A/N: Happy New Year.
ain't gonna be here too long
She's a witch, they say, twisting the fabric of things with her black magic.
She made a deal with the devil, they say, pledged her immortal soul to Hell's fire in exchange for unholy powers. His evil lies within her.
She is a curse, they say, a tragedy, a blot upon society that must be wiped away.
Anna hears the words, knows them to be law because the priests and the judges have said so, and yet she looks upon the girl they speak of and sees nothing. No evil, no sign of demonic influence, no blackened eyes, no malice of any kind—all she sees is a girl, dirty and dark-haired, staring expressionlessly through the bars of her cage.
She looks up, once, looks Anna right in the eye and shakes her to the core. Her face is blank but her eyes are haunted, filled to the brim with a sensation long past terror. It's a silent plea for help with no expectation of it.
It's hopelessness, plain and simple, and Anna can't bring herself to go back for a long time after that.
"Are you really what they say you are?" she finds herself asking one day.
The girl looks up, dull surprise registering behind those telltale eyes. She makes no move to reply. Anna presses.
"Are you really a witch?" she asks, curiosity overtaking any pretense of propriety—although, considering she's speaking to a convicted servant of the Devil, there wasn't really much to begin with.
One of the girl's pale, long-fingered hands twitches upward to play with curly black hair grown past her shoulders. It's ragged and knotted beyond any comb's ability to fix, but Anna imagines vanity is the first vice to go when one is imprisoned. The girl looks at her with the same unreadable expression that she always does.
Just when Anna gives up hope of a response, one comes. The girl meets her gaze steadily.
A slow shake of the head is her answer.
The judgment has already been passed and there is nothing she can do. Anna knows this.
She also knows that if she does not at least attempt to stop it, then those dark eyes will haunt her every dream for the rest of her life.
It's no use, however. No one is willing to consider the girl's innocence; in all honesty, Anna wonders if they ever were. The sentence has been handed down by the highest authority their village possesses. In everyone else's minds, the girl is already dead and burning.
Her mother catches wind of her inquiries and beats her soundly for it.
When they tire of your questions they will have you burned as a witch's accomplice, she hisses, lines around her mouth tightening. I have already lost your father and sister to the fever. Will you make me lose you as well?
She has no words with which to respond. She has no evidence, no information, nothing but a single shake of the head that somehow made all the difference. She should feel confident that the priest's tests and questions revealed the correct answer. She should leave well enough alone.
But she does not, cannot. In her heart of hearts all she knows is that a potentially innocent girl is headed for the stake, and that it cannot possibly be God's work.
"My name is Anna," she says one day when she realizes she never has before.
A blank look is given in exchange. The girl is used to her presence now, enough at least that she doesn't shrink back into the corner of her cage when Anna speaks to her, but she herself has still not spoken a word.
Anna wonders if she was this silent at her trial, and if speaking would have made matters better or worse.
"What is yours?" she prompts.
The girl remains quiet and Anna swallows a sigh of disappointment. She's not sure what she keeps returning for—all it will do will make the inevitable hurt more in the end.
She offers a crust of bread from last night's supper, pokes it carefully through the bars.
"Food," she explains unnecessarily.
The girl pounces on the sustenance seemingly without thinking. Anna's heart aches. Do her captors neglect even to feed her? Do they decide not to waste food on the so-called witch? Why has she never noticed these things before? Why is this ragged scrap of humanity different from any other convict?
A croak comes from the cage, jerking her out of her thoughts. She wonders if a toad has decided to keep the girl company (which will certainly not help her case, part of her thinks with grim humor) before realizing the sound was a human voice.
"I…I'm sorry?" she asks.
The girl attempts to clear her throat. It sounds painful and Anna promises silently to bring water next time.
"Ada," she manages. "My…name."
Every word sounds like it's being pushed out through a grindstone instead of lips and teeth, and full sentences are evidently too much to ask, but the girl—Ada—is speaking. That's something, at least, and it makes Anna smile with far more teeth than is likely proper.
Thank you…for the water.
Oh. It—it was no trouble.
Hope it looks like this…when they…
Please don't say things like that.
Hope all the days I have left are like this…
I'm not…going to be here too long. You should accept that.
I know. I'm s—I'm so-
…Don't cry, Anna.
Ada will die tomorrow.
Anna has the grim feeling that some part of her will die as well.
She knows that it is strange to feel so strongly for someone she has just met—and met under these circumstances, besides—but the fact remains that something inside of her will break when she sees the other girl burn.
Not your fault.
I wish there was something…
Made my peace.
…I'm glad I met you, Anna. Glad you'll be there tomorrow.
Ada, please don't. Just—oh. Oh.
One more sin won't matter now.
Anna no longer understands her people. She does not understand her village. She does not understand her god. She does not understand herself.
Ada looks at her as if somewhere, deep down in the glittering blackness, she holds all of the answers.
And perhaps that's as good a reason as any for why Anna makes her choice.
Her powers merely grew, they say, until she could bring even a good God-fearing girl under her sway.
The locks were broken by morning, they say, and the stake stood empty, and the village had two less mouths to feed. Two more sinners let free into the world.
The two of them travel now, they say, ever loyal to the devil. They spread his evil wherever they go, and will continue until the day they are cast down into the pit for all eternity.
Sickness follows in their wake.
Anna never asks and Ada, with her fathomless eyes, never offers that particular answer.