After Maggie left with her new son, Toadmila didn't think it worth while to keep clearing the path to the village. She didn't expect any more customers until spring, when perhaps some lovelorn girl might be willing to risk losing her soul for a love potion of some sort. But on the very next morning, when she was just about to sit down to breakfast, there was a knock on the door.
It was a knock like she'd never heard before, loud and brash, and quickly followed by enough pounding and kicking to bring down the whole house. Toadmila froze. She had forgotten that villagers were in the habit of burning witches. Perhaps Jane's engagement might have not raised any suspicions, but an old woman bringing home a fresh new son, that was something the village would have thought of as black magic, even if the boy did come from an orphanage. Toadmila remembered well the torches and pitchforks. And she knew well that a stone house, with a stone roof, did not offer many possibilities for escaping without harming any assailants. And her first duty was to protect the very villagers that seemed to want nothing but to watch her burn.
The pounding on the door grew louder, deafening. Toadmila threw a glance out the window, but she couldn't see anything outside other than trees and snow. The door could not be seen from the window, but at least she could tell the house wasn't surrounded. There was also the conspicuous lack of the usual chanting, the droning of “Burn the witch! Kill the witch!” that usually accompanied angry mobs. And the thought, reckless as it may be, crossed her mind, that this might be a customer. Considering all possibilities, and all routes of escape in case she was wrong, Toadmila put out the fire and retreated close to the fireplace. Then, with a swish of her wand, she opened the door.
She saw three large men, their arms raised and their fists ready to fall on the door that was no longer there. Taken by surprise, they remained like that for a moment, mouths gaping wide, staring at the witch. Toadmila stared back, as intimidatingly as she could, aware that she short frame and slight build were bound to make her look weak. The men seemed frozen for one second, then they blinked, all three at the same time, and, remembering their urgency, stumbled forward, getting themselves stuck in the doorway, whose frame was too small for all three of them to get in at the same time.
Toadmila did not make any attempts to help them. And after several minutes of struggling and elbowing each other, the men managed to squeeze through the door. They took three steps towards Toadmila, spreading slush, snow and mud all over the floor, and stopped at the edge of the rug that she had painstakingly weaved out of spider silk.
“Are you the witch?” the man in the middle asked, careful not to step on the rug.
Toadmila wasn't sure this was a good idea, but she took one step forward, with her chin raised and her wand at ready, and said, “I am indeed the witch.”
The men didn't question this. Their faces struggled with a swift succession of conflicting emotions: relief, fear, hilarity and concern. Then their massive features settled into a unanimous expression of supplication.
“We need your help.”