The Vine Witch (Vine Witch #1)

The Vine Witch (Vine Witch #1)

Luanne G. Smith


CHAPTER ONE

Her eyes rested above the waterline as a moth struggled inside her mouth. She blinked to force the wings past her tongue, and a curious revulsion followed. The strangeness of it filtered through her toad brain until she settled on the opinion that it was best to avoid the wispy, yellow-winged ones in the future.

Unperturbed, she propelled herself into the murky shallows to nestle among the reeds. As her body absorbed the late-season sun sieving through the half-naked trees, she let her eyelids relax. But with the sun’s energy came new hunger. She swiped a forelimb across her mouth and considered hunting for snails along the mud bank when a second peculiarity pricked her instinct. Shapes and colors intensified in her vision, and not merely by a seasonal trick of the light. A brown leaf fluttered onto a ripple of black water. A silver fish with pink gills nibbled at an insect just beneath the surface. A dragonfly zipped across the pond, a blaze of neon green.

Her toad brain latched on to the insect’s emerald color and held it in its cortex like an amulet even as her nostrils filled with the sudden stink of fish slime and putrid muck. How had she not noticed the stagnant, vile smell of the shallows before? A muddy chill needled her leathery skin, prodding her to back out of the foul water.

The skin. It was time to shed again.

The shudder began involuntarily, as it had once a week since her toad memory began. Her body writhed, compelled by an uncontrollable urge as the outer layer of skin stretched and lifted, sloughing loose from feet, back, and tender belly. Tugging and twisting with her forelimbs, she pulled the spent casing over her head like a woman removing a sheer nightgown. Then she gathered the wad of skin in her mouth and began to swallow. Yes, she must always remember to do that, though the reason flickered just outside her grasp.

She blinked hard, maneuvering the skin deeper into the gullet, when a queer stirring in the bones halted her midswallow. Her insides churned and tumbled, and she coughed the skin back up. A lacerating sting, like claws tearing into flesh, gripped her hunched back. Panic ignited her instincts. Jump! Back to the water before Old Fox takes another toe with his teeth! But then her other mind, the one that had been wrapped and tucked away like a jewel deep within her subconscious, snapped awake. The hidden emerald of intelligence recognized the pain for the sign of hope that it was. It had her hold steady even as a fissure opened along her spine, agony nearly splitting her in two.

Splayed toes dug into the mud as four phalanges morphed into five, elongating joint by joint. A human face pressed beneath the speckled skin, forcing the toadish nostrils and mouth to tear and peel away. The metamorphosis accelerated. Shoulders, arms, and stomach grew. Brown hair, slick with a sort of birth slime, coiled down her back. She gasped for air, filled her lungs, and opened her eyes to the world, reborn.

Still squatting in the mud, she wiggled her fingers, testing, then dared to hold them in the sacred pose as if cradling the face of Knowledge itself. Warmth engulfed her. Consciousness reignited. The bonds of the curse disintegrated.

Elena.

The name flashed in her mind so quickly she thought it a phantom whisper. Then memory flooded in. She was Elena, disciple of the All Knowing and daughter of the Chanceaux Valley. And she was free.

As her body woke from torpor, muddy hands trailed over breasts, ribs, and stomach, assuring all was normal—until warm flesh turned pond-water cold beneath her touch. She dared look down, and a strangled scream caught in her throat. Giant speckled legs with webbed feet clung on in horrid stubbornness. She kicked and thrashed, and yet they remained grotesquely fused to her body.

“What demon spell is this?” she cried. But when panic failed her, she took a steadying breath and let her mind meditate on the problem as she always had.

The powerful alkaloids secreted through the skin had eroded the curse over time. Perhaps all she needed was one last jolt to complete the change. Mastering her revulsion, she picked up the spit-up toad skin and stuffed it onto the back of her tongue. The toxic residue tasted of rotted reed grass and bitter herbs, but as the sun haloed in her vision and the poison danced in her blood, she gave thanks to the All Knowing for teaching her well the ways of magic.

After one last agonizing moment, her transformation was complete. Long legs, weak but willing, held her when she stood, so she tipped her face toward the daylight stars to calculate the distance home. Naked, but no longer at the mercy of the sun for warmth, she walked out of the marshland with the hot pulse of revenge beating beneath her breastbone.





CHAPTER TWO

Elena slipped the flimsy shoe back on her right foot and swore to make a fur coat out of the first fox to cross her path. She would never be able to grow that toe back, no matter how many concoctions she came up with. Not even Grand-Mère in her prime could work that magic. If only she had a little Saint-John’s-wort or mallow leaf with her, she could at least make a salve to soothe the blisters brought on by covering so many miles in another person’s shoes. Oh, to be tucked away in the storeroom again with her tincture bottles, powder jars, and dried herbs and flowers tied up with string. But she supposed all that was gone. She’d have to start again. The thought exhausted her.

Her magic had atrophied, of that she was certain. Manipulating the goatherd’s eyesight had been more difficult than it should have been. A quick pinch of ground-up chicory seed blown in the herder’s face was all that was needed to fog the memory of encountering a naked woman emerging from the woods, but it had left her shaky and unsure. And though she’d found a half round of cheese in one of the pockets, she debated the wisdom of not having waited longer for someone more suitably dressed to pass by on the road. Now she regretted how the stolen coat smelled of dung, and without the proper undergarments—some things were best left on the roadside—the goatherd’s woolen skirt chafed against her tender new skin. But she was nearly home, and she could bear any suffering if it meant she’d soon walk through the front gate of Chateau Renard and be greeted by the healing hands of Grand-Mère.

If her moon reckoning was correct, it had just turned November, time of the frost moon. And four days since she’d awoken from the curse. But what was the date? Had it been a year? Two? Certainly she hadn’t been gone a decade. Though her magic swam weak and watery in her veins, she did not feel the heavy stack of time against her spine. Her hair showed no gray, her legs were lean and strong enough to run, and her teeth did not pain her. If she was right about the time, he should still be alive. She thanked the All Knowing for letting her break the curse before he had the chance to meet a kind death by natural causes.

The prospect of revenge buoyed her again to her feet. As she walked, she filled her pockets with dried hawthorn berries, shriveled seedpods, and damp moss. A twist of shriveled celandine leaves, frost-hardy flower heads, the bark off a willow tree—she knew how to mix and grind them all into healing powders. She knew, too, as she sniffed the hardened seedpods of a dried foxglove, the deadly combinations that were possible. Potions that could drop a man to his knees with his heart exploding inside. She’d felt the murderous impulse when she awoke from the curse, but the desire seethed in her veins now that her fingertips caressed the components that would make it possible.

With thoughts of poison rooted in her mind, she bent to pluck a fringed mushroom off a rotting log when a whiff of smoldering grapevine snaked through the air. Despite her dark thoughts, she lifted her head and smiled. She’d caught the scent of home.

Elena ran in her ill-fitting shoes until she came to the crest of the hill. There the trees thinned, the sky spread open, and the rolling hills of Chateau Renard revealed themselves in the valley below. From afar, nothing looked amiss in the vineyard. It gave her the courage she needed to move closer.

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