Flames licked the bottom of the black pot that hung in the fireplace, bringing the thick green soup to a boil. The mixed aromas of deer’s eyeballs, mice tails, the ears of a vicar, the roots of wild onions, worm innards, wormwort and ground black widow spiders filled the air. The scintillating smell brought tears of delight to Gandra’s eyes as she stirred the brew with a long wooden spoon. Her mouth watered. She was hardly able to contain her desire to put a spoonful of the mixture in her mouth, but this wasn’t made for her, just as most of her soups weren’t for her to eat, or even taste. A soft, almost inaudible cackle escaped her lips as she thought of her poor, stupid husband, Lasgon, who ravenously ate her concoctions. No more than a moment after Lasgon entered her head, he opened the cottage door, stopped in the doorway and inhaled the fragrance of the soup.
“That smells delicious,” he said. “What kind of soup have you made for me tonight?”
“It’s just a simple pea soup, my husband,” she answered.
He walked in, shut the door, and placed his bow and quiver against the wall. He pushed Cozell from the chair near the fireplace and removed his boots. The surly cat hissed and emitted a guttural, angry meow, and then went to its bed in the corner, laid down, and curled up. Its long black tail quivered nervously as the feline wound it around its body.
Gandra lifted the spoon from the soup, brought it to her nose, inhaled, and let out a satisfied sigh. “Did you shoot anything today, my husband?” she asked him.
“I saw the white stag and took aim with my bow and an arrow, but it was frightened off by the snapping of a twig under my foot,” he replied.
She put a bowl, spoon, cup, and jug of cider on the table. “Come eat, my husband, and afterward we can talk about what is happening in the village.”
“I heard from Hathby the farmer when I saw him on my way to the woods this morning that there was talk of witches.”
“Farmer Hathby does most of that talking, my husband,” she said. “He and his fat wife should pay more attention to the curdled milk their cows produce and less to talking about witches. It was because of them that my friend Justine Magbury was accused of casting witchly spells and banished from the village”
Lasgon tossed his boots across the room, one landing near Cozell, causing her to raise her head and give Lasgon an evil eye. In his wool socks he walked to the table and sat down. “I’d know if a woman was a witch the moment I saw her,” he said, “and I’d shoot her in the heart with an arrow.”
“Would you, my husband?” she replied as she ladled soup into his bowl and poured cider into his cup. “I wouldn’t know if it’s true, my husband, but I have heard that where there is one witch, there are many.”
“Then I’d have to kill the entire lot of them,” he said. He dipped his spoon into the soup and stirred it around before putting a spoonful in his mouth. He moaned with delight. “Your soups get better and better. Whatever you put in them makes me sleep like a dead man.”
“I’m so pleased you like them, my husband,” she said, and then asked, “Aren’t witches supposed to be burned at the stake to kill them?”
He took a swig of the cider. “An arrow from my bow would kill a witch just as well.”
“Would it indeed, my husband?”
* * *
The light of the moon shone through the shutter on the window, casting a hazy glow in the bedroom where Gandra stood by the bed with Cozell in her arms watching Lasgon toss and turn under the heavy quilts with pentagram designs. She softly stroked the cat’s fur and nuzzled its ear with her chin. “Any time now,” she whispered.
In that moment, the shutter blew open, allowing an icy wind to blow in. The quilts that covered Lasgon were tossed aside and he levitated from the mattress. His arms stretched out and suddenly enveloped in a green cloud, the same color as the soup Gandra had prepared for him, he changed into a dragon and flew out of the window, leaving behind a wispy trail of green as his tail with its spear-like tip cleared the sill.
Gandra closed the shutter and went into the main room. She placed Cozell on a cushion in front of the fireplace, stoked the fire, and then sat down in a rocking chair next to where Cozell sat preening herself. She rocked back and forth wishing she could see the look on Hathby’s face when he saw his prized cow being carried off by a dragon.
“The soup I fixed last evening serves its purpose just as the ones I prepared before it, Cozell,” she said to the cat who stared at her affectionately, “but now I must make soups that will allow me to make better use of my foolish husband than having him steal eggs, chickens and cows every night.”
Cozell meowed softly.
“Yes, my dearest,” Gandra replied, “This entire village should be burned to the ground, but it would take more than one dragon to do that.”
* * *
At breakfast Lasgon sat at the table with a large bowl of steaming porridge in front of him. He stretched contentedly. “I sleep so soundly of late,” he said with a leisurely yawn, “that if I didn’t know better, I would think you’re putting sleep potion in the soups.”
“Would you think such a thing, my husband?” Gandra replied with a soft chuckle as she sprinkled her porridge with shredded goat’s cheese. “Will you hunt squirrel or rabbit today?”
He shook his head as he put a huge spoonful of porridge in his mouth. “I will hunt for the white stag again,” he mumbled.
She ate several spoonfuls of her porridge before saying reflectively, “It would make a tasty soup.”
They ate the rest of their breakfast mostly in silence and then Lasgon gathered up his bow and quiver filled with arrows, kissed his wife on the cheek, and left the cottage.
She cleaned the dishes, scrubbed the stew pot, and then took her recipe book from its hiding place in her wedding chest and laid it on the table. “Today I make my first soup to extract real revenge on the fools in this village,” she said to Cozell who had jumped up onto a nearby chair, its eyes gleaming. Gandra opened the book and slowly turned the pages yellowed with age. Images on the pages moved, as if animated. Frogs leapt. Newts crawled. Ravens flew. Thirty pages in she found the recipe. At the bottom of a list of ingredients the image of a blossom of purple nightshade sprung open. “I have none of that plant,” she muttered. She returned the book to her wedding chest and patted Cozell on the head. “Catch me a mouse for my soup while I’m gone,” she told the cat. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, picked up a woven straw basket, hooked her arm under its handle, and left the cottage.
The dirt road leading to the village had patches of ice and was littered with dead leaves and twigs. Gandra walked swiftly, her head kept down against the chilly wind and the shawl pulled over her head. Clouds of mist formed with every exhalation of breath she took. She passed by other residents of the countryside coming from or going into the village without acknowledging them. It wasn’t until she passed under the archway leading to the marketplace that she lifted her head. In front of her was a small crowd gathered around Ransy Pruitt. The old woman was swinging a pitchfork, keeping the others at bay.
“Witch, witch, witch,” they screamed at her with their fists raised and fingers pointed at her menacingly.
“What’s happening here?” Gandra asked Oleg Yarnow, the village dentist, who was standing outside of the crowd and watching.
“Ransy Pruitt cast a spell on the butcher, turning his mutton chops rancid,” Oleg said. “Many of us have suspected for some time she’s a witch. Now there’s proof of it.”
“Rancid mutton is the proof?” Gandra asked contemptuously. “Any real witch would turn the butcher rancid, not the mutton he sells.” She knew that Ransy was indeed a witch but being found out because she clumsily turned the butcher’s mutton rancid was the old witch’s fault.
Oleg eyed her suspiciously. “What knowledge do you have of what a real witch would do?”
Gandra spit on the ground in front of his feet and then walked around the crowd. She thought of several things she could do if her witchcraft was better than it was, like have swarms of bees attack the villagers, but anything she could do would make matters worse for Ransy, and possibly for herself. She walked on and tried to block out the sound of Ransy screaming as the crowd overpowered her. Once she was among the vendor’s stalls set up near the town square, she searched for Massie Duburn until she found her standing beside a cart filled with an assortment of vegetables and flowers.
“I need purple nightshade. Lots of it,” Gandra said to Massie, and held out her basket.
Massie, a tall and powerfully built woman, gave Gandra a toothless grin and glanced around. “It can be very powerful when mixed with the right ingredients,” she said in a hushed tone. “I don’t want to poison my husband when I add it to his soup, so I only add a little to the broth.”
Gandra nodded knowingly. “I accidentally poisoned my first two husbands, so I’m very careful about what I give my current one.”
“A new husband can interfere with how a witch casts her spells,” Massie said.
“My husband is such a dunce he notices nothing.”
Massie filled Gandra’s basket with nightshade. The two women warned each other of the need to be very careful and then Gandra walked out of the marketplace the way she walked in. The crowd had dispersed. Ransy’s pitchfork was lying in the street, but there was no sign of the old woman. Gandra quickly returned to her cottage. Inside, Cozell, in the form of a young maiden with long black hair, stood at the fireplace.
“Cozell, you must be very careful about revealing your true self until you have reached witchhood,” Gandra scolded her. “Lasgon could have walked in and seen you there.”
“I’m tired of being a cat,” Cozell replied. “When do I get to learn how to cast spells?”
“When I feel you’re ready. Until then catch mice as you’re told to.”
Cozell stomped her foot and then changed back into her cat form and curled up in her bed, keeping a watchful eye on what Gandra was doing.
Gandra removed her shaw, hung it on a hook by the door and then set the basket of nightshade on the table. She took jars of bats wings, lizard tongues, eagle talons, dried pig hearts and a virgin’s big toe from the shelves and poured them into the pot along with the nightshade. She added water and a splash of vinegar and then hung the pot in the fireplace. She stirred the embers beneath the pot, tossed in another log and some twigs, and rubbed her hands in glee as the fire roared to life.
“This will be my best soup yet,” she sing-songed. “My dumb husband and the entire village will be at my mercy.”
* * *
It was twilight before Lasgon returned home. His tunic and trousers were disheveled, and his boots were covered in mud. His handsome face was bruised and an eye was blackened.
“What happened to you, my husband?” Gandra asked him upon seeing him come through the door.
He slammed the door closed, tossed his quiver into a corner, and held up his broken bow. “The witches are practicing their witchcraft in the woods. The white stag turned into a man in white robes right before my eyes and he tossed me into a hole in the ground. I didn’t see him lift an arm to do it.” He took long strides across the room and threw the bow into the fireplace. “I’ve spent most of the day trying to climb out of that hole.”
She stroked Cozell’s fur who she held in her arms. “Perhaps seeing the stag change to a man was just your imagination, my husband,” she said as demurely as possible, wondering if there was some other witch’s magic involved here.
“No, it’s the witches doing their handiwork,” he answered angrily. “I saw several villagers on the road just before coming home and they told me that Ransy Pruitt, Massey Duburn and a few other women in the village have been arrested for practicing witchcraft and put instocks in the village square. They are to be burned at the stake tomorrow night.”
“Without a trial, my husband?” she asked, hiding her anxiousness.
“What good would a trial do? Witches are known liars.”
“Are they, my husband?”
He sat on a chair and removed his boots. “Have you prepared my supper?”
“I’ve made a very special soup for you, my husband,” she said as she placed Cozell on the floor.
He removed his boots, sat at the table, and licked his lips as she ladled soup into a bowl.
* * *
In the middle of the night Gandra strode down the dirt road headed into the heart of the village. She had her shawl pulled over her head as she glanced about furtively hoping that the thudding footsteps of the fourteen-foot-tall giant who followed her didn’t awake anyone. She glanced over her shoulder at him, seeing little of her husband’s features in his hulking form and face that resembled a badger’s. Drool spilled from his mouth. He carried a club the size of a tree trunk that he rested on one shoulder. It wasn’t until she reached the edge of town square that she stopped, with the giant stopping behind her. She observed nine women of the village held prisoner in stocks, their faces lit by torches planted in the ground that surrounded them. The village sheriff and two other men were asleep on the ground, slumped against the wheels of the carts that would carry the women to their deaths.
“This will be easier than I thought,” she muttered to herself. She turned to the giant. “Kill the men with your club, first, and then free my friends.”
He grunted and raised the club.
In that moment the white stag suddenly appeared, standing between Gandra, the giant, and where the other witches were being held. The stag’s white hide gleamed in the moonlight. Its rack was as big as several small trees bereft of leaves. It snorted clouds of frost from its nostrils and pawed the ground with its font hooves.
“What magic is this?” Gandra bellowed.
The stag raised up on its rear legs and surrounded by flashes of lightening it changed into a man dressed in a long white robe with a hood that covered his head.
“A wizard!” she exclaimed venomously.
“Turn back now, witch, and take your foolish husband with you,” he said, his voice soft, but resolute.
Gandra turned to the giant. “Kill him,” she ordered.
The giant rushed toward the wizard, its club raised. The wizard became the stag again and met the giant with its head bowed, its rack fully extended. The giant brought its club down, hitting the stag’s rack with a thundering wallop. The stag shook its head, drove its body into the giant’s mid-section, knocking the club from the giant’s hand and causing the giant to fall on its back, sending tremors through the village.
The sheriff and the other men awoke as villagers ran out of their homes. Seeing the giant and stag they screamed and shouted in fear and astonishment.
Before the giant could stand, the stag turned back to the wizard, grabbed the club and hit the giant on the head. The giant fell back on the ground, unconscious, where it turned back into Lasgon.
The sheriff and the villagers descended onto Gandra, apprehended her and placed her in stocks with the other witches.
* * *
That next night the entire village and the farmers from all over the countryside watched as Gandra and the other witches were tied to posts, placed standing on top of piles of wood, and burned alive.
Lasgon’s heart was heavy as he turned away from the fire that consumed his wife. He took a few steps and ran into a pretty young maiden who looked at him with gleaming eyes. Her black hair flowed over her shoulders. Instantly he forgot about Gandra. “Who are you?” he asked her.
“My name is Cozell,” she said shyly.
“A very common name for such a pretty maid,” he said. “Are you married?”
“No, but I can tell by your manner and manly appearance that I would be happy to call you my husband.”