The rain lashed against the windows. Inside the house, a man writhed, gasping and soaked with sweat. In the hall downstairs, two women paced. One seemed more agitated, often pausing often at the foot of the staircase to listen until she heard the sound of a man in pain, then resuming her tread. The other, younger, sat in a chair deep in thought.
The doctor descended the stairs. “Well, I don’t know what more I can do for him. There is a witch in the heart of the woods who may have something that can help, but medicine has no power here.”
“Oh Doctor, you can’t be serious!” exclaimed the older woman. “The witch, if she even exists, is an abomination.”
The younger woman stood up abruptly, a new light in her eyes. “I will go to this witch.”
“Willa, are you sure? Think of the danger, and the weather!”
Willa nodded. “For my angel, I shall spare nothing.”
“May God protect you, and save my son until your return.” She collapsed into the chair Willa had vacated, seeming to swoon. The doctor bent over her in a minute, and Willa turned for the door to hide her contempt.
The stable boy saddled the fastest of Willa’s husband’s horses. “Let us see about this witch,” she said to herself as she stepped out into the tempestuous night.
She and her horse were soaked to the skin in minutes. The horse was anxious; it was difficult for Willa to keep her seat. It was an eternity before she found the first sign on the path to the witch’s dwelling. An empty cage hung from a dead tree, a desiccated form lying in it. Willa shuddered.
The second sign was a savage thornbush growing directly across the path. The horse was upon it so quickly that it could not stop; it leapt over it and nearly cleared it, but screamed as the thorns pierced its tender belly. When they landed, the horse had the bit in its teeth and Willa had no control. They plunged through the forest headlong, terrified, directionless. Suddenly the spectre of a huge snake reared up in front of them, and Willa was flying through the air.
She was dazed for a moment. When she looked up, she could see a trail of broken branches but no horse.
“Damn!” Willa picked herself up to continue on foot. She was still in a desperate hurry, but there was no other way. At least the rain was slowing somewhat.
Although that wasn’t quite accurate. Willa could hear the sound of the storm raging still, rain sleeting down, lightning casting the trees into spiky relief and thunder crashing violently. But around her was a gentle spring shower. It was warmer, too, and her soaking cloak and riding pants were beginning to steam.
She picked her way along the path. It was no longer a track through the brush, but an old stone road. She noticed ancient stone signposts now and again, and after a while they had lamps upon them. Strange lamps, not flames but steady, pale beacons. The stone road became a gravel drive, and Willa’s boots crunched along it until she came to what must be the witch’s hut.
It was like no hut she’d ever seen before. It had clear panels of glass set in the walls like no windows Willa had seen before. It was neither stone nor brick, but clad with long, pink strips. There was another of the unflickering light above the front door, which was elevated from the ground. Willa climbed the steps, marvelling at the construction of the house She knocked on the door.
A woman opened the door. She was looking at a small, oblong object in her hand that glowed blue. It was undoubtedly magic, and Willa’s doubts evaporated. She was in the right place.
The woman looked up and blinked at Willa. The witch was dressed in odd clothing, a childish tunic that hid her shape only to her knees, where tight black breeches showed every curve. Willa was entranced for a minute, then pulled her gaze back up to the woman’s face. She wore windows over her eyes and her hair was piled on her head.
“How on earth did you find me?” she asked.
Willa’s mind raced to find the right words. “I… I was sent here for help. My husband…”
“Oh no, not again.” The witch, if she was indeed a witch, rolled her eyes as though this wasn’t the first time.
Willa was nonplussed.
“Who sent you?”
“The doctor. My husband is very sick, and…”
“Hmm. Not a priest, or a creepy old woman who lives in the woods?”
“You are the creepy old woman who lives in the woods. Except… you’re not very old.”
“No but seriously I need to know how you got here. You look Edwardian or something. And no, I am not an old crone.”
“In this time of crisis, the doctor sent me to find the witch in the woods, but the storm…”
“Oh, of course there was a storm. Alright, stay there for a minute. I’m afraid I can’t invite you in. Can you still see your forest? And is it still stormy?”
Willa looked back the way she’d come. It was difficult to see clearly, but the forest did seem to be there, still gripped in the tempest.
“Good. So what’s wrong with your husband?”
“He can’t breathe. It started with a bit of blue around his lips, and now he’s gasping. There’s a pox on his skin and…”
The witch walked away, leaving the door open. Willa could see all manner of strange things in the house, and leaned forward to see them better. There were more of the flameless lamps, and thin ropes connected to the walls. It seemed plain, lacking tapestries and rugs, yet cleaner than any dwelling Willa had seen.
“You have to stay outside!” the witch called. Willa jumped back.
Soon enough, the witch came back with two tubes. “Here. You pull off this cap and jam it into his thigh, like this. This is a spare, in case it happens again, but figure out if he was stung by a wasp or ate a peanut or something and then never let it happen again because it’ll kill him. I’m not even sure you’ll make it back it time. You’re lucky I have these. Now run, and I hope it’s not too late.”
Willa ran. There was no snake, no thorn fence, and no cage. The track was almost impossible to see in the dark.
Dawn was breaking before she burst out of the forest. The rain had stopped but the trees were still dripping, and the light of early dawn lit up a fog that covered the ground. Willa staggered towards the manor and her husband, then paused. She thought for several minutes. Then she turned and marched back into the forest. This was her chance at freedom, and she was damned if she was going to let it pass her by.