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The Tale of Two Mothers

Chapter Text

The woman wrapped her cloak closer around her body. It wasn’t so cold that she needed shielding from the weather, but the tightness of the fabric gave her a sense – however false – of protection. Everyone said the witch was kind and good, but still, she was a witch. And witches were possessed of powers so far beyond the ken of the average person that any interaction with one was fraught with danger, even if the witch you were approaching was a practitioner of light magic. The divisions between light and dark power made very little difference to someone whose sole protection was a bit of homespun wool.

The witch was working in her garden. That eased the woman’s fears a little. It made for a not-very-fearsome picture – a witch on her knees, fingers covered in deep rich soil as she dropped seeds into shallow holes in the ground, tamping the dirt down around them with a wooden trowel.

“Mistress Swan?” the woman called.

The witch looked up, pushing away the lock of yellow hair that had fallen over her eyes, leaving a streak of dirt across her cheek. The woman had to bite her cheek to not smile.

“Please pardon the interruption, Mistress Swan. I am Constance Buckle…my husband is the shoemaker up over in Cherrywood village. I have come seeking your help.”

Mistress Swan got to her feet, brushing away the dirt that clung to her knees.

“Are you unwell, Goodwife Buckle?”

“No Mistress. But…my husband and I…we have tried for so long to have a child. But I can’t. I’ve never been able to.”

“And you’ve come to me?”

“Mother Howell, on Ridge Farm, she said that you’d helped her daughter, when she had the same trouble.”

“Did Mother Howell tell you there is a price to be paid?”

“Yes, Mistress. Three milk cows and a year’s supply of cheese.”

“That was the price for Mother Howell. Your price will be your own.”

“I’ll pay anything, Mistress Swan. Please.”

The witch sighed. “At least wait until you hear the price before you swear to pay it. Come inside, we’ll see what is to be done.”

The inside of the witch’s cottage was dark and smelled faintly of burnt sugar and cinnamon. It was untidy, with tools and cloths jumbled on the table and dishes piled up on the workbench. But even though it was a mess, it was clean – the tools had no hint of rust or dirt on them, and the dishes were freshly washed, waiting only to be put away. Constance Buckle found herself thinking the witch could do with a wife.

Mistress Swan moved some things off the table, clearing a space by adding to the jumble on the workbench. She invited Constance to sit, and then placed a gentle hand on the woman’s belly and another over her heart. She seemed to listen for a while, and then the witch sighed.

“I am sorry, Goodwife Buckle.”

“Oh please don’t say that. Please. Surely there is something you can do to help?” She started to cry. “I’ll do anything, I will.”

“The price will be a high one.”

“Anything. I’ll pay anything.”

“The price will be your child.”

The woman gasped. “No. Please. Take my life instead.”

“No, Goodwife Buckle, not your child’s life. But your child. Your firstborn. Given over to me, and you and your husband will have no further claim.”

“How can you be so cruel?” the woman cried. “Everyone says you are a witch of light magic! How can you ask that-“

“I do not set the price, Goodwife Buckle. But I must ask it. If you want the help of magic, that is the price you must pay.”

The woman sobbed quietly while she mulled over the witch’s words.

“You said my firstborn.”

“Yes.”

“So, I will have others? After the first one – the one you will claim as a price?”

“The one the magic will claim as a price,” the witch reminded her gently. “You will fall pregnant again, after your first child is born.”

“And what will you do with the child?” the woman asked worriedly.

“No harm will come to her. She will be my apprentice, I will teach her the ways of light magic.”

“A girl? My firstborn will be a girl?”

“Yes.”

“And my second? Another girl?” she asked hopefully.

The witch shrugged. “I cannot say, Goodwife Buckle. I cannot see that far into your future.”

The woman’s face grew thoughtful, as she weighed a future with no child at all versus a future where her firstborn was taken from her, but she would have other children to follow. Finally, she nodded.

“Very well, Mistress Swan. I will pay the price.”

The witch sighed. “Be certain of your decision, Goodwife Buckle. I can promise you nothing other than your firstborn will be given to me.”

“But there will be other children,” the woman said, so caught up in her reckoning of motherhood and childlessness that she did not pay attention to the witch’s careful response.

“You will fall pregnant again. But I can see no further than that.”

“I will pay the price.”

The witch rose to her feet and rummaged in the over-stuffed cupboards, pulling out bottles and phials and powders. She mixed up a potion, measuring carefully and sure, and ending up with a colourless, odourless, liquid in a clear glass vial. The liquid gleamed in the vial, catching every stray trace of light and turning it into a sparkling fire.

“Take this home with you. Drink it before the next time you lie with your husband. And remember – the magic will have its price. Do not drink the potion, and you will not have to pay the price.”

“Thank you Mistress Swan!” the woman cried, so caught up in the joy of her hopes being realised that she would not hear the clear warning in the witch’s words. She took the vial, tying it carefully into a corner of her cloak, and left the cottage.

Mistress Swan sat in her quiet cottage for a long time after, as the sun set and the shadows lengthened across her walls. Sometimes she felt the weight of her power was too heavy a burden to bear. She hoped the woman would not drink the potion, but she knew she would.

 

 

The shoemaker huddled into his coat as the wind howled around his ears. The witch made her home at the top of a steep cliff. The only way to reach her cottage was a narrow path that wound its way up the cliff face; mountain goats would cling to the rock in fear if they had to come this way. But Ambrose Buckle was a man driven by something more powerful than fear. He thought of his home, far away from this windswept cliff; a little house with a thatched roof and a nice little garden filled with cabbages and tomatoes and sweet-scented flowers. His little shop stood close to, with the broad half-door where a wide ledge displayed the finer examples of his handiwork. His workbench was set to catch the best of the light, and his tools glinted in the sun, the wood gleamed with polish, and the scent of leather, earthy and rich, filled the air.

When he had been a boy, apprenticed out to a leather-worker, when his life had been nothing but miserable toil and hard words, a shop and home like this had been a dream that he held carefully in his mind. A dream he could share with no one for the certainty of the ridicule that would follow. But somehow, by scrimping and saving, and his own skill, and by a very great amount of good fortune and luck, Ambrose Buckle had been able to set up his own shop, and then build his own house, and then take a wife, who he loved dearly, and who kept him and their home very well.

By all accounts, Ambrose and Constance Buckle should have been exceedingly happy. But every evening Ambrose would come home to a hot meal set out on the table for him, and a wife who grew more and more silent and sad. And every morning his breakfast porridge seemed seasoned with the salt of his wife’s tears.

A child. The lack of one was felt so keenly in his home that Ambrose would gladly have given over every advancement he had made in life, would return to the tannery and a life of drudgery, if only he could hear the sound of his wife’s laughter over the gurgle and babble of their child.

He had asked around. He had spoken to the men who came to mend their work boots and buy dainty shoes for their wives; men with grim faces but gold in their pockets; men who had paid a price for impossible favours. They told him about the witch on the clifftop.

“When all else fails, dark magic finds a way,” he had been told.

“There will be a price. There is always a price,” he had been warned.

“Pay the price, no matter how hard, and you get what you asked for,” he had been promised.

With these words ringing in his ears, the shoemaker climbed the path, his hands grasping and scrabbling at rocks and shrubs to keep from falling. When he reached the top of the cliff, the witch was waiting.

Her hair was dark, and her lips were red, and she wore midnight, and her voice rang out like a death knell.

“What do you want, Ambrose Buckle?”

Ambrose fell to his knees, too afraid to even wonder how she knew his name.

“Please, Mistress Mills,” he quavered. “I have come to beg your help.”

“And what do you crave so much, shoemaker, that you seek out the aid of the darkest of magic?”

“A child.”

That gave the witch pause. “Whose?” she demanded.

“My own, Mistress, if you please.”

“Are you so careless that you have lost a child?” the witch growled, her voice grim.

“No! No, Mistress. My wife. We have tried. But we cannot have a child. Nothing has worked. Nothing.”

“Find another wife,” the witch said, dismissively.

“I could not do that, Mistress,” the shoemaker wailed. “Constance is a good woman and a worthy wife. She deserves a child of her own. Please Mistress, can you not help us?”

Ambrose felt the magic take hold of him and lift him until his feet dangled six inches off the ground. He was pulled forward, toward where the witch stood, her hands on her hips, an impatient foot tapping in the grass. He dared not so much as twitch in case he disturbed her spell. He felt her scrutiny; it went beyond the baleful glare of her dark eyes; he felt the magic sweep through him.

The witch’s mouth twisted in surprise.

“You have been told, there will be a price? The magic always asks a price.”

“Yes, Mistress. I will pay anything. Anything.”

“Men. Always so eager to promise before they know the cost.”

“I mean it, Mistress. I will give anything I own. I will give my own life.”

The witch laughed. “The magic does not want your life, Ambrose Buckle. The price it asks is your firstborn child.”

“A…a sacrifice?!” Despite his avowals, he was horrified.

“No, you fool. What good will a sacrifice be? The magic asks for your child – for you to give your firstborn over to me. And then you can go off and make your wife pregnant again.”

“There will be other children?”

“I did not say that, Ambrose Buckle. You asked for a child for your wife. She can have a child – a daughter in fact – but the price for that is that she will never raise the child. I will.”

“But she will have other children? Children she can keep?”

“I do not see that far, Ambrose Buckle. All I see is her pregnant again. But I see no other child.”

And, much like his wife was doing at the very same moment, Ambrose Buckle heard only the hope and none of the warning.

“I will pay the price, Mistress Mills.”

“Be very sure, Ambrose Buckle. The magic will not be denied. The price will be taken, whether you like it or not.”

“I will pay the price, Mistress. For my wife’s happiness, for the family we yearn for, I will pay it.”

“There are sweeter things to wish for than family, Ambrose Buckle.”

In the back of his mind, behind the hope for the future, and his present fear of the magic that held him, Ambrose Buckle found it in himself to pity the witch who would feel that way about family.

But then the witch disappeared in a flare of purple smoke, leaving him suspended in the air, and Ambrose’s entire mind was filled only with fear for himself.

She did not keep him waiting very long. And when she returned, she brought with her a vial filled with a viscous fluid as dark as the darkest treacle but not smelling nearly so sweet.

“Drink this before you next lie with your wife, and in nine months, she will birth a daughter, and I will come to claim the price.”

“Yes Mistress.”

“Do not drink the potion, and there will be no price to pay. Think well on my words, Ambrose Buckle.”

But again, hope made the listener deaf to the warning.

 

 

Constance Buckle sat on the doorstep of her little house, watching for her husband. He had said he had business some miles away, and he had taken the little cart and horse he used for large deliveries. She could see them returning now, could hear the clopping of hooves on the road and her husband’s cheerful whistle. She looked down at the sparkling vial in her hands. Would Ambrose understand the agreement she had reached with Mistress Swan? Would he be willing to give up their firstborn child so that they could have a second child, one they could keep? It had all seemed so clear to her when she had sat at the witch’s table, but now her reasoning was fading, and she was left only with the rock-hard certainty that this was the only way to bring a child into their lives. She would make Ambrose understand. She would find a way. But – just to be certain – she took a deep breath, took the cork out of the vial, and drank down the contents in one gulp.

 

Ambrose Buckle could see his house, and could see his wife on the step, waiting for him. Two years from now, she could be sitting there waiting for him with a child on her hip. He smiled. That would make everything in his life perfect; a happy home and a happy family. There would be the matter of the price – the child who would never belong to them. But surely Constance would see that was a fair enough price to pay? A child for a family? He looked at the vial that he held so carefully in his hand; the dark fluid roiled against the glass, moving as though it had a life of its own. Constance would have to understand. He would find a way to make her see. But, just in case – he took a deep breath, took the cork out of the vial, and drank down the contents in one gulp.

 

Later, after Constance had welcomed Ambrose home with a hug and a shy kiss and a hot meal; after they had gone to the little back room with the bed that Ambrose had built with his own hands; after they had made love with a desperation and earnestness matched only by their first night together; Ambrose and Constance spoke at the same moment,

 

“There is something I have to tell you.”