Magic cannot be hidden and cannot be contained. Traces of it float away like dust. Sometimes they tickle your nose and make you sneeze. Sometimes they settle on your eyelashes and make the world look brighter. And every peasant knows that. So as soon as there's a sneeze heard in any village, even if caused by a legitimate cold, the villagers will reach for their torches and their pitchforks, and go hunt a witch.
At the eastern edge of Grimwood Forest, lies the village of Petticrop, surrounded on three sides by fields of golden wheat. The forest belongs to the king, and no man is allowed to hunt there without his permission. But the villagers still use the forest for two things: to get wood for their fires, and to get witches for their pyres. Mostly, they get wood. But as soon as Toadmila began her work on the walls of the Dilapidated Hut, the villagers of Petticrop began to sharpen their pitchforks. By noon they were ready, and a handful of them had already gathered around the well at the center of the village, ready to depart in search of the witch. Since, however, even the bravest of them were not brave enough to face the cruel destiny of leaving home on an empty stomach, they momentarily disassembled and returned to their homes for lunch.
By 4 PM, however, the men had finished their meals and the women had finished washing the dishes, and so they gathered once more, lit their torches, and began the long march through the forest.
They knew the way to the witch's hut well, as this was the third witch to settle there in under three years. So they marched at even pace, chanting their mantra of “Kill the witch, burn the witch,” to the beat of their footsteps.
The sun went down early at that time of the year. It was close to winter, for the time when witches get their assignments and are sent into the world is on the same night when spirits walk upon the earth, on All Hallows Eve. The villagers, therefore, were soon surrounded by darkness. They arrived just as Toadmila was preparing her dinner, roasting a handful of chestnuts on a magical fire she'd lit inside her hut. The crackle of the tiny green flames could not cover the shouts of angry villagers approaching. Toadmila heard them when they were a good distance away, and considered whether she'd still have time to eat. She did not have time for dinner, however. Scowling, she put out her fire and set aside the chestnuts. She considered her options. Standard procedure for such cases involved de-materializing from under the villagers' noses, and materializing in a safe spot at reasonable distance from the hut. But she had been careless. In her eagerness to rind herself of the dung and of its smell, she had forgotten to go on the customary reconnaissance mission. If there was a safe place she could retreat to – and, undoubtedly, there was one – she did not know its location, and materializing always required a good knowledge of the place where you were going, unless you wanted to find yourself stuck in a tree, or inside a rock, or ten feet under ground.
There were spells she could use against the peasants, of course. She could make them laugh until they dropped their torches. She could make them cry. She could douse them in tea until they'd obediently say, “Sorry for bothering you,” and walk themselves back to the village. But such an active approach was generally frowned upon.
The villagers were outside her door before she could decide what to do. One of them tried the door, tried hurling himself at the door, to be exact, and found that he could not get it. A few of the others threw rocks at the windows. But the spells on the windows held fast, and the rocks bounced back into the crowd. There was a moment of general confusion as the villagers ran back, afraid of retaliation. But then someone shouted “Burn the witch!” ad the mob returned with renewed purpose. They surrounded the hut, looking for a way in, and when they couldn't find one, they applied their torches tot he wooden beams that supported the roof. The flames slithered up the old wood and reached the thatched roof. The straws lit up in an instant, setting the sky ablaze. This led to some dissent among the villagers. Some cheered, glad to see the witch trapped and her hut turned into a burning furnace. Others, however, were disappointed that they hadn't had a chance to tenderize her flesh with their pitchforks first.
Inside the hut, the heat and the smoke had become unbearable. Toadmila reached for her broom. She made a quick shielding spell to keep the burning straws from falling on her head. Then, with a quick jab of her wand, she made the roof burst open. Holding tightly onto her broom, she flew up through the flames and disappeared into the night.