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They were both born under the sign of the oak, two years apart. Kylaia came first, her dark skin beautiful and eyes bright.
Andre came second, as always; sallow brown skin, murky eyes, and tendency to scream when the sun set.
“Those two years changed you,” the Witch Mother said once. “They changed your natures.”
On the day of Kylaia’s birth, the sky shone clear and blue, and there was no greater indication of goodness than the sun, whose warmth sheltered and whose light guided.
“This,” said the Witch Mother to Andre, “is where your life took a different path.”
‘A different path?’ The Witch Mother is always saying stuff like that, and I can never figure out if she has some special insight or if she’s just trying to say in a kind way that I’m strange. Andre lifted some strongly scented leaves out of one pocket and dumped them into the wooden bowl.
The truth is, she thought savagely while grinding the rosemary. The truth is that my sister got to be beautiful and I got to be useful. Which isn’t useful at all.
At the crossroads stood a man. He tugged the edge of his cloak in thought and stared at a rather confusing sign post. There were three plaques of wood nailed onto it, which read “Fourest,” “Home,” and “Bluffs.”
He could see the cliffs quite clearly, and there was a town in the distance which he assumed to be “Home.” But he couldn’t see any abundance of trees, just the scrubland through which he’d been wandering for several days. There were some hills nearby, but their sheer grey stone seemed rather forbidding. He clutched his cloak again.
Just as he was considering going to the town in order to find out exactly where this forest was, he noticed a figure limping down the road towards him. It was a woman, he realized, somewhere in her mid-thirties, with a few streaks of grey in her long black hair. As she drew nearer he heard her swearing as she clutched at her left leg.
“-damn man should know better than to set a trap like that in these plains, no knowing what you’ll annoy-”
As she drew level with him, she seemed to notice him for the first time. Her sloe-like eyes narrowed under thick brows. “What do you want, then?” she snapped. “Don’t go standing at a crossroads if you can help it, especially around here.”
He held out a wary hand for her to shake, temporarily releasing his grip on his oiled cloak. “I’m looking for the forest, actually, but this sign seems to be wrong, and I don’t only mean the spelling.” He gestured helplessly towards the badly painted words.
The woman before him seemed unimpressed. “And who are you, then, to be looking for the witches of Morrigan Valley? Some sort of warlock, I suppose?”
“My name is Jace, and who said anything about witches? I’m not-”
“Oh, so you’ve a death wish, then? Funny, that. I didn’t take you for a suicide.”
He was starting to get irritated. “Listen, I’m not suicidal, and I’m not looking for witches! I’m here to talk to the Sorcerer Khalif, and he said he lives in the forest! Although I am, actually, a warlock,” he added rather embarrassedly. “But that has nothing to do with anything.”
There was silence for a moment as the witch, for he was sure now that she was one, regarded him. Finally, she sighed. “You’d best come along to the Fourest, then. That’s just the sort of thing that damned sorcerer would say. Follow,” she added sharply, and they made their way towards the grim hills overlooking the town.
Andre finished grinding and blending the herbs and tossed them in the stewpot. It wasn’t a very magical use to put her mortar and pestle to, but the Witch Mother had taken a liking to her cooking, and the Witch Mother’s word was law.
So Andre cooked. And she cleaned sometimes, but for the most part she spent her time making charms and reading the smoke and bottling nasty-smelling medicinal herbs. She was – what was the word? – oh yes, talented.
Talented. That was the word Cypress and Calypso used when they were being snide, although the twins were always snide when they talked to Andre. Everyone knew that Andre was talented; she just wasn’t very likable.
As an infant she’d had a terrible fear of the dark which was only quelled by candle- or torchlight. As a young child she’d taken to hiding in the trees, although admittedly not very well. It was as though someone had written ‘necessary, but unpleasant’ in large letters across her soul. She tried to ignore it. Everyone knew Kylaia was going to be the next Witch Mother, and when she was, then Andre could leave the valley at last, sure in the knowledge that her sister was cared for. It wasn’t that her sister was dumb; no, it was more that she sometimes failed to grasp the consequences of her actions.
The Council will be there to advise her, Andre thought as she spooned out the portions for her fellow witches. It’ll be fine, I’m sure of it.
But as she glanced up into the hard grey eyes of the Witch Mother, she swallowed the tremor of jealousy stemming from her unconscious hope that she might be chosen, she, not Kylaia, to be the next Witch Mother.
When everyone had been served, she sat down quietly near one of the bonfires roaring in the witches’ clearing and sipped quietly from her mug. Soon, she thought, soon I’ll be out of here.
Two pairs of eyes watched her discreetly from around another fire. One, grey and tired, still held a surprisingly fierce gleam in their depths; the other was robin’s egg blue, with a strange blankness in the unusually clear gaze.
Andre was heading back towards the house she shared with her sister. She’d almost reached the border between the trees and Deep Woods when an enormous shadow fell over her. She tilted her head back and sighed. There’s that stupid sorcerer again, she thought, with his stupid floating house. She watched it move smoothly through the air, high enough above the trees to catch the last of the sun’s light. Then she settled her cloak around her shoulders and stepped into the darkness.

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