“Leaving?” My father’s voice sounded small and faraway. He was sitting in a study that was already starting to thaw, little drips of water coming down from the ceiling and splashing into a puddle under his feet. His inkpot had spilled, and the ink was running down off his desk onto his hand and knee. He didn’t notice.
“I promised her,” I said, and the words tasted like a lie. “I promised I would go with her if she saved the town.”
A drop of water fell onto my father’s forehead. “Grace…” he said, and then nothing. He always prepared his words. He wasn’t prepared for this.
“I know,” I said. “Or, I think? The town was going to freeze, and if I didn’t do everything I could I would have to watch everyone slowly freeze and I couldn’t do that.”
“The story I told you…”
I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. Or, thanks to it I offered in time, and that doesn’t meant that it’s your fault what had to be done.”
He didn’t say anything, and I scrambled to fill the silence.
“It’s what had to happen, we had to save the forge, everyone here is depending on the forge to stay lit. We can’t leave, even the harvesters can barely get out to where the good ice is. So it needs to stay. And even if that means I need to leave it behind, I’m willing to do that.”
“You don’t want to stay,” he realized. A mouthful of half-lies was swallowed. A mouthful of complete lies came up.
“Of course I want to stay. I have so many…memories here. And of course, there’s you, and I don’t want to leave you behind. I just have to go.”
“She’s not making you go, you want to leave. You want to go out there.” My father said it in the same voice he read obituaries out in. Would he write one for me, when I left?
“I…” The lies stopped coming. We both knew they were lies. Why make more? “This is my one chance to go see what’s out there. To learn who’s out there, what’s out there, everything. I’ve never been outside Scorched Rock.”
My father’s head bowed. His eyes locked onto his lap. He said, “Grace, that’s the world that took your mother.”
“It won’t take me. I won’t let it. I’ll come back,” I promised. I could feel the witch standing behind me, could almost hear her saying that I wouldn’t. But even if I didn’t come back, it would still be here. It would be able to live, and I would be able to go see what lived in the deadly cold.
I said, “I’ll live. We’ll live. You’ll live. Everyone lives. A fairy tale ending. A happy ending.” My father cringed as though I’d hit him.
“This isn’t enough for you.” He looked up at me. “Why can’t you stay? The town is saved. The forge is fixed. Why can’t you just stay?”
There was a moment of silence.
“I don’t want you to leave.” He gulped. He opened his mouth, and closed it again, and then said, “I did say that you could use your own judgement. I don’t want you to go, and I didn’t want… your mother to go. But I couldn’t stop her.”
He looked away, at his desk. He righted the spilled inkpot. A few tears mingled with the water from the thawing study.
I hugged him, and he stiffly said, “Goodbye.”
The witch led me back out, to the edge of the town’s warmth. I had said goodbye to my father. It would have to be enough. My father was strong. And I wasn’t dying. I was starting a new story.
The lantern with the witch-stone came out. “Stay close,” Flare said. I stood within the reach of its golden light, and I could feel a little bit of warmth touch the cold shard in my heart that leaving my father created. It still hurt, but hurt was something that could be lived with.
We walked. The frost fled from Flare’s footsteps, and I scurried to keep up with her. For the first time, the town began to recede behind me. For the first time, I saw grass return to life under the warm witch-stone light. For the first time, I saw the forest from a new side. Wonder, to keep wearing away at that little heart-wound.
I adjusted my pack. It wasn’t heavy. Clothes, and a piece of amber. Essentials.
The witch turned away from the town. One more on a long list of towns behind her. Unremarkable.
But it had produced something interesting. The girl walking behind her. A girl whose wanderlust burst at the seams, whose eyes drank detail in greedily. Perhaps a girl who would never call a town unremarkable.
A girl who experimented. She’d created a charm all her own. Limited use, perhaps, better charms existed and could be taught, but functionality was hardly the point. The point was that it was new. Novel. A fresh breath into the dusty mind-halls the witch stored her charms in. Who could say what a girl like that might find? It would be a crime to leave her trapped in her hometown, forever drinking in details she could never reach.
Separations were never easy. The witch could still picture her own, down to the soup-stains on her ratty jacket and each individual tear on her mother’s face. But there was a long line of towns the witch had left behind her now. If the first town she’d left was still fresh in her mind, it was at least easy to drown out.
The witch turned to the girl, and said, “I think that you’ll make a good witch.”
Then the witch continued walking, and the girl followed close behind, and the witch could almost hear the thoughts buzzing in the girl’s head. And if the girl cried any tears, the witch did not notice them fall, and the glittering frozen droplets were lost among the countless stars.