Pieder lived in a forest with his mother, Laurinda, and his father, Douglas, and his two younger sisters, Lucy and Rosalind. His father's father's father had first built the small stone house that they inhabited, and his grandfather had expanded it with logs. Pieder's father had spent every spring since his first child was born replacing the logs with stone fit together just so, so as to prevent wind from slipping through any cracks. Pieder was really the second child in the family, but his older brother Frederick had died of the pox when Pieder was five and Frederick was eight. It had been a devastating blow to Pieder's parents, and they had never been the same since. Pieder dimly recalled when the house was a warm and welcoming place, but his younger sisters had no such recollections and occasionally Pieder felt sorry for them. He would have spent more time feeling sorry for them, but he spent most of his life incredibly busy. There was bark to strip off of the logs his father cut, and fur to clean and the house to be swept and tools to be mended. All the small chores of the house besides knitting and spinning and weaving and churning butter were delegated to Pieder. He didn't mind too much, except that he longed to have some time to spend wandering the secret paths of the forest and encountering witches and wizards and gnomes and the like. Fairy stories told by Laurinda had taken a fierce hold upon the boy, and nothing Douglas said could shake Pieder's certainty that some secret magic lay just beneath the surface of his entire life.
Pieder grew fairly peacefully to be eleven years old, with a seven and four year old sister to plague him any time they were free and he was working (which happened far too often for Pieder's taste). But shortly after his birthday, on the eve of Midsummer's Day, he fell ill with a terrible fever. His mother made poultices and remedies that generations of woodsfolk had learned. Some were to reduce the awful aches and pains that raced from joint to joint. Some were to bring down the fever itself. And some were to keep evil away and attract friendly spirits to protect and heal the young boy.
Nothing worked. The second night he became delirious. On the morning of the third day, Pieder's mother begged Douglas to seek out the Witch of the Wood, a superstition with unusual staying power amongst the local folk. Pieder's father, certain of failure and without an ounce of hope, reluctantly agreed. He did this act not out of love for his son, whom he was certain was destined for death within hours, but for love of his wife who would never rest unless no effort had been spared to save her beloved child. With the death of Frederick, the house had been filled with anger, regret, and recrimination. Pieder's father was determined that Pieder's death would not come so close to destroying his family.
Douglas spent the first two hours of his search racing to his nearest neighbors who lived ten miles to the north of his isolated farmstead. Arriving out of breath with glassy eyes and a desperate air, he was fed gruel and given well water to drink as a courtesy. Upon making his inquiry for the Witch of the Wood, he became suddenly unwelcome.
"There's the old woman who comes begging at our door twice a year," the wife said grudgingly.
"But a witch? Surely not, Douglas. Go home to your family," the husband suggested.
"But my boy," Douglas said, his voice breaking, "My boy will die and my wife may never recover from losing two children."
"The beggar woman always comes from the east," the wife offered. "Perhaps she would know some remedy and could be paid to pretend to be the Witch of the Wood for your wife's sake."
"Alice!" the husband chided. "Go home Douglas, tell your wife that your search was for naught. What will be, will be, and no human hand can change that."
Douglas thanked the couple for their hospitality and advice. He then dithered on the path back to his home, thinking of his wife's tormented face and the pale writhing creature that lay in his son's bed. He loathed the thought of ever returning to that sickroom and the bedside of another dead child. To put off the awful moment, he turned to the east and made his way along the forest paths to the beggar woman.
Another two hours passed as he jogged through the woods. A tangle of brambles, unusually dense in the fairly open undergrowth of the forest, caught Douglas' eye. He paused, and heard the sound of faint humming and digging, as though someone were weeding a garden. He called out, "Hello?"
A head appeared around one edge of the brambles. It had sunken eye sockets, empty, where eyes should have been. A hand, shortened gruesomely with every first joint removed, beckoned him closer. He stood frozen in place. The woman gestured again, impatiently. She pointed at her mouth and made a negative motion - Douglas was uncertain whether she could not speak or was telling him not to speak. But he stepped closer, and she grinned an open mouthed grin that revealed a terrifying lack of tongue.
"My child is ill," Douglas began cautiuosly.
The old woman's face became the perfect image of solemnity. She put a hand up to still his tale, and beckoned Douglas to follow her. She led him around the brambles and into a garden that was a riot of smells and colors. Purple lilacs, violet violets, red and white roses, and yellow tulips bloomed in a profusion of scent and brilliance. Douglas stared amazed and a little bit terrified. These flowers should not be blooming together, some plants were out of season and all were out of place, growing in a shaded patch of forest at the end of fall. Yet they seemed to flourish nonetheless, a magic beyond Douglas' ken.
Douglas was so distracted by the impossible garden that he jumped when the old woman appeared by his side. She gestured for him to lead her.
"Can you help my child?" Douglas asked.
The old woman nodded, then gestured again impatiently.
"Am I supposed to lead you to my home?" Douglas asked.
The old woman nodded and gestured a third time, stamping her foot out of irritation at the delay. Douglas turned and led the blind woman from the magic garden and back onto the forest road. At first he traveled slowly, concerned that the old woman would have trouble following him. But she seemed to have no troubles despite her blindness, and so Douglas sped up until they were traveling at a gentle jog.
About an hour later they arrived back at Douglas' small stone home. The old woman waited while Douglas opened the door and told her politely that she was invited in. She nodded her thanks and made her way into the small house.
An overwhelming stench of sweat and disease filled the cottage. A woman, slender and worn, sat in a rickety wooden chair beside a cot. On the cot lay a small figure, moaning and whimpering, twisting and kicking. The old woman made her way through cooking implements and to the bedside of the ill child.
She knelt and began gently touching the boy with her partially destroyed fingers.
The woman in the chair twitched and awoke, then gasped at the sight of a strange old woman with her beloved Pieder. "Who are you? Get away from my son!" Laurinda exclaimed.
"Shh, it's the Witch of the Wood here to heal him," Douglas said, hand on his wife's shoulder.
"You found her? She's real?" Laurinda asked, dazed.
Douglas wasn't sure how to answer this question. "Mmm," he said noncommitally. "Let's give her more space to work."
The two anxious parents retreated to one of the two long benches at the combined kitchen counter and dinner table. They clenched each other's hands and watched the old woman work.
She checked the boy's pulse, then removed a string from a pocket and tied it around his arm. The string emitted a gentle hum and glowed a soft orange.
The old woman tilted her head, listening closely to the faint sound which was almost drowned out by Pieder's moans and whimpers. The old woman unwrapped the string and lay it across Pieder's forehead. This time it hummed a gentle melody and glowed a deep red. The old woman nodded. Then she laced the string through her injured and scarred fingers on her left hand and held Pieder's eyes open with her right hand, first the left eye and then the right eye. Her string laced hand hovered over each eye in turn, emitting a softly whisteled tune and glowing first blue then green then dimming to a barely visible white strand.
The old woman nodded once more, then gently set the string down onto the sleeping boy. It writhed to an uncanny life, and Laurinda screeched in horror.
The witch put up a silencing hand, and Douglas caught Laurinda in his arms before she could rush to her son's side. "Hush, you'll wake the girls," he mumured.
"Mama? What's wrong?" a small voice asked, still filled with sleep.
Lucy, seven years old and still half asleep, knelt beside the bannister of the cottage's loft. She held the hand of four year old Rosalind tightly enough that Rosalind whined and tried to pull away.
"Everything's fine, girls," Douglas said firmly.
"Mama?" Lucy repeated uncertainly.
"Yes, everything's fine. Go back to bed. It's late," Laurinda murmured, entranced by the writhing string making it's way towards her beloved boy's nostrils.
She gasped and flinched when the string wormed its way up his nose and slipped out of view into Pieder's insides. Lucy and Rosalind stared unabashedly at the old woman in their home, but obeyed their parents and went back to lay in bed. They whispered together, Lucy shushing Rosalind and providing the comfort that her parents were too terrified to offer.
Pieder's tossing and turning slowly stilled, and after almost half an hour the string slipped back out of his nose. It lay quiescent on his chest, just a string and nothing more. Laurinda shivered, horrified and scared. The old woman took a scrap of cloth from a pocket and used it to lift the string. As soon as the cloth touched it, an eerie melody began to fill the silent cottage. The old woman nodded and turned to the couple with a faint smile on her hideous face.
She placed the string and cloth back into one of her pockets, then pantomimed money dropping from one hand into the other. The parents glanced at each other uncertainly.
"You want payment?" Douglas asked.
The old woman nodded.
"We don't have much money," Douglas said.
The old woman waved a hand dismissively.
"You want something else?"
The old woman nodded. She pointed a stubbed finger at the boy.
"Yes we want you to heal him," Douglas said, perplexed. He had thought this was clear already from the way the old woman has been checking the boy over.
The old woman frowned and pantomimed money once more, then pointed to the boy.
"You want... Pieder as payment?" Laurinda gasped.
The old woman nodded. The parents stood frozen. "We can't," Laurinda said to the air.
"Better a servant or slave than dead," Douglas said dully.
"But to her?" Laurinda wailed.
"She seems nice enough," Douglas said, uncertain that he was telling the truth.
"We can't," Laurinda repeated more faintly.
"We have no choice," Douglas said grimly. "Yes, you may have our son if you can make him well."
The old woman smiled with a set of perfect, white teeth. She walked past the couple and, despite being blind and in a new house, started a pot of water boiling with almost no trouble.
The Witch healed Pieder with little to no trouble. He spent several days recovering, and once he got his wits back he argued with his parents about being "sold" to the Witch of the Wood. They apologized, but Laurinda remembered the writhing string that had come to life and refused to anger the old woman by refusing her the payment she had requested. With no home willing to accept him, Pieder reluctantly walked with his father to the Witch's residence.
After a tearful goodbye with promises by Douglas to visit his son as often as possible, Douglas left Pieder standing beside the brambles and jogged back down the forest road heading home to his cottage.