Fantasy Friendship Coming of Age

This story contains sensitive content

(CW: Mention of a manipulative parent)

On the morning of her twenty-first birthday, Rosemary woke to find herself staring into a pair of purple eyes.

She bit back a sigh. She’d expected this – after all, she’d reached the age that every witch received their familiar – yet she couldn’t say she’d been looking forward to it. During the span of just over two decades, she’d learned to be wary of helpers. In her experience, they were unwittingly counterproductive at best, self-serving at worst.

A paw batted at her nose. Just her luck that a cat had chosen her. For all the stereotypes of witches, she’d never been much of a cat person – most felines she’d known tended to ignore people, except when the people in question actually wanted to be left alone. “Welcome, I guess,” Rosemary muttered, tentatively petting her new companion and sitting up.

The cat, a longhaired smoky tortoiseshell, meowed in response and leapt from the bed. Nice to meet you too, Rosemary was about to snark, when the familiar grabbed one of her slippers in its mouth and dragged it to her. “Huh.” Rosemary’s eyebrows raised. She’d always thought of that as a dog thing, so to see a cat do it was a surprise. “Got to say, thanks.” However, it turned out she’d spoken too soon. While fetching the other slipper, the familiar went and got its teeth stuck. It clawed at the shoe, successfully freeing itself, but ripping up the fabric in the process.

Rosemary grimaced. It didn’t take knowledge of the occult to see a portent here.

By the time her sister paid a visit, the cat had proven the first impression right. Fenella blinked, taking in the scene as she stood by the doorway. The pinnacle of poise as usual, her dark hair pinned in a neat bun, her posture upright despite the box she carried.

“Excuse the mess,” Rosemary said, gesturing to the soil and leaves strewn everywhere, the remains of a potted fern. Dirt clung to her hands and dress from having been mid-cleanup. “Grizel here’s rather, uh… enthusiastic about exploring.”

Grizel bolted over and rubbed around Fenella’s ankles, almost tripping her. The box nearly fell from her arms. “Oh Griz, a little restraint!” Rosemary’s gaze snapped from the cat to Fenella. “You alright? And see what I mean?”

“Ehh… Yes, and yes.” With a grin of relief, Fenella set the gift on a table and glanced down. “Crisis averted. And you’re such a little cutie, you can get away with it anyway!” The snake curling around Fenella’s shoulders peered down with those purple eyes that marked him as a familiar, his look one of curiosity. Familiars, even if their species were usually natural enemies, didn’t attack each other.

“It just takes time,” she continued, giving Rosemary a gentle smile. “Time to settle in, and learn about boundaries. Veles did that a good few times at first.” She ran her fingers along the snake’s scales. “Familiars learn fast though, as long as you’re patient and teach them.”

Rosemary folded her arms, her defenses going up at the advice. “I know.” The words came out chillier than she intended, and she sighed. “I will.” Something in Fenella's voice grated on Rosemary, bringing back memories.

Their mother, leaning and huffing over the potions Rosemary brewed, forcibly adding what she insisted were the right ingredients, only for the concoction to bubble everywhere. Interrupting and correcting the tone of her incantations, which just made her more nervous when repeating them, tripping over the words and failing the spells. “Why must I always be the one to put in all the effort?” she’d lament afterwards, the miniature dragon on her shoulder glaring for emphasis. “And can’t you thank me for once? At least I’m trying, unlike you.” Meanwhile, her dad would pore over his books, and Fenella barely acknowledged she existed. Fenella – who’d always been the favourite anyway – seemed to have moved past any self-doubt from their mother’s perfectionism, but it still nagged in the back of Rosemary’s mind, preventing her from pulling off high-level spells. Which only fuelled her feelings of inadequacy.

“Uh, anyway.” She opened the box, which contained jar upon jar of Fenella’s custom tea blends. Her lips twitched upwards, the closest she usually got to a smile. “So very you. Can’t go wrong with tea I suppose, and there’s enough of it to last a pretty long while… As long as a certain someone here doesn’t knock it all over, that is.”

The first jar didn’t take long to go over. She stored the infusions away in cupboards, but out of the corner of her eye the next day, she saw the ever-curious Grizel jump on the counter, pull one of them open and climb in. Before Rosemary could react, a container tumbled out and shattered in a shower of glass and dried herbs. A wide-eyed, puffed-up blur of fur darted through the kitchen and climbed a curtain, leaving a trail of claw marks.

“Grizel, no!” Rosemary sprinted over and extricated the trembling cat, checking her feet for any wounds, thankfully finding none. “Ugh… You really want to learn about things paws-on, don’t you?” She gave Grizel a stiff pet on the head before setting her on a chair and gathering up all the shards, melding them back into shape with an incantation. Fixing small broken objects was straightforward, but cleaning up the rest of the mess would take a little longer.

As weeks passed, the incidents continued. One time, Grizel sat with Rosemary, tail curled around her front paws, lending her magic to the ritual that would renew the wardings on the cottage – too much magic. The purple witchfire flame on the candle swelled and sparked, singeing the cat’s tail, earning a yelp. “Grizel!” Rosemary put out the witchfire with a sweep of her hand. “Are you alright?” Scrabbling to her feet, she picked up Grizel and inspected the damage. Nothing major, but Rosemary’s heart thudded. “You’ve got to be more careful.”

Grizel wasn’t. Another time, as Rosemary stirred one of her potions to sell, the cat hopped onto the table and reached out her paw to push a little bowl of golden apple seeds closer, only to push down too hard on the edge. The bowl upturned, seeds clattering all over the floor, Grizel instinctively running after and playing with them. “Not this again!” Rosemary’s distraction interrupted her stirring, and the mixture thickened into a gelatinous consistency in a matter of seconds. She sighed through clenched teeth, even as Grizel gave her a wide-eyed, apologetic look. That pot would take all day to clean out.

The worst instance, however, was when Grizel came in and dropped a frog into a jar on Rosemary’s work table in front of her, seemingly offering it as a magical ingredient. Rosemary recoiled as the still-living frog hopped out and made a bid for escape, bounding all over the room. Grizel gave chase, crashing so hard into a cabinet that several potion bottles wobbled and fell over. Frozen in shock, Rosemary stared as the veritable avalanche of her stock burst through the doors and smashed all over the floor. Grizel leapt aside from the rising cloud of acrid smoke – and the vines and flowers that shot up after it. Floorboards cracked as the miniature jungle spread, spawned from the chemical reaction of multiple different elixirs.

For a few seconds, Rosemary stood speechless. “Oh for the love of… Look what you’ve done now!” She’d never raised her voice at her familiar before, but all that pent-up frustration erupted. “That… That’s got to be half my stock gone! And just look at this floor, it’ll cost a fortune to fix! There’s no way I can cast a repair spell on that level. And no, don’t even think about helping! Just… Just give all the so-called helping a freaking rest, ok?”

Instantly regretting saying something so harsh, she clapped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late, Grizel, crouching and staring up in guilt, backed away. She turned and ran, heading out of the window.

“Grizel, wait!” Stomach dropping, Rosemary rushed to the window, glimpsing a small form darting towards the distant forest. Without hesitation, she sprinted out of the door and headed after her runaway familiar. “Grizel!” Even powerful witches stayed away from the depths of the Spindlewoods. Why hadn’t she taught the cat more about this world, Rosemary mentally yelled at herself, pushing past branches and briars that snagged on her dress and scratched at her arms. Grizel had at least tried her best, but what had she done for her in return?

Rosemary stumbled onwards, crunching through ferns and twigs, losing a shoe, ignoring the debris that stabbed into her foot with every step. The air stank of swamp and rot, and an unearthly chill made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Half-running, half-limping into a clearing, she gasped.

Three shadowy, nebulous forms circled around, wispy tendrils reaching out. Wraiths, demonic creatures that siphoned life force to fuel their own power. And in the middle, dodging and hissing, stood Grizel.

“Don’t you dare hurt her!” Stepping forward, fists clenched by her sides, she forced the spell from her dry mouth. “I-I banish you far away from here, from this plane you’ll disappear!”

Her voice wavered. An advanced banishing such as this was dangerous for her to cast, but she had no choice. Sweat dripped down her face as she mustered as much magic as she could, her entire body tingling. “I banish you far away from here, from this plane you’ll disappear. I banish you far away from here, from this plane you’ll disappear!”

All three of the wraiths instantly vanished – as did Grizel.

The cold, sick sensation roiling through Rosemary nearly brought her to her knees. “Grizel! Oh no, no…” She’d done this. She’d been the harmful helper this time, on a completely different scale, casting her own familiar away to wherever those wraiths were. She shook her head, staring at the empty space, before running back towards the village. She could only think of one person to turn to. The last person whose assistance she’d usually seek.

The forestry thinned, and Rosemary found herself stumbling along the cobblestone path, ignoring passers-by who glanced over. The path led to a quaint little cottage adjoined to a tea room. It would be closed by now, evening beginning to cast its shadows, but she held on to hope that her sister was home as she banged on the door.

“Fenella! Please, Nella, help!”

When she heard footsteps, her sigh of relief turned into a panting fit. The door opened, and Fenella gaped at Rosemary’s dishevelled state.

“Rose, what happened? You’re bleeding! And where’s Grizel?”

It wasn’t often that Rosemary showed much emotion around her sister, but now the tears poured forth as she recounted the story. “I screwed up,” she blurted at the end. “I screwed up big time. All because I stupidly didn’t want her to help, so I didn’t teach her how to.”

Fenella stood in silence. Then she stretched out her arms, and Rosemary collapsed into the hug, a sobbing mess. She felt Veles wind around her leg, as if giving her a hug of his own. “It wasn’t your fault,” Fenella reassured her. “I understand why you didn’t want assistance, after… after everything. But even so… We can bring her back.”

Rosemary’s heart leapt. “We can? But I… Spirit summonings, they're pretty advanced.” Gesturing at herself, she gave a humourless laugh. “I don’t know how much use I’ll be like this.” One wrong move, especially without a familiar, and she could end up summoning wraiths into her sister’s home, despite all the active wards.

Fenella pulled away, placing her hands on Rosemary’s shoulders. “You have a connection with her. I’m afraid I can’t make any promises, but it should be enough for you just to be there. If it puts your mind at ease, I can make a calming infusion as an extra safety measure.”

Normally, Rosemary would have rolled her eyes, seen this as Fenella being overconfident and rubbing her supposed superiority in her face. Now, though, she noticed things she hadn’t acknowledged before – faint lines between Fenella’s eyebrows and at the sides of her mouth, a hint of weariness in her voice. They had more in common than she’d thought. Humbled, Rosemary nodded. “Thanks. Th-That’d be great.”

Fenella set about making and serving the infusion, bringing it down to bearable temperature with a spell before handing it to Rosemary. As Rosemary drank the brew as fast as she could – lavender and chamomile with a tang of magic – she could only hope it’d stop her screwing this up. Meanwhile, Fenella set up the candles on the table, and ignited the witchfire with a hand gesture.

Taking several deep breaths as panic gave way to an exhausted haze, she sat down next to Fenella, who began chanting.

“Magic swell, witchfire burn, Grizel to this plane return.”

Listening as Fenella repeated the incantation a second, then third, then fourth time, watching Veles crane his neck towards the flames, Rosemary balled her fists in her lap. The ninth, final chant made her breath catch in her throat. It had to work. It had to.

The air shimmered. A translucent, weightless form appeared on Rosemary’s lap, barely able to lift her head, mouth opening and closing in a silent meow.

“Grizel!” Mixed emotions warred through Rosemary, relief soured with a sharp pang at the cat’s current state. “Oh Grizel, I’m so, so sorry. What I said earlier, I didn’t mean it.” She tried to pet her, but it was like touching smoke, her hand passing right through. Her time in the wraiths’ dimension, however short, had done a number on her.

She stayed by Grizel’s side all evening, and all night in the spare room. She only caught a few hours of sleep, plagued with dreams of wild forests and shadow wisps, but she woke to soft pressure against her nose. A cat paw. A solid one. She gave a shaky laugh, along with the widest smile Grizel would ever have seen from her. “Hey there.” She reached out, wincing from her stinging cuts and wishing she’d brought her healing salve, tapping the cat on the nose right back. Grizel purred as she curled up, her body still bedraggled and slightly translucent, but she’d made considerable progress.

“I don’t know how I can thank you enough,” Rosemary said as she headed into the kitchen-dining area, where Fenella cooked breakfast. The smell of frying eggs and mushrooms filled the air, and Rosemary found herself ravenous. “I guess I should start by saying… I’m sorry I’ve been so childish. So standoffish.”

Fenella looked over her shoulder. “So I take it Grizel’s doing better?” At Rosemary’s nod, she smiled. “I knew she would, she seems like a tough one. And really, I’m the one who should apologise.” Her voice turned uncharacteristically somber. “Back then, to tell the truth… I wanted to stand up for you, but was scared of how it’d come across, what with Mother’s way of helping. Didn’t want to be overbearing like her, but, well…” She gave an awkward laugh. “It just means that since we moved out, and I’ve tried to be more supportive, I’ve probably come across as some stuck-up know it all. Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Rosemary chuckled, easing herself into a chair to rest her sore muscles. “Aren’t big sisters supposed to be stuck-up know it alls? Seriously, though, I shouldn’t have taken it the wrong way. The major difference between you and her is she’s a control freak who’s not happy unless she’s sabotaging someone’s progress. You’re just… Regular-level annoying, and kind, not nightmare-level annoying and a jerk like she is.”

Fenella couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, I don’t quite know it all. You see, there are some potions I can’t get the hang of. It’s weird, you’d think teas would be similar, but potions have always been your thing.”

“I get the hint.” Rosemary put on a mock pensive expression. “I may just have a few recipes to share, if you want. And, uh… If you’re still ok teaching me high level incantations like you offered a while back, it’s about time I swallowed my pride. You never know when they’ll come in useful, after all.”

Their visits became more frequent, both so they could fulfil their promises, and so Fenella could see how well Grizel was recovering. Before long, she was back to trotting around, exploring and assisting with spells, although this time Rosemary gave affection more openly, and each paid attention to what the other wanted. The occasional mishap still happened, albeit far less often. No wonder Grizel had been so clumsy at first, Rosemary thought with a stab of guilt. The more annoyance she’d shown, the more the familiar had tried too hard, and messed up. Another self-fulfilling prophecy.

And it wasn’t long until Rosemary took to studying more than just potions and chants. Getting back into education would present its fair share of challenges, but would be a positive step forward, and Fenella was more than happy to support her in this venture. If she was going to pull off her plan of running a service for witches and familiars who had trouble bonding, she’d have to do this properly.

After all, there was nothing wrong with needing help.

And, as long as the helper knew what they were doing, there was nothing wrong with giving it either.

April 15, 2023 03:43

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Galen Gower
13:32 Apr 20, 2023

Your story was included in my critique circle email, so that's why you're getting unsolicited feedback you don't have to take. I hope my observations are helpful and constructive, but everything is subjective and this just may not be useful. Please keep in mind I am not an expert editor; I'm barely capable of cobbling coherent sentences together and I offer observations as a reader mostly. Altogether, it's clear you know what story you want to tell and you don't have any issues with the structure or language creating it. The two main critic...


Philippa Hibberd
15:55 Apr 20, 2023

Thanks for the feedback! I may have left this story a little too close to the deadline and rushed it. Your suggestions for how to convey emotion better would hit a lot harder, I particularly like "The pain from the briars snagging her tender arms was far less than she deserved for being such a miserable teacher." Something like that would really have gotten Rosemary's guilt across. I'll take all this on board for future work, and criticism is appreciated any time. It's a big reason why I post stories here after all, not just for the sake of...


Galen Gower
14:41 Apr 22, 2023

My heart glowed a little when you implicitly included me in 'writers'. I really enjoy reading, writing, and critique. I hope the stuff I suggested isn't too intrusive. I don't know exactly what the community etiquette is. I always wish I could go back over my own work and find the same kind of insights, but for whatever reason, I don't have much with that, though. I look forward to more stories!


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Mary Bendickson
01:06 Apr 20, 2023

So bewitching!


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Trina Brettnell
16:47 Apr 19, 2023

Great witch tale!! I really enjoyed your story.


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Wally Schmidt
18:30 Apr 16, 2023

Great take on the prompt! In fact you hit a couple of the prompts with this story. Haven't read a good witch tale in a while and this one was really engaging.


Philippa Hibberd
20:15 Apr 16, 2023

Funny you say that because I was debating which prompt to post it under, this or the one about the character with pure intentions yet who always ends up doing the wrong thing, because that describes Grizel. And thanks, glad you found it engaging!


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Russell Mickler
00:33 Apr 16, 2023

Hi Philippa! Hey a fantasy witchy familiar story! Wonderful! I really liked the arc and pacing and mechanics, the names … Rosemary, Grizel … your chase through the haunted woods was superb, great descriptions and mishap … and you certainly have a lessons learned story ending with the learned heavy handedness from mom … I wondered if Grizel forgave Rosemary for banishing her to another plane? Grin Grizel seemed really shaken by the experience … A fun fantasy read :) R


Philippa Hibberd
08:17 Apr 16, 2023

Thanks, glad the pacing was ok, I was worried about getting that wrong with the 3000 word limit. And yep Grizel forgave Rosemary, hence the boop on the nose. She recognised that Rosemary was really shaken too, that what happened was an honest mistake, and that Rose cared about her all along deep down.


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Galen Gower
02:17 Jul 06, 2023

Just dropping this here in case me asking for more stories from you is all it takes...


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04:14 Jun 20, 2023

I really enjoyed this one! Loved the magic shown here and the rules about familiars. Grizel is an adorable helper, and just as clumsy and playful as a normal cat. I also enjoyed the bond between the two sisters, it was well presented.


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