1000 words. By Dixie Jo Jarchow FCA
A single hair on the Witch’s arm stood straight up, an alert that someone was coming. A heavy sigh escaped the mage who put down a book. The gigantic feline lying near the fireplace, raised its tufted ears.
“She passed the house but still has to navigate the garden and brave the salt barrier. She may not make it at all,” the Witch reassured the cat. Its fur was dark and mottled with hints of gold and red that undulated like moving shadows as the cat stretched.
Another hair sang. The Witch announced, “She’s at the door. Bugger.” The Witch stood up and donned a great purple robe that hung in the corner. The robe was overlain with shooting stars in silver that floated across the rich purple expanse of fabric. The Witch threw open the door and glared.
Thunder shook the ground and lightning flashed although no clouds marred the moonlit sky. The Witch towered over the shaking girl. Her dress was plain and mended, but clean and clearly the best she owned. A beauty, her pale hair hung loose and glimmered in the moonlight, her eyes like clear sapphires.
“You may as well have saved your time. I don’t do love spells. Between you and me, they never satisfy forever after. Nor killing spells. Hordes of ghosts trailing me to complain? No thank you.”
The young girl took a deep breath, “My father died unexpectedly.”
“I don’t bring back the dead,” the Witch snapped, then the mage’s eyes widened. “You killed him.”
“An accident.” The girl shrugged her delicate shoulders. “Last week, he dragged the youngest of my sisters out to the barn. We’ve all had a turn, but she’s so young. I hit him before I knew what I was doing.”
“Seventeen times?” Asked the Witch.
“Well, I couldn’t have him getting up after the first few hits, could I?” The rosebud lips smiled.
“You seem very capable. What do you want from me?” the Witch quirked up one thin eyebrow over deep-set red eyes.
“My sisters and I have made the farm a pleasant home. I want to continue living there without having to marry ourselves off like cattle to the highest bidder.”
“You don’t need a witch, you need a plow horse.” The Witch snorted.
“I need that too, but to the point: The new Duke says only men can hold property.”
“So finagle some dumb, strong brute to marry you,” the Witch said.
“I’ve had enough of what men can provide to last me a lifetime. Children? They mostly die young. Women bleed to death all the time giving birth to the fragile things. My father’s ruined the marriage bed for me. I just want my farm.” Her wistfulness strummed a rusted string in the Witches’ heart.
She waited a beat, “I guess you’re in the same cart, aren’t you? The Duke’s paper means you can’t own property either.”
The Witch’s glittering red eyes narrowed and silver sparks flew from the billowing robes.
“I mean, are you a man?” The girl’s melodious voice cracked. She stepped back.
The Witch frowned. The sparks fizzled and the robe seemed to deflate. “It was very long ago that it mattered to me or anyone else.”
“If you can’t prove you’re a man, you can’t own property. Here’s the proclamation.”
“I’d like to see them try to take what is mine,” muttered the Witch, taking the document to read it.
“The Duke has an army. Can you withstand one?”
The Witch eyes focused inward, “Such a thing has never been tested. Remind me how many men an army is.”
“A hundred or more, with horses.”
“Horses! I dislike horses. They’re such know-it-alls,” the Witch sighed. The gigantic feline wound around the Witch’s legs, peering at the girl with slitted orange eyes. A rumble echoed in its deep chest.
“I know, horses are uncouth, slobbering brutes.” The Witch stroked the cat’s head. “My purpose does not include wasting energy on petty regional conflicts. Neither do I want to mount a defense of my existence.”
“You could kill the Duke,” offered the girl.
“A splendid idea, at first glance, but killing spells have a queer way of coming back at the sender.” The Witch paced. “Why would he come for me? It is known that life flourishes where I am. Rare herbs grow. Crops benefit from my stewardship and even the weather is kinder within my sphere of influence. Still, when has reason entered into man’s decisions?” The Witch whirled and the girl followed. The inside of the small space reeked of subtle magics and burnt herbs.
A huge fireplace dominated the space. Across from it stood a comfortable chair, table and a woven brown bin with three walking sticks.
“You choose,” the Witch smiled. “This started out, after all, as your problem.” The Witch gestured for the girl to select.
The girl reached without hesitation for the closest stick. It glowed red hot and she yanked her hand back. The next stick burned silver blue like the hottest part of a flame. She bypassed it. The third stick was the tallest and cast a long shadow in the firelight. She touched it and cerulean mist sparkled in the air around her.
The girl became taller, shoulders broadened, muscles grew, hair sprouted in places and things, well, rearranged themselves. Her beautiful eyes remained, unchanged except for the horror they held. And then the handsome man faded, transported back to the farm in a shimmer of mist, the eyes the last vestige visible. The Witch replaced the walking stick in the bin.
“Ack” the feline scoffed.
“No, I don’t feel guilty about letting her believe she chose. Humans feel good when they can make choices. I don’t think the Duke will trouble us, but he can be next, if need be.” The Witch smiled. “Oh, all right,” She conjured a plow horse and sent it to the farm. “Happy?”
“Imagine gender being the defining thing of one’s existence! Bah!”