Deep beneath the hanging boughs of the forest, where the trees grow low and cling to your hair and arms and eyes as you push and push your way through, there is a silver pond encircled all about by rushes and mossy stone. In the very middle of the pond, upon a large gray boulder, a rose bush has managed to send out roots, and clings to life above the crystal waters.
The Witch, a towering, stern faced woman with sharp yellow eyes and a long, regal nose came across the clearing while searching out ingredients for her potions and broths. It was a magical place, she thought, and visited the tiny pond often. The shining waters of the pond clung, sparkling, to the long grass that encircled its edges. Dewing on the leaves of trees, and absorbing the shine of the sun, the waters of this magical place fed the Witch’s spells with a potent magic.
While foraging for toadstools one day, the Witch cursed the necessity for going out into the forest when she could be making and selling her magical brews. Looking at the single rose adorning the bush above the clearing, the Witch had a grand idea. Lifting above the pond on her broomstick, she plucked the single rose from its bush and stole away in to the evening.
All know that dawn and dusk, the in between times, are when a child should most be inside. This is a fae time, when witches and ghouls and fairy people will try to tempt a careless child away from its parents, never to be seen again. On this particular night a tiny girl-child dawdled by the edge of the forest, stirring the seed heads of dandelions and ignoring the failing light. She was drunk from the heady warmth of the afternoon sun, still radiating in her bones, and cared nothing for going home. Spotting a large butterfly, its black wings flashing splashes of colours at her, the girl immediately gave chase and, hardly thinking at all, followed the creature into the depths of the forest. Needless to say, after only a short pursuit she was completely lost. The light was swiftly disappearing beneath the thick, cruel canopy and with her eyes sun-blinded and the butterfly gone, she had no way to find the direction home. The snap of a twig to her side, the rustle of a bush and the cry of birds in the branches all took on terrible meanings, and the girl-child at once fled deeper into the maze.
She ran and ran, the trees shifting and directing her, until she fell to the leaf choked forest floor and could move no more.
That evening, the Witch met the girl deep in the forest, with shadow cats of fine, clinging mists curling about her ankles. The child was a bright yellow-dressed thing, with eyes like wide, pooling liquid depths, full of inky fear. Disguised as a kindly matron, the Witch smiled at her.
“Oh my dear,” she murmured, “have you lost your way in my little forest?”
The girl, her curling brown hair in disarray from the greedy claws of the foliage, and little yellow dress torn and stained from her many falls, clung to the kindly old woman and cried until she could no longer stand. The Witch, her soft, pale face and glittering dark eyes, looked down on the girl’s upturned face. She pulled off her midnight cloak, tugging it up over the girl’s shivering shoulders and tumbled about hair. Through it all, the Witch was smiling- a kind smile, a lying smile, and afterward pulled the child back into a warm embrace. The girl was too lost and too frightened of the nightmare forest to worry about this stranger.
The Witch had caught a prize most valuable to the dark forest creatures. Here was youth and freedom, offering itself in timid surrender. She from took her belt purse the rose- dark velvet beauty, twined with thorns and leeching cord. Behind the girl’s back, she took it and sliced her wrist, sharp jagged cuts, to let her blood loose. The blood fell on the rose stem, and in the way of magic the two combined, a cord so crimson it shone now held up the jewel-rose pendant. Pushing the girl-child away slightly, the Witch rested the rose about her throat, tying it off quickly- a gift, she said, for the lost soul.
“Now come, my dear, let’s get you somewhere warm. My cottage is not far…”
The Witch took the girl a short way, holding her hand tightly. Lulled by the heady perfume of the rich rose, now a shining carved ruby about her throat, the girl stumbled after her wearily. The Witch tugged her over stones and logs, under drooping boughs and between grasping fronds- until, with a sudden clarity, the girl spied a cold, black cottage in the wavering moonlight. Nearly hesitating, the girl opened her mouth to protest- and was dragged unceremoniously over the door step. She cried out, afraid, as the old door slammed shut behind her. Completely blind, the girl was thrown forward into the dark room and left there.
The Witch muttered, moving easily through the cramped rooms, and made her way to the hearth. She stooped, flinging her hand out in to the sooty brick work, and lit a cold, green blaze. The girl was cowering where she’d landed.
The Witch began, “You, girl, will be my servant here! I require water from the barrel for tea- fetch it!” As she spoke, the glamour of kindliness fell away and the tall, towering form of the Witch- face impossibly smooth, but angular and feral and oh-so-pale, lips the sharp red of blood. Her spidery, thin hands grasped and bent around a gnarled old walking stick of rowan wood, and her hair- once softly curled atop her head to the girl’s eyes- fell flat and long and gray down her back. Cold yellow eyes looked down at the girl, stern and uncaring. The girl uttered a cry, leaping towards the cottage door. But the door held fast. A sudden, dark mist rose up from the ground, a smokey haze, and the Witch stirred from her solid loom. Coming closer to the Girl, standing menacingly over the tiny body, the Witch repeated her orders.
But the girl did not give up quickly- she lashed out at the Witch’s legs, fighting to find a window to escape from- and almost at once, the thorns hidden in the red cord about her throat emerged, piercing her delicate neck as the cord slowly tightened. In shrill pain, she fell to the floor, gagging and afraid.
The Witch only watched, knowing that soon the girl would have no choice but to obey.
* * *
And the years turned, winter to spring to summer, while the girl grew older and the Witch more stern. The girl swept and cooked, cleaned and gathered important ingredients for the Witch’s nasty brews. The Witch kept a tight hold on the girl, never allowing her beyond the edges of the enchanted forest that housed them. Nevertheless, the girl took what time she could over gathering spider’s silk and moss and feathers in the highways and byways of that dread forest, until she knew it almost as well as the Witch. Sometimes she would stand like a ghost on the edge of the shadowy trees and watch her family grow and age, knowing that some strange spell kept her nearly ageless while the people in the real world grew up, aged, and died. There was no end in sight in the world of the fae.
The Witch was part of a glorious coven, witches from all over the land who met and discussed herb lore and spells during a new moon. She would often steal away in the night, flying high in the clouds to the far away mountains or other nightmare woods to meet with her sisters, leaving the girl quite on her own. Although unable to escape, these moments allowed the girl chances to visit her favourite glades and clearings, meeting her animal friends along the way. One such place, a tiny pond with a large, mossy boulder partly submerged in the middle of it, was a place of such beauty that the girl spent hours there. The grasses by the bank were lush and green, a hole in the canopy allowing a beam of glorious sunlight to give rise to colonies of dragonflies, heavy fruit on the limbs of trees, and birds nesting all about. Tiny fish darted in the clear pond waters, and frogs croaked from their stony homes. The only mar to the scene was the dead rose bush atop the boulder- but somehow the girl couldn’t bare to touch it to clear it away. The stone rose that enslaved her pulsed alarmingly whenever she thought of the bush, and with the fear of pain to spur her, she would often run at once back to the Witch’s cottage.
One day, the Witch decided that she would seek to gain power within her dark coven. She would do so by cowing the gathering with her most powerful spells. The Witch planned take her large spell books and artifacts, to read and concoct her devious scheme. Then, once she was a feared and unrivaled queen amongst witches, she would demand access to all of their spells and enchantments and become so formidable a witch that no creature, human or fae, would dare to contest her power. She could posses a king, rule a kingdom, even cheat death. Turning to the girl, she commanded the young woman to pack their things- for the Witch had no intention of being the bearer of all her tools. The girl would simply have to come to the meeting of the coven as well.
That chill, frost edged evening, the girl sat astride her own shaky broomstick as the Witch lifted them both into the clouds. With a bare moment to catch her breath, the stick shot off over the tips of the forest trees, the girl clinging in fear and exhilaration. She was out of the forest, for the first time since she’d been enslaved.
The coven were gathered at the very tip of the tallest mountain, above the clouds and beyond where even the ancient trees would grow. Here, milling about a huge, livid green bonfire, the witches danced their evil spells and curses out upon the world. The Witch and the girl emerged from the night and landed amongst the black draped brood.
By Danielle K. Day