The potion smelled like vomit. Rotting garbage. Carrion left too long to spoil in the summer sun.
Bartholomeo couldn’t quite decide.
Whatever it was, it was certainly disgusting. One of the worst smells in memory. Bartholomeo immediately pulled the vial away from his assaulted nostrils, shoving the cork back in.
The syrupy liquid was the color of post-drinking-binge urine. Tiny green particles sat in the yellow molasses, like insects trapped in prehistoric amber.
Bartholomeo scowled. After a final moment of consideration, he vigorously shook his head.
“Nope. Mm-mmm, I don’t like it.” Bartholomeo said at last.
“What do you mean, little one?” The crone replied in a sweet, condescending tone. She sat across the table, still as a statue
“Please don’t ‘little one’ me, madame.” Bartholomeo snapped in annoyance, continuing to hold out the vial. “And, please, take it. I’m sorry, but this was a mistake. The smell is just-and, and, and I don’t know what’s in it, because it is-I mean, it just looks-no. No, you can’t expect-I’m sorry, this has to be a mistake.”
His eyes scanned the other wares on display in the old woman’s large covered wagon: dusty leather-bound tomes, a dried out monkey’s paw, something that looked like a jar of eyeballs in pickling fluid. There were also trinkets made of crystal, totems carved from wood and bone. Everything was haphazardly placed, seemingly at random, on the shelves and tables in the tiny covered wagon.
Bartholomeo sighed. If the old gypsy wasn’t a witch, she certainly knew how to give off the impression.
“You hesitate. That is as expected.” the crone purred. Her accent was thick and guttural, like the snarling of a wild animal. All growls and hard consonants. “You are not magically inclined and this potion is out of your capability to understand, so of course you are wary. But young man, even without a sensitivity to the arcane, you must feel it.”
Bartholomeo looked at the vial, still in his outstretched hand. “Feel? Feel what?”
“That what you are holding is magical. It is something that cannot be explained or rationalized by the laws of this world.”
“I don’t…I mean, what assurances do-”
Her liver-spotted claw of a hand shot out and gripped his arm suddenly. It took everything in Bartholomeo’s power to keep from crying out as the crone leaned in and hissed.
“Assurances? Little man, what do I care for assurances? You come into my wagon and ask if you there is magic to make you bigger. Stronger. To give you confidence. You are a worm, so of course you want to be these things, and this…what you hold in your frail little girl’s hand, is the answer!”
“Stop it!” Bartholomeo squeaked. “Please! Stop insulting me and, and just take it back already!”
“Can you even grasp the concept magic, tiny sir? Not the sleight-of-hand practiced by sidewalk charlatans in the city, but actual magic? The building blocks of reality? The energy that flows through all things?”
Bartholomeo shook his head slowly. Even though the crone’s eyes were milky and clouded, he felt extremely uneasy, as if she were boring holes into his brain.
“Magic was not meant for humans to ever understand. It is too ancient. Seeking to understand how magic works would be like a church mouse seeking to cook a magnificent three course meal. Impossible. Magic has built our world, but it is not of this world. Magic is raw power. It is unlimited potential. It is the infinite unknowable truth of the universe, and I have captured it! Yes, I have sucked it out of the air, and the roots, and the earth, and the water. I have bottled it, distilled it, and shaped it to suit one purpose, and you hold it in front of you like so much rubbish. Fool! You don’t like the smell? I can’t be bothered making the infinite unknowable truth of the universe smell like strawberries and baby’s farts!”
“Now, see here-”
“Forgive my sister, good sir!”
Bartholomeo turned to see another old woman standing in the doorway of the wagon. She was just as ugly and wretched as the one he was talking to. She dropped the basket of herbs she had been collecting outside and swooped in like a bird of prey. Before he knew it, Bartholomeo found this old woman’s hands clutching his shoulders. Trapped on both sides, he felt like a piece of meat about to be devoured by two hungry predators.
“Please, sir, my dear sister is not of sound mind, as of late. This summer heat often agitates her and puts her in foul mood.”
“Don’t speak for me, Florinda!” the first crone snarled, her rotten teeth grinding in anger. “I refuse to let another city-dwelling praklova demean what we do! Shav’roska! Nielisch aun dashlinkov!”
Bartholomeo threw up his arms with a great cry.
“Please! Please don’t!”
“Dear sir, fear not! She raves in the language of our ancestors, she isn’t casting a spell on you.”
“You’d know it if I was! Dumpfkleish.”
“Peace, Lucinda! Sir, please, come up from under the table, now. Let’s resume discussion with calm and civil voices. Lucinda, sister, brew us some tea, if you would. The lavender one, with some honey.”
Lucinda muttered as she hobbled away.
“Now, sir, from what I was able to catch, you seek to…”
“To change…myself, that is.” Bartholomeo croaked, his throat suddenly dry. Was it his imagination, or had the wagon become unbearably stuffy?
“Why would you want to do that, I wonder?”
“Do you know the village where I’m from? Down river from here?”
“No, dear, I’m afraid my sister and I never stay in one place for too long. We come and go with the moon, and I do believe that it is our first time in the area.”
“I see. Um, well, Blackwood is named because it was the center of a rather nasty…explosion.”
“A what, now?”
“I’m sorry. A…fire. Decades ago. It was before I was born. My grandfather was the alderman at the time, you see. He was one of the only survivors. Most of the people. They all died.”
“And, well, it seems that the place has been…cursed, ever since. My family, specifically.”
“And why would you say that?”
“I am in line to be alderman. My eighteenth birthday is tomorrow. I am to go on a hunt, to celebrate my manhood. But, well, I am afeared. I had three older brothers, you see. When father died, Elias was to inherit. But on his birthday hunt, his stallion threw him and his neck snapped. Then there was Peytar. On his birthday hunt, he was gored by the stag he was hunting. Next was Winthrop. He decided he would break the curse by not even going on a birthday hunt.”
“I thought so, as well. I was still just fourteen, and already terrified of what the villagers started calling The Von Richtmann Curse. But Winthrop, he assured me that he would break the curse. He would have been a wonderful alderman. Winthrop the Wise.”
“He choked to death on a turkey bone.”
“I am not a believer of magic, dear madame.” At this point, the second crone, Lucinda, had returned with a mug of warm tea. Bartholomeo accepted it with shaking hands. “Thank you. But-well, you see, I have grown to manhood with this…shadow…hanging over my head. Like a shroud. My death shroud, just waiting to fall.”
The two crones remained quiet at this.
“The birthday hunt has always been a Von Richtmann tradition. But grandfather is afraid that he will lose me if I go on the hunt. Which is why I need this magic potion. I must be strong enough to stay on my horse. I must be fast enough to sidestep a charging stag. I must be wise and alert, to avoid choking to death, or falling ill, or being crushed by a chandelier, and avoid any other horrible death The Von Richtmann Curse might bring. Do you understand? I do not believe in magic. But I believe that…something…wants to end my family.”
Florinda sighed. It was the tired and resigned exhalation of a soul who had lived too long, and seen too much. Lucinda said nothing.
“Your grandfather. What is he like?” Florinda asked quietly.
“Maximillian Von Richtmann…was a force of nature. Stern, but fair. He made the village thrive. But, that was years ago. He has not been himself since the fire. I fear he will never be himself again.”
“Go home, young master. Take the potion with you, and drink it at sundown.” Lucinda finally said. “It will change you. And at midnight, my sister and I will toast to your long and happy life.”
When Bartholomeo had left, the crones sat quietly in their wagon. Outside, the wind rustled through the branches. Nearby a wolf howled in the forest.
Finally, Lucinda spoke.
“Max is alive.”
“Surprising.” Florinda responded.
“Do you think he’ll be surprised to see us again?”
Florinda smiled. “I don’t see why? We haven’t aged a day!”
A hoarse cackling sound erupted from the wagon as the two crones laughed.
A shaggy wolf skulked at the edge of the forest, growling at the covered wagon sitting at the side of the road. The flaps of the wagon opened and out stepped two ravishingly beautiful women.
The wolf fell silent and watched them flash smiles that would make any man’s heart melt.
“What a beautiful night for a stroll.” One of the women giggled.
“If only Camilla were here.” The second beauty cooed.
“Let us finish this for our sister. For Camilla.” The first shapely woman tucked a wicked looking dagger into a sheath hidden beneath her cloak.
“For Camilla.” They set off down the path.
Somewhere in the distance, the town bell was ringing, and the screams of terrified village folk filled the air. The wolf was gone.
A short story about a boy who visits a pair of old gypsies to obtain a magic potion. When he realizes that the potion seems mundane and may not be magical at all, he must question how far he is willing to go to believe the two women. Why he needs the potion, and what he wants to gain by drinking it are secrets he hopes desperately to keep. But when dealing with these two old crones, he comes to realize that the quick road to happiness offered by magic may come with a price that he may not be able to pay.