Fietha’s cart returned Tildy to Dappledown faster than she could have walked, but the witch chastised her for wasting the day away, before giving him an earful for his trouble. In typical fashion, he flattered and charmed the witch until she smiled and Tildy laughed.
The afternoon disappeared with Fietha’s departure, returning the witch to the business at hand. Tomorrow was Healing Day, midpoint between the Winter and Summer Solstices, and plenty of preparation remained. Tildy kept busy well into the night. If she wasn’t flying up to pick fruits, she was running around the garden, plucking one more leaf or slicing one last stem. The moon had gone to bed before her, and by the time she finally reached the comfort of her blankets and down mattress, she’d quite forgotten about the pin she’d found in the tildenethia. A prickle of memory vainly tickled at her brain, but sleep overcame her before the idea could form.
Morning came sooner than Tildy would have liked. Exhausted from the previous day’s hike to Caraban Losh and the extra chores last night, it was far too early to face the birds and blooms. She stumbled down to breakfast, goose down stuck to her face and pillow creases across her cheek.
“You are wearing yesterday’s clothes,” the witch said by way of greeting, “which if I am not mistaken, are also the clothes from the day before.” She gestured upstairs. “Go change and be quick, lest I feed your breakfast to the cat.”
Tildy grumbled something about Elanor the longcat being welcome to it, but it came out as “Duncare, Elanor cannavit”, to which the witch only shook her head.
As Tildy climbed the stairs, the witch called after her, “And wash the drool from your chin!” A few minutes later, fresh-faced and freshly clothed, Tildy skipped down the stairs, feeling much revived. She’d done more washing up than she’d intended, including a thorough scrubbing of her hair. She found her breakfast sitting on the table, warm and unmolested, though Elanor looked up expectantly as she approached. Tildy smiled and shook her head, so the longcat lifted her chin and tail and stalked from the room on slender legs
Knowing that the witch was already in the garden, tutting about tardiness, Tildy scarfed down her food, even managing to taste some before it disappeared down her throat. She’d lived in Dappledown long enough to appreciate the importance of Healing Day – and the amount of preparation it took – that she chastised her lateness more than the witch ever could.
Unlike regular market days when they brought their goods to the Wayfahren Market, Healing Day was something special. It was an event. Peoples of many races came from across Evereign to see the Middenfaire and to procure those herbs and flowers that were most potent when harvested on Healing Day.
Pleased with her haste, she flew from the house and landed quietly behind the witch. As ever, the witch had heard her coming. Sparing Tildy a sideways look, she said, “Now you have breakfast on your chin. Perhaps you should grow a beard to hide such nonsense!” The witch walked away, shaking her head again.
Tildy nearly wiped her face with her sleeve, pausing as she remembered that she wore a clean dress. She considered returning to the cottage, but she was behind already. Ensuring that the witch’s back was still turned, Tildy plucked a large leaf and wiped her chin clean. She then hid the used leaf at the bottom of the bush, disturbing a small cloud of bizbees.
Over the next hour, Tildy and the witch harvested the remaining growables that needed to be collected, finally adding them to a collection of tonics, dried and ground herbs, flowers, and ripe fruit they’d placed in baskets and sacks the night before. With some satisfaction, Tildy noted that the tildenethia had dried nicely in the few weeks since she’d gathered it, though the witch didn’t mention it. Tildy put everything into a barrow that she would push to Wayfahren. As ever, the barrow made surprising light work of such a large load.
They walked together in silence, enjoying the morning air. Tildy pushed the cart effortlessly, which allowed her mind to wander. She could already tell by the blue morning sky that another beautiful day approached. With some regret she remembered that much of their day would be spent in the shade of the marketplace. She inhaled deeply, licking lips that were surprisingly chapped, and swelling like overripe berries. “Ugg oh,” she said, putting a hand to her swollen face.
With some irritation of her own, the witch turned, her eyes tracing across Tildy’s face. With a sigh, an eyeroll, and a head shake, she approached Tildy. “Well, I suppose tumesca leaves are slightly better than using your sleeve,” the witch remarked as she carefully held Tildy’s chin between thumb and forefinger. Tildy’s eyes widened and the witch noticed. “Yes, you plucked one of them. I thought you would be more careful when using my garden to wipe your face.”
Tildy felt her lips swell painfully again. “Will you beeyabble tuget deswelling dow?” she mumbled as her tongue flopped between her teeth like a slug.
“Yes, yes, of course. You know me well enough.” She began searching her belt for a specific pouch. “Ah.” She retrieved a nutshell the size of a chicken’s egg. With a slight grimace, she prized the two halves apart.
Tildy saw a thick brown cream within the larger half. “Oh doh,” she groaned. She knew what the witch had found: it had a fancy Dwarvish name, but as a girl, she had come to know the vile paste as ‘the smudge’. It smelled of rotting vegetation and smeared like something she’d find in a barnyard. Unfortunately, it was one of the witch’s favorite treatments for skin ailments. As a young girl running recklessly through the garden, Tildy had painfully discovered many different plants whose irritating side effects resulted in this treatment.
“Oh yes,” replied the witch with a thin smile. “And perhaps you shall learn your lesson. Again.” Using her thumb, she slathered the thick stuff across Tildy’s chin and below her nose. The familiar odor returned to her nostrils and she nearly retched. “Ah well, could be worse.”
“Wort?” Tildy said with a voice equal parts thick and incredulous.
“Oh yes, if you recall, last autumn we moved the leafy lue stalks next to the tumesca.” Tildy felt the color drain from her face as her stomach clenched. Lue had powerful anti-constipation properties and was known locally as furtfurt. For obvious reasons, Tildy thought painfully.
The witch closed the nutshell as she inspected Tildy’s face. “Yes, a few hours and the swelling should be gone. The brown stain will be there a few days—”
Tildy groaned. “Ab dasmell?”
“Yes, and the smell.” The witch held up a sticky finger. “And before you complain, you already know my response.”
“Dissis howie learn.”
The witch smiled and patted Tildy’s cheek, leaving a brown dollop behind. “Well, one would hope! Let’s get to market. With some luck on your part, you’ll be smudgeless before we arrive.”
A few hours later, Tildy did indeed look like herself again, smudge-free aside from the characteristic brown stains. The remedy had worked faster than usual, Tildy thought as Wayfahren came into sight through a break in the trees. Built upon the Great Southwest Crossroads, known locally as the Graces, the town was prospering thanks to the stability that had slowly returned to the lands of Empyrelia since the fall of the King twelve years ago. Free trade flowed more freely, as did its shadowed counterpart of illicit goods. As they approached, Tildy was surprised to see new cottages being built. The town seemed to grow like a giant’s baby: quickly, and without caring what was knocked down in the process. In her short lifetime, the small town had regained some of its reputation – and notoriety – as an important trading hub.
The Wayfahren Market sprawled outwards from the east side of the town, butting against the Neverwoods to the south. The witch’s table sat within the trees’ shadows, offering cool shade and a bit of home. Tildy suspected that the woods also offered a way to disappear, if needed. Many unsavory types walked the market’s streets.
As she had seen on past Healing Days, people had arrived earlier than usual, intent of finding the most potent wares before they sold out or to catch the performances in the Middenfaire, before the crowds became too deep. A cacophony of language filled the air, reminding her of the diversity of the Wayfahren denizens, something that increased on Healing Day. Most merchants called out in the common tongue, using it to bridge between their native dialect and the languages of their patrons. As they passed a tiny wispawren, he called out in a combination of languages: “Sinjoreen! Tees bikis for taste and eat!” He tried lifting a biscuit as large as himself, his long delicate hair turning red as he failed to move it. She also caught bits of Dwarish, Skittish, Ornomasti, Gonk, and what she thought was the northern lilt of Blue Elven. She craned her neck around, looking for elves, but didn’t see any.
Before they reached the market, they had to pass through the Middenfaire, with its spectacle of traveling performers, curiosities, and people proclaiming feats not for the weak of heart. Minstrels with stringed mandolas and tin pipes played festive tunes. Colorful awnings and snapping pennants advertised wares from every corner of Empyrelia. A thousand voices barked and sang from all directions, proclaiming attractions and tastes to suit every desire.
Wary of thoughtseers, Tildy kept her mind focused on what she was observing. One of the witch’s sayings was “A person never knows what might be reading your words.” And while this protected her thoughts, the witch also warned that such guardedness would make a person impulsive because she had gotten used to acting without forethought. Tildy absentmindedly jingled her coin purse.
As usual, her adoptive mother walked quickly through here, grumbling about wasted lives and squandered coins. Tildy paid little attention to a neverthriving of jugglers, nor the flame-eaters or sword dancers: they were all regulars on any market day. The same for the merrymen and minstrels and puppeteers. But she marveled at the moltenmancers and ice welders, artists of ice and fire that she’d only seen in picture books on magic. Giving the witch a quick look, she then stole furtive glances at the bendygels and secretive mystery-whims, female entertainers the witch disparaged more than other performers. Fleshmongers and other vendors sold food here and there, sometimes on sticks, sometimes on bark planks. They kept one eye on patrons and another on the hungry grokes who hung about.
“A strange scent dances on the wind today,” the witch said in a voice that sounded intrigued. They stopped. Tildy smelled a dozen unfamiliar fragrances, savors, and aromas. However, she knew that tone. When something seemed unfamiliar to the witch, it was a true curiosity.
A young boy collided with Tildy, falling to the ground at her feet.
“Where are you headed in such a hurry, youngling?” she asked as the boy looked up at them. She offered a hand up and he gladly took it.
The boy bounced with excitement as he spoke, his words running together in a jumble. “My mam said that on Healing Days the witch of Dark Eddlweld comes out of the mist to deal potions and curses at the marketplace! This is my first Healing Day in the market, I’ve never seen her before! I have to see her.” The voice had been rising in volume suddenly quieted as he spoke. “Ooh, I hope I haven’t missed her,” he finished bouncing on his toes in an attempt to see over the heads of much taller adults.
“Aye, it’s true,” said Tildy with a glance at the witch. “She comes each Healing Day.”
“It is?” the boy asked incredulously, as though he hadn’t believed his mother until Tildy confirmed the story. “Have you seen her yet?”
With a conspiratorial whisper, Tildy replied, “She stands before you, young seeker. What would you ask of the Shadow of Eddlweld?”
The boy looked at the witch’s hooded face, and then back at the Tildy. “Her?” He seemed disappointed.
“Certainly! You were perhaps expecting some hobgoblin or old crone?” Tildy asked with a laugh.
The boy stared hard at the witch, whose hidden features remained impassive. “You’re pulling my leg,” he said at last.
“Oh, is she?” the witch replied. She hunched over, pulling back her hood as she put her face near his. Tildy had always thought the witch looked very much like a regular woman, her features sometimes harsh, though never unkind. The boy stepped back, nonetheless.
“I wonder lad, how is your spleen?” she asked with a graveled affectation to her voice. She jabbed a finger toward his chest, the one with the long yellow nail. “I need some bile for a warty curse, but I needs it fresh!” She finished with a low cackle.
Tildy watched the boy’s eyes widen and was about to intervene when he gave the witch a shrewd look. “How would you know if it’s fresh?”
Tildy covered her smiling mouth, but the boy was too intrigued to notice. The witch produced a dried salamander by the tail. “I make you swallow this and if it crawls back out of your throat, I know.”
“I wonder how it tastes?” he said thoughtfully as he studied it. Tildy had never seen the witch’s game go on this long. Children usually ran after the first witchy nonsense that they’d expected, yet dreaded to hear. This boy seemed only more intrigued. “And I wonder what made someone first try that. I mean, swallow a dried salamander? Who thinks of things like that?”
Finally the witch laughed, a pleasant yet infrequent sound. “Tildy, give our brave young squire here some sweetleaf and send him back to his mam.”
Tildy did as she was asked and scooted the boy away. Over his shoulder he asked, “What about the salamander?” but his mother gestured to him before Tildy or the witch could respond.
“Hmm, that scent is gone,” noted the witch as she sniffed the air. “Ah well. Let’s move on to the market.”
They resumed their walk through the Middenfaire. “Well, he was a stouter lad than most,” Tildy remarked as she pushed the barrow, watching a number of farmers and other strong men giving the witch a wide berth. Even a hulking Gronth, with its taut muscles and hunched back, gave her a wary look. Now that her hood was down, there was no mistaking her identity.
“Aye,” said the witch, seeming to ignore the men, though Tildy knew it secretly dismayed and delighted her, depending on the day. Dropping a large coin into the basket of an old beggar woman named Alyss, they entered the fragrant arcade known as the Roseway, which was lined with ancient bushes that ascended like columned arches high above their heads. Tildy looked back to the woman, but she had moved on. Her adoptive mother always offered a coin, but neither woman ever said a word to each other, as though they were both taking the high road in some old argument.
Finally, they arrived at their usual trestle table in the market proper, a rickety construction that somehow survived all kinds of weather. Years ago, the witch had planted some common herbs in the nearby treeline and she went to inspect them. Tildy placed their goods on the table and began removing pouches, wrappings, and other items. She arrayed their wares in the witch’s preferred order as the first customer walked up.
“I was here last week, looking for breesolay, but she said it was still a few weeks from being ripe,” the man said, indicating the witch’s back. “I thought I would see if any was picked early. My wife’s skin condition is driving her mad.”
“Ah, I take it she has icherear? I’m sorry, I inspected the plants myself this morning and they’re still an unripe yellow. They wouldn’t do any good. I’m sorry, it’s still another week yet.”
The man hadn’t seemed very hopeful, yet his face still fell. “She’s got ten fingers and ten toes, and still she hasn’t enough to scratch her skin.” He held up his own hands. The nails were short or broken, and the tips looked irritated. “I’m afraid she’ll pass it on to me!”
“I shouldn’t think so,” replied Tildy with a thoughtful expression. “Not unless you have a cut on your finger. It could be transferred to your blood that way.”
The man snorted. “Transferred to the blood, she says. “Such nonsense is apparently the craft of witches these days.” He stomped off, grumbling to himself. Tildy moved closer to her adoptive mother, who was folding some crisp herbs into paper while speaking to a regular customer.
“Soon we will have baradray for wrinkles, goldesaelia to ward against sickness, and wynnthorne for the speaking of tongues,” the witch said, sealing the packet with wax and stamping it with her seal. She handed it to the patron and received a coin in exchange. “We shall see you next time, Jerelle.”
A young woman approached. “Excuse me?” Tildy and the witch turned. “Is it true that anything I buy today will be more potent and remain unspoiled longer?” She indicated some common stalkerine, a palliative for bunions.
The witch smiled. “In some cases, yes. These herbs here were picked this morning,” she said, indicating some to her right, “though the selentropia was picked last night,” she finished, indicating a nearly colorless stalk that would glow in moonlight. “Their efficacy is greatly increased today.” She pointed to another section of her wares, which included the stalkerine. “These here, however, remain as strong as they ever were, before or after today.”
“The man over there,” she said, pointing across the street, “said Healing Day affects all growing things, which is why he has to charge more for even the simplest items.” As if sensing the attention, the man looked up, his pinched features frowning.
Tildy thought Cobbfern had the ugliest eyebrows she’d ever seen. She knew many Healing Day beliefs were nonsense, propagated by unscrupulous sellers such as him. They often tried to discredit the witch with the common folk, as charlatans are wont to do against those who know the truth behind the lies. Unfortunately for them, she remained in high esteem with anyone she helped. People appreciated her honesty, even if they were wary of her. They knew she would try to heal any sickness, and there were no lost causes when it came to ailments of body, mind, or spirit. Tildy loved this about her mother.
“Well,” said the witch, “To each his own. But words do not make a thing true! At least, not in this case. It is bad luck on Healing Day to lead someone astray or refuse to help.” She looked pointedly at the man before smiling to the woman. “So, do with these words as you will!”
Without a second thought, the young woman retrieved a half-coin and handed it to the witch. She took her purchase, gave the vendor Cobbfern a quick look, and left. The man’s frown deepened and his lips moved as he muttered under his breath. The witch gave him a nod and turned her back on him.
At this break in customers, Tildy scanned the crowd, eager to see familiar faces and new ones alike. While most of the market’s patrons were human, other peoples did make regular appearances: gruff dwarves, rotund obolongolongs, and even aloof elves. Occasionally, hresh, gimbals, and abrundas would visit from their distant lands.
Her eyes fell upon the mad scrivener, who sat nearby scribbling on a scrap of paper, as he ever did, charcoal rod in hand. Seeing that she watched him, he quickly crammed the fragment into his satchel, which appeared stuffed with rubbish. She knew it actually contained all his captured notes and snatches of writing. He pointed a finger and said, “My words nan’t for you!” and then he scrambled away.
Tildy shook her head, and then noticed an older man watching them surreptitiously, not far from Cobbfern. He wasn’t hiding, but he wasn’t making his intentions clear, either. His mess of gray hair and the state of his clothes suggested he’d spent many days living out of doors. Terrible at guessing age, Tildy thought him about the same age as the witch, though she was probably wrong. His skin was browned by the sun or by lineage. Either way, he bore the look of one not often seen in this country. Tildy hoped he would come to their table so she could hear tales of distant lands. His clothes, too, were strange. He wore heavy pants designed to accept much wear, though they were long stained from dirt and the cuffs were frayed. His shirtsleeves were an endless crisscross of creases, some with threadbare folds. A traveling cloak hung from his belt. His dark brown leather boots looked soft, with soles thick and hearty.
It was the pipe that caught her full attention, however. Slender and pale green, as though made from living sapling, it extended in a long gentle curve away from his lips. Unlike other pipes, tendrils of smoke spilled out of the bowl like water and tumbled to the ground. Even from this distance, her keen nose caught its pungent smell: a foreign scent, bitter but not unpleasant.
The man continued watching, apparently unaware of Tildy. At first, his curiosity felt more akin to spying, but he seemed steeling himself to approach. Did he want to buy something? Perhaps he feared the witch, yet needed her?
“Oy! You lass, get away from there!”
Tildy looked over to see a young street urchin reaching for one of the wares at the end of the table. Like a rabbit trapped by prey, she stood frozen, ready to flee if she found an escape.
Tildy spotted the man pursuing the girl. He was over-fat, with ruddy cheeks and bulbous nose. The feather in his cap indicated he was a sheriff, but she knew the man used that as an excuse to bully those who couldn’t defend themselves. She had not a thimbleful of care for people like that. “Leave her alone, you skag-face,” she said, standing upright, a mere twig before a mighty oak.
The man stalked up in a huff. “You can see I’m a sheriff, boy,” he began, a waft of alcohol chasing his words across his lips.
“Girl?” He guffawed. “I’d never’ve guessed. Girl, if I had a face like that—”
She cut him off. “You’d be the tallest and fattest thirteen-year-old girl in Empyrelia, but you’d get more kisses than you do now, you big prat.” Tildy crossed her arms with a satisfied smile, even though she’d never been kissed herself. Once, an older boy who fancied himself a poet had described her eyes as ‘golden halos that descended through mahogany into blackness’, but that had only earned him a punch in the mouth.
The man’s mouth opened and closed. It had been awhile since she’d struck one of these stupid oafs speechless, so she offered to give him an out. “Shoo!” she said. “You’ve done your job. Shoo.”
Apparently deciding she was too much work, he looked down for easier prey. Unfortunately for him, the urchin had slipped away during the distraction. With a dark look at Tildy – that did not include a retort – he stormed off.
She turned to find he adoptive mother talking with a customer, but she caught a wink from the witch’s eye. This brought a smile to Tildy’s face. Remembering what she had been doing, she looked for the man with the pipe, but he was gone. He didn’t reappear for the remainder of the day, though the market was so busy, Tildy barely had a spare thought to give him. Sooner than she would have thought, the shadows began to lengthen before the sinking sun. The afternoon waned on, and the masters of Wayfahren would want the market closed so people would spend foolish amounts of coin at the Middenfaire. Their stores much depleted, Tildy and the witch packed up the barrow and left their table. Occasionally they stopped to give a few haypennies to urchins that were daring enough to approach the witch. Tildy smiled. Her adoptive mother always rewarded boldness. As they left Wayfahren behind, Tildy finally remembered to mention the man to the witch.
“Oh, he was probably too embarrassed to ask for something to cure some manly faltering he was experiencing. You know how men are when it comes to that sort of thing.”
“No, I really don’t,” said Tildy honestly.
“Well, men are often babies when it comes to their own ailments. Tough enough with their sword in hand, but when the sword falters…” she trailed off, leaving Tildy more confused. “Perhaps he got what he needed from someone else. A male vendor, maybe.”
Tildy wasn’t so sure. Even though he had been across the street, he seemed on the verge of walking over or saying something every time she looked over at him. She supposed the witch was right. Her instincts usually were.
They arrived in Dappledown with the setting of the sun. The winter apple tree glowed a cool white while a few other trees seemed alive with green fire. This was one of Tildy’s favorite times of day in the garden of Dappledown, although if truth be told, she loved being here at any hour. And during the night, oh, how the stars shone like a careless scattering of diamonds upon a velvet cloth.
Upon entering the cottage, the witch went about lighting various candles on the first floor whilst Tildy put away their unsold goods. They’d done a fair trade at the market, so she had less to do than usual. She smiled when she realized all the tildenethia had sold. After a late meal, they relaxed in the cottage’s cozy library, an inviting room that impossibly held more books than the space should allow. Tildy sat comfortably within a nest of pillows beneath a round window, cross-legged and completely engrossed in The Firedrake and the Fell Knight. Her adoptive mother sat in her favorite chair, shaped to fit her perfectly. Tildy often stared at the intricate carvings that swooped and swirled, expecting them to uncurl at any moment. She disliked its lack of cushions, but the witch claimed it was the most comfortable chair she’d ever known.
Tildy realized she’d just read the same passage four times. Something had been on her mind all day, hiding in the back of her head until she had the leisure to give it more thought. A light whiff of the smudge ointment beneath her nose brought it to the fore. She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep if she didn’t put thought to word. “I was thinking,” she began, setting down her book. She knew the witch didn’t like being interrupted while reading, but she also encouraged Tildy to speak up when it came to important things. This seemed important enough. At least, enough to distract Tildy from what was normally a captivating story.
“Hmmm?” the witch said, not lifting her head.
“About my face swelling up from the tumesca. Do you think I could control that?”
“No,” the witch said, turning a page, “most humans have that reaction to the leaf.”
Tildy knew she wasn’t engaging the witch, but she pressed on nonetheless. “I mean, after my face swelled. Do you think my abilities could control that?”
The witch looked up and studied Tildy’s face. “Ah,” she said with a smile. “Now that is an intriguing question.” She placed her book in her lap, suddenly interested. “Very good! I wondered the same thing myself, though I had put the thought aside until the next time something like this happened.”
“Well, I think I might have reduced the swelling myself.”
The witch’s eyebrows rose until they nearly reached her gray curls. She smiled. “I thought the swelling abated rather quickly. I assumed less of the leaf had touched your face than it appeared.”
Tildy had so many thoughts, she wasn’t really listening. “It seemed.” She paused searching for the perfect word. Not finding one, she simply said, “It seemed stronger today than it has before. Do you think this is related to Healing Day?”
“I have not heard of such a thing, but if Healing Day affects plants, why not animals and Humans? The moon affects wolves and dogs, of course. There are many forces in the world, Tildy, and some circle us in the sky. I am afraid we shall not know until a year from now.”
That hadn’t occurred to Tildy, but she looked out the small library window. “I don’t think it’s midnight yet.”
The witch laughed. “No, not just yet. Shall I retrieve some more tumesca?”
“No!” Tildy laughed with her, but had one more thing to say. “I mean, it would be rather useful, don’t you think? To reduce the swelling like that?” And eliminate the need for the smudge, she thought.
“Yes and no,” the witch mused. “Swelling and pain are voices of the body telling you that something is wrong.”
“But we have medicinal leaves for both,” Tildy interrupted, eager to hear the answer she wanted. “Surely, they also quiet those ‘voices’.”
“That is true,” the witch conceded. “They speed up recovery or suppress feeling. The difference for you, I think, is that you would likely be moving the swelling elsewhere. Without full control, you could accidentally shift it toward your throat, choking yourself.” Tildy swallowed. “That might be a greater attempt than it seems. We should be cautious.” Seeing Tildy’s frown, she added, “This is not my last word on the subject.”
Feeling both chastised and encouraged, Tildy continued. “Sometimes I feel like I can shift my skin around. The color and shape. Deliberately, I mean. And once or twice I thought—” she trailed off, trying to find the words. “I thought I felt my bones grow or bend.”
The witch leaned forward. “How long have you felt like you had control?”
The question surprised Tildy because the witch seemed to have been expecting this. “A few months, maybe.”
“Perhaps around your thirteenth birthday during the winter?”
Now that Tildy thought about it, that did sound right. She nodded.
“Fascinating. I always suspected this day would come. And now, perhaps, you are becoming a woman, bringing on more than the typical changes girls experience.” Tildy shifted uncomfortably, having heard horror stories of girls reaching womanhood. Not noticing her discomfiture, the witch carried on: “You have been unintentionally doing these things for years, you know. Almost for as long as I have known you. But you never seemed to have deliberate control—aside from your wings. The changes seemed more akin to breathing or the beat of your heart, your body’s responses to specific needs. Like that time your skin mottled darkly and your hair curled up like brown moss so you could hide from me in the woods.”
“You were so mad!” Tildy giggled.
“Mostly I was worried.”
“Mostly you were mad!”
“Hmph,” the witch said, grumpily. “My point is, I think in time, maybe you would have astounding control. But as I said before, we proceed with caution. I do not think trying something impulsive is wise on the darker side of midnight.”
Tildy frowned in disappointment. They still had an hour at least. “Alright,” she responded, somewhat deflated. The witch’s interest had diminished, and she was returning to her prudent self. Not wanting further unnecessary words of caution, she changed the subject. “What are you reading?”
“Mer Valume, Mer Damoten,” the witch replied, holding it up. Tildy saw a fire in her eyes. “An ancient story written about a man who chooses his death to save his family. It is a translation into the common tongue from the Elvish Silvarin, which had been translated from Keskadril, the dead language of a forgotten people.”
“Sounds dreadfully dull,” Tildy replied, stifling a coincidental yawn.
The witch put the book down and looked at Tildy, taking in every detail of her face until Tildy felt uncomfortable.
“What?” Tildy asked.
The witch smiled, a wistfulness in her eyes. “The author, whose name has been lost to time, wrote that his book is the one thing beyond his children, that he hoped would live forever. Hmm,” she said, shaking her head. “I have not read this since before you came into my life, Tildeneth, so I do not think I truly understood him until now.”
Tildy blushed, but before she could respond, a distant barrage of knocking rang down the passageway. Wondering who would come calling at this hour, she looked at her adoptive mother. The witch’s face showed the equal parts annoyance and resignation, as if she had been expecting bad news that had finally arrived. Tildy followed as she walked to the entrance hall.
The witch pulled open the door, catching the man off-guard as his ear pressed to the door. Regaining his balance, he exclaimed, “Gudwith! I’ve found you at last.” Anything else he wanted to say in greeting was stifled as he wheezed for breath.
Tildy thought the man must have found the wrong cottage since ‘Gudwith’ was not the witch’s actual name. But then again, this was the only cottage in the forest of Eddlweld. Tildy’s eyes went first to a mass of gray hair tangled with twigs. He seemed to have been fighting a losing battle with the trees. A pale broken stick poked out from a pocket, entangled with a length of leather string. His face was lined and dark, perhaps near the age of the witch herself. He looked somewhat familiar.
“It’s him!” she exclaimed to the witch. “The man from the market, the one who stared at us.”
The witch looked at Tildy for a moment before addressing the man. “I thought I caught a scent of harsfell leaf in the market today, but I wouldn’t have expected you to have picked up the habit.” She scrutinized his face again and nodded. “So you were the one spying on us today, Demensen.”
The man seemed unabashed, and spoke quickly while his lungs gasped. “Wasn’t sure you’d know me after all this time. I needed to talk to y’ alone, and there was no chance today! Your market was filled with so many people. I followed y’ into the woods, but lost you immediately. And now I’ve found you by lucky chance. I found th’ most curious path—”
“Lucky chance,” repeated the witch, cutting him off. “Perhaps. But perhaps not. We shall see. Now, come inside before my candlelight beckons all the moths of the forest!” Tildy looked at the nearest candle and saw two moths had already found their way into the cottage. They burst into orange flame before descending to the floor as black ash. The witch guided the man to a kitchen chair and then stood before him, her back to Tildy. “It has been many years, Demensen. Many years and more since I have been called Gudwith.”
© Michael Wallevand, November 2018