September 15th, 2024
The forest could have been anywhere really. Somewhere dark in Eastern Europe, where the tree branches blocked out the sun and wayward children grew frightened and wished of home. It is where the natural passed to the supernatural, where one ceased to fear the wolves and bears and instead began to fear the monster, the spirit…
Or the witch.
Huldra, the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming, made her way fearlessly through the dark forest as she sought her destination. She did not get lost as children did, and could feel the traces of magic in the air as if following the pleasing smells of cooking. She walked by herself through the woods, but she would not be alone for long.
After a brief search, Huldra found her destination, a clearing in the woods where the trees parted and the sky overhead was thick with grey clouds, already darkening further as the sun sought the western horizon. Filling the clearing was a small cottage made of logs and timber with a ramshackle roof. Black smoke rose from the crooked chimney, and lights had been lit within that filled the windows with a soft amber glow against the darkening shadows.
The houses most notable feature, however, were the massive pair of birdlike feet upon which it stood.
Huldra gained a crooked smirk as she approached. All witches had their tastes.
She stepped boldly towards the chicken-footed house, and as her feet reached the point where the porch should have been, she vanished, only to reappear with her feet stepping down onto the old wooden steps high above where her head had been. With one hand she knocked on the door, and she held out the other which in an instant held a conjured bottle of wine wrapped in delicate-looking paper and tied in a red ribbon. Huldra was many negative things, but impolite was not one of them.
There was a bustling from inside the old worn-out cottage before the door flew open and a rush of warm air spilled over Huldra’s face. In the doorway stood a stooped, bone, and ferocious-looking old crone. The crone eyed the tall and slender witch suspiciously before stepping aside to let her in.
“Thank you for letting us use your home, Baba,” Huldra smiled as she handed the crone the wine.
“Blow it out yer’ ears, ya Norse crone,” she spat. “Why’s it I’m the only damned witch who can keep good track o’ the time? Just been me and the damned African Spider for an hour and he won’t shut up for nary a second.”
As the crone led her into the sitting room, she gestured towards a tall black-skinned man who had made himself comfortable on an old moth-eaten couch. He was devilishly handsome and sat with ease, arms spread out over the tip of the couch, glistening body dressed in silk the color of moonlight, and his black eyes twinkling eight times over from the flickering light of the hearth.
“Nancy,” the crone addressed him gruffly. “This is Huldra, and you’d better be showing her more respect than you’ve shown me. Huldra’s the eldest in this gathering of miscreants and she-devils.”
“Except for Hecate,” Huldra smoothly corrected her as the tall man rose to greet her, though for a moment his hands appeared to be both spread out and at his side, a curious illusion that lasted only a second and gave him the appearance of far more limbs than he had.
“Lady Huldra it is then,” He smiled at her, his voice deep and smooth. “And it is more properly Anansi. You must ignore this old woman, I have been showing nothing but respect I assure you. I simply wished to…indulge her in a few of my stories.”
“Anansi then,” Huldra bowed her head in greeting. “And Huldra will suffice, there is no rank between us, regardless of age.”
“Pft!” The crone, better known to the world by a host of names, chief among them Baba Yaga, made a spitting noise at Huldra’s words. “Ya say that, but bein’ young means you usually get stuck hosting. They say age before beauty, and Huldra here has the gall to take both!”
“That she does,” Anansi smiled, his teeth brilliantly white.
“Have no others arrived?” Huldra asked, turning to Baba.
“Oh they’ll be comin’ round soon enough,” she shrugged. “Gives me more time to get the stew ready.”
Huldra put her hand to her brow. “Once more it seems they contest each other to see who can be the most fashionably late.”
“Patience then,” Anansi sat back down, gesturing Huldra to take a seat across from her. “Let me spin a tale for you while we wait.”
One by one they came, the great beacons of magic from a world over. Not every witch or warlock received an invitation. In fact there was hardly a score of them all told. They were the beings for whom the line between mortal, spirit, and god were exceptionally blurry, the ones who did not so much call upon the forces of the world, but bent the world to suit their needs. They were the pillars of magic through history and folklore, True Witches.
And they were particularly unpleasant house guests.
“Put that damned thing down!” Baba Yaga roared, banging her granite pestle on the doorframe to catch the attention of their newest arrival, a dark-haired young woman, who had been examining a small gilded chest in the corner. “Koschei gave that to me for safekeeping and I’m not about to let some empty-headed Welshy get her mitts all over it!”
“Do keep your hands to yourself, Ceridwen,” Huldra sighed, attempting to keep some semblance of order before a knock at the door alerted her to the presence of yet another guest.
“And who is next to join this little carnival?” Anansi asked as he looked over her shoulder, seeming to enjoy the relative chaos that this many witches brought.
Huldra opened the door to reveal a round-faced young woman, looking hardly twenty and in the prime of her beauty, her head a waterfall of long blonde curls, and her eyes a sparkling violet.
“Ah, of course,” Huldra inclined her head in greeting as she led her in, introducing her to the spider man. “Anansi, this is the youngest of our number, Nimue.”
“Except for Hecate,” Nimue smiled slyly. “Who I expect is just behind me.”
At the sound of Nimue’s voice, however, came a roar from the hearth as Baba Yaga charged forward.
“Don’t tell me that blonde Briton bimbo is back!” She spat, brandishing her pestle with enough fury to force Hudlra and Anansi between them to slow them down.
“I am afraid we will all need to suffer Nimue for the duration,” Huldra said. “That was the agreement.”
“I’ll never forgive her!” Baba Yaga cried. “Because of her we’re down the most handsome man in the fold! And there weren’t that many to begin with!”
“Oh I assure you, he would be here if he could,” Nimue’s sly smile had mutated into an almost fiendish smirk. “But I don’t see what you’re so up in arms about, crone. We all know Merlin had a taste for younger women.”
Anansi helped push the angry Baba Yaga back to the hearth as she continued to spew insults at the younger-bodied witch, in which Nimue only seemed to revel. Huldra, however, was far less amused.
“I will ask that you restrain yourself, Lady of the Lake,” Huldra warned her. “We should try not to antagonize each other whenever able.”
“A touch too late,” Nimue shrugged. “You-know-who isn’t coming.”
“Not at all?” Huldra raised an eyebrow. “That is strange.”
“All the better I say,” Nimue breezed past her. “Lets her keep her ugly face out of mine.”
If Huldra did not have absolute mastery of herself, she would have jumped in surprise as a new voice sounded behind her. She whirled about to meet a bleary-eyed woman standing at the threshold. She seemed youngish with brown hair, but the more Huldra looked the more she was uncertain. Sometimes her hair was straight and blonde, other times curly and black. It all depended on the flickering light and how she moved, and more often than not it was somewhere in between.
The same held true for the rest of her. In the bright light her face was smooth and full, but a shadow sometimes caught an ageing line or crow’s feet. Her dress seemed rich and bedecked in gold and jewels, but a bad ray of light would show the texture to be like burlap and the stitching poor.
“Hecate,” Huldra bowed her head more deeply than she had to the others. “Wonderful of you to arrive.”
“Good to have you back, Huldra,’ Hecate smiled as she stepped in and viewed the gathering. “What a sight…”
“I must agree it is a madhouse,” Huldra sighed, but as she looked Hecate’s face had split into a grin
“Let’s see if we can get Ceridwen drunk and push her into a shape-shifting contest with Nimue!”
“Let’s not,” Huldra said. “We have business to discuss.”
“If you insist,” Hecate rolled her eyes as she headed into the sitting room proper.
Soon enough the gathering of witches, gods of magic, and curious spirits had settled down enough to have their seats or stand against the wall. Most of them now had bowls filled with Baba Yaga’s stew, though more than a few eyed it warily.
“Please tell me this doesn’t have people in it,” Nimue made a face as her spoon sifted through the thick mixture.
“Or beef…” Chimed in Sarasvati, a recent arrival fresh from the Indian subcontinent.
“Far too picky this crowd,” Baba Yaga angrily tapped her pestle to her waist.
“Agreed,” Nodded Hecate, drinking down the last of her bowl before Baba Yaga refilled it. “But we’re not here to eat are we?”
There was a murmur of assent as all ears turned to Hecate.
Hecate was perhaps not the oldest practitioner of magic, nor was she the first god of magic, but she was with some certainty the first of their unusual breed of True Witch, and so when she spoke the others listened.
“First of all I think I speak for everyone when I welcome Huldra back to the fold.”
There were nods and a few claps, but mostly silence.
“And I would like to thank everyone from around the world here, it’s not a short journey, and many of you come from farther away than expected. It means a lot to see just how many of us there are,” She looked around at the newer faces, that of Sarasvati, Anansi, Zhang Guolao, and others from outside the European domain.
“There are a great many things for us to discuss,” she continued. “Though I notice we’re missing a prominent face. Nimue, care to shed some light on that?”
Eyes turned to the young blonde witch, who shrugged idly.
“Really Nimue, you know nothing?” Hecate frowned.
“Know nothing of what?”
At this there was a brief darkening over Hecate’s appearance, lasting only a moment, but it was enough to send a shiver through the room.
“Where is Morgan le Fay?”
“Oh, heeeeer,” Nimue rolled her eyes. “She’s gone to ground recently and decided not to come. No doubt she’s planning something.”
“We’re all planning something,” Ceridwen spoke up. “Let’s face it that’s who we are, but why would Morgan try to keep secrets from us?”
“Because she’s a jealous bitch who doesn’t like sharing power?” Nimue suggested.
“Because she’s going to try something reckless,” Huldra said. “I know the sentiment, and she’s well positioned to do something very bold.”
“And potentially very stupid,” Baba Yaga complained. “That woman loves to stick her nose in it.”
“Nimue,” Huldra turned back to her. “You’re closest to her, if it’s anyone’s job to keep an eye on Morgan, it’s yours.”
“That was really more Merlin’s thing,” Nimue crossed her arms stubbornly.
“Well guess what, sis,” Hecate said, her voice full of somewhat dark cheer as she slapped Nimue on the shoulder. “When you steal someone’s power, you also inherit their responsibilities. His headaches are yours now. Deal with it.”
She turned back to the crowd, face suddenly sunny. “On to the next order of business!”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa