Sorry that I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been having a bit of a rough time emotionally and mentally with school and other extraneous events and haven’t had the time or energy to sit down at my desk and think of a story. However, in recent weeks, I came up with an idea I think you’ll really enjoy. I have been on a bit of a fairytale binge recently, and I was inspired to write a story! Exciting, right?
I began writing a tale of a girl and a witch, and I decided to publish it bit-by-bit on Awkwardly Vain. It’ll definitely be more on the episodic side, more of the story coming out every Friday. Today, however, I begin the story, following first a French girl on a mission and then, a witch who just wants to be left alone.
I was walking through the dark woods. Branches crunched under my feet as I heard crows cawing in the distance. They were telling me to run away, or maybe they were laughing at me, certain that in moments some terrible monster would pounce at me and swallow me whole. The hairs on my body stood on end as I listened to every noise around me, afraid that a painful and terrible death was only footsteps away.
Mother always told me to stay out of the wood, that it was a dark, wicked place unfit for little girls. Now here I was, a torn basket in hand as I marched towards my destination: the cottage in the center of the wood, prepared yet completely unprepared to ask for a little bit of magic and maybe some bread.
The famine started last summer. For years, the temperatures have been rising and the crops getting smaller and smaller, and the winters… The village learned to fear the winters. In the past year, nothing had grown in the barren soil, nothing to supply the village with what little sustenance it needed. People died. People got desperate. People started doing horrible, unspeakable things to those they trusted most.
So here I found myself, walking closer and closer to the center of the forest as whispers and growls ebbed and flowed around me like the tide of an ocean I hadn’t seen in years.
I remembered my mother. She died long before the famine of some plague that swept through the village, leaving the hollowed-out carcasses of families in its wake. I could feel her scowling at me from wherever she went, her immortal soul convinced that her daughter wished to join her.
I had been walking for hours. My feet throbbed and my calves were on fire but I refused to slow down, to catch my breath. The moment I stopped was the moment I became a target, an easy piece of meat for the desperate and hungry monsters lurking in the depths. For a while, I began to think that I lost my way, that I strayed and was destined to be stuck in the forest for all eternity, separate from humanity and the people I loved. Then, something parted the smells of moss and foliage: the smell of smoke.
I almost ran when I sensed the shift in the atmosphere, glad to finally feel a sliver of civilization, as small as it may be. Of course, that was when I remembered the stories of the witch, stealing children in the dark of the night and slaughtering the villagers foolish enough to near her home. I remembered the stories of her haggish appearance, of her long, twisted nose and her warty, wrinkled flesh: a witch of the worst kind. Hopefully, she was not so bad. Otherwise, this dreadful trek though the forest would have been for nothing.
I shook my head, reminding myself that I would save my village, no matter the cost.
Finally, I saw the top of a thatched roof, billowing beautiful streams of silver and golden smoke into the dusky sky. I got closer and saw the beginnings of wooden logs, the walls of the quaint home peeking through the trees. Perhaps this won’t be so bad after all. I walked faster, hope blooming in my chest. My basket hit my leg as my pace quickened, and I was almost running when I stumbled into the clearing and stopped in my tracks.
A fence of bones. Fantastic.
Bones of every kind, from femurs to collarbones, made up the fence surrounding the witch’s house. A trill of fear ran down my spine. I was so incredibly over my head that I could barely breathe. My heart was pounding through my chest. What am I doing? Why am I here?
I knew damn well why I was there. We were starving and she was our only chance. Bracing myself for the worst, I stepped towards the fence, but before I could even figure out where the latch of the fence was, the bright red door to the small cottage swung open, and I came face to face with the witch.
“If you’re trying to hide, you’re a lousy sneak.”
Wait, is this the witch? She did not look how I expected. She was not haggish and ugly, turning men to stone with only a glance at her vanish visage. The dreaded witch… she was beautiful, with black hair falling to her midriff, pinned back with small, bone-shaped pins. Her eyes were lakes of tar, thick and black and anxious to draw you in. Her lips were bright red, as if she had dipped them in only the freshest of blood. Her face was white as milk and her arms were crossed over a waif like chest. She was much thinner than I expected, all skin and bones covered in a simple black dress with a high, stiff collar. I was silent for far too long, shocked at this sudden turn of events, before I finally gained my bearings and spoke.
I raised my chin, gazing into the molten eyes of the witch. I did not know what had come over me, but my resolve was set. “I am not trying to hide, Madame Witch. I came to seek you out.”
The witch laughed. “And why is that, girl? Do you need to slay the witch for some silly little quest? Or maybe you need directions to the elixir of life? I’m afraid I cannot help you. Now leave before I gobble you up.”
I was confused by the witch’s eloquence and bluntness, even as she threatened to consume me. “All due respect Madame, but a death at your hands is no worse than the fate that awaits me back home. My village, Montaron, is starving.”
“And why should I care? That village has done nothing for me but send fools with swords and torches.”
Anxiety pinched in my gut. I needed her to help me. “Please Madame Witch. You’re the only hope we have. Do you not have even a little magic to spare, just to get the plants growing again?”
The witch glared at me, probably considering the best ways to cook my flesh. Then, she deadpanned, “No. I do not.” She began to close the door on me.
“Wait! I have payment! And I can work!” I screamed, desperate for even a moment more of the witch’s attention. I would have rather died than go back to the village empty-handed. I didn’t need all those lives on my hands.
The witch paused and turned back to me, the door still half shut. “What type of payment?”
I started at her blunt question, hope sparking once more in my soul. I reached into my basket, searching for the payment I had brought.
“I don’t have much, but I brought this.” I pulled out a small lace circle made of white, silk thread. It took me weeks to make, crouching over my wooden desk, moving pins as I continued the pattern. The thread was expensive too, cost me nearly two months pay.
“Am I supposed to be impressed?” The witch stared, dismayed at the lace.
To say I was frustrated would have been an understatement. “Yeah. A little,” I mumbled under my breath.
For a moment, I thought the witch heard me. I could have sworn I saw her mouth quirk up, if only slightly. I thought she was going to shut the door again, but instead she appraised me, looking me up and down from behind her wall of bones. Her lips were fixed in a tight line. “I am not in the habit of giving up magic to silly French girls in villages that do not concern me, but I suppose… if you work for me for seven days and seven nights, I could possibly pay you in some useful magic.”
“There is no need for thanks.” The witch snapped her fingers, opening her gate and gesturing for me to follow her inside. Internally, I thought I was going to die, but I followed because I had no other choice.
“And please,” the witch continued. “Call me Madame Renoir. It suits me far better than Madame Witch, don’t you think?”
I stared at the peculiar girl who stepped through my doorway. I hadn’t had visitors in my cottage in many years, more if I excluded the ones that never left. I could not tell what was so special about the girl, why I took her up on her offer to work. There was nothing physically special about her. She had dusty blonde hair, half of it twisted up into a loose bun as the rest laid flat on her shoulders. Her skin had a smattering of freckles rising up her neck and covering her cheeks and forehead. Her eyes were the brown of dark chocolate, the kind I made during the winter solstice, when I could hear the singing from the village rise to a crescendo.
Just thinking about the village made me grimace, with all the close-minded people and their torches and knives. The quaint village of Montaron was the last place I wanted to contact, let alone help. They never helped me when I needed them, relied on them. Yet, here I am, about to save those pompous fools in their time of need.
I gauged the girl once more, in her plain frock flecked with dirt and her hair woven with leaves and tiny sticks she had yet to notice. She was looking around my house, curiosity sparking in her solemn, tired eyes. She was hungry. I could tell. It was clear from the bend of her shoulders and the set of her jaw. And she was thin, but not in a healthy way. Her dress looked a size too large, slightly slumping off her shoulders and hanging loosely at her waist. Her soul glowed deep in her chest, a silver chord that spoke of trials and exhaustion. She was resilient, her trek proved that enough, but I could see in the glimmers of red and orange that she was oh, so very desperate.
I sympathized for the girl, I truly did. I once knew the deep well of hunger, carving its way into you and hollowing you from the inside out. I still sunk into the depths of memory on solitary nights, when I was most prone to remembrance, of the days before the wood.
Still, I would rather not assist my betrayers in their time of need.
Perhaps I don’t have to help them so easily.
“Girl, stop nosing about. My house is none of your concern.”
The girl stood stock straight, her hands, once reaching and curious, now firmly fixed on her ancient basket.
“What is your name?” I stared into her, my tone harsher than I expected, but sending the point across nonetheless.
“Manon Chevalier, Madame W— Renoir.”
“A pretty name for such a plain young lady.”
“Tonight, you will shower and sleep. I don’t need you tracking muck in my home. Food will wait for you in the kitchen once you are clean. Tomorrow, you will clean my home, turn on the furnace, water my plants, wash the dishes, and make dinner. Afterwards, you will take this knife,” I pulled a small silver dagger with a blue, jeweled hilt from my pocket. “And you will prick your finger. You will drip three drops of blood exactly into my large, black cauldron. No more, no less. I will know. If you do all of this by the time the sun sets tomorrow, you get to survive and are one day closer to your goal. If not, I will eat you.”
I was bluffing, of course. I had never eaten anyone. Human flesh just sounded kind of gross. But I would reap her, and I had oh, so much experience reaping souls, whether it was their time or not.
There was fear in the girl’s eyes now. She knew she could not complete all of her tasks in the time allotted. For a moment, I felt a twinge of pity. I erased it. Witches do not feel pity. Good that she won’t finish them. I won’t have to help that gods-forsaken town.
“Speak, foolish girl. Do you understand the terms?”
“Yes, Madame Renoir,” she answered, her tone solemn but stern.
I could not help but smile. “Very well. Get yourself cleaned up. You wreak of civilization. Oh, and leave the basket here, would you.”
Check out the next part of Manon’s encounter with the witch in Part 2!