“Your next trial is to find a witch who is hiding somewhere in the mill,” the Faun said. “She lived there when it was once a palace. You must get a rose from her.”
“What will the rose do?” Ofelia asked.
“We will plant it here and it will help bring the labyrinth back to life.”
“But won’t the witch try to put a curse on me?” Ofelia shivered. The Faun had summoned her at night again and she wore only a coat over her nightgown. The part of her that was not Princess Moanna wanted to be warm in bed next to Mama instead of standing at the bottom of the dark labyrinth. Surely the Captain would glare and scold if he caught her out at night. If that was not enough, all the witches she had read of did evil things to princesses and she didn’t want to be turned into a frog.
“She will not harm a hair on your head,” the Faun said. “But you must hurry—you only have until dawn to get the rose, otherwise it will wilt. It is almost midnight already.”
When the labyrinth was alive and she became a real princess again, she could make Mama healthy and take them away from the Captain. Ofelia nodded and ran back to the mill. Everything was still silent except for the soldiers she could hear snoring. Despite the Faun saying that the task had to be done by morning, first she checked to be sure that Mama was still safely asleep in their room. Mama hadn’t even rolled over. It reminded Ofelia of the palace where the fairy had enchanted everybody to sleep for a hundred years.
She wasn’t sure where to look first. Where would a witch hide? All of the rooms seemed different at night.
There was a rattling noise. Ofelia froze. Yet minutes passed and nobody appeared. The noise continued. It was rhythmic and sounded as though it came from a nearby staircase. Now that she looked at it, she thought there used to be a wall where the staircase was now.
The stairs led to a small, windowless tower room where a dark-skinned woman wearing a scarlet dress and a gold crown sat at a spinning wheel. She looked like the princesses in all of Ofelia’s books. Maybe she could help.
“Excuse me, señorita,” she said, “I’m looking for a witch. Can you help me find her?”
The princess looked up but did not stop her work. Her spinning wheel was placed next to a large pile of swords. The princess somehow twisted each sword around until a length of metal coil emerged from the spinning wheel and piled up on the floor. Ofelia had never seen anything like it. Maybe the witch or an evil magician had cursed the woman to do such a strange thing.
“Why are you looking for a witch?” the princess asked.
“I’m on a quest,” Ofelia said. “I have to find her and get a rose from her before dawn.”
An odd little smile appeared on the princess’s face. “I’ve never heard of that kind of quest before and I know of many. Most of the time, it’s princes or people who wish to become princes who are looking for favors from witches. Do you want to be a prince?”
Ofelia frowned. “Of course not. Girls can’t be princes.” She straightened her shoulders as best she could. Mama always told her to stand up straight, anyway. “I’m a princess and the rose is to help my labyrinth come back to life.”
The princess bowed her head. “My apologies; I should have recognized a princess on a quest but I haven’t seen one in a very long time. I used to be a princess once,” she said in a pensive tone as she laid another sword across her lap.
“You aren’t one?”
She looked up through a pair of glasses that hadn’t been on her face a moment ago. “I am the witch.”
Ofelia took a step back. She wanted to run far away from any witches. Yet the Faun had promised the witch wouldn’t hurt her and she had to get the rose. “You’re not a witch. Witches are old and ugly, and you said you were a princess once.”
“There’s not much difference between a princess and a witch. A princess can turn into a witch in an instant. I did.”
“I once knew a prince who devoted himself to saving all the girls in the world. I took him away from that.” The witch’s words lacked any emotion.
“Why would you do that?” Ofelia asked.
“I thought it was the right thing to do but I was wrong. I had forgotten that princesses can’t save princes and before I knew it, I turned into a witch. Now my punishment is to bear these swords of hatred for eternity.” She lifted the sword and pushed it into the spinning wheel.
“Not forever,” Ofelia protested.
“None of my stories say that. Princesses aren’t punished forever, even when they make mistakes.”
“You don’t know all the stories in the world.” The witch looked toward the tower wall, even though there was no window. “The night won’t last much longer. Didn’t you say that you had to be finished by dawn?”
Ofelia jumped. It hadn’t seemed that the time was slipping by so rapidly. “Will you give me the rose?” she asked. “I promised I would bring it back.”
The witch looked at Ofelia for several long moments before laying down her sword. She held her hands close together. When she drew them apart, an orb of golden light appeared that lit up the gloomy room from floor to ceiling. As Ofelia watched, the light shaped itself into a white rose just starting to bloom.
Ofelia stepped forward. Instead of handing it to her as she had expected, the witch fixed the stem in the buttonhole of Ofelia’s coat. The flower smelled wonderful and its petals felt finer than anything she could remember touching before.
“You should leave. We don’t want you to fail your quest.” The witch looked blankly ahead as she spoke.
Without planning to do so, Ofelia leaned over the pile of glittering swords and kissed the witch’s cheek. It felt soft, like a princess’s should. A true witch wouldn’t have helped her. “Thank you.”
The witch’s eyes widened and she put a hand to her face.
Ofelia turned back once she reached the tower door and saw that the witch was still watching. She ran back to the labyrinth through the still-dark building and forest, a hand cupped over the rose. When she was completely a princess again, she promised herself, she would return and save the witch.