She appeared the way she always had; sallow and sour, with a conspicuously olive-coloured cast on her skin and bony knees that her heavy dress fell back upon when she stepped forward. The moor was rocky, craggy and difficult to tread upon, especially in the early spring chill. A cruel gust of wind, though filtered and softened by the Great Kells, bothered her shifting skirt and sent ripples through the purple grasses. She couldn't be cold though; not beneath the morbid cloak and tattered fur mantle that bedecked her shoulders. The ugly black costume swayed with purpose as she stepped with care around the rocks.
He knew that she could not have changed much, though the rumours had grown as wild as summer wheat. The expression was familiarly closed and yet affected with a private sense of thought. One could easily think her inanimate—how could this towering array of shawls, of clipped pace and practical boots, bear a personality? The last he saw of her was twelve years before, in another life. This, he knew of: a glowing lager of beer, the shrieks of laughter, a solid suitcase beneath the table. There were Animals, and they leered at the customers. A shady couple twisted formed provocative silhouettes behind the curtain. She had more money than him; several fat coins with freshly printed faces, but she wouldn't spend it. An argument broken by mirth. They weren't angry, just maudlin and drunk.
She wouldn't want to speak with him now. Her figure grew distant, a dark shape against the looming greyness of a stone manor. He realized that this was tribal territory: Stifmi, Arjiki, Kvonlana. The castles were royal, but there were many spaced far apart amid the vast heath. Mud-stained moss snaked its way through the cracks between bricks, and ivy hugged the stones. They were large homes, mostly abandoned. Vinkus-bred tribal warfare reared up occasionally—not that much news reached the Emerald City, a famed capital of censorship—but enough to destroy the delicate caste system awork in the mountains. So it was quite probable that she was squatting there, biding time in a cold, empty turret. How characteristic, he thought, almost laughing at the utter absurdity. It would suit her taste for unreserved privacy, morose surroundings, even the macabre delight of ghost stories oozing from the gothic halls. She had a pet, some overfed monkey with tangled hair that would like to leap from the staircases.
Perhaps it was a fantasy life, as grotesque as he found it. She enjoyed self-pity as caused by self-inflicted loneliness. A deserted castle with a dungeon, no matter how derelict, would not make her any more of a witch. It was only the Wizard's self-servingly corrupt moral police that had tainted her with the ridiculous notion of black magic.
"I didn't start it," she admitted with an amused hesitation, "but I enjoy it, and I don't see why not, seeing as it's harmless."
"They believe the rumours," Boq said, with an inward grimace. "I almost believed it."
The Witch guffawed throatily. She had an ugly laugh, a deep, man's laugh. "Surely, you couldn't have. Or could you?" And she added, "I assumed you had developed some sense since you last mooned over our pretty friend."
He blushed, then stopped forcibly, as if able to control his own blood flow. He hadn't loved her, and he was not even infatuated now. Those twelve years had been long years. Defining years. His farm and family and politics had usurped any interest in extramarital romance.
The Witch ordered another round of drinks, another plate of oily Kumbrician delicacies. She had refused to visit his home in Munchkinland—too many children, too plump and overworked a wife. She couldn't stand the smell of manure and the squawking of chickens (or the painful containment of Animals within common stalls.) The low-lying farm grounds of Munchkinland reminded her of her childhood, and the Witch hated to be prone to misplaced sentimentality.
"I don't like this food," commented Boq. It was a weak conversation starter. "I like my wife's meals."
"Oh, don't act quite so home grown!" complained the Witch. "How old are you now, thirty-two? Thirty-three?"
He took a cooling sip from his glass, and said "Thirty-four, and I'm not planning on outgrowing the peasant lifestyle. I was a foolish sophisticate in university, quick to want more luxurious things, and too inexperienced to realize who grew them. You snub your nose at me," Boq glanced at her disgusted expression, "but someone must grow and thresh the flax, tend to the sheep and spin the wool to make those garments you so love."
The Witch flicked grains of salt off the pine table, one by one with her sharp nails. She was disaffected and aloof. He hated how detached she remained from his emotions.
And then she said calmly, "Yes. The crops have to be grown, but you, Boq, are above unskilled labour and yet too stubborn to admit it. You didn't study agriculture. You studied post-Wizard economics and philosophy. This life is not what you prepared for." The Witch looked him sharply in the eyes, hers dark and piercing, his cloudy and hazel. She knew more than he imagined, and he resented her for it.
Boq glanced down at the table. The wet ring around his mug was staining the wood light brown. The Witch wrapped her slender hands around a full mug of ale, but she drank only tea made from dragonheart—the fanciful moniker for an imported Glikkus wood that was bottle green in colour. He despised it for its salty kick and colourful grits that sank to the bottom of the cup. Boq half suspected that the Witch chose it to spite him, for the pungent smell wafted around their table. Perhaps that was why the waitresses tended to avoid their table whenever possible—though they did cast wary, sidelong glances at the Witch's secretive dark robes and strange skin. There was a time when Boq was used to the animosity that the Witch seemed to arouse; he had even found it slightly comical. That had been long ago, though, and he was disappointed to find that he could no longer easily tolerate the aura of uneasiness with which the wait staff treated her and him by extension.
"I can imagine why you choose to hide out there," Boq supposed, inconspicuously nodding his head at the waitresses who breezily skirted by, leaving a noticeable amount of space by their table.
The Witch said incredulously, "Hide? I dare say, if anyone is hiding from their adult life, it's you, Boq."
"Skulking about in an abandoned castle with your little ape-child is what I call hiding."
"It isn't abandoned," she replied, leaning forward and placing her elbows on the table. She folded one green hand over the other and elegantly leaned her chin on them. Boq noticed the silhouette she created; the contours of her arms and the balance in her posture.
"If it isn't abandoned, then who are you staying with? I can't imagine you as a houseguest."
"Neither can I, " the Witch remarked dryly, "and I do say I'm not the most amiable of company, but I have found asylum with an Arjiki widow and it's quite convenient for my work."
"And what is it that you do?" asked Boq, in an almost hostile tone. He could hardly imagine the Witch shuffling off to a pick wild berries in the damp moor scrub, only to sell them at weekend markets.
"It's none of your business," clipped the Witch, "but I will say that 'convenient' for me means any sort of lodging as far from the Emerald City as possible."
He gave a sidelong glance at the patrons of the dumpy café; a heavily bearded man eating eggs, two young girls with water glasses and stained embroidery on their laps, and the shifty-eyed wait staff in ratty striped uniforms with bright aprons. Softly, he told the Witch, "I'm not a fan of His Majesty's regime either, and much as I might have changed over the years, I haven't lost all of my old sensitivities."
"I hardly believe that," she said. And then quite suddenly, "Do you love your wife?"
"Love my wife?" asked Boq. "I have five children. Twins among them, you know. I work hard and I say nothing. at all. She's a good lady, Elphie."
The Witch winced at the nickname, as if stung by its juvenile cutesiness. "But do you love her?"
"Her name is Nikida, and her family owns about four hundred acres of farmland. All in the fertile Corn Basket."
"You haven't answered my question," the Witch sighed wearily. "Do you love your wife?"
A pause. A drink of ale, washing down his throat and finally warming his insides. He won't answer her, not now. He's worked too hard and too long for this life, and no strange figure from his past with eccentric taste in hats was going to ruing it for him.
She allows him to walk with her around the grounds of the castle that night. He's freezing cold, but says nothing as his flimsy scarf whips around in the strong gales that push against them, almost toppling him over. The Witch is sturdy though—a challenging figure in her awkwardly tilted hat, its point a grotesque disfigurement in her smooth silhouette. She's graceful in a rude sort of way, doing a sort of dance across the plain with pointed leather toes, at times striding on past Boq as if she didn't care about their dialogue or their short but poignant reunion.
At one point he asked "Do you ever think of those days?" And then he held up his gloved fingers to the moon, as if to stroke it in its silver solemnity. "Elphaba…"
"No," she answered honestly. "I try not to. I find that it dilutes my brain cells into some unidentifiable mound of Wizard propaganda and Glinda-inspired vanity. We played at serious political improvement, but it was just that—play." The Witch hurried on towards the imposing front gate of the castle. It was guarded by a rusted iron trellis. Starlight lit up the gnarly wildflowers that were beginning to bloom by the entrance.
Boq hurried against the cold. He stumbled against an unexpected stone and staggered a few steps forward. The Witch waited beside the trellis. Her body was a dark, ill-defined triangle against the silver grit of the stone.
"There isn't any sort of lock. I usually have Chistery slip through the lattice work and open the door so he can find someone to work the pulley inside, but we'll just have to lift it manually today."
"Oh," he replied. His torso was chilled, hands numb. Boq didn't think he could work his finger rightly. Physical labour seemed highly unappealing.
The Witch commanded: "I'll take the right. You'll take the left and we'll push on a count of three." She grasped a chest-level bar as if to demonstrate. Boq noticed the queer length of her fingers. She was wearing frayed black gloves, with the loose threads tucked pristinely beneath the hems. A telling contradiction of sorts: her ragtag life, her chilling sense of order. The Witch took a breath and he took hold of a bar.
"Three," muttered the Witch simply, skipping the previous numbers. They heaved in unison, shoulders rippling the fabric of their coats. She noticed his sharp intake of breath and turned her head while lifting the devastatingly heavy grille at the same time. Her face was cast in shadow, except for a moonlight line along her profile, illuminating the curve of her nose, the rough of her lip.
His muscles twanged with the effort of holding up the trellis. In a heaving breath, Boq exhaled "Ladies' first."
"You flatter yourself unduly," said the Witch with a cool condescendence. She nodded at him and he ducked beneath the bars, letting go. She followed him and dropped the trellis. It sailed through the air, pulling the right-angled shadows that cut the door down with it. A dense thud sounded, and then silence.
The Witch pushed open a heavy door of splintering old wood and led him through. Behind them, the night hung unmovingly, condensed in frozen solitude.
If he expected grandeur or at least a morbid pleasure in otherwordly, ghost-swept halls, this was not it. The foyer was rustic and dusty. Colourful children's bunting still hung from cobwebbed wooden beams; remnants from Lurlinemas. Two garlands with mouldy popcorn chains were stacked in a corner. A rather out-of-place staircase curved into the hall with bizarre opulence. If anything, the castle was a tribute to its inhabitants: young, wealthy, undeserving and lazy, with inferior taste in holiday decorations. He missed the days of aluminum angels strung across his Munchkinland childhood home, catching the watery light in diamonds of reflection.
"I'll be upstairs, then," said the Witch curtly. She swept up the stairs, skirts trailing, cocking her pointed hat to one side and then another with each of her steps. "Goodnight."
He was left alone in the hall. Candles burned from a garishly sculpted gold chandelier that swayed gently, casting curvy strips of shadow along the floor. Boq surveyed the room; the pink streamers, dotted with fingerprints, the antiquated silver trinkets clustering on a small table, the arc of the high ceiling. He noticed an oddity: five or six little weeds, struggling to grow in carefully tended pots on the floor in a corner. A porcelain pitcher next to them. It had to be the Witch's, then. Who would tend to weeds, strange blue-violet weeds with masses of tiny prickles, but the Witch?
It occurred to Boq, with strange contentment, that the wildflowers outside would die in the frost, while unsightly weeds flourished indoors—and then he understood.