The winding path up the steep hillside was almost too much for the bearded, sleep-deprived witch. Only the promise of what was waiting for him at the peak of this hill motivated him to continue to climb it, instead of rolling back down to his parked car – that he was probably not in a fit state to be driving – and heading back to the comfort of his neglected bed.
The cottage he was visiting, a tiny little dwelling nestled amongst the trees a few miles from Windenburg square, was as remote as it was picturesque. On any other day, Broof would’ve idled; taking in his surroundings and enjoying the sun on his face, but today he had work to do.
He had called ahead, polite as he was, so it was no surprise when he approached the front door to Moon’s house and it swung open to permit him. He stepped inside the quaint little cottage, a familiar place from his childhood, and immediately Moon called to him from the adjacent sitting room.
Dodging a pair of curious cats, Broof walked through to greet his fellow witch, who was staring at her easel with a look of bemusement.
“I am trying a new art style,” she stated. “Something different, to test myself. What do you think?”
Broof hesitated, glancing at Moon’s other paintings on the wall that were a much finer quality, in his opinion.
“It’s definitely different,” he said positively.
Moon paused, tapping her chin. “You’re too kind. It looks like I painted it with my foot.”
“Still, I’m sure someone on Plopsy will buy it. Anyway, welcome! Drink?”
“What will it be?” Moon asked. “Mojito? Oh, wait, is it too early for mojito?” she glanced at her watch.
Broof didn’t want to mention that he was driving; witches typically didn’t drive if visiting one another, it would only look suspicious. “Yes, it’s too early. I’ll take a lemonade, please.”
Moon nodded, filling the glasses without even visiting the fridge and settling in her chair while Broof took a place on the sofa. He glanced around the room that hadn’t changed much since he was a boy; full of stacked bookshelves that groaned under the weight of a hundred dusty, old books.
Moon had wasted no time in filling the brief silence; speculating and commiserating about the tragic news that had circulated in the coven this morning. Broof hadn’t known the deceased, but had worn purple today as a sign of respect. Moon was also wearing purple, although she often did. Broof had to wonder if that was a stylistic choice or whether she, too, had someone she couldn’t let go of.
He nodded along in the all the right places while sipping his lemonade, which tasted far better than anything he ever managed to conjure. He was half-listening, but also thinking how best to approach the subject he needed to talk to Moon about. It took him a moment to realise she had stopped talking.
“I see that something really is on your mind,” she said softly. “What is it, Broof?”
Broof swirled his glass in silence. He’d run through the conversation in his head a few times as he’d driven over; carefully chosen his words so that he wouldn’t arouse any suspicion as to why he had suddenly decided to visit Moon and ask her a load of questions after barely talking to her for years. Thankfully, because he wasn’t a frequent visitor to this neck of the woods, the reasoning behind his sudden interest in her hadn’t gone unnoticed by the older witch.
“How are things going with young Wyatt?” she asked. “He’s your first student, yes?”
Broof’s eyes glistened as he was presented with this perfect cover. He smiled, politely. “Yes, so as you know, Wyatt chose me as his mentor.”
“A fine choice.”
“Um, thank you,” Broof said, unable to hide his surprise. “However, I’m feeling a little unprepared for the role, if truth be told.”
“Oh! You’re only here for mentoring tips!” Moon laughed and flopped back into her chair. “Thank goodness; I thought you were going to tell me more dreadful news.”
“You won’t tell anyone I’m struggling, will you? It’d be horribly embarrassing for me, especially with what happened with Claudia. I already feel like the coven must think I’m an idiot.”
Moon placed a hand to her chest in sympathy. “They don’t, and of course I won’t. You did the right thing by coming to see me, and there’s no need to worry; we can’t all know everything and you’re not expected to be perfect. Besides, I’d wager Wyatt would be a handful, even for an experienced teacher, with that unruly magic of his.”
“He is a handful,” Broof agreed.
“So, how can I help? Is it a general conduct kind of issue? Is there a particular spell he’s struggling with?”
“No, he’s involved and well-behaved and pretty good with spells already – a fast learner, I mean!” Broof said quickly. “It’s more that he asks a lot of questions I don’t know the answers to.”
“Oh? What sort of questions? If there’s a specific topic, I probably have a book around here that you can borrow.”
“Books might be the problem. He’s been staying up late, reading a lot, old tomes and the like.”
“Really?” Moon asked in surprise. “I thought he was more the computer games type.”
“Oh, no, he’s actually very studious,” Broof lied. “Anyway, to feed this hobby of his, I gave him some of Ma’s grimoires and old diaries to study—”
“I’ll bet they’re interesting.”
“They are, and informative,” Broof took a deep breath. It was now or never. “However, they appear to be missing some pages.”
He waited here to see if this elicited any response, but Moon seemed unbothered. “Moths,” she speculated. “They like a nibble on these old books.”
“Possibly,” Broof said as if considering it viable. “Although, they’re very selective moths; only choosing certain books, completely eating some pages and leaving surrounding ones untouched…”
It might have been his imagination, but Broof could’ve sworn the room became cooler. Moon watched her cat for a while; the creature had stolen a ball of yarn from her basket and was noisily trying to kill it.
“Which books do these selective moths seem to favour?” she asked.
“Anything between the years of 1680 and 1730 must be particularly tasty.”
Moon settled back in her chair, suddenly looking far more serious. “I assume you know about that time period.”
“I do,” Broof confirmed. “The trying times, correct?”
“Yes,” Moon sighed. “I remember them well.”
“I know that was a difficult time for the coven, but is there any reason why pages might be missing? Anything I can feed back to Wyatt, I mean.”
Moon pursed her lips and her eyes darkened. Her tone was unusually short. “If you’re suggesting that those missing pages are deliberate, they very well may be, but it would only be for the protection of future coven members and probably not information that should be shared with a newly-fledged – and impressionable – witch in-training, such as Wyatt.”
Broof felt like he’d punched in the gut. He nodded and tried not to look too disheartened. “I see, well thank you for your advice, and the drink—”
As he rose to his feet, Moon turned to look at him, that faraway expression had been replaced with a knowing smile.
“I couldn’t share that information with a witch-in-training,” she reiterated. “However, if you are not in fact asking because you wish to teach your student about the coven history, but because you yourself are interested, then, as a fellow fully-qualified witch, you have earned the right to anything you wish to know, Broof.”
Broof’s legs turned to jelly beneath him and he settled himself back on the sofa. He ran his dry tongue around his dry mouth and weighed up his options.
“You take so much after your grandmother. She also wanted to know everything,” Moon said after a few moments of silence. “Her methods of interrogation were a little more direct though.” She winked; her smile returning and with it the temperature of the room began to rise.
“Nothing gets past you does it?”
“I might have bought it, if I had never met Wyatt. So, what do you want to know?”
He hesitated for only a moment. “I want to know about the Village of the Free.”
“I-I found a single mention of it, in an old diary, but all other places where I think it might have been referenced thereafter had been removed. Is this… what have I found here?”
Moon sighed heavily. “Well, I did say ‘anything’. All right. Do you know about the Swamps?”
“Of course. Home to banished witches, those born of curses—”
“—Necromancers and beasts,” Moon finished.
Broof was confused. “What does that have to do with the Village?”
“Everything. They’re the same place,” Moon said solemnly. “A collective of those who misuse magic, practice dark magic, or, as they call it, ‘free magic’. Free magic, I ask you. A limitless well of power and no restriction on how it is used, may seem ‘free’ – but it does not come without a price. It can corrupt your soul, your morals – the very being of your being.” She paused for composure. “The Village, the Swamp, whatever you want to call it… it’s not a place any good witch, any true witch, should ever visit. And therefore, it was decided, that any reference to the ‘Village of the Free’ be removed. At least, it should have been removed.”
Broof’s heart pounded so loudly in his chest that he thought Moon may hear it. “But the current High Priestess, isn’t she from the Swamp?”
“She is,” Moon said with softness. “She realised that their way was not her way and sought to return to the bosom of the Earth. A few witches over the centuries have renounced the drug of dark magic and returned to us. We will embrace them when they truly repent, when Mother Nature forgives them, and then they are welcomed back into the coven. Most choose not to disclose their past, due to the stigma, but the High Priestess likes to do things a little differently, as you may have gathered.”
Broof nodded. “Does she go back? To visit her family, or—?”
“No. She chose not to. It truly is a huge sacrifice, but she felt it must be done – the two magics, the two ideologies, they are incompatible.”
Broof thought of April and that anxious thread of regret returned to tie his insides into a knot. How could she be a hybrid of pure and dark magic when, by all accounts, that was impossible? He thought back to the diary, about the reference to the explorer who was planning to visit the Village, and how many missing pages had followed. Maybe, just maybe there had been something in there? Something that would prove that it was possible…
“Moon, the diary I found this reference in, it spoke of an explorer who wanted to go to the Village, seeking something. Do you know what that was, or what happened?”
Moon blew a strand of hair from her eyes. “No, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t. It was such a long time ago and – whatever is that beeping? Can you hear beeping?”
A tinny series of chirps had begun resounding in the room and both witches looked around for the source of the noise.
“Oh!” Moon gasped, looking at her wrist. “It’s me! I can’t get the hang of this new thing, one moment.” She began pressing at buttons on the watch until it fell silent and something flashed on the screen. “’Cof Sag’,” she read. “What on Earth does that mean— oh! Oh darn! Of course! Coffee with Sage. Darn character limits! I’m so sorry, Broof, I appear to have double-booked myself. Ordinarily, I’d go by the ‘first-come-first-served’ rule but given the circumstances…”
“That’s quite all right,” Broof said. “I think I’ve enough information to be chewing on for a while.”
“Sorry to rush you, out,” Moon muttered, ushering Broof towards the door. “I’ll be in touch if I remember anything else about the Village. Are you going straight home from here?”
“Oh, no, it’s such a lovely day and this is such a picturesque place, I thought I’d take a walk first and gather my thoughts,” Broof said.
“That sounds lovely – be sure to visit the ruins. Well, until next time.”
Broof nodded curtly and headed off down the path, Moon watched him until he vanished behind the trees.
And then, she also vanished.
Moon arrived to a secluded location near the coffee shop five minutes before she was due to be there, instead of her usual two hours late. She was getting much more punctual these days, thanks to the annoying, bleeping thing her grand-daughter had insisted on buying. Moon had reluctantly agreed to use it after she turned up two days late to the airport for the family holiday to Sulani and ended up stuck in Selvadorada for a month.
The bleeping thing, it appeared, also had the added benefit of abruptly stopping uncomfortable conversations.
Sage had already arrived and was seated alone at a table in the coffee shop. The place was empty except for a bored-looking barista who ignored her arrival.
Sage was staring into her drink – a cup of Earl Grey, Moon guessed. No sugar because Sage was, she’d claim, ‘sweet enough’. A second cup waited before a vacant seat that Moon swiftly occupied. Other than a cheerful hello, Moon didn’t say a word, waiting to gauge the temperament of her elegantly-coiffed companion.
Sage lifted her head, offering Moon a not-quite-smile and a greeting. She looked exhausted, but she hid it well. Not a hair out of place, as usual. Moon ran a hand through her own hair, attempting to smooth it but, by design, it defied her.
“How are y—” she began, but Sage cut her off with swift wave of her hand.
“Awful. Tired. It’s been a long night.”
Moon nodded sympathetically. “Do you need to go home? We can reschedule.”
“No,” Sage said adamantly. “Home is the last place… never mind. I need a distraction before I go completely doolally. What have you been up to?”
“The usual; painting, chasing cats, forgetting where I’ve put things,” Moon replied with a chuckle. “Oh, Broof stopped by earlier, that was nice.”
Sage, who had taken a sip of tea as Moon said this, sputtered it on to the table. “Broof?” she repeated. “Broof Hogwash?”
“Do you know another Broof?”
“What did he want?”
“Lemonade,” Moon replied.
“Lemonade?” Sage repeated. “What are you on about?”
“I don’t know,” Moon said, mopping up the spilt tea. “I don’t think he really knew.”
“How odd. He has been hovering around you a lot lately,” Sage said quietly, her face instantly transforming from fatigue to scepticism.
“Perhaps he wants to be my butler,” Moon joked. The two ladies laughed and settled back to chat idly. Somewhere behind them, Moon was aware of the barista, chattering on the phone. The television, which had been displaying a nature documentary, switched over to the news.
“Oh,” Moon gasped, seeing the displayed headline. “Should we ask them to change it back?”
Sage glanced up at the television and rolled her eyes. “No, it’s fine. They won’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”
“…Tune in later when we send Bob Pancakes and the Weird News crew into the forests of Forgotten Hollow. But now, it’s one o’clock and it’s time for our special feature. Today, Reb Porter investigates The Mystery Man.”
“I have been waiting all day for this,” the barista enthused, turning up the volume. “I hope you don’t mind but this case has me utterly gripped. “Are you following it? How have they not found this man? Every person with eyes is looking for Seth.”
“Seth?” Moon repeated. “Not very mysterious if we know his name.”
“Are you kidding?” The barista gasped. “He appeared from nowhere, vanished into nowhere – possibly with that girl, you know the one from the Moss case? Not the famous one, or the smart one, the other one. And no one knows who he is or where he’s from or anything. I mean, look at him! That’s not a face you forget! Someone must know who he is, right? And yet… nothing.”
Moon looked at the man on the screen. Seth… Seth… He did look a little familiar, but she couldn’t quite place—
No way. It couldn’t be the same Seth. Because if it was, that meant.
Maybe Angeline was right.
And if Angeline was right…
The two magics, the two ideologies…
…they are compatible.
The duck paintings behind Moon in the first scene were a gift from the multi-talented MonaSolstraale.
Public download versions can be found here.