The Witch & the Gods’ War

The Witch & the Gods’ War

by Stephanie Lorée

Rain pattered the window, and Draya looked up from her basin to watch  the sky churn. Her hands washed vegetables automatically, carrots and squash, an eggplant that was nearly rotten, and two tomatoes as small and wrinkled as she.

Lightning flashed, and the echoing thunder rattled her already aching bones. By her feet, Sammy stirred. He gazed at her as she did the approaching storm, with tightly contained terror.

“It’s all right, Sam, ” she said. “Just a little god throwing a tantrum.”

Sammy huffed and laid his shaggy head across her toes, seemingly unconvinced by her words. She’d barely convinced herself.

“There’s a good boy.” She sliced the vegetables and threw them into a bubbling broth. From the bucket sitting beside Sammy, she grabbed a fish and pressed its flopping form to the tabletop. She stunned it first, a mercy, and filleted it with practiced ease.

It had been days since she and Sammy had eaten anything but fish, and longer since the gods quieted enough for the fields to dry. Draya needed to forage, but the tiny indoor garden and harvest from the lake encroaching upon her hilltop home would have to do. The cold made her muscles cramp. The wet was worse. It weighed her down until her back bowed and her creaking joints demanded sleep.

Yet, Draya did not rest. There wasn’t time for dreams between the gods stomping and screaming in the sky.

When she reached to stir her soup, Sammy vibrated with an almost inaudible growl. A moment later, the door of her cottage banged open, and a gust of bitter wind nipped her skin. The fire under the pot guttered and died.

“Witch.” A voice boomed through her home, between her ears, into her bones. The god stood silhouetted in the doorway, too tall by half, thin and supple as a willow branch, and pale enough to be vaguely translucent.

He smelled of ozone and wildflowers which had names she barely recalled. Lilac and lavender, heather and morning glory. These she remembered only in dreams of days before the rain drowned their petals. Before the Gods’ War.

“You’ve ruined dinner,” Draya said despite the man’s power prickling her skin.

He laughed and closed the door, though wind still whipped through the cottage. “You’re everything they said you’d be.”

Putting her back to him so she could coax the fire to life, Draya frowned. “What do you want, god-ling?”

“The cure.”

It was her turn to laugh. She rubbed flint to tinder, and flames sparked. When she turned, he was towering over her, a wispy white ghost that choked her nose in his lovely scent.

“This is amusing?” he said. “I can kill you with a breath.”

Draya met the god’s cornflower eyes as Sammy cowered behind her heels. “I’m too old and tired to care. But I’m not the one who wants to die.”

He shrank at that, seemed to fold in on himself. “Where is the cure?”

She shrugged. “There is life, and there is death, and a god’s life is forever.”

“They said there were others.” He glanced around, as if the corpses of gods might rise from the floorboards. “That you’d helped them.”

Draya stirred her soup. “They speak of many things. They lie of many things.”

“Not this.” The god shook his head. “It must be true.”

“All the songs of the earth cannot turn a falsehood into fact.”

He slammed down his fist, shattering her washbasin and sending stone shards flying. One piece caught her cheek before she turned her head. Draya touched the gash and held out her hand. Her knuckles were warped  with age, the skin brown and spotted, her fingertips bloody.

“Not a cunning god-ling, are we? Nicer, more clever gods have sought my aid. They left as empty as you will.”

“There must be a way,” he murmured. “I can’t continue like this.”

“Forever is a long time,” she said. “And age doesn’t necessarily teach wisdom.”

The god exhaled. His breath blew strands of steel hair around her face. It seemed to deflate him, and he sank to the floor. “Too long. The war, the rains.” He glanced at Sammy who lay curled and shaking by Draya’s feet. “The rivers have drowned the animals and made the birds too heavy to fly. How can anyone live?”

She sighed and crouched next to the god, resting one hand on Sammy’s head. “Do you regret?”

He looked up at her, startled. “Always,” he whispered. “Once, I floated on the winds and watched buds bloom. The people worshipped me with altars of honey.”

“There are no people now,” she said.

“Then I want to die.” His pale eyes burned.

“I’m old and not long for this world. I can’t take you with me,” she said. “I can’t kill what isn’t mortal.”

The god touched Draya’s bloody cheek. “Then I curse you, witch, to live on like me.”

Warmth flowed into her bones, tightened her skin, cleared her eyes. Her muscles grew young and vigorous, and dark hair flowed to her waist. The absence of pain was euphoric.

Draya laughed, wanting nothing more than to spin on her sturdy legs. Instead she chanted low. The words were old, a dead song of an earth only she could remember.

“And I make you mortal, god-ling, so you might die one day like me.”

The god’s eyes went wide and his jaw slack. His form twisted, bones snapping and spinning into something new. He hunched on all fours, sprouted tufts of fur and pointed teeth. He screamed as he writhed, a high-pitched wailing that made Sammy howl.

When it was over she stood and rubbed the muzzled head of the once-god. He lapped at her palm.

“Eventually you’ll all come, and this war will be over. When you grow too bored or tired. Your cruelty and arrogance will keep me young, and time will render its own cure.”

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Stephanie Lorée’s short fiction has been published in such places as Urban Fantasy Magazine, Penumbra (twice), and Pathfinder Tales from Paizo, Inc. In 2013, she was a Finalist for the Writers of the Future award. She is a freelance editor on the side, and for the past few years she’s been a devoted slush minion at Lightspeed & Nightmare magazines. She is also a member of Codex.

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