“I want to be a witch,” said the girl.
She was a young thing, plump and pale as milk, with watery eyes that barely qualified as blue. As ordinary-looking as it was possible for a child to be without turning invisible, Aelin thought.
“A witch, is it?” she said, thinking longingly of the tea she’d just poured.
The girl nodded. Her shoulders were visibly trembling. The old woman wondered how long she’d stood outside the cottage door, working up the courage to knock.
“If you go deep into the forest,” Aelin said, “where the trees are so thick they crowd out the sky, you’ll find the ruins of a palace. Years ago, a princess there was cursed to spew roses from her mouth every time she spoke. Over time they came so thick to her tongue that she could not eat, or even breathe, and so she died.”
“I heard that story before,” the girl said. “But it was toads and stones.”
Aelin glanced at her sharply. “Roses,” she repeated. “They still grow there in the ruins. Pick one, then bring it back to me.”
The girl opened her mouth as if to argue, but then thought better of it. With many a backwards glance, she started away from the cottage and quickly vanished in the trees. Aelin shut the door with considerable relief and went to drink her tea.
A week later, Aelin woke to rain pattering on her roof and a fist pounding at her door. She pulled on her shawl and lurched towards it, grumbling.
The girl stood on the front step, drenched and shivering. In her hand was a red rose, fiercely blooming.
“Huh,” said Aelin, rather surprised. “You found it, did you?”
The girl nodded, her teeth chattering violently.
“And you still want to be a witch?”
Another nod. Aelin briefly considered letting the girl in to dry herself but decided against it.
“Three leagues from here is a great lake,” she said, “so clear you can see right to its bed. At the bottom is a house made of reeds and lakeweed. The undine who lived there once loved a man who promised her a soul and his fidelity in exchange for certain favours; but he broke his word and married a wealthy merchant’s daughter. As revenge, the undine drowned them both on their wedding-night, claiming their wedding chalice as a trophy. It is there in her house under the water, chased in silver, studded with sapphires. Find it and bring it to me.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “But how will I reach it?” she asked. “I can’t swim.”
Aelin shrugged and reached out to pluck the rose from her hand. “You want to be a witch,” she said, stifling a yawn. “You figure it out.”
The girl began to walk away, then paused. “The undine shouldn’t have drowned the wife,” she said. “She didn’t do anything wrong.”
Without waiting for a reply, she trudged back into the forest with the grim determination of a soldier.
A month later, Aelin opened her door to sweep out the dust that had accumulated beneath her bed. The girl sat there, dirty and disheveled, her face drawn with weariness. The chalice gleamed in her hand.
“You managed, I see,” Aelin said, impressed despite herself. “Still want to be a witch?”
“Yes,” the girl replied simply. The want burned deep in her eyes.
“Beyond the forest is a mountain,” Aelin said, “so high its peak is veiled in cloud. At its foot is a tunnel leading into the heart of the earth, where a dragon sleeps. It once held a maiden captive there who awaited rescue by a knight. The knight never came, and in time the dragon ate her — all but her bones.”
“Why didn’t the knight come?” the girl asked, climbing unsteadily to her feet.
Aelin shrugged. “Who knows? Knights often don’t. Enter the dragon’s lair and bring back one of the maiden’s finger-bones.”
The girl bit her lip. “He may eat me,” she said, “or burn me to ash.”
“True enough,” Aelin agreed, plucking the chalice from her hand. “Off you go.”
She made a shooing gesture with her broom, but the girl did not move. She stood there, shoulders squared, eyes narrowed. She was still plump, still plain, still pale; and yet, suddenly, she looked far from ordinary.
“Why?” she asked.
Aelin raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Why?” the girl repeated. “You told me to bring you a rose from the forest, and I obeyed. You told me to bring you a chalice from the lake, and I obeyed. Now you want me to go where knights will not, face a dragon that eats girls, all to bring you a bone? Why? What possible use could you have for it?” She was shouting now. A flock of birds nearby took flight in protest.
Aelin studied her for a moment, thoughtfully tapping the side of her nose. Finally, she said:
The girl blinked, suddenly unsure. “What?”
“Come into my cottage. You want to be a witch, don’t you? We may as well begin now.” She smiled, reaching out to grasp the girl’s plump shoulder. “Child, don’t you see? A witch is not a woman who obeys, even if she does great deeds. A witch is a woman brave enough to ask ‘why.’”
Elliott Gish lives and writes in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, she is not a witch.