BY CARRIE A BROWN
Propping open the door with her hip, Reika ushered Simeon inside.
“You’re so bossy,” he said, sliding past her with a wolfish grin. “If it wasn’t your birthday, I would not be doing this.” He gestured with a nod to the large pile of firewood in his arms. “Consider this your birthday gift,” he added, unceremoniously dropping the wood in a heap near the stove.
Reika patted his soft cheek. “Don’t worry youngling, it’ll be your birthday soon. . . Bubbe?” She called though she knew it was pointless, the cottage was in near darkness, telling her that her grandmother hadn’t been back since being called to aide a birth that morning.
Reika lit a couple of large candles and tried to stifle her disappointment. What had she expected? Hannah Maisel was a healer first and everything else, including family, came second. Today Reika was fifteen, officially an adult, and really she should start to act like it! Today her childhood ceased; tomorrow she started her healer’s apprentice. She would no longer complain about her grandmother’s lack of attention. Not out loud anyway.
Placing the candle on top of the old table with a creek, her eyes found her birthday gift. A beautiful iron pestle and mortar. The burnished metal seemed to glow in the warm candlelight, making her feel all fuzzy inside.
“Still think that’s a weird present.” Simeon shrugged following her gaze.
“Not for a healer.” She loved the way that sounded.
“What’s that?” Simeon's long legs leapt from the table. “Ooh, maybe it’s a belated card?” he picked up what looked like a scrap of paper from the floor.
Curiosity had Reika snatching the paper from his hand in an instant. “Let me...” Reika stilled, two words, just two words were written on the paper:
Automatically, Reika sniffed at the paper, the way she had seen her grandmother do many times. Two distinct smells emerged: damp soil and old tree bark.
“Where are you going? Simeon asked, voice laced with confusion. Without realizing it, she had packed her satchel and was heading for the door.
“I. . .” A gentle tug pulled her back, but instead of acknowledging her friend, Reika grabbed her pestle and mortar instead. “I have to go,” she said hastily running out the door.
It was as though an invisible force propelled her forwards. She ran and ran, hearing Simeon panting hard behind her. Coming to an abrupt halt, she heard her friend gasp in horror. “Reika we can’t…”
Closing her eyes, Reika considered the merits of simply forgetting the letter and going home. But, she knew in her heart that wasn’t an option. Healing blood thrummed in her veins, answering the plea for help was her duty. She sniffed the letter once more, just to be sure. There was no doubt. This was the place.
Tales told around campfires and spread throughout the kingdom told that a witch lived in these woods. An old hag that delighted in feasting on any child that was unlucky enough to stumble into her territory. Some said her power came from the moon, others said it derived from the young blood she devoured. No one could be sure of truth from myth, but a combination of legends had resulted in the witch being nicknamed Mama Moon. The very sound of which strengthened both childhood fears and parental threats.
“Getting a note like that, well, it sings in my blood. I can’t ignore it,” she said with a gulp, turning to face him. “Listen, you go back, find Bubbe. Bring help, just in case I-- ”
“Like hell,” Simeon said, lacing his fingers with hers, and pulling her into the waiting darkness.
Hard twigs crunched underfoot as Reika held the letter with unsteady hands, letting it guide them which way to go. “At last!” A husky voice sighed.“I thought you’d never arrive!” Branches groaned and creaked and Reika felt the cold air of something swooshing amongst them.
Although her vision had adjusted to the dark, she still couldn’t find the source of the noise. “Who are you? What do you want?” She called into the night.
A small woman somersaulted before them, landing with a precise thud. Her long blonde hair, although matted, cascaded around her, reminding Reika of the honey she poured into her morning porridge. “I thought that was kinda obvious?” the woman said, leaning to stroke a large white cat that had emerged from behind a withering tree stump. Reika watched as the cat nudged the woman’s bare legs with a purr.
“Has Mama Moon trapped you?” Simeon stepped forward, evidently eager to help the pretty little woman.
A burst of wild laughter erupted, a noise impossibly big for the petite frame.
“This Simeon,” Reika took a deep breath, stilling the realization in her bones. “This is Mama Moon,” she said, hearing her friend gasp beside her. Still, she kept her eyes fixed upon the dangerous creature before her. She might look as sweet as honey, but the flicker of mischief in her green eyes was enough to tell Reika that was where the comparison ended. “What do you want?” She asked.
“Has good old Bubbe not taught you any manners, Reika Maisel?”
A shot of ice ran up Reika's spine at the friendly way the witch spoke her name. But swallowing her fear, Reika spoke as calmly as she could manage. “The note said ‘help me’, so again, what do you want?”
The witch tutted “One would expect a warmer greeting from one’s daughter.”
The world spun. Tears danced in her periphery. Yet Reika found herself chuckling, it sounded hollow even to her own ears. “My mother is dead,” she hissed, repeating what Bubbe had told her, what she now could feel was a lie. “Come Simeon,” she added, reaching her hand out to her friend who now seemed completely frozen.
“How rude!” The witch clicked her tongue, flashing pointed teeth that sparkled like starlight. “Well, dear Reika, today is the day I gave birth to you.” The witch took a step closer. “Maybe I’m turning soft, but I wanted to give my darling wee baby a gift.”
Simeon straightened at the witch’s choice of words, at last he was reacting. At last he seemed to awaken to the register of the danger they now found themselves in. Although Reika knew the witch spoke true, that she was indeed her mother, this was no reunion, this witch, mother or no, would not be giving her a gift. Reika pushed the wave of sadness from her mind, instead it stuck hard in her throat hurting with every swallow. In a million daydreams this was not what she had imagined.
“See, I do need your help. Tomorrow when your apprenticeship officially starts, so too will the Maisel curse. The unquenching urge for a child’s blood and bone. You can fight them as dear Bubbe chooses to do, or simply let them be.” Reika took a step backwards, nudging with her eyes for Simeon to do the same. He didn’t take much persuasion and cautiously followed suit. “You're just like me, Reika. I know it! Come, be with me, and at last- let us be together!”
Although the witch sounded just as confident as before, Reika sensed a desperation in her tone, cackling under the surface, like the still hot embers of a dying fire. “I am nothing like you,” Reika said.
The witch resumed her composure with ease and when she spoke again, there was not a hint of her earlier desperation. “My gift to you is the gift of knowledge. See dear Bubbe never told me, and she won’t tell you either. If you choose now, freely before you commit to being a healer, she can’t bind you, confine you in these blasted woods. In here you’re always waiting, needing, craving the blood, the snap of bone.” She took another step closer. Reika took a step backwards. They danced a dangerous dance. “You wouldn’t have to wait, to stumble across what you desired; you would be a free huntress, free, to provide for us both.”
“I will never choose this. I will never choose you,” Reika spat.
“Reika,” Simeon warned. Heaviness seemed to fill the air, and although Reika had sensed it, it spoke volumes that Simeon, a boy with no powers had detected the change. “We need to go. . . Now,” he said.
“Of course you can go! Didn’t I say you could?” A small whirring and clicking noise sounded. Talons as sharp and long as knives sprang from the witch’s fingernails. “Just make sure to leave my gift.” Licking her lips, she turned her full attention to Simeon. “It was so good of you, dear daughter, to bring me a meal. Mama is just so hungry.”
They ran as fast as they could, stumbling and bumping forward with desperation. A cackle closed behind them. Reika got a sense the witch was toying with them, a cat playing with its food.
Behind her, Simeon let out a shriek, followed by a groaning thud. She was back beside him in an instant. “Reika! Help!” He cried. The white cat had him pinned to the ground, claws gouged deep into his face.
She tried and failed to pull the cat away with its tail. Another cackle sounded. Skidding to her knees, Reika pulled and pulled, but the cat stayed rooted in Simeon’s face. The coppery tang of blood filled the air. “Use the pestle and mortar,” the cat whispered with a rasp. Reika stared in shock. “Now! It’s your only chance! Throw it down on the ground!” The cat hissed, at last withdrawing its claws and scampering away.
Ignoring Simeon’s whine and her own growing panic that the witch was drawing nearer, Reika fumbled her satchel open, and threw her pestle and mortar down with a thunk!
Another cackle, closer, louder.
‘We need to run,’ Simeon said, scrambling back to his feet.
A small pop sounded, no louder than the ring pull of her grandmothers ginger ale. But Reika watched in amazement as her pestle and mortar grew and grew and grew. “My pestle and mortar,” she whispered when it had last stopped growing. “But why. . . A ship. . .” She gasped in realization as to what her prized present had now become. Clambering inside, the ship began to hover off the ground, impatient as she was to leave. The rocking made it difficult to pull a bleeding Simeon aboard. She cursed loudly about his ridiculously lofty height. A sudden icy breeze stroked her skin. “No,” she screamed, as she felt the firm pull of the witch at one of Simeon’s legs.
Sweat pooled on Simeon’s brow as he hung on with fingertips and determination alone. The witch gave a roar of delight. “No child goes home from my woods.”
With a jerk, the ship shot forward. Shocked, the witch let go and Reika at last heaved Simeon aboard. “When we're home, I am telling your mother to ration your food!”
She heard the groaning of tree branches, as the witch gave swinging pursuit. The time for playing was evidently over. The pestle moved at a steady pace, but Reika knew it wasn’t enough to outrun the witch. What they needed was to get out from the thick of the woodland. Instinctively, she reached for the pestle that sat idly on the side of the ship. Although she told herself it was crazy, she began to paddle against the currents of the increasingly cold wind. “Higher,” she commanded, and the ship steadily obeyed, then stopped with a frantic sway. Metal against metal sounded. Scratching and screeching against the now rocking ship.
“That wasn’t very polite, daughter,” the witch scorned, leaping further onto the struggling ship. Reika tried to push the witch off, but the ship’s movement had thrown her off balance. One large taloned hand reached fully over the side, grabbing, clawing. Reika felt the stinging burn as one of those talons sunk deep into her arm.
“No,” Simeon shouted, and drove the oar into the witch’s pretty face. It struck true and either because of the sheer force or because he had caught her by surprise, cursing colorfully she fell with a deafening roar. Dropping the oar inside the ship, Simeon took Reika in his shaking arms. “You’ll never take her,” he yelled into the darkness. “Never,” he whispered.
Free of the extra weight the ship rose above the trees and flew smoothly into the clear starry night. Neither of them spoke as they sat on the cold floor of the ship, the moon the only source of light, and coasted across the night sky.
“Reika!” her grandmother’s welcoming shouts told her she was at last home, as the ship descended rapidly with a bump.
Spitting them both out on the path. Reika stared in wonder as the ship and oar morphed back to her pestle and mortar with an even tinier pop. Had it all been a dream? She wondered. But she now knew the truth. “I- I saw Mama,” she said, turning at last to face her grandmother.
“She’s gone, my darling.” Her grandmother joined her to sit on the dusty path.
“Is it true?” Reika whispered against her grandma’s warm embrace, unsure which part she was really asking about, she simply had too many questions.
“As a new healer there are three tests, and this was your first.” Her lips were cool as she brushed a kiss against Reika’s forehead. She moved to stand with a grunt and for a moment Reika thought that was all her grandmother was going to say. “Come inside, I’ll tell you all the family secrets.” Her grandmother added noticing Reika’s disheartened look. Her thick hips sashaying as she strode. “You’ll be in need of a strong drink first, of course,” she shouted over her shoulder, giving Simeon a scathing appraisal. “Both of you,” she concluded with a sigh.
Reika took in Simeon’s blood splattered face. He was a mess. He was hurt. Guilt prickled her belly. This was all a stupid test, one he had no part in, one he should be sheltered from. “Listen, you go back and-”
“Like hell!” Simeon said, stretching out his dirty hands to help haul her up.
Side by side, they strode back to the old cottage, prepared to face the healer’s tales, lies, secrets of the past and the future and more than ready for a strong drink or several.
Carrie A Brown is a fiction writer from the North of England. She has an MA from Northumbria University. Recently, she was longlisted by Penguin Roundhouse UK for their inaugural WriteNow event and short listed for a Creative future literary prize. A lover of flash fiction, Carrie has a preference for twisted fairy tales as well as Gothic literature. she is currently working on her debut YA fantasy novel. Twitter @Carrie_A_Brown