Bathed in the early morning gloom of the front hallway, Liss and I shivered as we donned our thickest cloaks. The howling wind that had woken me around sunup showed no sign of relenting. Sighing, I turned up the high collar of my cloak, grateful that whoever had sewn it knew the island’s fickle weather well.
“Here, bird. Take this.” Mam offered me a scarf, but I merely glared.
“Isn’t there somewhere else I could work? I could chop wood for Ms. Katleen at the tavern, or …” I shrugged, at a loss for ideas.
Jobs were as scarce as fish lately. At least for a girl who wouldn’t go near the sea.
Mam rubbed her temples. “This is the only position I could arrange for you on such short notice. And Morag Maddrell is a sweet, harmless old dear. You’ll be a great help to her, assisting with errands and tidying her cottage.” Mam frowned when I pressed my lips together. “You’ll want to walk quickly in this weather, as she lives above—”
“I know where she lives!” My throat stung. I hadn’t meant to shout, but every child in Port Coire grew up hearing of Morag’s strangeness. And everyone feared the witch’s house. It sat on a big hill at the far end of town, crouched deep in the woods like a barnacle clinging to driftwood. Liss and I used to dare each other to see who would venture closest without shrieking and running away. Even now, with my most practical sister by my side, I dreaded the thought of going there.
Mam pressed the scarf into my hands and, for a moment, I wanted to shout again.
Instead, I took a deep breath and let it out through my nose. The promise I’d made to my parents just two nights before echoed in my thoughts. Work meant more food on our table, and with the sea’s bounty evading the nets of Da and the other fishermen, my family needed me.
“Let’s go.” I exchanged a grim smile with Liss, then put a hand on the doorknob and glanced at Mam. “You’ll be rotten with guilt when we never come home because Morag decided to use our bones in a spell like she did with Nessa Daley.”
“You watch your tongue!” Mam’s face was ashen. “I can’t imagine a killer among us, least of all Morag. Now, off with you!”
I stepped outside, Liss at my heels. Since the mysterious girl had washed ashore, my life bore a strong resemblance to Da’s fishing—it had taken a turn for the worse.
Liss was silent as we climbed the steep path to the witch’s cottage. The trees lining the way had grown so that their branches had intertwined, creating a shady canopy that blocked the cold sea breeze.
This chill weather always reminded me of Grandad. He said it made him feel more alive. He was always trying to convince us to take walks with him on mornings like this one, sometimes to look for seashells, other times just to talk.
I shook my head to clear it. Every once in a while, something still made me miss him.
A few more steps brought us within sight of a rotting cottage huddled in the woods. It reminded me of a scab I’d had once, a giant black blemish on my knee that I had taken great pains to peel off.
I glanced at Liss, and hesitated. “I’m not sure I can go through with this.” I didn’t know how Liss could, either. But the moment she’d learned where I was to work, she had insisted on seeing me safely inside.
She smiled thinly now. “We’re not children anymore, Bry. We can’t let some mean old witch frighten us.” With that, she marched up to the cottage and rapped on the door.
“Jus’ a moment!” barked a woman’s scratchy voice.
Liss stumbled over a fallen branch in her haste to back away but quickly regained her balance. The leaf-filtered light made her face appear greener than usual. Or perhaps she was more nervous than she cared to let on. She joined me by a copse of ashes, eyeing the small knife I had pulled from my pocket. The blade’s edge dripped with sap from the nearest tree.
“Want some?” I licked my sticky thumb. Grandad had told me more than once that eating ash sap was the best protection against witchcraft.
Liss swiped her index finger along Da’s knife and sniffed the clear liquid. “It smells stale.”
“Just try it.”
She touched her tongue to her sap-covered fingertip. “Strange!” She grinned. The unexpected blend of earth and sugar was enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.
“And what spell is it you two need protecting from? Perhaps I can help.”
We froze at the sound of the rough voice. Through lowered eyes, I glimpsed a foot dragging along the ground as Morag shuffled closer.
“Nothing.” My hands trembled as I clutched the knife, unsure whether I should try to hide the blade. “We can look after ourselves, thank you very much.”