This story was inspired by a Tumblr post. If you like it, I also have other stories, although most of them are not inspired by Tumblr posts.
"There's something I have to tell you... I really should have told you before," she said, wringing her hands. "It's... it's about the baby."
"What about her?" he asked.
"Well - well, when I was a girl -"
This was backwards. Completely backwards. Forget dramatic timing. I opened the door and swept in.
"Witch!" the father exclaimed.
"...That's not my witch," said the mother.
"You had a witch, too? I had to promise her -" he said, pointing at me, "the baby - darling, I didn't realize she'd collect, I didn't think she could possibly really want the baby, I thought she was trying to frighten me -"
"But - but I had a witch - a different witch -"
"Oh, both of you shut up," I growled. "Yes, I'm actually collecting, what would I have let you get away with my singing roses for if you had nothing I wanted? I could have kept you for a pet or a statue, and instead I'm taking the child. The other witch has apparently declined to appear -"
"I most certainly have not!" exclaimed a fourth voice behind me. "Goodness, this is a mess, isn't it? D'you suppose that you could just relinquish your claim - after all, surely the mother's right is stronger than the father's, what with the three quarters of a year involved in the baby-making and such - I'll trade you a singing rosebush if that's what your business is about? I haven't got one but I know a -"
"Oh, nightshade," I hissed. "I don't want another rosebush, I have enough rosebushes at this time, the man stole a few cuttings years ago. I want the baby."
"Well, so do I, and I've been promised it just the same if not better. Is it a boy or a girl, dear?" the newcomer asked the mother.
"...Girl," whimpered the mother.
"Well, the little munchkin is clearly not staying here, whatever she's doing," the other witch said. She was younger than me, by at least a few years, no gray in her dark gold hair, dressed scarcely more like a witch than a milkmaid in dusty rose, no hat, no robes over the dress. She made a preposterous figure and I would have said she was no witch at all if the mother of the child didn't seem to recognize her. "We'll go figure this out somewhere besides your front hall, shall we? And you can get on with having another one without quite such a mess of owings on it."
"If you'd settle for the secondborn," I suggested.
"No, no, it'd never work," said the other witch. "Letting alone the possibility that they never want to repeat the process! You're more than welcome to wait -"
"Look here, I made my deal when the boy was twelve, I certainly have prior claim, she's got to be five years younger than he is -"
"And she's the one who carried the babe, isn't she, it's hardly my fault that this boy paid more than ten minutes' attention to her and you were able to track them down!"
"Weren't you going to have this argument somewhere else," said the father weakly. Probably hoping we'd duel, kill each other, and leave the little family in peace, bargain or no bargain.
"If you think I'm going to let you carry off the child -" I began.
"You can hold her, but I'm not letting you out of my sight," the other witch said. "Go on then."
I rolled my eyes and scooped up the infant out of the cradle. And promptly dropped a smoke globe, which brought me straight home. If she was fool enough to let me be the one to lay hands on the contested baby, so be it -
And she was standing in my living room.
"Tut, tut, aren't we impolite. We haven't resolved the question. Oh, this place is nice, isn't it?"
"How did you do that?" I asked.
"I'm a witch."
"So the hell am I -"
"Language! There's little ears about!" cooed the intruder.
"You still seem under the impression that you're going to have any say in what happens to the owner of those little ears. You may have followed me home, but now you're in my domain -"
"Yes, mind your hospitality obligations."
"I didn't invite you in!"
"Of course you did."
I went back over the sequence of events and - yes, I sort of had. Implicit agreement to the rules of engagement that included continuing our little custody battle somewhere else. She'd let me choose the ground, and then followed me right to it. I should have gone somewhere else.
"Look," I said, "I need this baby. I don't have any others lined up, I want to turn her into my apprentice, and the sidereal arrangements I need to seal the deal are only coming up once in the next thirty years, six months from now, too soon to trawl the continent for needy pregnant peasants. What would it take to get you to go away?"
"I'm not going away," said the other witch.
"Look, let's do this civilly. I'm Millicent. What's your name?"
I looked up at the ceiling. I needed to string some more garlic. The baby fussed in my arms and I started swaying to soothe her.
"Orawne. What do you even want her for?"
"Same thing. I haven't got a time limit, but I do have to stick to the first child I pick. I'm not giving her up any more than you are."
"Oh, for heaven's sake -"
"But I can share."
I stared at Millicent.
"You can share?"
"I can. Look, I haven't got a permanent residence at the moment -"
"You were going to raise a baby apprentice while homeless?" I exclaimed.
"While nomadic, thank you, and with plenty of people who have roofs and owe favors! But you've got lots of room. I'll take a spare bed and save you childrearing time and she can learn both sorts of witching."
"You're mad. You're completely -"
"I'm sure you do, but -"
"I will do all of the laundry." This with a significant look at the baby in my arms.
"Upstairs, first door on your left," I sighed. "I keep early hours, don't clatter around after nine in the evening unless the baby needs something."
"Thank you, Orawne," smiled Millicent.
"Don't mention it," I growled.
"We're going to need to name her," she said.
"I was thinking Linda."
"What in the world kind of witch is named Linda? For that matter, what kind of witch name is Millicent?" I said.
"Oh, I come from a long line of witches with ordinary names. I'll settle for middle name placement if you'll let her switch what she goes by later should she like to."
"Vercari Linda," I mused.
"Oh, and I must insist on using my last name. Apprentice reasons."
"...Vercari Linda what, then?"
"Murk. Acceptably witchy?"
"Yes. Fine. Whatever."
"We're going to get along famously, Orawne, I just know it," beamed Millicent.
She did the laundry. She made pie. Vercari liked the milky potion she fixed up better than mine. Meanwhile, I made preparations for what I was going to need to properly dedicate the baby as my apprentice - Millicent didn't seem to need any such ritual, and it made me nervous about whether mine would take, properly, with a claim on her like that. But it was too late to trawl the continent for peasants willing to bargain away their imminent children. It was hard enough to find someone who'd make the promise when they weren't already expecting.
"Honestly, what were you planning to do with a baby and all this work to do?" Millicent asked, rocking Vercari while I made straw figurines to burn.
"Not sleep much," I muttered.
"Do you even like babies?"
"They're all right. I won't be able to teach her much until she's four or so, maybe three if she's precocious. She's still cute, just - this isn't the part I was planning for as much."
"I'll have a bit of a head start, then, I have a rattle that she'll be able to get some use out of soon, not to accomplish much, just to train the right reflexes."
"How soon?" I asked. Straw crunched in my hand.
"After you've dedicated her. Don't worry, Orawne, I'm not going to kidnap her out from under you, we agreed on sharing, didn't we? I keep my promises."
"She likes you more. She -"
"I hold her more. In six months you'll be done with your straw... things... and you'll -"
"Watch her wave around your magic rattle. What kind of magic do you do, anyhow?"
"I don't know if the tradition strictly has a name. I'm from the westlands, anyway."
"And in the westlands you can follow other witches' smoke globes and make magic rattles to train babies' reflexes when they're less than a year old and make better potions?"
"But I couldn't actually use a smoke globe, let alone make one," countered Millicent. "We're differently specialized, I'm hardly omnipotent."
"The baby will have both kinds," Millicent smiled.
"...That's why you were willing to share, is it? And to do all the laundry to get it done amicably. You want your apprentice to be two kinds of witch."
"Your apprentice too. And splitting the childcare doesn't hurt. I get up in the evening and you get up in the morning when she's crying, I do the cooking and the laundry but you're still giving her baths -"
"I have to dunk her in herb water anyway. It just makes sense."
"Are you saying you'll stop giving her baths when she's six months old?"
"There you go."
Vercari was, as babies go, fairly ordinary. She developed brown hair, when she grew any at all - Millicent commented that it looked like mine, though mine was half gone gray from some combination of age and potion exposure - and her eyes stayed blue even past the point where they'd have darkened if they were going to. Like Millicent's. One could almost imagine that she was in fact our baby, despite the fact that this was on several levels impossible.
Millicent looked over the text of my dedication ritual once I'd written it out with all the names and star signs and so on filled in.
"This says that you're giving her to the stars and taking her from the moon. What's that supposed to mean?"
I looked up. "What does it sound like?"
"I don't know, I don't touch astronomical mumbo-jumbo. What does it mean?"
Well, it wasn't like Millicent would be able to use any of my spells even if I told her, since no one had dedicated her as an appropriately astronomical mumbo-jumboed apprentice when she was little. "If Vercari was a boy I'd be taking him from the sun instead, does that help?"
"...My kind of witch can't have children. Can yours? What are you doing getting them from mundanes, if you could just have the homemade kind?"
"My kind of witch can," said Millicent softly. "I can't."
"But Vercari won't be able to?"
"No. Unless you have a way of giving her back to the moon after she's taken what she needs from the stars."
"Well, I can see if there's something to be done, anyway."
"So, wait - Millicent - were you homemade or taken?"
"Homemade, if that's what you call it. There's entire witch villages in the westlands."
"And you're out here with a half-share in my taken baby because the moon wouldn't have you to begin with."
"If that's how you want to put it." She didn't sound like she wanted to discuss it.
I let it drop.
"Aside from the rattle to - train her reflexes - what is it you're going to be doing with her?" I asked, while I was feeding Vercari milky potion and Millicent was rolling out biscuit dough.
"Well, the rattle will be it for about a year, but then simple illusions are next. Then since she's a firstborn she can have a familiar, probably I'll find her a kitten or a fox pup; I don't have a familiar because I have an older brother."
"What are they for?"
"They aren't exactly for anything. Well, status symbols, if you're in a witch village, but they aren't much practical use. Don't you have anything just for fun?"
Garden and chickens for food and potion ingredients, telescope for stargazing and divination, a self-operating spinning wheel and loom to make my own robes and have something to trade to those mundanes who didn't do anything that gave me leave to extort them, nothing really for fun. "No."
"Poor Orawne. Who taught you, anyway?"
"She died. Dueling, five years ago. I wouldn't have called her fun. I had a decent enough childhood, anyway."
"Took you when you were a baby?"
"I was two, actually, and she bought me outright. Story was that my mother was in a bind when my father died."
"And your mundane mother named you 'Orawne', did she?"
"I presume not, but I can't remember what it was instead. I like my name. I wouldn't want to be called Millicent."
"I like my name too," said Millicent tartly.
"Much good may it do you. While you're looking for a way to let the moon have her back one day maybe I'll look for a way to make her familiar able earn its keep, shall I?"
"Lest she grow up complaining 'Orawne doesn't understand the point of my dearest bestest friend!', yes, by all means, work out a spell to teach cats to read or serve as divinatory focuses or whatever it is you'd have one do."
"You think Vercari's going to grow up calling me 'Orawne', do you?"
"As opposed to?"
Millicent blinked at me.
"There are two of us," she pointed out.
"We are in my house, and the stars will have her before you give her that magic rattle -"
"So I suppose," Millicent interrupted, "that I'll be Mummy or something like that, and that should be clear enough when she's screaming for one or the other across the garden."
"Oh. All right."
"Hear that, Vercari dear, Mother says I'm Mummy and she can have the stiff formal name," cooed Millicent.
Millicent finished painting egg onto the last circle of dough and put the biscuits in the oven.
I was stitching together a little dress for Vercari, so that Millicent could more easily keep up with the laundry and because it was a break from making straw things to burn. Millicent poked her head into the sewing room.
"What are you going to start teaching her, when she's four or what have you?"
"Constellations. She'll have to learn to read, too. Potionmaking has to wait for good motor control."
"But what do you do with the constellations?"
"Learn to interpret them. Much easier to make enchanted objects if you know when to do it, though actually artificing will have to come later, again."
"Oh! The spinning wheel and loom are working by themselves?"
"Of course they are. You didn't think I was operating them myself all day long, did you?"
"I did," admitted Millicent. "I was very impressed."
I snorted. "I do most of my magic with magic things. And some potions."
"I suppose that suits you."
"Better than having a pointless animal following me around and following someone else's smoke globe into their house. And making illusions."
"Illusions can be very useful if you know how to use them. And obviously so can following certain witches home."
"Obviously," I said. "What were you planning to do if I'd been living with someone?"
"Does your kind of witch even get married?"
"Not to anyone who assumes that pregnancy is the intended outcome," I said dryly. "But I could have had a lover or a co-apprentice I was living with or another taken child - though if I'd already taken one I'd have been less insistent about this one, I suppose - or could have still been living with my teacher."
"I cannot a bit imagine you with a lover. You'd chase him off with a stick."
Millicent blinked at me, and then either Vercari made a noise or she decided of her own accord to flee the room.
"I was married once," Millicent told me, while I was giving Vercari her bath.
"Oh, I'd been assuming you found out the moon wouldn't have you by magic."
"I don't even know how I'd do that by magic. No."
"Is that why you aren't married anymore?"
"Well, it's more complicated than - yes. It is."
"More fool him. You make very good scones."
Millicent laughed, and I almost smiled.
"He didn't want to go to the trouble of taking a baby. It's a little frowned on, in the westlands, taking babies."
"If you can homemake them I suppose it would seem like a lot of hassle, and unnecessarily antagonize the mundanes, who never seem to think ahead how they'll feel about the deals when they come due..."
"But if you can't homemake them -"
"Well, he can. He has done. Our handfast expired and he married someone else and they have a baby and another on the way. My brother wrote."
"You've been receiving mail at my house?"
"I live here, don't I?"
"I told my brother about Vercari Linda. He might come visit."
"I can introduce them out in the front garden if you don't want him past the threshold."
"...If you don't mind, Orawne, I would like to introduce our daughter to her uncle, at some point, and later grandparents too, and if you do mind, I would still like it and will still try to manage it."
I rinsed off the baby. "Fine."
"If," I continued, "you use the fancy illusion magic to make it at least tricky and ideally impossible for any of these - people - to find my house without express invitations. I don't want the place crawling with - people."
"Oh! Oh, of course - they wouldn't show up unexpectedly anyway, but if - yes, certainly, I'll make the whole place look like a bit of forest and if they show up when I'm not expecting them they'll get lost, will that do?"
"Yes. Thank you."
Vercari was all dried off. I threw the towel at Millicent's head and fetched the baby's nightdress.
When we'd had Vercari for a month and four days, Millicent's brother came by. He didn't dress any more like a witch than she did, although instead of her favored pink dresses he seemed to prefer to garb himself like a mundane merchant tinker or something, all over pockets and straps and dangling tools and herbs like he didn't know how to enchant a belt pouch. Perhaps he didn't, at that. He held the baby, he had trouble pronouncing her first name, he wanted to know who exactly I was, he found the situation with the conflicting claims on her very funny, he hugged his sister, he left. It was in all relatively painless.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Millicent asked, leading me through her illusion trees and managing to open the front door out of thin air. I rather liked the effect. Very secluded.
"We are all still alive," I acknowledged.
"Do you really have no friends or family at all?"
"Besides you and Vercari?"
"Yes," she said, turning a little pink. "Besides."
I shrugged. "There are people I talk to regularly in the nearest towns who buy my fabric or extra zucchini. People don't visit."
"I must be a terrible lifestyle disruption."
"You help with Vercari. You bake. You do the laundry. I don't mind you."
"I wouldn't want you to mind me."
"Yes, that was clearly in the forefront of your mind when you originally proposed moving in to resolve our dispute, the sincere hope that I would not mind you -"
"I needed Vercari. I can have more than one child and teach them all but if I ever give up a child I meant to keep I can't claim any more. But it's been - a while since then."
"And you did wheedle your way in offering pastry and chore details. I am not complaining," I said.
"It's only - I wouldn't like it if getting Vercari meant antagonizing you. I'd rather we all - fit neatly."
"Well, I'm certainly not going to kick you out because the moon won't have you or some such nonsense," I said, putting Vercari down for a nap.
"Earlier," said Millicent, "the other week, you said -"
"Did I say something that had you thinking we were not fitting neatly...?"
Millicent shook her head. "Never mind."
"If you insist." I prodded the fireplace, determined that it didn't need another log, and went to where I was accumulating my pile of straw things.
"I mean it's a general question, and I wouldn't want to be misinterpreted."
"Well, when I was saying I couldn't picture you with a lover..."
"Eh, you were probably right. I don't meet people, let alone attract them."
"And you said, 'Him?'"
"I have no intention of trying to homemake babies. It sounds unappealing even if I could."
"But it doesn't necessarily follow that..."
"I - don't know."
"Then I can hardly answer your general question, can I."
Millicent fussed with her hair. "In my village what with the taking of babies so out of fashion and -"
"I'm not going to render Vercari interested in acquiring lady lovers as an adult if she weren't already heading that way," I said, question suddenly clicking. "It depends on the individual witch. My teacher dated men, when she dated anyone at all. I'm just, individually, fortunate that I don't find myself a mundane expected to marry some - male, for mundane reasons."
"...Oh," said Millicent, sounding dissatisfied with this answer.
"I don't even know how I'd go about doing such a thing on purpose," I went on. "It would be much harder than changing her hair color or something."
"I wouldn't know either... I like her hair color. Leave it."
"I wasn't planning to change it."
I made straw things. Millicent started a chicken pot pie.
"Her name is growing on me," Millicent said.
"I thought about it for a long time. It would have been Corlesen if she'd been a boy," I said. I was trying Millicent's milky potion recipe. It was like mine, but the ratios were different. Our general potionmaking seemed similar enough that I ought to be able to copy it.
"What do you think of 'Linda', now?"
"It's all right for a middle name. It still isn't very witchy. Maybe it's witchy for the westlands."
"Same thing. I suppose the sound of it would be all right if mundanes didn't use it."
"My parents sometimes call me Lissy."
"If they were going to call you Lissy why did they name you Millicent?"
"It's a nickname. You've heard of those, haven't you?"
"Yes. They just don't make a lot of sense."
"It's for - layers of closeness. The people in town call me Miss Murk, you call me Millicent, my parents call me Lissy."
"Are you saying you want me to call you Miss Murk?"
"No. But you could call me Lissy."
I considered this.
"Lissy," I said.
"Just trying it out."
"I suppose it makes sense."
"Can I help you make the straw things?" Lissy asked.
"I'm... not actually sure," I said. "If we were both my kind of witch and we'd taken Vercari together you could."
"What happens if I can't after all?"
"Then yours won't burn when the time comes, and the fire might not be high enough."
"Is there a way to find out? Your fingers look like they hurt."
"A little. I could check the stars, see if they have anything to say about it."
"I'd like to help," Lissy said earnestly.
"You are helping. You do the laundry, you cook, you mind Vercari while I'm making them."
"But right now the laundry is done and there's meatballs in the oven and Vercari's asleep."
"I'll go have a look at the sky, if you're that bored."
"It's not boredom. Just - it looks uncomfortable, doing that many of them. And you seem worried about the deadline, sometimes."
"I have to wait thirty years if I miss it. And I wouldn't have Vercari anymore, would I?"
"If I didn't dedicate her? Wouldn't you whisk her away to your little westlands village with my claim expired?"
"No," exclaimed Lissy. "I mean, wouldn't you still want her - don't you like her?"
"Yes, but -"
"But nothing, I wouldn't take her from you even if she weren't going to - belong to the stars too. You aren't the stars."
"So in this scenario you and Vercari would go on living here and she'd be a westlands kind of witch, complete with rattle and pointless animal and charming illusions, and I'd be...?"
"...All right. But I want to make the deadline regardless."
"Of course. Go check."
I went up to the balcony with my telescope and searched the sky. It had been a while since I'd divined anything, too busy with preparations of straw things and dedication ritual details.
I slipped into meditative focus, and swung the telescope around to focus on different constellations until the answer came to me.
I went back down and took Lissy's hands in mine and showed her how to weave the simplest kind of straw thing.
She beamed at me.
With Lissy's help the straw things were all made by the time Vercari was four months old. There was suddenly a lot more time, then, although Vercari could fill it pretty effectively, wanting to be fed or walked around or changed.
Sometimes, of course, the baby slept.
"When did you know that if you were ever going to have a lover it would be a woman?"
"I don't think it even crossed my mind till I was, oh, nineteen, to list characteristics for such an improbable person, I just didn't meet enough people... once it occurred to me to ask myself the question, it was obvious. Why?"
Lissy beat the eggs in her mixing bowl harder.
"You were married for reasons other than the desire for a homemade baby, weren't you? I'd hope?"
"Oh. Yes. I liked him, before he - before. Yes."
"I suppose if you hadn't, the expiration of the handfasting would be a mercy..."
"I don't think I'm quite - look - with your kind of witches no one cares, right? Since the moon won't have you it doesn't matter?"
"So you might have heard of - is there anyone who likes both?"
"Sure. My teacher's co-prentice, he did, she told me."
"Are you worrying about Vercari when she grows up, again? I guess it might matter if you find out how to give her back to the moon without undoing her star gift."
"It really doesn't matter to me if she has no apprentices or makes them or takes them or whatever she likes," Millicent said.
"Good, because again, I can't change who she'd want to bring up or not bring up her own apprentices with."
"I don't expect you to."
"What's for dinner?"
Lissy didn't go on.
"Lissy, what is it?"
"I - it's -"
"Is it about Vercari...?"
"Have I been waking you up earlier than you like in the mornings? Are you out of leavening? Is your entire extended family going to descend on my house tomorrow morning -"
"No, no, no -"
"Are you having second thoughts about staying here -"
"I'm not going to guess, apparently, Lissy."
Lissy poured the eggs into the pan. They hissed.
"I'm afraid," she said. "That you won't react well - that if you react badly enough you'll want me to leave."
"Nightshade, Lissy, if it's that bad - what do you want me to do, promise that you can borrow Vercari to teach her on alternate days no matter what you say?"
Lissy nudged the edge of the incipient omelette with her turner. Apparently it wasn't ready to have whatever was next befall it yet. "Maybe promise that she won't be a - a pawn, if it comes to that."
"I'll promise I'll put her welfare first. I want a doubly witched apprentice as much as you do. Besides, you already told me that if I missed her deadline you'd stay here with her."
"Okay. Thank you."
"I'm still afraid."
"I'm a witch, not a monster."
Lissy sighed. She sprinkled cheese onto the omelette.
"Look, Lissy, whatever this is, is obviously important. Can I help?"
"I like you," she blurted. "I might be in love with you."
And then she turned away and folded the omelette, but not before I watched her cheeks turn beet red.
I waited politely until she slid the omelette onto a plate before I kissed her.
We heaped the straw things around the firebreak around the basket.
I took Vercari from the moon, which was turned away new; I burned the straw around her and when it was consumed and the air was smoky and dark I read the rest of her dedication, and our eyes adjusted, and she gazed up at the stars until one dislodged itself from the sky and fell and fell and fell and landed, tiny and cool and still bright, in her hand. It winked out, leaving only a faint white mark.
"Is that it?" Lissy murmured beside me.
"That's it," I said, stepping over the circle of straw ash to scoop up our child from her basket. "The star is hers, now. If you work out a way to make the moon take her back it won't leave her regardless, I think."
"I think I'll be able to figure something out," Lissy said, and she stroked Vercari's hair and then leaned over her and kissed me.
"Cousin says stars don't do the star things."
"Cousin is only one kind of witch, Vercari. He doesn't know about the star things."
"But he said I lied!"
"Well, he's not very well educated, then, is he?"
"When I have apprentices they will know about stars and rattles."
"Yes, they will. Lucky them!"
"Just like me! Lucky me."
"Mummy is talking to her brother. If you go find her maybe she'll tell your cousin's daddy to scold him for saying you lied."
"Thank you for star things."
"You're welcome, Vercari."
"Aaaand thank you for the extra Mummy too. Because I like doing pictures too!"
"You're very welcome, Vercari."