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Careful the Tale You Tell

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In Ronan's fifteenth year, his mother falls asleep and doesn't wake up.

The doctor arrives from town with a series of increasingly dubious treatments. By the end of the day Ronan's patience has vanished; he throws Matthew out of the room and threatens the doctor until he admits he has no idea what's wrong. Declan dismisses him and vanishes into town, returns an hour later with a priest and the news that he's sent for another doctor.

If the priest has any effect, it's not one Ronan can see.

"There are some things that we cannot change," the priest tells Matthew, somber and not fucking helpful. "But we can always pray for her soul, that she can enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

Ronan does not want his mother to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He wants her to take care of Matthew. He wants her to tell him stories about his father. He wants her to wake up.

The new doctor makes no progress, nor the doctor after that, except to warn them that her strength is wasting away the longer she sleeps.

"She can't sleep forever," the doctor says, and Ronan leaves the house without a word, stands and stares into the distance, until long after the sun has set.

Declan steps outside, pulling on riding gloves. "I'm leaving for the city. There has to be a doctor somewhere on this continent who isn't useless."

"They're all useless," Ronan says. "You're not going to fix anything by making this someone else's problem."

"And what do you expect me to do about an illness I don't even recognize?" Declan asks. "What do you think you can do?"

Ronan doesn't answer, just keeps looking forward, and Declan follows his gaze: away from town, out to the woods, the ones that the road goes around instead of through.

"Don't."

"I can handle myself," Ronan says.

"In a fight, sure," Declan agrees. "Even in a battle of wits. That isn't the same thing. Those woods aren't natural."

"We need something unnatural."

"If you won't stay for my sake, then do it for Matthew's. He needs you."

"He needs his mother."

Declan waits for a long time. Ronan waits longer.

"Stay home tonight," Declan says. "Wait until dawn. If you're lucky the path will become clear."

Ronan shoots his brother a dark look, suspicious, surprised, angry for being surprised. "What do you know about it?" he demands. Declan had always been more interested in the town to the south, with its people and its power and its money, than in the woods to the north, and all of its mystery.

"I know you're going to have to give something up," Declan says. "Don't let it be something you can't afford to lose."

And that's the problem with Declan, when you get right down to it: he thinks that there could be anything more important than the family.

Declan leaves. Ronan goes back inside to sleep. He'd rather not waste another second, just leave now and screw Declan and his ambiguity and his commandments. But it's so rare to see Declan compromise; Ronan is reluctant to throw it away.

He wakes Matthew up before dawn and tells him he's going for help. Matthew is too sleepy-eyed to ask any questions. Ronan wouldn't have answered anyway.

And then he goes into the woods.

They've lived a few miles from the forest his whole life, as close to it as they are to the town, but he's never gone more than a few daring feet into it. He's seen people go. Sometimes they stop at this last house on the road, looking for a meal, or asking about the path ahead, or just wanting to talk about what they're looking for. Ronan had never understood why they'd talk so long instead of just going.

"They need to be sure they're doing the right thing," his mother said, and that made sense, too, why sometimes after a morning or an afternoon or an evening they'd leave the way they came. They weren't sure.

Ronan is sure.

He steps through the trees as the first light of dawn is breaking, and a raven flies past him, so close her wing brushes his ear. She perches in a tree and cocks her head, looking at him.

He steps forward.

Th raven launches off the branch so suddenly that he think he's scared her away, but she only goes as far as the next tree, where she perches and stares at him again.

The path will become clear, Declan had said.

"If you're playing a trick on me I'm going to pluck you like a chicken," Ronan tells the bird.

She hops along the branch and poops, just missing Ronan's head, and then flies ten feet and lands again.

Ronan follows.

There's not a proper path. The trees aren't so close together that they're hard to get through, but the brush between them is overgrown, vines and bushes and moss-covered rocks slippery with morning dew. Ronan wades through it all, thinking vengefully of forest fires, while his guide flits through the air and then watch intently as he trudges after, like she's mocking him.

Under the forest canopy it's hard to tell the direction of the light. Ronan has no sense of how long he's been walking. He tries to whistle a song to keep track of time, but the woods swallow the sound, and the raven circles back like she's asking what he thinks he's doing. He stops whistling.

They reach the edge of a clearing, and the raven flies over it and out of sight. There's a small house in the clearing. He doesn't have to wonder who lives there. Even the boring children in town, who never go anywhere they aren't supposed to, would know a house you found in the middle of the woods had to belong to a witch.

Ronan knocks on the door.

A boy answers it -- or, he looks like he's Ronan's age, but Ronan is an adult and everyone else his age is a kid.

"Come inside," the boy says.

Ronan stands tall. "I'm here to see the witch."

"Then you should come inside, first," the boy says. "Or didn't you think there'd be a ritual?"

"Your ritual means you can't talk to me outside?"

"You need to pass the threshold," the boys says, "and anyway, this is rude."

Ronan steps through the door. There's two cups on a table, and the boy sits down with one cup in front of him and gestures for Ronan to take the other seat -- like the cup is meant for him. Ronan doesn't like that.

The boy is watching him with a look of active patience, so Ronan sits. He does not take the cup.

"I need to see the witch," he says again, when the boy shows no sign of going to get anyone else.

"I'm a witch."

"No you're not."

The boy looks annoyed. It does nothing to make him more witch-like. "I know my qualifications better than you do."

"You're a kid."

"I'm old enough."

"I've heard about the witch that lives here," Ronan says. "She's not a boy."

"She's also not here right now."

"Fine." Ronan crosses his arms. "I'll wait."

"You've heard about the witch that lives in these woods, and you think she's going to come at your beck and call?"

Ronan has no argument for that. He tries to hold the boy's gaze, but there's nothing there to argue with, either. He casts his eyes down and tells the table, "I need her."

"You got me instead. What is it you need from a witch, Ronan?"

He startles and looks back up. He hadn't noticed before how eerie the boy's eyes were. He thinks maybe they weren't, before.

"If you know my name," Ronan says, "then why don't you already know what I need?"

"You have to ask for it."

Ronan needs to breathe a few times before he can speak. "My mother's asleep. She won't wake up and no one knows why." The boy doesn't say anything, so Ronan forces the rest of it out: "I need her to get better."

The witch boy shuts his unnatural eyes, and when they open again they look normal. Ronan could almost think he'd imagined it.

"I need to know more before I can promise you anything." Ronan opens his mouth, because he still remembers every last unhelpful thing that every last doctor has said. "Not from you."

The witch boy goes moves around the large room, collects leaves and sticks from bundles of dried herbs. He lights three candles and frowns at them, goes over to the hearth and stokes the fire there until it's grown to twice its size, and then he tosses the herbs into the fire and sits, staring straight into it.

It's -- unnerving, how closely he's watching the flames, how his eyes are completely still, how he isn't even blinking. Ronan is creeped out for about two minutes, and then he gets bored of being creeped out and goes poking around the room.

On closer inspection, a lot of the herbs are things he recognizes, rosemary and mint and sage, not strange magic plants at all. There's a row of jagged crystals in the window. One deep purple rock is holding down a stack of papers; Ronan flips through them, but the writing is in a language he doesn't know.

The witch boy is still staring into the fire.

Ronan is bored enough to drink, not the cup that was left for him, but the one that was meant for the boy. It's just tea, gone cold, and he's annoyed that he'd been scared of a cup of tea.

He pokes around the rest of the house. There's a small bedroom off the main room, an even smaller bedroom next to it. On the opposite side of the house there's a narrow room that's half-pantry, half-library. When he sticks his head out the back of the house, there's a tidy little garden and a chicken coop and a stack of firewood. And that's -- it. That's the whole house. If you took away the books and added five dirty children this could be any house in town. So much for the unnatural, unholy, terrifying witches of the woods.

The witch boy stirs, blinks repeatedly and leans away from the fire. He unfolds his legs slowly and pushes himself up with one hand on the ground like he's a tired old man.

"I can wake your mother up," he says, so the whole wait was worth it. "But it'll cost you."

"I can pay." Ronan pulls out a sack of coins.

The witch boy doesn't take it. He's looking at Ronan like he's something distasteful -- more distasteful than staring into a fire unblinking, somehow.

"And what does that money cost you, when you have so much of it?"

"So you just want me to suffer."

"It isn't my decision. The cost is what it is, or the magic won't work."

"Fine," though it isn't. He doesn't have anything else, and he's sick at the thought of waiting, longer, to go and find whatever the witch wants. "What is it, then?"

The boy says, "I need your first child."

Well. That's going to be an even longer of a wait than Ronan thought. "What?"

The boy doesn't say anything else. As though what he said doesn't need any explanation, which is not true.

"How old do you think I am?" Ronan demands. "I don't have kids."

"I'm aware of that. A promise will do."

"You want me to promise you a kid. A kid that I don't have."

"That's what it will take to wake your mother up."

It doesn't make any sense, but it keeps not making sense in the same way, forcing itself past Ronan's confusion.

Declan told him not to give up anything he can't afford to lose, but Ronan has suspected for some time now that he's never going to have a life where children are a possibility.

What's easier to lose than something he's never going to have?

"Fine."

"You have to say it."

"More ritual?" Ronan asks, although he thinks the witch is just being a dick.

The boy nods.

"I promise you my first child," Ronan says, and it has to be the result of breathing in all the weird smoke from whatever the witch put into the fire, but for a second he feels light-headed.

"I accept as payment your first child." The witch boy sounds really solemn. Too bad. He can take this as seriously as he wants to, it isn't going to make a kid appear out of nowhere.

"And my mom?"

"Go home," the witch says. "Sleep. Leave her alone in her room with the window open tonight. She'll wake up in the morning."

Ronan says, "If she doesn't, I'm going to come back here and wreck this place."

"Then it's very lucky for you that she will."

Ronan gets home long after dark. He chases the deacon's wife out of the kitchen where she's apparently been making casseroles all day, like she thinks soggy chicken cures hibernation. He kicks Matthew and the latest doctor out of his mother's room and opens the window; lays another blanket over her before he leaves for his own room, where he crawls into his bed certain he won't fall asleep.

When he wakes up in the morning, he can hear his mother singing.

It's easy, in the sunlight, in the glow of Matthew's smile and Aurora's laugh, to forget about a deal that he hadn't really made.

-

In Ronan's twenty-fifth year, someone steals from him.

At first it's a nuisance more than anything. A feed bag for the goats is torn open, the feed junked across the barn floor. Bites go missing from the cheese aging in the cellar. It's only when he comes back from a hunting trip and finds his pantry raided and a knife left in the jam that he's sure it's a person and not a particularly ambitious rat.

He takes extra care in locking up, walks the perimeter of the house and the barn to check for other disturbances. There aren't any. He wants to know who it was more than he cares about another break in, so he sets a few subtle traps by the doors to the house and barn and leaves to spend the night in the forest.

When he comes back, the rope from his trap has been lovingly wrapped around the knob of the open front door.

He doesn't go into the house, doesn't check what's missing, just follows the trail away from the farm. Whatever this person has in guts, they lack in skill.

Which makes sense, when he finally tracks the thief down to her den and finds that it's a little girl.

She runs away the moment she sees him, leaves him with just an impression of her -- filth-smeared, dressed in rags, half-feral -- and a pile of his own belongings. Nothing of value, nothing she stole to sell, just food and a blanket and a bottle of wine he'd left half-full because it was terrible. It's still half-full; he pulls out the cork and takes a swig while he thinks.

She hadn't run far. She hadn't even left his property, although she probably doesn't realize how much of the surrounding forest he owns. She wouldn't be the only one; he doesn't care about hunters or travelers as long as they leave quickly, as long as he doesn't have to talk to them, as long as they don't break into his house and steal his shitty wine. He walks the boundaries of his property every few weeks just to check on everything, but he walks it more frequently now, more thoroughly, and finds traces of her all over the place: old campfires, a nest of torn blankets, clumsy attempts at fishing and trapping.

The second time he finds the girl, she runs away. The third time, she tries to attack him. He picks her up off the ground and sticks her in a tree. She clings to it and hisses at him like a cat.

"Stop stealing my stuff," Ronan says. "You just end up wasting food when you make a mess." He opens his knapsack, enough to let her see the food inside, and then he sets it down by her pathetic campfire and walks away. She's still up the tree; she may or may not be able to climb down.

The next time he comes back from a trip, the knapsack is on the doorstep, pointedly open, look at how easy it would be to fill this with food.

He does, and leaves it back on the doorstep. It's gone the next morning.

He starts to feel eyes on him as he goes about his business. Mostly when he looks he can't see her, so he mostly doesn't look. But he spots her across a clearing as he chops wood, and leaves some of the smaller logs for her pathetic campfire. She watches him fishing for a while, makes a noise when he tosses one back, clearly mad about his squandering. "It's not worth eating the little ones," he explains, "even for puny little runts like you."

She stands in the door to the barn while he's milking the goats one morning, and even comes inside to scoop up a double handful of milk when he steps away. She sips at it and makes a face.

"So don't drink it if you don't like it. You can just stay short forever."

She kicks the pail over and runs away.

Summer turns into autumn while Ronan's wild little shadow follows him around, hiding in his woods, sometimes demanding food without saying a word, sometimes disappearing for days and days at a time. That's okay. There's things you can find in the forest to eat, if you're not stupid, and the girl's not stupid: rude, mute, spiteful, but not stupid.

But autumn starts to fall away to winter, and Ronan leaves things on the doorstep besides food: a hat, gloves, a heavy coat that he had to travel a day's walk each way into town to get because anything he had would drag along the ground behind her if the irritating little imp tried to wear it.

He keeps aggressively busy, doesn't let himself think too much about the weather changing, and then one night he's lying sleepless in bed listening to the rain pounding on the roof, and he swears and goes walking through the forest.

He checks all the places she's let him see her. By the time he finds her she's soaked though and shivering violently. He picks her up and carries her as far as the house, but then she squirms and kicks until he puts her down.

"Fine," he says, after ten excruciating minutes where she steadfastly refuses to come inside the house. "Will you sleep in the barn or do you want to freeze to death?" He's half-surprised that she does run into the barn. At least she's under a roof.

When he peeks inside the barn that morning, she's still asleep, curled up next to one of the goats.

She follows him around everywhere after that. He gets used to one-sided conversations, explaining what he's doing or asking questions he knows she won't answer or just saying what comes to his mind. It's funny; he'd lost the ability to live with Declan and Matthew and his mother, somehow, had forgotten how to exist beside them even though he loved them. He'd left home and constructed a life where he could go days at a time without seeing another person. Having someone at his side every waking moment should drive him insane; it doesn't.

"Are there people missing you somewhere?" he asks one day, after they spot someone far down the road and she goes and hides in the barn for an hour.

He's expecting at most a head shake, and more realistically for her to go hide in the barn again.

Instead:

"I don't have anyone."

"Okay." Ronan hopes that none of his shock comes through. He hadn't been sure she could speak. "Go get a hammer, these nails are coming loose," and he has to ask her three more times before she bothers to listen to him, so she must be feeling okay.

It's snowing the next morning. Ronan gets cold and cranky just stopping in the barn to check on the animals. The girl sits in her nest of hay, curled up in a ball, and doesn't follow him around or help him or "help" by getting in the way.

"Are you coming?" he asks, standing in the doorway.

She doesn't move.

Ronan stomps off back to the house. He props the door open, and when that makes the whole house drafty and cold he just swears and leaves it. It's still warmer than the barn.

It's almost noon when he looks up to find her standing in the front hall, looking at him.

"You going to shut the door?"

She shakes her head.

"So you just want me to be as cold as you are," Ronan says.

She smiles.

"Ungrateful brat," but he's smiling too.

The afternoon is an epic battle of curiosity and caution. The girl explores every inch of the house like she has to see every single thing in it; but she tiptoes when she enters a new room, until she's looked around and made sure it's empty. She never once comes within arm's reach of Ronan. He moves as slowly and loudly as he can to avoid surprising her, and keeps away from the fireplace, so she can get up close to it.

By the time the sun's set, she gone and shut the front door. She sits down, for whole minutes at a time. She doesn't startle when Ronan knocks over the fire poker with a loud thud and swears at it, though she does look at him with something between judgment and pity.

She eats dinner with her hands, so Ronan does too, regretting that he'd made soup. After, she heads straight for Ronan's room and climbs into the bed before Ronan can yell at her to use the spare room. She shuts her eyes and drops right off to sleep, like she isn't afraid of anything, like she isn't afraid of him, and Ronan has to go stand in the snow for a while to shut his brain up.

The next morning dawns with a silent blanket of snow on the earth, and Ronan wakes up in the spare room knowing that something is wrong.

He runs straight to his bedroom. The girl isn't there.

He throws open every door in the hall and curses when he finds them all empty. Of course they are, she probably -- panicked, went back to the barn, went back outside, left, and maybe if he leaves now --

He stops. There's a man in the front hallway, in the same place Ronan had looked up and seen the girl, just yesterday morning.

"You can stop looking for Opal," the stranger says. "You won't find her."

Ronan curls his hands into fists. "What did you do to her?"

"I took her," he says, like this is obvious, like he doesn't care that Ronan is advancing on him, like he doesn't realize how close he is to death -- "like I promised you I would."

Ronan stops short. There's a light in the stranger's eyes, eerie, and he finally recognizes the witch boy from so many years ago.

"Give her back."

The witch says, "our business is done. Goodbye."

He leaves and the door shuts behind him. When Ronan throws it open again, he's nowhere in sight. There's not so much as a pair of footprints in the snow.

-

It's a week's walk from Ronan's home to the town he'd grown up near, a calculated balance between how far he was willing to travel to visit Matthew and his mother, and how far would discourage Declan from showing up unexpectedly. The distance has mostly worked for him. It doesn't work for him now.

He pushes himself, makes the walk in four days instead of seven, keeping warm with anger and exertion. When he's nearing the woods he walks the whole night through, ends up at the edge of the trees just as the sun is rising.

He spots the raven as soon as he steps into the woods. The trees are all bare. Her black feathers stand out starkly against the thin coat of snow.

"You haven't found anything better to do?" he snarls at her, even knowing it can't be the same one. Although he has to wonder, when she flies over his head and shits on the toe of his shoe.

She doesn't come to rest on a tree, but she's not flying so fast Ronan can't follow. He doesn't have the patience for a game of tag, anyway.

The house, when he finds it, looks exactly like he remembers -- except this time, there's a pale face in the window, for a split second, and his heart stops even as the door flies open, because she's okay, she's still okay.

She comes running out of the house straight for him. He kneels and she throws her arms around his neck, so it's easy for him to stand and lift her clean off the ground.

The witch followed her out; he's standing a few feet away, watching with an annoyed look on his face.

"You can't take her."

Ronan holds Opal tighter with one hand, reaches down with the other and pulls the knife from his belt.

"I can, and I am, and you're not going to threaten us or come near us again."

The witch takes a long second to look from Ronan's face to the knife, not afraid and not impressed. Ronan has the belated thought that magic probably trumps a knife, but he's committed now. If he has to -- he can strike fast, before the witch has time to do anything, before Opal can look up and see --

And then the witch steps backward and bows, with a sarcastic flourish of his hand.

Ronan takes one second to realize that he isn't going to try to stop them, and then he runs.

He doesn't slow down until the clearing is far behind them. There's no raven in sight, but Ronan has practice at finding his way through forests. He figures out which way is south and just pushes on, even as the trees press in around them, claustrophobic.

Opal starts to fuss. Ronan sets her down and lets her walk ahead of him, in sight, even though he's screaming internally about how much that slows them down.

As soon as she starts to flag, short little legs tired from picking their way through snow and mud and decaying foliage, he picks her up again. She grumbles but falls asleep on his shoulder in less than a minute.

It's night by the time they escape the woods. Ronan's mother's house is up ahead, just down the road. Close, and inviting, with its wide airy windows.

He passes it without slowing and walks the extra distance into town, to the large and well-appointed house where Declan keeps his wife and his servants and his fortune behind thick doors with strong locks.

Declan is shocked to see him, more shocked to see Opal, but he hides it pretty well in front of his household. It isn't until they're alone that he asks "who is this?"

There's a tightness in his heart, in his throat. He hasn't said it before, even to himself. But the witch had known.

"My daughter."

And he thought Declan was shocked before. "Where did you get a daughter?"

Ronan doesn't even know Opal's awake until she answers. "The woods."

Declan twitches; at least they were both caught off guard.

He lets the matter drop, but Ronan can tell that he's not happy. It's only after he's shown them to a room that Ronan realizes -- Declan thinks Opal came from the witch.

He doesn't clarify. It feels dangerous to talk too much about it.

"You missed dinner," Declan says on his way out. "I'll have the cook send something up."

Opal falls asleep again before dinner arrives. Ronan wakes her up and badgers food into her cranky and ill-tempered mouth. She makes a huge mess as she eats, probably on purpose, but it's Declan's house, so what does Ronan care.

He drags her to the washroom and bullies her into washing her hands, to the covert amusement of two of Declan's servants, and then while she sulks and refuses to go to bed he leaves her in the guest room and goes to find Declan.

Declan pours him a glass of whiskey and lets him get through most of it before he pries.

"I don't suppose you're here to introduce me to my niece."

Ronan looks out the window, with its a beautiful clear view of the street that runs through town. The street is empty. Ronan doesn't feel better.

"There might be trouble," he says. "We need to stay somewhere safe for tonight."

Declan tops up his drink, and then Ronan's.

"Have you thought this through?"

"No," Ronan admits. Declan just shakes his head.

"You can stay as long as you need to," Declan says. "I'm not going to turn a kid away because you're an idiot."

Declan offers him another room, but all Ronan can think about is waking up four mornings ago with the knowledge that something was wrong. He turns the offer down and lies on the floor in Opal's room, an extra layer between her and the witch. When he falls asleep, after a long, long time, it's to the thought that no one could get past him.

When he wakes up, the room is empty.

-

The witch comes out first this time, and there's no sign of Opal, although Ronan's not looking too hard considering he's grabbed the witch by the collar and is threatening him with every terrible fate he can think of. And maybe Ronan isn't the most creative guy in the world, but he thinks he's making his point pretty clear, so it's infuriating that the witch isn't even bothering to listen. He shakes him, hard, to drive his point home.

"Are you done now?" the witch asks. Ronan only growls. "I told you, you can't take her. You made a deal, Ronan, your mother for your daughter. I couldn't give her back to you if I wanted to."

"What the hell are you going to do to her?"

"I'm going to train her to be a witch." There's no hint of malice or subterfuge; he says it like it's obvious.

It isn't obvious; it throws him, enough that his anger falters.

"I want to see her."

"And I suppose if I don't let you, you'll stab me."

"I'm thinking about it."

"I'm not inclined to bargain with people who take facts as threats. Or people who attack me."

Ronan lets him go. The witch looks him over for a long second before returning to the house.

He comes out with Opal, at his side instead of running on ahead. Ronan ignores the witch and squats down to look her in the eye.

"Hey, brat."

Opal doesn't react. He feels all the time he's lost, not just the four days she was gone but the months of work it took to get to where she trusted him.

There's no way he's leaving her here.

"It's gonna be okay," he says.

Opal doesn't react to that, either.

"Hey. Look at me." She looks up, stubborn, and he knows that he's not lying when he says, "you're going to be fine."

He wraps her up into a hug that she doesn't return, that he can tell she hates, but it's the only way he can think to get close enough to whisper in her ear, too quiet for the witch to hear:

"I'm going to come back. I'm going to come back, and then we'll give him hell."