[Note: I start my summer schedule this week, so I’ll be catching up on illustrations. Thanks for your patience!]
As the Human moved deeper into the forest, the trees grew closer together, but not as tall or straight as before. Their branches intertwined, as did their roots, creating the appearance of an immense, many-trunked organism. The sky was completely blocked, and the Human was grateful for the glow that made its way from the crystal through the turtle shell. The Human stopped short. There had been movement out among the trees. Peering, the Human saw lights dancing about through the woods and heard faint strains of distant singing. Having heard enough stories about what happened to travelers who followed fairy lights, the Human remained on the trail and continued on.
The trail made a sharp turn and abruptly opened up onto a clearing. Unlike the one with the great tree, however, this area of the forest was not soft and green. It was dark and full of stones. Standing in the center was a small house. At first it seemed to be a normal cottage, but its shape seemed to twist and none of the corners were true. And every time the Human looked, it seemed have subtly altered those corners. It felt like part of the cottage was always just out of sight. Drawing closer, the Human saw that what had at first appeared to be piles of firewood were in fact crouching legs. The cottage could walk! The Human had heard of such places back in the Present, and had heard many stories of those who dwelt within. A Witch with such a home would have great power, but would also be extremely dangerous. She would be as likely to destroy the Human as help, and would want a high price for any aid. Standing straight, the Human gathered what courage was available and approached the door.
The door whispered open as the Human raised a hand to knock. The doorway was pitch black. The forest had gone completely silent and a breeze, the first the Human had felt in this land, pushed from behind, urging the Human to enter.
“If you’re going to disturb me, it’s rude to be slow about it,” muttered a low voice from the dark. “It is foolish to waste a Witch’s time,” it continued. The Human stepped forward.
In a sudden blink, the dark of the doorway disappeared, and the Human was now standing in the center of a foyer. The cozy entrance room had doors leading off into several directions, including back the way the Human had come. That door, though, was closed tightly, although the Human had not closed the door when entering. Looking around, the Human saw four doors. No, three. No, five. As soon as a door would pass out of the Human’s sight, it could change location, appearance, and size, or disappear altogether. The Human turned with a start as a door to the right, a wooden one coated in worn red paint, opened and a voice called out.
“Wipe your feet and come in,” it called. The Human looked down and a doormat had appeared in front of the red door. Carefully wiping off the dust of the road, the Human entered.
This room was a small library. Shelves of books lined each of the four, no, five, no… never mind, walls. In the center of the room was a small pit in the floor where a fire shimmered. It flickered faster than fires in the Present, and while it was primarily red, yellow and orange, other colors appeared for brief flashes. It gave off an appealing warmth. Over the fire, a tripod held a kettle that was just starting to boil. Next to the fire was a pile of cushions of many colors and styles. Seated cross-legged in the pile was the Witch.
“Have a seat,” the Witch said, nodding to a cushioned stool that had appeared behind the Human. The door the Human had used to enter the room seemed to have vanished. The Human sat.
“Thank you for…,” the Human began.
“How do you take your tea?” interrupted the Witch. “I have quite a variety of options,” the Witch gestured to a wooden box on the Human’s lap. Its lid was ajar, revealing a dozen or more small glass jars with dried leaves of every color, as well as some items that the Human did not recognize. Was that a beetle? The Human found one that appeared to be regular black tea and handed it over to the Witch.
“Sugar? Honey? Lemon? Aether? Ichor?” the Witch cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Um. Plain is fine,” murmured the Human. The Witch gestured, and the Human found that the box had been replaced with a fine porcelain saucer and handleless cup. Both were painted in delicate lines that seemed to have meaning, although they did not have the look of words. In response to another of the Witch’s gestures, hot, black tea appeared in the cup. The Human quickly took hold of the saucer to avoid spilling the cup’s contents. The aroma was intoxicating. Floral, but deep and warm. The Human tried to hide a cautious sniff to see if this was actually tea, but the small smile on the Witch’s face made it clear this attempt was unsuccessful. The Witch raised a similar cup filled with a deep red liquid that glowed slightly, and took a sip. The Human did the same with the tea. It was, quite simply, the best tea the Human had ever had.
“So. You are my guest. I have served you tea. Do your people follow the rules of hospitality? Do you know what this means?” asked the Witch, taking another sip. The cup now contained a crystalline blue liquid that gave off small sparks.
“Yes, I do. Thank you,” answered the Human, bowing slightly. “I must say this is not the reception I expected.”
“I’m sure. I’ve no intent to open an teahouse. The spooky door thing does help keep away traveling salesmen, though,” the Witch chuckled.
“You are not what I expected, either,” ventured the Human.
“You expected something more along the lines of ancient and evil crone? Maybe with a bad eye and lots of warts? Bones in her hair and fewer teeth than fingers, and not a full set of those, either?” the Witch asked with a raised brow.
“Well, the stories,” began the Human.
“Psh!” the Witch waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t speak to me of stories. Tell me how you see me.”
The Human started to reply, and then stopped, unsure of what to say.
“Let me guess, I’m not fitting into any convenient descriptors, right?” prompted the Witch.
“I…” started the Human before giving up. The Witch wore a robe of shifting deep reds and purples, with tiny bones stitched into the fabric, making intricate, whirling patterns, belted with what appeared to be a living vine that reached out tendrils to grasp nearby objects. The Witch was neither old, nor young. Neither light, nor dark. Neither female, nor male. The Witch was not simply in between these extremes, but rather seemed to be shifting along each continuum from one moment to the next.
“You should know that my appearance is just what you can perceive of my nature. How many doors did you see in the foyer?” The Human took a second to follow the shift in topic.
“I am not sure. At first I thought four, but…”
“My house is not fully in this realm, and neither am I. We are a matched pair,” the Witch patted the floor affectionately, “and we have been together for a very, very long time. I am not from this place any more than you are, but I am not from the Present. I extend through all realms and all places. I know your people, but many other peoples consider me to be their own. Your people fear me, and for good reason. I am not to be challenged or annoyed.” The Witch’s eyes became very dark at that last, and the room dimmed although the fire seemed very bright. The Witch sat back into the cushions, appearing calm once more and the room brightened. “I want to hear why you have come to me. I want to hear what you seek.”
“I seek my family. My love and our children. They were lost to me and I am trying to find them.”
“And then what? Throw yourself into Oblivion? Do you wish me to help you destroy yourself?”
“No. I wish for them to remember me and themselves. I want them back. Back as I knew them.”
The Witch shook their head sadly. “That will not be possible. They cannot return to the Present. Neither can you, at this point. Your Moment is long gone.”
“I understand that.”
The Witch leaned forward, leaning their chin on their hand, elbow resting on their knee. “Then what, pray tell, do you want from me?”
“I met a man on the path through the forest. He said you knew how to help my family remember. To regain their true selves and avoid Oblivion.”
“Ah. I see. He told the truth. I extend through time, and can see many paths. I can tell you how to return your family’s minds. I even know how to return them to a semblance of solidity, such as you possess. But, what are you willing to pay me for this knowledge? Is it not customary to pay for such a valuable bit of assistance?” The Witch’s smile had become uncomfortably wide, with a predatory edge. “Keep in mind that I have all that I desire. My home is infinite and I can create what I need. What could a temporary thing like you offer me?”
“I have my walking stick. The great tree said it had power, and it did protect me in the Dark. I have this container given to me by Turtle. It is sturdy and holds more than it appears to. I have these,” the Human took the crystal and mirror from the container, “from the Rock King and the Water Mother. That is all I possess.”
The Witch was suddenly sitting very close to the Human, and leaned in close. Their breath was alternately hot and cold, and the Human saw that the pupils of their eyes were not solid black, but appeared to have tiny lights within them. Lights seemed very far away, like stars.
“Oh, you have much more than that. True, these things have power. That wood is as ancient as I, and nothing evil can bear its touch. Anything placed in that container can never be stolen from you, no matter how deft the thief. That crystal will ever light your way. The mirror, ah, I’ll leave that for you to discover.” The Witch covered the mirror with their palm and placed it back in the container, along with the crystal. “I have marvels that put them all to shame. No, what you have to trade is something unique to yourself. Something I cannot create or call to me.” The Witch reached out a finger and touched the center of the Human’s brow. “You have a soul. Love. Memories. Stories. All unique to you. As brief as you are, you have something I cannot steal, any more than I could take that container from your shoulder. But, if you trade them willingly, then I could possess them.” The Witch licked their lips lightly and sat back, sighing lightly. “What will you trade? What is worth the souls of those you love?”
The Human sat for a long moment, considering. “I can tell you a story.”
“A story. Why would a story be worth what I can give you? You lose nothing in the telling, so it hardly seems fair.”
“You would lose nothing by telling me how to help my family, so I would argue we would be even,” answered the Human, too quickly to have considered the consequences of contradicting the Witch. The room went deathly silent. The fire no longer moved, and the steam from the teacups froze in midair. The Witch’s hair was the only thing that moved. It rose as if in a wind, now long and dark threaded with black. The Witch rose, still cross-legged, a few feet into the air and all the light in the room seemed to pull away from the two of them.
“You seek to haggle for the souls of your family?” asked the Witch is a voice that was barely audible, but yet resonated with great power. The Human nodded slowly, gripping the walking stick tightly and hoping that it might help protect against this being. The moment held for an impossibly long time. Then, suddenly, the room lightened, the fire resumed its dance with a burst of color, and the tea steamed warmly. The Witch settled back on the cushions and threw back their head in gales of laughter. The books on the shelves vibrated, and the Human had to clutch at the teacup to keep it from bouncing onto the floor.
“You know the value of stories, and I like your refusal to sell them cheaply!” laughed the Witch. “It has been many ages since someone thought to strike a truly fair bargain with me. Most cower and offer all that they have or try to swindle me. The first get the deal the offer, while the others,” the Witch’s smile was sharp, “they get a deal of my choosing. You, however, are honest, both in your intentions and in your assessment of your worth. We have a deal. Mind you, the story must be of great value to you.”
“It is. It is the story of how I found my love.”
“Ooh! I do enjoy a romance.” The Witch was now quite young and had curled into the cushions like a child ready for a nap. “Tell me your story.”