The frail figure stood hunched over the kitchen table, her shaky fingers carefully pinching out the proper measurement of the powdered ingredient from the mortar in front of her. Her fingers ached so with stiffness that she had trouble keeping the fine grains of powder clenched between her withered fingertips.
It took her four tries before she managed to measure out the correct amount. And then, as she moved her hand to transfer it over, she spilled half of it outside the pot.
She cursed aloud, barely refraining from knocking the contents off the table in a fit of temper.
"Shall I?" a voice carefully asked from the doorway behind her.
The elderly woman turned from her spoiled work to see the plump, middle-aged proprietress of the tavern standing behind her. The much younger woman was careful to keep her tone light and to hang back, in order to not offend the older woman. Though her tone and bearing was of humility, her true eagerness to handle the task shone in her eyes.
The elder one mumbled and huffed her frustration. Disgusted that she had so much difficulty with once childishly simple tasks, she reluctantly moved aside and let the taverness take over.
As the taverness set to work, the old woman took a seat at the table and carefully observed the movements of her protege, ready to leap on any error made. But the younger woman had performed this duty for her teacher often enough in the last few months that she knew the procedure by heart.
When she took the mixture to the fire to be heated, the older woman relaxed her watch and fell into a half-doze as she rested her weary body.
Her eyelids snapped open again when the woman walked back to the table, carrying a sturdy wooden mug.
"There was a time when I could have mixed a simple elixir like this in my sleep," she mused as she took the mug in her own hands and brought it to her lips. She swallowed greedily, feeling the steaming liquid slide down her throat.
In another moment she felt it coursing through her veins, filling her with a renewed energy. The dull pain of age began to fade as the potion stretched and strengthened her worn muscles and bones.
No matter how many times she took this treatment, she never failed to be awed by the feeling it elicited. Immediately she rose from her chair and moved across the room to check her reflection in the polished glass hanging on a nearby wall. As she had expected, there had been no noticeable change in her appearance. Her face was still creased by deep wrinkles. Her eyes and jowls sagged with the weight of time. And above, the few remaining strands of grizzled white hair hung limply from her scalp, no longer full enough to conceal the two protuding nubs above her forehead.
As usual, she was mildly disappointed, but not in the least bit surprised in the lack of change. After all, she couldn't reverse the effects of age. The most she could hope for, for now, would be to slow its progression.
While the elder woman's back was turned, the younger sipped from the remaining elixir. She wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand and remarked, "Whenever you need a potion mixed, I'm willing and able to assist you. Whether they're simple or more advanced."
The hint didn't go unnoticed, but as the elderly woman turned slowly from her own reflection, she chose to let the remark go unaddressed.
"I don't understand," the taverness continued when the hag failed to reply. "You're obviously very powerful." Or were, she added silently. "Isn't there a stronger youth spell you could brew?"
"No. There's only one cure for me." As her thoughts moved to her ultimate goal, her usually murky eyes seemed to brighten and she felt a surge of energy unconnected to the potion she had ingested moments before rise up in her chest. "And I'm getting very close now."
Sensing that the old woman was headed towards a lengthy reminiscence, the taverness grew impatient and spoke out. "But isn't there anything else you can do in the meantime?" she insisted.
The old woman turned her eyes to the younger with a sharp and piercing glance, that made the latter draw back. Though the words of the taverness may have sounded subtle, her eager expression as she spoke them was anything but. The older woman knew that the question hadn't been posed in the interest of her own needs, but of the taverness' inquenchible desire to learn new spells from the elder.
"No," she replied grimly in a tone that indicated that the issue was closed. She continued to stare at the plump woman, scrutinizing her until the younger woman squirmed uncomfortably. "What is it that you're after, ultimately?"
The woman frowned, concentrating on the question, searching her feeble mind for an answer. "I want to get my lazy husband to fix up this dumpy tavern of ours, or finally get rid of it for something better. I want to be wealthy, have lots of really nice things, never want for anything, never have to work again," The woman smoothed down the wrinkles in her faded dress and straightened her back proudly. "I want to be looked up to by every person who ever looked down on me."
"And what did you want?" the taverness asked.
"To live forever," the hag said with a coarse laugh and a large, ominious grin.
The taverness replied only with a weak, sickish smile.