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"The Witch's Dilemma"
by Melisenda Ellis

from Enchantments: The Many Facets of Magic
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Sylvia stared at the bones, trying to will them into some other pattern. They couldn’t be saying what she thought they were. She blinked, closed her eyes tight, wished for some other meaning, and opened them again, cautiously.
The bones had stubbornly remained in their places inside the chalked circle.

She sat back, a curious sort of numbness spreading through her. At last, she had her answer, her quest. And it would be harder by far than she had expected. How unfair; to think she had waited and hoped and worked so hard, only to be stymied by so small a thing. So small a person.

For it was a person, standing in her way. Perhaps it would have been easier if it were some other sort of quest, some long journey Sylvia had to undertake to prove she was worthy. Some sacrifice of flesh or hair or blood. Something simple, for Vata’s sake.

Something more tractable than a six-year-old who was small for his age and made up for it in sound and fury. He was a force of nature, Sylvia thought; but then, to her all children were. She didn’t understand them, despite having been one so long ago.

This one she would have to learn to understand. She had to get the prize he held, even if the bones were unclear as to what that prize was. Sylvia wasn’t bothered by that small detail. The truth would reveal itself to her in time, and until then, all she had to do was believe. Like so much of her power, it would explain itself in its own time.

First, she had to get it. Scowling, she swept up the bones and placed them back into their soft leather pouch, made from the skin of the small animal they had come from. The bones had never led her wrong, nor her matron before her. Sylvia clenched her fist on the pouch. She had to have faith, that was all. She just had to believe.
That was easier to think than to do.


The sun was high when Duncan finally dodged his mother’s hands and darted outside the hut, tipping his face up to smile at the cloudless sky. Around him rose the familiar walls of the other houses in the village, their five-sided shadows pointing him in the direction of the playing field. It would be a good day today, he was sure of it. Today, Tim would listen when Duncan told him how to play the evil villain, and Duncan would be very fierce as he played his part of the heroic warrior. He frowned, thinking of the last time they had played, and Tim’s unconvincing death act. He had just slumped over, listless, and kept his eyes open, not even writhing or moaning the way Duncan thought he should have. Today, Duncan was determined to make him do it right. Never mind that the other boy was bigger and older. Duncan was the boss of the street, and every child knew it.

Behind him, he heard his mother’s voice, fretting and high with anxiety. “Duncan?” she called. Duncan darted away, toward the long grass where he and the others hid from their parents to play. The farmers kept threatening to cut the grass down to feed to the cattle, but Duncan knew they would never dare. He was too fierce in his denial. His parents would never stand against him saying “No!” enough times, and Duncan was sure the farmers would cave the same way. After all, he would be their leader someday, when he was big, just as his father was the leader now. The pretty lady on the tall pack animal had told him so, and everyone knew that the Wanderers had those among them who could see the future. Puffing up with pride, Duncan imagined himself big—bigger than Tim, his father and everyone. They would all have to listen to him then.

“Boy,” said a voice, breaking into Duncan’s daydream. He turned, frowning up at the woman addressing him. He felt a tiny shiver of fear run down his spine, but he locked his knees, refusing to let it show. Sylvia the witch was someone all the children of the village feared, for there were tales of her eating children and wearing their skins for clothes. Duncan peered closely at the ragged cloak Sylvia wore, but he couldn’t tell beneath the dirt and patches if it was made of children’s skin. It didn’t look like skin, he tried to convince himself.

Duncan looked up to her face, straightening to get every inch he could of his woefully small height. He was going to be the next leader of the village, and he wasn’t afraid of the witch. “What?” he said.

She did something with her face that made her look somehow scarier than before, and Duncan took a step back before he realized she was smiling. He recognized her kind of smile. It was the same that many of the elders gave him when he had said or done something they didn’t like. It was a smile that said, “You are a child, and therefore powerless. I am grown, and I have all the power.”

Duncan hated that sort of smile. It made him conscious of his shortness, and how thin his arms and legs were compared to the other boys. It made him feel small, helpless, and afraid, and he hated that feeling. He glowered back in return, and saw Sylvia’s smile hesitate, then fade. Feeling stronger, he took two steps toward her to make up for the one he had taken back, though it forced his head to tilt back farther to meet her face. “I said, what?” he repeated, and the lisp wasn’t bothering him at all. Sylvia moved her hands together nervously.

“I was wondering if you would talk with me a moment,” she said.

Duncan just shook his head, disgusted. This was the witch everyone was so afraid of? This hesitant, shuffling old woman? His lip curled in scorn and he looked down his nose at her.

He drew himself up further, and adopted a tone he had heard his mother take with the young women she disapproved of. “My mother told me not to talk to strangers,” he said, the lisp barely concealing his haughtiness. Sylvia blinked down at him, and something changed in her face, too quickly for him to see.

“But I am not a stranger,” she said, and her voice had grown stronger, pride infusing her words. “I am Sylvia, herbalist, midwife, healer and witch, and you know who I am!”

Duncan stepped back again, fear overtaking him once more. This was the witch that everyone feared. This woman, draped somehow in power he could not see, but that he could feel like ants marching over his skin. He shivered, and felt himself shrink again into a boy of six with hair like straw that would not lie flat no matter how his mother combed it, and two missing teeth that made him lisp when he tried to speak. The earlier strength he had felt had fled. He was no match for this adult, no matter his courage.

He ducked his head, forcing Sylvia to lean down to hear his words. “I know who you are,” he admitted. Forcing her down to his level comforted him some. She looked awkward, half crouched in the short shrubs that surrounded the tall grass, and he thought about laughing, but he didn’t think it qualified as funny. He wasn’t sure. Humor was still a work in progress. “What do you want?”

She shifted, finding a more comfortable position, and now she looked less awkward, less like she would fall back at any moment. Now Sylvia looked as though she could crouch there forever, part of the path and the land they stood upon. “Did you get something recently?” she asked.

Confused, Duncan only looked at her. She blew out a sigh, ruffling the curls that had fallen into her face. She had pretty hair; dark, like a beechnut, and long, falling to her elbows. The village headsman’s wife would have killed for the curls she had. “Get what?” he asked, after a long moment where they looked at each other in silence.

She hesitated again, looking a little lost. “I am not certain,” she said. She shifted again, and Duncan knew her legs must be getting tired. “I only know that you have received something, and that it is something I want.”

He had something the witch would want? Duncan felt a little more of his courage trickle back, puffing his slender chest out with pride. “What?” he asked. Tim would have to do his bidding now.

“I have told you, I do not know,” Sylvia said, with an edge to her voice that Duncan recognized; it was the same thing he heard just before his mother lost her temper. Something he had, but Sylvia didn’t know what. Duncan forced himself to think.

It couldn’t be the breakfast his mother had given him that morning, and not just because it hadn’t been very good; the witch would hardly want to eat something he had already eaten. And the new baby wasn’t his, it was his mother and father’s; though he felt positive that he wouldn’t mind if the witch took his little sister, it probably wasn’t her either. The slingshot he had won from Kym was kind of new, but he had won that a month ago. Why would the witch have waited so long to try to take it from him?

Duncan kept thinking, as Sylvia watched him closely. He started to shrivel like a plucked flower under her gaze, until at last he couldn’t think of anything except how he longed for her to look away. He looked away instead, knowing he was blushing and hating it and hating her. He wished with all his might that his mother might follow him out and save him from this evil woman, or that his father might stride up from his work and send her fleeing off with his big, booming voice.

“Well?” Sylvia said, and he couldn’t take it anymore.

“I don’t know!” he cried, and spun away from her, darting off to find some place to hide. At least none of the other children had seen him. He wouldn’t have to explain.


Sylvia watched him go and frowned. He was strange, this young child, stranger than most she had met. For a moment, she had even feared him, and he had not been afraid of her. She had never reacted in such a way to a single child. Together, yes, a band of children could make one another bold enough to trouble her if they were feeling stupid and brave—but never a single child. And Duncan was small for his age, eyes bigger than his whole face, or so it seemed to her. But those eyes had, for a moment, held a much older strength than that of a six-year-old.

He was touched by destiny. Sylvia was sure of it.

It made her task even harder than it had first seemed. What did he possess that she needed to claim? It had to be something, for the bones had said so, and the bones were never wrong. But what?

Duncan had looked deep in thought just before he broke and ran, but he had offered no clues. Sylvia sifted through her memory of gossip and the odd word mentioned here and there while the village women had come to her door. She knew Duncan had a new sister, but Sylvia wasn’t old enough to need a successor yet; besides, one would come to her. She would not need to take a child from an unwilling family.

Sylvia made her way back to her house and swept the floor clean, rechalking the circle carefully when she was finished. The bones rattled in their leather pouch as she worked, as though they knew she would call upon them soon. She lit the sweet herbs, letting their smoke obscure the air, and took the pouch from her belt, shaking it over the circle and mumbling her question.

With a clatter, the bones fell into a pattern in the circle, a few without, shapes made by their placement. Sylvia frowned, her eyes watering in the pungent smoke. It was difficult to see. The bones seldom gave clear answers, but always before, she had been able to devise their meaning.

Now the bones made patterns she could not read. She stood and walked to the door and doused the incense herbs with water to cut the smoke. A fresh wind blew in off the fields, carrying the scent of growing things and earth with it. Sylvia stood for a moment in the doorway, looking up to the sky. A storm was on its way and would bring heavy rainfall. The clouds were beginning to form, slow and large. She turned back to the bones.

In the clear, fresh air of the afternoon, the message the bones gave was the same as her smoky eyes had refused to see earlier. Find your own way, they instructed, and Sylvia bit back a curse and swept the bones into her pouch, smudging the circle out with her foot. Worthless. She couldn’t even be sure if she was looking for a spell, a talisman, a familiar, or just a scrap of power hidden somehow in the boy’s soul. She shivered a little and closed the door; the wind had abruptly gone cold. Sylvia wrapped the warm shawl she had been given, in payment for a fever cure, around her shoulders and sat closer to the fire, poking it up until it blazed bright, chasing away some of the shadows in her room.

It was not unheard of to sacrifice a child to gain power, but it had been so long since a witch had done so. The laws were different now, and children more precious, or so it seemed to Sylvia. If she was forced to kill the boy, she would have to leave the only place she knew, the home where she had been born.

Sylvia hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Hard as it would be to bargain for a possession with a six-year-old, it would be worse to try to lure him from his home to die beneath her knife. It was too risky, and what if she were wrong? Vata had ways of punishing those who broke her laws.

Chilled more by her thoughts than the weather, Sylvia huddled in her chair and waited for the rain...

*     *     *

Sylvia has her work cut out for her, for Duncan is a shrewd six-year-old boy. And what are these arcane powers she has to call on?

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