I’d expected her leathery, age-spotted skin; her hunched posture causing her to stand only as high as my shoulder; her baggy dress, sewn from old flour sacks, and feet filthier than mine. But her intense blue-green eyes startled me, and I staggered back.
Morag advanced on me and I finally noticed her scent—a mixture of salt and seaweed. She continued to scrutinize me with her sea-foam eyes.
Perhaps this was what Pastor Quillin meant when he said in his sermons that we should “search our souls” more often. Perhaps the witch could see mine, and she was trying to form an opinion on it.
Her eyes narrowed. I stared back, wishing I could sink into the ground and disappear. Morag came so close, she had to tilt her chin up to keep looking at my face. Only the basket she carried created any space between us.
She shifted her eyes to the right where Liss was cowering behind a tree, before settling her gaze on me. “You must be Mureal’s girls. You frown like her—with your head tilted slightly to the left.” Her breath reeked of whiskey, like Da’s did on the rare night once or twice a year when he got to visit the tavern with his friends.
The smell made my stomach flip. “Aye, we’re her daughters.”
“Well then, welcome to my home.” Morag’s lips cracked open to reveal a mouth full of crooked, grayish teeth. She lifted her basket higher and twitched back the cloth covering.
I retreated farther. I didn’t want to see whatever was inside.
“Biscuit?” Morag chirped. She reached into the basket and pulled out a lumpy, black-bottomed piece of bread that didn’t look remotely like my favorite dessert.
“I …” My mind raced for a way to decline her offer without causing offense. “Thank you, but I have a dreadful stomachache.” It wasn’t a lie.
The witch’s smile widened. “There’s ginger jam in the house. That should settle your stomach. Now come in, come in.” She hobbled partway to her cottage, pausing to look over her shoulder at the trees. “You too, shy one.”
A noise between a sigh and a whimper issued from behind a nearby tree and Liss reappeared. “Why did she bother carrying the biscuits out of her house?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. Better not to dwell on it. And I’d not ask her, if I were you.” I studied the two long braids trailing down Morag’s back, so like Liss’s, though the witch’s were the color of tarnished silver and not done up nearly as neatly.
Morag opened her door, which squealed like its hinges had never been oiled, and soon the cottage’s dim interior cloaked her in shadows. She dropped her basket behind her to keep the door ajar.
“You’d think if she’s lived here for a few hundred years, she’d have hired someone to spruce up the place before now,” Liss muttered, squinting at a rotten spot in the floorboards. Saplings and vines sprouted from the eaves. “The inside is bound to be worse, but I suppose we’d best go in.”
With a lump in my throat, I entered the cottage, silently repeating my promise to Mam and Da. Liss followed on my heels, shutting the door once she had crossed the threshold.
I wished she hadn’t. A dwindling fire provided the only light in the one-room dwelling. Thick curtains covered the cottage’s only windows.
I leaned against the door at my back and groped with one hand until my fingers brushed the knob, which I held for extra security. If things turned too unpleasant, Liss and I could flee anytime we wanted.
Morag puttered in a corner to my left. Plates clinked as she took them down from a shelf.
“Oooh, what is that?” Liss dug her fingers into my arm as a musty, sour smell assaulted our noses.
I was amazed I hadn’t noticed it sooner. Perhaps the offending scent belonged to the witch, though she hadn’t smelled this awful outside. Maybe it was just the reek of decades of clutter.
Whatever the stench’s source, I would rather have dunked my head in a bucket of week-old fish than stand there for another moment breathing it in. “May we open the windows?” I asked in the dulcet tone that usually earned me an extra scone at Mrs. Kissack’s.
Morag sniggered as she flung plates carelessly onto her hulking monstrosity of a table. “You’re my new caretaker, aren’t you? Or is it the shy one?”
I gripped the doorknob tighter and tried to make out Morag’s features in spite of the deep shadows. By the time my eyes adjusted to the low light, the witch had turned away.
“I am. I’m Bridey. But you didn’t—”
“If you think the windows need to be opened, then open them, Apprentice Bridey.” Morag limped toward the hearth where a kettle hung over glowing embers.