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A photo of a bronze cauldron with an engraved pentacle

Sometimes Love Can Be Tough

My contribution to the deadlinesforwriters short story challenge January 2024. The prompt was “exchange” and the required word count was 1200. Cover photo by Matt Benson on Unsplash.

The contents of the cauldron bubbled fiercely. In the candlelit room of the cottage, she stood at the hearth, humming under her breath.

In the far corner, a small cage hung from a sturdy black hook. It held a little goblin, a young male with his arms crossed in front of his chest. He was out of breath and sweaty, but otherwise quiet. With fiery red eyes he watched her observing the boiling potion, until she went back into her pantry. He could not see her in there, only hear the clanking of her pots and jars.

“What? My bluebell petals are gone, too? I could have sworn I still had handfuls of them in here! Ha! At least there is still some of the woodruff left! Couldn’t have finished this spell without it!”

When she returned, she walked directly over to him and tapped the cage bars with her left hand. In her right she held a bouqet of herbs from which she picked some stalks. She tilted her head a bit and looked at him. The she poked him a couple of times with the herbs.

“Were you surprised when I caught you? I know you pride yourselves on being almost invisible. But not to me you aren’t!”

Chuckling, she went back to the fire. She crumbled the bunch of herbs into the mixture, stirred the pot with a wooden ladle and smiled at the puff of green vapour that rose up and sparkled. She wiped her hands on her black skirt and made a big show of reading the open page of the ancient book that lay open on the table in the middle of the room. She even followed the recipe down the page with her long and elegant fingers for good measure.

“Hmmmm, just one more ingredient to add. And you know which one I am talking about, don’t you?”

“You humans are just horrible! Just you wait! My clan will hear about this and then you will be so very sorry!”

“Oh, ho, ho! He speaks at last! So, what do you suppose is going to be the finishing touch my potion needs?”

“Let me go!”

“No. No, I won’t. And you don’t really have to tell me. I know that you know what will have to go into that cauldron.”

“You evil witch!”

The grin she threw him showed an unnerving number of pearly white teeth and he drew back into the furthest corner of his prison, still huffing and puffing, but only half heartedly.

“It has to be soon, too.”

Both of them looked towards the door at the same time. There had been a sound like a tiny boot against heavy wood. The witch opened the cottage door to find another goblin standing outside in the light of the full moon. This one was a grown-up and female, her face red underneath the mop of tousled white hair. Her moss green cape looked liked she had thrown it on in a hurry.

“Give me back my son!”

“No. I won’t. At least not for free. But by the way, I am happy to notice that news still travels fast in this forest.”

She did not turn around towards the cage when she commanded: “Tell her! Tell her, what the price is for getting you back!”

The goblin boy drew a deep breath. The next moment he started wailing at his mother in their own tongue. Between the sniffles, the hiccups and all the guttural sounds and growls, the words “blood” and “eaten” slipped through.

His mother listened to him with increasingly big eyes, her eyebrows rising. When he was finished, she silently stared at both the human and her son. This only caused him to return to his lamentations with increased volume. Finally, she shrugged, then nodded.

“All right. I have to say, whenever I think I understand how you big folk work … This may take a while.”

“Don’t take too long. You would’t want me to have to look for alternatives so my potion doesn’t spoil, would you?”

“I’ll be back.”

With this the goblin mother hurried off into the night. The boy collapsed into a sad, snotty little heap, wiping his eyes. Any remaining energy he had had for posturing was thoroughly gone.

The witch closed the door again and went back to her cauldron.

“Are you certain, she really will be back and bring me what I asked for? She seemed quite determined to rescue you, didn’t she? Let’s you and I both hope for the best.”

She twirled her black hair around her fingers while she hummed.

“Oh, this is so sad, would you look at the colour it has turned? If your mother doesn’t turn up in the next few minutes, we will have to discuss options to save my potion.”

The boy whimpered.

At last the boot hit the door again. The witch opened and saw the goblin mother had returned, dragging a large green sack behind her.

“You came alone.”

“Why wouldn’t I? I am not afraid of you. Here’s what you asked for, now set him free!”

“No. First, this has to work. Then I will set him free. Keep your fingers crossed.”

She peered into the bag, then shook it and sniffed the contents.

“They seem to be of good quality. Well done!”

Both of the goblins shot her dirty looks.

She emptied the bag into her hand, then closed it into a fist. Winking at mother and son, she squeezed the fist hard above the cauldron. Red liquid oozed through her fingers. As soon as the first drops of it hit the bubbling surface, the mixture went calm and clear.

She took a cloth from a table and slowly scrubbed the remaining pulp from her hand. This did nothing to remove the red stain but she did not seem to care. She used the ladle to take a small sample sip from the pot, rolling it around in her mouth for a few tense seconds.

“This is perfect. Thank you very much for your cooperation!”

With a few strides she was at the cage which she waved her crimson hand in front of. This caused the lock to spring open and she picked the young creature out with her clean hand. She knelt down and gently released him.

All thoughts of pretend bravery forgotten he ran into his mother’s arms. However, he did not bury his hands in the folds of her cape quickly enough.

“What is this?” his mother demanded and pulled his hands out, palms up.

The tiny hands were dark red too. Upon further inspection, so were his lips and cheeks. The goblin mother looked up at the human with a solemn face.

“I am sorry, this is not going to happen again.”

“I don’t expect it to. At least not anytime soon.”

Both women nodded at each other. Meanwhile, the boy hung his head. He knew what was coming, when his mother grabbed him by his pointy ear and dragged him outside. He heard the big one calling after them:

“And don’t let me catch you eating my potion ingredients again, especially not the blood berries!”

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