Wilfred And Alburtha
I wished I could have said that there were no witches in the forest, but there were. There was just one witch that I’d heard stories about, a cold, ugly witch, who lived alone in the forest in a hole in the ground. She would crawl into the hole at night, the hole only just about big enough for her body, and then she would emerge in the mornings, with her broom, looking tired and haggard and old, scratching her head and smacking her lips. She never washed, and she never changed her clothes, and none of the other creatures in the forest would ever go near her, in case she did something awful to them.
But one day, I stumbled across her. It was an accident, a complete accident, and I could see her in a clearing through gaps in the trees, and she was wearing her black overcoat and cape, and she had her back to me, stirring something in a big pot.
I thought witches only existed in books and fairy tales, I never knew they were real. I was only a young boy at the time, and for a while I just stood, watching what she was doing. She was laughing, sometimes dancing around the pot in a mad old happy kind of way, and at one point I saw her face, and it was awful, it looked scarred and scabby and green, and whilst feeling afraid, I wanted to keep watching her. I felt as if she was hiding something.
I adjusted my footing slightly, and a twig snapped beneath my feet. I saw her head snap up instantly, and for the first time, she was perfectly still. Her back was to me again, but it looked as if she was sniffing, or listening for something very faint. She turned around and looked at me.
“Aaahh,” she smiled and pointed directly at me, just with one, long, naily finger, and I felt a dark invisible rope begin to pull me in towards her. I was digging my heels in to the ground to try to stop it, kicking into the leaves and earth to try to pull away, but I couldn’t. She was pulling me closer, still with one outstretched finger, a dirty grin and small, beady little eyes. I wished I had never been an explorer. I wished I had never asked to see something new that day.
Something smelt awful, like rotting meat and fish, and I could see the stuff in her cauldron bubbling over, boiling and steamy, but beneath it was no fire at all. I got very close to her, and she sat me down, right in front of her.
“Perfect,” she said. “Just perfect.”
I was struggling and crying and trying to scream, but nothing was happening. I felt paralysed with muscles so tense they could not move. She looked at me for a while, still smiling, with teeth in the smile that looked as if they were smothered in mud and dirt.
“Boy,” she said, sitting down opposite me. “I need your help. I need your opinion on something.”
I tried to explode into movement, but nothing.
“I need your opinion, boy,” she said. Her smile decreased, and she looked more serious, almost sad.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” she asked. She suddenly had a kind of sad, lonely innocence in her voice that made me relax a little. I felt myself move slightly.
“Hmm?” I murmured, still unable to speak properly.
“Do you think I’m pretty, good-looking, at all? Do I look like a beautiful woman to you?”
I didn’t know what to say. Obviously she was not. But as I looked at her, I pictured her without the green, lumpy skin, without the dirty grin and dirty matted hair, without those warts on her nose and around her eyes, and without the darkness around her pupils. Then, she was beautiful indeed; a beautiful lady was underneath.
I still could not relax. I only managed to shake my head, ever so slightly, to the left, but it was not quite an indication of “no”. It was a diagonal movement, as if to say, “I’m not sure.”
“I have been told that I am ugly, horribly ugly. When I was a young girl a witch put a spell on me, making me like her, with her looks, her powers, her ugliness. Now no living thing will come near me. They run if they see me, they whisper about me behind the trees, saying how ugly I am, saying how horrible I am. I sit here every day making them soup and drinks, but no one will take them. They think I wish to poison them. The witch before me would have poisoned them, but I just want to help. I end up giving it all to the trees. They seem to enjoy it.”
She took a ladle-full of her tonic from the cauldron, walked over and poured it at the base of a tree. I saw the tree move slightly, and its colour seemed to get brighter, just slightly richer in brown on its trunk, and up above I saw its branches raise up and stiffen ever so slightly.
“Will you try some?” she asked me, coming to sit back down.
“Um, no thanks,” I said. I had relaxed a little more, and I felt freer.
“Oh, very well,” she said. “Now what I am trying to do is make a potion to make me more beautiful. But I need an ingredient. Youth. Something young.”
I froze again.
“Oh! Oh don’t worry!” she laughed. She actually had a sweet laugh, far indeed from any kind of cackle. Her laugh sounded like music. “No, I’m not thinking you! No, no, just perhaps a hair? A piece of nail? Anything like that?”
I didn’t do anything at first, I felt sorry for her. My heart sank when I saw how disappointed she was. All she wanted was to be accepted, to help, to be part of the whole forest. I bit a tiny piece of nail off my finger, and I held it out for her. Delighted, she took it from me.
“Thank you, oh thank you,” she said, and she put it in her cauldron. The liquid became bright pink, glowing, and a sweet smell of roses engulfed us.
“This is it!” she said. “Now I will be beautiful!”
She scooped up some of this liquid in her long wooden ladle, and she lifted it to her lips.
“Stop! Stop!” a hurried, agitated shout came from above, and out of nowhere, hurtling through the air, doing uncontrolled erratic somersaults and kicks and flips and cartwheels, was a man dressed in blue, with a long white beard.
“Wait!” he shouted again. “Don’t take that!”
He got bigger and bigger as he flew towards us, and he crashed very heavily into the ground, leaving a big wizard-shaped imprint in the leaves underneath him. He quickly got up and dusted himself off.
“Stop! Please!” he said, still brushing down his robe with his hands. “You must not take that potion, I…my goodness.” The man was clumsy, you could tell even from the way he walked, but as soon as he got close to the witch, he became suddenly more elegant, and he looked into her eyes with an absolute wonder.
“My God, you are beautiful,” he said.
“But I haven’t taken the potion yet,” she said, looking confused.
“No, I know. If you did, not only would you lose your good looks, your strong skin, your keen eyes, your rich hair, but you may change in other ways. You may lose your powers, your potion-making skills, your flying ability. I have heard about you, the only good witch in the forest, and I have been looking for you for days. It was only that bright pink light from your cauldron that gave you away. Please, do not yet take the potion. We could do so much together, the animals are all friendly with me, I’m sure we could share all of your fine concoctions with them, you could teach me, I could teach you wizardry, all except for how to fly. That would be your forté.”
She chuckled and put the ladle down.
“Ok, thank you,” she said. “My name is Alburtha.”
“My name is Wilfred,” he said.
I left them soon after, laughing and joking and sharing advice with each other, but I went back and saw them nearly every week, giving out food and healing tonics to the birds and animals, and they were very much in love. Wilfred improved greatly in his flying abilities, Alburtha learnt all about wizard spells, and together they were a perfect team. They even taught me some things.
Wilfred and Alburtha – A Note From Dr Bernard J. Hoothfellow
Wilfred and Alburtha live together in the forest. They travel the forest giving healing tonics and life-preserving potions to any creature that asks for them. They were first discovered by a young man named Jeremiah, who became their protégé in the healing and protective arts.
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