“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.” ~ Roald Dahl
The tea sat before him on the table steaming gently,
fragrantly, and he watched her,
moving about the room cutting cake and filling a milk jug.
All normal, all pleasant.
He had no intention of touching the tea.
‘Have you come far?’ she asked
The thief answered in his usual grandiose fashion, ‘Far away and over hills and rough seas, all worth it to behold the perfection of your Great Ladyship.’
She laughed and the bird in the metal cage flapped and screeched as if in terror.
She looked at it sharply and it fell silent.
But when she turned back to him there was only a calm and hospitable woman.
‘I fear you will not find what you are seeking here handsome one. I am a solitary woman who has some small skill with herbs and oils, that is all. Were you needing an enchantment or potion? Those things are much beyond me.’
The thief smiled,
much against the will of his mouth and
with every part of his being wanting to be away
He took a deep breath and answered, ‘I am looking, Noble One, for information. Be it myth or fact. I seek knowledge of a living stone, one of color and song. I have heard snippets of these but only in stories and in winesoaked bragging around a fire. It is well known,’ he said with a slight bow, ‘that you have deep understanding of things that others cannot – or will not – remember. Do you know of this? Can you help me? Will you help me?’
Her mellow gaze had flashed once while he was speaking and she turned away restlessly straightening the figurines on a shelf. The bird was still silent, huddled unblinking in the corner of its cage. The room was no longer bright with sunshine and seemed to waver in and out of focus. The thief casually slipped his hand into one of his pockets as he leaned against the table.
‘There are no living stones left, none remained. They all perished in the sea. I would have felt them…’ she muttered. ‘Is it possible, after all this time? None would have dared…’
The witch turned to him, her face no longer gentle and nondescript. Her hair, no longer softly curling auburn, lay against her head fitting close like a helmet. Her eyes glowed topaz golden as she gazed at him intently.
‘Where did you see it? You did see it, it has left its mark on you, slight but I can tell. I can always tell. Tell me.’
The words fell unbidden from his lips before he realized he was answering. ‘I only caught a glimpse, a warrior woman on the Long Road was traveling, she has it on her sword, I don’t know where she was going…’ at the last words he choked and bent over as the pain overtook him.
‘You may not know but you have an idea. So many ideas in that head of yours. Time to let them all out..’
With a desperate motion he threw a handful of powder on the floor in between them. A wall of flame and smoke blazed up. The cottage rocked and lightning flashed again and again from her hand, scorching walls, hitting the birdcage, dishes, furniture and smashing windows.
The thief scrambled for the broken window muttering imprecations and prayers combined.
He hit the grass and fought his way blindly through the acrid smoke. He could hear her cursing and howling.
He ran wildly towards the forest and ducked just in time as the door to the cottage disintegrated. The pleasant woman plying him with tea and cakes was no longer.
The urchin saw the wonder on the thief’s face when he first saw the witch, caught the barest flash of topaz from her eyes, mellow into welcoming, like Freya’s tears. He watched as the door closed behind them both, and settled in to wait, well beyond the stones of power that ringed the cottage, that kept her in, and the Guardians out. He pondered on the illusion she had wrapped herself in today, a more unassuming appearance than the usual ones of crone or beautiful maiden. Almost aggressively ordinary. He thought, ‘In these long and long years we have never known why she came, why here? Or more importantly why she stayed. Living in obscurity, in accordance with the treaty, seemingly seeking no fame or honor…’ ‘Rapaz never did anything without a reason,’ he mused, ‘and not even the Gods will be able to help us if we cannot discover it this time.’ The forest winds blew softly and he shuddered at the scent of overripe plums. It was always strongest here, but under that, a brimstone smell, a hint of blood and sharp obsidian hate, and vitriol. Unappeased and unrelenting, after all this time…