“God? There is no god! I stand before you with power enough to wipe you from time itself. There is no god to stop me.”

Grand Warlock Vernos

 

Lying in the first fallen leaves of autumn under the old Nut-Berry tree, clothes murky brown against scarlet and gold, was a man.

Sarea stared down at him, basket on her arm, and nudged him with her foot. He was silent. She pushed harder, and this time got a long groan.

Well, she didn’t have to pay the fire-keeper to fetch him, at least.

“Are you in pain?” she said.

The man rolled onto his back. He stared at her blankly, face black as mud. “Where am I?”

“The middle of nowhere. South of Durabilis.” She put her free hand on her hip. “Are you in pain?”

He laughed. “They sent me home? After all this time…”

She sighed, shifting her basket. “Gentle-sir, you’re in front of a hedge witch’s house. If you want help, come inside.”

The man stared at her. “I may be a while,” he said.

She nodded, turning around.

The house wasn’t much more than a cottage, but it had tiles on the roof rather than thatch, and ivy trailing around the corner. She stepped inside, surveying the single room. Someone had left a cooked ham joint on the work table, wrapped in red string. That was old Farmer Jimny, in payment for the medicines that saved his grandson.

The herbs and vegetables hanging from the ceiling on the lefthand side were untouched. At the back of the house, the fire had dimmed to embers. She set her basket next to the ham and went around for wood.

By the time she came back, arms full, the man was stood in the doorway.

“Oh,” he said, seeing her. “I wondered if you were real.”

“Do you talk to many people who aren’t real?” she said.

He smiled, thin and tight.

“You mentioned a hot drink,” he said. “After all this time, I need one.”

He needed a coat and a decent pair of shoes, too, but she bit down the words and gestured at the house with her shoulder.

“Oh, here,” he said, and the wood floated out of her arms with a wave of his hand.

She started, stepping back. He blinked at her, all wide-eyed innocence. “You said this was a witch’s house,” he said. “Surely the mistress -”

“The mistress has been dead for two months,” she said, sharp, heart pounding. “She didn’t approve of impractical things.”

An emotion like a storm gathered on his face. “Hedge witches,” he snapped. “With all the power in you? Useless woman!”

“She was kind and generous,” Sarea said sharply. “Once she walked miles in a storm to save a single lamb. She was not useless. What upbringing did you have, to speak ill of the dead?”

The storm passed. “I’m sorry,” he said, bowing his head. “The world passes on and things change from where I thought they were.”

The wood floated into the house ahead of him. She stared at his back.

Perhaps he’d hit his head?

She followed, closing the door behind her. It was dim – the light was drawing into soft sunset – but the kettle was always in the place. By the time she’d filled it with water and a mix of spices, the man was asleep, sat against the wall.

She shook him, but he didn’t stir. So instead she fetched a blanket and tucked it around his legs, and sat in front of the fire to watch the kettle.

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