Ayalah waited for Lumi outside the palace gates, as instructed, with some trepidation. A small part of her was excited: she’d finally discovered a family member and was going to live with her. Wasn’t this what she wanted? What she’d dreamed of? But mostly she felt wary and anxious. She didn’t know this woman any better than she knew any other stranger; how could she be sure Lumi was trustworthy and sincere? This was the kind of thing parents always warned their children about. She chewed at her nails, remembering the old Miltinian story of Millie and The Old Witch, which she’d heard Gavin tell time and again in his rumbling voice, the lights dimmed and the sounds from outside seeping in through the thin walls.
Once, long ago, there lived a little girl named Millie. Millie was a sweet, round-faced orphan whose parents had died of the plague when Millie was still a baby. Millie was taken in by a street fiddler, who fed her and clothed her until she was old enough to earn money on her own.
As Millie grew, the fiddler discovered that she had a voice like a nightingale, and he refused to work anymore, for her talent was so much greater than his and he was jealous of it. She began to stand on street corners and sing to the passersby, and they would toss money in her upturned hands or at her feet. In this way she was able to support herself and the fiddler until, when she was still yet a girl, the fiddler died.
Millie loved to sing, and she loved the attention it brought her. So, even though she no longer needed to bring money home for the fiddler, she continued to stand on street corners to perform. The people who heard her adored her, and they told their friends about her, and soon lots of people were coming by just to hear her sing.
One summer morning, an old witch was passing through Millie’s hometown, and she heard the heavenly notes of Millie’s voice from afar. A voice like that could not be ignored; the witch went over to join the crowd and watch Millie’s performance. She was so enchanted, she stood and watched Millie all day and all night, and she observed with envy the piles of money accumulating at Millie’s feet as she sang. When Millie collected her earnings and headed home, the old witch followed her and discovered that she was an orphan who lived alone.
The next day, the old witch again watched Millie perform all day and all night, and she followed her home once more to be sure Millie had no family and no friends. On the third day, the witch waited until Millie was about to retire for the night, and then the witch approached her.
“Excuse me,” the witch said. “I’m looking for my granddaughter, a girl named Millie.” The witch had learned Millie’s name from overhearing the townsfolk discuss the girl’s beautiful voice. “Do you know her? I’ve been away for a long, long time, but I returned as soon as I heard about her parents, the poor dears. Millie would be around your age, I would think.”
“Are you?” The witch smiled. “But of course, how could I miss it? You look just like your mother, my beloved daughter. Why,” she gasped, “we must be each other’s only family in the world.”
Millie was delighted. She had a grandmother!
“I’m afraid I can’t offer you a home, Millie, as I have none,” the old witch said sadly.
“But I have a home! You can stay with me,” Millie said.
“I can? But,” the witch said, looking sorrowful, “my poor shoes are falling apart and my feet hurt. How will I get to the house?”
Millie looked down at the money she carried. “I’ll buy you new shoes!”
“What a sweet child you are!”
The witch went home with Millie, and, using Millie’s earnings, she bought new shoes, a new coat, all new clothes, and even new furniture for the house. After a few weeks had gone by, she demanded that Millie turn over her earnings to the witch, for what did a young girl know about saving money? Millie did as she was told, and the witch let her keep only enough so that she could feed herself each day.
If Millie complained that she was hungry, the witch would say, “Poor dear! I would give you some of my food, but I skipped supper today already so that you could eat.”
If Millie requested new garments for herself, the witch would say, “We simply don’t have the money. I spent it all to buy this new armchair so that you could sit comfortably in it once you get home at night.”
But the witch began to get plump, and then fat, and soon she was so enormous, she could barely even move. Millie was forced to clean the house, buy the food, and feed the old witch—and the old witch ate a lot. Millie didn’t even have the time or energy to sing anymore.
Now if Millie complained of hunger, the old witch would say, “But dear, look how much bigger I am than you. I need to eat much more food than you do just to survive. In fact, for a person my size, I’m practically starving myself just so that you can eat each day.” Millie didn’t want her grandmother to go hungry, so she would nod and say thank you and go back to her chores.
One winter’s day, Millie began to sneeze, and then to cough. Within a few days, she had a fever and was shivering from head to toe. She couldn’t get out of bed to tend to the house or the old witch, and the old witch couldn’t get out of her own bed to tend to Millie. Millie was thin and weak from the months of going hungry, and the blankets on her bed were thin and tattered. Her illness worsened quickly, and within a few days she died.
The old witch cried. Who would feed her and care for her now? Who would earn money? And, worst of all, Millie’s death meant that the witch could never hear that lovely singing voice again. The witch began to grow weak, with no food or water to sustain her. She called for help, but nobody heard her. And finally, the witch died, too.
The moral of the story, of course, was to be wary of strangers and to never trust evil old witches. The story was probably irrelevant now, but, Ayalah wondered, what if Lumi was simply a modern version of the old witch? What if she was trying to get close to Ayalah for her money, or for the prestige? It couldn’t be that difficult to notice that Ayalah had the coloring of a native Naralian, despite arriving only recently from Miltinoth. Surely Lumi could have realized this and played on Ayalah’s weakness, her desperate desire for family of her own.
Ayalah suddenly felt panicked. This was a terrible idea. What if this woman—
“You made it!”
Lumi was suddenly standing before her.