Every Tuesday, rain or shine, the witch of Blue Ridge came down from the mountain into the town nestled at the foothills’ shoulder.
On this late summer morning, she welcomed the cool relief of the thick-shadowed woods. Down she went on the overgrown trail, past her carefully woven wicker wards, past the bones and bells she’d strung from the mossy branches to warn her of approaching travelers. Lupe trotted after her, ears alert for rabbits.
She spent as little time in town as she could, while the coywolf waited for her at the edge of the woods. A quick stop at the post office, then across the street to the general store to pick up flour, rice, and spices to supplement her diet of lupine beans and venison.
Pastor Barnes scowled at her from the sidewalk as she left the store. Behind him, a skinny kid stared at her with open curiosity.
“Hello.” The kid had a husky voice and long hair tied back in a ponytail. They looked no older than fifteen or sixteen. “Oh, wow. You’re her, aren’t you? The lady who lives up on the Ridge?”
She didn’t recognize the kid. Probably staying at the church camp down the road. “I—”
“Be quiet, Riley!” The pastor grabbed the kid by the arm and pulled them away down the sidewalk. The kid craned their neck to look back at her.
Head down, she hurried in the opposite direction. At the edge of the forest, she glanced back. The pastor and his charge had vanished. A massive furry head pushed under her hand and Lupe’s weight leaned against her legs. She scratched the coywolf’s ears absently and sighed.
Nothing she could do about the kid. Best not to get involved.
In the night, she woke from a sound sleep to the rattle of bells and bones, followed by the tearing sensation of a ward breach.
Someone had come up the mountain.
She lay still, breathing deep and quiet in the silence until the crickets struck up their rhythmic song again.
A soft whimper answered her. In the moonlight that seeped through the cabin’s single window, the coywolf stood with ears up and quivering, nose pointed toward the door.
“Dammit.” The witch closed her eyes and sent her fetch racing along a labyrinthine network of roots toward the ward’s boundary. There. The woven branches and cobwebs suspended between two hoary oaks had entangled a small, slim form.
She’d caught a child in the wards, like a fly in a web.
“Well, fuck me,” said the witch of Blue Ridge, and climbed out of bed.
It took a while to convince the ward to let go. The trees passed the captive up the hill, cocooned in spider silk, and placed them at the meadow’s edge where the witch waited.
She took out her knife from her coat pocket and started cutting the webbing away. The silk cocoon split open, and the kid who’d greeted her in town lay insensate in her meadow. Mascara and tears streaked the rawboned cheeks. A new bruise purpled over the right eye, and they had a split lip.
The witch sat back on her heels. Her curse had no power behind it. “Devil take you, Barnes. Not another one.”
Lupe whined again and dropped her shaggy head to lick the teenager’s face. The kid sputtered awake, then gasped and froze as they saw the coywolf looming above them.
“It’s all right,” the witch said. “She won’t hurt you.”
Eyes wide, the kid took in the meadow, the moon, and the witch standing there with a knife in her hand. “What happened?”
The witch slipped her knife into her pocket. “You got lost in the woods. I think you were running.”
“The fucking camp.” The kid sighed. “Pastor Barnes…he said I have to be a boy. I’m not a boy, you know.”
“He said my pronouns are nothing but lies and bad grammar.”
“Barnes doesn’t rule the world,” the witch said, irascible with fury. “What’s your name?”
“Riley is fine.” The kid flashed a tremulous half-smile.
“Where were you planning on going, Riley?”
“There’s a bus to the city,” Riley said. “It stops on the main road first thing in the morning. I thought if I could hide in the woods all night…”
The witch offered a hand, hauled Riley to their feet. “Come on. I’ll get you something warm to drink.”
Riley’s brow furrowed. “I probably shouldn’t. But if you’re going to eat me, you’re being really nice about it.”
“I eat venison, not runaways from conversion therapy.” The witch gave a dour laugh. “Besides, you’re skin and bones. Not even a meal’s worth.”
The witch drowsed in a chair by the door until dawn, when the wards snapped again. She jerked her head up. The baying of hounds floated up the mountainside.
She shook Riley awake. “Time to go, kid.”
“Shit. They’re coming for me, aren’t they?”
Another ward snapped. The witch staggered. “Not if you hurry. Lupe will show you the way.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me.” Fire ran along her veins. She shuddered. Down the slope, they’d started burning the wards. “I’ll hold them off.”
Face gray in the pre-dawn light, Riley shouldered their backpack with its ripped rainbow patch. “Funny. I didn’t think they cared enough to come after me.”
“It’s not…caring.” She closed her fist. Deep in the forest, her constructs began to rise, knit from scattered bones and branches. “It’s…control. Go.”
“Thank you,” Riley whispered, and took off running across the mist-veiled meadow, long limbs flying like a yearling deer’s.
Alone in the cabin, the witch fell to her knees. She screamed. The forest had caught fire now. Downslope, a bone stag reared, bugling, aflame, as the horde of constructs bore down on the searchers.
The forest might burn. She might burn. But the camp would burn now too.
This time, when she cursed, she cursed with all her strength.