The first flakes of snow started to fall at sunrise. Hypnotizing tiny white crystals fluttering down from the orange glow. The old rocking chair creaked as she rocked slowly while she watched out the window, her hands folded upon her lap. She could still hear her mother's quiet sobbing in the other room. She herself had laid awake all night and cried into her pillow. She stopped a while ago, now feeling nothing. Numb. She stopped rocking when hearing the soft creaks upon the wooden floor. The footsteps came to a stop beside her. "Lena," a tired voice spoke her name. She turned her head slowly to look at her brother. He held out a bowl. "Here is some soup."
"Is that the last of it?" she asked quietly. He nodded. She forced a smile, "you may have it, Bertrand."
"No, Lena," he knelt down. "Please, eat it." Lena gave a shaky sigh and took the bowl in her shaking hands. Bertrand smiled sadly at her.
Their father had passed away only two days ago. He worked very hard for the family of four, but it was never enough. They never had enough food or enough of anything. A few years ago he had become ill, and his breathing difficulties had become more serious in recent months. After a difficult night two days ago, he did not wake the next morning. Their mother's work hardly earned anything, and she had not come out of her room for the past two days. Bertrand was fourteen years old and a servant to a wealthy family in the city, and they depended on his earnings. Lena wished that she could help her mother and brother, but she was only ten years old and there was not much that she could do.
"Is mother going to be okay?" Lena stared down at the bowl of soup on her lap, mixing her spoon around the broth.
"I don't know, Lena," he replied. He never lied to her, she knew that. "I'll do my best."
She smiled at him. "You always do. Thank you."
Lena and Bertrand looked to the doorway where their mother was standing, wiping her teary eyes with the back of her hand. Her face was pale and sullen, her black hair hanging to her shoulders in tangles. "We must go out and..." she looked too tired to finish. They already knew what she meant. They were in desperate need for food, and they needed to steal some.
Bertrand looked at Lena, and her expression must have shown exactly how she was feeling, because he frowned. "If you don't want to-"
"I will," she said. Lena was good at hiding things. She had much practice, she supposed. She had been helping her mother steal for a few years now.
Bertrand nodded and placed one of his hands upon her own. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
Following her mother to the outside, Lena looked around excitedly at the little snowflakes falling around her. She looked back at the trail of footprints they left in the fresh snow. She loved wintertime. As they passed the other cottages in the village, Lena caught sight of the neighbor children. Among them was a girl her age named Katarina. Katarina noticed her, and smiled and waved. Lena's heart skipped a beat and she waved back before quickly looking away. She wished that she had the courage to speak to Katarina. She longed to have a friend, but each time she thought of speaking to them, she backed down, held back by fear.
They walked a dirt path lined with stones out of the village and on the way to the city. Lena's eyes were on the ground while she walked a little behind her mother. Seeing a flash of black in the corner of her eye, she turned her head, and what she saw made her come to a sudden stop. Peering at her from behind a tree was an old woman with long white hair, wearing a black cloak. A wide smile was spread across the woman's lips. Lena's eyes widened and she released a shaky breath. In recent weeks she had been having a recurring dream about this old woman. At night when lying in bed she would sometimes see the woman's face in her window, watching her. In one of the dreams she saw the woman standing in her bedroom doorway, and in another, the most frightening, the woman had been standing at her bedside, hovering over her.
"Lena?" her mother stopped and looked back at her. Lena looked at her mother and then quickly looked back to the woods. The old woman was gone.
Lena caught up by her mother's side. "I'm sorry," she breathed. She had so many dreams about the woman that she must be imagining her now.
They made it to the largest city of the kingdom of Dethia, where the large crowd always made Lena nervous. The streets they walked were dark stone, matching the color of the buildings that were black and white in color. Lena watched excited children running out of the bakery with their sweets. She envied them in that moment, wishing that she could buy things from there. The other chattering, laughing people were dressed beautifully, Lena thought. They wore suits or dresses, corsets and gowns. She liked to make her own dresses, and they were simple material. Bertrand had taught her to sew a few years ago, and it was something that she enjoyed.
They made their way to the square where people set up their shop stands and stalls. This is where people sold their own crops and produce or clothing and jewelry they made. Lena and her mother usually stole food from these stands. According to her mother, it was easier since more people were crowded around the stands than inside of the shops. In the center of the square was a fountain adorned with dying roses that had been blooming beautifully in the summer. Upon the fountain was an old statue of a woman, the first Queen of Dethia, draped in robes and a crown atop her head. Queen Esmera. Lena always loved the statue. Esmera was enchanting, she thought.
In the far distance, Lena could see the castle. It was dark and looming under the gray sky. There was a road that led straight to it, and coming down the road were men and women dressed in identical uniforms of red and black with swords sheathed at their sides. They were the King's knights and guards. Some looked to be on their way to somewhere, and others scattered around the city. Lena looked away, finding she was a little afraid to look them in the eye.
"Just take what you can and put it into your bag," whispered her mother.
"I know." She had become used to this a very long time ago. They began with her mother speaking to a shopkeeper to hold their attention while Lena carefully took several small things and put them into her bag. Her mother then bought something from the shopkeeper. She would buy the bigger things that couldn't possibly be stolen without getting caught, and that is what their small amount of money was spent on. Lena followed her to the next stand. "What's this?" Lena pointed to anything while her mother slipped something into the bag around her shoulder. The woman smiled kindly at her, her pale blue eyes warm and friendly. "This is a sweet bread that I made this morning," she answered. She picked a piece and held it out.
"Oh," Lena drew back in surprise, "n-no, I couldn't."
"It is okay, dear," she chuckled. Lena took the bread from her. "Thank you," she said quietly, feeling guilty that they were stealing from this nice woman. She could see that the woman was still smiling, pleasant blue eyes still on her, and it made Lena feel even worse so she turned away to follow her mother. They continued on, and Lena ate the piece of bread. It was warm and very sweet. Everything was going as it usually did, until Lena was startled by a shout.
"You!" A man from one of the shop stalls stomped toward them angrily and grabbed her mother by the wrist. "I've been watching you, lady, and I know what you're doing!"
Her mother shook her head. "Please-"
"You've stolen from all of us!" he said.
"Is this true?" asked the shopkeeper who had given the bread, her kind smile now replaced with glaring anger.
"Please, we need it!" her mother pleaded.
"We need it, too!" shouted the man. "You think we're not hungry? How dare you steal what we work so hard to sell!"
The bread woman placed her hands on her hips. "How will you be repaying us?"
A chuckling man came toward them then. He was a guard from the nearby castle. "You have to pay somehow. You can't just be let go for your thievery."
"Please!" her mother begged.
"We know how to deal with thieves," said the bread woman. "Thief! Here!" she shouted. "She's been stealing plenty from us!"
Lena backed away, her eyes widening when several guards surrounded her mother. "Lena!" her mother cried, "run!"
Lena gasped and watched in horror as the castle guards began to beat her mother. Her mother curled up on the ground, screaming and sobbing as the five men attacked her. Lena's stomach turned at the sight of people laughing and shouting, at the cruel grin upon the bread woman's lips. Lena wanted to scream, wanted to scream at them to stop. But she was frozen stiff, unable to make a sound. When her mother stopped screaming they backed away from her. Through her tears, Lena saw her mother's face, bruised and bloody, hardly recognizable, eyes open, frozen and wide. "N-No," she choked in a whisper.
Everyone looked at her. A guard smiled, "did you steal, too? Let me see what's inside of your bag."
Lena dropped the bag to the ground and spun around, running as fast as she could.
She ran the dirt path back to the village. "Bertrand! Bertrand!" Lena screamed, coming to a stop outside the house, breathless. Her brother hurriedly came out of the house and ran to her.
"Lena!" he gasped. "What? What's wrong? Where-"
"They killed her!" Lena cried, falling to her knees.
"What?" Bertrand whispered.
"The castle guards, they saw her steal, and they killed her!" Lena wrapped her arms around herself and rocked slowly back and forth, trembling. She jumped suddenly when there was shouting close by. "They're coming," she whispered.
"Come on," Bertrand took her hand and pulled her up.
"W-Where are we-"
"I don't know," he said, pulling her along quickly.
"There!" someone shouted from behind.
"Come on, Lena, run!" Bertrand yelled in a panicked tone she had never heard from him before. Lena forced her trembling legs to move, and she ran as fast as she could.
They ran into the woods and kept going. Lena's body was freezing and numb, her throat dry and sore from taking in deep, gasping breaths. They finally came to a stop and Lena swayed to the side, seeing double. Bertrand put his hands on her shoulders, "Lena!" She looked at him as he held her up by her shoulders. "Sit down," he told her. Lena leaned against a tree and sunk down slowly. She had never felt so tired, exhausted, completely drained of energy like this before. Bertrand sat next to her and held her close. Lena closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest.
She caught her breath and then opened her eyes to look around. They were deep in the woods. "Will they find us?" she breathed shakily.
"It's okay now," Bertrand said. "They won't find us out here." Lena's dry throat bothered her and she began to cough. "Water," Bertrand breathed, "you need water."
"N-N-No," she gasped when he stood. "D-Don't go!"
"Lena, you need water. I will be right back, I promise."
"Bertrand..." she whimpered, watching him hurry away. She breathed deeply as tears filled her eyes. He did not know where he was going, or if they would find him.
Lena was becoming anxious as time passed by. The only sounds were her deep, shuttering breaths and chattering teeth. She was still feeling breathless even though she had been sitting for a long time now. She jolted in surprise when she heard something, and she turned her head fast to the side. Her mouth opened but nothing came out, and horror washed over her. It was that old woman. She was coming toward her, and Lena closed her eyes. Please, please go away... she thought frantically, not wanting to be imagining things right now.
She opened her eyes and let out a frightened gasp. The woman was standing right in front of her, smiling. Lena whimpered as the woman hovered over her, her green eyes wide, her smile growing even wider. "You are not imagining me, Lena," she spoke in a quick, quiet tone. "I have been watching you for a very, very long time..." She ran her fingertips down Lena's cold, tear stained cheek. "You are perfect," she hummed. Lena couldn't speak, couldn't scream. All she could manage was a weak groan. "It is okay, my dear. You see, I am going to give you everything. My powers shall not go to waste with you."
Lena saw the dagger in her other hand when she raised it. Lena tried to scream, but she could not. She watched, terrified, as the woman used the blade to cut her own palms. And then she took one of Lena's hands, cutting across her palm. Lena let out a shaky gasp, horrified at what was happening, watching as the woman then cut her other palm. She took Lena's hands in her own then, and squeezed them tightly against her own. Lena was suddenly seeing double, a very dizzy feeling coming over her. "We are one now," said the woman. After a moment of squeezing Lena's hands with her own, she placed each of her hands on the sides of Lena's head. Lena whimpered, unable to move. "Wander deeper into the woods and you will find my home. It is your home now, Lena. Everything inside is yours. Now my power, I will give you my power."
Lena felt a sharp pain beginning to throb in her head. "There are not many like me, Lena," the woman went on in her quick and quiet tone. "Very few of us have the power to kill death itself when it touches us. For hundreds of years we have found one to pass it onto when we reach our time. And now you shall claim it, along with my magic."
She leaned down closer, her eyes still wide. Lena tried desperately to look away, but she was frozen, unable to blink, forced to stare into the old woman's bright green eyes. "Take everything inside of me, Lena. My energy, my magic, my power... Your wounds shall heal, and no wound shall kill you. Only age will kill you. No matter how much you bleed, no matter what violent harm is caused upon you, you shall not die. You will protect yourself and those you love. You can heal others, heal the lands, heal the hurt and injured. These woods, this land... it is yours, and only yours. You shall care for it now."
There was a moment of silence, and then Lena's piercing scream echoed throughout the woods as her entire body burned and shook with heat. Her fingernails dug into the ground underneath her as she went blind.
And then it stopped. Her eyes remained wide open as burning heat rushed through her trembling body. The old woman fell to the side, her bright green eyes now faded and gray. Lena remained still, and then her eyes fluttered. She breathed in a deep, shuddering breath and turned to her side. Her head was throbbing and she felt a warm rush in her stomach and chest. She felt something hot run down her cheeks from her eyes, and wiped it with her hand. Dark red stained her hand from the touch. Blood was coming down from her eyes like tears. Underneath her cracked fingernails was filled with blood and dirt. She looked at the old woman, who was obviously dead. Lena pushed the woman's body off of her, and then rolled over to her stomach.
She slowly pushed herself up on trembling arms and got to her feet. Shuddering violently, she folded her arms across her chest. She walked slowly, faint and lightheaded. She wondered if she was dreaming, because this felt like a dream. Or perhaps she was dead, a ghost. She walked shakily through the woods, and soon found her way out. She snapped out of her dreamlike state when someone called her name.
Lena looked at the shocked, frightened girl. Katarina. She walked toward Lena slowly, covering her mouth with her hand. "What happened to you?" she whispered, stopping in front of her.
"I... I don't know," Lena whispered back in reply.
"Lena!" Bertrand gasped in shock at the sight of his sister, and ran to her. "Lena, what happened?!"
Lena looked at the jug of water he held, and took it from him. She drank long and without stopping. When she finished she dropped the jug to the ground and breathed shakily. "An old woman..." she whispered weakly, "told me she gave me her power... I don't know... she's d-dead now."
Katarina frowned, and pulled Lena into an embrace. "It's okay," she whispered. "You're okay now."
A rush of warmth ran through Lena's chest. It made her body feel weaker. She shook in Katarina's arms. "I love you, Katarina," she whispered without thinking. Katarina looked at her in surprise.
"Lena, let's go," Bertrand said. "We have to get you home. No one is there, we-"
"Been looking for you dirty thieves," came a voice. They looked to see a castle guard, sword pointing at Bertrand.
"No!" A rush of panic ran through Lena at the thought of losing Bertrand. Bertrand and Katarina screamed and backed away when the man suddenly lit on fire.
The man screamed out as he burned to death. Lena felt Bertrand's arms wrap around her tightly from behind. The fire disappeared suddenly after a moment, and the man fell to the ground. His flesh was burned and he was completely still. "You..." came a voice from behind them. They turned around to see a woman with long white hair. She looked similar to the other woman that Lena had been seeing, but was not as old. She was dressed in the same black cloak.
"Who are you?!" Bertrand held Lena tighter in his arms.
"My name is Alaia," she said. She stared at Lena, and Lena thought she looked frightened. "A friend of mine, Gabriela, has just died, and before doing so, she gave all of her power to this young girl."
"Power?" Katarina's voice sounded so small.
"We are witches, Gabriela and I. Gabriela became ill some months ago, and I have been staying with her. She has given everything to Lena, including her home. She had been watching your family for some time, wanting to pass her powers to another before death. She chose Lena."
Bertrand shook his head in disbelief at the woman's words. "I... this..."
"You sister is now able to perform magic. She..." the old woman swallowed, and her eyes shifted away from them. "Lena now carries an ancient spell inside of her, one that had been passed in Gabriela's family for hundreds of years."
"An ancient spell?" Bertrand asked weakly.
"A protection spell. Hundreds of years ago, a coven of witches performed the ancient spell upon one they believed to be their strongest. There was a war on witches here in Dethia and in other kingdoms, and they felt this was the only way to win. It is an incredibly difficult, nearly impossible spell to perform that requires an incredible sacrifice. They managed this sacrifice, taking the lives of thousands, and their spell worked. Passing the spell onto another is a far easier task. It simply requires the witch to be near death. It has been passed down in Gabriela's family since then. Gabriela had no children of her own, so she passed it onto Lena instead."
"What is this spell?" Bertrand asked impatiently.
"A protection against violent death. No wound will kill the witch that possesses it, and they will only die by illness or age. Very few other witches still have this spell, and it has been passed onto them by their families. No witches perform this spell anew anymore, so it is rare. Your sister..." she paused, eyeing Lena with sadness, "is now one of the witches carrying this spell inside of her."
"I am a witch..." Lena was still wondering if she could possibly be dreaming.
"How can this be?" Bertrand sounded horrified. "How can she suddenly be a witch?"
"We witches are no different than you," Alaia told him. "Anyone can perform magic, spells and curses if they open their mind to it and practice very hard. It is easier for those of us born from the ones who learned powerful magic, as it will carry on from them to us. Some call us natural witches." She looked at Lena again, and frowned. "This little girl received great power and has never attempted magic. Her mind will not be able to handle it."
Lena winced as Bertrand's arms tightened around her. "What does that mean?" his voice shook with panic.
"It means that it is dangerous, as you have seen," she gestured to the burned guard. "She must learn to control it, or this will happen again and again. I will help her."
"What? H-How are we supposed to trust you?" Bertrand asked. "I still don't understand what is happening!"
"Your sister has power that she may harm herself with, and I can help her. That is all you need to understand right now."
"W-Why... why did this woman give her power to my sister?" Bertrand asked.
"I have already told you," Alaia said. "She has been watching your sister. She wanted to give her magic to another before she passed, and having no children or other family left of her own, she chose Lena."
"Lena is a witch..." Bertrand whispered. "There isn't anything that can be done?"
Alaia shook her head. "No. What has been done cannot be changed."
"I will go with you," said Lena. "I will trust you to help me."
Bertrand looked at her sadly. "Are you sure?" he asked. She nodded.
"Then allow me to lead you to your new home," Alaia said. "And I will explain more to you."
Alaia started to the woods. Bertrand helped Lena back to her feet. She was still feeling dizzy. She took Katarina's hand and Bertrand's with her other hand, and they walked together, following the witch to the woods.