Contest #217 shortlist ⭐️

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Fantasy Funny

Agnes sits in her stone hut, entirely unaware that she is about to receive a visitor. One side of her hair is knotted into a cloud, and a raggedy dress drips ripped hemming around her bony knees. However, this is how she always looks. If she had known someone is coming, she may have teased a second knot into the opposite side of her head, and donned her classic cloak and pointy hat. A black cat, Mr. Nightmare Sr., purrs and rubs against Agnes’s ankles. A cauldron boils in thick bubbles over a fireplace that warms the room.

.

Ducking under the low-hanging branches of a pine tree, Maximillian Braveheart is on the hunt for a witch. The Blade of the Brave hangs at Maxmillian’s side, which it hasn’t left since it was inherited from his late father. He navigates alone after leaving his white horse, his trusted steed, Arthrax, tied to a tree after the ground became too mottled with thick roots for Arthrax to trot over comfortably. Maximillian Braveheart moves forward, unaccompanied, and places his hand on the golden hilt to remind himself why he’s here, readying himself to embark on a great quest and fulfill his destiny.

.

Agnes preps rosemary to dry by tying the stems together in little bundles with twine, and hears a knock at the door. She opens it to a young man, square-jawed, wide-shouldered, with freshly feathered golden hair. Maxmillian stands straight up and puffs out his chest like he is about to blow her house down.

“Are you the witch that occupies these woods?”

“Aye. What are you, some kind of prince?”

Maxmillian nearly states that yes, of course, he is a prince. An old habit to impress the girls in town. It often worked, as they couldn’t tell, in the dimly lit taverns, that his doublet was stolen off the costume rack from the theatre where he works as an understudy. They couldn’t see the missing buttons, the stitches pulling apart, or the synthetic gemstones peeling off.

Maximillian sees a human skull collecting dust on Agnes’s bookshelf. The lie catches in his throat.

“No,” Maximillian smiles, “I get that a lot though.”

There is no need to lie. The time has come for him to step out of others’ shadows and into his greatest role of all: the Hero.

Agnes turns to return to what she was doing before this not-prince arrived at her door, “What are you doing here, then?”

“Right,” Maximillian stops flashing his glimmering teeth and removes his fists from his hips. “I’m here because I need your help.”

“What is it you want—money? Power?” She arches an eyebrow and juts her neck forward, “You want to be an actual prince?”

“No, no,” he waves dismissively, “I’m here to learn how to make potions.”

Agnes, who was grabbing her twine, throws the skein back down. She stomps over to the book sitting open on the shelve above the boiling cauldron. Though, the cauldron doesn’t currently have a potion brewing inside it, and the book had been turned to a page for a curried turnip soup.

“Fine. Which ones will you need?” she huffs and turns back to the index.

“You have them all there—can I have a look?”

“For my eyes only,” Agnes sneers. “Don’t get any ideas. You need my instruction. You need practice. Otherwise, it could be extremely—” she snaps the book shut, “dangerous.”

Having only closed the book for dramatic effect, Agnes opens it again and continues, “Just tell me what you need the potions for.”

Maximilian holds out his hand as if cupping a skull for a Shakespearean monologue, looks off in the distance, and declares, “A dragon has been terrorizing our town. It killed my father during the last raid. I’m on a quest to slay it and save the town—” he pauses for dramatic effect, slowly curling his hand into a fist, “and avenge my father.”

.

Another hero to challenge Agnes’s building resentment for them. Another hero to wander into her home, acting entitled to her knowledge and skills. Or, the one skill, potion craft. Agnes possessed many other powerful magics, but all beyond the scope of what mere humans were capable of.

Agnes has no choice but to continue teaching, bound by an ancient pact with the town, originally signed by the founding king who now stands as a statue in Townsquare. After being caught stealing children from the locals, she was given the choice between sharing the secrets of her highly coveted magics, or being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Though obliged, part of Agnes did want this at first, flattered that her talents were so sought after. She stands – or, hunches – as the only practitioner on the continent. The spell book filled with original recipes is her life’s work. Anticipatory grief plagues her with the idea that it will all die with her, that all her hard work would have been for nothing.

However, these heroes are always a disappointment. For, despite the number of puerile heroes who’ve shown up at her door, Agnes is still the sole practitioner. Their egos get the better of them and they leave before finishing their lessons, or they overestimate their skills and perish during battle with whichever monstrosity they seek. What a waste of effort. Agnes couldn’t tell which fate would befall Maximillian yet.

.

Agnes hands Maximillian an empty glass jar, tinted green and mysteriously sticky.

“For your first task,” Agnes sighs, “go fetch a newt from the river. We need its eyes.”

“The river?” Maximillian looks down at his pristine leather boots. “Wait—its eyes?”

She forgot how squeamish they are when they first arrive. Nervous at newt eyes, yet off to fight a dragon. Agnes squeals with wicked hyena laughter.

“You’ll figure it out,” she snarls, “hero.”

.

Maximillian Braveheart braves the woods, overcrowded with trees, their gnarl-barked bodies casting long shadows, their heavy canopies obscuring the little light left in the sky. Though alone, Maximillian still looks around and flushes red every time he trips over a decaying log or slips on a mossy rock.

The shallow water trickles before him on a bed of smooth stones, most of which could be lifted to reveal a frog, hellgrammite, or salamander nestled in the soft earth beneath. Maxmillian crouches over the river, turning stone after stone in awe, entirely forgetting to worry about his shoes. He also forgets to worry about the dangers of a forest at night, no longer checking over his shoulder. However, if he did, he would make out a pair of glowing yellow eyes. A deep growl rumbles behind him. Maximillian freezes, slowly reaching for his father’s sword.

.

Agnes answers the rapid knocking at her door to find Maximillian Braveheart, covered in blood, shoulders heaving. He stumbles forward and sits on the cool stone before the fire, knees to his chest. The air is thick with silence and the smell of boiling turnips.

Agnes ladles soup into a bowl and kneels next to Maximillian, offering it out to him.

“It’s a miracle you made it back,” she says, “the Beasts of the Night are fast,”

Maximillian stops rocking, but doesn’t lift his eyes from the floor.

“You knew it was out there and sent me anyway?”

“Oh, no,” Agnes speaks through a devilish smile, “I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

.

Except that’s exactly what she wants. Though the king is long dead, Agnes is still bound by her word. And, due to her long history of making deals, she’s also very familiar with the logistics of loopholes. She can’t kill the human herself, but she can find some way for him to get himself killed. She can’t refuse to teach the townsfolk, but the stigma of a hero’s death may be enough to scare them off forevermore.

Agnes tries a number of approaches. She asks her new pupil to collect the petals of a purple rafflesia, which releases a cloud of poisonous pollen if neared, but Maxmillian ventures on an unusually gusty day that blows the deadly pollen safely away. Another time, Agnes assigns him to procure a pair of faery wings, as faeries are known to trick and trap simpletons with nothing more than their name—but there isn’t much they can do with Maximillian Braveheart, which is apparently a stage name. Then, when instructing his potion-making, Agnes directs Maximillian to mix the contents of the red and blue bottles, knowing they’re explosive when combined—but when Agnes looks back, he’s holding the green and blue bottles, stirring happily away. This day, Maximillian learns what color blindness is.

.

Frustrated by Maximillian’s refusal to die, Agnes plots one last attempt to finish the lad off—accidentally, of course.

“Today, you will make a potion of fire resistance. A painstakingly precise process that requires a lot of practice.” Agnes arranges the vast array of components on the table before Maximilian. “This will be a true test, emulating the conditions you will encounter on your quest. After you drink your potion, I will set your doublet aflame with this torch,” she dunks the wick into a pot of duck fat beside the cauldron and grins. “If you make it properly, there’s nothing to be nervous about.”

Maxmillian deftly follows Agnes’ directions, adding caterpillar feet, mugwort, and powdered pearl. The mixture swirls thick and iridescent.

-dragonfly wings, ginger root

“Now add the frog brains,” Agnes says.

“You mean ginger root?”

“Silly me,” Agnes sweats. “Yes, you add the frog brains next.”

“Next is silverfish scales. There are no frog brains at all in this potion— they’re for potions of speed.”

Agnes pauses, awash in the realization that she had been so caught up in trying to kill the hero, that she hadn’t paid attention to his progress at all. Despite her best efforts, she had actually taught him how to make potions.

“Agnes, are you feeling alright?”

“I’m wonderful,” she beams, and for the first time in a while, she’s being genuine.

.

On the next full moon, Agnes braids rosemary into Maximillian’s golden hair, dresses him in her black cloak and pointy hat, and dances with him barefoot in the grass at midnight. An official graduation ceremony.

But, as soon as she grows fond of him, he leaves.

Unlike his predecessors, Maximillian continues to refuse to die. Wielding his father’s blade, Maximillian Braveheart sets off on his quest, defeats his dragon, and carries on Agnes’ legacy.

September 29, 2023 16:03

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7 comments

Philip Ebuluofor
16:45 Oct 08, 2023

Fine work. It flowed. Sounds like an African tale too. Congrats.

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Kathryn Kahn
19:32 Oct 07, 2023

What a fun world you've created. And I really like both of the characters. This feels like a film, somehow.

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Mary Bendickson
16:35 Oct 06, 2023

Educational and witty. Congrats on the shortlist!🎉

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22:00 Jan 14, 2024

Love this! The witch and wizard and fairy are often just a device - they move the plot but we never find out what they really want. Combine the witch as a real character with the lucky naive adventurer - delightful!

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Amanda Lieser
20:34 Nov 14, 2023

Hi D! What a happy story. I loved that it got shortlisted because it certainly deserved a space with its rich world building and character buy-in. The story was well paced and charming. The dialogue was the cherry on top, I love that she snarls. We got to jump into the witch’s mind and we truly valued why she wanted to do what she did. I’d love a sequel, all about Max. Nice work!!

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Jack Nierling
20:48 Oct 12, 2023

I chuckled throughout this story. Love both of the characters and their interactions.

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Story Time
17:10 Oct 12, 2023

This really read to me as a parable. I thought you captured that tone perfectly. Well done.

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