The old grenz frowns at the rain pelting against the window. A storm, blown in from the Sorrows, has turned the roads of the town to rivers of mud. He is unlikely to have any audience for his story tonight. He sighs and warms his hands at the fire. His gaze occasionally wanders away from the window to the red cloth bundle on the table. The ends of the cloth are torn and tattered, the whole of it is only a quarter of its original size. It was once a cloak. A fine, resplendent cloak of red that adorned the shoulders of a legend. Now, it was a wrapping, a package, a shroud. The grenz feels his blood boiling with anger and sorrow.
There is a thunk, and the door of the inn opens. Five young children enter and find seats by the hearth. The one who sits closest to the grenz is a young girl, her eyes eager and determined. She had refused to let the rain interrupt her story.
The old grenz smiles, and runs his fingers over the red cloth. He raises his hand and nods to the innkeeper.
When Ayla fled the land of Xeph, her steed Sathial took her South. When the sun rose the morning after the attack from the traveler, Ayla Green-hammer found herself lost and far from home. She was in pain, for her cloak which had come alight during her retreat had scorched her terribly, and she hoped to find a place to rest, far from the wicked traveler and his dragon fire.
She came to a green hill by a river, and finding the place beautiful and free of wear from travel, she took her rest her. Sathial, the mare, went to graze of the hill’s green grass, while Ayla went to the river. The cool water felt good in her throat, and on her skin where she had been scorched it soothed the burning. She bathed in the river, and wept for her friend the raven, who had surely been taken by the dragon fire when he fled into the night sky. She did not cry long, for Aster, her mother, had taught her that weeping solves nothing. A strong arm and a strong will are what is needed.
Ayla did not know that she had strayed into the lands of the Witch-haven. A land ruled by pagan gods and old magics. She was spotted as she bathed in the stream. A goblin whose name was Pek spied the girl in the river, and fled to the house of his mistress in a nearby wood, there to tell the witch what he had seen. He told her of a human woman bathing in the river within the borders of the Witch-haven.
“What!?” the witch cried, “A human woman bathes in my River!? I will not suffer this!”
The witch whispered a wicked word, and a hundred goblins came at her call.
“Go to the river. Bring me this human who dares to break the ancient pacts, and enters the Haven without leave.”
The goblins raced to the river and fell on Ayla and Sathial. The goblins attacked, wielding clubs of birch and lashes of willow. Sathial was no farmstead nag, she was a warhorse, and so when the goblins leapt at her, she bucked and kicked and stomped the creatures who thought to catch her. Ayla too, was not easy prey. For though she was young, and not much taller than the goblins, she kicked and bit and hit any goblin who dared to come near her. But Ayla’s hammer was not with her. It was tied to the saddle of Sathial. So, eventually, she was overcome by the witch’s goblins.
Bound and gagged, for the goblins had had enough of her biting them, they brought Ayla to the witch. Sathial as well was muzzled and taken away. They were dragged away from the river, and into the forest, where the witch made her home. The goblins took them before the witch, presenting their prizes, and offered them up to their mistress.
The witch was not pleased.
“Pek!” she cried, and the goblin came forward, missing a tooth from the battle with Ayla at the river, “Who are these creatures. You told me a human woman was bathing in my river!”
“I did, and here she is my mistress. We captured her just as you asked,” the goblin called Pek said. The witch was furious. Goblins you see, are born full formed. They have no children among the goblin folk, and therefore no word for them. The goblin Pek had said a woman, and the witch had taken his word. For her to have ordered an attack upon children was not quite forbidden, but it was unseemly.
The witch ordered Ayla untied and brought the girl into her home. She offered her food and drink, but Ayla had grown more wary since yesterday, and she dared take nothing from the witch.
“What is your name, little girl?” the Witch cooed.
“I am Ayla, daughter of Aster,” Ayla said proudly, “The Green-hammer, and Slayer of Giants.”
“Oh?” the witch said disbelieving, “And have you sailed the Sorrows by night, and ridden dragons to war?”
“I have never even seen the sea,” Ayla said sadly, “But I have seen a friend taken by dragon fire.”
The witch saw Ayla’s eyes, full of pain, and knew she spoke truth. “Where are your from, Green-hammer?”
“I come from the land of Genn. Though I do not know where I am now.”
“Child, you are in the Witch-haven. You are many leagues South of Genn, and the blighted land of Xeph stands between us.”
“I must return home,” Ayla said standing, the steel in her voice making clear her resolve, “Even if I must face the cursed land again.”
“You cannot go that way, child,” the witch lowered her gaze, “The wind whispers of foul things awakening there. Things not seen since the turn of the Age.”
The witch explained to Ayla that there was another road to return to Genn. To the west on the coast of the Sea of Sorrows, was the kingdom of New Xeph. From there she might find passage north to the land of Genn.
“It will not be an easy road,” the witch said, “To get to New Xeph, you must cross the length of the Haven. In the depths of these woods, you will find many less civil things than I.”
“Less civil than those that would send goblins to attack me?” Ayla said. Half in jest.
The witch smiled, and nodded slowly, “I deserve as much. Stay tonight as my guest, and in the morning I shall send you on your way, with a gift.”
Ayla agreed, but she still did not fully trust the witch. After retiring to the room in which she was to sleep, Ayal Green-hammer, who was the best at the game of hiding, crept back to spy upon the witch. The witch gathered together three jars, and took them outside to the forest.
With the first of the jars, the witch took a pinch of moss, a pinch of dirt, and sweet smelling flower that looked like a blue star and placed them all inside.
The second she held to her lips and whispered into, then held it up as if to catch the wind before she sealed it.
The third she held out to the west and the setting sun, letting the rays of the sun pass through the jar until the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. Then she sealed that one as well.
She took these jars to her cauldron, and began to boil a potion. To this potion, she added the moss, dirt and crushed flower, then she upended the two empty jars over the brew. Finally, the witch took down thread. She hesitated for awhile over which thread, before she settled on a crimson spool. She took the spool, and dipped the whole of it into the cauldron, whispering secret things to it as she did. Then, she drew the thread out of the cauldron.
She took the thread to a loom behind her house, and began to weave. Ayla would have sworn there was not enough thread to weave much of anything, and yet the thread seemed endless when woven through the witches hands.
The work went all night, and Ayla did eventually succumb to sleep. In the morning, the Witch woke her, smiling, and presented her with the gift. A cloak.
Not an ordinary cloak, as I’m sure you have guessed, but an enchanted cloak. This cloak could be as soft as the forest floor to sleep one and smelled of fresh cut flowers. It was light and quiet as a whisper on the wind and was as warm as if it had been laying out in the sun.
Ayla blushed, thinking that such as gift was far too extravagant, but the witch draped it over her shoulders and smiled.
“It suits you well, child,” the old woman said, straightening the cloak on the girl, “It is big for you now, but you will grow into it. And you may need to repair it as you travel through the woods. I trust your mother taught you how to sew?”
Ayla nodded, and the witch whispered a wicked word. The goblin Pek appeared.
“Open your pocket child,” the witch instructed, and Ayla did, “Now get in you useless thing,” the witch spat at the goblin, who jumped hurriedly and afraid into a pocket of Ayla’s cloak.
“Goblins are dim, nigh useless creatures, but this one may be of some small help to you. Take him away from me before he causes more trouble, and I will call it payment for the cloak, and all our debts settled. Agreed?”
Ayla embraced the witch, and said she hoped they would meet again. The witch gave Ayla a bit of food and whispered an apology to proud Sathial before sending them on their way. And so Ayla set out into the Witch-haven proper, making her way to New Xeph, the Sea of Sorrows, and home.
The grenz takes his hand off the red bundle. He had been resting it there when he had described the making of the cloth. The girl and her friends clap a bit, but then settle down quietly, waiting for the next story. The grenz stretches a bit, and swallows a mouthful of wine.
“I thought witches were evil?” one of the children asks.
“Not all of them,” says the old grenz after a moments consideration, “No more than any other folk.”
“I always heard witches eat children,” the young girl says.
“Living Sun no!” the grenz exclaims, “Who would ever do such a thing? What possible reason?”
“That’s how other stories go,” the girl says slightly embarrassed.
“Well you would be wise not to say as much to any witch you happen to meet,” the old one warns.
“What did she do next?” another child asks, “Ayla I mean.”
The grenz waves to the innkeeper for another wine, “Next, she begins her trek through the Haven, and meets a few…unsavory characters.”