Hilda’s Secret

by August Niehaus

“Bye, Mama!” Hilda squealed as she pushed out the door. Ylsa clung to her like a furry shadow, ducking to Hilda’s left side to avoid the satchel swinging at the girl’s side.

“Before dark, Hilda!” Even through the closed door, her mother’s voice boomed hoarsely, a result of the projection spell she’d cast on herself the night before at the music festival.

At age eleven, Hilda thought it was very improper for a mother to go make a fool of herself at the same parties as the rebellious kids from Hilda’s school. She was glad for a reason to run out into the woods with Ylsa, the girl and the cat alone, to explore and escape to other worlds through the characters they became.

Such freedom came at the cost of finding a few ingredients for her mother’s latest brew. Hilda considered the price fair, and she did like to dig in the dirt for garlic and mushrooms and climb trees for the tenderest leaves and the beeswax. Ylsa had a good nose for truffles and more than earned her keep by marking likely sites for Hilda to dig.

Hilda patted her satchel and hummed a three-note tune that summoned a pair of swallowtail butterflies for Ylsa to chase. Then she reached into the pouch and discarded the now-shriveled honeysuckle. As was safe and proper, the satchel was now empty, and she would only put into it the ingredients her mother had asked for.

She picked some wild lettuce to make the base of the spell and washed it twice in the creek. Ylsa pawed at the bank and meowed insistently, so Hilda dug there and found a pair of onions that had grown together.

“Very good luck,” she told Ylsa, rubbing between the kitten’s soft ears. Ylsa mewled and flicked her tail as if she understood, even though she was still so young she toddled on uneven ground.

Hilda put everything in her satchel and wandered through the woods with her head tilted back, trying to spot the right tree. The welcome hum of bees brought her attention to a tall aspen. She swung her satchel behind her and started to climb, but dropped down before she made it more than a few feet up and secured herself with a rope slung over a branch high enough to keep her off the ground if she fell.

In all things magic, safety was important, she reminded herself.

As she climbed towards the nest, unspooling the rope, Hilda pretended she was Mrs. Burgio, who, before she came to teach Hilda’s class, traveled South America jungles to find creatures long thought lost. Hilda loved Mrs. Burgio’s stories, and always played out how she would do on those kinds of adventures when she was alone in the woods.

She found the beehive, blew a sleeping spell through the cells, and took only what honey she needed. Then she carefully climbed down with only one hand, hugging the trunk with her legs, keeping the honey from mingling with the volatile red sap leaking from the aspen.

As she neared the ground, a splash of light in the needles made her shallow breath catch in her throat. Hilda threw the safety rope off its branch and dropped the last few feet, landing on her palms in the loam.

She cast around for the source of the reflection. Her hand closed around something cool and light about a third the size of her palm. Hilda sat back on her heels and blew away the dirt and ants that had followed the treasure off the ground.

It was as if she held a stone, but the stone was hollow, or at least when she tapped her fingernails on its tacky surface, it sounded hollow. She held it up to the sunlight trickling through the treetops and gasped as a complex pattern of cracks and imperfections caught and shattered and spun the light.

Hilda turned the stone around and around in her fingers, hypnotized by the way the light played at its center. Only Ylsa’s insistent mewl brought the girl’s attention back to the forest and the sharp wind nipping at her cheeks.

Hilda ruffled the cat between the ears and sorted through the satchel. She only had one more thing to find: wild dill. She knew of a patch across the creek, on the gentle slope of Prospect Hill. Hilda sent a nervous look at the sky, noting that the sun had a few more hours above the treeline. She slipped the strange stone into the satchel and took off down the slope, the cat at her heels.

A few precious moments later, she stood beside the stand of tall, spriggy plants, frantically pinching off choice specimens. There was such a thing as perfect dill leaves, and Hilda had an eye for it, but with the horizon dragging the sun out of the sky it was getting harder to make out the delicate flowers.

Hilda found one, two, three perfect samples and shoved them into the satchel. Now she caught glimpses of the quarter moon through the trees, and the sky was a deepening purple. She pushed to her feet and called to Ylsa. The cat came running, then shied as she came up towards the satchel. Hilda turned to scold Ylsa when she realized her bag was glowing.

Hilda shrieked and flung it off her shoulder, into the creek. The satchel darkened with the creek water, even as smoke curled thickly over the open flap and solidified into something tall and dark and broad-shouldered and mist-like, staring at Hilda and Ylsa with flat golden eyes…

Hello, came a voice in Hilda’s mind.

Out of the corner of her eye, Hilda saw Ylsa tilt her head too, whiskers held high. She assumed the cat could hear the strange being’s voice too.

“Hello,” Hilda said out loud, unsure of how strong her thoughts were projected.

I can hear you, the being replied. Your thoughts are very strong. How are you today?

Hilda crouched down beside Ylsa, nervously fussing with the fur between the cat’s ears. “Um, okay, I guess. I need to get home. Mama will punish me.”

That simply won’t do, the being said, and rushed at Hilda. She didn’t even have time to feel fear before it had wrapped her and Ylsa in its gentle, silky self and spirited them into a darkness so deep that Hilda knew what death felt like.

Then they all stood outside the cottage, on the side of the house with no windows.

Hilda leaned heavily against the cottage wall and dry-retched as the panic caught up with her. “What—where—”

I am sorry, Hilda, came the being’s gentle apology, I did not prepare you for the suddenness of my travel. I am glad I thought it unwise to take you through time as well.

An ugly thought dawned on Hilda and she tipped her chin up to meet the being’s flat gaze. “Where would you have taken me?”

The being did not answer, and Hilda knew the wish in her heart was all too clear.

“Where did you come from?” she asked instead, knowing that answer was safer.

You made the spell in your satchel, the being said, and Hilda detected surprise. I was born of the earth and the water, nurtured in the sweetness of honey.

“Oh no.” Hilda registered all at once that her satchel was still in the creek and the ingredients were probably no good now anyway. Her heart sank. At least it was Saturday, and on Saturdays, her mother took herself out to the club in town and wouldn’t be back until Hilda was long asleep.

Ylsa nudged Hilda’s palm with the crown of her head, eliciting a sigh from the girl. “Maybe if I stay out a little longer…”

In answer, the being settled into a puddle of fog, only its amber eyes intact.

 

***

 

Hilda and the being sat silently in the gloaming for about an hour while Hilda braided her hair and then braided the blades of grass in front of her. Eventually the cottage door creaked open and slammed, and her mother’s heeled footsteps clattered away. When everything was silent again, Hilda sought out those golden eyes.

“We can go inside,” she said.

The being rose from its puddle, resuming its ethereal form to tower over Hilda’s head. Why?

Hilda blinked, projecting her confusion.

Why should we go inside? This is the world that makes you happy. It gestured with its body in a way that encompassed the forest surrounding the cottage, and the fields and marshes and hills beyond.

Hilda clutched the satchel, guilt warming her fingers. “I—” The being wasn’t wrong, and that clawed at her heart. “Mama made me promise to be back before dark, and I wasn’t. And I didn’t bring her things. She’ll—” Hilda had to look away from those amber eyes, full of sympathy and silent accusation. “She won’t be able to make the protection spell for Madame Jendrock.”

Perhaps your mother should collect her own supplies.

“Mayyy-be,” Hilda said uncertainly, and the two syllables felt like a blasphemous betrayal. She whirled around and ran to the door, flinging it open before the being could stop her.

It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the darkness inside the house, and then she saw that the being was with her, blocking her way to her mother’s enchantment table. Hilda frowned.

Move, she projected with her whole self.

The being shivered, shimmered, and collapsed into a fist-sized ball on the floor. Hilda sighed and stepped over it, hearing it elongate again behind her. Amber eyes peered over her shoulder.

What are you looking for?

“Something. I don’t know. Anything that’ll make sure Mama doesn’t punish me for losing her supplies.” Hilda pawed through the disorganized drawers of dried herbs and citrus peels and aromatic spices, fighting back the tears welling in her eyes. “Oh goddess, Mama’s going to be so angry.”

You have chamomile and bay leaves. Mix them and give them to your mother in a glass with an amethyst. She will sleep and be refreshed, and forget that she ever asked you to fetch honey and dill for her.

Hilda turned around very slowly, stepping in a careful circle so as not to trip over her own feet. “Chamomile and bay and amethyst—makes a forgetting spell,” she said. “You want me to make Mama forget?”

The unwavering golden gaze left no room for uncertainty.

 

***

 

As usual, her mother came home the next morning late and disheveled, with hardly a glance for her offspring. Hilda crept to her mother’s bed and set the steaming mug there with a mewl of explanation about “hot tea, for your headache.”

Her mother grunted, sipped it, rolled over, and fell to snoring.

Hilda took herself and Ylsa and the being—which had draped itself over her shoulders like a warm, living scarf—down to the creek. She drew two buckets of fresh water; Hilda far preferred the taste of the spring to the brackish water in the pipes, which her mother sometimes forgot to pay for anyway.

Look, the being projected suddenly. Hilda spun towards the sound of its thoughts to see a smoothed-off stump, and on it a collection of green and gold—exactly the ingredients she’d needed the day before, in the proper amounts.

Hilda’s eyes widened and she ran to the stump, stuffing the items in her satchel. Then a thought struck her and she wrenched the being off her shoulders, thrusting it onto the flat surface of the stump.

“If you could make the things appear in the first place, why didn’t you? Why did you make me p-poison Mama?” Hilda stumbled over the word she didn’t want to admit out loud. Her anger was as much at herself as at the being, though she felt as if it had betrayed her with such a suggestion. “Forgetting spells can be very bad.”

For the first time, she could feel deep emotion in the being’s words. She should not be allowed to punish you. She needed to forget.

Hilda took a deep breath and let it out slowly, counting backwards from seven in her head. When she reached one, she said, “Don’t say such things. It isn’t right.”

It isn’t right that you are left responsible for her, the being insisted, changing shape suddenly so that it looked like there were two Ylsas in the forest at Hilda’s feet, one with flat golden eyes. You are a child, Hilda. You have the right to dream.

Hilda’s throat tightened and her chest began to heave, and she whirled away into a dead run, the kind of run to leave all thoughts behind. Soon the two cats caught up with her, saying nothing, and after a time Hilda was just a girl running through the woods on an adventure with her wordless companions—not a tragedy, not a casualty, just a girl with a ramrod spine.

 

***

 

Ylsa grew from kitten to cat as Hilda and the being slowly untangled her life. When Hilda’s mother told her to find supplies for her spells, Hilda and the being would prepare the proper ingredients alongside an airborne gentling spell of pollen and powdered tree moss. When Saturday afternoons lengthened into Saturday evenings, and Hilda’s mother prepared to go to the tavern, Hilda and the being made up sleeping draughts and serenity potions to encourage her to stay home and slumber.

As a result, unbeknownst to her, Hilda’s mother had more energy and power for her own spell-making, and her business boomed. New customers came in through word of mouth. At least one member of royalty came by the cottage herself with a very special request about foreign princes and arranged marriages, which Hilda’s mother fulfilled in a record two days.

Meanwhile, Hilda found herself scolded less and free to roam and play more. She collected everything her mother asked for with ease and found time to dabble in magic herself, casting tiny spells of her own invention to make Petyr glance her way at school, or to grow Ylsa to four times the cat’s normal size for an afternoon. The being always floated at her side, hid in her pocket, or surrounded her as a protective mist.

Despite this newfound joy, guilt weighed on Hilda, growing in strength each time she strayed from what her mother wanted of her—even when her mother smiled and glowed and looked well-rested afterwards. No matter the good it seemed to do the both of them, Hilda knew too much about magic to overlook the tremendous cost of such changes.

On a chilly fall evening, when she returned home, Hilda walked into her room to find her mother, back turned to the door. She tried to cover her mouth in time, but Hilda’s startled gasp escaped her and her mother whirled around.

Some of the madness that had left her mother’s countenance over the last year had returned; it sharpened the glint in her eyes and set of her jaw. Hilda’s gaze fell to her mother’s hand and what was clutched in it, and her whole being shuddered.

“Oh no,” Hilda whispered.

“Oh yes,” her mother said. She raised the amber above her head and peered at it, much like Hilda had on that first day, but with a sneer skewing her lips. “Is this what let you do it?”

Hilda’s mother’s voice shook with anger, and something cracked inside of Hilda at the sound of that cowardly warble. She drew herself up to her full height. In her dress pocket, the being curled into a tighter ball.

“Do what, Mama?” Hilda snapped. “Keep you from going to parties like a teenager? Make sure you remember to actually make the spells people paid you for? Protect you from yourself so you don’t forget to come home and take care of me?”

She felt her voice growing shriller and shriller but she couldn’t stop herself. The being exploded out of her pocket, towering to its full height over Hilda’s mother.

The blood drained from the woman’s face as she stared the being down. The being’s voice thundered in Hilda’s mind; from her mother’s expression, it was clear she could hear it too.

YOU MAY NOT STEAL HILDA’S HAPPINESS FROM HER.

The being was terrifying. But Hilda’s mother was a witch. She drew herself up to her full imposing height and threw her fingers out in front of her, muttering in the back of her throat.

Hilda recognized the words and lunged. She grabbed her mother’s wrist with both hands, but her mother was incredibly strong, and kept hold of the amber while she blasted it with her destruction spell.

Blue sparks crackled across the amber’s surface and it began to melt into a puddle in Hilda’s mother’s palm. The being began to melt too, in the same way as the amber—and so did Hilda’s mother.

Hilda screamed and let go of her mother. Her mother screamed too. The being gathered what was left of its substance, just enough to light a flame in its flat golden eyes, a flame that flickered and began to dim as the amber continued melting.

I WILL NOT LET YOU KEEP HER CAPTIVE.

“Hilda,” her mother gasped, “please. Take my hand. Free…me.”

Take the amber, Hilda, the being said weakly, I am nothing without the amber.

Hilda, lying on the floor of her room, squeezed her eyes shut.

A soft meow sounded beside her head, and Hilda felt Ylsa paw at her shoulder. She opened her eyes and focused on the cat’s steady, eternal green gaze.

“Yes,” Hilda said. She rolled onto all fours and pushed herself into a flying leap.

With one hand, she grabbed her mother’s hand. With the other, she grabbed the amber.

And she pressed them together with all of her might and all of her will and all of her magic.

What was left of Hilda’s mother and what remained of the being rose off the ground and drew together—reluctantly, as their spirits fought for dominance, but inch by inch Hilda’s sheer force of will combined them.

Hilda had to shield her eyes at the blinding light that overcame both figures, and when she was finally able to look again, she saw there was a misty ball the size of both her fists together hovering over her bedroom floor. Its eyes weren’t amber anymore, but rather the same pale blue as Hilda’s mother’s eyes had been.

A heavy sense of loss and freedom swept over Hilda, and she sank to her knees beside the being who was once a forest spirit summoned by her desperate spell, and who was once—perhaps was now more than ever—her mother.

“Hi, Mama,” Hilda whispered.

Forest stock image thanks to Dracoart-Stock!