High in the tower, the witch bent over her spinning wheel.
She was blind now, with empty eye sockets that had never completely healed, no matter how many salves and potions she had used, no matter how many soothing herbs she soaked her blindfolds in. It worried her. The blindness made no difference to her spellcasting, of course. She knew her potions and her herbs by touch and scent alone, and a spell did not have to be read to be spoken. But people saw, or did not see, what they wished to see. And what they saw was an old woman wearing a thick blindfold, leaning from a high tower.
Not the woman who had protected so many of their daughters for so long.
Only one girl at a time, of course. One girl. She regretted that she could not do more, but she was only one woman, and she had other responsibilities. Other crafts. Herbs to grow and harvest and dry. Potions to brew. Spells to weave. People to heal. People to curse.
She could hardly be expected to look after more than one girl child at a time, under the circumstances.
Still, she did her best, keeping them safely locked up, until she — and sometimes the parents — agreed that the girl was finally ready for the world. She taught the girls what she knew of life, which was considerable: she had not, after all, always lived out here, in these towers. She taught the brighter ones to read, to write, to think. She still thought proudly of the one who had left the tower to become an Abbess, training other girls to read and write and sing. Of the one who had opened a business trading in cloths and carpets, rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest merchants in her city. Of the other girl who had become a poet — not a successful one, to be honest, but still, a poet. If the witch had done nothing else, she had that to be proud of.
Sometimes, she even gave the ones with a touch of magic a little training. Just a little: too much knowledge of the art was dangerous, especially in those without much power. But enough so that they could, now and again, bring a touch of magic to their families, when they were ready.
When they were ready. The last girl had most decidedly not been ready.
The crows brought her rumors, now and again, of the troubles at the castle. The old queen, who had, after all, never seen the girl in the shining tower — not seen the glowing innocence, the beauty — continued to object to the girl’s unquestioned low birth. That low birth also prevented the girl from having any friends of power at the court. Among the servants, yes, but even there, she was not a foreign princess bringing wealth and peace, or even a highborn girl who loved the prince from afar. She was a peasant, the low-born girl who trapped the prince in her tower with her sweet singing voice, who had forced the prince to wander alone in exile for many years.
The crows told her of the whispers. Of the humiliations. Of how the girl was kept from her own children, who were handed over to very proper countesses and duchesses. Of how she clung helplessly to her prince’s arm. Of how the daughter, once old enough to understand the tales, began having nightmares every night, began refusing to speak. Of how, even in this court, where everyone was too rational to believe in witches, the whispers of witchcraft grew louder.
Oh my child, I would have saved you from that.
At least for a little while longer.
That was what the more horrified stories never told — just how young that last girl had been.
Just how magical. Uncontrolled, of course — thus the ongoing problems with the hair, although the witch had done what she could with that, letting it hang out the window to release its power harmlessly into the wind. But magical. In a few more years, months, even, she might have gained some measure of control. Might have become a witch herself, with the power to build towers of her own.
If she had only stayed a little longer in the tower. A little longer.
The witch felt the regret, the guilt, settle on her again when she heard the voice calling from the base of the tower.
A very familiar voice.
She tied on a new blindfold — no need to hurry, not with this one — and picked up her long, twisted stick before taking the rope (a very ordinary rope, and rough on her hands, but she is old now, and not worried about her skin) down to the ground.
The man waiting below did not even bother with the customary greetings, instead immediately plunging into his tale: assassination attempts. Accidents. Rumors of plots. And — of course — hungry eyes starting to watch his daughter.
His very beautiful daughter, he added, unnecessarily.
The witch ignored all this, instead stepping forward to cup the young girl’s face. Oh yes. This one, like her mother, had power.
This one could be trained.
The witch gave the prince a rough bow. “She leaves only when I say she is ready.”
“Yes,” the prince agreed.
“You were less certain before.”
“Yes,” the prince said. “And yes.”
The witch gave the young girl — she could not be more than ten, perhaps eleven — a kiss on the forehead. The girl shuddered; the witch squeezed her shoulders in reassurance. And then, without any magic at all, she dragged the girl up to the high room of the tower on the very ordinary rope, smiling at her own worries.
She had failed once, certainly.
But this time — this time — she would not fail to cut this girl’s hair.
About the Author
Mari Ness has published fiction and poetry in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and many more, including a previous story here at Fireside. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was recently released by Papaveria Press. She lives in central Florida, where she keeps a careful eye out for magic.