Saturday, 30 January 2010
The Witch of the Deep Savage Forest
The little sister ran headlong through the trees until weary with fear and sadness she fell to the ground and sleep pounced upon her, overcoming her wakefulness. How long she slept, she knew not but when she woke she found herself resting upon a bed of flowers with a coronet of mistletoe upon her brow. It seems that the faeries had found her and mistaking her for one of their own, so pretty was she, that they had given her this honour. She roused herself and feeling hungry nonetheless gave her thanks to the faeries for their care - however mistaken. As she stood, she saw through the trees in the faint daylight that seeped through the trees, a house. She guessed it was the house of the witch, but she took a deep breath and straightened the coronet upon her head. Cautiously she walked towards it her mind filled with wild imaginings.
It was a tall wide house that seemed almost to merge at it's edges with the very forest itself. It did not seem made of stone so much as made of trees with stone between the gaps. It was covered also, in ivy that partly seemed to hold it together and partly to crush it in a leafy fist. Woodlice and spiders crawled through the leaves and over the hairy tendrils. The windows showed a fiery almost hellish light through the ivy. In the middle of one wide wall there was a large dark wooden door. Taking a deep breath and pulling the few shreds of courage she had left together, she knocked on the door. Almost immediately the woodlice and spiders seemed to become frantic crawling up the face of the house and peering down at her. The door opened and a tall, pale, almost green-skinned woman opened the door. Her dress was crimson like fresh blood and over it she wore a long dark green coat that seemed to match the ivy leaves of her house. Her eyes were dark sinister pools and bore an icy expression. Her face while heart-shaped was devoid of feeling.
"Were the wolves not hungry?" she sneered.
"Please my lady, my sisters have sent me out for strawberries and I cannot find any. But I have heard that you are wise in ways I do not know. Can you tell me where I might find some?" the little sister asked her politely.
The witch raised an eyebrow and all of a sudden reached out, grabbed the little sister by the scruff of her neck and pulled her indoors. The door shut tight with a slam.
"You will work for me for a year. You will clean the floors, polish the silver, burnish the panelling, feed the fire and most importantly of all keep my pots and pans shining except for the iron pot on the fire. You WILL NOT FEED THE CAT!" the witch told her.
The little sister was confused to say the least, but could not help but mention that she was looking for strawberries for her sisters. The witch laughed coldly.
"They wish you were dead little sister! I wish you to get to work for it is the only way you will get a home. Strawberries in winter! Did you not realise that they didn't want you, you brainless girl?"
Yes, the little sister had known it, but she hoped that if she could have found strawberries they might at least have let her have her little bedroom back. She looked up at the witch then, into the dark icy eyes and her own eyes filled with tears. There was suddenly a loud crack that echoed in the large house and the witch blinked, frowned and turned away telling the little sister,
"You will find all you need in the kitchens. Don't bother me until supper."
The little sister went past the staircase and along a corridor into a broad homely kitchen. The fire seemed to flicker at her and she fed it a few logs from the pile of kindling by the hearth. It blazed happily then and the little sister sighed. The witch was right about her sisters but she was not one to give in to her misfortunes quite so easily. After all, she told herself, even the wolves had not torn her to pieces. She took a broom and began to clean the house. As she returned to the kitchen she found a large black cat curled up by the fire. She curtseyed to him and said that she hoped she was comfortable.
"I'd be more comfortable with food in my belly," the cat answered snappishly.
"I would feed you something but I have been expressly forbidden to do so, sir," the little sister answered.
The cat chuckled then and answered her, his green eyes glowing,
"I'm sure you have little sister, whatever your name is."
The little sister was very tired, but she remembered reading a book a long time ago that said you should never give up your true name to anyone. Especially anyone magical for they can control you if they know it. So she curtseyed and answered,
"My lord cat, my name is Pushbroom, but you may call me Mistletoe."
The cat growled and getting up he stretched until he almost filled the entire kitchen. His tail lashed the air, but he sat with his tail curled neatly around his paws and between his paws she saw there was nine dead pheasants and three dead deer. She sighed and asked the cat if she might have them for the witch's supper.
"Ha!" exclaimed the cat with feeling, "I may not be fed, but she must be!"
Still, he pushed the pheasants and the deer across to her with a paw and settled himself with his forepaws tucked beneath him. The little sister or Pushbroom as we may call her (it is very tiring calling her the little sister after all) took the fowl and plucked them. Their feathers flew up in a cloud and settled upon her own body like a dress. She prepared them for the pot and put them in. Then she began on the deer. No sooner had she taken the skins from the carcasses than the deerskins fell apart and wrapped themselves about her as a coat. The cat blinked at that but said nothing. Pushbroom put vegetables and herbs with the meat and stirred them up. Now she had used the large iron pot over the fire, for she thought it big enough for the venison. But this was a magic pot, a gift to the witch from her sister the Iron Witch. Pushbroom stirred the stew carefully and when she tasted it, it made her blink and suddenly she could hear the mice in the wainscoting talking.
"It's a good thing she didn't feed the cat," they said.
"It would have gone ill for her if she had," they said.
"He would have swallowed her whole and spit out the bones," they said.
Pushbroom glanced at the cat who had his eyes shut and thought how uncouth to spit out bones when they ought to be put to the side of one's plate. The witch was served when the stew was ready and when she tasted it she nodded with satisfaction, but then thinking further, she frowned.
"Which pot did you cook this in?" she asked.
"The big iron pot on the fire, my lady," answered Pushbroom.
"You are remarkably lucky that I do not turn you into a beetle my dear. You will never use that pot for cooking in again. You may use one of the great coppers and you must keep all of the copper pots clean. I notice that you did not feed the cat. I am not an unreasonable witch as witches go. You may go on living for now."
Pushbroom was most relieved as you might imagine. She was sent to bed after supper and the cat led her up the stairs into a large room that was decorated as if walking into a forest. The four poster bed had four tree-like posters at each corner, their 'branches' met in the centre of the canopy. The carpet seemed like a meadow and the walls bore what looked like a forest that went on into some other land altogether. Pushbroom got into the bed with her crow feather cloak over her pheasant feather dress. She dared not take off her fox fur boots or the deerskin coat. Over her the cat drew a quilt of what appeared to be soft leaves stitched together. In a strangely tender voice he murmured,
"Sleep safe and well pretty Pushbroom and be fearless."
Then he left her and once more she heard the mice in the wainscoting talking.
"She would do better to sleep above that quilt."
"Is that a witch-made quilt then?"
"It is and it is full of her magics too."
"How beautiful she is and how lovely too."
Pushbroom wondered for a moment if she should remove the quilt, but it seemed so warm and she was so tired that she slept. She dreamed that her feet became roots and fixed her to the ground. She dreamed that insects crawled all over her body and yet she knew somehow that they were taking comfort in her and meant her no harm. She dreamed that spiders were weaving cobwebs over her long hair that turned to a silken veil and that a tall woman in a green dress with flaming red hair was telling her to keep her mistletoe coronet always upon her head.
"For if you remove it, the witch's magic will hold you in it's power." the lady told her.
She dreamed of the fox and the crows and the bear. Somewhere she was aware of the wolves also. But in any case, she found that she was not afraid. She slept well and when she awoke, she arose and plaited her long hair around the mistletoe coronet so that the coronet should not fall from her head. She removed her clothing and bathed in cold water before drying herself on an old cloth. She put back on her dress and over that the pheasant feather dress and over that the deerskin coat. She pulled on her fox fur boots and the crow feather cloak and went down the stairs to breakfast. The cat was gone, but she fed the fire well and heated water in one of the large shining copper pots. She worked hard all the day and in the evening she took from the cat nine rabbits, whose fur skins turned to gloves for her hands and a hood for her head. She also took twenty-seven wood pigeons and in each of them she found a cornflower, which she put in her coat pockets.
This sort of thing went on for the rest of the year and twice more she heard a loud crack that made the witch blink and turn away. She kept the witch's house in good order and was good to the cat, though she would not feed him. Now it happened one day that the witch looked into her cauldron - the big iron pot and frowned. She called Pushbroom to her and said,
"This pot needs cleaning, but you are not to do it. You must take it to my sister, the Iron Witch, she has a troll who will clean it. My sister's house is too far away to travel on your own, so the cat will have to take you. Let me remind you again my girl, you are NOT TO FEED THE CAT! He is quite able to find his own food in any case. I shall give you a box to take with you. If you open it the cat will bite off your legs and they will run away without you. The box is for my sister and only she may open the box."
Pushbroom said that she understood and the witch leaned over the fire and took the big cauldron from it's hook. She handed it to Pushbroom as if it were a small purse, but Pushbroom staggered under the weight of the iron pot. The witch took it from her with a frown and told the cat to take it. He took it quite effortlessly in his jaws and the witch lifted Pushbroom onto his back. She muttered a word and the kitchen door opened. The cat and Pushbroom went out into the world again and Pushbroom leaned forward nestling into the cat's thick black fur. The cat dashed through the trees until they came to the forest's farthest edge on the brow of a hill where the forest met the green meadows. There the cat paused and sprang into the air. Up they went, up among the clouds where the geese fly and the larks call and the eagles soar. Far they went, far over the landscape below. The cat passed from cloud to cloud without falling through them, so adept was he.
When they finally came down to earth, Pushbroom saw that they were in another country. Here there were trees and rocks and streams and waterfalls that glittered as they fell into deep green pools. Once more the cat leapt up and up, from rock to crag, from peak to peak until Pushbroom saw in the distance what appeared to be a large dark hill, fiery in the light of the sun. Now she began to wonder about the troll who lived with the Iron Witch and she shivered.
Still the cat went on, tirelessly, leaping from mountain to mountain until they reached the foot of the Iron Glades where he paused to yawn. He stretched himself and told Pushbroom to lie against his stomach. She did so and he curled himself around her and slept. She slept too, warm and safe with the cat's heartbeat lulling her to sleep. This time, she did not dream at all. Instead she felt as if she were sinking into a warm quilt and that she was the safest she had been in a long time.
She awoke to find herself in a large bed made of Iron. The walls were iron with cast iron pillars and an iron door. She got up and went down the iron stairs to a large kitchen. There, she saw a woman with dark iron-coloured hair and a steely gaze. The woman wore a steel grey dress with clogs of iron-coloured leather and riveted to the sole. She sat by a large fire examining the cauldron and when she looked up at Pushbroom, the young woman saw sparks flash in the witch's eyes.
"Excuse me, my lady," Pushbroom said quietly, "Your sister in the Deep Savage Forest asked me to give you this box."
She took the box from her coat pocket and handed it to the witch who stared at it and asked in a rusty old voice, "What's in it, my girl?"
"I know not, my lady. Your sister forbid me to look inside, but to bring it to you. She told me that you alone were to open it," Pushbroom answered.
The Iron Witch smiled a thin-lipped smile and took the box from Pushbroom. She gazed at the young woman until Pushbroom blushed. Then the witch called out, "Bronze Bone, Bronze Bone come hither from yon."
There was the sound like a heavy drumbeat and the door to the garden opened. There stood a large troll with great iron teeth and hair like iron wires and eyes dark like iron.
"My sister wants her cauldron cleaned. Go you and do the work and I will pay you well," the Iron Witch said, picking up the cauldron as if it were a child's bucket for making sandcastles and holding it out to the troll.
Bronze Bone sniffed and grinned at Pushbroom hungrily, for trolls like to eat people just to hear the crunch of the bones. But she took the cauldron and went back out into the garden. The Iron Witch turned to Pushbroom and told her,
"Clean the house and make the supper. Tonight you will go home with the cat or Bronze Bone will eat you."
Pushbroom curtseyed and began immediately to clean the iron house. The house rang and clanged to the sound of her cleaning and once she had cleaned it all she began to wonder what to cook for supper. The garden door flew open and the cat appeared with three sea serpents, their iron scales glistening. Pushbroom did not know how to cook them, but she took them from the cat, thanked him kindly and took a recipe book from the shelf by Madame Du Fer. She found a recipe and began to cook, hauling the sea serpents onto the table and cutting them up with a magic cleaver. Into the pot they went with plenty of spinach and a bottle of stout. That evening the Iron Witch ate well, but Pushbroom went mostly hungry for the dish was very strongly flavoured with iron.
After supper, the witch brought the cleaned cauldron to the cat and lifted Pushbroom up behind his shoulders. Pushbroom leaned forwards, burying her face in his warm fur. The cat went out at the kitchen door and sprang up into the air. A large hand reached up to grab at them, but missed and its owner sent up a howl of rage after them. The howl followed a little way before falling back to the ground. The cat ignored both the troll and it's howl but landed at the bottom of the mountain and sprang up again.
Over the clouds they went and back to the Deep Savage Forest. The witch sighed when she saw Pushbroom and sent her directly to bed. As Pushbroom got into bed, she heard a loud crack and a cry of anguish echo through the house. She wondered what it could be but she dared not ask the witch. Instead she slept and dreamed and this time the woman with the green dress and red hair seemed to smile at her and leaning forwards she kissed Pushbroom upon her brow.
When Pushbroom awoke in the morning and looked in the mirror of her dressing table, she saw a star upon her brow. She bound a scarf up around her hair and went down to breakfast. The witch seemed less pale, more rosy in her face and her eyes less sinister, still she would not look at Pushbroom but told her to clean away the cobwebs after breakfast. Pushbroom curtseyed and the witch sighed before leaving the kitchen. Pushbroom ate her breakfast, then took a feather duster and began to sweep away the cobwebs gently so as not to hurt the spiders. The spiders crawled along the duster to her hair but where once she might have shrieked and swept them to the floor, she let them settle upon her hair. Almost instantly her scarf became undone and the star on her brow blazed with a pale light. The spiders began to weave over her hair until a fine silken filet was made. Within it, were patterns of stars and frost feathers like those that appear on glass in freezing weather.
Still Pushbroom worked on until the house was free of cobwebs and the spiders left the house. But at lunchtime, when the witch saw Pushbroom she screamed and told her to go and eat in the garden behind the house and to work the garden well. Poor pretty Pushbroom did not know what she had done, but went out and sat upon a stone to eat her lunch of Witchbread and Toad-butter. At the bottom of the garden she saw something shining and when she had left her platter by the kitchen door she went down the mossy path to what had once been a rose trellis. There she found a beautiful shimmering dress of silk, woven by the spiders. It was so beautiful that she could almost have wept. She would have tried it on but instead she turned and began to tidy up the garden. In making it beautiful she found some pleasure, but it was hard work. She dug up the soil, cleaned up the path carefully and remade the wood woven fences.
Towards nightfall, she heard a long mournful howl deep in the trees and the sound of rushing leaves. She went indoors quickly and began to make the supper. The witch came in to eat a little later and seeing Pushbroom she fainted. Pushbroom took a deep breath and picked up the witch in her arms. She took the witch up to her bed and held her hand, while she sat beside her. A little later the cat came padding up the stairs and smiled.
"She will be furious with you when she wakes," he murmured.
"But I have done nothing to anger her," Pushbroom answered softly.
"She will bite you in two and feed you piece by piece to the wolves," the cat said softly.
Pushbroom did not believe him and returned to the kitchen where she prepared a little supper for the witch and brought it up to her. The star on her brow lit her way and filled the bedchamber with light. She held the witch in her arms tenderly and fed her a little supper. The witch groaned and awoke.
"Take her to my sister on the Golden Mountain and fetch the steel box," the witch told the cat.
"If I have done anything to anger you my lady, I am very sorry," Pushbroom said, "You have been so kind to me."
The witch groaned again and waved her away.
"Go, go and let me sleep," she moaned.
"I do hope you will eat a little my lady," Pushbroom replied and followed by the cat she went back down to the kitchen.
She drew up a chair and climbing upon it she got up on the cat's back and nestled into his warm fur.
"And whatever you do, DO NOT FEED THE CAT!" came the witch's voice down the stairs.
The cat growled and pushed open the kitchen door. Beyond the garden in the shadows of the trees, fiery eyes watched hungrily, but the cat hissed and the wolves loped away. The cat leapt up then and headed East towards the Golden Mountain.