Stella groaned quietly in the darkness and dragged herself upright. She had been half-awake for hours, needing to relieve herself but not being willing to climb out of bed and into the cold. She sat up slowly, moving carefully to avoid waking her husband, and did her business in the chamber pot kept under the bed. She carried it to the window, and with her free hand pulled back the heavy curtains. Icy winter air radiated through the frost-covered glass behind, and Stella shivered. She opened the window quickly and leaned out. The moon was nearly full, and the streetlamps were lit.
When Stella emptied the chamber pot, she saw red mixed with her urine. Her stomach twisted, and she hurriedly shut the window and drew the curtain closed. Her monthly had come again as usual, despite dozens of attempts to conceive over the eight months since her marriage to the Duke. She put the chamber pot back, then fetched a rag to contain any more bleeding and crawled back into bed.
Legally speaking, Stella’s husband hadn’t been a Duke for a little over a year, having lost the title when the Republic of Siena fell to the Duchy of Florence. In the eyes of the world, he was now just a wealthy merchant. To Stella, though, he was still the Duke—even though she harbored the suspicion that he never would have considered marrying his former scullery maid if he still had his title.
Now the Duke slept soundly, as always. He had his back to Stella, and she saw his chest gently expand and contract with each breath. The black and silver of his salt-and-pepper hair blurred into gray as Stella’s eyes filled with tears. She had done everything right. She had eaten every herb the apothecary suggested. She had prayed to Jesus and Saint Anne every morning and every night, and after every attempt to conceive. She had attended mass every single Sabbath. She had even prayed in secret to Celandine, the old goddess of fertility that her grandmother and mother had worshiped before all the gods but the Catholic one had been outlawed. No matter who Stella prayed to, though, her prayers went unanswered. She had done everything right, and it hadn’t worked.
Stella covered her hand with her mouth so the Duke wouldn’t hear her cry. She wished she could touch him, seek his comfort, but she knew she couldn’t confide in him. It was possible that he was infertile, and not her, but how could she ever raise that question? With or without his title, the Duke was a proud man, and he would not take such a suggestion kindly. So, day after day, Stella had to hide her fear of infertility, just as she hid her worship of Celandine. She had to hope that the problem was hers alone, and that she could find a way to solve it. If she couldn’t, what would happen then?
The Church would never allow a divorce. Stella had heard stories of men arranging for their barren wives to be killed so that they could remarry, but she knew the Duke would never think of such a thing. Still, he might do something else. He had grown colder lately. He laid with Stella as often as he always had, but he made love to her less and less. Many times, just after the Duke finished, Stella felt more like a freshly sown field than a wife. He spent more time away from the house, drinking with friends and colleagues or playing cards. That’s what he said, anyway, and Stella believed him. If things continued, Stella feared she would lose him—and with him, everything else—one way or another.
The Duke had money. He could buy a hovel in the countryside, like the one Stella had grown up in, and send her away to make room in his bed for another woman. He could send her there, or to a madhouse… it wouldn’t matter. For just a few florins, the Duke could arrange for Stella to be put away, and her brief escape from poverty would be at its end.
Stella wiped her eyes and forced herself to steady her breathing. It wouldn’t come to that. There was one more thing Stella could try, something that she’d held in the back of her mind and avoided for months.
As far back as Stella could remember, she’d always known about the witch who lived on the edge of town. “Crazy Daphne,” everyone called her. She had lived and worked in Siena City since Stella’s mother had been a child, working her magic to cure ailments, terminate pregnancies, and—according to some stories—curse her clients’ enemies. Then the Catholic God won out over the old ones, and Crazy Daphne had been chased out of town. Now, according to what Stella had heard, Crazy Daphne lived just outside the city—far enough that anyone who wanted to could pretend she no longer existed, but close enough that the truly desperate could still find her. And now, Stella finally admitted to herself, she was truly desperate. It was time to find the witch.
Stella passed the night in a shallow sleep and woke when the Duke did. She continued to feign sleep until he left the room, and then remained motionless for the next hour until she was sure he had left to tend to the day’s business. Nobody could know of this day’s work—least of all the Duke. Stella was aware of his views on witchcraft and knew that if he found out, she would end up exiled or hanged within a fortnight, and likely within a week.
Stella got dressed and then crossed the room to the Duke’s strongbox. It was unlocked, as usual. The Duke didn’t believe Stella would ever steal from him, and if the situation were not so dire, she wouldn’t have. She bit her lip, trying to estimate how much she’d need, and settled on thirty lire. It was a few coins more than she had made each month working as the Duke’s scullery maid. She hoped it would be enough, but she dared not take more lest the Duke notice the missing coins. She tied her coin pouch’s leather thong around her waist and hid the pouch itself behind the hem of her dress.
Next, Stella pulled a fur-lined mantle on over her clothes and left the room. She ate a light breakfast while the Duke’s footman readied the carriage. The elegantly carved cross that hung above the door caught her eye on her way out, and she whispered an apology to the wooden figure that hung from it as she stepped outside. She had the Duke’s footman drop her off at the East End market. If the Duke asked where she’d spent her day, she would tell him it was there at the shops. Stella told the footman to wait with the carriage, so he would have no way of knowing where she’d really gone. She hoped she would be back before he became suspicious or grew worried.
According to the stories, Crazy Daphne lived in the hills northeast of Siena. Aside from those vague directions, Stella had no idea where she was going. She wove her way through the market, then turned north and walked vaguely northeast until she passed the last house at the edge of town. She stopped there and stood looking out at the hills. They were dotted with trees and dusted with snow, but Stella saw no sign of a house.
Dry, light snowflakes danced around Stella on their way to the ground, and she pulled her mantle tighter around her. She hoped to come across a path as she got closer, but the weather was against her. When she reached the edge of the trees, there was nothing to see. On a summer day, she might have been able to find a packed dirt footpath or see where brush had been cleared away. Now, though, the foliage was dead, and a carpet of snow had hidden any signs that might be beneath.
Stella felt a brief impulse to pray for guidance, and then laughed. Her voice was sharpened by the snow, and it startled her. Prayer. What a ridiculous notion. If God had any hand in Stella’s current quest, it wouldn’t be to help her. As Stella walked, she became aware of an unfamiliar presence in the woods, like an invisible blanket pressing against Stella from somewhere ahead. She hiked the hem of her dress up so that she could step over the fallen branches that blocked her path and walked against the strange resistance in the air.
The resistance grew stronger and the snow grew deeper as Stella continued, and after twenty minutes her shoes and socks were both soaked through. She knew that before much longer, her feet would be painfully cold. If she was in the woods too long, it could become dangerous. Still, the presence she felt continued to grow stronger. She knew she was on the right path; she just hoped she wasn’t far. She was on the verge of giving up when suddenly a dark shape loomed over her.
Stella had been focused on the ground and on not tripping over the forest’s detritus, so she hadn’t noticed the building until she was a mere five paces away. Now, looking up, she saw it was more of a shack than a house. It was similar in size to Stella’s childhood home—large enough to house a small family, but not comfortably. The similarities ended there. The witch’s hovel was in a state of horrible disrepair. The half-rotten thatched roof was sagging, and the asymmetrical walls sloped inward toward the gnarled, twisted tree that the house had been built around. On her walk through the forest, Stella hadn’t seen any other trees like it. This had to be the place.
Stella walked around the house until she found the door. Nailed to its rotting wood was a dead crow, or perhaps a raven, with its wings spread. Stella shuddered. The bird had clearly been there for quite a while. Its stomach had been ripped open, and its entrails removed. Its wings were ragged and missing feathers, and ants crawled in and out of its eye sockets. Stella frowned. Strange. It was much too cold for ants. Wasn’t it?
Stella swallowed and stepped forward. She knocked three times near the edge of the door, keeping her hand away from the ants and the dead crow. The wood was damp and spongy, and Stella’s knuckles didn’t make much noise against it. She raised her hand to knock again. The bird moved its head. Stella jumped back and stifled a scream.
The bird’s eyes were still missing, but there was now a strange pale glow in its sockets.Worse, Stella felt the weight of the thing’s gaze as its eyes settled on her. Then, it spoke.
“What do you want?”
Stella’s eyes widened. She had seen a talking crow once before at one of the Duke’s parties. It spoke with a strange, inhuman rhythm and melody that was eerie, but not unpleasant. This was different. This bird’s voice came out as a serrated death rattle. It spoke haltingly and with effort, as if each syllable pained its shriveled vocal cords.
“What do you want?” it repeated. It sounded impatient.
“I’ve come to… I’m looking for a witch,” Stella stammered.
“You’re talking to her,” the crow said. “Why are you bothering me?”
“I need your help.”
“I’m sure you do. Why would I help you?”
“I’ll pay. Thirt— thirteen lire,” Stella said, correcting from thirty to thirteen at the last moment. Her heart hammered as she waited for a response. Surely to anyone living in such squalid conditions, thirteen lire would be more than enough compensation. But the light went out of the bird’s eyes, and Stella’s heart sank. She opened her mouth to say that she could pay more, but then the door swung open.
Stella expected to see the witch herself standing behind the door, but she wasn’t there. Roaches skittered away from the light and disappeared. Normally, they would be hibernating until the spring. Once Stella stepped through the door, though, she understood how the insects could survive. Inside the shack, it didn’t feel like winter at all. It wasn’t just warm; it was hot. Sweat almost immediately broke out across her forehead and underarms. Strangely, there was no glow of firelight anywhere inside the room. Come to think of it, Stella hadn’t seen a chimney when she was outside.
As Stella’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw that the inside of the house was just as much of a wreck as the outside, although it was a different sort of wreck—cluttered and dirty rather than broken and rotting. Hides covered the floor, and shelves full of glass jars containing objects Stella couldn’t identify lined the walls. Much of the ceiling was covered in hanging bundles of dried herbs, mosses, and other plants. Heaps of broken furniture, toppled statues, and other odds and ends littered the floor.
The hovel’s stench hit Stella just after the heat. It smelled like rot and mildew and human excrement, and the smell of a thousand different herbs wasn’t nearly enough to cover it. And then, behind those smells, there was something else that Stella couldn’t quite place.
Stella flinched, startled, as the door clunked shut behind her and plunged the room into darkness. Stella’s breath caught in her lungs, and she fought the urge to run.
“Well?” someone asked. This voice sounded human and came from the far side of the room. “Are you coming in?”
Stella heard a single clap, and then a blue glow suffused the room. Flat mushrooms the size of dinner plates grew along the trunk of the tree in the center of the house, and now they gave off an ethereal blue light as strong as two full moons. Stella let out her breath. The light was so beautiful that for a moment Stella forgot where she was, and she forgot to fear it. She took a step forward and something large ran over her foot, brushing against her shins as it passed by. She screamed and flinched away as she saw a rat the size of an average housecat run into the corner of the room. It glared back at her, eyes reflecting the blue light of the mushrooms.
The witch herself sat on the far side of the tree in a rickety-looking wooden chair. A second chair was set up a few paces away. The witch pointed to it. Stella moved forward, carefully stepping around a pit that had been dug in the floor and partially boarded over. Roaches crawled around the edges of the hole and scurried out of the way when Stella came close. Judging by the smell, the hole was being used as an indoor latrine, and it was the source of most of the hovel’s stench. But still, there was that other smell that Stella couldn’t identify.
Just before Stella sat down in the chair, a set of curved pale lines caught her eye. She glanced in their direction and saw a ribcage laying on the floor. Whatever the animal had been, it was impossible to tell now since the legs, head, and most of the spine were absent. Behind the skeletal ribcage was a fresher, more complete carcass—a deer, by the looks of it. Two more rats gnawed at it, oblivious to Stella’s gaze. She shuddered, finally recognizing the scent. Once, just outside the house, her father had butchered a deer he’d shot. When he cut it open, he saw that his arrow had pierced an intestine. That was the scent that Stella smelled now, for only the second time—death.
Stella sat down. The witch held another rat on her lap and stroked it gently, keeping her eyes on her visitor. Stella lifted her eyes nervously from the rat to the witch. She was nothing as horrible as Stella had imagined. She wasn’t disfigured or deformed, or old and hag-like. Neither was she supernaturally beautiful, as she had been in some of the stories Stella had heard. Instead, she looked rather ordinary. She wore a simple, coarse dress much like the one that Stella had worn before her marriage, and she wore her hair pulled back and bound behind her neck.
Stella’s eyes widened as she saw a roach crawl out of the witch’s hair and then disappear down the front of her dress, but the witch appeared not to notice. Looking closer, Stella’s stomach turned. Dozens of roaches crawled across the witch’s skin, creating ripples in the fabric of her dress.
“Give me your name,” the woman said, but her lips didn’t move. Instead, the rat on her lap sat up and stared directly at Stella. The words issued from the vermin’s open mouth.
“S—Stella,” she answered.
The witch nodded, but did not offer her own name in return.
“Your name is Daphne, isn’t it?” Stella asked. “That’s what I’ve heard back in the city.”
The witch grimaced, and again her voice issued from the rat’s mouth. “I hate that name. Don’t use it.”
“Um, alright. I’m sorry. What should I call you, then?”
“You don’t need to call me anything. Why are you here?”
Stella chewed on the inside of her cheek, uncertain of how to begin. She pressed a hand against her empty belly.
The witch nodded knowingly. “Ah. An unwanted child? I have herbs that will fix that.”
“No!” Stella said. “I mean, no, it’s the opposite. I want to have a baby, and I… I can’t. Can you help me?”
Daphne closed her eyes and tilted her head to the side as if listening intently. “I could. It’s a full moon, so the time is right. But it wouldn’t be pleasant.”
Stella jumped again as another rat ran through the corner of her vision. The witch grinned.
“So scared of everything,” she said, again speaking through the rat. “I’m not sure you could go through with it.”
Stella balled up the fabric of her dress in her fists, angered by the jibe. What sort of person wouldn’t be scared, here? She took a deep breath and said,
“I can and I will. And I don’t care if it’s unpleasant. Do whatever you need to.”
Daphne raised an eyebrow, and there was a petulant note in the voice that came from the rat’s mouth. “I have yet to decide if I want to. Wait here.”
Daphne stood up, and the rat dropped to the floor and ran away. The witch walked across the room to a table in the corner and pulled several herbs off the ceiling. She mixed them together in two cups and returned. She set one on the ground beside her and then used her free hand to snatch a roach from her hair. Suddenly the roach crumbled into dust. Just as suddenly, the cup the witch held was filled with a steaming liquid. She leaned forward, extending the cup toward Stella. Stella reached for it, but then hesitated.
“Is that it?” Stella asked. “That’ll cure me?”
“No. This is tea.”
Stella turned rapidly toward the source of the voice and saw a rat sitting on one of the glowing fungi, staring at her.
Stella let her hand drop. “I’m not really thirsty.”
The witch frowned. “Are you sure? It’s good.”
Stella hesitated. She knew it was probably unwise to anger the witch, but she wasn’t about to drink some unidentified potion in a place like this just for the sake of courtesy. “No, thank you.”
Daphne scowled. This time, her voice came from a rat perched on a broken end table a few feet away.
“Of course,” she said, her voice rising. “You don’t trust me, do you? You don’t trust Crazy Daphne? That’s what they called me when I lived in the city. That’s the name you know, isn’t it?”
The witch seemed like she was on the verge of either tears or rage. Stella didn’t think she could handle either.
“That… well, yes,” Stella said. “I’m sorry, I’m just nervous. I’ll take the tea, I didn’t mean—”
“Take it, then!” the witch snapped, and extended her hand.
Stella reached for the cup, but Daphne let go just before Stella’s fingers touched it. The cup fell to the ground, splashing its contents over Stella’s already-soaked shoes. Stella’s nostrils flared, and she pressed her lips together angrily at the slight, but she kept quiet. This witch was her last chance, after all.
“I shouldn’t blame you, of course,” Daphne said. She spoke more softly now, but her voice was still bitter. “Mistrust is part of nature, just as much as betrayal is. Even animals turn on each other the moment one can benefit from another’s suffering. I suppose you’re wise to keep your eyes open. Isn’t that right, Scab?”
Daphne lashed out at a rat that was sniffing at her own cup of herbs, slapping it hard. It flew a few feet and then struck the ground. It chattered angrily at the witch before running off. Daphne picked up her cup and pulled another roach from her dress. Once again, the roach turned to dust and the cup filled with steaming liquid. Daphne sipped at it, unspeaking, while Stella gripped the fabric of her dress with white knuckles.
The quiet was unbearable. Stella heard the roaches chittering to each other in the darkness. She heard the rats gnawing on their carcass in the corner, their sharp teeth tearing apart muscle fibers and scraping across bones. Her head ached, and she felt dizzy from the stench of the room. Daphne’s dress and hair writhed with insects, and the witch took no notice of it. The composure Stella had fought to maintain since she’d left the city felt brittle, like it would crack under the weight of her fear at any time. Daphne’s face was unreadable and therefore terrifying. One of the rats leapt up onto her lap and chittered at her. Her lip curled, and she swatted the animal away. It hissed and then sat down by her feet. Stella licked her lips, finally seeing an opportunity to cut through the silence and satisfy some of her curiosity all at once.
“So, these rats,” Stella said, and then stopped. She wondered nervously if the rats were an acceptable topic of conversation.
“Yes?” said the rat at Daphne’s feet.
“Well, are they your pets? Or…?”
“Not pets. Pests, vermin, disease carriers. Do you keep pet rats in your house?”
Daphne said the words with derision even as she absent-mindedly stroked the fur of the rat on her lap.
“No, of course not,” Stella said. “I just wondered why they were here. Why you let them stay.”
Daphne didn’t answer. Instead she said, “Tell me why you want a baby.”
Stella licked her lips, wondering what the witch would want to hear. The Duke wanted an heir, but that was only part of it. Stella had always wanted a child, even when she was a child herself. She had often daydreamed of seeing her son take his first steps, and run and play, and those fantasies were always full of laughter. Now that it came down to it, though, she didn’t know how to articulate those images.
“Selfish reasons, then,” Daphne said. “They always are.”
Stella’s face grew hot. “That’s not true.”
“Is it not?”
“No! Life is a gift from God, and—”
Daphne laughed. There was a hard, mean edge to the sound. “Your child will be a gift from me, not your god.”
Stella paled. This was wrong. Surely, even just being inside the witch’s shack, let alone willingly consorting with her and her dark magic, was a sin. But it was a necessary one, and Stella refused to turn back.
“That doesn’t matter,” Stella said. “Life is a gift no matter where it comes from.”
“That’s a lie,” Daphne said, “and I think you know that. If your child is born with a clubfoot and a heart that won’t pump, is that a gift? What if he’s born deaf and blind? What if—”
“Enough!” Stella said. “Those things won’t happen.”
Stella shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever happens to him, he’ll be well cared for. I’ll make sure of it. Just tell me if you’ll do it.”
Daphne’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me why you want this baby. And this time, speak true.”
A bead of sweat ran down Stella’s left temple and into her eye, stinging. She felt her skin grow warm as a red flush spread across her face. There was greed written on Daphne’s face, and Stella hated her for it, but she had no other option but to give the witch what she wanted: a confession.
“My husband… wants an heir,” Stella began.
The witch’s expression remained unchanged.
Stella took a deep breath and continued. “He wants an heir, and I’m scared that if I can’t provide one, he’ll send me away.”
“Now tell me why that scares you.”
Stella swallowed her pride and admitted what she had spent months refusing to admit to herself. “Because… because I don’t want to go back to living the way I used to,” she said. “I don’t want raw fingers and an aching back from scrubbing floors every day. I want to sleep in a bed, not on straw, and I want to eat more than just the leftover scraps of every meal.”
A ghost of a smile appeared on Daphne’s face and then dissolved.
“Selfish reasons,” she said.
Stella nodded, admitting defeat. “Will you do it?”
“Aye. For thirteen lire, as you said.”
Stella reached into her coin purse and pulled out coins until she counted thirteen. Daphne held out her empty teacup, and Stella poured the coins in.
“Now what?” Stella asked.
“The ritual requires a sacrifice,” Daphne said. “Go back to the city. Come back with an animal. A dog should be big enough.”
“What?” Stella asked in disbelief. “Give me back my coins, then, if you can’t do it!”
“I can, and I’m going to,” the witch hissed. “But it can’t be done without a sacrifice. Any animal works. Dog, goat, a few chickens, it doesn’t matter. Go.”
“No!” Stella said. Her hands were shaking. She had been terrified from the moment she entered Daphne’s shack, and the prospect of coming back a second time was more than she could bear. She licked her lips.
“Any kind of animal works?” she asked.
“Then how about the rats?”
Daphne’s eyes flew wide. She spoke, and this time her own lips parted. “No!”
Her voice was raspy and phlegmy, as if she hadn’t spoken in months. Perhaps she hadn’t.
“The rats won’t work,” she said.
“Why not? You said that any kind of animal would—”
“I said no,” Daphne said. “Go back to the city, and—”
“You called them pests and vermin!” Stella said, frustrated. “Why don’t you just—”
“They’re all I have left!” Daphne shouted, her voice cracking.
Stella blinked. “What?”
Daphne sighed. “They’re all I have left of Odessa. My familiar. These rats’ mother.”
“Their mother? How…?”
“Odessa got pregnant once, after we had been together for years. There were six puppies, all healthy. A few weeks later, we all fell ill. Me, Odessa, and all the puppies. I made a cure, and Odessa and I survived. But her puppies were still too small. They died, and Odessa howled and whined for days. Eventually her voice wore out, and she never made a sound again. One day I went into the city to buy bread, and when I came back the rats were here. Five of them, all nursing at Odessa’s teats.”
“And she raised them that way?”
“Aye. She must have found a nest and killed the mother, then dragged the babies back here. That first day they were so small they hadn’t even opened their eyes yet, but they grew quickly. Each day, they sucked her dry. Then their teeth grew in, and when she ran dry once more they tore into her stomach and feasted until she was nothing but bones.
Stella stared with wide eyes, shocked by the sudden turn the story had taken.
“God,” Stella whispered. “Why do you keep them, then, if they killed your familiar?”
“I told you before. They’re the only thing I have left of Odessa, save for her bones.”
“But… they killed her,” Stella said. “How can you bear to look at them? Isn’t it painful?”
Daphne snorted. “Of course. But compared to losing a familiar, a piece of your own soul? It’s nothing.”
Stella fidgeted with her dress, thinking. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand, or even begin to. Shouldn’t Daphne hate these rats with just as much passion as she had loved her familiar with? Stella knew that if she lost someone she loved in such a way, she’d stomp the life out of those rats herself, even if she had to do it with her bare feet. Sentimentality was something she could understand, but not for these rats. Still, if they were worth something to Daphne, Stella could compensate her for the loss, strange as it was.
“I can double the pay,” Stella said. “Twenty-six lire.”
Daphne licked her lips and appeared to consider it, then shook her head.
“Thirty, then,” Stella said. “Please, it’s all I have. Please.”
“I won’t kill the rats,” Daphne said quietly.
Stella ground her teeth together, clenching so hard it hurt, infuriated at her helplessness. She stood up rapidly and jabbed a finger at Daphne.
“My husband was a Duke a year ago,” she said. “A Catholic, too. I could tell him about you. I could have you burned!”
It was a lie, of course. If the Duke found out, he would have Stella killed along with the witch—but Daphne didn’t know that, and it was the only move Stella had left.
Daphne laughed and stood up, moving with a calm, unworried ease that both angered at terrified Stella. “Are you really stupid enough to threaten a witch in her own house?”
“Don’t you dare threaten me,” Stella said. “If you do anything to me, my husband will find out. He’ll find you, and you’ll be burned at the stake. You would never get away with it.”
Daphne appeared to consider this for a moment, and then sat back down.
“Fine,” the witch said, nodding slowly. “Alright. Give me the money.”
Daphne held out her teacup, and Stella upended her coin purse into it, trying not to let her hand shake visibly. She didn’t like the look on the witch’s face. Daphne didn’t look scared, as she should have been. She didn’t even seem angry that she had been beaten. She was calm, and Stella found that frightening. Daphne set aside her teacup and walked a few steps across the room, where she began rooting through a pile of junk.
“Help me with this,” she said.
Stella joined her and gripped the left arm of a stone statue of the goddess Celandine. Together, the two women set it upright.
“I’ve prayed to Celandine already,” Stella said uncertainly. “Many times. I don’t know if—”
“Prayers are requests,” Daphne snapped. “I make demands. Now hush. Take off your clothes.”
“All of them. Now. Otherwise this won’t work.”
Stella let out a shaky breath and began stripping. While she worked her way out of her dress, Daphne called her rats.
“Scab. Boil. Gash. Piss. Come here.”
Four rats scurried over and sat on their haunches in front of Daphne. The witch stooped down and picked up a rat. She held it in the palm of one hand while she stroked its fur with the other. She leaned toward it and whispered something Stella couldn’t hear. Then she gripped its body in one hand and used the other to twist off its head. It didn’t squeak or squirm. There was a wet crunch, and the rat went lip.
Daphne turned the rat upside down and squeezed, anointing the Celandine statue with its blood. Stella fought the urge to be sick. She stood naked and shivering despite the heat while Daphne repeated the process with the other three rats. They trembled in fear as they waited for their turn, but none of them tried to run. When all four lay headless on the ground, Daphne reached her hands out toward the statue. She waved them slowly through the air with her eyes closed, and then screamed.
“No, no, no!”
Stella’s heart leapt into her throat. “What’s wrong?”
“Not enough,” the witch said. “No, no. It’s not enough!”
“There’s one more rat, isn’t there?” Stella asked.
Daphne stared at Stella with a look that would have cracked granite, and Stella felt it like a knife between her eyes.
“Aye,” Daphne said slowly, without breaking eye contact. “Aye, there is.”
The witch turned back to the statue and called her last rat.
“Odessa,” she said. “Come here.”
A rat that Stella hadn’t seen before approached out of the corner of her vision. It was slightly larger than the others, and its fur was an elegant, flat gray rather than a dirty brown. It walked slowly and sniffed around the corpses of its brothers and sisters before sitting back on its haunches and looking up at Daphne. Daphne knelt down and held her hand out, and the rat climbed into her palm. She lifted it up, closed her eyes, and pressed her face against its fur. By the blue light of the mushrooms, Stella could see a tear glisten on the witch’s cheek. Then Daphne opened her eyes, and for a moment they met Stella’s. Anger once again flashed across Daphne’s face, and then she turned back to the rat and tore its head off. Once again, she drained its blood onto the statue.
Stella gasped as Celandine’s stone eyelids slid back, revealing glistening eyes that were all too human. They rolled around in their sockets as if terrified and looking for an escape. Daphne produced a knife and drew it across the statue’s breasts, slashing both with a single movement. Instead of the scrape of steel on stone, Stella heard the wet cleaving of flesh. Dark liquid ran out of the wound on the statue’s body and began pooling on the floor.
“Step into the blood and spread your legs,” Daphne commanded.
Tears pricked at Stella’s eyes. The world had stopped making sense to her the moment she had stepped into Daphne’s hovel, with its strange blue glow, supernatural warmth, and cultivated decay. She felt like she was living in a nightmare, but perhaps it was the dreamlike quality of the world that allowed her to move. As soon as she left the witch’s house, the nightmare would end. She only had to take two more steps forward into the pool of blood.
She hesitated for what could have been a few seconds or a few minutes, and when she finally lifted her foot, it almost felt like she wasn’t the one who decided to do so. It was simply something inevitable. The blood was unpleasantly hot on the soles of her feet. She stood staring down at the dark puddle and saw a column of blood begin to rise between her legs, climbing toward her sex like a waterfall in slow motion.
“Um,” she said, panic rising in her throat. “What is this—”
“Don’t move!” the witch snapped.
“This is what you wanted. This is how it works. Now don’t move!”
The column of blood reached Stella’s sex and flowed in. It felt thick, as if it had begun to congeal, and it was much warmer than any living thing’s blood should ever be. A scream rose in Stella’s throat, but never left her lips. She raised one foot to step backwards out of the horrible puddle, but Daphne raised her hand and Stella’s foot splashed back down. When she tried to escape a second time, she found that she couldn’t move so much as a finger.
Stella was sure she must be filled by now, but the blood kept flowing, sending wave after wave of disgust rippling through Stella’s body until she felt like she was in danger of being torn apart. Her eyes rolled wildly, searching for anything that could help her. For a moment they met Celandine’s, and the despair she saw there hurt her almost as much as the boiling blood that poured into her. And then, suddenly, everything was gone.
Stella blinked. She stood in the same place, still naked, but Celandine’s blood had vanished and the statue was unmarked. Its eyes were closed, and very much made of stone. Stella might have believed it was all a hallucination if not for the five headless, bloodless, desiccated rats on the floor and the strange, uncomfortable new heaviness in her womb.
“Did it work?”
“It did,” Daphne said. She sounded weary, now, rather than angry.
Something unknotted in Stella’s stomach. “Thank you.”
Stella saw wet streaks glisten on Daphne’s cheeks as she turned away. “Take your clothes and get out.”
Stella did as she said.
Four weeks later, Stella finally missed her monthly. She and the Duke were both ecstatic. The pregnancy was smooth and uncomplicated, as was the birth. Stella named her son Ephraim. He grew quickly, and every day he sucked his mother dry. Until his teeth grew in.