Hours passed. Van squinted against sunshine slanting through the forest green. His feet hurt in his soft city shoes. His tummy grumbled. Far away, surely it was almost lunchtime. Compounding his misery, Findil no longer broke trail. Behind Van, he and Morley gibbered over open-faced sandwiches. The city far behind was renowned for such delectable sandwiches. That instant, Van sniffed wood smoke. He stumbled from the trees into full sunshine. Onto a forest road. A caravan, gaudy as market day, before his blinking eyes. And three plain-dressed women in straw wigs bending about their smoky fire.
The caravan lacked wheels. It rested on logs and a bucket. Van frowned. He caught the back end of Morley and Findil's nattering.
"Very unconvincing witches, Findil."
"T'isn't rabbit stew they're simmering, trust my elfen nose."
The eldest-seeming perhaps-witch straightened up by the fire. Her fine face apparent beneath the straw wig. She stared, fists locked on her hips. "Look, sisters. Old man. A boy. An...elf. Where d'you suppose they're off to?"
"Our adventure. Avert your ears, Findil. Perhaps you're right. We shall pass this hazard by. Away, Van. Good day, ladies."
"LADIES, is it? Tremble, sisters. Old man's trying his magic against us."
The trio laughed. Sweet music to Van's ear.
"HE stole our wheels." The next straw-wigged sister, also fine-faced, pointed at Findil. "While we slept."
Morley sighed. Findil shrugged his shoulders, shook his head. "Not me. No, Morley."
"He's pretty." Her eyes bright as polished hazelnuts, the third straw-wigged sister, the youngest, peered directly at Van from behind the other two. "Such fine clothes. Must be one of those renaissance boys. Imagine. Books. And learning. A bath every week. And he blushes — O' I'm all goose-pimply."
Van's ears hotly joined his blushing face. Never had any girl confessed to goose-pimply-ness before him. She was right enough, too. Yesterday, he had tipped from his coracle while eeling. That counted as this week's bath. And he always dreamed of a life grander, a career in the city. The modern city, with its urban planning and gutters. The fragrant city now far away as his dream.
THWAACK. Morley had slapped him. Now Morley was smiling. "You're welcome. Bewitching you the...uh...harmless maiden was. We must away."
"MORLEY, is it?" The eldest. "Burn any fortress windmills recently? Hmmm, MORLEY?
"Two." Morley then muttered, "Findil. Make for the trees. See we don't trip over Van."
"Not hearing. Not a word..."
The middle sister cackled, "Paid too much."
The eldest strode forward. "Boy's prettier than the last you kidnapped. Morley."
"BACK — you...beauty." Morley levelled his staff-end at her, halted her. "Call yourselves witches? HAH. You're not even hags. Straw wigs. And charcoal smeared upon fair cheek. Really."
"We know our letters and numbers, Morley the not-quite."
Lunging, the middle sister side-stepped her elder. "We can count. Without counting toes."
"Drove us away. They didn't like us counting." The youngest, joining her sisters.
Her bright eyes, though, set on Van's. He shook his head. "I don't understand. All this name-calling."
"You are who and what you believe you are." Morley twirled his staff overhead, and finished with one end of it threatening the eldest sister's throat. "Lad, I'm busy, convincing these lovely three ladies they are such."
Findil. "Believe, and you can move mountains. Most powerful magic there is."
"Ever imagine your...adventures ending so, old tavern boaster? Undone by the very kid you kidnapped."
Findil tugged Van along. "Van's unused to magic, Morley. We can but lose here."
"Share our lunch...elf? Stone soup."
Morley's levelled staff twitched. "Flank them, Findil. Bring Van."
"You're old, never-was soldier."
"Your...elf. Worst trick of all." The middle sister lunged, rolled under Morley's staff, popped up wigless, lustrous brown hair loose about her transfixingly un-witchlike face. She reached for Findil, snatched off his ears.
Morley swung. But the girl had rolled back to her sisters. And was replacing the wig on her head. The youngest stared, eyes very wide, and hands over her mouth.
Morley shook his staff at them. "BACK. Away with your foul witchcraft."
The elder girls grinned, clapped hands.
"...EARS MORLEY MY EARS..."
Hands trembling about his head, Findil had crumpled beside Van. Van dared a glance. Then a long stare. No blood. Ears. In place. Man's ears. Perhaps slightly pointed.
The eldest laughed. "Elf playing a man playing an elf."
"On his ma's side. Givvus our wheels!"
"Ow." Real tears streamed over Findil's face.
"O' maimed poor Findil." Morley dipped his staff. He raised it ready once more. "Speak your intention. Which kind of witches you three be."