The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight

Once, on the edge of a stony scrub named for a star that fell burning from Orion a hundred years ago, there stood a hut with tin spangles strung from its rafters and ram bones mudded in its walls. Many witches had lived in the hut over the years, fair and foul, dark and light, but only one at any particular time, and sometimes no one lived there at all.

The witch of this story was neither very old nor very young, and she had not been born a witch but had worked, once she was old enough to flee the smashed bowls and shrieks of her home, as a goose girl, a pot scrubber, then a chandler’s clerk. On the days when she wheedled the churchwomen into buying rosewater and pomanders, the chandler declared himself fond of her, and on other days, when she asked too many questions, or wept at the abalone beauty of a cloud, or refused to take no for an answer, he loudly wished her back among her geese.

On a Monday like any other, the chandler gave her two inches of onion peel scrawled with an order, and precise instructions to avoid being turned into a toad, and shortly thereafter the clerk carried a packet of pins and three vials of lavender oil the three heathery miles from the chandler’s shop to the hut on Orion Waste.

The white–haired crone who lived in the hut opened the door, took the basket, and looked the clerk up and down. She spat out a small object and said, “You will do.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I have a proposition for you,” the crone said. “It is past time for me to leave this place. There is a city of women many weeks’ travel away, and it sings in my mind like a young blue star. Would you like to be a witch?”

Here was something better than liniment for the hurts confided to her, better than candles for warding off nightmares.

“I would,” the clerk said.

“Mind, you must not meddle in what is none of your business, nor help unless you are asked.”

“Of course,” the clerk said, her thoughts full of names.

“Too glib,” the crone said. “The forfeit is three years’ weeping.” She rummaged in her pockets and placed a brass key beside the book on the squat table. “But you won’t listen.”

The clerk tilted her head. “I heard you clearly.”

“Hearing’s not listening. You learned to walk by falling, and you’ll stir a hornet’s nest and see for yourself. I was just as foolish at your age.” The crone shook a blackthorn stick under the clerk’s nose. “I would teach you to listen, if I had the time. Here is the key. Here is the book. Here is the bell. Be careful who you let through that door.”

Grasping the basket and her stick, the crone sneezed twice and strode off into other stories without a backwards glance.

And the clerk sat down at the table and leafed through the wormy tome of witchcraft, dislodging mushrooms pressed like bookmarks and white moths that fluttered into the fire. Bent over the book, by sunlight and candlelight, she traced thorny letters with her fingertips and committed the old enchantments, syllable by syllable, to heart.

The villagers who came with bread, apples, mutton, and the black bottles of cherry wine the old witch favored were surprised by news of the crone’s departure and doubtful of the woman they knew as goose girl and chandler’s clerk. Their doubts lasted only until she compounded the requested charms for luck, for gout, for biting flies, for thick, sweet cream in the pail. For all its forbidding appearance, the Waste provided much of what the book prescribed: gnarled roots that she picked and spread on a sunny cloth, bark peeled in long curls and bottled, snake skins cast in the shade of boulders and tacked to the rafters.

Certain of her visitors traveled farther, knowing only the hundred–year–old tale of a witch on the Waste. They came stealthily at night and asked for poison, or another’s heart, or a death, or a crown, and the witch, longing for the simple low–necked hissing of geese, shut the door in their faces.

A few of these were subtler than the rest, and several lied smoothly. But the crone had left a tongueless bell, forged from cuckoo spit, star iron, and lightning glass, which if warmed in the mouth showed, by signs and symbols, true things. In this way the witch could discern the dagger behind the smile. But the use of it left her sick and shuddering for days, plagued with bad dreams and waking visions, red and purple, and she only resorted to the bell in great confusion.

Three years from when she first parted its covers, the witch turned the last page of the book, read it, and sat back with a sigh. Someone had drawn in the margin a thorny archway, annotated in rusty red ink in a language she did not recognize, but apart from that, she knew all the witchcraft that the book held. The witch felt ponderous with knowledge and elastic with powers.

But because even arcane knowledge and occult powers do not properly substitute for a bar of soap and a bowl of soup, she washed her face and ate.

Loud knocking interrupted her meal. She brushed the crumbs from her lap, wiped the soup from her chin, and opened the door.

A knight stood upon her doorstep, a black horse behind him. A broken lance lay in his arms. He was tall, with a golden beard, and his eyes were as green as ferns.

“Witch,” said the knight. “Do you have a spell for dragons?”

“I might,” she said.

“What will it cost me? I am sworn to kill dragons, but their fire is too terrible and their strength too great.”

“Do you have swan down and sulfur? Those are difficult to find.”

“I do not.”

“A cartful of firewood?”

“I have no cart and no axe, or I would.”

“Then a kiss,” the witch said, because she liked the look of him, “and I will spell your shield and your sword, your plate and your soft hair, to cast off fire as a duck’s feather casts off rain.”

The knight paid her the kiss with alacrity and not, the witch thought, without enjoyment. He sat and watched as she made a paste of salamander tails and serpentine, adding to this a string of ancient words, half hummed and half sung. Then she daubed the mixture over his armor and sword and combed it through his golden hair.

“There you go,” she said. “Be on your way.”

The knight set his chin upon his fists. “These dragons are formidable,” he said. “Larger than churches, with cruel, piercing claws.”

“I have never seen one,” the witch said, “but I am sure they are.”

“I am too tired and bruised to face dragons today. With your permission, I shall sleep outside your house, guard you from whatever creeps in the dark, and set forth in the morning.”

“As you wish,” the witch said. She shared with him her supper of potatoes, apples, and brookweed and the warmth of her hearth, though the hut was small with him in it, and he told her stories of the court he rode from, of its high bright banners and its king and queen.

In the morning the knight was slow to buckle on his plate. The witch came to the door to bid him farewell, bearing a gift of butternuts knotted in a handkerchief. He raised his shield reluctantly, as if its weight pained him.

“Dragons are horrible in appearance,” he said. “Those who see them grow faint and foolish, and are quickly overtaken and torn limb from limb.”

“That sounds likely,” the witch said.

“They gorge on sheep and children and clean their teeth with men’s bones. In their wake they leave gobbets of meat that the crows refuse.”

“You have seen dreadful things,” the witch said.

“I have.” The knight tucked his helmet under his arm and pondered a dandelion growing between his feet. “And the loneliness is worse.”

“Perhaps it would be better to have a witch with you.”

“Will you come? I carry little money, only promises of royal favor. But I’ll give kisses generously and gladly, and swear to serve you and defend you.”

“I have never seen a dragon except in books,” the witch said. “I would like to.”

The knight smiled, a smile so luminous that the sun seemed to rise in his face, and paid her an advance as a show of good faith.

The witch took a warm cloak, the brass key, and at the last moment, on an impulse, the glass–and–iron bell, then locked the hut behind her. The knight helped her onto his horse, and together they rode across the Waste and beyond it. Grasshoppers flew up before them, and quail scattered. Wherever they went, the witch gazed about her with delight, for she had never traveled far from her village or the hut on the Waste, and everything she saw gleamed with newness.

They rode through forests and meadows that had no names the witch knew, singing and telling stories to pass the time. In the evenings the witch gathered herbs and dowsed for water, and the knight set snares for rabbits and doves. The knight had a strong singing voice and a laugh like a log crumbling in a fire, and the days passed quickly, unnumbered and sweet.

Before long, however, the land grew parched, and the wind blew hot and sulfurous. The witch guessed before the knight told her that they had passed into the country of dragons.

Late one evening they arrived at a deep crater sloped like a bowl, its edges black and charred. The bitter smoke drifting from the pit stung their eyes. Down at the center of the crater, something shifted and settled.

“Is that a dragon?” the witch said.

“It is,” the knight said, his face long.

“Will you ride into battle?”

“Dragons hunt at night, and their sight is better than a cat’s. It would devour me in two bites before I saw it, then my horse, and then you.”

Clicking his tongue, the knight turned the charger. They rode until they reached the scant shelter of a dry tree among dry boulders, where they made camp.

The witch scratched together a poor meal of nuts and withered roots. The knight did not tell stories or sing. At first, the witch tried to sing for the both of them, her voice wavering up through the darkness. But no matter what she said or sang, the knight stared into the fire and sighed, and soon she too lapsed into silence.

The next morning, the witch said, “Will you fight the dragon today?”

“It is stronger than me,” the knight said, gazing into his reflection on the flat of his sword. “It breathes the fires of hell, and no jiggery–pokery from a midwife’s pestle could endure those flames. Tomorrow I shall ride back to my king, confess my failure, and yield my sword. My enemies will rejoice. My mother will curse me and drink.”

The witch said nothing to this, but sat and thought.

The sun scratched a fiery path across the sky, hot on the back of her neck, and the air rasped and seethed with the sound of distant dragons.

When it was dark, and the knight was sound asleep, the witch drew his sword from its sheath and crept to the black horse. She swung herself up into its saddle, soothing it when it whickered, and with whispers and promises of sugar, she coaxed it across the sand to the edge of the crater. There she dismounted and descended in silence.

The dragon waited at the bottom of the pit, its eyes bright as mirrors.

It was not the size of a church, as the knight had said, only about the size of her hut on the Waste, but its teeth were sharp and serrated, its claws long and hooked, and gouts of flame dripped from its gullet as it slithered toward her.

The dragon drew a breath, its sides expanding like a bellows, and the fire in its maw brightened. Sharp shadows skittered over the ashes.

“You are no more frightening than my father,” the witch said, with more courage than she felt. “And no less. But I have faced foxes and thumped them, and I shall thump you.”

Flames flowered forth from its fangs, and as the witch leapt aside, a third of her hair smoldered and shriveled.

The narrow snout swayed toward her, but the witch shouted two words of binding that sent her staggering backwards with their force, and the dragon’s jaws clamped shut.

The dragon thrashed its head from side to side, white smoke rising from its nostrils, clawing at its mouth.

Then it charged her, and she ran.

As ashes floated thick around her, and skulls and thighbones broke and scattered under her feet, the witch looked over her shoulder and gasped a word of quenching.

At once the smoke of its breath turned to a noxious steam. The dragon lurched and fell. Although it could not stir, it glared, and its hate was hot on her skin.

The witch lifted the knight’s sword, and with tremendous effort, and twelve laborious strokes, she cut off its head.

At dawn she woke the knight, signing because her throat was raw and her lips were cracked, and led him to the scaly black carcass in the crater. The knight stared, then exclaimed and kissed her, and this kiss was sweeter than all that had come before.

“My lovely witch, my darling! With you beside me, why should I fear dragons?”

Although she ached all over, and a tooth felt loose in its socket, the witch blushed and brightened.

They continued into the land of dragons. Water grew more and more elusive, and the pools and damp patches the witch located were brackish and bitter, so when they reached a shallow river, they followed its course. The water was warm and brown, and tadpoles squirmed in it.

One afternoon, as the sun slanted down and strewed diamonds on the river, the witch saw the second dragon. This one was the length of a watchtower and red as dried blood, and it crouched in a muddy wallow, half hidden by dead brush. When she called the knight’s attention to it, he wheeled the horse around.

“Are you frightened?” she said.

There was no reply.

“Are you upset?”

He lowered his visor.

“Did I do something wrong?”

His eyes glittered out of his helmet, but he did not say a word.

The witch twined her fingers in the horse’s mane and named the birds and burdocks they passed, then prattled about the weather, and still the knight said nothing.

Some hours later, over their supper of frogs, he broke his silence. “This one is viler than the last,” he said. “Even you could not vanquish it. Me it would swallow in a snap, sword and all.”

“It did not look so terrible,” the witch said, light–headed with relief.

“But it is.”

“You are a brave and valiant knight, and I am sure you will succeed.”

“Of course you’d say that,” the knight said, frowning. “It’s not you who will die a nasty death, all teeth and soupy tongue.”

“But your sword arm is strong, and your blade is trusty and well kept. Besides, I have enchanted your sword and your armor.”

“As you like. I shall challenge it in the morning, and it will eat toasted knight for breakfast. Farewell.” The knight turned his back to her, pillowed his head on his hands, and soon was snoring.

The witch had grown fond of the knight, in her way. His fear soured her stomach, and she tossed and turned, unable to sleep for thoughts of his death. In the middle of the night, she arose and sought the dragon.

The reeds were trodden and crushed in a wide swathe where it couched, and dead fish and birds lay all about. Its red scales were gray in the dim starlight, and it snuffed and snorted at subtle changes in the wind, finally fixing its eyes upon her. This dragon was heavy and sluggish, unlike the last, but poison dripped in black strings from its jaws. It lifted itself from the muck and lumbered forward.

“You are no more poisonous than my mother,” the witch said, swallowing her fear. “And no less. But I have turned biting lye into soap, and I shall render you down as well.”

She spoke the words of binding, but the dragon shrugged off her spell like so many flung pebbles. She shouted a word of quenching, and its jaws widened in a mocking grin. As she coughed on the word, her own throat burning, the dragon lunged and snapped.

The mud sucked at her feet as she fled, and marsh vapors wavered and tore as she ran through them. She tried words of severing and words of sickening, tasting blood on her lips, to no avail.

Bit by bit, the subtle gases of the dragon’s breath slowed and stupefied her. The world spun. Then a root thrusting out of the mire hooked her ankle.

She skidded and slid.

Across the oozy earth the dragon crawled, bubbling and hissing. As its jaws opened to swallow her, the witch, her voice dull, spoke a word of cleansing.

The syllables slipped between scales into the dragon’s veins and curdled the deadly blood. The dragon shuddered, its black eyes rolling back. Its snout scraped her leg, and then its long bulk splashed into the mud and lay still.

The witch limped to where the river flowed, languid and wide, and washed off, as best she could, the muck, the rot, the black blood and the red.

The sound of plackart clinking against pauldron woke her in the morning. Her knight—for she was beginning to think of him as hers—was grimly and glumly donning his gear.

No need, the witch wished to say, but her throat hurt as much as if she had swallowed a fistful of pins.

“Wait here,” the knight said. “I do not want you to witness my shameful death. When I am crisped and crunched, ride swiftly to the court of Cor Vide and tell them their youngest knight is dead.”

He spurred his horse and set off. Within the hour, he returned, his face dark.

“Witch, did you do this?” he said. “Did you kill that dragon while I slept?”

The witch nodded, unable to speak. The knight did not kiss her. He let her clamber onto the horse without offering his arm, and they rode all that day and the next in an ugly silence.

On the third day, when her throat had healed somewhat, the witch rasped, “Are you angry with me?”

“I am never angry, for anger is wicked and poisonous. But what will the court call a knight who lets women slay his dragons?”

“You seemed afraid.”

“I wasn’t afraid, witch.”

“I wanted to help.”

“You did more harm than good.”

“I am sorry,” she said.

“Do not do it again.”

The river they were following dwindled to a stream, then to dampness, and then the earth split and cracked, but they continued in the same direction, in hopes that the stream ran underground and sprang up again somewhere.

By and by, their mouths parched, they came to a crooked tower with a broken roof and a great golden serpent wrapped many times around its base. The witch, knight, and horse were the only things that moved upon the barren plain, and they raised a great cloud of dust. While they were still at a distance, the serpent began unwinding itself from the tower.

“Stay, witch,” the knight said, looking pale. “My sword is but a lucifer to this creature. Its fire will shrivel me, and the steel of my armor will drip over my bones. I’ll die, but I’ll die honorably. Remember me. I did love you.”

And the witch watched, anxious, as her knight trudged on foot toward the tower, sheets of air around him shimmering with heat.

The serpent’s eyes were red jewels, and its forked tongue lashed in and out of its mouth as the knight approached. Rearing up, the serpent spat a feathering jet of fire. The shield rose to meet it. Flames broke on its boss and poured off, harmless.

The knight laughed. His sword flashed.

But its edge rebounded from the scales without cutting, once, twice, and in a trice the serpent had tangled him in its coils and suspended him upside down.

His helmet tumbled off. His sword slipped from his mailed hand. He hung in midair, his golden curls loose, his face exposed.

The serpent squeezed, and he screamed.

The witch screamed too: a word of unraveling. The serpent’s loops slackened, and the knight crashed to the ground. She screamed a word of piercing, and the serpent’s eyes ran liquid and useless from their sockets. The serpent flailed, blind and enraged, battering the tower. Stones loosened from their mortar and fell. One crushed the knight’s shield into splinters.

Finding his footing again, the knight slipped under the thrashing coils and sank his sword into one emptied eye, up to the hilt.

With a roar of agony, and spasms that shook down the upper third of the tower, the dragon expired.

The knight did not stand and savor his triumph. He whirled on the witch.

“I saw you. You goaded it—you spurred it to rage. You were trying to kill me!”

No, the witch would have said, if she were able.

But her lips were blistered and her tongue numb.

She pointed instead, in mute appeal.

A woman had emerged from the tower. She had watched what the witch had done; she could speak to her innocence. Her gown was green, and her smile, which she turned on them, was brilliant as an emerald. Several golden objects on her girdle swung and glittered as she approached, stepping delicately around the pools of smoking blood.

“Did you do this, good knight?” she said. “Have you freed me from this place?”

The knight bowed, then stood taller. “I did, though I did not know you were here. Where shall I bring you? Where will you be safe? You must have friends somewhere.”

“Northeast,” she said. “A long way.”

“However far it is, I will accompany you.”

“There is treasure in that tower, if you seek treasure. I stopped to play with rings, crowns, and necklaces, admiring myself in a golden glass. I did not realize that it was a dragon’s hoard, and that the possessor would return. He gnawed my palfrey to the hooves and guarded me greedily from that time on. What I search for is not there, but that hoard will pay for your time.”

“What gold could outshine the copper of your hair? You shall ride behind me, and this witch shall walk beside. For you look like a lady, and your feet are too soft for the road.”

The lady’s eyes danced. “Oh no, the witch shall ride. Both of us together, if you insist. I have met witches before, and they grow ugly if spited. This one is quite ugly already, and that smock does her no favors.”

The witch, her breast burning, could not meet the lady’s eyes. She looked instead at her rich green gown, stiff with gilt embroidery. Hanging from her girdle were toys of tin and wood, painted gold: a carved dog, a jumping acrobat, a wind–up man.

“Let me help you up,” the knight said.

“First tie my hands behind me,” the lady said. “I am under a curse. What I touch is mine and ever after shall be.”

“A strange curse,” the knight said, but obliged. He lifted her onto the horse in front of the witch. Her red hair blew into the witch’s mouth. For sport, the lady leaned to one side, then the other, pretending to topple.

“Don’t let her fall,” the knight said to the witch. “I know you are jealous and would love nothing better. But if harm comes to her, I will cut off your head.”

They proceeded more slowly after that, the knight leading the horse, the witch holding the reins, and the strange lady smiling in the witch’s arms. As they rode, the witch wept, but very softly, for whenever the knight heard, he looked at her with disgust.

“Stop,” he said. “Enough. You have no reason to cry.”

Then her tears fell hotter and faster into the lady’s red hair.

In the lengthening evenings, while the witch foraged, the knight and lady talked together and laughed. With her hands bound, the lady could do little for herself, and so the knight fed her, slid her silken slippers from her feet, and waited on her every wish.

The knight kissed the witch for the food and water she brought them, briefly and without interest, and apologized to the lady after. At night the lady nuzzled her head into the crook of the knight’s arm and spread her long hair over them. The witch lay awake, watching the stars until they blurred and ran together.

“Why do you never sing anymore?” the knight said one evening, as the witch turned a rabbit over the fire. “Sing for us.”

“He says you have a fine voice, for a witch. Do let me hear it.”

“I don’t anymore,” the witch rasped. The lady grimaced. “I burned it to cinders for him. It hurts to speak.”

“You’ll heal,” the knight said.

“I might, or I might not. The words of power I used were dear, and I am paying.”

“You want me to feel guilty,” the knight said.

“No, I wanted—”

“I don’t want to hear about it.” He folded his arms. “There was never any point in talking to you, anyway.”

The lady laughed and laid her head against his shoulder.

Another evening, as the witch returned with chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms in her skirt, she heard the knight say, “She’s bewitched me, you know. That’s why I hunt dragons—for her sport. That’s why I kiss her every night—I am forced.”

“Such a glorious knight, under the thumb of a lowly thing like her. How awful,” the lady said.

“It is awful.”

“Why don’t you strike her head off while she sleeps?”

“I’m ensorcelled, remember. I cannot kill her. My father, a lord and a haughty man, would have strangled her for her insolence, but I am nothing like him.”

“Indeed you are not,” the lady said.

“You are kinder than she ever was. I’ve told you more than I’ve ever told her. Can you free me, as I have freed you?”

“Say the word, and I shall prick her with poisoned needles while she rides. She will die of that, slowly, unsuspecting, and then you shall be free.”

“Do, and I shall follow you faithfully.”

“Then pluck the air between the two of you as we go, as if you are pulling petals, and put them in this purse. You’ll not see or feel what you gather, as your senses are not so fine, but I shall decoct what is there to a poison.”

“I knew it,” the knight said. “She has a foul and invisible power over me.”

“A strange influence, certainly.”

The witch stepped into the firelight, balancing their supper in her muddy skirt, and both the knight and the lady fell quiet and averted their eyes.

The moon waxed and waned, and the witch wearied of weeping. She was sick of holding the lady, sick of suffering her pinpricks, sick of watching the knight play with the lady’s russet hair. Her pain had grown tedious and stale, but she was far from home and bewildered, for sometimes, still, the knight smiled at her with swift and sudden fondness, and it was as though he was again the knight she had set forth with, many and many a month ago.

Late one night, as she covered herself with her muddy cloak, she heard a clinking in its folds. In its pocket she found the key to her hut and the tongueless bell, which in her misery she had forgotten about.

The witch put the bell in her mouth, and the world shone.

First she looked upon the sleeping knight. In his place she saw a small boy, much beaten and little loved, his face wet from crying. He writhed in his sleep with fear. Around his limbs wound a silver spell, older than the witch and wrought with greater art than hers, and when the witch strummed the strands of it with a nail, she heard in their hum that they would break and let him grow only when he had slain three dragons by his own hand.

Then the witch saw how she had wronged him by killing the black dragon, the red, and the gold. She would have kissed his forehead and asked forgiveness, but a black asp crept out of his mouth and hissed at her, and she was afraid.

She turned to the lady who slept at his side. A hole gaped in her breast, its torn edges fluttering. The witch stuck her hand in but found nothing: not a bone, not a thread, not corners, nor edges either. It howled with hunger, that hole. The woman who wore it would wander the world, snatching and grasping and thrusting into that aching emptiness everything within reach, forever trying to fill it, and failing.

The witch grieved for her too.

The three of them had camped beside a pool of water, and now the witch knelt on its mossy margin. In the light of the half moon she saw how her limbs were shriveled and starved for love, her bones riddled with cracks from bearing too much too soon. She sat there for hours, until she knew herself, and the fractures and hollow places within her, and the flame that burned, small and silent, at her core.

And when the witch understood that nothing kept her weeping on the black horse but herself, that the sorcery that had imprisoned her and blinded her was her own, she spat out the bell, dashed her reflection into a million bright slivers, and laughed.

With a whistle, the witch rose into the air, and whistling, she flew. When she stopped for breath, her feet sank softly to the earth. In this manner she traveled over the country of dragons, through nameless meadows and woods, and across the Orion Waste.

Once in all that time, when her heart gave a sharp pang, the witch put the bell in her mouth and looked back.

Far away, the knight was unknotting the cord around the lady’s wrists, first with fingers, and then, when it proved stubborn, with teeth. When her arms were free, he clasped her to his breast and buried his face in her hair.

But in the moment of their embrace, the knight began to shrink. The lady’s arms tightened around him. Faster and faster the knight diminished, armor and all, until he was no taller than a chess piece and stiff and still.

The lady caught him between forefinger and thumb. She studied the leaden knight, her expression pleased, then puzzled, then disappointed. At last, shaking her head, she tied him to her girdle between the wooden dog and painted acrobat. Between one knot and the next, she flinched and sucked her finger, as if something had bitten her.

Then she mounted the black horse and rode slowly onward, searching for that which would fill her lack.

After that the witch flew without pause, without eating or drinking, and the wind dried her tears to streaks of salt.

Just as her strength gave out, the hut on Orion Waste rose like a star on the horizon. The witch unlocked the door and collapsed onto her narrow bed. There she remained, shivering with fever, for the better part of a month. One or two people from the village, seeing the light in her window across the scrub, came with eggs and bread and tea, left them silently, and went away again.

One day, in a wave of sweat, the fever broke. The witch crawled to her feet, unlatched the window, and saw the Waste covered in white and yellow wildflowers.

The book of witchcraft lay open on the table, though she was sure no one had touched it. In the margin of the last page, wild roses peppered the tangle of thorns.

A week later, the witch returned to the village, her few belongings in hand, and asked the chandler if he might allow her to mind the shop again. He agreed gladly, for he was old and stiff, and she was quick and could climb the ladder to the highest shelves for him.

There she lived for a year, content, sweeping the floor, mending the shelves, and stirring a little magic into her soaps, so they cleaned better than others, and gave hope besides. She did not speak much, for her voice frightened children, but she listened carefully, and closely, and no one seemed to mind.

And there she would have stayed, growing gray and wise, had not a peddler with a profitable knack for roaming between stories rung the shop bell.

Looking over the wares he had spread on a cloth, all polished and gleaming, the witch and the shopkeeper chose combs, mirrors, scissors, and ribbons to buy. When the silver had been counted out and poured into his hands, and the goods collected, the peddler grinned a gapped grin and dug from his pack a pair of dancing shoes, cut from red leather and pricked all over with an awl.

“For you,” he said to the witch. “Secondhand, and a few bloodstains, but pretty, no? Some angels don’t like to see the poor dance, and the last lass had a heart too clean and Christian to wear them for long, but your heart’s spotted, and these are just your size.”

“Thank you,” the witch said, “but I don’t know how to dance. I know how to fly, and slay dragons, and make good soap, but dancing is a mystery.”

“Then you should learn,” the peddler said.

The shopkeeper sighed, because he could guess what was coming. When the witch approached him three days later, with a request, and a promise, he sent her on her way with a bag containing three cakes of soap, three spools of thread, three needles, a mirror, and a comb, cursing the peddler under his breath.

That night, as the stars glistened overhead, and the frogs and crickets sang a joyful Mass from their secret places, the witch locked up the hut, laced on the red shoes, whistled, and flew.

(Editors’ Note: “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” is read by Amal El–Mohtar in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 12B.)


E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu is the author of On Fragile Waves, which received the Washington State Book Award, and Jewel Box, which is forthcoming in 2023. She received the Artist Trust LaSalle Storyteller Award in 2017 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012. More than thirty of her stories have appeared in venues from McSweeney’s to, as well as thirteen best-of-the-year anthologies, and have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards.

One Response to “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight”

  1. nottenst

    Just wonderful – taking me into fable. I loved the “he crone sneezed twice and strode off into other stories without a backwards glance” and “a peddler with a profitable knack for roaming between stories”. It just makes it feel like part of the whole realm of storytelling.

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