(Shortlisted in Writing Magazine)
Granny owns the only treacle well in the Mere-Woods.
She says it’s a right pain because now she gets time-wasters coming to the shop for spells, when they’re really after treacle.
I tell her she’s missing a business opportunity. But she just grumbles and says that it’s my fault it’s there in the first place.
I didn’t exactly plan it.
It was the day Madame Genevieve visited.
“The cheek of it,” Granny had fumed, watching from the door as Madame’s broomstick disappeared over the treeline. “I used the last of the treacle on those flapjacks and she turned them down with the flick of an eyebrow.”
I’d been impressed by Madame’s eyebrow flick. In fact, Madame had been a huge relief all round, since my friend Petra had taken to checking my face regularly, convinced that warts were one of the job requirements for a witch.
But Madame Genevieve was tiny, elegant and undeniably wartless.
“Professional visit, my eye!” Granny held aloft the flapjack plate as I shook out the cloth we’d hastily whisked over the worktable. “As if I’d sell bog-mandrake to the likes of her.”
Until we figured out how to harvest it from the depths of the garden pond, we wouldn’t be selling the bog-mandrake to anyone. But I didn’t say that.
“Why not?” I asked instead. “She just wanted it for a beauty potion.”
“Really Skye, you don’t waste bog-mandrake on anything so trivial. Beauty potion indeed! And don’t think I haven’t seen you searching the grimoires for the like.”
I hadn’t realised I’d been so obvious. “It’s not such a bad idea. It could be a way to attract customers.”
“A decent witch doesn’t need to attract customers. Her reputation should speak for itself, and her’s doesn’t.” Granny waved an arm in the direction Madame had taken. “There’s something about that witch that makes my thumbs prick.” One of the bats chose that moment to streak through the still-open door, piping a complaint, and she dropped the subject.
The bats were behind Granny’s reputation for knowing every secret between here and the Hunterback Mountains. In return for the particularly tasty midges that hung out above the garden pond, they shared any news they picked up on their flights through the forest.
“Oh drat.” Granny peered down the lane as she followed the bat outside. “Someone’s coming. Sort ‘em out Skye, I’ll be back in a minute.” She disappeared around the side of the cottage, leaving the flapjacks balanced on the well coping as she passed.
I think Granny misses the bad old days; she suspects everyone. I admit, I wouldn’t fancy putting bog-mandrake anywhere near my face, considering what it did to the gardening gloves, but Madame had seemed to know what she was talking about.
I checked my appearance in Granny’s magic mirror and, reassured there wasn’t a wart or hooked nose in sight, went to greet our visitor.
It was a pedlar. Granny called them a necessary evil, but I still got as excited as any other villager at the covered wagon creaking along the track.
“Refreshments, good sir?” I asked, when he reached the cottage.
Mum had brought me up to observe the conventions of hospitality. Granny keeps telling me that witches don’t follow convention. I have trouble balancing these conflicting opinions sometimes, so was relieved when the pedlar politely took the plate of flapjacks, but left it next to some cages on the tailboard of the wagon when he thought I wasn’t looking.
He pulled back the coverings to display his wares. The cages held an assortment of creatures; some piskies, a distressed looking water vole and an enormous Hunterback frog among others. I ignored them to look through what trinkets and charms he had before Granny came back.
“Anything you’re after in particular, my lovely?” He had a twinkle in his eye, and what he lacked in looks he made up for with a warm charm that made me feel like we’d met before.
“Perhaps,” I said. “Do you have anything unusual?”
“Who would dare visit a witch’s residence without bringing something out of the ordinary? And for a beauteous maid such as yourself, what could be more appropriate than a wish?” With a flourish he presented me with a delicate papery flower pod. “It’s very fragile, make sure your wish is fully formed before you break it open.”
What to wish for? Everlasting beauty? Perfect skin? Or perhaps—
“Don’t be an idiot, girl. You’re a witch, you can make your own wish spells,” said Granny from behind me.
There was that moment gone then.
I could have told him that the raffish charm that worked so well on me wouldn’t dent Granny’s toughened exterior, but some things have to be learned firsthand. I examined the rest of his wares, listening with half an ear as he tried to flatter her.
“Well?” she asked me, cutting through his spiel.
“There’s magewort, persimmony and hogsbreath,” I reported. “And some purple madder, depending on the price.” I shrugged to indicate that anything else we might want wasn’t in sight.
She gave a slight nod and turned back to the pedlar.
Mum and Dad ran the village post-office, so I’d soaked up barter and negotiation at an early age, but watching Granny took it to a whole new level. You wouldn’t believe what she could extract from a bit of gossip.
Today it wasn’t working though. The pedlar deflected each foray with a wave of a hand or a flick of an eyebrow. You’d think he’d never travelled the Hunterbacks or the Maze fields. He must have done to gather his stock, but it was as if instead he’d sprung into being that very morning. I became more convinced I’d met him before.
I leaned against the wagon and reached for a flapjack as I settled in to watch.
The plate was empty.
The Hunterback frog looked a bit too innocent.
“Why you little—!”
“Something wrong?” Granny and the pedlar had both paused to watch me.
“Ah… no.” If Granny found out the frog had scoffed the lot, she’d have him for spare parts. I preferred my spell ingredients nicely pre-pickled and impersonal, so I kept quiet.
“So, about this bog-mandrake—” The pedlar turned back to her.
“Absolutely not. Harvesting is a very delicate process and it’s just not ready yet. I’ve already had to turn someone away…”
And then I had it. As I watched in amazement, he gave that unmistakeable flick of his eyebrow again. Somehow, the pedlar was Madame Genevieve.
I couldn’t work it out. How? Why? And, the issue closest to my heart, what did this mean about Madame’s beauty? Was she really a toothless crone beneath it all? Was I doomed to a future of warts and cavities?
Fortunately Granny is very sharp witted and I am far from subtle. Sometimes the combination is foolproof.
Madame Genevieve – the pedlar – was still banging on about the bog-mandrake.
“Let me get my almanac,” Granny said, giving me a sharp look before retreating inside the cottage.
“Yes, bog-mandrake, it’s a real pain,” I babbled. “It’s the conditions you see. For it to really flourish it does something to the water that makes it quite toxic to human skin. It’s melted every pair of gloves we’ve tried.”
That was true. I think it was something to do with the midges and the bat-poo. The combination had created some kind of eco-system in the garden pond.
“Now, now, Skye dear, don’t give away trade secrets,” said Granny. She stood in the doorway with the mirror dangling from her fingers, and before the pedlar – Madame – could turn, she cried;
“By Mephistole and Cullan’s Dritch,
By Hazel rod and Willow switch,
Never underrate this witch,
I command thee, once more, switch!”
She flung something into the air and there was a flash of light.
The pedlar hunched into a ball and began squeaking. Gradually we could make out words.
“Nasty witch… turned me into some kind of rat and stuffed me in a cage… Why can’t you tell, you stupid woman, you’re meant to be a witch— Oh! My hands! My nose! I’m back! Oh thank you!” He fell to his knees and tried to kiss the hem of Granny’s skirt.
“Yes, yes.” She shooed him away and strode over to the cage that had held the water vole. It now held a miniature Madame Genevieve who was shaking the bars in fury.
“Damn you, you meddlesome old witch!”
“Part of the job, dearie.” Granny lifted the cage and examined her. “I can’t go selling high risk products to just anyone you know, I have my reputation to consider.”
“Reputation!” Madame sneered. “Witchcraft is stagnating because of fools like you, too afraid to take risks. But my turn will come.”
“Not for a while yet,” replied Granny. “We’ll let the Coven Committee deal with you. Turning innocent bystanders into vermin puts a bad light on the rest of us.” She turned back to the pedlar. “Unless you want to keep her?”
“No! No! And under the circumstances, please consider everything to be at thirty percent discount today… I mean fifty percent,” he substituted hurriedly at Granny’s raised eyebrow.
“Very kind of you. Skye has a list.”
I repeated the herbs I’d mentioned earlier and added a few more. “We could use the frog too,” I said, wondering if frog-skin stood up to mandrake toxins. I even had an idea of what his weakness might be if he needed encouragement.
“Gladly miss, and here, as a token of my deep appreciation.” The pedlar swept up a handful of the charms and gew-gaws I’d been browsing earlier. In amongst them was the wish spell.
“Skye!” warned Granny.
But it was too late. The papery pod crumpled under my fingers and the wish-dust inside spilled out, taking my half formed idea with it.
It didn’t turn out so badly. The treacle well means we can make as much flapjack as we like, and that frog will do anything for flapjack. Which is very useful when it comes to harvesting bog-mandrake.
But that’s another story.