Authors: Tanith Lee
leg aching so much. The medicine was long gone and the full ache
had come back.
“Good day, Missus,” he therefore politely said, as he drew level.
She had not glanced up at his approach—that confident then, even
with some ragged, burly stranger hobbling up—nor did she now. But
“Yes, then. I’ve been expecting you, young man. Just give me a
moment and I’ll have this done.”
He was well over thirty in years, and no longer reckoned young at
all. But she, of course, looked near one hundred: to her the average granddad would be a stripling. And she was expecting him, was she?
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Oh, that was an old trick.
, nothing could surprise
, given her vast supernatural gifts.
Yannis waited anyway, patiently, only shifting a little now and
then to unkink the leg.
Finally she was through, and looked straight up at him.
Her eyes were bright and clear as a girl’s, russet in color like those of a fox.
“This is the bargain,” she said. “Some wood needs chopping, and
the hens like a regular feed. You can milk a goat? Yes, I believed you could. These domestic chores you can take off my hands for two or
three days. During which time I will teach you two great secrets.”
He stared down at her, quite tickled by her effrontery and her
style. She spoke like someone educated, and her voice, like her eyes, was young, younger far than he was. Though her hair was gray and
white, there were strands of another color still in it, a faded yellow.
Eighty years ago, when she was a woman of twenty, she might well
have been a silken, lovely thing. But time, like life and death, was harsh.
“Two secrets, Missus?” he asked, nearly playful. “I thought it always had to be three.”
“Did you, soldier? Then no doubt three it will be, for
But the third one you’ll have to discover yourself.”
“Fair enough. Do I get my bed and board as well?”
“Sleep in the shed, eat from the cook-pot. As for your leg—don’t
fret. That comes included.”
During that first day she was very busy inside the main hut that was her house, behind a leather curtain; at witch-work he assumed.
Outside he got on with the chores.
All was simple. Even the white goat, despite its wicked goat eyes,
had a mild disposition. The shed allotted as his bedchamber was
weather-proof and had a rug-bed.
As the sinking sun poured out through the western trees, she called
him to eat. He thought, sitting by the hearth fire, if her witchery turned
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out as apt as her cooking, she might even get rid of his pain for good.
Then some few minutes after eating he noticed his leg felt better.
“It was in the soup, then, the medicine?”
“Quite right,” she said. “And in what I gave you at noon.”
He had tasted nothing, and stupidly thought it was relief at this
interval that calmed his phantom leg. He supposed she could have
poisoned him too. But then, she had not.
“Great respects to you, Missus,” he said. “I’m more than grateful.
May I take some with me when I go?”
“You can. But I doubt you’ll need it. There’s another way to tackle
the hurt of your wound. That’s the first secret. But I won’t be showing you until tomorrow’s eve.”
He was relaxed enough he grinned.
“What will all this cost me?”
“It will,” she said, “be up to you.”
At which, of course, he thought,
I’d best be careful, then. God
knows what she’s at, or will want.
But the fire was warm and the leg did not nag, and the stoop of dark beer, that was pleasant too. Well, she had bewitched him, in her way. He even incoherently dreamed
of her that night. It was some courtly dance, the women and the men
advancing to and from each other, touching hands, turning slowly
about, separating and moving gracefully on . . . There was a young
girl with long golden,
hair, bright as the candlelight. And he was unable to join the dance, being old and crippled; but somehow
he did not mind it, knowing that come the
the next evening?
The succeeding day, at first light, he noticed the large pawmarks
of wolves in the frost by the witch’s door, and a tiny shred or two
that indicated she had left them food. There had been no nocturnal
outcry from the goat or chickens. Another bargain?
Everything went as before. Today the goat even nuzzled his hand.
It was a nice goat, perhaps the only nice goat on earth. The chickens chirruped musically.
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When the sun set, she called him again to eat.
She said, “We’ll come now to the first secret. It’s old as the world.
Older, maybe. And once you know, easy as to sleep. Easier.”
Probably there was more medicine in the food—his resentful leg
all day had been charming in its behavior—but also tonight she must
have put in some new substance.
He woke, having found he had fallen asleep as he sat by her fire,
his back leaning on the handy wall.
She was whispering in his left ear.
“What?” he murmured.
But the whispering had stopped. She stood aside, and in the
shadowy sinking firelight she was like a shadow herself. The shadow
said, in its young, gentle and inexorable voice: “Easy as
Nor will you ever forget. Whenever you have need, you or that
wounded leg, then you can.”
And then she slipped back and back, and away and away, and he
thought, quite serenely and without any rage or alarm,
Has she done
for me? Am I dying?
But it was never that.
He floated inwards, deep as into any sea or lake. And then he
. . .
Children dream of such things. Had he? No, he had had small space
for dreams of any sort. Yet, somehow he knew what he did. He had
done it before, must have done, since it was so familiar, so
, so wonderful and so blessed.
He was young. He felt twenty years of age, and full of health and
vigor. He ran and bounded on two strong, eloquent legs, each whole
and perfectly able. He sprang up trees—
up them, impervious to pine-needles and the scratch-claws of branches, leapt from their
boughs a hundred feet above and flew—wingless but certain as a
floating hawk—to another tree or to the ground below. Where he
wished, he walked on the
The three gray wolves, feeding on bits of meat and turnip by the
witch’s door, looked up and saw him; only one offered a soft sound,
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more like amused congratulation than dismay. Later a passing
night bird veered to give him room, with a startled silvery rattle. A fox on the path below merely pattered on. Later he went drifting,
careless, by three or four rough huts, where a solitary man, cooking his late supper outdoors, stared straight through him with a myopic
gaze. Blind to nothing physical—he was dexterous enough with
his makeshift skillet—the woodlander plainly could not detect
Yannis, who hovered directly overhead. Even when Yannis, who was
afterwards ashamed of himself, swooped down and pulled the man’s
ear, the man only twitched as if some night-bug had bothered him. A
human, it seemed, was the single creature who could not see Yannis
He roamed all night, or at least until the fattening moon set and
the sky on the other side turned pale. Effortlessly, he found his way back to the witch’s house. A faint shimmering line in the air led him.
He followed it, aware it was attached to him, and of its significance, without at all understanding, until at last he found it ran in under the shed-house door, and up to the body of the man who sat propped
there, so deeply asleep he seemed almost—if very peacefully, in fact, nearly
—and slid in at his chest.
The cord that binds
me, while I live,
And only I, or some very great witch,
could see it.
He paused a moment, too, to regard himself from
Rather embarrassed, he reassessed his value. Aside from the leg, he was still well-made. And strong. He had—a couthness
to him. And if not handsome, well, he was not an ugly fellow. He would do. He was
worth quite a lot more than Yannis, since his crippling and invaliding out of the army, had reckoned. Yannis gave himself a friendly pat on the shoulder, before pursuing the cord home into his physical body,
and the warm, kind blanket of sleep that waited there.
“You will never forget now,” she said, next morning. “Whenever you
must ease the spirit of the leg, you need only release
spirit. Then the leg will never fret you, no matter that its physical self is gone and
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it sits in a jail of wood, just as you do in the prison of flesh we all inhabit till death sets us free.”
“Is it my soul you’ve let out, then?” he asked her. Since waking up
again he had been less confident. “Isn’t that going to upset God?”
She made a noise of derision and dipped her bread in the honey.
“Do you think God so petty? Come soldier, God is
! How could we get these skills if it weren’t allowed? But no, besides. It’s not the soul. The soul sits deeper. It’s your
spirit only you can now release, which is why it has the shape of you and is male and young
and strong. And too—as you’ve seen—nothing human, or very few,
will ever espy you in that form. You will be
. Which, when you reach the city, can render you service.”
“You think I’ll use the knack to do harm.”
“Never,” she said. “Would I unlock it for you, if I thought so?”
Yannis shook his head. “No, Mother.”
“And I am your mother, now?”
He said, quietly, “She was yellow-haired and pretty. I don’t insult
you, Missus. And anyway, I meant . . . ”
“There,” she said, and she smiled at him. She had a sunny smile,
and all her teeth were amazingly sound and clean, especially for such an old granny as she was. “And now, Yannis, I will give you the second secret. Which is less secret than the first.”
He sat and looked warily at her as she told him. “You’ll gain the
city by nightfall. There is a king there, who is a coward, a dunce, and as cruel as those failings can make a man. He has twelve girls by
three different wives, all of these queens now dead, and mostly due
to him. But the princesses, as we must call them, as we must call him a king—for they’re all the royalty we’ll get in such a land as this—are at a game the king is frightened of. He wants to be sure what they do, for
sure he is, and to spare. And when sure, to curb them. But he dares not take on the task himself.”
“This is the tale I heard elsewhere,” said Yannis, who had sat
forward, partly eager to forget for a while about spirits and souls and God.
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“You may well have heard it, for rumors have been planted and
are growing wild. Already the king has hired mercenary men to spy
on the girls and catch them out. These mercenaries were of all types, high, low, and lowest of the lowest, even one, they say, a prince, but doubtless a prince in the same way of this king being a king. All fail, and then the king gladly has them murdered. That is
bargain. The man who spies on and renders up the princesses, him the king will
make his princely heir. But fail—and off with his head.”
“If it’s so hard to catch his daughters, then why try?”
“Because it is never hard at all. Those who watch the girls, or
would do, the princesses drug asleep, being themselves well-versed
in witchcraft. Whoever wants to find out anything must not taste a
bite nor swallow a sip in that house, unless it be from the common
dish or jug, and sampled by others. Or if he is forced, he must only pretend. And immediately after he must feign slumber or better—slip
into a trance so sleeplike, so
, it will convince the sternest critic. Then he may follow those girls as he wishes, and learn all and everything. Providing, of course, none can see him.”
Yannis said, “For example, by letting his spirit free from his body.”
Next a silence fell. It came down the chimney and through the
two little windows with the shutters, and sat with the witch and the soldier, timing them on its endless noiseless fingers to see how much longer they would be at their council.
At last Yannis said, “Two secrets, then. What is the third?”
“I said already,
, you must find the third secret yourself. But some call it Courage and others Arrogance, and some blind fool
Madness. You must
on what I have taught you, that is the third secret. Now, go milk my goat, who has fallen in heart’s-ease for you, and bid my chicks goodbye. Then you shall set off again, if you’re to reach the city gate by sundown.”
Yannis stood like a man distracted. Then he said, “Either you want
my death, and so have done this. Or else you mean me to prosper.
? I’m nothing to you.”
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“For sure perhaps, or not,” she said. “But I have been something
. For even when you were a warrior in the wars, you have cared for me.”