There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.
It used to be the air was so thick with magic you could taste it on your tongue like ash. Witches lurked in every tangled wood and waited at every midnight-crossroad with sharp-toothed smiles. They conversed with dragons on lonely mountaintops and rode rowan-wood brooms across full moons; they charmed the stars to dance beside them on the solstice and rode to battle with familiars at their heels. It used to be witches were wild as crows and fearless as foxes, because magic blazed bright and the night was theirs.
But then came the plague and the purges. The dragons were slain and the witches were burned and the night belonged to men with torches and crosses.
She remembers her mother’s hand—white and bloodless as the blank pages at the end of a book—touching her cheek just before the end. Her voice saying, Take care of them, Agnes Amaranth. Bella was older, but she knew Agnes was the strong one.
That first night it was Agnes who washed the blood from her baby sister’s skin. Agnes who let her suck on the tip of her pinky finger when she cried. Later it was Agnes who brushed her hair before school and held her hand in the endless night behind the cellar door.
And it was Agnes who left Juniper to fend for herself, because she wasn’t strong enough to stay. Because survival is a selfish thing.
Beatrice feels Miss Stone’s eyes on her face. “I don’t know you, Miss Eastwood, but you seem a respectable woman. That sister—those sisters of yours will lead you astray.”
Beatrice hesitates. She thinks about the fates of girls who go astray in all the stories, the hot iron shoes and glass coffins and witches’ ovens. (She thinks about St. Hale’s, a prison built especially for straying girls.)
But then Beatrice looks at Agnes still waiting for her, half scowling, and thinks about what else awaits those gone-astray girls: the daring escapes and wild dances, the midnight trysts and starlit spells, a whole world’s worth of disreputable delights.
Beatrice bows her head as she leaves. “So I hope, Miss Stone.”
Beatrice looks up to meet Agnes’s eyes. She and Agnes are still wary with one another, careful as cats, but at this moment Beatrice is certain they are both wondering the same thing: whether there is anything in the world more sinister than their youngest sister in possession of an idea.
Juniper wishes, with a poisonous twist in her stomach, that her daddy could see them. A girl is such an easy thing to break: weak and fragile, all alone, all yours. But they aren’t girls anymore, and they don’t belong to anyone. And they aren’t alone.
Come and get us now, you bastard.
She thought survival was a selfish thing, a circle drawn tight around your heart. She thought the more people you let inside that circle the more ways the world had to hurt you, the more ways you could fail them and be failed in turn. But what if it’s the opposite, and there are more people to catch you when you fall? What if there’s an invisible tipping point somewhere along the way when one becomes three becomes infinite, when there are so many of you inside that circle that you become hydra-headed, invincible?
It proves difficult to keep a witch behind bars. Workhouses suffer from rusted locks and shattered bars, missing shackles and stolen keys. Guards are discovered sleeping or missing or terribly confused, convinced they are lost in deep woods. Cells are found empty except for the wild smell of witching.
The smell is everywhere, now. The whole city reeks of wet earth and green things, char and crushed herbs and wild roses. It rises like steam from the alleys between tenements and the lawns of fashionable homes, as if some great dragon is rousing beneath the city, breathing smoke through the cracks. The streets heave over the bones of tree roots that grow faster than they should; thistle and pye weed sprout between bricks. Sometimes at night the stars shine more brightly than they have any right to, as if there aren’t gas-lamps and bulbs buzzing beneath them, as if they’re shining down on a black wood or an empty prairie. The wind is sharp and too cold for the final days of summer, as if the ghost of Avalon still lingers, haunting the city.
Mr. August Lee is waiting at the kitchen table. He stands as they enter and his face when he sees Agnes is—well. It’s private, Juniper decides. She busies herself with her cane, wondering a little bitterly how her sisters found the time to pursue romance alongside all the witching and women’s rights. She tries to imagine herself looking at someone like that, all soft and aching, but finds herself thinking instead of the mountainside back home, sweet and green.
One of them is pale and fey, with ivory antlers sprouting from matted dark hair and yellowed teeth strung in a necklace around her throat. Her dress is ragged and torn, black as a moonless night.
She meets Juniper’s eyes and Juniper feels a thrill of recognition.
Juniper always loved maiden-stories best. Maidens are supposed to be sweet, soft creatures who braid daisy-crowns and turn themselves into laurel trees rather than suffer the loss of their innocence, but the Maiden is none of those things. She’s the fierce one, the feral one, the witch who lives free in the wild woods. She’s the siren and the selkie, the virgin and the valkyrie; Artemis and Athena. She’s the little girl in the red cloak who doesn’t run from the wolf but walks arm in arm with him deeper into the woods.
Juniper knows her by the savage green of her eyes, the vicious curve of her smile. An adder drapes over her shoulders like a strip of dark velvet, like the carved-yew snake of Juniper’s staff come to life. Juniper’s smile could be the Maiden’s own, sharp and white, mirrored back across the centuries.
Mothers are supposed to be weak, weepy creatures, women who give birth to their children and drift peacefully into death, but the Mother is none of those things. She’s the brave one, the ruthless one, the witch who traded the birthing-chamber for the battlefield, the kitchen for the knife. She is bloody Boadicea and heartless Hera, the mother who became a monster.
None of the stories mention the oiled brown of her skin or the smooth lines of scars along her cheeks, but Agnes knows her by the iron set of her jaw, the unyielding line of her spine. A black python wraps around one arm, heavy-bodied and red-eyed.
Agnes bows her head and the Mother bows back to her, like two soldiers meeting in battle.
Old women are supposed to be doting and addled, absent-minded grandmothers who spoil their sons and keep soup bubbling on the stove-top, but the Crone is none of those things. She’s the canny one, the knowing one, the too-wise witch who knows the words to every curse and the ingredients for every poison. She is Baba Yaga and Black Anna; she is the wicked fairy who hands out curses rather than christening-gifts.
Bella knows her by her fingertips: ink-stained, tattooed with words in a dozen dead languages. A delicate asp coils around one wrist.
Juniper stops her pacing after that. She sits at the other end of the polished dining table, staff across her knees, thinking about bindings and blood and the sideways logic of love: all for one and one for all, a dead-even trade that adds up to infinity. She thinks how upside-down it is that she started this fight out of rage—spite and fury and sour hate—and that she’ll finish it for something else entirely.