tagMind ControlLove Potion Number Six

Love Potion Number Six

byTamLin01©

"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 and any decent land, but just barely close enough to the village that someone could walk through the pathless woods to her front door.

Not many people did come, of course. Not many people liked acknowledge that Branwen even existed. Life was easier—and safer—without thinking about such things.

But there were always a few desperate enough to ask to her for help sooner or later. However long they put it off, they always came.

And Branwen? She'd been here as long as anyone could remember, and she just did what she'd always done: She waited. She wasn't a particularly patient woman, but she didn't have to be. When you always get what you want, there's nothing to be impatient over.

It wasn't long tonight before she spotted a lantern through the trees, and behind it a young man. He was tall, broad, dark, and his clothes were simple but good. He'd never been here before, but Branwen recognized him anyway. She knew everybody.

He'd been walking for a good a long time in the pathless woods, with only a small lantern to keep him out of the brush and mire, but he seemed little worse the wear. Only now that he was almost at the threshold of her property and the narrow course of ruined planks that served her for a fence did he hesitate. She saw him lean away almost imperceptibly, as if invisible hands pulled him back...

Branwen raised her candle higher, to make sure that he saw her. As soon as he knew he'd been spotted he seemed to develop a sense obligation to continue, and pushed himself the rest of the way to the door, leaving the dark, leaning tree trunks and shallow bogs behind.

"Come in, Marshal," Branwen said, stepping aside.

She could tell that the cottage was not what he expected: Nothing so sinister or hellish as what had squatted in his imagination, with 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.

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 a look of peculiar familiarity. "You know my name?" he said, taking off his coat but declining to hang it, hugging it to his chest instead.

"I know everybody," 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 with a boyish look, 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," he said. "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, and Branwen laughed. He jumped again when the kettle began to scream on the fire behind him, and she took it off.

"What else do they say about me?" 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.

"But you knew that, and you're afraid for your soul, and you came here anyway. So you must have come for something awfully important. Are you in love?"

Marshal stood up a bit straighter. "Do you know my thoughts?"

"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 own age...

She poured the hot water into a bowl of leaves to steep, 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: He 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," looking him in the eye.

"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 with a kind of pride 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 who she is," Branwen said. She was mixing the tea in the bowl. "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?"

"Can you really make one?"

"What do you think I've been doing this whole time?" Branwen said, still turning the brew in the bowl. "Hand me that bottle from off the mantle. No, the one with the green stopper. There we are. You've brought money, I suppose?"

The boy shifted on his feet. Up on the roof of the cottage some animal from out of the forest was running to and fro, and the noise made the boy look cautiously at the shadows in the corners of the room.

"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 muted concern, shuffling on his feet. Men like him got anxious whenever work was being done that wasn't their own.

Branwen closed it up 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, 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 still. You think you love this girl, but come next spring or the spring after, someone else may catch your eye and you'll be 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.

It was mostly an obligation she felt to anyway, as a good businesswoman. Her Master didn't care whether the people who visited her knew what they were getting into or not.

She put the phial into the boy's hand and 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 the hell 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 at the window shrieked 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, candle in hand.

Love potions were one of Branwen's least favorite chores, but they were always in demand. Silly boys and silly girls always 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 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 she felt a little surprised that he'd taken this long. But all things happen in their own time, she supposed. "Hello, Finnian," Branwen said, stepping aside and letting him in.

His expensive clothes were dirty from the forest, but he didn't seem to mind. 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 pale 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 again and then laying the broomstick 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 and winded the beast early. 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, and Branwen agreed. "Why should I be afraid? 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 fortune 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."

Finnian grinned. "Are you mad? If this works, I'll tell everybody." And he 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 remaining 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," she said, settling back into her favorite 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. They'd both be worse off than when they started; at least before there was some chance she'd pick one or the other of her own accord. Now it would be impossible for her to prefer either.

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 more 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. And for reasons of her own, Branwen felt some particular 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:)

Was Eimhear dreaming? She couldn't be certain, but she hoped not.

Even as she saw lights in that hellish cottage in the woods, spotted the strange owl that had led her here alight on its roof, and felt a fluttering rush of fear trying to push her back, she decided that as much as this felt like a nightmare, it would be better if it were real.

She'd spent the first part of the evening as she had every other night for weeks: lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, hoping that if she put sleep off for long enough she'd be too exhausted for the dreams.

She didn't dare close her eyes, because even awake she might see hot and fitful visions that left her panting and ashamed. It wasn't a particularly hot night, but she sweated under her sheets anyway...

Something evil was inside of her, giving her these thoughts. She turned over on her sweat-dampened blankets to stare at the moonlight flowing on the veranda outside her window. The rest of the house was quiet as death, her father and all the servants asleep hours ago.

She'd 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, and the only witness to acts done late at night, in secret corners, far away from the prying eyes of the daylight world.

She buried her face in her pillow. But as soon as she did she pictured two men taking her in their arms at the same time, squeezing her between their hard, strong, naked bodies and—

Eimhear forced her eyes open again. 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; to 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, Eimhear."

Am I dreaming after all, she 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.

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, a thing with inquisitive eyes and a monstrous wingspan perched on her railing and seemingly peering into her bedroom.

Its appearance was so curious that she almost laughed, but then she stopped, suddenly afraid of offending the bird. Mad as that idea seemed, she had no doubt that it was a wise one...

"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 answer her. 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 spoken. 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 from her.

This made her shrink in terror. But at the same time, shameful though it was, she couldn't suppress a flicker of hope. There was, after all, one person who could help her, even if no else could. One person who could do anything you wanted, if only you had the courage to see her and ask...

Once she'd thought of the idea she knew she had almost no choice but to follow through. She dressed and climbed down the trellis beside her window, quietly, so as not to wake the household, just like she'd done when she was a little girl, sneaking out late at night to dance the maypole with the common children.

And then she'd walked for hours. She'd never been this far from the village on her own before, but the bird had shown 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.

The door was open. Eimhear picked her way toward it, her heart racing. This is the devil's house, she thought. She held her breath for fear that making even a single noise might somehow strike her dead on the spot.

She imagined a hundred horrible things that might be waiting 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 the 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, no less?

It seemed they were arguing. When she heard her name in their mouths she nearly cried out again. Instead she crouched under an open window to listen, hoping her breathing didn't give her away.

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

"It's a problem because she's too good for you. Just look at you," said Finnian. "You're a stableman's son, a handyman. What kind of expectations can your family offer?"

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

"Don't you say a thing about my mother!"

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