The Crowfoot Cottage
"Tira, you disagreeable girl! Haven't you got the firewood ready?"
Tira was disturbed by the dulcet screeching of Morag, her stepmother. "No, Morag," she mumbled. "Sorry."
"I'll sorry you. Get on with it."
Tira stared miserably down at the woodpile. She noticed a spider had spun its intricate, gossamer web between two logs. She didn't want to disturb it by moving the pile. She just chopped what wood she had already picked up.
After that she had to go and fetch some apples from Tom and Martha, the farmers.
There was a cheerful fire crackling in the grate of the farmhouse. Tom and Martha's home was a great place, as far as Tira could see. Hams and pheasants hanging from the ceiling, well worn wooden furniture and an appetising smell coming from the pot on the fire.
Tira grinned at the couple. "Hey, Tom, Martha." She hugged them both in greeting. Tom's stubble felt scratchy against Tira's face. Martha looked so pretty made up, with glossy light red lips and her cheeks lightly rouged. Tira wished she had some makeup. She herself had a splash of freckles on her nose which she felt self-conscious about.
"Good to see yer, Tira," said Martha smiling at her. They invited her to stay for some stew. Copper, the dog, came in and Tira scratched him behind the ears, making him whine and roll on the floor. Cinders the black cat came in and sat himself beside the dog.
"You're soppy," Tira crooned, making a kissy face.
"Aye," said Tom. "We keep him around for show. Hope no trespasser finds out that he's just an overgrown puppy."
Tira wished she could stay longer, although she was already apprehensive about what Morag would say about her taking so long. Her home had become miserable since her Dad remarried. Coming to the little village of Selwyck hadn't helped. She couldn't really stay. She was already sixteen. She had to find a way out. She had to take the initiative now. She could easily make a fourth-rate farm hand.
"Um… Tom… Martha… Did you need any farm hands? I could be one. Just not a very good one."
"Ah, sorry, darlin'… we're only just making ends meet," said Martha.
"Oh. Well. It doesn't matter," said Tira, feeling forlorn. "Hello? What's wrong, boy?"
Copper the dog yelped and ran out of the room. Cinders hissed, his hackles raising, and then he dashed off too.
At that moment, the door swung open and a tall lady swept in. Now she was a sight to behold. She was bright green, with long, silky black hair, an aquiline face. So green! Brighter than fresh grass in spring and her skin looked shiny and silky. Her lips were greyish, almost black.
Tira gaped at her, but then remembered her manners and looked at the floor instead.
Tom got to his feet, followed by his wife. "Mistress Crowfoot." They both curtseyed awkwardly.
"Tom. Martha," she inclined her head. "Any thoughts on my offer for your orchard?"
"S-Sorry, Ma'am," said Tom, "but cider sales keep our business afloat during the winter. We'd go under if we agreed."
Mistress Crowfoot breathed though her nose. "Is that all you have to say?"
Tira misunderstood at that moment, and thought that Mistress Crowfoot was inviting any of them to speak. She got to her feet, curtseying even more clumsily than Tom. "Um, Mistress Crowfoot, Ma'am, I'd like to say that I'm new here and looking for work. Um… I'm Tira."
The green lady's dark eyes widened for a second, then she gave Tira a penetrating look. "You're looking for work, girl?"
Martha was mouthing something. That was annoying. If she had something to say, couldn't she just speak so Tira could hear? Tom was shaking his head. Again, why? Tira wished he wouldn't.
Mistress Crowfoot stared at Tira down her shiny green nose. She looked so weird! Tira smiled at her.
"As it happens, I might be able to use a girl's assistance," said Mistress Crowfoot. "How would you like to learn the craft of a powerful woman, Tira?"
"I-I'd like it very much, Ma'am," said Tira, trying to ignore the weird gestures Tom and Martha were making.
"Then you can be my apprentice – on a trial basis. Come."
"T-Thank you, Ma'am. Um… sorry, Tom, Martha, I've got to leave the apples for now…" Tira wasn't sure exactly what she was going to do about the apples.
"That will be taken care of," said Mistress Crowfoot. "As will informing your guardians. Come on, girl. We haven't got all day."
Tira bade a hasty farewell to Tom and Martha and trotted after the green woman.
Outside it had stopped raining. Leaving the farmhouse, Tira followed the witch through a wood. Brambles snagged at Tira's legs, and branches dragged at her hair.
"Keep up girl," said Mistress Crowfoot. She was gliding ahead. It could have been a trick of the light, but the branches actually seemed to part for her.
Emerging from the woods, Tira staggered after the green lady into a clearing. Then she stopped and gasped, for now she saw the strangest thing her eyes had even beheld. There was a small hill in the middle of the clearing, on which stood a massive crow's foot – of truly monstrous proportions. The scaly, clawed thing was clutching the hill, its claws digging into the earth and rocks. But that wasn't all… On top of the crow's foot there was a cottage, balanced precariously.
"Look on it well, Tira. This is a true dwelling of witches. Can you honestly say you have seen such a thing before?"
"Nunno, Ma'am," said Tira.
So, Mistress Crowfoot was a witch. What was it that witches actually did?
On the underside of the cottage was a trap door. Mistress Crowfoot clambered up the massive crow's foot and pushed the trap door open. Tira followed her with more difficulty.
It was dingy in the cottage and smelled weird – dried herbs overlaid with a musty stench. As Tira's eyes accustomed to the gloom, she saw rickety shelves pack with jars and bottles, herbs hanging from rafters, and several musty books on the table. The room was also full of animals. A black cat sat on the table, watching Tira with unblinking green eyes. A large toad squatted on the floor and a bat flitted from one side of the room to the other. Perched on the back of a chair was a large raven, and above the hearth was… Tira didn't know what. An ugly, blue monkey with fangs? Some kind of magical beast?
The witch loomed over Tira. "Witches do great things. We cure all ills. We can even stop death."
"Wow. You save lives? That's great," said Tira grinning.
The witch stared down at her. The dim light shining through the small windows shone off her green nose. "Will you become my apprentice? Know that I can be a hard task-mistress, but if you apply yourself, I'll see you become a great witch." She held out her left hand. Tira supposed she should do the same. They clasped hands. The witch's green hand felt cold and the green lady had a musty odour about her.
Then Mistress Crowfoot clapped her hands together, suddenly brisk. "But now you have to earn your keep and start working. First, I need this place swept up. Then the shelves dusting and the cauldron and mirror cleaned. I am your Mistress now and you must do as I say."
Tira nodded. "Yes Mistress."
"I have something to do, but I will be back soon. It had better all be done to my satisfaction."
And so Tira cleaned up the cottage. The animals sat around watching her. Tira wanted to pet the cat, but it shrank away from her. This made her sad, so she focused on the tasks at hand. She buffed the mirror with a rag. She peered into it and tried to sort out her hair. It was really messy from being in the woods. She smoothed it out as best she could and studied the effect.
"What effect do you hope for?" chattered a squeaky little voice. "You are nothing special."
Tira jumped, and looked wildly around, before realising that it was the weird monkey creature speaking.
"Oh, hello Mr, ummm,"
The creature bared his fangs. "I am a grimalkin. A magical imp. Call me Gloom. You want a frank appraisal of how you appear to the world? Blue eyes. Hair like straw..."
"My hair's not like straw," protested Tira, putting a hand to her head.
The imp snickered. "You are not like a handsome grimalkin, such as I."
"Oh. Right. Er, it's amazing you can talk… Gloom." She held out a hand. "I'm Tira. I'm staying here."
The blue furred creature capered around her. "I'm afraid that is the case. I hope you know what you are in for. The Mistress is off with my mean brother. You don't even suspect what they're doing."
"Oh, OK." Tira really had no clue what that meant. "Well I wanna be a witch to help people."
The imp gave a squeaky, snorting laugh.
Tira folded her arms and pouted. "I can do it. I'll work hard. I just wanna help people."
"You dizzy dreamer," said the imp.
"Don't be mean," she admonished.
Soon, Mistress Crowfoot was back. She set Tira to work watching her cauldron over the fire to check that it didn't boil over. After that, she scooped up a purple sludge and instructed Tira how to stamp out the pills using her pill stamper.
Then Tira had to watch a potion simmer over the fire, even though the fumes made her light headed.
When night fell, the witch beckoned to her. "I'll show you how to collect ingredients of greater potency. Take these gloves." She handed Tira a pair of gloves, made of soft leather.
They left the cottage. Striding into the darkness, the witch wore a long black cloak, so it looked like her bright green face and hands were floating. She led Tira down a path deeper into the woods. Tira hurried after her. The leaves crunched beneath her boots and brambles and nettles caught against her legs. Tira saw a point of glowing light, which was soon joined by others like it. Suddenly she realised what these were. Fairies flew on gossamer wings around them, making an eerie, discordant melody.
"Come and play as the wild fairies play,
In a magical circle a fairy ring,
You won't want to leave and forever you'll stay,
Where the vision is bright as spring.
Come and dance the wild fairy dance,
Spin in a circle as fast as light,
Once you begin you are caught in a trance,
And the world will grow old in a single night."
Then the eerie chorus began to hiss.
"Those who seek us surely find us, see the trail we leave behind us.
Are we kind, or are we vicious? We'll make a poison sooo delicious…"
Tira shuddered and drew close to the witch. Mistress Crowfoot pointed at a ring of red toadstools with white spots. "Pull these up. Wild fairies cultivate the best toadstools. Tame fairies never seem to have the knack."
Tira pulled up the toadstools, hoping that the witch wouldn't decide to leave her among the fairies. She chanced a glance up at the green woman. The eerie fairy lights played over the witch's lurid face as she gazed down impassively.
Back in the cottage, Tira ate a frugal supper, after which, Mistress Crowfoot insisted that she wash herself with buckets of water at the well. When it came to sleeping, Tira didn't have a bedroom like the witch did. Instead, she slept on the floor among the familiars, under a raggedy old blanket.
In the dark of the night, Gloom the grimalkin sidled up to her. "I see you are still here, girl. You are persistent, but none too wise."
"Yeah, thanks a lot," mumbled Tira.
"I've a feeling the farmers you're acquainted with… Tom and Martha, wasn't it? They will likely fall on hard times."
Tira scowled at him. "Don't be mean about them. I don't like it."
The imp didn't seem to be sleepy. He capered around her. "My brother was there at the farm. He's not to be trusted."
"Mm." Tira covered her eyes and tried to sleep.
When she awoke at dawn, Tira thought Mistress Crowfoot might want breakfast when she woke up, so she prepared some porridge with berries for sweetening the flavour.
The green woman was still asleep, but when Tira came in, her eyelids fluttered and she glared. "What time do you call this?"
Tira held the porridge out to her. "I-I thought you might like something to eat."
Mistress Crowfoot sniffed. "This is what you'd serve me? Never mind. You have a lot of chores in store today.
That she did. Tira had to gather wood, fetch water, watch cauldrons, clean up and stamp out pills. The witch showed her what ingredients went into the simple remedies for headaches, colds and such. In the afternoon, she left with a case of her pills and potions, but returned in the evening in a terse mood. Tira hoped she would learn about saving lives soon, but she was willing to start out with menial things.
"How goes it with the poor farmers, Mistress?" asked Gloom, capering around the witch.
"Don't speak unless you're spoken to, imp," snapped his Mistress.
"Um, will I be ready to start healing soon?" stammered Tira.
"Not yet. But you can probably come to the marketplace soon," said the witch.
A week went by and Tira was still stamping out pills and doing the chores. She did go to the marketplace and attempted to sell some simple remedies. The imp and the raven went with her, the raven perching on the bough of a tree nearby and the imp hiding under the stall.
A boy came up to her, but he didn't seem interested in buying anything.
"This is the witch's stuff, right? A real creepy person she is. Green skin and awful, staring eyes, ugh!"
"She can't help how she looks," said Tira, wrinkling her nose at him. "And don't backbite. I don't like it."
When Tira arrived back at the cottage and scrambled up the weird crow foot, it was dark outside. The witch stared at her impassively as she hauled herself up. The moon was up, and the ethereal light streamed through the small window, shining off her green nose and cheeks.
At that moment, one of the familiars, the raven, flew in through the window, cawing in his harsh voice.
"No…" said Mistress Crowfoot. "These are dreadful tidings indeed."
"What's wrong, Mistress?" asked Tira concerned.
The witch's greyish lips formed a smile, although it looked kind of fixed. "It's time to accelerate your training, Tira."
"Oh, good!" Tira was glad to hear it. "I'll give it all I've got."
"It'll take even more than that… I'm talking eternal commitment. Are you ready for that?"
Tira nodded, her throat tight and her palms beginning to sweat.