Realm of Sugar Witches
Maya possessed more magic than mages, yet she hid in the middle of the Dead Forest like a criminal. She huffed as she surveyed the scraggly yard in front of the hovel she shared with her brother. Ean had gone off searching for that girl again, and he would be gone for the day. Another day alone, like so many others. The ache in her chest gave an extra squeeze, so familiar she rarely noticed it any longer.
Their food stores were low, she needed a new sewing needle, but supplies weren’t due to arrive for another week. Gabe, a mage, and the only friend they’d ever had, kept them alive. He’d saved her and her brother’s lives ten summers ago when he’d found them trying to live in a hollowed-out oak. At age nine, he’d seemed so wise compared to their paltry seven. But they wouldn’t have survived without him.
Many predators roamed the Dead Forest, but most were a danger to the other beasts and left Ean and Maya alone. Saber cats were different. They cared little for any being that could be a meal. However, Gabe had taught her and Ean how to protect themselves, so the cats usually stayed away.
Despite the risks, as they grew older Ean started going on longer and longer explorations for the girl. Which meant Maya and Gabe spent more time together alone. Her fingers trailed along her lips as the memories played out in her mind.
Their first kiss had been unexpected and tender. Gabe had apologized for initiating it, but that was only because he didn’t understand how long she’d been working up the courage herself. From that point on, things only grew closer between them.
Maya closed her eyes and let herself recall his work-hardened hands against her skin. Her breath caught as if he were really there, the ghosts of his fingers sliding tenderly over her body.
A shiver jolted through her. Work needed doing and those thoughts did her no good.
She inhaled and exhaled slowly, before shoving herself up to tend the wilting garden. In her mind, she tried to pretend the grass extended in all directions, green and soft. But in reality, she kicked up dirt with every step between clumps of weeds. The trees around their small two-room cottage grew tall, but most were black and filled with blight, standing like survivors of a fire, rather than born of dark magic. The few left alive and green forced their way to the sky in search of sunlight, but paid the price by staying thin and weak.
Maya rocked the rain barrel; it sloshed, half-full. There hadn’t been rain in ages. She’d have to lug buckets from the stream again soon. That was why they’d chosen the clearing for their home, after all. Thirty paces to clear, bubbling drinking water.
The spout coming out of the barrel’s bottom, trickled water into a trough system, and fed all the plants. Gabe had built it to save them—her—trips to the creek. Little good it did during the dry season. With at least two more months until the rains came, she had better get used to hauling water.
The garden had nothing big enough to harvest yet, and there was still enough water to wait another day to fill the barrel. But there was spinning to do. It was the only chore she performed with magic. No matter how she’d tried, she’d never learned how to take the raw wool Gabe brought and turn it into thread on her own. Every time he marveled at her skill, she cringed inside. He’d even gifted her a pair of golden scissors. The yarn did make fine cloth, but she could never tell him how she did it.
A sigh gusted out of her, and a smile rocked her lips, from thinking about the handsome man. Gabe’s golden coloring contrasted with her and her twin’s dark hair and pale skin. His shoulders were wider and muscles more defined than her lanky brother’s. She straightened her tunic over the hollow of her stomach, her hip bones bumping against her arm. There had to be dozens of girls in the village vying for Gabe’s attention. But he’d chosen her.
A spark flared in her chest and sizzled down her arms. Jealousy wasn’t an emotion she could allow to bloom. Over the last three years, her magic had grown more volatile and stronger. She had to keep it under control. No one from the village could ever know that two untrained witches lived in the woods. If anyone found out they’d been born during the Burning Moon as well, they’d be in more danger.
She remembered the mob, stomping through the streets with lanterns and weapons in search of a witch who’d lived down the lane. The terror rattled through her as if it were yesterday.
Even though they were twins, somehow, she had more enchanted powers than her brother. That was one reason her mother had made her promise never to leave Ean’s side. Maya had to protect him and keep them both hidden.
Until their eighteenth name day. Though, she didn’t know why that was important. After that, their fate would become clear, or so their mother said.
Those born with innate magic, witches, were deemed dangerous. Like mages were any less so? How could someone who had to learn spells, charms, and potions—and might get them wrong—be safer than one who could call upon magic at will because it lived inside them? It made little sense, but if she allowed her growing powers to flare, it would surely draw search parties.
Gabe knew they were witches. It was the reason he came searching for them all those years ago. As a mage, he understood the way others viewed them, and he’d helped anyway.
She grumbled into the air. Even though Gabe didn’t act like the others, he still followed the new ways. She hadn’t told him about the struggle she and Ean had been having the last few years with their magic. Maybe the changes were because their eighteenth name day drew near? Gabe always explained about his magic lessons, and how he’d mastered so many. Until she understood how to handle her increased power, she’d continue to let him believe his spells outmatched her power.
Halfway back to the cottage, movement in the trees caught Maya’s attention. Her heartbeat picked up speed, and she burst into a run.
Gabe barely had time to drop his pack of supplies before he lifted her into his arms. Their lips crashed together, eager and willing. He slipped one hand up the back of her tunic, pulling her closer. Fire raced along her spine and deepened her need for him.
Gabe chuckled when they finally broke for air. “Hello to you. I take it Ean’s not around?”
He continued to carry her as he strode for the cottage door.
“He left early this morning and won’t be back until supper.” She pulled the tie out of his hair, releasing the bun at the back of his head so the blond locks fell to his shoulders.
Gabe glanced at the sky, and his lips curved into a sunshine grin. “Two hours, maybe three? That will have to do.”
He pulled on Maya’s braid so she exposed her neck and left a trail of kisses from her chin to her collarbone. Afterward, she jumped into his arms, wrapping her legs around him, so he had to catch her. Gabe carried her two steps then froze.
A saber cat’s scream reverberated nearby. Cold doused their moment, and Maya slid to her feet. She ran toward the forest, but Gabe grabbed her arm, stopping her.
Her heart raced faster as she scanned the tree line. “Ean?!”