From the author: Previously published in Alma Alexander's anthology, CHILDREN OF A DIFFERENT SKY. When the witch Yarrow comes home to a warning of betrayal--can she trust the bearer of the warning? Or is escape even possible?
For once it wasn’t dark and raining when she left work. Yarrow hesitated in the lobby of the medical office building where she worked, surveying the outdoors as she adjusted her coat. There was the slightest hint of gold light to the west that reflected into the street from an upper row of windows on the skyscraper opposite her building. Her fingers itched to seize the warm golden glow and spin it into a bright web to cheer those around her. It was one thing she had done to make Jenny smile even in the darkest political hours.
No, she told herself. Yarrow knew better than to try to weave the light, even to bring joy to others and divert their thoughts from the Shadow War’s necessity. Doing so might trigger her building’s wards—more than that, the secret Witches Resistance Council had advised those like Yarrow to hide their presence outside of work. Lie low. Avoid drawing attention from the Censors. Fear of the Shadows has spilled into fear of all magic, even for good. Don’t risk yourself without good cause!
Unfortunately, bringing pleasant thoughts to the nonwitches around her didn’t fall in the category of “good cause.” Still, Yarrow leaned against the floor-to-ceiling window and gazed at the golden light before it faded, to hearten herself at the least. She savored the glow’s cheery warmth, delaying the moment when she would have to pass through the building’s wards. She could remember Jenny’s smile. Maybe she could see this quick glow even in Relocation Camp #5. Thinking about Jenny helped Yarrow ignore the handful of people who glowered at her.
Witch. Outsider. Their emotions were so palpable that Yarrow almost expected to see a second being embodying that fear and anger stalking alongside those who glared at her. The Council was right, but oh, she wished for the days before the Censors and the Shadows had engaged in this war.
Who knows what witches are safe? Best put them all in a camp, she picked up from one man who glared the hardest at her. Yarrow also caught a glimpse of his memory of a beloved woman melting away as a Shadow fell over her. She shuddered. Even though she also sensed one of the protective charms of her making to keep his emotions from bleeding out and calling to the Shadows, he still projected hard. A recent loss.
But he still hated her, like so many of those who benefited from her healing and her charms. Even though the bracelets on her wrists restrained her and bled magic off of her to help protect the city. The curse of the Shadows that hung over the City meant that memories of the good things that witches did faded more quickly than the destructive moments. All these people remembered was that the Censors had declared all witches, all magic, to be dangerous, whether positive or destructive, even as they used it.
In cynical moments Yarrow let herself wonder if there really was a difference between the Censors and the Shadows. Before Jenny’s capture, she would have persuaded Yarrow out of those moments. Now, Yarrow wasn’t so sure.
She shook herself. Of course there was a difference. Yarrow heaved a sigh as the last of the golden light faded, regretting that she had allowed herself to get distracted from savoring the glow by politics. She tapped the bracelets that controlled her magic to the outside non-work setting, and winced as a dull pressure rose in her sinuses. The world about her darkened. Not as bad as it would be without that fleeting memory of sunglow.
Don’t think about the Censors, she told herself. Think about home. Maybe the bus ride would be peaceful and she would have the energy to tell small stories to Carlos and Marisol, Leslie and Maria’s kids. It had been a slow magic day at work, no healing required of her so she had made her charms all day. That might leave enough magic in her daily allotment to illustrate her stories with the animated creatures the kids loved.
But first she had to get home without incident. Yarrow steeled herself and went through the doorway. Cold fire lanced through her bracelets, vibrating through her wrists as the building’s daemon questioned the data chip in the bracelets. Sensing no wrongdoing from Yarrow for her day’s work, the sharpness of the cold fire faded as she passed through the vestibule and the second door. Still, the dull throb in her forehead grew stronger as she went outside. This query from the building had hurt more than usual, and the cold wind whispering through the skyscraper canyons didn’t help.
Once she reached the bus shelter, Yarrow stood in the yellow-painted rectangle on the pavement outside the shelter labeled WITCHES ONLY. No one came near her. Two middle school-aged boys hissed mockingly at her in low whispers. She ignored them, knowing the tone too well to make the effort to make sense of the hurtful words. She huddled down into her coat as the damp cold wind whipped around her, relieved when the bus finally pulled up.
The line to get on the bus stretched almost to her rectangle. Yarrow waited as the normals loaded, worrying. The next bus might not reach her stop before curfew, and she’d have to use magic to hide herself and get home safely. But at last the back door of the bus opened. She slid in and found her customary seat on the steps, next to another woman with witch’s restraint bracelets and the witch glyph on her coat. They sat together gingerly, careful not to touch in case their bracelets objected to the contact.
The bus stopped. Yarrow and the other witch stood and pressed against opposite sides of the stairwell as the norms left. One man banged his bag against Yarrow’s shins. She bit her lip to keep from giving him the satisfaction of knowing he had caused her pain. He scowled at her.
“—witches,” she heard him say as she sunk into herself again on her stairwell seat. At least she hadn’t heard the epithet clearly. Yarrow leaned her head against the stairwell wall and whispered a tiny obscure charm to make her less noticeable. Her bracelets vibrated a warning, sending sharp tingles up and down her arms. Yarrow closed her eyes and breathed through her mouth. A little more pain and a little less magic was tolerable compared to the possibility of just one more encounter like that.
She’d be home soon. Safe for another night. She hoped.
And it was still another night without Jenny. Another night when she wished that Jenny had taken the bracelets—but the Jenny who would do that was not the woman Yarrow loved.
One of us has to stay safe for the future of our kind, Jenny had said. You have more to contribute with your charms and healing magic. All I know how to do is fight—she had shrugged here—and I can’t do much against the Shadows with my skills. I’m an organizer. But the Censors won’t let me stay free for long—if I know you are safe, then I can stay strong and organize the Resistance against both Censors and Shadows, even in a Relocation Camp.
Yarrow swallowed hard. Sometimes she wondered if Jenny was doing more good in Relocation Camp #5 than she would have done as a tame organizer for the Censors.
The streetlight at her stop had burned out again. Yarrow tensed as she stepped off of the bus, switching from obscure to a scan charm of equal strength. Sometimes the Censors switched off the light to let anti-witch mobs hunt freely. Prickles of pain radiated from her bracelets as they protested the stronger charm. Yarrow bit her lip to create a counter to that pain. She scanned behind the low brick wall dividing the patio of a condominium complex from the sidewalk, the most likely space for an ambusher to hide. Nothing. She extended her scan to include the low row of arborvitae lining the foundation of the apartments next to the condos. Nothing. Perhaps the light had legitimately burned out.
Nonetheless, Yarrow remained cautious as she walked two blocks past increasingly shabby apartment buildings until she reached the rundown two-story complex that held her studio. The light being out could also mean that a raid was immanent. But no dangers lurked in the narrow dark courtyard between the two wings of the building.
The main entry door was ajar so that she didn’t need to punch her code to get in, a thin thread of light spilling into the dark outside. Yarrow pushed it open, alert. Nothing in the dingy foyer.
Yarrow tensed as she climbed the stairs. The building was far too quiet. No mouth-watering scent of spicy dinner wafting from Abdul and Kareen’s apartment down the north wing hallway on the main floor. No kid noise from Maria and Leslie’s apartment near the second floor landing. No distant mumbles of TVs from other apartments as she walked to her door. It was as if no one else was at home—which wasn’t right. Everyone should be in the building now, comfy and cozy against a world turned alien. She would be the last one home, just in time before the wards locked them down for the night, witches all neatly tucked into their ghetto.
Dread clutched at Yarrow’s stomach. Has something happened to Jenny? Her limited freedom had been the deal Jenny had made with the Censors to go peacefully to the Camp without provoking a battle that would only benefit the Shadows.
A yellow sheet of paper on her door heightened her sense of doom. Yarrow detached it with shaking hands. The words splayed across the narrow paper in an incongruously cheerful magenta font.
24 HOUR NOTICE.
DO NOT GO TO WORK.
DO NOT LEAVE THE BUILDING
UNTIL NATIONAL SECURITY COMES FOR YOU.
DO NOT WORK MAGIC.
NO MORE THAN TWO BAGS.
Yarrow gulped. She crumpled the notice into a tight ball in one hand and unlocked her door, her hands shaking even though she felt a faint twinge of magic in the notice. She slammed the door shut behind her. Then she spotted an envelope on the floor close to the door, her name inscribed on it in fine black calligraphy. Now what? She reluctantly picked it up. The envelope was of good quality, the type used for fancy invitations or thank yous. Her heart started to pound harder. Could it be—? The Resistance Council used cards like this to communicate. It was easier to authenticate physical cards, and the Censors couldn’t monitor them as well as they could electronic communications.
Yarrow lightly tapped the bright red seal on the back flap. A faint chime sounded. Authentic. A missive from the Resistance Council. Hands shaking, Yarrow broke the seal and took out the card.
DESTROY AFTER READING flashed at the top in bright red letters.
Underneath, in the same fine calligraphy that had been on the envelope, the message continued.
Time is of the essence and the Censors are watching the building. Raid hit at 2 pm today. Got everyone but me, Maria, and the kids. Abdul is dead for certain. We need to free the survivors and your services are required by the Council. Censors mean to manipulate Jenny and discredit her work in the Camp by making a big deal about capturing you, claim you’re working with the Shadows. Get your things ready and wait for my knock. Destroy this now. “Burn to nothingness.”
“Burn to nothingness,” Yarrow repeated the auto-destruct command, staring at the missive as both card and envelope disappeared in a bright flash. Her bracelets jolted sharply but she didn’t notice the pain. Leslie? Leslie was the Resistance Council lead in the building? Chunky little Leslie with her bright grin? Then again, Leslie was active, with a muscular core that meant she instead of Maria was the one doing their family’s share of the heavy work around the apartment complex.
Yarrow reached into the armoire that held her big emergency backpack. Inside the pack was the bag filled with her magical implements and other things she might want should she need to flee in a hurry. She had hoped never to need it, knew it was futile should the Censors decide to bring her it when she was at work, but still kept it ready just in case. After all, the Resistance Council hadn’t called upon her to do anything more than her daily job since the Censors had imprisoned Jenny. They had decided that the work she did making protective charms for the war effort against the Shadows was a higher priority for her small talents than working more openly for the Resistance like Jenny did. Yarrow had turned in enough of her personal magical supplies to quell any suspicions that the Censors might have that she was anything other than a submissive, docile witch who would do what they ordered. Even if her girlfriend was Jenny, face of the Resistance to both Censors and Shadows. That agreement Jenny had made was supposed to keep Yarrow safe.
But what if the Censors had decided to default on their agreement? War news had not been good. Unfortunately Leslie’s note rang too true. Yarrow had not knowingly done anything to aid the Shadows—now she was glad she hadn’t woven that golden glow this afternoon. Innocent as that action might have seemed at the time, it still could have been construed as a signal to the Shadows.
Anything could be a signal to the Shadows, she reminded herself. And she was wasting time brooding. She turned back to her pack, and pulled the gold-colored leather bag that held her magic supplies out of it. She eased the bag’s ties and began her inventory. Her small charms—still potent. The potion vials were full in their stiff leather case, none of the seals broken. Yarrow slipped two ring charms onto her fingers, uncertain why except that they called to her. One ring held a small vial of consecrated salt. Her athame tingled as she brushed her fingers against its black hilt and the moonstone sigil set within it. She placed it to one side, planning to hang it from her belt once she changed clothing.
Lastly, she pulled out the small velveteen jewelry bag and shook out its contents. The silver wire-wrapped amethyst on a silver chain slid into her hand, her bracelets stinging as the amethyst began to glow. Her power token, the original and real one. She had turned a carefully synthesized fake into the Censors—an action that if discovered would land her in a Relocation Camp.
Maybe that was another reason they were taking her in now.
But why warn me like this? Why not just grab me on the street? Better publicity? If they knew that token was a fake, they wouldn’t play with me like this. They would know I was strong enough to hide myself even with the bracelets.
They didn’t know she had her true token. The Censors wanted her afraid and weak, the better to break her will and strengthen their power.
I won’t let that happen. Yarrow shuddered and closed her hand into a fist around the amethyst, embracing the pain from the bracelets instead of rejecting it. Then she hung the amethyst around her neck, ignoring the persistent complaining prickle from her bracelets. She drew a deep, shuddering breath as the amethyst settled between her breasts, already feeling stronger.
I will be docile no longer, she vowed. Until she heard otherwise, she now had to assume that Jenny’s agreement with the Censors was null and void. I am free to be myself!
Yarrow quickly changed into jeans. She strapped the sheathed athame on her heavy leather belt, then filled the backpack with the rest of the things she needed to flee.
That done, Yarrow straightened up and looked around the studio. This tiny studio had been home for six months, third place in eighteen months. She paused to finger the three porcelain horses she had managed to bring along until now, all gifts from Jenny. This time she would have to leave them.
Tap-tap. Tap-tap-TAP-tap rattled on the door as she finished tying the laces on her hiking boots.
Friend or foe? she queried the amethyst, reaching up with her left hand to clutch it through the wool sweater.
It pulsed warm in her hand. Friend.
Yarrow dropped her hand and peered through the spyhole. Leslie stood in front of the door, looking around nervously. Yarrow let her in.
“I’m ready,” Yarrow said.
“Good,” Leslie gulped. “We have to go. Now. They got Maria and the kids, too!”
Chills gripped Yarrow’s gut. “But the kids aren’t witches!”
“They’re tainted by witch contact,” Leslie groaned. “Come on! Let’s go!”
Yarrow bent to grab her backpack, something about the tone in Leslie’s voice setting her on edge. Plus it just didn’t sound right. Coolness radiated from the amethyst, confirming her reaction. Something not right.
“I have to check something,” she said to Leslie, kneeling next to her backpack, using it to cover her movements as she unsheathed her athame.
The not-right feeling grew.
“Hurry up! What could be so important?” Leslie knelt next to Yarrow and the not-right sensation became stronger. But the amethyst said she was safe—no, it said she was a friend. Not that she was safe.
Yarrow looked into Leslie’s eyes.
“What happened with Maria and the kids?” she asked calmly, reaching up to grasp her amethyst with her left hand as she held the athame hidden.
Friend but not safe came back to her.
“Why are you wasting time?” Leslie grabbed and shook Yarrow. Yarrow dropped the amethyst and twisted Leslie’s right hand behind her back.
“What happened with Maria and the kids?” she demanded, touching the point of the athame to the jugular vein in Leslie’s neck.
“Why are you wasting our time with this?” Leslie’s voice quavered and for the first time Yarrow noticed that Leslie’s bracelets were gone. But there was no flow of power from Leslie like there should be from a witch with no bracelets. Why didn’t I notice that right away? I should have—unless—
Rumors held that the Censors sometimes produced bracelets that created rather than restricted magic, calling upon the City’s shared magical protections to empower a nonwitch. Those same rumors said there was no way to tell the difference until the bracelets were gone. Yarrow had never knowingly encountered someone wearing those reversed bracelets. Was Leslie to be the first?
Leslie always pooh-poohed those stories, she remembered.
“What happened to your bracelets?” Yarrow asked, even as the pain radiating from her own bracelets grew stronger. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
Leslie wouldn’t meet Yarrow’s eyes. “We’ve got to go. Now!”
Yarrow pressed harder on Leslie’s neck. The athame stirred in her hand and nicked Leslie’s vein. A bead of blood welled up, then disappeared, sucked up by the athame.
“You betrayed Abdul and the others, didn’t you?” Yarrow asked. “You’re a spy for the Censors!”
“I—I—I didn’t mean to!” Leslie stammered. Her eyes widened. “We’ve got to go! Fast!”
“Why? So you can hand me over to the Censors?” Yarrow delicately drew the point down Leslie’s neck, steeling herself for the next move. If Leslie truly was a traitor to the Witches Council—Traitor’s blood will set you free, Jenny had told her.
“Don’t. For the love of all that is sacred, don’t,” Leslie choked, finally now meeting Yarrow’s eyes. “If I bring you then they’ll let Maria and the kids go.”
Don’t drink, Yarrow commanded her athame. She scraped some of the trickling blood from Leslie’s neck with the athame’s edge. She brushed the blood onto both bracelets, then opened the cap on the salt ring, sprinkling the content over the bracelets.
“Unbind,” she whispered.
She didn’t know whether to be disappointed or elated when the bracelets fell off.
Leslie crumpled up, burying her face in her hands. “I didn’t want to do it, Yarrow. But they threatened Maria and the kids if we didn’t spy on everyone here. Especially you.”
“But you did.” The flood of regained power was almost intoxicating, begging her to use magic to coerce Leslie to explain, but Yarrow pushed it back.
Leslie darted toward the door and Yarrow grabbed her arm again, yanking her back.
“Ow!” Leslie struggled until Yarrow held the athame to her neck. “Yarrow, by all that is holy, please—in the name of Maria and the kids, please.”
“Why should I trust you?” Yarrow hissed.
“You don’t understand,” Leslie groaned. “I was just trying to save Maria and the kids.”
The athame’s hilt didn’t change temperature. So a half-truth.
“Where were you taking me?”
Leslie sniffled. Yarrow pressed harder with the athame.
“The North Square!” Leslie finally screamed.
The North Square, where witches were publicly humiliated and tortured to force their submission to the Censors for the Shadow War. Jenny had explicitly bargained to avoid that fate for Yarrow, and she’d done her best to be properly submissive so she wouldn’t be taken to the Square.
This means Jenny’s agreement is broken. I can’t stay in the City. She fingered her other ring. It should be able to guide her to a safe place for tonight.
But first she had to deal with Leslie. Yarrow swallowed hard, then drew on her now freed magic.
“Hold,” she breathed. Leslie gulped for air and strained to rise as Yarrow got up but could do no more than flex against invisible restraints. Yarrow picked up her discarded bracelets, studying them. She fished out a couple of twist-ties from the bottom of the backpack, then wove the twist-ties between the two bracelets. Next, she ran her fingers along them, whispering the charm she had used to make bindings against the Shadows for the War’s sake. The ties swelled into a solid chain linking the bracelets.
Yarrow fastened Leslie’s wrists behind her back. Then she used an extra blouse and another binding charm to create a second restraint on Leslie’s ankles.
That done, Yarrow shrugged on a coat, then the backpack. “Forget I was ever here,” she commanded the studio and Leslie, activating the last charm Jenny had left her. Then she trudged down the hallway to the stairs. Instead of going out the front, Yarrow continued to the basement. She raised a shade to hide herself, and let herself out the back door, hesitating before climbing up the stairwell, remembering what Jenny had told her as she thought about where to go now.
If the Censors betray us, run for the border. I will know you’ve gone, and that will set me free, too. At that point they’ll be no better than the Shadows. Run, and wait for me.
Yarrow wrapped her hand around the amethyst again.
I am free, Jenny.
The stone warmed in her hand. Run free. Run free and testify to what we endure now. I will do what I can.
I will, she promised. Then she climbed up the stairwell and headed down the alleyway.
She had to find a place for tonight. Then tomorrow, early, before her absence was discovered, she’d slip down to the river to join other wanderers. Drift with them to the frontier, hiding her magic until she had the chance to cross the border—and hope that the curse of the Shadows and Censors had not spread further, had not eliminated the belief in positive magic.
She hoped her plan would work.
It had to work, for all their sakes.
This story originally appeared in CHILDREN OF A DIFFERENT SKY.