Home > The Near Witch (The Near Witch #1)

The Near Witch (The Near Witch #1)
Victoria Schwab

Chapter 1

IT STARTS WITH A CRACK, a sputter, and a spark. The match hisses to life.

“Please,” comes the small voice behind me.

“It’s late, Wren,” I say. The fire chews on the wooden stem in my hand. I touch the match to each of the three candles gathered on the low chest by the window. “It’s time for bed.”

With the candles all lit, I shake the match and the flame dies, leaving a trail of smoke that curls up against the darkened glass.

Everything seems different at night. Defined. Beyond the window, the world is full of shadows, all pressed together in harsh relief, somehow sharper than they ever were in daylight.

Sounds seem sharper, too, at night. A whistle. A crack. A child’s whisper.

“Just one more,” she pleads, hugging the covers close. I sigh, my back to my little sister, and run my fingers over the tops of the books stacked beside the candles. I feel myself bending.

“It can be a very short one,” she says.

My hand rests against an old green book as the wind hums against the house.

“All right.” I cannot deny my sister anything, it seems. “Just one,” I add, turning back to the bed.

Wren sighs happily against her pillow, and I slip down beside her.

The candles paint pictures of light on the walls of our room. I take a deep breath.

“The wind on the moors is a tricky thing,” I begin, and Wren’s small body sinks deeper into the bed. I imagine she is listening more to the highs and lows of my voice than the words themselves. We both know the words by heart anyway—I from my father, and Wren from me.

“Of every aspect of the moor, the earth and stone and rain and fire, the wind is the strongest one in Near. Here on the outskirts of the village, the wind is always pressing close, making windows groan. It whispers and it howls and it sings. It can bend its voice and cast it into any shape, long and thin enough to slide beneath the door, stout enough to seem a thing of weight and breath and bone.

“The wind was here when you were born, when I was born, when our house was built, when the Council was formed, and even when the Near Witch lived,” I say with a quiet smile, the way my father always did, because this is where the story starts.

“Long, long ago, the Near Witch lived in a small house on the farthest edge of the village, and she used to sing the hills to sleep.”

Wren pulls the covers up.

“She was very old and very young, depending on which way she turned her head, for no one knows the age of witches. The moor streams were her blood and the moor grass was her skin, and her smile was kind and sharp at once, like the moon in the black, black night.…”

I hardly ever get to the end of the story. Soon enough Wren is a pile of blankets and quiet breath, shifting in her heavy dreams beside me. The three candles are still burning on the chest, leaning into one another, dripping and pooling on the wood.

Wren is afraid of the dark. I used to leave the candles lit all night, but she falls asleep so fast, and if she does wake, she often finds her way, eyes closed, into our mother’s room. Now I tend to stay up until she’s drifted off, and then blow the candles out. No need to waste them, or set the house on fire. I slide from the bed, my bare feet settling on the old wood floor.

When I reach the candles, my eyes wander down to the puddles of wax, dotted with tiny fingerprints where Wren likes to stand on her tiptoes and draw patterns in the pools while the wax is warm. I brush my own fingers over them absently, when something, a sliver of movement, draws my eyes up to the window. There’s nothing there. Outside, the night is still and streaked with silver threads of light, and the wind is breathing against the glass, a wobbling hum that causes the old wooden frame to groan.

My fingertips drift up from the wax to the windowsill, feeling the wind through the walls of our house. It’s getting stronger.

When I was small, the wind sang me lullabies. Lilting, humming, high-pitched things, filling the space around me so that even when all seemed quiet, it wasn’t. This is a wind I have lived with.

But tonight it’s different. As if there’s a new thread of music woven in, lower and sadder than the rest. Our house sits at the northern edge of the village of Near, and beyond the weathered glass the moor rolls away like a spool of fabric: hill after hill of wild grass, dotted by rocks, and a rare river or two. There is no end in sight, and the world seems painted in black and white, crisp and still. A few trees jut out of the earth amid the rocks and weeds, but even in this wind it is all strangely static. But I’d swear I saw—

Again something moves.

This time my eyes are keen enough to catch it. At the edge of our yard, the invisible line where the village ends and the moor picks up, a shape moves against the painted night. A shadow twitches and steps forward, catching a slice of moonlight.

I squint, pressing my hands against the cool glass. The shape is a body, but drawn too thin, like the wind is pulling at it, tugging slivers away. The moonlight cuts across the front of the form, over fabric and skin, a throat, a jaw, a cheekbone.

There are no strangers in the town of Near. I have seen every face a thousand times. But not this one.

The figure just stands there, looking out to the side. And yet, he is not all there. There is something in the way the cool blue-white moon lights his face that makes me think I could brush my fingers right through it. His form is smudged at the edges, blurring into the night on either side, as if he’s moving very fast, but it must be the weathered glass, because he’s not moving at all. He is just standing there, looking at nothing.

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