The spider was taunting me. It sat, fat and gloating, in the center of the web that encompassed the entire corner over the sink. Every morning its tendrils stretched just a bit farther; every morning I contemplated taking up the broomstick and clearing it out.
I hadn’t done it yet. What was the point? I’d get halfway through and have to stop, bones aching or out of breath, and the damn spider would have it up again by morning.
“Bah.” I let my frustration out in a puff of air. “So I won’t look at the spider.”
But the walls were just as bad, their whitewash faded to a dingy gray. The bottom right windowpane was cracked, struck by a rock in the last bad storm. The shelves were nearly bare, what few philters remained rotten and dark, their vials thick with dust. The books smelled of mildew. The rug was threadbare – I could see the holes starting to form. Everything decrepit.
Decrepit. I rolled the word around my mouth. It made the sound of creaking joints and things crumbling. All in all, an appropriate description for the cottage of an old crone.
“Have to keep up appearances, I do.” I hated the waver in my voice, which had once been so strong.
It took one hand on the table and one hand on my stick to get me to my feet. A pain lanced through my hip and up my back as I stood. “Damn being old,” I said. I talked to myself a lot. There was no one else to talk to. “I would trade my wisdom to be hale again.” I shuffled toward the door. I didn’t want to go outside, but Goat needed feeding. “Bah. No I wouldn’t.” But I wouldn’t mind less pain.
Movement caught my eye, and my gaze darted to the window. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, that’s true enough, but it was sharp enough to make out…a face. A child’s face. I stumbled the last few steps to the door and yanked it open.
There was a child in my yard.
I don’t particularly like children. Never wanted any of my own; never was interested in anyone else’s. Most of them are too stupid to hold a conversation with. To be fair, most adults are, too. But my many years of experience have exposed me to enough of them that I was confident in guessing that this child was a girl, about ten years old. She stared at me, doe-brown eyes wide as saucers, lips parted slightly.
I narrowed my eyes. Surely children did not wander about the woods on their own? My cottage was a long walk from the village proper. There had to be a parent somewhere about. Someone who would take her away.
The girl blinked, then seemed to recover herself, bouncing toward me with the disgustingly unconsidered ease of the young and healthy. Her hair was tied up in a multitude of braids, with a wooden bead at each end; they clattered as she walked. Irritating child. I shifted my weight, leaning harder on the stick.
She stopped right in front of me and tilted her head to one side. “Are you a witch?”
“No,” I snapped. The girl stumbled back, no doubt intimidated by the fierce scowl that had settled over my features.
I stomped toward Goat’s shed.
I heard light footsteps behind me. “Go away. Shoo.”
“I don’t believe you. I mean, I don’t believe you’re not a witch. I mean, I know it’s rude to accuse people of lying…only, the three signs of a witch are supposed to be the presence of an animal familiar, a greater than usual number of storms in the area, and an inability to float.”
Do they never stop prattling? I yanked open the door of the shed. Goat looked up and bleated happily.
“That’s your animal familiar?” The girl was peering past me into the shed.
I turned to give her my best quelling look – the look that sent grown men running for their mothers. “That’s Goat.”
It had no effect. “You have a goat named Goat?”
“Yes,” I said. “Stop talking. Better yet, go away. I have things to do.”
“I can milk the goat,” she said immediately. “I do it at home all the time, even when it’s really Talib’s turn.” She darted past me, and in moments had the bucket and the stool set up. “So if the goat isn’t your familiar, where is it?”
I snorted. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read. That list came straight out of Carson’s Encycolpaedia Supernatura, and Carson is an idiot.”
“No animal familiars. Witches can swim just fine. The bit about the storms is true, though.” Power is drawn to power, after all.
And I am getting far too engaged in this conversation.
I went back to the cottage.
I had left the door open, and soon enough the girl was hovering in the doorway, a full bucket in her hands.
“Come inside, then,” I said. “Put the milk in the corner; I’ll deal with it later.”
“Everyone says you’re a witch.”
I looked up sharply. “Oh? And what makes ‘Everyone’ such an expert, then?”
A faint coral undertone colored the girl’s brown cheeks. “Why are you so mean?” she whispered.
Oh storms, please don’t start crying. “It’s a defensive mechanism for dealing with stupid people, which is nearly everyone. Witches are smart, and we don’t suffer fools.”
The girl brightened, coming over to lean on the table. “So you are a witch!”
I thumped my stick on the floor. “I did not say that.”
“Yes you did. ‘Witches are smart, and we don’t suffer fools,’” she parroted.
I blinked. All right, so she isn’t an idiot.
“All right, I’m a witch. What do you want? Magic spell? Potion? I can’t help you with either, I’m retired.” I watched her attentively.
She lifted a hand to her hair, twisting her fingers in the braids, and mumbled something incoherent.
“Speak up,” I said. “I’m an old woman.”
The little girl cleared her throat. “I want to be a witch too.”
I leaned over, putting my head in my hands. The stick clattered to the floor.
“Please! I promise I’ll be good — I’ll do all the chores and I’ll listen to everything you say and I’ll work so hard, I just want you to teach me, please won’t you teach me –”
“Enough,” I said. I lifted my head from my hands, pointing one trembling and wrinkled finger in her direction. “You’ll do exactly as I say? Even when it’s not exciting or arcane?”
She nodded eagerly, beads clacking.
She’d get bored soon enough, but perhaps in the mean time I’d have some help around the house. Finally get it cleaned up a bit.
“Fine,” I said. “You can come once a week until the equinox. I’ll probably have tired of you by then. No complaining. No questions.” The girl opened her mouth, paused, and closed it again. My lips twitched. “Limited questions.”
She nodded again.
“Now shoo. Wait — pick up the stick on your way out.”