Audrey emerged from the woods into an idyllic clearing. A river ran through the clearing and the sunlight sparkled like it ran with diamonds rather than water. It powered a small waterwheel that was only noticeable above the whisper of the locusts howling in the grass that lined it.
The waterwheel spun a shaft that disappeared into a shack. A thin trail of smoke rose from its chimney, despite the warmth of the sun. Audrey used her walking stick to check for muck as she pushed towards the shack.
Finding a small, worn path, she followed it up to the shack's door.
She knocked, twice. She looked around the outside of the shack, and she saw a dovecote and the occasional black bead of an inquiring eyeball. Her attention was pulled away when the door opened to reveal a hunchbacked man with a wince. He wore the tattered robes of an ascetic, yet the rich, round smell of roasting meat wafted from the shack.
"Are you Klaus T. Krippmann?" Audrey asked.
"Klaus T. Krippmann died years ago," said the man. He winced at her some more.
"What does your water wheel power?" Audrey asked.
"It powers the bellows for my fireplace," the man replied. "I am old, I have no sons or daughters, not even a wife, and my joints ache if I must pump the bellows myself."
"Are you sure that the waterwheel doesn't power any mill equipment?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, the wind seems to be pulling my door shut," the man said, slamming the door in Audrey's face with enough force to break his character. Audrey's lips tightened into a smile of satisfaction, but not joy.
She knocked on the door again.
"Go away," said the voice behind the door.
"I know who you are, Klaus," Audrey said, "and I'm glad to see that you run a proper mill. I would have been terribly disappointed if it'd been atop a waterless hillock or something. If you turn me away, I'll leave peacefully. But it'll be with my gums flapping."
Audrey listened at the door. Sure enough, the man's heavy footsteps clomped back and the door opened. He scowled and stood out of the way.
"Come in, come in," he said.
She entered the cottage. It was boiling hot inside and she could see why. A thick pole ran through a hole in the wall and the hydroelectric power of the water wheel turned it. The gear on the end of the pole powered a lattice of smaller gears, which all ran off into various other mechanisms. Several of the machines pumped small bellows, which breathed life to a row of coal suspended beneath several troughs of ink.
She removed her traveler's cloak and draped it over a chair. The breeze from the movement sent rows of tissue paper on the table into the air like leaves in an autumn breeze.
"Oh, now look what you've done!" the man said. "I had to wait for those to dry."
"I'm sorry," Audrey said.
"I'll get them later. You apparently know who I am," the man said, puttering at a juicy roast that he'd placed near one of the beds of coal. "But I don't know who you are."
"You are Klaus T. Krippmann, the rumormonger of this rumor mill, yes?" Audrey asked.
Klaus nodded, then tilted his head. "How'd you find out my name, anyway?"
"I beat it out of somebody. You sent out a rumor around this time last year with details of certain indiscretions that I had supposedly participated in."
Klaus' hand drifted towards a cleaver that sat near the roast.
"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't."
"You must have, because I did not engage in anything of which the court of public opinion accused me! I figured that it must have been the result of the rumor mill, which until a week ago I thought was a figure of speech. But as I tracked the rumor back further and further through the chain of gossip, it all pointed to a supposedly empty shack on the outskirts of town."
The Klaus' hand came to rest on the cleaver.
"I broke into it one night and didn't see much of anything. It looked like any other abandoned shack. But then the next day I was arrested by the local constable. Old farmer Augustus had been found dead in his barn, and there was a rumor going around that I'd done it. As if somebody didn't like me poking around at the shack."
"The blacksmith in town and I had been friends for years, and he didn't believe a word of it. Claimed that I wasn't flexible enough. He came by that night and broke the ball from the chain on my ankle, but we heard somebody coming towards the jail so he left before he was spotted. I snuck out afterwards."
Audrey raised her skirt to show the the heavy iron bracket encircling her ankle.
"That was a week ago. I've been on the run since. The first night I didn't know where to go, but the second night I figured that the rumor about the murder had something to do with me breaking into the empty shack. So I waited in the bushes nearby. I saw somebody sneak into the shack under cover of darkness."
"Did it have a hunchback?" the Klaus asked.
"No," Audrey said.
"Then how could it have been me?"
"I know it wasn't you, and here's why. I saw the black shape slip into the shack," Audrey said, ignoring the Klaus. "And I found a tiny crack in the shingles. He took a ladder and went through a hidden panel in the ceiling, and I heard the flapping wings of angry birds that had been spooked from their slumber. I crept into the shack, into the dovecote in the attic, and beat the information about you out of him. All I had to do was follow the birds."
"You evil wench!" Klaus yelled, leaping towards her with his cleaver clutched in his hand. Audrey spun in place and kicked out with the foot with the iron shackle wrapped around the ankle. It caught Klaus on the side of the head and he went flying into a ratty old chair.
"So what?" Klaus said, rubbing the side of his head.
"So you ruined my life!"
"That's how the rumor mill works. It's not like I decided one morning that - what'd you say your name was? Aubergine?"
"It's not like I decided one morning 'hhmm, I think that I shall ruin Audrey's life today.' That machine does it all," he said, waving his hand in the direction of the tangle of tears and levers. "I just take those slips of paper - like the ones that you so carelessly scattered all over the floor - and fit them into the message tubes on the carrier pigeons. I also re-load the paper as necessary. Other than that, it's all automated. They even send someone around to have a look when it's broken."
"Who is they?"
Klaus shuddered and stopping rubbing the bruise on his face. "Never mind about that. But listen, I'm not in charge of it."
Audrey watched as the machinery chugged. The tiny pieces of paper clipped to a wire ran over the bubbling trough of ink and here and there the ink bubbled out of it onto the paper to form words.
She read the glistening ink on several:
"Sheila's been taking all of the eggs from Mr. Crumpton's coop."
"Georg is a werewolf."
"And his brother is a vampire."
"These kind of rumors could ruin peoples' lives!" Audrey said. Then she spied her name on one of the slips of paper.
"Audrey escaped by using her witch powers, thus proving that she is a witch," she read aloud.
"You're a witch?" Klaus asked. His eyes flicked towards the cleaver that he'd dropped.
"I can't wait to see what kind of wood they use to burn me at the stake when I get back!" she yelled, ripping the paper from the wire and getting ink all over her hands.
"Oh, don't do that! The machine hates when you do that!" the Klaus yelled, leaping from his chair.
The steady chatter of the machine died away. All of the gears biting together, to all of the belts whipping over pulleys, to all of the ink simmering in its trough became silent.
"All that from taking just one slip out?"
"It's very sensitive and precisely calibrated! And if anything goes wrong at all it sends for the repairman!" the Klaus said, wringing his hands. "Oh, dear, now I'll have to have a visit from the repairman and that's not going to be pleasant at all."
"I think that it should stay broken," Audrey said, ripping up the piece of paper and dropping it into the puddle of ink.
"Oh no!" the Klaus said, flinging himself at the machine. He had soon covered himself in ink while he tried to pull out all of the shards of paper.
"You evil woman!" the Klaus said, "what a wicked thing to do! You'll have the repairman to deal with and then you'll not be so flippant!"
The door to the cottage flew open. A great cloud of black smoke rolled into the room. It turned the rays of sunlight traveling through into sick, purple lances that dribbled into puddles onto the floor. In the center of the cancerous cloud stood a shadow.
"I am the Repairman," the repairman said.
The repairman unfurled his wings and they pulled more of the smoke into the room. Audrey began to hack and wheeze, and her eyes teared up from the sulphur in the air. Klaus fell to the floor next to her, making gurgling noises with his throat, his eyes bulging and rolling around in his head.
"What seems to be the trouble?" he asked, striding towards Audrey, Klaus and the rumor machine behind them.
Audrey's legs began to shake, and then realized that she stood still. The mill bounced with every heavy hoof-fall of the repairman. As he approached, the floorboards seemed to leap directly sideways and she collapsed.
His eyes glowed red-hot as he peered into the machine. The intense heat from his eyes made the air ripple and soon the machinery melted under his gaze. The scraps of paper burst into flame. The ink burnt. The metal ran as water. Soon, the machine lost all rigidity and collapsed into a pool that quickly consumed any remaining scraps of metal.
"There's your problem," the repairman said. "And it's out of warranty, so. Please contact your account representative to order a new one. Terribly sorry. Good day."
The repairman left. The entire mill had caught on fire. Through the choking smoke, Audrey pulled Klaus from the burning wreckage and into the afternoon sunlight. She sat on the ground and watched the flames reduce the rumor mill to glowing embers.
Klaus came to several hours later. He sat up.
"My mill! My home! My roast!"
"My reputation," Audrey said, watching the smoke rise. "Unless..." she said, looking over at Klaus.
"I could just embrace my new reputation."
Two days later, she walked back into town. She was taller and more menacing. She'd abandoned her dresses for a long, black robe that reached all the way to the ground. In one hand, she carried a broom.
The local constable approached and had to crane his neck to look her in the eye.
"Listen, you're a law-breaker," the constable said. "You'll have to go back to jail."
"I'm not just a law-breaker, but I'm also a witch."
"I've not heard that," the constable said.
Klaus whispered from down between Audrey's feet.
"The rumor hadn't gone out! And it's stuffy in here and I'm tired!"
Audrey kicked him in the head a bit while she glared at the constable.
"Oh, I'm sorry, do you need proof?" she asked, raising her arms like she was about to cast a spell on the constable.
"No, no, that's quite alright. As a matter of fact, we discovered two seconds ago that the Farmer Augustus was allergic to cow's milk and that's how he died. We know that you didn't murder him. Just, uh, stay on the right side of the law," the constable said, walking away at a brisk pace.
Klaus and Audrey shed the disguise after they reached her home and then they parted ways. Audrey no longer had to keep up the ruse since a rumor, once verified, becomes boring and is immediately forgotten.
The Moral: unless your problem is that you have too much fire, consider burning your problem to the ground.