Winter seemed reluctant to release its hold. Outside Fern saw tree branches heavy with ice. Indented snow marked the narrow path to the forest. She could not see it, but beyond the gate she knew it wound like a labyrinth around the trees. It connected with several other roads, but in the dark, in the winter, a lone traveler might get lost. Fern was there to help them.
A wolf howled in the distance, and Fern burrowed into her thick blanket. The glow of the fire made her drowsy, but she had work to do. She took a long swallow of the bitter coffee, her lip cutting on the chipped edge. Fern tasted iron and dark, peaty earth as she stared at the portfolio. Fern traced the outline of her favorite, a child curled into a pod.
“I asked for you,” the old woman had said when Fern stumbled out of the forest, dazed and half-mad from wandering alone. Fern did not remember anything before her twelfth birthday. She had no other family, no other past. She was born in the woods, claimed only by the old woman.
“I asked for you,” the old woman had said, like she had made some pact to bring Fern forth as her own. The old woman did not live long enough to teach Fern. She had to find the magic on her own, which made it both more special and dangerous. She caught glimpses of it dancing in the trees, saw it shine from the corner of her eyes. Fern found incantations spilling out of her when she chopped wood. Spells sparked from her when she set her traps. Each place she walked was sacred.
Still, she echoed her predecessor’s sentiments. Fern wanted company. It was not enough to hear a pack of wolves in the distance or command birds with her whistle. Fern longed for conversation.
The potion was easy to make. Fern danced around the cottage with a fire piled high and a cauldron full of iridescent liquid. When it was finished, the potion was a soft periwinkle shade that smelled like cinnamon and sugar. Fern drank a cup of it every day until she scraped the bottom.
That is when the children came.
At first, it was just a sickly one every few weeks. They were already dead by the time they arrived, corpses still in motion. Fern did what she could, but each one died in the night. Fern made a pyre and shed tears for them all. She managed a few names, or scraps of ones – “Bas” and “Liesel” were her favorites – but it made no difference. They were all hers to burn or bury. She asked for them. She mourned for them.
On the last day of winter, Fern threw off her covers, ready to put an end to her experiment.
A little girl in furs picked at the congealed potion in the cauldron. When she saw Fern, she shrieked.
The little girl was frightened, Fern thought. She survived the forest and found this place, and I startled her.
“It’s okay,” Fern said in a soothing voice. “You’re okay. I will keep you safe.”
The girl looked better than the ones before her: bright, rosy cheeks and soft blonde waves, curious gray eyes that flitted between Fern and the door.
“I won’t hurt you,” Fern whispered. “I promise.”
“Are you a witch?” The little girl asked.
“No,” Fern laughed. “I am a lonely woman, stranded in the forest. My name is Fern.”
“Oh,” the little girl replied. “We got lost, too. My name is Margaret.”
“We?” Fern asked. “Are there more of you?”
“My brother,” Margaret replied. “He wanted to look around outside, but I was too cold. I was supposed to stay by the fence, but it looked so warm and smelled so nice, and I had to come inside.”
Outside. Fern sucked in her breath. What would the boy see? What would he understand? He would see pyres and old bones, a shed with trinkets and toys, small shoes and torn cloaks. He would not understand.
“Run, Greta!” The boy’s voice carried over the wind. The girl’s gray eyes grew wide and scared, and she darted to the door.
“No, you don’t understand!” Fern cried. “I asked for you!”
This piece was written for the speakeasy #157 challenge. Word count is 714, under the 750-word max. As always, feedback is appreciated!