All I wanted was to charm a single, stinking wart onto my face. Yes, onto, not off. A good bog-witch should have at least one. Grandmother had eleven, and a hooked nose to boot. Of course there were rare witches who could pull off a certain dark and terrible beauty. My mother was one, according to Grandmother. Maybe that’s how I got stuck the way I was.
I peered into the moon-silvered water of the rain-barrel. No wart. No dark and terrible beauty, either. Just the same clear brown skin and snub nose I’d always had. Blast it! I smacked my palm into the water. A true bog-witch wouldn’t be sniffling, I told myself fiercely. It only made the tears slip faster down my cheeks. Because I wasn’t a true bog-witch; everyone from Grandmother to my littlest cousin Ezzie knew it. That was why they were all off on a midnight mushroom spree, and I was stuck here, alone, keeping watch over Grandmother’s garden.
I blinked up at the moon. If I closed my eyes, I could almost see them: my cousins, my aunts, my great-aunts, my second-cousins-twice-removed. All of them out there under that brilliant silver eye, laughing and teasing and dancing. I could almost smell the sweet wood-smoke, taste the earthy, buttery fried mushrooms. I loved fried mushrooms. But more than that, I loved being a Bogthistle witch. Even if no one else thought I was one, really.
It wasn’t fair. I could twitch a fire out of soggy twigs as well as any of them. I could charm away Ezzie’s winter sniffles. Grandmother herself admitted that she couldn’t tell where I’d mended the chips in her best tea set. But those were still just baby spells. Until I proved myself with a proper curse, I would never be considered a true Bogthistle. And my curses, well, they just never turned out quite right.
I cringed, remembering the last one. The mob of Uplanders had descended on us on the eve of the full moon, jabbing the sharp tines of their pitchforks against the night. Their angry shouting drowned the fluting of the peepers. Their smoky torches burned the sweetness of the moonflowers from the air.
But we bog-witches were no strangers to mobs. Our foremothers had settled their cozy collection of cottages smack in the middle of the bog for a reason. The sucking mire and stinging thistles kept the fools at bay long enough for us to puzzle out some sense from their furious bellows.
“We didn’t steal the Mirable Chalice, you fool,” Grandmother called over our spiny ramparts, her eyes blazing– really blazing, with green flames. I always wanted to learn that charm. “We’ve all the magic we could want here in the Bottomlands. What do we need with some Uplander bauble? Go take your torches and burn down Mistveil Bayou if you want someone to blame. If anyone stole the chalice it was that villain Blackthorn.”
The mob gave a rabblesome roar, sprinkled with shouts of Foul hags! and Burn them all! One particularly mouthy fellow at the front called out “You stole the chalice, you harpies! You brought this curse to our lands! Our corn withers and dies, our children sicken, our homes crumble. We’re here to put a stop to it!” He waved his torch at the wall of thistles. “Give it back, or we’ll burn this place to the ground!”
Grandmother’s nostrils flared. She drew herself even taller, like a great thunderhead about to loose a torrent of lightning. A few yelps and yips rose from the Uplanders. Even the mouthy fellow stepped back.
“So, a bit of trouble with your corn and you think you’re cursed? It’s time you learned the misery and woe of a true bog-witch curse.”
That was when she’d looked at me. I smothered a yelp of my own.
“Prunella,” Grandmother commanded, “Even you ought to be able to find a suitable punishment for these ignorant lunatics.”
I thought I had just the curse. I thought that was my chance to show my true bog-witchery, to prove myself. A rain of alligator spoor sounded perfectly horrible. And in my defense, it did chase them hooting and hollering out of the mire and back to their Upland homes. How was I to know it would settle over their land and give them the best harvest in ages?
They had fields full of golden ears within two weeks. By the third, they were showing up on the outskirts of the bog, begging for more charms to stop crumbling chimneys and heal fevers and coughs. They trampled the mushroom patch and scared away all the nesting herons with their hubbub. In the end, Grandmother had to curse three of them with pustulous boils just to get them to leave us alone. And it was all my fault.
So that’s how I ended up stuck in the garden, alone.
It was a stupid excuse. Grandmother’s garden was warded and trapped to the gills, tighter than the queen’s treasure house. And who would want to steal her beans and pumpkins in any case? Someone would have to be an idiot, or desperate, or both, to try. Yet here I was, with only the fluting of the frogs and the twinkle of fireflies for company. The truth was, my family didn’t want me around. I was an embarrassment. Another tear slipped down my nose.
I needed more than just a wart. I needed a curse as fearsome and powerful as those of Esmeralda herself, the first, and greatest, Bogthistle. Even Grandmother spoke reverently about Esmeralda and her lost magics. Every night after dinner she led all the clan (except me, of course, since she said I’d spoil it) in cursing Lord Blackthorn, who stole Esmeralda’s grimoire ages ago. Sometimes I dreamed of running off and finding that grimoire, and all her long-lost magics with it. Surely with a book like that even I could learn to curse properly. Then I’d lead the mushroom sprees. Then I’d be taught the deepest Bogthistle secrets. Grandmother might even smile at me, once. I’d caught her smiling at Ezzie, so I knew she did, sometimes. Just never at me.
It was a silly dream. Lord Blackthorn’s manor was charmed up tight as Grandmother’s garden. And anyway, a true bog-witch wouldn’t be glooming around wishing on stars. I raised my chin, pushing myself up. I might as well try the wart-charm again. I had nothing better to do.
Creeeak. I stood still as a heron stalking a minnow, sure I must be imagining things. No one could possibly have gotten into the garden without triggering one of the wards. But I knew the squeak of the alchemy shop door all too well. It was what had given me away, last week, when I tried to sneak in and listen to Grandmother teaching Ezzie how to turn herself into a crow.
“Thief!” I cried out, as I laid my hand on the pumpkin vine beside me, muttering my invocation. The green fronds hissed forward like serpents, coiling around the dark shadow that lurked beside the door.
The shadow grunted. I darted forward, my heart hammering a jubilant beat. I had done something right, finally. I’d caught a thief. Now that ought to make Grandmother smile.
A cloud shifted. I crooked my finger. My curse had to work this time. The honor of the Bogthistles demanded it. Wan moonlight outlined the thief’s features. It was a boy. The shock of it froze my bent finger in mid air, jabbing out at him.
It wasn’t that I’d never seen boys before. There were a few things we just couldn’t get in the Bottomlands, and Grandmother could not do without her daily helping of licorice. I had been to the nearest town of Withywatch four times, trotting along after Grandmother as she did her shopping, both of us cowled and cloaked against prying eyes.
I’d watched straggly farmer boys, goggling at me from their hay-heaped wagons. I’d beheld snappy city boys scrumming and playing like a pack of young hounds. Frankly, I hadn’t seen what I was missing by living out in the bog. Yet something about this boy standing in front of me now made me hesitate.
He pushed back a fringe of honey-brown hair, looking fine and proud and determined. “Go on and curse me, bog-witch.”
The words of the spell scrambled against my throat. He’d called me a bog-witch. He knew what I was! In that moment, I didn’t care that he was glaring at me. If it weren’t an entirely un-bog-witchly thing to do, I would have flung my arms around his neck and danced with him under the moonlight.
“Well?” he said after a moment. “Are you going to stand there posing or are you going to get it over with? I’m three inches deep in mud here.”
I smothered my smile. “I’m just deciding on the best punishment for a thief.”
“I’m not here to steal anything,” he said, scowling.
“Oh? You sneak into bog-witch gardens for fun, do you?”
“I’m…. I’m on a quest.” He raised his chin slightly. “For the Mirable Chalice.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, and of course we must be the ones who took it. Just like we’re the ones to blame for every cough, storm, and broken wheelbarrow in the Uplands.”
“You bog-witches tried to steal it once already,” said the boy, crossing his arms. “Everyone knows that story.”
“That was two hundred years ago!” I protested. “Besides, Esmeralda never wanted the chalice. She was trying to help you stupid Uplanders. And what thanks did she get? Chased off into the bog by a pack of ignorant goons!”
He shrugged. “So a few Uplanders think you stole the chalice. What’s it matter to you? Seems to me you lot settled yourselves nice enough, if you don’t mind the mud and muck.” He gestured around at the garden. Something fluttered in his hand.
“What’s that?” I saw a flash of purple checks as he tucked it behind his back. “That’s one of my aunt’s best dishtowels! Give that back!”
“Fine, fine. Don’t get yourself in a twist.” The boy tossed the wad of cloth at me. “I was just… borrowing it. A fellow needs to keep his hands clean. This place is filthy.”
“If you don’t like mud you should have stayed in the Uplands where you belong.” I crossed my arms. “But you’d better learn to like it, seeing as I’m about to turn you into a frog.”
“You can’t do that,” he protested. “I need to bring back the chalice. The whole of the Uplands is cursed.”
“Oh, so you’re some sort of hero, are you? Going to save the Uplands?”
His cocky air faltered, just for a moment. “Something like that.”
“How did you even get in here?” I demanded. “Grandmother’s wards and traps are the best in the land. Better than the queen’s.”
The boy leaned against the door. “Pff. It wasn’t that hard.”
How dare he look so nonchalant with pumpkin vines wound around his feet and a bog-witch about to curse him? Being a frog was too good for him. I clenched my teeth, trying to remember Grandmother’s pustulous boils curse.
“The squealer over by the cabbages was a good one,” he added. “Nearly got me. You might have noticed if you weren’t so busy with your beauty charms.”
“Beauty charms?” I roared. “That’s it!”
For an instant, in the flash of greenish light, I could see his fear. Why did it make my insides wither like a bit of old fish-bait? I faltered, stumbling over the invocation.
Suddenly he was moving, slithering free from the vines. The next moment he had ducked behind one of the giant pumpkins. I ran forward to the limp green fronds he left behind. How had he gotten free? Had he cut them?
“Ugh!” I snatched back my hand, covered in something slimy and slippery. “What did you do?”
“Don’t blame me,” came his voice from somewhere among the gourds. He sounded annoyed. “I didn’t ask you to douse me in oil. Though it sure did make it easy to slip free. I don’t suppose you’d give me that rag back?”
“Oooo!” I tried to slow my hammering heart. I was not going to let myself get riled up by a straggly snot of a boy. “It was supposed to be boils, not oils!”
“If it makes you happy, you did ruin my favorite jacket,” he said, “But I’ll take that over boils any day. And now I think I’ll leave you to your cabbages and your beauty charms. Though if you ask me, you don’t need them. You’re pretty enough already. For a bog-witch.” I caught the flash of his grin before he slipped away, deeper into the garden.
I opened my mouth but I didn’t have a curse strong enough. Then the asparagus fronds rustled. Oh no.
“Stop!” I cried.
“I’m not sticking around to see–”
“There’s a spirit-rending ward in the asparagus bed!”
The rustling stopped.
Why was I helping him? He deserved– no, blast it, he didn’t deserve to die. I knew that asparagus ward was Grandmother’s best and most terrible. Asparagus is her favorite. She doesn’t let anyone else have any, not even Ezzie.
I licked my lips, forcing the words out. “Did you… did you already step on the crooked root?”
“I’m standing on it now.” His bravado couldn’t entirely cover the shiver of fear in his voice. Good. At least he believed me.
“Don’t move. If you step off it, the ward will trigger. Do you see something that looks like a big white stone?”
“Yes… eagh… that’s not a stone.”
“Crow skull,” I said, making my way gingerly through the pumpkin patch. I didn’t dare go much closer. Grandmother’s traps would get me as easily as they’d get the boy. “You’ll have to turn it round. So it’s not watching the root. But carefully! If you jiggle it, you’ll set it off.”
“Don’t worry, I can handle that.”
“I’m not worried. It would serve you right to get your spirit obliterated.”
“Then why are you helping me?”
I was asking myself the same question. Bog-witches didn’t go around helping people, not unless they got something out of it.
I still had no answer a moment later when he strolled out from the asparagus bed, a single green spear clamped between his teeth. He snapped off the tip. “Not bad,” he said, crunching the mouthful. His boots squelched slightly as he stepped toward me. “Thanks for the warning. That was a spiffing good trap. I– well, of course I would have been fine, but still. Thanks. My name’s Barnaby, by the way.” He stuck out his hand.
I don’t know what I would have done. My fingers shook. Half of me wanted to reach out and take his hand, while the other half still wanted to turn him into a toad. But I never found out, because that’s when Grandmother came back.
She swept out from the night with her robes crackling. “Prunella!” she thundered. “What is this disgrace? I leave you to watch my garden and return to find you consorting with an Uplander?”
The force of her anger pressed me back. Blast it, I was cowering. I couldn’t help it. “Grandmother, I–”
She seized fistfuls of air, as if prepared to tear the night in two. “If you can’t keep the garden safe for one evening, how you do you expect to become one of us?”
“I am a Bogthistle,” I said, trying to ignore the shivers racing through me. Stinking sloughs, I could not cry in front of her. That would doom me forever. “Please, I just need another chance.”
“Please? Please? When does a Bogthistle ever use that polite twaddle?” She swatted my hands aside. “What Bogthistle would free a thief rather than cursing him?”
“It wasn’t her fault,” said the boy, with considerably more gumption than I would have expected, even from him. “She did curse me. Sort of… I mean, look at this jacket. It’ll never be the same.”
I wanted to wring his neck and hug him all at the same time.
“That’s quite enough out of you, boy,” said Grandmother. She crossed her arms, her elbows poking out sharply. “I’ve given you chances, Prunella. I wanted to see you succeed. But it’s clear as cloudless skies that you just aren’t one of us.”
“I am a Bogthistle, you’ll see.” I whirled on Barnaby, crooking my finger. His eyes widened.
“Hey!” He took a step back. “I thought you were helping me.”
“Bogthistles don’t help stupid Uplanders who waltz into places they don’t belong,” I said, trying to sound as sharp and iron-hard as Grandmother. The boy would have a good life as a frog, I told myself. Much better than if I cursed him with the doom of a hundred misfortunes. I spat out the words, squinching my eyes at the end. I couldn’t watch.
Brightness flared against my eyelids. But when I opened them there was no frog. Only Barnaby, quirking a brow at me. “Was that supposed to be a curse?” He dusted off his jacket. “I reckon you’d better stick with the oil-dousing. All that did was give me spots in my eyes. Nice and flashy though.”
I sputtered, turning to Grandmother. “It’s not fair. How can prove I’m one of you when you won’t tell me what to do?”
She didn’t speak. Her look was enough. Never before had I seen sorrow in her eyes. I could stand Grandmother’s anger. I could endure her chivvying over my failed curses. But I could not bear that look. The stern line of her lips trembled, just for a moment. I had to fix this.
“Pl– I mean, just tell me what you want, Grandmother. I’ll do it.”
The flash of sorrow was gone as if it had never been. She cocked her head, staring at me. “It’s not a matter of what I want. What do you want, Prunella?”
“To be a proper Bogthistle.” I scrambled for the words to convince her. “Just give me one more chance.” I kept my knees locked in place, lest I fall to the muddy earth.
Grandmother gave a huff. She turned upon Barnaby. “It’s your lucky day, asparagus thief. I won’t turn you into a toad.”
“Aahh… thank you?” Barnaby stepped back a pace anyway.
“You won’t?” I asked.
“No. I’ll leave that for you, Prunella. If you somehow manage to properly curse this thief, or anyone for that matter, I just might reconsider things.”
I rocked on my stiff legs, steadying myself against one of the waist-high pumpkins. “Really?”
She eyed me sharply. “I don’t hold out much hope of it, mind you. The way your curses have been going, I expect he’ll be prince of the Uplands first.”
“Oh Grandmother, thank you. I’ll do it. I will. I–”
“Enough!” she snapped. “I don’t need maudlin gratitude. You’ve still got a lot to learn, Prunella. Being a Bogthistle isn’t just about having warts or turning someone into a frog. But I can’t teach you that. You’ll have to figure it out yourself. Out there.” She jabbed one finger to the north. I did not move.
“Off with you now,” she said. “Go on.”
“G-go?” I stammered. “You’re throwing me out?”
She didn’t say anything more. Instead, she pursed her lips, whistling an eerie wavering call like the wail of a ghost. From somewhere out in the darkness came a low grumbling bellow.
“You’re setting Yeg on me?” My feet were lead, my thoughts a flock of crows, wheeling and turning in madcap flight. She couldn’t do this. It could not be happening.
Grandmother spun on her heel. She stalked into the alchemy shop. The door slammed. I was never, ever, going to get inside. The closed door stared back at me. My future. Gone.
The bellow sounded again, closer. I shook myself. I still had one hope. I just needed to curse Barnaby. And for that, we both needed to be alive. Besides, a bog-witch would not give up. She would find a way to make things work. I drew in a steadying breath.
I grabbed the boy’s elbow, pointing toward the mass of cypress trees that bounded the bottom of the garden. “This way.” We ran, Yeg’s thunderous bellows ringing through the night behind us.