The cottage seemed reasonable enough, from the outside. Admittedly, though, it was dark.
Andris had been standing paused at the gate for some time. He’d thought, perhaps, that some sort of dawn might arrive, and allow him to get a better look at the terrain he was about to step into. This dark forest was already so different from the small, reasonable flat they’d all shared before, that gateway that had allowed them all to come together and yet kept them so firmly apart. Having such an open space ought to have been good for them, he thought sadly. Instead it had only made it even easier for them to hide, somehow.
No dawn was coming. With a sigh, Andris stepped through the gate, and onto the stone path that wound its way up to the front door of the cottage. His steps were illuminated, at least -- strange lights lined the path, showing him where to step and offering the promise of an unseen garden just beyond. The bard kept his footsteps quiet as he went. When he reached the door he held up a hand, hesitated, and dropped it down again. If he was welcome here, the door wouldn’t be locked. Perhaps it would be better not to give her too much chance to think about that.
Without knocking, he turned the knob and let himself in.
The inside of the cottage was a neat and tidy mess. Andris laughed a little. Her name had shifted, but she was still so very herself. Every surface and a great deal of the floor was piled high with fabric and yarn and the like, all in various states of completion. But the piles were organized in such a way that even a complete stranger could have seen the order in them. Even where multiple projects were stacked, threatening to overcome one another, the boundaries were visible. The room was overwhelming, but no doubt she knew exactly where everything in it could be found, should she want to call something unseen into her hand.
That might well have made it worse, Andris thought. The knowing. At least he, clueless, could look at the room and see only what was out and visible. What must it be like to be so aware of the things he couldn’t even see?
The witch herself was standing quietly in the center of the room. There was something made of cloth held in her long hands, and one of the two fairies, the one that looked like dark and moonlight, was helping her with it. The fairy clung to her hand and eyed him speculatively, her wings shifting gently. Another emerged from the hearth, curious. And as to the witch, the expression on her face was nearly blank, the exhaustion in her so deeply set in that it was a struggle for much else to make its way to the surface.
“Shyra,” he said, in greeting. Then he found the shift, and corrected himself. “Yelisaveta. ...Elise.”
“You,” she answered. Then her eyes closed and she allowed her shoulders to fall, just for a second. “You.”
“It’s me,” Andris agreed. There was a little space by the door. Andris swung his pack down from his shoulder, and let it fall there. Patting his free, empty hands against his thighs, he spread them wide, indicating the entire cottage. “What do you need?”
When the witch opened her eyes again, they were wet, and he expected her to cry as she’d done in the past. But whatever tears she had did not fall, and she didn’t put her work down to go to him. That was fine. They’d never had that sort of love. The lamps that illuminated the cottage were already shining a little more brightly for his presence, and that was enough.
“I’m hungry,” Elise was saying. “It’s cold. I’m tired, I don’t sleep, and parts of me hurt. Time doesn’t feel very good.” She recited it as though it were in her head like any other list, little more than items to be crossed off. “Oh, Andris. Things have changed so much and I’ve barely kept up. I didn’t even realize things had moved so much at all until recently.”
“I’m here,” he said. The darker fairy was crawling up her arm, ready to crouch on her shoulder. The other fluttered over and alighted on his hand, perhaps drawn to the lingering smell of burning in him. He kept still, letting her consider, letting her investigate. “It’s time to be the prince again, right? To come in all valiant and save you from your terrible life of hard labor.”
“It’s not so terrible. I like it, in fact. There’s just too much of it now, and we’ve grown so scattered.” Even now, she was fiddling with the fabric she held. A garment, mostly completed. Only a few more seams to pin into place. “I certainly don’t want you to whisk me away from all this. Do we even have a castle for you to take me to?”
“That’s not the point.” The fairy on his hand, the Spindle Jack, was making herself at home. Moving carefully, Andris crossed the cottage, sticking neatly to the paths that the witch had laid out. “You know me. I’m an actor. The stories in here are missing players to make them work, and I’m here to fill those roles.”
“So that’s why I can’t see your face,” she said, lowering her eyes to her work. “This is your audition, then.”
“What do you need?” Andris asked again, agreeing. He knelt down by the hearth. “What’s your story missing?”
The witch was silent for a while as the bard, the prince, glanced around for fuel to help bring the dying fire back around. The fairy who had gone to him, the Spindle Jack, fluttered around him in excitement, knowing he was going to try and make her home a better place. With him around, it wouldn’t be silent for long. So Yelisaveta listened to the quiet, listened to the missing and listened to the lack, cast her senses to things she’d been trying to ignore for a good long while, aware that she couldn’t tend to those things on her own.
“I need more hands,” she said at last. “I need…the partners attached to them. The Jacks have been invaluable, but they are what they are. I need someone to take away the things I worry about. I need someone to handle the things that I can’t get to. I don’t have time.”
“You’ve got nothing left to burn,” Andris observed when she was done. “What have you been feeding this?”
“That’s no good. If you feed a fire like this from the future, you’re not giving it anything that’s real yet. And you just said yourself you don’t sleep.” He plonked himself down, turning over his shoulder to look at her. “Come sit with me. It’s your fire.”
The witch sighed, and brought her work with her when she joined him. She lowered herself down, moving stiffly, and resumed her pinning. The Needle Jack held the pins out to her, so that she didn’t have to take her eyes away from what she was doing.
“I don’t have much to give it,” she said.
“I can see that,” said Andris. “But I bet we can find something.” For a little while, they sat together quietly. The fire was so small and slight that it could barely crackle, as though the effort of making sound would cause it to sputter out entirely. Then, Andris said, “What’s in here that you love, Shyra?”
Her hands stilled, as though she were a wind-up toy who had run out of winding. For several long moments, she held her position. Then she let her hands, and the work they held, fall into her lap, and leaned over to rest her head against Andrisanth’s shoulder.
“I love the making. I love the unfolding,” she said. “I love the transformation, of things becoming other things. I love it when my hands understand what to do. I love -- the act of understanding.”
“You were always the one who found things,” Andris told her. “We’d be standing in a mess and you’d tell us how to get out of it. You could see it. You always knew where we needed to go and when.”
“I could understand the way out.”
“Can you see the way out now?”
“I see a way out. But it’s only a way out for me. It’s not a way out for all of us. There’s too much to understand, nothing is simple anymore.”
“You love the making.”
“I love it.”
“But these things you’re making now --“
“They’re not my things. Someone else started them. These things have been left to me, and they carry too much time in them, and they eat my time, too, just by being here.”
“What do you love, Shyra?”
Magic. So many small things, coming together to make something whole. Dresses made of moonlight and starlight and sunlight to wear to the ball, to exist as that person, to be the queen who can wear such things, to spin and to celebrate and to indulge. To build up, to take the useless and add it to the cauldron, to stir and to sing until beauty comes out again. Things that have faces, things that have stories. To know and to understand. To find meaning underneath it all, to have reason, to understand why, to understand reason. To understand want. To have what’s needed, to have it come to my hand, my hand that understands the why. Mattering. Matters of the heart. To have a heart that reaches out, to understand the reaching, to make matters enough that other hearts reach out in turn. To bring things into this world that would never be seen otherwise. To make magic.
I love to make magic.
The fire crackled at last. It was still small, still searching, reaching out for things to burn. But it was trying, and the witch let go of her work entirely in favor of holding her hands up to it, feeling the warmth against her palms.
“That’s a little better,” said Andris. “I’ll make some tea, and then you’ll sleep a while.”
“There’s work to be done,” said the witch.
“This is how the story goes,” the bard told her. “The heroine is set to an impossible task. She knows she can never do it on her own, and if she fails, she’ll be eaten alive and her bones will rattle in a basket. But because she is kind, she has helpers, and while she sleeps, the work gets done.”
“You know how kindness goes here.” Yelisaveta bowed her head a little, where it was still resting on his shoulder. “That was never me. Lia had it. She’s Thorn now and she has it still, corrupted.”
“Then maybe I’ll go and see her next. But I don’t think she’s the only one. If you weren’t changing, you wouldn’t be walking into a new name.”
She didn’t answer. The fire burned steadily. It wasn’t growing, but at least it was a little bigger than it had been.
“Go sleep a while,” Andris repeated. “Go rest. None of this work is the work that matters to you, right? Go rest up for the good stuff. I can take care of this boring crap. It’s only work.”
She laughed a little at his phrasing, sitting up at last. When she glanced at him, his face was a little more clear, less of a blur. He could do it, she realized. His musician’s hands liked to move as much as hers did. It would be no trouble for him to do the work in her place for a while, while she replenished her dreaming.
“What have you brought me, Andris?” she asked. “What’s in that bag of yours?”
Andris kissed the top of her head, and pushed himself to his feet.