This is an excerpt from a larger young adult science-fantasy novel.
Sharp fingernails cut into Saffi’s cheeks, dragging her to consciousness. Her eyes flew open as she coughed, sea water dribbling out of her mouth. The hard floor wasn’t comfortable, but there was a rug underneath her—not sharp rocks. Water dripped down from her wet hair across her face. Blood and salt mingled on her tongue.
The fingers rolled her head side to side as the coughing subsided. Saffi’s vision swam into focus, a pair of ice blue eyes boring into her from behind a curtain of glossy dark hair. With a muffled yelp, she tried to yank her face out of the creature’s grasp, but the claws were stronger than she expected. They pricked her skin, drawing blood.
“Hold still, girl,” it demanded.
The command rang like a bell in her mind. Saffi’s whole body shivered and seized, only her eyes able to dart from side to side. She could feel its hand uncurl from her face, the half-moon marks her nails left starting to fill with blood.
“There,” she said, in clear, crisp English. “Now, I can get a good look at you.”
Tendrils of hair brushed across her body as the woman—Saffi was pretty sure it was a woman—leaned over her, inspecting her face. Those ice-blue eyes looked almost as pale as her skin, her sharp fingers prodding bits of Saffi’s clothing, lifting up her hands and scrutinizing her palms.
“Honoria! Release her!” another woman gasped. “Can’t you see you’re scaring the poor lass half to death.”
The thin lips of the woman, Honoria, twisted in annoyance, but with the grace of a dancer she stood. Panic seized Saffi as she couldn’t see anything but the ceiling above her; old wooden beams stretching across a great room. The breath rattled in her lungs and she wanted to cough, but none of her muscles responded to her mind’s spasms.
“I don’t think it’s her, Fidelia. I just don’t think it’s her.”
There was a rattling of dishes, and the second woman crouched next to Saffi. Her black hair was piled on her head in an intricate mass of braids and curls weaving in and out of an opalescent tiara. She had a round face and a soft, friendly mouth. Her dark eyes crinkled with worry. Her nails were just as long and sharp, but where she drew them across Saffi’s cheek, a strange tingling sensation followed. It burned, like too-strong mint, as she felt the skin of each cut knit back together. Saffi gasped as her body was suffused with the same coolness, her muscles unclenching one by one.
“That’s better.” Fidelia smiled, holding out a hand for her. “Would you like a cup of tea, love?”
Biting her lip, Saffi took the proffered hand and let herself be hauled to her feet. Fidelia’s palm was smooth and cold, like her mom’s in the winter when her blood circulation got bad. Swaying unsteadily on her feet, Saffi slowly took in in the two women in front of her. They were polar opposites, dark and light. Honoria was tall and thin and sharp, with dark brown hair that streamed down her back. Her sour expression pinched what otherwise was a model-beautiful face, with high cheekbones and the arresting blue eyes that sent had shivers down Saffi’s spine.
Honoria’s dress was like nothing Saffi had ever seen, even in fashion mags. Like black lace, but not lace–like black coral, it spidered across a full skirt of black tulle and up her torso, crawling up her chest, until it finally wrapped around her neck. Her black nails were filed to sharp points, and one thin hand wrapped around a staff of twisted wood, like vines that had braided themselves together and died. Honoria’s grip tightened as she watched Saffi absorb her surroundings, the violet crystal set in the staff sparking with some unknown energy.
Fidelia’s dress was similarly otherworldly, like she’d found herself caught in a bed of pale blue seaweed, and it had woven her clothing out of gratitude. Shorter than Saffi, everything about her was plump and elaborate, from the black hair so carefully pinned in place, to the mass of pearl necklaces that dripped from her neck. Each of her fingers was adorned with a ring, some silver, some gold, some with aquamarine stones.
“Oh, I forgot, we’ll need a settee.” Fidelia glanced around the room, flustered, so Saffi did too.
It looked like the hall of a great estate, all grey stone and wood beams. A huge fireplace crackled merrily to her right, the only source of warmth. The rug underneath her feet seemed to be the only adornment, and it was threadbare and musty.
“And table,” Honoria added, “and chairs.”
“Quite right, of course, of course.” Fidelia squinted, scrunching up her nose in concentration.
There was a faint buzzing noise, like a fly too close to her ear, and Saffi felt the kind of low-level nausea of a ferry ride. Right in front of her was a coffee table, with turned legs and carvings of roses, with a silver tea platter, porcelain cups, and a steaming tea pot. She looked over her shoulder and a similar Victorian loveseat in red and cream striped silk was waiting for her to sit.
“Where am I?”
Honoria sniffed, settling into a matching high-backed chair. “You’re asking the wrong question, girl. Sit.”
Again, Saffi felt her body obey, even though her mind was reeling. Her knees bent without her command and she plopped gracelessly onto the settee.
“Honoria, stop that,” Fidelia chided, pouring them each a cup. “Sorry, we don’t have many guests. Do you take sugar? Honey? Milk?”
“Milk,” Saffi answered without thinking. “Please.”
The porcelain was delicate, thin china that would have never survived in her own house. It clinked pleasantly as she took the cup and saucer from Fidelia with trembling hands. The tea’s perfume smelled sweet and strong, but Saffi rested the cup on her thigh and gathered her courage.
“Who are you? Am I dead?”
With a snort, Honoria gestured at Saffi like she was proving a point.
“Despite her bad manners, Honoria is right, my dear.” Fidelia smiled at her apologetically. “You’re asking the wrong questions.”
“Then,” Saffi looked around the otherwise empty room, drawing a blank, “what is the right question?”
“It’s not where are you,” Fidelia answered. “It’s when are you.”
A desperate laugh clawed its way up her throat, but Saffi swallowed it down. The two women in front of her sipped their tea, placid faces like the calm before the storm.
“When am I, then?”
Honoria gazed at Saffi over the rim of her cup, evaluating. Her piercing cold eyes seemed to look through her, like she could see into every deep, unknown part of her soul. Finally, she sat her cup on its saucer, apparently satisfied.
“This, girl, is the Nowhen.”
“I’m sorry, what? The Nowhen? What the hell is that? And who are you? And where am I?”
Saffi’s cup rattled against the saucer. Some of it sloshed over the side in her agitation, soaking into her jeans, but she didn’t even notice. Honoria opened her mouth, but Fidelia lay a warning hand on gently on her arm.
“Dearest,” she began.
“My name is Saffira!”
Like placating a small dog, Fidelia nodded slowly. “Saffira, we know you’ve had a shock. Believe me when I say you’re still on Vaden.”
“So I’m not dead. This isn’t Heaven or Hell or anything.”
Honoria laughed, a shock of sound that echoed in the high rafters. “Of course not. I told you, girl… Saffira. This is the Nowhen.”
“But she just said we’re still on the island! There isn’t a Nowhen on Vaden. And I’d know.” Saffi shoved the tea cup onto the ornate coffee table and stood. “This ridiculous. I’ve got to get home.”
Looking around the grey stone room, there was only one exit, a giant wooden door with ornate iron hinges. Half-walking, half-jogging, Saffi made her way to it, and tugged on the handle. It didn’t budge. Trying again, with all the strength in she had, it still didn’t move. Fear knotted in her stomach, hard and nauseating.
“Saffira, please,” Fidelia pled. “Sit down and I will explain everything, the best I can.”
“This is kidnapping!”
“Without us, little girl, you would be dead,” Honoria snapped. “So come sit down.”
Again, Saffi felt her body seize. She turned jerkily, like a marionette being driven to the couch by an unskilled puppeteer. Banging her knee on the table, she slumped on the settee, her strings cut.
Fidelia frowned. “You have got to stop commanding our sister, Honoria. It’s rude.”
“Well, if she would just listen, I wouldn’t have to.”
The control of her limbs returned to her in a painful tingle, like waking up a foot that had fallen asleep. The knot in her stomach grew larger, traveling up her esophagus and threatening to gag her as she tried to form words. “Your sister? Please, I just want to go home.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves.” Fidelia leaned forward in her chair, setting her tea cup down as well. It was painted with a crest that vaguely pinged in the back of Saffi’s mind, but before she could place it, Fidelia began again. “I suppose I should start at the beginning. What do you know about the universe, Saffira?”
“The universe? Uh. I guess, it’s uh, quite big? And old.”
Fidelia smiled. “That’s right. The universe is so big it can’t be conceived of by the human mind. And it’s ever expanding. And it is home to lots and lots of energy. Energy takes several forms. Stars, for instance—light and heat. But you’re full of energy, too. Which you get from food, sugar and other things. No one quite knows exactly how the universe began.”
“What about the big bang? Isn’t that…” Saffi trailed off as Honoria took another sip of her tea.
“It’s a theory. And a good one,” Fidelia conceded with a smile. “But what is known is that the universe is big and old. And full of energy. Some that energy was used to create planets. Like this one. It’s been around for a long time, this Earth of ours. Just soaking in the energy of the universe. Much of that energy went into creating life. Plants, and animals, and finally, you. And in turn, all of that life soaks in more energy, too.
“Somewhere in all of its years, the Earth realized it had created life, and decided it needed to protect it. So it took some of its energy and bequeathed to the three of us.”
“I’m sorry, did you say the earth realized? Like it’s alive, like it thinks?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Saffi shifted on the silk settee, the fabric catching on her still-damp jeans. “Oh. Okay, good.”
“And along with its energy, the Earth gave us access to the Nowhen, a time that’s no time and all time.”
Fidelia paused to fill her empty cup with tea from the pot. It was dark and tepid.
“This tea is over-steeped and cold. But for us, it doesn’t have to be.” She ran one of her pointed nails across the surface of the tea, tendrils of steam rising up behind it. “I didn’t heat the tea. I simply…took it back to a time when it was hot. This is what it means to be in the Nowhen.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Saffi stuttered, glancing down at her own milky cup.
“What is time?” Honoria asked. She accepted a refill of her own tea. “How do you get older? What changes the seasons?”
“The earth it, um, revolves around the sun, that’s what causes the seasons.” Mr. McCarthy’s droning lessons cut through the fog of confusion in her brain. “And it spins on its own axis, too. That’s a day.”
“And what would happen if it didn’t? What if we could control our own revolutions?” Fidelia asked, between nibbles of a shortbread that hadn’t been there a second ago. “Biscuit?”
“That’s not possible.”
“I think you’ll find, Saffira, that many things are possible, no matter how probable they may be,” Honoria replied. “Are you really not going to drink your tea? My sister has an exceptional palate for tea.”
“If I drink the tea, am I trapped here, like Persephone?”
Fidelia chuckled, and even Honoria’s thin lips twitched into an approximation of a smile. “No. It’s just tea.”
With a sigh, Saffi picked up her cup, now steaming hot again, and took a small sip. It was perfect, rich and warming, like the fancy tea Miranda would buy for Gran at Christmas.
“Ok, let’s assume for a minute—and it doesn’t mean I believe you—that this is possible. That I’m in the Nowhen. That you can control time. That still doesn’t answer all of my questions. Who are you? And why am I here?”
The two women exchanged one of those looks that meant they were talking about her without saying words. Her moms did that plenty, especially when Rasha was around. She had a bad habit of parroting everything she heard to anyone who’d listen.
“Well, I’m Fidelia, the one who wears the crown.”
“I’m Honoria, the one who carries the staff.”
“And you, Saffira, are here because there always must be three,” Fidelia said.
“One witch to wear the Crown of Evers, one witch to carry the Staff of Tongues, and,” Honoria hesitated, turning to her sister. Fidelia nodded. “And one witch to wield the Sword of Radiance.”
She couldn’t help it. A single giggle burst from her mouth before Saffira could choke it back. And then another, and another. Giddy with fear and exhaustion, her laughter shook her body, tea splashing everywhere. The sisters just watched her in silence as she gasped for breath. A tear rolled down her cheek as the giggles subsided.
“A sword? I’m here to wield a sword? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard so far. Have you seen me?”
Fidelia shifted in her chair, looking out of her depth for the first time. Honoria’s glower returned full force.
“It is your duty as our sister,” she continued, but Saffi cut her off.
“Where is this sword? I’ve been to the Viking heritage museum on the mainland, I know how big a proper sword is. You have it here? Because I’ll show you how impossible it is.”
“Well,” Fidelia hedged, “we don’t have it.”
Saffi snorted. “Of course not.”
“What I mean is that it is your sword. Only you can call it forth and only you can wield it. Just as only Honoria can speak through the staff and I can control the crown. It is part of who you are, now.”
“Thank you for the tea, but I’d like to be on my way.”
Honoria sighed and turned to her sister. “I told you, she’s not her.”
“I’m not who?” Saffi asked.
Fidelia’s smile wavered. “Our sister. There always must be three, Saffira. We need you. We need you to join us. To protect the planet from the things that wish it harm.”
“What like pollution?”
“No, not like pollution,” Honoria replied, weary. “Though humanity does seem determined to kill itself off before anything else can. No, when we say protect the planet, we mean the whole of it, not just the bit with the inflated ego. It created us, and it is determined to protect its children from the dangers of the universe.”
“Energy, Saffira. How do you have the energy to get up? Walk around? Think?” Fidelia asked.
“I…I don’t know?”
“Food, girl.” Honoria continued. “That’s how you absorb energy. But Earth absorbs sunlight—energy from outside itself. And humanity has learned various ways of creating energy from outside sources, sunlight… wind… all of that. More energy than the Earth could have ever conceived.”
“What are you talking about? What does this have to do with anything?”
“Think of the Earth like a peach,” Fidelia said. “When it’s first on the branch, it’s small and hard and green. But as it absorbs nutrients and energy, it grows. Its flesh plumps up with juice and sugar. And when that happens, well, it’s time for harvest.”
“We’re here to ensure the earth doesn’t get…plucked,” Honoria finished.
“Thank you for that, I guess.” Saffi set her tea cup on the table with a definitive clack. “But I need to go home. Now.”
“That’s not…” Honoria began but Fidelia cleared her throat to interrupt her.
“A word, Honoria?”
She lay a hand on her sister’s arm, those sharp nails digging in to the thin limb. Saffi watched as she scrunched her nose in concentration. It wasn’t that they vanished. Between one blink and the next, the witches were arguing, and then they just…weren’t. Honoria’s pinched expression remained, sitting in what had been Fidelia’s chair. Her long hair cascaded over the arm, pooling on the floor, her arms crossed over her chest. But she remained silent.
Fidelia sat where Honoria had just been, hands folded primly in her lap. “Saffira, we apologize. We’ve never had to do this before. Valoria—our sister—brought us both here. Explained this all to us. And, well, perhaps we needed her a bit too much. Perhaps we’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be young, human. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to have something to go back to. So forgive us for that.”
Drawing a deep breath, she continued. “But you are our sister now. There’s no going back from that. You will have to learn what that means. There must be three, Saffira. So we propose a compromise. For now, you live on Vaden, let the Earth keep turning you. And we’ll bring you to the Nowhen now and then to teach you what it means to be one of us. To be a witch.”
Saffi looked between the two women. Only now that there was silence could she hear exactly how complete it was. There were no pipes rattling, no wind in the chimney, not even a breeze ruffling their dresses. The air itself was trapped in suspended animation. She shivered, casting a look at the flickering fire in the grate. Even its embers didn’t pop like a fire should.
“And if I say no?”
Honoria’s grip tightened on her staff, but it was Fidelia who spoke. “Then you’re dooming our planet. There are beasts at the gate, Saffira. Valoria gave her life to keep them at bay. And now we need you to pick up her mantle.”
Saffi swallowed. There was nothing but deathly seriousness in Fidelia’s brown eyes. Honoria’s face was a hardened mask that gave nothing away, not even the disdain she’d shown earlier. “I’m not… I don’t fight. I take pictures. I babysit.”
“We can teach you.” Fidelia’s voice had gone soft again.
It wasn’t cold, but goosebumps broke out on Saffi’s arms anyway. She tucked her hands into the too-long sleeves of the jumper. “What if I’m not a good witch? What if you teach me and I don’t want to be a witch?”
Fidelia’s gaze flicked to Honoria, but Saffi was pretty sure they didn’t leave again. The flexibility of time was starting to make a little more sense, at least.
“If, after you learn what it means to be a witch and to wield the sword, you don’t want that responsibility, we will find a way to relieve you of it.”
“What does that mean?”
“That’s never happened before, so we’ve never had to try,” Fidelia answered. “So, I don’t know what it means. This duty really is a gift, Saffira.”
Saffira chewed on her bottom lip. There was a chance—a good one—that this was some sort of bizarre dream. Or that she was dead and this was a test. Or that she’d been kidnapped by two delusional maniacs.
But if it was true? The part of her that wanted to see the world from every angle flared with excitement at the prospect.
“Alright. I’ll do it. But,” Saffi held up a hand, “on one condition. You keep my family out of this.”
“Of course,” Fidelia agreed readily.
Honoria sniffed. “We have no intention of revealing ourselves to humanity anyway.”
“Good.” Nothing had changed; the only exit was the big wooden door Saffi had tried before. “Now, I want to go home.”
“You’ll need this.”
Honoria cracked her staff on the ground, the sound of it echoing through the huge room. The lightning inside the purple stone flashed. A jagged sliver of the crystal fell into her waiting hand, the chunk only a little smaller than her thumb. Fidelia handed her a plain silver chain from around her own neck, which pooled in her palm like water. With a deep breath, Honoria spoke again, but it was a language Saffi had never heard before. The metal responded, though, forming a swirling cage for the crystal.
“So you can reach us, when you need us.”
She handed the necklace to Saffi, who tucked it in her pocket. Her well-developed social anxiety balked at the slight, but the rest of her brain firmly clamped down on the thought before it could spiral. This was more than likely a dream, after all.
Fidelia stood, her dress rippling like seaweed in the waves, and offered her hand. “We found you in the water. Let’s get you back to a more convenient time. Shall we?”
Hesitantly, Saffi slid her hand into the witch’s, letting cool fingers wrap around it.
“What do you..”
And then it all went dark.