Miss Bat, of all people, had found the place: an unassuming set of fisherman’s crofts set by the shore on Fair Isle, Shetland’s smaller sister, their local-hewn stones grey as the cloud-filled skies above them. She’d brought it up at the final staff meeting of term: a friend of a friend owned them and there were no bookings at all through August, so she was desperate for visitors. The pictures of the island - vibrant green turf, hardy seashore flowers, and rugged stones disappearing out into the grey-and-white sea - had captured Miss Cackle’s imagination, and news of a substantial discount for parties renting all six crofts ensured that Miss Hardbroom was less displeased than would otherwise have been the case (the school purse, though not insubstantial, had suffered as much as the staff in the fallout from Agatha’s dismissal as co-head).
In staff meetings Miss Cackle termed it a work retreat, with some responsibilities and aims built into the week, but in the privacy of her office, stripped clear of all signs Agatha had ever shared it, she let her guard down.
“They need a holiday,” she sighed, leaning back in her carved wooden chair and resting her hands, palm-down, on the desk in front. “I've asked them for so much in this past year, and I feel I owe them a chance to...well, to relax.”
“Quite,” Miss Hardbroom agreed, straight-backed and approving on the other side of the desk. If she saw through the sales pitch to the reality underneath she was wise enough to say nothing. Besides, there was a venerable tradition of witchcraft in the Shetland Islands, despite their more recent Presbyterian leanings, and several of the native plant species had as-yet-unstudied potential for the final-year potions syllabus. A newfangled, new-age 'bonding exercise' it might be, but the hope that shone in Miss Cackle’s eyes was too bright to cast down. So Miss Hardbroom nodded – “a break would be beneficial, given the...events...of this year” – and countersigned the purchase order that came over her desk the next day with only a mild eye-roll.
They left six weeks later, Miss Bat balancing four different musical instruments on the back of her broomstick (Hecate truly pitied Miss Pennycress, the Magical Horticulture teacher who had the dubious honour of staying with her in one of the small two-bedroom crofts). Nevertheless, the week on Fair Isle went fast, scheduled bonding and all, and Hecate even found that sharing a croft was made bearable by the fact that she was sharing it with Miss Cackle. When the time finally came to an end, no-one save Miss Hardbroom wanted to go home, and once again the light in Miss Cackle's eyes was enough to override her better judgement so with her reluctant assent, Miss Bat enthusiastically negotiated a deal with the owner for a further four days in the crofts.
On their third additional night Hecate stayed up late, tucked away in the cosy living room, reading a rare botany manual. It was written in moonscript and she had waited months for this copy to be available, paid for it with the last of her hand-raised wood calamint, so the moonlit Fair Isle nights were not to be squandered. The window seat was hard but not uncomfortable, half-hidden behind the heavy velvet curtains and set back from the room, and if she tilted the book just so the moonlight fell on it at exactly the right angle to reveal the words.
She was halfway through the first chapter (Bioluminescence in algal blooms, and how to harvest them) when the creak of a floorboard roused her from concentration. Peering round the curtain, she saw Ada Cackle’s cloaked figure open the door with a degree of stealth befitting the late hour, and slip out into the night. The crunch of her sensible shoes on the stones leading down to the beach proper faded into silence and Hecate smiled to herself, picked up her book, and held it back up to the obliging moonlight.
She was on the last page of chapter two when something tugged at her veins, jolted her from her reverie with the wrongness of an instrument suddenly out-of-tune. She frowned, and set the book down on the seat beside her. The candle on the mantelpiece was burning low but steady, and the solid rock of the walls radiated safety – not in here, then.
With a haste she usually reserved for first-years about to put pine needles instead of cones into a basic warming potion, thus quadrupling the efficacy and making the cauldron liable to turn into a pillar of flame, Hecate ran to the heavy wooden front door, opening it with an easy wave of her hand as she approached.
A stinging whip of wind cracked into the cottage, gutting the candle and rattling the windows in their leading. She could feel familiar magic crawling on her skin, a spell to keep the house quiet and lock it into a peaceful bubble of silence, but now that the door was open she could hear the wind clawing at the stonework and tugging at the shutters, dancing a threatening rhythm on anything that dared withstand it. The worry in her throat spread down into her chest. She couldn’t see Ada anywhere, had expected to find her sat outside watching the moonlight play on the quiet sea, but instead the ocean was angry, crashing ashore and drawing her eyes to where the black shore melted into black water, moon-flecked, and there-
Her breath caught in her throat, then exhaled in sharp relief.
Silhouetted against the moonlight, cloak flying in the wind, was Ada, looking for all the world like a sea-witch of legend. Waves crashed around her and rolled up around her waist, white-frothed and angry and strong enough to knock a grown woman off her feet, but Hecate could see (could feel) her magic, wrapped tight around the house and tied up in the raging seas.
The sea that afternoon had been calm, and Ada had dipped her toes into sun-warmed water with a small smile of delight, but now the wind whipped Hecate’s hair into a dark veil that blew behind her head as she walked down to the shore, drew spray out of the ocean and up into the air, and left her lips tasting of salt. The air was full of the heavy crash of waves, the threatening rumble of pebbles and rocks and a thousand tiny shells as they were dragged up and down beneath the black sea.
“Good evening, Hecate.” Ada’s voice carried back on the breeze.
She reached the water's edge and hesitated. Her bare feet were icy cold. “I didn’t mean to disturb you," she said, loud enough to carry.
The wind eased. “You haven't,” came Ada's response, and suddenly the waves calmed, lapping gently at the shore as if their ferocity had been nothing but a mirage. The storm, it seemed, was over. “I was just...thinking.” She made her way back to the shore, careful of the pebbles underfoot. “It wasn't my intention to worry you.”
“I was not...worried,” Hecate said archly, holding out a hand to help her out onto dry land. “Merely checking that Cackles' Headmistress was not swept out to sea under my care.”
It brought a tiny smile to Ada's moonlit face, at least, and she took Hecate's hand, fingers cold and wet with salt water. “I just...I wanted to feel in control for a minute.”
“And did it help?”
“No,” Ada said ruefully, reclaiming her hand and casting a simple drying spell over her clothes. “Well. Maybe just for a moment?”
“You are entirely in control,” said Hecate, and despite her best attempt to contain it she could hear the passionate belief spilling out in her own voice. “You once told me that all I had to do to succeed was believe in myself. That if I didn't then you would believe for me. And I know you may not believe in yourself right now, but I do: you did the right thing, Ada.”
What started out as surprise on Ada's face melted into affection so blinding that for a heartbeat it eclipsed the moon and Hecate could barely breathe. “For the school… yes, I have no doubt of that, in the end. But for Agatha?” Ada hesitated, shifted her feet on the pebbles and smoothed her skirts down against her thighs. “For me? I've always been so blind to her failings, Hecate, and this time it put the entire school in danger.”
“You are not your sister’s keeper.” Hecate's voice was soft. “Her failings are not yours.”
Ada smiled gratefully up at her, but shook her head. “It’s not so simple where my sister is concerned.”
“No,” Hecate allowed. The gentle caress of the waves on the shore were white noise in the moonlit darkness. “And I admit that I don't have the perspective to fully understand your situation. But you are a good witch, Ada Cackle, and your sister cannot ruin that. You saw through her in the end and you truly, truly did what was necessary.”
“Thank you, Hecate.” This time Ada's smile was brighter. “You've been a great support, you know, these past months.”
“I would be a poor Deputy had I not,” she returned with amusement, trusting that Ada would hear the true sentiment beneath. She shivered, realising too late that her bare feet were still wet with icy water. “We should go inside.”
Ada hesitated. “Perhaps we could just...stand here for a moment?”
“Of course,” said Hecate. Stepping closer, she cast a silent spell for warmth that settled over them like a blanket, and together they watched the moon shimmer on the peaceful sea.