The witch could almost feel the hunters’ panting on the back of her neck. Heavy boots stomped on her porch and impatient arrows trembled in the quiver. She stared into the orange flames and seriously contemplated giving up. The log on the fire slowly turned black as the teeth of flames bit golden runes into its body. On the pyre, she would be like that log; peacefully sleeping, warm in her heart at last. Her soul would escape its cage and soar to the sky. These were nothing but idle fantasies. She couldn’t run away from her fate and couldn’t hide for much longer either. She wanted to stay silent, but a laughter escaped her. It wasn’t an old hag’s crooked snigger but a young maid’s silvery giggle. It came from an old, old memory.
On a lavender-scented summer day when Hecate was still an apprentice, she wandered into the labyrinth of the library. She’d never felt so happy before: the smell of mahogany and parchments, the paintings on the walls and the books whispering about great deeds, dark secrets and the promise of immortality. She was naive back then, a girl of seventeen. What did she know of the treacherous workings of the world? She stroked the velvety spines of books and marveled at the golden lettered titles. She was looking for something, following the call of a sweet voice whispering in her ears.
“Come to me, dear Hecate and I will unravel the mystery of your life and your future.”
Hecate found the book in the furthest corner of the library; it was sitting alone on the shelf. Its title read “The Grimm tales of the Truth brothers.” She sat down, leaning against the bookshelf. As she turned the first page, she heard a frantic whispering begging her to close the book and run away. But Hecate laughed at the voices; reading has never done anybody any harm. She was captivated by the tale about a beautiful princess, her skin as white as snow and her lips as red as the blood springing from your fingers if the needle of a spinning-wheel stings you. Or as red as the coat of a girl taking crispy bread and white wine to her grandmother and doesn’t notice the danger eying her from the shadows.
The words reached out to Hecate, wrapping themselves around her as the tendrils of briar rose or the sun-yellow hair of the girl in the tower. Hecate’s heart fluttered because she felt her soul was there in the stories. She was to be a princess rising from the ashes to wear dresses of glass and shoes of lace or to be woken by the first kiss of a prince. The books behind her screamed and screeched, but Hecate didn’t hear them. On the last page she found a letter talking about her fate that she sealed by reading the book. Hecate wanted to run but the tendrils of stories had twisted around her wrist, ankle and neck. She was lured into a trap by promises of happiness, riches and a royal marriage.
“We promised you nothing, silly witch, just a role in the tales. Your role you shall have. Nothing more and nothing less,” the pages whispered.
Hecate found herself in front of an aquarelle castle in a black wedding dress, holding the hand of an old king and feeling the hate burning her from the eyes of his motherless daughter. Hecate wanted to love the child, but her words were stuffed into her mouth and her movements were pulled by strings. She tried to kill the girl with an apple, but she failed.
The witch hunters chased her, but before their first arrow hit, Hecate dived into the book. She was inside and outside, like in a Chinese box of stories and illusions. When she opened her eyes she wore rich silver fur and lived in the forest. She was a witch and she was a wolf. She lurked among the trees, watching a girl and her grandmother. She wanted to like the old lady because she reminded her of her grandmother who she’d never see again. But hunger roared in her mouth and her movements were pulled by instincts. She tried to kill the old lady with her teeth, but she failed.
The hunter threw Hecate in a river, but she managed to open the book before water rushed into her lungs. She took a deep breath and the sticky, sweet smell of gingerbread filled her nose. She saw a boy and a girl wandering in the forest. She wanted to love them because they were driven away from home just like she was, but her words were baked for her and her movements were pulled according to ancient recipes. She tried to kill them with her sweets, but they ran away and the witch hunters were on her trail. They were already rattling with the lock. The witch had no time to lose. She had to climb into the book again and again to play the roles she’d been given.
The lock fell to the floor and the biscuit door flung open. The witch left a message on the floor with melted chocolate before she threw herself into the pages.
The leader of hunters burst in with the bow ready in his hand. The witch had disappeared, but there was a sweet smelling scribble on the floor: “Burn the book!” An ancient volume lay next to it. Her codex of witchcraft, he thought, but when he looked at the cover he saw a young girl of midnight-hair reading, her back to a bookshelf, the magical touch of words entangling her.
“This is beautiful,” he sighed “of course the old hag wants it destroyed. But why should I? It might explode if I throw it on the fire, who knows. No. I’ll take it home to my daughter, my little princess. She loves presents. Anyway, reading has never done anybody any harm.”
This story was first published on Enchanted Conversation: a fairy tale magazine on October 7, 2013 and will be available in podcast format on 600 Second Saga on November 1, 2017.