The Witch's Bargain / Lillie E Franks

Herbs and crystals on a wooden platter.
 

Come in if you’re going to come in. I left the door open for a reason.

Of course you have. Everyone who comes to my door wants to do business of some kind. Come in, and tell me what’s special about your business.

No need to start. The door does that sometimes. It’s just the wind. When I use my magic, there won’t be any doubts that it’s me.

Of course you can sit down, if there’s anything in this little cottage that’s to your fancy. I’m afraid I will keep the rocking chair. My back, you understand.

You’re awfully young to be out this way by yourself. Certainly young to be dealing with a witch.

Yes, I know who you are, but I didn’t need that to know you were born to power. You don’t put on a good show of being poor even to someone without my sight. Unless of course you’re new to it?

Oh, look around you, little girl. Do you think if I cared about wealth I would still be living in a house like this? Don’t try to impress me with wealth. It’s embarrassing. Tell me what it is you want.

I see.

Why should I have more reaction than that? Wearing a crown is a peasant’s wish. 

If you had any more doubts that I could it than I do, you wouldn’t be here. That’s not the question. Why should I?

Oh, don’t quote your birth at me. Anyone can be born. Even you have had long enough to do something, and that’s what takes character.
    

Why are you quoting to me what he’s done? That’s not what I asked.

Fine, let’s say I agree he’s a usurper. That he’s attempting to take your rightful place to the throne. Is that true?
    

That he’s wicked and scheming? A villain and a traitor?

And the people recognize you as their true Queen, of course?

Then why do you need me?

Ah, of course. It’s more complicated than that. It always is, isn’t it?

No, I didn’t say that I refused. For the right payment, I’ve made many things happen, especially ones that shouldn’t. But it makes a difference. The price to interfere with a squabble over a throne is much higher than the price to save a young girl persecuted by a wicked enemy.

I have no doubt that you can. That’s why I’m still speaking to you. Let me explain.

You began to tell me your birth history. That a certain blood runs in your veins, that a certain person was your parent, and another your parent before that, and so on and on. We both know such histories are lies, really. That you invent and pay for them as you can, that you sometimes follow blood by marriage and other times not, that you choose what birth suits you best and do what you have to to ensure that record is of that birth. Am I wrong?

You’re kind to admit it. How much money do you suppose your family has put in to establishing itself as one and the right family, over the course of all these years?

So much, really? And yet, when it all comes down to it, will your blood help your rule? If your usurper spills it, will the fact of its lineage made it gush out any slower? What is your birth to you as someone who may well be closer to your death than to it?

Don’t worry. I understand the answer better than you do. The power of your blood is the power of Story. It is the power of what Should be, and in the right hands, it can be many times mightier than what Is. Have you ever seen something happened, and known it was wrong? That it wasn’t meant to be? Then you have an eye for the thread of stories. It is on these threads that I pull to work my magic.

Now then, we come to you. You wish to be the queen. It is the first truth and rule of stories that so far as you wish to rise, you must also be willing to fall. Are you prepared to face that?

Then yes. Yes, I can make you a queen. I will do it. But first, you will lose your war.

This cannot be negotiated. Even if I wanted to, there is nothing I could do to help you. Wars are where stories go to die. My magic has no influence over them. And there’s more.

Not only will you lose your war, your enemy will sit on the throne. Your claim to the throne will be by marriage to his child. And more than this. You will be forced to flee your life, abandon your name, and hide, with only your father to keep you company. You will have to work and live in poverty. Your father will have to remarry to make it through the months. He will die, and there will be no one left to remember who you are or what you deserve. In the eyes of the world, perhaps, I might even say, in truth, you will be nothing more than a peasant girl.

Do you accept this?

Good. Perhaps you do understand something of the gravity of what it means to be a queen. Because the second truth and rule of stories is this: anything you wish to take, you must first become worthy to hold.

I will tell you more. The woman you live with will treat you cruelly. So will her children. This is one of the most important steps of being worthy of being a queen. You must learn to be hated. Can you accept this?

Very well. This will be the lowest point you will sink to: to be the poorest and most reviled of all subjects, and thus the only one who could be lifted to the place of the queen. From here on, your story will be one of hope, not despair. You will hear of a function, to which all the subjects of the kingdom are invited. The prince, the son of your usurper, will be there. It will be your chance, not to woo him, but to fall in love with him, and for him to fall in love with you. You will be told you cannot go.

Yes, and this will be another step to being worthy of the throne. You must learn not to listen to the way things are, but to the way they should be. You must listen to the way of the story. When you are not allowed to go, when you are given impossible tasks to keep you busy, you will overcome them. With magic, certainly, but mostly with trying even when you know the task, like ruling, can never be completed.

You will find your way to the ball. You will meet your prince. If you can love him, a true, selfless love, then through the magic of the story he will love you too. But even then, you will not yet become queen. You will be forced to flee. Another lesson: victory is farther than it seems.

Perhaps the prince will find you. This will be the test of whether you have learned to love. If the bond between you is true, it will guide him to you using whatever mistakes and circumstances it must. The power of love over all is a great part of the truth of stories.

Yes. That will be the end of it. When all that is done, you will be queen.

Can you accept this?

Tell me. Is it the circumstances alone that drive you to accept my bargain? Or is there something else? Do you see the beauty of the story? Its balance? The whole of which you and your desires are only one part? 
    

I see.

Then there’s just one thing left to discuss. The price.

You thought that was the price? No, those are only the rules of the spell. None of them give me anything I want, do they? I have no wish to see you or anyone else suffer. But there are things I want.

Not things that money can buy. But things that you have. Or rather, will have.

That’s right. The firstborn of your new line. She will be mine.

So you do care about your kingdom, I see. You don’t want to give it a crisis of succession even if you’ll be dead. I knew I’d find something good under all that. But don’t worry. The child will be mine, but she will also mount the throne.

I mean this. You have glimmers of the powers of story. In basic ways, you’ve learned to manipulate them. But you have not learned to step out of stories yet. And it is only those who have stepped out who can learn to walk back in again and master them.

There are many ways to step out of stories. You are about to become poor, to suffer, to face cruelty, but it is all for a purpose. Every moment of it has a reason and is as it should be. Imagine facing all that but for no prince, for no reason other than the cruelty of one stepmother and one kingdom that decided you were expendable. That is one way to break free of stories. There are as many as there are people. Or rather, there are as many as there are witches.

I was pushed out of them as a child. I sat and I saw how beautiful they were and also how empty. In time, I learned to return to them without being trapped the way I was at first. I learned to step in and out of stories, to pull on them, and finally to create them.

Your daughter will learn the same. And she will ascend to the throne.

That’s the most beautiful part. Even I have no idea. She will be a person outside of the mere characters we can predict and understand. What she will do with her power, only she can decide. 

If she chooses to be a good queen, I think she will be a great one.

If she chooses.

That is my price. That is my offer.

This cannot be negotiated.

Can you accept it?

***

Lillie E Franks is a trans author and playwright from Chicago, Illinois. You may follow her on Twitter at @onyxaminedlife. Under no circumstances should she be trusted with your true name.