The Witch in the Woods
Anya didn’t go to see Gevin at all during her next week at work, and he didn’t come see her either. Normally, this wasn’t a problem. Gevin rarely visited her during working hours, but she was oversensitive to anything right now and took it as a personal insult. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen with her anymore. Maybe she was a loon, forever shunned by Cupolians everywhere, destined to live out the remainder of her miserable life hiding in the shadows with Methuselah. Maybe— Why was the kitchen so quiet?
The echo of her clinking dishes was the only sound to be heard. She turned to find everyone else standing at attention in a line in the middle of the floor. Feeling awkward, she quickly rinsed her hands and joined them.
Cook faced each worker, said a few words of thanks or some sort, and then dropped some coins into their outstretched hands before moving on to the next worker. Oh! Payday! Anya had spent so much time contemplating her possible demise, she had forgotten all about her first month finally being over.
Cook continued passing out payments as she went down the line. Anya noticed a slight wink when Cook got to Canis. She also noticed Canis rapidly closing her hands to conceal her payment from others. “Excellent job as usual, Canis,” said Cook.
Anya pulled her shoulders back and stepped behind the person next to her before her curiosity could be seen. When Cook got to her end of the line, Anya stared straight ahead, like everyone else had done.
Cook looked down at her with contempt. “A day’s less pay for you, Elf.”
No “Thank you.” No words of kindness. And most certainly no wink. As she watched the coins drop into her open palm, she wanted to disappear. She closed her hand and put the money in her pocket. Her shame magnified.
She spent the next day with her family, moping and telling everyone she was OK when she really wasn’t. The last thing she wanted to do was admit to them how everything went. Living through it was bad enough. She didn’t want to talk about it too.
But when they all returned to work, she was once again left with nothing but her own thoughts. Trying to take her mind off it all, she left for the courtyard to check on her ordered uniform and shoes.
At the seamstresses, the same muscular woman with cracked hands was there to meet her. Anya asked, “Excuse me. Is my uniform ready?” The woman looked at her without recognition. Anya reminded her, “I was the Elf uniform.”
“Oh yeah! Donna! Where’s that Elf costume?”
Poor little weird Donna tiptoed to Anya, face downcast, uniform hanging from her outstretched arm. The other woman went off to continue her work elsewhere.
“Thank you, Donna.” Anya took the uniform from her, trying to see into her eyes but failing.
Donna spoke at the floor, as usual. “Thirty quints, please.”
What? She knew clothes were expensive, but that was half her month’s pay! What if it didn’t fit? “Can I try it on first?” she asked.
Donna raised her head, at long last revealing her secretive face and eyes. Anya was surprised to see them filled with shock. A few of the other workers peered up from their sewing with identical expressions. Anya wondered if she had said an offensive word she was unaware of or something. Her eyes darted to each of the appalled faces. The silence became uncomfortable.
Finally, the broad woman swaggered up to Anya with her hands on her swinging hips and angrily declared, “Try it on? Sure! You can try it on, your highness. Right this way, madam.” The woman dramatically reached her arm out, showing Anya the way back to the changing rooms.
On her way there, Anya heard grumbling phrases from the others. “The nerve!”, “Make sure it fits!”, “Well I never!”
Trying the outfit on didn’t seem like a very good idea now. What if it didn’t fit? She couldn’t dare go out there and tell a crowd like that something was wrong with it! But fortunately, it did. In fact, it fit perfectly. She had no idea clothing could fit so well! She quickly changed back, paid Donna the thirty quints, and left, mumbling a “thank you” on the way out.
Next came the cobblers. She’d completely forgotten to check on her shoes, along with everything else, and felt kind of guilty about it. Carrying her uniform, she used her other hand to push the store door open, glancing up as she heard the curious tinkling of the bell. But this time she noticed something she hadn’t before. Engraved into the side were the words “Fairy Bell.”
“Ah! Ms. Elf. Do come in, they’re all done and ready.” After greeting her, the cobbler promptly went back behind his counter. He popped back out again with a freshly made pair of leather shoes. She followed him to the familiar chair with the ramp where he seated her like royalty. “I was beginning to think you had forgotten about me,” he said with a warm smile.
Anya squirmed and blushed. When she met his eyes she blurted out, “I did forget about you. I’m sorry.”
He chuckled that gentle chuckle again. “No worries, Ms… I’m sorry. What is your real name?”
She felt completely at ease here. She smiled and said, “Anya. Anya Walberg.”
“Well Ms. Walberg, no harm done. These should make your day much better now. Your feet shouldn’t hurt as much, and your back should hurt less as well.”
Anya could understand her feet hurting less, but her back? That didn’t make any sense. As she sat there though, trying to figure it all out, her thoughts incessantly gravitated to the “fairy bell.” “Um, Mr. Cobbler? Sir?”
“Why does your bell say ‘Fairy Bell’ on it?” She hoped that wasn’t a rude question, but she had to ask.
“Ah!” He held up his fingers, lifting and lowering individual ones as he counted, “My great-great-great, no, great-great.” He paused and thought, frowning. “Great-great-great-great grandfather had a fairy.”
Anya’s eyes swelled, and her eyebrows rose. The cobbler smiled and said, “Oh I don’t believe in fairies, of course. But he did, or so I’m told.” He took off her old shoes, replacing them with the new ones as he told his story. He was so gentle, and she was so enthralled with his story, she didn’t even notice he was doing it.
“My grandfather told me that his great”—He waved his hand in the air—“whatever, told him we had a fairy that lived in the shoe store. She would help out, calling if a customer came by, adjusting shoes to make them fit better, that sort of thing. Said she had the voice of a small bell.” He nodded to the door-bell. “So, they bought that bell there as a replacement and named it after her.”
“What was her name?”
He shrugged. “Fairy, I guess.”
“Why did she leave?”
He placed her foot down on the ramp and gave her a chastising look. “You don’t believe tales like that, do you?”
“Oh no! Of course not!” She forced a smile. “I was only curious about the legend. That’s all.”
He patted her foot and got up. “All done!”
The presence of her new shoes jolted her as she looked down to her feet. “Oh! Thank you.”
“That’ll be twenty-five quints.” He said as he got up to go back to the counter.
She wistfully handed him the coins, grabbed her old shoes, and left, introspectively looking up at the Fairy Bell one last time.
As soon as she got home, she hung her uniform up on a nail, put on her old shoes, and hid the coins behind a brick in the chimney. Then she started a slow cooking soup for supper. She was too absorbed in the fairy story to think much about the price of her shoes at the time. Now that she was left with several hours of waiting for her family to return home, it was all she could think about. And the more she thought about it, the angrier she got.
She had worked twenty-one days, at least fifteen hours a day, and all she got was a dress and a pair of shoes. That added up to over three hundred hours of work for nothing more than clothes. And she couldn’t even wear the uniform outside of work because she didn’t want anything to happen to it. She only had five quints left, and they had to last her a whole month. It was all so unfair!
She was getting mad. Exceedingly mad. She wanted to scream, to yell and rant about it to someone, someone who could understand and tell her how sorry they were life was like this sometimes. Taika. She could talk to Taika. No. Taika would never understand. She’s never gone hungry before. Her job pays better than an Elf’s. She works fewer hours. She even got her uniform for free! No. Taika was definitely out of the picture.
Before she realized what she was doing, she packed a small amount of stale bread and marched off to the stables. When she got there, Gevin was standing outside with two mares’ leads in his hands.
“Where have you been?” He sounded like he had been expecting her.
She couldn’t get any words to come out of her mouth properly. “Um … I … Uh … Well, I—”
“I was just about to come find you and see if you wanted to go for a ride.”
“I thought … that you … you know … uh… Don’t you think I’m crazy? Or something?”
“You? Yeah, of course you’re crazy. That’s what makes you fun.”
Anya smiled what felt like her first happy smile in days. And then her eyes burned. Blasted! She hated it when that happened!
Ignoring her behavior, he swept out his palm to the horses, introducing them like people. “Anya, meet Marigold and Claribell. Claribell and Marigold, meet Anya.”
She discreetly wiped a small bit of moisture from her eye and bowed in fun at them. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Go ahead. Hop on.”
Although not afraid of horses in and of themselves, she hadn’t exactly been around them much before either. Sure, she’d visited the stables and knew they existed, but that was the extent of her relationship with them. That most certainly didn’t give her any knowledge on riding them.
“Come on. It’s OK. They’re real gentle and slow. We’ll never go over a trot, and I’ll make sure she behaves.”
“Behaves? You mean there’s a chance she wouldn’t?”
He started stroking Claribell’s nose, whose eyes were slowly closing from boredom. “See? She’s harmless.”
Anya enjoyed the softness of Claribell’s muzzle. A moment or two later, Gevin led her around and placed her right foot in the stirrup, helping her mount Miss Claribell. She threw the other leg over, as instructed, and promptly slipped off the other side. With her right foot pulling the stirrup into an upwards strain, her hand held the horn to keep herself from falling off completely. Claribell shifted her feet under the oddly changing weight.
When Anya finally righted herself, Gevin asked through a snort of suppressed laughter, “You OK?”
After catching her breath, she answered, “Yup. Let’s go.”
A generous grin continued to squelch his amusement as he placed her towel wrapped bread in her lap and then expertly mounted Marigold. She said, “You’ve gotten over your fear of horses, I see.”
He led them away from the castle. “Are you afraid?”
“Afraid? No. Concerned? Unsure? Not having any idea what to do? Yes.”
He smiled. “Claribell’s no trouble at all. Just relax and let her do her thing.”
With the setting sun on their backs, they slowly walked out of the packed dirt yard of the stables, past the practice rings and grazing fields, and down to the forest. Gevin was right. Claribell required no guidance.
They had gotten a good ways into the woods when Gevin asked, “Hey Ahnny, you ready to eat?”
“Yeah. Sure. You may need to get it yourself though. I’m still not too confident with the reigns just yet.”
He pulled Marigold back to be even with Claribell and reached over to take the wrapped food. Opening it up in front of himself, he offered her some bread before biting off his own hunk. “So ell ma.”
She took his offering. “What?”
“Sorry.” He swallowed. “So tell me. You really believe all that nonsense about magic being here and stuff?”
She chewed her own bite and swallowed before answering. “Yeah. I’d like to anyway. I think about it sometimes, like what it would be like if magic were back in Cupola. With magical creatures and potions. I wouldn’t have to scrub dishes anymore because there’d be elves for that.”
“Elves. Remember? That’s what I’m called, Elf. Turns out it’s because my job used to be done by an elf before they were forced to leave.”
“And how do you know that?”
She explained about what she had been told in the kitchen. She also told him about the cobbler’s fairy. “It makes sense, Gev. Why else would my sink be so low? Why would they call me ’Elf”? Why would he have that whole fairy story? You can’t tell me that’s all coincidence. There’s just too much of it not to be true.”
He acted like he might actually be thinking for once. “Hmm, night’s comin’. We’re getting into the depths of the woods where it’s too dark to see anymore. Guess we better—” The mares raised their heads, stopped walking, and started to back up.
“Whoa. Whoa girl.” He dismounted to look into the woods ahead for something that could have spooked his horses.
“Um … Gevin, can you stop my horse please? It’s scaring me.”
“Here.” He reached over and grabbed her reins, helping her to dismount. “I’m gonna go see what’s ahead.”
She waited next to Claribell until he showed back up. A brief moment later, he appeared from the thickening foliage, jerked his head sideways, and asked, “Wanna go see who’s there?”
She followed him through the thick branches, emerging to see an ample cottage of the most peculiar kind. Instead of forming an “A” at the top, a second story jutted out and up diagonally with no visible support whatsoever. Smoke poured out of a sideways chimney in the second floor window.
“Oh what pretty flowers!” The front of the house had flowerbeds glowing in the darkening forest with radiant colors of the deepest blue, violet, and gold. A flat stone path lined with jumbo mushrooms of luminescent white lead to the front door of the cottage. She walked towards them with a fixed curiosity.
“Shhh!” Gevin put his finger to his mouth and stopped Anya from going any further. The house itself was dark, but they could see movement inside. She looked inquisitively at him. He shook his head. Stooping, he led her to a side window near the back.
They peered over the ledge and saw a short, dumpy woman with frizzy, grey hair sticking out at all angles. Her bushy dress looked like it was made of a straw skirt sewn to a top of mangled fur. She had lopsided, beady eyes and a crooked, warty nose. Wedged in her arms was an orange tom-cat she stroked roughly, while it clawed her mercilessly, trying to get away. “You’re with me now so you might as well get used to it, cat. I told you not to stray too far from the house or you’d wish you hadn’t.”
She took the cat over to a nearby crate.
“Meow!” The cat grabbed the sides of the wooden crate with its claws in one last desperate attempt at freedom. The woman closed the lid.
Anya gasped. “She can’t do that! That’s horrible!”
“Shhh!” Gevin jumped on her while cramming her mouth shut with his palm.
“Now, you stay in there until you learn to behave like a proper kitty. Alexander! Alexander!”
Anya threw Gevin off of herself and stared curiously through the window. Into the kitchen came a small, brown monkey with a long, curly tail. The woman said to the monkey, “Go fetch me some water from the well, Alexander. I’m going to make a new potion tonight.”
Gevin and Anya mouthed the word “potion” questionably to each other and then watched as the monkey left through the back of the house, and headed into the forest out of sight.
“Let’s see…” The woman took out a knotted and twisted stick, aimed it at a nearby book-shelf, and muttered, “Come.” A massive, archaic book flew off the shelves and onto the kitchen table. Both children stared, agape and speechless. As she read the book, she pointed her wand at the cabinets, directing ingredients to a cauldron, chopping boards, and mortars. Knives began dicing, pestles started grinding, and prepared ingredients flew into the dancing cauldron. The monkey came into the kitchen and poured the water into the cauldron which then floated into position on the spit over the fire all on its own.
Gevin loudly whispered as he and Anya crouched down from the window, “She’s using magic!”
“Oh now you believe in it.”
Where an astonished Gevin had been squatting, suddenly sat a solid block of ice.
“Now, children. It’s not polite to eavesdrop.”
Anya turned to run but fell when she couldn’t move her ankle. Her laces were frozen in Gevin’s ice block. She looked up to see the witch staring down at her from just a few feet away, her hands on her hips with her wand jutting out from them. Anya backed away, like a crab, dragging Gevin with her.
The witch casually stared upward and tapped her chin with her finger. “What to do with you, what to do with you.” She then glared down at Anya with a smile that made her feel as frozen as Gevin.
“SCREECH!” A ghastly racket followed by Alexander’s shrieking came from the kitchen.
The witch turned and checked on him through the window. “My potion!”
The cauldron had boiled over onto the fire forming a nasty yellow stench that filled the kitchen and spilled out the window. It soon made the witch cough uncontrollably. Anya took advantage of this and crawled off into the woods, her attached friend in tow.
By now it was so dark she had to feel with her hands in front of herself to keep from running into trees. She followed the scent and sound of the horses’ movement until she found them. Running on adrenaline and working on instinct, she grabbed a rope and tied Gevin to the horn of Marigold’s saddle. After removing her shoe frozen to him, she managed to get onto the saddle herself, though she would never remember how. Clutching Marigold’s reins with one hand and Claribell’s with the other, she urged her horse around towards the castle, lugging Gevin the ice-boy along the ground behind them.
The pursuing ice block bounced on the rocks, thereby spooking the horses and making them reach the stables quickly. Anya’s heart tried to jump up her throat and out of her mouth the whole time, but she managed to swallow it down. With a burning chest and shaking hands, she cleared the Queen’s gardens. She let go of Claribell’s reins, leaving the horse to run home on its own, while continuing on Marigold to the castle.