Fantasy Friendship Speculative

The huntsman arrived at the old cabin carrying the equivalent in fur and meat to two full hunting weeks: hare, badger, and fox fur, salty boar and rabbit meat, smoked fish, lard, as well as some birds hunted at that very day, everything wrapped in new, firm leather. He knocked at the door, and the old resident called him in: she had seen in her runes he would come.

He greeted her respectfully and with reverence, calling her the noblest titles he knew – mommy, aunt, grandma. The huntsman had always been dutiful and polite: he had learned from his mother and aunts, who had a cousin full of mysterious gifts and who came from a long lineage of wise women, to fear and esteem the witch.

He had come with a request. Ever since he was a boy, although quiet and calm, he had always been ambitious. He wanted to become the best huntsman in the area, and so he did. Regardless of his typical earnest and sobriety, though, he also enjoyed looking at the stars and dreaming about further places, with meadows and woods beyond the fields we know, and with larger and faster prey. And, more than once, in the depths of the woods, he caught a glimpse of some magical creature – a faun, a basilisk, a troll. What he had seen on the last full moon, however, started to inhabit his dreams, either sleeping or awake: a unicorn, white as snow, with his long horn glistening with the moonshine, that disappeared with the faintest noise, finding the way back to its fantastic realm in some crossroads or within the hollow of an unknown tree.

The young man wished to see it again, and he came to ask the old woman how to find it. But the witch couldn’t teach him the way, for that path is personal and needs to be found by each one alone. Even if she did show him how to get there, it wouldn’t guarantee access to the unicorn itself, for the wonderful beast wasn’t shy only in the fields we know, but also, maybe even more, in its own homeland. Neither could she teach him how to attract the animal to this side of the hills: there were oaths to be kept, and the risk of summoning the wrong creatures. What she could do wasn’t much, and she didn’t think the huntsman would accept it: she could give him a spell that would allow him to dream with the animal whenever he so wished, and however he chose — no more than that. He would be able to dream of meeting it, or of mounting it; to dream that it was his prey, or that he was the magical animal itself. The lad appreciated the idea, and asked the witch to teach him the spell — and he promised her, in exchange, a considerable amount of his furs, and meat that would never fail her.

The witch was very old. She had lived long enough to see the birth of most of the villagers in three hamlets close to the woods, and she felt her body failing her on several occasions. By her code, she was bound to live within the woods, far from everyone, and each day it became harder to get food, water and supplies there. The huntsman’s meat and furs would come in a good time: she agreed and they sealed their pact with a sip of the spirits of an unknown root.

Magic always charges a price if not equal in value to the good acquired, then higher. For that is how the balance of things is held: if it was cheaper to obtain anything through the art, the art wouldn’t be so, and there would be another way, even more complicated, to do it. And, for those inclined toward mysteries, it was that way so that things would always have hidden explanations and more resourceful or ceremonial, always secret, ways to be done.

Because of that price, always high, always mysterious, the witch had learned to restrain the use of her art. She could have summoned a unicorn without difficulty right there — but, at what cost? She had offered the huntsman much more than she would have at another time, however little that was. For even that simple spell would charge its price.

The old witch had nothing to spare in her little cabin: with time, everything had found its place there, and she only kept what one day could be used. That wood plank covered the small copper cauldron where she boiled leather, meat, fabric or whatever she found need to. This piece of wire held the curtains when she improvised a bath. The large leather sheets kept folded on the top of the wardrobe covered the floor where she dried corn before the winter. The rusty, thick chains tied the gates when she left the cottage to visit her sisters at the end of autumn. Each pot had its specific use: one was for sweets, the other for medicine, another for game meat, yet another for boiling duck fat. The old crates, which had held fruits decades ago, now carried the dust of the years in which they waited to carry donations or who knows what. The long broom dusted the ceiling, the short one the wooden floor, the frisky one the cement floor, the little one was for the cat’s wastes and the sand they scattered. This blueish rag covered cracks on the door, that other one, the ones on the windows. There was a rag used to shut the sink tap, and yet another to wipe the dusty feet of lazy cats. There was a chair to hold coats and towels, and another, by the largest window, to sit when trimming fingernails, and yet another one to read. One ate sitting on the long wooden bench. An apron was fit for cooking, another for doing the laundry, and an overall covered one’s whole body when it came to dealing with the occult. The bottles and glasses, in all shapes and sizes, only the witch’s mind could classify. There were many demijohns made of dark glass and shabby straws of one same colored tone: one stood at the left, made of red glass and keeping fresh clean water from the well; one was made of green glass and stood to the right, holding ammonia; there was another holding wine, one with alcohol, and others whose contents the old woman only pretended to know. Paper and cardboard sheets, kept clean and very straight, were destined to cover certain windows or to quilt the box for keeping newly-born chicks, or even to line the garden floor when winter came. The old almanacs — whose predictions she had memorized, having learned from them the dates of eclipses, equinoxes, and solstices, as well as those of pagan and Christian holidays for different ages — were all pilled up beneath the crystals cabinet, waiting for their sheets to be torn and used in the privy.

She picked up the books of her predecessors and her own notebook, and flipped their pages until she found the wanted spell. It was in the book that belonged to her great-aunt, the one who taught her most of her art and whom she had succeeded; it had a scribbled warning that it cost knowledge.

The witch then got to work. She assembled impossible ingredients on the table: an egg’s drop of sweat, a dew’s eyelash, dawn’s fingernails, a kiss from the next winter’s first snowfall. She knotted them in an elaborate cat’s cradle, adding ordinary things to it: a golden earring, a crow’s feather, green peas, a cherry core. And then she spoke to it in a firm voice, words of power in a strange and forgotten language. The strings flipped in her hands and all those things bumped against each other. When they clashed, they disappeared as if consumed by fire, and the strings seemed to blow in the wind as if an invisible flame burned them from the bottom up, until the last piece of string was gone, and the witch seemed older and even more tired.

She then gave the huntsman a ball of black glass that had appeared in her hand. It shone backwards, gleaming in the dark and dimming in the light. She taught him how to rub the glass ball before going to sleep in order to have the dreams he wished, and the lad left satisfied.

Days went by and the collection didn’t come. But then the summer’s solstice arrived and the witch had forgotten it. And the old gods in the woods, fast asleep for a long time, got upset, and for a whole week there was confusion among the seasons, for the witch hadn’t cared for the necessary rites. And there were many consequences: birds who died in flight, or who laid eggs before nesting; pigs who attacked their owners only to run headfirst in trees and drop dead; some seed molded in their branches, others ripened way ahead of their time. But eventually, everything ended up falling back into place.

And then winter came, and the witch was unprepared. And the chilly air caught her off her guard, and she got cold, there in her cottage inside the woods, and that almost was her end.

Then came the time to catch herbs, and she had forgotten many of their names. And when she went picking mushrooms she couldn’t distinguish the poisonous from the harmless ones anymore. Then she forgot the names of the clouds, of the winds, and of the stars too.

And one day she forgot the old words and runes, and the secret names of things. Until she flipped the pages of her books and the old almanacs, and she remembered the art and the dates and names of things; but every time the huntsman dreamed about his unicorn, she would forget some of the stuff that made her who she was.

Since the hunter’s appetite for the unknown was greater than the witch’s will to keep the known, she would keep forgetting more and more. And there came a time when she was no longer a witch, for she didn’t recall her art anymore, and soon she didn’t remember anything, except for a single night of love and passion, and the looks and touch of a young man she sometimes believed to be by her side and with whom she would talk; or some conversation from her childhood, when she would talk to her mommy, who had been dead for many centuries, and that made her weepy. Until she only giggled with herself, sitting on the porch of the huntsman’s house, for he had been by her side and had cared for her to spend her last days in some comfort. And, although that was against her vows, she didn’t mind it because she couldn’t remember them.

February 17, 2023 10:46

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