by Holly Stacey -
Wincing, Elda pulled hard on the cauldron handle to drag it from the fire. Her strength was slowly leaving her body just as the color had left her lovely wavy hair years ago. It wasn’t easy living alone, but she enjoyed it. She loved being in the center of her woods, familiar with every living thing around her. Once, many, many years ago, she lived with other people in a village. She was the youngest of twelve siblings, all of whom were constantly fighting over the pettiest of things. Back then, she really believed beauty came from mankind, but as she grew, she found people to be false and self-centered. So she left. And the only thing she took with her to the woods was her love of gingerbread, (which she fashioned her house with), her walking stick, and her cat, Peaches.
Peaches loved the woods too. She would frolic with the butterflies every summer and chase mice that would nibble on the floorboards in the winter. Unfortunately, cats don’t live as long as humans, and she passed away in her thirteenth year, leaving Elda feeling yet again lonely.
“Tut!” Elda said to the cauldron. Every so often she felt the need to exclaim something just to ease her frustration. It still didn’t budge, so she let it settle back down comfortably into the smouldering ashes.
“What are you doing?” a silvery voice from the door called. Elda smiled. She loved getting special visitors.
“I’m trying to get my cauldron out of the ashes,” said Elda, turning to greet her visitor. She picked up her skirts like a lady of the realm and strode as evenly as her old bones could to where Naia waited patiently at the door. Naia’s white mane sparkled in the morning sunlight, amazing since the cottage was built under a canopy of alder trees, but light always seemed to follow her.
“You’re getting too old to live by yourself,” Naia said, shaking her head slightly.
Elda chuckled and stroked Naia’s long nose. “Easy for a unicorn to say,” she said in a huff, “you’ll live forever!”
Naia chuckled musically then bent her head low to match Elda’s height. “I’ve some news,” she said earnestly. “Your niece and nephew-in-law are on their way to find you.”
Elda wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Villagers!”
“It’s worse than that. There has been a rumor spread among the villagers that an old witch living in the woods is a magician and can summon demons to spin gold. They think you’re doing this and have come for money.”
“Money! As if I’d touch the filthy stuff!”
“Elda,” Naia whispered. “Do be careful. I don’t like the look of these people, and I think they’ll try to trick you.”
Elda reached up and hugged Naia around her soft neck. “Thank you,” she whispered back. “I’ll be careful, and I definitely won’t tell them about you!”
Naia neighed and left, quietly galloping though the trees and meadow, her light hooves barely touching the soft ferns and moss below. Elda sighed as the unicorn faded from sight, and the area around the house faded back into its normal shade of the trees. “My relatives, huh?” she said and walked back to her comfortable wicker rocking chair to have a think.
* * * *
“Jack! Polly! Get in here now!” shouted their mother from the kitchen. They could see flour everywhere and knew better than to answer her. A whipping from the cane was loads better than a smacking with a rolling pin. They sneaked out the back door as quickly as they could.
“Gotcha!” Their father swept them up in one scoop and took them to the kitchen where their mother shot them a furious look.
“We’re going to look for your aunt in the woods today, children. I want you to look your worst, as if we’re really struggling, and she may give us some money.”
“But wood folk don’t have any money,” complained Jack. “They just smell bad and look ugly.”
“And she’ll curse us,” chimed in Polly. “We know she’s a witch!”
“Yes, she’s a witch,” said their father, “but she knows spells to make gold.”
Polly’s eyes shone with greed. “You mean she can give us whatever we want if we ask nicely?”
“If she wants to, the greedy old cow,” interrupted their mother.
“And if she doesn’t, we can wallop her, can’t we dad?” said Jack, brandishing his beating stick that he normally reserved for thumping rabbits.
“As I said, get ready so we can go, their mother said. “I’ve got some bread to take to her to sweeten up her disposition; old people are so cranky, you know.”
And so, the family set off into the woods, grumbling and complaining all the way...