Brink had seen witches before. Of course it had. Brink’s light traveled far over the brushlands, so all witches passing through found it and visited, if only for supplies. As sparse as food and water were in Brink, there was none of either outside of it.
Of course, it had rarely seen a witch who had been so ill-prepared to reach it. The witch-stone this one carried was flickering madly in the starlight, barely keeping the frost from cutting into her skin. She staggered into town, and as soon as she made it within the border her legs gave out and she fell flat on her face. Her pack was loose and empty.
Hazel was the one who went over to her and helped her up. Somehow, even as old as she was, Hazel was still the person who did the most around the town. They had a mayor, of course. They had people in charge of things. Yet it was always Hazel picking up wounded travellers, organizing festivals, bringing the town to life. And if Hazel came knocking on a shop door with a plate of fresh-baked pastries, with a little bit of advice, they listened.
“Give her space,” Hazel told the villagers crowding around the fallen witch. “She needs help, not eyeballs.”
The villagers backed off, as one.
“Harriet, be a dear and fetch some fresh water, will you?”
A kind-faced and broad-shouldered woman turned towards the spring without hesitation.
“Could you two help me carry her back to my home?”
A pair of men stopped holding hands and stepped in to assist.
“And if any of you have some spare food, and could bring it, that would be appreciated.”
And with that, everyone else dispersed. Chatter about tables, chairs, drinks, and food began to circulate. The townsfolk knew there was little better place for a gathering than the front lawn of Hazel’s home, and little better excuse for one than the arrival of a witch.
The witch herself was gingerly placed on a comfortable sofa in Hazel’s sitting room. The water arrived soon after, Harriet carrying it over one shoulder in a big barrel. “So, she roped you in, too?” she remarked to the two men who had carried the witch. The three of them left Hazel to tend to the witch. They discovered industrious townsfolk already carrying tables and tablecloths out to the lawn.
Hazel was sitting in a large chair, watching as the town converged to begin putting together a get-together, when the witch’s eyes finally fluttered open. The witch croaked out, “Where am I?” Hazel turned to look at her.
“You’re in Brink,” Hazel said. “You made it.”
“Brink, yes. I’m Hazel. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Flare. I’m Flare.”
“So, Flare, how are you feeling.”
Flare said nothing. Then she began to cough, hard enough that it brought her to a half sitting up position. Hazel watched patiently as Flare slowly worked her way back to lying flat.
Hazel got up and got a cup of water for Flare to drink. She offered it. Flare wiped her mouth with one hand, and pushed herself up onto her elbow, and regarded the cup.
“Drink,” Hazel said.
Flare shook her head. “I can’t.”
Hazel’s eyebrows knit. “Drink,” she repeated. “You were thirsty enough you collapsed as soon as you reached town.”
“I can’t,” Flare repeated. Then she doubled over coughing again. She covered her mouth with one hand as she did so, and she brought the hand away a touch bloodied.
Hazel straightened up. “I’ll call the doctor.”
“No need,” Flare said, pushing herself up into a sitting position. She dug into her pack.
“You say no need, but you clearly need help,” Hazel said.
Flare shook her head. “I’ve got what I need.” Then her expression slowly began to grow puzzled. Her rooting around inside her pack grew more urgent, more frantic. Finally, she peered inside it and cursed.
Hazel cocked her head.
“I haven’t got what I need,” Flare groaned. She tried to push herself to her feet, and Hazel very gently pushed her back down onto the couch. Flare groaned again as she fell back, unable to resist.
“I need to get supplies,” Flare protested.
“You need to drink,” Hazel corrected her. “If I’m what it takes to knock you over, you have no business doing anything other than resting.”
“I really can’t. It would make recovery harder in the long run.”
Hazel glared at her. “So would dying of dehydration. Stay here as long as you need, nobody here minds witches and this old house has plenty of empty space for you to recover in.”
Flare stared at Hazel, and then she looked at the cup of water. Gingerly, she took the water out of Hazel’s hands and took a small sip. This sent Flare into another flurry of coughs. To her credit, Flare did an admirable job of choking the coughs down as fast as she could and drinking more, and it only wound up causing a little bit of spluttering. Flare frowned down at her now-waterlogged shirt.
“Good. The food will be here soon. I’ll send someone in to bring you something healthy as soon as everything’s set up.” Hazel took the empty cup, refilled it, and placed it on the end table next to the couch. Flare glared at the cup as though the water it held was a personal attack.
“Would you like something to read in the meantime?” Hazel asked.
Flare scowled, and she coughed, but she also nodded. Hazel went wandering over to the bookshelf to pick out something a witch would be properly interested in. She came back with an old leatherbound volume roughly the size and density of an anvil, titled Drift Through The Stars. It landed next to Flare with a heavy thump.
Flare carefully opened the book. The print was cramped and tiny, each of the thin and densely packed pages crammed with enough text to give Flare a headache just looking at it. She looked up at Hazel.
“Have you got any books on poetry?