“The Witch, the Woods, & the Elf Queen” by Gregory Frost
They had always thought their daughter was sure to be someone extraordinary. For one thing, their Janet had been “born with the caul.” Everyone knew what that meant—although it turned out that what it meant depended upon whom you asked. Some proclaimed it meant she was destined for greatness. Others said it meant that, upon her death, she would become a witch; while still others suggested it meant she was unknowingly part of a secret cabal of guardians, “night-battlers” whose job it was to protect their crops from witches and sorcery. No actual member of this sacred, supernatural cabal had ever revealed themselves, of course, so Janet was left with the prospect of finding them on her own.
When not tending to their cows and sheep alongside her two brothers, she spent much of her spare time in the fields, protecting their crops by watching over them, and in the woods near the Yarrow and the Ettrick waters, searching for evidence of the presence of the unseen guardians to which she was allied. Mostly what she spied were fishermen with dapping poles in the shallows, working their lures to make them seem to dance across the surface of the water. Some of these fishermen were hardly older than she was, and they seemed to congregate in the same locations most of the time, from which she concluded that certain spots on the rivers contained more fish than others did.
By the time she turned sixteen she had apprenticed herself to a local witch named Ealar, a skinny woman tall as a church spire, who dwelled in the woods of Carterhaugh. Ealar was known as a healer, not a diviner; otherwise, she might have been able to guide Janet in seeking the invisible night-battlers.
Then, one late afternoon returning from her time with Ealar, Janet spied three distant figures on horseback—three that were strangely out of place. One was a woman with flaming red hair and a pointed cap of gold on top of her head. Veils flowed off the cap like smoke. A cloak of green covered her. Behind her rode two soldiers in shining black armor of overlapping plates edged with silver. There was something so incredibly regal and finely wrought about them all that she couldn’t believe they were really there—in the summer heat their shapes rippled, more like ghosts of another reality than a solid part of her world, so unnatural were they that she crouched down and hid herself as they approached and rode by. The fine lady’s slippers, decorated with jewels, passed close by where Janet hid. But the riders did not detect her and rode on to the south. Who were they and why were they traveling in the tall grasses along the Yarrow? Could they be the mystical night-battlers she’d been seeking? How could she find out?
At dinner she was but halfway through describing the trio when her mother suddenly yelled for her to stop—so shocking a reaction that she dropped her wooden spoon and spattered parsnip soup across her yellow kirtle. Her brothers gasped: Mother never raised her voice to any of them. That was left to her father. Only, this time he was the calm and quiet one.
“I know,” he began, “your mother believes your caul marked you in some way, but we don’t e’en know how, and God’s not yet shown us a sign. These three might be anyone.” There seemed to be more to it than that. From the looks traded back and forth, she could not dismiss the notion that her mother had seen the same trio herself sometime in the past. Mother’s anger seemed born of fear.
Her father, however, could not leave the matter alone. He suggested that the next time she encountered these three, she should approach and ask if there was treasure to be had for battling night spirits. Her mother made a noise in her throat and got up from the meal.
When next she slipped away to visit Ealar, Janet described the three she’d seen and her suspicion that they were the hidden ones she was seeking. The witch laughed at her father’s pretensions of gaining treasure, “though it’s not the night-battlers you seen.”
“Why? Who else could it be?”
“The queen of all elfland rides the woods of Carterhaugh from time to time, seeking souls, seeking sacrifices.”
“Sacrifices for what?”
Ealar’s gaze shifted away. “No one knows that. And elves don’t confide in the likes o’ me. But I’ve witnessed your queen in the gold cap riding hereabout and had me the good sense to stay hid till she passed by. You do yourself no favors by catching her attention. Yer father an’ his greed be sure to get you killed.”
Foolishly, she shared Ealar’s opinion with her family. Her father, resentful of the reprimand, told her, “You need to stay away from that witch! Puttin’ ideas in your ’ead, she is.”
“She’s a healer. She helps people. She’s teaching me about curatives.”
“Oh, is she? Name one thing she’s taught you so far.”
That was easy. Ealar had just shown her something that day. “She says, sometimes you’ll find the remedy for a poison growing right alongside it.”
“And how do you know that’s even true? I never heard that. No. I don’t want you consortin’ with a woman like her.”
“Janet,” said her mother, “you should be looking for a husband at your age anyway, not frittering your time away on such things. That Miller Forbes’d be a good catch for you.”
“The miller of Oakmill? He’s old!”
“Not so old as your father and not so old you wouldn’t inherit ’is mill come the day he passes. An’ a mill’s a necessary thing. Always profitable. No taint of elfland in grinding grain.”
“I’ve not shared even words with him. Why would he show any interest in me?”
Father interjected, “Well, ’e’s not burdened with no wife, and needs him a young one like you to give him babies, sons ta keep the mill running.”
“You asked the miller what he needs, did you?”
“See how she is?” Father complained to Mother. “We indulged your nonsense about her caul and now she has a witch advising her and don’t even think about her own father, nor this family. Head’s full of charms and cures and twaddle.”
Half-heartedly, mother said, “You should listen to your father.”
“No,” answered Janet.
Father slammed his palm on the table. “I’m quit of you both. You filled her head she’s special, so you can empty it of the same by time I come back.” With that he rose and marched out of the house. The brothers glanced at each other. They knew where they would find him, where he always went to drink himself foolish. They’d had to walk him home enough times.
Once at the tavern, he sat alone, grumbling, until a tall but stooping gray-haired man sat upon a stool beside him. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” the man said, which struck him as an odd thing. Had he been speaking louder than he thought? The man clearly belonged to a higher social class. His bright clothes alone spoke to that. He introduced himself as a magistrate named Baggi. He said that he could tell there was trouble here. He placed a hand over the farmer’s hand as he reached for his ale. “Why?” he wanted to know. So intense was his one-word request that Janet’s father found himself babbling the whole story of Janet and her caul and all that his wife had invested in it.
In the end the magistrate patted his shoulder and said, “It’s good you’ve unburdened yourself to me. We must talk again.” On the table, before leaving, Baggi placed money for further mugs of ale.
He had to admit, he did feel better having unburdened. Once he consumed the rest of his ale, he stumbled and lurched homeward, and having somehow succeeded in arriving, slept on the ground outside his front door until dawn.
Things were less stressful the next day. No one mentioned the miller, Janet performed her usual chores in quick time, and then visited Ealar deep in the woods. Ealar had been busy fashioning a potion and handed a small bottle to Janet. “For when you need to forget something that’s coming,” the tall witch explained.
“What’s that mean?” Janet asked. “That’s coming?”
“It means, this doesn’t help you to forget the past. It lets you forget the future—what’s to come.”
Janet stared at the gray stone bottle. She pulled the stopper and sniffed, but it smelled like nothing. “Why would I want that?” Ealar didn’t answer. “Well, how will I know to use it?”
“Oh, believe me—you will know.” Then she sent Janet off without any lesson for the day, saying “God be with you, girl,” which seemed a funny thing for a witch to say.
They were eating their meal when the music drew their attention.
The boys heard it first and ran to the front door to stare out across their barley field. The music seemed to ride on the breeze, one moment just a pipe trilling a flowing tune, the next the sound gone all tinkly like the music of rain if that rain were thousands of silver coins. That’s what Janet’s father heard, and he smiled at the thought of such wealth. Everyone heard what they wished, and smiled. The wordless tune lifted them up and, as it grew to fill the house, it laid them down on their beds. It blanketed them in dreams, and off they went to sleep, all but Janet.
Janet could feel herself asleep and awake both. She beheld lights outside their house and faces that peered in the window at her. This was what Ealar had promised she would know. It was unlike anything she had known before now. She pulled the stopper drank the contents of the small bottle.
Then the door opened and shadow shapes entered. They lifted her and carried her out of the house. She dared to open her eyes and look up and found golden eyes looking down at her but in what seemed a shadow body cast by no one. Internally, she could feel the potion, far ahead on her path, like a sunrise just topping the horizon.
The shadow placed a jeweled collar around her throat, then attached a leash to it. She was set down, and from then on led on the leash. The potion pulsed in the distance now.
The shadow softly ordered her to shed her clothing and she did without hesitation, though she could hear, distantly, a suppressed part of herself objecting. And then she was standing in cold dirt and the red-haired woman on her white steed perched before her, and circling them were other people, some of whom looked familiar to her, including a rotund, red-cheeked woman, and a sour-faced man she’d seen in Ercildoun town.
The red-haired woman considered her with the same golden eyes Janet had seen above her. “Unblemished,” said the woman, yet her lips never moved except to smile. She and the stallion turned away, toward a featureless circle edged in green fire. The Queen rode straight into it, and Janet followed, while the others remained behind.
Close now, the bright fire of the potion filled the circle, and she stepped through the ring to meet it. It devoured her thoughts nearly as fast as she thought them, and finally, as the ring closed behind her, the potion raced ahead of her every thought and every thought that was to come before she could think it at all.
In the morning, there was no sign of Janet. The family looked everywhere, but she wasn’t any place they looked. They could just recall, distantly, the sweet music that had invaded their night. Because there had been music, they thought of gypsies casting a spell. But there were no convenient gypsies to blame.
Mother fell silent and grim but did not object when Father easily leapt to the conclusion that Ealar was responsible: The witch had set his daughter against her family—most importantly, against him. He was certain she had performed this magic and cast spells over them.
The reeve of Selkirk came out, listened to the accusations, and finally accompanied father into the woods of Carterhaugh. Ealar’s hut proved to be abandoned, as if no one had lived in it for decades. No fires, no candles, nothing that Janet’s father was sure had been there previously.
Ealar herself was ten miles away by then. She did not have to be a diviner to know they would come for her. She had witnessed the faery folks’ arrival, heard their sweet, sweet music, and followed their processional right down across the river and straight to the Queen. Whether she called herself Madb or some other name in these woods, it mattered not at all. The girl belonged to her now, but Ealar would be blamed.
Human or faery, it didn’t matter. She would be killed for something she hadn’t done, and no one would question it. Was it worse to be their teind or to be forced to watch the sacrifice, as she’d been forced to watch her own daughter’s death at their hands—their punishment for her meddling in their business. Her own husband had blamed her, had called for her arrest, claiming she’d abducted and killed their daughter, and she had been forced to flee, to become Ealar, the witch in the woods. Warned to stay away from Janet, too, she only hoped that her potion saved the girl from the suffering that awaited her in their sacrificial well. They would come looking for her after this, humans doing the bidding of the elves, and no imagined night-battlers would save her, because there was no one anywhere could stand up to the treacherous Queen of Elfland.
Copyright © 2023 by Gregory Frost
Gregory Frost is an American author of science fiction and fantasy, whose works include the Shadowbridge series, Fitcher’s Brides, the Philip K. Dick-ian science fiction novel The Pure Cold Light, as well as two novels derived from the Celtic epic the táin bó cuailnge. His short fiction has appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, including the Readers’ Award winner, “Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters, H’ard and Andy Are Come to Town,” collaboratively written with Michael Swanwick. He taught the fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, for eighteen years.