Theodore was walking back from checking his snares, a hare and a pheasant slung over his shoulder and a bunch of wildflowers in his hand for his mother, whistling a jaunty tune, when the princess found him.
She probably didn't think she looked particularly princessy, was the thing. They never did; thought tossing on a maid's dress meant they were in disguise. But Theodore was just a supporting player in their little dramas, and wanted to get it done with and get back to his own life as quickly as possible, so he never pointed out that a little dirt might have helped. It saved time. “Excuse me!” the girl said. “Excuse me, sir--” and then he turned and she saw his eyes and stopped. This one, at least, rallied valiantly, and didn't ask if he was a demon or a witch's familiar or anything silly like that. Instead she went with, “Does a witch live near here?” He approved. Normally, he did send the ones he approved of to his mother—he might even walk her there—except when he left, his mother had been working on a spell from one of the older books, something she'd muttered was 'quite experimental,' and he didn't want a princess blundering into whatever she had cooking in the second-best cauldron.
He considered her for a moment. There was nothing for it. He'd have to send her to Glisselda. “Follow this path until the second fork,” he told her, “then take the right-hand fork. When you get to the river follow it upstream until you get to the cottage with the blue door. A witch lives there.” If she was like most princesses, who had no idea bargaining was even an option, she'd get fleeced, but at least she'd be someone else's problem.
Theodore, his mother had clucked more than once, did not seem to be on his way toward being a terribly good witch, but then he didn't seem to be veering toward being a particularly wicked one, either. He was just a little too pragmatic for his own good, which was, in its way, a very witchy quality.
“Oh, thank you,” the princess cried, “how can I ever repay you for your kindness?”
She was one of those princesses, then, the ones who knew that everything they came across inside the wood might be a test. She would probably be all right, he thought. “No need. Better hurry on, now,” he told her, and watched her go before starting back off for home. He was nearly to the clearing when he heard a rather loud bang, but that didn't cause him to hurry. For all he knew that was what was supposed to happen, and his mother clucked when she thought he was worrying unnecessarily.
When he opened the door of their cottage, purple smoke rolled out in a wave that made him cough, and he called, “Mum? Mum, are you there?” His mother didn't answer, which was worrying, and her raven familiar, Stanislaus, swooped down from the rafters and fluttered about Theodore's head a bit before retreating, which was even more worrying. Stanislaus and Theodore had never gotten along, and had had for years a tentative armistice that consisted of staying as far from each other as possible and ignoring the other's existence. “Mum?” he tried again. The rafters were hung with wisteria, which they had decidedly not been when he left, and his mother was nowhere to be found. The smoke finally cleared enough that he could see her clothes lying in a heap on the floor near the fireplace and then the heap—moved.
A medium-sized black cat emerged from beneath his mother's pointy hat, looked up at Theodore, and said, “Mraow,” in the exact same tone his mother would have used to observe that that hadn't worked out very well at all, had it?
Theodore crouched down before her. “You turned yourself into a cat, didn't you?” The cat looked at him, and Theodore filled in what his mother would have said, exasperated: Well, yes, of course, Theodore, that much is obvious. It occurred to him that if the princess hadn't delayed him, he would have gotten here in time to be turned into a cat as well. Funny things like that happened in the forest. Sometimes everything really was a test; perhaps if he'd been more helpful his mother wouldn't have been turned into a cat at all. Lesson learned, he thought wryly. “Right, then,” he said. “I can fix this!” And he could. There was a spell to reverse an accidental transformation. He just had to remember which book it was in.
Theodore had always loved his mother's spellbooks. They'd been handed down through generations of his family, witch to witch, mother to daughter, “And one day,” his mother liked to say, “they'll be yours.” His mother regarded Theodore's status as a son, not a daughter, as a “minor detail.” When he was a little boy, his mother had taught him to read from them, patiently teaching him how to decipher the half-dozen different hands that had scribbled notes in the margins over the years, and then, when he could be trusted to understand the words on the page and to tell thyme from henbane from heartsease, she'd taught him his first spells from them.
Theodore's very first spell had been a love potion, which was cheating, really, because their love potions didn't actually do anything. It wasn't ethical, his mother said, messing with the heart like that. The only real magic came in at the end, when a few ingredients and the right words by the right person turned what was essentially a very fancy tea a lurid, convincing shade of pink that would transform into a colorless, odorless liquid when added to something else. It was the perfect spell for a beginner. You really couldn't mess it up. Theodore liked to think he had progressed somewhat since then, but he was still an apprentice. It was usually his mother fixing his mistakes, not the other way around.
Before he could get to the books, though, he had to do a bit of housekeeping: dealing with the products of his hunting trip (which, given the circumstances, just meant putting them aside for later), getting a vase for the flowers, putting up his mother's clothes, and, of course, there was the cauldron and the burnt mess in the bottom of it. Luckily, Theodore was used to cleaning cauldrons. Judging from the state of the materials on the table, “I'd say you forgot the yarrow,” he told his mother, who ignored him. Well, he supposed it didn't matter now.
He found what he was looking for in the third book he tried. “'For Unwinding Spells of Transformation,'” he read, “starred...oh, what's the footnote, please let it not be 'except for when your mother’s turned herself into a cat.' Here we go,” he told his mother and Stanislaus, his entire audience, “'Does not work on cursed princes.' So that's all right, because you're not a prince.” His mother purred.
He was briefly excited by the note in the margin in his great-grandmother Annis' crabbed, spidery hand: Works best if fresh-squeezed. Perhaps he would get to buy oranges! They never got oranges. But then he read the actual ingredients and it turned out that no, he just needed the blood of a sparrow. “I don't suppose you might want to go hunting for me,” he said to his mother, who gave him that look that meant he was being especially thick. “Right,” he sighed, and set out to catch a sparrow. Tricky business, that was. The first one he tried to capture, scaling a tree under a couple of spells for stealth, caught on at the last moment and flew away. The second one worked out okay, though he fell out of the tree and tore the knee of his trousers a moment after he'd grabbed the little thing and snapped its neck, and then it was just a matter of separating the sparrow from its blood (a messy business, to be sure, but a witch's son learned to deal with messy jobs early on) and following the directions in the spellbook—carefully, oh so carefully, because the last thing they needed was both of them turned into cats. They'd have to get Glisselda to fix it and she'd never stop laughing, or worse, the third member of his mother's coven, Agnetha, who had never quite approved of a boy learning to be a witch, even if it was his mother doing the teaching.
After he added the hen's teeth and stirred widdershins for five minutes off the heat, the potion turned a thick, noxious-looking blue, which he fervently hoped was what the book had meant by 'will change color and thicken,' and it was done. “Right,” he told his mother, “hop in.” She gave him a dubious look, and he sighed. “It says right here, 'submerge ye the afflicted in the brew, and then they shall be as new.' So I don't care that you're a cat, hop in.”
The cat who was his mother gave him another dubious look, but did as he'd bid her. There was another bang, a puff of blue smoke, and then his mother was climbing out of the cauldron as Theodore politely looked the other way and handed her her robes. “Excellent potions work, dearest,” his mother said, kissing him on the cheek. “I think we'll keep the wisteria, what do you think?”
He thought he wasn't surprised. His mother did love flowers. “There was a princess in the forest,” he told her. “I sent her on to Glisselda.”
“Yes, probably for the best,” she agreed briskly. “Particularly as I think Janie Pratt is going to have that baby today or tomorrow, so I'll be going into the village.” He was suddenly immensely relieved he'd gotten her turned back; he did not want to have to deliver Janie Pratt's baby. “We've lost the entire morning, there's so much to do, I've got this to do over again--”
“With the yarrow this time,” he reminded her.
“Yes, dear,” she said fondly. “And you've got chores. Did you feed the Venus Fly Trap?”
“No, Mum,” he admitted. “I'll do that, and then clean the game.” And then fetch more water, and probably she would want him to take another try at seeing something other than sparkles in the depths of the crystal ball that had come down from his three-times-great-grandmother, and their supply of healing teas was running low, and Theodore did a very good healing tea, if he did say so himself. His work was never done, but neither was his mother's, and he really wouldn't want any other sort of life.
He just hoped that next time he wasn't the one turning into a cat.