[Need a recap?]

Save me? Save yourself. Run from them and they will find you, false brother. Hide and they will track your coward’s scent. Fight and they’ll tear you apart. Bow. Beg. Then, yellow-bellied fool, you’ll live.

Unknown

 

“Ionas Pachin,” Sarea said, holding herself upright. Master Treeback glowered at her. She stared him down, resolved not to let him see the fear inside. “He is a traveller. And a magician.”

Treeback curled his lip. “We don’t need magic around here.”

“You live in a world surrounded by a magical wall,” Ionas said. “You don’t have a choice.”

“I aint never had a say in that wall.” Master Treeback stepped forwards. “But I got a say in South and I aint having it in my village. If you’ve been teaching that girl -”

“South?” Ionas said, glancing at Sarea.

“The village is called South,” she said.

He groaned. “And you pay tithes to the city.”

“Durabilis. Yes.” She frowned at him.

“Middle of nowhere, South of Durabilis,” he muttered. “Right.”

Jimny chuckled, a low sound that carried. “Y’didn’t even know where you are, boy?”

Ionas shrugged. “I haven’t had a map in a long time.”

“This is a downright farce,” Master Treeback snarled. “And she’s here to see it!”

Sarea tightened her hold on her basket. Every time they met he started with this. It didn’t help a damned soul. “I’m your hedge witch,” she said tightly. “As close as makes no difference. I’ve got a right to speak.”

“You got the right to get yourself lost.” Master Treeback stepped forward. He towered over her. Panic sparked in her chest, her heart pounding. Today he’d go in for hitting her, finally try it –

Ionas slipped free of her and stepped in front. “Am I to understand you have a problem with miss Durasoona?” he said mildly.

“You’d be understanding right.” Treeback looked him up and down. He towered over Ionas, too, by a good four inches. But Ionas looked up, thumbs hooked in the belt of his trousers. Sarea would lay good money he was smiling.

“Maybe magic makes all you people soft,” Treeback said. “Gonna blow me up like her grand-daddy did? For stating what’s in my head?” He smirked.

“Blow you up? Maybe. Like a troupe balloon.” Ionas bounced on his toes. “Or maybe I’ll turn you into a mouse and let you loose in a barn with a dozen cats. We can give the one that gets you a bowl of cream. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Master Treeback’s face was going remarkably red, Sarea noticed. She glanced at Jimny. Surely they had to stop this!

The old farmer shook his head, putting a finger to his lips. She should stay quiet, then.

Ionas stopped bouncing. “What?” he said. “Cat got your tongue?”

Treeback tensed and swung his arm, hand curled into a fist –

– and recoiled off a wall of glittering starlight, cradling his hand against his body.

“Damned magicians,” he snapped. “Y’don’t fight fair, like real men -”

“I’m not a magician,” Ionas said, quiet and cold, back straight as a rod. “And I don’t like it when grown adults act like street bullies.” He stepped forward. “She is forgiving. I am not.”

Behind Sarea, the creature in the pit howled.

The sound was echoed by a howl in the darkness beyond, then a second, then more, tearing through her ears. It roused old, dark terrors, that of the things that rattled and moved beyond the walls of your home. She thought of nights she and Tineke had dragged the two beds against each other and curled up together for the comfort of it, the cottage lit by yellow-orange flames. Monsters hid in the dark and the storms.

She looked up and saw Ionas staring at her, amid a corona of golden glow that lit the muddy field around. “What did you do?” she said, wondering, looking down at herself.

“Absolutely nothing,” he said. His lips twisted into a brief, bright grin. “That’s all you.”

Hands gripped her arm. She looked across at Mistress Junker. The old woman stared into the darkness beyond, white faced, mouth open, irises almost completely consumed by the black of the eye. Her nails dug into Sarea’s skin.

The howling stopped. Silence settled. Mistress Junker breathed shallow and quick. At the other fire, a low wind of mutters picked up. Jimny had turned as white as Mistress Junker, hands tight around the head of his staff. Master Treeback had his gaze on the pit, transfixed.

The night stood cold and still.

“They’re here,” Sarea said.

Ionas nodded.

She shifted. “Are you sure you didn’t do anything?” Her skin was alight, pulsing with her heartbeat. She should be terrified. She was using magic. She was –

Of everything that might have happened, of all the nightmares she’d had, she’d become a walking torch.

At least no one seemed in a fit state to notice.

She bowed her head, pressing her lips together. She trembled with the effort of not laughing, smiling despite herself. Ionas laughed for her, light and brief, and laid his hands on her shoulders.

“I bet you thought about fire,” he said. She nodded, not trusting her voice. “Well, good,” he said. “Best place to start. Think about it going out.”

There were hounds out there, coming closer in the dark. She was already a beacon. No point in making the job easier. She closed her eyes, picturing her fireplace. One day, the wind had come up first and blown in, snuffing it out in a single gust. It’d taken an hour to rekindle –

“Very good,” Ionas said. She opened her eyes, and found her space of the world dark again. Everyone around them stood still, caught in their fear.

“We’re still alive,” she pointed out.

“It’s a warning.” Ionas cast a sharp glance into the pit. “At least that oaf didn’t see that, as stunning as it was.” He let go of her, spinning around. “Wake,” he snapped out, sharp and hard. The council members looked straight to him. Mistress Junker stirred against Sarea, her hold loosening.

“Sorry for that, my dear,” she said, voice low. “I don’t quite know what came over me.”

“It’s fine,” Sarea said, smiling at her. The smile still came more easily than it should.

“That,” Master Treeback said. “That -”

“They’re minor demons,” Ionas said grimly. “Of fire, but not invulnerable to it. Go to those men. Tell them to arm themselves with fire.” Master Treeback stared at him, something like his anger coming back. He stalked past them, jaw set in resolute fury.

Ionas turned to Jimny. “They’ll target the weakest first. You and the good Mistress must be in the centre of the group.”

Jimny nodded. “Do your best, boy,” he said. He held his hand out to Mistress Junker. Trembling, the old woman took it.

“Take these,” Sarea said gently, pushing the basket handle into her free hand. “I think they’ll need these more than you would.”

“Yes,” Mistress Junker said. “Yes. You’re a good girl, Sarea.” She patted Sarea’s arm as she passed.

“And me?” Sarea said to Ionas. They were alone in the dark, for all Treeback shouted at the men to their right. Noise rose over there. The space between them two held an echo of quiet.

Ionas nodded to the left. “We stand there. Can you repeat that trick of yours?”

Repeat it! She didn’t know she could do it before! What use was it? If she mastered it, she’d never need a candle to see in the dark again, but that was all. And if Master Treeback saw it, he’d run her out of the village. Magic could harm as well as help. He couldn’t fight it, so he’d rather have it gone.

She’d lose her cottage, her little bit of woods, her only friends.

Sarea swallowed her fear and nodded.

 

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