BY AVERY WHELAN
Copyright is held by the author.
GENE’S EYES jitter away from Robin, back to the tiny pot on the table.
“To activate the spell, add a few drops of water.” Long fingers lift the stopper to show the pale powder inside, then close it before any moisture can get in. “Just a few drops, no more.”
Robin nods, eyes fixed on the pot or Gene’s hand.
I know which one I’m hoping for.
Gene drops her hand, watching Robin’s eyes to see if they stay on the pot, or follow her hand. Instead, he looks up directly into her eyes. Drowning blue framed by sandy hair.
Her breath catches slightly, heart stuttering a touch. Hoping he was as affected . . .
“Thank you.” He hands her a small pouch of coins with a mild smile.
Gene returns the smile and takes her payment. She should know better than to expect anything from Robin. She could hope, which she did. She wanted to read something special into everything he said and did, which she tried not to. Once or twice she thought his eyes had lingered on her, but he gave no evidence of anything more than watching her work.
Understandable. She was much younger than other witches. Many new customers questioned her abilities, so she let them watch her work sometimes. If the spell wasn’t too complicated. He was not a new customer though, and he still watched.
She refuses to see anything in that. Natural curiosity, surely. She couldn’t think of a single one of her contemporaries that allowed a customer to watch their preparation, even for something simple. You could charge more when the whole thing was shrouded in mystery.
He is just curious. People without magic always are.
Robin had first turned up at her front door with a strange request for a very specific illusion spell hidden inside an egg. Since then he’d become a frequent visitor. Customer. She meant customer.
She would have liked to think that he was making excuses to come see her. Then again, his requests were so strange, and often expensive, that it hardly seemed to be a show.
Robin follows her to the door, cradling the pot in both hands. He keeps his thumbs pressed firmly against the stopper. Gene opens the door with her usual perky and generic ‘thanks-and-come-again’ line. She adds a special grin for him.
He gives her a distracted smile and hurries out of her cottage. She shuts the door and tells herself she lives far from town. He’ll need to hurry to get back before dark. She strangles the little voice that suggests he’s fleeing from her, now that he has what he wants.
She turns to a pot of water always kept boiling for convenience. She ladles out a cup of water and adds a teabag. She eyes her biscuit jar. She shouldn’t, but given her recent disappointment, she feels that she’s earned one. At least one.
Witches and wizards don’t exactly have savory reputations among non-spell casters. Gene has been careful never to give her neighbors in town reason to fear her. Robin always comes back, so surely, he isn’t scared of her.
Or maybe he’s desperate and you’re the only person who can supply what he needs.
Sadly, a possible assessment. The next nearest option would be a hermit living three days hard ride away. He used spiders in everything and believed that magic came from deprivations. He hadn’t washed in at least twenty years. She was definitely the saner choice, in more ways than one.
Gene settles down with a cup of tea and the biscuit jar, trying to banish any feeling she has for Robin. It works right up until someone knocks frantically at her door.
Is it possible to identify someone by their knock? Possibly. Or maybe Hecate was looking out for her.
She brushes crumbs off her blouse as she hurries to pull open the door to Robin’s panicky face.
“Two visits in one day?” she jokes, hoping he’ll play along for once. She doesn’t think he will. He’s disheveled, breathing hard and his short hair is standing up like a cornered dog. He has a habit of running his fingers through it, she knows.
“Dropped it.” he gasps, eyes showing far too much white. Very clear, pure white, Gene couldn’t help noticing. “Stream.”
“That’s not good.”
Robin winces. He looks like he can’t decide between wanting to run back and wanting to grab her and shake some sense into her. He sucks in a deep breath.
“Please. We need to fix this! Before anyone sees it, ideally.”
Gene nods and stoops to pull on her boots. She grabs her go-bag, full of potions, herbs, crystals, and a tiny collapsible cauldron. Robin dances in places, throwing panicked glances over his shoulder into the forest.
“Lead on.” She waves.
Robin turns and runs. Gene sighs. Not that she doesn’t enjoy the view, but she really is more of an academic than an athlete. She hurries after him, aching already from the weight of the bag and the extended stride. She’s used to more of an amble if she’s being honest.
Robin disappears from sight for a few minutes. Gene keeps walking. He comes charging back to her.
“Come on!” he seizes the bag in one hand, her wrist in the other and starts running. Gene remembers doing this with her brothers. She has to focus on her balance and keep her legs moving, almost skipping off the ground. Robin did all the work, towing her forward and leaving her free to think about his hand on her wrist.
She bounds along behind him, wondering if, like her brothers, he would simply drag her if she fell. She didn’t think so, but he was rather panicky.
Better to stay on her feet.
“Is that . . .”
Gene jerks forward, nearly spilling to the floor when Robin didn’t stop running as quickly as she.
He wheels on her, ready to snap, but stops when he sees her face.
“Are you okay?”
She knows she must look a fright. Her jaw flaps uselessly. Her eyes stretch so wide she half expects them to roll out of their sockets onto her cheeks. She can’t even see the whole thing yet, but her feet won’t take another step. She knows what it is.
There, towering above the trees, a
humped furry back. Eight hairy joints poked up sporadically here and there.
They twitch as though the creature is thinking of moving but not sure it’s
ready to commit. The world must look very different from its new vantage point.
She takes several deep breaths, trying to force fear aside.
“I thought you dropped it in the stream?” There, that was only slightly squeaky.
“On the bank. It spilled on the spider, and the spider fell in.”
Gene tries to force herself to take a step. She can’t. Not towards that . . . thing. Robin tries to tug her forward, but she digs in her heels. She fights the instinct to throw herself down on the ground when he doesn’t let up pulling.
“I can’t. I can’t, Robin. It’s — it’s a spider!” Her voice finally spills out.
Robin grips her upper arms and leans in close.
“Gene, please.” The first time he’d ever addressed her by name. She always assumed he never knew it. “I can’t kill that by myself.”
She shivers. A motion that won’t stop crawling up and down her body. She’s glad that she didn’t have time to have more than a small sip of tea. The biscuits are churning unpleasantly in her stomach, but her bladder is blessedly empty. Robin starts rubbing her upper arms, trying to quiet her nerves. He looks guilty.
She wants to offer her help, a plan, something. Her brain is stuck though, stuttering over her biggest fear turned into an outsize one.
“Can you at least mix an antidote?” Robin asks finally.
“Yes, antidote. To make it smaller?”
Ah, yes. An antidote, obviously. Gene blames the spider, but he was awfully close to her now, nose nearly touching her own. Hands sort of kneading . . .
Really, if he doesn’t let go of her she’ll be more useless than ever.
“Yes, yes I can make the antidote.” She says, managing a step back. “Will it see a fire from here? I need a small fire.”
Action brings feeling back into her limbs. She takes her bag from him and starts pulling things out of it.
Robin kneels and takes a little jar from his pocket. He opens the lid and whispers to it, then places it on the ground. Flames lick up the inside of the jar, filling it in seconds.
“I remember that.” She touches the lip of the jar.
“Yes, well, I usually take better care of the things you make for me.”
Gene hurriedly stretches out her smallest collapsible cauldron, snapping the catches to keep it in shape.
He didn’t mean anything by that. Witches had a habit of placing far more importance on word use than most people realized.
Yet, he hadn’t said ‘the things I buy from you’, had he? ‘The things you make for me’. Wasn’t that far more intimate?
She shakes it off, nearly spilling the water she was pouring into the tiny cauldron.
“Will that be enough?” Robin asks anxiously, crouching near her and peering into the small container.
“It’s powerful. It should be enough.” Gene starts throwing in herbs and powders, leaning far over the mixture to watch things dissolve. She stirs briskly with a small ladle, pausing to crush herbs against the bottom of the cauldron. She tries to ignore the feel of her long hair catching against his shorter spikes. He’s curious enough to lean as far as she. If only it was a more detailed potion.
It doesn’t take long to make at all. Gene puts out the flame with a word.
“Okay, you need to splash it on the spider, as much as possible. It’s not like the enlargement powder, which expands in proportion to amount. This works faster with more quantity.”
Robin stares blankly at her.
Gene sighs. Non-mages.
“Meaning, empty the cauldron on it, anywhere on it, and it will be back to normal in seconds.”
Robin nods and reaches out to pick up the cauldron.
Gene catches his wrist and puts a pair of thin silvery gloves in his hands.
“Wear those so you don’t burn your hands.”
“I didn’t know you could make things like that.” Robin pulls them on, flexing his hands and gazing at the gloves.
Not for the first time, Gene wonders what he does for a living. She’s not in the habit of prying, though, not even with Robin.
“You never asked.”
Robin nods. He snatches up the cauldron.
“Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
He races off towards the spider.
Gene settles in to wait.
The spider has been twitching, as though shuffling its feet, but no more than that. Robin should have been there ages ago. Why was it still huge?
A shudder runs through the body and legs still visible over the trees, but it isn’t shrinking. It stands tall, then crouches down again. Its legs start stamping around, sending shudders through the trees overhead. It bobs, as though lunging at something on the ground.
Gene swears and stands up. She refuses to look at the spider and starts running toward it.
A tree topples right in front of her. She throws herself sideways, staggering through a clump of bushes. She crawls through the scraggle of brush and pokes her head out in the clearing beside the riverbank.
The spider stands astride the stream, shifting its feet and bobbing its abdomen. Looking very small, Robin is sprinting from one leg to the next. He’s never quite fast enough to reach it time to pour on the fluid.
Pincers and fangs click and snap but the treetops stop the arachnid from snatching up Robin’s much smaller form. That advantage won’t last long if it keeps knocking over trees.
Gene struggles to her feet, kicking free of vines and brambles. She tears free of a particularly thick clump, leaving behind a good handful of hair. She takes several steps. She freezes as her gaze travels over the hairy, eight-legged beast, with its cluster of eyes and flexing fangs.
Robin trips, distracted by her sudden appearance. He slides along the floor, balancing the cauldron between his hands. The spider’s foot comes down beside him. He screams as one of its claws plunges into his shoulder. The other gouges into the grass mere inches from his head.
The spider whirls, hissing. Gene dives to the floor, eyes fixed on Robin’s prone form. The claw drags Robin through the dirt and throws him aside. He curls himself around the cauldron. She can see him pressing the brim against his stomach as a temporary stopper. Blood trails him like comet’s tail.
Gene springs up, furious. She chants a spell as the spider bears down on her. It crouches forward to get a better look at this possible bit of prey. She blasts it in its eight eyes with a barrage of fireballs.
The spider whines, legs tap dancing in pain. Several shoot out at odd angles, dumping the heavy body on the floor with a thud that shakes the trees.
Gene flexes her hands, mentally preparing herself for another spell. This one will blast its legs off!
The spider freezes. It shudders heavily, then begins to shrink at high speed. Before Gene can lower her hands, the spider disappears with a pop.
Robin is standing on shaky legs behind it, the cauldron clutched in one trembling hand. He staggers towards her, blood trickling down his arm and hand from his wounded shoulder.
Gene looks away.
“Well, you are my best customer.”
Robin pauses, then takes a few steps more.
“Is that the only reason?”
Can I read something into that?
“Of course, it’s not.”
I didn’t say that, did I? Did I say that out loud?
Robin sidles closer. Gene looks at the dripping blood.
“Let me fix up your shoulder.” she tries to sidestep him so that she can look at his back.
“It can wait.” Robin turns with her. “Is that the only reason you saved me? Because I’m a good customer?”
“It shouldn’t wait, it looks like it hurts.” She tries to shuffle around him again.
A flicker passes through Robin’s eyes. Gene waits. He drops the cauldron and steps into her, catching her jaw gently in his good hand. Gene wonders if he can feel her pulse through his fingers. He leans down and kisses her. Hesitantly at first, as though he’s waiting to see if she’ll lurch back and slap him. Or blast him with a fireball.
She does neither of those things. She responds fiercely, delighted to find that his hair is as soft as it always looked.
He presses into her, one arm going around her, the other jerking at his side. That makes her pull back.
“You’re going to need that arm.” she leers at him. “Five-minute recess while I heal it. Then we can test it thoroughly.”
Robin grins back, stripping off his shirt. Her eyes rove, unable to fixate on the bloody wound on his shoulder.
I wonder if I can do this quicker than five minutes?