Chapter 5: The Child Necromancer
Willow was two years old the first time she had exhibited magical powers. Thankfully, she and Carys had been in the woods alone, she foraging and Willow confined to a circle of safety. Carys had always made it a habit to keep her daughters as close to her as possible, never allowing them to be alone with their father or brothers. Haesel and Aina were both at home, sick with fever, and Carys had felt there was no choice but to bring her youngest daughter along while she foraged for white snakeroot. She would make a tea of the roots and hope for the fever to finally disperse. She had been trying for days to banish the fevered dreams and sickness of her two eldest daughters.
She feared the worst. Feared that she would never rouse them from their cursed sick beds, that they would be lost to her. Her magic had waned in the last few years, as to be expected. With every birth of a female heir, the pool of the magic available to her bloodline decreased. It brought her comfort, in a way, and she’d often thought herself cursed and hoped to be rid of her power.
Her mother had taught her that it was a gift. That once upon a time, men and women both had been witches, full of magic, and that it’s practice had not been seen as evil. She promised to teach Carys about their history. And their future. That they had some preordained purpose in life. That she and her line were the keepers of balance in the world.
And then her mother, accused of witchcraft, had been stripped from her young life. Having no other family, and shunned by the community, Carys had taken what she could from their meager home and went off to seek her fortune in the world. Her mother had left behind pages and pages of hand-bound books and scrolls. Carys had burned them all. The only thing she had kept, and still had in her possession, was a bracelet. It was a simple band of golden metal with the figure of a kneeling bird-woman in the center. In all respects, the gold figure was a woman except for her wings, which were displayed in beautiful hues of blue, green, and red. Carys had never determined what the wings were made from, but they had always intrigued her, the material catching and shimmering with the barest of light.
Her mother had been on her mind a lot lately. What was the point in having this damnable power when it hadn’t been able to save the ones she loved? Why hadn’t her mother been able to save herself? Why had she deserted her with nothing? With no one?
Carys stood a stone’s throw away from her daughter shoving herbs into her basket while hot tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. It had been over thirty years. Why could it still hurt so?
There was a chill in the air, but that didn’t stop the sweat from forming on her face. Half of her long hair was plaited into two long braids, one on either side of her shoulders, with the rest of it piled on top of her head in loose buns. She almost wished it all gone, longing to lose the weight of it from her overheated face.
She wore a simple blue dress, a thick decorative stitch in green running up the middle. She had worked spells into the wool as she had created it, spells for healing and patience, but she didn’t feel patient now. Her back was aching from bending over for so long. She only needed to find one more root and they could head back.
She took a moment to stand up and stretch, looking at the wood around her. The day’s late light was golden, and the fallen leaves shimmered under its gaze. The trees still had a good deal of time to go before giving up all of their leaves, but it felt as if winter were already dipping a toe into this part of the world. A cool breeze swept across her damp face and she shivered. She welcomed the cold, and she was looking forward to the apple festival at the end of the month. There was plenty of time to get the girls healthy enough to enjoy a night of dancing, eating, and other merriment. Haesel’s favorite would be the cinnamon-and-apple basted pig and the apple pie, but Aina would spend the evening being shooed away from the mulled apple wine by the cook. She smiled at the thought and hearing Willow laugh behind her, turned to glance over to see what had amused the young girl so.
Carys was startled. Hovering in front of the child were two black and silver adders dancing together in a rhythmic display of dominance. She dropped her basket and ran toward her daughter, extending her right hand to direct a spell toward the serpents, wishing for them to be thrown back, away from the circle of safety. The jolt of her power sent them flailing into the tough bark of a nearby tree and they fell to the ground lifeless. She had inadvertently killed the animals while wishing only to put some distance between them and her child. It couldn’t be helped now. She made a mental note to collect the corpses as she scooped up the, now crying, Willow. Carys sent out waves of soothing magic, cradling the child to her breast.
Several minutes later, Willow was asking to be let down. Carys set her on a smooth rock and handed her a fabric-spun doll, usually a favorite. Willow promptly put the entirety of the doll’s head into her mouth. Apparently, this was the exact precursor needed to engage the doll in an important conversation because as soon as the head had cleared her lips, Willow began an incessant monologue directed at its face.
Satisfied with the girl’s safety, Carys turned to find her dropped basket and locate the last root. She listened to her daughter muttering quietly as she completed her foraging, turning back a few minutes later to find that Willow had wandered off to the tree where the snakes lie dead. Willow became quiet and then started laughing again, clapping her hands together and squealing in delight.
To Carys’s horror, the snakes rose up before her daughter and continued their dance. Carys crossed herself and then laughed at the irony of it. She started to hurry to the girl, then realized that the snakes posed no threat to her daughter. They belonged to her now.
A necromancer! At the age of two. Carys shook her head and began muttering to herself as she continued toward Willow. Her mother’s sister had possessed this particular “gift,” but Carys could not remember the details of her experiences. Over the years, she had often regretted burning the papers of her mother. Now was one of those times. How in the world would she keep this from the boys? And what in the hell should she do with the damnable creatures?
She sat down on the ground next to her daughter and contemplated the scene. Willow, with her black curls and bright green eyes, called the snakes to herself. They rubbed their skins against her face as they moved from dancing in the air to her body, slithering from her neck and shoulders to entwine her arm down to the wrist, and then promptly disappeared into the girl’s skin, a glittering smoke filling the air around her arm. What in the hell? She tentatively reached out her power toward her daughter and felt…nothing. No welcoming sense of like meeting like. No tingle of magic. No warmth. Carys felt it unnerving.
Willow looked over at her mother, threw herself at her lap and exclaimed, “Mami!” Carys wrapped the mysterious creature up in a tight hug and kissed her the top of her head, answering, “Fi’n caru ti.”
Carys strapped the girl to her back and packing up her basket once again, started out across the dry path and headed home. Passing a nearby Hawthorn tree, she failed to notice the scuttling of once-dead beetles, worms, and grasshoppers crawling through the earth at its roots, nor the dragonflies, bats, birds and other creatures of flight resting among its branches. One such bird, a beautiful black and white pied wagtail, used its dead eyes to stare after the retreating duo. The young girl craned her neck to stare back at the bird and waggled her fingers at it, causing it to take flight, it’s black and white feathers hiding a mostly fleshless frame. As it flew above them, its muscles and organs, some long extinct, began to take shape and puff up beneath the feathers. As its vocal cords stitched themselves back together, it began to test out a variety of calls, finally settling on a song that it had not known in life.