When Little Mary came back home, her parents were very worried and asked her where she had been while it was raining. She didn't want to lie to them, so she told them in all honesty that she had been at the witch's place, and she asked them to forgive her for disobeying. The innkeeper and his wife were very alarmed by what this woman, this devil that haunted the village's surroundings, could have done to their only child. How did she manage to come back alive?
"It was nothing," Little Mary assured. "The witch wasn't mean at all."
But as much as she tried to explain what she had learned there, they refused to listen and sent her to bed without diner, promising that the next time she disobeyed, she wouldn't leave the inn again. The weight of the prophecy was, once again, holding their home in a tight grip.
In her bedroom, Kid was purring on her laps to try to comfort her. She was rubbing his neck, thinking about her parents' reaction. They didn't know the witch, they only knew whatever Father Hugh had let them hear, and it scared them. As long as you don't know the truth, your judgement is wrong. The witch hadn't hurt her, she had welcomed her, warmed her, protected her against her wolves, and although she had cursed the village's criminals, she hadn't done it out of evilness. The witch was dangerous but kind, and she knew many things. And Jo lived with her, and Mary couldn't lose him when she had just had him back.
Mary slept very little that night. She thought hard about what had happened to her and how she could meet the witch again. Her parents wouldn't let her, so for the first time, she'd have to learn to lie to them.
Little Mary let a few days pass, pretending to be pious and obedient, repentant even, to her parents. The next week, after catechism, she went to Lia's house and told her her brother was alive.
At first, Lia refused to believe her. Mary told her everything that had happened to her and everything the witch had told her, and as she talked poor Lia's incredulous face was veiled with pain. "Your witch is lying, my brother wouldn't have done, well want, anything wrong."
"I don't want to believe it either, but only him, the witch and God know why he was cursed. Personally, I rather him being a wolf than eaten by one, don't you?"
Lia had to admit she was right. So Mary told her she wanted to go back to the witch's place, and that to do so, she needed her help. When Mary would go to the witch's house, she'd tell her parents she had spent her time with Lia, and if they asked her, she had to confirm it to them. In exchange, Mary could meet with Jo and serve as a messenger between him and his sister. The perspective of having news from her brother made Lia agree.
A new day-to-day life started. Several times a week, after catechism, Mary would go meet the witch who always waited for her with a cup of tea of spiced milk. She'd catch up with Jo and tell him about Lia, which always made the wolf man wildly happy. Then she'd pend a few hours talking with the witch.
They talked about everything. Arts, science, magic and religion. The witch was very knowledgeable, and Mary asked a lot of questions. Sometimes she couldn't answer, and admitted it with a little sorry smile, and Mary didn't insist. The witch would explain the world in details that Father Hugh never dived into, she'd debate gladly and always admitted her words were only hers, and nothing she taught her was set in stone.
"How do you know so much?" Mary asked her, one day.
"The same way as you do now, I was taught when I was young."
"Bu who taught you?"
"Another witch. I was her apprentice. She's dead now, and her soul dances with Lucifer's fallen angels."
Little Mary stopped at those words and looked down. "I'm sorry for her."
"Come one, Child, everybody dies at some point. What's important is living a life you won't regret. But you're blushing, there is something you wish to tell me, isn't there? Well, talk."
At first, Mary didn't dare, but the witch insisted. "It's just sad that she's in Hell." She hesitated a little more before she added "Father Hugh says all witches go to Hell if they don't confess before dying."
"Witches go wherever they want to go, Child," she replied. "My master honored Lucifer and joined him willingly. She would have spat at anyone who'd offered her to go anywhere else. I've known sisters who could be playing the harp with the angels right now, or wandering down the Elysian Fields along with Persephone. Trust me, my master is where she wished to be."
"But it's Hell! Isn't it supposed to be eternal punishment?"
"It could, for those who believe it," the witch said softly. "Do you fear death, Child?"
"Yes, as one should," Mary admitted.
"But do you fear Hell?"
The question was slightly more difficult and Mary needed a minute to think. "What I really fear is suffering. Does one suffer, in Hell?"
"That's what they say, but I don't know if it's true. It's a difficult question, and only a dead or a demon could answer."
"Then I guess I'll never know. Neither the dead, nor the demons, nor the gods ever answer questions," Mary sighed, still a little upset about the results of her prayers at the church.
Her reaction made the witch laugh. "Necromancers speak to the dead, and priests speak to their gods. As for me, I meet with the demons every year, during the great Samain Sabbath.
Mary opened wide, scared and excited eyes. "What is that?"
"It's a gathering for the Hellish court and the witches. We don't all go, but I'm used to going since I went with my master. The Hellish Court really is something, Child.
"I like to see it," Mary whispered pensively. She thought an added : "Could you ask them if one really suffers, in Hell, next time you'll meet them?"
"You could ask them yourself, if you were a witch."
"But I'm not, and you are," she said without understanding what the witch was trying to tell her.
She stopped for a few moments, picking her nails, before glancing at her maliciously. "You could become my apprentice, Child."
Mary was at a loss of words. Her? Becoming the apprentice of a witch? Meeting spirits and demons; learning magic, alchemy and divination; discovering the rules and gears of a taboo art… She had to admit, the more she thought about it, the more tempting the offer was. More tempting than any secrets Father Hugh could still keep hidden. However, from the corner of her eye, she caught a glance of Jo, slowly shaking his head. She remembered the curse that worried her parents so and felt guilt from how enticing the way the witch offered her was to her.
"I can't," she said with regret in her voice. "They say that, if I approach any source of sin, I'll attract a demon on the village, and with all the questions I have about Hell, I'm afraid it's true. I don't want anybody to suffer because of me."
The witch threw a fit of laughter at her words. Mary frowned but she didn't have the time to open her mouth. "I had forgotten about that! Father Hugh said you were cursed, right. Nice one, really, nice one…"
"What do you mean?"
"You aren't cursed, Child!" the witch snickered. "I would know, it was my niece who wrote the poem that worried your parents so much!"
The witch explained what her niece had told her, as she visited her on Christmas day, almost nine years ago. A nice girl, really, very good at future telling, but a tad too naïve and reckless. She had told her how she had helped with the birthing and left behind what she thought was a gift, her prophecy on the baby's fate. She had never intended to curse her in any way.
"Alright, it wasn't her fault," Mary admitted. "But if it's a prediction, that means it could happen, right?"
"Yes, it could happen. Your prophecy says you'll attract a demon into the village, right? And then?"
"And then? What?"
"You don't know why this demon will come, you don't know what they'll do or what you'll do. There is even no telling if the prophecy is literal or not."
Mary's eyes widened. It was true, when you thought about it, she didn't really know what would happen. "Then what should I do?"
"Whatever you wish. It would be stupid to stop living because of what could happen. What if I told you it would rain tomorrow? That doesn't mean you should lock yourself inside or find a way to keep the rain from pouring. It just means you'll need a good rain coat."
"I think I'll need a very large raincoat if I have to protect the village from a demon," Mary laughed.
"I can teach you how to protect it," the witch promised. "But only if it's your own choice."
Little Mary didn't have any other reason to refuse and, jumping at the witch's neck to embrace her, she became her apprentice.
The little girl started going to the witch's house every day, and carefully followed her lessons. The witch, as a show of trust, revealed her name to her – Belladonna. She slowly taught her witchcraft, the properties of plants, trees, stones and animals, spells, potions and all traces of power. Jo was always near her, half-human, encouraging her with his eyes. Mary was an excellent student, passionate about everything she learned. She loved most of all protection spells and everything that could heal. She was so passionate she often wanted to share what she'd learn. Sometimes, she spoke mere words of it to Lia who'd immediately stop listening. So she would just whisper her knowledge into Kid's ear, at night, before going to sleep, and the white kitten would keep his master's occult deeds for him.
Surprisingly, with every lesson she got from the witch, Mary became a lot more docile at church, much to Father Hugh'd delight. She didn't ask any more embarrassing questions about God, or the Bible, or what the priest said, thanks to the witch who secretly answered them. Her parents were very happy about it, so much they didn't question the time she seemingly spent with Lia.
Soon, the witch's lessons became more practical. She made her assist her rituals, taught her how to make candles, to read cards, talk to spirits, save a life or take it. Mary was still scare of what could do harm. Poisons and curses made her nose scrunch up, and she always promised herself to never use them. "I don't want to hurt anyone," she'd confess to Belladonna who'd reassure her with a smile.
"You don't have to use what I teach you. Your knowledge is a gift, you can do whatever you wish with it."
And Mary would happily go back to work.
Time went by, between lessons and church. At her tenth autumn, Mary asked Belladonna if she could go to the great Sabbath with her, to meet the demons. The witch refused.
"You are too young," she said. "It's an amazing celebration, but it's dangerous, and you aren't ready. Why do you wish to go so bad?"
"I want to ask the demons questions neither you nor Father Hugh have answers for."
Belladonna smiled fondly and touched the child's cheek. "Be patient. If you want it so much, I'll take you there next year."
Another year passed, and on her eleventh autumn, Mary asked the witch again if she could come to the Sabbath with her. She hesitated but did not refuse this time.
"You've been my student for almost three years now. I believe you can go. But I must warn you, a child as young and new as you rarely attends the ceremony. What you'll see might shock you and I won't always be able to protect you.
"I don't care, I can protect myself," Mary assured.
"In this case, keep up the good work, and you'll meet the Hellish Court this year."