A Snowball's Chance
by Larry Hodges
It seemed a joke to take on a witch with a snowball, but this was serious business. Trini squeezed the fist-sized snowball in her hands, packing it until it was hard as rock, as cold as the witch's heart.
She pounded her bare fist on the thick wooden door of the witch’s castle, and then waited impatiently in the shivering cold. Somewhere inside were the hundred first-born children the witch had stolen from the city. The witch would kill them and take their lifeforce, just as she had done with thousands over the past two decades, and would continue to do so forever unless the cycle was stopped. And Trini was to blame for every death.
It was twenty years ago that Trini had made the appointment with herself to be here, at this time and place. Today. The hundred children were doomed; even trying to save them would risk everything. She ignored the cries of the dead children haunting her from her own pocket. Too much was at stake.
The castle was exactly as she remembered. Snow covered the ground and surrounding forest, then as now, partly covering up the bodies of past visitors, some in armor, some in black robes. Large enough to host an army, the castle's ivy-covered stone walls shot high into the sky, topped by unused defensive towers and pointy spirals. The moat had long since dried up. An icy breeze sent shivers through her body and bare fingers. She toyed with putting on her fur-lined gloves, if only for a minute, but they would handicap her magic.
And then the door opened, releasing a blast of welcome warm air, and the witch stood before her. She seemed smaller than Trini remembered. Or was that a trick of perspective and memory? Trini's memories had faded even as her own power grew. And yet she still recognized the vaguely familiar form. Lines of gray ribboned the black hair, done up in a tall bun, just as Trini remembered--when had she chosen that ugly hair style? Wrinkles covered the witch's face, almost hiding the deep scar that ran up and down one cheek. She wore the simple black robe that all powerful witches wore, the same one Trini one day would wear instead of the ragged deerskins that barely protected her from the cold. Greeves, the witch's snowy owl familiar, perched on a hunched shoulder, doomed.
"Who are you?" the witch asked in an aging, gravelly voice as she stood in the doorway. Peering out from behind her was a small girl. She looked so small, almost pathetic as she looked at Trini, trembling slightly in her red dress and hair as black as Trini's. She wore yellow love bracelets with tiny red hearts. The time for such childish comforts was coming to an end for the poor girl. Trini tore her eyes away from the child.
"I have come to kill you and rescue the children you have kidnapped." It was half true.
"Kill you! Kill you! Kill you!" cried the snowy owl.
"Really?" said the witch, unafraid. "I see three problems with that." Her eyes stared into Trini's.
"I see only two," Trini said as she fought to keep her scattered nerves hidden and maintain eye contact.
"Let's enumerate," said the witch. "First, I've already killed the children. This is their lifeforce." She held up a hazy ball of blue light. Tiny yellow sparks shot about like fireflies trapped in a bottle. She released the ball, which floated up over her head.
"I knew that," Trini said, fighting despair and blackness. Rescuing the children had never been an option.
"Interesting. I assumed that was the one you didn't know."
"As you should assume."
"How cryptic. Second, you must know the prophecy, foretold by wizards throughout the world, the reason they and other intelligent people keep their distance from me. I cannot be killed until the one I most trust melts my heart. I trust none but myself, so good luck with that!"
"Melt her heart! Melt her heart!" cried the snowy owl.
"That is irritating," said the witch to Greeves. "Will you kindly shut up?"
"Shut up! Shut--" The owl stopped in mid-sentence as the witch tapped it on the shoulder. It exploded in a storm of blood and feathers.
The witch turned back to Trini. "Nothing could possibly melt my heart. I will live forever." Owl blood dripped down her face and robe. White feathers stuck to the dampness as they blew about like falling snow.
"And the third problem?" Trini wiped a bit of owl blood from her own face. Droplets of blood covered the snow at her feet on the doorstep.
"I am the most powerful witch in the world, and you are armed with a snowball. Do you know what that means?"
"I have a snowball's chance in Hell?" Trini asked. The two laughed together, their matching laughter coming from deep in their bellies. The girl watched with wide, fearful eyes.
"So what now?" the witch asked. "Are you going to kill me by throwing your snowball at me? It must be a very powerful snowball."
"Some witches melt when splashed with water," Trini said.
"Then perhaps you should melt your snowball and use its water as a weapon." Again they laughed together. "It would take far more than water to melt this witch's heart. But I see that you have my wit. In other circumstances, we could be partners, even friends. Instead, I will kill you shortly, and then I will have tea."
"I believe that you will, though not the way you envision."
"More cryptic words," said the witch. "Would you care to explain?"
"It's complicated," Trini said. She looked down at the girl, who still peered at her from behind the witch. The doomed little girl stared up at her with big brown eyes, eyes that matched her own and the witch's, though the latter were nearly hidden in wrinkles. "I see that you have chosen an apprentice. The only survivor of the children you killed?"
"Yes, she was the least of the lot," said the witch. "But she showed some semblance of talent for the dark arts. She has your eyes and face; is she your daughter?"
"Another cryptic non-answer," said the witch. "I will train her in witchcraft, and she will take care of me in my old age. She will forget you."
"Yes, in time she would. And the cycle of evil would continue."
"I will continue my line, even with an adopted heir."
"That is not the cycle I meant," Trini said. "Think back to the past, before you were a witch. You were not always evil."
"I don't recall that."
"You took the lifeforce of others. This gave you great power, but then the blackness took you over. As you gained in evil and power, you lost your memories."
"Since I have no memories of this past, you may well be correct," said the witch. "But logically speaking, if I am truly evil, then what good does it help to tell me of my past? I will continue to be evil, because that is now my nature. The children I kill mean nothing to me. From our obvious resemblance, you must be my daughter, and yet that doesn't matter to me either; I could kill you while sipping tea. And that this girl must be my granddaughter also means nothing; she is a means to an end, just as Greeves was before he became an inconvenience. Do you believe my heart is cold?"
"On the contrary, your heart burns with great fire. And yet, I hope to melt it."
"How can one melt a heart that burns with fire? That cannot be done, and since it must be done by one I most trust, it double cannot be done."
"And since I am armed with only a snowball, it treble cannot be done." Again they laughed. The apprentice girl stepped away from the witch, her lower lip trembling.
"I am glad we are in agreement," said the witch. "And now I will kill you, and then I will have my tea." The blue ball floating over her head blazed. Several sparks inside shot out and into the witch even as she raised her arms. Trained in the art of witch-sight, Trini saw the swirls of power shoot toward her in infrared colors invisible to the human eye.
As the witch's power approached, Trini threw up her hands, still clutching the snowball as she blocked the incoming tsunami with the intricate arm movements she'd spent twenty years developing. Hidden in a pocket was her own blue ball of light with its own tiny sparks. She'd only used a few of the lifeforces over the years, but now she pulled upon their energy like a thirsty camel sucking up water. As always, she could hear the cries of the long dead children.
The witch had spent years incorporating the lifeforces of children, and though she used only a few new ones from the blue ball, she was far more powerful than Trini. But Trini's intimate knowledge of the witch's patterns of attack, the very ones she had developed herself, allowed her to defend herself.
More importantly, if she saw the chance, she knew how to penetrate the witch's own defenses. Or would her method of attack be twenty years out of date? She glanced at the girl, trying to remember anything from her perspective, but the girl was too young to understand what was happening. Trini would have to rely on her own knowledge of the witch's powers.
“Very good," said the witch. "It's been a long time since anyone survived my initial attack. And yet, you know the prophecy; you cannot kill me. It's just a matter of time before I destroy you. I noticed that your defenses are keyed toward early versions of my technique which you no doubt have studied. While my basic patterns are the same, my magic has advanced."
Once again she raised her arms, this time assaulting Trini in ways that were only somewhat familiar. She was forced to suck up more and more lifeforces from her blue ball, using them up far faster than the witch used hers. The cries of the children became a clamor. Soon Trini would run out, and then she would be helpless. How long could she keep this up? One mistake and all was lost, for the witch was even more powerful than she had imagined. If Trini survived, then someday she would have that power. And the evil that came with it.
She shuddered at the thought. It was enough to cause her to hesitate for a split second, long enough for a small tendril of the witch's power to get through. It lashed into her face, destroying precious lifeforces as it burned a long red scar into her cheek. Only a sudden influx of lifeforces saved Trini; she was running low.
"Now we are twins!" exclaimed the witch, stopping to admire her handiwork even as she fingered the matching scar on her own face. Trini saw her opening. She sucked up the last of the screaming lifeforces, leaving behind only one.
She held up the snowball and cried the spell she had mastered, a passage of power words ordered so as to maximize and concentrate their meaning. Through years of training she had learned to say it in one rapid-fire cry of force. Twenty years ago, when the witch was young, it might not have gotten through. But age and over-confidence had become the witch's weakness.
The snowball disappeared. In its place was the live beating heart of the witch. Trini dropped the bloody and steaming monstrosity to the snowy ground even as it continued to beat.
"Oh, the coldness, the coldness!" cried the witch, clutching at her chest.
It took only seconds for the snowball in her chest to melt. As the witch crumpled to the ground, Trini was grateful that the death was quick, as would be her own someday. The heart on the ground convulsed a last few struggling beats and lay still in the red snow. There would be no tea for them today she thought as she watched her heart die. A fluffy white owl feather drifted down and settled upon the heart.
The girl stared up at Trini with questioning eyes. Fearful tears ran down the smooth skin of the tiny cheek that would one day be scarred.
"Do not be afraid," Trini said to her younger self. She grabbed the witch's ball of lifeforce that still floated in the air and handed it to the girl, ignoring the cries. "Take this, but use its lifeforces sparingly for you will someday need their power to defeat the witch--or today's events will never take place and the witch will continue her bloodlust."
The girl nodded as more tears ran down her cheek.
"Learn the ways of magic, especially what you have seen here today, and then return here, at this time and place . . . with a snowball."
The girl wiped away the tear and then nodded.
"Any deviation from what you know must happen--what you remember happening--and the witch may live on, forever, and untold thousands of children will die. Now go!"
"I'm free?" asked the girl.
"You will never be free," Trini said. "Leave now!" She grabbed the girl and gave her a stumbling shove away from the castle, condemning the girl to her own future horror and death. She vaguely remembered the terror-filled night in the woods before she'd be discovered and adopted by a kindly family that had lost several children to the witch, but would lose no more.
"I will return," the girl said, wiping away the tears, and then she stumbled off into the snowy forest.
The cycle is once again complete, thought Trini. But what now? She struggled to remember as the blackness grew and tiny wrinkles appeared on her face. She had used too many lifeforces in the fight. Vaguely she remembered something about ending the cycle--by taking her own life? No, the blackness seemed to say, you must survive. Wouldn't it be easier to simply kill the girl and end the cycle now? She took a step toward the girl, still visible in the forest.
"No!" something small and shrinking inside her screamed. She had to get away while she still could.
Using the same spell of her own invention that she'd used earlier, and sucking up the last sobbing lifeforce, she traveled twenty more years into the past. More memories faded and wrinkles covered her face as the blackness spread. She had fought it for years as she developed the skills needed to defeat her older self. But now, her job concluded and her memories gone, she relaxed and allowed it to take over. With a sigh, she entered the castle of the witch and became the witch.