As the Human spoke, a strange thing happened. As the story was told, pictures arose in the air, becoming larger and more solid until it seemed that the Human and the Witch stood as invisible observers, seeing the events unfold before them.
There was a small hut, alone in the woods. It was barely a proper dwelling, and looked to have been patched together out of odds and ends from other homes. The flap of hide that covered the door pulled aside and a younger version of the Human stepped out, blinking against the light. This hut was outside the village proper, and the Human had built it as a refuge. It was a way to avoid having to face the prejudices held by those in the village and the questions as to why the Human was not yet married. The Human’s suitor had been rebuffed a month or so before, and the rumors were still sharp and cruel. The Human’s parents were not so, but they did not understand why such a favored match should be rejected. Gathering bits of scrap from the construction of other buildings, the Human had set up a small home to gain some independence and to think over recent events. A small garden stood to one side, and the Human earned coin by doing odd jobs around the village. It was an austere existence, but it was uncomplicated.
The Human might have lived as a hermit for years if not for a farmer who came from a neighboring town seeking laborers for building project. The Human volunteered and spent a week helping raise a barn. That week was to shape all that followed.
From the first, the Human was taken with the farmer and tried to find excuses for conversation, or even eye contact. This was a new feeling. Excitement, attraction, and a slight touch of nervousness were a sharp contrast to how things had felt with the suitor. The farmer, much to the Human’s delight, seemed to reciprocate the interest. By the end of the week, the farmer asked the Human to share a meal. This became a regular habit, with the two of them taking turns hosting. At first the Human was embarrassed to have a guest in such a small and simple home, but the farmer seemed wholly at ease. It seemed that there could be a real future for them.
And then that future appeared to crumble. While walking in town, the Human met one of the town elders, a woman who was much respected for her love of tradition. The woman marched up to the Human and demanded,
“What are you doing with that farmer?! You know very well that sort of thing is forbidden. I don’t know how they do things in that other town, but we won’t have that here.” She glared into the Human’s face for a long moment. “I should have known something was wrong with you when you turned down such a fine suitor. If you wish to remain in this village, you need to live as we do. I’ll see to it the council evicts you, see if I don’t.” She turned away sharply and marched back down the street. The Human stood, shocked immobile, for a long moment before carefully turning around and walking back home, refusing to give into the desire to flee.
That evening, when the farmer arrived for the usual meal, the hut was dark and the usual smell of food was absent. Opening the door, the farmer found the Human sitting at the small table, staring blankly at the embers of the dying fire.
“What has happened?” cried the farmer, hurrying to the Human’s side.
“I…,” began the Human, but only silence followed.
“Is it your parents? Are they alright?” asked the farmer, guessing at what could cause such distress. At a near whisper, the Human replied.
“I have been informed that I cannot continue to spend time with you if I wish to live in this village.”
The farmer sat down in the other chair, sagging into it.
“While it wasn’t in such clear terms, some in my town have suggested the same. I didn’t want to worry you about it. Maybe we should just leave.”
“But your farm!” protested the Human. “You have put years into building up a wonderful home! Your crops support the town!”
“Something those who whisper should have thought about before they challenged me,” said the farmer, chuckling. “My town has similar rules to yours as to who may marry whom, and it seems that my status will not buy me an exemption.”
“Marry?” said the Human in a small voice. The farmer paused a moment, reviewing that last sentence. Then, straitening, the farmer stood and walked around the table to the Human. The farmer took the Human’s hands and pulled, leading the Human to stand.
“Yes. Marry. Will you marry me?” the farmer asked, looking into the Human’s eyes with a broad smile.
“But, your farm! My parents!” began the Human.
“I didn’t ask about property law or your parents, although you know I like them well enough. I asked about you. Will you marry me?” The Human stood in stunned silence. That same question had come from the suitor, but in that case it had not been a question, but rather an offer. One that the Human was expected to accept, as the terms were so favorable. This felt very different. The Human drew up tall.
“Yes. I will!” The two stood there embracing for a long time until the farmer spoke.
“So,” came a voiced muffled by the Human’s shoulder, “are we going to eat?” The Human’s stomach growled in response and both broke out laughing, holding on to one another for support.
“I suppose we need to survive until our wedding, so starvation is unwise,” said the Human eventually. They worked together to make a meal out of what was on hand and spent the rest of the evening in happy company. For the first time, the farmer stayed the night, as it was far too late to walk home by the time the two of them had run out of conversation.
The next morning, the Human woke and found the farmer was sitting at the table, deep in thought.
“Good morning,” the Human said, rising and joining the farmer at the table. “You seem distracted.”
“I am. I am considering our options. My farm is doing well, but finding someone to buy it who can pay its worth will be a problem. Also, there are few places we will be allowed to live. Well, I am assuming there are _some_ places. None that I know of.”
“Same,” answered the Human. “What will we do?”
The two talked for a time and eventually came to a decision. The farmer would sell their farm for the best price that could be had in a reasonable time. It would not be enough to buy another farm elsewhere, though. There were places not claimed by any town or king where people could live in their own way. It would be dangerous, as that freedom came without protection. The money from selling the farm would be enough for a wagon, a mule, and supplies they would need for a homestead. They would start their own home on their own terms.
On a beautiful evening, as the moon rose through the trees, the Human and the farmer stood in the clearing near their home on the edge of the forest. They held one another’s hands and made their vows before whatever gods cared to listen. They were wed.
A few years passed and a nearby homestead was struck by tragedy. Both parents of that household were gravely injured when their cattle stampeded, leaving them near death. That couple had become dear friends with the Human and the farmer, and they asked that the two of them take in the couple’s baby should they not recover. They agreed. When the ranchers died a day later, the Human and the farmer became parents for the first time. The sorrow of the loss of such friends was balanced by the joy of raising such a child.
Time passed again, and the child was now old enough to follow the Human and the farmer into the garden to pull weeds and pick insects from plants. One morning, the Human awoke and, going outside for the outhouse, found a bundle of rags outside the front door. Upon inspection, it appeared to be a pair of infants! A note explained that the mother was unable to care for one child, much less two, and that word of the couple’s adoption of the rancher’s child had reached her ears. She asked that the Human and the farmer take in these children as well. When the farmer woke a few minutes later, it was to find the Human standing in the center of the cottage, an infant in each arm, rocking quietly with a bemused grin.
“What…,” began the farmer.
“It seems that our blessing,” the Human nodded towards the sleeping child on the other side of the room, “has attracted two more!”
The scene blurred and faded, and the Human was again in the Witch’s house. Although it felt as if hours had passed, the tea still steamed and the fire had not burned down. But then again, time could be a warped as anything else in this strange place.
“Oh, that was a good story,” sighed the Witch. “I shall treasure it.” They held a small, glowing pearl in one hand, which they tucked into a pocket where it joined several others. The Witch patted the pocket happily.
“You have met your side of the bargain, and I shall meet mine. In order for you to save your family, you must get them to the Future. It will not return them to life, as I have said, but they will regain what they have forgotten. They will know you and themselves.”
“I know of this city,” answered the Human. “What I do not know is how to find it and how to bring my family to it.”
The Witch peered at the Human and then laughed.
“I see you have been speaking to Rabbit and the Rock King and the Crow! You already know how to find the city…”
“I do not…” interrupted the Human before the Witch’s glare forced a return to silence.
“You do know, and that is that. What I can tell you to fulfill our bargain is this: Your family will follow you wherever your light may lead.” As the Witch finished speaking, the room began to shrink, rapidly. The Human jumped from the chair in anger.
“But that does not tell me anything! Riddles do not aid me!”
“And yet riddles are what you have!” replied the Witch. The room continued to shrink, and the Human crouched, afraid of being crushed by the walls. Instead, the room faded as it shrank, and the Human was again standing in the clearing in the forest, watching an image of the Witch’s room shrink into a point of light and vanish. The Human could just see the Witch standing in the room waving cheerfully.
The Witch’s house was gone. The only sign it had ever been there was a flattened area on the grass where it had sat, and a line of over-sized avian footprints leading into the dark of the woods. The Human was alone once more.