The Firstborn: Chapter One
It’s nearly four in the morning when I hear the crackling of twigs and stiff leaves outside my window.
I take a deep breath, bracing myself. I always knew that it would one day come to this, but I hadn’t expected it so soon. I quickly remove my nightclothes and begin throwing on my most official-looking dark dress and cloak, although it’s difficult when my fingers are fumbling; after all, I’ve just been rudely awoken, and am not fully in control of my body yet. The continued sounds outside assure me that the intruder has not yet escaped, so I take the extra time to apply a little bit of dramatic makeup, although I feel extremely silly while doing so. Now’s not the time for that kind of thinking, though. I've got to focus.
It’s time. The moment I’ve been warned about since childhood.
It’s time to defend my garden, and my honor as a witch.
I summon my courage, draw a deep breath, and then throw the door wide open, cackling as madly as I possibly can and swinging my lantern wildly. Lightning flashes overhead, and thunder cracks a mere moment later. The autumn always brings with it these terrible storms, and I often lose plants to its fury, but this time, it works in my favor. Ignoring the rain, I step forward, my eyes searching for the one who has intruded.
“Oh, hey,” comes a rather bored voice, and I turn, scowling, to see the criminal.
The light of the lantern illuminates her. She looks young--probably around my own age--and is just as beautiful as one would expect of a maiden. It’s hard to see through the rain and darkness, but her form is slight, her face elegant and feline. The thing I notice even more than that, however, is her expression.
She looks utterly unimpressed.
I’m starting to feel like something is a little out of place--isn’t she supposed to be terrified?--but I continue, as I have studied for. “Impudent girl,” I hiss, advancing toward her, “how dare you come into my garden unannounced? And--” I seize her slender wrist, twisting so that I can see what is in her hand. They’re stems with purple, star-shaped blossoms, and she wears a thin glove on the hand holding them. “My magical plants? You think you can steal my herbs and get away with it?”
“Nah, I kind of figured you’d catch me,” she drawls, yanking her arm out of my grip. She shoves the handful of flowered plants into the pocket of her cloak, and actually has the nerve to yawn at me. “Story goes that you’ll demand something from me to pay for the herbs I stole, right?”
I know I’m supposed to be threatening right now, but all I’m capable of at the moment is gaping stupidly.
She rolls her eyes, actually rolls her eyes, at me. “Uh, hello? Are you distracted or something?” She sounds as though she finds it excruciatingly dull to have to discuss this with me. “I have places to be, you know. I’ve already got everything I need. You took forever to come out, so I’ve been waiting. Let’s just finish this up, shall we?”
Her crisp tone snaps me out of my stupor, although my pride has just started stinging a little. If I’m not mistaken, she’s being kind of insulting. “Y-yes,” I respond, attempting to keep up my act but starting to lose it in my state of confusion.
I squeeze my eyes tightly shut. No, don’t lose it! You’re a witch! You can do it!
“Poor little peasant girl,” I jeer, slipping back into my rhythm and tipping her chin up with one finger, “you came into my garden to steal my magical herbs. You will not get away so easily.” I give another laugh, and am fairly pleased; it sounds reasonably menacing. “Why should I, the witch Siobhan, allow you to live?”
“Oh, come on,” she snaps, clearly becoming exasperated and waving my hand away. “Can we skip to the part where you demand something in return? I really do have things to do.”
I glare at her for a full three seconds before answering. “Fine,” I retort, forgetting the whole scary witch thing for a second. I clear my throat, getting back into the swing of it. “Fine,” I repeat, more eerily this time. “I will let you live, and because I am generous, I will allow you to keep your stolen herbs. They are valuable and will bring you great rewards if used correctly. Therefore, as payment, you will give to me…” I pause for effect; working together with me, as the weather often does with witches, lightning strikes again, and I wait for the thunder to really ring before I finish. “You will give to me…your firstborn child.”
There is silence but for the dripping of the rain; then, the maiden says, “Okay.”
Without further ado, she turns, her cloak flowing behind her. She starts to leave, climbing my towering garden wall with apparent ease.
I watch her go, jaw dropping. Am--am I supposed to just let this happen? I always thought that someone who just barely escaped death and promised their firstborn to an evil witch would be fleeing in a panic, or at least seem a little bit shaken up, but this girl isn’t fazed. It’s actually kind of anticlimactic.
Without really thinking, I shout at her retreating back just as she’s about to drop down to the other side of the wall. “What’s your name?”
She glances back at me, and lightning flashes again, illuminating her fine features as she grins. “Gwyn,” she calls back, and then she’s gone.
I’m not sure what to do now, so I call it a night. After all, nothing’s more awkward than a dejected nineteen-year-old witch, standing silently in the pouring rain and feeling perplexed over some sassy herb thief.
I sleep in until noon because of how late I was up, and I’m still in a foul mood as I wander around groggily. Who does that girl think she is? Sipping my peppermint tea, I flip through some of my old textbooks, searching through the sections regarding exchanges with maidens. All of the books say just what I’d recalled them saying: the poor, frightened young lady will beg for forgiveness, asking to be spared. Then the witch will laugh and mercilessly request something valuable--generally the firstborn child. The maiden will then cry and run away.
I accidentally spill some tea on my shirt and make an unidentifiable noise of frustration.
That Gwyn girl was definitely not typical. Should I ask someone about this? It’s not as if witches really have families to ask about this sort of stuff, but I do have a couple of older friends. Asking them would probably be a bad idea, though; witches aren’t a sociable bunch, and besides, I don’t know a single witch who encountered her first maiden before the age of forty-five. It’s possible the situation seemed strange because I’m not as intimidating yet, being a younger and less weathered witch.
There’s also the fact that I’m not exactly the best at being a witch. My spells are shoddy and tend to set things on fire that they shouldn’t, my evil cackle sounds something akin to maniacal hiccuping, and hunching over to try to look creepy hurts my back, so I don’t really have the whole look down yet. I’m awkwardly in the middle appearance-wise; most witches are either stunningly, superhumanly beautiful or horribly, terrifyingly hideous, but I couldn’t possibly be more mediocre in appearance. My hair is black and a little frizzy, my eyes are a clear grey, and I’m pretty tall, but no one would go so far as to call me either ugly or pretty. I’m also incredibly clumsy and lack general talent, or so I’ve been told. My potion-making is my only redeeming skill as a witch, but even then, I have trouble with the more devastating concoctions; I’m really much better at making healing brews and tasty sauces, which is not exactly what witches are supposed to excel at. It’s entirely plausible that Gwyn just isn’t scared of a woman who looks like she’s more likely to trip over her own feet than perform a curse.
I’m too irritated to continue reading. I throw the book I’m holding against the wall, accidentally dropping my mug of tea at the same time. It takes a couple seconds for the sight of the broken china and soaked floor to register, but once it does, I’m even more upset.
Then again--I go about cleaning it up by hand, not trusting my faulty magic to do it without burning down my house. Maybe it’s a good thing. Who ever heard of a witch that drinks peppermint tea, anyway?
I’m actually a bit impressed with the strange results of some of my spells.
For example, the spell I tried to perform only a moment ago is a very simple one, designed for only one thing: turning a creature into a mushroom. I tried to cast the spell on a tiny mouse for practice, intending to turn it back right away, but I’m no longer sure that reversal is possible. The mouse isn’t a mushroom.
It’s the size of a horse.
I try the reversal incantation for the mushroom spell, but if anything, the mouse gets a little bigger. It blinks its inky eyes at me, twitching its rod-like whiskers innocently, and I stay perfectly still; it’s only a few feet away from my garden, and if it decides to bolt in the wrong direction, all of my precious herbs are done for.
And what if it doesn’t bolt at all? What if it attacks me? I tense up subconsciously, my eyes wandering to its humongous, gleaming front teeth. If I remember correctly, mice are omnivorous. This mouse is certainly large enough to do some damage to me if it attacks me. I could probably make a loud, scary noise if I use a color-changing spell or something like that, with how my magic is behaving today, but I don’t want to risk injuring the poor thing when this is all my fault to begin with. The result of the failed spell could just as easily be an explosion as a loud noise.
The mouse seems to consider me, tilting its head slightly and perking its round ears; I stare back, not daring to move a muscle. After a second or two, the bizarre creature seems to decide that it is content with the state of affairs and lowers itself to the ground, apparently in need of a nap.
The situation seems to be defused for the moment, but there’s still an inconveniently large mouse in my backyard and I can’t trust my spells to fix this for me. My garden isn’t out of the woods, so to speak, yet. Not to mention that I’ve just seriously screwed up life for this mouse, which is undoubtedly not sure exactly how to function at this new size. What will it eat now? Will it still be able to live by just roaming around the forest? Might it terrify its tiny mouse family with its oversized affection?
If word of my failure gets out to my mentor and the other witches, I’ll be even more of a laughingstock than I already am, and that’s saying something. Transformation spells aren’t exactly the simplest of all spells, but they’re certainly not complex enough to merit an adult witch accidentally performing a growing spell instead. In fact, growing spells are, generally speaking, more difficult to perform correctly. Does this mean I’m a better witch than I’d thought, or just an incredibly bad one? I’m confused.
It’s not as though this is the first time that something like this has happened, but I swore to myself after what happened last time never to make my mentor dig me out of a hole like that again. She’s a kind and understanding witch, but even she looked a little bit flustered after being forced to rejoin all of the pieces of the tree that I’d accidentally blown to smithereens. In addition to that, dust particles from the explosion had turned all of the children in a tiny nearby village into rubber balls, and it was quite a hassle for her to correct that issue before the adults drove us both out of village.
I set my jaw in determination. I’m not going to let my mentor down again. Although I’m loathe to leave the gigantic mouse alone, I take a couple of minutes to scan through one of my brewing textbooks, and I’m able to locate what seems to be a suitable recipe for a shrinking potion. After that, it takes me a few more minutes to complete my calculations, but luckily, this kind of thing is my specialty, so I’m confident I’ve done it correctly once I’m finished.
I realize pretty quickly upon re-reading the list of herbs and quantities I’ve written down that I don’t have everything I need in my garden. Most of it I have in surplus, but there’s one specific herb that I don’t grow, mostly because I’m moderately allergic to it. It’s not a plant that has any close substitutes, either--most of the other herbs on this list have at least one other herb that could potentially serve as a replacement, depending on the specificity of the individual concoction, but not this one. It’s completely and totally unique.
I grind my teeth together unpleasantly. I can’t just give up. This is the only way to fix this.
There’s only one solution: I’ll have to go to the market of the closest village.
I start the walk almost immediately, only pausing to discard my usual cloak in favor of more normal, brightly-colored clothes; the village is quite a distance from here, and if I want to make it there and back before dark, I need to get going. The clothes I wear because witches aren’t exactly society’s favorite sweethearts, and for good reason; after all, there are the curses, the stolen firstborns, the threats against the kingdoms, and much more. The list really goes on and on, so one can’t blame people for getting a little suspicious and angry upon seeing a witch. Hopefully these very un-witch like clothes, combined with my un-witch-like behavior, will make me appear to be...well...not a witch.
I nearly trip on a tree root protruding from the path and curse to myself. I’m young and haven’t gained any notoriety, so I should be pretty safe, but it’s better to be cautious in times like these. Witch hunts are gaining popularity by the day, after all; should something about my face throw anyone off, I imagine it wouldn’t be beyond them to test me somehow. At the very worst, I’ll be burned at the stake. I’ve heard it’s not pleasant.
In any case, maybe I’ll try to buy seed for this herb while I’m in village. Just sneezing every time I harvest nearby plants is a pretty good deal, considering it will mean not having to venture into the village. I’ll just have to keep careful control over my magic when I’m around that section of the garden; sneezing might result in some insane spell if I’m not careful, and one of these days, I’m going to accidentally do something I can’t reverse.
A rather foreboding image of the horse-sized mouse decides to visit my mind again, and I do my best to brush it off. Honestly, of all the embarrassing and strangely frightening things to need to purchase plants for…
The walk is a long and boring one, but I reach the village while the sun is still well above the horizon, so there’s that, at least. Most of the shops that might have what I need are probably still open, so I won’t have to wait here overnight.
The village is quite small and sits with its back in the crook of a tiny mountain range, which surrounds the valley in a vast semi-circle. The narrower tributary of a great mountain river runs through the center of the village, and the majority of the vendor stands are set up on either side of this snaking water.
Ignoring an unhappy, hungry squeeze from my stomach, I hurry over to a stand near the edge of village. It’s my go-to stand, mainly because I know the person who runs it personally, and he already knows that I’m a witch and has promised not to rat me--or any other well-meaning witches--out. He’s not a witch himself, but his sister is, so he has some sympathy for those of us who don’t mean any harm and are just trying to survive.
I shudder, trying not to think about his sister. I’d never say it aloud, for fear of word getting back to him, but his sister’s not my favorite witch. She’s horrible at potion-brewing, so she takes an unfortunately common, and unpleasant, shortcut: live animals. They have significantly more energy than the normal plants, so when a witch lacks finesse or quality ingredients, they sometimes make up the slack by using live frogs or mice or bats. I try to avoid those witches.
Not that her brother knows about that, of course. The guy’s completely sweet and clueless. It works to my advantage, though, since a more down-to-earth person might not be so kind to witches. Plus, it’s nice to see a normal human smiling at me for once.
“Siobhan!” the man shouts, waving cheerily. He has a chubby, boyish face and twinkling brown eyes. I do wish he wouldn’t shout quite so loudly. I hush him as politely as possible.
“It’s nice to see you too, Aedan, but people trying to keep a low profile usually don’t shout their names across the square,” I say, straining to keep a note of exasperation from my voice. Aedan seems to get it, luckily, and he settles for a happy grin as I look over his wares.
I frown, not seeing what I’m looking for. “Don’t you have any yarrow today, Aedan?”
“Fresh out, I’m afraid,” Aedan says. “There was a nasty frost this morning and the less hardy plants didn’t survive, and I’m out of seeds, too. It’s killing my business!”
I could go back to my place and try to harvest wild yarrow, I suppose, but I prefer to buy from Aedan because his plants are reliable and he often has spare seeds. My place is slightly south of here, but even so, the plants in my somewhat protected garden are probably going to be the only safe weak plants around.
It looks like he doesn’t have any silverleaf, either. That herb thief Gwyn stole a bit of mine, and while I don’t really need more of it, I’m curious to know what she’s planning to do with it. It’s a nightshade derivative, so it can be used for its toxic effects as a poison or irritant. She knew exactly what she wanted, too, because she was wearing gloves to negate the skin irritation. Curiously, she also stole a little bit of my tormentil, which I only ever use for healing mixtures. It’s an odd combination: a poison and a pretty flower.
I wonder if Gwyn lives here. The thought makes me both furious and nervous. Furious because she stole my stuff and nervous because she was intimidating while she did it.
“You could try the herbalist on the other side of village,” suggests Aeden brightly, pulling me away from my thoughts. “She has her own storage of plants inside her shop. She’s never out!” He beams at me, clearly waiting for a response.
It takes all of my willpower not to release an exasperated sigh. “Thanks, Aeden. I’ll be back later.” As I turn to leave, waving the jolly man goodbye, I stop for a moment and say, “Take care of yourself.”
“You too, Siobhan!” he practically yells. I glare at him for good measure and hurry away, toward the opposite end of village. I have to cross the river, but there’s a conveniently located bridge nearby.
Because the village is very small, it does not take me long to locate the herbalist’s shop. It’s on the border of the village, and it’s a small building with a faded and old but rather neat sign, which is adorned with painted flowers and reads “Daisies on the River”.
I step cautiously into the shop. I’ve never met the owner, so I am once again presented with the issue of trying to not seem like a witch, which is much harder than it should be for a witch as un-witchy as I am. Something about us gives off a magical aura, creeps people out. I just have to hope that the owner of this shop is unperceptive--or doesn’t care.
For the moment, though, it doesn’t really matter; the owner must be in the back, as the shop is empty apart from myself. The assortment of plants is surprisingly vast. In fact, I instantly see the small white flowers of the yarrow I’m looking for, although I don’t see any silverleaf or tormentil. Whoever owns this shop has at least twice the variety of plants that I do, although many of them wouldn’t be very useful to me; I do, however, spot at least three that I would like to purchase. There are even seeds or buds for every type of plant.
I’m just marveling at the selection when a voice from the back calls, “Sorry, I’ll be out in just a moment!”
I barely have time to register how strangely familiar that voice sounds before the shop owner steps out, and I gasp in disbelief.
I can’t tell if she recognizes me or not, since she mainly seems confused and irritated by my dramatic gasp. I guess it’s possible that she doesn’t, since we were in a storm and my face was mostly obscured by my cloak and makeup. I recognize her immediately, though. That clear voice, those sharp features, that almost bored expression. I couldn’t see her hair because of the cloak before, but it’s a lovely, flowing golden blonde, and her eyes are an incredibly bright, pure green.
“Hello?” she says, and I realize she’s been trying to talk to me while I’ve been gawking this whole time. “Can I help you?”
I cough, hoping against hope that she doesn’t recognize me. She doesn’t look suspicious, just annoyed. “I need to purchase some yarrow.” I pause for a moment, watching her to see if she recognizes my voice, and when it seems she doesn’t, I continue, “Also, some black haw, some lady’s mantle, some coltsfoot, and some goldenstar.”
“Sure,” she says, her face softening now that I’ve stopped spacing out. Possibly she just has a low tolerance for people wasting her time. Her movements are certain and smooth as she carefully gathers each plant and puts it in a well-sealed bag, adding more or less at my request. I end up having her fill up her largest bag with yarrow.
“Do you want any seeds or buds for these plants?” Gwyn asks.
“Yes,” I respond hastily. “For all of them, please.”
She smiles, and I’m momentarily frozen by how blinding it is. “Are small bags okay?”
I nod dumbly. As she gets to work putting together bags for me, my brain finally starts to catch up to what’s happening.
That sassy plant thief runs her own plant shop! It seems she truly didn’t have the plants she stole from me, though. I can’t help but wonder what she needs them for. For a moment I wonder if she is a witch, too, but I banish the thought quickly from my mind. We’re very in tune with each other, witches. I can tell another witch’s magical aura from a non-witch’s aura instantly, even if I’m not a particularly good witch.
Do I confront Gwyn? I ponder this as I watch her use her delicate fingers to deftly tie the tiny sacks shut. I probably shouldn’t, since it’ll be bad if she ousts me as a witch in the middle of the village. It’s really lucky that she hasn’t realized it’s me already; I’m sure she’d be itching to expose me, since I’d probably have to flee. She must just be one of those people who isn’t good at picking up auras, which is great for me. I am, however, still upset with her, and part of me is itching to pick a fight or intimidate her or at least find out more about her.
“What’s your name?” I ask before I can think too hard about the potential risks of engaging her in further conversation, and although I already know the answer.
“Gwyn,” she says. She’s tying up the last small bag now. “Yours?”
I pause, horrified at myself for almost just blurting it out.
I swallow painfully. “Shrew,” I say lamely. It’s not the best fake name ever, but it was the first thing that popped into my head...possibly because of the horse-sized mouse.
“Shrew,” she repeats coolly, giving me a once-over. Her green eyes rove over me, crystal clear and attentive. She finally gives me a smile, this one a bit more playful than the gentle ones from before. “It suits you.”
Well, it shouldn’t, since it isn’t my name. Also, does she think I look like a shrew? Isn’t that...insulting? Well, whatever; it seems she meant it as a compliment. I smile back despite myself.
“Do you live around here, Shrew?” She’s putting all of the little bags into a larger one as she waits for my response.
How do I answer this one without sounding suspicious? “Pretty close, yes,” I respond. “My family runs…” My brain hurts from all this making stuff up. “...a farm a couple hours away. We have cows and pigs and things.” Really smooth, Siobhan. Very convincing.
“Is that so,” she says, nodding thoughtfully. “Well, in any case, I do hope you’ll drop by again soon. It’s always nice to have customers that appreciate my yarrow.” There’s a mischievous look on her face, and there’s a pause while she hands me the bag, which is still surprisingly light. “That’ll be twelve pounds.”
I hand her the money and bid her farewell, and before I realize it, I’m outside and walking back. It’s growing dark now, and although the way back to my place isn’t terribly dangerous, I really should be hurrying. I spent more time than I meant to due to that distracting Gwyn.
The unusual absence of my cloak has left me rather colder than I’d like, but my newly established half-jog through the forest is keeping my blood pumping, at least. I almost trip several times, though, mainly because my brain’s racing even faster than my body.
One would expect a witch who’s been robbed and mocked to be angry upon seeing the criminal, but I was too shocked and anxious to feel much anger upon meeting Gwyn. There’s that air of incredible confidence that makes me feel like I’m standing before a mountain, rather than a woman. Where does her confidence come from? If I had to guess, she’s about my age, so what is it that makes her so self-assured?
Well, whatever it is, I lack it. At least I know where Gwyn lives now. I think there’s some sort of pact that should tell me when she has her firstborn, since the words of witches can be binding in certain circumstances, but I can at least keep an eye on her until then. For the purpose of making sure she doesn’t sneak off somewhere, of course. She’s undoubtedly a tricky, thieving, cunning maiden.
By the time I reach my home, I’m exhausted and shivering and I have scrapes all over my hands and knees from falling over so much. The giant mouse is still loitering nearby, and I sidestep him carefully on the way into my house, although that doesn’t stop his giant black eyes from staring a hole of shame into my skull.
I store my purchased goods in a cabinet for now; I’m too fatigued and anxious to do anything with them tonight, so I’ll have to hope the mouse will stay intact until tomorrow, when I can start brewing the potion I’ll need to fix my mistake. I climb into bed and quickly fall into a sleep filled with dreams of Gwyn’s face, laughing at me mockingly.