Bushes line our stone house, two stories, with three windows over the front. I look to the second floor, to my window. The white curtains shift in the breeze, blowing into the room. With what little I can see, Celestine's shadow hangs on the ceiling from the candlelight.
That answers the question I'm always asking: Where is my sister?
In the garden, rows and rows of sprouting vegetables cover the freshly turned over dirt.
The wooden door is shut yet unlocked and I push it open, immediately greeted by the smell of dinner. Stew crafted by my mother using the ingredients from the garden, that's all we ever eat.
The first floorboard in the house creaks underneath my leather boot.
The stone walls lead me into the living area, around the corner from the entry hall. The room is barely large enough for two sofas, a low table, and a fireplace but it works wonders when my mother wants to disappear for a while.
My mother's books are stacked in the corner, behind the sofa, and away from prying eyes. I've never asked what she reads, the books are the same over and over again because none of us have the will to sneak into the capital markets. If it was any other city, we would. With the capital being the closest, the journey wouldn't be worth it if any of us were caught in the act. The cities lucky enough to be away from the watchful eye of the king are too far from us.
Beyond the living area, silent except for the dying fire, is the kitchen. It's the smallest room in the house and there's only room for two countertops, a stove, and a sink.
Supplies are hard to come by around here, especially when crafting new homes. My father lives to avoid the subject of our withering supplies so I don't pry.
In the kitchen, my mother stands next to the steaming pot and cuts vegetables with a dull knife. Without looking up, she says, "I heard a new batch of refugees came in today."
The knife knocks against the cutting board as my mother slices into the carrots from last years harvest. Once they're trimmed to small rounds, she slides them off the wooden surface and into the pot of stew.
"A large group. No more than twenty, no less than fifteen." I plop down into one of the stools at the countertop and avoid the hanging pots from the ceiling. Between them, my mother's thin frame moves with the swift rise and fall of the knife.
My mother's auburn hair hangs low in a braid, all the way to her lower back. Unbound, her hair reaches her thighs in gentle waves, like the calmest days on the ocean waters.
I inherited that gentle wave in my scarlet red locks but my hair, stubborn as it is, will never grow that long. I can barely stand to let it hang past my collarbones—the length I have it at the moment.
Many witches have risked their lives to come to this village; one of the groups today being the largest we've had in months. We have a name, Arego, and we offer freedom and second chances to those that escape one of the few cruel cities in this kingdom.
We are part of the kingdom of Esaria but as a community, try to stay as distanced as we can from the castle and what lies within.
Escaping from the capital is the worst of all the communities in the kingdom; they're constantly under the watch of the king and his castle. When I was merely a child, along with my older sister and parents, we made the tough decision to flee the capital.
The king believes all people of Esaria should be loyal to him and only him, even though all the cruelty he takes part in. The killing of lesser witches, for example. He expects all his citizens to bow down to his rule and accept the terms of their fate-as he likes to refer to their deaths as. Fate. He has little regard for any life other than his own.
This is where the escaped come. Once they're outside the capital, they're considered refugees of their own land. The king does what he can to hunt them down when all they're really trying to do is find a better life inside of his reign. But once they decide to come here, they're as good as enemies in his eyes.
But he's not the only threat. His sons, the princes, are very dangerous. Not only in their warrior abilities but in their power as well. They're witches with supremacy in their veins and if they're anything like their father, the princes are not kind.
The only kindness the royal family has offered us is allowing us to be here. We're still a nuisance to the kingdom, especially for the king as he wants all to bow to him, but we've survived this long. It's fair to assume he'll throw the safety in our face, later on, years from now when Arego has expanded well beyond its limits.
I study my mother's new dress as she cooks, she must have finished sewing it this morning. Its identical to my own except her apron is a sharp shade of blue and the white puffed sleeves are actually that bright shade.
My clothes have long since lost their cleanliness.
I brush back a scarlet strand of my hair, much shorter than my mother has allowed hers to grow. While I didn't want my mother's long hair, we share eyes—a bright shade of amber. Wide, dazzling, beautiful. They're the highlight of our thin faces. Except every other feature on my mother's face renders her to stand out in a crowd. Her sharp cheekbones, her freckled, honey-gold skin, and her rosy cheeks. Celestine is a mirror image of her.
"Your father is already working on building more homes for the last batch of refugees," she goes on to say. "He's going to be behind with this new group." She clicks her tongue and purses her plump lips together.
"The citizens will have to suck it up and live with each other," I declare.
At the sound of my brute words, she shakes her head. "And how would you feel if a random stranger intruded on your home?"
"My feeling on the matter does not count. But we don't have any room for visitors, the four of us can barely fit in here as it is." To avoid my mother's sharp eye, I look towards the winding stone staircase in the corner of the kitchen.
In my distant memory, I miss the roomy homes of the capital but we haven't been there since I was a child. When we left that day—the Aimrey family didn't turn back.
"Which is why the people with more room take in the newcomers. Without their generosity, the only room is in the streets." She turns back to her strew and stirs the contents. I smell beef, carrots, and an entirely new mix of vegetables from last autumn's harvest.
"At least the newcomers are helping build the houses," I venture, fiddling with the salt and pepper shakers on the counter. "Pretty soon the village will be big enough for everyone to have jobs. We'll have our own economy and people can trade so—"
"Roux," my mother interrupts. Her auburn brows droop low. "We're not our own kingdom. We stay in isolation, yes, but this is not our land. And we will treat it as such."
I frown. Growing up, we were told to never be that ambitious to disconnect ourselves from the rest of the kingdom around us. With no walls and no army, we are the easiest target for the king. He looms over our heads with mundane threats. "Is Celestine back from tending to the village gardens?" Changing the subject is the best way to avoid another argument with my mother, one she always wins.
With a point of the knife towards the wood beam ceiling, she confirms, "She's upstairs in your room."
I drum on the wooden countertop, one quick rasp of my knuckles, and kiss my mother on the cheek before heading upstairs. The leader of this village—the calm is my father and she is the storm—winks at me before I leave. Without my mother, I don't know where we would be. Nowhere, I suppose. Without her, I wouldn't be in this world and probably dead if she hadn't made that brave decision to flee with nothing more than my father and a small satchel of food.
With heavy feet, I make my way up the winding stone staircase, over the dusty steps. There's only one small window looking out to the world, to the village as I climb higher. The candles in an alcove flicker against the side of my face; that brings a second of warmth before the cold stone replaces it.
Like every day, I run my hand along the wall until my boots hit the wooden floorboards and two doors greet me.
The doors are crafted by my father himself. But there's one thing he couldn't craft on the second floor—a fireplace.
On most chilled nights, I find myself sleeping downstairs in front of the fireplace with nothing more than my pillow and blanket. There's something comforting about the heat of the flame on my back and the crackle blocking out every other sound.
Celestine is sitting at the desk when I walk in the room. Her back is to me, she's hunched over whatever she's working on—another story about a young girl falling in love with a selfless prince. They're all the same, just with different characters, settings, and motives. How her imagination can spread so far with one subject, I will never know.
Our two beds take up most of the space, covered in handmade quilts and pillows. They're separated only by a small nightstand with a wax candle leaking onto the cracked wooden surface.
On the other side of the room, an armoire holds all of our clothes. We don't have much more than a few dresses, pants, and shirts. Since Celestine is taller than I am, most of her dresses are too long on me but in a pinch, they work. We're both thin with no muscle to name. Our power doesn't require muscle and with the lack of food in the village, it's hard to pack on that type of strength. I scowl as I think of the royal family and their access to all types of food. From the rumors, they waste most of it.
Celestine's long auburn hair pours over her left shoulder. While I share eyes with my mother, Celestine was born with a lively shade of hazel. Other than her eyes, there is so much of my mother there—in her freckled skin, hair color, and overall smile. It's difficult for me not to compare them.
I sit on the edge of the bed and nearly moan when my leather boots thud to the floor. At the sound, she looks over her shoulder with furrowed brows. She wears nothing on her feet, not even socks. In the chill and on the hottest days, she wants free access to her power. I've told her over and over again to use her hands but she doesn't listen to me.
"Working hard?" I ask.
She twists in the chair to face me. "I don't have any good ideas." Her already plump bottom lip puffs into a pout and I smirk. "There's nothing interesting to write about."
"Why don't you try drawing instead?"
Celestine scrunches up her nose. "That's boring."
"You're boring," I fire back quickly.
While Celestine is the writer, I enjoy drawing. Not of landscapes or flowers but of people. I like to study their face shapes, their smiles, their frowns, the way their eyes shift when they're nervous. A few of my pieces, the entire family, hangs on the wall behind the desk. On the fine pieces of paper, the rarity some of the refugees manage to grab before leaving, expressions and bright eyes come to life.
Even Celestine was pleased with hers.
I look up at the drawing of her face, at the slight tilt of her smile to the left and her eyes, shifted to the right as she looks out into the distance. Probably to my father, making a silly face to distract her. She looks so...carefree. Like herself.
With a sigh, I plop down on the pillows as Celestine walks over and lays on her own bed, stomach first. "I tended to all the gardens today. Each one has vegetables and flowers sprouting and I went out to the woods with dad and sprouted new trees. It was exhausting," she groans.
Her words travel to the ceiling I stare at. "Without you, this village would be a dirt pit. We'd be fighting over food and killing around every corner. It's a good thing you weren't born to burn things, otherwise, we would be screwed."
Celestine laughs, a joyous tone. "You're right. I'm the one holding this village together."
I glance at her out of the corner of my eye. She grins like a foolish child. "Hmm, cocky. I take it back."
She gasps. "Asshole." Celestine bends her legs at the knee and crosses her pale ankles together in the air. Unlike the plain white fabric my mother and I wear, Celestine opts for a dress of pastel pink. Someone once said it brought out the rosy shade of her cheeks so, after that, she never wore anything else.
When silence settles in the room, I think of our two different powers. While my sister is the shining light in this family, many have turned the corner and avoided walking near me. Once they hear the power I've been born with, I'm no longer the sympathetic girl who helped them when they arrived.
My mother, the witch of the inanimate, can move objects with her mind. My father can hear beyond the average ear. Celestine can grow anything she desires from the ground.
My power is only to be used as a last resort. I am to keep this village together if a battle takes place. Keeping the enemy forces behind their lines with my power is the one thing my father has told me repeatedly. That is my use.
I am a witch of ground—of stone, dirt, sand, and rock. I can cleave the ground in two with a simple stomp of my foot and I can take chunks of it and bend that to my will. My power is dangerous but it grants immortality.
"At least you get to use your power for good," I tell her quietly. The words hang over me; the secret and the fear.
"Roux, your power can be used for good. Just because father tells you otherwise doesn't mean it's not true. You have to trust in yourself that the power is helpful. Don't think you have an evil power," Celestine reassures. She rolls her eyes at me in annoyance.
"I don't know the true range of my power. A simple tap of my foot can have this entire village falling through a giant crack I cleaved. It's dangerous. That's why father doesn't let me use it except when I'm miles from the village." I jerk a thumb towards the window and the cliffsides beyond.
Celestine groans. She's already offered her input and that is to not worry about my power. But I always worry about my power, I've injured people before, even her, and I don't want that to happen again. Hurtling a giant boulder at someone can be troublesome and if I can't figure it out...what help will I be if we're attacked?
Control is what a witch revolves their life around. At a young age, around fifteen, they begin training to control their power—whatever it may be. Celestine's was simpler than mine, she couldn't hurt anyone by sprouting trees or flowers. All she had to do was learn what to grow and as a young witch in training, even that can be frustrating.
Me, on the other hand, when my father took me out into the empty fields at fifteen, I pulled a chunk from the ground so large he went toppling off the side. The only training I've received since then is minor work on how to control the chunk of ground I take with me. But that training is years old. Everything about my power is as good as a ghost.