The witch's cottage had been empty for a long time. Eve remembered the old witch. He'd been a plump man, old like most witches, jolly but also a boundary-overstepper. He'd died of influenza, and the next year the crops had wilted too soon. Without his magic, the town had struggled for a while. But no witch had been sent, not even someone who'd not finished their apprenticeship. Not many people had the talent to be a witch, and fewer chose that path, and even fewer chose that path while they were still young with a long life in front of them. Sometimes Eve would sit by the cottage garden while watching her sheep. She'd take them to the forest so she could eat lunch in the shade. But it was always empty. No one wanted to disturb any magic that might lay dormant there.
So it surprised her, when she drove her sheep through the woods on the way home from the pasture, when a girl about her age was knelt in the witch's cottage's garden.
The girl was humming a light tune and weeding the garden on her knees. Eve couldn't stop for long, because she had to get the sheep home, but she did pause.
"You're new," she called. The girl looked up.
"I am," said the girl. "Just arrived." She had reddish-brown hair in two braids and quizzical brows.
"Witch's apprentice?" Eve asked, glancing back at her sheep. They seemed to be still. Maybe she could talk a while.
"Witch," said the girl. "I'm the whole witch." She used the fence to stand up. The witch stood unaided once she was on her feet. "I'm Margaret." She wiped her hands on her apron.
"Eve," said Eve, and since the sheep seemed to be standing still, Eve went up to the gate and shook the new witch's hand. Margaret's hand was firm, warm from the garden work she'd been doing. "You're awfully young to be a full witch."
Margaret shrugged. "I'm a fast learner. And I decided to follow this path when I was young."
Even nodded. "What kind of a witch are you?"
"Healer," Margaret said. "Well, I know more than that, but that's what I specialize in"
"We do need some crops help," Eve said. "Badly." Margaret frowned slightly, but not in an angry way. She seemed disappointed.
"Well," Margaret said, "I know a bit-"
Eve opened her mouth to respond, but a bleat came from a little too far away.
"Sorry! Fern. My sheep. I have to go!" Eve turned and ran for her flock. Behind her, Margaret's polite "Nice to meet you!" drifted through the air.
"Damn you, Fern," Eve said when she found the sheep, "and we weren't even that awkward."
Margaret had to admit that having her own place beat sharing. Something about being alone in the woods, without the reassurance of people in the next room, made her blood dance to the tune of the wind. At night, she closed her eyes and listened to the rustle of trees instead of people breathing, and during the day she didn't have to worry about tossing weeds into other people's garden plots. She could sing if she wanted, or laugh, and bother no one.
Of course, Eve had come along, and people did venture by her cottage. The first few days, though visitors were rare.
The fourth day, she was working in her garden, and a tall man came up to her gate. He looked a bit self-important. Too self-important for a man with a gold- and silver-painted hat. He stopped before entering the garden, rapped on the wood for Margaret's attention even though he already had it, and crossed his arms over his chest.
"You're the witch?" His voice sounded like he didn't quite believe it.
Margaret stopped weeding and looked into his face. His forehead was dreadfully creased.
"Last time I checked, my good man," she said, and stood, steadying herself on the fence. She smiled. Maybe she could warm him up using maidenly charm, or something. "Why?"
He remained as lukewarm as before. "The village and the Lord wanted to give you a few days to settle before calling for you." He scanned Margaret up and down. "You look a bit young for a full-fledged witch."
"I promise, Mr.-"
"I promise, Mr. Moorey, that I have all the skills required in a healing witch." Margaret remembered what Eve had said before, and added, "and some in crops besides."
He looked unimpressed. "Lord Taeryette would like to see you."
Mr. Moorey wore a little on Margaret's nerves. He was so passive. She tried to make a connection. So she smiled. "Of course. It's only right that he should know the girl who's going to care for his village." Margaret turned toward the house. "Should I get my certificate? A gift?"
"Whatever you believe you'll need to walk over."
What an incredibly dull man, she thought. Fascinating. She took care not to step on any garden plots on the way to the door. Inside, she grabbed the labeled satchel of herbs she meant to present to the feudal lord and debated for a moment on whether to bring her staff. She decided to bring it. It made her look more mature (either that, or more like a child playing at mature,) and helped her to balance. She didn't know how the walk down to the village and then up to the manor would be.
"Are you ready?" asked Mr. Moorey.
No, I only went inside and got these things for no reason. "Indeed I am."
The fact that she found this man funny disturbed Margaret a bit. How badly did she need human interaction, exactly? More than she'd thought for the past few days.
She did need the staff on the way to the village. The hill would have been too steep for her to navigate on her own, and she would have hated to ask Mr. Moorey for help. He might have served as a very good stable post, though. He looked as solid and emotionless as any stable-post Margaret had ever met.
There was hardly any paving, and it had rained the night before, so the ground was soft enough that her wooden leg sank a few inches into the ground with each step. She'd need to re-tip it, at this rate. She'd thought the town where she used to live was small, but at least it had paved streets so she could walk without becoming part of the soil.
"Do you need help, Miss Witch?"
"No," Margaret said, but the timing wasn't good and the suction-y sound of mud releasing her foot was louder. "No," she said again, once she was free of the muck. She expected Mr. Moorey to at least shrug but he hardly seemed to have registered that she'd spoken. "No."
"I heard you the first time, Miss Witch," he said.
She nodded pertly. Figures, she thought.
The cobblestones were slightly easier for Margaret to navigate, but she missed the smooth roads of where she used to live. The townsfolk seemed to be mostly away, probably in the fields Margaret could see from her cottage on the hill; a few old men and women looked at her through windows, and a few young mothers waved to her from where they sat knitting on doorsteps.
Margaret tried to keep up with Mr. Moorey's pace, and to make conversation. She didn't like letting the conversation lag, but it seemed to be a hobby of Mr. Moory's. The laggin conversation. Anyway. "So, Lord Taeryette. What's he like?"
Mr. Moorey didn't look at her. "He's like a Lord."
"Ooh," Margaret said, "Thanks for that description. I know everything about him, now, I guess."
Mr. Moorey didn't falter. "You're impertinent. He won't like that."
I think that's the first time Mr Moorey has shown any kind of initiative, Margaret thought. They grow up so fast. Aloud, she said, "Ooh. I'll try not to be, then."
They reached the end of the road. it was dirt now, but at least it was solid, not like the loose hill soil. This was another hill, though, but less steep than the last. The manor stood at the top proudly, but it was nothing near as impressive as the other ones Margaret had seen. This was a much smaller hamlet, so it stood to reason that the Lord would live in a smaller manor.
Mr Moorey led her up the road and up to the manor. She was panting by the time she reached the top, and holding tightly to her staff. The manor door was maybe one and a half times her height, which was rather impressive. She wasn't a tall woman, but she wasn't short. Mr Moorey knocked twice, not smartly or flamboyantly or boredly but rather mechanically, almost dully. Watching him move was fascinating and odd.
The door opened. A small woman opened it. She was tiny, maybe four feet tall, and nearly as thin around the waist as the base of Margaret's staff. Well, maybe that was an exaggeration. However, it was Margaret's expert healer's opinion that the woman probably did not get enough to eat.
"Mr Moorey," the woman said. "Lord Taeryette is waiting to see you." She curtseyed a little to Mr Moorey and to Margaret.
"What's your name?" Margaret asked.
"Rayen." The woman's eyes looked Margaret up and down, catching a moment on Margaret's leg. Margaret wasn't embarrassed, but didn't want to make the woman uncomfortable, and shifted so her skirt fell to the ground with no space in between for her leg to poke through.
"I'm the new witch," Margaret said, trying to be gently. Rayen nodded pertly, not taking her eyes off of Margaret's face but also not making eye contact. "I want to get to know everyone in the village. Maybe later-"
"We must not keep Lord Taeryette waiting," Mr Moorey said, and bundled Margaret away from Rayen.
"Perhaps later we can talk," Margaret finished over her shoulder. Mr Moorey headed towards another door, this one more human-sized. He knocked on that. Rayen scurried up to the door.
"Come in," said a voice from behind the door, and Rayen opened it. Margaret winked at Rayen, which may not have been a great idea because Rayen started nervoudly, but at least she smiled a little. Then Mr Moorey pulled her into the room.
This room wasn't as large as the great front room, but it was much more lavishly decorated. It was like Lord Taeryette's ancestors had built a great, fine manor, then decorated a throne room sort of a deal, and then run out of funds. compared to the rest of the manor that Margaret had seen, this room looked like a palace. Well, it kind of was. But not really. Anyway. The most important thing was the man lounging in a chair. Lord Taeryette, Margaret assumed. He was thin, but in a healthier way than Rayen. He had a slender face, a high, slender nose, slender legs swung over the side of his chair, slender fingers running through his slender hair-if hair can be slender. Anyway, something about him looked simultaneously spidery and angry dog-y. And, well, slender.
"Mr Moorey," Lord Taeryette said. "This is the witch?" He raised one slender eyebrow and looked at Margaret, then nodded to Mr Moorey. "You may withdraw."
"Yes, my lord." Mr Moorey bowed and left the room. He just left. Not even a word to Margaret. Rude, Margaret thought.
Margaret was alone, looking at the Lord. She curtseyed, which she knew didn't exactly look right, but curtsies require two ankles and she only had one. "Lord Taeryette."
"You're young, aren't you?" Lord Taeryette looked Margaret up and down. It was kind of creepy.
"I chose my path young," Margaret said.
"Yes," said Lord Taeryette, "obviously." He leaned back. "What is your specialty?"
"Healing, Lord Taeryette." Margaret loosened her grip on her staff, trying to appear more confident. "I'm not bad."
"Pity," said Lord Taeryette, "what my village really needs is someone who has a knack for agriculture."
Margaret felt irked. That really was rude. "Excuse me," she said, "my lord, but I know a bit about that. I merely specialize in healing."
"Of course," he said. Now he began to examine his fingernails. They were perfect. It was totally unneccessary. He was trying to intimidate her. "And you are quite strong enough for the task of being the sole witch?"
She breathed in, breathed out. "My lord, I attended two years more of academy than was neccessary. I apprenticed to a woman so old and feeble that she slept until noon and went to bed at five. I am quite capable of attending to a hamlet of this size." Lord Taeryette raised both eyebrows. "And of this importance to the agricultural wellbeing of the kingdom," she added hurriedly. "What I mean to say is, that is, I mean-"
"I understand what you mean," Lord Taeryette said. "And unless you do some terrible thing to the people it's not as if I could have you removed. You may go, on one condition."
"And what is that, my lord?" Margaret didn't think he could really keep her from leaving, but he could make her a personal healer or something, which she did not want. That position would be little better than that of a servant.
"My wife," he said, "is easily ill. If she needs you, I expect you to drop what you are doing and attend her immediately."
"I'll do my best, my lord."
He stared her down. Usually she was quite good at staring, but he was a lord. She sighed and stood as straight as she could.
"I will, my lord."
Her leg echoed on the flagstones of the manor as she left.
The next day, Margaret went down to the village at noon, bearing cranberry bread. She'd set a cauldron up to soak some lavender and some bergamot, her go-to combination when she needed relaxation, which she figured could come in handy in this new place. Then she started down to the village.
She made good time, she thought. She knocked on the first door she came across. It was answered by an old man.
"Who are you?" The man didn't seem hostile, just wary.
"I'm the new witch," Margaret said. The man brightened.
"Oh, isn't that lovely? My husband's back in the smithy, working on a horseshoe. He'll want to meet you. Come in, stay a bit."
The man stepped back, and Margaret entered. The man noticed Margaret's leg, and stared for a moment.
"You're limping, love! You're too young to limp." The man laughed.
"Oh, I agree. It just seem my leg doesn't," Margaret answered. She laughed, trying to change the subject. "I brought cranberry bread, as a sort of a new neighbor thing." She held the bread aloft.
"How thoughtful!" The man took the bread and set it on the table. It was a one-room cottage, neat as a pin but for some soot that was no doubt caused by the smithy. "Now sit down, dearie, and I'll tell John to finish up." The man left by the back door. Margaret looked around. The bed in the corner was made neatly, and there was a sprig of flowers in a small cup by the washbasin.
"They seem like nice people," Margaret said to her staff. It said nothing back. It wasn't a magic staff, so Margaret really couldn't have expected anything more. The man came back in.
"He's dunking the horseshoe in the water now," he said. "What's your name?"
"Margaret," said Margaret. "And you, Sir?"
"Wiryum Smith," he said. "Ah, look, here's John."
John had to duck to get through the door. He looked quite like one would imagine a smith to look, with a few white streaks in his black hair.
"Hello," Margaret said.
"Hello," John said. He held out a hand, and Margaret stood and shook it.
"John." John smiled and went to sit by Wiryum. "You're the new witch? What's your speciality?"
"Healing," Margaret said.
"Healing! Did you hear that!" Wiryum nodded to John, then to Margaret. "Maybe she can help."
"If it's some sort of malady, maybe I can," Margaret said. "It's what I'm here for."
"Well, I've a bit of trouble with my back. I think it's from smithing. That's when I hurt it."
Margaret stood, leaning toward John. "May I?" He nodded and turned his back to her. She placed her hand on it and breathed. "This might feel strange, she said. She called some energy to her hand, and let it run through and connect her to the workings of John's back. She could see it glow faintly, but that was her trained eye. It hardly shone, especially in a room as light as the one she was in.
"What is it?" Wiryum asked.
"How long ago did you say you hurt yourself?" Margaret asked.
'Oh, a week, maybe."
"This feels older," said Margaret. "Perhaps you only re-hurt yourself than, something you hadn't noticed before. You're quite safe to smith. That's not the problem." She took a breath and stepped back.
"Oh, but can you fix it?" John asked. Margaret grinned.
"Of course! Some kind of witch I'd be, can't even fix a bit of a back issue." She cracked her knuckles. "Hold on to the chair." Margaret set her hand by the spine, where she'd felt the blocked flow of energy. "Take a deep breath, and-let it out." She drove the heel of her hand into his back. It cracked satisfyingly. John gasped, then breathed.
"How does that feel?" Wiryum asked.
"Better," John said. He sat up straighter. "We've never had a healer in our village."
"Well," Margaret said, "I hope I don't disappoint." She picked her staff and basket up from the ground. "Oh, and enjoy the cranberry bread. I'd like to meet as many people as I can before sundown, or I'd stay longer."
"Do you want payment?"
"First one is on me," Margaret said. "Try to sleep on your back for a week, at least, and don't do the heaviest things in the smithy of you can help it."
"Aye aye!" John nodded. Margaret smiled and slipped out the door.
There weren't that many people home, aside from those who worked from home. Farmer's wives with newborn babies were home, and older people who knitted or tidied or sewed instead of going out in the fields. Margaret told one mother to visit the witch's cottage the next day to pick up a remedy for her coughing baby, and showed an old man how to massage his wife so she could stop feeling so much shoulder pain.
All in all, it was a successful day, and Margaret went to sleep that night feeling satisfied.
Hello! I'd just like to say that constructive criticism is appreciated, as is pointing out if I got something technically wrong.