The Natural Selection

The middle-aged man was wearing a sandy-coloured shirt and a panama hat, but Caroline wasn’t really paying attention to his clothes. She was more concerned with the enormous white placard he was waving.

It read: “If you don’t teach your child to obey Jesus, the devil will teach them evolution, sexuality, psychology, witchcraft!”

He glared at her from the other side of the street, no doubt taking in her blue hair, visible tattoos and spiderweb-patterned facemask. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Big surprise. She turned and walked briskly in the other direction. Some fights just weren’t worth it.

At home she unloaded her groceries. Jennie, her fourteen-year-old daughter, sat at the kitchen table chewing a pencil.

“Mom?”

“Yes, sweetie?” Caroline slotted a container of fresh sage into the refrigerator on top of a punnet of blueberries. She picked up a packet of mustard seeds.

“D’you know anything about inherited characteristics?”

“What?”

Jennie gestured vaguely at one of the books spread out in front of her. “I have to write about inherited characteristics and how they change over time.”

Caroline shoved a tub of ice-cream into the freezer, judged the rest of the groceries could wait awhile, and pulled out a chair. “Um. Can I see the book?”

Fifteen minutes later, she had fallen into a hideous tangle of words and was, not for the first time, cursing the fact the schools were currently closed.

“Why don’t you go out to the backyard for a while?” she said. “It’s nice out. Maybe it’ll make more sense after a break.”

She watched as the door closed behind her daughter.

Caroline headed for the basement. It was a sparsely-furnished but clean and well-lit space. She started pulling supplies from a shelf near the dryer. Candles, chalk, spray bottles containing her own special mixtures, a well-thumbed book, salt.

She knelt down on the concrete floor and began to draw.

A little while later, she studied the sigil she’d created. Someone who’d watched too many bad movies might have been surprised. There wasn’t anything even slightly star-shaped, let alone a pentagram. This was all swirls and spirals that twisted and curled inward, forming an unbroken circle in their centre. The outer ring was, likewise, unbroken—and this she sprinkled liberally with salt. She placed candles at intervals around the edge and lit them, sprayed the air, and sat down on a small cushion.

Caroline picked up the book and began to chant.

Here, again, someone expecting mist, banging and general flickering would have been underwhelmed. A figure simply appeared in the central circle with a gentle pop. Slightly smaller than a man, bat-like wings folded neatly against his back, wearing spectacles.

“Ugh,” he said, peering down at the sigil. “Fine. Fine. You clearly know what you’re doing. Let’s forgo the nonsense. What do you want, witch?”

Caroline smiled.

“Well,” she said, “I really need someone to teach my daughter about evolution.”


Author’s notes
A little something I threw into a flash fic contest. It’s dating quickly, but then, I guess, that’s change for you…


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© Kat Day 2021

A Cup Full of Sprite

‘Forty-two!’ The woman holding the piece of pink paper turned it over and squinted. ‘Janet?’

Janet’s heart thumped. They’d been raising money for the school and, well, you bought raffle tickets, didn’t you? She hadn’t expected to win and have everyone stare at her.

Limping slightly thanks to her dodgy hip, she approached the table which, at this late stage, held a golf voucher, a hand-painted mug, and a bottle of red wine that would probably strip paint. Janet grabbed the mug, plucked out another ticket and headed for the door before something awful happened. She had paid for more than one ticket, after all.

#

She washed her prize when she got home. It was made of heavy white ceramic and decorated with frogs: the bulbous, glossy kind with wide mouths and yellow, flat-pupilled eyes. The creatures hopped and sat both on and in the walls. The bottom of the mug had been painted to look like water, with rocks so realistic that Janet almost expected them to feel rough under her finger when she put her hand inside.

‘Shame,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Put tea or coffee in this and you’d not see it.’

She turned on the tap, letting fresh water rinse out the last of the bubbles. Afternoon sunlight rippled the water with gold.

There was a soft croaking sound. Janet froze. Half-full of clear water the pond-like effect was uncanny. And… she was sure one of the frogs had just moved.

She put the mug down carefully.

It shivered, rattling against the worktop.

‘I’m losing me marbles,’ whispered Janet.

Long, viridescent fingers curled over the rim. Janet’s hand flew to her mouth, and she took a step back. The fingers were followed by a tiny head, covered in messy, turquoise hair. It had black eyes, a flat nose and a very wide mouth.

‘You’re not Zambini,’ it said.

‘Um, no.’

The creature balanced itself gracefully on the rim of the mug. Its legs were oddly-jointed, and ended in long, webbed toes. It looked around curiously.

‘Where is this?’

‘Three Bakehouse Lane,’ said Janet, uncertainly.

‘Where’s Zambini?’

‘I don’t know anyone called Zambini. I won you — your mug, I mean — in a raffle. I had no clue it weren’t just a mug!’

‘Oh,’ said the creature. ‘What’s a raffle?’

‘You buy bits of paper with numbers on,’ said Janet stuttering to a halt halfway through an in-depth explanation of the niceties of school raffles. ‘Er. What’s your name?’

‘Shellra.’

#

Janet had always been one to keep herself to herself, but Shellra — who explained she was a water sprite — was a surprisingly good conversationalist. The situation was unbelievable yet, somehow, it wasn’t long before the old woman had made herself tea, in an ordinary mug, and they were chatting like old friends.

‘Just scooped me out of the pond she did,’ said the sprite, in between licking aphids from the sickly-looking orchid on Janet’s sunny windowsill. ‘In this cup, which she spelled herself. But I liked her. Goody Clamtrip her name was. She used to say it was funny, because it was a coincidence, really, but Clamtrip sounds like cantrip, which was just about right, for a witch.’

Janet, who had never heard of a cantrip, nodded.

‘She used me for fortune telling and minor healing magic. That was all. I didn’t really mind. She had a nice big water barrel out the back of her house that she let me swim in. Anyway, she lived a long time, but she was basically human, you know.’

‘Mm,’ acknowledged the old woman, rubbing her hip.

‘There was a gap, after that, because when there’s no water in the cup I sort of… disappear.’

Janet stared. ‘That don’t sound nice.’

Shellra shrugged, her skin glittering in the light. ‘It’s all right, I don’t know anything about it. I’m there, and then I’m not, and then I am.’ She blinked up at Janet. ‘Anyway, next thing I know, I’m in the Great Zambini’s back room. Well, that’s what he called himself. His name was Geoff, really. He… wasn’t cruel, but he wasn’t particularly kind, either. Let me out to do things, put me away afterwards.’

‘Like a… like a tool? A thing?’

‘I suppose,’ said Shellra, chewing on an aphid. ‘He didn’t want people to know about me. He wanted them to believe in the power of the Great Zambini.’ These last few words she said with a theatrical flourish and a bow. ‘I’m not quite sure what happened, in the end. He got older. I suppose he died without telling anyone about me, and the mug’s been stored somewhere.’

‘Until someone gave it to Chellmarsh Primary School, an’ it ended up in the school raffle.’ Janet reached for a biscuit and chewed slowly. ‘You can see the future?’

‘A bit,’ said Shellra. ‘It’s not always specific, but a lot of the time it’s close enough. Zambini did all right. He was always busy. Sometimes he just made stuff up, mind you. And like I said, he wasn’t cruel. If I did see something… difficult, he didn’t usually mention it.’

Janet looked thoughtful. ‘Maybe best not to know.’

‘That’s true.’ The sprite studied Janet’s face. ‘You’d make a good fortune-teller.’

Janet had a brief vision of herself, head wrapped in a scarf, pretending to stare into a crystal ball. Having to meet and talk to an endless stream of people. ‘No! I don’t think I want to be doing that.’

‘I could show you things. You could win more than raffles.’

Janet looked around her kitchen. The walls needed repainting, and the kettle was old and spotted with limescale and could probably do with replacing. But the room was quiet and warm and safe. She sipped her tea and smiled. ‘I reckon I’ve got what I need.’

The sprite looked sad. ‘Then I suppose you’ll empty my mug out again, and I’ll disappear.’

#

The sun was just beginning to set as Janet walked away from the stream that ran through her village, an empty mug in her hand.

‘You promise you’ll come and visit? For a chat?’ Shellra had asked.

‘Course I will.’

‘All right. Drink the water in the mug,’ she’d said with a wink, before jumping into the clear water. Finally free.

Janet had. Her hip was, she realised as she strode, completely pain-free for the first time in years. She began to whistle.

The sunset lit up the sky with pink and gold as she let herself into her cosy kitchen, where an extremely healthy orchid sat on her windowsill.


Author’s notes
Something I wrote ages ago for a writing prompt involving a cup with a fish pattern. Dug out of storage, tweaked a bit and… finally free.


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© Kat Day 2021

Instructions for the procurement of emotional supply from the sorcerer Ronald Vito’s personal notes, as uncovered by Ms Viola Arviragus, journalist

1) Choose your source. Intelligence is desirable—the larger the mind, the more to manipulate, and the better the supply. Resilience and a strong imagination are essential. Articulacy and a sharp sense of humour are good markers, and readily identified without the need to listen overmuch.

2) Collect five two-ounce candles, a shot glass of water, about three tablespoons of cornflour, two glass marbles, and a large piece of square paper.

3) Offer your source something. It need not necessarily be money or goods—indeed, this may be too obvious and arouse suspicion. Consider information—everyone wants to know something. Ideally, acquire several titbits that she has no way to access. It is easiest if it happens to be something involving your daily work—that way, you won’t have to spend valuable time reading or listening.

4) Fold the paper into five-pointed star. Instructions can be found on the attached page.

5) Offer your source the information. She may be initially cautious, but you must feign patience. When she inevitably bites, drip-feed. Something small each day for a week, perhaps.

6) Place one candle at each point of the paper star. You should allow them to burn for thirty minutes each day until they are used up. This will take approximately a month. You must pay close attention to your source during this time.

7) Converse often and be sure to mirror her words. If she says she likes something, claim to like it, too. Childhood memories are powerful—if she recounts a formative experience from her youth, you must immediately reply, “oh, me too!” Seem vulnerable. Imply that her thoughts are infinitely interesting, her ideas nothing less than genius.

8) Continue to light your candles each day. Observe as the flame gradually consumes the wax.

9) Talk to your source about the future. Simple, but definite, statements such as, “when I show you,” or “when we meet [important person to whom you have access],” or simply, but powerfully, “when I see you.” This will encourage her to imagine a future that includes you.

10) When the candles are almost exhausted, mix the cornflour and water to make a thick slurry. Place the marbles on the surface of the mixture. Watch as they sink, gradually lost from view.

11) Sprinkle plenty of obvious, but inconsequential, lies into your conversation amongst clear truths. For example, jokingly insist you know something you clearly do not. Claim to be travelling when you could not possibly be. Imply your prize stallion was custom-bred for you at great expense, rather than, for example, admitting that you traded in your chestnut mare to buy it second-hand from a questionable dealer. The puzzle of why you’re lying about trivialities will keep her awake at night, and anything that keeps you in her thoughts serves your purpose.

12) Tell her you love her. Mixed with your other lies, this will cause both delight and confusion. Dispose of the cornflour and water, and burn the paper star. You can introduce a sexual component at this point if your preferences lie in that direction.

13) By now, if you have played your part with flair, she will be hooked. If you have other sources lined up, by all means withdraw. In fact, regular, mysterious disappearances, so long as they are terminated with warm and affectionate greetings, will only serve to strengthen the bond.

Your source will now be providing a regular flow of energy and will require little maintenance. Make contact every few days or so, but do not overdose. Naturally, you do not care about her mental well-being, but if you completely drain her she may respond by cutting off contact, which is contrary to your needs.

ADDENDA

  • It is most important that sources of supply remain unaware of this method, as prior knowledge will significantly reduce effectiveness. You must, of course, never mention sources to each other. Keep notes. If they know of each other’s existence, they may start talking.
  • Even-numbered steps are largely optional. If one finds oneself lacking in resources they may be omitted with only a small reduction in effectiveness.
  • It is to be noted that whilst intelligence is important, one must strive to avoid attempting these techniques on a witch, since they have a habit of seeing what isn’t shown and hearing what isn’t said. You must endeavour to listen, as this is the only way to identify warning signs such as a refusal to be interrupted, disregard for your brilliance, and querying your impeccable logic. Be aware that some witches engage in alternative occupations, for example, as journalists. Apply caution.

Author’s notes
This is speculative fiction. Unless it isn’t.
Eventually, they will start talking.


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© Kat Day 2021

The trip of a lifetime

Dear Han and Lettie,

Having a wonderful time in E. California. It’s so different from the forest – the rocks are the colour of cinnamon and chocolate and the sky is clear and bright, like peppermints. Tomorrow I’m going to visit the local “Nut and Candy Store”. I’m sure I’ll find some lovely knick-knacks to bring back. Maybe something pretty for the gables. I hope there’s air-conditioning. The heat here is ferocious. They say that if you crack an egg into a pan and leave it in the sun, it will cook. I can believe it – the ground is so hot it’s like a stovetop. It’s tough on my old bones! Thanks again for spending some of your windfall on little me – it’s been the trip of a lifetime,

Baba Rosina x

Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley

P.S. Look after the cottage, darlings, don’t eat me out of house and home!


Author’s notes

This piece came from this idea: What if Hansel and Gretel didn’t so much as push the witch into an oven, as send her away to one? All the places mentioned – the Nut and Candy store, Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley – are real locations. The witch’s name is an amalgam of the old “Baba Yaga” myths and Rosina Leckermaul, from the Engelbert Humperdink opera. 

© Kat Day 2017

Something in My Eye

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“I don’t want to!” I watch the young girl as she tugs on her father’s hand. Her hair is sunrise red, her skin pale as mist, and she is as reluctant to move as a boulder lodged in soft earth.

“Rowan, you’ve been pestering me all day. We’ve paid, we’ve queued, we’re going. You’ll like it once you get on.” The girl’s father looks down, sighs, then picks her up with a grunt of effort and tucks her on his hip. She is a little too old to be carried, I think, but nevertheless she buries her head in his shoulder. They step across the line, into the oval-shaped capsule with its clear, glass walls.

I follow them. I’m last, and the doors close behind me with a shhhnick sound. The air inside is stuffy, thick with the scents of people past and present. I catch a hint of aftershave, or something like it. It’s tangy and sweet, but there’s an acrid undertone. I wrinkle my nose and look for the source. A man, wearing a thick jumper with a shirt underneath. The woman he’s standing too close to is hunched slightly, a large handbag clutched in front of her stomach. Her red lips are smiling, but the upward curve feels unnatural, forced, as though it might spring into some other shape at any moment.

“Did you know,” he says, in a voice that seems to have bypassed his larynx and come straight through his nose, “that there are thirty-two capsules on the London Eye, but the numbers go up to the thirty-three because, haha,” he gives a little snort of a laugh, “people believe that number thirteen is unlucky?”

“Really, Graham?” says his companion, as she stares through the glass.

“Yes. Aren’t these old superstitions ridiculous? Why is thirteen unlucky and not, oh, twenty-seven?”

“It’s something to do with Jesus’ disciples, isn’t it?”

He waves a hand, “yes, yes, but how is that relevant in this day and age? Such silliness. I expect it was a woman who made the decision. Typical female thing, all that superstitious rubbish.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t want bad luck on this thing,” his companion murmurs, fiddling with the clasp on her bag.

He snorts again, and she recoils from the puff of warm air. He doesn’t notice.

“Hello,” says a small voice behind me. I haven’t noticed that the red-headed child has wriggled away from her father’s grasp and crept up behind me.

“Hello, Rowan,” I reply, straight-faced.

Her eyes widen, green pools swollen with rain water. I touch my nose and wink. I turn towards the glass wall of the capsule, pull a coin out of my pocket and flick it into the air. It spins, its shiny surface catching the afternoon sunshine, glinting and then… there is no coin. Only a remnant of light that fades away.

She stares at my tightly pinned-up white hair and long black dress. “Are you… a witch?” she whispers.

I smile. “Oh, witches don’t ex-”

“Rowan, are you bothering this lady?” her father is behind us.

“Daddy, she’s a witch!”

He flushes. “That’s very rude! I’m so sorry!” He scoops her up again and moves to the other end of the capsule.

“exist. Anymore,” I finish, softly.

We have reached the top of the arc. I stare out at the whole of London, stretched out before me. A messy carpet of buildings and roads and tiny cars and buses. Directly below us, the river, its glistening surface painted with the shadows of the tall buildings on its banks.

I worked in one of those buildings once, when there was still something for me to do. Before everything changed. Before I retired. Before so many years drifted by.

Something snags the corner of my left eye. I turn my head, there’s nothing there, but I have a sense of unease. I rub my thumbs against my forefingers in response to the strange prickling sensation there. Something I haven’t felt for a long time. I look around but everything is normal. The soup of voices has no anxious flavours. Graham is still too close to his companion, but she’s staring at the doors with quiet determination. Rowan is trying to swing on her father’s arm. I look outside again.

Another flicker, now on my right. This time, I don’t look. I stare straight ahead. Another flicker. I still refuse to look. Another, and another, and then…

I can’t not look, because it’s right in my eye-line. I knew it would eventually tire of being ignored. Still, my mouth drops open a little. I hadn’t really expected to see this. Not now, not in this time. It’s been… how long? I try to remember. I was little more than a child, trying to help.

Kolim.

It’s small, less than the span of my fingers. Green-gold scales catch the sunlight. Tiny rainbows flicker in wings so fine they’re like the surface of bubbles. But I know from experience that these will not fall apart at a simple touch. The creature might be beautiful, if not for the eyes that glow with the dull light of coals after the yellow flames have died away. And the claws that curve gracefully into hypodermic points. It looks at me and grins. Its mouth is too wide, and too full of teeth. I can’t hear it through the glass, but I’d swear it’s laughing.

I look around. We’ve passed the apex of our circuit and we’re moving slowly down, but it will be several minutes before we reach the ground. None of the other passengers have seen what I’ve seen. My fingers tingle, and I reach up to the glass. I tap my forefinger and middle finger against it and a tiny spark of light appears. My aim is good. It hits the creature and it rolls up, ball-like. Its wings freeze, motionless, and it drops.

Relief and exhaustion wash over me, followed by a spike of concern. I look impatiently around. There’s nothing to do but wait until we reach the bottom and the doors open again.

“I mean, no offence or anything,” Graham is saying, “but you women do fuss over things that are completely unimportant. Take my ex-wife for example. No, please, take her!” He laughs at his own joke. The hands of the woman with him clench into fists.

There’s a sound, like someone gently but firmly dragging a fork across a plate. My head whips to the doors of the capsule.

We’ve stopped moving, and the doors are opening.

They can’t be, because we’re still high in the air.

But they are. They’re slowly pulling apart as though hauled by invisible hands. I catch a flash of green through the gap.

Several flashes.

I take a step towards the doors, and then things happen fast. Three little balls of gold-green appear and grab Graham, one by the hair and one on each shoulder, and drag him towards the widening gap. For a second I wonder why him.

Perhaps they like his aftershave?

“Help!” he squeals in an unnaturally high-pitched voice. His companion stares. She doesn’t, I can’t help noticing, move.

For a moment I can see two outcomes in my mind. Crisp and cold. Like a fork in a mountain stream; same water, different rocks. In one, I turn around and let the obnoxious man go. It will be a tragic accident. A “technical fault”. I will reach the ground and walk away, and then I’ll report it properly. Let the right people deal with this. It’s not my problem.

In the other…

I sigh. “No,” I say calmly. A few quick strides and I reach reach out and grasp Graham’s arm. His other hand is now gripping the edge of the door, knuckles white. His bottom is wedged in the gap, but it will soon be wide enough for him to fall through. One of the other passengers yells something. They cannot see the Kolim – to them it must look at though Graham was leaning against the doors and they’ve somehow given way. I haul on Graham’s arm, but he’s heavy, and the Kolim are pulling in the opposite direction. He starts to slip, and I realise that if I’m not careful, I’m going to follow him.

I try to find the tingle in the fingers of my other hand, but there’s nothing. So many years.

“Nononononono!” squeals Graham, his words whipped away by the wind as his head tips back into empty space. The doors are still sliding apart.

Worse, I can see more flashes of green and gold. More than three. Many more.

A hand grips Graham’s arm in front of mine and the wrench on my shoulder lessens. It’s one of the other passengers. Everyone else is pressed against the back wall.

“What are the fairies doing?” It’s Rowan. She’s a few steps away, I realise it’s her father who’s grabbed Graham.

“Get back against the wall, Rowan!” he shouts. Then, “he’s going to fall!”

“No!” I say.

“I can’t hold him!”

“No,” I say, “I mean, Rowan, come here!” Rowan stares and our eyes meet and lock and once again I have that sense of splitting. Of two different realities. And one is bad.

And one is really, really bad.

She steps towards me. I breathe out.

“You can see them?” I hiss at her ear.

“Yes,” she says.

“They’re not fairies,” I say. The soles of Graham’s shoes are tilting see-saw like on the rim of the door. His face is white.

“What are they?” she asks.

“I’ll tell you,” I say, “if you help me.”

She nods, eyes wide.

“When I say go, grab my hand. Understand?”

She nods again.

I count in my head. One. Two. “Go!” I let go of Graham and drop my right hand to Rowan’s. She grips it and…

The world falls away, as though everything is a cardboard film set. There’s just Rowan and me, and she’s bright, as though lit from inside with a spotlight. Or maybe a small sun.

I draw her light into me. The tingling sensation grows and spreads. Every cell in my body seems to stop for a moment, readjust itself and then…

The world rebuilds itself around us from the inside out. Energy is crawling across my skin. I can still feel Rowan’s fingers, but her grip is loosening.

“Hold on,” I say.

I feel her small fingers grip more firmly for a moment, but then her weight is heavy on my arm, and then it’s gone. Her fingers have slipped from mine, and she’s crumpled to the ground.

It’s all right. It’s enough. Less than a second has passed. Rowan’s father is still focused on Graham, who’s holding onto the edge of one door with his fingertips. I look past him and concentrate. It takes no effort, it’s terribly, terrifically, easy. I almost have to hold back.

There’s a flash as a ball of pale blue fire appears behind Graham’s head. Kolim hiss and pop as it touches them. It spreads out, splitting into fine tendrils at the edges.

And then it is gone. And so are they. And Rowan’s father hauls Graham back into the capsule. He falls onto his face, hands spread on the floor as though trying to hold onto the flat surface. The doors slide slowly shut as if they have all the time in the world.

I look down at Rowan and feel a surge of relief. She’s sitting on the floor, apparently unscathed. I crouch down and she looks at me, and I look at me in her eyes.

“When?” she says.

“Soon,” I say.

Her father scoops her up then, and people are crowding around me now, the brave old lady who tried to stop the silly man from falling out of the malfunctioning doors. The old lady who took the hand of the scared little girl and kept her from getting too close.

Hah.

There’s a lurch as the capsule starts moving again. Someone cheers. It’s a brittle sound, tinged with hysteria at the edges. Oh, yes, there was a flash. Ball lightening, they’ll say. They always blame ball lightening. A freak electrical storm. No doubt it caused the doors to malfunction, too. Makes perfect sense.

Someone hands me a bottle of water. I take it gratefully. I swallow. The cold liquid is like a coating of snow on a dirty landscape.

The capsule reaches the bottom of the circuit and, finally, we can get off. Paramedics are waiting to help Graham. A man in a uniform wants to talk to Rowan’s father. Me too, I expect, but I have a knack of avoiding this kind of thing. People will say, “she was here a moment ago…”

But they won’t find me again.

Unless I want to be found.

I catch Rowan’s eye. We both nod. She will find me. I owe her.

I take a deep breath and start walking.

And then I freeze, because I’ve just caught another flash of green-gold.

I turn my head slowly and I see the woman who was with Graham. His bored companion. She smiles at me with very red lips.

And she snaps her handbag shut.


Author’s notes

I wrote the first version of this story a year ago. There was something pleasing about that initial effort, but it was a bit of an uninflated balloon of a story – there was room for a lot more in the middle. I tinkered with it, and then ended up leaving it partially finished in a folder. Wanting something for February, I came back to it – and remembered that I rather liked it. Suddenly, the middle section seemed to come together, and here you see something a lot more substantial. It just goes to show – never throw anything away…

© Kat Day 2017

The Prince and the Witch

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(c) Adam Cuerden

“A-ha ha ha ha ha!” I cackled, as the beautiful princess nicked her finger on the golden scissors.

“Oh blast,” she said, “my mother warned me about th–” her voice cut off as, with a final desperate look at her lady-in-waiting, she fell asleep.

“You fiend!” said the lady-in-waiting, “what have you done?”

I didn’t need to answer; she’d just about got the last word out when the spell caught up with her and she crumpled to the floor.

One, two, three, four…
There was a clattering from outside the door.

Better get a move on, I thought, as it was followed by the distant rustling of fast-growing thorn bushes. I stepped over the fallen guard and dashed out of the castle, murmuring the spell to remove my disguise on the way.

#

I’m a witch, you see, and I happen to think the old routines are the best. My mother was a witch, and her mother before her, and you can’t beat a good castle-cursing. After all, something interesting has to happen to princesses. Embroidery and sitting by windows brushing unnecessarily long hair really doesn’t make a good story on its own. Make no mistake, stories matter. People round here just don’t respect a ruler who hasn’t suffered at least one bit of misadventure.

Still, much as I appreciate tradition, I’ve never gone in for the whole pointy hat, warty nose and straggly hair thing. Quite apart from the fact that it rather gives the game away, a girl’s got to have standards. There’s no excuse for tatty clothes and ugly boots. I don’t care what anyone says, I like a bit of lipstick, and green isn’t my colour.

#

I kept an eye on the castle. The bushes almost completely concealed it and I knew everyone inside would be all right – I’ve been casting basic send-em-all-to-sleep spells for decades – but I still like to make sure the boundary’s secure. There was that time with the bear and, well, let’s just say that one didn’t end happily ever after.

#

I was doing my rounds two weeks later when a white charger, draped in an extravagant blue and gold caparison and bearing an armour-clad rider, appeared.

That was quick.

He dismounted and started hacking at the braches near the castle entrance with his sword. Honestly, they never think to bring an axe. I sidled up behind him.

“Hello, kind sir,” I said.

He jumped, then peered at me through his visor. “Hello, good woman. Do you live hereabouts?”

“I do. I was just chopping some wood for the winter. Would you like to borrow my axe?”

“You’re not dressed for woodcutting,” he said, suspiciously.

Smarter than the average prince then; that was promising.

I smoothed down my red dress, murmured something and held out the sharp-bladed tool. He shrugged, took it, and swung at the bushes. It went through the vines like a hot knife through frog’s brains. Very handy for spells, frog brains.

Ten minutes later he’d run up to the tower and was crouching by the princess. I followed.

“Is she alive?” he asked.

“Oh yes, just asleep. It’s a standard ‘true love’s kiss’ deal. Er, I imagine,” I added.

“Oh dear, really?” he asked, taking off his helmet. I was surprised. He had to be sixty if he was a day. A handsome man, certainly, but in a rather well-worn way.

“You’re older than the average prince,” I said.

He sighed. “I know. It’s not my fault, I come from a very long-lived family. My father’s been king forever. I heard there might be a spot of bother and so I popped over the border to check up on the old place.” He glanced at the sleeping princess. “She looks rather like my granddaughter.”

I looked him up and down. He really was rather good-looking, with deep brown eyes and thick, if grey-streaked, hair. He was in good shape, too. Ah, what the hell. Not all stories have to end the same way. I muttered a few words under my breath.

“Perhaps a kiss on the hand?” I suggested. “I’ve heard that sometimes works.”

“Do you think so?” he asked with relief, gently picking up the long white fingers and touching them to his lips. I muttered another word. The princess woke up with a start.

“Who are you?” she asked the prince.

“Prince Gerald of Boscovia, Your Highness.”

“You’re very old. I’m not going to have to marry you, am I?” asked the princess.

“Ah, no, Your Highness. I don’t think that would be appropriate.”

“Thank goodness. No offence.”

“None taken, Your Highness.”

“Jolly good.” The princess looked fondly at her pretty lady-in-waiting, who was just beginning to stir. “I don’t have much time for princes anyway.”

Gosh, I thought. Different times.

“Who’s she?” asked the lady-in-waiting, waking up and looking at me with piercing blue eyes. Surely she hadn’t recognised me without my earlier disguise?

“Just a local peasant who lent the prince an axe,” I said, staring hard at the floor.

“Hm,” said the lady-in-waiting. “You’re wearing very nice shoes for a peasant.”

“Is that the time? I must be going,” I said, backing away.

#

I waited by the prince’s horse. He reappeared more quickly than I’d expected.

“They’ve got a lot of tidying up to do,” he explained. “I thought I’d leave them to it. The king suggested we work out some kind of trade agreement next month.”

I nodded. It seemed more practical than the usual ‘hand of the princess’ deal in this case. You can’t keep on giving half your kingdom away every time something dramatic happens.

“So,” I said, looking again at the handsome prince. He looked about my age, come to think of it. “You said you had a granddaughter. Are you married, Your Highness?”

He looked sad. “I was, briefly, a long time ago. There was a terrible incident with a bear.”

I thought about it. I was almost sure that was nothing to do with me. “In that case, Gerald – may I call you Gerald? – perhaps you’d like to come to my cottage for dinner?”


Author’s notes:

I wrote this for a bit of fun, but it’s turned out to be one of my favourite stories. One of these days I might write more about this witch. I rather like her.


© Kat Day 2016