Long ago, even before ___ston was ___s town, there was a village. While most everybody lived in the village, one young woman lived by herself out by the water. She made her living spinning textiles for the village folk. Every week, the farmer’s wife brought her new wool to spin, weave, and dye. Every week, she brought back new gossip to the village. “She butchers her own meat,” the farmer’s wife whispered conspiratorily to the butcher. “I saw the chicken corpses myself.”
Occasionally, someone would say what they were all wondering. “Witchcraft requires sacrifices, does it not? You don’t think she…” There would be a flurry of words, a comparing of evidence, but it always subsided to a sea of uncertain smiles and gentle head shaking. Despite their suspicions, her work was too exquisite to drive her away. Surely, someone who could make such beautiful things could not be capable of such evil.
That year was a special year. The mayor’s wife was expecting. Babies were always a source of excitement in the village, but this was the mayor’s baby. When the mayor’s wife went into labor on the harvest moon, the entire village was there to help. When the baby was stillborn, the entire village was there to mourn.
The young woman returned to her home by the water to find a basket in front of her door that night. In the basket was the most beautiful baby she’d ever seen. Dark curly hair set off alabaster skin, interrupted by piercing blue eyes and heart-shaped pink lips. A crow watched over the infant as the young woman approached and picked the baby up. “Is she mine?” The crow dipped its head and flew off, his job complete. The young woman had been waiting for a child for so long. She hadn’t dared hope when she learned the news of the stillborn, but secretly in her heart of hearts, she had wished she would come home to a basket as was the way of the witch.
Witch children could only pass through the veil when there was a rift, as with a stillbirth or when a twin consumed his sibling. It was why she had had to settle here rather than with her own kind – they were simply too scarce to form a village. Every time their numbers seemed close to being able to establish a village, some catastrophe would occur that would decimate the number of witches. Sometimes, it seemed like they were cursed.
The morning chased the night away and the farmer’s wife knocked on the door for the weekly delivery of wool. The knocking woke the infant who started squalling. The young witch rushed to soothe her. “Hush, young one.” More knocking shook the door which drove the infant to even greater volume. Gathering the babe in her arms, the young witch went to answer the door before more knocking could incense the child further. “Ah, yes, thank you. This batch may be longer. Good day.” Before the farmer’s wife could voice her astonishment, the door swung shut. She hurried back to town.
“She has a baby!”
“Yes, a baby, not more than a day old.”
“She wasn’t with child, though, was she?”
“Not that I saw.”
“Who has a baby?”
“The young woman by the water!”
“You mean the witch?”
“Oh come now-”
“Witches can steal the souls of newborns for themselves, you know.”
“Do you think she stole the mayor’s baby?”
“Oh please, there’s something strange about that girl and you know it.”
“A baby? All by herself? With all that machinery and poison?”
“It’s not safe.”
“It’s the mayor’s baby.”
“We must tell the mayor.”
“For the sake of the child.”
“Yes, for the sake of the child.”
For the sake of the child, the village folk went to inform the mayor of the young woman’s new charge. Initially, he dismissed their concerns, insisting he needed to be with his wife during this trying time. The village folk insisted. When the mayor’s wife found out, she could not stand the thought of a child in danger. She implored her husband to at least assess the safety of the household. Children were too precious to risk.
The mayor acquiesced and led the village to the young woman’s house by the water. His knocking once again woke the babe whose cries pricked the ears of the village folk. The woman opened the door, the babe on her shoulder. The mayor was startled by the sight. To be told there was a baby was one thing, but to see it was something altogether different.
“Whose babe is this?” asked the mayor.
“She is mine.” The young woman lifted her chin.
“But you were not with child and you are not in wedlock. Where did this babe come from? Who were her parents?” The mayor was perplexed.
The young woman did not falter.
“She is mine.”
The mayor grew angry, fueled by the loss of his own baby. “From whom did you steal this child?” He took a step forward, as if to press the truth out of the air around the young woman.
The young woman stood resolutely rooted on her doorstep. She could not explain further or she would be exposed as a witch. Instead, she uttered the only truth she could.
“She is mine.”
The mayor turned to face the village folk. “Having recently lost my own babe, I am sensitive to the need for immense care required in the case of our children. Almost always, parents know what is best for their children.” The young woman relaxed. The mayor paused to lock gazes with the butcher and blacksmith. He shifted his eyes ever so slightly towards the young woman. They began to move through the crowd. “However, I am unconvinced this young woman is the mother of this babe.” The butcher and blacksmith had reached the young woman and grasped her by each elbow, restraining her before she could try to escape with her child. “She cannot confirm the parentage of the child. Even if she somehow had legitimate claim to the child, she has no support and works a dangerous trade. I fear what could happen with all the poisonous dyes and heavy machinery of the textile trade with too little supervision.” The young woman was struggling as hard as she could without risking dropping her daughter now. “Therefore, for the welfare of the child, I feel we must take custody.”
The mayor nodded to his wife. She wrested the child from the young woman’s grasp. Staring down at the angelic face, she felt a kinship with the babe, as if she had been hers all along. The young woman wailed as the mayor’s wife walked away surrounded by the village folk. The butcher and blacksmith held her back until the torches looked like candles flickering in the distance.
A day. She had only been given a day with her daughter. If she could have, she would have razed the village until there was nothing left but the foundations of the buildings, but she lacked the power. Any magical retaliation on her part could lead to discovery, and now it was not just her own life in danger. She knew if the villagers believed her a witch, they would kill her and her daughter in a heartbeat. Still, she would find a way to make them pay. They had stolen the joyful purpose of her life and left only a vengeful one in its place.
Nearly five years passed and the babe grew into a girl. Without the correct nourishment, her magic had begun to fade. She did not sip on milkweed sap, poisonous to mortals but sweet to witches. She did not learn to cavort with the small blue butterflies and coax them to her bidding. She did not learn how to hear the whispers of the ancient glacial lake, full of stories and warnings and intrigues. Instead, she played hopscotch and made daisy chains and clung to her mother’s skirts at town meetings.
The young woman was not so young anymore; grief and anger had accelerated her aging. She still made textiles, but the brilliant jewel tones were replaced with hypnotizing blacks and sorrowful greys. They were still lovely, but there was a newly sinister quality to the fabric. She also shunned the village. Now instead of knocking on the door, the farmer’s wife left a basket of wool on the gate and picked up the cloth a week later from the same gate. There were still rumors about how the woman got food and other goods, but no one was brave enough to visit after that night. After all, the child was surely better off now and there was no reason to invite trouble.
The woman had spelled her spinning wheel to turn without her. Instead, she devoted her hours to poring over her grimoires to find a suitable retaliation. Immolation? Too messy. Flip. Exsanguination? Even worse. Flip. Drowning. Flip. Skinning. Flip. Flip. Flip.
And then she found it.
The Di Eithe.
It would take her some time to gather the materials and she would need to draw on the power of the harvest moon next month, but soon, she would have the revenge she had craved since her daughter had been ripped from her arms.
The harvest moon burned in the night sky, shedding an orange glow in the hidden clearing where the woman conducted all of her spellcraft. The golden thread looped on the branches of a thunderstruck old tree formed a dreamcatcher, much larger than the one that hung over her bed, but that was because this one was meant to catch much more than just her nightmares. The knucklebones of a stillborn baby, little silver bells from a surviving twin’s rattle, and sprigs of baby’s breath swayed in the wind along with various other more mundane beads that punctuated the golden web.
She began to chant, a lyrical set of syllables stolen from a history most didn’t even know existed, let alone remembered. She moved around the clearing in a carefully calculated set of spirals, spinning along with the musical incantation. Finally, she came before the dreamcatcher. Steeling herself, she took hold of the small scythe sitting on the nearby stump. She placed her left hand on the tree stump and brought the blade to rest next to her littlest finger. She inhaled and raised the knife. She exhaled and brought it down. The last part of the ritual was nearly complete. She took the severed digit and hung it in the center of the web. Then she waited.
She waited for what seemed like an eternity, but the clearing remained still. Determined, she stayed in the clearing until sunlight began to filter in over the treetops, but still the Di Eithe did not appear. She walked back to her cottage, defeated.
In her cottage, she stoked the fire. She planned to burn all her grimoires, and once the blaze was big enough, herself. A few minutes of intense agony seemed an appropriate way to end the slow but intense pain of the last five years. The flames were just beginning to tickle the top of her fireplace when she heard a knock at the door. She couldn’t place the sound at first. It had been five years since she had least heard a knock on the door. She opened the door to find a little boy, no more than seven or eight, so slight that it seemed gravity could barely find purchase on him. His light hair caught and multiplied the early morning light but stormy grey eyes betrayed wisdom incommensurate with his youthful appearance. In another world, he could have been the light twin to her dark daughter. A simple white flute resting easily in one hand was the only clue that hinted at his true identity.
“Are you…the Di Eithe?” the witch asked hesitantly. The illustration in her grimoire had been only of a simple white flute, so she had spent ample time over the last month imagining what she was summoning as she carried out her preparations, but she had never expected a child of all things.
“I am.” The boy stepped inside, letting the door swing shut behind him. The witch stepped further inside away from him instinctively. “Why have you summoned me?”
“The townspeople have taken my daughter. I need your help to return her to me.” The witch waited for the Di Eithe’s response, but there was none. She tried again.
“They are stamping out her magic. She never sipped on milkweed sap or cavorted with the small blue butterflies or had whispered conversations with the ancient glacial lake.” The Di Eithe remained unmoved. The witch tried once more.
“I worry the townspeople are killing the spirits of my daughter and the other children. They do not run wild and free as they should. Instead they are stifled, seen but not heard, dressed up like dolls to demonstrate their family’s status at the cost of their souls.” The witch’s words finally had their intended effect.
“What do you require of me?” asked the Di Eithe.
The witch had had five years to think of a plan. “I wish for you to bring all the children here for a period of five days. I wish to have my daughter back and for those that took her from me to know the pain and panic of losing a child.”
“Why five days?” asked the Di Eithe.
“They will not notice the children are missing the first day. They have gotten too used to them being quiet. The second day will be when they start to worry. The third day they will panic. The fourth day they will be angry. The fifth they will despair.”
“It will be done.” The Di Eithe brought his flute to his lips and began to play. The witch could only hear the faintest echo of its ethereal song, but all the children in the town were thoroughly entranced. They heard a melody in tones as clear as the black ice forming over the lake calling them to come closer and play. So they did.
Soon, the clearing where the witch had summoned the Di Eithe was filled with the peals of the laughter of playing children. “The townsfolk will hear,” the witch worried, “can you ask them to be quiet?” The Di Eithe played one long low note and immediately the clearing was silent. The children continued playing exactly as they were before, but now no laughter left their open mouths, and their running feet made no sound.
The witch was awestruck. “I knew you could use the flute to persuade the children to do your bidding, but I did not realize the true extent of its power.” The Di Eithe didn’t hear her. He was too preoccupied with watching the children, particularly one set of mischievous twins that kept switching places during a game to confuse the other children.
Two days passed uneventfully, but on the third, the children became restless. “I’m too tired to keep running,” said one little boy.
“I’m bored of playing marbles,” said another little girl.
“I want to go home,” said one of the older children. The other children agreed.
The witch was not prepared to manage this many children. She had already become overwhelmed with cut knees and picky eating and temper tantrums over the past two days. She begged the Di Eithe to use his power to make the children sit still and quiet, just for a little while, just so she could catch her breath. The Di Eithe had a better idea. “Why don’t I tell you a story?” he asked the children. The children excitedly nodded their assent and sat in a half moon around the Di Eithe. He told a funny story about a boy and a sword and magic, occasionally playing short melodies on his flute to coax leaves into puppets to act out the story. When the boy finally threw away the sword and befriended the dragon, the children began to applaud, but silently. They still needed to hide from the townsfolk for three more days.
“I wish I could be like you,” said one little girl. “I wish I had magical powers.” The other children sighed with her.
The Di Eithe looked at the morose children and made a decision. “I will tell you a secret,” he said. The children perked up at the prospect. Rarely were they trusted with such things. “You are all just as magical as I. The flute is what allows me to channel my inner magic which is something everyone has, especially children.”
Immediately the children began to clamor, asking to use his flute, how to get their own, how to find their inner magic. The Di Eithe was still for a moment, then exhaled. “I will tell you another story. By the end, you will understand how I got my flute.” The children sat silent and patient once again.
“Long ago, there was a village much like yours, except that it was a village of witches.” Some of the children let out frightened whimpers. “Don’t be afraid. Witches are not scary or evil. In fact, most of them are afraid of people without magic, because people without magic destroy things they do not understand.
“This was the only witch village in all the land. Not many witches are born, you see, so there were only enough witches to make one village. It became a paradise for them. They were free to be themselves and use their magic as they pleased, so they colored their windows with rainbows and used dandelions to make their roads soft as down under their feet. They grew crops and tulips and fruit trees that would not have been able to grow there otherwise.
“It was the best their lives had ever been, but the witch elders wanted more. Witch children were still rare, but most every witch craved the gift of parenthood. They decided to try experimental magic to create a rift in the veil to allow witch children through without waiting for a natural rift from a stillborn child or a twin consuming their sibling.” The mischievous twins who were listening instinctively reached for the other’s hand. “They knew this would require enormous power and sacrifice, but surely children were worth that and more.
“They tried many things. They made every concoction of every herb. They looked for signs in the entrails of foxes and squirrels and robins. They even asked the ancient lake, but it, too, was silent for the first time any witch could remember. The closest they came to success was when they sacrificed a set of twin children, but this still fell short of generating enough power to create a rift. They were close to giving up, but that night one of the witches had a dream. She saw a twin consuming their sibling in their mother’s belly; as they absorbed their sibling, they glowed brighter and brighter until the brightness woke the witch. She sat up, covered in sweat, and realized what they needed to do.
“When the witch elders met the next day, she explained what they were missing. The power wasn’t generated merely from the death of the twins, but from one causing harm to the other. In order for their spell to work, they would need one twin to kill the other. Whispers raced around the circle, like reeds playing tag in the wind. Which twins loved each other the least? How would they convince one twin to kill the other? Was this even possible? One witch stood up and addressed the council.
“‘We’ve come too far to stop now. Does any witch know of any twins that are so estranged one may be convinced to kill the other?’ There was silence from the council. The bond of twins was difficult to warp so completely. The eldest witch spoke.
“‘We should not seek the twins with the weakest bond. Instead, we should seek twins with the strongest.’ There were murmurs of dissent and confusion from around the table. One witch grew brave or insolent or maybe both and voiced their shared concerns.
“‘We know you are the most skilled of us, particularly with illusions , but this only makes us warier of your words. Why should we seek the strongest? Surely they will be impossible to convince to sacrifice each other.’ The eldest witch had an answer.
“‘Do as I say and you will understand.’ The rest of the witch council was uncertain, but they had no other plan, so they agreed to do as the eldest witch said.
“The next afternoon, the witch council surrounded a clearing much like this one. They hid behind the trees out of sight as the eldest witch had ordered. The eldest witch stood in the clearing, waiting for the twins they had asked to come. They had not told them why.
“When the sun was directly above the center of the clearing, a boy and girl approached the eldest witch. The girl had dark curly hair set off by alabaster skin, interrupted by piercing blue eyes and heart-shaped pink lips. The boy was so slight that it seemed gravity could barely find purchase on him and his light hair caught and multiplied the sunlight as stormy grey eyes took in the scene before him. The eldest witch stood before a tree stump carrying a small scythe and a collection of small bones. As they came close, she began to speak.
“‘Thank you for coming. The witch council of elders requires your assistance to resolve one of the greatest problems of witchkind. Will you both help us?’
The twins looked at each other, the looked back at the eldest witch. The boy spoke. ‘We will.’
“‘Then I will need you to wait here while your sister comes with me. I need to explain her role to her first.’ The eldest witch led the girl further among the trees until the boy could not see either of them. The clearing was still as he waited for his sister to return.
“The sun was still centered above the clearing when they returned. The eldest witch led the girl to the tree stump and made her kneel. She picked up the scythe and arranged the bones in a semicircle around the trunk. The girl lowered her head to lay down the trunk, keeping her gaze locked with her brother. The eldest witch moved the girl’s hair to bare her neck. She raised the scythe and began chanting. The previously calm girl began to panic, begging the eldest witch not to do this, begging her brother to save her, begging someone to save her. The boy was young, so he had not yet learned to control his magic. He desperately reached for it to save his sister, but all he could find were his roiling emotions – fear, anger, despair, grief. Finally he found the magic at the very last second. As the eldest witch brought the scythe down, the boy released his magic in a pure stream at the eldest witch, engulfing her in flame. Except she wasn’t engulfed in flame.
“The eldest witch raised her head from the tree stump and stood. The figure that was on fire suddenly looked much smaller than before. The boy barely had time to register the trick before he felt the wave of power building. It was going to rip him to shreds. He was going to rip them to shreds. The boy harnessed the power they tricked him into getting and razed the village, cursing the witches to never be able to gather again. They had taken his family so he would make sure they could never find theirs.
“Using the power saved him from being incinerated from it, but it still changed him. The boy walked towards the pile of ash that used to be his sister. All that was left was a femur. He took out his knife and got to work.”
Over the course of telling this story, the Di Eithe had not used his flute to illustrate the scenes. He could not even meet the children’s eyes as he spoke. Now he raised his head and picked up his flute. “I turned my sister’s femur into this flute. It is her magic that gives it its power, so anyone who plays it can influence children the way you have seen me do, so long as they are in touch with their inner magic.” The flute wobbled in his grip, as if he could barely muster the strength hold it. The children were silent. Then, a little girl got up and hugged the Di Eithe. The flute fell from his fingers and rolled away from him. One by one, the other children joined her.
The witch saw her chance.
Before anyone could notice or stop her, she picked up the flute and played one long low note to make the children remain motionless. Since the Di Eithe was an immortal child, he, too, had to obey the flute’s melody. “My daughter, where are you?” asked the witch. “Come forward, come to your mother.” No child moved. The witch played a series of short high notes to try to get her daughter to come forward, but still, no child moved.
She sank to her knees, clutching the flute to her chest. Finally, she whispered. “Will the mayor’s daughter please come forward?” A girl of about five stepped forward, but she looked different. Her hair was a chestnut brown, and freckles peppered a button nose nestled under hazel eyes. There was no longer any magic in this child. The witch did not recognize her.
Numb, the witch stood and brought the flute to her lips. She began to play, a stately dirge that pressed ever onwards. As she played, she walked towards the lake. The children followed, stepping in time to the melody. She continued walking, not stopping until the waves lapped at her waist.
Though she stopped moving forward, the children didn’t. They continued on until the waves covered the tops of their heads, and then they continued still onwards. The Di Eithe was the last child in the procession. The witch did not stop playing until she could no longer see the sunlight reflected from his head. When finally, she could see no trace of any of the children, the witch stopped playing and walked forward until the waves covered her head, too. She continued until she could no more.
Weeks passed and the townsfolk were no closer to figuring out what had happened to their children. Many of them thought the witch had something to do with the disappearance, but none had yet become brave enough to go knock on her door to ask. The mayor’s wife often sat by the lake, trying to convince it to give its secrets up to her to help her find her daughter. Her nursemaid had told her that sometimes the ancient glacial lake loved to trade whispered secrets with those who came to visit. She was sitting by the lake when something washed up near her feet. It was polished white and smooth. More smooth, white objects began to wash up. The mayor’s wife cupped up a handful; she had never seen such things wash up from the lake before. She turned them over and over, trying to figure out what they could possibly be. Then she realized what they were. The children’s bones slipped through her fingers, joining the growing white line of their siblings outlining the shore as the waves finally brought the children home.