I’ll get right to it this time, continuing the story of my curious French girl and my mysterious witch.
Now that you’re caught up, I hope you enjoy the continuation of my peculiar little tale!
I dreamt, my first night in the witch’s cottage.
I was running through the woods in my night clothes, barefoot, though I could not feel the sting of branches and thorns that tore through my soles the previous day. I was chasing someone, though I did not know who. The trees shook around me, shivering in the breeze and gazing down at me in judgement. I stared only ahead, my mind empty yet completely focused in whatever I was chasing.
I caught a flash of strawberry hair, a frock of pale pink. Plants grew in her wake, sprouting behind her dirt-caked heels. I was chasing my mother, but she was not my mother. She looked younger, livelier. I called out to her, but she did not turn back to me. She only kept running. Towards what, I knew not. I knew only that is was more important than me, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I sped up and in a moment, I began to feel the ground around me in a way I did not understand. I willed my legs to go faster, screaming my mother’s name until my throat went hoarse. I was gaining distance on her until I could see her plainly.
“Maman, please. Slow down,” I gasped. Tears were burning in my eyes. I was so confused, but I needed her more than ever. For a moment, I thought she was running because I broke her rules, because I walked into the woods and dealt with dark magic. She was disappointed in me.
I was nowhere near close to touching my mother. I thought I would forever be stuck in this loop, chasing her until my legs wore out and I melted into the earth. Finally, though, she slowed and she stopped.
I quickly caught up with her. She was still, facing away from me and gazing into the woods. I placed a hand on her shoulder, and forced her to turn towards me, but the second she turned, she transformed, her hair shifting into a raven black and her eyes filling with pools of darkness.
The witch smiled at me and whispered, her breath cold against my ear, “You have a secret, Manon Chevalier.”
I woke with a start, sitting straight up on my bed. For a moment, I thought I was still on my cot in the village, secure yet in oh, so much danger. Then, I remembered the previous day: the witch, the fence of bones, the plate licked clean sitting on the floor next to my bed, and the trials I must face. My body was slicked with sweat, still shivering from my nightmare. I looked out the window. The sun was only just starting to crest over the horizon.
Well, I might as well start early.
I gingerly lifted myself out of bed, slipping into my violet dress and white apron and tying my tangled hair into a ponytail. I refused to go into the bathroom, instead looking into the mirror in the bedroom to comb out what I could of my tangles and wipe the night from my face. There were bags under my eyes, but I did not care. For the first time in months, I woke up without the bite of hunger. If I moved my tongue around in my mouth, I could still taste the remnants of the pork the witch made last night.
I did not understand why I had to cook during my time here. The witch seemed to be doing a pretty good job of that herself.
I was still prickly about the altercation last night. That woman was cruel, no matter how pretty or interesting she seemed to be. She ate people, for crying out loud!
As I walked down the stairs to face the witch once more, I promised myself I would meet her challenges head-on. I was ready for anything. I would not let my village down.
I stopped in my tracks at the bottom of the steps.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
The floor was almost double as messy as it was before, strewn with all sorts of baubles and junk. The kitchen was clearly full of more dishes than before, stains coating the island and stove. In that moment, I hated her, but I was almost kind of happy to clean this disaster of a cottage up. The mess was giving me anxiety.
The witch was nowhere to be found, so I scoured the house for a broom, mop, and other cleaning supplies. I had to start now to even have the tiniest chance of being done by dusk. It took a couple of minutes of looking before I found the cleaning supplies crammed into an over-full closet. I filled a bucket with water from the witch’s sink and placed it on the floor. Then, with a long-wearied sigh and a brusque grab of the broom, I got to work.
It was maybe fifteen minutes before I heard a chime at the door. I was in the kitchen when she walked in, so I did not see the witch, but I heard her feet shuffling against the floor. I turned away from my work, looking into the entryway.
She looked exhausted. Madame Renoir’s shoulders slumped as she leaned against one of her piles of junk. She looked thinner than before, though her dress still clung to her every narrow curve. Her breaths were shaky and I almost saw her body shiver. In that moment, she almost looked like a normal girl, one with some big weight pulling her down.
I was going to go back to my work, but the witch turned to me, noticing my presence. She straightened, a smirk fixing itself on her face.
“Hello Manon. I see you’ve already started on your impossible tasks.”
All the frustration I felt for the witch rushed back with a vengeance. “Funny how you call them impossible, seeing as you’re the one who gave them to me.”
“Regardless of what I call them, I am heading upstairs. In a bit I will leave. Do not disturb me until dusk.” She was clearly still tired, but in that moment, she looked wicked, threats woven between her words like vines.
“Yes, Madame Renoir.” I grumbled, and carried on with my sweeping. Dust plumed around me, sending me into a coughing fit as the witch ascended the stairs, leaving me in the fog.
My brain pulsed inside of my head. I sat on the edge of my bed, elbows resting on my knees and my eyes closed while one of my sentries rubbed my temples, the little magic I imbued within them working to remedy my exhaustion and mind-numbing pain.
“… you are a fool, Anaïs…” the figure whispered above me as they massaged my temples.
“I pay you to assist me, not to point out my obvious defects.” I mumbled back, too tired to raise my voice.
“… you do not pay me at all, petite sorcière…”
“I pay you in power, do I not? I keep you alive.”
“… if you’re going to continue being an ungrateful brat, I won’t help you at all…”
My eyes widened and I raised my head to lock ‘eyes’ —for the shadowy figures do not have eyes— with the sentry. “No. Please.”
“…i reiterate, darling, you are a fool…” the sentry repeated.
I dropped my head again, laughing quietly to myself. “I know.”
I stayed another thirty minutes under the spell of the sentry as I drifted in and out of a dreamless sleep before I swatted them away, my energy finally high enough that I could start my day. Saying thank you to the sentry and dismissing them, I jumped into the shower, washing the night from my bones. Then, I put on a simple, crimson dress and marched down to the first floor of my home. I did not even glance at Manon before I walked out the front door, a satchel clutched in my hand.
I did not really have anything to do during the day that would take me away from the house, but I wanted to see how Manon handled her tasks when she thought she was alone. Would she cheat? Would she be the clever girl I suspected her to be?
I snuck beneath the windows of by home, crouching as low as I could without crawling as I carefully avoided stepping on my flowers and herbs. I swore, if I stepped on one of my lilies, I would simply cease to exist. Finally, once I found a good enough view behind some bushes, I watched as the French girl vigorously mopped my floors.
It was weird watching the muck wash away in a thin film of water. I looked at the colors tinting the water, the pinks and blues and filled my house with life, and felt a pang of sadness as I saw them drift away. Then, I remembered that the pink is a sticky jam stain from when I got frustrated baking and the blue is from a spell gone hopelessly wrong, so maybe it was for the best that I hired this girl to clean for me.
For the first time in many years, I really looked at my house as an outsider, and noticed how desperately messy it was. When I gave the girl the challenge, I thought that it would be difficult, sure, but doable. The impossibility was in the amount of tasks and rooms she would have to clean, but this? This is truly impossible.
I looked at the girl vigorously brushing at the floor, bubbles blooming from her hands, and felt a twinge of guilt. Desperate tears welled in her eyes, begging to fall and mix with the sudsy waters coating the floor. I did not want to kill this girl, but I made a promise. I would reap her soul if I had to, even if it pained me to picture her hair falling flat against the floor, her thin body splayed, hollow on the ground as her soul stands above it, a look of—
Manon stopped, snagging my attention. She stared at the small, thick-bristled brush in her hand, and glanced at the rest of her cleaning supplies. Tears streamed down her cheeks but her body did not heave with sobs. Only the tears and deep frown on her face marked her despair. She sat completely still, studying the brush dripping in her hand until finally, she shook to life. Manon clutched the brush in both hands and leaned into it. She moved the brush to her mouth, gripping the hard back of it as she whispered something towards the bristles, her tears waterfalls pouring off her cheeks.
For a moment, I thought she was acting upon some silly peasant superstition, praying or wishing for some divine intervention to come save her from her hopeless fate. Then, I saw her eyes change. They went from their deep, natural dark brown to an unnatural shade of bright green, the kind that expands, engulfing the entirety of her eyes and crawling out in veins towards the hollowed contours of her face. She whispered as if in a trance now, shivering and swaying with concentration as her mouth moved in unfamiliar ways.
The brush shook to life in Manon’s palm, falling away and hitting the floor bristles-first. It was still for a moment, then another. Then, it began sweeping in circular motions, brushing scum off the floor of its own volition as Manon sat on her knees beside it, the green slowly receding from her face. She looked again at the brush with the green only concentrated in her pupils. A blink, and it was gone.
I bit back a gasp, shock and a little bit of resentment filling my crouching frame. I couldn’t believe it.
The girl has magic.