They burned my Mama in the spring, soon after the ice had melted off Alder Mere. Soon after the birches veiled themselves in green. Too soon after Mama had given birth to my brother.

Mama had known they were coming for us. She’d scryed it in the cards and embers and did her best to save us, rousting me out of my cot before the rooster had even thought to raise his voice. We left behind my best doll on the mantle, the chickens unfed in the yard, and the cat sleeping by the stove. Last thing I glimpsed through the door were my brother’s cradle swinging empty in the corner.

“Run, Ingrid,” Mama pleaded, clutching my brother tight as we scrambled through the woods, stumbling over roots and stones, hems and sleeves snagging on the gnarled fingers of juniper and spruce.

Mama laid her craft upon the trees and trails to bewilder our pursuers, and the crows and ravens kept our secrets as they always did, but fear and faith drove the townsfolk hard that day, their shouts and curses echoing ever closer between the boles. And Mama, she weren’t as strong as she were supposed to be, hadn’t been all herself since she’d bled through the bolsters bringing my brother into this world.

At the edge of placid Alder Mere, we hid in reeds and mud beneath an upturned skiff. Packs of hounds and men were closing in, the barking and hollering so near I asked my heart to still beneath my ribs, so near I almost prayed though Mama had never taught me how. Nowt but breath escaped my lips, wan ghosts of frost trapped beneath that hull.

In the stillness, my brother whimpered and then mewled. He cried, even though Mama had already nursed him, even though she held him snug against her breast beneath her cloak, even though I’d taken care to swaddle him in the softest wools and linens.

I knew they’d find us, with a baby wailing. Mama knew it too.

“Give him to me,” I whispered, thinking to soothe him with a lullaby as I often did at night, but Mama clamped a hand tight over his mouth.

“Stay here,” she commanded, and I stayed while she crept out into the fog-wreathed dawn with my brother wrapped tight in her cloak, his whimpers muffled by the thick grey wool.

When Mama came back beneath the skiff, her hands were wet, her arms empty. One look at her face told me she had nowt to give me but silence.

Huddled beneath that tarred keel as the day passed by, I listened for the dogs, listened for my brother, hearing neither. My Mama did not speak, only huddled like a sparrow in the cold, her face turned away from me, wiping her hands on her black kirtle. She kept wiping them even though they were already dry, fingers shaking as she pulled down the soggy sleeves of her linen blouse.

I’d scratched my arm on the blackberry brambles while we ran, and my blood, salt and iron both, dripped into the water and the mud. All I heard as dusk gathered ‘round us was the whisper of that blood. Drip, drip. Drip. A bit of me, a bit of my life, sinking into the muck and waters of Alder Mere, marring its dark and placid surface.

In the cold, I thought of my brother’s toothless grin when I sang his name each morning, the way he’d twine his fingers in my hair when he listened to my voice, the way his tiny fist would hold onto Mama’s shawl when she nursed him by the hearth.

“I’d have taken care of him,” I murmured when the silence between us dragged into darkness.

Mama didn’t say anything to that.

Next morning, we stole away from Alder Mere. Stumbling up the slope from the water’s edge, I looked back at that dark and placid surface, thinking of all I’d been made to leave behind. We scurried along a winding path deep inside the forest, where only wolves and witches would choose to go. Mama might have thought she’d saved us. For a moment I might have believed the same, but the hounds still found us, even there. Ten of them came crashing and howling through the thickets, all slobbery jowls and jaundiced teeth, with a pack of redfaced men brandishing ropes and torches lagging in their wake. Mama’s craft failed her then, or maybe she’d lost the will to use it, and we were dragged back to town, our hands bound, our hair shorn.

In town, the judge and preacher kept Mama and me in the stocks for six days and nights, feeding us nowt but dry bread and sips of water. Mama didn’t cry nor speak, not once, not even when they bloodied and bruised her, not even when they brought the tongs and branding irons to make her confess her sins. She did not speak a word until the night before the trial, and then her voice was just for me, quiet as a whisper.

“Tell them anything,” Mama said, “no matter whether it be lies or truths. Show them what they want to see. Give them what they want to take. Glean a life from my ashes.”

I did as I was bid. When morning came, I stood before the court, before all those nattering townspeople gathered in their finery, and I answered every question posed to me. I told them about the spells and craft Mama wove beneath moon and stars, using blood and hair and bone. I told them how Mama would give herself to beasts and men and demons, how she’d carve runes in flesh and read the future in the guts of birds and cattle and unfortunate wanderers. I told them how Mama would change her shape in the moonlight, prowling fields and forest, maw and fangs glistening.

I said enough to save myself.

No one in that courtroom asked about my brother. If they had, I might have told them who his father was. Might have told them who had lain betwixt my Mama’s legs in the meadow at the solstice. Who had put his mark on my brother’s dimpled flesh, and on mine. But no one mentioned my brother nor his absence, so I said nothing.

At least I knew where he was, and that was some kind of comfort.

After the trial, the townsfolk built a pyre. Seasoned wood and bundled straw gathered in a heap. Kindling and oil to speed the burning.

I didn’t cry when my Mama burned. I stood beside the preacher in my new white shift, my skin scrubbed clean until it’d bled, my shorn scalp bared, my hands clasped around the bible placed into my hands. I breathed in the smoke and ash, breathed in the last of Mama, and kept my face as placid as Alder Mere while she screamed, while her flesh peeled away and turned to cinder, while the last of her bones smoldered in the ashes.

Watching those flames, feeling the sting of Mama’s heat upon my face, I thought of the empty cradle in our cottage, of my best doll left on the mantle, the cat left behind and the chickens unfed in the yard. I thought of the cold waters lapping the shores of Alder Mere, of blood and muck, of Mama’s wet sleeves. While they raked Mama’s bones from the ashes, I moved my lips as if in prayer, but what I sang was the lullaby that had never failed to soothe my brother when he wailed.

The Preacher and his wife took me in to save my mortal flesh and undying soul from hellfire and eternal torment. I’ve spent five years beneath their roof, and I’ve felt every one of those days on my skin. Felt the lash and belt, felt the bite of icy water and lye on my hands as I washed their linens, felt the Preacher’s hands at night as he made his ministrations upon me. I did not resist. I did what Mama told me, I showed them what they wanted to see and gave them what they wanted to take.

Mama always said I had a good head on my shoulders, and she was right. Everything I’ve seen and heard through my short life, before Mama burned and since, it’s all stuck in my mind like burrs and slivers. I’ve learned to speak the words of prayer and confession. I’ve learned to sing the hymns and carols; and how to quote the testaments old and new. I’ve learned to sit in my pew, head bowed, eyes lowered as if penitent. But I never forgot my Mama nor any of her words, whether they were chanted in the moonlight or whispered in the dark, whether they were growled or carved, and I never forgot my brother neither. Every night these five years, I’ve sat by the window, singing my brother’s lullaby, threading Mama’s words and craft through the verses and melody, pretending I were praying if the Preacher or his wife asked what I was doing.

And now I walk through the Winter Market, alone and unattended, with the smells of caramel and peppermint wafting through the air. I do not turn to look at the wares, I do not slow my steps, and few of the villagers even note my passing.

For five years, I’ve shown them all what they wished to see, arranging my face into a meek and servile mask to appease them. I’ve buried myself in servitude and silence, my downcast eyes and courtesies covering the rough seams where the guise chafed my soul and skin. By now, they think me docile and cleansed enough of Mama’s taint to walk the streets unaccompanied.

But today, I do not go to the market as I was bid. For the first time since Mama burned, I stray from town, and beneath my drab and rough-spun servant’s dress, beneath my uneasy bones and blushing skin, my heart beats true at last.

In the woods, the crows and ravens greet me, and my feet find the trails even though they’re covered by folds of snow. When I reach Alder Mere, its surface is frozen. Around it, the birches sleep unveiled and the winter ice creaks beneath my hay-filled boots. In the middle of the mere, I sweep away the frozen snow, clumps of it sticking to my felted woolen mittens.

It isn’t clear, the ice. It’s veined and milky, cracking beneath my fist, beneath each strike of the awl I’ve brought until black water wells up through the wound. I stole the awl from the preacher’s house, but the fist is mine, and it is stronger than anyone knows.

Every night since I crouched with Mama beneath that upturned hull, I have dreamt of Alder Mere, of Mama’s wet hands and sleeves, of my own blood dripping into the water, of something shifting and moving in the murky depths. Something growing, something wrapped in mud and shadow. Something hungry. Something that has learned to lurk and wait. The same as me.

Mama never taught me her craft, but I learned enough by watching her. I know what blood and words and the power of will can do. What they can bring into this world. What they can feed.

Kneeling on the broken ice, I breathe my brother’s name into the cold, a wan ghost of frost slipping from my lips. I speak his name more fervently than any prayer or confession that I were made to say in church these past five years, and then I sing the song I sang when I rocked his cradle, when I swaddled him, when I held him close. I prick my bared arm with the tip of the stolen awl, drawing blood. Drip, drip. Drip. A bit of me, a bit of my life, whispering through snow and ice and water, marring the placid, brittle surface of this unjust world, stirring what Mama thought she’d stilled.

I loved my Mama. I know she did the best she could. But she was wrong to leave my brother here.

For a moment, the mere and woods are silent. As if there’s no one here. As if I am truly bereft and alone. As if all my blood and all my days of toil beneath preacher’s roof were spent in vain. But then. Oh, then. Then the ice cracks and heaves beneath me, hooked claws scrabbling for purchase, a shadow unfolding as he rises.

He’s changed, my brother. He’s grown big and strong, and so have I, feeding off this world’s loneliness and darkness.

“I won’t leave you,” I whisper as he breaks the surface. “Not ever, that is my solemn oath and promise, brother. And neither one of us shall ever walk alone again. Together, we will prowl the fields and forest, like our Mama did when the moon was full. We will open our maws, and we will howl, together, for blood. Not our blood this time, but theirs.”

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Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a black dog. Her short story collection Six Dreams About the Train & Other Stories was published in 2021. Maria’s work has appeared in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 13, Black Static, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Podcastle, The Deadlands, Diabolical Plots, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @mariahaskins, and find out more about her and her work on her website:

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