I glanced at my hardly-legible notes, instructions cobbled together from a handful of third-hand accounts. The fear that had urged me into the woods had cooled to a bitter resolve. I would not be bullied into a loveless marriage, no matter how many times Lady Tessie implied that she'd throw me out into the street if I didn't accept one of her "perfectly lovely gentlemen."
A single set of footprints marred the blank snow of the path before me, vanishing into the gray mass of winter trees. My fingers and toes ached from the cold, but I pressed on. The only sounds were my ragged breathing and the creak of snow under my boots.
Ahead, the path widened into a clearing, just as my directions said that it would. A tiny cottage nestled in the trees at the far end, dark and ramshackle. I'd imagined that the Witch House would be grander. But I'd come too far to be discouraged by appearances. I followed the footprints through the broken front door.
The air smelled of mildew and rot, and shadows choked the single room. "Hello?" My voice was thin and vulnerable, and the darkness swallowed it.
A hooded figure stepped into the thin winter sunlight that seeped around my shadow. "You shouldn't be here, girl."
"My name is Elinor."
"I do not care what your name is, girl."
"Who are you?"
"That is not your concern."
I took another step into the building, tried to glimpse the face under the hood. I could see only darkness. "I am looking for the Witch of the Wood."
"You may wait, if you'd like." She waved toward a wooden stool in the corner.
I perched on it, and the uneven legs wobbled beneath me. It was no warmer inside the shack than out, but at least it was some protection from the snow and wind. I smoothed my notes on my skirt. "So, she is real, then." I glanced around the decrepit room.
"Indeed. How did you find this place?"
"Research," I said. I'd always loved books and stories, especially the ones my mother told of the Witch of the Wood.
The hooded woman stepped forward and held out a gloved hand. I handed over my notes. It examined the slip of paper for a long moment. "Your penmanship is abominable."
I laughed in spite of myself. "So I've been told."
"And you discovered this on your own? Did you tell anyone of your plans to come here?"
A chill ran down my spine. "I keep my own counsel."
My companion heaved a sigh. "You really don't belong here, girl."
A touch of fear thrilled through me. "Yet here I am."
"What do you want of the Witch of the Wood?" she asked.
"My mother told me bedtime stories," I said. "About how the witch was as beautiful and cold as the moon, about how she bewitched men's hearts and could see the future in pools of water."
"But what do you want from me?" she asked. "Do you want your future told? Or do you need a heart bewitched?"
"Wait. You're the Witch of the Wood?"
I looked around again. "Is this your home? I thought that you lived in a palace made of bone."
"What is wood but the bones of slain trees?"
I had no time to argue semantics. "I want to be your apprentice."
"The stories say that the witch must always train a replacement."
"I do not care what the stories say, girl. I am in no state to train anyone." The witch pushed her hood back, and I gaped at her. Her skin was as gray as smoke, but her face looked as youthful as my own. She was nothing like the crone I was expecting.
"So you're lacking a bit of color," I said. "You seem fine, otherwise."
"I am a shadow of myself. All but the smallest fraction of my power has abandoned me, and all of my efforts to regain it have failed. All I can do now is wait for the end. It will be soon, I think."
"That's a terrible attitude," I said. "You're just going to wait to die? You're the Witch of the Wood, not some simpering damsel."
The witch laughed. "I like you, girl. I am starting to be glad that you came along. But you know nothing of my struggle, and should not rush to judgement."
I stood up. "Be that as it may, there's no reason to just sit here in the cold. Does that chimney still draw?"
The witch nodded, and I built a fire using some of the broken furniture and moth-eaten tapestries. The flickering light drove back the shadows less than it should have, but that didn't surprise me. It did, at least, drive back the cold. I noticed that the draft from the doorway was gone, and saw that the door had repaired itself.
I touched the unmarked wood, but it felt like any ordinary, unmagical door.
There was a cob-web covered broom in one corner, and I set it to the floors.
"What are you doing?" the witch asked.
"Because it is something that I can do."
The witch blinked at me. "But it is pointless. The dust will fall again."
"Just because something isn't permanent, that doesn't make it pointless." I added another piece of wood to the fire. "Nothing is permanent."
"But some things never change," the witch said.
Night fell outside. I kept working, till the single room felt warm and welcoming--even the shadows that stretched long looked softer, surrounded by firelight and gleaming wood. The house itself responded to my attention. When I was hungry, a kitchen unfolded itself around the fireplace. I made stew from provisions that appeared as I reached for them, and the savory scent filled the air.
I grinned, satisfied with my efforts. This was more like the magic house I'd been expecting.
I found two bowls and offered one to the witch. We sat in plush armchairs that had appeared by the fire. Her skin looked warmer in the firelight.
A chess board appeared between our chairs. The witch had white, so I waited for her move.
I had her in check when the house expanded--hallways opened up to the left and right, and whole house sprouted a second story.
I stood and looked around, marveling at the elegantly arched doorways and the crystal chandelier that hung overhead. The bare floor was now covered with a lush green carpet.
The witch remained, staring at the chessboard. "Do you always get your way, Elinor?" she asked.
I thought about my parents, dead five years now, about the tiny room that Lady Tessie kept me in, about the way my latest suitor had held my hand so hard it bruised. "Rarely, but I believe that I am due."
"My home is restored," the witch said. Her hand hesitated over her queen, then she moved her king out of check.
I made my move. "Checkmate."
The witch frowned at the chessboard. "Before I lost my powers, I had an apprentice, just as every Witch of the Wood before me. She left, and my powers began to fade. I thought that she had cursed me. But now I see, that wasn't the case at all. Your tales had it right--the Witch of the Wood must have an apprentice. That is the way of things. And when I failed to take on a new student, I began to lose my way." She shook her head. "How could I have missed such a simple solution?"
"By maintaining too narrow of a focus?"
"I could find another apprentice, girl. Now that I know that is all I need, any apprentice will do. But the house has taken to you."
As a child, I'd dreamed of becoming a witch, powerful and wise and self-sufficient. I'd set out this morning to make that dream come true. But deep in my heart, I hadn't really believe it was possible. Hope was an unfamiliar feeling in my chest. "Does that mean that I can stay?"
"Yes. And when your training is complete, you will be the Witch of the Wood," the witch said. "And I will move on. Become something else." She stood and stretched. "It has been a long time since I was able to sleep in my own bed. Good night, Elinor."
"Goodnight." I wandered through the main room, trailing my fingers over the new furniture. I covered the remains of the stew and scoured the bowls. Then I went to find the room that would be mine for as long as lived in the Witch House.
©July 2016 Jamie Lackey
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 120 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death.... Her fiction has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists, and she's a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, OneRevolution, and her science fiction novella, Moving Forward, are available on Amazon.com. She read submissions for the Hugo-winning Clarkesworld Magazine for five years and was an assistant editor for the Hugo-winning Electric Velocipede from 2012-2013. She served as editor for Triangulation: Lost Voices in 2015 Triangulation: Beneath the Surface in 2016. Her debut novel, Left Hand Gods, will be available from Hadley Rille Books in July 2016. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.