Magic was something that everyone had. We were all born with it but had different quantity of it. Of course, I had been doubly blessed and sent off to be with grandma as soon as I could walk. Here at her cottage and gardens, I and the other apprentices learnt the crafts and what our lives really meant.
Though I had often wondered, late at night or whilst sweeping out the pig pens, what the other side of magic looked like. There were many different kinds but the Dark was the most fascinating. And despite what everyone thought, it wasn’t all evil. I doubt any of the rumours surrounding those people were true but unless you were on their side, you didn’t know.
Leaning on the broom I was daydreaming about the dark witches when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned, thinking I was about to be told off for not working but it was Elan.
She was dressed like me, in a plain blue working dress but she had on a leather apron which meant she had been working in the lab. On her head was a small, bronze tiara which marked her as head apprentice.
Elan began speaking slowly and moving her hands in a directional way.
I watched and waited. Trying to figure out what she wanted. Sometimes, I picked up what people were saying easily and other times I didn’t.
I had been born deaf. I could speak a little but preferred not to. I could lip read and hand signing was always useful. I had been trying to learn how to mind read but it was tricky.
Elan paused, signed and took out a notepad. We could all read and write. She wrote something then turned it to me and I read;
Go fetch a mandrake
I shook my head, the colour draining from my face.
Elan snatched the broom from me and hit me over the head with it. Straw and muck rained into my hair and headache like pain thumped into my skull.
I turned to get away from her and she began beating me with the broom. I ran off and I guess she must have been shouting after me because I saw the looks on the other girls faces.
All the way to the back of the garden, were the dreaded greenhouse was. Ivy covered the glass thickly, blocking out most of the light. The door too was covered but with a sharp tug the ivy would give way. Dead plants and broken pots were scattered around. A rubbish dump lay around here and wild roses grow amongst other things that had survived and planted themselves.
I crept up to the door which I know was stupid. I felt for the handle and slide the door back. Stale air crept out, hot with the heat of summer. I went in and didn’t look around. The layouts were all the same in each greenhouse, even the order of plants by ages. New seeds to the back, the oldest at the front and then a procession of growth in between.
The pots were black hard clay and sticking out of them were dark, thick leaves. Elan hadn’t told me which one to pick. I debated going back to ask her but decided to take a chance and picked not from the first group- the oldest- but from the middle and still fully grown.
Picking up one of the mandrakes, I walked carefully to the cottage and to the back door. I guess the girls who had been around before had told the others what I had been sent to to and they had all left the area. No one wanted to be around, even outside incase something happened the mandrake got loose.
The kitchen door was open but the room empty. A well stocked fire and going in the massive fireplace and pot was bubbling. Vegetables half cut lay on the table and a plate with the remains of a meal had also been abandoned like even the servants had known my task.
The door to the basement was the lab and I went slowly down the stairs which were lit with candles that dripped globs of red wax. I smelt burning of something harsh which I couldn’t put my finger on. I felt the steps more then seeing them and arrived at the last one before I knew it.
Lowering the mandrake which had been blocking my view. I saw the lab which was full of tables, bookcases and equipment then ahead of me was an open doorway. I saw a shadow go past and guessed everyone was in there.
I walked over and stood in the doorway. There was grandma, Elan and three other woman. The room was circler and empty but for the markings on the floor, the black candles and a bowl which was were the burning was coming from.
Elan waved me over and I walked around the markings on the floor, the bricks of the wall scraping my back. I held out the plant to her, but Elan shook her head and pointed me over to grandma. I went with dread filling me. I didn’t need a note telling me what I had to do as I could sense it.
Grandma handed me a dagger then floated across the floor. As one the witches put earmuffs on and pressed themselves near to the door. They watched me whilst their months carried on moving, I guessed saying the words to the spell they were casting.
I set the pot on the floor and grab all of the leaves of the mandrake in one hand. I didn’t want to do it. Why couldn’t they have picked someone else? I put one foot onto the lip of the pot and gritted my teeth. Of course, I knew why they always picked me; because I was deaf and less affected by the mandrakes’ evil crying.
I yanked as hard as I could, felt the soil give way and the leaves move up in my hand. I shut my eyes and kept pulling. The dagger shook in my other hand and I felt my fingers start to go numb.
I opened my eyes and saw that the top of the mandrake was coming up. Soil was raining down and the pot was cracking under the pressure. I grabbed tighter, knowing as soon as the mandrake felt air that it would try and borrow back down. Breaking the pot would help but would also send the mandrake into shock and that kind of scream could kill everyone.
I shut my eyes again, concentrated and pulled as if my life depended on it. I felt the pot and more soil giving way. Something brushed my skin and I opened my eyes to see a small branches trying to curl around me.
With the dagger I tapped the branch away and pulled the mandrake up the rest of the way. The horrible thing popped out. It was a dark brown colour, all wrinkled and covered in soil. Many branches that made up the limbs were thrashing around, dirt going everywhere and roots were desperately clinging to whatever they could, including myself.
It was hard to pick facial features out of the folds of flesh but I could just make out the screwed up eyes either side of the bulbous nose. The mouth was torn up in a terrifying scream showing off rows and rows of fangs.
I could hear the screaming. It rang in my head and made me feel dizzy. I was deaf, so the mandrake’s crying and screaming should have no effect on me but for some reason it did. Before I could feel anything else, I stepped into the circle and placed the mandrake into the bowl of burning herbs and green liquid.
I swung the dagger up and brought it down into the mandrake. I didn’t want to see if I had killed it or not. I fled the room, tripping over someone’s foot as I did so.
Laying sprawled across the cold lab floor, I felt the door shoving me further along as someone shut it behind me. I felt sick, dizzy and there was a ringing my head that I knew shouldn’t have been there.
I let time passed for awhile then got up on my hands and knees. I crawled to the stairs. Feeling like I was a ship on a stormy sea and at any moment I was going to be tossed into those monstrous waves. Reaching the stairs didn’t stop it. I climbed them like a baby for the first time and at the top I pushed opened the door and lay down on the warm kitchen floor.
I threw up, everything coming out of me and covering the floor. I was spinning like a child’s top and flying off into nothingness. After everything in my stomach was gone, I dry heaved until blood appeared.
I hugged myself, gulped in air and curled up on the floor. Tears washed my faces and the screaming in my head wouldn’t stop. I felt like I was dying.
Slowly, everything began to fade. My body felt better, though exhausted. I stretched out, feeling waves of sleep taking me.
Next time, Elan could get her own mandrake.
(Inspired by; https://fivedotoh.com/2020/05/11/fandangos-flash-fiction-challenge-65/ with thanks).