The witch queen - By Jan Siegel

PROLOGUE:

Enter First Witch

The name of the island was Æeea, which, however you attempt to pronounce it, sounds like a scream. It was a gold-green jigsaw fragment of land set far away from any other shore, laced with foam and compassed with the blue-shaded contours of the sea. Near at hand, the gold dulled to yellow: slivers of yellow sand along the coastline, dust-yellow roads, yellow earth and rock showing through the olive groves on the steep climb to the sky. The central crag was tall enough to hook the clouds; in ancient times the natives believed such clouds concealed the more questionable activities of their gods. Nowadays, the former fishermen and peasant farmers catered to the discerning tourist, telling stories of smugglers and shipwrecks, of nymphs and heroes, and of the famous enchantress who had once lived there in exile, snaring foolish travelers in the silken webs of her hair. Æeea was overlooked by the main vacation companies: only the specialists sent their customers to a location with little nightlife and no plate smashing in the quiet tavernas. Most of the more sumptuous villas were owned by wealthy mainlanders who wanted a bolt-hole far from the madding crowd of more commercial destinations.

The villa above Hekati Beach was one of these. More modern than most, it had seaward walls of tinted glass, black marble pillars, cubist furniture standing tiptoe on blood-colored Persian carpets. There was a courtyard, completely enclosed, where orchids jostled for breathing space in the jungle air and the cold silver notes of falling water made the only music. At its heart the latest incumbent had planted a budding tree grown from a cutting—a thrusting, eager sapling, whiplash-slender, already putting forth leaves shaped like those of an oak but larger and veined with a sap that was red. The house was reputedly the property of a shipping magnate, a billionaire so reclusive that no one knew his name or had ever seen his face, but he would loan or rent it to friends, colleagues, strangers, unsocial lessees who wanted to bathe on a private beach far from the prying eyes of native peasant or vulgar tourist. The latest tenant had been there since the spring, cared for by an ancient crone who seemed to the local trades-people to be willfully deaf and all but dumb, selecting her purchases with grunts and hearing neither greeting nor question. Her back was hunched, and between many wrinkles the slits of her eyes appeared to have no whites, only the beady black gleam of iris and pupil. The few who had glimpsed the mistress declared she was as young as her servant was old, and as beautiful as the hag was ugly, yet she too was aloof even by the standards of the house. They said she did not lie in the sun, fearing perhaps to blemish the pallor of her perfect skin, but swam in the waters of the cove by moonlight, naked but for the dark veil of her hair. In the neighboring village the men speculated, talking in whispers over the last metaxa of a goddess beyond compare, and the women said she must be disfigured or diseased. She had a pet even stranger than her servant, a huge sphinx cat hairless as a baby, its skin piebald, grayish-white marked with bruise-black patches. It had been seen hunting on the mountain slopes above her garden; someone claimed to have watched it kill a snake.

Behind the glass walls of her house, the woman heard the villagers’ stories, though her servant never spoke, and smiled to herself, a sweet, secret smile that showed no teeth. She still bathed by night, secure in the power of the moon, and by day she stayed in a darkened room, lighting a cold fire on the cold marble hearth, and gazing, gazing into the smoke. Sometimes she sat in the courtyard, where little sun found its way through the vine-trellised canopy. No cicadas strummed here, though the slopes beyond throbbed with their gypsy sawing; no bee buzzed, or not for long. The hungry orchids snapped up all insect life in their spotted mouths. There was no sound but the water. The woman would sit among the carnivorous plants, dressed in a thin red garment spotted like an orchid, with the black ripples of her hair falling around her shoulders. Watching the tree. The cat came to her there and rubbed its bald flank against her limbs, purring. Will it fruit, Nehemet? she would murmur. It grows, but

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