"You're back!" Gretel rose from her stool, alerted to Mildread's arrival by the scuffing and groaning noises as she hobbled into the dingy hovel. "How was your flight?"
"Turbulent. Not to mention uncomfortable." Mildread rubbed her backside and scanned the makeshift shelves, wondering if she had anything for witch stick rump.
"It was nice of Peggatty to give you a lift. Did you like Witch-Haven?"
"It has its attractions. Peace and quiet, for one thing," she commented pointedly. Then in a raised voice, "And no beardy men telling you what to do!"
"Speaking of which, I took several messages while you were away..."
"Never mind that. We've more important things to discuss." She pointed her cane at Gretel, slurping with visible glee. "You have... an admirer!"
"If you're talking about Folly, I already know." The maid went to sit down again.
"Not a joker, featherbrain. A king!"
Gretel gasped. "Mildread, are you serious?"
"Deadly! Met him on my travels, I did – a poor lonely mon-artch in need of a wife. So I told him all about you. Showed him what you look like..."
"You didn't." Her young companion suddenly inflated. "DON'T tell me you've been using my shape AGAIN!!"
"Only to show him! Only to show him!" Mildread insisted. "And he likes what he sees."
"He does?" Gretel's rage soon melted away, overwhelmed by pleasure and curiosity.
"Not even a heart of stone could resist those charms!" The crone gave a high-pitched cackle. "Wants to marry you, he does."
Gretel could barely contain herself. "Oh, Mildread! I shall be a queen, just like I've always wanted!" She held out her skirt and twirled dreamily. "You must tell me everything. What's he like?"
"Tall – ever so tall. And ever so brave. A bit on the grey side..." she admitted.
"Oh, I don't mind. I bet it makes him look distinguished." Gretel could already picture the two of them side by side, dressed in their wedding finery. "And where is his kingdom? Is it far from here?"
"Far, very far – the Rift of Angar. But where there's a will, there's a way. I'll fly you there myself if I have to."
"But Mildread, you don't know how."
She made a dismissive sound. "If that potty pyromaniac can do it, how hard can it be?" The tremble in her voice seemed to go unnoticed, thankfully.
Gretel had begun to pace back and forth. "Of course, if I'm to be a bride – let alone a queen – then I'll need to be even more beautiful. I can't go looking like any old dungeon maid."
"Don't you fret. Mildread will take care of it."
"Can you really do that?" Her hopeful tone was tempered with uncertainty, having seen little evidence of Mildread's expertise in this area.
"Full of arcane knowledge, I am. We'll have your face fixed in no time."
A flicker of dismay. "Does my face need fixing?"
"The odd tweak, perhaps. Your nose, obviously," said the witch, peering down her own formidable beak. "And your sticky-out ears."
"Oh. Yes. We must do something about those," said Gretel, almost entirely disguising the internal horror.
"Plenty of things we can try," Mildread assured her. "By the time I've finished, you won't look right next to anyone except His Majesty!"
The mention of her future husband was all it took to have her jumping on the spot, clapping and squealing. "Oh, I can't wait! Let's start tomorrow. Then I can show Bumptious on his tea break." Her eyes lit up anew. "I must go and tell him the news! Goodbye!" Without waiting for a reply, she picked up her skirt and rushed out the door.
Mildread followed to check she was gone. "A fine pair they're going to make," she crowed to herself. "A perfect match, if I do say so myself. They'll have at least a couple of brain cells between them!" Now it was her turn to bounce and laugh.