Ruth Scott had killed lots of things- countless bugs, several chickens, and the autumn her father died, a pig. But she’d never killed a witch before, and Ruth had a feeling that was going to be more difficult than slaughtering a hog.
Ruth sits by the fire, but she is still shivering when Oma hands her the strange knife, its blade made from some kind of dark glass. “You aim for heart,” Oma says. “Blade pierce witch’s heart, witch dies. Blade miss? You die. So you do not miss.”
“Why a knife?” Ruth asks, turning the weapon over in her hands, watching the firelight play in that strange, black glass. “I’m a witch, too. I’ll fight her with my powers.”
Oma wrinkles her nose. “No, she is dark witch. You white witch. Magic not as strong, and then what happens? You end up like brother, big hole smashed in back of head.” Ruth’s throat moves convulsively at that, but she does not cry, and she does not ask why Oma did not give this knife to David when she sent him to kill the witch. Oma wraps her fingers around Ruth’s, and they hold the hilt of the knife together between them. For a moment, Oma looks at Ruth with something like tenderness. “This weapon very special. Only women in my family can wield it, not men.”
“But we’re not family,” Ruth says, and Oma smiles.
“Now that I give you knife, liebchen,” she whispers, “we are.”
The knife was strapped to Ruth’s thigh, accessible through the special pocket Oma had sewn into her dress. Ruth could feel it there, pulsing like a second heartbeat as she dipped a piece of biscuit into her greasy bowl of jackrabbit stew. She made herself chew, even though the food sat in her stomach like lead. And she made herself smile at the witch who had murdered her brother, even though magic and rage pounded inside her.
Kate Bender smiled back as she slid into the seat across from Ruth. If ever there had been a woman who looked like a dark witch, Ruth reflected, it was this one. Kate’s eyes were nearly as black and shiny as the blade Ruth planned on shoving through her heart. She wore her brown hair loose, and it flowed over her shoulders, brushing the rough wooden tabletop as she leaned forward and said, “How is it that you are traveling alone, Miss Scott?” There was the barest hint of an accent to her voice. She was the only one of the Benders who spoke any English. The other three members of the family- an old, hulking man Kate called “Pa,”, a rotund woman, and a younger man with the same black eyes as Kate- had cleared out soon after Ruth arrived, but she’d heard them muttering to each other in German.
Ruth looked down and for the first time, noticed a dark, unpleasant stain under her chair. She pushed at a lump of stringy meet with her spoon, and said, “I was traveling with my brother to St. Paul. I got sick in Cherry Vale, and told him to go on without me. We were supposed to meet up near here.” Ruth had rehearsed this speech with Oma many times, right down to how she’d lower her eyes, how her voice would break on the words “without me.”
Kate made a tsk-ing sound, and covered one of Ruth’s hands with her own. Her skin was hot and soft, and it took everything Ruth had not to shudder at Kate’s touch. “Arme kleine,” she murmured.
Underneath the table, Ruth’s other hand strayed to her pocket, and she calculated how quickly she could lunge across the table. But it was too wide, the distance too far, the risk too great. Her fingers moved away from the knife. Hot, angry tears welled in her eyes, but Ruth made no effort to blink them back. Let the witch think they were from sorrow, not fury. “Thank you, Miss Bender,” she simpered, scrubbing at her cheeks with the back of her hand. “It’s just… he was the only family I had.”
That was the truth. The woman Ruth and David had called Oma was not their grandmother. She was no blood relation at all. Just a woman who had saved them after their mother died, a woman who had taught them what they were, had trained them how to use the powers Ruth and David had always seen as a curse. A woman who had prepared both of them to fight the creature Ruth sat across from now.
Oma has been tracking the Benders for a very long time. Ruth never knows just how long, only that Oma followed them from the Old Country several years ago. They first hear reports of travelers missing in Kansas when Oma, Ruth, and David are living in St. Louis. In the beginning, Oma is not sure it’s the work of the things they’re searching. The prairie is a dangerous place, with killing heat in the summer, bitter cold in the winter. That people should vanish there is no surprise, she tells Ruth and David. But then she begins to hear tales of an inn, located at a rise in the Osage trail. Of an old man who speaks no English, but sits on the porch of this inn, watching the road. And of the girl, Kate Bender, who is dark and beautiful and can supposedly speak with the dead, heal wounds, cure sickness.
One night, Oma sits with Ruth and David at the kitchen table, a book with a cracked leather covering opened in front of them, and traces her fingers over horrible illustrations of beautiful woman with fire in her eyes, standing over the body of a man with his throat cut, his skull smashed. “She is old, this witch,” Oma tells them. “Far older than me, no matter how young and lovely she look. People with her not really family, but followers. Minions. She use blood magic. Powerful. Evil.” Oma looks at David. “When snow stops, you go to Kansas. You find this witch, and you kill her.”
Ruth hugs her brother for the last time on a cold morning in March. She will never forget the small patch of golden hair on his chin that he’d missed shaving, or the way he smells like hay and horses. He rides off toward death and Kate Bender with the sun glowing on his blond head.
“Family is important,” Kate said, her fingers still stroking Ruth’s hand. “I would do anything for mine.”
Ruth met Kate’s eyes, shifting so that the knife pressed closer to her leg. “So would I.”
Kate smiled and let Ruth’s hand drop to the table before standing up and going to the stove. “Is that why you’ve come, little witch?” Kate asked, her tone as light as though she were asking about the weather. “To avenge your brother’s murder?”
Surprise made Ruth hesitate for only a few seconds. But even that was too much time. She shoved her chair back from the table and shot to her feet, reaching for the knife. As soon as her fingers touched the hilt, it flared white hot, searing her skin.
“I could feel you coming,” she said. “All that magic. All that anger. And that blade, hidden under your dress.” She shook her head. “Pity your brother did not have it. Not that it would have saved him, of course, but it might’ve given him a fighting chance. As it was, he didn’t get off one spell before I slit his throat. Right there,” she said, nodding at the chair where Ruth had been sitting. Ruth’s gaze fell to the floor, and to the stain where her feet had been.
“But then he could not have used it anyway,” Kate said with a little shrug. “That weapon, so full of dark magic, can only be used by one full of dark feelings, dark thoughts. That boy had no darkness in him.” Suddenly, Kate’s eyes- full of swirling flames, Ruth noticed- widened. “Oh, but of course!” she said, clasping her hands together. “That’s why she sent him first! To make you ready to use the blade.” Kate laughed, a beautiful but eerie sound, like a piano slightly out of tune. “She is getting cleverer, I give her that.”
Ruth trembled as she inched closer to that horrible black mark by the table. She never took her eyes of Kate. “What do you mean?”
Kate almost looked sympathetic. “You are not a warrior in this battle, little witch. Merely another weapon.”
The day after their mother dies, Oma comes to Ruth and David’s house. They have never seen her before, but she tells them she has come to help them, that she has traveled very far to find them. That they are special and important, and she will teach them how to be even better. Only once does Ruth lie in her bed and think how strange it is that their mother, who had been healthy and strong, should suddenly lay down and die with no warning, and what a coincidence that Oma had found them so soon afterwards. A dark thought follows that one, but Ruth pushes it away.
The air in the room felt thick, and static electricity crackled through Ruth’s hair. Her powers settled over her, spreading from the top her head, through her fingers. Once again, she tried to reach for the knife, and once again, it singed her fingertips. Kate shook her head. “Even with your hatred, you are not strong enough to use it. It requires too much power.” The flames in her eyes swirled faster. “Now stop this. Come to me, and let me end all your pain.” Kate opened her arms wide, and for the first time, Ruth saw the long knife clutched in her hand. “Your blood will make me stronger, as your brother’s did, and I will kill the witch who took your family from you.”
Ruth fell to her hands and knees, and Kate made a pleased, crooning sound that was not remotely human. “Good girl,” she murmured, walking closer.
Spreading her fingers wide over the stain of David’s blood, Ruth closed her eyes and focused all her powers on that spot.
Blood magic was powerful, Oma had said. Evil.
But Ruth would take her chances.
Kate was right over her when Ruth shot to her feet, and grabbed the knife from her pocket. Her hands, tingling with power, didn’t burn this time. Kate only had a moment to look surprised before Ruth slammed the blade into her heart.
Ruth had expected her to go up in a puff of smoke, or maybe dissolve. Instead, Kate Bender’s body hit the wooden floor with a thump. Breathing hard, magic still coursing through her veins, darker and more powerful than anything she’d ever felt, Ruth stood over the witch. She could hear footsteps running toward the house, and she knew that the other members of the Bender “family” were coming for her.
She stood on the spot where her brother had died, holding the knife- the knife that Oma said marked her as family, the weapon Oma had primed with the David’s death- and waited.
The next morning, men will come looking for the Benders. They will find the house deserted, and furniture overturned, as though a great struggle has taken place. There will be strange scorch marks on the floor and walls. And then they will find the bodies of the missing travelers. Some in the cellar, some buried outside in the orchard. It is there they will find the most recent grave, and the body of a boy, his hair matted with blood. And sunk into the dirt over his final resting place, they will find a knife, made of black glass.___
Rachel Hawkins is the author of HEX HALL and the upcoming DEMONGLASS. Read the background on this story (based on a TRUE story) at Rachel's blog: http://readingwritingrachel.blogspot.com/2010/10/i-made-something-with-my-brain.html