Excerpt: Heart of Water and Stone
It rained hard the day before he found the witch in the forest. Girin had spent it inside reading and listening to the rain blow against the stone of his door. He’d left his house only once that day to draw some fresh water from the stream and catch a fish for dinner. The next morning he’d gotten up early. The forest had smelled of rain and wet earth, Girin sensed the storm had left several downed trees and one mudslide in its wake. He pulled on his boots and went out down the mountain to stretch his legs after being cloistered in the house for the past day.
The witch was lying far from any human-made paths, soaked with rainwater, face down in the mud. Girin knelt next to him and touched his body with one hand until he found the signs of life, thin and reedy, within the small frame. He brushed dark hair away from the witch’s throat and saw the brand on the back of his neck.
The mark of a convicted witch.
Girin sighed, eyes travelling down to the man’s hands and feet which were both badly burned. He had never been able to understand why humans felt the need to treat each other like this over something as small as magic. He picked the man up noting how thin he was, his bones felt far too fragile in Girin’s arms, and began to trek back up the mountain.
The clearing where Girin’s house stood was small and cloaked by an enchanted mist. Girin pushed the stone door to the house open with one shoulder and carried the witch inside. He headed straight to the deep sleeping closet, and his bed piled with heavy wool blankets. After he’d set the witch as gently as possible on the bed, he made his way back to the hearth to put some water on. Next, he stripped the witch of the mud soaked rags he’d been wearing and pulled the blankets up around him.
Girin turned to the shelves of jars and bunches of herbs that lined the back wall of the house and set about gathering the herbs he’d need. He rummaged through the remedies he’d already prepared before finding a salve fresh enough for the little witch.
Steam rose from the pot over the fire alerting Girin to the fact the water was boiling. He took the pot off the heat and poured it into a wooden bowl where he’d already prepared the herbs. He set the bowl aside, letting the herbs steep until the water was cool enough not to burn fragile human skin. After he strained the herbs from the water, he carried it back to the witch.
The human’s eyes were open and grey as stone, Girin saw, but glazed over with fever. The man’s lips moved but no words came out and Girin gently took one of the burned feet into his lap and bathed it in the herb steeped water. He bathed the witch’s other foot and his hands as well before fetching the salve. He coated the witch’s burns with a thin film of the remedy and then bound them with clean cloth.
By that time, the witch had begun to shake with fever. Girin tucked him into bed and brewed different herbs, let them steep, until the mixture smelled strong and potent and was no longer hot. When the remedy was ready he lifted the witch easily with one arm, propping the man against his chest as he slowly forced the herbal drink between the witch’s lips. Most of it spilled down the man’s chest but Girin went slowly, wiping the man’s face with a cloth until he was satisfied that he’d drunk enough of the tea. He gently tucked the man in again before going out for more water and some vegetables.
He reentered the house sometime later having caught and gutted a fish and fetched a new bucket of water from the stream. He put the water on to boil and finished cleaning the fish, then took down some dried onions and pungent herbs. Girin let the thin broth cook while he watched the night creep into his clearing, the book he’d been reading the day before open across his knees.
When the witch woke again, still glassy eyed and racked with fever, Girin held him up and fed him hot broth slowly until the bowl was empty. He nestled the witch back into the bed and settled himself by the hearth with his books.
He woke still hunched over his book and swore softly when he realized he hadn’t banked the fire the night before. There were still some bright coals fortunately and he fetched wood from out back before nursing the flames back to life.
He turned quickly to see the witch sitting up in bed surrounded by a nest of blankets. There was still a fever-flush high across both of the man’s cheeks, but his eyes were clearer then they had been the night before.
“You’re awake.” Girin moved slowly across the room, painfully aware that he was without glamour or enchantment of any kind.
He felt the witch’s storm-grey eyes dart from his too wide shoulders, down his too long arms to his very large hands. Under the witch’s scrutiny, Girin was very aware of his large beaked nose, tiny tusks that curved to just touch his top lip, long, pointed ears and hair braided into multiple plates that swung around his shoulders as he moved.
The witch’s eyes widened, his lips parted as if he was about to speak and he swayed slightly where he sat. Girin was able to extend his arm fast enough to catch the witch when he fainted.