They have to pick one of us to die, and this time, it will be my brother.
My feet pad quietly on the cold stone of the castle floor. Almost always, they are watching us, and I cannot be seen.
Witches may hide in the shadows in Winsteria, but we all know they are here, and they always will be, as long as wishes still need granting — even the dark ones. Especially the dark ones. The witch I am going to see has a long, crooked nose, just like in the stories. But she has a sweet, stern disposition, and she gives me sticky honey candies — the kind Renn likes.
My cloak is tight around my shoulders. I cannot have it billowing wildly in the night. The hinge on the solid door clangs as I open it, and the sound echoes through the hall. I pause, breath still, waiting for someone to come stop me, but no one does. Behind me, the hall is as empty as I soon will be.
I fortify myself and slip out, leaving the door open a crack so I can get back in later without a sound, if I can manage to find my way back. I am not sure what will happen. The wind catches me right away, picking up the end of my cloak and toying with it. I get back control and tighten my hood. Just to the other side of the village — that is where the witch is waiting for me, with her red candles and her dark murmurs.
I remember the way because it is how we used to get to the edge of the forest. Renn, Willa and I would sneak out, quiet as a breath, to watch the archers on sunny spring days. Strong, solid men, taking their stances, Renn whispering my name and making me watch his imaginary bow and arrow. Willa urging us to climb a tree so we could stay out of sight. The way she let me lean on her when the warm sun became too much. She smelled like the earth after a rainstorm.
A clatter ahead stops me, and I duck behind a stone wall. My breath is louder than I want it to be, but I cannot help it. The closer I get to the witch’s house, the more I am not sure I want to go. The night pulls at me, still playing with my cloak, which is too bold a color for me to be mistaken as a commoner, should I be seen.
A cat saunters by, hairless in spots, skinny as a ribbon. It looks at me, and keeps walking, telling me the coast is clear. The cat has knocked over a pile of empty crates, but there is no one else in sight. I exhale and carry on.
Walking in the dead of night, it is like one of Willa’s stories come to life — the kind she used to tell me when we stayed out too late, before we raced home and tumbled in through the door just before their evening rounds. We were princesses and captives, if it is possible to be both. I still am. Out in the forest, sun dying around us, Willa would talk of ghosts and hauntings while she played with my hair, Renn asleep at our feet. I remember the sharp light scratching at her face as the wind pushed dark leaf shadows across it. She would lower her voice to indicate a dark, tense moment. Then she would jump, suddenly, just as the ghost got the girl or the evil king turned to dust. I would yelp, of course, covering my mouth just as urgently.
Willa told the most imaginative stories, even after we stopped sneaking out and I could only visit her in her room. Even when they drew the curtains close, and sickness swallowed the light from my sister’s face. Even from that hollow, gray bed, she could still weave a story to make my bones quake.
Willa would not want it to be Renn. She would not want them to sacrifice any of us, but Renn least of all. When we were young, she carried him around like her favorite doll. Oh, how he squirmed, but it just made her hold on even tighter, showing him each and every room of the castle, boldly ignoring their pressing stares, and I stumbled at her side. She wore her hair twisted up then, with swooping braids that grazed the tops of her shoulders, but when we were alone in our rooms, full brown curls reached down to her knees like vines. The three of us almost posed for a portrait once, but by the time the artist arrived in Winsteria, Willa was already too far gone, and they had cut her hair anyway, rather than comb out the tangles. Remember me, will you? she asked me, placing her pale hand on mine. And keep Renn safe. When Renn came in to say goodbye, Willa’s tears soaked through her pillow, even with her eyes pinched shut. Mine fell thick on my dress, turning its purple flowers to black.
The stones beneath me dig into my feet. These shoes, with their tight velvet point at the toes, were crafted for docile young ladies who sit yawning with their ankles crossed, watched by reproachful eyes. They are not made for roaming about the village in search of witches, hunting a thousand-year-old tradition. I mean not just to hunt it, but to slaughter it and eat the remains. Traditions like this one belong in stories, not here. Not in our family.
And yet — oh, my toes do pinch terribly — what is a tradition of murder? The people and their High Commoner made this agreement with the monarchy long before I was born, which is why they lurk about in our castle, squeezing our liberty tightly until there is none left. But how can they not see the ripe inhumanness of sacrificing one of us every one-hundred years? Do they not think of the oval-faced boy, barely old enough to see a single whisker on his chin, who would face the shimmering finality of the axe? Of course not, for distance allows a certain coldness to ice over the hearts of the powerful.
I am nearly there now. The witch’s house is set a distance from all the other homes, hugged into the forest’s edge. I can see candlelight frolicking from within a lopsided window. It is the only light in the whole village. Something inside me is drawn to it, yearns to see the recklessness of that small flame up close.
But I slow my steps. The last time I was here, the witch told me I would have to choose, and my heart nearly snapped in two. Though Willa has been a memory for a year already, it was all I could do not to crumple to the floor. To keep Renn, in all his boyish innocence, from dying, I would have to release the sacred, pillowy memories of my sister. Forever.
I made my decision then. I knew what I had to do, but the pain of it stung, then swelled and throbbed to the beat of my own heart. It still does. I step carefully towards the door. The witch will take my memories, and not just of Willa. She will take all of my memories. A price must be paid for a life saved by magic.
I do not need to knock. The door blows open as I approach, and golden light splashes onto my cloak. I watch the tips of my shoes cross her threshold, and I shiver, perhaps with a lingering chill from outside. In here, it is warm.
I watch her watching me as I sit across from her. I want to ask so many questions, but only to delay the ritual. I know the answers will not mean much, but I want more time.
Remember me. The sweetness of my sister’s voice rings in my ear. My stomach tenses into tight knots. As the witch lights a third red candle and the wax drips into a puddle on the floor, I know in just a few moments, Willa will be gone. It will all be gone. No memories of her will remain. No memories of anything.
The witch stares without speaking. She is ready to begin. A black feather, a frayed piece of twine, a pale and bloody pig’s ear. I sit in front of her while she crushes herbs into the bowl, and the room fills with the smell of earth and rain, and steam billows between us. She murmurs the words, and my chest tightens. What a twisted, burdensome thing power is.
I close my eyes and see Renn kicking up leaves, wishing he could call to the archers and ask for a lesson. I see Willa laughing as she turns back to me, braids swinging in response. She grabs her shoes and gathers up her skirts and begins to kick up leaves herself. I watch carefully, admiring their freedom but not able to claim it for myself.
The witch’s words beat in my ears, and I keep that memory of Renn and Willa sharp in my mind. I see every green sapling piercing through the brown-leafed earth, every twinkle of sunlight. I hear every chirrup, every rustle, every caw. I taste spring on my lips and smell the delicate bloom of blackberry brambles.
Suddenly, the room goes quiet. When I blink open my eyes, all three candles have melted to the floor, deep in their own extinguishing puddles. A fat flame lingers on the last one, and the witch looks deep into my eyes.
I shake my head. The memory is not as sharp but it is still there. Willa laughs at something Renn is doing. What is it? I cannot see. A breeze blows my hair into my face, and I squint into the sun and shade.
Let go. Her voice is a command now.
Not yet. I can almost make them out, two figures in the distance. One short with a dress billowing wildly in the wind, and one growing taller and taller. Who are they? They are so familiar to me. But they do not turn toward me, so I do not know.
The third candle between us becomes a thin curl of smoke. And just like that, I am a dandelion seed that has been pulling and pulling and is suddenly released, floating away under a feathery parachute. Something is gone, I know, but what? It is much too far away to get back, I realize.
A woman sits across from me, her nose crooked. Something soft and scratchy rubs against my hand. It purrs and wraps its tail around my wrist, beckoning me toward the open door.
I stand, sensing my freedom. I can choose to go towards the black-cloaked village in front of me or the wild forest behind. A breeze gives me a gentle shove, and I slip easily out of my shoes, then walk barefoot into the night.