When Aven woke up on an otherwise unremarkable autumn morning, his mother was gone. This in itself was not noteworthy - she could have been out before dawn gathering herbs with the moonlight-kissed dew still on them, or gone into the village with a hunch that young Mrs. Norton's baby was on its way soon, or sitting by her beehive to tell the swarm the latest news and hear what they had learned in their travels. What was unusual was that she had apparently left without her boots, hat, or broom. In fact it was more than unusual - it was unheard of.
"Did she tell you where she was going?" Aven asked Juniper, the black cat who was winding amiably around his legs. Juniper didn't answer him - as a proper witch's familiar she only talked to his mother, who was a proper witch - but she did stop trying to trip him and padded instead over to the rocking chair where his mother normally sat while she was working, staring at it pointedly. Aven sighed and went to the fireplace. There was porridge in the cauldron, as there was every morning, and he helped himself to a bowl, adding a handful of dried elderberries and a scoop of honey before digging in. At least that meant she couldn't have been gone very long, he thought.
Up in the rafters, the raven squawked and shuffled from foot to foot. Aven looked up at the old bird - older than him, and far wiser, at least according to his mother when she was cross with him. Sometimes when she talked to the bird, he thought she was talking to him, since their names were so similar. "Do you know where Mother went?" he asked it, not particularly optimistically. The raven could talk to him, but usually chose not to, except to tell him off. Today was no exception - she turned around and fluffed at the feathers under her wing, paying him no heed. "Fine," he said. "Be that way."
Pulling on his red shoes (a present for his last birthday, brought all the way from the goblin market) he went outside to see if he could spot any trace of her. There was a mist that hung about the trees and made him shiver, reminding him that in a few days it would be Samhain. The beehive was quiet, only a few stragglers buzzing about wearily in what was left of the herb garden. "I don't suppose Mother stopped in this morning to tell you where she was going," he asked them.
To his surprise, one of the bees landed on his shoulder. Its voice was so small and buzzing that it was hard to make out at first, but he listened with all of his might and finally understood what it was saying. "Look by the north window," it hummed to him. "And could you put me on that lavender over there?"
Aven did as it had asked - his mother had taught him that it was always very important to be polite to bees. Then he went around the north side of the cottage, through the tall, dry grass. At first he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Then he noticed that one of the panes of glass was cracked, as though something had hit it. He crouched down and saw, almost hidden in the weeds, a small brown bird. It wasn't one he recognized from the nearby woods or fields, not a wren or a sparrow or a thrush. At first he thought it was dead, but as he reached out to touch it, it twitched and tried to flutter its wings. As he looked more closely, he noticed that around one of its legs was a golden band. He scooped it up carefully and brought it into the house. It didn't struggle, but stared at him with beady black eyes.
"Don't eat it," he told Juniper and the raven, putting the injured bird down on the table. Juniper sniffed at him and wandered off outside, perhaps offended at having to be told. The raven just watched sulkily. Aven gently slid the ring off the injured bird's leg. The bird chirped as he did so, but permitted him to remove it. It was engraved with fine lines, but he had no idea what they meant, if anything. It was just about the right size to fit on his finger, though. He pondered for a moment whether it was a good idea to put it on. He suspected his mother would say 'don't do it.'
"I wouldn't do that," croaked the raven, as if reading his mind.
Somehow that only made him want to do it more. "You're not my mother," he told the raven, and put on the ring.
Suddenly the little brown bird's chirping turned into proper words. "...oh thank goodness, I was starting to think I would die out there, so close to my goal. This is Sibyl's house, isn't it?"
"Uh...yes," Aven replied slowly. Most people in the village didn't call his mother by her actual name - she was just 'the witch' and that was good enough. "She's not home right now, though. Is there anything I can help with?"
"Who are you?" the bird demanded, rather haughtily he thought for someone who was lying flat on her back, unable to do much of anything but flutter helplessly.
"I'm her son," he said, a bit defensively.
"Well, do you know anything about breaking curses?" asked the bird.
Aven remembered the last time his mother had been called on to break a curse. One of the Miller's girls couldn't sleep with terrible nightmares, and her parents had come to the witch to ask her to end the spell that afflicted her. Aven's mother had examined the girl and agreed that she would put together a witch bottle to help her. She had also instructed them to give her tea made with valerian root before bed, though, and had told Aven afterwards that in this case the witch bottle was mostly for show, to set their minds at ease - there was no evil spell afflicting the girl, only her own troubled mind. Still, he remembered the process she had gone through and was relatively confident he could reproduce it. "She's taught me a few things," he told the bird, trying to sound as though he knew what he was doing.
As he gathered the supplies for making the witch bottle, Juniper returned from outdoors, carrying a dead rat in her mouth. She hopped up on the chest beside the window and set it down, perhaps as an offering, then turned to watch what Aven was doing. He had just located an empty glass bottle that he thought would serve, and was considering what else he ought to put into it. It should include things closely associated with the victim of the curse. From a human, his mother might have included hair and nail clippings. "I'm going to need some feathers from you," he told the bird. "Also some blood."
Obtaining the feathers wasn't too much trouble, but the blood was a bit more difficult. "Hold still," he told the bird, "stop wriggling so much." He clamped the cigarette he'd stolen from his mother's supply-for-special-occasions between his teeth as he held the struggling creature over the bottle and tried to get most of the red liquid to go into it instead of down his arm and onto the carpet. Juniper purred, coiling around his feet, probably in hopes of lapping up some of the spilled blood. Finally he thought he had enough, and set the bird down carefully. "Sorry," he told her as he picked up the feathers and stuffed them down the neck of the bottle as well.
"You didn't have to be so rough about it," the bird chirped crossly.
Aven shrugged. "Do you want a curse broken or not?" He added some bent pins, thorns from the rose bush, a knotted piece of red thread, and a pinch of salt to the bottle, but then had to stop for a moment. He knew his mother had added some herbs as well, but he couldn't remember what.
"Try some rosemary," said the cat from where she was sitting licking her paws near the fire. Aven was so startled he almost dropped the bottle, juggling it from hand to hand for a moment before clutching it to his chest for safekeeping.
"Did... did you just talk to me?" he asked, wide-eyed. "Is it this ring? Maybe I can understand all animals now!"
"Don't be stupid," Juniper said. "I only talk to witches, and that's some proper witching you're doing now. But seriously, add the rosemary, it helps."
Aven nodded and did as the cat told him. The bird, meanwhile, had managed to get back onto her feet and was huddled up beside the deer skull, watching him carefully. Once he thought the bottle was complete, he corked it and held it up to the light, hoping he hadn't made any mistakes.
"What now?" chirped the bird impatiently.
"Now I put it into the fire," Aven said. "And we wait until it bursts."
"And that should break the curse?"
"In theory," he muttered, and placed the bottle as carefully as he could in the embers of the fire, then added some kindling to build it up again.
"Better take the porridge off or that pot'll be hell to clean," said Juniper, hopping up onto the windowsill to watch the proceedings from a safe distance away.
"Oh, right," he said, and hastily removed the cauldron from its hook above the fire, lugging it outside where he could clean it later. He tried not to worry too much about what else he would have to do later if his mother hadn't come back by nightfall.
He went to sit in the rocking chair, near Juniper and the bird, and watch the bottle from a distance. Already the heat from the fire, and the blood within it, were making it glow an ominous red. Overhead, the raven croaked grumpily - Aven thought maybe she didn't want to admit that she was wondering what would happen too.
It took longer than he expected, but after a while, they all heard a loud crack, and then another, and then the bottle shattered into shards and its contents went up with a cloud of smoke so thick that it filled the room for a moment. Aven jumped to open the window, fanning at the smoke with his mother's hat.
"I'll take that, thank you," said a familiar voice. As the smoke began to clear, he turned and saw through the clouds his mother standing there. "And open the back window too, it'll blow the smoke out faster. If I'd thought to do that this morning we wouldn't have run into this situation."
Aven hurried to the north side of the house, throwing open the window with its cracked pane. By the time he returned, his mother had put on her shift and was dusting off her hat. Juniper was rubbing up against her leg purring. "What situation?" Aven demanded. "What just happened?"
"Oh, a little misunderstanding," she said casually. "But do you like the ring? It was going to be a surprise for you, but I suppose you might as well keep it now. It was your father's."
Aven looked at it glistening on his finger. She had never told him very much about his father before, and he wanted to ask more questions, but not right now. "It's very nice," he said quietly.
His mother came closer and put a finger under his chin, tipping it up so that he was looking at her. "You made the bottle perfectly," she told him. "I didn't know you were paying attention."
"Juniper helped," he admitted, embarrassed but also pleased by her praise. "But... if it was you the whole time, you could have told me what to do."
"I could have," she agreed. "But I was curious how you would handle it on your own. Apparently, very well."
"You could have told me it was you, so I wouldn't have worried," he persisted.
"Oh, you wouldn't have?" she asked, chuckling. "Now go wash out the cauldron before the porridge sets hard, tell the bees I'm home, and I'll put on some soup for lunch."