When There Were Witches


A long long time ago, long before you or I, or our great grandparents, were born, the world was ruled by a powerful witch called Ermendrud.

Ermendrud was respected and feared because she saw everything and punished those who disobeyed her law. There was only one. For a whole millennium only one was needed. No one broke it. Well, one or two did, at the beginning, but when people saw what happened to them, they were careful, extremely careful, not to make the same mistake.
So life in those days was very harmonious. There were no wars. There was no murder. There was no stealing. There was only co-operation, and kindness, and health and happiness.

After a thousand years of being quite content to live alone, Ermendrud decided she wanted baby. So she went out into the poppy field to look for the tallest poppy. She found two that were very tall, more than a head taller than the rest. A red one and a yellow one. She watched them for several minutes but it was impossible to be sure which was the tallest, swaying in the wind as they were. Finally she settled on the red one, for red was her favourite colour. She placed a lock of her hair inside it, folded the petals on top and sealed it with a kiss.

The following morning, as soon as the sun rose, Ermendrud hurried back to the poppy field where she found not one, but two babies. They were both girls. One had bright red hair, the other’s was golden yellow. Ermendrud had never heard of a witch having twins before, and assumed that some of her hair must have been blown onto the yellow poppy after she’d left. She was very happy it had.

She bent down to kiss the red haired baby. “Welcome to the world baby Bertha,” she said. Then she kissed the yellow haired baby. “Welcome to the world baby Brynja.”

The little witch twins grew up happy and strong until, on their sixteenth birthday, their mother called them to her.
“This world is yours now, my loves,” she told them, “watch it carefully and remember the spell. My time is done.”
Tears pricked their eyes but they didn’t argue. They knew that if their mother said something was true, then it was. Ermendrud faded away in her sleep that night, leaving nothing behind but a handful of poppy seeds.

Autumn came and went. Winter settled in and seemed to last forever. The young witches, mired in grief, were not keeping an eye on the world. One day they were both hit with a short sharp pain between the eyes.

“Aaaagh!” Bertha rubbed her finger over the skin above her nose, “What was that?”

“The sharp pain!” yelled Brynja, jumping to her feet, “someone’s broken the law!”

“Oh no!”

“The spell! Mother said we have to do the spell!”

“But we’ve never done it before! I thought we’d be able to watch Mother do it …”

“Well no one broke the law while Mother was here, but now she’s gone they think they can get away with it. We’ve got to show them they can’t!”

“I don’t know …”

“Yes you do! She taught us a hundred times! We have to do it! If we don’t do it in the next four minutes it’ll be too late.”

Brynja rushed to her mother’s room for the ingredients. Bertha waited. Brynja went to the stream behind the house. Bertha followed. Brynja sprinkled lavender into the water, held a seed of Black-eyed Susan in each hand, and recited the spell.

“There is one who did not heed
The law of good and of good deed.
They broke the law, did something bad,
Selfish, cruel or making sad.
So find the one who did offend
And make their ill deed twist and bend
Back on them so they will feel it,
What they gave they now receive it.”

Brynja dropped the seeds into the water and looked at Bertha. “Did it work? D’you think it worked?”

Bertha scanned the sky. “I can’t see a rainbow.” She turned back to Brynja and shook her head.

Three and a half minutes had passed since the pain.

“Your hair!” Bertha pointed frantically, “you forgot your hair!” She grabbed the scissors from her apron pocket and passed them to Brynja.

Brynja cut a curl from her beautiful yellow hair and dropped it into the stream. A rainbow formed over the water for a few seconds, and then dissolved.

“You did it!” cried Bertha.

Brynja’s face flushed and she closed her eyes. She felt vibrant. Full of energy. Wide awake.
She smiled at her sister. “Yes I did.”


In the subsequent weeks a few more people broke the law and each time Brynja cast the spell to punish them. Before long the whole world knew that Brynja was as powerful as her mother and they took care not to break the law.
After six months of no one breaking the law, Brynja craved the euphoria that came with casting a spell.

“Maybe I should cast a different spell,” she wondered aloud.

“Why?” asked Bertha.

“Maybe something needs fixing. Or improving.”

Bertha shook her head. “You know what Mother used to say – you can’t improve on nature.”

“Well,” Brynja felt mischievous, “maybe I can.”

Bertha raised her eyebrows. “Mother couldn’t but you can?”

Brynja grinned. “I’ve found Mother’s spell book.”

“You have?” asked Bertha eagerly. “No, I don’t think you should use it. I don’t think she wanted us to … I mean, she never showed it to us when she was here.”

“You can’t draw any conclusions from that. Maybe she just didn’t get around to it.”

She should have known Bertha wouldn’t be on board. Bertha liked to play it safe. Bertha had no sense of adventure. What did Bertha know? She wasn’t even a real witch. You couldn’t call yourself a witch if you were too scared to cast a spell. Brynja wasn’t scared. Brynja was powerful. Brynja could definitely improve on nature!

When Bertha went outside to pick the apples, Brynja fetched the spell book, went into her bedroom and locked the door. She sat on the floor behind her bed and began leafing through the book. It was divided into sections. Colour Spells, Garden Spells, Healing Spells, Mood Spells and Discipline Spells. She decided to start at the beginning and successfully turned her fingernails green and her Spider Plant blue. They were only little spells so they didn’t give her quite the exhilaration she was looking for, but it was a nice little buzz. Next she decided to try something more challenging – changing the colour of her eyes.

She collected the necessary ingredients: a pinch of salt, a handful of earth, a single mint leaf and, since she wanted her eyes to be gold like her mother’s, two dandelion blooms. She put them all in the granite mortar and pounded them with the pestle. Then she scooped up the mixture with wet hands and smeared it around her neck.

Brynja laughed. “Yuck. Yuck yuck yuck yuck!” She took care not to drip any of the muddy sludge onto the book as she read the spell.

“I pick this colour from this bloom
To be my eyes’ new bright costume.
From birth t’was green behind my sight
Now make it gold while day becomes night.”

She closed her eyes and waited for the buzz, but none came. She went to the mirror and met the same green eyes she always met. In a rage of disappointment she picked up the pestle and threw it across the room, smashing the pink rose vase and spilling its contents onto the floor. Brynja let out a furious squeal and stomped into the bathroom to wash her neck.

That evening at supper, she was less than talkative.

“D’you want some more pie?” asked Bertha.

Brynja shook her head.

“All the more for me!” Bertha grinned as she cut another slice. “The apples are so good this year!”




“What’s the matter?”


“Something’s put you in a bad mood.”

“Fine. I’m in a bad mood.” Brynja continued to push her half-eaten pie around the plate.

Bertha finished her pie and proceeded to clear the table. “Are you going to eat that?”

Brynja sighed and leaned back in her chair. “No, you can take it.” She looked grumpily at Bertha and pushed the plate towards her.

“Thank you.” Bertha paused to look at her sister.


“Your eyes. They’re not green anymore.”

“They’re not?” Brynja was excited. “What colour are they?”

Bertha peered a little closer. “They’re pinkish … with gold around the edges. No, hang on, the gold is spreading.” Brynja tried not to blink. “The gold is nearly covering …. now they’re completely gold! Wow! Your eyes are just like Mother’s! I wonder if mine will change too!” She hurried to the bathroom to look in the mirror.

Brynja grinned. A new tingling sensation in her toes rose through her body. Through the window she noticed the red and orange sky. The sun had just set. Day was slipping into night and it reminded her of the words of the spell – while day becomes night. That’s why the colour didn’t change right away. It needed the sunset to finish the spell. The spell had worked!

Bertha came back into the room a little disappointed. “My eyes are still blue.”

Brynja smiled. “I can make them gold if you like. Or green or purple or any colour you want.”

You did it? With a spell?”

“Yes,” Brynja was glowing. “Don’t look so shocked. I am a witch after all. You should try it.”

“You’re not supposed to use magic for frivolous things.”

“Then why is there a section in the book for colour spells?” Brynja was determined not to let her sister spoil it.

“I don’t know. Maybe for things that need to be changed like … erm,”

“Changing the colour of your fingernails?” Brynja held up her hands to show her green nails. “Or maybe changing the colour of a plant?”

“You changed a plant?”

“Yeah. My Spider Plant’s blue now. It was easy.”

“How many spells have you done?”

“D’you want to see my Spider Plant?”

Bertha smiled nervously. “Erm, okay.”

The twins stayed up half the night changing the colour of everything in the house. They put different coloured floorboards in every room, with ceilings to match. They made the roof tiles blue to match the sky, and the outside walls green to match the grass. They changed the colours of their clothes and their bed sheets and both umbrellas. They tried to change their hair colours but that didn’t work. Their hair was essential to who they were. Bertha was red, Brynja was yellow. Nothing could change that.

A little after 4am they collapsed on Brynja’s bed, exhausted and happy.

“I see why you like doing it.” Bertha smiled, “It feels really nice.”

Really nice,” agreed Brynja, “but you’re right, it is a bit frivolous.” They both laughed. “Tomorrow, we should do spells from the Garden chapter!”


By the anniversary of their mother’s departure, the twins were not only proficient at many of the spells in the book, they had learned to make up their own. They wrote a spell to do the dishes, another to sweep the floor. They used magic to plant seeds and water them. They used magic to pick the fruit. They even used magic to cook the dinner. Whatever needed to be done when they didn’t feel like doing it, was done with magic. That left them with a lot of time on their hands.

“I’m bored,” said Brynja.

“Do some painting. It’s fun!” Bertha was painting a portrait of one of their frequent visitors, a pig called Alfred. “Alfred. Alfred, tt-tt-tt – look at me please darling, I’m trying to do your eyes.”

Brynja scrunched up her nose. “Naa. I don’t see the point. I could do it better with magic.”

“Well it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact I think it’s nicer if …”

Circumlinisti stibio verus Alfred!”

Alfred vanished.

Bertha gasped. “Alfred! … Where did he go?”

“Here he is!” Brynja, grinning, held up a beautifully framed painting of Alfred which was faultlessly realistic.

Bertha was stunned. “That’s amaz-ing … did he just blink?” Her sister laughed. “Is that Alfred? Did you turn him into a painting?!” Bertha did not think it was funny. “Change him back! You’re frightening him!”

“He’s fine.”

“Change him back! Now!”

Brynja muttered a few more words in Latin and Alfred was back on the armchair momentarily before dropping to the floor and leaving the house.

“How could you do that?” Bertha was really angry.

“He’ll be back tomorrow, you can finish your painting then.”

“I don’t care about the painting! How could you do that to Alfred? He must have been petrified! How would you like it if …?”

“Oh will you, chill, out!”

Bertha glared.

“I didn’t hurt him. He probably doesn’t even have any memory of it. He’s fine!” Brynja left the room and slammed the door behind her.

The following morning at breakfast the atmosphere was still frosty. Both witches ate their toast in silence.

Refresh!” Bertha opened the window.

Clausa fenestrae.” Brynja closed it.

Bertha scowled. “You’re such a … witch!”

“Ha! Good one!”

Bertha took another bite of toast and tried to take the high road. But the low road beckoned. “What’s with the Latin all of a sudden? You’re such a show off!”

Brynja smiled coldly. “The older the language, the stronger the magic. If you were a real witch you’d know that. But you’re too restrained. You deny yourself.” There was a wicked glint in her eye as she slid her chair back from the table. “It’s your loss.” And she left the room.

They didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the day. The next morning Brynja slept in so Bertha had breakfast on her own. Brynja had hers a couple of hours later which meant they weren’t ready for lunch at the same time, or dinner. The distance between them expanded. For many weeks Brynja cast spells from dawn ’til dusk. She indulged her every whim. With magic she brought musicians from their home towns to play concerts just for her. With magic she brought sweets and fabrics and toys and furniture, whatever she wanted, from all corners of the world.

Bertha meanwhile was lonely. Her sister’s abuse of magic had spoiled her enjoyment of it, so she filled her time doing things the way they used to do them. The way their mother had done them. By hand. Thinking Brynja would be more likely to see the error of her ways if they weren’t pointed out to her, Bertha tried to restrain all reproachful impulses. But it wasn’t easy.

“Where did you get that?”

“D’you like it?” Brynja swished around the kitchen in a jewelled ball gown.

“It’s not yours.”

“It is now,” Brynja smiled archly.

“You shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to you!”

Brynja was annoyed. “Revert!” The gown was replaced by her own clothes. “Why do you always have to spoil everything?” she complained. “Don’t you get it? There is no shouldn’t for me. I do what I want, when I want. That’s it. That’s what being a witch is.”

Bertha didn’t say any more. There was no point. She finally understood why her mother had kept the spell book from them. Magic had made Brynja arrogant and selfish. Magic had made her think she was better than everyone else.

Another three weeks went by before Bertha’s spirits were briefly lifted by a visit from Alfred. Though it had been several months since she’d seen him, she could tell he was troubled. With a swift and gentle magic word, “Speak,” she enabled him to tell her exactly what was on his mind. He warned her that Brynja was upsetting the balance of nature. For her own amusement, she had taken possession of the forest and filled it with plants and animals who didn’t belong there, forcing out those who had always called it home. He feared for the future and told her what she already knew – that Brynja must be stopped.

Bertha acknowledged what she had long been trying to deny. The sister she loved was gone. Replaced by a reckless witch who was only going to get worse. If it were anyone else, their behaviour would have been corrected by the spell. But Bertha had not been sent the pain when Brynja broke the law. The one law, do naught to others which, if done to thee, would cause thee pain, did not apply to witches.

Afraid she wouldn’t be powerful enough to go up against her sister, Bertha turned to her mother’s spell book. In its final chapter, Discipline Spells, she found the spell Ermendrud had taught them, To Punish A Law Breaker, and one other – A Last Resort. The spell’s introduction explained, with grisly illustrations, that a witch without self-control was the most dangerous threat a world could face and must be stopped at all costs. Bertha was sickened by the descriptions of horrors on other worlds where errant witches had gone unchecked. Only she could protect her world from such an outcome.

With heavy heart she collected the ingredients needed for the spell: a lock of Brynja’s hair from her mother’s locket, and a black rose. Then she went to find her sister.

Brynja was in the meadow, using magic to make a herd of deer run races for her amusement.

“Please don’t do that,” Bertha tried one more time to appeal to her sister’s better nature.

Brynja turned and scowled. “I want to do it, so I will!”

Bertha was sad. “You never used to be like this. Magic’s made you mean.”

“What do you know about magic? You’ve only just dipped your toe in the water. If you embraced it like I have you’d know how small your life is.”

“My life is full. It’s balanced. Yours is dangerous. You are dangerous, and if you don’t stop now, I’ll be forced to stop you.”

“Will you?” Brynja asked with a smirk.

“Yes,” said Bertha firmly, “if you won’t stop now I’ll stop you permanently.”

Brynja threw back her head and laughed. “I’m bored of listening to you now,” and, with a flourish, “Silence!”

In the second before Brynja’s spell hit her, Bertha rubbed a handful of her own hair against the black rose behind her back and whispered the magic word, “Sacrifice!” A moment later she was nothing but a scattering of poppy seeds in the grass.

“Nooo!” Brynja’s heart-rending cry filled the sky. “Bertha! Come back! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do it!” She dropped to her knees and sobbed. “Please Bertha, please come back. I’ll be good – I promise! Pleease Bertha, please come back!” With her prayer left unanswered, she tried desperately to resurrect Bertha with magic. “Revive! Come back! Resurrect! Veni domum! Revivesco!

Bertha, unable to go through with ending her sister’s life, had sacrificed herself in a way that she hoped would fill Brynja with such regret that she would, ever after, restrain her own excessive and frivolous use of magic. What she didn’t anticipate was just how damaging that regret would be.

Thinking that her own selfish and unnecessary abuse of magic had killed her sister, Brynja tore into the house in a violent rage against all magic.  She found the spell book and vented that rage.

“Mitte magicae libro in exsilium!”  In that moment the spell book was banished and with it all of Brynja’s magic.

She still felt the pain every time someone broke the law, but couldn’t cast the spell to punish them.  So the world was left to the mercy of people who no longer feared the wrath of a benevolent witch and often didn’t take care to do as they would be done by.  I’m sure you know what kind of a world that is.



When There Were Witches is included in the Little Chicken Book of Fairy Tales. Click on the pic!

Flower illustration in the title by Owantana of Pixabay, and Rose by Nika Akin of Pixabay.


vegan fairy tale

8 thoughts on “When There Were Witches

  1. Pingback: ‘When There Were Witches’ continues ….. | Violet's Vegan Comics

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