There were rumors of the witch in the forest, the evil that seemed to thrum in the air around the witch’s cottage, that those who struck deals with her were always left a little worse for wear (or dead). But there were deals to be made, because it was difficult for everyone, the rich and poor alike. After the war broke out, everyone had something they needed, something they were so desperate for they were willing to step into the dark wood, hoping to reach the witch before something else reached them.
This was why she ventured into the forest in the first place. Her father had no sons; he had three daughters he was hoping to marry off. Then the war came, and with it the demand for sons. When it was revealed that the lowly noble had no sons, he was struck with a sword. The slash went from navel to heart, and although the wound was shallow, something was wrong. The wound had gone from flesh-pink to a sickly yellow, the skin beginning to rot. It was infected, said the doctor from the village. He was going to die, said the one from the town a ways over. We are doomed, said the daughters.
She found the cottage by luck. It was nothing like what she imagined: flowers were in bloom, the setting sun sending streaks of light that left its warmth on patches of green grass. A small pillar of smoke drifted from the chimney and a sign hung over the door that read “Welcome.” It sent a shiver down her spine.
She knocked. The door opened wide to reveal a tall, pretty woman dressed in a warm brown dress that looked soft and worn. A smile adorned the woman’s long face, straight teeth gleaming and none revealed to be missing. Light reflected off a ring in her nose, and the girl could not think of anything except that the witch was very, very beautiful and very, very scary.
“Hello! May I help you?”
The girl clasped her hands behind her back to keep them from shaking. “My father is sick. He was struck by a sword. The wound is infected.”
The woman frowned and opened the door even wider to allow room for the girl to walk in. “That is awful bad luck. What did he do to garner such a wound?”
The girl took a breath before saying softly, “Have daughters instead of sons.”
The witch’s frown deepened. “I see.” The brown dress flickered for a moment, turning black as night, before returning to its original shade. “I’ll see what I can find.”
It took only a few minutes before the witch was pressing a tin of salve into the girl’s hands, and she felt a warmth of gratitude and happiness looking into the witch’s blue eyes. “Put it on the wound every night. Within a few days, he should be feeling better.”
“What should I pay you?”
The witch considered her for a moment, warm hand still holding her clammy one. “A token of friendship.”
“We are friends?”
“It would please me,” the witch answered.
Another shiver ran down the girl’s spine as she reached into the pocket of her dress, pulling out the four-leaf clover she’d pressed into a book years before and had taken out just for the journey. It was her greatest treasure. She pressed it carefully to the witch’s palm.
“Safe journey,” the witch said, and bid her out the door.
Her father got better. The wound slowly faded as the nights wore on, and when he’d gathered enough strength he berated his youngest daughter for making a deal with the witch of the forest, but also thanked her. The other daughters were weary of the tin of salve, but when their father was fully recovered, they placed it in a cupboard for future emergencies.
The war raged on. Food became scarce. The land around their small home became riddled with plight. Their village, the town over, even the castle in the distance was starving. The youngest daughter wanted to help feed her family, her friends, her village. Although they were not the greatest noble home, it was their duty. She took a clod of dirt from their barren field and began her journey back into the forest.
A similar scene like the last time greeted the girl. The cottage lights were warm and seeping out the window, welcoming her. The grass was thriving. The flowers brilliant. She knew it must have been some kind of magic keeping the plants alive, but she loved it all the same. She hoped she could strike another deal with the beautiful witch, and that the payment was just as favorable.
“You’re here again,” the witch said when she knocked on the door. There was something in the witch’s smile, something nicer than simple kindness, a warmth that had not been there the time before. The girl thought the witch looked even more beautiful with that smile.
“My village is starving. Our fields cannot grow anything. Is there anything–?”
The witch held up a hand. “I have just the thing.”
The witch was gone for a few minutes, rummaging through shelves, looking into chests, under chairs, under floorboards. Finally, the woman returned with a cloth bag tied with twine. The witch reached for her hands and pressed the cloth bag into her palm, helping wrap her hands around it.
“These are seeds that you can grow. A few different things. They’ll be full of warmth and health and help your people thrive in these dark times.”
The girl swallowed a lump that rose in her throat and asked in a quiet voice, “And what is the payment?”
The witch considered her for a moment, bright eyes staring deeply into her own. Whatever the woman found there seemed to help determine the payment. “Perhaps a strand of your hair.”
The girl closed her eyes. She knew that it could be used for a spell, perhaps to harm her, perhaps to curse her, perhaps to help her. She took a shaky hand up to her head and pulled out a black, coarse, curly strand and handed it carefully to the witch, who took it reverently.
“And your name?”
The girl could not help seal the deal. “Fatima.”
The witch smiled, brilliant and blinding. “Safe journey.”
The seeds grew and fed her family, fed her village, even helped feed the town over. The king was thankful for the extra food that came his way, and sent an official pardon for the wound he’d ordered given to the noble. The apology came with a request for one of his daughters to make their way to the castle.
Her father chose her.
She should have been honored but a sense of dread overtook her. She stopped eating. She became weak and frail. She’d heard the other part of the apology: a marriage. A wonderful marriage. For her. For her family. For her village.
It was that dread that drove her to seek the witch again. She took nothing this time, only her fear. The cottage waited for her, still warm, still thriving, and the girl felt even more empty. She wished for the warmth of the cottage to fill her.
The witch greeted her with an expression of concern. “Fatima. You look dreadful.”
“I’m getting married,” she answered, the tears threatening to spill.
The witch grew pale, brows furrowed. “Is your betrothed bad?”
Confusion brewed in the witch’s blue eyes. “Are you… in love with someone else?”
Fatima shrugged. “It matters not. I simply wish not to be married.”
Relief swept over the witch’s face, turning her beautiful once again. “And how would you like me to help you?”
“I would like to die.”
The witch’s hands went straight for hers, gripping them tightly. Fatima felt warmth rush through her, flooding her until it drove away the fear and dread that had become her constant companions.
“What if I give you a new life?”
The words echoed in Fatima’s mind. “What kind of life?” she whispered, feeling the blood pulsing in her veins, rushing up to fill her cheeks.
“A life with me,” the witch breathed, cheeks turning red, eyes shining with excitement.
“And the payment?” Fatima asked, heart thudding, knowing the answer and willing to give it.
The witch smiled, stepping closer, “A kiss.”
And Fatima sealed the deal.