“It’s okay,” I murmured, dropping to my knees beside the fallen hero. “You did well. You did so well.”
“Supposed to defeat you.” He didn’t have the strength for more than a whisper.
“I know,” I said. “You’re still a child. They should never have sent you to fight me.”
He bridled at that, for a moment looking fierce despite the terrible injuries to his body. “I had to save them.”
“I know.” This was not the moment to say that I had never been going to threaten his village. I had knelt over innumerable dying teenagers over the years. It was better to give them some semblance of peace, and validation. For most of them, it was the only unconditional validation they had ever received.
“You fought so well,” I said instead.
He smiled, and closed his eyes. I held his hand as the breath left his body, and only then did I let the tears fall. The heroes were always so young. Vulnerable to the siren call of a god’s promises and the resulting gifts of speed or strength or smarts. I had wondered for years why they always chose teenagers. Maybe they just couldn’t be assured anyone older wouldn’t see through the relationship offered and recognize how one-sided it was.
Either way, my job was now clear. I lifted his body into my arms, using a bit of magic to help with the weight, and carried him into my house.
I don’t have minions, or any sort of elaborate castle hideout. I live alone in a small cottage high on a mountain above a village that produces far too many heroes. At the center of the room sat a large stone slab which served as a workspace, and it was on this slab that I laid his body. Then I began to wash the blood from his wounds. This one had been younger than any of the others to come for me. He looked barely sixteen, if that. He was handsome and wearing armor that had once been fine. He had fought well, attacking me so fiercely that I had been forced to kill him. But he had been no match for my powers.
His presence was a sign the gods were growing increasingly desperate. They sent children, yes, but it used to be older children. A furious anger filled me as I washed the body. The villagers thought I was showing my contempt for them by returning the bodies so carefully cared for, but that had never had anything to do with it. I respected the children and hurt for them. They usually knew they were hopelessly outclassed in fighting me, and yet they came anyway, chosen by the gods, bolstered with promises of protection that were half lies, never once asking themselves why anything that called itself a god needed to work through a mortal vessel in the first place.
With the blood cleaned away and preservation magics laid, the boy looked as though he was merely sleeping on that table. The sight broke my heart. He should be out thinking about an apprenticeship or working his father’s farm, not coming at a witch using a sword. But he’d fallen prey to the gods’ blandishments and now here he was. I wrapped myself in my cloak, donned a mask, and set out for the village, levitating the boy’s body behind me. The mask was probably unnecessary, but I didn’t want to take a chance that there were still some in the village who might remember me. None of the would-be heroic adolescents who’d come after me had ever shown any sign of recognition on seeing my face, but they were of a younger generation.
My fall had come forty years ago and more, when I was still a teen myself.
I trudged down the mountain slowly. There would be few people on the village streets this time of day, as many would be in the fields, but they would have known the boy had come to kill me, and the shepherds on the hills knew what it meant when I came down to the village with a body floating behind me. Normally I accompanied this procession with lightning strikes and other intimidating displays to discourage them from all attacking me in a rush of bodies, but this time I was just too tired. This boy had been too young, his death too unnecessary. I had to complete my plans before this could get any worse.
By the time I reached the village square some of the braver ones had gathered around the edges. Children whispered and pointed. I reached the center of the square and slowly lowered the boy’s body to lay it down.
Normally I did not speak to them, but this had to end.
“I’ve killed every one you’ve sent,” I said harshly. Those who had gathered jerked back, startled. “I’ve killed only the ones you’ve sent. I have never brought ill luck onto the village. I have never stolen your livestock. I have never taken your children. So if you have any brains left in your heads, you might consider what sort of gods still feel the need to keep you sacrificing children like this.”
“The gods keep us safe,” snapped a man in the long red robes of a priest of Zarkanen. “You dare to question that, vile witch?”
“By your own laws, it’s not murder if it’s self-defense,” I said. “You’re the one who keeps sending children to kill me!”
“Because you have angered the gods!”
“If I’ve angered the gods so much, perhaps they should send someone who has a hope of killing me!” I saw him draw himself up as if to go on a tirade and raised my hand to forestall him. “Fine. Follow your gods to your doom and back. Let them call me a monster. Keep trying to kill me. What’s a lost son, or five? You can always order the women to make more.” Suddenly exhausted, I turned and left the village to trudge back up the hill. Stupid sanctimonious priests, always going on about bowing to the will of the gods. What gods worth following cared so little for the lives of their people? Bow to the will of the gods and wind up dead every time!
I kept myself in good shape, but I was in my sixties and living a fair distance above the village. By the time I reached my cottage my anger had died down to the ever-present background hum I had always experienced. I was nearly finished—had nearly completed the forging of a weapon that could kill a god. Probably not more than one god, but I had lost the things that made life worth living long ago. If I could at least demonstrate that it was possible, it wouldn’t matter if I died in the doing. The next young girl who woke up and realized she was meant to be something more than a god’s sheep would have my example to know it was possible, and I had left copies of my work scattered through the world where she could find them. Eventually the gods would learn better, or they would fall and leave us to govern ourselves.
Once inside, though, I found I could not face another session of working my blood through the metal of the spear. The intentionality it required was, in that moment, beyond me. Instead, I tore off the mask and flung it away, then collapsed into the sole chair and sat exhausted. I hadn’t tried to argue with them since before I’d become a witch. They hadn’t listened then, to a destroyed young girl who’d lost the only person who’d ever mattered to her. Now they didn’t listen to a terrifying masked figure who wielded powers beyond their comprehension. They were nothing if not consistent.
A gasp from the doorway startled me, and I was instantly on my feet in a fighting stance. Sending two would-be heroes in the same day wasn’t something the village had ever done before, but I couldn’t take chances. I sent my magic lashing out towards whatever had gasped before I saw just who was in my doorway: a little girl, no more than seven, who had been peeping in the open door of my cottage. Frantically I pulled on the magic, trying to bring it back. The spell rebounded and exploded in all directions, sending a painful magic-burn through my mental pathways. The force knocked the child out into the garden. I rose, swaying a bit with dizziness from the magic-burn, and headed into the garden.
The child was lying flat on the ground, unmoving. The alpacas, being used to strange explosions, were gathering around her with some interest, leaning down to nudge this new being that had appeared in their midst. I slipped through my small herd and knelt beside her. She was conscious, looking back at me with some interest, but her eyes were unfocused. Definitely a concussion of some form—likely not a severe one; I had pulled my magical blow hard once I’d realized who I was aiming at. It was unlikely she’d be able to walk down to the village for a bit, and I didn’t want to go back down there carrying a semiconscious child; that was a sure way to get the whole torches-and-pitchforks mob after me rather than just would-be heroes, and while that wouldn’t be a complete disaster it would delay my plans and require me to move. So I lifted her into my arms, carried her into the house, and laid her down on the table.
It was the first time I’d had a living person laid out on the table. I’d had training in healing—every witch does—and if the priests hadn’t singled me out as evil I’d have had live children in my cottage multiple times a week as they brought me their injuries. I always kept all the tinctures ready for most types of injury, knowing that if there had ever been a disaster in the village I would not have been able to resist helping. Now I was glad of my forethought, as it meant I could just pull a bottle off the shelf and carefully drip liquid from it into her mouth, without having to lose time mixing it. She sputtered at first, then swallowed convulsively. After a few minutes I was rewarded as her pupils returned to normal and she began to look around the room with interest.
I wondered what she had been expecting to see. The inside of my cottage was kept neat and clean, with herbs drying from the ceiling and rows of bottles and books on the shelves that lined the room. In the corner opposite the front door was my bed; beside it were two doors, one leading to the pantry and the other to the privy. At the food of the bed was a cedar chest, beside it an armoire. Apart from the house containing far more books than any normal villager owned, it looked like any reasonably neat wisewoman’s cottage. Which was more or less what I was, gods’ enmity notwithstanding, but who knew what stories this child had heard or invented about me? Certainly those stories were terrifying enough that this was the first time I’d ever had problems with children trying to peek at the scary witch, in a decade of living here.
“Grandmama has a painting of you,” said the child, breaking into my thoughts. “A little one.”
I raised my eyebrows. So this was Clara’s granddaughter, then. And possibly Eric’s, as well, depending on which of Clara’s children she had descended from. If Clara had had other children—she hadn’t remarried when I’d left, but who knew what forty years could bring?
“You couldn’t have seen my face enough to recognize me in the village, not through the mask from a painting that’s fifty years old.” I had been in my mid-teens when Eric had painted that portrait. He’d said it was for practice, and so he would always have something of me with him.
“Grandmama went white when you talked.”
“I should think everyone went white when I talked. Aren’t you all supposed to be terrified of me? That’s why the heroes keep coming to kill me.”
“Different from everyone else. She didn’t talk at all after. She went into the trunk where she keeps Grandpapa’s things and pulled out the painting and sat staring at it for a while.”
“I bet she didn’t show it to you, though.”
The child gave me a conspiratorial look. “I was spying.”
I managed to maintain a straight face, but it was not easy. Spiritually, she sounded more like she ought to have been my grandchild than Eric’s.
“Spying has negative consequences,” I informed her.
“I didn’t get hurt, though. And you helped me after.” She paused. “Why didn’t you help Edmond, after you blasted him?”
“Is Edmond the boy who was here earlier?”
She nodded. “He’s my favorite cousin.”
I froze. Clara had had twin children when I’d left. Even if she’d remarried, had other children, there were reasonable odds that I had killed Eric’s grandson today.
The gods would pay for this.
I was saved from having to answer by a shout from outside the cottage.
“Eleanor! My hands are open and they are empty; I come to speak and not to fight.”
The voice was older, but definitely Clara’s. I felt a wave of dizziness as memories washed over me. The last time I’d seen Clara she had been shouting at me about how I wasn’t the only one who’d lost someone.
I quickly grabbed the dropped mask and tied it on. Conversing with a child with my face exposed was one thing; Clara was another matter.
“Stay there,” I whispered to the girl and then moved to the doorway.
Clara was standing in front of my cottage, her hands extended palms-up in front of her.
“I have your granddaughter,” I said, attempting to speak in as booming and ominous a voice as possible.
“And you’re not going to do anything to Eric’s granddaughter when you know that’s who she is,” she said, her voice infuriatingly calm. “You don’t need the mask thing; I know who you are.”
“Assumptions lead to death,” I said. “I’ve already killed one of Eric’s grandsons today.”
She rolled her eyes. “Your voice hasn’t changed that much since the last time I saw you, and even if it had, that speech in town today made it obvious to anyone who knew you then. Or would, if everyone else weren’t so convinced you’re the offspring of a demon or other such nonsense. And if you’d known Edmond’s lineage, you wouldn’t have killed him. If I’d known who you were before he came here, I’d have made sure you knew.” The grief was heavy in her voice. “You killed my grandson today, Eleanor. You left me to raise my children on my own when you were their godsmother. At least take off the mask and let me see your face.”
I stood, in silence, but made no move to remove the mask. I had left Eleanor behind long ago.
After a time, Clara sighed. “You still go silent, when you don’t want to answer the question. I never understood how Eric managed to wait you out.”
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“To get my granddaughter.”
“You didn’t know she was up here until I told you. Try again.”
“Because you’ve apparently been living up here for ten years pretending to be the witch in the fairy tale and killing anyone who got close to you, and once upon a time you were my husband’s closest friend.”
“I never pretended to be anything. You heard me, when I spoke today. I built a cottage on unclaimed lands, I kept a small herd, and I never bothered anyone.”
“You never came down and told us you were here. You never introduced yourself.”
“And this merits sending people to kill me?”
“The gods sent people to kill you.”
“The gods sent Eric to best a sphinx for no other reason than petty point-scoring. Have you forgotten so quickly that the gods see us as toys? Or are you so determined to infuse his death with meaning that you’ve convinced yourself their pettiness matters?”
That scored a hit; Clara stiffened slightly and her face took on a fierce cast. I turned and swept back into the cottage. The child was, a bit surprisingly, exactly where I had left her. This became less surprising when I saw the way she was looking at the edge of the table; apparently it was too tall for her to feel she could jump off it safely.
“Grandmama!” she exclaimed as I entered, and I realized Clara had followed behind me. “I was captured by the witch!” She sounded as though she considered this a grand adventure. “And she’s that lady from your painting!”
Clara gave the child an exasperated look and walked over to the table. “Her name is Eleanor and she’s your mother’s godsmother.”
“Why don’t I know her, then?”
“Because she ran away when your mother was young.” She looked at me. “What exactly did you do?”
“In my defense, I thought she was another one of your hero-children coming to kill me. And I did give her a potion for it; in another half-hour or so it’ll be like it never happened.”
There was a long pause.
“You haven’t changed at all, have you,” said Clara. “The rest of us grew up and grew older.”
“Not everyone grew older,” I snapped back.
“And some of us moved on. You do that, when someone dies.”
“If you want to let the gods mindlessly run your life, sure! You grow up, you tell yourself you’re skilled and heroic because you survived or not good enough because their eyes never fell on you, and you let the next generation go on.”
“It’s better than freezing in place and turning into a bitter shadow. You think angry, friendless, and refusing to even show me your face is what Eric would have wanted for you?”
“I think he didn’t get a chance to want things for me because he was killed in a petty power struggle!”
There was another long silence, and then Clara slumped a little, and sank down into the room’s sole chair. She lifted her granddaughter into her lap, looking suddenly very old. I felt no triumph, only exhaustion of my own. My mask felt less like a shield than a child’s hiding place.
“What are you planning, then?” Clara asked. “What’s worth killing this many innocents?”
“The gods killed those innocents, not me,” I snapped. “And I intend to return the favor.”
Clara paled. “It’s impossible to kill the gods.”
“But you have a story about it!” said the child in Clara’s lap. We both stared at her. I’d forgotten how much children listen—I’d assumed we were having an argument over her head, and some of it certainly was, but apparently she’d been able to follow enough of it to make it worth paying attention to.
“What story?” asked Clara.
“The one about Kylien Deathseeker.”
I laughed at Clara’s affronted expression. “Very good. That’s the story that started me on what I’m doing too. It’s not just a legend, you know. She really did it. I found out how. I’m making a weapon. I wrote everything down, and scattered copies of my notes in my travels so the next one to lose someone to the gods will have more to go on than I did.”
“You’ll die in the process,” said Clara.
“You think I care about that? You think my life has been worth anything since Eric died? I died too, that day.”
“And yet you lived long enough to kill others.” Clara did not shout. Her voice remained level. “You killed one of Eric’s grandsons. You. Not the gods. You think he would have wanted to see you do that?”
“I defended myself from an attack by the gods. His death is another to avenge. He chose to obey, just like Eric did. And he died for it, like Eric did. I was no threat to the village and they chose to send teenagers after me anyway. They always choose to send people who can’t possibly accomplish the tasks, and the tasks aren’t even important! What kind of gods are those?”
“They’re like teachers,” said the child. “They make you do things you aren’t good at for no reason.”
I snorted. “Except your teachers won’t kill you and the gods will.”
“Do you have a spear like Kylien had? Can I see it?”
“You are going to go straight home,” said Clara. “Right now. You will wait for me there. If you go somewhere else I will know, and you will not like the consequences.”
“But I want to see the spear!”
The child pouted, but reluctantly slid off Clara’s lap and started for the door. Clara immediately returned her attention to me and thus did not see the child slip a bundle of papers off the shelf near the door on her way out. I was grateful the mask hid my amusement. She’d gotten, completely at random, some of my notes on the legends that hinted at weaknesses the gods had, ones I had collected in my travels. She would, at least, find stories that were strange to her within the pages.
The hidden meanings in those stories would have to wait until she was older. For a brief moment, I was almost sorry I wouldn’t be able to guide her through them. The feeling was quickly subsumed by a fresh wave of anger. The life I should have had, the one where I traveled and returned with new stories just to share them, where I would teach her stories just because she liked them, had been stolen from me by the gods.
“Did she tell you her name?” asked Clara.
I could not keep the sudden pain from my face, though again the mask concealed it. They had combined my name and a feminized version of Eric’s—a name that had to have come from Clara, as Elica’s mother would have scarcely any memory of me.
“It’s not too late, you know,” said Clara. “We’ve lost time, but you could still come home.”
“After everything I’ve been?”
“They don’t need to know everything you’ve been.”
“You would have me leave Eric unavenged?”
“You think you’re the only person who lost someone? I lost him and you that day. I raised two children on my own. And at least with him I knew he was dead. I could grieve for what we could have had and go on. You just disappeared one night and I never knew what happened!”
“You would have stopped me,” I said, my voice heavy. “I couldn’t let that happen. Don’t you see? It has to end. The gods are petty nightmares who use children as pawns. If I have to sacrifice myself for the greater good then so be it.”
“You walked out on your responsibilities!”
“To fulfill a higher one!”
“Tell that to Darian. It’s his son you killed today. He doesn’t remember you at all. But he does remember crying for you, for years, wanting to know if it was his fault you went away. He’d just lost his father, and then you left him too.”
I turned away from Clara and walked to the window. “I did what I had to do.”
“You can’t even look at me. You can’t even show me your face.”
I didn’t reply, but remained staring out the window. I hadn’t had other choices. Eric had been the other half of my soul. After he’d died, I had gone out every night to the gorge beside the village, willing myself to jump in. Originally, when I’d set out, it hadn’t been to kill the gods; it had been to find a way to get him back. Bringing back the dead was impossible. But stopping the cycle wasn’t. If it had vengeance alongside it, that was simply a nice bonus.
“Fine,” she said. “Abandon us again. Disappear into the night. Refuse to take responsibility for your actions. But one thing’s certain: you aren’t the person Eric loved anymore.” She left. I did not turn to watch her go.
I remained at the window for a long time, but then went to my cedar chest, pulled out the spear, and laid it on the table. I didn’t think Clara was right about that. Eric had always forgiven me for my difficulties with the world. I thought he’d forgive the path I was walking now as well. But even if she was right, I’d gone too far down this road to turn back. The spear was almost finished. After that, I’d die killing a god. Eventually, enough others would walk in my footsteps that all the gods would die, and people could manage themselves. This cycle had to end.
There were no other options.
© 2022 Kit Harding
About the Author
Kit Harding is a writer, librarian, and maker who belongs to the trees and sea of New England. Her work has previously appeared in the Zombies Need Brains anthology Derelict. You can find her online at writerkit.