When the Hedgewitch of Feckless Lovers’ Lane turned one hundred and five, she decided she did not fancy brewing potions for the rest of her life. As her grandmother had told her, there was not much fame in potions—people would do whatever foolish, brave, or malicious thing they had intended, with or without the brew. So the witch packed up her laboratory and set her sights on a grander legacy: she stole the free will of the king.
The witch had seen the king’s father’s and grandfather’s rule, had watched the generational corruption of good intentions, and she had grown tired of divine mandate, so she took it away. She wrote out every significant deed the king would do until the day of his death, on a sheet of parchment as long as she was tall, in writing cramped as a column of marching ants. On a bleak winter’s day she folded it, sealed it, and nailed it to the front doors of the mortuary. There it would remain, not to be read until the king’s death—a reminder to all who entered those doors that kings, too, went to their graves.
When asked why none may read it, she replied, “I know everything the king will do in reaction to everything in his life—the exception being that piece of parchment. If he knew what was written, his will would be his to command once more, and then it wouldn’t be much of a foretelling now would it?”
For this she was widely declared a fraud, but some believed, and there grew up a secret society called the King’s Chroniclers. They recorded everything the king did, from insignificant events such as executing his half-brother to momentous occasions such as scratching himself in public. No one knew what sort of details the witch had written down, and if she was to be vindicated, it would be best to record everything for posterity.
The king inevitably got wind of this. He tried to make the witch recant what she had done, but when he sent his soldiers to take her, the witch was perpetually out. When he later thought to burn her house down, his soldiers spent the afternoon wandering up and down Feckless Lovers’ Lane like goldfish in a bowl, unable to remember what exactly they had come for. When he sought a wizard to outfox her, he discovered the wizards of the realm were all her nephews and quite fond of their aunt.
At last, the king tried to have the parchment pried off the mortuary doors, but it would not budge. Taking a chisel to it—or even an axe—merely resulted in shattered iron. Eventually he resorted to burning the mortuary to the ground, but when the smoke and cinders cleared, the parchment alone survived. It hung in the air at the exact height it had been nailed to the doors, immutable as lead. Finally, the king went back to what was most familiar to him: he pretended the parchment did not exist. He went so far as to build a monument around it, encasing it in the marble base of a statue of himself.
But this did not erase the parchment from the minds of the people. On the day of the king’s death, nearly ten years later, the streets were empty of mourners. Everyone, even the doubters, had gathered to tear down the statue and finally read what the witch had written.
The mood was tense, and tenser still when a carriage arrived in the Square of the King’s Will and the queen herself stepped out. She stood in silent appraisal, dressed head to toe in mourner’s black, stonier than the edifice of her deceased husband. Her veiled gaze swept slowly across the crowd until finally it came to rest on the witch, who bowed ever so slightly. The queen reached into the carriage and withdrew a sheaf of notes thicker than scripture and went to join the ranks of the King’s Chroniclers. They no longer committed themselves to secrecy.
After the clamor had died down, the workmen glanced at the witch, who stood with her arms crossed in the shadow of the king’s memorial. She nodded, and they took up their hammers to dismantle their liege. The parchment emerged by painstaking degrees. When the statue was but dust and rubble, the witch strode across the stony ground and plucked the parchment from the air. She breathed on the seal, whereupon it cracked open with a faint pop.
She scanned its contents briefly, smiling to herself as though she had forgotten how wonderful her work had been. She handed it to the queen.
“If you will, Your Highness.” She leaned a little closer. “It cannot mention you by name, for it was his and his alone, but you may want to censor some of the bawdy bits.”
The queen took the parchment, which trembled like an autumn leaf in her hand. “I will not omit so much as a pen stroke from this.”
She checked it against her notes, her expression tightening into a mask of painful, cold fury. Hours later, she relinquished the parchment and handed it to the next member of the King’s Chroniclers. One by one they checked the document. The afternoon wore on, the sun slipped below the horizon, and night fell. Still they worked by lamplight. At the witching hour, the final chronicler raised her head—she had been the king’s taster—and they had their awful, wondrous answer.
The king’s will had not been his own.
Every deed of significance had been foreseen and recorded on that parchment, and that night the Hedgewitch of Feckless Lovers’ Lane became the Witch of the Will. She rose meteorically in fame that night, ascendant in name and power. The queen appointed the witch to the newly created position of High Court Magus and Alchemist. No one impugned her craft any longer, neither to her face nor behind her back. People feared her—nearly as much as they respected her. She constantly had appointments, and not always with the nobility.
One afternoon nearly a year after the death of the king, she found one of the kitchen knaves in her chambers. He looked perhaps fourteen and stood gazing at the living portrait of her grandmother.
“You know,” she said, “I have a waiting room for a reason.”
He whirled about. He was at the awkward stage between boy and man—tall for his age, strong from tearing apart deer and pig carcasses for the king’s table, but such timidity lurked behind those grey eyes. Even though he towered over her, he would not meet her gaze.
“I’m sorry.” He gestured to the portrait. “I heard her talking to herself, and I thought it was you.”
“Truly?” The witch raised an eyebrow. “Most people can’t hear her. What’s your name?”
“Canute.” He looked back at the portrait again. “Is she really alive?”
“Are you? Am I?” The witch cocked her head as if to say the matter was debatable. She drew up alongside him to look at the portrait of the old woman. “My Gran is alive in a sense.”
“It doesn’t seem like a nice way to live.”
“It’s better than nothingness. At least, until she’s ready to accept the prospect.”
Canute’s brow creased. “Nothingness?”
The witch watched him with cautious curiosity. Most people wanted to take what she offered without letting her rub off on them. A discussion such as this would have certainly been unwelcome with nobles or even most of the commoners who came to her.
“I’m sure you know that witches, along with all practitioners of magic, can’t go to paradise once they die?”
“Well, that’s only half true. We can’t go to paradise, but neither can we go to damnation. We go nowhere; our essence becomes nothing. Magic touches the soul in a way that unknits it from within, makes us incompatible with nature. That includes what naturally comes after this life. We are, in the end, the stewards of our own souls.”
“Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable?”
“More uncomfortable than the idea of damnation? No. And I cannot help what I am.”
He hesitated before saying, “I see.”
The witch smiled. “My Gran didn’t like it, either, which is why I painted her into that portrait. Now she has time to come to grips with the concept. That’s probably what you heard her muttering about.”
They stood side by side for a time in quiet contemplation before the witch asked, “Now why did you come up here? Certainly not to discuss philosophy.”
Canute stiffened. “I was hoping you would do something for me. I heard you helped the scullery maid so I thought, maybe...”
Now he met her eyes. “Would you do for me what you did for the king?”
Canute looked at her with such hope that it took a moment to realize what he meant.
“You mean the old king?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I—I imagine it’s a lot of work.”
It was a lot of work, but that wasn’t what astonished the witch and made her skin crawl with unease.
“I didn’t do that for him, Canute. I did that to him. Do you understand what it means to take a person’s free will? I made him meaningless as a cog in a mechanism. If anyone had taken and read that parchment, they would have seen the whole of his life etched in ink and would have held his fate in their hands. They would have owned him. Devoured him. He may have feigned apathy, but it plunged him into existential despair during his final years. He nearly killed himself several times. The only thing that stayed his hand was the thought that it didn’t matter; that whatever he did, he would not be the agent of his own actions.”
“I don’t care. I want it.”
“It’s simpler. It seems better...”
He trailed off, and only then did the witch truly see the boy. Not all his burns were from pans, not all his scars were from the slip of a blood-slick knife, and the way he cradled his left arm was not merely shyness.
“Oh, child.” She drew near, and he flinched as she laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll learn nothing if I inscribe your will only to give it back to you. It’s impossible to know what your own future holds, for if you did, your actions would inevitably change it. It would no longer be your future. Unknown sorrows await us all, and knowing what might once have been will make no difference in facing what will be.”
“I think it will,” he said. “You would take my will from me, and then I would take it from myself.”
The witch lapsed into silence, for she could see the boy would not be swayed. Like most people, he did not understand that knowing his future would return his will to him. Every time a besotted youth sat down with a diviner, it was not their future being revealed but their future being returned to the ether of mere possibility now that they were aware of it. Knowledge did not like to be known before its time.
But she also saw that in this moment she could give him a measure of happiness, however fleeting. She placed a finger beneath his chin, forcing him to again look her in the eye.
“Tell me your wish once more.”
“I wish for you to take my will. As you did for the old king.”
“Very well. Come back in a week, and it will be finished.”
The relief on his face sickened her, but she kept her word. As she had done over a decade ago, she took a sheet of parchment as long as her outstretched arms and covered it in writing as dense as swarming locusts. What she discovered in the boy’s life surprised her, and for the first time she doubted her own skill. She did not see how a broken boy such as Canute could become the fated man of his written will.
When Canute returned the following week, he thanked her and tucked the sealed parchment into his filthy tunic. Never did his hand stray toward opening it. His eye did not so much as glance at it. This surprised the witch.
She watched him carefully in the coming months and kept an ear to castle gossip which she normally disdained. She could not remember all of Canute’s will, but certain events remained lodged in her brain like arrowheads. Four months later, the first of them occurred—Canute killed one of the kitchen cooks with a fire-iron. When the witch heard of it, a line of her own stark writing hovered in her mind’s eye: And he will slay his tormentors with a fire-iron named Providence.
Immediately she went to the dungeons, where Canute was being kept. In the dead of night, with the guards drawn down into an unnatural slumber, she stood outside his cell. He sat in the far corner, half-hidden in shadow. He did not seem the least bit disturbed.
She knew he could not discern her face beneath the shade of her hood, yet he smiled at her. “Thank you.”
“Canute,” she said, “I did not give you your will so you could follow it to the letter and somehow assume that absolves you of guilt. In reading it, you’ve regained your free will. Your decisions are entirely your own.”
“I never read it. I burned it.”
Too late did the witch understand what sort of comfort the boy had sought in having his free will removed. He had not wished to know his future but to become bound to it inexorably. In this way, he felt himself absolved. He stood helpless before the sorrow given to him and blameless in the wake of the sorrow he gave to others. Neither guilt nor grief had any power over him now. It left her speechless, and she departed the dungeons without another word.
In her chamber she sat staring at her desk as the clock ticked through the early morning hours. A cloying unease had begun to molder in her belly—a feeling that she had unleashed something foul into the world. Unlike the old king, Canute had the opportunity to read his will and do with it what he would, but he had not. Revoking the king’s will had been a show of power but also a punishment. Canute’s was neither; it had been intended as a gesture of comfort for a boy drowning in a world implacable as the sea. She had not expected him to take refuge in his drowning. He had surprised her, and with a sinking certainty that she had never felt regarding the king, she knew Canute was now her responsibility.
The following night she returned to the dungeons. Canute lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling with an expression of wide-eyed madness. He remained motionless, arms and legs splayed like a vivisected frog. She recognized this existential paralysis. The old king had often lain in bed, unable to move under the weight of his thoughts, contemplating one action after another, discarding each as a fate he did not want.
“Canute.” He did not stir. “By refusing to read and reclaim your will, you have handed it over to me. I would reveal it to you if I thought it would make a difference, which I don’t, but I will tell you this: if you continue as you are, there will come a day when I feel obligated to kill you.”
His whisper echoed in his cell. “That is fine. I trust you more than chance, or providence, or fate.”
The witch left him then. She had not come to convince him, only to confirm her own suspicions.
In the royal alchemy hall she brewed a pot of tea, then sat lost in thought as it grew cold. Had she possessed the stunted empathy that too frequently accompanied great sorcerers, she might have been able to kill Canute now or ignore him entirely, but this miserable child and the winding path of his fate lay upon her conscience like a cairn. Unable to take final action or sink into apathy, she embraced the one option left to her: not breaking the fate of another but bending it. She would have to use her knowledge as a lens, to focus his fate on her. As the writer of his will, not an actor within, it would be difficult to predict what her meddling might do. Almost impossible.
And yet she would try.
The next week she relinquished her position and arranged for her nephew to take over as High Court Magus and Alchemist. When the queen asked where she was going, the witch did not answer for a time, thinking of the many nebulous lines that comprised Canute’s will.
At last she said, “To the village where a boy will fall in love, the snowfields where a man will meet a god, and to a place by the sea, where a monster will fear death for the first time.”
The queen was used to cryptic responses from her, so this came as only a mild surprise. On a chill morning beneath budding cherry trees, the queen wished her farewell, and the witch bit back the urge to warn her away from the boy in the dungeons. She had taken the will of another twice now, and the more she learned about the old king or the boy, the more she realized how little she knew about anything else. Who could say how Canute would be freed from the dungeons, whether it be escape or pardon or coup? Best to let the knucklebones of chance lie where they may and pray that fortune smiled on the queen.
She traveled far to the north, where the air was too cold for thunder, the ground too hard for burial. At the very edge of the kingdom she found the village of Ichor, a place where auroras danced through the skies and the people spoke the queen’s name as that of a mythical beast. When the witch arrived she set aside her great power, becoming a hedgewitch once more, content to watch and wait for a time. She was only one hundred and sixteen years old.
The villagers regarded her with suspicion and curiosity at first, but a slow trust began to grow as she proved herself to be a rather boring witch. She brewed potions and tinctures, cured coughs and joint pain, and safely delivered children from womb to world—many, many children.
One afternoon as she returned along the forest road from a morning’s foraging, she found the village carpenter standing outside his workshop. He stood with his back to the open door, tears streaming down his ruddy cheeks and into his beard.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
The carpenter shook his head. “A silly thing to cry about. Truly.”
She went to the door and peered inside. On his workbench lay a coffin-boat, coated with pine resin and ready to burn as it floated onto the misty lake.
“Who?” she asked.
“No one. Perhaps it’s morose, but I build them ahead of time, when I can still hope I’ll never have to use them. This morning I realized I—I have not built one for a child since my grandson died. Not since you came.”
He smiled through his tears, and that’s when the witch knew she had the villagers’ love, for they trusted her with their children. She opened a school, teaching them about stars and herb lore, arithmetic and logic. The children grew thoughtful under her tutelage, if perhaps a bit too silver-tongued, and when they came of marrying age, many of them wished for nothing more than to travel to the capital and have nothing to do with weddings. When they expressed such desires, the witch merely smiled and told them they had time to do all that they wished.
And then one day Canute arrived. He wore a short sword at his hip and bore the compass of the royal cartographers on his lapel; a boy no longer, but it was him. He came to find the borders between kingdoms, something so neat on a map and so nebulous in the real world—or so he told the villagers. The witch saw through him. He was a spy for the crown, sent over the top of the world to a place where borders were enforced by mountains rather than armies.
She retreated to her forest cottage, watching Canute as he performed his cartography, a second shadow unseen at his side as he traveled through forest and field and mountain surveying which paths might best accommodate a trade route. For the better part of a year he stayed, growing friendly with all the village folk—and a young woman named Vera in particular. On the last day of summer, Canute proposed, vowed to take her back to the citadel with him to a wedding of the sort she could not imagine.
To the witch’s delight, Vera demurred.
That evening, the witch went to her. “Will you marry him?” she asked, knowing full well the conflict in her heart.
“I do not know. He is kind, and so sure of himself, but marriage...” She trailed off.
“Marriage will mean children, and you have a great interest in many other things,” the witch finished.
Vera looked troubled. “But do I have what is required? Can I sit the academy exam, with what I have learned here? Sometimes it feels like we knew nothing before you came. How much more is there yet to learn? I... I cannot imagine.”
The witch withdrew a letter from her pocket, the latest in a long exchange with her nephew asking after her and wondering when she would return. Most importantly, it was sealed with the signet of the High Court Magus and Alchemist.
“I was not always a hedgewitch,” she said. “Once I had the ear of the queen. I might still, if I chose. Become apprentice to the current court alchemist, and you will not need the academy’s permission to pursue knowledge.”
Vera’s eyes were wide, alight with inquisitive delight and perhaps something less innocent. Curiosity rarely survived into adulthood untarnished by vain ambition, and the witch knew exactly what she was leveraging. Vera took the letter, running her finger over the seal in reverence.
The next morning she rejected Canute, and that evening a knock came at the witch’s cottage door. When she opened it, Canute looked down at her, mouth open to speak but silent.
“Hello, Canute. Have you come to see who stole your love away?”
His whisper carried a shade of heartache. “You?”
They watched one another from opposite sides of the threshold. “Do you still trust me? Trust me more than chance, or providence, or fate? If you wish, I can return your will to you now.”
His eyes grew hard, and he turned away without a word. The witch watched him leave, her heart leaping with alarm that he would harm his would-be love, yet her mind at peace with the knowledge that he would not, for he was not a monster. Not yet.
The next day he was gone before sunrise.
The witch wrote a letter to her nephew, which she sent along with Vera and a gaggle of other village youths who had decided it was time to see the world. After they had disappeared into the horizon down the southbound road, she packed up her cottage and left, leaving only a note behind which read: It has been a joy, but I must go now, to a foreign land where gods still roam. Blessings upon you.
Traveling by ancient forest roads and through secret mountain passes that Canute himself had discovered, the witch made her way through snow-capped heights and down into foreign lands. Old religions were practiced there, worshipping the sun and sea and stars: things that could be touched and seen and feared.
In Ichor she had watched loss harden Canute and shear away what remained of his childish heart. Here he would lose something else and cross the gap between man and monster. When the time came, the witch would place herself at the center of that rage.
But first she needed a guide.
The witch spent her days close to the earth, covered in mud and bramble, stalking through grasslands and aspen groves. She followed the stag-elk herds taller than any man and preternaturally sensitive to the scent of magic. She learned to be silent, the voice of the wind more familiar than her own; to move quietly in step with the ponderous turning of the world itself. A part of her began to fade—not lost but locked away bit by bit, buried in quiet bends of her mind.
On the morning of her one hundred and twenty-first year, a doe elk gave birth to a birch-coat fawn. Its fur shone purest white, speckled with black, like flakes of windborne ash across the face of the moon. The witch drew near, her scent of nothing but sky and earth; her steps slow and careful.
While the fawn found its feet, she slew the mother with a knife of bone. She rode it to the ground where it kicked fiercely before growing still. The fawn looked at her in bewilderment, and she reached out to lay a hand along its muzzle. Its eyes grew wide, and it snorted in alarm as she drew the fawn down into sleep, its blood slow as ice floes in its veins, and with tears in her eyes she brought the knife to bear on it as well. She cut through delicate bone and tender sinew, until its lower jaw came away in her hand. She stared at it for a moment before whispering an apology and casting it aside.
The fawn healed by turns of magic and time, and the witch was no longer alone. She raised it on goat’s milk and mashed fern leaves, bringing it into an unnatural dependence on her. She had raised familiars before but never in such a manner as this. When its speckling faded and it shone like a ghost in the moonlight, she took to riding. By instinct it brought her to austral valleys and lonely peaks, holy places that no human eye had seen in generations.
Among the people of those wind-scoured hinterlands she became a specter of fearful mystery—a woman astride a jawless white hart, its tongue lolling in grotesque abandon. She carried with her the remnants of elder things: tusks slung over her shoulder, desiccated faerie wings strung along a cord about her neck, the shimmering skin of abyssal leviathans fanned across her thighs. The people knew marks of power when presented to them, and whether such a person called themselves witch or shaman or magus mattered little. They sought her out, following at respectful distances until she had their attention wherever her hart appeared.
And then, like a specter himself, Canute appeared as well. He was older, his features hidden by a beard, his skin wind-burned and creased with the passage of time, but there he was all the same. He came from the mountains he had mapped years ago, bearing gifts wrought with alchemy that carried the scent of magic unknown to the witch. It smelled faintly of her nephew: coriander, cut with winter sunshine, yet touched with something else. Vanity.
Canute entranced the people of the moors, wooed them not with promises of power but of love and peace. The queen wished to arrange a marriage, to unite their two great civilizations in harmony. She wished, the witch suspected, for gold and spices from the southern archipelagos, carried like sleight of hand over the top of the world.
The people ultimately knew they must consult the gods, and they set off in seeking, following roads and crossing lakes out of their season, Canute in their company. If they noticed that the witch followed astride her maimed hart, they did not tell him. She was of them, of this land, and things of the hinterlands did not concern the foreign queen’s messenger. Not yet.
They struck into northern climes as winter fell, trudging through cold that shattered bone and against wind that cut like a wet knife. They crept through caves that ran along the roots of the mountains like a tracery of cobwebs, past unspeakable slumbering things. Always in their party was one more shadow, one more sighing breath, the weight of one more gaze that Canute might have noticed had he been looking for it, but after the sorrow of times gone by, he had begun to forget the witch once more.
At the crown of the world, deep beneath the earth in fungal caves where mushrooms grew like trees and faeries pinwheeled within phosphorescent auras, they came at last to the labyrinth of the Aged Dreamer—a craggy willow that required neither sun nor riverbank. It slept in the center of a wending maze, where its eternal night visions caught the essence of the world like light within a crystal, bending it into the spectrum of all that was.
Here the people barred Canute’s way, forbidding him entrance into the final labyrinth, but to the witch they paid no mind, and before she disappeared into the twisting pitch-black depths she sent them to Canute with a question.
The eldest member of the hinterland peoples approached Canute and asked, with unhidden curiosity in his voice, “The avatar of the maimed hart asks if you trust her—more than chance, more than providence, more than fate?”
Canute screamed in horrified rage. He surged past them, shattering all ambassadorial goodwill as he set foot into the labyrinth. At the heart of the mountain he found the Aged Dreamer ablaze, the witch standing in its light. He choked on his fury, unable to speak as the chosen walkers of the labyrinth appeared behind him and wept at the sight of the burning Dreamer, its boughs dripping cinder and ash.
“Rage, Canute. You will not complete your task for the queen.” The witch picked up a smoldering chunk of the Aged Dreamer and crushed it in her hand, a tongue of smoke trailing up from her fist. “I will crush you again, and again, and again.”
Righteous anger overcame the elders’ sorrow and strangled their fear, intent on justice no matter the signs of power she wore. They bound her hands with braided birch bark and painted her tongue with ashes of the Dreamer, and as they led her away she met Canute’s eye.
“And you will help me do it, Canute.”
He watched as she allowed herself to be led away, bound in body and spirit, her strength dampened by the rituals of epochs past, from times when humankind had the barest understanding of the powers that surrounded them, when cause and effect were like the mist of a dream.
Canute was still free, and even without the Aged Dreamer’s omens perhaps he could sway the people of the hinterlands into an alliance, but not if he wanted to preserve his will, etched upon the mind of the witch.
That night the witch was stripped naked and bound from head to toe in chains of bronze. She was flame-strider and wind-talker, with eyes of ice and hands that knew the earth as a friend, but the sea knew no master, and in the morning they would feed her to the salty depths. There she would either perish or remain until the passing of all ages.
From where she lay in the cold center of the camp she could see Canute’s tent, sense the conflict from within. With his paper will burned and the witch dead, his will would rebound to him, his once more. At Ichor, the witch had shown him a love he might have had; what he had lost to maintain his fettered will. Now she was showing him what he might still have; what he had not yet lost, if only he could let her go to the grave.
At midnight he doused his lantern, his silhouette eaten by the darkness. As silence fell over them, with only the witch and her guards awake in the night, Canute left his tent and struck the sentries dead. Wielding a sword forged from a fire iron called Providence, he hacked through the witch’s bronze shackles. She whistled, fluting tones high and clear in the frozen air, and her maimed hart bounded through the encampment. They fled amidst the chaos, allies by circumstance alone—but all the people saw was the witch and the ambassador leaving together, the Aged Dreamer nothing but piles of ash. Canute howled as they leapt along moonlit snowfields, his cry like a banshee’s in the still night.
His voice hissed, his breath hot in the witch’s ear. “What do you want?”
“I want you to take back your will and become a man, not a cog for which I am responsible. I offered you a choice today, a new choice, one outside your will, and I will offer it again. There is no escape from this fork in the road.”
Canute struck her savagely and leapt from the back of the stag, disappearing into the night. She cast a glance over her shoulder, and she knew it would not be long before Canute found her again. He had suffered too greatly to allow her to roam free as keeper of his will, and he would not take it back as his own. He needed a middle road.
Thankfully she had left him one.
The witch could have spent her days fleeing from Canute’s wrath, dancing around him, forever teasing him out until the thread of his life snapped. But she did not wish for such a long and dreary existence, so she left the hinterlands and returned to the lands she had called home as a child. It was a place by the sea, where salt drifted through the air and across the tongue; where mangroves with gnarled roots clotted the still, marshy waters and birds flocked in every season.
Her maimed hart died young, a price she had always known it must pay for the trauma of its birth. She laid it to rest alongside the familiars of her childhood, when such things had fascinated her. She stood over their graves in the shade of a mangrove tree, long-buried memories resurfacing, recalling foolish decisions of her youth and pain inflicted on undeserving creatures. How much she had changed since then, and how little.
For a season she came to its grave every day in remembrance, and then every week, and then every month. As one year turned over into the next, she laid a wreath of citrus leaves on its cairn, and something within her broke. Flames of anguish licked at her soul, and she fell to her knees amidst bitter sobs. She clenched sandy soil in her fists, watching the grains slip from between her fingers, and her grandmother’s words came back to her:
There will be no ultimate price to pay for whatever you do in life, child. No justice. You are the steward of your own soul.
Those words had come from a grandmother who was still wise, still a master of her own mortality, and it was no coincidence that the witch recalled them now. There might be no final reckoning for her, but this life held enough agony of its own. The longer she lived and the more she learned, the more she realized how little she knew.
For the first time since accepting the burden of responsibility for Canute, she felt fear. She could be sure of nothing, not even a man whom she had weighed and measured and put to a sheet of parchment so long ago. There was no telling how she played into his fate, for she was an outside observer; a meddler. She had the power of a god and the failings of a human, with the experience to know how dangerous that could be. If she was going to truly bend his fate to her will, balance the scale she had tipped, there could be no half-measures.
She stood and cast her gaze out across the estuary, where flocks of cranes stood like sentinels in white. This place had been her beginning, in a time beyond memory. It would not make such a bad end, either.
Canute appeared one morning with a litany on his lips. His voice preceded him, sending egrets and clouds of swallows into the air.
“I name you Marisol,” he called, “born here, born on a summer solstice, born alone bearing a caul meant for two.”
Marisol smiled and did not move from where she sat, staring out across the estuary as a fragment of herself came back to her. That had been her name, and that had been her birth—the necessary fate of all practitioners of magic. To feel the touch of magic was to be intertwined with the soul of another, the first step in losing one’s personhood and becoming simply another part of the world; a conduit for the cosmos. Now Canute would return that individuality to her; ground her so solidly in herself that she could not reach out to become anything else. He was fettering Marisol in her own essence.
“Did you end her?” she asked. There was only one person he could have learned this from.
Silence returned to her, and then he said, “I burned her portrait. She is no more.”
Marisol closed her eyes, and another line of Canute’s will came back to her:
And he will seek power from one whose fear of death outweighs love of life.
“And now you have come to do what I did to her,” she said. “To keep me from my death, to make me the lockbox of your soul.”
Canute emerged from the brush wearing a mask blank as slate. He held Providence in one hand and a mirrored shield in the other, reflecting Marisol’s tired eyes back at her.
“Name me,” she said, and stood to face him. “Define my origins and my borders. Take my magic from me. Do you think then it will be easy? Do you think we who are touched by magic don’t all fear this day, like an eagle fears losing the skies? I am your god, Canute. If you’ve come this far, it’s only because I let you.”
The threads of her identity wrapped around her, binding her magic tightly, but her limbs thrummed with memories—the experiences of more than two lifetimes, the movements of fear and anger and survival.
She hurled a fistful of sand against his mask and lunged, her fingers seeking the hollow of his sternum. He balked, shield raised, then swept low, striking at her ankles. With disdainful fury she stomped on his blade, pinning it beneath her foot, and drove rigid fingers toward his throat.
He dipped, and his mask cracked beneath her strike, the porcelain around his right eye falling away to reveal one wild, grey eye. With a snarl he threw his sword and shield away and wrapped his arms around her. She went for his neck, her teeth snapping shut on his collar bone, and he roared as he lifted her high then drove his knee into her back. She bit down on her scream and shunted the pain into a strike to the jaw, which he shook off with bearish resilience.
They rolled away from one another, coated in sweat and blood and sand.
He spread his arms wide, overshadowing her, drawing her attention in with slow, decisive movements. In a flash a crossbow quarrel flew from the trees and buried itself in her thigh. She cried out and pitched forward onto the sand, her leg rigid with pain.
From the undergrowth stepped the woman from the village of Ichor—a woman whose name Marisol was curiously unable to remember. She wore her own signs of power, yet she had crouched in the humid shadows with an iron bolt and fear in her eyes. Marisol laughed through her pain, for even gods can be fools. She had robbed Canute of his love, but she had not robbed him of an ally, and there were more people than just her grandmother who feared death.
Canute flipped her onto her stomach, face pressed to the sand. Boots appeared in the edge of her vision, and then the woman was squatting in the sand, staring at her like a specimen in a jar.
“You, too, child?” Marisol asked. “Did I not give you enough the first time?”
The woman reached out and with a savage tug removed a hank of hair by the roots. She coiled it into a glass vial, then stepped on Marisol’s wrist. Marisol knew what was coming, and she closed her eyes to it, but still the image of the woman burned bright in her mind’s eye. A woman she had cared for as a girl, raised into a woman, sponsored into a witch.
Marisol opened her eyes. A silver chain around the woman’s neck disappeared into her collar, and Marisol knew what lay there against her breast—a diamond of exquisite perfection, yet harboring the tiniest inclusion, a necessary flaw. The tool of a witch too young to be forgotten by the world.
“Child, have you been walking the halls of my mind without my knowledge? Have you stolen your name from my memory?”
The woman wedged a sliver of wood beneath Marisol’s thumb nail and removed a mallet from her belt, but Marisol held her gaze.
“Is that a memory lattice around your neck?”
Mallet hit wood and wood parted flesh, and a strangled groan escaped Marisol’s clenched teeth. The woman tore the thumbnail from its bed and dropped it into another glass vial. Marisol’s feet drummed against the sand, her blood drooling out onto the beach, bright in the sunshine, and she choked on her cries.
“You have what you need?” Canute asked.
“For now,” the woman said.
As she walked away, Canute bent to whisper in Marisol’s ear. “You may have taken her love from me, but you didn’t take her. You are a weak god.”
Marisol closed her eyes, felt the sun on her cheek, the sand growing wet beneath her fingers. The flow of fate could never be controlled, merely nudged here and there, to waver briefly before settling back into its path. She had been a fool to try, and yet she did not regret it.
Marisol awoke at twilight, tied to a chair in her empty bedroom. Remnants of daylight illuminated the woman from Ichor. She sat at an easel.
Her brush traced unseen arcs across the canvas, careful dabs and negative space. After a moment she looked up and met Marisol’s eyes. She set her brush aside and walked over to Marisol, holding her gaze.
“The eyes were what I noticed,” she said, “about your grandmother’s portrait. The detail that had been put into every facet—pale blue, just like yours.”
“They’re called witch eyes for a reason, child. When was the last time you looked in a mirror?”
The woman blinked.
“You wear your power too openly. The eyes, almost no one notices; the scent, almost no one understands; but that lattice around your neck, filled with stolen recollections? People feel too many gaps in their memories—especially if they all center on you. I hope you haven’t been lying to him. This could all get quite nasty.”
The woman took a step back, studying Marisol a moment longer before returning to her easel. She mixed her paints, cut with blood and hair and fingernail, and continued her work. At some point Canute walked by the open doorway, but he glanced in without a word. Marisol was a mere thing to him now—perhaps she had always been.
She sat in that bare room for days, allowed water and nothing else as the woman continued her work. Marisol’s stomach became an echoing hollow inside her, a place she retreated to touch the walls of pain that throbbed there, serving as a shield rather than a prison. On the fourth day, she awoke from the restless half-sleep that sometimes came over her and found Canute and the woman examining the painting in the late afternoon light.
Canute’s eyes flicked from the painting to Marisol to the woman, who nodded. “This will do.”
Canute untied her and dragged her out to the cemetery of familiars. He looked at the cairns, each marked with a placard in a language he couldn’t read, and said, as though it were a measure of good faith, “I will lay your body to rest with your ancestors.”
Marisol laughed. “You’re no less ignorant now than when I first met you.”
He threw a rope over a bough of the ancient mangrove that grew close to the house, far from the waterline. “Do witches not bury their dead? Do you wish to be immolated?”
He fastened a noose around her ankles and hauled her up, so the world spun madly as the blood rushed to her head. The woman placed the painting flat on a stool beneath her.
“Not doing this elegantly,” Marisol gasped.
The woman glanced up at her. “Yes, well, your nephew said you never instructed him in the artful dark. Which bead of blood will be the fatal drop to seal your fate? I don’t know how to sift through such paradoxes. Clumsy divination cannot say—I do not know how you painted your grandmother so elegantly. Would you like to tell me? It will make this easier.”
“I think not.”
The woman went back to securing the painting, so it would not tumble to the earth beneath the deluge of Marisol’s blood as they waited for the drop that carried her soul. It was the first time Marisol had seen the painting, and as she spun in lazy circles it stared up at her like a sorrowful mirror. A bitter smile turned up the corner of the mouth, a smile she wore even now.
Canute stood by, his stony gaze wavering neither left nor right. “You could have avoided this, had you just let me be.”
“A stone in a river or a rising tide are things we let be. You wanted to pretend you, too, were a force of nature, but you only become that by handing your agency to someone else. If a thunderhead gave me its volition, I would not let it scour the earth, either.”
Canute drew his belt knife, folded steel glinting ember-like in the setting sun. “When a squall gathers on the horizon, you run, Marisol. You do not fight.”
He laid the knife edge against her neck and pulled. Blood drizzled like tree sap from her neck—slowly, so slowly—and Canute frowned. He glanced at the woman from Ichor, who shook her head, studying Marisol like a locked puzzle box. Canute laid the knife against the other side of her neck and pulled again, and again a lazy drizzle of blood stretched out to the painting in drips and drops.
Marisol shrieked, half-mad with panic that her body still felt, regardless of what she knew in her mind. “Cut again, Canute. Give me gills, turn me into a mermaid. You will not catch my soul with that blood sieve, no matter how well she painted it.”
Canute’s fingers wrapped around her jaw, digging into her cheeks as he turned her to face him. “What did you do?”
“Only what every witch does,” she replied, “and what I promised myself I never would.”
The woman stood, understanding leaping into her eyes. She crossed the distance between them and tore open the collar of Marisol’s shirt, revealing a livid scar down the length of her sternum. She pressed two fingers against Marisol’s neck, her eyes growing wide as the sensation that rebounded to her was nothing, nothing, nothing.
“She has cut out her heart and enspelled it with a synecdoche. She’s a blood-shade.”
Canute turned away, the pent fury in his voice flaring even as his tone dropped. “What does that mean? She doesn’t look like a shade.”
“She cannot be bled to death. Her heart is...” The woman looked around, at the house, the mangroves, the estuary. “Somewhere else. We cannot complete the painting without it.”
“Can you find it?”
The woman fell into a conflicted silence. “No. Not unless she has hidden it someplace very stupid.”
“Or I tell you.”
They both turned to Marisol, who continued to spin slowly by her ankles.
“What is a musician who does not fear his critics? A sailor who does not fear the storm?” She looked out across the still, sunset waters. “A witch who does not fear death... yet allows herself with wither into a shade anyway.”
From behind her came the woman’s answer, small and filled with dreadful anticipation. “Free.”
“Free to do anything. I did not hide my heart away in a vault of stone, or sink it to the bottom of the sea. I fed it to a crane, and when the bird dies, so will I.”
The wind gusted, and Marisol swung around to face them. Canute was staring out across the waters, as though he could wade into that multitude of birds and kill them one by one. The woman, too, stared, with the face of one defeated. “We will never find it.”
Marisol tilted her head, the gashes on her neck tugging strangely. “I am neither a wind-shade nor a time-shade. I can still be strangled, still be burned.”
The woman’s expression tightened, and she shook her head before Canute could ask the question. “No,” she said to him. “She—she’s taunting me. I learned the making of a blood sieve from her grandmother. I could not guess how her soul might ride the last breath from her lungs or which flake of ash might carry her to the sky. Such sieves are beyond me.”
“Can you experiment?” Canute glanced at Marisol, panic rising behind the anger. “Can you learn?”
The woman recoiled at his pleading touch. “Only on people.”
A fragile stillness came over them, on the precipice of desperation. Slowly she said, “And I would never do that.”
“Why not?” Canute loomed over her.
The woman met Marisol’s gaze. Marisol smiled.
“Canute,” the woman said. “We don’t need to do this now; we have time, have her bloody name. Can’t you see what she’s doing?”
“She? The crone I’ve stripped of all power and hung from a tree branch? Yes, I can see what she’s doing. What I can’t see is what you’re doing. I did not bring you here to fail at the final hour.”
He turned on the spot, his feet kicking up sand as he looked about with an animal panic. “Maybe we’ll even find the one she—”
“Canute. No. She’s beaten us.”
The wind sighed. The noose around Marisol’s ankles creaked. The crack of Canute’s fist across the woman’s nose was like the snap of falling timber. She gasped and reeled but did not lose her feet.
Her expression darkened. “I see.”
With a snarl she spoke a word of power and ensnared him. She crooked a finger, and through the cloth of her shirt the memory lattice flared like starlight—but she had only a novice’s training, only a novice’s focus. Marisol watched as the woman stared into Canute’s furious eyes, remembered he knew who she was, and the cosmos faded from her grasp.
Canute drew his sword. “I’ll cut you down to a bloody stump, nothing but a head to speak sorceries as I need them. You don’t think I know your name still? You don’t think I took precautions against forgetting? I will twine you around my fingers, break you down like I’ve broken—like I’ve broken...”
He twitched, his blink erratic and forced. He looked to Marisol, and she snorted. “Forgotten my name, Canute? Maybe she has it.”
Canute rounded on the woman, and terror filled her eyes, surging up from the depths of her soul. She brought a hand to her temple, eyes squeezed shut, arcane words at her lips. The memory lattice shone once more, and then she fell to the sand, convulsing like a patient in a stroke. Canute hesitated, watching as the woman grew still. Her breath sent grains of sand skittering across the beach, but her eyes were empty.
“First she took my name from you,” Marisol said, and closed her eyes. “Then she took from herself—removed it from her own mind. But ensorcelling one’s own memory, taking what one knows and casting it aside—that requires a defter hand than hers.” The witch opened her eyes. “A hand such as mine.”
Canute had barely turned before the rope untied itself from the witch’s ankles and the winds howled, carrying her emaciated body to the ground gentle as any autumn leaf, and then they did not touch her at all. She was stillness in the eye of a storm—her lank hair, her filthy shirt, her exhausted body untouched by the winds.
Canute dropped to his knees, sword anchored in the sand, head bowed against the gale. When it softened to a breeze, he looked up, and the witch stood over him, hands clasped behind her back. She spoke to him in a language he did not understand yet felt familiar to his soul, like the voice of a mother to a babe in the womb.
The witch reached down and took the sword from his grip, once a fire iron called Providence, and the final line of Canute’s will came to her lips, bittersweet as a balm, but she did not speak it aloud. Instead she placed the blade against his neck and said, “I told you there would come a day I felt I must kill you.”
With his final breath he looked into her eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”
The witch struck his head from his shoulders, and then for a time she did nothing. She looked down at Canute’s still form, made small in death. Now, at the end of the decision she made long ago to step into his life and drink that bitter brew of responsibility for another’s sins, she could not say she had done right, could not know. She could only hope and fear in equal measure.
The woman from Ichor lay beside him, her expression a blank mask. The witch reached down and let her hand cover those staring eyes.
“Canute was so sure of himself.” She did not know if the woman heard, or if the words were even meant for her. “A curse I gave him, which he would not allow me to lift. I suppose that surety was appealing to you, even after you’d found something greater to chase, and I wish I had foreseen that. I’m sorry.”
The witch wiped a trickle of blood from her collar and flicked it to the wind, then took the necklace from the woman and crushed the diamond between her fingers. “But your choices were your own, Vera. Farewell.”
The Witch of the Will disappeared thereafter. None could say for certain where she went, but it was rumored she returned to an old forgotten house on an old forgotten lane, and that a person who has the right motivations might stumble upon her brewing potions, waiting for a crane to die.