The house was close to the well at the heart of the village, large by Petticrop standards, and somewhat cramped in the dusty yard that contained it. What had obviously been a small hut with just one tiny room, had been expanded over the centuries by various additions, including a much larger space, which now formed the main room of the house, a summer kitchen away from the main building, and a large shed, which smelled of freshly cut wood. Toadmila breathed in deeply. The air smelled of oak and pine, not the kind of wood that villagers would be cutting from their own gardens. It also smelled of chicken soup, which made her mouth water.
The three brothers knocked on the door of the largest room and wiped their feet of snow before walking in. Toadmila followed them. The room was dark, its small windows covered by wooden shutters to keep out the cold. She'd forgotten this from her days at the orphanage, where glass, in any form, was considered a luxury fit only for noblemen. To a witch, it was easy to make, and to mold into any shape, and so, in her long years at the Academy, with large glass windows and intricate walls of stained glass, she had forgotten that world of darkness that common folk lived in.
Her eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. At first she could only see the stove in the middle of the room, were a few embers glowed still. Then, at the other end of the room, on a wooden bed pushed against the wall, she saw a woman, shivering under heavy woolen blankets.
“Mother,” the men said, all three at once. “We've brought our cousin... the one from...”
“From very far away,” one of them said, while the others looked away.
Toadmila took off the dirty shawls that they'd wrapped around her head and shoulders in the fashion worn in winter by village women. Strangers were always of interest, even more so in a small village like Petticrop, and she'd already been introduced as their cousin form far, far away to at least a dozen people.
“I don't think you can fool your mother with that story,” she said, pushing her way past the three men. “I'm Toadmila Wartly, I'm the witch assigned to Grimwood Forest, and I'm here to heal you.”
The old woman looked at each of the three brothers in turn.
“Andrew, Bart, Daniel,” she said sternly. “What have I told you about bringing witches home?”
The men looked down and fumbled with their clothes, pulling at loose threads and crumpling the stiff fabric.
“You told us not to,” they mumbled, like little children repeating their lessons.
“We just want you to be well,” Bart said. “If there'd been a witch to help Chris, wouldn't you have asked her for help?”
Two drops of tears rolled down the woman's cheeks, and she gave a silent nod.
“I'd say it's lucky we have a witch to bring home this time,” Andrew pitched in.
“And she won't even ask for our souls as payment,” Daniel added quickly.
The woman seemed somewhat relieved at this. She nodded again, wiped her tears with the back of her hand and gave Toadmila a scrutinizing look.
“Your sons haven't told me what you're suffering from,” Toadmila said, taking a step forward.
The woman raised her hands, letting her sleeves drop down to her elbows to expose swollen skin dripping with puss.
“A demon,” she said. “I met a demon.”