“Oaths in Bark and Blood” by Devan Barlow

Someone unexpected approached.

The witch’s blood had long ago entwined with the dirt her house was built on, and nourished the vines creeping through the stones. She’d laid the mortar with her own hands, mixed with her tears. A dwelling truly hers, as any witch’s home must be, and now her house warned her of a visitor.

Outside was the great tree intertwined with her house, refusing to let her forget her unfinished burden.

She recognized the stranger, as much as one could, from the first sight of him. Such had come before, or ones similar enough to make no difference.

“You want help,” she said.

“I must rescue my beloved.” A prince, or one who longed to become one through the rescue of a princess.

Why else come to ask a witch’s aid, unless you wanted help acting against magics even scarier? She herself had turned away many of his type, of all genders and ages and origins, for witches do not give many favors.

Yet this time was different, for the witch too needed help.

So she listened to his story, of impossible curse and evil sorcerer and unscalable tower.

“I will help you for help in return.”

The prince looked wary, surely schooled in the tales pretending to be true of her kind, but he did not flee.

“You must plant the seeds of this tree across the world, in all the twelve lands.” As she spoke she felt her feet rooting to the ground, as if the tree itself had taken her over as it had her house. Branches curled through the eaves, leaves sprouted in borders around the windows, and all of it now, mortar and branch, was unsettled.

She pressed her palm against the bark, hoping to soothe it. A witch built her domain herself, and to that domain she was tied. No true power comes without its bindings.

“The tree can only flourish again when it is reunited with its offspring.”

“Why not plant it here?” The prince murmured, glancing at the open spaces surrounding her domain.

“Once these trees were everywhere,” she said, remembering lore passed to her before she’d had the sight to see the truth of the world. “Yet most have died, and it was they themselves who kept each other alive.”

“Plant the seeds of the tree, and bring back the fruit so it may thrive,” she repeated. The tree eased a branch under her hand. “Do you swear?”

“I swear.”

The witch did not budge. The prince frowned, a hint of something less pure beneath his supplication. “Well?”

“An unfettered oath is useless to me.”

He opened his mouth but then understanding lit his eyes. An oath to a witch was more than words.

He held out his hand, mouth flattening as if to guard against the pain. His other hand flicked towards his scabbard, perhaps to offer his own blade for her use, but then thought better of it.

“No,” the witch said, though she let him finish his pantomime of unaffected bravery first. “I don’t need your blood.”

Should she, the witch could draw it from his veins in heartbeats. The thought of her needing his permission was enough to make her laugh, yet the general perception of witches was so far from the truth.

The prince let out an annoyed huff. “Then what -”

“I need your oath,” she said, her fingers rubbing against the bark.

“I swear on the life of my beloved, who I ask for your help to rescue.”

The witch watched him with the true sight, tendrils of emotion and intent only visible to those who had made sacrifices as witches do. He did love this person he strove to rescue, or… she resisted the urge to delve deeper. There was love there, for something, a love that spurred him on this quest better meant for fools. Though maybe that was all he was, she thought, if a fool willing to bind himself to her.

“You are beautiful,” he said.

Words she was not used to hearing raised her suspicion.

“Why are you here?”

His shrug filled in what his words did not. The prince stepped closer and she found herself imagining the potential future of the space between them, then just as quickly discarding it.

The witch turned her back on the prince, drawing closer to the tree. Close enough there were smears in her sight that spoke of a thing of magic, long damaged by time. Her own essence was in there, a desperate attempt to revive the great tree, but even a witch as strong as her was only one witch, and the trees had once been tended by scores.

The witch gave the prince a piece of the tree’s fruit, its soft gleaming skin leaving a tingling residue on her fingers.

“Thank you,” the prince breathed.

“Remember your oath.”

The prince departed without answering. The witch placed one hand on the tree, and both hoped.

#

The fruit was rich red and purple, its scent so intoxicating the prince kept it stashed in his pack as he strode along on his journey, fearful of sinking into the smell and losing track of his purpose. Yet no matter the days it bounced behind his shoulders, the fruit never bruised or moldered. Seven days after his time at the witch’s dwelling, the fruit looked as ripe and fresh as though it had just been plucked.

Finally he reached that point burning in his dreams and his soul, a tower removed from the world, only accessible by a boat crewed by a woman who requested things yet to come as payment. The prince, gulping, promised the life of his first born daughter as her apprentice and thought of an uncomfortable conversation yet to come with his soon to be rescued bride.

The boat rocked in the water, spurred more by those things reaching up from the depths than by the current, eventually giving way to shore.

The tower. So many stories high it disappeared into the clouds, with no entrance, window, or door.

Yet the prince crouched near the tower, closer to the dirt than he had ever thought his life would bring him. His mouth watered as he drew the fruit from his pack, though his stomach still complained of the boat’s fitful journey. Taking his sword he cut across the fruit on a diagonal, like a heart lying there in his hands, somehow even redder and darker than he remembered it.

Slice.

A single orb spilled out, the sight of it turning his stomach. But as quickly as it fell, it disappeared into the ground as if no more than a stray drop of blood soaking into the soil.

And from the seed came a great stalk, reaching up through the clouds as though it were no work at all, covered all around with blossoms that enticed the eye, asking the viewer to stare into their petals until they were lost to the world. Up the prince climbed, to rescue his beloved, she who came tied with strings of power and wealth and prestige.

#

Return, celebration, happiness.

During a pause from frivolity and making plans the prince retrieved the pack he’d carried on his quest. The fruit was still there. The sword cut had healed perfectly, with no trace of violence.

He thought of his oath, the promise to spread the seeds of this fruit through the world so the great tree might be strong again. He was interrupted by a call from his beloved, asking him to rejoin the celebration and promising a kiss.

Perhaps, the prince thought as he twirled in courtly dances, every step bringing him closer to the throne, I shall plant the tree outside our window.

Wherever the prince sowed the seed, the vines that sprang up were different, both from the witch’s tree and the stalk he’d climbed into the clouds, though the prince never gave this much thought. Why should he, when he had everything he wanted?

Far away, the witch and the tree waited, hoping.

Withering.

#

“You have come back,” the witch said, one day after many revolutions of the heavens, when she felt another approaching. By now there was so much of her in the cottage and the ground and the hardy stalks of sorrel, the realization was instantaneous.

The sapling of a prince she’d met long ago had grown older, with a greater sense of where he belonged. This, clearly, was not such a place.

He stepped closer, laying a hand on her cheek.

She stepped away. “You seem to remember things differently than I do. How is your beloved?”

The forest around them rustled and the prince cringed as shadows fell on him, his hands splaying to slap at the offending play of light. “She… she is gone.”

The witch knew this already. The petals of the purple, goblet shaped flowers clustering outside the princess’ window had told her. Their fellows, cut from the earth to decorate the lady’s rooms, carried word through the soil and sun all the way to the witch.

The prince raised one hand as if to swat away a tear he didn’t have time for, but then he stilled.

“Did you kill her?” He rushed toward the witch, only just in time remembering the fabled foolishness of harming a witch.

“You made me a vow,” she said, barely acknowledging his violence held in unsteady check. “Did you follow my instructions?”

Small sounds came from the trees, her creatures offering help, but she stayed them with a thought. She did not need their poison, yet. The sounds receded but she knew the small loyal paws as though they were her own feet, perched in readiness. They’d fed on her blood and her skin, and they would die for her if asked.

“I meant to…”

The witch wondered if the prince believed himself.

“But there was so much to do -”

“That’s the funny thing about waging war.” The birds had brought her word, holding tight in their talons the seeds of the plants crushed or burned or poisoned to death by the armies’ movements. The birds had dropped them around her house, yet most had never flourished. “It tends to overshadow everything else.”

“I need your help,” the prince said.

The witch laughed, the sound sparking scramblings of small feet and tiny sounds almost like laughter all around them, startling the prince’s hand to his sword until he recognized the continued apparent emptiness surrounding them.

“You want my help,” she repeated, caught up in a humor she hadn’t felt for many years.

“My kingdom is threatened,” he began, as if she would of course see reason if he could say all the words quickly enough, “I don’t know what to do, I thought -”

“You made a vow.” And the witch, she whose vows had tied her to this place longer ago than she would admit, knew the importance of keeping one’s word. “Did your beloved enjoy the fruit?”

“It was her favorite,” the prince whispered.

The witch felt the change in the prince’s being. The change meant to be shared among the corners of the world, yet selfishly sequestered. Red and purple lines streaked through the true sight of his form, leftover from the fruit he’d consumed.

“Magic changes you,” the witch said. “It won’t let you stay who you were before.”

She thought of other changes, of the chances that would never see fruition.

She thought of things left to wither.

The prince carried a different sword now, stained with more blood. “Who has wronged you?” He asked. “No matter who, I can help you get revenge.”

“Once you offered me blood.” The witch said. “But you’ve learned to put off your suffering with that of others.”

The witch reached into the truth of what the prince had become. For behind the deception and the oath left unfinished, there lay the seeds of the tree, their magic lingering in his body.

“You promised,” she said, though she could not see the prince to know if he heard. “The tree must be rejuvenated.”

And there was a scream, and there was a thrashing of light, and when the world cleared of magic and tumult, the prince was no longer there.

The tree shone with new power, the way it had once looked before its fellows perished. Renewed. The fruit swelled on the branch, scenting the air with a freshness that sent the witch’s stomach growling.

The sun seared from the highest point in the sky and the witch leaned against the tree, weary. Its shade was a comfort on a day such as this.

THE END


Truancy 6, September 2019
Bio: Devan Barlow’s fiction has appeared in Lackington’s and Abyss & Apex. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters.

Follow her @Devan_Barlow.

This is a story of the princes who rescue princesses from towers, the witches who get asked for help, and the oaths made during quests. 

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