“And what was your name, my lovely angel,” the huntsman asked.
“Hmm… Gwendoline,” Hargatha lied. “Yes. Call me Gwendoline. But not Gwen, please.”
He smiled broadly, assuringly. “No, of course not, dear, sweet Gwendoline. Why, I could call you nothing else!”
He chewed at the very stale piece of bread almost absently as he watched her. She, busying herself at her kitchen, pulling out spices, mixing them together. Sharpening her knives.
“I wish you would let me help you,” he said. “I can cook well enough. Why, the other night, I made a rabbit dish…” He thought for a moment, “but it wasn’t my best. Something odd about the creature, had a strange taste.”
The rabbit had been fine, thought Hargatha, when she had caught it. Before she fed it her brew and snuck it into one of his traps.
“Now, now. I told you, this is my home. I invited you, it’s only fair you let me make you something to eat.”
He grunted happily at that. Chewed harder on the bread.
“It is a lovely home,” he said. Hargatha sniffed, trying to trace a hint of sarcasm. There was none, which was good. It meant she had done things correctly. Still, she couldn’t help herself.
“You’re too kind. I know it’s a bit dark. Musty.” Dirty. Bleak. Cursed.
“Bah. My life is so much in the woods. Any door and walls and roof, together or apart, are still an envy to my eyes.” He glanced around, taking more of it in than when he’d entered. She had collected a great many odd things. Knick-knacks, like small bottles and vials and sculpts that looked like stuffed creatures and bones. Bones too small for a person, too deformed for a beast, so they must have been some strange sort of art. Yes. Must have.
Hargatha crushed something that smelled almost like cloves into her pestle. “So you have no home of your own,” she asked.
“Not so much.”
“No family?” It didn’t matter, but it would be easier.
“None. It’s only ever been me.”
She nodded. “Sounds like a lonely life,” she said with a trace sadness in her voice. Only for show, she said to herself.
“I have…” he started, and then paused. “I have never had someone offer to invite me in before. Most who look at me once never take a second glance.”
He was not a handsome man, she knew. Not that she had seen many handsome men, nor women. Not that she had seen many people at all, since back when they’d cast her out. And she knew, of course, that she was no beauty herself. She’d been born deformed, a disgrace to her family from the beginning. It was almost as though she’d been birthed into this life cursed. But these things, she was certain, were not what the huntsman could perceive.
“But you, lovely Gwendoline, with your kindness and grace. You found me.”
“…and you showed me such care.”
She had cared enough to poison him with a hexed rabbit. To bewitch him. He was not seeing the broken nose, the milky eyes of Hargatha. The face that made children cry, and women scream, and brought men to violence. He saw only the facade of this Gwendoline she had created in his clouded mind.
“Not so many,” she said very quietly, “have offered me a second glance either.” Her gaze was low, seeming to stare at her preparations, but truly seeing nothing.
If he heard her words, he did not speak on them. They stayed quiet for some time. It was something they were both accustomed to.
Hargatha thought about the spell she had cast on the huntsman. It was one she had used only twice before, and the cost was not small. It took many special ingredients. The most important was a threaded stem of a crocus plant, something not grown in this land, so she had bartered it from a merchant. It was quite costly and, if the spell had not taken, it was unlikely that Hargatha would survive the winter months without being able to afford food. Hunters pillaged the wood around her home, most knowing to avoid coming too close, but still making it difficult for her to find things to eat. She happened upon the rabbit by luck and determination, and it took more of her will not to simply eat it, even if it would only afford her days of food instead of the entire season.
She pulled one stem from the smoke-colored jar. The smell was rich. The color a deep crimson. Beyond its magical properties, it was also quite delightful in a good stew. She would spoil herself, just this once.
“Mmmm. That does smell divine,” the huntsman smiled. “Forgive me, but will it be long?”
“Are you in a hurry to get somewhere else?” she teased.
“Oh, no…” He blushed. She had actually gotten a man to blush, she mused. “No place else beckons to me as much as this place.” Not handsome. But not without charms of his own. “But I did spend my last days quite ill. That blasted rabbit.”
“Won’t be long,” she said dismissively. “The liquid needs to gather and steep for a while before I add… the rest.”
“That is fine. I am sorry, I could very much wait forever if it allowed me more time with you.”
She tried to steel herself to his words, but it was nice. Even the lie of it, it was so nice to hear such things said to her. She found herself hoping it would take just a little while longer.
“Sit with me,” he bade. “Come. Please, just sit and talk with me. Before you make me go.”
“You assume I would let you go, huntsman. What if I never let you and your sweet compliments walk out my door again?”
“That, my dear Gwendoline, would be no threat.” And he smiled, his yellowed teeth through his scraggly beard, the dirt, the twigs, the breath. And none of it mattered. Only the smile.
Hargatha was a practicer of magic. She had always loved magic, because it could change things, and Hargatha always longed for things to change. To change her self. To change her circumstance. Her home. Her family. She loved magic. But she hated tricks. And sometimes the two were too close to one another.
She saw the smile, and she knew, even if he didn’t, that it was a trick. A trick that she had inadvertently played on herself.
“I have something for you,” he said to her. He began to reach into his sack. “I should have mentioned it earlier.”
She felt behind her apron, tied into the strings that held it on, where she had the knife held in place. Waiting. “I also have something for you.” She pulled it, slowly, as he was distracted.
“I wasn’t holding out. I just had worried that since the one had made me so ill, I wasn’t sure that the other wou—”
It was quick. One good push of the blade, under his chin, into the tangle of beard. He still had the smile, even in his eyes, until it all faded to nothing.
She waited again. She couldn’t start right away. The mess would be harder to clean up now. But she just sat back down and looked at him for some while. She thought about his voice, and how he had spoken to her. She wished some day someone would call her Gwendoline again. She had heard it in a story once and wished it had been her name. It was a pretty girl’s name. It was a wife’s name.
The pieces she needed for now she took. The rest she started to sort out and prep, to store for later. To keep her through the winter. This is how she would live. This is how she always would live.
As the meal cooked, she went through his things to see what else he’d carried that she could use. What could be sold or bartered with. She opened the bag he had been reaching into. In there, she found the pelt of an animal. A small, brown rabbit. And then the still whole body of a white one, killed but so far unused.
The white one she had fed her special herbs, used for the love spell. The one, it seems, her huntsman had never eaten.
Hargatha hated being tricked.
She sat alone in her home. The home she had been forced to live in when they’d driven her away. The home she would always be alone in. The hunters knew to avoid it. The smart ones. The ones not blinded by stupid things like spells. Or love. She sat and ate her stew.
And it was warm, and filling, and would sustain her the winter through.
But it was definitely missing something.