The boy and the girl walked through the forest. Crows hung from the branches. Their beaks were open, eyes bulged, feet bound with twine. The boy cast them strange, fascinated glances as they passed. The girl walked by them in silence.
The boy’s clothes were still damp. His skin was pale, and it was bitterly cold. For three days rain had fallen. It had bled day and night into one, the noise of the thunder echoing through the woods.
‘Here,’ the girl had said, pulling the skin of a Ware apart, and there they had outlasted the rain. He remembered the face on the Ware, gristle in its teeth, the yellow of its eyes.
A large slit ran down the middle. They had not been the ones to make it- the beast had been dead when they found it. The boy hadn’t been sure what they would have done if it was still alive. Died themselves, probably. No, that wasn’t right. He looked at the girl again. She would not die easily. There would only be one of them lying still on the forest floor.
The girl wore a crown of daisies. Her hair fair, eyes colourless, skin pale. Yet her feet, weighed in the same clogs as he, moved with a gracefulness, a lightness, akin to the Fae.
Their mother, as the girl grew older and more beautiful, had often accused her of such things. ‘A challenging.’ The old woman had spat, her face lined with the years she had wasted. ‘A challenging, and a sore one to boot. She belongs in the fire. We oughta’ve tossed her there at birth.’ He had sat by his mother’s knee and rubbed at his stockings. He wanted to tell her nobody belonged in flames, not people, not the beasts in the forest, nor the Kings and Queens of other lands. Flames were hard to undo.
He was not devious like her (Mother, so dutiful, to have tempted them into the forest and commanded them to wait) nor did he have the cunning of his sister. But he was kind.
He poked at a hole in his many-stitched waistcoat and stared at the crows. The rain had slicked their feathers to the colour of tar, and he felt a strange pity for them.
‘You’re awfully quiet,’ said the girl.
‘I’m hungry,’ said the boy.
Though his hunger pains had quieted, the closest thing either of them had had to a good meal was dandelion-stems. The boy pointed to a nearby crow.
‘Why don’t we take one of those crows down? Father showed me how to light a fire with flint. If we could find some…’ But even as he suggested it he knew it was futile. The crows had begun to appear a half-mile back. There was darkness here. Whether it was the darkness of Pagans the Holy Men of their village warned against, or the darkness of witches, or Ware-Wolves, or simply that of evil men, he did not know. Nothing good would come from the crows.
As they turned a corner the trees began to thin. His heart hammered in his chest. They walked into an open plain, the trees forming a canopy above. The air was warmer here, sunlight filtering through the treetops.
But that wasn’t the best part- there was a house! The thought of a good meal and a bed was intoxicating. He made to stride forward but his sister held him back.
‘What?’ He whispered.
‘Isn’t this strange? Just look at that house.’
He looked. The walls were the colour of cake, and the smell of biscuits wafted from an open window. The windows were glazed. He blinked, trying to be sure, but yes- actually glazed, like icing. Thick wafers formed the roof. Chocolate tears hung from liquorice gutters, and a row of jelly-beans paved a path to the front door.
It was like something out of a dream. He licked his lips.
‘I’m hungry,’ He said. His sister sighed. They should be cautious in the forest, but he was so hungry. Thoughts would come clearer after a good meal.
The girl insisted on knocking at the door. The boy poked the wall, and was surprised to be met with resistance. Not cake, then, but biscuit. Marshmallow grew around the door. He took a bite. It was the best thing he had ever tasted. His sister opened her mouth to chide him, but before she could say anything the door opened.
Before them stood the oldest woman he had ever seen. She gnarled hands like the washer-women in their village, but none of the kindness in her eyes. Her skin was grey and moulting, her teeth yellow. Her eyes reminded him of the Ware.
‘Why don’t you come in?’ The woman smiled.
They spent the night there. Their beds were soft, and the woman gave them a wonderful supper. The boy woke the next morning with the smell of breakfast beckoning him downstairs. As he reached the bottom of the stairs he was surprised to hear his sister and the woman were deep in conversation.
‘You’ll teach me magic?’ His sister’s voice, excited, rang cleanly through the wall. He heard the clink of cutlery, the scraping of a plate.
‘For the right price,’ the woman said. ‘For a week’s labour, I can teach you a spell that will return you to your village.’
‘Or I can teach you how to never need anyone again. Even him.’
The boy staggered back. He snuck out the backdoor, carefully, and sat on the grass. The woman was a witch! The thought unsettled him. Magic wasn’t bad in itself, but those who used it often became bad. He didn’t want that for his sister.
After a few minutes his sister joined him. She put her hand on his shoulder. A sliver of daylight between them. They sat together for a long time.
Eventually the girl rose. ‘She wants us to work.’
That night his dreams were festered. He rolled in sweat-stained sheets, grunting softly, fists clenched. He was with his father, on the mountains. The air was sharp and sweet, the goats bleating. His father looked well, which was largely how the boy knew this was a dream.
‘You look rough,’ said his father.
‘I feel it,’ the boy stared up to the mountains, which were covered with snow. ‘It’s nice up here.’
‘Don’t dawdle. Work is work.’ They continued down, herding the goats along.
‘Why?’ It was the simplicity of the word, more than anything else, that caught the breath in his throat.
His father thought. ‘I did my best with you. But the fight’s not in you. Like these goats. Made for sacrifice.’
‘Sacrifice,’ the boy repeated. He looked at the snow, which had begun to smother the land. Wind stung his eyes.
‘All magic requires sacrifice,’ His father said, in the witch’s voice.
The boy felt distorted as he woke. The mountains slipped away. He lay in the bathtub, up to his neck. His sister was speaking. He tried to reach out for her, but his arms were heavy. The coldness of the mountains was still on his skin.
The witch’s hand was on his sister’s shoulder. She was mumbling words, faster and faster, as the water rose over his eyes.
His skin turned to feathers. His eyes shrank. Pain ran like claws down his spine. When it was over he curled up, but she straightened him out. She took him by the feet. He already knew where they were going.
She picked the lowermost branch of a Hawthorn tree. His brothers did not look surprised to see him. She was crying, naturally, but his sharp bird-eyes did not miss the pleasure. The expectation of magic. She tied him to the branch, too low-down to see the rest of the crows; for this, he was glad.
Days, weeks, months. She sat with him often. Sometimes she brought excuses, other times blame. Never news from home. He watched as his sister grew into a woman, her reputation growing with her. The witch disappeared one day and did not come back. His sister stopped coming to speak to him a long time ago. He wondered if she remembers which one he is. Insanity is normal for crows, flickering, as they do, in their half-tongue, but he held on to himself. Waiting.
One day, it happened. His sister stood, holding her staff high. Flames swirled, dark golds and wicked orange, and soon the house was alight. Smoke ate up the canopy. Heat singed his feathers. He came to her, with deadwood wings.
They stood, once-girl and not-boy, and watched the walls fall, the roof cave in, the sky a shroud in black.
Sarah Hall-Murphy is a writer from the North of England. She has work published in BRAG Magazine, MMU Poetry Society Anthology, Cathartic Literary Magazine, Interstellar Lit, Streetcake Magazine, Aah Magazine and the Paper Crane Outstanding Young Writers Anthology.