4 min read

Chapter 18: Old Friend

An old friend leads Saffron to her sister's secret
An image of a crow is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 18: Old Friend"

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Spring rolled into summer quickly. One day the world was a soggy, muddy mess, and the next it was warm and green and glorious.

Saffron spent a lot of time outside. After the long winter, she was happy to get out and enjoy the warmth and the outside world. Plus she was still extra vigilant in protecting her territory. She was constantly scanning the ground for any signs of lingering poison or claw marks. So far, she hadn’t come across any evidence.

But if she was honest with herself, the main reason that she was out so much was that it had become unbearable to stay inside. If Sage was home, the two of them tiptoed around each other to avoid an argument. If Sage wasn’t home, then the place felt sad and empty, as if she’d lost her chance at ever having a real family with her sister. The only times it was tolerable were the evenings when Alistair came over to dinner–which was increasingly frequent–because the house felt full and happy and she and Sage never fought when he was there.

She had given up following Sage on her excursions, but there was still plenty of work to do outside. Gathering herbs, tending to her gardens, her annual walk through the river, and long rambles through the woods for her own enjoyment. Not to mention all the trips into town to pick up supplies or drop remedies off to the townsfolk.

One day in late June she was on her way to check on the bat cave when she heard a caw from overhead. At first she paid it little mind. The sound of birds wasn’t unusual in the forest, after all. But the cawing grew more insistent, and Bear came back from his explorations to paw at her leg and meow.

“What is it?”

A crow swooped down from the sky to land on the forest floor in front of them, hopping forward. Bear scurried forward and sniffed it all over, greeting it delightedly as a friend, not a bird that he would normally swat at.

The crow cawed loudly and Saffron smiled, recognizing the bird she had healed the year before.

“Hello, old friend. Glad to see you’re still around.”

The crow hopped and cawed again before flapping up to the lower branches of a nearby tree.

“What’s the matter?” Saffron asked. But the bird had already flown to the next tree, and Bear took off after it. She was left to follow along behind.

They progressed through the woods in their odd procession. It took Saffron a while to realize where they were going, since they were coming from a different direction than she usually took, but her heart sank when she figured out they were heading toward the centre of the forest.

Had something gone wrong with the house? Was the poison starting to spread again? Was the beast somehow still alive?

Her worries pushed her to pick up the pace, and soon the crow was flying, no longer needing to sit on a branch while Saffron caught up. She and Bear ran the rest of the way until they emerged into the clearing where the house had once stood.

Saffron blinked for a moment to figure out what she was looking at. She had expected to find a heap of ashes, but the ground was clear and the air was black. She realized the sky was filled with floating coals and ashes. The remains of the house had been lifted up and dispersed throughout the clearing into a large cloud. Saffron touched a finger to the nearest lump of ash and recognized the feeling of the magic instantly.

“Sage,” she breathed.

At the centre of the cloud stood her sister, arms spread wide, face furrowed in concentration.

“Sage!” Saffron ran forward, knocking the bits of ash out of the way. “What are you doing?”

“Saffron?” her sister called. “I can’t… I can’t put it down. I can’t stop.”

She pushed through until she stood beside her sister. “What is all this?”

“I’ll tell you.” Sage’s voice was small. “I promise I’ll tell you, just help me stop the spell.”

Saffron took one of her sister’s outstretched hands and began weaving her magic into Sage’s, much as Sage had done when she’d helped Saffron stop the river from flooding. Saffron shored up the edges of her sister’s magic with her own, guiding the ever-expanding cloud of ash back toward the ground. Together, they moved all the pieces of debris back to the forest floor, and when they were done, they stood alone together within a blackened field.

Sage collapsed down onto her knees. Saffron crouched beside her.

“Are you alright?”

Sage nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I was searching. Searching the house. I thought I had it under control but the spell got away from me. It was all I could do just to keep the ashes from spiralling away forever. Thanks for helping.”

“You’re welcome.” Their eyes met and they shared a smile, the first one in a while. “What were you searching for?”

Sage puffed out a sigh. “It’s a long story. One I should have told you ages ago, probably.”

Saffron stood and extended a hand to Sage. “Why don’t we go home and you can tell me over a cup of tea?”

“That sounds great.” Sage took her hand and stood. The two of them picked their way across the field of ashes to the edge of the clearing. “How did you know to come find me, anyway?”

Saffron nodded to where Bear and the crow waited for them. “An old friend of mine came to let me know.”

“Not much goes on in these woods that you don’t know about, huh?”

“I used to think so.” Saffron shook her head. “These days, I’m not so sure.”

As they approached the two animals, Saffron bent down in front of the crow. “Thank you for your help. You can come and visit us any time, alright?”

The crow nipped gently at her finger before cawing gleefully and taking off into the sky. Bear meowed a goodbye, and the three of them watched until the bird was out of sight.

Then they walked home. As they went, Sage asked about the woods and the creatures within it, and Saffron told her about her territory and her wards. For the first time in years, she remembered what it was like to really have a sister.

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can find her on twitter or instagram.