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The Wytchwood

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
Tess is a young Witch ready to take on the mantle of a fully bloomed Witch, which can only happen when she finds the other half of her self, her spirit in animal form. To do this she must face the terrifying Wytch Hag, the old Goddess within a magickal forest known as the Wytchwood.

Submitted: November 29, 2019

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Submitted: November 29, 2019

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It began with a dream whispering its gossamer threads through my mind, weaving its way down the spiraling stairs to my heart; the message taking hold loud and clear, “To the Wytchwood you must go.”

 

Logic told me what I knew. I wouldn’t fully Bloom into my Power as a Witch until I could meet my heart’s Familiar, the other half of myself, my Anima Familia. I knew that my Anima Familia could only be found within the dark depths of the Wytchwood. And I knew the only way this would happen would be to face the Wytch-Hag in her House of Bones. I didn’t understand why it was so, only that it was. And I also knew I was deathly afraid.

I’d grown up listening to nightmarish tales of luckless or stupid children thinking they could brave the fierce Magick of The Wytchwood before they were called to be tested by the Wytch Hag to prove they were ready for their Anima Familia.

I listened to stories about children who never came back. Of how the Wytch Hag, who must never be disobeyed, delighted in collecting young wanderers to clean her House of Bones and toil in her Poison Garden, all while tormenting them with her Imps and Pixies. It was said the Wytch Hag would chain children to her Daimon ilk and send them deep into the woods to gather herbs in the rankest of bogs, where more horrors in the guise of Leshii, Woebegones and Nuckelavees waited to drag victims into the mire.

The Wytchwood was a dark place where fears took root and grew. It was a place full of dangerous creatures, plants and even the very stones could lead a Witch astray, so the Elders said in their stories. These dangers were as real as we young Witches imagined them. the possibilities of what waited within the dank, dark trees made it all too easy for the Wytchwood to grab hold and paralyze one with petrifying terror.

This is what I felt when I first awoke.

I felt it again as I made my morning offering of honey-cake and milk at the altar in our cottage garden. I placed the earthenware plate and cup upon the table which stood before the softly gurgling waters of a stone fountain. Its murmuring brought a moment of calm and peace. This offering I performed in the same manner as all my days before; giving gratitude and homage to Dia Unali, our Mother Goddess.

Instead of feeling the bounty of Her love and protection, I felt a bone-tingling chill of cold fear run down my spine as a cluster of bees came from out of nowhere to encircle me, their wings buzzing into a cohesive chant, rising in volume and urgency, “To the Wytchwood… to the Wytchwood!… to the Wytchwood!!…

They were gone as quickly as they arrived. The idea of traveling to the terrifyingly mysterious Wytchwood and facing the Wytch Hag and her Daimons, brought the bile up from the base of my gut, into my throat and beyond. I was truly wretched that day, wracked with fear.

I also knew in my heart that I must go. My Grianmere, Branwynn told me once that the stories, true or not, served a purpose. “Only when a Witch is ready to Bloom into her Power, shall she also find the strength and perseverance to overcome whatever obstacles and challenges she will face within the Wytchwood.”

Recalling this made me think for a moment, ‘What exactly am I afraid of?’ Then, a vision of the skeletal, black-as-pitch Imp, Tumbleskin, came to mind, sending a shiver down my spine. And yet there was nothing for it but to continue forward.

I made my way to the village to seek help from the Elder Council. This included my Grianmere Branwynn, who was our greatest Healer. There was also our First Witch, Matilda, who held all the knowledge about Dia Unali and Her-Story, as well as the wisdom of our Witch-Clan lands. And there was Old Ben, our Master Auger, who knew more about the starry skies and their legends than the very gods of whose fingers themselves directed the motions of the cosmos.  

My stabbing fear wavered with a building worry that began niggling at me when I found the three of them in the village hall, conversing over mulled wine and herbed tea, with Matilda’s cobb pipe fluffing out puffs of toady-weed smoke. Here were people who loved me and wanted me to succeed. But I worried, ‘Can I succeed? What if I’m not strong enough in my Magick and the Wytch Hag enslaves me?’

Part of me knew it was time to prove I was a fully Bbloomed Witch, with my own Power to control the Elements and Weave Spelles. While another part me was afraid it was too soon, that I wasn’t strong enough in my Power. All of me was terrified of entering the Wytchwood and what would happen if I failed.  

I approached and knelt down before the Elders. My voice cracked only a little as I spoke, “My Elders, I’ve been summoned to The Wytchwood, but I am afraid!”

“Ha-ho, young Tess, this comes as no surprise, for the stars have been shinning upon the path which is yours to follow. I have seen it, and I am glad.” Said Old Ben, his ice-blue eyes twinkled as he grinned, his face cracked with thick wrinkles of time across it.

“And this is no surprise to me or your Grianmere either. Both of us have been witnessing your Magick gain in strength and focus. This is a good thing Tess.” The First Witch spoke as she reached out a hand to raise my chin and look me in the eye. Her fingers were smooth to the touch despite the knobbed knuckles and age spots upon her skin.

The tears came welling out, I couldn’t hold back, “But I’m so scared! What if I’m not strong enough? What if I don’t come back? What if I get it all wrong? Will the Wytchwood take me like the stories say? Will a nuckelavee flay me alive with whipper willow and thistle stalk? Or will the Wytch Hag enslave me and chain me to her Imp, Tumbleskin?”

“What would you have us do?” Matilda asked.

“Please help me! tell me, what will I find when I enter the Wytchwood? What Spelles will best protect me and what must I do to pass the Wytch Hag’s test so I can find my Anima Famlia and return home?”

“My dear child, Tess, we cannot help you.” The sting of my own Grianmere rejecting my pleas for help was almost worse than the fear of going into the Wytchwood. She was always so gentle and soft in her way, like her long, flowing, white hair; and now she was refusing to help me. I lowered my head and began to cry, my shoulders shaking with the fear rising again.

Then a gentle but firm hand rested upon my head. “Tess, no one is called until they’re ready. The Wytchwood is a dangerous place to be sure, but Dia Unali is with you always and she would never allow you to go before it was time. We’ve all seen the signs, they confirm what we all know, including yourself. You are ready to take on the mantle of a fully Bloomed Witch. You are ready to seek what you need to be whole within yourself.” Old Ben’s voice resonated within my head and heart. I wanted to be ready like he said I was.

Branwynn continued, “It’s not that we don’t want to help you dear. Each journey into the Wytchwood is unique. It would be folly to tell you what may or may not happen. We can’t know what you will face, so in terms of how to succeed, we really cannot help.”

Matilda spoke again, “But don’t forget young Tess, there are a few simple rules you must follow to survive in The Wytchwood. You’ve heard them before in the stories. You just need to remember them. Never stray from the path. Never follow a bobbing light through the woods. No matter who or what asks you a question, answer truthfully. The Wytchwood and its creatures always know if one is lying, and that my dear, is sure to lead to a nasty end. Lastly, and most importantly, ALWAYS, do exactly as the Wytch Hag bids you to do.”

Hearing the rules of survival in the Wytchwood again helped calm some of my fears. I’d forgotten about these ‘golden rules’ to heed within the Wytchwood. ‘Maybe I can do it, maybe it is time.’ I thought to myself before asking aloud, “Must I go now?”, wanting to show them I was ready, yet still I felt nervous.

“There’s no time like the present.” Branwynn spoke, “Once you’ve been called my dear, the summonings won’t stop until you go. It’s just over a day’s walk from here to where you’ll find the path into the Wytchwood. The sooner you begin the sooner you’ll return.”

Old Ben chimed in again, “Remember Tess, stories have layers within layers and many different meanings. It all depends upon your approach. Use your wit as much as your natural Magickal Power and you’ll do just fine!”

Yes, I knew it was time and I needed to push my fears of Daimon beasts away. I needed to cast away my worries and just continue forward. But I had one more question I needed to ask, “How do I find my way to the Wytchwood?”

*****

“You have the look of your mother with your long, auburn hair and that fleeting smile you’re all too quick to hide.” My Grianmere came up behind me as I stood before a mirror in our small, stone cottage, gathering my hair into a thick braid, “But there’s no mistaking your father is there too, within the deep green of your eyes. Remember where you come from Tess dear. You are the legacy of long generations of Witches, Healers, and Mages all. Do not let the fear of the idea of The Wytchwood hold you back. It’s time, you are ready.”

I turned and hugged her close. Branwynn was the only family I had ever known. Yet she always told me how much my parents cared. They may be dead, but I felt their love through my Grianmere’s stories of them. “Thank you Grianmere.  I hope to do you proud.”

Branwynn walked me out of the cottage into the garden. It was where I’d spent all my days thus far. Would I ever see it again? Or would Dia Unali reject me after all, leaving me to the wiles of the Wytch Hag and her torturous ways?  I stopped at the fountain one last time, scattering an offering of charcoaled salt and lavender into the burbling water, silently sending up a prayer, ‘Please Mother Dia, watch over me!’

We met Old Ben and Matilda at the gate, the Northerne road wasn’t far away. It was this road that would lead me to the Wytchwood, just over a day’s walk away. I’d taken the road as far as the Sacred Grove, where the village gathered to celebrate the turning of the seasons. The Grove was the end of the world as I knew it, beyond it was only mystery.

Matilda took hold of my shoulders and held my attention, “Before you leave, repeat the rules of the Wytchwood.”

I recalled her words from earlier, “Never stray from the path, never follow a bobbing light in the woods, no matter who or what asks me a question, answer truthfully. ALWAYS, do exactly as the Wytch Hag Bids me to do.”

“Don’t forget and you’ll be fine!” Old Ben added in.

There was nothing for it but to continue forward.

The farther I walked away from the world I knew, the more I began to focus on what lay ahead. Regardless of what was within the Wytchwood, I began to recognize the thirst I’d been waiting to slake. I felt the excitement of finally stepping into my own Power as a Witch fully Bloomed. Soon, I would be with my own Anima Familia, and recognized as a Witch in my own right.

To pass the time as I walked, I practiced bits of Magick along the way. I touched the lilt of an undulating breeze. Stretching out my arm I cupped my hand, directing a piece of the wind into my palm. With a twirl of my finger I spiraled the air current down towards the road, picking up some leaves for one more ride upon a tumbledown breeze. As the day waned and the air turned cooler. I added a Spelle of extra warmth to my cloak. As the sun began to set, I found a shallow dugout along an outcrop of granite. It was a traveler’s stop with a supply of cut wood ready for the stone pit that was there.

After I set up a small pile of tinder and kindling, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and found my internal power. It was always just beneath my skin, running alongside my blood, a current of magnetism waiting for me to tap into it. I opened my eyes and with a crisp flick of my finger, I pushed a small spark outward, lighting the fire. The night was long and quiet as I tried to not let rise my fear of the Wytchwood, nor the incessant worry of what would happen if I failed the Wytch Hag’s test.

The next morning, I set off with the first light of dawn. It was after midday when I saw the first tall trees of the Wytchwood. They stood stark and black against the backdrop of the Northerne Mountains.  I came to a narrow meadow of heather that ran between the Northerne Road and the Wytchwood, I walked on until I saw the path that led into the dark of the wood.

There was nothing for it but to continue forward.

It took only a few steps for the sunlight to lessen, the forest quickly swallowed any brightness, leaving behind only traces of a twilight haze. ‘Remain on the path.’ I reminded myself and kept walking. I noticed long, dank strands of moss and lichens hanging from the trees, and the pungent squish of slowly decaying detritus along the forest floor. No birdsong or flit of insect wings broke the silence of the Wytchwood as I made my way.

Then after a while, I heard the sound of gurgling of water.  I came around a bend to find a moss-covered, wood bridge crossing a stream. Guarding the bridge was the strangest creature I’d ever seen. It was a Leshii, a Forest Daimon. I recognized it from a sketch I’d seen in my Grianmere’s Magickal Bestiary. It had the look of a poisonous mushroom, with a long, whitish stalk for a body, spongy protrusions forming cloven shaped hooves for feet and short, twiggy arms and hands. The top of its head was an ochre-colored, wart-covered dome, with eyes of jet-black coal and a bulbous, turtle-beak jaw located just below the grey gills of the domed cap, where a ring of mushroomy flesh held its face. ‘Nasty bites these beasts have’, I recalled as my heart raced into my throat and my hands grew clammy.

“Who dares enter the Domain of the Wytch Hag?” the Leshii bellowed, firmly blocking the way.

Keeping my distance, I replied, “I am Tess, daughter of Lauriel, Grianda of Branwynn, Moira, Fiona and Tessa, all Witch-Healers of Kytele.” Naming all the Witches I could recall from my Mother’s line.

“And I suppose you’ve come to face the Wytch Hag’s test in hopes of being united with your Anima Familia?”

“Yes, yes I have! Is it much farther to the Wytch Hag’s House of Bones?”

Quick as a toad’s tongue darts to catch a fly, the Leshii closed the distance between us, its breath full of rot and stench, “I ask the questions here Witch-girl!” The Leshii’s spindly hand grabbed my arm, pulling me closer. I flinched, but held my ground as it whispered hoarsely in my ear, “Do you dare to answer and cross my bridge?”

“Yes…” I whispered back, quite frankly too afraid to say no.

The Leshii kept hold of me, sniffing my hair like a dog searching for a bone. Its stony eyes looking me up and down with scrutiny then asked, “What do you fear the most?”

My first thought was ‘the Wytchwood’, and how I’d been filled with panic over the idea of entering this treacherous forest. Yet for all the stench and strength of the Leshii, it didn’t seem overzealous to hurt me either. No, my biggest fear was something more personal. 

It was something I never wanted to admit, much less speak out loud. It was time to give it voice and relinquish its hold, “I’m afraid of failing.”

The Leshii sniffed the air around me again, a glob of slime-ridden muck falling from its mouth, then asked, “What is your biggest weakness?”

Wasn’t my fear weakness enough? If I failed the Wytch Hag’s test that would prove my fear well-founded. If I failed, it would mean I wasn’t the Witch everyone believed I was, that I wasn’t in control of my own Power.

Then I had a moment of clarity as a voice, quiet and strong, spoke from within, ‘What builds your fear is where your weakness lies.’ Then I knew what to say, “My greatest weakness is my desire to please and not disappoint the ones I love.”

The Leshii began to laugh, its gills beneath the dome cap shaking as a deep, cacophonous laugh echoed through the trees. “You speak true Witch-child. With truth you can overcome fear and weakness. You may cross into the Wytch Hag’s Domain.” The Leshii stepped aside, waving me across the bridge.

There was nothing for it but to continue forward.

The Wytchwood grew darker. A preternatural fog hung in the air clinging like moss to the trees everywhere. Off in the distance I could see faint points of light, enticing in their glow, but I knew better than to pay them any heed.  Instead, I focused on the path, and realized there were small clusters of white stones marking the way. ‘A guide to follow!’ I thought as I continued with a feeling of relief boosted by a bit of confidence.

Then I came upon a pile of bones, squat in the middle of the path. I looked up. There it was. The House of Bones, home of the Wytch Hag. My heart skipped a few beats before fluttering back to life. The eerie fog that had been grasping to the trees now hung thicker in the air clinging to the House of Bones.

Piles of old bones covered in cobwebs and ash were everywhere. The house was made from all kinds of bones, stacked, joint upon joint, interlocking with various arm and leg bones to frame the house and windows. The eaves above were interlaced wing and hand bones. At the corners of the house, teeth of all kinds cascaded down pillars of pelvic bones, like waterfalls caught in a winter freeze. The Walls were decrepit stacks of bones, slimed with gray and black muck oozing off them. The door was built of various skulls, their empty eyes full of the depth of darkness, staring down at me. The sloping roof was covered with ragged tufts of badger and wolverine fur mixed in with remnants of human hair. Huge whale bones fenced the whole thing within its own cage; was it for keeping things in or out?

The House of Bones began to jostle and creak, as a pair of legs made from columns of antlers rose the house up into the air. The feet were protrusions of long, raking bear claws.

The House of Bones leaned in close to me, a blast of heat issuing forth from an open window, blowing me back. A voice spoke, ancient and crackling with rust, “Who dares to enter my home?”

 “I am Tess, daughter of Lauriel, Grianda of Branwynn, Moira, Fiona and Tessa, all Witch-Healers of Kytele.” I said once again.

“Heh-heh-heh! I’ve been waiting for you Witchling, yes, yes, waiting I have! But even so, you must answer my riddle before can enter my House of Bones!”

Was this then the voice of the Wytch Hag herself?  Would she really let me come in with just the answering of a riddle? Was it really so simple?

She spoke again as if hearing my thoughts, “I may have been waiting for you dearie, but still, you must answer my riddle correctly or else suffer a painful death, make no bones about it! Heh-heh-heh!”

“Wh-what is the riddle I must answer?”

“Patience!” The House of Bones shook with indignation. “Heh-heh-heh, yes, I have it now! This thing has great power to control. It can stop a hunter in his tracks, make a mother worry to death and bring a dying man down to his knees. Its grip is strong as a vice, yet it has no hands with which to grab hold. Name this thing that dominates everyone, from the highest King to the humblest of Healers and Witches all!”

I knew in the heart of my gut what the answer was. But could it be so simple? The rat-ta-tap-tap of long bear claws on stone brought my attention back to the House of Bones.

“Fear.” I said.

And with that one word, the House of Bones spun around in a strange hopping dance before settling back down. The door swung open and the old cackling voice spoke, “Well, what are you waiting for? I haven’t got all day! Come in! Come in!”

There was nothing for it but to continue forward.

Inside, an ancient, stone hearth took up most of the space. From it issued woodsmoke mixed with herbs, stirring the scent of oak, sage and Mugwort about. An enormous, jet-black cauldron stood over the fire in the center of the hearth; roiling water was spitting out, threatening to burn. The rafters were dripping with bundles of herbs, and shelves along the walls housed stoneware jars of various shape and size. Bigger in scale, it unexpectedly reminded me of Branwynn’s cottage. It was warm and inviting. Except for the hiss of scalding water leaping from the cauldron to land on the floor of bone.

A wizened crone sat in a wooden rocker, padded full of patchwork pillows; she cloaked herself in a blanket of black wool. I looked at the old woman, her bone-white hair bedraggled, her skin thin like parchment, full of fine wrinkles. Her eyes were black as peat yet full of life, and Power.

“Come closer young Witchling, let me get a good look at you.”

I immediately complied, stepping over to kneel before her.

The Wytch Hag grasped my chin in her hand. I felt the cold of her skin to the bone, as though winter had taken up residence within her fingers.

“Ahh… yes…yes… I know you, Daughter of Healers.” She spoke each word with a command of assuredness. I knew whatever she said, the Wytch Hag spoke words of Power. I could literally feel the truth of her words like a hum through my body.

“Heh-Heh-Heh, I know what you seek, but do you?” She asked.

“I’ve come to meet my Anima Familia, Old Mother.” I whispered.

“Is that all that you seek?”

I thought for a moment, searching for the right words to convey the full truth of why I was there, “I seek to claim my Power as a fully Bloomed Witch.”

“Yes…that’s more like it. Good. And such power I see just under your surface. Oh yes, yours is a powerful destiny, I see the truth in that Witchling. I shall give you the chance to Bloom into your Power and have your Anima Familia join you at last.”

A sigh of relief fluttered through my breath.

“But first you must help me with some small tasks.” The old crone smiled and laughed, “Heh, Heh, Heh, yes, just a few chores to give these old bones a rest.”

“What would you have me do Old Mother?”

“First things first, the fire needs to be stoked. You’ll find wood in the corner.” Her long, bony finger pointed to a corner by the hearth.

I fetched several pieces, adding them to the fire. The crackle of burning wood joined in the plop-bopping of boiling water. The room quickly grew warmer, yet when I returned to the Wytch Hag, she patted my hand, and her touch burned like ice. “Old Mother, you are cold, can I rub your hands and feet for you?”

“Oh, dear Witchling, yes, indeed that would be nice. Heh, Heh, Heh, these old bones are aching so.”

I knelt again before her, taking one hand at a time and then each of her feet, I gently rubbed them just as my Grianmere taught me. Soon her skin took on a light glow and her touch no longer burned.

We sat in silence. I closed my eyes and it felt as if I were back at home, sitting with my Grianmere. The hiss of hot water dancing out of the cauldron brought my attention back to where I was, in the Wytchwood. In the House of Bones.

“Ahhhh, that was nice, you are indeed a Witch-Healer Tess.” The old Wytch spoke, her voice relaxed but still rasping. “You’ll find a comb on the table behind me, I want you to brush my hair.”

Picking up the comb, I saw it was fashioned from a black goat’s horn, worn smooth with age and wear. I stood behind the Wytch Hag and began to gently comb through the strands. I brushed and gathered, working through tangles and knots. All the while the cauldron continued to steam and boil. When the comb glided through her hair, I gathered it into one long braid.

“Very good my Witchling. The fire needs tending again, and there’s soup in the small kettle near the back of the hearth. Be a dear and get us each bowl, it’s time to eat.” I gratefully complied, realizing I hadn’t eaten since earlier that morning.

The silence between us returned as we ate. Again, I was reminded of home. Again, the toiling water in the pitch-black cauldron made itself known.

“It’s time my Witchling.” The Wytch Hag broke the silence. “Your Anima Familia is waiting for you, but there is one more thing you must do.”

“What is it, Old Mother?”

“You must bathe in my cauldron! Heheheheeeeee!”

I was struck frozen with fear. Surely the water would boil me alive!  Then I heard Matilda’s voice in my head. ‘ALWAYS do as the Wytch Hag bids you.”

There was nothing for it but to continue forward.

“Yes, Old Mother, I shall.” I whispered to her and began to undress, quaking in fear, tears streaming down my cheeks.

The Wytch Hag jumped up with an unexpected sprightliness, rushing to grab a stepstool. She placed the stool beside the cauldron, cackling away, “Heh, Heh, Heh, Yes! It’s time! Come on! In you get!”

The Wytch Hag took my hand, the iciness had returned, sending a chill through me as she pulled me up to the stool. Had her kindness been a trick? Why was this happening? What did I do wrong?

“Heh-Heh-Heh! In, you go my Witchling! Go on, step in!  Trust me.”

And I did. The Truth in the Power of her words flooded over me. I knew I could trust her, and into the water I must go. As soon as I placed my toes in, relief washed over me as the water was simply pleasantly warm, not scalding to burn. I slipped in the rest of the way.

A gentle hand guided me down, under the water. The water cradled me as I held my breath for a long moment before rising up for a breath of air. Wiping the water from my eyes I looked about for the Wytch Hag, but she wasn’t there.

The Wytch Hag and her House of Bones was gone. I had risen out of a small pond surrounded by moss covered firs and pines. The pond was small enough for me to walk out of it, as I approached the bank, I saw a thick towel with my clothes. In silent wonder, I dried and dressed.

“You took your time.” I jumped back at the sound of a voice coming from somewhere nearby.

“Who’s there?!” I asked, frightened.

“It’s me and I’ve been waiting ever so long for you.” From behind a tree a large, long-haired, thick furred, Northerne Cat appeared. He was all black but for a touch of white on his tail, with green eyes like mine.

“Yes, but I’m here now.” I said. And with that the Northerne Cat leaped into my arms. I embraced his thick, soft bulk up close, feeling the silkiness of his fur as he chuffed and purred into my neck, a greeting of long-lost friends reunited.

The pulse of my Power vibrated through me and my Anima Familia, our spirits hummed in unison as our bond was sealed, blooming outward with a peal of light flashing. At that moment I knew his name, he had no need to speak it for our thoughts were now one.

“Yes, Cosmo, we’re together at last!”

“And now we can go home.” Cosmo, my Anima Familia, my heart’s Familiar, leaped from my arms making his way to the path nearby. I looked around again for a glimpse of the House of Bones but could see none. I had passed the Wytch Hag’s test.

 

 



© Copyright 2019 Seanachai Moonfyre. All rights reserved.

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