By J. L. Ender
No more dead corn.
Thank goodness for that. I’d checked every ear, terrified that whatever pestilence had killed my crop last year would return again. The corn was my pride and joy, by far my best crop. I sighed. My work dress already clung with sweat from the day’s heat.
I turned back from the cornfield to check the pasture. Intuition told me to make sure the cows were okay, and I never doubted my gut. I walked past my tiny house, which was dwarfed by a creaky red barn. I didn’t need a big house. I had no family, and I never would. I tended my livestock, and I grew crops. That was my life.
I strode out to the pasture to check on the new calves. One of them lay on its side, lowing pitifully. I burst into a run, stumbling to its side. I brushed hair from my eyes, searching for the source of the injury. There—a huge burn on its flank. Faeries again, if I had to guess. Last summer, a spell of them had killed three chickens. A hungry faerie could be worse than a fox. And they liked their food well-done.
I placed a hand on the calf’s flank near the cut. Energy poured out of me, and the terrible burns faded. I weakened so much I couldn’t lift my arms. I fought exhaustion for a moment, gritting my teeth as my eyes watered, but it was no good.
With a sigh, I laid down on the soft green grass eye-to-eye with the calf. It stared at me with enormous brown eyes as I drifted off to sleep.
The sun still far from rising, I staggered into the barn, bleary from lack of sleep. My unplanned nap had left me little time to finish my chores, forcing me to work into the night.
I entered the cow’s stall for the morning milking. “C’mon, old girl.” I rubbed my hands against my neck to warm them.
I settled down on the stool and began milking. It was hard work, but I appreciated having something to focus on while waking up. When I finished, I leaned back and wiped my brow. I’d drained myself too much healing the calf and still hadn’t recovered.
A loud bang like a firecracker startled me. I kicked over the milk bucket, spilling the precious liquid across the straw.
I bit my lip to button a curse, then grabbed a pitchfork and stepped outside. My eyes roved the starlit farm. Rolling hills, short trees, three fields fenced with old wooden beams. Nothing more.
My eyes returned to the cornfield. The stalks were burning! I raced across the yard. There in the midst of the flames, a roiling shape moved. A woman emerged from the inferno. She wore thick furs over a dingy brown-and-white dress.
The fire witch barked at me in a harsh, guttural language, then shook her head. “Where am I?” she asked in Latin.
“My farm,” I said. “That was my cornfield.” Every stalk had caught fire. They burned in the early morning darkness like rows of torches leading down to Hades.
“Yes, yes. But where is your farm? What country?”
I frowned. “Northern Lionne.”
“Lapin. Half a day’s walk.”
She tapped her lip. “Okay…”
Without a bye, a thank you, or a sorry for ruining a huge chunk of your livelihood, she took off. Fireballs glowed from her hands, then vanished. Hers didn’t resemble any spellwork I’d ever seen.
She’s a deathly. Like me.
As the legend went, those who died and came back to life returned with strange power. I’d been asphyxiated, the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck at birth. When the doctor had resuscitated me, I’d healed away a tumor in his throat.
I didn’t like the look of her. She had the aura of a woman up to no good. And not just because she’d wrecked my corn.
When the fire witch reached the gate, she fiddled with the latch, unable to figure it out. Stepping back, she let flame whoosh from both hands to engulf the gate, burning it to cinders. Apparently satisfied, she strode off.
This was too much. “Hey! What are you doing?”
She turned back to me. “I’ve just gained these fun new powers. I aim to raise hell and maybe take over this wretched kingdom.” The fire witch eyed my pitchfork. “Is that a problem for you?”
I stared, unable to dredge up a single word. I kept the useless pitchfork level, not letting it shake. I was proud of that.
The fire witch smirked, winked, and walked away.
Dropping my weapon, I followed her onto the dirt lane leading to town. The sun rose now, tinging the horizon with a fiery reddish glow.
I balled my fists. I could follow. I could undo some of the damage she’d inflict. But I’d have to do the unthinkable. I’d have to leave my farm far behind.
This place had been my refuge, my hiding place from the crowds that would surely tear me apart for my gift. I left the world alone, and it did likewise. As it should be.
It’s not my fault. It’s not my responsibility.
The fire witch held a hand out, lighting the bean field of the next farm over ablaze.
But if I could do anything to help…
It was too late for the crops. They’d be ash before I could get to them. But if she tried to torch any people, I should be there.
I balled my fists and took a single step forward. Then another.
In the back of my mind, the crowd tore me to pieces.
But I forsook the safety of home. I followed the fallen witch into fire and darkness.