Thin, hot white branches streaked across the sky and tore off the limb of a tree, clapping to announce its presence. Horses whinnied in alarm, shaking their heads with wide eyes, but bridles kept them on the dark dirt path. A single light illuminated behind them, swinging on a hook and doing little to expose more than a few meters ahead.
Maran sat at the end of the reigns, a thick cloak the only protection he had against the storm. He struggled to keep his eyes open under the sharp needles of raindrops, and his numb fingers shook as he tried to keep the horses steady.
“Are we nearly there?” a frightened voice called from inside the carriage.
“It must be here somewhere,” Maran replied. He chanced a glance behind him. His heart sank when he saw a dark prone figure shudder from the harsh movement. “It has to be. For her sake.”
Another bolt of lightning struck dangerously close to the carriage, allowing a flash of light to reveal what the single lantern could not. Nestled between two large oaks, a structure with edges too sharp to be natural seemed to materialise from the inky blackness. Maran blinked. Flecks of fire hissed and fell silent. Hope drove him forward.
“I-I think I found it, Soiya. Hang on!”
Soiya’s reply was incomprehensible. Heavy raindrops were nearly as loud as the rumble of lightning, but even they were drowned away by the pounding of Maran’s own heart.
The horses clopped on, and after a few moments, Maran worried that he may have been mistaken. Then in a bright flash, Maran saw the dark shape of a cottage looming over his carriage. He pulled hard on the reigns, sending the horses askew and throwing the carriage onto one wheel. His wife screamed from inside as the carriage began to tip over. Wood splintered, water splashed, and Maran flew off his seat. He landed on harsh rocky ground, burning his joints in sharp stones.
“Soiya! No, Misa!” In a panic, Maran crawled to the tipped carriage. The lantern was his only guide. His hand gripped the wood and forced him to stand. “Soiya! Soiya! Misa must be unharmed!”
He peeked through the window. Relief washed over him when he saw Soiya sprawled against the bottom door with Misa in her arms. Soiya groaned.
“Take her,” she said. “She’s running out of time.”
Maran nodded and climbed over the carriage to open the door. Leaning inside, he managed to grab ahold of his daughter and pull her into his chest. For a second, he cradled her. Then he whirled around, ignoring the sting on his knees, and marched forward to the wooden cottage that now stood before him.
He hesitated. Then, when he saw Misa’s pale, sickly face, he steeled his resolve and kicked at the door.
“Tika, witch of the woods!” he called. “Open the door to your home. I have come with a bargain.”
He stood waiting. Nothing but the howl of the wind and the drum of the rain filled his ears. Anger, desperation boiled, and Maran raised his foot to kick at the door once more. His foot lifted, then flung forward. And met nothing but air.
Surprised, Maran stumbled forward. He heard the door slam behind him, the wind rushing past his ears, and a strangled cry escaping his throat. His grip on Misa tightened. Desperate to keep his daughter safe, he twisted around, intending to hit the floor first and cushion the fall. Maran braced himself for the impact.
And found himself floating in midair. His body rose until both feet were firmly on the ground.
“I didn’t expect visitors in a storm this monstrous,” a sweet voice resonated within the room, spreading through the space so its source could not be located. “You must be quite desperate to have come here in this weather.”
“I…” Maran swallowed his fear. “I am Maran from the nearby city of Giligha. I have come to ask you to save my daughter’s life.”
“To me? A witch?” Laughter pierced into Maran’s ears. “Why? Is it an incurable disease? Can the local doctors not heal it away?”
Maran’s lips trembled. He forced himself to look at his dying daughter to keep himself from losing his temper. With effort, he ignored the mockery in the witch’s tone.
“Please.” His voice was barely above a whisper, hoarse from the sorrow and fear of losing his only child. “She’s only six. I’ll give you anything you want. Money, horses, my soul. I’m a carpenter. I could make you fresh, new furniture. Just please save her.”
“Is that so?” Tika’s voice now came from a clear source, and Maran turned to face it. Near the lit fireplace with shadows dancing across her features stood the most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on. Her lips curled into a smile, but her eyes shone with cold distrust. “Can you stop the persecution of witches? Can you stop the kingdom’s belief that witches are evil? Will you convince the cityfolk to let me back into my home?”
Maran’s heart sank. Her requests were impossible, and he knew that if anyone found out he had consulted Tika the Witch, he and his family would be driven out of Giligha.
Sensing his despair, the witch sighed. “I thought so. Not even a desperate father can do the impossible to save his offspring. I will tell you now that your request is just as impossible. Your daughter is doomed to die. I’m afraid I can’t bargain with you. You should leave before Giligha finds out you’ve come here.”
Maran shook his head. He hadn’t risked everything he had to be turned away by a witch. “I won’t leave until I know Misa will survive.”
Tika remained silent, and Maran could feel her icy eyes studying him closely. Firelight danced on her head, causing an orange gleam to glance off her pale hair.
“Please. I’ll give you everything I have. I just want my daughter to live. For her to…” Maran choked, unable to even think of a future without Misa.
He hunched over, falling onto his knees, and drew the young girl closer to his heart. Tears ran from his hollow eyes and slipped past his sharp cheeks, dripping onto Misa’s unresponsive face. By each minute, he could feel her slipping away, her body getting cooler and cooler.
Sensing a presence approach him, Maran lifted his head to face the witch. Her feet were hidden behind her long dress, making her look like she was gliding across the floor. With pity in her eyes, she reached out a hand and brushed black hair from Misa’s closed eyes.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” Tika said, her voice soft like the wind. With a resigned sigh, removed her hand from the girl’s forehead. “Very well. I will try to save her, but first, you must accept my conditions.”
Hope blossomed in Maran’s chest. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
Turning away from him, Tika walked to the fireplace. A black pot boiled on the fire. While stirring the contents, she said, “I am no doctor, Maran of Giligha, but I do believe your daughter has caught what we witches call frog fever. You might know it as Jania, the child-killing disease that doctors cannot cure. Is that right?”
Again, Maran nodded. He looked down at his daughter, seeing the clear signs of Jania. Misa’s face had turned so white that a tinge of blue tainted her skin. It was especially obvious in her veins, where dark streaks of blue and purple indicated how far the infection had spread.
Tika grabbed a jar sitting on the fireplace and drew out something skinny and bent at a joint. It was when she dropped it into the pot that Maran realized it was a frog leg.
“We call the disease frog fever because poison from certain frogs can display similar symptoms. Just as it’s impossible to save one from the frog’s poison, it’s impossible to save one from frog fever. At least for now.”
Maran didn’t understand why Tika was informing him about the origin of the witches’ name for the disease. Struggling to keep his tone neutral, he asked, “Why are you telling me this? What’s your condition? Please, just save her!”
Tika continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Do you know why witches are feared, Maran? Mostly, I think, it’s because normal people fear what they do not understand, and the magic witches wield is impossible to understand unless you yourself are a witch.”
She traced a finger along the brick that lined the fireplace. “But, there’s another fear that drives them to extricate the witches from their systems. It’s the fear that we will destroy them, take what they have, and purge all those who do not have magic. It would be so easy to do so. Simply release a disease that kills millions, and within a mere few years, only witches would rule the earth.
“I think you know where I am taking this. Witches, though they are powerful because of their magic, are also above a normal human in their physical strength, endurance, and immunity. Thus far, I can tell you that the only ‘disease’ that ever kill witches are either related to magic or toxins from deadly lifeforms.”
Maran drew in a breath. He was beginning to piece together what she was saying. He wanted to refuse, but his voice caught in his throat.
“You said you would do anything to keep your daughter alive, isn’t that right?” Tika turned her gaze from the pot to Maran. “Does that include casting her out of society? Creating a monster within her that will make her life lonely and treacherous? That is my bargain, Maran Carpenter. It is the only way she will live.”
Maran’s heart dropped. He had thought he would do anything to keep Misa from death, but Tika had given him an alternative that was as equally, if not more, tragic. Tears sprung into his eyes. He had made up his mind. Death would be better than letting Misa live a life of fear. Accepting her fate, he tightened his embrace.
Her small heart beat against his ear. It began to slow, soften, so much so that several times his stomach dropped when he thought she had breathed her last before another persistent beat pounded against his ear. After one more heartbeat, Maran jolted up, fear gripping his chest. It had been far too long since her last.
“I accept!” he yelled. “I accept! Bring her back to me! Now!”
Tika jumped from her position and bolted towards Misa. “It would have been wise for you to have accept it earlier.” She had a bowl in her hand. She gently placed it on Misa’s lips, tilting it so the soup would warm the girl’s body. “Bring her here.” She walked back towards the hearth, where she had drawn a circle with runes and symbols running through it. Maran understood none of it, but he was too fearful to question it. She took Misa from him and placed her at the middle of the circle.
Tika placed her hand over Misa’s body and squeezed her eyes. Her mouth barely moved as she chanted under her breath.
Thunder rumbled outside, and the house began to shake. Maran clenched his hands together in desperation. Glass shattered behind him. He yelled when the fire began to flicker. Misa’s body rose from the ground. The ground shook. Flasks fell from their place on the shelves. Maran’s little girl lay in the air, her hair falling and waving as if she was in water. Tika’s chants grew louder. The language was strange in Maran’s ears.
Then, all was still. Misa floated back down. Tika gasped for air and grabbed at her heart. Maran scrambled forward to catch Misa before she touched the cold ground and drew her close to his chest.
“It is done,” Tika said, fading away until only her voice remained. “I will see her again when she realises what she is.”
“Thank you,” Maran chanted. “Thank you. Thank you.”
The door slammed open. Soiya ran inside, her hand tightly gripping her skirt and her eyes wide open. “Maran! I’ve been trying to open the door for ages. I thought something had happened in here. Misa! Is she safe? Will she live?”
Feeling warmth returning to Misa, Maran looked down. The young girl’s cheeks filled with colour. Her eyes fluttered open, her lips parted, then she croaked her first word in five months.
Hey, everyone! Welcome to my first story on this platform. This is a fantasy story that contains magic, a fight for freedom, and slow-burn romance. I hope you enjoy and comment your thoughts! Thanks for giving reading! :)
This book has been put in the pay-to-read program, and unfortunately, I don't believe I can do anything about it. I’ve heard that if an author edits a VIP chapter, it could reset the system and readers would have to pay again to read it. I'm not sure if this is true, but because I don’t want to risk it, I’ll be leaving my chapters unedited. I have polished them as best as I can, but I'm sure there are still a few mistakes I overlooked. Please excuse any that you find! >.<