“Jane.” Eli was tight-lipped, his gaze on the woman.
She was draped in green robes marked in places with gold intricacies. Her black hair swirled down her shoulders like the veil of a widow. Her dark eyes widened. “Is this the Jane? The murderer,” she drawled.
My eyebrows curved in at her. “Oh, and she has no idea.” The woman’s reddened lips, the color of the rotten berries in th forest, spread into a knowing smile. “You’re well-known, precious.”
I swallowed through the burn in my throat. Eli looked down at me, curious. “Oh, and neither does he,” the woman said, flittering her fingers under her sharp chin. “Well, you have been locked away for lord knows how long. It was terribly stupid of her to venture back here, and for you to be with her. Your maiden here killed the only heir to the king.”
“You?” Eli yelled. “That was you? How could you – after I – how?” It was the first I heard him at loss for words, and that scared me more than most things.
“Eli, Eli, I am so sorry I didn’t tell-”
“Shh, darling, the poor girl didn’t understand the magnitude of her actions.” She turned to me. “The king will have your heard in an instant if he sees you out of your rotting hole, sweetheart,” continued the wicked woman. I cringed at the seduction of her voice, at the words it spoke, at the fate I had played over in my mind for two years. “Looks like I have some work on my hands.”
A cauldron bubbled in the corner of the room glowing green and reeking of what I could only assume was boiling flesh. A single lantern flickered the room with light.
“I hate to lose such a pretty face,” said the woman, her cold-as-ice hand dripping down my cheek, “but I’m sure you would rather lose your face than your head.”
My breath hitched in my lungs. “I-I’m sorry, but – lose my face?”
“You’ll be stuck with this one, so I hope you can recall the prettiest face you’ve seen – and mine is not for sale.” The woman smirked. “I can’t create faces, but I can use one from your memory, so think hard, sweetheart.”
Pretty faces. Two years locked in a cell left me blank of pretty faces. The woman began to hum. I couldn’t take my sister’s face, and there was only one face I could think of. Her humming picked up, her eyes rolled back, and her arms outstretched to the ceiling. One that I couldn’t shake from my mind – the most beautiful, comforting face I could recall.
As my legs began to weaken and my skin burned, I tried to recall a different face, any face. I couldn’t see her face every day. I couldn’t live with the face of my dead mother. We looked similar enough as it were – as my father never failed to remind me, and that was hard enough. My father would crumble at the sight of me.
It felt as if the skin of my face in places was being stretched and scrunched to morph into her. My nose wrinkled against the pain of it stretching into a gentle slope. My lips swelled from the thin line they grew to be. My cheeks filled in the hollow spaces that had deepened in my time in the cell.
It stopped. I couldn’t bare the thought of how I must look.
“You don’t look that different,” said Eli.
A crack ran in my heart at the words. Maybe I was promised safety from imprisonment, but I would never be safe from my own reflection – from the glances in ponds, from the face staring back in glass, from the stare of my father and sister.
“Exactly how she had looked, though,” the woman whispered over my shoulder. “You almost made me feel guilty I couldn’t do something for a sister.”
I choked. “A sister?”
“A good one at that. My, my, the girl knows so little of her own self. I can feel it in you. The moment my power touched you I could feel it in you. Though Giona had never spoke of you, only the young one draining the poor life out of her.” She twirled around me in a dream, my vision swirling. “I often questioned the young one, often thought of paying a – visit, to see what kind of powerful demon-child could possibly drain a witch like your mother.”
As my body fell to the ground, the last I heard was the woman. “Weak girl.”
I shook awake into strong arms on the cold floor. “Good morning, beautiful.”
Pounding erupted in my head. “Eli?” I squinted through the pain. “Where is she?”
“Desmina had a house call,” said Eli. “She doesn’t go to many, so it must have been important – to her at least.”
I groaned. “How do you know that madwoman so well?”
Eli chuckled. “That madwoman has helped my sister and I through many things. My mother was a sister as well, only she didn’t do so well with her powers. She had killed my father by accident one night, then resolved to take her own life.”
“I’m so sorry, I had no idea,” I said, sitting up, my head spinning.
Eli pulled me down against himself. “No, I know. You couldn’t have known. Just rest.”
“So, witches really do exist? My mother had told me stories when I was little and the weather grew cold, but her being a witch must have escaped her.” A tear dribbled down my cheek, then another. “She hadn’t shown me anything, she hadn’t told me even that I may be one. Desmina, that woman, she can’t be – your mother can’t – my mother would have never lied to me about this.”
“Perhaps she wasn’t lying, had she ever told you she wasn’t a witch?” I drew a hand over my eyes. “She may have been protecting you. I have seen what untrained powers can result in. They are far more dangerous than they are good, Jane. Desmina is the only witch I have known that has trained powers enough to brave working on people.”
“But I have never even felt the powers in me.”
“If you’ve had them all your life, how would you know what it feels like without them?”
I sighed, turning myself to sit up next to him. “Do you have any-?” I couldn’t force the words out of me.
“No, and neither does my sister, but my mother had been a fairly weak witch. She found out from Desmina when she was your age and had spent the rest of her life trying to train powers that simply weren’t strong enough.” He looked at me, into my eyes that I knew blatantly showed how fearful I was. “And I don’t think you’re a witch either. You would know I by now, right?”
“Right,” I agreed, though I still felt a clench in my chest. “I’m sorry about your mother, too. About both of your parents.”
He sighed into a shrug. “It’s alright, it was a long time ago. I wouldn’t want to see how things turned out for my sister and I anyway,” he said as my hand somehow fell into his. It was warm, almost hot, against my cold skin. He gave it a gentle squeeze. “And I don’t think you look that much like her. Desmina isn’t always as good of a witch as she makes herself out to be.”
Relief washed over me, but not enough to make the tightness in my muscles relax.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“How do you feel?”
“I feel like it’s time we go find our sisters and figure out what we’re going to do with our lives.”
He smirked. “That’s what I wanted to hear.”
~ ~ ~
It was lopsided with age, the wood was faded and broken in places, and the roof was half off of its boards, but it was home. I felt the energy in my body as I approached. I couldn’t move fast enough without running.
They were inside. I told them I would come back for them, that I would I have to come back for them.
The sun was dropping behind the house, leaving the sky a rustic pink, and the temperature already began to drop steadily. No smoke came out of the chimney, and no candles were lit in the windows. I nearly doubled over at the idea of them waiting for me every night in the cold and the dark with no reason to bring in the light. Or the thought that they wouldn’t afford candles and neither could chop down wood for the fire. I started to run.
The wooden door scratched against my fingers as I threw it open. “Analia?” I called. I was met with silence. “Father?”
I tore through the room. They had to be sleeping. I slammed the door of mine and Analia’s bedroom open to find the blankets strewn about the room and a broken tea cup shattered over the floor. She ran out in a rush, and father was still asleep. Every ounce of hope drained out of me like a broken dam as I found my father’s empty bed. I clutched at my stomach as I heaved in heavy breaths.
“Jane.” I jumped, not having heard Eli’s footsteps. His hands rested on my shoulders when I turned to face him. “Jane, they’re gone.”
“No,” I breathed out. “No, they’re…”
He held up a letter marked with the seal of the king.