The Skullwitch nodded. Straightened, just a little as she turned to face Lasseus. In his arms, he held his newborn son and in his heart a new-made father's pride.
"Lasseus, we name your firstborn Jaten. Raise him well and he will make you proud. His first kiss will be given to a maiden's lips - and it will be her very first kiss and her last."
Lasseus' face grew pale, then flushed with rage.
"How dare you? Witch! How dare you curse my son?"
"No curse, Lasseus. Not from me. Only his prophecy. Only my promise."
The Skullwitch. Jaten didn't know her name - her real name - though she must have had one once. He saw her sometimes, walking underneath the low-hung willow trees or sitting on the outskirts of the fields. Never in the village, though. A dweller in the wilderness of not-my-home and unnamed trees.
"A wicked witch." His mother told him. "Cruel and mad and bitter." But when she crept out from their house at night and slipped between the trees, he knew it was the Skullwitch she was looking for.
Three weeks before, the herbs she brought back with her had changed. Before, they'd brought a little colour back to Jaten's father's cheeks. A lucid brightness to his eyes. Now, they only dulled his pain.
"A curse." Maneta said. "First on you and then Lasseus." What his family did to earn the hatred of the Skullwitch - and what his mother gave to her to get those herbs - nobody seemed to know.
In six months, Jaten would be old enough to take a wife - but then, what girl would have him? What family would let their daughter wed the man whose kiss would be their first and last? Not Maneta's.
"Never touch my daughter!" Maneta's father had shouted. "Never even look at her with lustful eyes!"
No - Jaten would never take a wife. At least, not until his birth-curse was fulfilled or lifted. By then, Maneta would be long since wed.
His father groaned, a soft almost inhuman sound. The sound of almost lost and never waking. As twilight darkened into night, blending the shadows one into another, Jaten lay awake and waited for his mother to come home.
Seven days after Maneta married someone else's son, Lasseus took his final breath.
"He is at peace at last." Jaten's mother told him. "It is a final mercy." When they came with their condolances, she wore a widow's tears - a widow's smile - and only Jaten knew how long she'd lived within a widow's mind.
It was afterwards, when every mourning hand had pressed the soil into Lasseus' grave, that Jaten saw the Skullwitch. Afterwards, when he sat and mourned his father's loss alone. She was sitting underneath a tree just watching him.
"I hate you." Jaten didn't mean to say it, even as a whisper. Why would a young man's hatred matter to a witch more than it mattered to a rock? A tree? The stars? The Skullwitch shook her head - her bald, unwrinkled head - and when she left it was as if she took his sorrow with her. Left him only anger. Only hatred.
When he closed his eyes, he saw the Skullwitch. Saw the way she watched him from the edges of the unnamed trees. And, when he dreamed, he found the Skullwitch waiting for him in his dreams. Her smooth, clean-shaved scalp. Her dark, unclouded eyes. He came to realise that she was waiting for him. Waiting for the night when he would come to her in search of his revenge.
And yet, he never saw her watching from the tree-line after that. Nor did he see her at the edges of the village fields.
When Maneta's first-born came, the Skullwitch didn't come. They waited for her, though she would have been unwelcome. Since Jaten's birth, the reading of the runes had come to be a time of fear. Of worry. For her not to come at all was both a blessing and a cold, unwritten curse.
Perhaps she's dead.
Perhaps she's gone away.
But Jaten shook his head. No - she was waiting for him. Waiting for the time when he would come to her.
Should someone go?
Should someone go and ask her?
When Jaten slipped out of Matena's house and out beyond the village - out into the shadows underneath the unnamed trees - nobody asked where he was going. They already knew.
There was no track to reach the Skullwitch's home - or, at least, there should have been no track. The way which Jaten took was worn to bare earth by the press of desperate feet. The evil witch; they came to her to beg for mercy. To heal their child. To lift her wicked, hateful curse. What payment, Jaten couldn't help wondering, did ask for in return? Their souls, perhaps. Their hearts. Their honour. The way the track was worn showed they had paid it time and time again.
The dwelling of the Skullwitch, when he reached it, was a shell. A worn and tumble-down cadaver of the cottage it must once have been. How had she let it fall into such disrepair despite her magics? The door was open. Jaten let himself inside.
She was resting when he found her, both hands curled into her lap like misformed cats, and she was looking at him. Through him, almost.
"No. Let me tell you something. I was lovely once." Always before, her voice had been the whisper of the northern winds. The howl of late November twisted up and given to a mortal tongue to shape. Instead, it crackled softly like a dying fire. "I was so lovely. Lovelier than her..."
The Skullwitch nodded, as if someone else had spoken. As if these were not her words, although they spilled out from her mouth. Her lips.
"Oh Jaten, I was lovely. I had hair like hers, although it was a darker colour. When the witch before me came to know the magic in me, it was shaved away. It never grew again.
"It was the second time she cursed me. The first was at my birthing, I suppose, although she didn't chose to. Sometimes, the curse is simply in the knowing - or perhaps in knowing half instead of all. The other half, Jaten... The other half was long before your birth. A baby passed between her birthing fires. They gave her to her mother as they waited for the runes.
'Name her. Name your daughter.' And the father gave the child a name, although there are none left alive who know it. Only this remains of her, Jaten. Her promise and her prophecy:
"'She will kiss but once before she dies and none will love her.'
"Do you see me now, Jaten? A nameless Skullwitch. Do you see...?"
She was old, Jaten realised. Always before, she had been timeless. Ageless. Now, he saw the way her thin skin hung translucent from her bones.
"What was your name?" He asked.
"They took it from me. Burned it from me with my hair. I am the Skullwitch - nothing less and nothing more." She paused a moment. Closed her eyes so tightly that the skin turned white. Then, softly, like a frightened child: "I'll die soon, Jaten."
He lifted her. He held her in his arms as gently as he could. He rocked her and he whispered to her. Not to the Skullwitch — to the dying woman who had been that child.
"I'm here." He told her. Told the wicked witch as all the petty evils of the living flowed out from her. Held her as she named the trees and waited for the shadows to enfold her.
"Only I am nameless now." She said.
"Then let me name you."
"No." She shook her head - and yet, when Jaten called her elder-mother, her dark eyes watched him just a little gentler. "Jaten, I am sorry."
"I wish... I wish - forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive."
When Jaten kissed her cheek, she smiled.
"No-one will mourn me. They have forgotten who I am."
"No." But, when the time came, it was Jaten who closed her dark, unseeing eyes.
As he walked back to the village, Jaten thought the path seemed longer - wilder - than before. He wondered how much time the plants would take to cover up the earth. To swallow up the cottage and the Skullwitch with it.
When the shadows came to claim her, they left less than nothing - even less than that - behind.
© July, 2013 Rebecca L. Brown
Rebecca L. Brown is a writer based in Wales, UK. She lives with her two cats, her partner and the disconcerting feeling that she has forgotten to do something extremely important. For more news and updates, visit Rebecca's blog at http://rebeccalbrownupdates.wordpress.com/