WISHES AND WITCHES
by MF Burbaugh
"Wishes at the shrine, a copper for my time.
Wishes I make true, come let me help you."
The cackle of the old crone as she laughed was haunting, daring us to purchase her service. Daring anyone.
"Come hither little ones, see your dreams.
Come hither dears, all is not as it seems."
I looked to Kathy and asked, "Want to? We're in the city for just the day. Want to see what our futures hold? I have a few extra coins from the pelts I sold. We have all that your mother wanted from the market so the time is ours."
She looked scared of the old woman and the idol of Goddess Danu that sat on the crone's table. One of the minor deities that was supposed to be able to turn dreams into reality, make wishes come true.
"Come on. I'll protect you." I had to grin. She ran faster and was stronger than me. She always bested me in wrestling too.
She smiled, getting the joke and bucking up her resolve. "Okay, can't hurt. She's just creepy."
We went to her table. She was as ugly to look at as her voice was raspy. Her bulbous nose had two large warts on the left side and her face showed signs of once having the pox. Still, her eyes were a bright blue, clearly alive and observant. We neared her and she didn't change her stare, if anything I felt it became more intense as she seemed to look deep in my soul.
"Come my children, do not fear this old woman.
I just read for Goddess Danu the destinies of humans."
We sat in the rickety chairs and her voice changed a bit, as did her speech. She was no longer the barker calling for a fare, she was now the seer, her gnarled fingers closed tightly upon my copper as it dropped into her hand.
"Sit ye down, rest a bit, let me look upon you both." She just sat and stared for what had to be a full minute. "You're Kathy, daughter of Carla the milker. Your father was named Dundle Harth, died in a Gaul attack, no?"
Kathy jerked her head up as she heard. Clearly taken by surprise. "How do you know that?"
"I see many things and many possibilities. Besides, I am also a midwife. I helped deliver you." Her cackle hadn't changed anyway. She turned to me, "Toby Sutter, father also killed, same attack. Mother raped and tortured, left for dead, now she is an invalid." She looked to see if I caught the rhyme. I did. Then she said, "No real mind left since that day, correct?"
"Yes, I remember you trying to help her several times. All failed," I told her.
"Yes, the gods don't always grant our wishes. On that day they granted those wishes to the Gauls. Such are the lives of us poor mortals. Now that I am sure I know you both, what is it you wish to ask of Danu, granter of wishes and dreams?" she asked.
"I wish my mother to get better!" I said instantly.
"Boy, that can not be for it was the wish of the Gauls that was granted on that day and Danu can not undo wishes already given."
"But destroying her mind? Who would wish so?"
"No, the night before battle, the Gauls sacrificed a fair maiden that the gods grant great damage upon us. The gods accepted. We offered no such, nor will we. What is done can not be undone. Do you have a wish that has not yet been asked?"
Nothing came to mind and I shook my head.
"Young woman, perhaps you have one? A copper paid requires someone have one," the crone said.
"Not really, maybe I become a queen someday? Is that a wish?" she asked.
"Truly a dream, but for a boon upon fulfillment I think Danu could see granting such."
"A boon? What kind of boon?" Kathy was suddenly alive with interest.
"Five years hence, when the child is born, be it a female, I can train her in my medical craft. I do not mean take her away as in the tales. Just train her at your home and to your rules."
"And if it were a boy?" she asked.
"Then I shall have to wait for a girl of course," she said.
It struck me, "But it would be a girl, you already know don't you?"
"If she accepts the offer yes, if not, who is to know the will of the gods? Certainly not I."
I turned to Kathy, I was now scared. "Don't accept. The gods toy with us."
The old woman smiled and I knew I was right, it was some trap. "No, I believe in Toby, I can't do it."
"Well chosen then young lady. Well chosen indeed. You have passed the test, greed did not put sway upon your thoughts. Danu has granted a boon that shall someday come to pass, go children, enjoy your day and may the gods grant you many more along the way."
We were dismissed as one would dismiss an underling, but she never removed her smile. As we left I felt a wave of fear lift and a sense of kindness creep in, her kindness, which was creepy unto itself.
We continued around the market place and I bought Kathy and I a small pastry to split. Funny, I was scared of most girls, something about them, not Kathy though. Shades of the underworld, most of the time I forgot she even was one.
When the Gauls attacked our village father told mother and her five year old son to run. As we cleared the village a Gaul grabbed my mother, I tried to help and was swatted away. Mother told me to run and keep running. I ran crying to the fields and hid in the deep old ditch dug long ago for us to rally and hide. Soon I was joined by Kathy and a few others. We huddled in fear for the whole day as screams and yells echoed off the hills around our town. Several times I thought I heard the screams of my mother along with the smells of burning and blood drifting on the air. Kathy and I sat and cried together. We'd done pretty much everything together since.
When we finally were told by an older boy it was safe, they'd gone, we both went back. My mother lay on the ground near Kathy's, her clothing ripped to shreds and she was bleeding and crying and unresponsive to my calls to her, like I wasn't there. She's been that way ever since. Sometimes she cries out but mostly just stares.
Kathy's mom was not as bad and saw us. She got help for my mother, but she wasn't much better. All the women had been repeatedly raped, some killed along with most of the men and children they caught. A few huts remained, but most were looted and burned. The Gauls wrath upon us was devastating and the effect upon me was deep. I'm sure it was just as deep on all us survivors of that day.
Although none ever said so, I was pretty sure Kathy's brother was born of those rapes. For good or ill the gods frowned on us, then maybe smiled as the baby was stillborn. I remember, I was too young to do anything and mother and I moved in with Kathy and her mom as the survivors struggled to survive. I did what a five, then six year old could to help.
By ten I had done enough work to learn how to rebuild our family home and move mother in. I even had a crop grown and sold much of it since mother and I ate little.
Today Kathy and I were in town to celebrate our thirteenth birthdays, we were born a month apart, me being older, her being stronger. Well, until recently. I had bested her last time we wrestled. I think the farm work was making me stronger. Finally the day was near over and we headed home. Overall a fun day to be remembered. The village was several miles away and as we walked and talked she said her mother was worried about her.
"Because I am a woman now."
"No you're not, don't be silly. We're only thirteen."
"Toby, the gods blooded me last week. You know what I mean?"
"Sure I know, mother goes through it near each full moon but still, you're not. Don't be, damn it. You're my friend."
"I can still be your friend and a woman. I even have breasts, though they are wrapped tight to hide them."
I gave her a stare, surely not, I'd have noticed. "I'd have noticed."
She smiled, "See it works then."
We walked on not saying anything. As we neared the village and we went by the deep ditch were we hid so long ago she pulled me down in it. "Here, let me show you," she said as she unlaced the tie string on her leather jerkin and pulled the top off. Sure enough, a wide band of cloth was wrapped tightly around her chest and secured on the side with a knot. "Help untie it, but remember how, will have to redo it." She was trying to undo it so I helped and finally she had it unwrapped and off. "See?" she said.
Sure enough. Not as big as either of our mothers, but she had them, they clearly stuck out. She took my hand and rubbed it against one. "They are real, feel it?"
"Ugh, ya, damn it. You're not supposed to grow up. It isn't fair."
"Toby, you'll grow up soon too. Not yet, but soon. Then we can speak of it again, until then help me re-wrap and tell no one. Okay?"
"Sure, why ask?"
"Because this is a little different than the silly promises we made, like taking the tomatoes or showing each how we pee'd or where we hid. Mother said it is to maybe stop me from being taken and raped by either the Gauls or the city land owners. So far none of the older men in the city have asked mother to have me be their bride either but, I fear she is right, I can't hide much longer."
As fall was upon us and harvest time required most of my efforts I didn't see much of Kathy. Oh, I took baskets of fruits and vegetables there and got milk for our bread and a little for mother to drink but during harvest everyone was busy. I traded the excess for meat and I smoked and dried what I could, though I was still learning. Finally the harvest was done and I felt relieved. The root-cellar was full. Twenty percent would spoil, ten percent would be ruined by the mice, rats, or other creatures that managed to get in, and the remainder would keep us alive until next growing season.
I was helping mother eat some corn mush when Kathy and her mother came in. She was carrying a wrapped block of cheese. Kathy's mother said, "Hello Toby, had a bit extra. Thought your mother would like some. How has she been?"
"About the same, still cries out in her sleep from nightmares and just stares when awake. She eats well anyway."
"We all have our nightmares, Toby. Believe me, and they can seem quite real."
"I know. I guess you were stronger than her."
"No, I doubt it. She was almost beaten to death. Though as helpless, I wasn't treated anywhere as bad as your mother, we could see each other the whole time. Let us forget it, remembering helps not at all."
"Sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned it."
She looked at me a second, "No, part of life, it happened, why deny it? Can I talk to her?"
They had been friends a long time. "Sure," I told her. When we found mother that day she was bleeding from her ears and eyes and had been beaten about her head. Though she went to natures call and returned by herself and could eat some food like a hunk of meat or cheese by herself at times, usually she just stared or cried or slept.
As Kathy's mother went to her bed and was talking, Kathy came up and said hi, too. I whispered, "Hate to tell you but your wraps are bulging."
"Shh, I know." She frowned at me.
Her mother turned and looked my way a second then turned back and continued talking to my mother, quietly.
"Thanks for the cheese, forgot to get any," I told her.
"Mother and I may move into the city," she said.
"What?" I said louder than I meant to and her mother looked again.
"She says there is a man there that owns a house and has offered to let us move in. We can sell the farm and he promised her she'd be happy. She is thinking about it."
"But, but then everyone will know you, will see you. You'll be married off in no time," I stammered.
"Mother said she was promised to my father for a cow when she was eleven. They married when she was twelve and he was seventeen. Though never her choice, she said she could have done a lot worse and she is happy to have birthed me."
"It's not fair," I told her.
"The gods determine what is or isn't fair, not us."
By the first snow they were gone to the city. Kathy promised to come get me and show me where they moved to, but she never appeared. Though on the rare occasion I could get there, I never found her, nor anyone in the city that knew of her. My best friend was lost, likely for good.
Next midsummer I had been working in the fields when I heard mother scream. I went to the house thinking another nightmare but as I walked in she was standing there crying, and she saw me, she actually saw me, and cried harder. "Toby, I'm sorry I abandoned you!" Then she screamed and grabbed her chest and fell to the floor. She'd never cry or scream again, she was dead.
That put me into a deep depression. I found I didn't care about the farm or the house or the town, I didn't care about anything! I fumbled my way through the harvest that fall, sold what I could and
spent a lot of time wandering the city. Oh, I knew I was looking for Kathy, during the hunt I found I was a man at a local tavern with a wench that showed me a good time for a few coppers.
At fourteen I was rid of the farm and took an apprentice job at a silversmith's in the city. Though a mean brute, he taught me his craft and by my sixteenth birthday I lived in his shop as a guard and he let me do small works of silver by myself.
Late one night in the fall as I lay on the mat, I heard a noise in the front. As I investigated I saw a person, in the dim light and it was clear they were up to no good as they tried to open the storage chest. I did a flying tackle and started pummeling the thief when I saw it was a woman and instinctively stopped, only to get taken down and locked solid by a move I knew well. I reversed it and said, "Ha, my friend use to do that all the time, she didn't fare any better than you!"
"Toby?" I recognized the voice immediately.
"Yes," she said and I released her.
"A common thief? Why? I thought you and your mother went off and she married a rich guy?"
"Toby, wait, please listen, I only do what needs be done."
I stood up and she did too. In the light I could not distinguish her features. "I'm listening," I said as I lit a candle. She was clearly older but still as I remembered her, yet more filled out, not as skinny as I'd last seen her.
"When I finally could sneak away I went back to your farm but strangers were there. Where is your mother?"
"Died the following midsummer you left. She recognized me, said she was sorry and died. Why are you breaking into this shop? I apprentice here."
"Toby, so much, so long. He seemed so kind. Mother sold the farm, as you know, and we lived with him a while and he treated us well so she finally married him. Then he turned to a beast. He beat her, stole all her money and raped me a few times. When I told mother and she said anything he'd beat her almost to death so to stop it I would say nothing. He traded me that spring for a few gold to a prince as his concubine. Though treated better, I was still little more than a slave. Toby, I never should have left, never!"
I was mad and confused at the same time. "Continue!" I demanded.
"As you know the King died in a Gaul border skirmish. The Queen made her son marry me to learn responsibility, when she had a fit of rage against him for stealing something or other from her. Without any say from me, he was my husband and it is why I'm here."
"I killed him the other night, poisoned him. His mother thought a new girl from town did it for revenge, she bears his child, but it was me."
I couldn't believe her tale, though I wanted to. "So you are stealing some silver to get away?"
"No Toby. I am trying to put some back. A special pendant he stole from the Danu Temple and was then going to try and claim it was mine, a family heirloom. His mother was always mad at him, he stole from anyone. She had him marry me only to get a male heir, there are none." With that she opened a leather bag and pulled out a beautiful pendant. Silver shield lined with small stones and with an intricate bone cameo center of the Goddess Danu on a large silver necklace, quite beautiful. "It was why I killed him really. Stealing from the Goddess is wrong."
"I've been here a couple years now, we didn't make this. There is no mark."
"Yes he did, probably before your time. It was kept at the temple, to honor Danu, but then John took it from there, believe me it belongs to your master. Please, just place it in the box, say nothing and you will see. I must get back to the castle before they know I'm gone. Times are delicate at the moment, I promise, I'll come back and explain more later, but I really must go." She was pleading and unless she had stolen the pendent someplace else then tried to steal from here as well she was telling a weird but true tale.
"Because you are Kathy, and only that, go." After she left I secured the door again, placed the pendent in the storage box and went and lay down trying to sleep. My mind flooded with old memories and new thoughts of horror.
When the master came in to start the day, he opened the box and just stared. "Where did this come from?" he asked, holding the pendant.
"A person knocked on the door last night, said it was yours and it had been stolen from the temple, handed it to me then left. I didn't even have time to see what they looked like before they were gone."
"Yes, it is, and I had it at the temple. Hmm, interesting."
"Very pretty, master. Excellent workmanship and a fantastic design. Surly the Goddess smiled on you. I hope someday to do as well."
"Yes, so do I, so do I," he snickered.
"Master?" I asked.
"Oh, an old crone came by one day long ago and dared me to make it. She worshiped the Goddess and paid in gold. Said just to follow her design and give it to the temple on loan to honor Danu. I thought her drawing was stunning so over two years I made this and did as she asked. I can not conceive such beauty on my own."
At the mention of old crone I had a flash of childhood memory. Of a statue and an offer rejected long ago.
He placed it back in the box. "Well, I'll check with the temple later, to work, I have two spoons I need you to make before the day is done." So the incident was forgotten by him and the day passed in toil.
Two days passed as he was engraving the spoons I made. He said, "Temple said that pendant was stolen, I gave it back to them. They were quite intrigued with the story. Their biggest question was how anyone knew I'd made it. I did not mark it since the design was not mine, and they did not say its origin. It was decided the will of the gods and their workings are not for us mortals to understand."
As days passed I tried to listen for gossip of the castle but they were not well liked so what little was heard was usually nasty. The Queen taking several men to bed each night. Young boys being raped by the men of the castle, young women having horrors and torture placed upon them. I was sure all were just tales to fill the taverns gossips with things to say.
I was wakened late one night by knocking at the door. I carefully peeked out and saw it was Kathy so I let her in. "Lock it Toby." I did. "Told you I'd be back. The girl they thought poisoned my husband seems to have vanished." Her grin said someone had warned her to flee.
Over the next hour she filled me in on the horrors of her life. Her mother's beating death and the hanging of the guy that sold her, many sordid details, some of which I didn't wish to hear. Still, she was my friend and confidant and she made it clear she had kept much deep inside and hidden that needed letting out. "Toby, you're a man now, not a boy. Do me what I so wished you to be the first to do so long ago."
"Make love to me. Once anyway. Please? Be a true friend, just once." By first light she was leaving and I felt our friendship was no more. Not in the same way at least.
"I have always been your friend," I told her as she left.
"I know," was all she said as she disappeared into the early morning mist.
Almost a month went by and she stopped by once more wanting me to be her friend for awhile. The next day we all got the news. The Queen was dead, long live the Queen. Some guy at a party went into a rant about some deity screwing his life up and stabbed the Queen with his fork in a blind rage. He was instantly killed by the guards but it was too late for the Queen, the fork had ruptured a neck artery and they couldn't stop the bleeding in time. Seems Queen Kathy now inherited the throne, having no other living male heirs. Be damned, she was a Queen at seventeen. She was the Queen when she had last come to see me, and she was to be a mother at eighteen. I was informed of my offspring late in her pregnancy, but she had to claim it was her dead husband's of course.
Damn, she was exactly on the old crones time-line too. I had thought a lot about that old witch and the happenings of late.
One month before the child was due to the Queen I turned eighteen and my master declared me a silversmith. That same afternoon an old crone came in and asked me to make her something. She paid in gold and the drawing was stunning. It was a pendent of a Queen, one we both knew well. Queen Kathy. Her only comment was, "The gods often grant wishes but never as the person who does the wishing might want it to be. Her wish is fulfilled. The child will be born on her eighteenth birthday and later you will marry her. She will lose the throne, but fear not, she never wanted it really. Give her the pendant and all will be well, I promise."
That was long ago. Now I am the master smith for the King and Queen of the land. My wife Kathy was allowed to retain the title of Princess due to our daughter, thought to be of royal blood, but I have no title. However I have had a wonderful life blessed with many children. But the first, a girl, has these strange and compelling bright blue eyes, eyes that seem so penetrating and observant. She worships the Goddess Danu as well.