Fictober, Prompt 20 – “You could talk about it, you know?”
Warnings: none. Fantasy.
I traced the last rune and watched as the energy poured down into the mixture bubbling on the stove. It looked good so far, the color was shifting from brown to orange the way it was supposed to, and I’d double-checked all the ingredients three times, so it should—
Something in the magic twisted, and whole pot flared briefly orange, and then faded into a distinctly unappetizing gray.
I cursed at length, spinning away from the stove and trying not to stomp along the floorboards like a petulant child.
“Still having trouble?” a voice asked from the doorway, and I glanced over to find Nkiru standing there before turning my head sharply away. I thought she had gone out; I didn’t want her to see me like this.
I didn’t want her to know that anything was wrong at all, but it had been impossible to hide for long with the two of us sharing the house right now.
Nkiru sighed and came over to wrap a dark-skinned arm around my shoulders, squeezing a little. I kept my head turned and tried to accept the comfort for what it was. She was open with physical affection and while I was discovering that that could be nice, I was…not used to it. Not after living on my own for so long.
“You could talk about it, you know?” she said softly, voice warm and understanding.
I squeezed my eyes shut tight against the sudden threat of tears. Kindness made this harder, somehow, but I couldn’t bring myself to shrug her off and turn away.
I shook my head. I didn’t think I could stand to talk about it. Not with my latest failure still simmering on the stove, smell becoming fouler with each passing moment.
She squeezed gently once more and then let me go when I turned away to move the pot off the heat, replacing it with the kettle. No sense in having gotten the stove going for nothing, and tea sounded appealing. At least all my non-magical cooking still went smoothly, which was just as well, because Nkiru wasn’t very good at it.
“Maybe it is a curse,” she said.
I whirled around to face her, glaring. “So you’re just like all the rest of them in town? I’m cursed by the gods because I won’t bow down to them? Because I won’t accept the priestesses’ so-called mercy?”
Her eyes had gone wide and she held up her hands placatingly.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I shouldn’t have said it that way. I don’t think that at all.”
“But you believe in them,” I said, my anger dying down at the straightforward apology, only to be replaced by confusion. Her tone had not been accusatory or joking, but rather that of someone just thinking of something for the first time.
“I do,” she agreed. “But I do not care for the way the gods are followed here. It is very different where I come from. Forced worship is worse than meaningless, and why the priestesses here do not understand that is a mystery to me. It is why I seldom go in for the rituals, except on the Turning Days.”
It was true that she had not gone to the temple much, as far as I knew. She had a small temple in her room upstairs, as many did, and I had heard her murmuring prayers sometimes, the low steady chanting filtering down through the old wooden floorboards to my room at dawn and dusk. It had even been soothing, in its own way.
But a few months ago I had let slip in town that I did not worship the gods, and ever since then my magic had begun to go awry. Word had spread, and the people in all the villages I visited on business had begun to murmur that it was because I did not worship as all good people must, and it was divine punishment to take my magic from me as a result. Now, I could barely stomach the mention of it, and Nkiru’s half-overheard prayers were no longer soothing.
“What I meant,” she said, picking up the previous thread of our conversation, “was that the priestesses are trying to force worship from you. What if someone – a person – has deliberately cursed you, in order to make it seem as though the gods were angry with you? It did not occur to me before, that anyone would stoop so low, or I would have spoken up sooner.”
I gaped at her. Surely I could not have been cursed without knowing about it? Surely it couldn’t be as straightforward as that?
“The timing is awfully suspect,” she added, looking at me with concern.
I scowled at the floor, but my mind was working on the problem now. “There are a few witches in the area who might be strong and clever enough for it. I would not have counted any of them enemies of mine, but…” I bit my lip. Many people’s attitudes had changed after my unintended revelation, some more openly than others.
“If it is a curse, then it can be undone,” Nkiru said, eagerly. “Can you sense anything amiss?”
“No,” I said, still scowling. I had tried any number of things over the last, frustrating months, trying to fix whatever was broken about myself. I would have discovered any foreign spells on my person. “It can’t be a spell just here at the house, either, because I’ve had trouble no matter where I have tried magic.”
“I wonder…” Nkiru closed her eyes, and pressed shining fingertips to her eyelids before opening them again. Her brown irises glowed golden, and she examined me carefully.
“It is subtle,” she told me, “moreso than I’ve seen before.”
I looked down at myself, perplexed. Seeing was not one of my specialties, and I still could not feel anything amiss on my body.
“It’s not directly on you,” Nkiru explained. “It hovers around you, just outside your aura, but it interferes with any magic that passes out of you and into something else.”
Which was the vast majority of the magic that I practiced.
“Here,” she beckoned me closer and reached out with hands that shone again with her own magic. “Can you see it now?”
As her palms touched what appeared to be the air around me, a thin layer of magic suddenly became visible to me, murky yellow.
“It’s delicate,” she murmured, eyes still glowing as she examined the spell. “It had to be, or you would notice it working. Let me see if I can…” she trailed off, intent, and I watched her dark hands work at the foreign spell, picking and teasing at it until at the end I could see how it had been put together, and she tugged on one last, yellowing thread of power, and the whole thing flared and died out.
A fog that I hadn’t even known was over me lifted.
“There!” she said, grinning triumphantly, her eyes back to their familiar brown.
I stared for a long moment, and then threw myself forward to embrace her.
“Easy!” she laughed, but her arms were around me immediately, holding tight, supporting as I cried my relief and thanks into her shoulder. “Easy, it’s all right now.”
When my tears had eased, she urged me back with a smile. “Try something!”
I turned to the ruined potion on the stove. I would have to start that one over, but even simple cantrips had been failing on me, so I could try—
The heating runes traced on the pot flared to instant, effective life, and the gray mass was steaming once more in an instant. I coughed then at the renewed unpleasant smell, and Nkiru laughed at me. But this time it was but the work of a moment to transport the whole mess out of the pot and into the outhouse with more runes.
“Thank you!” I told her, accepting another hug easily.
“You’re welcome,” she said. “That will nicely put those rumors to rest, and we can be on guard against further spells directed against you. But…”
I pulled back and gave her a questioning look.
“I’ve gotten a little hungry. Do you think supper could be the next thing tonight?”
It was my turn to laugh, and I nodded, already moving to pull out clean pots. “Of course! I’ll try that mixture again after we eat.”
Nkiru grinned and went to lay the table.
There would still be a lot to deal with, and I didn’t think the priestesses would give up that easily. But I could fight back now, and I was not alone, as I had been so often before in my life.
For the first time in months, I found myself humming over my cooking.