The witch was almost amused by the little girl that stood in the clearing, tiny fists clenched. Annoyed, too, though. Children were annoying.
“Forever and ever and ever!” Determination in the voice, rage in the eyes.
Little beast. Stupid, naive. You win and I leave forever and ever and ever? Don’t you know that there are other haunts I take up? Don’t you know you’ll die soon enough anyway? Don’t you know that I never lose?
The witch smirked at the little beast. “I win, and you stay. Forever.”
The witch should just have cursed the girl like she had cursed the other ones. Or driven her off. Or turned the deal down. But who could resist such a good bet?
“Deal,” the girl snapped.
“How do I know you’ll keep your ened?”
“How do I know you’ll keep yours?”
The witch breathed deeply. Determination. Skepticism. Anger. The scent of fear, rank, mixed in with the other emotions. Not as disgusting as the terror that had consumed the other children.
The witch didn’t smile. “Deal.”
The little girl smirked, holding out her hand.
There were bright lights in the woods that night. The witch shut her eyes. Anger, burning. Hope. Confusion. Fear, strong as ever. The colors and smells mingling with each other, attacking the witch’s senses.
Voices, too. Calling, pleading. Shouting, entreating. Threatening, begging. “Tora! Tora!”
The little girl, for her part, smelled of anger. Indignation. Fear. And something else, too.
“Remember,” the witch told her, as the loving cries for the little girl burned at her ears.
“Remember what?” Argumentative, but a golden color was there as well.
The witch let her closed eyes relax, imprints of lights in the woods strong enough to burn at her blinded vision. “This.”
The little girl didn’t speak.
“Remember your end of the deal.”
The filmy golden wish blinked away.
The witch put the little girl to work, drawing water, catching flies, doing other chores. The witch spent the new free time in idleness, for the most part, wondering why she had even wanted the wretchedly silent little girl to stay with her.
“You set them free,” the little girl finally spoke one day a few weeks later.
The witch raised an eyebrow.
“I heard them,” the little girl continued. “They sounded happy.” Colors: red, silver. Crimson fingers tapped a skirt. The witch stayed silent.
“Why did you do it?”
It just hadn’t seemed necessary to keep the curse of silence on the village children anymore. It was a game that had lost its luster, a book that had suddenly fallen apart. “Did you speak with them?”
The little girl glowed an orange-silver, making the colors spread around the room. The witch was almost impressed by the power of it. “No,” the little girl promised.
“Good.” The witch turned away.
The witch didn’t answer.
“Why not?” Demanding, insistent.
“Don’t test me, little beast.”
The witch made herself walk away.
A few days later, the little girl went missing for an hour or so. She came back grinning, weeping, looking at the ground.
“You spoke with them.”
The little girl shook her head. There were unfamiliar colors and smells hanging onto her.
“What’s so wrong with it?!” she burst out.
“I told you not to.”
“Why did you come back?”
“Why—” And then the little beast was silence. She was colored with scarlet surprise, red anger, purple petulance all over her tiny form.
“Why not?” she asked again, a smirk on her face. The witch was like steel, emotionless.
“You don’t belong to them any more.”
“I don’t belong to anyone,” the little girl objected.
“You gave your life to me.”
“So you listen to my rules?”
The witch took a step closer to the little girl, letting a terrifying aura come off of herself. The little beast’s colors slowly changed to a terrified blue, a color that the witch loved, one that reminded her of the sky.
“Talk with them again, and I’ll curse them again. But worse this time.”
The fear should have consumed all of the little girl’s colors, turning her sky-blue, a clear morning. But there was still anger in her, around her heart, dingy red-brown, packed earth, old blood.
The little girl turned away.
The girl drew water and cooked a meal, cleaned, disappeared. The witch watched the receding edge of the woods, studied, cooked the other two meals of the day. The little girl was always back by noon.
One day: “Jaya’s gone.”
The witch didn’t answer, irritation starting to rise in her.
“Maeve said that she’s married. It’s strange to think of Jaya being married. She’s younger than me.”
“You spoke with them,” the witch hissed.
“No. I listened.”
The witch’s fingers curved into claws. Rip, slash: easy.
Hastily, the little beast continued, “from a tree. I could always climb trees best, even better than the boys.”
“Why do you tell me this?”
“You’re a fool.”
“I had to tell someone.”
The witch scoffed, turning. “You have too much time on your hands,” she called, trying to think of stupid chores to make the little girl complete. The witch had decided that she really didn’t care for company. Still, she wasn’t going to let the girl go, not now.
“When can I leave?” the little girl finally blurted out, gold flowing from her fingers and eyes.
“Wait a forever,” the witch answered.
The green of envy for the other village children. The rainy smell of questions. The melancholy silver. The golden wish.
“How long have you lived?” the little girl pestered.
“Longer than you.”
“But how old?”
“What does it matter, beast?”
It took a few moments for the witch to realize that the little girl was crying. Tears, sadness, were ocean blue.
“Stop that.” “I can’t remember how old I am!” the little girl sobbed.
The witch was silent.
“I don’t remember, either,” she finally said. Calmly. Matter-of-fact. Witches didn’t have feelings like humans did, it was part of the reason that the witch had started studying for this occupation in the first place. When you had eternity, nothing seemed very special anymore.
The little girl began to hiccup, trying to force out her ultramarine questions. “H-how…”
The witch waited.
“...why are you here?”
The witch gave a half-smile.
“I met a witch.”
“Why do you ask?”
“I saw Jaya’s daughter today.”
The woods shrunk, as they always did in the end. Human needs grew as they did. The deep forest became less frightening to them as they pretended to understand more about the world.
Hope began to flare in the little girl.
“We’re not leaving,” the witch reminded her.
“You’re not leaving.”
“I want to go,” the little girl said one night.
The cry seemed to echo. The colors kept burning behind the witch’s closed eyes.
“Why?!” “Forever,” the witch finally choked out.
“But that’s not fair!” the little girl insisted.
“Isn’t it, little beast?”
“Won the bet.”
“But you didn’t tell me—”
“Tell you what?”
“Forever!” The little girl stood up from her seat and slammed her hands against the table. The witch realized for the first time that she had stayed this small for decades now. Some of the witch’s own immortality must have been rubbing off on the little beast. Shame. “You knew forever,” the witch berated the little girl. “You told me to leave these woods forever.”
“But I didn’t know!”
“Isn’t that you’re fault?” the witch asked.
“I hate you.”
The little beast stalked off.
The little girl made herself scarce around the old cottage for the next weeks. The witch didn’t try to approach her. She had no wish, no need, to do so.
It was the little girl that spoke first, in a relaxed, even voice that the witch knew she must have practiced for days. “You knew what forever was. I didn’t.”
“So it’s not fair,” the little girl explained.
“Why not?” Irritation and amusement, with a little bit of pity, mixed together in the witch’s tone.
“You tricked me! You understood that rules! I didn’t!”
The witch’s hands clenched. “I didn’t,” she spat, “understand.”
No one understands forever. It’s too much for any kind of living thing to truly grasp. And I? I never understood what it would be like to have you here for so long. You’re a strange little beast, you know.
The little girl opened her mouth. Closed it. She finally spoke. “I’m not staying forever,” she said. “It’s too long.”
The witch sighed. “Lucky for you, nothing lasts forever. Forever has never been a time. That’s what you don’t understand, what you never will.”
“What do you—”
“Everything crumbles eventually, beast.” Eventually, the witch herself would turn to dust. It was inevitable.
“The gods,” the little girl pointed out.
“Do you really believe in gods?”
The little girl shrugged. “Witches must. Where else would you get your power?”
“Even the stars die in the end. Don’t gods?”
The witch didn’t smile. The little girl smirked. The witch thought of her predecessor, the house she had lived in for innumerable years. A light. She recalled the colors of the world that came before all she could see was the starbursts of emotion. She remembered an age. A name.
A knife in the dark. Betrayal. Completely and totally predictable.
“Back!” the witch hissed at the little girl, grabbing the knife by the blade.
The little beast was crying. “I’m not staying forever!”
Overcome by anger, the witch shouted, “then leave!” The girl’s eyes widened. She turned, ran.
The witch dropped the knife.
She set fire to the cottage.
Some oil. A fire spell. The witch watched emotionlessly as the cottage crackled and burned. Timbers came down. As explosions started, the witch imagined her potions shattering into the fire. She was empty-handed. She felt clean.
She didn’t know why she hadn’t burned everything earlier. There were too many intrusions, too many humans, too much noise, too little space. She should have taken the little beast and left a long time ago.
The witch frowned at the thought of her would-be killer. She never should have let the girl stay.
She chose not to focus on the missing colors.
What had the little girl really looked like? It didn’t matter.
The witch took one last look at the woods, a mass of gray without the humans within them giving off pinpoints of colorful emotion, and let herself fly.
The little girl smirked at the witch. Fear was completely absent from her colors. The witch could appreciate that.
There were mountains. New woods. A new house. New potions. The witch had rebuilt. She had all the time in the world, after all.
“You want to stay here?” the witch asked in disbelief.
“I want you to teach me.” Indigo. Garnet. The smell of rain, of crisp apples in fall. Flashes of gold. A world of color and smell that the witch hadn’t been close to for...a long time.
“Why?” the witch asked.
Now the fear shot through the girl in front of her, along with anger and bitterness. The witch had been like that too, once upon a time. “I want you to teach me,” the girl answered. Predictable.
“What’s your name?”
This young girl reminded the witch of someone. “You can stay,” the witch conceded. “I’ll teach you. For a little while.”