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Eyes in the Branches

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She was supposed to hang today.

The rope around her wrist were proof that she was bad on some accounts.

An ungodly one at that.

Two others stood before her, her mother – a kind woman who had taught her everything – and a boy around the same age as her. He was a wild one, said very little when spoken to, and he fought back with the law when he was dragged in by his scruff.

He was caught stealing from a shop; held the shopkeeper at gunpoint like some novice thief. Her mother sure mocked him for his folly, laughing softly at his scrunched scowl.

Then morning came, and the Sheriff came in with the keys swinging from his fingers, “Looks like ya’ll are swingin’ today.”

They walked single file through the mud of the small little farm town, several men walking alongside them and behind them. Annabel stayed in the back, her mother was placed at the front, and the boy – John, she thinks – stands between them.

There’s an energy – an aura that circles around her – and it's calming. Her mother does her best to sooth the deep pit that settled in her stomach and with the comfort she was getting from her, it wasn’t working.

They were going to hang today. After a year of running, they were going to hang.

There was a crowd, and Annabel felt herself starting to cry. Tears dripped down her cheeks, and she could feel the suffocating energy that swirled around her. Too many people, too many eyes, she was going to collapse from the predatory eyes of those spectating. The calls were there, but their voices were muffled; snarls and snaps of wolves were filled in their place.

They were vulnerable; their feet walking up the weathered wooden boards, the creaking feeling like nails on a chalkboard.

This was their end.

This was her end.

“I’m not done yet.” She lets the tears fall, as the Sheriff sneers at her mother. He pushes her forwards, the noose looking like a snake with its fangs ready to latch and swallow their souls.

Her mother always told her witches were meant to be burned; otherwise, the magic that still seeps from their skin could become corrupted from another witch.

“It was the one thing the French got right.” Her mother would joke; morbid humor but there was truth to it.

Her mother’s energy was strong; it engulfed her with powerful barriers as the protective marks and runes that covered her skin burned hot and harsh as her mother tried to push her body’s power into her daughters.

“Today, we ask God to watch over these three degenerates. We hope that they get their deliverance and that he finds it in his heart to give them clemency for the mistakes that they made in this life.” Her mother scoffs a sardonic laugh with venom dripping from her tongue.

“Your God means nothing to me. I will dine in the halls of Valhalla, alongside my ancestors and my Gods.”

The Sheriff could only scowl, unsure how to respond to her sneer.

“Do it.”

Annabel wasn’t sure of the energy that surrounded her when her mother was around; it was a calming energy and she always assumed it to be her own. The energy that swirled around her like willow vines in the wind was merely her own. It was soft, comforting, cooling and warm all the same. It was always around her, always keeping her safe, always something.

Then the deputy pulled the lever and she watched her mom drop quickly. The rope was taut; creaking as she softly swung under the gallows.

That energy dispersed faster than the snap of her mother’s neck. It was cold, then hot, then scorching. Her body felt red, her eyes started to blur, her ears started to ring.

There were gunshots, but the life around her seemed to slow. Blood spilled around her as she stood there, unmoved and catatonic.

Annabel wanted to scream, she wanted to kill everyone there. This was their fault. They did this. They killed her mother.

But she stood there, her body cooling as she started to feel her energy grasp her soul again. Breathless, she gasped as the world around her came back to her. Bodies lay on the ground; on the scaffold and blood seeped, soaked, and dripped into the mud below.

She looked around, her eyes bloodshot and her throat dry. Only four of them stood.

John, and three others. All older.

“Miss!” One of the older men – he had a unique voice, dark hair, a well-kept face, calming eyes – held his hands out to her in an attempt to placate her. She didn’t like him at all, with how his lips moved carefully around the words he thought. “We’re not here to hurt you.”

She feels her feet planted to the soft, worn wood but her mind tells her to run; run away from him.

But then she sees John, trotting behind him with his dirty hair and bruised face.

“She’s a witch, Dutch. She’s gonna curse us or some shit.” He’s quiet with his words, but Annabel could hear him. Ignorance would be his downfall – she knows that – but with the way Dutch scowls at him and how the other two drag him away by his scruff (a popular thing one does to a mutt like him), she feels as if the others weren’t as bad as he.

“I’m sorry about what happened to your mother.” She tries to find her voice; her body; her mind. Anything, at this point as this man – Dutch – gets closer to her. She feels wild; almost feral in a sense of the wolf that runs deep inside her, but she doesn’t snap at his movements.

Instead, she feels her body welcome it in its time of weakness.

“Traitor,” she thinks as the man pulls a knife out slowly. Annabel doesn’t flinch, she knows the power she holds, but she’s tired and weak and hopeless.

Ropes are cut and she notices from the side of her eye the noose move unusually. There’s grunting, some cursing before she hears a body fall lifelessly into the blood-soaked mud.

Her lips move before her mind could stop her, stomping her bare feet down the steps. She slips in the mud as she pushes the two men away from her mother, her small body covering her mother’s body.

“I’ll be damned…” she runs her fingers over her mothers’ cheeks, blinking away the tears that still come from her eyes. “I know this woman.” The older of the two calls out; to whom she doesn’t care much as she sobs into the dead witch’s chest. “I didn’t know she had a child.”

“What are you talking about, Hosea?” there was a clinging sound of spurs as Dutch walks down the steps, his thumbs pressed into his gun belt.

“It was that witch that was settled up in Annesburg, from all those years ago.” His voice sounds familiar, but she pushes down that acknowledgement deep into her chest. “She healed your injuries after that failed robbery you were so confident about.”

“Oh, Mrs. Fletcher. She was a different woman.”

“I hate to break a tender moment, but we need to move before more of the law shows up.” The oldest man leans down to take Annabel’s hand, and in that moment, she remembers them. Her mother hid her under the floorboards for days when they came across their home.

She was barely four years old, bundled into the dark, hidden compartment in their house. Her mother used to keep her spell books, her wooden boxes full of herbs and stones, her wand, and her divination cards down there.

Everything that would be a tell that she was a witch, it was kept a secret under the floorboards.

Just like she was.

“Miss, we must go.”

“She needs to be burned.” Her voice is barely a squeak, and she clears her throat and sniffles. “I can’t leave her body; she needs to be burned.”

“Arthur, take the girl.” She snarls, ready to let a yell out as a man goes to reach for her.

“’s okay, miss. We’ll get you someplace safe, then you can figure out where you wanna go.”

His gloved hand presses against her bicep, gently pulling her up from her mothers’ body. The magic that still leeches from her warm, lifeless body pushes her back as Arthur pulls her away. Annabel looks over her shoulder, as Arthur places an arm around her in hopes to keep her from watching.

Hosea takes a bottle of liquor from his satchel, an amber glass bottle with an amber colored liquid that soaks her mother's dress and seeps into her skin.

She turns away right as Hosea strikes the match on the heel of his boot.

.-.-.

She rides on the back of Hosea’s horse; a sweet, calm stallion with a soft coat. Silver Dollar was sturdy and hearty but smaller than what she would imagine.

“We’ll try to get your stuff back from the town when things die down.” She nods against his back; watching the dust kick up and swirl around them. Her arms gripped his waist as he took a turn slightly too tight, but all she could do was chuckle against his back and all he did was chuckle with her.

His energy was warm – father-like and full of love – and she could soak in his energy until she grows old and dies under the heat. His energy soaks and twirls around not only her, but Dutch whose energy reminds her of strong alcohol and a hearty stew – strong, bold flavors that can only be taken in small, slow bites.

Then there’s John – a mutt of a boy who’s more of a wolf that she is – a boy who called her a witch. She can’t be mad at him for knowing what was true, she’s mad that he’s scared of her when she saw her mother place a protective spell over him. Her mother placed protection over a stranger who was small but with a bite that’s just as big as his bark.

And Arthur – a boy in a man’s body or is it a man in a boy’s body – well, she can’t pinpoint him all that well. He has no energy that surrounds him and if he does, she’s oblivious to the matter. He’s guarded, a little sad, but she’s sure that there’s more to him then what he lets off.

Annabel doesn’t want to admit it, but she wants to get to know him. She wants to know what his energy, his drive and his aura says about his soul.

Hosea pats her hand – the one that gripped his white button up till her knuckles turned white – pulling Silver Dollar to a slow trot as they come up to a small camp with few people. It’s covered by thick, low hanging oak trees with branches and trunks that are gnarled and weaved into unusual ways. The trees have adapted in a way, she thinks as she slowly slides off Silver Dollars romp with Hosea’s hands supporting her.

There’re few people who reside within the comfort of this camp: two woman who converse over a round table, playing a simple game of dominos and a glass of whiskey in each of their hands. Their auras mingled together; twirling and tying a deep-seated knot as a show of their bond. The flow of it all was enough to cause her to gulp down the lump in her throat.

A heavy-set man, balding and stressed over the lack of provisions. He’s rattled, unsure and ready to explode, and she can see that just from the tension in his shoulders. He does his best; she can tell that much but she’s not sure how much credit he’s given within this makeshift home.

When all five of them stepped within the threshold of the camp, one of the women with thick, strawberry blonde hair ran up to Dutch; her drink abandoned in the grass below.

He spins her around, his energy no long bold and instead it softens. He softens for the woman in his arms, allowing them both to mix like honey and tea.

“Come, let me introduce you to Ms. Grimshaw.” Hosea’s hand is placed on her shoulder, his fatherly smile gracing his lips. “Ms. Grimshaw! Come meet our newest guest!”

Annabel feels all eyes on her, and she hunches her shoulder. It’s suffocating, having all of these eyes on her body – as if their peering into her soul.

The runes on her body can’t protect her now.

“My goodness, sweetheart, look at you!” her glass of whiskey is left behind along with the game of dominos as she paces over to her. She’s taller than her, not by a lot, but just enough for Annabel to have to look up. “Where are your shoes!?” she looks down, pulling her dress up to show her feet. She was always slightly pigeon toed, and the idea of shoes always felt like she was taking away a sense of feel.

“I don’t have any.” Her voice is quiet, unsure and unaware of the reaction she’ll get from her – or really any of them.

“Well, we can get you some.” Ms. Grimshaw’s fingers dug slightly into her shoulder and she was pulled away from the comfort of Hosea. “I’ll prepare some hot water, and we’ll sponge you down. Get all that muck off of you.”

She lets Ms. Grimshaw do what she wants; allows her to strip her from her blouse and her bodice. Leather string is unlaced, and her dress falls from her body with ease.

“No corset I see.”

“I can’t run in a corset, let alone hunt.” She covers her breasts from the woman’s eyes before she sits down on the boar skin rug, her knees drawn tightly to her chest.

“You’re a hunter?” Ms. Grimshaw throws the dirty dress over her left arm, along with her bodice and her blouse. Annabel can tell that she’s doing her best not to stare at the deep, blue markings that permanently stain her skin.

“More or less.” She looks down at her feet, taking her fingers to pick at the dried mug under her toenails. There’s a small, awkward silence before Ms. Grimshaw huffs and leaves the tent.

She allows herself to breath; to meditate in the stance that she’s in and she tries to call to her Goddess – to pray – for help in some way. She asks for a clear path to put her back on track. Her fingers twitch and dig into the fur of the boar skin rug under her.

She calls for her Goddess once more, desperate and in need.

All she gets is an ear-piercing headache.

Her body grows numb under the sponge bath that Ms. Grimshaw gives her. Her pulse is rapid in her ears, loud and deafening all the same. It leaves her motionless and emotionless as she relaxes under the warm but firm touch of the woman before her.

Ms. Grimshaw wanted to be a mother, she could tell with how stern she is with John – who was scolded heavily as the water she put on the fire for Annabel’s sponge bath boiled – and she’s stern with Arthur, but he plays himself as a man who understands the world already enough.

She leaves Annabel’s skin covered in goosebumps’ as the hot cloth leaves clean, cold, wet streaks. No matter how much Ms. Grimshaw scrubbed, Annabel will never forget the blood that soaked her dress and skin and the way her fingers ghosted over her mother’s dead body even though it was still warm and alive with magic.

“Are you hungry, dear?” she shakes her head, soft and subtle. A blanket is placed carefully over her shoulders and a fresh outfit was placed on the cot. Ms. Grimshaw said nothing as she left the tent, but Annabel knew there was a subtle hesitation as she swept herself through the tent flaps.

“How is she?” Annabel’s head turned to flaps of the tent, she could hear the whispers between Dutch and Ms. Grimshaw.

“She’s coping with whatever happened.” There was a strike of a match and she could faintly smell a cigarette burning. “She’s got these… markings on her, like someone tattooed her.”

“Do ya think she’ll want to talk?” there was a hum of disapproval.

“I don’t think so. Not with you at least.” A pause, then the stench of smoke filled the tent, “Maybe send Annabelle.”

“I’ll talk to her and see if she’ll do that.”

Annabel dresses herself, slipping the white button up over and pulling the thick woolen skirt over her hips. The belt is pulled tight around her waist and the hem of her dress is tucked up into the belt. The cuffs on her shirt are buttoned up tight, and the collar is tightly buttoned.

She knows that she can’t stay.

Annabel is unprotected in her current situation. Her mother wasn’t there to keep her safe and restrained from the wild sense in her belly. She was untrained with undiluted magic that she wasn’t sure how exactly to harness.

Her mother would always tell her that her magic was… dark. Her mother would scare her into thinking that if Annabel were to stray away from her, she would succumb to the wolf that tears at her guts and ravages her mind.

Her mother described her magic as a curse for witches, and her mother – being a witch with nullifying abilities – was her safeguard with her magic keeping Annabel from falling into the dark pit of black magic.

“Entropaths are terrible witches, but I’m not gonna let that happen to you. You just need to stay with me and listen to everything I say. I will keep you safe. I will keep your magic at bay. I won’t let you fall to the call of black magic.”

Night falls quicker then she thinks, and the waning crescent moon casts a soft light over the oak trees. Her toes dig softly into the soft dirt and green grass, she can hear a woman reading to someone her voice soft and sweet. The men were relaxing around the roaring fire, the smell of roast and cigarettes burning the air.

The earth pulses beneath her feet and the fire that burns in her chest causes her to break into a cold sweat. The energies that swirl around her are so much; before her mother died, Annabel never had to deal with such forces and pressure.

There’s a call from the edge of the woods; a wolf's growl and a hawk’s cry. It echoes around her as her feet drag their way to the edge.

Her vision blurs and her hands shake. Voices start to whisper in a language she both understands and doesn’t, and blood starts to drip from her nose.

“Sweetheart?”

Annabel turns, and the one woman with the thick strawberry blonde hair walks up to her. She was beautiful, with deep hazel eyes and clear complexion. Her lips were stained a pinkish red, and Annabel seemed to think that she was perfect in every way.

She pulled a delicate handkerchief from her sleeve, pressing her left hand on Annabel’s cheek and dabbing the stark white cloth against her nose.

“What happened?” she was motherlike – more so than Ms. Grimshaw – with a smile that never seemed to leave her lips.

“I heard a wolf.”

“I’ll grab Arthur, he’ll take care of it.” The woman’s arm wraps around her shoulder, pulling her away from the dark edge of the forest.

“It wasn’t a real wolf.” Her voice was but a whisper, her eyes casted down to her bare feet. “It was a spirit. A call.”

It became quiet, but the woman still pressed a deep warmth from her core and into Annabel’s. It was comforting, sweet, and oddly nauseating. That feeling stuck to the back of her throat like molasses and sticky bread. She hums, trying to keep herself distracted from the feeling of discomfort.

“They weren’t lyin’ when they said you were the daughter of a witch.”

“I don’t think they like me much.”

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t.” her laugh was intoxicating, but Annabel finds herself looking bewildered and confused by her words. “You’re not the only witch here.”

You?

“Yes.”

Annabel would never have thought. She hid herself well with strong barriers that keep her safe from her surroundings. As the days went on, she would find that the woman – who was named the same as her, which left her being called Anna – was a healing witch that embedded her magic into the littlest things.

She would go to bond with the woman – in more ways than one – and she would soon find her to be simply a place marker for her mother. Where her mother had failed to teach her, Annabelle would come in with a healing heart, a sweet smile and a thick, leather bound book full of words of the wise and spells and divinations. She never called to a God or Goddess – she couldn’t bring herself to call to one or agree to let one in with how demanding one could be – and instead, she found herself to be a goddess in her own right.

“My mother always told me that witches – no matter their power – were protectors of the world and of the living beings that walked among us.” Annabelle would cover the small girl with thick woolen blankets and place her book in her hand. “But we are just as mortal as the next man or woman. We forget things, we have intense emotions, we cry, and we scream, and we laugh.”

“What is this book?”

“A Book of Shadows.” Annabelle unclasps the journal, showing pages filled with script and spells and sigils. “It’s a witch’s companion to their life, next to their spirit guide and a familiar.”

“My mom had a spirit guide, but he wasn’t always the nicest.” Annabel grimaced, looking down at the pages filled with black ink, “It was a large blue jay with an inferiority complex.”

“Spirit guides who come in small appearances usually are.”

The two would talk day in and day out, and Annabelle would teach her how to weave magic into sewing and cooking and healing.

She never picked it up, but Annabelle treated her better than her mother ever did.

“How dare you cast a spell, Annabel!” her mother would strike her across the cheek after she had lit a candle without a match. “Do you want to die? Do you want to be taken away and strung up like an animal?”

She was with them for a month when Arthur brought home a tall gelding. He was stolen – from a gang that was always sneered when said – but he was tall, he was sturdy, and he was good.

Annabel remembers when Arthur came up to her, his stride long and dripping with purpose until he saw her at the provisions wagon with Pearson. She was cutting up pheasants and ducks and potatoes for that night’s stew. Her hands were covered in blood, there were fowl guts in a metal bucket at her feet, but she still looked so at peace as she stripped the birds of their feathers and their hearty breast meat.

“Miss Anna.” She looks up, her hands frozen in place. He removes his hat – out of respect she thinks, but maybe it was for something else – and he nods his head towards the tall gelding. “I have a gift for ya.”

“A horse?” she sounds surprised, he can sense that from how her brows shoot up to match her tone. “What for?”

“We’re plannin’ on movin’ soon, and Dutch was plannin’ on findin’ a stallion for ya in town. I thought a stallion would be too much for ya, with how tiny you are.”

“Mr. Morgan, are you laying low blows?”

“Never, miss.”

She wipes her hands on her apron, blood staining the white linen, as she walks around the table. Her feet relish the dewy grass as she walks over to the horse.

He’s tall, standing four inches taller than Annabel at the withers. His mane is roached, thick brown mane that sticks up perfectly. His neck is speckled with soft white dappled spots that look like snowflakes against his bay coloring. His back and belly and romp are covered in white with soft black dots that collect and cluster over his hips and romp. His tail is cut short, with a clean cut near the base of his tail bone. He’s got soft feathering at his fetlocks.

He’s got an even temperament, almost dopey with a following type personality. He leans his head down as Annabel extends her hand to his nose. A majority of his face is white, a blue eye peaks from his forelock.

“What kind is he?”

“The stables think he’s a Clydesdale and Appaloosa cross.”

“He’s very sweet.” She places a hand on his neck, a thin layer of dirt and grime sticking to her bloodied hand. “Seems young, too.”

“What’re ya gonna name ‘im?”

“Not sure, I didn’t think I’d be getting a horse today.” She pats her hands on her apron once more before she placed a hand on his bicep. “Thank you, I really appreciate it.”

He tips his head, placing this hat back on his head, “Ah, it was a pleasure really.”

“Whatever you say, Mr. Morgan.” Her hand lingers then fell back to her side before a soft playful laughter bubbled in her throat. “But I do appreciate it, so take my gratitude and go busy yourself for once.”

Before he can dispute her teasing’s, she had walked away from him and her new horse right back to finishing up the stew with Pearson.

.-.-.

If Annabel were honest, she doesn’t remember much about how or why she was running.

The mud was wet, sloshy and ungodly deep as she did her best to push her gelding farther. She knows that it’s raining – hell, its actually pouring that the raindrops could be mistaken for hail. Zander grunts; his body tenses and moves as he continues to keep her on his back.

She feels like someone is chasing her, and in some way someone was. There’s a snapping and growling as paws shook the ground and howls blew the trees. Claws dug into the dirt and for some reason – godly or not – she felt those claws into her body with each impact they made. The motion and the pain causes her to gasp and cry out.

“Anna!” it was a woman’s voice that calls for her, but the voice is so far away, and it becomes replaced with a ringing static sound; horse hooves booming deep in the earth. She keeps pushing, though, scared out of her wits as she pushes with a brave façade.

The wolf snaps and demands for her to call his name. She can hear it, its fizzy in her head and it causes her vision to blur. Her gelding is a brave horse – kicking his back leg out when the wolf grows close – but he starts to get antsy. He throws his head back when the wolf barks and snaps at his legs.

She falls from his back, her back bending awkwardly as she rolls in the dirt. Adrenaline pushes her to move, to keep going, and so she does. Her bare feet slip under the mud; finding traction almost impossible but she did her best. Her heart pounds against her chest, her blood runs through her ears, her fingers shake as she white knuckles her skirt. Mud cakes and collects under her nails, she feels blood trickle down the side of her temple and down her neck, and she starts to feel nauseated as she continues to push.

She falls down a hill, large raindrops hitting her face and body painfully, rocks and mud scraping against her skin on her knees and shins.

The wolf catches up to her, pouncing and pushing her front into the mud. His claws digging deep into her shoulder and her side, teeth sinking deep into her bicep.

“Say my name!”

“I don’t know!”

“SAY IT!”

He continues to ravage her body – claws and teeth tearing away at delicate skin – before a moment of clarity hits her harder than the pain did. Its raw and hot against her tongue; against her lips. She screams as he continues to tear at her skin.

“Silas!”

Then it all stops and she’s free. Blood seeps from her wounds, her body shakes terribly, and she cries and sobs and weeps as the wolf lays over her. Pain radiates hot – too hot and too painful – but she’s not used to her body radiating a harsh warmth like this.

Blood soaks his fur as he licks some of the wounds he put there clean. She cries and seethes from the pain of his rough tongue against her exposed injuries, and she shakes and tries to move away from his hold.

They lay there for hours, her body growing numb and her injures healing slowly with each swipe of the wolf’s tongue. She had called him by his name – something he had demanded from her for months. He haunted her dreams, she kept her from leaving camp and from leaving her surrogate mothers’ side.

But now she was alone, and lost, and hopeless. No one was coming for her. No one will find her.

She knows that Annabelle called for her, but Zander was powerful. She thought that someone would have found her by now – she missed Annabelle with a deep ache in her chest – but there was no one in sight. It was just her, and this wolf.

Morning comes; a holy sun that shows no imperfections. Her body was still numb – mostly from the cold mud that dried and stuck to her clothes and skin – but her wounds were gone; healed.

The wolf – Silas – rumbled deep in his chest as he pushed her up into a sitting position. She gasps from the pain in her joints, scrunching her nose as she listens to the crack under the pressure of choppy movements.

She notices how large the wolf is. Thick, rust colored fur with soft patches of white and black covers him. His eyes are dark as they bore holes into her but, in some ways, soft. He towers over her sitting form, looking down at her and pressing his black nose to her forehead.

He pushes her with his muzzle, rumbling once more. Zander was a few yards away from them both, grazing away in a field of bright purple lupine. Her horse pulls at the long stalks of flowers, his teeth grinding as he continues to pull more from the earth.

Annabel clucks towards him, and his head lifts with ears pressed forward. She clucks once more, and he lowers his head as he walks towards her.

“You are strong, but you still have a lot to learn, child.”

She scoffs at the wolf, and he curls his lips.

She mounts Zander.

Then she rides north.