like bloated worms. Towards her heart.
Calm breaths. Calm breaths. Remember the words.
Her heart is galloping, her voice ragged and raw.
“Get back here!” Bekka huffed as she chased him past the first marker, pumping her legs to catch up to his longer strides.
“Whoa!” he shouted, slowing down the instant he entered the pixie orchard. She understood why; the first time the witch had taken her here, she’d been overwhelmed by the beauty as well. The trees loomed, the size of large apple trees, but the leaves were heart-shaped, silver-edged with dark blue centers. The tree bark pulsed a ghostly white, like moonlight throbbing to an unseen heartbeat.
Joakem approached the nearest pixie tree, reached out with a shaking hand to a pixie growing on a low-hanging branch. Its eyes were shut, but the lashes fluttered sleepily when he rubbed its side with his finger.
“Let them be,” Bekka said and snatched her basket back from him.
“Of course, you mooncalf.” She stepped closer to the tree, cupped a nearby pixie to inspect it.
Its wings were a light shade of golden-orange, the violet markings more intricate and beautiful than a butterfly’s. A flash of sunshine caught them just right, and for a moment the wings glinted and glimmered like crystal. She heard Joakem gasp with delight. She couldn’t help but smile, her pride stirring, as though she could take credit for the wonder he felt.
Up close, the little pixie smelled like citrus and spearmint but more subtle than either. Its skin showed two white bands crossing over its shoulders, as if the pixie were wearing overalls. The witch had told her it was one of the ways to identify a ripe pixie. Purple bands, on the other hand, meant the pixie was overripe.
When Bekka asked her what happened if a pixie turned rotten, the witch froze her with a stern look. “Mostly, they die, but some live and turn wicked. You see one like that, you stay clear. Luckily, it won’t fly beyond the orchard. If it stings you once, you might live. Stings you twice... well, if you heed my runes, you needn’t trouble about that. And if you ignore them, you better have feet like a jackrabbit’s.”
The pixie in Bekka’s hand stirred once before settling back to sleep. Its beautiful wings dimmed, or rather the sunlight illuminating them did, and Bekka looked to the sky, surprised how fast the approaching stormclouds had moved.
A steady rain
“We have to keep running!” she shrieks.
“Go ahead! I can catch up.” He is swinging a dead branch, and the pixies hang back a safe distance. “I’ll be right behind you.”
For once, his words make sense; he is the quicker of them. Still, a pang of guilt rises as she sprints ahead, back toward the main path. Her legs burn with exertion.
The rain falls more steadily now, the wind more insistent, keeping the pixies off-balance but not discouraged.
A moment later, she finally, gratefully, hears Joakem behind her, catching up. As they near the second marker, he gives a sudden yelp. She spins to see a pixie clutching his neck, two more on his shoulder. They stab mercilessly with their stingers—once, twice... thrice—and she can hear the breaking of skin, the puncturing of flesh.
She wants to scream. Instead, she spits in her hands, the slightest of spittle, and repeats her fireworks spell. Sparks sputter in the air like dying embers. Not much, but enough to frighten away the pixies attacking him.
“Hurry!” she yells. He staggers to her, but his eyes are fast turning glassy, his skin pale. She slips her arm around him, starts to drag him, but her desperation is greater than her strength. They haven’t gotten far when a searing, jagged pain pierces the small of her back.
She looks behind her, twisting right then left, one hand grabbing for her attacker while she clings to Joakem. The forest spins. She trips on the second dead tree, its fiery witch-runes the color of fresh blood. Her ankle twists, her head strikes a skull-sized stone. Joakem collapses beside her, his arms too weak to cushion his fall.
Her weight crushes the pixie stinging her, its tiny body squelching, a gummy wetness that spreads sickening warmth upon her back.
The Skies Darken
“What does the witch do with them?” Joakem asked, standing close enough to make her pulse quicken. “What does she do with the pixies?”
Even if Bekka wasn’t forbidden to answer, she doubted he would believe the truth. No one else knew the wicker witch was literally as her name described. Behind the illusion of humanity was a creature of reeds, stalks, cane, and vine; alive only through magic. The pixies that Bekka picked were trained to weave whatever wicker limbs might fray or unravel.
“It’s a sacred mystery,” Bekka said. “Not meant to be shared with simple folk.”
“So you don’t know, huh?” He sprinted around the tree, winked at her through a gap in the branches. His face was dappled with leaf-shadows, or daubed with sunlight depending how you looked at it. Bekka felt a rush of warmth.
“I’m a witch’s apprentice. Of course I know.”
Bekka scowled. It was a chore to keep all her secrets secret.
Joakem carried on. “I’ve never seen you cast anything. Bet you can’t even magic a bird to fly.”
“I know lots of spells.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
Bekka ticked them off on her fingers. “I can calm angry dogs, I can make milk curdle—”
“Anyone can do those things,” Joakem said. “You just give them a bone, or leave the milk out a few days. Can you make someone’s nosehair grow, long as a willow branch?”
“Don’t be dumb. And don’t interrupt.” For a moment, the sky darkened, as though reflecting her mood.
“Yeah, but don’t you know any real—?”
“I can make time go backwards!” she spat out.
“Just say yes and go to the festival with me.”
Bekka turns away from him, just far enough to give him a sidelong glance.
The silence stretches, long enough to make even crickets jittery.
“I don’t know if I should,” Bekka says. The witch certainly wouldn’t approve.
His expression turns wounded, like a puppy nuzzling for affection only to have his nose smacked. Bekka feels a sting of regret.
“Fine,” he says, “if you don’t go with me then I’m just going to sleep in your forbidden orchard until you change your mind.”
“You wouldn’t dare! I’ll drag you out myself.”
“Well, we both know you can’t catch me.” Without warning he sprints off, gazing back, his eyes shooting an invitation for her to pursue.
“You lout!” Bekka places her basket down and runs after him.
During the chase, they veer off the main path. Down the orchard they run—him shouting “Too slow,” and her screaming “You wait and see!” The ghostly white trees fly past, and Bekka can feel her heart thumping like a jackrabbit’s feet. She isn’t sure what she will do when she catches him. Something wicked, she guesses.
They run into a section of the orchard she has never been to before. In the second it takes for them to speed by, she spies a second fallen tree over on the main path, this one smeared with red witch-runes. A second marker, warning of danger. Joakem races past it, absorbed as he is in their sport.
“No!” she tries to scream, but her voice cracks from exertion. If he does hear, it only spurs him faster. He seems oblivious to the change in the trees—the darkening of the bark, the purpling of the leaves. He does not see the dead pixies scattered upon the ground.
It must be the stench that finally stops him in his tracks. Like a mooncalf, he stands there, holding his nose.
She catches up, her breath racing though her legs are still. She places a hand on her chest but can’t keep it from heaving.
Pixies hang limply in the branches before them. “These ones are purple,” he whispers, with the nervous reverent tone one uses in a graveyard. “And their bands are black as pitch.”
The legs of these pixies have fused together, and their toenails too, unnaturally long and braiding into a single, sharp tip. Stingers.
“Joakem... we have to go—”
A light rain is falling now, pitter-pattering upon the heart-shaped leaves. The trees seem to quiver, agitated.
Nearby branches stir. Several pixies writhe like hooked worms, and the sound of brittle snaps crackles in the air.
They’re detaching themselves. The small hairs on her nape prickle. She grabs his hand and yanks him after her. “Run, you stupid boy!”
Wings buzz as the rotting pixies take flight. A backwards glance shows no less than two dozen, darting like dragonflies after them. They fly in fits and starts, zigzagging as they grow accustomed to their wings.
Joakem is running faster now, slowly outpacing her.
We’ll never outrun them, she realizes. Her mouth is dry, but she spits as much as she can into her hands. Rubbing her palms furiously, she turns, shouts a spell that shoots off sparks, like fireworks, from her fingers. The pixie swarm disperses, some hurt and whirling to the ground. The magic would have bought them a few moments’ grace to run, but Joakem is suddenly there, a battle-cry on his lips and a tree branch in hand. He bats three pixies, the impacts accompanied by moist crunches. But more are buzzing towards them.
A terrible premonition comes upon her then.
We’re going to die.
“You can’t make time go backwards.” Joakem’s smile was as big as the moon, half-shadowed in doubt, half-aglow with wonder.
The truth was Bekka would never utter the spell. The casting was easy, but the cost too severe: a year of one’s life for every minute erased.
Not that Joakem needed to know any of that. Bekka sealed her lips with a smile and went back to picking the pixies.
“So are you going to show me?” he asked.
“It’s far too complicated, and even if I did, you wouldn’t remember anyway.” Nor would she herself. You could cast the spell, lose years of life, then go back in time only to repeat the exact mistake you were trying to avoid.
She reached up to collect a pixie, its white bands bright in the sun. When her reach proved too short, Joakem stepped over and helped, his body close enough she could feel the heat of him. Handling the pixie with a gentleness that surprised her, he laid the sleeping sprout in her basket.
“Well,” he said, “maybe you can cast it if I make a mistake.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like if I ask you to the Springheart’s Festival, and if you say no and I feel stupid. Maybe you can cast the spell so I can take it back.” His voice hitched like a frog’s.
He was joking, she was sure. But that didn’t keep her heart from a cautious tremor. “I don’t know. It may not be a good idea. What about Miriam Cow-nose? I thought you said she likes you.”
“You don’t have to call her Cow-nose. That’s mean. Just say yes and go to the festival with me.”
“The witch wouldn’t be happy about that.”
“That’s why I’m asking you. Besides, the witch probably just wants me for herself.”
Bekka snorts, turns away, just far enough so she can give him a sidelong glance.
The silence stretches, long enough to make even crickets jittery.
“I don’t know if—”
He smiles then, a grin edged in worry and hope, large enough to catch rainbows. She hears her own heartbeat, loud as a waterfall or an endless boom of thunder. The orchard seems to spin, the trees leaning in to listen.
“Okay,” she finally says, soft with hesitation. “I’ll go with you. But you’d better behave.”
The sun shines high above, but the first fat drops of rain fall anyway. A sunshower. An omen as mixed as her feelings.
She knows the witch will be scolding her for days. But something within Bekka, some force swifter than her mind, insistent as youth, has moved her. Joakem practically beams, and when he steps closer, Bekka’s breath catches.
Above them, the boughs of silver-blue leaves grant a shade against the sun, a shield against the rain. To her horrified delight, he leans in and kisses her, fearless and fierce, an instant she wishes would last thirty years... safe, sheltered, happy, beneath the pixie tree.