Mathilde sat as still as she could, her eyes cast down at the floor, demure. Her hands gripped her skirt tightly, her knuckles beginning to whiten. Heart racing, still breathless, she commanded herself to have no fear. She felt like a mouse, paralysed before the power of the cat. If she just sat still enough, if she just looked penitent enough... perhaps she would be spared the claws.

The journey had not been perilous or arduous, but it was long; Mathilde woke before sunrise to seek out the cat. There had been plenty of time to think – too much time – as she trudged down the country lanes that led to the shadowed forest. She was certain of this much: that there was nothing else she could do, and that there was no one else who could help.

Behind her came the pad of footsteps, the sound of a sharpened claw clicking against wooden boards. Mathilde couldn't help trembling.

'I am here, brammig, not down by your feet.'

Reluctantly, and careful not to look directly into the witch's eyes, Mathilde lifted her face up. The girl felt sick to her stomach – it was the air. Heavy, spiced and soporific, it smelled of story books and burning flowers. The witch's hands were empty.

'I am not a child,' Mathilde said, her firm voice betrayed by shaking feet.

The witch's laugh was rich and dry, like the wine served so freely at the table of Mathilde's husband. Frowning, Mathilde blushed, a mixture of shame and insolence rising up inside her like bile. Her knuckles were wholly bleached.

'That's just as well. It's true that I can help you,' said the witch, walking around Mathilde again, 'Itron.' Her footsteps hardly made a sound as she prowled around the room – as though she were weightless. 'Have you thought it through? What is done, is done.'

It was Mathilde's turn to laugh – but it was a brittle sound, as divorced from mirth as the sobbing of the bereaved.

The witch bowed her head. 'And the cost is dear.'

'I can pay anything!' Mathilde said. She stood up, hands clasping together as in prayer. 'Five hundred – five thousand livres, it doesn't matter!'

Annoyance flickered over the witch's face, and she stopped in her tracks. The air seemed to hardened, smoke pausing in its meandering movements heavenward. Mathilde couldn't breathe; if she had invoked the witch's wrath, there was no knowing what kind of punishment would be meted out. When the witch spoke, her voice was cold.

'What use have I for dulled metal? What use has magic for trinkets? The cost is dear.'

Mathilde bit her lip, but nodded, slowly and uncertainly. Without thinking, her hands slipped down to cradle her belly.

'I can pay anything.'


Brammig – Breton; informal; 'kid', used when speaking to very young children (Just to clarify: Mathilde is not that young; it's used dismissively)

Itron – Breton; 'Madam', 'lady'.

Livres – French; currency during the Middle Ages.