is an excerpt of the story
"The Witch's Dilemma"
by Melisenda Ellis
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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?