The Witch Rampion

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The Witch Rampion AltAt the base of the tower, I have grown vines studded with thorns as long as my arm.  Not the dainty thorns of thistle or rose.  But deadly thorns like skewers.  Thorns that grow thorns of their own.  There is no way to climb through them without getting tangled and pierced.  Many a woodland creature have become mired.  I cannot free them.  I can only end their misery and watch as the vines devour them until only bones are left.  It is useless to chop through the vines.  For when they are culled, they grow back within a few heartbeats, thicker than before.  I am protected.  I feed the plant with my own blood.  A drop a day suffices.  For I am no woodland creature.  My blood is full of nourishments beyond that known to beast or man.  My body is a channel for greater powers.  I was not told before I ran away to my tower what I am.  I brought the knowledge with me.  I gathered it as I wandered.  I gathered herbs and I gathered books.  I gathered leaves and dirt and rain.  I gathered powders and tinctures and metals and stones.  One day as a heavy rain fell outside and as my candles flickered, I read the word that my family tried to hide from me.  The word that told me what I am.

Witch.

I need never leave my tower.  I can see from here.  I can live from here.  I can be free of the burden of their need, their neverending need.  I gathered, grinded, chopped, brewed, and boiled, and steeped, and distilled until I found the formulas that would serve so that I need never leave my tower.

I sometimes think I must have gone mad.  There is no one else to ask about such things.  But I am certain that I know what I am.  I see through the eyes of my raven.  I swim with the flippers of my tortoise.  And like my tortoise, I long to pull my head into my shell.  For peace.  Peace from their need.

***

When I was a small child, I was told that I was beautiful.  Because I had hair like sunlight and cornsilk.  Because I had eyes the blue of a sky washed clean after rain.  Because my skin was soft and my laughter was pretty and my baby-like babbling was charming.  And then when I was a bigger child, I was told I was clever.  Because my gaze was keen.  Because my hands were quick.  Because my speech was clear.  My lessons were given once and only once, because I needed no second chances.

Because of my beauty and my cleverness, much was expected of me.  And being privileged, I knew it was my duty to fulfill those expectations, every one as the price to be paid for my good fortune.  For luxury and prosperity.  For I would one day be a lady.  Lady Rampion.  So I accepted this.

But something changed one day when my mama was combing my hair.  Now I understand why her eyes widened as I glanced at her in the mirror.  Why she recoiled.  Why she paled.  Why she let go of my hair as if she had touched a hot griddle…or a deadly snake.  She saw it peeking out from under the strands of my yellow hair.  Silver.

It is one of the signs of a natural-born witch that she may grow hair of some precious metal.  Copper was commonest.  Then silver.  Hair of gold, not blonde like mine, but of true gold was rarest of all and denoted a witch of great power indeed.

Silver hair meant a witch with powers of binding and healing.  It was no wonder I was able to bond with my animal friends.  It was no wonder my blood served to feed that great gargantuan vine that guarded me from intruders.  And once I discovered that I was meant for healing, I would not let any beast suffer being trapped in that vine.  I learned how to commune even with the plant, which had no heart or head as beasts do, but which throbbed with life through every coil and thorn.

Mama got hold of herself that day and she snipped the silver hairs down.  Until that day, she had kept my hair long, past my shoulders and down my back.  But she cut it all off that day until the ends brushed my chin.  When my father asked, she whispered to him in a corner.  And he too looked at me as if I were suddenly a strange new beast let into the house, a curiosity and possibly a danger.

They were never unkind.  That’s not why I left.  And nor did I do something horrible, cause some injury.  They did not cage me or abuse me.

But I went quickly from being a child, a girl, a little stripling who showed some cleverness, to being regarded as some sage who had wisdom beyond that known to any mortals.  I was taught and trained.  I was separated from what few playmates I had.  My hair was kept short.  I was told it was for my best that it should be so and for my family and my town and my country.  I wonder now if they feared that if I knew the word for what I was, I might attempt to grow my power, to misuse it, to toss it about like a sword that was too heavy and unwieldy.  They honored me, the people of my town.  They feared me.  They needed me.  They came to me with problems and I solved them.  They came to me with sorrows and I bore them.  I studied and I focused and I strained.  And they praised me with one breath and asked for more with the next.

I did not know what my silver hairs meant.  But everyone else did.  I healed them.  And I healed them.  I healed their spirits.  And soon, I would learn to heal their flesh, a skill that I was told was more difficult than healing spirits.

But before I could learn, I ran away.

Caring for myself was no great burden to me.  Having no one’s help was a fate I could accept.  I could bear my own need if there was no one else to share that burden.  But I could not bear my own need and the needs of so many others who never stopped coming.  If they could only heal themselves for a while.  Give me rest.

They would not.  If I wanted rest, I would have to take it.

So I did.  I wandered.  I wandered far and wide and one day, I came across the tower in the middle of the wood.  I explored it.  It was abandoned.  A lookout perhaps from some bygone age.  But it was sturdily built.  I made it my haven.  And I went there when I needed rest.

Then one day, someone found me there.  She stumbled upon the tower by mistake as I had.  The young woman called out and I could have remained hidden.  But the stranger was tired and hungry and cold.  It was my duty to answer.  So I went down to her.  I fed her.  I listened to her tale of woe.  I walked her to the nearest town through a long and winding route, so she would not easily remember the way back.  And the entire while I was fuming with anger.  For my tower, my haven, had been breached.

***

When I returned to the tower, I decided I would remain there for days, perhaps weeks.  I began to gather what I needed.  I admit that deep within my mind I considered never returning to my town.  But on the surface of my thoughts, I meant only to stay for a fortnight, or a month perhaps.  Perhaps two.

Bereft of friendships with children, I had taken to speaking with animals.  And among my favorite friends were a raven and a tortoise.  It was they whom I chose as my proxies.  For while I longed to be away from my fellow human beings, and while I savored being safe and snug in my tower with my books and my parchment and my spells, I also longed to wander the world.

The tower was difficult to find.  But not impossible.  My family did find me, but not before a year had passed.  Not before I had discovered that as my hair grew so grew my power.  For by that time, strands of silver fell among the strands of yellow, all the way down my back.  By that time, my thorny vines twisted around the tower.  And by that time, I had learned to fly with my clever raven, and dive into the waters with my majestic tortoise.

My mother and father pleaded for me to return.  But the more they pleaded, the more obstinate grew my heart.  They did not know that I kept watch over them.  That I would come to them when they truly needed me.  But I could not trust their gentle hearts to protect me from those who coveted my powers.  I would never be a great witch, not as I was, locked away in a tower by myself.  But I was a witch nonetheless.  And all witches had power.

My mother and father could not stop anyone else from finding the road they had taken to me.  And so I twisted those roads.  Yet still, another two years hence, someone found me again.

***

I did not recognize him at first.  When last we met, we were children.  And now we were almost grown.  We were both in our eighteenth year.  I had not seen him coming.  I had not been watching the roads to the tower in many months.  I had been soaring with my raven over oceans and landing on ships and watching sailors.  When a voice called out, I thought it was one of the sailors, until I heard the voice call my name.

When I looked down through the tower window, I saw my old friend.  And his handsome face stirred some longing in me.  I pushed aside my sudden desire to come closer to my once-friend.  For I hadn’t only seen wonders in the two years since I last saw a person with my own eyes.  I had also seen horrors.  Disease and cruelty and despair.   Once, just once, I asked my raven to fly down and intervene.  And she did.  She attacked a man who had struck his dog with a vicious blow and had his hand held high to strike his son.  The boy escaped.  And my raven escaped with only but a few lost feathers.  But I was too cowardly to have her fly into that village again, to check if the boy had returned after all.  For where else could he go but back into the home of his tormentor?

I knew it was folly to go near people and I would spend time soaring over mountains and cliffs, or swimming alongside great mythic beasts of the seas.  But my curiosity drew me back to people every now and then.

Now, I looked down at the boy who had once been my friend as he called up to me.  He said he had been searching for me all that time.  When my parents returned home and told him where to find the tower, he followed their directions but found no luck, for unbeknownst to him, I had confused the roads that my parents had taken to find me.

I told him I would not come down.  And to that he laughed and said he would not ask of me what I did not wish.  He only missed me, his friend.   And he feared for me after what he heard from my parents.  I told him he need not fear and that he could be on his way now that he had seen to me.  I was beginning to remember him and I wanted him gone, for he stirred feelings in my heart that I had not felt in many years.  That even my own parents had not stirred.

He would not leave.  He had brought a picnic with him and he sat and ate it and told me stories about himself and his travels and our town even after I had retreated from the window.

After some hours, he grew quiet and I was tempted to see if he had gone.  I tried to read, to distract myself, but my curiosity was too strong.  I looked down from the window.  And I felt a twinge of disappointment for he was indeed gone.  But by the next morning, I had refreshed myself.  I had convinced myself it was pleasant to see my friend and just as pleasant to be done with him.  I could have twisted the roads again, but for some reason, I did not.

Then at lunchtime, I heard the sweetest of singing outside my window.  And I recognized the voice.  It was him again.  My friend.   He sang and as I watched, he sat again on the ground outside the tower, far from the thorny vines.  He waved to me when I he saw me.  He had brought a flute and he played it.  He stayed for many hours, singing and playing, and then as the day before, he left.

The next day, he did not come during lunchtime.  But even as I felt vindicated at the fickleness of people, I heard his merry singing in the evening.  He stayed for only an hour and he tried to call up to me.  But I would not answer.

Again he came the next evening and the next.  He never asked why I was in the tower.  He never asked me to come down.  He only asked that I speak with him as I once had when we were children.  And as the days passed, I found that I liked his company.  And I began to speak to him.  And laugh with him.  And even sing with him.

But I did not lose my suspicions.  I sent my raven to spy on him one day and saw a troubling sight.  My friend lived in a humble hut in a village nearby.  Near and yet far because of the enchanted roads that led away from and around my tower.  As I watched through my raven’s eyes, my friend paced the length of his little hut and in his hands he held a dagger.  He shook his head and gazed at the dagger.

And strangely, though I suspected what he meant to do with that dagger, my heart did not harden toward my friend.  I decided then that I must face him.

I was not surprised when one day after our laughing and singing, he asked if I would consider coming down.  And I was not surprised when after my refusal, he asked if I would then consider letting him up.  He had seen how long my hair was and he joked that if I should let it down, it was long enough and strong enough for him to climb.  I laughed at the silly notion.  I had rope aplenty of course.  Though I did not need it.  I could part the thorny vine now if I wished.  And so I did.

And my friend climbed up the tower.

***

I had not been that close to another person in so many a year that I wanted to both embrace him and fly from him.  When first he caught sight of me, he gazed at my face, into my eyes, and he beamed.  But then tears filled his eyes and his smile receded as sunlight recedes behind a raincloud.  He produced the dagger then.  My hair spilled all over the chamber.  He need not have approached me to begin cutting it off and by doing so cutting off my powers.

But he frowned and flung the dagger aside.  He told me what he had intended.  My family and the elders of our town knew my powers had grown.  And though I did no one any harm, there were those who still sought to direct my powers, who believed that I belonged to the town.  My friend had been sent to charm me, to get close to me, and to cut off my hair so that all my spells would be broken.  The roads to my tower would untwist.  The thorny vine would wither.  I could be reclaimed and my power harnessed.  And I would be yoked once again to the needs of others.

But even as my once-dear friend begged my forgiveness for agreeing to betray me, he entreated me to return on my own, to use my powers, my silver powers of healing, to do good whether in their town or some other town.  There was both truth and folly in what he said.  Even as he had stirred my heart to fondness before, he now stirred it to anger.

In my rage, I cast him from my tower.  I had expected his betrayal.  I had thought myself prepared for it.  But I was not.  And yet.  I loved my friend.  I loved him still.  I did not let him fall to his death into the deadly thorns below.  I stretched out my hands and with all my power, I eased his fall and let him down gently.  I did not see him leave, for I was exhausted by the effort.  And when I looked about, I saw that several strands of my hair had fallen out.

I rested then and thought myself done with yet another loved one.

But I was wrong.  He returned the next day.  He called out to me.  Once again, he begged my forgiveness.  And once again, he begged me to come down and see the world with my own eyes.  For it was a world full of hurt and I could bring hope and comfort to it.  And he, being my friend, could bring comfort to me.  But I hardened my heart toward him.  I would not come to the window.

***

I only knew he returned because I heard his voice.  Every day at first.  Then only once every week.  Then once a month.  I knew he would soon tire of his efforts.  For what was I to him who was such a jolly and good fellow that he could find a friend in any town or village in the land?  But even if it were some months before he returned again, return he would.  It seemed I should never been rid of him.

Then one day, when he came, he was not alone.  He had brought someone with him.  A young woman.  I was intrigued and so I peeked from the window, hiding myself in its shadow so I could see them but they could not see me.  I noticed that my friend had grown older.  Not much taller, but more muscular.  He had told me he had lost his fortunes and now worked in a mine.  Such work required strength.

The woman was his betrothed, he said.  And he wanted me to know that they were both my friends now.  The young woman, who seemed kind and worthy, was honest and said she did not know if she and I could be friends, but that she wanted that we should be.  For she loved her betrothed, and wanted to love any friend whom he loved.  A part of me searched her flaming hair for strands of copper and wondered if she were a witch and if we could indeed be friends.  But the greater part of me doubted her.

From that day onward, they sometimes came together.  Sometimes each one alone.  And I learned much more about my old friend and my new one than they learned about me, for I was silent.

Then a time came when for almost the span of a year, my friend came only by himself.  And in my cruelty, I finally deigned to speak to him.  I asked him what had become of his wife, and if she had finally tired of her husband coming to visit another woman in a tower with whom he seemed obsessed.

My honest friend admitted that it was not only for himself that he came all these years.  I nodded.

And the next time he visited me, he had a baby in his arms.  His baby.  His daughter.  And now he told me that I had the friendship of his whole family.  And though it had been years, I accused him of trying to allay his guilt for agreeing to strip me of my powers, to force my return to a home I had fled in despair.  He said he would like my forgiveness, but did not need it, for he had forgiven himself long ago.  And I knew my friend was trying once again to teach me a lesson, but I was not ready to learn it.

He continued to bring his little daughter to me.  She was a vibrant child.  Red-haired and kind like her mother.  Rambunctious like her father.  She was always polite to me even when she asked me all the obvious questions a child would ask.  She asked why I was up in the tower, of course, and when I would come down and play with her.

And I wondered if my friend was trying to teach her some lessons as well.  Maybe he wanted her to see that while I was safe from the rest of the world, I was stuck.  And that a person was never meant to live, trapped, imprisoned, whether by others or by one’s own self.

I never came down, but I spoke with the girl and sang with her and read her stories from my books.  And she called me her auntie.  And I began to soften toward her as I had softened toward her father.  But I was warier now.   And older, though I did not look it, youth being another benefit of the power from my silver strands of hair.

***

One day, the little girl came to my tower by herself, which she had never done before, and she was crying.  I asked her why she wept.  She said her mama and papa had been fighting.  They had been fighting for weeks and she had bore it all, but at last today, she could not bear it.  She fled and she found herself at the tower, because she did not want to go to her friends and have them see her crying.  She just wanted to get away.  Somewhere quiet, away from people.

I gazed down at her then, stunned, for her words had been my words.  Her thoughts had been my thoughts.  So long ago.  So many countless years ago.

Some part of me considered letting the girl up as I had once let her father up, up into my tower.  Sure enough, the girl wiped her eyes and looked up at me and she exclaimed that she wished she could find her own tower to escape into for just a little while.  And again, her words struck me, for I too had only meant to be up in the tower for a little while.

I asked my little niece what her parents were fighting about.  She gave no clear answer, for she was a child and her mother and father tried to spare her from their pain.  But I gathered it had something to do with her father’s work in the mine.  My friend’s fortunes had all gone to a cruel older brother who shared nothing with his four siblings.  And so my friend had gone from prosperity to poverty.  He loathed the dangerous work of the mines, but the wages were too good to be passed up by a man who sought to re-build his wealth.  He often spoke to me of his dream to open a shop of some kind in town, perhaps a shoe shop or a tailor’s shop.  I resolved to ask my friend about his woes the next time I saw him.  His daughter, stronger than ever I was, recovered herself after we played some riddle games.  I made her promise to return and come back with her father.  I had never made such a request before.  Her eyes brightened and she beamed so brightly that I wondered if I had unknowingly cast a spell on her.

I expected her return the next day with her father.  I had prepared my questions.  I had resolved to help him.  I could do so from my tower.  I would find a way to stay in my tower as I wanted and do good in the world as he wanted.

But they did not come.  And they did not come the next day.  Or the next.  I waited for days.  But at last, I lost patience.  I sent my raven out to the village, searching for my friends.  She found them and she perched by the window and cocked her head.   Through her eyes I saw my friend lying in a sickbed.  His eyes were bandaged.  His legs were missing below the knees.  His bandages were clean but they were many.  Beside him sat his wife, who had stopped visiting me because she was again with child.  And on his other side sat his daughter.

And once again, I felt a great rage.  But the rage was for me this time.  For I had been a great fool.

***

I called back my raven.  And I started down the tower.  I waved aside the thorny vines and they made way for me as they had made way for my friend all those years ago.

I enchanted my hair so it would twist itself into braids and tie itself about me.  It was heavy, the burden of my hair, but I carried it all the way to the village, to my friend’s cottage.  I knocked upon the door and when the my little niece answered she looked up at me with awe in her gaze.  She said nothing but led me to her father.  Her mother looked at me and there was not awe in her face but hope.  For she knew what I was.  I nodded to her.  I took my friend’s hand.  And I began to do what I should have been doing all along.  I began to heal him.

I don’t remember how long it took.  My friends tell me it was hours.  My little niece and her mother claim they saw all my hair turn silver and glow like moonlight.  And then it began to fall out and as it did, my friend’s limbs began to grow back.  And he began to groan for he woke from his stupor and he felt some pain and confusion.  And his family held him as I worked.

When I was done, all my hair had fallen out.  It lay on the ground, all grey and dead now, its power gone.  And I felt myself growing older and older.  A great exhaustion swept over me.

As I lay down, I saw my friend rise up.  He removed the bandage from his eyes and looked upon his wife and daughter.

I smiled and closed my eyes and rested in the home of my friends.

***

Before we returned to it, I already knew that the tower had fallen, for it held the last of my power and I had brought it down to heal my friend.  I felt no loss.  It was indeed a prison.  I still wanted to live apart from others, to protect myself, to keep my distance, but not in a prison.  I needed a haven, a true haven.

With the help of my friends, I built a cottage in the middle of the forest, near a creek, a long ways from the village, but not too long.  I wasn’t worried that I would get too many visitors, save for friends.  For who else would visit an old bald woman in the middle of the forest except for her friends?

The tower may have fallen, but I recovered all my books.  And I brought my raven and my tortoise to me.  And though I had lost my power, I still had the skill of potion-making.  I kept learning.  And I helped and healed when I could.  I rested.  I worked.  And I visited my friends and they visited me.  My friend opened a tailor’s shop and brought me scarves and turbans to wrap around my head.  I was not yet prepared to visit my old home and my old parents, but I kept watch over them through my friend, who visited them for me.

One morning, I woke after a night of vivid dreams of raven flight.  My scalp itched terribly and when I reached up to scratch it, I felt the bristly prickle of new-grown hair…

 

Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel

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