*AUTHOR'S NOTE: This IS a rough draft that's only been edited a couple times, so there are going to be a few errors and some purple prose in here! Now that that's out of the way, I hope you enjoy this first chapter.*
Chapter One: The New Arrival
The thorns curled and uncurled as she walked through them, and spirits recoiled when she passed. Magnolia gazed after her. She was the epitome of power, able to change her appearance with a few gestures and to create things out of thin air with just a flick of her wrist. She turned around, platinum hair slipping over her shoulder like water rolling off of a leaf.
“You remember what I told you, yes?”
“Yes, mistress. Stay inside, set up the cauldron. Don’t forget to light the candles and don’t let them go out,” Magnolia echoed the witch’s earlier words.
“Good,” the witch gave her a little nod before continuing into the forest. In a matter of seconds, dense foliage and fog blocked her from view. Magnolia craned her neck to try and spot her mistress, but she could see nothing but a mass of sickly green and black. She sighed, leaning on her broom. Then, she set about her duties.
The inside of the small, briar-coated cottage she shared with the witch Sorrel was cramped and messy, just like the surrounding Lost Forest. Magnolia couldn’t recall the last time she’d stepped foot in a normal woods. All she knew were the dark, damp, antagonistic forest that surrounded her, full of evil spirits and poisonous plants. But it was Alza’s will that she lived here with Sorrel, so here she would remain. Sorrel had assured her that she would come to love the forest in time, and Magnolia prayed every night that it was true.
She opened the small box above the fireplace and took out four thin, tall candles, the color of charcoal. These she placed in the corners of the room, in their designated golden holders.
“Etkatkenap,” she pointed at each one in turn while uttering the spell, drawing the runes in the air with her free hand. The magic shone orange, fizzing and sparking and almost alive. A small flame erupted on each wick, and she smiled, pleased. Her grin quickly turned to a terrified line when one of the tiny lights began to fizzle. A frantic repetition of the spell relit it, but it returned to its dying state in a matter of seconds. A third try produced the same results, and a misfired fourth caused the wall behind it to catch fire. In her state of panic, she caught sight of the open window. The breeze was blowing directly onto the struggling candle. A quickly said-and-drawn water spell barely missed the candle to put out the flames as she rushed to close the window. Once it was shut, the little candle’s flame grew to a suitable size. Magnolia exhaled, relieved. Now to start on the next part.
The heavy cauldron was dragged into the center of the cottage, where a fire-pit waited patiently to be of use. Magnolia struggled to lift it onto its hanger, but after a few minutes it dangled above the fire-pit, swaying to and fro.
There came a knock at the door. Was Sorrel back already? Magnolia hurried to the door and opened it slowly, in case it was a dangerous Elder Spirit. She had dealt with one of those before, an owl, and had the scars to prove it. There was a soft thump, and then the heavy crunch of feet on leaves, which faded into the distance.
“Strange,” Magnolia caught herself saying aloud as she opened the door just a tad further. A young girl, appearing around ten years old, lay fast asleep and unaware of her surroundings on the porch. Tucked into the pocket of her apron was a small letter, sealed shut with blue wax. Stamped into the wax was an image of the lower goddess Eterne, with stars surrounding her portrait. Magnolia carefully procured the letter, and started to step inside again. But then she halted, guilt beginning to poke at her mind. She couldn’t leave the child on the doorstep. No, that would be cruel. The wolves would be coming out soon, and the girl would be a perfect midday meal. So, she took the girl by the arms and gently dragged her inside. She was scared that the movement would wake her, but the child was unresponsive. Now, where to put her? The window seat was filled with numerous scrolls, some meticulously put in order, some dumped there when Sorrel was in a hurry. The floor was littered with various items, ones Magnolia was very careful not to disturb for fear of arousing Sorrel’s wrath.
The girl shifted and groaned a little, and Magnolia froze up. Her glances around the cottage were more frantic now as she searched for any kind of empty, comfortable space. Spotting a pile of blankets stuffed into a corner, she felt a tiny spark of relief light in her heart. A little while later, the girl was comfortably situated on top of them. Magnolia backed away and looked her over. Her skin was pale and blemish-free, a stark contrast to Magnolia’s tanned, scarlet-blotched complexion. The girl’s hair was the same color as her own, so dark brown that it appeared black, but it had none of the frizz and fuzz that Magnolia had such a hard time trying to tame in the mornings. Magnolia gazed at her a little longer, and then, feeling a bit like a lowlife, opened the letter. Hastily scrawled cursive ran in uneven lines across the worn parchment.
For the longest time, I couldn’t bear to give you what I owed. Your spell worked; I had riches beyond my wildest dreams at my side at all times. (As bitter as I am, I must begrudge my thanks for the beautiful bag that you enchanted for me.) But I never envisioned the depression that would come with that much wealth. My life lost its meaning, I had nothing I couldn’t fix or do by paying my way through. When I told you I would give you my firstborn as payment, I never expected to get married, much less have children. But then I married a wonderful man and had my darling Dantress, my beautiful ray of light. My life was full of meaning once more, and you would not believe how much money I expended to keep them safe and happy. I had forgotten about the payment, perhaps willfully blocking it from my memory.
Just two months ago, however, I carelessly left the purse while running to greet an old friend. When I reached her, I heard the telltale leathery flap of a dragon’s wings, along with screams of terror. Before anyone could do anything, it flew off with the purse in its hideous claws. According to the guards, there had been several sightings of the dragon circling from a height that suggested it was scoping out our little town. The beast must have watched the purse for days, waiting for an opportunity to steal it. I can only thank Leisol that it didn’t take me as well. My husband, Tempen, left with a hunting party the very next week. He hasn’t returned, so now I am setting out in search of him. (Or, Ivan forbid, his dead body.) I have brought Dantress to you, as much as I haven’t wanted to. She is rightfully yours, payment for the favor you granted me years ago. I can only request that you take care of her as you would your own daughter.
If Magnolia were any other person, she would have been moved deeply by the writer’s story. Maybe she would’ve even shed a tear or two. But all she could think was that it was incredibly rude for someone to withhold payment from a witch, no matter what that payment may be. Any tragic stories were made up to elicit sympathy, in hopes of avoiding a curse. A yawn from the blanket pile distracted her from her thoughts. The girl, who must have been Dantress, was awake.
The girl sat up slowly, propping herself up on her elbows. “Mother?”
Magnolia didn’t know how to respond. Dantress rubbed her dark, doelike eyes and then opened them again. When she saw Magnolia, she froze. The two sat in silence, staring at each other. Finally, Magnolia dared to speak.
“Oh,” Dantress’s eyes clouded, and she tucked her legs behind her.
“Oh?” That was her reaction to being left with a witch? Most people would be at least a little frightened.
“She talked to me about going to stay with someone while she goes to the mountains. This must be the place.”
Magnolia thought she saw the girl swallow, but it was such a slight movement that she may have imagined it. “Do you know where you are?”
“Mother said that she would drop me off at her cousin’s. This must be the place.”
Magnolia debated whether or not to tell her that she was in a Lost Forest. Finally, she decided against it. Best to delay any further shock for later. “I wasn’t aware that Sorrel had cousins. Or any family, really.”
Dantress looked like she was about to reply, but anything she could have said would have been cut off by the opening of the door. Sorrel had returned.
“What is this, Magnolia?” the tall, powerful woman pointed with a slender finger towards Dantress.
“Sorrel!” Magnolia straightened up so fast that it made her back cramp up, “I don't know.”
Sorrel’s eyes narrowed, and Magnolia remembered to squeak out a, “mistress.”
“Well, for starters, it's a girl,” the witch inspected Dantress with a disdainful sniff. Magnolia remembered the letter.
“This came with her, mistress!” she held the crumpled parchment out in front of her with two hands, the proper way. Sorrel wouldn't hesitate to smack her if she didn't. Sorrel now took the letter in her hands and looked it over. She made a few noises of disgust and a few of amusement, and then struck Magnolia’s head with the base of her hand. The sight caused Dantress, who had already been trembling from nerves, to give a little cry of distress. Magnolia did her best to bear her punishment, whatever it was for, with dignity.
“Never open anything addressed to me unless I tell you to,” Sorrel drummed her nails, long and clawlike, on her apprentice’s scalp.
“Now you, girl,” Sorrel spoke sharply. Dantress shrunk back momentarily, but seemed to regain her courage.
As Dantress complied, the witch took both of the girl’s hands in her own. Magnolia saw her shiver at Sorrel’s touch.
“Now that your mother has relinquished you to me, you will have to help out around the house. Can't have you lazing around all day, that would be a waste of food. You'll start helping Magnolia out with her chores tomorrow, and I'm sure you'll work as hard as you are able.” The last phrase was a command, cleverly disguised as a compliment. Sorrel’s tone was gentle, showing none of the disgust expressed towards Magnolia. Magnolia smiled at her mentor’s cunning, slowly slipping into a dream of when she would become that wonderfully able to manipulate an apprentice. But, as on most days, Sorrel wouldn't allow her to drift away into her imagination.
“Magnolia,” the witch snapped her fingers.
“Take her to your room. She'll share it with you.”
Magnolia’s shoulders sagged. Not to offend Dantress, but the last thing she wanted was to share the cramped attic with someone. But, as she knew all too well from her year-and-a-half as an apprentice, there was no arguing with Sorrel. One simply did as she said, no buts about it. The girl mumbled another “yes, mistress,” and motioned for Dantress to follow her.
The staircase leading to the attic was full of books and piles of cloth, and the two girls had to pick their way around them carefully. As they climbed higher, a rich, earthy smell wafted into their noses. Magnolia knew it as the smell of her small garden, the only spot of cheer provided to her in the whole Lost Forest. She was glad the upstairs curtains were drawn shut. Dantress wouldn’t want to see her surroundings. As the little garden came into view and the stairs ended, Dantress bit her lip.
“This is the room we’re sharing?”
Magnolia sighed. “Yes.”
There was barely enough space to stretch out all of one’s limbs. The hastily-made cot, situated as far away from the window as it could be, took up most of the room. The rest was either part of the garden or strewn with various odds and ends. The only other furnishing was a tiny vanity, roughly hewn from some kind of dark, foul-smelling wood. Magnolia watched as Dantress surveyed her living quarters, embarrassed at the younger girl’s expression of distaste.
“You have a garden in your room?”
“Yes, it was fairly simple to create,” Magnolia jumped at the chance to talk about her prized possession. “I summoned some dirt here, used a waterproofing spell on the floor underneath, summoned some seeds—amazing ones, too. They’re supposed to be from an Enchanted Forest! Alza forgive me for summoning them, but they’re just too beautiful, and—” she stopped, “—oh, I’m sorry. I was rambling, wasn’t I?”
A shadow cast over Dantress’s face. “Did you say Alza?”
Magnolia froze. Should she try to bluff? On one hand, a white lie could make everyone more comfortable for a while. On the other, Dantress would find out about the whole witch thing sooner or later, so there was almost no point in lying. Almost. But there was no time to make a decision, as Dantress was already speaking again.
“Mother brought me to a—a witch?” her voice was quiet, barely above a whisper. There was a hint of betrayal hidden in her tone, between the disbelief and the dawning horror of her situation. Magnolia opened her mouth to say something, but realized that nothing she could say would help. Dantress didn't move for a while, wide-eyed, tense, and repeating, “a witch,” over and over to herself.
“Magnolia?” Sorrel’s melodic, yet stern voice came from downstairs. Magnolia took one more worried glance at Dantress, and then headed downstairs to see what the witch wanted.
Sorrel was over by the window seat, rifling through some scrolls. Her hair, even in the dim room, shimmered like the palest gold. One day, Magnolia thought, my hair will be just as smooth.
“Magnolia!” Sorrel said, a bit more sternly and a lot louder.
“I'm here, mistress.”
The witch turned and gave her a withering, disappointed glare. “Speak up when you're behind me, dear. Don't try my patience like that.”
Magnolia nodded, grateful to avoid another smack on the head. Her head still hurt from the earlier blow.
“Be glad you didn't train under Marina,” Sorrel continued. The name of the legendary witch who killed her husband to ascend the royal Rocosian throne sent a thrill coursing through the witch’s apprentice. There wasn’t a single Rocosian who didn’t know at least a little about her. Sorrel went off on a long spiel on how Marina never hesitated to punish her for even the slightest mistakes, and brought up the time—mentioned many a time before—that Marina put a curse of transformation on her just for getting a potion one ingredient off. Magnolia then had to listen to how horrendous life as a weasel was, and how it took six months to gather one hundred different types of herbs to turn her back to her normal, human self. Sorrel finished her monologue with a sugar-coated, “I would never do that to you, though.”
“I know, mistress.” The statement was one Magnolia didn't feel fully confident in saying, but she said it nonetheless. When Sorrel was in a bad mood, she was terrifying, to say the least. Even if none of her threats were carried through, they always left Magnolia badly shaken up. Magnolia decided right then and there that she would never threaten or hurt any future apprentices, no matter what they did wrong.
“Speaking of Marina, how about a little review for your history lessons?” Sorrel pursed her darkly painted lips and turned back to her scrolls. “Marina.”
“Your mentor, mistress, and the most powerful witch in history,” Magnolia paused, and looked at Sorrel for help.
“Known for?” the witch prompted, not even glancing over her shoulders.
“Ah, right, thank you, mistress. Known for the attempted murder of High Queen Snow by way of a poison spell. Also a master of appearance modification spells.”
“Nicknamed Wolf-Mistress, had a vast knowledge of her Lost Forest, cursed a baby.”
There was a sudden sting on her arm.
“Who was that baby? You can’t just assume that who you’re speaking to knows which baby, out of thousands of babies, you speak of.”
“Sorry, mistress!” Magnolia rubbed the red mark that started to surface on her tanned skin, “The baby was the High Princess Rose.”
“Good. Next time, make sure to be specific. We must move on to your potion studies,” Sorrel found the scroll she was looking for, and unfurled it. “Come this way, I see you have been competent in preparing the cauldron.”
Magnolia, ready to rattle off the achievements and names of at least three more witches, followed her mentor.
“I’m a bit irked by the fact that there was no vila hair to be found today. None of those miserable ghosts went to the afterlife last night, I suppose,” the witch continued, taking a bag from her belt and dumping its contents into Magnolia’s waiting hands. The apprentice looked at the assortment of items. A few different types of herbs, willow twigs, and a pair of rabbit ears whose bases were crusted with fresh blood—nothing out of the ordinary. She wondered if the rabbit was still alive, or if Sorrel had left it in the unforgiving Lost Forest to die. It would look funny, hopping around with no ears.
“Shall we get started, Magnolia?” a kettle whistled somewhere in the background, and Magnolia realized she had spaced out for longer than a few seconds. She took Sorrel’s words as an order, and hurried to get the vial of black magic off of its gilded stand. The crystalline vial, intricately shaped and never empty, was a gift from Alza. Sorrel had received it after a quest that she never told Magnolia much about, only saying that Magnolia would follow in her footsteps and receive her own black magic someday.
Now, looking at the magic swirling around inside its container, like sugar dyed a rich teal, the apprentice wondered why it was called “black” magic. There was nothing black about it at all.
“Do you remember the proper order of ingredients?” Sorrel poured boiling water out of the unusually large kettle into the cauldron. Next, she murmured a spell, and the fire pit sprang to life. Flames caressed the cauldron’s base, dancing gracefully.
Magnolia nodded. “Most to least powerful ingredients. Black magic always goes in first.”
“Which is more powerful?” Sorrel questioned, pointing to the willow twigs and rabbit ears. Magnolia scrunched up her nose. She'd always had a hard time recalling whether plants or animals had more potency.
“Plants?” the instant she said it, she remembered that it was the opposite. She braced herself for another slap, but Sorrel simply sighed in disappointment. That was scarier than any physical pain the witch could inflict. It meant she was biding her time, waiting for a better opportunity to teach the girl a lesson.
“Animals.” Sorrel’s voice was low and dangerous. “Why animals? Because they have a higher. Degree. Of. Sentience.”
“Yes, mistress.” Magnolia stared at her shoes, her already-reddened face turning a darker shade of scarlet.
“Now, please,” Sorrel gestured to the cauldron, and Magnolia knew not to hesitate. Taking the vial, she tipped it carefully, balancing it on the cauldron’s edge. A few grains of magic fell into the water, sending up a thick plume of teal-tinted smoke.
“Too much,” Sorrel muttered while stirring. Magnolia flinched, hesitating before tossing in the rabbit ears. A faint musty smell—rabbit fur, perhaps?—wafted through the cabin, mingling with the implacable sweet musk of magic. The willow twigs and herbs went into the brew next, quickly masking the other scents. The air was now clogged with the scent of strong potpourri. Magnolia coughed. Maybe ‘clogged’ was an understatement.
“Here.” Sorrel thrust the ladle into Magnolia’s hand, startling her. “Stir.”
Eyes wide, Magnolia complied. She made sure to stir at a consistent pace—not too fast, not too slow. Concentration was key. Any distractions, and the brew might—
A little shriek came from upstairs. Magnolia jerked involuntarily. The brew bubbled over.
Sorrel’s brows knit into a v-shape. Her icy eyes shifted from her apprentice to the stairway, and back to her apprentice. There was a dangerous light in them, like she wanted to kill someone. Magnolia resumed her stirring, head lowered.
“Continue,” Sorrel’s voice frosted over. The witch strode upstairs, her back straight as a line. Magnolia tried her best to tune out the screaming that followed. She could only hear Dantress, which wasn’t a good sign. Sorrel usually shouted when she was angry.
The screaming turned to sobbing, which turned slowly into hushed whimpers. Something pricked at Magnolia’s conscious, but she took no heed of it and continued stirring. When Sorrel punished you, you had done something to deserve it. And so, any sympathy she might have had for the girl was buried deep inside her somewhere, unfelt.
Sorrel descended the stairs in a huff. Her pale cheeks held a tiny flush, the only sign she had been angry.
“The potion should be thoroughly mixed now,” the witch stopped beside Magnolia and peered into the cauldron. There was still a hint of poison underneath her calm demeanor. The apprentice said nothing, but handed the spoon to Sorrel and raced off to get an empty vessel. What was there to say? The awkward tension hung in the air, just as thick as the smell of herbs that continued to permeate the cottage.
She spotted an old, expired failure of a potion sitting on top of a pile of rags, next to more of its kind. The sight of it made her wince, and she recalled its creation. She had barely known anything about potionry back then—not that she knew a lot about the craft now, but back then she had been absolutely clueless. That potion had caused Sorrel to cuff her on the head at least three times: once for failing to stir at a consistent pace, once for accidentally putting lamb’s ear moss in before an actual lamb’s ear, and once for getting excited and forgetting to stir entirely. Her head had hurt for days afterwards, and she was glad to rid herself of the potion for good.
The disgrace of a potion was unceremoniously dumped out of the nearest window.
“Vankatkenap.” She pointed inside the little glass bottle and a spring of water erupted from her finger, quickly fading to a drip. She swished the water around for a little while, and then dumped that outside as well.
Sorrel arched an eyebrow upon her return, but said nothing. Her silence continued as Magnolia transferred the potion to the bottle as carefully as she knew how, avoiding the witch’s gaze. It felt like two icicles were boring into the side of her skull, attempting to read her mind.
“You've managed to be somewhat acceptable. Well done,” the witch said, “Now, what else shall I have you do?”
Magnolia waited for her next command.
“Ah, yes. Clean up, and then practice your summoning for a little while. Alza knows you need help with that.”
“Yes, mistress,” the apprentice said, already on her way to put the potion away. Sorrel’s “Well done” still rung in her ears, making pride well up inside her chest. She had done well. Sorrel was pleased with her. Well, maybe “decently satisfied” was a better way to put it. As she put out the fire and used a simple snow spell to cool the cauldron, she hummed a happy little tune to herself, preparing to do her best at summoning.
“Try some animals today. Don't bother sending any back, we could use some fresh meat. I'll be listening in for any failures.”
“Yes, mistress.” Eager to please, Magnolia shoved the cauldron into a corner and began reciting spells in her head. Water and fire, vankat and etkat, were simple to summon. Air and earth, along with most other inanimate objects, were easy as well. There were no mind games to be played with mindless things.
For living, breathing creatures, one had to work harder. An animal never wants to be captured, and so its mind beats against the invading magic. The summoner’s job is to beat back.
Magnolia struggled to draw the runes in the air, the force of a small creature’s willpower pushing against her fingers. She could feel its heartbeat inside her chest, pounding much faster than her own. As she fought against the resistance, the tiny heartbeat grew stronger. The creature was drawing closer. Finally, she finished the final rune. Sweat rolled down her nose, and she wiped it away with her sleeve.
A very startled frog appeared in midair and fell to the floor. Magnolia squeaked in joy, scooping it up with both hands to examine her new friend.
“I haven't seen anything like you in ages! All the frogs here are, well, um—” she paused, looking into the frog’s frightened eyes. “—you know what, you don't want to know.”
Before the frog could utter any sort of reply, a cold, graceful hand tore it away from its captor. Sorrel inspected Magnolia’s prize, poking and prodding it with a long fingernail.
“He's missing a foot.”
Sure enough, one of the poor frog’s front feet was missing entirely.
“Do better next time.”
Before Magnolia could do anything, Sorrel uttered a spell and the frog slumped to the ground, a deep wound in its neck.
“Collect the blood. I can still get some use out of it.”
Magnolia was too shocked to say anything, so she nodded her head and set about cleaning up the mess on the floor. Sorrel took the frog’s corpse by the hind legs and held it away from her as she walked away. She paused.
“Magnolia, don't get attached to anything from outside the forest. If it enters the cottage, it'll end up in a potion sooner or later. A witch must not harbor any affection for her victims.”
The apprentice tried her best to blink back the burning tears that threatened to fall at any moment, but she was unsuccessful.
“Are you crying at the loss of an insignificant life? How do you expect to perform beautifying spells if you shed tears over nothing?” Sorrel glanced at the frog. “The thing’s dead, child. It'll never come back, and it hadn't the brains to know what was coming to it. A witch must source her ingredients somehow.”
Magnolia knew that was true. She would never be beautiful if she cried over a frog. But the thought of never achieving outward perfection only made the tears fall faster.
“Don't you try to gain sympathy from me. I'm not going to do your job for you, I could get sick from frog’s blood, and what a waste of a perfectly good healing potion that would be! It's stressful enough having to tote this—” the witch waggled the frog for emphasis, “—around. If I get any warts I'm going to feed you to the spirits outside.”
“Yes, mistress.” The phrase slipped out of Magnolia’s mouth, even though there was no need to say it. It simply came out on its own, an automatic reaction from three years of apprenticeship. Sorrel gave her a pointed nod, furrowed her brow, and walked away in a huff.
“Finish cleaning this mess up and go upstairs. I'll call for you when you're needed.”
“Yes, mistress,” Magnolia pulled herself together and stood up, a massive lump in her throat. Numbly, she whispered spells that transported the frog blood into a small, tightly closed jar in the kitchen, where the rest of the blood was kept. Occasionally, she'd shudder and cry again, and the spell would backfire, sending the blood every which way. She finished after what seemed like an hour of silent, tearful work, and climbed the stairs.
Dantress sat on the bed with her head hung. The red outline of a hand shone on her cheek, and the front of her dress was wet. She was trembling. Magnolia, suddenly overcome with shame, shuffled to her garden. For quite some time, the only noises were the occasional rustle of shifting fabric or sharp, shaky inhalations. Magnolia wished she could disappear.
“I'm going.” Dantress’s voice filled the room, shaking. “Don't try and stop me.”
Magnolia froze, and snuck another glance at the girl. Pure, fiery determination shone in her eyes, and she lifted her head ever so slightly.
“I’m going home.”
Before anything more could be said, Dantress opened the window and climbed down the ivy-covered wall, jumping to the ground when she reached a low enough height. Before long, her now-tattered skirt disappeared within the dense forest, and she couldn’t be seen any longer. Magnolia managed to unfreeze herself, and ran to the window. Unsure of what else to do, she grabbed a knife and a fresh sprig of spearmint, always good to have on hand during the night. Then, following Dantress’s lead, she started after the escapee.