I had a dream that the king and the queen of a small country had a daughter. They needed a son, a first-born son, so in secret, without telling anyone of their child’s gender, they travelled to the nearby woods that were rumoured to house a witch.
They made a deal with that witch. They wanted a son, and they got one. A son, one made out of clay and wood, flexible enough to grow but sturdy enough to withstand its destined path, enchanted to look like a human child. The witch asked for only one thing, and that was for their daughter.
They left the girl readily.
The witch raised her as her own, and called her Thyme. The princess grew up unknowing of her heritage, grew up calling the witch Mama, and the witch did her very best to earn that title.
She was taught magic, and how to forage in the woods, how to build sturdy wooden structures and how to make the most delicious stews. The girl had a good life, and the witch was pleased.
The girl grew into a woman, and learned more and more powerful magics, grew stronger from hauling wood and stones and animals to cook, grew smarter as the witch taught her more.
She learned to deal with the people in the villages nearby, learned how to brew remedies and medicines and how to treat illness and injury, and learned how to tell when someone was lying.
Every time the pair went into town, the people would remark at just how similar Thyme was to her mother.
(Thyme does not know who and what she is. She does not know that she was born a princess, that she was sold. She only knows that one night after her mother read her a story about princesses and dragons, her mother had asked her if she ever wanted to be a princess.)
((Thyme only knows that she very quickly answered no. She likes being a witch, thank you very much, she likes the power that comes with it and the way that she can look at things and know their true nature.))
The witch starts preparing the ritual early, starts collecting the necessities in the winter so they can be ready by the fall equinox. Her daughter helps, and does not ask what this is for, just knows that it is important.
The witch looks at Thyme, both their hands raised into the air over a complicated array of plants, tended carefully to grow into a circle, and says, sorry.
Thyme wakes up in a clearing she recognizes well. Her mother is not there.
The house she had grown up in is a pile of logs on the ground, destroyed and broken and in disarray, and Thyme is afraid. She calls for her mother, once, twice, and then rolls up her sleeves and begins the trek towards town.
Her home is not here, she has neither her bow nor her knife, and if she means to figure out what happened she needs supplies. People are always in need of a witch, she knows, and her mother taught her long ago the value of a silver tongue.
She walks out of the woods, and the town is... different. Smaller. The mill she knew so fondly, that she used to climb in with the other children of the village, isn’t there.
There’s no indication it was ever there, and all at once, Thyme realizes what the ritual was for.
It was a time-spell, and now she is in the past. The house is in ruins because her mother has not repaired it yet, the mill is gone because it has not been built yet.
She is here, because...
She does not know.
And now, it is up to her to take care of herself.
She learns the date from the villagers, gets herself a room at the inn and a good hot meal in exchange for looking at the innkeeper’s son, who has been wracked with cough for weeks now, apparently.
His face is one Thyme knows, one that in her days were covered in wrinkles and laugh-lines, and as she goes back out into the woods to collect the herbs she needs to cure the boy, she thinks.
The boy will take the inn over from his father, and he will always welcome Thyme’s mother in with open arms for saving him when he was a child. Either the story had been wrong, or Thyme has already broken things.
Thyme does not know which one she fears more.
She waits in the village for a full turn of the moon for her mother to come. She knows that this is when she should have come in to town. She knows that she should show up here, any day.
The boy’s cough gets better and when it’s gone completely Thyme buys herself a knife at the blacksmith’s and returns to the woods, to the clearing she calls home. Hands on her hips, she surveys the once-cottage, and makes a plan.
The house takes a long time to build. She buys an axe, makes a bow, and sleeps under the stars while the house is very slowly built back up. Walls, roof, floors, and then a fireplace, big and wide enough to fit a cauldron, built from special bluestone she hauls from a nearby hill one lump at a time, all the better to brew inside.
Mama, she thinks wryly, you better be grateful for this.
She hunts for herself, mostly, snares rabbits and shoots down deer, strips them of their skin, treats it and leaves the fur out to dry. They’ll be good blankets, a good winter cloak, someday. She knows what plants she can eat, what plants will be good, and she survives. She builds.
She does not tell the villagers her name, and they know her only as “the witch.”
Thyme eventually stops waiting for her mother. She watches herself in the mirror, and aches at how much they look the same. How much she’s turning out like her mother.
She helps the villagers, occasionally travels further to heal illnesses in other villages, but mostly stays to herself, in the woods, collecting books and herbs and the house grows more and more as she remembers it. Her hair, that used to be so dark, raven’s hair, her mother would say, braiding it back for her before she learned to do it herself, gets shot through with white and goes grey.
There’s wrinkles on her face that didn’t used to be there.
Thyme stops waiting, and becomes the witch of the these woods.
The King and Queen of these lands show up at her door, and they are holding a baby girl.
Please, they say, We need a son. Give us a son.
And Thyme, who now has a scar on her cheek from a branch whipping at her too fast to avoid, who knows that her mother had had the same scar, looks at the baby, meets her eyes, and knows that they are her eyes.
I’ll give you a son, Thyme tells them, as if through a trance, but the cost will be your daughter.
They agree, as she knew they would, and she makes a boy out of clay and wood and she remembers learning how to make constructs like these with her mother, she breaths life into it and sends it off with the King and Queen and she holds their baby in her arms.
Black hair. Dark eyes. A quiet baby, who looks up at her with a solemness that Thyme’s not entirely sure babies are supposed to have.
Hello, little one, Thyme says, holds out her finger for the baby to grasp, feels her voice crack down the centre like a burnt-out log when the infant holds her finger in her chubby little hand.
She’s a princess. This baby is a princess, and this baby is her, and her mother has never existed. She knows all these things now, but the thing that she knows most strongly is that she will protect this child, and not only because this child is her.
(It is alright to be selfish, Thyme, she remembers her mother telling her, it is alright to take things for yourself. You do not need to give yourself away, remember that.)
She has to build a crib and cradle for the baby, and until it’s finished, until she knows that the birchwood and blanket is as comfortable as it can be, she sleeps with the baby -- with Thyme, her name will be Thyme, and she smiles as she thinks it -- on her chest.
She goes into the village, walking through the woods as baby Thyme looks at the trees and the plants with wide eyes, brings her to a farmer who has raised three girls, knocks at her door, and says, help me.
The witch doesn’t know how to care for a child, and she is going to learn. She must learn.
The farmer helps her gladly, something in her eyes that tells the witch that she misses having children, that however much she loves her girls, grown and adventurous, sun-browned and strong from working the fields with her mother, she misses caring for an infant.
She learns how to make formula out of goat’s milk, how to burp the baby, how to change and wash her. She learns how to tell why the baby might be crying -- even though baby Thyme rarely cries, prefers to watch the world with her big, dark eyes -- and how to fix what might be wrong.
She sits with the farmer as Thyme plays with a doll carved from a cow’s bone, and learns how to thresh wheat.
The farmer never asks where the baby came from, but does remark how alike they look, that Thyme looks just like her mother, and the witch smiles at that.
Thyme seems to grow quickly, learning to crawl, and then to toddle around while hanging off the furniture, and the witch cries at Thyme’s first, unsteady and unsupported steps, even as she builds high shelves into the rafters of her home so that Thyme won’t end up eating things she shouldn’t.
The witch takes Thyme into the village more and more, first in a bag tucked up close against her chest, and when Thyme grows more, holding her hand as she runs through the woods as fast as her little legs will carry her. Every time Thyme runs off to bring back a flower, the witch feels a surge of fondness she refuses to suppress.
The mill is built, and the witch watches as Thyme runs off to play with the other village kids, brave and fearless and so, so curious.
She teaches Thyme her first charm when the girl is eight, and Thyme takes to the craft like she takes to memorizing the names and uses of plants, like she takes to a bow and knife, like she takes to books, exactly as the witch knew she would.
Sometimes, the witch hates the lie she’s made Thyme into. She agonizes over it, over she should tell the girl her true parentage, should spill this secret like a cut bag of wheat, but--
She does not want Thyme to know that she was traded away so easily. She does not want Thyme to know that to her birth parents, she was worthless.
She asks, though. Asks, do you want to be like the girls in the books? a princess? and is warmed to the core when Thyme answers no.
Yes, the witch had known what she had answered. Yes, the witch knows that Thyme loves her life, her studies, the woods, her home.
(Yes, the witch knows that Thyme loves her mother, because the witch loved her mother. She knows this, and still, she asks.)
The witch teaches Thyme how to make constructs, how to animate them, is proud beyond words when on her fifth try, casting over a wood skeleton covered in clay, the shape of a rabbit, the thing shivers to life, and hops over to push it’s nose into Thyme’s outstreached hands, the girl beaming so brightly that the witch thinks the woods might be glowing with it. The rabbit-construct is lumpy, and uneven, it’s movements slow and unnatural, and she has not yet taught Thyme how to cast the illusion spell onto it that will make it look real, and alive, but Thyme looks so happy that the witch nearly, nearly, forgets her guilt at the purpose of this spell.
Thyme grows, first into a teen, skinny and narrow from how she had shot taller like a willow tree, bony and sharp and lean, and into a woman, growing broad from good food and hard work, takes to hiking into the woods for days at a time with only her knife and her bow and a pouch of herbs, returns home with wild hair the witch combs out for her as Thyme tells her of her adventures.
It matters not that the witch knows all of these stories, knows them because she lived them herself, when she was a girl. She listens to her daughter, dragging the comb through her tangled hair, asks about the falls she found, the cliffs, the animals, the herbs, makes sure that Thyme knows that she will be listened to, that she deserves to be listened to. She listens, because she knows that no matter how much Thyme loves going on these adventures, she also loves coming home, and sharing in these simple, cozy moments.
Winter comes. With the cold comes a grief, a guilt, that weighs heavy on the witch’s heart. She begins preparing for the ritual, for the time-spell that will send her daughter backwards and into loneliness and into the position to save herself from what her true parents would force her to become, backwards to learn the truth, backwards to become her.
She knows why she must do this. She has scryed on her construct, the prince, the soon-to-be-king, every moon since she sent him away and took herself in his place. She sees what he has grown into, she sees what the power has done to him, she sees and she knows that she and her daughter would have suffered greatly in that role. She sees him make hard choices.
She sees him go to war.
She sees the illusion she cast over branch and clay bleed. She sees him, bandages around his torso, arm hanging awkwardly by his side, leave the castle, and wade into the lake outside of it’s walls. She sees the clay in the lakebed melt towards him, heal the wounds, make him fit to wield a sword the very next day.
She does not want that. She does not want that for her daughter.
It is alright to be selfish, Thyme, she remembers her mother saying to her, remembers saying to her Thyme, bleeding for others is a gift. It is valued, but it is up to you to give it.
Spring comes. Reedy plants are tended into a circle. Summer comes. Fires are burned over the dirt, ash mixed with soil. Fall comes. The heart of a boar is buried under the circle, placed to rest with gentle words. The witch and her daughter, Thyme and Thyme, stand together, hands raised, looking at each other.
The witch whispers, I’m sorry.
And her daughter disappears.
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