Rita panted, lying flat on her back. The smells coming through her nose were unfamiliar… and yet she knew exactly what they were.
She opened her eyes. The sky above was a placid blue. There were a few clouds, but they looked too far away to do any good. She looked around. Brown stone walls hemmed her in on three sides. The fourth side opened up into a street. She got up. Her muscles were stiff, but she shook them out and continued.
The street was empty. There were a few food carts, picked clean by the birds and wild dogs. A nearby saloon boasted the title “The Thirsty Pirate” in sun bleached paint. The door was swinging on its hinges in the breeze, so she went in.
Her voice echoed off the plank walls. It was dark and cool. The windows were covered in grime. Once her eyes adjusted, she could make out the wooden tables and chairs, crookedly arranged, and the counter. Behind it were rows of dark bottles clustered on sagging shelves. There should have been an attendant, short and stocky, his left eye covered with a patch as dirty as his apron, but he was nowhere to be seen. She stepped further in.
“Is anyone here?”
There was no answer. Rita glanced around before heading around the counter to the rows of bottles. A smirk crossed her face as she took one down, then selected the cleanest tumbler she could find. She poured the dark liquid, made an imaginary toast, and raised it up into the air.
She took a swing any thirsty pirate would have been proud of and slammed the tumbler back down onto the table—and spit the whole mouthful out. It splattered over the already dirty surface as she continued to cough. It wasn’t as glory-empowering as books made it seem. It was just gross.
Books. Right. Rita left the whiskey bottle open on the table and walked back out side. It was brighter here. She turned north and walked past three ramshackle houses. The fourth had purple smoke issuing from its chimney. So this was somewhere after the third chapter.
The cry came from down the road. Rita looked up to see a young man marching down the road. He was dressed in a faded grey tunic, leggings, and knee-high boots. There was a sword strapped to his back and a long knife to his side. He came to a stop in front of her. And boy, was he handsome. Blond hair pulled back into a knot, firm mouth, blue eyes, arched brows…
“You’re not the witch.”
Rita’s tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. A wry voice broke her trance.
“Armand, she’s not even in the book.”
Her head swung to the side. Beside Armand stood a woman, dressed nearly identically: instead of the sword, through, she carried a bow and quiver of arrows. Something twisted in Rita’s stomach when she seen the confident smirk on her face.
“What is she, then?” he asked, cocking his head.
“Probably another reader.”
“She’s not dressed like a reader.”
“Obviously she has a better imagination.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Let’s go.”
“Will she let us pass?”
Rita’s voice finally rose out of her throat. “You could ask her,” she stated sarcastically.
“Alright, reader. Will you let us pass?”
She conceded. “I am not here to interfere. But I will ask to accompany you.”
“And well spoken. What do you say, Sarai?”
Sarai rolled her eyes. “If she must. Do you know where the witch is, Reader?”
“In yon house.” She pointed. “And my name is Rita.”
“So just “Reader” with a funny accent. Follow you may, Reader, but pray you, do not interfere. We have more important things to deal with.”
The two warriors stepped past her and into the house Rita had pointed out. Armand had the courtesy to knock before Sarai pushed the door open. It creaked on its hinges. A faint smoke issued out and engulfed them as they entered.
Rita blinked. The smoke didn’t sting her eyes, as she had expected, but instead it relaxed them. There was an old woman in front of them, bent over a cauldron, stirring what smelled like the essence of spring. Her dress was a color somewhere between grey and brown and violet, changing hues with every flicker of the flame. Silky silver hair flowed down her back till it grazed the floor. Rita smiled. This was exactly how she had imagined her as well.
The witch ignored her visitors for a few minutes, turning to a stove where a few smaller tinctures simmered. She stirred each one of those, added a pinch of green dust to the blue one and a drop of yellow liquid to the blood red one, and so on.
“Well, Witch?” Armand demanded. “We have bided the time you requested. Are you prepared?”
She turned to face them now, looking in their eyes steadily for a minute each, then replied, “Loud voices will harm; speak softly, if you wish the charm.”
He lowered his voice. “We have come with payment.” He and Sarai opened small packs on their belts and took out several glass vials onto a cluttered tabletop. They were filled with crushed roots and herbs, labeled with many different hands.
“And the blood of a king?”
Armand stretched out his hand. “It is yours for the taking.”
The witch took his strong hand in her own gnarled ones, then produced a small knife. She turned his palm upwards. Armand didn’t even flinch as the dagger slid across his wrist. She held his hand over the cauldron. The instant the first red bead hit the green liquid, it erupted into emerald flames. Sarai instantly had a dagger at the witch’s throat, but she didn’t move. The three stood frozen as a second drop fell into the flames, then a third. The flames vanished. The witch wrapped his wrist in a clean bandage, mumbled a few words, and unwrapped it. A faint green scar remained.
The liquid in the pot had boiled down to a shimmering, light, aqua colour. The witch doused the fire with a nearby bucket of water and ladled the potion into a vial. She handed it to Armand.
“Young king of man, this is only the beginning of your quest. Farther down the road there will lie greater tests.”
He nodded and tucked the vial into his tunic.
The witch turned to Sarai, handing her a smaller vial from in her pocket with a violet potion.
“Without you, he can heal the land. But with you, he could forever stand.”
She took the potion given her and secured it as well. The witch turned to Rita.
“A special fate for you, my dear, when you reach the end; a surprise lies in wait before you homeward tend.”
“I don’t recall that line from the book.”
The witch smiled gently. “A simple thought, unlearned, unschooled. I’ll forgive you for that. My dear, there is so much more to us than what is written.”
Rita smiled back, nodding in respect to the witch. “Thank you.”
It was a long and arduous journey, filled with both adventure and tedium. But it was not the purpose of this retelling to recount all that happened. Rita was grateful. The land was desolate and lonely to look at; there was not greenery, no life anywhere to be seen but the carrion birds flying over head. They were headed to the great waterfall, where the potion, once dumped in, could carry life over the land once again. They climbed the mountain. Here, at the top, was the mouth of the great waterfall.
“What is that?” Sarai asked, breaking the silence.
“The Plague,” Rita whispered. The army was amassing against them from afar.
“Run!” Armand commanded. They did, racing towards the river, but the soldiers began to catch up. Armand reached a hand into his tunic.
He tossed his vial to her. She caught it and continued running towards the river. Rita wanted to stay and watch the battle, but she had nothing to fight with, so she chased Sarai.
Sarai ran faster and faster, seeming to catch her breath sooner than she could loose it, her strides lengthening. She reached the ravine’s edge, but her momentum was too great.
“Wait!” Rita shrieked, remembering what happened, but too late. Sarai slipped on the wet rocks and tumbled headlong towards the river below. Rita skidded to a stop early enough to avoid the same fate, but she could see Sarai clinging to a branch in the rocky wall.
“Yes, Sarai, I’m coming!"
“Don’t. Tell Armand- I love him!”
She let go. The splash was indistinguishable amidst the rushing of the river, and her body disappeared into the swirling eddies.
Rita ran back to the battle. The ground beneath her feet burst into grass and blossoms, racing her to the battle. By the time she reached it, it had swallowed up the Plague army. But Armand was down on his knees.
“Yes, Reader?” He looked up. She could see the bloody wound on his chest.
“What! No, this doesn’t happen. The land is restored! The people return and hail their new king!”
He burst into a fit of coughing. Rita helped him lie back on the soft turf.
“Sarai was right about you, Reader.”
“Hush, you shouldn’t be talking. Lie still.”
A wry smile splayed across his face. “I guess you didn’t read the epilogue.”