short story – changeling children

The witch came for me when I was sixteen years old.

I was in class, listening to the drumbeat of rain and the wordless drone of the teacher. I had spent the first half of class drawing a pattern of stars and leaves on the palm of my hand and the ink was smudging onto my cheek as I held up my head. I didn’t notice she was there until the teacher’s lullaby voice halted and all eyes had turned to the door.

She wore a black dress, silver chains and a rainbow of crystals wrapped around her neck and trailing to her waist. Her skin was crinkled like crushed silk and her ash-grey hair was assembled like a crown on top of her head. Her eyes scanned the room and locked on me. Her chest heaved with a disappointed sigh.

She wanted a new born. Instead she got me.

*

While I was watching ink seep into the cracks in my skin, Alyssa was steadying her hand and lowering a tattoo needle to her own forearm. She already had plenty of inky companions crawling about her skin; an emerald snake slithered from her shoulder and whispered into her pierced ear, a small dragon blew smoke rings towards her heart, birds took flight from her ankle. There were other creatures too, ones only she could name. A grey, winged monster that people mistook for a gargoyle glared out from her left arm, a ring of goblins and faeries danced around her stomach. There were runes on her fingers and compass-like symbols on her feet. A constellation of stars was mapped on her lower back, and a pair of eyes, marsh green with a ring of silver, kept watch from the back of her neck.

Her own eyes were usually smudged with kohl, strands of white-blonde hair sticking to her lashes. She always forgot to brush her hair and kept it tangled up in a straining band on top of her head, dark roots creeping through like snakes in snow. She liked her nose best when it was between the pages of a book, and her hands when they danced across a blank canvas. She found home nowhere until the day she stood among the stars, even with my knife held to her throat.

She had a way of casting a charm on those around her. She had enchanted her way into the tattoo parlour at fifteen years old for her first tattoo, lured them into teaching her how it was done, and bewitched her parents into forgiving her.

But for all her charms, there was a strangeness about her. Something that made people shiver. When she was around, things moved when they shouldn’t, things watched when they couldn’t. A sweet girl, they called her, but an odd one.

Had I known her then, I would have called her the coolest girl I’d ever seen.

And while I was rubbing ink from my cheek and meeting the marsh green eyes of a witch, she was staining her skin with stars and leaves.

*

‘Malha, you know computers have been invented, right?’

Malha was the witch’s name. Or, at least, the one she told me. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, as she did whenever I said something that exhausted her patience, ‘Your point?’

‘Well, I could work a lot faster if you just uploaded all of this onto my laptop,’ I glared across the table at the stacks of withered books, mouldy parchments and crumpled constellation maps that I had been reading for months, ‘half of these books have no bindings anymore, I can’t make sense of anything when I have to stop and hunt for missing pages.’

‘Paper and ink has its own kind of magic. This is how I learned, and you will too.’

I rolled my eyes as she ran a proud, veiny hand over a decomposing atlas, ‘You can’t pretend to be one of those old ladies who’s afraid of modern technology.’

‘What makes you think I’m not?’

‘Um, hello!’ I threw my arms up, gesturing around us. We were sitting in Malha’s home, an icicle shaped spacecraft hovering thousands and thousands of miles above the Earth, poised as if to fall and melt into the oceans.

She could draw entrances to it on Earth, marking any old doorway with crude runes. On the day she stole me away, she had carved them into the classroom door with her sharp nail and I had wandered into a thick forest. I’d tripped over slithering roots and sliced my hand on thorns. I’d muttered something about her being a cliche; an old crone living deep in a dangerous forest. Is your house made of gingerbread? I’d called out as I twisted my way through the branches that moved aside for her.

Then I noticed the glinting silver walls ahead. The forest gave way to reveal a hexagonal doorway and a winding, metallic staircase. We went up, up, up and around until I found myself standing in a room with dusty books and maps covering every inch of the angled walls, except the window to my right that stretched across the entire room, stars and planets floating so close and so clear I felt like I could reach my hand out and grab them.

I had stared out the window for hours, my eyes filled with the deep blues and greens of Earth, wide with starlight. Malha had to drag me away, fingernails deep in my flesh, to get me to focus on anything else. The bedroom she gave me looked out over the moon and I lost sleep counting the craters and crevices I could never see from Earth.

‘This place has a use, I don’t have to like it,’ Malha rose from her seat, eyes narrowed and stern, ‘Just finish your reading and find me when you’re ready.’

I watched her leave with a scowl. When a witch shows up at your classroom door and tells you to come with her, you expect to leave behind a bored life filled with homework. I expected magic and monsters and excitement. As much as I enjoyed floating miles away from the world, witchcraft turned out to be much too similar to schoolwork.

Malha told me little of her past, beyond what she spat out about my parents. My mother, it turns out, was dying long before I was born. But Malha found her and with what should have been her last breaths, she had struck a deal; a life for a life. My mother was saved and, in return, her first-born’s life belonged to the witch.

So, when the time came, my parents did the impossible and hid me from a death-defying witch for sixteen years. Malha didn’t know how they had done it, and I could see the frustration burning in her eyes whenever she thought about it. For her, little time had passed before she came to claim me. A year, she had thought, two at best. But no. Sixteen years were lost to her. And instead of the new born baby uncorrupted by modern society and selfish humans, she got a teenager with an unhealthy obsession with screens and little interest in crumbling magic books.

But she was determined to make this work. I would be a witch, whether I liked it or not. And sooner or later, she would tell me why.

*

Alyssa stepped out of the art shop with a fistful of oil paints and a fresh canvas tucked under one arm. She still had a dripping paintbrush tucked in her hair, her jeans ripped and splattered with colours, and dried paint on her fingertips. She had wild, dream-dilated eyes from losing herself in the world she painted and that’s when they first found me.
I had a canvas bag slung over my shoulder, filled with herbs and crystals, a telescope under my arm and a potted plant in hand. Just a few things a witch in space needs, according to Malha. Only Alyssa sensed something unusual about the girl marching through the crowds.
Maybe it was the rainbow of colours I had poured into my hair, much to Malha’s disapproval . Maybe she had sensed that magic was behind it.
Maybe it was the leathery, green jacket and gloves I wore, the ski-boots on my feet or the astronaut helmet peeking out of the bag.
Maybe it was just fate.
She followed me across the street, her footsteps falling into mine. Across the road, under the bridge and into the alley. She watched me take a a stub of white chalk from my pocket and scribble the same runes that were inked on her fingers over a small, locked, cobwebbed door. She waited five seconds before following me inside.

She found herself in a forest. The paints and canvas fell from her hands as she stepped over roots and brushed aside leaves that licked her cheek. She breathed in the kaleidoscopic scents of the indoor forest; mint and willow and bark and rose. She made her way through the door and up the stairs. Her breath hitched as she looked out the great window and saw a black canvas glittering with stars, the Earth she had just been walking on miles under her feet. I took that as my chance to slip from the shadows and put a blade to her neck.
‘How did you get here?’
‘I followed you,’ she said in a soft, distant voice. Her eyes, unalarmed and unsurprised, never left the window.
‘Why?’
A smile tugged at her lips but she didn’t answer.
I pulled my knife away and drew out a thumb-sized glass bottle from my pocket. I couldn’t remember the names of the ground up herbs inside but I knew what to whisper as I poured it onto my palm and blew it towards the girl, catching her sleeping body in my arms.

*

‘What is this?’
‘Chocolate. You want some?’
‘I gave you money for supplies, not for chocolate.’
‘You said everything a witch needs, and this witch needs chocolate.’
‘Shhh. She’s waking up.’
Alyssa’s eyelids fluttered open as Malha and I stared. She yawned and sat up, a tentative smile on her lips; as if waking up in a starship with two witches was no stranger than waking to the sun in winter. Her eyes fell to my hands.
‘Oh. You want a bit?’ I held up the chocolate bar in my hand and Malha hissed.
‘I think she’s more concerned about the knife you threatened her with.’
I stashed the blade back in my belt, ‘Right. Sorry,’
‘Who are you?’ Alyssa’s eyes flickered between the two of us.
‘I’ll be asking the questions,’ Malha folded her arms, slender fingers tapping her elbow impatiently, ‘How did you come to be here?’
‘I followed her through a wall. I don’t know why…I just… felt like I had to.’
Swift as a snake, Malha lurched forward and grabbed her hands, peering at the runes inked on her fingers, ‘Do you know what these mean?’
‘No,’ Alyssa snatched her hands back and folded her arms, ‘I dreamt them. Sometimes I have dreams and visions and I want to remember them.’
‘Is that what all your tattoos are?’ I asked. She nodded and began to talk me through each one. The dreams that woke her, sweating and heart thumping in the night. The visions that swirled into her teacups, the whispers she heard when everyone around her was silent.

Malha stood and paced as she spoke, stopping now and then to stroke the leaves and petals of the plants she grew in our little spacecraft, or clutch a book in her arms as if it might protect her from the unanswered questions brewing in her mind.
‘No way!’ I ran a hand over the newest tattoo running down Alyssa’s forearm, ‘Malha, look! These are clovers!’
The witch peered at the swirls of stars and leaves, a frown creasing at her brow.
Alyssa looked at me questioningly and I grinned, ‘That’s my name. Clover.’
Alyssa’s own smile faltered as Malha reached out a hand, shaking and hesitant, and lifted the chain around Alyssa’s neck. Attached to the end was a small piece of twisted iron and wood no longer than my index finger, delicate symbols carved along it.
‘Where did you get this,’ Malha’s voice was a whisper.
‘I’ve always had it.’
Malha shook her head and began mumbling to herself. I strained to translate the words, an ancient language from the books she had given me. Alyssa turned to me with a frown and I shrugged, a shiver running through my skin as I saw Malha’s eyes fill with tears.
‘Ithuna,’ she said.

*

Malha was one thousand years old. Or thereabouts. She couldn’t remember the number exactly, losing track after the first few hundred. But sixteen years before she would have looked like a young woman.

As a girl, Malha had chosen not to marry the Viking warlord that wanted her and instead chose the path of magic. Not any old witch as I had thought her, but one of the Vǫlur; more than magic and more than wisdom, answering to no man but the gods. And only if she chose to.
She had forged an iron wand, carved with runes and twisted with wood from the oldest tree in her garden, and she poured her magic into it. She had woven victory into battles and healed the dying, brought food to the starving and sight to the blind. She tracked the stars and planets and used them to guide her people on journeys across the seas. She had dreams and visions of the future and in them she saw the end of the gods her people had loved.

That got their attention.

They took Malha and did something they never though they would have to. They asked for her protection. She tied her life to theirs, focusing her magic on their lives alone. She survived through the centuries, a long, long mortal life. She watched her sisters disappear; killed, and sacrificed and abandoned.
She didn’t know that all those years, she too was being hunted.

Traditions were forgotten and lost, and so were the gods to all but her. She knew one day she would die, and when that time came, her gods would too.
She asked them for a daughter, one she could pass on her knowledge to, who would take her place when the time came.
But the day her daughter was born, she was stolen. Malha woke to find an empty crib and her iron wand gone. She had screamed and torn her house apart, burned it to the ground and spat her tears into the ashes. She had scoured the world for her child. Without her wand, the years caught up with her. Her skin creased and her bones grew heavy. She felt her gods withering, and knew that those visions from so long ago had finally come to pass.

She had fallen to the cold ground, feeling every day of her long life sinking into her body, exhaling hope in a mist with each breath. Her ears were filled with the cries of the gods as she stared at the night sky.
As she counted the stars, she understood what she had to do.
She wove a new constellation into the sky, a cage frozen in time to protect the gods. It took the last of her youth to do so and, after that, she was alone.

There was no telling how long she had left of her life. She felt as though she was in the dark, listening to grains of sand slipping through the hourglass, never knowing when it might stop.
If she couldn’t find her own child in time, then maybe she could find another.

*

‘Ithuna,’ Malha voice caught in her throat and she held a hand to her mouth.
‘Uh, my name is Alyssa?’
‘No, no it’s not,’ Malha took Alyssa’s face in her hands, tears slipping from her cheeks, ‘Your name is Ithuna and you are my daughter.’
I felt my bones chill as I heard her words, but Alyssa shook her head, ‘I’m sorry but that’s-’
‘You have visions of the future, you know things are true when everyone else might call it a myth. The constellation, you said you have a one on your back. Does it look like this?’ Malha tore a star chart from the wall and held it in front of Alyssa who nodded in bewilderment, ‘This constellation does not exist on any other map. No human has seen it but me, Clover and … you.’
Malha led Alyssa to the table, gripping a hand in hers, and told her everything. Everything she had refused to tell me, centuries of secrets. I moved to window and watched the light in Malha’s eyes as she looked at her daughter, eyes that watched me from the back of Alyssa’s neck.

I turned to the stars and said my goodbyes. I’d see them back on Earth, but never in the same way. It seemed too unfair that the universe would throw me into a life of cosmic witchcraft, orbiting like the moon’s little sister, using magic. Magic. And it would be taken away too soon. Back to the ordinary. I didn’t want my laptop, bottled hair-dye, the smell of the city sewers. I wanted books and constellations, forests in space and witchcraft.

‘And this,’ Malha lifted Alyssa’s necklace, ‘Where did you find it?’
‘There were a couple of splinters in my back garden,’ said Alyssa, ‘I thought they were pretty and… there was something else about them. Something that seemed important. I kept them all in a box apart from this piece.’
‘We have to find them. Immediately. Clover, where are you going?’
I froze in the doorway. As I looked back at them, standing hand in hand, I saw the resemblance clear as the moon, ‘You don’t need me anymore, right? You’ve found your daughter, the one you always wanted.’
I didn’t say it bitterly. It was a fact. One, I realized, I had been waiting to find out the minute magic had entered my world. Malha walked towards me and placed a cool hand on my cheek, looking at me without the impatience I usually saw there.
‘I found you, and my daughter envisioned you. You are more than needed. You are essential. The sister destined to my daughter, the child I chose. Now, let’s go.’

*

Alyssa’s house was picture perfect. A front porch wrapped around the building with a swing-seat swaying silently in the wind. The garden was full of neat hedges and blossoming flowers, a pristine mailbox standing to attention at the bottom of the path. Malha and I exchanged a wary glance as we approached. Its precision was… ghoulish.
Alyssa’s hand hesitated at the door just as she was about to slip her key into the lock.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. I followed her gaze to the broken lock, my questioned answered. I kicked the door open and stepped in.
The furniture had been thrown aside, glass and mirrors shattered, shards littered across the floor. All of her possessions were upturned and broken.
Alyssa led us through the chaos, picking our way over snapped ornaments and cracked photo frames until she paused at her bedroom door.

‘Looks like someone beat us to it,’ she said to Malha, pointing to an empty wooden chest in the middle of the disarray, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘How could someone have possibly known…’ I hugged my arms around me as a cold wind rushed through the broken window. Alyssa and I looked at Malha, her expression hard and cold as ice as she knelt down in the middle of the room and ran a finger through a small pile of ashes.
‘Bjarkan,’ She spat.
‘So good to see you again, Malha, elska mín.’

Alyssa and I jumped at the strange voice, and turned to the doorway, peering into the shadows for the speaker.
Malha did not look up, clenching the ashes in her fist, ‘Trickster. I suppose I have you to thank for everything.’
‘You’re most welcome,’ the voice laughed, edging closer to us as Alyssa and I searched for the source.
‘Who is it, Malha?’ Alyssa asked, picking up a sharp, jagged length of wood that used to be a chair leg. She yelped as something tore it from her hands and sent it flying out the window, shattering the rest of the glass.
I drew my absurdly small knife and held it out to the large wolf prowling in the corner, illuminated by a sliver of moonlight.
‘Malha,’ the wolf’s growl was almost like a purr caressing her name, ‘Your young companions are being terribly rude. So quick to harm, when I haven’t even had a chance to introduce myself.’
‘Then allow me,’ Malha rose to her feet, ‘Clover, I-Alyssa. This is Bjarkan. Demi-god, deceiver, mongrel. Please, feel free to do him harm.’
The wolf disappeared in the shadows only to arise as a bear, grumbling like thunder, ‘Now I see where they learned their manners.’
‘Because of you,’ Malha took a step closer to Bjarkan, glaring up into his black, glinting eyes, ‘My daughter learned nothing from me.’
Blinding light burst from Malha’s hands as she threw them towards Bjarkan. I turned away, shielding my eyes. As the light faded I felt something slither up my arm, a long, emerald snake curling around me, a tongue tasting my neck.
‘This one knows things,’ Bjarkan hissed in my ear, ‘But is it enough? Do you believe she’s good enough to follow in your footsteps? Clover. Your parents were wise enough to listen to me, and I helped them. What would they say if they saw you now? What is it you really want?’
‘She wants you far away from her,’ Malha limped to me and ripped the snake from my skin, throwing another feeble burst of light towards him. He chuckled, shadows flickering as he shape-shifted and I felt Malha slip something into my hand. She lunged for Bjarkan who stepped out of her reach with ease.
‘You’re old and weak, elska mín. I never would have dreamed you’d become such a pathetic excuse for a witch,’ Bjarkan sneered in his human form, tall with thin limbs and arched brows. His teeth were sharp and shining out in the dark as he gathered a gust of wind in his arms and threw it towards Malha. She flew across the room, smacking the wall with a thud.
I withdrew into the corner, laying out the ashes and shard of iron Malha had passed to me, as Alyssa rushed to her side.
‘And I always saw you for what you were,’ Malha’s voice was haggard, breathless, ‘A liar and a coward. Is that why you stole my wand as well as my child? You wanted me dead, but you were too afraid to face me at my full strength.’
Bjarkan leaned down, clutching Malha’s chin, ‘I offered you everything. Everything, anything. I would have burned this planet to ash and in its place built a new world. One we could rule, side by side. And look at you now. You’re dying, Malha. You stink of decay. Will you make the same mistake?’ Bjarkan turned his smirk to Alyssa, who stood bewildered in the doorway, ‘Will you turn on me? I saved you. I gave you the perfect life. I kept you safe and happy. Do you really want to follow her path, be a slave to forgotten gods until you wither away?’
‘I was safe. but I wasn’t happy. I was miserable,’ Alyssa narrowed her eyes at Bjarkan, her voice rough and bitter, ‘I didn’t belong, and I never understood why. I’d rather take a risk, live wild and endure chaos than be safe and locked up in a cage that doesn’t fit.’
She stood in front of Malha, defiant arms spread out to shield her. I watched as a dozen icicles tore through Bjarkan’s body, wisps of shadow flickering as he tried to shape-shift away from them. I let out a short, stunned laugh as Alyssa stared in amazement at her own hands.

Bjarkan’s shadows assembled together, growing larger and larger until they reached the ceiling. They took the shape of wings, spreading and stretching between the walls, horns clawing out from a hunched head. The blood and triumph drained from Alyssa’s face and Malha struggled to stand, reaching out to pull her away. I muttered the final spell, my words tumbling over each other in a rush, tracing runes into the ashes and sending a prayer to the old gods Malha had started all of this for.
Bjarkan’s form began to solidify, hard and grey as stone, and he reached an enormous, clawed hand for Alyssa. My spell ended, the iron wand whole and burning in my palm and I threw it into the vulnerable fragment of shadow, right in Bjarkan’s heart.

Stones and dust and screams exploded around us and I curled up in the corner, my head tucked under my arms. When the room fell silent, I looked up. The air was thick with dust and I coughed, crawling towards Malha and Alyssa.
Alyssa had Malha’s head in her lap, a tear sliding through the dirt encrusted on her cheek. Blood trickled down Malha’s temple, and she looked at me with a frail smile.
‘Well done, Clover,’ she rasped.
‘Oh, no,’ I gripped my hair and shook my head, ‘Malha, no. I’m sorry. You’ll be fine. I- I fixed the wand. It’ll heal you.’
I clawed through the rubble until I found the wand, rushing to press it into Malha’s skeletal hand.
She took it with a sigh and stretched her arm up to the broken ceiling. Stars were blinking out at us and Malha swirled the wand through the air as if writing into the sky. Her small body seemed to glow, the light pouring from her heart and though her arms into the wand. Alyssa and I looked up to the sky and watched as the constellations moved and spun. A rainfall of stars began to stream across the night sky.
‘They are free,’ Malha’s arm fell limply to her side, ‘And so am I.’
‘Malha…’
‘Clover,’ she slipped the wand into my grasp, closing my hands over it with the last of her strength, ‘Keep learning. There will always be more that we do not know than what we do. And, please…look after each other.’
Words were lost to me, so I nodded and lay my hand on hers.
‘Ith- Alyssa?’ Malha reached out her other shaking hand to meet Alyssa’s, gripping it tight.
‘My name is Ithuna,’ Alyssa’s eyes were screwed together against her tears as she kissed Malha’s bloodless hand, ‘Blood of Malha, last of the Vǫlur.’
Malha smiled, and she closed her eyes.
We watched as her skin and bones and soul dissolved into stardust, swept into the night by a breeze.

I couldn’t count the minutes we sat there, staring at the emptiness where she had just been. I couldn’t imagine how many hours we spent putting the house back together, not a word exchanged between us.
Finally, still smothered in grime and minds dazed, I took out a piece of chalk and began to draw runes around a cupboard door.

‘What do we do now?’ Ithuna lay a hand on my shoulder, her eyes flecked with sadness and curiosity and wonder.
I looked at her for a long moment; daughter of a witch, my destined sister, ‘I guess we go get your paint supplies and bring them to your new room. There’s a brilliant view of Jupiter from one of the bedrooms. Or I can show you the garden outside the ship. You have to wear a spacesuit but there’s a swing and it’s like actually floating in space. I accidentally kicked a star once, pretty sure everyone on Earth would have seen that. And I guess with your tattoos we have a pretty good idea of what’s coming our way.’
Ithuna laughed softly, ‘That’s true. Let’s just hope Bjarkan was the worst of them.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I am looking forward to meeting the dragon.’
I linked my arm through hers and we stepped through the doorway, into our forest in the stars.

 

A short story by Holly E. E. Garrow

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