Who would have guessed that she was a witch? The man had thought — as had every other neighbor — that she was merely an old woman who, by circumstance, lived alone. Her garden flourished behind a stone wall, her home was tended well, and she was known to wave at passersby from time to time. Even so, the man should have known better. He took the risk, and it cost him dearly.
Rampion? Yes, take all your wife desires. Steal it from my fertile earth and stuff it down her throat, that mother-in-waiting who swells as I never could. Eat the sweet leaves and coddle her while you can. But.
The witch stood before him with her evil eye and spoke for the first time in years. “I’ll have your child in return.”
The man’s wife soon burst and there, to the bedside, came the witch as promised. She lifted the babe with milk-white skin out of her mother’s arms.
“I name her Rampion. What you have taken is now returned.”
And then the witch packed up her garden, cauldrons, frogs, and all, and vanished with the child.
The witch gloried in the girl’s fine shape, her rose-red lips and golden hair, though of children she knew nothing. In all her dusty tomes she found a word or two on feeding, but of the finer arts of rearing young there was no hint. Rampion had the freedom all men crave, to wander in the fields or through the woods untended, though no men saw the girl for the witch, with all her magic, kept her hidden from their sight. No man would steal this Rampion away.
She grew as children grow, though in a sort of solitude for the witch spoke little, if at all. Her only companions were the birds in the sky and the creatures of the wood, and so she had no language but for that of song and of the howling in the night.
The witch had allowed herself (through no small witchery) to believe that Rampion was hers, but as the child grew the lie was told. This fair thing now twirling through the meadow and chirping through the day could not have come from her, all sooty black and withered with her age. For twelve years she had kept her Rampion safe, but now the truth was hard to bear, so clearly was it written in those eyes. Again the witch packed up the wicked things of witches, and they vanished again. In a deep forest she found a hideaway where even she would be hard-pressed to visit with that face, so unlike her own. The tower spiked upwards toward the sky.
They went by steps most fell and perilous until they reached the topmost room, where the witch let go of Rampion’s hand and turned as if to leave. Rampion cried and clung, but the witch, knowing only the language of men and not that of birds, could not ease her fears.
“It’s for the best,” the witch said, but words meant nothing to the daughter who pried and scratched at her false-mother’s breast. The witch, impatient, locked her in.
Who needs words? Each day at noon the witch approached the tower and called out in her own rasping song, Rampion, Rampion. Rampion waved in the tower’s window one pale and perfect hand in greeting. This was a greeting she understood.
It’s not what you may think. Rampion had long hair, long and tangled and flowing to the floor, but this was not the way the witch went up to feed her. After all, she was a witch with no need of such as that, for had she found the will or chosen the device, she could have flown aloft. Instead she used the stairs until, at last, age settled in her bones and her visits grew infrequent, until finally they tapered off altogether.
Rampion waited in the tower, singing on into the nights, but when the days brought forth no witch her feral mind turned back in years to all she’d known before — the fields and forests through which she had once freely roamed. When hunger shook her belly and sunk her blooming cheeks, she scratched and clawed at unforgiving stone until her fingers bled and the nails that had once pulled grubs from under roots were torn and bloodied.
Her voice was all she had and with it she did wail into the days and nights that passed her by. To the rounding moon she called and howled in agony, and to the shining sun she gave her smoothest song of love, and soon there came a day when she was answered in a language not unlike her own.
A humming in the woods she heard and she, in joy, believed the witch had come again at last. She waved that delicate hand, now bruised to black, out the tower window. The humming stopped. She waved again, then heard a creaking on the step and then a banging on the door and then a crash and he was through.
He took her on the cold stone of the floor.
Rampion howled so loudly that the witch once more climbed the stairs. When she saw the shape of her Rampion all sprawled out on the stones, she cast the man from the window with a word. As he fell, she grabbed a handful of Rampion’s hair.
“No man will try to steal you away from me now,” she cried, voice hoarse and unforgiving.
One by one she hacked those tresses off. The strands fell from her withered hands onto the stone below and though Rampion twisted and fought again, the witch’s grip held fast. When the last of Rampion’s hair curled on the floor, the witch said, “Go.”
Somehow, that word came through; she understood it meant that she must leave behind what little care she’d known. She’d had no shadows, no little voice to speak of sin or any rights or wrongs, but now when all had fallen to the floor, Rampion knew that ravening darkness that dwells within the hearts of all her kind.
Poor feral child in the woods, her sorrow all the cloak she had. As her belly swelled she found her old companions, learning all she needed to survive from wolves and squirrels and birds. Through autumn’s shed and winter’s frost and spring’s sweet rain she increased, until at summer’s cusp she lay herself in a warm den and gave birth to bawling twins. Rampion wrapped them up in leaves and vines and carried them on her back, singing all the while for her witch-mother.
How could she not cry out for the only face she knew? Her shadows nipped at her weary heels and fluttered around her head, tormenting her with whispers she would never understand. And then she found the witch’s hut, all hidden in the wood, and scratched her stick-like fingers on the door. The answer was silence; the witch was gone, and when the door swung slowly open and she saw the empty cabin, Rampion sat down on the witch’s bed and wailed.
She stayed within that ramshackle hut, alone but for the twins and all the witching wonders that were left behind. Surrounded by the witch’s things she felt, at first, a comfort in the presence of the scent of mother, yet as she went about her business they fell close in around her. She bent and stooped below the watching pots and jars all full of seasoned herbs and under hanging baskets as she felt the witch’s eye and heard again the word that cast her out. Even now the witch was there beside her, haunting every hour of her day, watching with that witch’s eye, condemning every action undertaken.
Rampion also watched — she watched her children grow and heard them as they sang between themselves in words she did not know. That secret language called to her as no song ever had, and the three developed a vocabulary all their own. Beneath their sap-filled fingers and pressing mouths her pain was drawn away; as the twins grew her hair returned, framing her face like a halo of stars then drifting in a river down her back. Her throat, once torn from crying for the witch, remade itself with that soft brush of language and all those whispering shadows receded under the moon. Yet still Rampion felt the witch in every nook and corner, and looked over her shoulder now and then. Even now, she feared the witch would come and lock her up again.
It was late in the day. Rampion and the twins were spinning to a song they had devised of those strange warbles that to them were words, when at the door she heard a timid knocking. In her breast the fear awoke; she sensed a witching trick. Straightening, she lifted the latch and there upon her step she saw a familiar form, though bent and somewhat broken where before he had been proud.
The twins from round a table leg peeked out and squealed at this unbidden sight. They began in that quick language to express concern, while in Rampion’s spirit those sleeping shadows stirred.
Rampion felt the witch come stand behind her, knife aloft and waiting, shadows at her heels. She thought about the tower, and how she’d suffered by a witch’s withered hand. She remembered the day he had found her, what he had done to her, and what it had cost him.
Unthinking grace welled up in her like a sure and certain song, and she bent her head and shed two tears, one for the witch, and one for a young woman called Rampion. Those glistening drops hit home like arrows to the mark; one fell in his right eye as the other splashed into his left. He raised his head and blinked and coughed with shock for suddenly, as though a cloud had passed, his sight returned.
The witch’s skirts rustled. He begged to stay in the shelter of her home. Rampion waved her hand, once bruised and blooded, at the forest, and uttered the only word of men she’d ever known.
To him in front and to the witch behind she spoke; she bid them “Go.”
[A Sure and Certain Song was first published in Fantasy Magazine, 2005.]
[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]