Two seconds upon her entrance into the tree hollow tavern, Mallory glowered at the fire in the hearth, making the flames blaze into intense warmth. But besides the flickering yellow in her eyes, that was it. She could do no more to harm anyone here. Partially because of policy that restricted magic, and partially because that was just her luck as the Thirteenth Witch.
The other witches there greeted her with snickers and laughter. She was famous for her failures here, but as ruined as her reputation was, she just needed whatever escape she could get like any other.
“True love’s kiss. I thought with the rarity of that I’d have a little insurance,” she muttered, shaking out the evening rain from her broom before setting it down.
“Ah yes, I heard,” said the smooth, patient voice of Olive, the white witch lounging closest to her, her nose in a book of spells (though they were really a book of stories). Her thick hair and white coat sparkled like untouched snow gracing the woods. She looked as if rain never once drenched her.
Mallory dreaded it but asked, “Well, what did you hear?
“A simple goodbye kiss,” Olive said, without looking up, “worked like a dream.” The white witch turned a page in her book.
Mallory scowled in disgust at the memory. It was awfully embarrassing how short that curse had lasted. The snow-white princess’s eyelids had fluttered right open (and there was much more passionate kissing after she had coughed up the poison apple bite.) The queen who had commissioned this unlucky witch for the curse wanted her heart for that. Good thing Mallory left her with the heart of a pig, with no sympathetic connection to her.
“Then there was the sleeping beauty,” Mallory muttered, summoning the bumbling bartender imps to pour her a drink. “Would you believe, a hundred years later, someone still heard of her?”
“Historical crushes,” Olive said, her gentleness tinged ever so slightly with laughter. “Darn humans and their telling of stories, right?” .
The imps poured her a drink that frothed over and overflowed like clumsy sorcerer’s apprentice chores. They had only one job, and they did it as well as they were able.
Mallory gulped half of it down in an instant, and the overflowing spilt drops flew backwards to refill the cup. She gulped that down as well, not caring how she looked. The imps hobbled over to the back to clean some glasses, which sometimes meant the casual sound of breaking glass.
“Then there was the beast,” she sulked, levitating the glass in front of her listlessly. “I was so sure of that one.” The half-empty cup spun like a lonely glass dancer, refracting little diamonds near the wall.
“I think deep down you wanted to see that curse broken,” said Olive, waving the imps back over for a drink as she sat beside her. “You didn’t really want them to give up, call it normal, and forget the magic. You wanted to watch it unfold, watch the mortals wrestle with what it means to be cursed.”
Mallory stared harder at her levitating drink, not saying a word. That beast did deserve some merit, though she’d never say so. The elder witches had ridiculed her enough for not inflicting horrendous pain. She stared until she let the cup slam upright on the table, the drink plopping down perfectly into it a second later.
“And the girl locked away in a tower! Who could have ever found her there?” Mallory said, downing her drink again. The desperate foster mother who had commissioned her for the stolen child was ever vengeful when the prince had come to rescue the rapunzel-named beauty. As she escaped flying scissors from the old woman, Mallory had made a mental note that the next child she stole, if any, better be no bigger than a thumb, and impossible to find again. Or maybe a simple swan or goose’s egg.
“My first curse didn’t go over so well, either,” confessed Olive beside her, as soon as her drink fluttered over to her.
Mallory nearly choked on her drink. “You? Curse?”
Olive simply stirred the drink with her pinky as a butterfly rested close to the lip of the cup. No lipstick stained the rim, like the kiss of a ghost.
Wasn’t Olive more in league with the faery godmother types, with their heavy frilly dresses and blessing of jewels spilling out of do-gooders’ mouths? Wasn’t she the one who would donate free sparkling dresses to the cinder-smudged poor out of thin air? But then Mallory remembered that the white witch often had to experiment to make do with the life she’d been given. Most faery godmothers worked from an instinct toward romance. “Well, what was it like?”
Olive took a sip. “Prince into a frog. You see, I knew the true love’s kiss would be too simply solved, no lessons learned. Face it, darling, love is everywhere, even between those we don’t call lovers. Guardians, children, brothers, allies and soulmates–they build their life on love without naming it as such. Mortals will only discover that more and more as the future comes. But I found a trick to my spell, so it’s no kiss that would break him free.”
Mallory stared, intrigued. “But then, what changed him back?”
Olive sighed. “Pissing a princess off, that’s what. Mortals can be afraid to make anyone mad, and that’s what would’ve kept him small and manageable.” She took another sip.
“So what happened?” asked Mallory, eyes fixed on the lovely lady while downing her drink.
“Darn thing was one of those,” said Olive, leaning in close and laying a hand on Mallory’s lap.
“Made a princess mad by asking! Should have known he had some sort of history.”
Mallory began laughing for the first time in a long time. Comfortably, in the company of another struggling witch where the lights were low. She could just imagine the entitled little prince, croaking and grinning, trying to compensate for amphibious size.
Olive delicately wiped her mouth, not a shade of lipstick out of place. “Well it was still worth trying, if you ask me. Magic keeps things interesting. The business of temporary curses in this economy is rough. Witches like us just have to try a little harder.”
Just then a witch from the back jeered, “It wouldn’t be so hard if you weren’t such a prude.”
The white witch’s eyes widened, her smile dropped, and she turned bright pink as she looked down. No tears shone from her eyes, but vines began to encircle her torso and arms, leaves began to unfold from her hair. Without her moving a muscle, green stems grew from her feet, and roots stretched from the soles of her feet. It mirrored one of her old temporary blessings, which involved reverting back into a pumpkin by midnight.
“Petite Treizième, you’re wasting your time getting advice from the pretty mandrake,” said another witch in the room.
“Dryad,” the white witch’s lips barely shaped the word, as if correcting people hardly mattered anymore.
“Oh, the Unlucky One gets advice from Mademoiselle Too-Good-For-Us, I see,” giggled another witch in the room.
Mallory pushed off her seat and leapt into the air, snarling. She incanted a series of curses, flashed too bright for herself to see, glared again, amidst the laughter of the tavern, and her eyes glowered a sharp yellow.
But of course, along with the harmless fire in the hearth, the laughter only tittered and cackled on. Witches couldn’t curse other witches here. The flash of light only affected herself, and she was drifting harmless as a ghost in the air after leaping.
“What is wrong with you lot?” Mallory said, feeling her voice materialize in the room. Of course, to no response. There was only the heat in her ears, the power that couldn’t leave her eyes, and the sound of the storm drumming along outside. She might as well have been scolding a bunch of singing birds.
Olive only lowered her gaze and let her hair fall before her face discreetly, green extensions of leaves and all. She gently put a hand on the thirteenth’s arm, a blood-rush of warmth. “It’s okay. Really.”
Mallory reluctantly drifted back down to her stool, defeated. For her beautiful friend’s sake, she tried to imitate Olive’s grace. But Mallory wasn’t one to let rain wash over her and grow from it. She was the snap of a twig in the forest, the bite of a rodent gnawing in the shade of a tree. A spark in the rainy weather, helpless in her anger.
“Those—those thorny little nymphs acting like they’re so much better with their—their little golden showers and mortal-dipped petals. As if being rooted for centuries is a matter of ridicule. They forget their place!” Her hands burned with power, but the power would not, could not leave her own being here. It was policy as old as time. “They forget how sacred you are, and it makes my blood boil. So what if you can’t do their rites?”
Olive leaned down and signaled for a hushed continuation of conversation. “Tell me, honestly, though: how are they?”
“They’re alright. I mean! They’re absolutely mindless. Overrated. How such things break spells I will never know. Hardly any power in them.” Mallory quickly blushed, feeling as green as a youthful two-century-old. “Oh come on. I try them and my spells are still a storm-tossed mess, so they can’t really be all that replenishing.”
Olive laughed quietly. “You know, I take no offense if you enjoy it. I ask for no one’s celibacy. My magic is my own. Even if the only thing that can recharge me with its heat is the sun.”
“Maybe,” Mallory said to her friend, changing the subject with a spark of hope, “you could use that on the mortals who cross you. Only a virgin sacrifice, or someone pure of heart could break the spell. Maybe only someone who has only loved once. Then they’d see how special it really is. Then if any is found who breaks the spell, they would reflect you.”
The white witch smiled but only shook her head, more leaves and flowers caught in them than before. Mallory admired her beauty even then.
“You know I couldn’t do that. Actually, I’ve tried. I thought: swans. No one would ever suspect. It was literary, and inspired. It had to be the first declaration of love they ever got, and that love couldn’t be given to another.” She looked off, lost in a daydream, and sighed. “Oh, the spell was beautiful. Sure to teach a lesson.”
Mallory raised an eyebrow. “And then what happened?”
Olive looked at her. “They saved a little girl’s life. And would you believe it, she made them shirts. Shirts. She even got accused of witchcraft for making shirts!”
Mallory burst into laughter. “Is that what they think we do nowadays?”
Olive couldn’t hold in her laughter. “The little girl loved everyone too. It didn’t matter how I cast the spell. Love just doesn’t run out like that. It regenerates, it overflows, it goes on like the plague, beyond their mortal little lives even if we shorten them to a bird’s lifespan. It comes back and the magic just accepts it as new. Face it, darling, they’re getting harder to beat.”
Mallory snickered, “Well that does make me feel better.” She sipped her refilled drink a little more, then had an idea mid-drink. “Perhaps, if you made it the other way around then. They’d have to act on love, in complete secret, and tell no one. No kingdom would be allowed to boast of their tale or the spell would keep. I’d like to see a kingdom try to break that!”
Olive shook her head. “I tried the silence thing, too. Little mermaid couldn’t speak or else the love potion wouldn’t work.”
“How many curses did you do?” Mallory exclaimed, amused at Olive’s dark side. “And with a love potion involved? Well, you sound experienced.”
Olive traced her finger on the table as if reminiscing the movements of magic way back when. “Well, that one was too tragic. Let’s not speak of that one. She wasn’t originally mortal, she was one of us, so it…it doesn’t feel as satisfying.” She ordered another round. She seemed to struggle against saying more, gradually reddening, her leaves spilling more and more out of her black hair into autumn flame. Her seasons were getting all mixed up, Mallory recognized. She frowned.
Mallory leaned in. “Did they at least learn their lesson, then, after the curses were lifted?”
Olive shrugged, her voice a little looser. “Eh, some do and some don’t. Actually, I’m thinking of retiring of the business entirely.”
Mallory‘s jaw dropped. This from the same witch who had only earlier wore perfect lipstick and held her head high, declaring temporary magic still useful to the world? Mallory still had some youth in her and a rush of admiration. Sweet, surviving, faithful Olive may have failed curses, but giving up the magic? But what if they cast and failed together? Mallory found herself asking at last, now or never.
“What do you say we collaborate? Just one last enchantment. One last stab at this game with mortals. We could turn one into a deer, or an appliance, or a snowman.”
Olive only grumbled. “At this point I’d rather have them for dinner.” She was starting to stumble around a bit and her voice drawled a little more, sleepily. She put her head down upon the table. Her raven hair lifted a little in the air in black waves. The blossoms that had been growing in her hair began to close up into sleep. The vines that accessorized her arm and torso hung loose as rags. The autumn leaves drifted and crunched under the steps of others.
Mallory drank her few words in with satisfaction, knowing Olive was never one to lie. Mallory promised quietly with a smile, “Have them for dinner? That can be arranged. Come on, let’s get you back to your roots. This place’s just a hollow hellhole.”
The rain continued its drumming and blurring of the world’s edge outside, but as Mallory gently took hold of her own untouchable sleeping beauty, her heart warmed just a little. Leaves and flowers mingled with her own hair as the lovely dryad rested her head, and Mallory was thankful for the covering of the night as she ever so slightly blushed.
As they exited into the outside, she could enact magic again. Sure, she couldn’t do as much as harness fire nor flood, but she could keep her friend dry in the rain.
They’d never go to the rites together, she knew, so they’d never combine their powers that way. As vulnerable as the white witch was in this very moment, the thirteenth witch could also never touch a flower on her head. Not in admiration, not to make her anything she was not. She knew. She had always known.
She would have to make do with the magic between the lines.
If mortals found their way, perhaps a thirteenth witch could find hers. Her heart was still beating since she last zipped it back into her chest.
Rain kept drizzling, but sunlight was beginning to alight down as well, a simple sign in the mists, a magic as old as time making the forests grow.
Ellen Huang is an ace writer of fairy tales who loves wearing capes on special occasions. She has a BA in Writing & a minor in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University, and for the past year she’s been teaching children creative writing and drama games. Her work has appeared in over 25 publications, including Enchanted Conversation, TL;DR Press, Gingerbread House, Awkward Mermaid, The Folks, and South Broadway Ghost Society. Follow her creative work: worrydollsandfloatinglights.wordpress.com