In the highlands, beneath the salty air and rain, was Willa’s very gray, very small moss-covered town near the sea. In Hollywell, poison ferns were numerous and the spider webs strong as fishing line.
Though a lonesome, boring place, it somehow attracted the most interesting characters. Locals, however, simply greeted the visiting soothsayers, spice traders, diplomats, and snake trainers with shrugs and offers of beer. There was little interest in travelers. Occasionally, a visitor would open his mouth to boast of an adventure only to find his voice drowned out by the bard or a rambunctious game of dice.
Willa was different. She listened eagerly and was rewarded with ghost stories, enchanted gowns and rumors of witches who could make animals speak.
On the day When Everything Changed, she had visited her favorite bookshop, The Raven, and stopped on her way home at the cliffs to the north of town.
Getting to the shore was a dangerous task reserved for those skilled in all things risky, which she certainly wasn’t. The cliffs, abrupt and jagged, held ladders as long as clouds on which sailors would descend to reach their ships on the gray, rainy beach.
She held her new books to her chest, an herb guide and a romance, and the wind picked up. It whipped Willa’s hair around her head like a flame on a candle. Today was her birthday and the cliffs with the ships was where she came to do her dreaming.
Seventeen sunflowers were on the table at home, she knew, waiting for her whispered wishes. But also at home, deep under her bed, was a box of coins and maps and stories she’d heard from visitors, kept away like treasure. Soon she would be ready. Soon she could maybe just slip onto a ship and disappear.
Willa’s home was two hills and a squash patch from the cliffs, on the northwest reaches of Hollywell. She lived with Elyse, her mother, and her grandmother Crissa.
Elyse was usually unwell with a migraine, tucked away in her dark bedroom. Their home was a nearly silent place to help her sleep, and Willa would bring her mother teas, lavender oils, and warm washcloths during the day.
Crissa, however, was noisy.
Some claimed that Crissa’s music was magic. Her hands would slide like honey on piano keys, making songs that filled her listeners like a good meal. With the right chanting, hums, and drums she could cure broken hearts and dying mothers, poisons and scarlet fever. She carried two flutes in her robe for emergencies, and cleaned her instruments in smoke with burning bark from pine trees.
As long as Willa could remember, people all over town would creep from their houses with pockets of coin. They’d ask Crissa for a melody or a lullaby, anything to heal their child, their wife, or their dearest friend. When she was young, Willa would follow along. She carried drums and strings, bells too, over to Cinder Lane or Bluegarden Street. Willa would watch, folding in her long arms and legs like a paper doll on the floor of the ill homes until Crissa fed them her magic music.
Before she was ten, Willa had seen the inside of every Hollywell farm, cottage, manor and hut. As Elyse’s migraines worsened, Willa stopped following her grandmother along.
Crissa’s magic made her names. They called her the Magistrix of Music, a spirit weaver. There were other names, too, like the Wayward Lady from Thornbush Lane or, often, “That phony old bitch.”
Willa learned to block them out, but over time more and more of her friends faded away. Their house was viewed with either awe or distrust, rumors of witchcraft or fraud.
Even Elyse was not on Crissa’s side.
“There was the strangest storm when Elyse was born,” Crissa said. “Off the south cliffs, behind the Wildwood. It was night-sky navy when it should’ve been well passed dawn.”
The thunderous clouds brought a wave of misery, fear, and apathy to the land and to Hollywell, she told Willa, infiltrating everyone’s hearts like a plague. The storm lasted throughout the morning until Elyse took her first breath and made her first cry, but the depression from the thunder loomed in the streets of their town for exactly thirteen new moons.
That, Crissa said, was an omen that Elyse was distinctly un-magical.
Willa used to hang on Crissa’s every word, every story of the Wildwood and the fairies that lived there. Now seventeen, she looked out at the sea and wasn’t sure if she believed Crissa’s music could heal, or that a storm came through when her mother was born. Maybe Crissa was the one who was distinctly un-magical.
Willa had a memory, or maybe it was a dream, or a memory of a dream, of sitting on her mother’s lap in the dark. She made stars in her palms and held them above Willa’s head while she designed constellations and shooting stars.
Sometimes, Willa would eavesdrop on her mother. Once, the butcher, a bearded man named Wolfe, came by with cuts. Elyse and Crissa had gotten into an argument that morning over something Willa didn’t hear fully, something about bird feathers. Elyse was still angry. She had a single lightning-shaped tear running down her cheek for an hour like a stream.
She complained to the butcher that Crissa was a fraud, an annoyance, a ruthless woman after money through her circus act on the flute. Wolfe listened and occasionally shook his head in sympathy, grumbled about the evils of witchcraft, and suggested setting the house on fire and escaping before her magic turned dark.
Willa watched the relationship between the butcher and her mother bloom while her mother and grandmother withered. There were more arguments, longer silences. Visits with the butcher became more frequent. Willa suspected him of turning the family against itself.
“Don’t you dare say a word,” Crissa warned. “Let her have this, let them think I’m a fraud.”
“Are you?” Willa asked.
The sun began to sink and Willa left the cliffs. She passed the hills and the squash patch, dragged her feet down the road, passed the butcher’s house and the watch maker, opened the gate, and saw her mother through the window seated at the table scribbling a letter. There were sunflowers in the kitchen, too.
Willa shuffled the neighbor’s goat away from the gate. From the shed, she collected a basket of grain and entered the chicken coop.
The chickens ruffled their feathers and Willa saw, on the ledge just as eye-level, among the chickens and the straw, a fox.
She jumped and shrieked.
The fox didn’t move, nor the chickens. It simply watched her, shining faintly like a star. She could see through it like a curtain in the sun.
Her palms went cold and her heart thudded. Was it a ghost?
“Shoo! Get out!”
Willa tossed aside the basket of chicken feed, sending the contents throughout the coop, and waved her arms like a beast.
“Out!” her voice cracked.
Though she was fighting to protect her chickens, they made no notice and hopped to the dirt floor and pecked and plucked at their fallen dinner.
The strange glowing fox almost laughed. It studied her for a moment, then turned its back and was gone.
Willa tentatively relayed the tale of the Glowing Fox in the Chicken Coop to Elyse and Crissa at dinner, who held their forks in front of their faces in disbelief while potatoes fell to their plates.
“That can’t be,” Elyse said quietly.
“That’s a Wildwood Spirit, that is!” Crissa clapped her hands in victory. “Willa, dear, did it say anything to you?”
“No,” Willa said. “I sort of chased it away. It happened so fast I honestly thought I might’ve imagined it.”
Elyse cleared the table and set a small slice of carrot cake in front of Willa.
“I knew it,” Crissa said. She shook her head, smiling to herself. “Of course you’d have some kind of spark. And it came all the way from the Wildwood! The most beautiful trees. Imagine the thickest pines but their tops are always as orange as a campfire, and the leaves shimmer like fish sca– ”
“Stop it,” Elyse snapped. “Do not encourage her to chase fairy tales.”
“Fairy tales,” Crissa snorted.
Elyse’s eyes darkened. “We’ve talked about this,” she muttered. “I won’t have my daughter become some penniless vagabond with a reputation for insanity and witchcraft.”
Crissa chuckled. “Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”
“Fine, ensure she never makes a friend of a decent living in Hollywell.” Elyse dropped her fork and pulled away from the table. “I’m going to bed.”
She left her plate and mug half full, wished Willa a happy birthday, and disappeared upstairs.
By morning, Elyse was gone and the strange shimmering fox was forgotten in her departure.
She left a brief letter. She ran off with Wolfe the bearded butcher to the south where, she claimed, the rain was less wet and the cheese made from fatter goats.
Willa was surprised to find her grandmother’s heart broken. Her agony over the flight of her daughter was a fountain that flooded their house.
Willa didn’t entertain the urge to cry. She thought of every afternoon by her mother’s bedside, keeping her room dark and cool, of making homemade peppermint oils in the kitchen to relieve her pain. The rage she felt became detachment after a few days, and her own broken heart was put in a jar on the shelf to collect dust.
It was two weeks that they did not speak of Elyse, and it was over those two weeks that Willa learned exactly what had changed on the day When Everything Changed.
In town, there was talk of pirates who possessed amulets that could change the winds to lure ships for looting. One man claimed that an ash tree had sprung to life and given him the cut on his eye before returning still. A local woman, a regular at The Raven Bookshop who always wore her dress low enough to model her breasts, insisted that the vegetables she was harvesting from her garden were somehow ending up back in the soil and on the vine within minutes of placing them on the table.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “I blink and they’re back in the yard, but my hands are still soiled with dirt! It’s like magic!”
Some turned to Crissa for answers, others laughed the strange stories into hyperbole, and others turned to Crissa to blame. Losing her daughter, they said, had set her off. There were rumors Elyse was pregnant, or a victim of Crissa’s spells.
But their house was as silent as if Elyse were in her room with a migraine, and for two weeks they did not speak of her.
In the evening just after dusk, Willa had started a fire in the hearth when there was a soft knock on the door.
Well, there were three knocks. Then three more. Then four.
Crissa groaned. “No visitors,” she finally yelled from the kitchen.
The fire cracked and popped. Two more knocks.
“I can get it,” Willa stood.
Then came a muffled voice from behind the door.
She paused. “Acrissadora? Who’s that?”
Her grandmother did not answer. She was frozen in the kitchen with steam from her tea weaving around her face like a vine.
“Acrissadora, open up. This is of the utmost importance,” continued the man’s squeaky voice. “If you do not open this door, we will be forced to enter without your permission and with wands drawn.”
Wands? Willa opened her mouth to speak but Crissa raised her hand to silence her.
Crissa headed for the door.
Crissa swung the door open and, indeed, there were two men in the archway. Each had a wand in his fist, pointed into their home.
Willa had never seen wands before. They looked like pretty sticks.
The two men were damp from the rain. One was a pudgy, short, older man with hair like ash and a beard that hid most of his wrinkled face. The other one was younger, tall, and looked somewhat like a mouse.
“Ah, thank you,” bowed the tall one quickly. “Its’s quite a pleasure, Acrissadora. Mr. Fenbaum has told me all about you. May I call you Acrissadora?”
Crissa didn’t reply. She was looking at the short old man with a raised brow.
“Fenbaum,” she said curtly.
He returned with a nod. “Amwyn.”
The tall man looked between them awkwardly chucked. “Where are my manners?” he stashed his wand, a light colored wood with black stones on either end, in his pocket. “Carter Tickel, Acolyte of the First Rank, Order of the Star Mountains. I’m assigned to Mr. Fenbaum here, of course.”
“I don’t care,” Crissa spat. “The Order signed a strict no visitation policy.”
Mr. Tickel chuckled nervously and smoothed back his hair. “Yes. Well, unfortunately, it seems you’re in a bit of legal trouble.”
“You let a damn witch loose!” the short man called Fenbaum boomed. “Untrained! Without a guardian!”
Crissa crossed her arms in defiance. “I haven’t so much as spoken to a witch in over twenty years,” she said. “What witch?”
Mr. Tickel pulled a folded bit of paper from his coat and handed it to Crissa.
“Your daughter,” he said. “She’s causing us a little trouble, here and there.”
“She’s a bloody hurricane!” Fenbaum stomped his foot. His lips held his spit and Willa scrunched her nose in disgust.
Crissa collapsed on the stairs. She gazed at the paper in her hands like she was in a dream. Her face went white and her eyes began to roll over in tears. Willa rushed to her grandmother and saw, clear as day, an illustration of her mother on the page. Beneath it was written “CRIMES” and a short list.
Theft and levitation of a rocking chair. Rotting out a garden. Arson of a pub. Theft of a lace wedding dress. Electrocution of two non-magical victims (survived.)
“I don’t understand,” Crissa whispered. “I tried when she was a child. I did. But there wasn’t a drop of magic in her blood.”
“Did you check her bones?” Mr. Tickel asked.
“You’re on record as her guardian,” Fenbaum growled. “Untrained witches can’t control themselves.”
“Wait,” Willa interrupted. “You’re actually a witch? Like a real one?”
“We’ll talk about this later,” Crissa hushed her.
“She was last seen in the southern village of Glenkirk. As per protocol,” Mr. Tickel straightened and pulled another parchment from his coat. It was a map. “Senior witches in the Order of the Star Mountains are afforded the opportunity to pursue, apprehend – ”
“You want me to go get her,” Crissa sneered.
“It’s your mess,” Fenbaum said lowly. “Typical for you, Amwyn, isn’t it? You haven’t changed.”
“Willa,” Crissa said, holding Fenbaum’s gaze and crumpling the poster of her daughter in her fist. “Go pack your things.”