For the past three years, Aria’s parents had struggled to find her a suitable husband. There was no defect in Aria herself: she was an intelligent girl with a cheerful disposition and strong arms that would do well in any household. She was considered pretty; indeed, her long hair the color of buttered sunshine was the envy of many a girl in town. Nor was her family poor. Aria’s father did quite well as the town’s only blacksmith.
In fact, Aria attracted quite a bevy of respectable suitors.
No, the problem lay in Aria’s rather exacting standards. No man who knocked on their door—whether they bore flowers or flattery, cakes or kind words—would suit Aria.
The baker’s son ate too much, Aria claimed. How would she ever cook enough to satisfy his appetite? Farmer Morris’ nephew was too tall; she would never be able to dance with him on holidays. Even the mayor asked for her hand in marriage, and she called him simple—to his face!
Aria’s mother wrung her hands and moaned about her daughter’s future. Aria’s father, who was a more taciturn fellow, nodded and passed his daughter worried looks.
Finally, after Aria sent one suitor home with tears glistening pearl-bright at the corners of his eyes, her mother threw her hands up with an air of desperate finality. “We must seek advice from the Witch in the Woods!”
Now, many stories were exchanged about the Witch in the Woods, almost all of them in hushed tones during the small hours of the night. She minced children into a paste and cured them in earthenware jars under goose fat, folks claimed. She kept a cat that was really a demon, and she had borne a son who was really a fairy. She could grant you your heart’s desire, but her prices were always strange and cruel.
At her husband’s skeptical look, Aria’s mother sniffed. “Well, what else are we to do? She will never get married at this rate and then what will become of her?”
So Aria was put into her best Sunday dress (to show respect), armed with a concealed horseshoe (to ward off ill-luck) and packed with homemade toffee-pies and a set of good, iron knives (in a vain hope that these would be payment enough). “She lives by the Lake of Lost Souls,” her mother told her. “Be very polite and ask her to find you a decent husband!”
Her father simply said, “I love you, my gosling.”
The woods in the springtime were rich with the soft smells of new verdure, the thrum of animals as they arose from their winter slumber, and the gurgle-squelch of mud fat with meltwater.
Despite the signs of life all around her, Aria’s skip was a little less jovial than usual. She, too, had heard stories about the Witch, though the one about children in pots had always seemed oddly specific.
The Witch in the Woods lived in a thatched cottage beside the Lake of Lost Souls. No one remembered why the lake was called that, but it seemed a suitably named location to find a witch.
The Witch herself was in a black apron with a pair of shears at her waist, stooping over her vegetable plot. She scowled as she straightened up. “And what do you want?” she spat, holding a bunch of tiny, bluish onions.
Aria remembered to curtsy politely, like she’d seen the traveling players do in their grand shows about courtly manners. “Mistress Witch, my parents have sent me to ask for your help,” she said nervously. “Though they have been trying to find me a husband for the last three years, no suitable man has come forth! Please, Mistress Witch, find me the one I’m meant to marry?” She thrust out her basket as she spoke, displaying the payment she had brought.
The witch squinted at her for what seemed like a long time. “I can do what you ask,” she finally said, “but I don’t want any of that rubbish!” She gestured dismissively at the basket. “My price is every last lock of your hair.”
Aria gasped. Her hair? Her beautiful, golden hair? How would she find a good husband without her hair?
“I don’t have all day, girl!” the Witch snapped.
And so, Aria stepped into the Witch in the Woods’ house, where she sat on a three-legged stool as the Witch used her shears to cut off all of her lovely tresses. She wasn’t gentle.
The Witch’s cat, a tabby with eyes like polished lemons, watched her the whole time. Aria could not tell if it was a demon.
“Now,” the Witch said, “Here is what you must do. Follow the lake shore North until you get to the Chalk Hills. There you will find a path leading into the hills themselves. Follow the path and make the sound of the cuckoo as you walk. You will find what you seek.”
Aria was puzzled but she supposed the Witch knew what she was about.
“And I think I will keep the pies,” the Witch said.
• • • •
You weren’t supposed to inherit the title of Mayor, but the townsfolk hadn’t been able to agree on whom to elect. Ultimately, the previous Mayor’s son had seemed like the most inoffensive choice.
It wasn’t that he was stupid. He was just . . . straightforward. But he listened to people’s complaints and was earnest about trying to fix the town’s problems, so folks were happy enough with him in the mayor’s chair.
The Mayor himself, though, was discontented. He cared about the town, he really did! But . . . he knew he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. His schoolmistress had repeatedly quoted to him aphorisms such as “Even the dullest knife has its uses” or “Castles aren’t built by brains alone” and even he wasn’t slow enough to miss her implications. Why, even the blacksmith’s daughter had called him simple!
The Mayor worried that his deficiencies would hurt the town. Last week, for instance, when a delegation from a neighboring settlement had come to discuss trade tariffs, the Mayor had struggled to even follow their words, let alone make a decision.
If only he were a little more intelligent, he told himself, things would be better.
So he took up his lantern and went to find the Witch in the Woods.
Evening transformed the woods into a different world. The carpet of insect chirps that normally draped the land seemed thicker somehow. The breezes touched you differently, as though the growing darkness strained out some essential quality from the wind. And the smell . . . the Mayor was quite sure you weren’t supposed to smell twilight, but he didn’t know what else to call it.
When he arrived at the Lake of Lost Souls, smoke was rising from the Witch in the Woods’ chimney. The fragrance of baking bread tickled his nostrils and the image of fresh dinner rolls slathered with cured children-paste appeared unbidden in his mind.
His knock was almost apologetic.
“Mistress Witch,” he said when she appeared in the doorway, haloed in the light of a small fire, “forgive me for the late hour, but I am desperate for your help! You see, I worry I’m not intelligent enough to be Mayor! I beg for a charm of cleverness or a potion of quick wit, so that I may better lead my community!” He said all this very fast and in one breath.
The Witch’s apron was dusted with flour. She regarded him from the door, lip curled in irritation.
“For what you seek,” she said in measured tones, “I will exact a payment of pain. Can you bear that price, Mayor?”
And so, the Mayor found himself bent over a wooden bench, sobbing and screaming as the old woman’s hazel switch struck his bare buttocks and back. He gazed into her cat’s sea-green eyes; it flinched not a whit no matter how much the Mayor howled.
As the Mayor quietly tucked himself into his clothes, the Witch delivered her instructions. “You will cross to the other side of the lake and head deeper into the forest, following the Eastern Star. You will arrive at the ruins of a building overgrown with moss. Search the ruins. If you are thorough, if you are meticulous, you will find what you seek.”
The Mayor got up and winced as pain shot through his buttocks.
The cat mewled and started licking its paws.
• • • •
Greta was having bad dreams. They kept her up at night. She would shudder awake, drenched with sweat. Sometimes, she woke her husband Hennig, who was always more than a little annoyed. Hennig worked hard as the carpenter’s assistant in order to provide for her and needed his sleep.
She tried all the old cures. She rubbed a fresh egg over her body and cracked it into a hole in the ground. She slept with a goose feather under her pillow. She braided charms and flowers together and hung them by the window. She even withdrew from her few possessions her childhood doll—the one her husband laughed at her for keeping, the one made with polished stones for eyes and real hair sewn into the scalp, the one she had loved and loved—and tried cuddling with it in bed.
None of it worked.
Greta was tired in the daytime. She found that she couldn’t clean very well. She wasn’t finding any time for her sewing. When Hennig returned home from a hard day’s labor, she was often still preparing his dinner. Hennig did not like to be kept waiting for his food; he worked so much and deserved a relaxing evening.
Greta didn’t know who to ask for help. She couldn’t bother her husband with something so trivial. And she had no real friends. Hennig had brought her over from another town, so none of her girlhood friends were close by. And her household duties were demanding: she didn’t really have time to go out and meet new people. Sometimes, she traded a few kind words with Lukas, who delivered milk from the nearby farms, but the exchanges were always brief. Hennig didn’t like her talking to other men.
One night, after Hennig descended into the rhythm of snores she had grown accustomed to, Greta slipped on her cloak and stole into the woods. She planned to dash over to the Lake of Lost Souls and return before Hennig awoke. She had a little money that her mother had passed her the night of her wedding (“Don’t tell any man about this,” her mother had advised). She had spent some of it that afternoon on two sweet rolls for Hennig in case she was late in the morning and didn’t have time to cook breakfast. He liked sweet rolls. They would mollify him, she hoped. The rest of the money, she would give to the Witch in the Woods.
The woods at night were an eerie place. Greta imagined that every flutter of movement was a bandit wielding a knife, or a monster preparing to snatch her away. The hooting of owls sounded to her like the solemn questions of a woodland sentinel: “Whooooo are yououououo?”
When she reached the Witch’s cottage, the old lady was emerging from her outhouse. She raised a questioning eyebrow at Greta, who was a little out of breath from having rushed over.
“Mistress Witch,” Greta panted, “I seek a cure for nightmares. I have silver, if that pleases you!”
The Witch in the Woods eyed Greta. She felt the old woman’s gaze roving her thin frame, pausing at her eyes (where the purpling had all but disappeared), lingering on the split lip (that had already stopped bothering her and was no longer an issue), taking in the long sleeves and cloak that that covered her wrists and neck (many women still wore those, despite the growing warmth; there was nothing unusual about that). Greta shuffled uneasily.
A goat bleated from somewhere behind the cottage.
“You have a doll,” the Witch said at last. “I have seen you bring it into the woods to play with when you think no one was looking. How did you come by it?”
Greta was confused but answered earnestly. “My mother made it for me, Mistress Witch, back when I was a girl.” She did not add, before her eyesight left her. She did not add, it is the one thing that brings me comfort. But something of those unsaid phrases must have lingered on her tongue for the Witch gave her a sharp look.
“I have no care for silver,” the Witch said. “You have a greater need for it than I do. Tonight, I will give you some herbs. If you use them exactly as I instruct, it will cure you of your nightmares. No later than the day after tomorrow, you will return with the doll, for that will be my payment.”
When Greta left the Witch’s house, she clutched the wax-paper package of herbs as tightly as she could, as though it would tear through her heart if she let go.
• • • •
Sunlight painted the Chalk Hills in a glowing white. Here and there, the rock was punctuated with low shrubs bearing pastel flowers. The scenic view helped soothe some of Aria’s exhaustion. The path through the hills wasn’t easy. She had tripped on loose rock enough times that her Sunday dress was now beyond salvaging. And her head felt peculiar. Without its train of golden hair, she felt oddly light and a little chilly.
Hunger growled in her stomach. She wished the Witch in the Woods hadn’t taken her pies; the scant berries she’d dared scavenge were hardly a satisfying lunch.
On top of everything, Aria was scared. While the Witch hadn’t been as frightening as people made her out to be, the hills were another matter. Aria had never left her town and the traveling players’ tales were filled with smugglers, bandits, and traitorous warlords who liked to snuggle within hills—tales that had once been thrilling but now seemed like a warning.
In one hand, Aria clutched one of the knives she’d brought as payment for the Witch. She hoped that her familiarity with knives in the kitchen would translate to fighting with one, though she highly doubted that spatchcocking a chicken had prepared her to knife-duel with a murderous highwayman.
Every once in a while, she curled her mouth to release a cuckoo, like the Witch had instructed, though not too loudly. Hopefully, only the fairies or spirits the Witch had no doubt planned for her to meet would hear.
The sun was high in the sky when she heard an answering call. She tightened her hold on her knife, recalling the best places to slice into a chicken.
Three young men stepped out of the rock and shrubbery, onto the path. Dressed in tight-fitting leathers, their close-cropped hair was dyed in vivid colors: pink on one, violet on the second, and green on the third. Each carried a bow slung around his shoulders and a sword at his waist.
“Hail, sister!” the tallest, pink-haired one said, stepping forward, and Aria was shocked to realize that these weren’t men at all—all three were women! Women with breeches, weapons, and colored hair!
Aria was too dumbfounded to say anything at all.
The other two looked at each other. “Are you sure she’s a sister?” the one with purple hair asked.
“Maybe she just likes making bird noises?” the green-haired one suggested. “I’ve told Claudette many times that we should update the field-call, but she won’t listen!”
“Did you really think marrying Claudette would make her any less stubborn, Jeanne?” the purple-haired woman teased. She punched the green-haired one—Jeanne—playfully, receiving a half-hearted swipe in return.
The tall woman looked Aria up and down. “You’re not a sister, are you?” she asked Aria, but not unkindly.
Aria gulped. “I’m sorry! I’m only here looking for fairies!”
All three women goggled at her.
“Fairies?” Jeanne asked faintly.
“Yes! My parents couldn’t find me someone to marry, so they sent me to the Witch in the Woods who told me to come here and said that if I made the sound of a cuckoo, I’d find what I was looking for . . .” The sudden sharp looks the women exchanged made Aria falter, but she pressed on “. . . and I thought a fairy would appear . . . like in the stories the traveling players enact . . .”
The tall women now wore a thoughtful expression. Jeanne began pacing around Aria, as though examining a horse at the market. “She looks strong,” she remarked, as though Aria were not present, “and not too old to learn. What do you think, Simone?”
Simone—the taller one and presumably the leader—nodded. “If the Hag sent her, she must have some qualities . . .”
“As to marriage,” the purple-haired one said wryly, “if she’s willing to diversify her tastes a little, I’m sure she can find someone in the sisterhood. Wouldn’t you say she’s Anne-Marie’s type?”
None of what these fierce-looking women were saying made any sense to Aria. She must have betrayed her confusion because Simone knelt in front of her. “We are the Sisterhood of the Fang,” she said gently, “an order of warrior-women. Would you like to accompany us back to our camp?”
• • • •
The Mayor had worried that the journey to where the Witch wanted him to go would be interminable, with the pain from his wounds making it hard to walk. The Witch, however, had surprised him by offering a sweet-smelling, leathery substance to chew before he left. It sent cool waves down his body each time he swallowed, lessening what would have been a blaze of fire to a dull throb.
The Eastern Star was easy enough to follow, and presently, the Mayor arrived at what he thought the Witch had meant.
It was an old building, all fluted marble columns and triangular gables, though the Mayor didn’t know enough about history to guess its age. Ivy hugged much of the outer surface, though you could sometimes spot a glimpse of a woodland scene in relief, carved directly into the walls.
The grand double-doors would pose a challenge: thick wood, studded with iron rivets, they were stuck fast. The Mayor circled the building twice; there were no windows. He struggled with the doors for what seemed like an hour, heaving, pulling, striking them with rocks, levering them with a branch stripped of leaves.
Finally, the sweat-soaked Mayor leaned against one of the ornate pillars to catch his breath. Something shifted beneath his back. There was a click and a dull grating. The heavy doors swung open, light as the cream that floated to the top of a milk jug.
The Mayor spent only a moment gawking before thrusting his lantern inside. He was relieved to find no monsters or sleeping bears. In fact, nothing moved, not even a lone rat. And the smell . . . no damp, no rot. It smelled dry, and reminded him of—of—
Books. The chamber inside was filled with shelves upon shelves of books. A fantastic variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, they seemed to the Mayor like a troupe of holiday dancers frozen in place, their finery flashing all around him.
Slowly, he approached the shelves and wiped the dust off some of the spines. On the Nature of the Stars, said one in bright gold letters stamped onto deep, blue leather. Anatomie and Culinarie, enthused another in warm, red binding. There seemed to be no logical order to the books either: The Stillness and Motion of Matter tried to draw his attention from its spot tucked between On the Exchange of Goodes and An Examination of the Veracity of the most Common Old Wives’ Tales from the Southern Region, but all three were overshadowed by the silver, fractal patterns embossed into the leather of Considering Infinitie and Other Matters of Symmetrie, a weighty volume shelved directly below them.
The Mayor had never seen so many books, let alone read them. And the Witch had told him the secret to cleverness was somewhere in this room? Hidden in one of the books, maybe?
The Mayor could not fathom where to start. But he recalled the Witch’s Words: “If you are thorough, if you are meticulous, you will find what you seek.”
The Mayor carefully set his lamp on one of the shelves, angling it so the light would hit a cozy-looking nook. His fingertips grazed a few volumes before stopping at The Hidden Beauty of the World. That looked promising.
He settled down in his nook. He would be thorough. He would be meticulous. He would read as many volumes as it took to find whatever key or magic spell it was that granted intelligence.
• • • •
Greta got home well enough before dawn that she could slip into bed beside her husband before he awoke.
She got up an hour or so later and set out the sweet rolls she had brought. Then she added the herbs the Witch had given her to the teapot.
When Hennig arrived for breakfast, he didn’t look happy. “Where did you go last night?” he grunted as he bit into a sweet roll.
Greta could feel it, the spark of his rage. It was still just a mild heat in his voice, but she knew it could ignite if she didn’t take care.
“I needed a walk,” she said carefully. “I felt restless.”
Hennig grunted again. “I’ve told you before not to leave the house on your own, where any other man can ogle you.”
It was nighttime, Greta wanted to say. Who would be out near our house at night? But she didn’t because Hennig disliked her arguing.
“We’ll talk about this when I’m home this evening,” Hennig said.
That pronouncement would have once made Greta tremble. Today however, she felt . . . oddly light. “Have some tea, Hennig,” she said.
Greta gazed out the window as Hennig drank his tea. She waited until she heard Hennig’s breath slow to a gentle susurration before getting up.
There was much to be done today. Even though Greta had barely slept the previous night, she found a new energy bubbling within her. She swept every floor twice over and threw out some of the accumulated clutter that she’d been meaning to tackle. She made some nice sandwiches with dill she plucked from the garden. When Lukas came to deliver milk and easy smiles, she brought him one as a snack. He really was a very fetching man.
Around midday, she dug out a dress she hadn’t worn in years, let it out so it would fit her new figure, and took a walk to the carpenter’s cottage.
“Greta, how lovely to see you!” the carpenter’s wife said warmly, offering her a slice of cake. “It’s been . . . goodness knows how long!”
Greta smiled and said that Hennig had given her the day off from housework. “In fact,” she continued, “he’s decided to give himself a little holiday. Will your husband be all right on his own today?”
“I’m sure he can manage for a day or two! But will you stay for a while? There’s so much to talk about! Did you hear about the blacksmith’s daughter?”
When Greta got home, her sewing things were still set out on the table. I could make a frock, she thought. I’m sure someone in town would like a new frock!
By the time the shadows had lengthened, Greta had a host of new ideas for dresses, and had even tried throwing something together for the doll. She would be losing it soon; it deserved a parting gift for all the comfort it had given her.
Greta had missed sewing.
Henning still sat at the table, a serene look on his face. Greta threw out the half-eaten sweet roll. Careful to avoid accidentally touching the remaining tea with her bare skin, she dumped the whole teacup into the fireplace. The chill of winter had well and truly left, but like the Witch had instructed, Greta pulverized the ceramic with a wooden spoon, threw the spoon itself into the logs, and lit a fire.
When it was time for bed, she took Hennig’s hand. “Come, darling,” she whispered. Hennig gave her a vague smile. He swayed as she got him up but allowed himself to be led up the stairs.
Greta never had nightmares again, not of her husband nor of anything else.
• • • •
The Witch in the Woods awoke at dawn. Her joints complained vigorously, but chores were chores were chores, like her mother used to say.
The goats out back were making a ruckus. One of the kids had injured a leg a week back. The Witch fetched one of the earthenware jars her son had made her, scooped out a handful of pain-relieving balm, and worked it into the goat’s bad leg, massaging the ointment in small, slow circles. The goat bleated with discomfort as the smell of goose fat, sweatwort, and redberry juice enveloped it, but the Witch clucked, “Now, now, duckie, it’s for your own good!”
She went to fetch water from her well. Her bucket had a crack in it, and she slopped half the water on her way back. She’d have to see about getting that fixed. When she returned inside, Morcant was mewling plaintively from beside her bowl.
“All right, all right!” the Witch said, fetching a jug of goat’s milk. “Serves me right for spoiling you with milk every day, when you’re perfectly capable of catching a mouse for yourself.” The cat pointedly ignored her comment and set to work on his breakfast.
The Witch dusted and swept around the house. She weeded the garden and repaired the trellis for her beans. She checked on her maturing cheese—just in case Morcant really had lost all appetite for mice—and scrubbed out the fireplace. She washed a load of underwear and hung it out to dry where wandering animals couldn’t reach.
Only then did she begin the real work. “Nearly finished, duckie,” she cooed to Morcant.
The cat leaped onto a shelf and fixed her with reproachful, storm gray eyes. “I’m a demon of the seventh circle,” he said, indignation lacing his voice. “You can’t call me duckie!”
The Witch rummaged in her Craft Cupboard. “As long as I clean out your litter box, I’ll call you whatever I like,” she said absently, ignoring Morcant’s hiss of protest. She brought out a long braid of lustrous, blond hair, and a raggedy little doll.
She regarded the bread laid out on her work table. She’d spent the last few weeks baking buns, rolls, and other shapes of bread to precisely the right color and consistency.
Real magic, the Witch had always argued, was too costly and dangerous to be taken lightly. Her mother had passed down that important lesson. The townsfolk who came to her with their everyday concerns rarely needed real magic to solve their problems; few problems ever did.
No, real magic was for only the truly insurmountable.
With care, the Witch arranged all the bread until it formed the rough shape of a human body. She pressed two pickled onions deep into the head. “Onions!” Morcant complained, wrinkling his nose.
“Lovely blue eyes,” the Witch corrected.
She took the blond braid. It really was gorgeous hair. She twined it among the baked loaves. “Beauty,” she said softly.
She picked up the doll. While it was old and falling to pieces, it had been made selflessly, and had been treasured for the love it represented. Delicately, she placed it on top of the baked belly. A baby was made out of love, after all.
She turned to Morcant.
“Yes, yes, I have the screams,” the demon said. “He really bawled like a child. As a little bonus, I managed to capture some of that girl’s cries of pain as you butchered her hair like a madwoman with shears. Did you mean to be so rough?”
“I was impatient,” the Witch replied, holding out her hand. “Much like I am now.” The cat rolled its eyes, now a deep crimson. Its body convulsed. Once—twice—
A glob of black slime spilled out of his mouth and plopped onto her palm. As it quivered in her hand, she could hear faint, pained screams and sobs emanating from it. Quickly, she smeared it all over the bread-baby. An infant needed to be able to scream, to cry.
The final ingredient she required saddened her a little. At least, she reasoned, the pain-relieving ointment she had applied would help. She grabbed a knife from the kitchen. “A life for a life,” she whispered and headed into her goat pen.
Real magic was costly.
• • • •
The moon was fat and beaming merrily by the time the Witch landed. She dusted herself off as Morcant folded his wings back into himself, grumbling something about “like a common horse” and “too much pudding”.
“Mother?” came a voice from the door. Her son, Aaron stood there in his nightclothes, eyes still full of sleep. “Mother, it’s the middle of the night!”
Morcant loped over and twined himself around Aaron’s legs.
“Someone might see me fly in the morning,” she chided. “And keep your voice down, you’ll wake the baby!”
“The baby?” His eyes fell to the basket the Witch was carrying. In it, swaddled in goatskin blankets and soothing dreams, lay a newborn child.
There was a pad of footsteps from inside the house. Aaron’s husband Troels appeared beside him. “Darling—oh! Whose baby is that?”
“Yours,” the Witch replied, as Morcant switched his attention to Troels, who always gave him treats.
“Ours . . . ?”
“Yes,” the Witch said simply. “You’ve always said you regretted not being able to have a child. Here you go. Happy anniversary.”
Real magic was only for the most important things.
Real magic was for family.
Spread the word!