The Witch of the Westmoreland
By Anne B. Walsh
"I think I see it!" Peter called out, circling high above. "The steeple rock, and the pass beside it! And there’s water on the other side, and it’s curved!"
Remus shook himself out of a daydream of the singer from his dreams the previous nightâ€”she’d sung twice for him this time, once about a maiden who tricked a greedy sea captain and stole his treasure, once about an ill-fated crew of privateers with a leaking ship and a drunken cook, and he’d hoped to hear more, but this was reality. Dreams would have to wait.
"This is it," he said, dismounting from Prongs once more. "Rest your legs, eat if you’re hungry, but be ready to come running when you hear my signal." He tapped the horn where it hung on its strap by his side. "We’ll only get one cast at this."
His friends shook his hand or slapped him on the back, wishing him well in words sincere and profane, and Remus turned to walk into the strange valley.
I wonder. Have I been dreaming of the Witch herself? Does she know I’m coming? Will she answer when I call her?
With a quick glance over his shoulder to ensure he was out of the others’ sight, he drew his wand, holding fast to the means by which the woman at the tower had told him the Witch could be summoned.
I’m glad I didn’t tell the others I’d have to conjure something to call her up. They’d have insisted on coming with me and doing it for me, and then it wouldn’t work. I have to do it myself, to prove I’m sincere about this, or she’ll never agree to heal me. Not even for the price I’m ready to pay.
He’d have to be prepared to shield the others if they tried to attack the Witch when that price was revealed. It would hurt, but his willingness to use magic for it ought to slow them down a bit on its own.
They won’t like it, but they’re my friends, not my keepers. I can make my own decisions.
The valley widened out around him into a lush, green paradise. The trees had not begun to turn here, and flowers still bloomed in profusion, sweeping in a carpet of color down to the bank of the lake. Remus could see several sprays of the particular flower he’d been told he’d need to conjure, and was tempted for a moment to pick some and use that instead...
As if she wouldn’t know. She’s a creature of magic, and that magic, and by extension what and who she is, will be intimately linked to this place. No tricks, no games. I may be a Marauder, but I’m playing this one strictly by the rulebook.
He came to the edge of the water and leaned over, curious to see how he looked in the pale pre-dawn light. His own face looked back at him, covered with ever-shifting lines as the water rippled against the toes of his shoes, more drawn than usual with the pain of his curse but otherwise no different than the face he was used to seeing.
That will change in a few moments.
Lifting his wand, Remus aimed it at the center of the lake. Even the movement drew a protest from the muscles and nerves of his arm, as the Occasus Veneficius registered that he was about to do magic and prepared to wreak its havoc on him.
Enjoy it while you can, curse. It won’t last.
"Bactaurelius!" Remus shouted, the final sibilant held out longer than he’d intended as a hiss of pain. It felt as though someone had run a firebrand up and down his arms and legs, his spine had turned to pure ice, and surely he’d been gut-punched, nothing else could have made his muscles tighten like this...
A great spray of bright yellow blossoms shot from the end of his wand and fell into the water of the lake with soft plopping sounds.
"There was never a woman born who didn’t like flowers," said the witch in white in Remus’ memory as he went to one knee with the pain, fighting to stay awake. "She prefers this kind to all others, and says anyone who wants her help should endeavor first to find out what she’s fond of. One silly young man spent a whole week by the lake casting roses into it, since he hadn’t bothered to ask me."
But Remus had asked. And it seemed the answer had been true.
A woman’s head rose from the center of the lake, regarding the flowers which floated placidly on the water’s surface. Remus blinked and stifled a groan of disappointment; apparently he hadn’t dreamed of the Witch after all.
Have to be sure to keep Sirius quiet, or he’ll make some joke about her being Dark...
The womanâ€”the Witchâ€”turned to look at him, then advanced towards him, more of her chocolate-colored skin becoming visible with every step she took. Remus made a concerted effort to keep his eyes on her face, but it was becoming harder by the second, especially when her waist was about to emergeâ€”
And then where the Witch had stood was a night-black horse, which reared in place, screaming challenge.
Remus snatched up the horn hanging by his side and blew into it, and a lion’s roar echoed across the valley, shooting pain through him again from the use of an enchanted object. The Witch-mare screamed once more at the sound, galloped from the lake, and thundered past Remus, but her hoofbeats were oddly doubledâ€”
No, that was Prongs, even now skidding to a halt beside him, as Padfoot shot past on Remus’ other side and Wormtail above, the one sounding his challenge in resounding barks, the other with his wand gripped in his hand and a face of grim determinationâ€”
Remus pulled himself into the saddle and slapped Prongs on the shoulder. "Go," he wheezed, clinging to the straps in lieu of buckling them on. "Goâ€”we’ve got to be there, it can’t be all themâ€”"
Prongs bounded forward, and Remus held on even tighter, leaning forward against his friend’s soft neck and praying he didn’t fall.
One hard part over. One yet to come.
I’m glad none of the others know what those flowers in the water really mean...
Catch her without hurting her, Peter repeated to himself, keeping pace with the galloping mare below. Catch her without hurting her. I hope Padfoot remembers that...
But the great black dog seemed to have the stricture in mind as well, since he was bounding up behind the mare and well to one side, obviously meaning to dart in front of her and cut her off, force her to turn and face Prongs and Moonyâ€”Peter readied himself to dive down and stop her from fleeing the other way, a Shield Charm or an Impediment Jinx might do the bestâ€”
A flicker of movement along the mare’s flank caught his eye, and he stared. He’d grown up in a small village, several of his neighbors had kept horses, and no horse should have anything that moved in that spotâ€”
Padfoot charged for the mare’s forelegs, barking hoarsely.
The mare leapt over him, and great black wings unfurled from her sidesâ€”they beat once, twice, and she was airborne and climbing steeplyâ€”
Sirius, human once more, tumbled to a halt against a bush. "Wormtail!" he shouted upwards between gasps for breath, as Prongs and Moony pulled up beside him. "It’s all you!"
Peter sent his broom shooting forward, climbing a bit to keep his height advantage over the Witch.
It was hardly a comforting thought, and the mutter of "For all the good it’ll do" he’d half-heard from Sirius wasn’t helping.
The Witch looked up as his shadow passed over her and snorted warningly, echoing Prongs’ sound of a moment ago, though Prongs’ snort had sounded more skeptical that Peter would be up to his task.
But there’s no one else. And Moony’s life depends on this.
Peter thrust out his wand towards the Witch, trying to hold his arm still, praying his voice wouldn’t shake. "Land!" he ordered, trying to force some of the authority he so often heard in James’ voice or Sirius’ into his own. "Land now!"
A long black horsehair tail flicked up unerringly, and Peter yelped as his wand went spinning away. The Witch blew in amusement, then tossed her mane and set her wings to glide away from him.
She’s not even looking at me. She barely looked at me to disarm me. She thinks what they thinkâ€”what everyone thinksâ€”
A surge of anger rushed through Peter, and he threw himself flat on the broom, swooping forward and down like a raptor until he pulled up in front of the Witch’s nose. She threw up her head, startled, and Peter thrust his hand into the bag hanging under the broom, hoping to find the rope with which they would have set up the tent if they’d needed itâ€”
His hand encountered grooved metal. Without thinking, he grasped what he’d touched and pulled it out, and only as it emerged from the bag did he see clearly what he was holding, and wonder with a scrap of his mind how it had come thereâ€”
There’s no time, she’ll get awayâ€”
He swung the silver sword high, threatening the Witch with it. "Don’t you dare fly away from me!" he shouted, barely caring when his voice cracked in the middle of the second-to-last word. "My friend is hurtâ€”he’ll die if you can’t help himâ€”get down there right now, or else!"
For the space of three breaths, nothing moved but the Witch’s wings, beating in a slow hover, and Peter’s heart, thundering inside his chest. Padfoot, Moony, and Prongs seemed frozen in their group belowâ€”the Witch held Peter’s blue eyes with her great brown onesâ€”Peter dared not lower his arm, though it was burning with the strain of holding the sword aloftâ€”
And then the Witch folded her wings and plunged, and landed neatly on the ground before the other three Marauders as a human woman about their own age, wearing a long gown of red velvet with a gold chain belting it in at the waist, her dark and tightly curled hair forming a soft helmet about her head and her warm brown shoulders bare. Peter guided his broomstick down behind her, still holding the sword ready to strike, as Padfoot and Prongs, now devoid of saddle, moved out to flank her, and Remus drew his wand.
"Pray, good sir, lay your sword down," said the Witch, looking over her shoulder at Peter with a smile. Her voice was soft and silvery, her eyes full of approval, and Peter smiled back before he could stop himself, setting the sword on the ground at his feet.
"And you, my friend," she said, turning back to Remus. "Sheathe your wand, for I can see the pain it costs you to use it, and I shall run no more. I am fairly caught and your healing fairly won, if you are truly willing to pay the price you have offered with your gift."
James and Sirius retransformed, shooting wary glances at each other and at Peter. The message was clear, even without the fist Sirius made, thumb first inside, then out.
Price? Gift? What is she talking about?
"Answer first this one question," Remus said, lowering his wand but not yet putting it away. "Is your life as dedicated to healing as the stories I have heard about you seem to say?"
"It is," the Witch answered firmly, "and neither I nor any who dwell with me shall do harm or wrong to another unless we or innocent ones are menaced first."
"Then my gift spoke truly." Remus slid his wand away and held out his hand to the Witch, who clasped it in hers. "I will pay the price."
"Moony," said James carefully. "What price?"
Remus and the Witch exchanged a long look. "They do not know," the Witch said, her tone making it a statement, not a question.
"I thought they might not like it," said Remus, letting go of the Witch’s hand. "Will you tell them, or should I?"
"I can, if you prefer."
"I think it would be better coming from you."
"Very well." The Witch turned, so that she was facing the other three Marauders rather than Remus. "Your friend cast flowers of his own making into the lake by which I dwell," she said, waving her hand back towards the water. "In so doing, he offered the only true price for the saving of his life."
"What’s that?" Peter asked.
"A life for a life is only fair," said the Witch with a faint smile. "If your friend’s healing can be accomplished, he has agreed that he shall remain with the one who performs it, to serve her all his days and never leave her side again."
"What?" James and Sirius yelped together.
I knew they’d take it badly. Remus sighed and started back towards the lake, walking slowly, not because he hurtâ€”in truth, he was feeling remarkably good for being under a curse and not having slept in two nightsâ€”but because he was busy looking around. If he was going to spend the rest of his life here, he might as well get to know the place.
It’s a beautiful spot, at least. Quiet and peaceful. He trailed his fingers along the overhanging branch of a tree as he passed beneath it. And judging by the friend of that witch who gave us the directions, owls have no trouble coming and going, so I’ll be able to write. She might even let me visit sometimes. For James and Lily’s wedding, or the day he and Sirius become Aurors...
During the long ride along the mist-covered path, he’d wondered why he was so sure his friends would object more to the price for his healing than he did himself, and he thought he had found part of an answer.
All three of them still cling to the illusion that they are the masters of their own lives, with no one and nothing else to tell them what to do or where to go. James has Lily, true, but she isn’t really exerting much pressure on him yet. Sirius never found a girl he liked enough to change his ways for her, and he cut his ties with his family years ago. Even Peter’s winning free of his mother bit by bit, starting to believe he can go his own way, chart his own course.
But as Remus knew all too well, no one was ever truly as free as his friends believed they were. Powers both magical and natural changed the courses of human lives every day, taking them over and altering their destinies. He had been subject to one such power from the age of four, and knew from bitter experience that life was neither fair nor fully under his control. Everyone had someone or something they called "master," or in his case "mistress."
Which is why I asked her what she spends her life doing. She’s a Healer, which makes her almost by definition on the side of good, but there’s plenty of room in that "almost" for nasty things to creep through. Still, that answer she gave me sounds definite enough. She follows the same code I doâ€”only fight to defend your own life or those of your friends, or innocent people who can’t fight for themselves.
Remus looked out over the lake, tracing the sparkling ripples on its surface with his eyes as the sun rose behind him.
But now she’s got me wondering. She mentioned "any who dwell with me" specifically when she told me that, and I don’t think she’d have done that if we were going to be alone together...
So who else lives in this valley?
"I don’t care what you’re going to do for Moony, you can’t just demand he give you his whole life!" Sirius bellowed at the Witch. "That’s not the way things work!"
"Who said that it was? Surely not I." The Witch drew herself up, looking down her nose at Siriusâ€”they were within an inch or so of each other’s height, James noticed, and there were strong muscles under that brown skin. "I have demanded nothing."
"You bloody liar!" Sirius bared his teeth as Padfoot might before a battle. "You said yourself, not even a minute ago, that you expected him to stick around here and serve you after you’ve healed him!"
He may not have learned much from his mum, but he sure learned how to throw plenty of sarcasm into one word.
"As I expected, you do not listen," the Witch said, disdain dripping from her every syllable. "I said if his healing could be accomplished. If. And I tell you truly now that I have healed him as much as I mayâ€”it was done at the touch of my hand on hisâ€”and that which afflicts him worst is beyond my power to change. I heal the wounds of the body, not those of the heart or soul."
Peter made a little moaning noise, and Sirius growled between his teeth. James felt the bottom of his stomach drop away.
All this... was for nothing. She can’t do it, she can’t help, Moony’s still going to die...
It was Lily’s voice, and it was coming from his pocket. James got what he hoped was a natural-looking smile on his face and pulled out the two-way mirror. "What’s up, Tiger Lily?" he asked, then blinkedâ€”Lily’s hair was blowing back from her face, and she wore a traveling cloak. "Where are you?"
"Close to you, I thinkâ€”can you send a Patronus to guide me in? I’ve got something Remus needs."
"Sure. See you soon." James blew a kiss to the mirror and tapped its top right corner, and it went dark. Something Moony needs? How about to live? To be healed? He drew his wand dully. And he can’t.
Though wait, he was talking with Lily before we leftâ€”maybe she’s figured out some last piece of the puzzle, something we don’t know about yetâ€”
Clinging to that slender hope, he conjured his stag Patronus and sent it off towards his love, watching it gallop away upwards.