tagMind ControlLove Potion Number Six

Love Potion Number Six


"The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you."

-Markus Zusak, The Book Thief


An owl came to the kitchen window and shrieked twice, and Branwen knew she'd have two visitors tonight. So she put the kettle on the fire, lit candles in every window, and waited to see what trouble this way came.

Her cottage was far away from the river but just barely close enough to the village that a determined person could make the trip through the pathless woods to her front door. Not many people did come; not many people even liked to remember that Branwen existed. Life was easier—and safer—without thinking about such things.

But there were always some. However long they put it off, someone always came eventually.

Now she stood at the door and waited. Before long, a light appeared between the trees. It grew brighter as it bobbed along, and behind it Branwen gradually made out the figure of a young man. He was tall, broad, dark, and his clothes were simple but good. From the looks of him he'd been walking for a long time in the pathless woods with only a small light to keep him out of the brush and mire, but he appeared little worse for the wear.

Only now that he was almost at the threshold of the narrow course of ruined planks that served her for a fence did he hesitate. Branwen saw him lean away almost imperceptibly, as if invisible hands pulled him back...

But then she raised her candle higher to make sure that he saw her waiting, and once he did he pushed himself the rest of the way to the door, leaving the dark, leaning tree trunks and shallow bogs behind.

He'd never been here before, but Branwen recognized him anyway. She knew everybody; she'd been here for a long time, much longer than anyone really knew "Come in, Marshal," she said, stepping aside.

She could tell that the cottage was not what he expected: Nothing sinister or hellish, no fiendish creatures or bones of previous guests in the corners. Just a simple space, large enough to suit a simple woman, with a kettle over the fire instead of a cauldron. She had dried flowers and herbs hanging in the windows but mostly the same type as you'd find in any house in the village. There were some cobwebs in the eaves, but only as many as could settle between dustings.

Branwen was probably not what he expected either: not a hag or a monster or even a temptress. Just a woman, albeit one who regarded him with peculiar familiarity. "You know my name?" Marshal said, taking off his coat but declining to hang it and hugging it to his chest instead.

"Of course I know you," Branwen said. "Warm up by the fire." She paused to sweep out the dirt he'd tracked in. "Then you can tell me what you've come for."

But the boy didn't say anything as he moved to the hearth, and he didn't take his eyes off of her. He had dull blue eyes, the color of bad seas, and a smooth face, soft like a child's, though she knew him to be at least 20.

It was a quiet night, and you could hear the creak of every timber in the cottage and the rustle of every branch outside. When she was done with the broom Branwen sat in her favorite chair and picked up her embroidery hoop.

"Are you scared?" she said, testing the point of a needle with her thumb.

The boy swallowed. "Yes. But not for my life."

"What then?"

"For my soul. They say it's a mortal sin to come here."

"They're right," said Branwen. "You'll roast an extra ten years in purgatory just for talking to me. But it's too late to do anything about that now, so you may as well tell me what you want."

The boy started. Branwen laughed. Then he jumped when the kettle screamed on the fire, and Branwen took it off.

"What else do they say about me in town?" she said. "That I sold my soul? That I can turn men into horses or goats or hogs and ride them to the Sabbat, where I dance naked in the woods for my Master? Well, it's all true."

She was pouring the water from the kettle into a bowl on the sideboard.

"But you knew all that before you came here and you came here anyway. So you must have come for something awfully important. Are you in love?"

Startled again, Marshal dropped his coat. "Do you know my thoughts?" he said as she stooped to pick it up again. Branwen shook her head.

"I don't have to. That's what men your age always come for."

She might have added: It's what your father came to me for when he was your age.

Leaves were steeping in the hot water in the bowl, and Branwen gave them a good stir and then straightened her apron and smiled at him. "I can read it in your palm, if you prefer something a little more exciting," she said. He went stiff as a dead cat when she took his hand and traced the lines with one fingertip. He had strong hands, calloused from work.

She really could tell a lot from a man's hands: Marshal was a carpenter by craft, a good hand at repairing roofs, rails, and fences. She could tell that he was practical and shy, and although he tried to act brave his racing pulse gave him away. But instead of that she said, "You've a long love line."

"Do I?"

"No. But that's that kind of thing young men want to hear. Your future isn't in your hand, Marshal, it's in your brains and your mouth. Tell me who the girl is."

He swelled up as he said, "Eimhear Devlin."

Oh of course, thought Branwen.

"I know she wouldn't listen to suit from a man like me..." he continued.

"Why not?"

Marshal blinked. "Well, she's rich. Or her father is rich, anyway."

"And you'd be rich if you married her."

"I don't care about that! I love Eimhear because..." He tripped over his words for a second. "She's wise. And beautiful, and chaste—"

"Yes, yes, I know her," Branwen said. She was mixing the tea in the bowl again. "She was born with the Six Gifts of Womanhood." The boy blinked again at this, but she didn't explain. "So it's a love potion you're wanting?" she continued.

"Can you really make one?"

"What do you think I've been doing this whole time? Hand me that bottle from off the mantle. No, the green one. There we are. You've brought money, I suppose?"

The boy shifted on his feet. Up on the roof some animal from out of the forest was running to and fro, and the noise made the boy look cautiously at the shadows. "I...don't have much."

"It'll be enough," Branwen said. She didn't bother to look when he put coins on the mantle.

With a careful eye she poured some of the steaming brew into the little bottle, measuring it precisely. Marshal watched with shuffling feet. Men like him got anxious whenever work was being done that wasn't their own.

Branwen closed the phial and sealed it with wax and string, but she didn't give it to Marshal right away. Instead she went back to her favorite chair, a silhouette against the fireplace, and clucked her tongue like a mother. "This potion will do what you ask," she said. "But before I give it to you you've got to be sure you really want it."

"Of course I do," Marshal said. "I came all this way."

"You're young. You think you love this girl, but come next spring or the spring after someone else may catch your eye and you'll be right back here."

He looked offended again, but kept his temper. "There's no woman on earth better than Eimhear," he said.

That may be true, but it's not what I asked, thought Branwen. Oh well. She'd tried to warn him, and that was all she was obligated to do. As a good businesswoman she always made sure her customers really knew what they were buying, though her Master didn't care whether the people who visited her knew what they were getting into or not.

Putting the phial into Marshal's hand she wrapped his fingers around it. "Add a drop of your own sweat from a hard day's work—just one drop—and once she drinks this you'll be all she thinks about."

Marshal looked at the bottle as if he didn't trust it. "How do I get her to drink it?"

"How should I know? You'll manage something. People always do. Now if there's nothing else, you'll need be back before you're missed."

He paused at the door, but before he could even open his mouth she put a finger to his lips. "Don't thank me," she said. "No thanks needed for a job bought and paid for. Just be sure you don't tell anyone where you've been. A witch needs her privacy."

He would tell anyway, of course. And a good thing, too: A witch needs her customers.

No sooner was the door shut behind him than the owl shrieked at the window again. "I know, I know," Branwen said, closing the curtains on the old bird. She eyeballed the concoction in the bowl, judged that she had indeed made enough for two, then resumed her vigil at the doorstep with candle in hand. There was more work yet to do tonight.

Love potions were one of Branwen's least favorite chores, but they were always in demand. Silly boys and silly girls thought they could enchant each other into being happy. As if there'd ever been a good marriage that was about nothing but being happy.

She sighed.

The second young man arrived. He was younger than the first by a year or two, with fair hair and a fair complexion that had never seen a day's work in the field or village market. He looked as out of place traipsing from the woods as a donkey at church.

She'd been expecting a visit from this one for some time, and was surprised that he'd taken this long. But all things happen in their own time, she supposed. "Hello, Finnian," Branwen said, letting him in.

His expensive clothes were dirty from the forest, but he didn't care. He could afford to have them cleaned, after all. He strode into her cottage and examined every corner with wide eyes and a smile that suggested delirium.

"You know who I am," he said, throwing himself down on her favorite chair, his blue eyes (the color of cut ice) gleaming. "Father said you would. He says you always know who's coming to see you, and what they want."

"Your father says a lot of things," Branwen said, sweeping the dirt out and laying the broom aside. "I may know what you want from me, but supposing I want to hear you tell me what it is anyway? Just so that I know if I'm right."

He grinned wider. "A love potion. Your best one. Whatever it costs."

"There are no good ones or bad ones," Branwen said, already measuring out the bottom portion of the bowl into another phial. "Only good and bad marriages, but that's none of my business. And everybody pays me exactly the same."

Always in a hurry this one, she thought. His ruddy, perfumed hands testified to his soft life, but he did bear the telltale callous of a riding crop. The mark of a perpetual horseman, but one who rode too hard and too fast. He'd do the same to a wife, she was sure, but that was none of Branwen's business either. "Did your father really tell you to come here then?" she continued.

"Oh no. He told me all about you so that I'd stay away. Stupid, isn't it?" Finnian said. Branwen agreed. "Why should I be afraid?" he continued. "The devil is a cheap landlord, and he owes my father money. That's a joke he's told all my life, and I half believe it's true. I guess you would know?"

"I guess I would. So what girl do you have your eyes on?" she asked.

"Eimhear Devlin of course."

Branwen dropped the bottle.

"She's perfect," Finnian went on, not noticing. "Beautiful, and eloquent, and soft-spoken—"

"She has the Six Gifts of Womanhood, yes," Branwen said, retrieving the phial, which luckily had not broken. "What do you need witching for? Why not just sweep her off her feet yourself?"

"She won't listen to a suit from a man like me," Finnian said. "Her family hates mine. Or her father does, at least. But you can help with that, can't you?"

"I can't stop him hating you, but I can fix it so that you're the only thing she thinks about."

Or maybe one of two things, Branwen thought.

The wind picked up outside and the roof of the cottage groaned. Inside, Branwen groaned too.

Finnian snatched the potion out of her hand almost before she was done sealing the bottle. "You need one more ingredient," she said. "A drop of your own sweat—just one drop—from after a hard ride on a good mare."

"And then I suppose I've got to think of some way to get her to drink it? Easy enough. Just so you know, if this works you'll have credit with the richest family in the county. I don't forget those who do me favors."

"It's not a favor," said Branwen, shooing him toward the door. "Just a job well done and well paid for. Now along with you, and mind that you don't tell anybody where you got that from."

"Are you mad? If this works, I'll tell everybody."

And with that, Finnian was off. Branwen closed the door, put the bar over it, and blew out every candle except for one. Then she stood staring at the dregs of the brew in the bottom of the bowl.

"Well hell," she said.

The owl flew in and settled on her mantle, watching her with penetrating eyes. "I know, I know, you don't have to say it," said Branwen, settling back into her chair to think.

Two love potions for one girl, both brewed on the same night, in draughts measured less than an hour apart.

They'd both work, of course. Branwen's love potions always worked. But what good would that do either young man? The girl'd not be able to choose between them.

Of course, that wasn't Branwen's problem. She gave both boys exactly what they wanted, and whatever happened after that was their own concern.

But unhappy customers always meant trouble sooner or later. And there was the young woman to consider: Take a cloth, pull it equally in two different directions, and it was liable to tear. That could happen to hearts sometimes too. And for reasons of her own, Branwen felt some concern for this girl in particular.

"So what do we do about it?" she asked the owl. Again it only stared. But Branwen understood anyway, and nodded. The plan was already forming in her mind.


Two weeks later:

The woods were dark and deep and seemed to have no path to follow, and Eimhear almost lost the way more times than she could count. Only the hooting of the enormous owl that seemed to be leading her way kept her going in the right direction.

When she finally glimpsed the hellish cottage and its rotten old fence she had the impression that she was dreaming. She certainly did not want to be here, especially not on a cold and black night like this; still, she persisted. The owl had now alighted onto the cottage chimney, and it seemed to watch her as she came.

Hours ago she'd been in bed, but she hadn't been resting. Every night for the last two weeks the dreams started as soon as she closed her eyes, hot and fitful visions that left her panting and ashamed. Even lying there awake, her thoughts had a habit of drifting toward sultry and unseemly thoughts. It wasn't a particularly hot night, but she sweated under her sheets anyway...

She turned over to stare at the moonlight on the veranda outside her window. The rest of the house was quiet as death, her father and all the servants asleep hours ago. Eimhear had always thought of the moon as a cold, chaste thing, but now she saw how wrong that was; the moon was a secret lantern that guided lovers to each other's beds. Its light called out, offering to lead her on to secret places where in waking hours she wouldn't tread.

Smothering her face with a pillow, she cried out. Something evil must be inside of her and giving her these thoughts. It was one thing to dream of a man, and even to become infatuated with one unexpectedly. But it was two men whose faces and voices and bodies haunted Eimhear's thoughts, and she blushed bright red at the thought of both of them taking her in their arms and squeezing her between their hard, strong, naked bodies and then—

None of that, she chastised herself. She got up and paced instead. Was she in love? Having nothing to compare these feelings with she couldn't be sure, but they felt wrong in a way that she couldn't quite place. Too strange. Too sudden.

Maybe she should pray? It hadn't helped before, but what else was there to do? Where else could she turn? Who could she even dare confess—

She paused and listened; at first she wasn't sure that the noise was real. But when she listened more closely it became distinct: From somewhere below her window a bridle rang, and then a voice called her name:

"Eimhear...Eimhear...wake up."

Am I dreaming after all, Eimhear thought?

Her nightgown trailed after her, long and white in the moonlight, as she unfastened the doors and stepped out onto her balcony, a warm wind blowing her garments aside. But no one was there when she looked, and the whispering of her name faded away as soon as she became sure that it was real. All she found outside was a bedraggled old owl with inquisitive eyes and a monstrous wingspan, perched on her railing and seemingly peering into her bedroom.

"Now where did you come from?" she said, and without thinking about it she reached out to pet the bird. It submitted to her touch. She realized she'd actually expected it to reply. Late at night, chasing the tails of dreams, it was hard to know what to expect anymore.

But then, blinking, she began to think that somehow the owl actually HAD answered. Not out loud, but even so she couldn't shake the idea all of a sudden that she knew exactly where the bird came from. And what it wanted her to do.

She turned back inside. It was a terrible idea, a solution almost as bad as her problem. But even so, everyone knew that when you had a problem that couldn't be helped no matter what you did there was always one person you could turn to. If you just had the courage to go and see her...

Eimhear dressed and climbed down the trellis beside her window, just like she'd done when she was a little girl and sneaking out late at night to dance the maypole with the poor children. Then she walked for hours. She'd never been this far from the village on her own before, but the bird showed her the way.

Now she stood at the far side of the forest, hugging her cloak around her shoulders and staring at the light in the little cottage windows. The door was open. Eimhear picked her way toward it, heart racing. This is the devil's house, she thought. She held her breath for fear that even a single noise would tell whatever was waiting inside that she was here.

She imagined a hundred horrible things on the other side of that threshold, but none of them would have shocked her more than what was actually there: It was only three people in conversation, but as she came closer she realized she recognized one voice.

"...if you really knew what was good for her. And for you!"

Eimhear slapped a hand over her mouth to keep from crying out. That was Finnian. And she was twice as shocked at the next voice:

"Is that a threat?"

Marshal! What in the hell were they doing here? Both at the same time? She leaned in to listen more.

"I love Eimhear," Marshal continued. "But I don't see why that should be a problem for you."

"She's too good for you is why it's my problem," said Finnian. "Just look at you. You're a stableman's son, a handyman. What kind of expectations can your family offer?"

"And I suppose your family is any better?" Marhsal said. "We all know the stories: Your father's drinking, and your mother..."

"Don't say a word about my mother!"

Eimhear dared a peek inside: The cottage was small, dark, cozy, lit by a roaring orange fire. Finnian stood on tiptoe to be the same height as Marshal; Marshal was big enough to swat the other man to the floor with ease, but she wondered if they were going to start fighting despite the mismatch. Then suddenly, Finnian backed down.

"All right, all right, let's be reasonable," he said. "So you're for Eimhear too? Well we're hardly the only ones. But if you really care, you'll see that I can provide for her better than you or anyone else. If you want what's best, you should step aside."

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byTamLin01© 5 comments/ 43807 views/ 20 favorites

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