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from the April 2020 issue

Firstclaw

This twist on a traditional fairy tale features a reclusive witch and an inventive young woman.


A war raged on for years. Witches had little choice but to protect themselves. Some gave up magic and passed as humans; others fled to the mountains and severed all contact with villages and towns. Still others, hoping for compensation, became castle witches and fought alongside lords of the realm at the battlefront. Through all of the fighting, the witches’ ways of coping were as varied as they were.

Then the war ended, and for twenty years, peace reigned. Green returned to the battle-scarred meadows and fields, and in castle cities and the surrounding hamlets and towns, people resumed a quiet life.

Castle witches grew scarce. Oral histories of the war seldom mentioned them; all the times when they had used magic to bring lightning or a flood upon an enemy were simply seen as times when the heavens had favored the victors. Perhaps the royal families, knights, and soldiers felt ashamed to have relied on witches. In any case, most people forgot that witches wield enough power to decide a war.

Now, many witches were living as humans and performing magic in secret—or living as mountain eccentrics who sold herbal remedies and cast the occasional spell. Those who performed spells openly were called witches, but in their hearts, people did not believe in their magic. They went to the witches for relief, and if their headaches improved or they found the objects they had lost, well, they were grateful.

*

The witch who was known as Firstclaw, from the country of the golden bear with six legs, lived deep in the mountains and made her living by casting spells. At a certain point, young women with love problems began sneaking off to see her. So many did so, in fact, that a path was worn across her mountain.

Firstclaw’s love spells were rumored to be unusually effective. In return for them, she required the supplicants to hand over their finest treasures. They understood that the love they sought would come in exchange for something very precious to them, and that this love would be deep indeed. The wealthy ones surrendered their most valuable gems, and the poor ones offered the loveliest items they owned. Whether the treasure was a ruby ring or a faded ribbon, Firstclaw’s spell always did its job.

*

Late one night, as a cold wind blew, Firstclaw heard a knock. It was faint, as if the wind had driven a leaf or some other small object at her door.

She sat up in bed, craning her neck and doubting her ears. “Who’s there?”

“Open the door, I beg you!” said a voice. “I have never walked so far. My legs ache.” The thin voice faltered.

“Very well.” Firstclaw crawled out of bed.

When she opened the door, she saw a young woman in a fine silk dress and black mantle who was fighting to draw breath. She seemed never to have climbed a mountain before; indeed, she seemed not to have ventured outside except in a horse-drawn carriage. She had fallen many times, leaving her mantle soiled, her soft leather shoes split, and her feet bleeding. More than a love spell, what she seemed to need was a salve for cuts.

“Come in, my child.”

The visitor practically fell in. She shivered, clearly chilled to the bone.

Firstclaw stirred the embers in the fire and added wood. When a log took, bright flames lit the visitor’s figure more clearly.

“Heavens, you’re the princess!”

The front of the young woman’s mantle bore an embroidered crest: a golden bear with six legs. It was the official crest of the realm, which depicted the first claw on the bear’s front paw as especially long and sharp. While flying flags with this crest, the princess’s father had prevailed in numerous battles, his courage becoming the stuff of legend.

Is she like him? Firstclaw peered at the princess’s tangle of blond hair, her cold and trembling lips, and her blue eyes, which showed her to be deep in thought. The princess seemed like, and also quite unlike, the king. Firstclaw thought that she remembered his face, but memory can blur.

“Wash your feet and rub some salve into them. It’s in the blue jar on the shelf.” Firstclaw motioned with her chin toward the kitchen well.

The princess, who seemed unused to such chores, drew water and somehow washed and salved her feet.

“How are you now?” Firstclaw asked her.

“Better. Thank you,” the princess replied. For the first time, she smiled.

Firstclaw inhaled sharply. That smile was the king’s. Yes, she has his face. Firstclaw found herself gaping at the princess, who in turn gazed at her.

The princess seemed younger than Firstclaw first assumed, and not without her charms. She seemed the sort of person who, when she discovered something of interest to her, would enjoy it to the full. Her pupils flashed with mischief, and she seemed ready to laugh at any moment.

As the princess surely expected, Firstclaw asked her, “So, what brings you here at this time of night?”

“I came for a love spell,” the princess replied, as if so much should be obvious.

“I see. And who do you love?” Firstclaw exaggerated her curiosity. She had heard a false note in the princess’s speech. The young woman seemed to be playing a part of some kind. Was she lying?

“I love the prince of the land of the soaring falcon,” the princess said, blushing. Seeing the color rise to the princess’s cheeks, Firstclaw knew that this much was true.

“Your engagement is fixed, is it not? That much I have heard, even here in these mountains!” Firstclaw replied, genuinely puzzled. The royal marriage was set for spring.

“Th-that is true, but these days I cannot tell if he really loves me,” the princess replied.

“I heard you two fell in love at first sight!” Firstclaw said, frowning. The other women who came for spells always spoke with envy of this couple: “They were made for each other!” “I’ve never seen two people more in love.” “I long for a love like theirs!” they would say.

Firstclaw believed the match to be a blissful one.

“But you are unsure, I see. Why?” she asked.

“Well, I . . .” The princess glared at the air, searching in vain for a complaint. But she could find none. It seemed that she could think of only good things about her prince, and the more she thought of him, the redder her cheeks grew.

What nonsense is this? Firstclaw wondered.

*

In those days, royal marriages were usually political arrangements. With a marriage between the royals of two countries, war could be brought to an end and hundreds—thousands—of lives saved. In such circumstances, newlyweds might well have complaints: “I expected someone with lovelier eyes.” “Just look at that overbite!” But they simply had to overlook such points, and many a political marriage did, in fact, yield happiness.

The princess’s parents—the late queen, who had died ten years earlier, and the king—had had a political marriage. It seemed to have been amiable. And yet their daughter was marrying for love . . . or was supposed to be.

*

The princess could find nothing the matter with her betrothed, no matter how much time elapsed.

“You don’t need a love spell,” Firstclaw said, shaking her head. She did not know why the princess would lie, but she believed that the prince of the country of the soaring falcon loved this princess, and she him.

“No. I must have a spell,” the princess said.

“You stole away from the castle, no? Get yourself home quickly, dear. How everyone will worry when they find you gone!

“The darkness will turn to dawn soon. You, scoot!”

Whether Firstclaw plied or scolded, the princess stood fast.

“You are more stubborn than you look!” Firstclaw said, bested. “Fine, I will cast you a spell.”

And she pretended to do so.

She pretended, because Firstclaw had already cast a spell for this princess months before.

The princess’s marriage was, in fact, a politically helpful one. But the moment any talk of it began, before the couple had even met, Firstclaw had cast a spell so that the princess would fall in love with the prince of the country of the soaring falcon, and he with her. Firstclaw’s magic had made the marriage a love match.

When Firstclaw herself was young, she had served as castle witch and fought alongside the princess’s father as his partner in battle. The king had been compared to the fierce bear in the country’s crest, and she had been likened to the first and sharpest claw on the bear’s forepaw.

Now, witches normally hide their names—especially castle witches. Names make them vulnerable to curses. Indeed, this witch had assumed a grave risk by becoming Firstclaw, but she had never objected to the name. That was because she loved the king. The war had been brutal, but it had brought her close to him. When the war ended, with the king’s marriage arranged to secure the peace, Firstclaw had swallowed her feelings and vanished into the mountains.

Because she had lost her own love, she longed for the princess to cherish hers.

*

The princess, thinking Firstclaw had just cast her a spell, rejoiced. Then she said, “I will bring you my treasure!” And she rushed home, seemingly forgetting her hurt feet.

Early the next day, she returned. Her bloodshot eyes betrayed that she had barely slept, but her cheeks glowed with excitement. “Here is my treasure,” she said.

And the princess produced the king.

She wanted Firstclaw to have this treasure of hers.

Before her own marriage had been fixed, the princess had learned of the king’s love for Firstclaw. “I knew from the start that I had no hope of marrying her,” the king had told his daughter. It was the first time he had voiced his feelings. “When she left the castle, she said that she wanted to be called Firstclaw for life. That was enough for me,” he’d said.

The king had known Firstclaw’s feelings too.

The princess knew the king’s habit of touching the long claw embroidered on the royal crest of his robes. She noticed that his face grew joyful when he spoke of Firstclaw. She believed that if he confessed his feelings to Firstclaw now, the departed queen would not begrudge it.

“Your courage is the stuff of legend, is it not?” the princess said now to her father. She pushed him toward Firstclaw. The king hung his head, bashful as a youth. Before long, Firstclaw had to laugh at the pitiful figure he cut.

Years ago, how many times did that laugh save me? the king thought. Even now, her laughter gave him courage.

“I want to go dragon hunting with you,” he told her. Some of his hair was white now, but the blond sovereign had finally asked Firstclaw on a date.

“I may as well go,” she replied.

And Firstclaw’s own cheeks reddened a little.


Translation ofイチノツメとよばれた魔女 in the collection 王様に恋した魔女 (Kodansha, 2016). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Avery Fischer Udagawa. All rights reserved.

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