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Ilo and the Witch

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Ilo first began to work for the local sorcerer when she was thirteen, scrubbing pots in the basement and making bread in the mornings, catching live food for the common reptiles in the workshop cages, and sweeping out the front entryway to clear off the stray spell wisps, with an old mop that has seen so much magic, that sometimes it whispered.

Sorcerers did not hire women, as a general rule. Her continued employment was one of the few advantages of having him ignorant to the fact that she was actually a woman at all. Her employer was not as wise to her nature as the healing woman who lived out by the lake, past the fishing posts, on the very edge of the deep woods that climb up the feet of the mountainside.

When Ilo was fifteen she was tasked with delivering a satchel of crushed drake scales down the winding little woodland road, to where the healer’s hut could be found. And so she went, taking plenty of time for thought as she walked. The village she had been born to was not a place with much to credit it, but for the fact that it was the last outpost of civilization before the world devolved into the splintered wilds that filled with the kinds of monsters which adventurers and hunters made their profits by killing. Rare beasts, and their nests, and the magical ley lines that clustered in places where mankind had yet to strangle the life from them.

It was a place largely governed by the matters of survival relevant to a small settlement that was constantly under threat of monsters, and often played host to strange visitors. Some of the visitors spoke unfamiliar languages, and had peculiar habits. And yet, still the village was more wary of their local sorcerer, and their local healer, even as both were relied upon for the skills they could offer. No one envied Ilo her job, and no one much cared to keep her company as she ventured onto roads that were said to be jinxed, and frequented by werewolves and faeries.

The healer’s hut was nestled in the shadow of a great boulder, that always seemed to be on the verge of rolling over and crushing it; and yet never did. As the daylight grew thin, the moonlight would catch upon the stone surface, and rush down it like rivers. Falling into mirror pools that some folk said could show you the future, but always at a cost.

Ilo felt an uneasy mixture of unease and awe, moving into the shadow of that boulder. It was said that the spirits who lived in moonlight favoured women. But how, she had wondered, did they do their accounting on who was a woman?

When the old healer answered the door, she had nearly jumped out of her skin. The woman was older than Ilo’s grandmother - older than the village stones, some said - and she was weathered and dark, with wiry silver hair, and yellowed teeth and nails. A thick figure, that did not speak of frailty, no matter how many wrinkles she seemed to accumulate. 

Ilo supposed healing magic would have its perks towards longevity.

She ducked her head.

“Delivery for you, ma’am,” she said, and extended the satchel she was tasked with carrying. The sorcerer had said nothing of retrieving payment; and as he was not the sort of man to overlook such things, she knew that he therefore did not expect her to bring anything back. It was very doubtful that he would have sent her alone if he expected coin or other valuable goods to be brought without clear instructions, and possibly a guard for them.

“Hmm,” said the healer. “I didn’t think that fucker hired women.”

Ilo froze, and spent several moments at an utter loss for how to reply. For a number of reasons. When she found her voice, it was appallingly small.

“He does not think I am a woman,” she managed to say, in the bare moment before the healer reached over, and claimed the satchel from her. Opening it up to check the contents, and nearly sticking her nose right into the bag of crushed scales, before letting out a huff.

Ilo hoped it was a good huff. She did not much fancy the thought of taking the bag back to her employer, along with some complaint or accusation, and getting blamed for the disagreement. The other day she had knocked the wrong box over while she was carrying stores down from the attic, and the backs of her shoulders still ached from pelting she had been given. The perils of the woodland road had kept her steps light and her thoughts focused away from such things, but as she reminded herself of them, the bruised and broken skin itched beneath her tunic.

The healer’s gaze narrowed.

“Well. Come in, then,” she said, shortly. “The moon is high, and dislikes it when I’m miserly.”

“M… miserly?” Ilo asked, and hesitated. The healer just turned, however, and walked back inside. Into the warm gloom of her home, which smelled like smoked fish from the lake, more than anything. It seemed less perilous than the shadows between the trees, and the rustling she imagined that she heard from the black spaces her eyes could no longer see past. 

She went inside.

There was only one seat in the hut. A tiny, well-worn stool, that was settled next to an over-burdened table. A bed of furs was piled up in one corner, and a fish stew was bubbling over the small black hearth. The healer gestured towards the stool, and after a moment, Ilo risked sitting. It was a marked difference, she thought, from the sorcerer’s home, which was four floors high, and boasted several workrooms, and a library, and a menagerie, and stables. 

The healer dropped the satchel onto a cutting board underneath a cabinet of jars, and then muttered to herself, banging a few wooden doors open and shut until she saw Ilo flinching; and then she moved more quietly. She plucked up a brown jar of some foul-smelling green ointment, and a roll of bandages, and then she looked at Ilo; who was still sitting on her stool, with her hands in her lap.

“You’ll need to take your shirt off,” the healer said, at length. “I’m damn good at this, but I still haven’t figured out the particulars of treating an injury through several layers of clothes.”

Ilo swallowed, and stared at the foul-smelling ointment.

“How did you know…?” she asked.

The healer tapped a yellow nail against the counter beside her.

“You think I’d do this for so long and not be able to tell such things?” the healer replied. “Bodies are complicated, and not nearly as big of a mess as the people who own them. But both parts will give away their injuries, if you know how to look.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Healer, but… I don’t need any tending,” Ilo said. She couldn’t afford it, for one thing, and for another, she wasn’t sure if she could withstand it. Most folks said that healings could be worse than injuries, when they went badly. Ilo was fairly certain she’d survive the injuries she already had, at least.

The old woman looked at her for a moment, and then nodded her head.

“Alright, suit yourself,” she said, and picked up her foul-smelling ointment again. But rather than putting it away, she began rummaging again. Pulling out a spoon and an odd looking little sewn packet, and she scooped a great glop of the stuff out, and into the smaller container. It looked almost like an over-sized seed pod. She sealed it shut with a snap, and then plonked it firmly onto the table in front of Ilo.

“You take that with you, that’s yours, now,” she said. “Find someone you trust, or if you have to put it on yourself, use the back of a long spoon. Make sure it’s clean.”

Ilo stared at the… gift, of sorts, she supposed. After a moment she picked it up. She couldn’t smell the ointment anymore, she discovered. And the exterior of the pod was only a little bit rough, like the inside of a leaf. She wasn’t sure if she could bring herself to make use of the stuff or not, but it seemed impolite to turn it away, on top of everything else.

“Thank you,” she offered, instead.

The healer waved the thanks away, and plucked up a bowl from next to the cook fire. Ilo’s stomach was growling, and it reminded her that she could go home, now. Any hot food her family might be making would probably be cold, if there was a portion waiting - there could be rough odds on that, and they only got worse the longer the evening stretched on for. As it stood, if the clouds thickened she might not be able to rely on the moonlight to see her back down the road, and lanterns could be a dicey prospect so far from the village.

They tended to attract things.

The healer filled up one bowl, though, and then a second, and set one out in front of Ilo.

“Don’t look so surprised,” she said. “What do they say about me in that village, that I’m inhospitable? I have more manners than that sorcerer you work for.”

Ilo swallowed. The stew smelled good - not fantastic, not like the food that came out of the sorcerer’s kitchens. But good, like the sorts of things her great aunt used to make, back when she was still alive. Before a harsh autumn storm rolled over the mountains, and stirred the dead from their graves, and the houses closest to the cemetery were overrun before the militia could get there.

“Thank you,” she said, simply. Remembering her aunt made her remember, too, that the healer had come into the village for the first time in ages that year. While the sorcerer stayed locked up in his house. Even though some people had tried to blame her for the uprising, she had tended their wounds, and helped set up the pyres for the dead. New and old alike. Cremation was the common funeral practice, after that.

The healer nodded, and settled onto a spare crate by the table, and began slurping up her own stew. She was not a shy eater, but then, neither was Ilo. The broth tasted good, and she didn’t even wonder if it might be cursed until halfway through, and by then she supposed she was already in trouble if that was the case. So she cleaned her bowl, and the food settled warm in her stomach, and eased the gnawing ache that she had only been peripherally aware of. It was a good meal, she decided. Just enough, without leaving her wanting more or feeling too stuffed to make the walk back.

“Thank you,” she said, with more certainty of the sentiment, afterwards.

The old healer nodded again, and then settled back a bit.

“Hard to be an unexpected thing, in this village,” she said, after a moment. “People don’t like it. The shitheads. They like it better when they can tell themselves that they’ve got the whole world sorted out. Even more, I guess, when you live on the doorstep of a wild place like this. You’d think they’d wise up after a few generations, but just when it seems like they might, it all falls back in on itself. Panic, I suppose.”

Ilo swallowed. Her tongue tasted like salt and pepper.

“There’s a lot of dangerous things out there,” she offered, quietly.

The hearthfire seemed to linger in the old woman’s eyes.

“Sure there is,” she agreed. “But let me tell you, my girl. I’ve lived out here with the dangerous things for years, and I’ve got no bruises on my back. And you live in the village, where it’s safe - and I bet you get them every month, don’t you?”

Every month. Every few weeks, if she was unlucky. But sometimes she’d hit a good streak, and there’d be a few months without, too.

She didn’t know what to say to that, though. One of her hands strayed towards the little pod of ointment, and she picked it up.

The healer nodded to herself.

“I used to get them, too,” she said. “Back when I was your age. Used to get all kinds of hurt. There was a different sorcerer in the village, back then. He didn’t mind hiring girls, but only so we could tend to the mermaid he’d caught. She wouldn’t speak to the men at all, you see, and she’d only sing for one of us. Only until she decided she’d had enough of being all cooped up, and then she did sing for the sorcerer. In his nice, safe, cozy little garden, from the pool he kept her in. We came in the next morning and found him drowned at the bottom, and her waiting for us, grinning at us. She never spoke, just sang. But she had a pretty smile.”

Ilo clutched her pod, taken aback and fascinated all at once. Was it true, she wondered? There had been a sorcerer before hers, she knew, even though they tended to be long-lived folk. But she’d never heard of him dying, let alone being drowned by one of his own menagerie creatures.

“What happened to the mermaid?” she asked.

The healer sighed.

“Wheelbarrow full of water,” she said. “Tinsie and I - that was my sister - we got her squared away, smuggled under a tarp, and took her all the way down to the lake. But the water wasn’t right. I knew how to fix it, though, so we rigged her up a bathtub full of the good stuff, and put it on a cart. Had to drag it through a few miles of wilderness, and, well. One thing and another, but we got her down to one of the rivers that runs off the coast, and she took it from there. Gave me a parting kiss to remember her by.”

Ilo tried to imagine it. The romantic in her sighed, a little; but the adventurer in her was more concerned with the prospect of surviving the deep woods with a mermaid in a bathtub and just one other person for help, and she couldn’t wrap her head around it.

It couldn’t possibly be true.

Could it?

“You never saw her again?” Ilo wondered.

“No,” the healer admitted. “Some loves are like that, you know. You don’t get to keep them - just the memories.” Lifting a hand, she tapped at her temple. “But I’ve got some good ones. And not much company, these days. You want to come by again, I’ll pay you a meal to listen to me ramble. Seems like a fair trade to me, and probably a better going rate than that fucker in his fancy house offers for his hot air.”

An awkward chuckle escaped her. She wasn’t even sure why, except that it seemed a strange offer, and at war with the voices from the village that whispered that this place was dangerous. But it was nice, too. The little hut, and the stew, and the ease of it all. The old healer didn’t press, as Ilo finally got up again.

“I should be going,” she said.

“Go on, then,” her unexpected hostess agreed. “The moonlight’ll hold. Don’t light a lantern, I had to dig the last fool who tried that out of a fairy ring, and then put his fingers back on, too.”

Ilo winced. Right, she had… heard something about that, in fact. Her sated stomach twisted with a little unease, as she at last made her way towards the door. Outside the moonlight was still spilling across the boulder, and the woodland road looked… clear. Peaceful, in fact, even with some of the light from the hut still blinding her eyes. She let out a relieved breath, and turned back towards the healer.

The hut door swung shut.


…Well, Ilo supposed, the hospitality seemed to be done with.

She looked down at her seed pod, and straightened her skirt. Her shoulders still ached, but maybe…

Maybe she would give it a try, just the same.