The hag sat in her worn rocking chair, a Meerschaum clinched in her teeth. Sparse twigs of her thinning grey hair falling loose from her tattered head scarf. Her skin the color and texture of the dried apples she sometimes sold at market. Hunched over, leaning on her rowan cane, the hag would carry her wares in a bag thrown over her shoulder. Walking with a steady, but slow gait, the townspeople gave her a wide berth, fearing her displeasure and rheumy gaze. Those milky eyes seeing deep into a person’s soul.
It was dark inside her hovel. What windows there were to let in sunlight were covered with heavy, woven tapestries. Their crude designs crafted with dark threads, dyed with plants and roots the hag scavenged from the surrounding woods. A thick, greenish smoke hung in clouds around a steaming caldron suspended over a smoldering fire. A sharp tang in the air made visitors cough and wipe burning tears from their eyes.
Mercia lay in a heap at the hag’s feet, weeping. After the last wave of sobs swept through her body, she lifted her head, resting it in the witch’s lap.
“Mother, I love Duncan so much. I must be near him forever,” the ferocity of her desire burning hot against her skin.
A fallen woman, Mercia had given more than her body to the shire’s laird. His promises, whispered in her ear during their couplings were taken as a pledge of enduring love. That he was using her merely for his pleasure, unsure of even her name, was impossible.
When he failed to acknowledge her during a chance encounter outside the cathedral, she feared she had vexed him, causing him to withhold his affections. After a week, and no summons from him, Mercia went to plead with the hag for her to intervene with the Fates on her behalf.
Pouring out her heart to the hag, Mercia begged for her help, asking for a potion or spell powerful enough to change Duncan’s heart and make him love her, and her alone.
The hag reached out, cupping the young woman’s chin in her hand. Mercia’s copper hair fell in curls to her waist, framing a full face. Emerald green eyes, swollen and red-rimmed from her crying could not meet the hag’s intense stare. Her ivory skin tinged pink in the glow of the fire, showed shadows of old bruises where a man’s hands grasped her arms and finger tip coins around her throat were all but faded.
Turning the girl’s head this way and that, the hag breathed in the her longing, engulfing her in a pungent perfume. She had seen this desperation before. A woman fallen victim to her passions, choosing to pander to an undeserving man.
The girl wanted to be near her phantom lover? So be it.
Abruptly standing, more agile than Mercia thought possible, the hag began gathering items from overflowing shelves lining the walls of her hovel. She added dried branches of mistletoe to the hearth fire, and ground acorns from the ancient oak on Duncan’s estate into a fine powder. A massive river stone standing in the middle of the room served as her table. A hollow worn by the raging waters formed a shallow mortar, and a sun-bleached hip bone of a white hart was her pestle.
Mercia cowered when the hag approached her with a dagger in her hand. Snatching a fistful of her hair, the hag sheared off a long ringlet, wrapping one end in thread from a skein of spider silk.
Into the ever-present cauldron, the hag sprinkled the acorn powder along with the bundle of her hair, uttering an incantation that Mercia could not understand. Picking up her rowan cane, made from the wood of a tree that grew alone in a druid circle in the deepest part of the wildwood, the hag stirred the concoction until Mercia thought she would faint from the acrid smoke.
Ladling out a mug of the caustic brew, the hag urged Mercia to drink it in one swallow. The heat and bitter taste causing her to gag, the hag forced the mug back, warning her to not spill a drop. Mercia sputtered and coughed, but kept the drink down.
“Sleep beneath the laird’s old oak during the new moon, you’ll get your wish,” the witch divined, cackling.
In the darkness, a night unlit by the moon, Mercia crept across a vast lawn to the oak as the hag instructed. She had donned her best dress. A velvet gown of green, a shade darker than her eyes, the low lacy bodice barely containing her décolletage. Duncan had said it was his favorite.
Curling her body around the base of the tree, she rested her head on her folded arms. As sleep finally overcame her, Mercia was unaware the roots were rising up, encircling her, pulling her into the bole, trapping her inside.
Duncan and his gamesman Rolf happened upon the scene early the next morning. Hunting wild boar, the two stopped at the old oak. Leaning his back against the massive oak, a strange burl bearing the likeness of a familiar face appeared to be looking over Duncan’s shoulder. Rolf, who had grown up on the estate, knew every inch of the property, every landmark, every hill. This day, it was as if he saw the ancient tree for the first time.
“I’ve never noticed that knot in your tree before, Duncan. It looks like a sleeping woman, don’t you think?”
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Grace challenged me with “A mortar and pestle, a skein of silk thread, acorns, rowan and mistletoe” and I challenged Leslie with “He knows when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good”.
* for this challenge, I took a very short piece I wrote last year and expanded on it.