Every step I took along the meandering trail obscured the path behind without revealing what lay ahead. Gusts of wind tossed my hair about and swung the lantern in my hand. Its swaying glow did little to dispel the shroud of gloom cast by a moonless night as I made my way through the snow-covered underbrush.
“I can barely see,” I grumbled, mostly to myself.
On my shoulder, Pito, my familiar, peered into the shadows with oversized rodent eyes and seized on my uncertainty. “It’s too dark to be walking alone through the woods, Brynn. Let’s go home and come back in the morning.”
The little coward. “Quiet,” I hissed at him. The tiny squirrel recoiled out of sight and onto my nape. “I’m not letting ma die because I’m scared of the night.”
Minutes passed with only the crunch of icy twigs under my boots to punctuate their passage, until guilt got the better of me. “Are you pouting?”
“Why would I?” Pito said. “It’s not like you called me a coward.”
“You thought it.”
I sighed. “Fine. I’m sorry. Happy?”
“I’d be much happier if you stopped for a moment and thought through what you’re doing,” Pito said, inching outwards along my shoulder until I could see him again in my peripheral vision. “Tywyll isn’t known for his charitable ways, how’re you planning to pay him for the elixir?”
Pito had me there, and knew it. When old man Aeron’s newborn son fell sick with the coughing fever two springs past, Tywyll demanded a gold sovereign for the few drops of elixir that brought the infant back from the brink. We had neither Aeron’s gold, nor his silks. “I’ll bring him firewood for as long as it takes to pay off the debt.”
Pito snorted. “Look around you, what need has Tywyll for firewood in the middle of the woods?”
“Then I’ll do anything he asks. I’ll sweep his hut. Fetch his water from the stream. I’ll cook his meals. Rub the bunions on his feet. Anything.”
“Your ma wouldn’t want that for you, Brynn,” Pito said. His gentle reprimand grated more for being the truth.
“Well, ma isn’t here, is she? She’s bedridden with black fever and if I don’t do something soon, I’ll lose her. Can you understand that?”
Pito didn’t answer. Instead, he shuffled his tiny feet over the fine hairs of my nape, sending shivers down my spine. His eyes had grown wider still, staring ahead with unconcealed apprehension. I followed his gaze to a column of milky blue smoke rising above the snow-clad canopy of silent poplars.
A hundred strides later, I shifted the lantern to my left hand, steeled myself, and knocked on Tywyll’s door; timidly at first, then with growing urgency. I took a step backwards when the door creaked open revealing a darkness like ink framing the grey outline of the magic peddler. Tywyll stank of ash and stale mead. My belly grumbled.
“Brynn.” Tywyll tilted his head, and looked past me at the winding path that led back to the village. “Your mother’s not with you?”
I pushed down on the rising bile. “Master Tywyll, ma’s ill. She’s hot to the touch, and covered in rubicund welts. She won’t eat or drink, and mumbles to herself in delirium when not passed out.”
My entreaty didn’t at all resemble what I had rehearsed in my head, and I blamed Pito for the divergence. Still, Tywyll’s eyes gleamed with understanding. He ushered me inside and latched the door behind.
A fire crackled in the hearth. I suspected Tywyll mixed in some herbs or aromatic weeds with the firewood, but rather than mask the heavy miasma of ash and spoilt brew, the spicy fragrance accentuated the stench.
Tywyll shuffled to the hearth and eased himself into a wooden chair polished to a high sheen with frequent use. “Ill, you say? Shame, that. Fetching woman in her day.”
He seemed lost in his memories until I cleared my throat. “A little elixir will see her right as rain, I’m sure.”
Tywyll regarded me with penetrating eyes, reflecting the shimmying flames in the hearth. “Great is the need for the elixir and precious little is the supply. What have you brought to trade? A family heirloom perhaps?”
I swallowed noisily, suddenly wishing I had followed Pito’s advice. “We don’t have much by way of heirlooms,” I stammered, and raised a hand to stave the brushoff blooming on Tywyll’s face, “but I’ll bring you three chickens, heavy with eggs.”
“Chickens? Eggs? Are you daft?” Tywyll bellowed, rising off his creaking chair.
“How about firewood? Bone dry oak or birch, every eventide, for three years?”
“I can get that myself,” Tywyll grumbled as he ushered me towards the door.
“Wait, Master Tywyll,” I pleaded as he reached around me to unbolt the door, and shoved me out. “Ma’s going to die without the elixir. I’ll give you anything. I’ll do anything, if you save her.”
“Brynn, don’t,” Pito squealed.
“Anything,” I insisted.
The door stopped in its arc short of sealing. Tywyll pushed his head through the gap with a calculating look in his eyes. “Surrender me your familiar.”
“My …,” I trailed off uncomprehending.
“That’s the price,” Tywyll said, “come back when you’re ready to trade, but don’t wait too long. The elixir will do your ma no good dead.”
I rushed the closing door, reaching it as Tywyll bolted it from inside.
“Ask for anything else, but I can’t part with Pito. Anything at all,” I said, pounding the door. “Please.”
No answer came.