In Which Marper Visits a Witch
by Ellen Denham
Marper trudged through the gutter-slime at the road's edge, making way for the carriage thundering past. The muck couldn't make his feet any worse than they already were. It was about time to get them cured. Larya had thrown him out of the brothel because of the smell. The new witch was supposed to live on this road somewhere. He'd heard how she cured old Budgel's bad leg, though it cost him twelve crowns and a chicken. Marper had enough coin to pay her. Stole it from the temple box yesterday. Probably last time he could do that, because the younger priestess was onto him.
He peered at each doorway, looking for the witches' star. Sweat trickled down into his eyes, and he mopped it away with a dirty kerchief. A passerby bumped him and he swallowed a curse. No good to attract attention in this posh part of town. He crossed over to examine a house on the other side. A mark on the door caught his attention, but it couldn't be the witches' star. That house was too fine for a witch--two stories with real glass windows. But as he stood there, the door opened and a slip of a girl addressed him.
"Are you looking for me?"
Marper gawked. He would have never thought her a witch if she didn't have the star around her neck. Too damn pretty. And young. She wore her hair pulled up under a kerchief, but a few dark tendrils had escaped and curled against her dusky neck.
"Yes Miss," he said, removing his cap. "I mean, I'm looking for the witch. If that be you--"
"It is," she said, all businesslike, like a schoolteacher. "Come in."
She eyed his muddy boots, and he wiped them as best he could on the mat before entering.
"Now, what is it you wish, young man?" she asked, closing the door behind her.
Young man! He was probably older than her, from the looks of it, but he wasn't going to complain. "Can you cure foot rot?"
The witch wrinkled her small nose. "Let's see. They may have to come off." She indicated a low stool.
Marper sat and began to unlace his boots. "Yes Miss, I figured you'd need to see for yourself."
"I meant your feet," she said, "though for that I'd have to send you to a surgeon." Her lips curved up into a delicate little smile.
Marper felt cold all of a sudden. "My feet? Off? Can't you cure it?"
The witch laughed, throwing her head back and placing a delicate hand upon her throat. "Oh, I probably can. If you can pay. But first, take off your boots and stockings and I'll be right back."
The witch went into the next room, leaving him alone. Well, not quite alone, because an enormous cat dozed by the fireplace, a mess of grey and white and orange, like a crazy quilt. Both ears were torn, and the cat's face was monstrously swollen on one side. Must be a real fighter. Marper had never seen an uglier cat. Or a prettier witch.
He pulled his boots off and wiggled his blistered toes. Not much point in bothering with stockings this time of year--just one more thing to wash.
The witch had lots of witchy knick-knacks in the room-- bundles of herbs and such--but a pair of candlesticks on the mantel caught his eye. Real silver, from the look of them. He didn't dare swipe them. Stealing from a witch was bad luck.
The witch returned with a swish of skirts, carrying a steaming bowl in gloved hands, her face flushed from the heat. "Soak your feet in this, then I'll have a look."
When she knelt and leaned over to place the bowl at his feet, Marper tried to look down her dress, but it was cut too high.
"Ow!" He nearly jerked his feet out of the bowl. Not only was the water hot, it tingled like hungry ants were devouring his feet. The cat opened an eye to peer at him.
The witch laughed. "Patience. I can't see what's wrong unless your feet are clean."
"What's in there?" Marper asked. The water churned, and he could have sworn he saw tiny things moving in it.
"Oh, just a couple of hungry mer-pixies. Don't worry--they won't eat living flesh."
"I never heard of such a thing." Surely it was some witch trick. He'd swam in the river all his life and never seen one. His feet felt like they were being clawed by a hundred tiny fingernails, but considering how badly they itched, it could have been worse.
The cat stretched all four legs at once, then lumbered to its feet and stalked toward him, one side of its face normal, the other with a fat jowl like it had a mouthful of something.
"Nice puss," Marper said, extending a hand.
"Don't touch her," the witch said. "She's as likely to bite you as look at you."
"Must be some mouser. Fighter too. How'd her face get like that?"
"She got a hobgoblin leg bone stuck in her cheek. I removed it, but her face has never been the same."
"Hobgoblins! There's no such thing."
"Oh, you're not likely to have seen one," she replied.
"I don't know," Marper said. "I've seen a lot of things, like, well..." Marper ended his sentence with a cough. He had been about to launch into the story of the whore with three breasts, but thought better of it in present company. He must have stomped his foot as if to stamp out his private thoughts, because water splashed out of the bowl. Something bit his big toe, hard.
"Splashing aggravates them. I'd hold still if I were you." The witch took a towel from the waistband of her apron and swabbed the floor around the bowl. Her dark eyebrows pinched together in the middle. Still, she was pretty, with a pert little nose and rosy cheeks. It wouldn't be a bad face to wake up to in the mornings.
"I'm sorry, Miss. I'll try to sit very still. Are they almost done?"
"You'll know when they're done."
The water in the bowl stopped churning and Marper's feet felt pretty much like normal, which meant that they were sore and itchy. He thought he saw something move in the bowl, with a human face about the size of his thumb. Before he could catch sight of it again, the witch removed the bowl and put a towel under his feet.
"Dry off and I'll be right back." She swished out of the room, carrying the bowl with her.
Marper was tempted to wander the room, maybe heft one of the candlesticks just to check if it were solid or hollow, but the ugly cat kept staring at him. Just as well, because he didn't want the witch to catch him poking around. He inspected his feet as he dried them. A few of the worst sores were bleeding, but the soles were as smooth as if he'd never walked a step in his life.
A clever thought tickled his mind. A young girl living here all alone—-she could use a man around, witch or no. If he courted her carefully, perhaps she'd keep him in this fine house and he wouldn't have to bother with stealing. At least until she threw him out. It always happened sooner or later.
"Now, let me have a look." The witch had returned so silently he didn't realize she was there until she had taken one of his feet in her pretty little hands. "Hmm."
"What is it?" Marper asked.
"How often do you change your stockings?"
"Every day," Marper lied.
"Except today, when you didn’t wear any?" She looked up with raised brows, her mouth twisted into a mockery of a smile.
"That is, er, they were still drying when I left this morning."
"You should have more than one pair," the witch replied. "And wash them every night, then dry them by the fire."
"Yes Miss," Marper said. "Is that the cure?"
"I'll give you some ointment, but it's not going to help the itch go away unless you wash every day and put on clean stockings." She let go of his foot and picked up one of his boots, gingerly. "Burn these, and get another pair. Don't wear them without stockings, either."
New boots were easy. Marper figured he'd drop by the inn and see if any travelers had close to the same size feet, then come back at night to swipe their boots. Someone would surely be passed out too drunk to notice. But washing his stockings every day--that would take some getting used to.
"Thank you very much, Miss." Marper said, wiggling his newly clean toes. "You're very kind. I'd like to come back and see you, if I may."
"You're welcome to come back if you have another ailment," the witch said, all business. "That will be 25 crowns for today. I'll go make up your ointment while you count out your coins."
Marper watched her round hips as she retreated into the other room. She really was a fine-looking woman, but she needed to smile more. He had enough money to pay her, but wondered--what if he didn't? Then he'd have an excuse to come back and pay what he owed. Perhaps he could find something that needed fixing around her house, and offer to come back and fix it. He got up, still barefoot, and paced the perimeter of the room, hands clasped behind his back to make sure nothing ended up in his pocket that shouldn't.
A small table held something roundish covered by a richly-embroidered cloth. Marper touched the tabletop experimentally and found that it rocked just a bit. Here was something he could fix, but perhaps he should make it just a bit worse first. He reached beneath the table and rotated a leg. No, glued solid. He tried the second leg and found it just a bit loose. Something brushed against his leg. He nearly jumped out of his trousers. Only that ugly cat, with something in its mouth. The cat dropped a small green thing by Marper's feet. "Nice kitty," he said, returning to wiggling the loose table leg. He had registered the cat's quarry as a frog's leg before it occurred to him that the skinny green appendage had a foot that looked human, with tiny round toes. By the time he turned back, the cat had carried its prey to the hearth and begun to gnaw it.
Marper worked the table leg loose enough that it really teetered now. Picking up the round thing on top, cloth and all, he held onto it for safekeeping so he could duck his head beneath the table and see how it fit together.
"Leave that alone!"
Marper jumped, banging his head on the underside of the table and sending it crashing forward. He fell onto his backside, cursing. The round thing escaped his grip and rolled across the floor.
"So," the witch stood with her arms folded across her chest and color rising in her face. "I leave you alone for a moment, and you mean to rob me. It's very unwise to rob a witch." Her foot tapped rhythmically.
"I meant no such thing, Miss." Marper crawled backwards like a crab. "I only noticed your table was crooked. I thought I'd fix it, and I picked up the whatever-it-was so it wouldn't fall off." Marper realized how lame his excuse sounded, though it was mostly true. He should stick to lying; he was better at it.
The witch swept toward him and picked up the round thing from the floor. Marper hadn't even dared look to see what it was.
"It's especially foolish to go meddling with crystal balls," she said.
"I don't know anything about crystal balls," Marper bleated, shutting his mouth quickly before he blurted out something highly inappropriate. It wasn't easy, having a dirty mind.
The cat still gnawed its bone by the hearth. "Say, is that one of those hobgoblins your cat has?" Marper said, searching for any way to distract her.
When the witch glanced back over her shoulder, Marper stood and righted the table, screwing the leg in tightly. "There, you see? It was loose, and I fixed it. I'd do a better job if you'd let me come back tomorrow with my tools. Now, I have the coin to pay you and all--" Marper set the table carefully down and untied his purse from his belt.
"Do you know why you've never seen a hobgoblin?" The witch asked, her face like flint.
"I, er," Marper scratched his pate.
“Hobgoblins aren't born, they're made," the witch said. "And most of them don't live long enough for anyone to see them."
Marper knew enough about women to know that she wasn't placated, not in the least. He'd best turn on his charm, and fast.
"How wise you are to know such things," he said, with a little half-bow. "So beautiful and so smart. I'm a poet, you know. I'll write you a poem and bring it when I come back." He'd filch something from the library and copy it down. She'd never know the difference.
"How about you recite one. Now," the witch said as if ordering a naughty child to his room.
"Umm, all my poetry has been driven out of my mind by your beauty. I'd be happy to come back tomorrow." He held out his purse and backed toward the door.
"A thief, a flatterer, and a liar. You have quite a repertoire." The witch was smiling now, but it wasn't a nice smile at all. "Do you want to know how a hobgoblin is made?"
"Watch carefully," the witch said.
She lifted lithe arms and began to trace a pattern in the air in front of her. Marper strained to see what she was doing, but all he could see was a faint shimmer to the air. She seemed to be growing. Then, the room started getting bigger. Mother's saggy tits! No, he was shrinking. He glanced down, and to his horror, his feet were all green and spindly-like. By the time he looked back up, his own boot was taller than he.
"You'd better run." The witch's voice came from somewhere far above.
Marper flung himself across the floor as fast as his tiny green legs could carry him, hoping there was at least a mouse hole somewhere he could dive into. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a cat-shaped shadow detach itself from the wall and follow.