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Fantasy Fiction Funny

The old rope rasped against the wood as Lenora cranked the handle at the stone well, her foot braced in the dirt, knuckles white. The young girl pulled an oak bucket into the air and unhooked it before resting it on the ground. It overflowed with clear spring water; the puddle it made trickled into the hole in the tip of her soft leather boot. She stepped back and shook her left leg. Lifting her pointed hat, she tucked wayward strands of chestnut brown hair behind her oversized ears and wiped her brow with the back of her hand.

Subdued sunlight strained through the thick canopy above, giving the forest a warm glow. Rays broke through, thin spotlights catching the dancing motes of dust and pollen. The bluebell’s sweet scent drifted all around as it sprouted through the grass by the vegetable garden. Bugs hurried about their business, and birds trilled their early evening song, the air full of melodic symphonies. Lenora smiled.

Grabbing its braided handle, she picked up the bucket and turned to go inside. The rickety stone cottage sat in a clearing of the Switchback Forest, nestled in the foothills of the Greyback Ridge. It had a round roof with a wonky chimney that thinned to a point and bent off to one side. It reminded Lenora of the Old Witch’s sleeping cap.

Outside, to the right of the heavy door, a short stone wall contained the wood stack Lenora had spent a chunk of the afternoon filling, with everything from thick logs to dry kindling. A ‘caw’ sang out behind her and a swooping bird almost brushed her face–a black blur settling on the woodpile. 

Setting down her bucket once more, she took a wiggling grub from a pocket in her apron and held it out between a grimy forefinger and thumb.

"Good afternoon, Cassius," Lenora said to the crow.

“Good afternoon, Len,” replied the bird. He bowed his head before taking the offering deftly in his shiny beak, swallowing it whole.

“I’ve come straight from the pigeons on the other side of the bog,” he said, hopping up and down. “She’s been spotted flying over the Ashen Plains. She’s on her way.”

Lenora sighed and reached to pull and twist her right earlobe.

"But it looks like she’s heading to Camberley first, s–"

“Of course,” Len interrupted, rolling her eyes. “She can’t leave those poor villagers alone. Any chance she gets to torment those dear children on the Miller’s Farm, she’ll take it.”

“So,” he continued, “you’ve probably got a couple of hours. Did you manage to get everything done?” He cocked his head to one side.

“I think so. Thanks for your help yesterday.” She smiled, ruffling his crown. The crows helped her fill a whole basket of witherberries, plucked gently from sparse bushes gripping the Ridge’s sheer face by long thin roots, without Lennie breaking a sweat–or a bone. “I couldn’t have done it without you guys,” she said.

He let out a loud ‘caw caw’ in congratulations.

“You’re welcome,” he said, “I needed something for the younglings to do, so you did me a favour too.” He nodded. “Right, I better go. I’ve got a patrol to finish and need to stop at the Snake’s Nest with some messages. And you know how they can be.”

She pulled another grub from her apron and threw it upward. Cassius took off and, with precision, caught it mid-air. Then, with a “caw” and in a feathery flurry, he soared away.

Straining and lifting the bucket once more, she entered the shack.

“Did you hear that, Ari?” she asked.

“Yeah,” a tiny voice said from the brim of her hat, followed by a little yawn.

A small brown spider slowly lowered herself on a single silky thread into Lenora’s eyeline. “But you ain’t got nuffin to worry about,” she said, “you doned all the fings on ‘er list. An’ more.” Ariadne smiled and dangled in the breeze while Lennie decanted the water she’d collected into various pots, kettles, and jugs.

The cottage was one big room with tables and shelves serving the purpose of walls, dividing the space. A small alcove, carved out of the stone to the left of the door, was where the Old Witch slept–hidden, with her most private things, behind a ragged curtain. The nook was by the blackened iron stove, where the heat huddled. Lenora placed a dented kettle on the grate to boil.

Lying on a blanket in his wicker basket by the door, Balthazar, the cat, purred “You always have to worry,” rolling his r sounds too long for emphasis. He stood, slowly arched his back then meticulously cleaned behind his ears with his paw. Typically black from nose to tip, the witch’s familiar had made it clear to Len over the last two weeks he did not appreciate being left at home with the apprentice whilst the Old Witch visited her sister, The Crone of South Moulden, a full two-day flight to the east.

“Don’t listen to 'im! You’ve done brilliant,” said Ari, ascending to sit on the edge of Lenora’s hat.

In the middle of the building, a large black cauldron, which she was not allowed to touch, sat suspended on thick wooden stakes set over a low fire, with coals ash white on top, throbbing red and orange underneath. A rocky boundary contained the embers. Something gloopy and green frothed inside the pot, bubbles occasionally popping on the surface, thrusting the smell of sulphur and cabbages into the thick air. Lenora did not like cabbages.

The battered, three-legged stool screeched against worn flagstones as Lenora dragged it to the bench beside the bubbling vat. Decades of use stained the tabletop, but went unnoticed amidst the clutter. Various liquids in bottles and vials, some fizzing, some still, crowded the bench and fought for room against the numerous jars, carefully filled and labelled by Lennie, following the Old Witch’s strict instructions to the letter. Well, mostly.

Smiling, she said, “We’ve all done brilliantly.” –sitting and unlacing her boots, she removed her striped stocking to dry over the fire– “Everyone pulled together to help.” She shot a sideglance at Balthazar, who’d done nothing to help, but he ignored the comment and continued his cleaning ritual.

Lennie outstretched her bare feet, wiggling her toes. Looking to her loft room, she saw Colin the bat asleep and chose not to disturb him just for a new sock. Exhaustion consumed everyone. Over the last two weeks, they’d all helped her undertake the impossibly long task list the Old Witch had left.

Ariadne had mediated with the Midas spider’s queen to allow her to collect their golden spiderwebs at midnight, though Len couldn’t find her cloak and arrived closer to twelve-thirty.

Albert the toad helped her navigate the Bloodhorn Bog, a half mile to the south, where they’d spent a whole morning trudging through warm, slippery marshland to the withered Alder tree at the centre of the mire. After sawing a root the length of her arm and filling two small canisters with oozing black mud, she left her sturdiest boots behind, surrendered to the sludge, only reaching firm ground again as twilight settled in.

She beamed as she looked around and puffed out her chest. She’d gathered and arranged so many supplies, the Old Witch would barely need anything for months, though Lennie suspected the hag would find something she’d ‘forgotten’ to do, within a day or so. Len had spent nights taking vials of bat’s blood; she’d tracked a rare bunyip for a whole day collecting its tiny droppings in a jar, and her fingers were red raw after two days devoted to plucking out, drying, and grinding newt’s eyes into a fine powder. And oh, how she’d cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. For a witch’s hut, this one practically gleamed.

She looked at her bare feet, outstretched towards the fire, and shuddered. When the mistress returned home after a long time away, Lenora’s least favourite job was rubbing the witch's gnarled fetid feet. Even though she travelled in the traditional way, by broom, the witch would still require patting, massaging, and fussing from the top of her neck to the tips of her yellow toenails.

Jumping off her stool, grinning, Lennie said, “I’m going to cook up a relaxation potion!”

“You’re going to do what?” Balthazar said, pausing his paws and sitting still. He stared at her from his basket, tipping his head to one side.

Lennie had rushed over to the bench under the wooden stairs to her loft and selected a book bound in deep purple silk. “I read the spell for one this week,” –she thumbed through pages of scrawled cursive– “She’ll be well impressed, and maybe she’ll re-think teaching me the craft she still refuses."

“She is teaching you." purred ‘Zar, “You have to learn how to gather the right pondweed at dawn and wash the whatevers in moonbeams before you can start weaving Earth Magic.”

“But I’m so bored of..." Lennie’s voice trailed off as she stopped on an open page, moving her finger down the handwritten list, her thin lips silently moved as she read. “Here it is!” She beamed. “Parvum Sedatio. I’m sure we’ve got everything,” and she started gathering bottles and vials and set them out on her small bench next to her own tiny cauldron. “Henbane, wormwood,” she listed.

From the folds of Len's hat, Ari said, “I fink it’s a cracking idea.”

“Valerian root, dried lavender, catswort, hmmm... I’ll need to crush that into a powder, mandrake root,” Lenora catalogued more.

“Wasn’t yous fault last time,” Ari continued, “you couldn’t ‘elp but sneeze once pigweed got up your schnoz, and well, knocking the shelf over was just unluc-"

“She could have helped by wearing the noseplug the mistress told her to,” interrupted the cat. “She knows Amaranth sets her off.”

Len carried on: “One pickled stoat liver... Hmmm, I’ve only got dried. Buuut, I need dried snake’s tongue, and I only have pickled, so that’ll even out, right, Ari?"

“Sure fing,” she laughed.

“Lennie?” Bert croaked, hopping over to her feet, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“I can do it,” Lennie smiled, “I know I can.” She walked over to a wall covered in slim shelves holding hundreds of little boxes, tiny labels stuck on each one. “Crystals,” she said, bringing a finger to her lips and tapping her philtrum as she muttered 'Aragonite' and 'Moonstone' over and over. Her finger moved out and tapped a box, before opening it and selecting a small white crystal. Slotting it back into place, the digit returned to her lip for her second search.

“Hmmm. Aragonite… Aragonite… Where are y–” she paused, seeing it on the highest shelf. She dragged over the small wooden stepladder and climbed, reaching out to the very top row. Standing on tiptoes, she wobbled.

“Careful,” said Ari, clinging on to the folded fabric of Lennie’s hat with six legs.

In his basket, Balthazar stopped breathing, a smile crept across his furry face, watching as she reached up, and up, and up. 

Len’s toes gripped the wood, and her fingertips brushed the container she aimed for. She hooked the small hole in the box’s front with her pointer to yank it from its holdings, and clutching it close to her chest, she slowly descended the ladder.

The cat huffed out his nose. 

The day outside had dimmed as twilight reached the forest, and as her bare soles settled on cold flagstones, she shuddered. She peeled the box away from her chest, and her shoulders drooped. “It’s empty.” She sighed. “Just dust.” Lenora tipped the tiny chest towards the porthole window for a better look, and she heard the click, click, click against the wood as a small crystal, the size of a dried pea, rolled into the corner. “Yes!” she cried, balling one hand into a fist and pulling her elbow into her waist.

“Hmmm… It appears the fates are on your side today, girl.” Balthazar drawled, “Let’s see you make your potion then.” And he smirked, curled up in a ball, head over his folded front legs to watch.

Lennie grabbed a spill from the jar and held the thin, twisted paper to the embers, setting it alight. She busied herself lighting the various tallow candles in recesses and holders around the room, then lit the gas lamp on her table. She carried a coal, in a tin dish, from the main fire and placed it under her small cauldron.

Following the instructions as best she could, she added a pinch of this and a dab of that. A drop of something, a blob of another. She tried to whisper the incantations, waving her hands over the pot as it warmed. She rubbed her aching forearms after crushing and grinding minuscule purple flowers in her pestle and mortar, then she tipped them into the mix. She grabbed her wand, a thin willow branch, and stirred three times counterclockwise, muttering, “Sedatio. Sedatio. Sedatio.”

From the floor at her feet, Bert croaked, “How’s it going, Len?” and she scooped him up and plopped him on the table.

"Good, I think,” she said, half-smiling, fingers crossed.

She held the Aragonite box over her simmering pot and turned it over, tap-tap-tapping the bottom to release every last grain. She pulled out a wooden device that suspended a small plate by three strings and placed the moonstone on the dish. She angled a rounded glass, held in knotted twine, between the candlelight and the cauldron until a beam of soft white light refracted through the crystal onto the potion.

Waving her arms, once again Lennie chanted, “Sedatio. Sedatio. Seda– Ow!”

Hopping on her left foot, she grabbed her right foot in her hands. A tiny bloodspot dripped from her big toe. Hobbling on her heel over to the ladder, she inspected the damage.

“What happened?” asked Ari, drifting down into sight.

“Dunno,” shrugged Len, “I stood on something.” –prodding– “Ah, yep, here it is. Just a splinter,” she said as she gripped the thin wooden needle between her dirt-stained fingernails and pulled it from her toe.

She looked to the roof and shouted, “Colin! Can you grab me some stockings, please? I darned some this week; they’re on a pile next to my bed.” A few moments later, a long-eared, snub-nosed bat dropped two stockings on her lap–one made up of rings of white and grey, the other black and purple. Smiling, “Thanks!” she said, and he squeaked back before flying out the door.

Mist drifted in from the darkness as Lennie slid her feet into the long woollen socks and pulled them up. She crossed the room and as she started to push the door closed, a tiny white mouse came scuttling in. It tried to race past Balthazar’s basket, but the cat nimbly outstretched his paw and placed it on the mouse's drifting tail. Its legs kept moving for a moment before it sat, turned to look at the cat, and squealed.

Balthazar let the mouse's tail go. It hopped about and squeaked some more before they nodded at each other, and the little white one ran back outside. 

“What did it say?” asked Lennie, raising an eyebrow.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” he purred, and he closed his eyes.

“Liar!” shouted Ari, “He said The Witch is close! She’s nearly ‘ere! She’s nearly ‘ome!” Ari's legs were bouncing around, waving in all directions.

Balthazar’s eyes flashed open, and he hissed at the spider, but she just flashed her fangs and feelers at him, teasing, "Ner ner ner."

Ignoring Ari, “You better check your concoction before you dare give it to the mistress,” he said.

Len tilted her head and drew her brows together over her dark brown eyes. “Hmmm. You’re right,” she agreed, nodding.

“But, as it’ll be perfick, you better ‘ave a drop, at most, or you’ll be snoozing before she even gets ‘ere,” laughed Ari, climbing back up her thread, taking her place on Len’s hat.

Lenora walked over to her small countertop and its bubbling pot. “Hmmm,” she said, “it says it’s supposed to be ‘fulvous’ in colour. Does anyone know what that is?” She looked around but silence was her only reply.

“Try it!” said Balthazar.

“C’mon!” said Ari.

“Do it. Don’t do it.” croaked the toad, zipping a tongue out to catch a fly that had buzzed too close.

She dipped in a wooden spoon and said, “Well, here goes,” and she swallowed the brown liquid, shuddering a little at first and squinting her eyes before breaking into a grin. “Oh, it’s not too bad after that first sour taste.”

A small cheer ran out from her hat: “I knew you could do it, Len!”

“Right, if she’s almost here, I better make her a brew,” and Lennie walked over to the small stove and bent to add extra kindling to the fire. As she stood, she grabbed her head and shook it slightly. Her vision blurred.

“Are you OK?” asked Ari's small voice from somewhere as Len’s knees buckled. She reached out her arm to the frame holding the large cauldron over the fire and knocked her old, wet sock into the liquid below. The potion belched out putrid fumes before swallowing the item whole, like her best boots in the bog.

A whistle started low and slow, but its pitch was rising, rising, as Lennie spiralled down and down as if caught in a whirlpool, her body sucked to the ground.

The teakettle reached a screaming boil and the liquid inside the vat on the coals began to grumble. She thought Balthazar was laughing, but she could barely lift a finger as she fully relaxed into a puddle on the floor.

The cottage door flew open, and from the darkness, she heard the Old Witch cackle and call, “Lenora, I’m home!”

December 15, 2023 23:00

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5 comments

Jaimie C-S
19:55 Dec 29, 2023

Hi Sam! Thank you for leaving such a detailed comment on my story, I really appreciate it. I enjoyed reading your story and was impressed by the level of detail. I especially liked how all of the characters had their own personalities and their interactions with each other. Really good work! :)

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Sam B
13:10 Jan 04, 2024

Thanks Jamie. I'm quite new to story writing and wanted to have a go at something with a bit of dialogue, with a "chaotic good" and a "chaotic evil" and a neutral character all kinda piping in 'helping' the MC. So this seemed like a good challenge for it. Thanks for reading and the kind words :)

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Kathleen `Woods
04:36 Dec 17, 2023

I listened to this via E-reader since the punctuation was good for it, and the flow was good but splitting focus wasn't really an option, so I had to wait for a quiet hour. I do like the base concept of a witch's apprentice muddling through her last day alone before the return of her mistress, and inevitable foot-care. The build-up to the actual potion craft was a bit long, but it does give plenty of context to Lenora's actions, and the description up to the main events are very soft. Its always very sensible to prepare something a bit rel...

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Sam B
09:49 Dec 18, 2023

Thanks for taking the time to read/listen to my little story. I am taking it as a huge compliment that you thought the punctuation and flow were good enough to put it through an e-reader :) I was happy to leave the ending open to interpretation I was hoping the signposting of the puddle from the well earlier would help, but maybe I should've been more explicit.. it was a lot of fun to write but maybe I got a little carried away with my world building! Thanks again :)

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Kathleen `Woods
06:07 Dec 19, 2023

It's good to get a bit lost in those facets, especially when your still figuring things out. Its like moving to a new town, you gotta get lost a few times to learn where everything is. That being said, I've provided much stranger confusions in some of mine, so your ahead of the game on that instinct. I hope to see more!

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