Formed in the trunk of a gnarly old tree, the cottage gave the impression of a troll’s face. Its doorway twisted like a disfigured mouth, its windows malevolent glowing eyes. Knotted roots reached out from the base like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.
Young Lady Evangeline felt a sudden change of heart. She lifted her white linen gown to clear the mud and turned away.
“My lady,” called a frail sweet voice. “Have you come to pay an old woman a visit? Please come in.” The bent old woman stood unsteady in the doorway. Her stained four-toothed smile and near-bald, brown-splotched head reminded Evangeline of the skull Friar Joskin kept on his scribe’s desk. The crone waved and pleaded again, and Lady Evangeline felt too ashamed to refuse. This forest was on her father’s land, and this woman was under his care.
The one-room cottage had a stone hearth with a boiling kettle opposite the door. To one side was a rough-framed bed with a worn, hair-patched deerskin mattress. To the other was a simple wooden table with two chairs. Peg-mounted shelves above the table held ceramic jars and variously colored glass bottles. A straw broom stood in a corner and earthen flagons in others.
The crone pointed to one of the chairs. A black cat clung to it until she shooed it away. The crone apologized, stepped to the hearth, and lifted the kettle. “Some toadwort tea,” she offered. When Evangeline started, the crone added, “Toadwort is an herb native to this forest, it makes a fine tea.” When she saw Evangeline nod agreement, she filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.
“How nice of you to visit me, my Lady. I was told you might be by,” the crone said. Evangeline knew her handmaids visited this cottage; they had told her the way. “What might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”
Evangeline could not hold back her tears. “I think I shall never find love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her silken black hair behind her shoulder then brought her sensitive white hands to her lap.
“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corners of her tight mouth. Evangeline nodded, dropping her chin and eyes slowly down. The crone sipped her tea and darted one eye to Evangeline’s untouched cup. “The tea will help, dear child.”
Evangeline burst out, sobbing and burying her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped between her fingers and ran down her wrists. The crone reached out a jagged-nailed claw to Evangeline’s hand then raised it to touch the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish me to do?”
“I never want to feel this again,” Evangeline wailed, looking up. “It hurts so much, and I know,” she swallowed, “I know it will never go away.”
“There, there. Is that what you want, dear child, for your pain to go away? Here, drink some tea.” She slid the cup closer. Evangeline lifted the cup to sip but seeing her hands moist with tears, set it down and pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her small quivering bosom. She patted her eyes and hands then tucked the handkerchief away. When she finally drank, the old crone seemed to relax.
“Can you truly take my pain away?” Evangeline asked.
The crone’s once sullen eyes burned like glowing coals in their dark sockets. “Is it just the pain you want to go away, or is it the memory also? Or perhaps something more?” Her lipless mouth flashed a gap-toothed sneer.
Evangeline took a deep sniffling breath. “I must keep the memory so I know never to do this again. But I would like the pain to go.” She sighed, cleared her throat, and brushed the last tear off her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia and be with his betrothed. All summer he insisted he loved me. He says he still does, but I know his passion has cooled.”
“Yes, dear child,” the crone said. “I know how it is. I was young and beautiful once. Men loved and desired me, but I made the mistake of loving one back.” Evangeline tried to imagine the dried, dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl. “I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without ever having to love in return.”
“That is a choice I would willingly make,” the young princess said, swallowing again then brightening. “What must I do?”
The crone’s gapped smile grew wider. She lifted a small black bottle from the shelf above and cradled it in her boney claw fingers. “A drop of this to your tongue will make you eternally beautiful to all men, and it will make you forget that you ever loved.”
“Eternally young and beautiful?” Evangeline squinched her face.
“Only to desirable young men,” the crone said. “Others will see you as you truly are. Every man who gazes upon you will yearn for you. He will give his heart instantly and completely, will want only you forever. And having given his heart, he will never be able to love another.”
“And I will feel nothing,” Evangeline said, concerned but excited.
“For a single night, you will feel as he does, but only in your breasts, your lips, and your loins. Never in your heart for that is where there is pain. You will share his flaming passion, but come morning, he will only disgust you. Your disgust will take away all your pain.”
“Can I never love again … truly love?”
“Have you not tasted true love? You said you didn’t want it ever again.”
“Yes, the cost is too high.”
Suddenly, a deep voice came from the open doorway. “My Lady. Excuse me, my beloved, I see you are busy, perhaps another time would be a better.”
Evangeline turned to see Sir Geoffrey in his belted, sky blue tunic, his hands clasped submissively at his waist. Geoffrey had pursued her all last year pleading for her hand. He was handsome, tall, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.
Seeing Sir Geoffrey angered her, but before she could speak, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the most beautiful, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps enjoy your delicate flower once more? I lament having fallen in disfavor.”
The crone smiled tilting her head to Evangeline then placed her claw hand on the knight’s bowed head. “If you wish to please me, Sir Geoffrey, some venison would be welcome tonight or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your princess?”
“Yes, fair Lady. I will hunt for you and will soon return.” With that he rose and quickly left, not giving Evangeline a glance.
“You see, my child, how the magic works.” The crone kneaded her claws together and peered over them at Evangeline. “If you visit your love Reginald one more time, his passion will rekindle. You may enjoy him once again then be rid of him, and he will suffer forever.”
“He will feel the pain he made me feel,” Evangeline said, smiling with her chin resting on her folded hands. “My handmaids did not tell me you were a witch.”
“Oh, I am not a witch,” the crone said, “I am a demon … as you soon shall be.”