Gen stumbled blindly through the woods, neither knowing nor caring where her feet were taking her. Brambles hidden beneath mounds of snow reached out to snag at her skirts, and she ripped them free and kept running. Little dips and rises in the ground, normally navigable, but now hidden beneath the deep blanket of white tripped her time and time again, but she picked herself back up and ran on. Finally exhausted by the difficulty of wading through the snow, the emotional storm in which she'd been lost, and her fitful sleep the previous night, she paused for breath, leaning against the barren trunk of a tall fir tree. Looking around dumbly, she saw that she had run farther than she had realized. She was deep in the woods, near the spot where she and Goody harvested mushrooms, where Goody had told here the little people were wont to travel. Her sides were aching and she was gasping for breath, but Gen stumbled over towards the small glade, with the intent of perhaps breaking the ice on the tiny pond for a drink of water.
The mountainside rill ran quickly enough even in winter that the ice wasn't very thick where the stream met the pool, and it was easy enough for Gen to wrap her skirts around her hand and punch through the ice. She dipped her hands into the freezing cold water, and took a drink. The water was cold, but refreshing, and it helped her calm down enough to take stock of her situation.
She cleared the snow off of a rock near the pool and sat, trying to think. She was a long way from Goody's cottage, even farther from the village, she wasn't dressed for the weather, and she was starting to think that perhaps she had overreacted to the shock caused when she broke Goody's spell. She frowned. Goody should have told her about the spell, that was true. But everything else she had said, none of it was really justified, and Goody's reason for casting it seemed reasonable, if it was true.
Gen had loved her parents. After all, they looked after her, and Father David had said that it was her duty to love and obey them. But how many times had her father looked at her and said he wished she were a boy, so that she could help in the fields with the heavier chores? Even if he was laughing when he said it, it still hurt. And how many times had her mother lamented how hard it was to teach Gen weaving and spinning and sewing? She used to tell Gen that if she didn't learn her housekeeping skills better, they would have to offer a higher dowry than she was worth just to convince someone to take her. Not that Gen had really wanted anyone to take her, but that part fell under obeying too. With Goody, she was learning to do things that felt right, felt important. And she didn't have to worry anymore about being sold off to one of the young men in the village. Not that she disliked all the boys, but they would have given her to a man rather older than herself, and she wouldn't have had any choice in the matter. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that her life had improved when Goody had taken her in, as guilty as that horrible thought made her feel. It was the kind of thing that she felt she might have to go to confession about.
But the shock had been very real, and something that she wasn't prepared for. When she had removed Goody's spell, it was like going back months in time and finding out for the first time all over again that her parents were dead. The reaction was visceral, and painful. She suspected that Goody had known it would be, and realized that might be why the old woman had delayed telling her about the spell and deactivating it, knowing that it would be a profoundly painful moment for Gen. If there was one thing Gen knew Goody couldn't abide, it was causing other people pain. And how could she have accused Goody of setting the fire? It wasn't as though Gen had shown any signs of magic until after Goody had taken her in, and she rather shrewdly guessed that Goody knew she could feel magic by things that Gen herself had said and done, not because Goody could actually detect the ability in a person. She sighed, and buried her face in her hands. She was going to have to make her way back through the woods, tired as she was, and apologize to Goody for what she had said. She sat steeling herself to begin the long slog, when suddenly she froze, hearing voices in the woods.
"Ah, look, and what's this?" said the first voice. "I do believe it is a wee mortal child."
"And sitting on our very doorstep," replied the second. "Far away from where any mortal child should be, and all alone in the woods." Both voices were gravelly and deep. They contained odd echoes, as though the speakers were somehow being heard from far underground.
Gen could scarcely believe her ears, and her curiosity won out over her caution. She lowered her hands from her face and peered around, trying to spot the speakers. They turned out to be just across the pond from her, two very squat, ugly little men. Well, men in that they were both male. Gen knew immediately from what Goody had told her about the Little Folk that these weren't humans. Both were wearing knee-length breeches and shirts that had once been white, covered over by brown vests of some thick, pebbly-textured leather. Their lips were wide, their pallid eyes like saucers, and their noses and chins unnaturally pointy. Grizzled, wispy white hair, like that of an old man, poked out in all directions from underneath shapeless hats made from red cloth. There was more hair growing out of their enormous ears. One of them had a wart on the end of his nose, and even it had sprouted a few of the white hairs, as though eager not to be outdone.
Wart-nose spoke again, and Gen recognized him as the first voice that she had heard. "Well, now, and it's a wee mortal child that can see us. A rare and precious gem indeed."
"Precious," repeated the second creature, and snorted. Gen realized that there was a decidedly greedy cast about his mouth, and she started to become nervous. The tone of his voice didn't help either - it seemed to suggest that he was assessing her value in less esoteric terms then his companion.
Wart-nose attempted to smile charmingly, though all this managed to do was make him look insincere. He addressed Gen directly. "What are you doing out here in the woods all alone, mortal child? Haven't you got anyone to look after you?" Greedy-lips sniggered, and Wart-nose cast a dirty look at him before continuing. "Why don't you come with us down to our home, little one? The woods on a snowy night are no place for you, why, you'd be frozen to death by morning. A pretty little icicle all winter long, but not a happy sight come thaw. Come and have some dinner with us, and sleep by our fire. We'll take you where you belong in the morning."
The offer sounded tempting, but there was something in the way that Greedy-lips was staring at her that screamed danger into Gen's mind. She shook her head mutely, not trusting herself to speak to the strange creatures. Wart-nose frowned at this, and tried once more.
"Surely you don't mistrust us? I can swear to you that ye'll come to no harm in our care. Haven't your elders taught you that the Little People must always keep their word?"
When Gen shook her head again, he suddenly grew angry, redness suffusing his pointed little face. "Well then maybe you'll come with us anyway, mortal child, whether ye will or no!" He raised a hand to point at her, and she cringed back, but Greedy-lips' eyes suddenly grew wider, if that was possible, and he grabbed Wart-nose's wrist and dragged his hand back down.
"Take another look at her!" he cried to his companion. "We can't touch that one, she's got the mark of the goodwitch on her, and that puts her under protection of the Pact! If you do anything to that one, they'll come after us for sure!"
Gen didn't know who it was that these creatures could possibly fear, nor what the Pact was, but she had a pretty good guess about the identity of the goodwitch. She scrambled to her feet and stumbled off through the snow, following the broken trail she had made earlier in her rage. Suddenly she was no longer as tired as she had been, and she was eager to get as far away from that place as she could.