One dark night, my brother killed a man and left the body for me to find.

I knew the corpse better than I cared to: he was the man who had abused and hounded our gentle stepmother to her death, leaving us as two teenagers alone in the world, fledglings not quite ready to fly. He had been respected in the town. He had grown prosperous on public bonhomie and private misdeeds.

He was not, at least, bleeding very much on my hearthstones.

I considered my options. I was not sure Royir, my brother, had considered his. Our whole lives we had been intertwined like neighboring tree branches, and the shape of our twining was this: Royir makes the mess, Nerit cleans it up. But better, certainly, to clean this one than to have made it. Better by far. Royir knew I could take care of it, and he did not trouble himself with how.

The neighbors knew me for my potions and brews, but dissolving a body would take an unbearably long time. Risky. Inconvenient. No, not the right choice, even for an experienced potions mistress like me.

The magicians on their hill knew me for the way the trees answered my call, in their slow and vegetal way. A wood witch is not a tower-trained magician—but the trees don’t speak to them the way they speak to me. A wood witch is rooted close to home by the trees she serves, but she also draws power from that bond. The trees would nestle a corpse into their roots and grow around it and nourish their growth with its bones, if I asked them.

But this, too, would take a very long time. Something different, then.

An ordinary person might have burned him. But wood witches never had to resort to that.

I reached down, beneath the stone, and asked the trees to take him. I had never done this before, and I didn’t know what they’d do, but the trees had never failed me. Nor did they this time: the sticky green of their power flowed back up through me, and when I opened my eyes again I was holding a dandelion and the corpse was a pile of willow withies on the hearthstone.

It was the height of summer. I didn’t need to light a fire. I went to bed, planning to sell the withies in the market the next day. I thought better of it in the morning and sold only most of them. A few I kept to make a new basket for my own marketing.

I was most of the way through weaving the basket when Royir finally came home. He leaned down and kissed my cheek. I nodded and said nothing. Waited.

“Well—” He looked around my cottage, which was small enough that he could see without theatrics it was empty save for myself. “I took ship to Arran’s Bay and back, so that I would be surrounded by shipmates if anyone noticed any untoward absences. What did you do with my gift?”

I rolled my eyes. “Gift.”

You know.”

I indicated the basket on the hearth with a jerk of my head. “You’re looking at him.”

He reared back—oh, he should have been a traveling player. “Does it work that way? Inconvenient...packages...into household objects? I had no notion.”

“I know you didn’t.” I sighed and relented. “I asked the trees to help me with him, and that is what they did. There was more, but—I sold it at the market. For a very fair price.”

He pulled me to my feet, laughing, and danced me around my little cottage. “Clever, clever Nerit. I knew you could do something, but this is beyond, far beyond. And now we’re quit of him.”

I finally let him see the smile lurking behind my lips, just a little. “Yes. Finally. Now we’re quit of him. Now our gentle stepmother can rest.”

“She deserves to rest.” He kissed me soundly on both cheeks and set me back in my chair.

“Where did you go?”

“I was with the crew of the Black Lilac—of which I was a member, these last weeks—drinking their health and preparing for the voyage downriver. And, of course, making it.” He bowed and produced a pair of green ribbons for me. “There. To celebrate.”

I set them on the table. I was glad, too, in a way; this man had been really horrible, and everyone loved him, and now I wouldn’t have to see him in the market, in the tavern, at the fair, carousing and playing the big man, me knowing that he’d made our darling stepmother’s life such a trial. And yet, and yet. Royir had had the hot moment, the decision—if it even was one—the flow of blood, the flight in the night. I had had the cold body and making a considered plan after my brother made his snap decision. And for all that, our stepmother’s tormentor had been a fellow human. There was a limit to the celebration I could feel. I turned instinctively back to my work—the willow basket—and recoiled from it.

“Tell me the news downriver, then,” I said, reaching instead for a green ribbon and plaiting it into my hair.

My brother had always been a good man. He had protected us both. And now there would be no more need for that.

I didn’t know the next body. Considerately, Royir left a note. Less considerately, all it said was, “I’ll explain later.” It was unsigned. Naturally it would be, lest someone else stumble into my cottage and find it before I could—though who that would be in the dead of night, only the darkest of ill luck could have said. That ill luck was not ours.

The man who lay before me—bleeding more than his predecessor—had a thick, dark handlebar mustache. The hole in his throat was both broader and more jagged—and I did not dare to look too closely at the rest of him, jumbled down on my floor any old how. The trees never looked away. The trees did not judge.

Or perhaps they did. When I asked the trees again and they responded so easily to my wishes, the result was four cedar logs. Cedar is a softwood, fragrant and easy to chop. My home smelled wonderful, and it turned my stomach a little. I saved a small piece to carve into the likeness of a ship in full sail.

When my brother returned, I didn’t tell him where the carving had come from. I merely folded my arms. “You said you’d explain later. It’s later.”

“He was someone else’s monster, not ours,” said Royir. “My shipmate’s. This was his elder brother, and he made childhood a nightmare and adulthood...well, it’s not my story to tell.”

“But it was your story to end.”

“And yours. Thank you, sister.”

“Not that you left me much choice.”

He pouted. But I was tired of the long dance of pouting, teasing, relenting. I was tired, and I wanted to go to bed. It was a small cabin. He tried to swing me about the waist as I went about preparing the space for nighttime, but a single look quelled him, and I told myself I was still the master there. And after all, he had had a good reason. It was his shipmate, it was something horrible, not his story to tell, but such stories were far too common. My brother was a good man.

He slept on the floor by the hearth, as he had always done since he had grown too big for the cabin, too big for our old life. If we were neighboring branches of the same tree, a strong wind was blowing his clear of mine, and I could not be sorry for it. He was gone when I awoke before dawn in the morning. He left silver on the table, and cloves—hard to get in our own market, expensive.

A few weeks later, I made up my mind to take one of the silver pieces to get a new goat, as my old one had died in the sudden hard frost the last year. Rathlan the goatherd had been selling kids, an unusually fecund year for the flocks, and I had my eye on a spotted black and white kid that was growing at a likely pace.

I was looking at the kids casually, so as not to betray too much specific interest, when Rathlan said to me, “Did you hear that Terovar the Tanner disappeared?”

“Who’s Terovar?” I asked, though I was fairly sure I already knew.

“Lived at the north end of Larran’s Slough, near where Miden goes for his winter pasture. Dark man, solid build.” Rathlan’s hands made the shape of a handlebar mustache.

“Oh yes. I heard he had a nasty temper. Perhaps he just couldn’t stomach the day-in, day-out any more and chucked it all and went off somewhere, roving players or that.”

Rathlan looked faintly surprised. “I hadn’t heard any of that in years. Not since he was barely a man. No, the only time I heard of Terovar the Tanner lately, he was giving boots to Miden’s daughter for winter. Said he couldn’t stand to see a neighbor’s daughter go about with rags around her feet in snows the like we’d seen.”

“And she hasn’t seen him?”

“Hide nor hair. If you’ll excuse the expression for a tanner.”

I grinned and then remembered why we were talking about him. Rathlan’s expression echoed my feelings, the sudden realization that all was not as jolly as we’d thought. “I hope they find him,” I said, and I went home without buying a goat kid that day.

Loads of horrible people do one nice thing, though. Perhaps he wanted something out of the gift, or perhaps it was his one good day. People are mixed. We all like to think of the villains in songs stalking around kicking kittens all day long, but surely they run out of kittens or miss their aim. Or surely they have one moment of picking up a kitten and stroking it before making their brother’s life a living hell. I had to trust my brother. He was a good man.

But then there was another body.

No note.

I had not intended to create a pattern. Certainly not this pattern. But Royir was my brother, and there had been good reasons for the first two; surely there were still good reasons. The trees... the trees had no moral sense, that’s an important thing to know about trees. Their senses include things like wet and dry, bright and dark. But they accepted the corpses differently, and that might mean something, or it might not. The willow withies of the first corpse had been easy to use. The cedar of the second, no problem.

This was logs of elm.

Whatever was I going to do with logs of elm, and how. It was almost worse than if he’d stayed a corpse. Chopping them would take an age and who knew how many sharpenings of the axe—and to look at it, this had been an unusually knotty elm, prone to problems splitting. Easy to injure yourself cutting wood like that.

In the end I dragged them into the wood at night, one by one. I had to drag them to different parts of the wood, and I worried that someone—the magicians on their hill, most like—would notice that there were more elm logs than the forest could rightly produce, and without smaller elm twigs. And the wood witch would be the logical person to consult, if not to blame, but perhaps to blame. Would they connect it with another disappearance? Probably not, but I didn’t want to be the reason they thought something was strange.

Royir wasn’t thinking of any of that. Royir wasn’t thinking of me at all. Royir was not even thinking about what he would tell me. He hadn’t brought a gift this time, and he hadn’t brought an excuse.

“Don’t you trust me?” he said.

“I always have before,” I said. “But this is beginning to be a habit. I had to drag elm logs out into the—”

“That’s nothing compared to the trouble of dragging a body without anyone noticing!”

“Then perhaps you could stop killing people,” I said acidly.

He glared at me. “You have always nagged so horribly, Nerit.”

“Over little things like you leaving corpses for me to dispose of, oh yes, I should learn to curb my shrew tongue.”

He laughed. “Oh, Nerit, I can’t stay mad at you.”

He. Couldn’t stay mad. At me? “Tell me why, Royir. Tell me why it’s so necessary, then.”

“The world is full of monsters. I’m a monster-hunter.”

“How do I know you’re not just another monster?”

He reared back, genuinely wounded. “Nerit. I’m your brother.”

“And you’ve always been a good man.”

“At least you still know that. Thank you. Yes.”

“But you’ve become a bit of a one-trick goat, my brother.”

“So have you, my sister! If this means of disposing of bodies has become tedious, have you considered another? You’re a wood witch! You have potions, burial, you have all the ways of the wood! Summon the mushrooms, the, the—whatever it is that you do!”

“ could just stop.”

He flung his hands in the air. “You are hidden away in the woods, little Nerit! Gentle wood witch! You have seen nothing of the world!”

“I have seen the plants that devour the still-living, and you think I know nothing of the world? I remain with our neighbors day by day, knowing their foibles and their graces, never turning from what disgusts or fleeing from what annoys, and I know nothing of the world?”

“The world is full of monsters,” he repeated stubbornly. “We’ve always been a team, and I want to do something about the monsters of the world, and now you cavil at it?”

“I do. I cavil.”

He snorted like a bull in heat. “I don’t know who you think will help fight your battles if not me. You’ll be alone in the world. Alone in your woods. If you abandon me, Nerit sister, I will abandon you, and then where will you be? In the woods, I suppose. Where you’ve always been.”

“There are worse places to be.”

Royir shook his head. “I don’t see that you have a choice. Even if you think I’ve done wrong, you can’t take it to the reeves. You’ve destroyed the evidence yourself. I’ll come back when I will, how I will. You’ll just have to take what I give you.”

He slammed out of the cabin, and the door, heavy on its hinges, thumped behind him.

And I did not know what shoots to send out, what leaves I wanted to grow. Was there a potion that would calm him? But maybe he was right and the world was full of monsters. Shouldn’t I be calming the monsters? He couldn’t keep killing them and leaving them for me. I knew that much. Even if they all deserved death—could they all deserve death? could they truly?—they couldn’t possibly all deserve to be killed in the dark by one man, choosing for himself whose sins outweighed their virtues, who was done tormenting a brother—or whose torments had even existed.

My brother wanted there to be something charming about roaming the world, the knife of justice in the throat of brutality. I had tried to find it reassuring. But instead it was terrifying. I kept hearing his voice asking: who else would help fight my battles. Who else. Who else but this murderer. And the more he branched out, the worse it got.

Maybe I needed to stop focusing on his branches.

Maybe the problem was his roots.

I reached down into the foundations of our house. I was still Nerit the wood witch. I always would be. These woods had been my refuge, kept me safe for so long. I wasn’t one of them, but I was one of their kindred. I asked the wood: don’t keep me, nourished and rooted and as safe as I could be made.

Keep him.

The trees wouldn’t make Royir anything but what he was—but they could root him like a wood witch, if not like a tree: make him their own, in this grove. If I convinced the trees to do the exchange, his range would become the range of my strong magic: the village, no further. Royir might keep killing. That I couldn’t stop—at least I didn’t know how to. And he might keep bringing the corpses to this house. But I wouldn’t be there to dispose of them for him.

I needed to find somewhere else I could grow.

He would find that the brambles would tangle him in. That he would have to stay close—and if there were too many dead bodies, undisposed-of, undisappeared, unaccounted for, someone would find him. And as for me, I would not be there to help. I would not be there to be found with the dead.

There is wind through the leaves everywhere, and that means there will always, always be another voice I can listen to.

The potions that I did not brew for my brother, I could brew in other places. The trees of another place, I could coax to take shape for purer benefit—and I had heard that wood witches were scarcer to the west. With those skills combined, perhaps I could find a place where people would welcome me. Perhaps I could grow again—if not as deep-rooted, at least with safer soil. I would find out.

Nerit the wood witch would be the last disappearance in our forest. And if the village became suspicious—if blame turned, at last, to her brother Royir—well. They would not be too far wrong.

There remained only the note. I dipped a feather in the bitter oak gall ink and hesitated over what to say. In the end I settled on, “The strongest wood knows where it can bend and where it will break. See if you can learn it.”

And unlike Royir, I signed my name.

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Marissa Lingen lives in the Minneapolis area with her family. Her work has appeared on, in Lightspeed, Apex, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others.

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