Frantic pounding at the door coerced the witch out of her favorite sitting chair by the hearth and hobbling across the floor of her cottage. Many people came to entreat for her help, and almost always at inconvenient times. Like today, after super, when she had just sat down to give her weary bones a rest.
Having many people come to her for help, and having helped many people in her time, the witch was good at identifying said problems before a word was spoken. So when she opened the door to see a young woman with a silk embroidered dress rain plastered to her shivering form and with a face that had the famous royal peaked nose, she said, “Let me guess… Arranged marriage?”
The young woman, who was none other than the princess herself, gave a curt nod but her eyes were wide in the frightened way. The witch sighed and opened the door wider.
There was a process for these sort of things: blankets tucked around shoulders, tea brewed, fire stoked for a long burn, and then only after all that the conversation could be started. So often the ones who showed up on the witch’s doorstep for aid were rushed to tell their stories and plead their cases, fumbling over their words doing so. After years of this, their urgency grew boring to her. There wasn’t any problem the witch hadn’t heard and helped out with at least eight times. In counter, she decided everyone involved should be comfortable and settled before the matters at hand were discussed.
The witch carried two cups of tea over to the princess, navigating steps around pots laid out on the floor to catch pinging drops sneaking in from leaks in the roof. She was used to seeing the runaways who came to her slope-shouldered and cowering, but the princess sat without a hint of a slouch. She accepted her earthenware tea cup with prim fingers.
The witch eased herself into a wicker chair across from the princess. “Out with it then,” she said.
“My family chose my future husband for me,” the princess said. “But I don’t want him.”
“Is he cruel? Or old? Or ugly?” the witch asked. These were the reasons she usually heard, with some of them being more valid objections than the others.
“No, ma’am,” the princess said.
The witch choked on a sip of tea. She wasn’t used to being referred to something as nicely as ‘ma’am.’
“I get it,” the witch said after clearing her throat. “You want to marry for love.”
Then, the princess said something that surprised the witch even though she had enough beggars-of-help at her door over her many years to think that she couldn’t be surprised anymore.
“No,” the princess said. “I don’t want to get married at all.”
The princess told her tale and once she was done with it, the witch said, “Well, that doesn’t need a spell. Just a disguise… I suggest you learn how to slouch.”
The witch watched as the princess tried to loosen the hold of her straight back, but it just came across as uncomfortable shifting.
“The other thing you’ll need…” She paused to drain the end of her tea cup. “Is a means to support yourself. If you plan to stay unmarried. Can you sew?”
The princess shook her head.
Again, her head shook.
The witch rubbed a pair of fingers at her temple. “Cobble?”
The witch sighed.
“I know how to write poetry,” the princess said, in eager volunteering.
“That’s no good to anyone,” the witch said.
“I’m also a very good ballroom dancer.”
“And I can organize dinner parties.”
“Does this look like the type of village where people have dinner parties?” The witch sighed. “Look, I assume you’re not unintelligent, just that you haven’t the opportunity to learn a trade. You still can. You’re still young. Until then… I guess you can stay here.”
The princess flung up from her seat with the bounciness, energy, and fluidity of youth that had long ago bypassed the witch. She then flung her arms around the witch’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” the princess said. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
The witch could guess, a little bit. She could guess that she might be the only one in a hundred miles that would respect the girl’s plight enough to give actual aid, instead of turning her back over to her family and the search parties that were sure to follow, whether out of allegiance to kingdom or money reward.
By heck, the witch might be in the best at witchery on this side of the mountain ridge, but there was a reason she lived in a cottage with a leaky roof: She had never been a particularly good business woman.
A week of rain may have slowed them down, but the day the search party did arrive in the village, the witch threw open her door wide like she had nothing to hide in the cramped and cluttered space of her cottage.
“No one here but me and my niece,” she said.
When the guards peered past the old woman’s crooked self to see a young woman with close cropped hair, color faded from copper to mousy with the addition of fire soot and dressed in peasant grab, they of course determined she couldn’t be her Highness, the Royal Princess. It helped that most of them had probably never seen the princess, save for painted portraits or from afar during some ceremony. They were sure, though, her royal glory would be instantly recognizable especially against the rundown backdrop of a village like this one, if she was indeed even here. Even more, there was no way she’d be in this cottage with a known witch other than unwillingly, and this girl was busy mending the hem of a witch’s cloak.
“Ouch,” the peasant girl exclaimed when her thumb became a victim of a needle.
“We’ll leave you to your work, ma’ams. But if you see anything…”
“I’ll hightail it to the castle myself to let their Highnesses know. Bye now.” She closed the door on them, already annoyed. All went to plan, but annoyed she was nonetheless; it happened when you got older and your patience as well as your joints started to go.
“I don’t think I have it cut to be a seamstress,” the princess said. The needle stabbing the guards witnessed hadn’t been the first since the princess had been set to this task.
“You don’t have it cut out to be anything but a squatter right now,” the witch replied. The princess was remarkably unflapped by the guards, but the witch had given her a fill of soothing tea for the last few days in preparation of the moment. “But no one is cut out for anything until after they practice.” She yanked the cloak from the princess’ hands and inspected the lopsided stitches that indeed showed no promise after several days of lessons.
“At least you’ll be able to mend your clothes good enough to look like a vagrant,” the witch muttered under her breath.
“What else had you mentioned?” the princess asked, unhearing of the criticism. “Cobbling?”
The witch released an exhausted sigh. Damn her gentle heart.
Sometimes her back failed her. Punishment for being old, for spending too many years hunched over her herb gardens, her boiling pot, or her work table.
“I thought we were going into town today,” the princess said, her voice lingering a question at the end. She had kneeled down beside the witch’s bed, a narrow thing set between the wall and the hearth. The princess had been sleeping on a roll out pallet on the opposite side of the hearth. The witch had gotten the pallet years ago; she had homed enough wayward souls in her time.
“Not today, lass,” the witch said, her voice coming out a croak that matched her outward appearance. “Today’s not a day for moving.”
“Are you alright?”
The witch shifted on her pillow and moaned. “No.”
“What can I –”
“A potion. In the cabinet. Top shelf. Green bottle, cork stopper. Bring it here.”
Laying with her eyes shut, the witch heard the princess rush across the room and rifled through the cabinet. Bottles and jars clinked, clattered, and thudded in a way that would’ve made her cringe if she hadn’t known from the long-standing tradition of pain that even a cringe would send a spike of hurt through her.
“This?” the princess said, coming back to the witch’s side.
The witch peaked one eye open. “Yes. That. Open it.” The cork popped. “Hand it to me.” She held out a feeble arm.
“Um,” the princess said, even as she laid the glass vial in the witch’s hand. “It’s empty.”
The witch could tell just from the weight of it that it was indeed; still, she tipped the rim to her mouth, hoping for any spare drop. None. It was bone dry. She remembered now using it up last month in the midst of weeding season when her wrists were the bones bothering her. But she had been busy then with all the potions she been making for a pair of pregnant sisters in the town that her own refills had been put at the end of the order line and then forgotten.
She wanted to fling the bottle across the room, but her limited range of motion precluded it. Instead she had to suffice with dropping it. She dropped it.
“I could… could go to town” the princess started, the words fumbly, unsure. After all, all her problems had always probably been solved by ordering a servant to find what was needed. “Buy some for you.”
“I’m the witch in these parts. You aren’t going to find any of this in town… Nothing for me to do for it but sleep it off and hope it gets better.”
“I could,” the princess’ word caught again against her teeth before spilled out in whole, “Make more?”
The offering hung in the air. A ridiculous idea as the princess had no training in potion making and thus far had shown little potential in the handicrafts or domestic arts. This was a potion the witch could whip up without consulting her recipe book, but was no means simple.
“Well,” the witch said, “I suppose there’s nothing better to do.”
“These herbs?” the Princess asked after her third trip out to the garden. It took a moment for the witch’s eyes to focus on the green offering the girl held up.
“Yes,” she said. “Finally.”
A little defensive, the princess said, “A lot of leaves are fan-shaped.”
“Just drop three of them in the potion, untouched.”
This should be the true test of any witch’s competency, explaining your potion making process step by step for someone else’s hands to do. Someone who didn’t know what a pestle was or the difference between slicing and mincing.
“They’re in,” the princess called from the work table.
“Now stir, sunwise, ten times. Only ten. Hear me on that?”
“Yes, I hear you,” the princess replied, short. The witch wasn’t used to being talked back to with attitude. Most that showed up at her door were too desperate for help or too scared of her to show anything other than reverence. The princess, she supposed, was similarly not used to be ordered around by strange old women. What a pair they made.
After a time that it could’ve taken to stir anywhere from eight to fifteen circles, the princess peeped up, “Um…”
Oh, no, thought the witch. What a useless venture. Useless from the start and a waste of ingredients.
“Is it supposed to be turning yellow?”
Oh, thought the witch, a counterturn. A pleasant surprise. How unexpected.
“That’s exactly what it’s supposed to be turning,” she said.
There were a few more steps after this point: a sprinkling pinch of ground tortoise shell, a slow brew over the fire, and the final snap which served as the hit of intention necessary for good magic.
“You just want me to snap? Over the pot?” the princess asked.
“Just do it, girl,” the witch said. “Think about what your making and what you want it to do.”
After a lingering quiet, the witch was satisfied when she her the click of fingers.
“Now bring some here.”
The princess brought a careful amount over balanced in the bowl of ladle. She helped the witch guide it to her lips without spilling all over the blankets.
The witch’s lips puckered after she managed down the first gulp.
“Is it… alright?” the princess asked.
With care, the witch pushed herself up into a sitting position on the bed, her body eased of pain. “If doesn’t taste foul,” the witch said. “Then you didn’t do it right.”
The princess blinked. She was kneeling on the floor beside the bed. Oh, to be young and not have that kill your knees in seconds.
“You did good, girl,” the witch said. “I’m already on the mend.”
Yes, she had done very good. Usually good, indeed.
“What exactly does a witch do?” the princess asked, whittling away at a thumbnail between her teeth. “I know about potions.”
“Potions, talismans, charms… for health, luck, fortune. For fertility, or for the opposite.” She amused herself with the blushing of the girl’s checks. How amusing it was to watch someone soft enough to be shocked by anything, let alone human nature. Or, at least, some human’s nature.
“Do you…” the princess started, still working over that thumbnail. It was a very unroyal gesture. “Curse people?”
“Now that’s just nasty rumors,” the witch said sourly.
“I just needed to know,” the princess said, words tumbling out. “Needed to make sure.”
The witch counted five snake fangs into the pestle as the princess watched her work. All the local boys knew they could make a few pennies by collecting them from the snakes killed about town and bringing them to her door. The ones that were brave enough. Only after she double counted the number, for it was better to correct a mistake before it became one, did she speak.
“When you’re a witch,” she said. “People come to you to solve their problems. That’s what the job is. A problem-solver. No cursing needed…” She snorted. “The older I get the more I see that most problems don’t need an application of magic to be solved. Just an application of common sense.”
Sometimes it was an application of a roof over a runaway’s head.
“Could anyone do it?” asked the princess.
“Not anyone,” the witch said. “You need to have the certain sort of patience for it.”
A little noise sounded in the back of the princess’ thought. A half-aborted laugh. The witch was very terse, but she had the patience and diligence necessary for her chosen line of work.
After all this stated, the princess then asked the question that had been lying in wait on the edges of the conversation.
“Could — Could I do it? Could I be a witch?”
The witch couldn’t lie to herself. She had been thinking the same since the princess had made the healing potion. She had shown a natural aptitude, even if she had only been acting as the hands.
The witch worked her knobbly hands harder over a pestle, grinding snake fangs into a fine dust.
Her knuckles ached at the brutality of the task. She loosened her grip on the pestle, stilling in her work.
“Let me,” the princess said, suddenly by the witch’s side. The witch let her. She wasn’t a woman of insurmountable pride and the girl was filled with that eager energy to prove herself. Let her. It made the witch’s life a little easier. At least for a little bit.
“It’s lonely work,” the witch said. “Everyone comes to you for help, but they avoid you all the rest of the time. Think you’re strange. Creepy.”
“But it’s good work,” the princess said. “Helpful. Needed.”
“Yes, it’s that too.”
The princess’ hands were sure and steady around the mortar and pestle, especially for her first time using them being two days ago.
“You’re not going to change your mind about running away?” the witch asked. “About not being a princess anymore? About… the rest of it?”
“Well,” the princess said, lifting the pestle to inspect the fineness of the dust. “I haven’t yet.”
Before they knew it a month had passed. A luck talisman was traded with a local carpenter for a bedframe. The princess ran errands in town with the witch’s money. People were beginning to recognize her as the witch’s niece, or apprentice, or ‘enchanted into service’ servant depending on who was doing the telling.
No one expected her as the missing princess even though she was the same age and showed up around the same time. And they were keeping an eye out to, with rewards posted and fancying themselves all heroes. None of them had ever seen a royal, but they expected to recognize the princess’ dignity of spirit or whatnot. Dignity of spirit that was definitely not possessed by a witch’s apprentice with sloppy chopped hair and mud splattered all the way up her hem. The obfuscation charm the princess wore as a necklace helped with any locals were astute beyond average means.
And so even another month passed, and then came a sun-battered summer day spent out in the gardens, the witch leaning on a newly acquired walking stick in a stubborn admittance of age and the princess getting her knees and hands dirty weeding.
“No, not that one,” the witch would snipe every so often, and “Yes, that,” tapping the princess’ foot with her walking stick in emphasis. She found she liked this new extension of herself. Great for brandishing as well as walking.
She also found she liked the other extension of herself, the girl she was putting to the laborious work the witch’s body could no longer manage.
There were aplenty of things in the witch’s life that she just tolerated: the dryness of bread, the cramped size of her cottage, the children who were dared to knock on her door before darting away. There were things like the meaningfulness of her work that kept her satisfied. There weren’t many things around that she considered nice.
Having someone to help out with her work was nice. Having someone to teach all her years’ learned knowledge was nice. Thinking about how her village and the neighboring town and the next runaway royal wouldn’t be left in a lurch after the witch eventually outright died like all things did was nice.
And the princess and the way she took to the study with pinched-eyebrow concentration, eagerness, and thoughtful questions… well, the princess who was no longer a princess but an apprentice witch was in and of herself was nice.
And busy chatting away while kneeling in the garden. The witch was an expert of grumbling under her breath, but she had never been chatty.
“I never favored the idea of marriage,” the princess said. “Of being a wife and a mother and attending to my husband’s affairs for the rest of my life. But I was assured I’d grow into it. Grow into understanding. Change my mind. I… I believed that I would. Until I was given the betrothal announcement, and then I realized that there was no more growing up for me to do. It was there, in front of me, and I still didn’t want it.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” the witch said.
“You’re the first person who’s understood.”
“Well, do you see a husband hanging around about here?” the witch countered, and they never said anything else on the matter. They never needed to.
Margery Bayne is a librarian by day and a writer by night who delves into the literary and the speculative. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University in 2012, placed 2nd in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Writing Contest, and has had short fiction published in various literary magazines. More about her and her work can be found at www.margerybayne.com.