It was common knowledge that bread witches hated thunderstorms, and Maeve Fletcher was no different.
Don’t get her wrong—she didn’t mind the ill-tempered wind or the bone-chilling rain. Tucked inside her cottage, she even enjoyed the rolling thunder outside, like a one-sided conversation that took no effort on her part.
No, it was the humidity that bothered her. She had several loaves to enchant that night, and the warm, sticky air was going to ruin her nice crust.
So, when an urgent knock on the door interrupted her attempts to bake, Maeve sighed and tossed the dough onto the table. She was already tired, sticky, and covered in flour; what was one more problem?
“In a minute!” she called and wiped her hands on her apron. No doubt it was the village mayor with a last-minute request, or Helga the Heartbroken asking for another love spell. After all, Helga did get emotional on stormy nights like these.
But the knock came again, faster and harder this time.
“Bread witch of Fletcher, are you there?” A thin, high voice barely rose over the thunder. “I seek a favor!”
Maeve frowned. That was not the mayor, nor was it Helga. In fact, she couldn’t place the voice at all.
She opened the door. “What do you seek?” she asked, answering the stranger’s formal request with her own formal reply.
Her visitor was a woman, as thin and reedy as her voice suggested. The rain had soaked through her shawl and cap, and her dark curls pooled on her shoulders.
Maeve looked beyond the woman into the yard; she had tied up no horse and carried no lantern.
“How on earth did you get here?” she started—but the woman pushed past her into the warmth of the cottage.
“I seek a fortune,” she said quickly, icy puddles trailing behind her. “For my wedding.”
Maeve’s shoulders relaxed. Now that her visitor stood in the candlelight, she could tell who she was dealing with. She had seen the type often enough—the delicate face, the dark, wide eyes. The wedding lilies embroidered along the edge of her shawl.
A nervous bride from another village, seeking a last-minute reassurance before her wedding day.
“Very well,” she said, glancing at the dough in the kitchen. “I can put a loaf in now. Leave your shawl by the fire. I’ll need it for the spell.”
While the bride hung up the fabric, Maeve selected an unbaked boule, small and plain—ideal for fortune-telling in a pinch. She sprinkled it with salt, gave it a quick slash, and thrust it into the oven with her peel.
As the minutes passed, Maeve busied herself with cleaning, glancing now and then at the bride shivering by the fire. Her shawl had dried quickly, but the woman herself was as soaked as if she still stood in the rain. The crackling fire had no effect on her clothing or her hair—but her eyes were bright and determined, staring at the oven as if willing the bread to bake faster.
Maeve bit her lip. Perhaps the bride was stuck in a poor match? It wouldn’t be the first time she had seen such a thing. She decided to talk to the girl after cutting open the bread and telling her fortune. It would be easy to see problems in her future if the inside of the loaf had burnt, or if there were dark, gaping pockets of air.
“Where is the wedding?” Maeve asked, trying to make small talk while checking the bake.
“Just across the river,” the bride said, her voice distant. “In a field of flowers.”
Something about it sounded familiar to Maeve—but the bread had finished, and she couldn’t ask about it now. “Hand me the shawl,” she said. “Once the loaf rests, I can cut it and tell your fortune.”
The bride held out the shawl with cold fingers. Maeve wrapped the fabric around the warm loaf, imbuing it with a fortune spell as she went. The spell settled over the fabric like an invisible layer, slowly seeping into the bread through the embroidered lilies.
“Could you please hurry?” the bride begged. Her voice was warbled, as if she were speaking through water. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time.”
Maeve withheld a sigh and urged the magic along, pushing more of it into the fabric. She could almost feel the spell grumbling against her request, but it did as she said and cooled the bread quickly. Maeve unwrapped the shawl. It wouldn’t be her best bake, but fortune spells weren’t for eating anyway.
She took her nice bread knife, the one with the polished walnut handle, and cut through the middle of the loaf. Steam rose around the blade. The bride leaned in.
Maeve opened the loaf and gasped.
The bread had rotted on the inside. Green mold bloomed within its crumb, and maggots curled in and out of the holes. The loaf itself stank of decay and river water.
Maeve dropped the knife. She knew why the wedding sounded familiar now.
The wedding had already happened—exactly a year ago, in fact. Her village hadn’t stopped talking about it, so she knew the story by heart.
A lovely bride with dark hair was on her way to marry her childhood sweetheart. Eager to get to his farm on time, she crossed a river at an old bridge. But the moment she reached the middle of the river, the bridge failed her, sending her into the waters below. She never reached her sweetheart nor his field of flowers.
The bread crumbled in front of Maeve. There was no fortune to tell for a wedding that could never happen. There was nothing to say to a woman who could never wed.
Maeve looked up from the rotting loaf—but the bride was gone, leaving nothing but a puddle and a shawl embroidered with lilies.
Want more from R.K. Ashwick?
If you have a soft spot for anxious bards and possessed lutes, check out The Stray Spirit– out now in e-book and paperback.
If rival potion shops sounds magical to you, check out A Rival Most Vial– coming out March 2023. If you want a free short story set in this world, check out Potion Con.
And if you need even more stories, check out the Free Stories page!