After Stephan crumbled into a pile of cockroaches and beetles, I fled home in need of my mother. My heart beat so hard that I was sure it would bounce the silver viper fang right off the chain around my neck, but instead the metal just grew warm against my skin and I sprinted up the high road toward our small house on the edge of town.
She was in the kitchen, kneading bread dough. Of all the things to be doing, did she have to be baking? The round loaves rising in the sun reminded me of the baker’s shop window, and how he’d be looking out of it in just a few hours, expecting his son to come rounding down the street. My face drained, white as the flour on her hands.
“Baby, what’s the matter?” She asked. “What happened by the river?”
“Stephan—” I stuttered.
“I thought you were going to stay away from him,” she said, turning back to her baking. “He’s a nasty boy and a bully.”
“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t do anything. He just — he just disappeared. Vanished without a trace, like the ground had just swallowed him up.”
The viper fang was hot against my skin. Mamma’s kneading stopped.
“What do you mean?”
“Stephan called me a freak, and then all of a sudden all these bugs just came up and…and…and ate him.”
She didn’t look mad. She didn’t look angry, either. Instead, she just looked at the colorful scarf I had wrapped around my neck. The one I had gotten two weeks earlier at my thirteenth birthday party from the Man with the Diamond Shoes.
“Right,” she said. “Go rinse off your legs change your dress — you’re muddy all over. We have an errand to run.”
An hour later, the bread was left to rise and we were walking down the high road. I was sure that we were heading back to the scene of Stephan’s demise so my mother could inspect it for herself. Maybe she would use some of those strange elven powers her sister crowed about to find out what exactly had happened and why.
But when we got to the top of the riverbank, Mamma didn’t ask which way we should go. Instead, she firmly took my hand and led me in the opposite direction of where Stephan had been torturing fish — past the bridge that acted as a boundary for where I was allowed to play, and into a wide bog dotted with stepping stones.
I put a foot out to step onto the first one, but Mamma yanked me back by my dress. She put her finger to her lips before turning to the bog and yelling: “Hanso Jon! Cretia Lilliput Thorne and her daughter seek your wisdom!”
The stones before us sank, and the bog’s surface crested and rippled as they reassembled into a straight walking path toward an island that had started to rise. My mother stepped out before me, leading the way down the path.
When we arrived at our destination, I turned back to see that the stones had sunk and scattered again. By the time I redirected my attention to my mother, she had cleared a chunk of moss from the center of the island to reveal a latch. Her housework-strong arms had no trouble lifting the trapdoor up, and she nodded her head toward the stairs.
“Watch your step,” she said.
Our half-elf dark vision lit the way as we inched down a flight of stairs and landed in a world all its own. Although I knew we were under the bog, there was a night sky above us, peppered with stars that glimmered. The stairs behind us had disappeared, too, so that we stood in the middle of a field, the breeze gently blowing the smell of imminent rain, blossoming honeysuckle, and fresh cut grass clippings into our faces.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Somewhere I never thought I’d have to come again,” Mamma said, and she set down the path toward a house that looked suspiciously like our own.
The door opened before we knocked, though no one stood there. My mother led me inside, and we found ourselves staring at the presumable owner. She was tall — not yet stooped with age, though her hair was white and wispy, and her skin was like a piece of the crinkled sepia paper the butcher used to wrap meat.
“Cretia Lilliput, as I live and wheeze,” the woman said with a strong chuckle that turned into a dry cough. “Never thought I’d see your face in the Underbog again. What is it this time? Has he left you yet?”
I turned to my mother, but her face was stone.
“He left a long time, Hanso Jon. But you already knew that. Just like you know I’m here because of my daughter.” Her hand gripped my shoulder. It was warm in temperature, but not in emotion.
“A little Lilliput!” Hanso squealed. “Well let me look at you properly, my girl!” My mother pushed me forward a little into the light as the old woman scanned me. “Eyes and hair like your mother, but a willowy build like your father, if I recall correctly.”
Without warning, she swooped in on me and pressed her hands to the sides of my head. My vision compressed, then expanded into a memory of my father letting me chase him on my three-year-old stubby legs along the river; a flash of my mother crying next to an empty bed; Ansel smiling, his eyes squinting in the sun; then the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes as he unwrapped the scarf and began to bleed from the gash in his neck.
“Ah,” Hanso said, pulling away. “I see. Tea, anyone?”
I hardly thought it was time for tea, but my mother didn’t object. We sat at the small wooden table in the corner as Hanso brought a tray over from the kitchen. Three china cups filled with pungent peach tea were already steaming on it.
“I know how much you like peach,” she turned to me. “This is my own special concoction.” I looked to my mother for her permission to drink and watched her lift her own cup to her mouth.
“So tell me about your birthday present,” Hanso said, nodding to the scarf. “It seems someone very powerful gave it to you.”
My eyes glanced at my mother, but something strange had happened: She was frozen in place, holding her tea millimeter away from her lips.
“She can’t hear you,” Hanso said with a wave. “And she won’t know we had this little discussion. So who’s the man with the bleeding neck? And why on earth did you think it was a good idea to take a gift he offered? I know you don’t come from smart stock, but even an idiot knows not to trust a man who’s clearly lost his head once or twice.”
It was hard to hold all the information in my head, so I just answered with a shrug while I tried to sort through everything I had learned since stepping foot outside the bog.
“Well, next time you should be a little smarter,” the woman said, sipping her own tea. “So just tell me — how do you know him?”
“He’s a magician in our village,” I said. “He does tricks like change the color of fire and make water taste like vinegar and nectar and stuff.”
“A charlatan act, surely,” Hanso said. “I can do that, too, but you don’t see me scrounging for gold on the streets with it. Watch.” She flicked a finger at my tea, and the smell shifted to tangy pomegranate. “So you know him from the village. What does he know about you?”
That I liked his scarf, I thought. That I didn’t mind talking to strangers, and sometimes I talked too much. That I felt belittled by the baker’s boy, and that I was about to turn 13 and felt like I should be considered far more grown up by now, especially since I towered over the other kids in the village.
I didn’t need to tell her any of this, though. She nodded like she had read my thoughts.
“Now what about the boy I saw smiling in your head?”
“Ansel?” I coughed on the pomegranate tea. “He’s just a boy.” A wonderful boy, I thought, and I’m sure she read that, too.
“Like mother, like daughter,” she sighed. “Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about beautiful boys. They’re only there for a meal, and once they get tired of your flavor, they go to find somewhere else to eat. And not even magic can fix that — just ask your mother.
“Speaking of which,” she said, and Mamma suddenly animated again.
“It appears that scarf around Little Lilliput’s neck has more than couture qualities,” Hanso said. “Do you mind if I examine it?”
I hadn’t removed it from around my neck — not at bed, not during baths — because I feared that my own neck would start to gush blood. But now that we were in the presence of a true sorceress (at least, I thought so), I felt safe to try it. Slowly I pulled it away, feeling the coolness of the house hit my skin.
“Yes, hand it here,” Hanso commanded, and I placed it like a large snake across her arms.
As the material touched her bare hands, the wrinkles in her face deepened; the creases caved in. The light draft inside the house blew her hair away like cotton off a dandelion, and she fell backward into the chair, shrinking until her chin was level with the tabletop. My mother gasped and reached for the scarf. Afraid of what the material could do to her, I pulled her back.
“It might hurt you too!” I yelled, taking it away from the mummy now sitting at the table. As I pulled it away, I saw that it had gotten longer — a thick stripe of metallic bronze knitting had affixed to the end.