Witch of Katesar Woods
“Tell me the story again.”
“Again? I told it last night.” Nori rolled onto his side to face his little sister
“I know but it’s a good story.”
She watched from her own bed in the strong moonlight. Her pale hair bleached white.
“It happened on a night like this, you know,” Nori said, and Elana snuggled deeper into her blankets. “The moon was full, and everything was calm, even pretty-like. There was a lady who lived in the village just through the forest. She was a real nice healer and her village loved her. One night, years ago, a couple of travelers came through. It was too dark to travel anymore, so they went to the inn to look for a room. But it was small and too expensive. The travelers left and asked people if they could stay in someone’s house, even a barn. They just needed a roof over their heads and some food. Everyone refused, claiming they didn’t have food to spare.
“The last house the travelers went to was the kind lady’s. She didn’t have much food either, but let them in. They were so grateful that they offered to go to bed hungry so she could keep her food, but she insisted on feeding them. She couldn’t bare seeing anyone go hungry. So, the travelers stayed by the fireplace while the lady went to the kitchen and closed the door. After a few minutes they could smell bacon cooking, and hear the delicious meats sizzling. When she came back there were four strips of bacon and two small buns. She was also limping. They asked her if she was okay, ‘cause she was fine when they arrived. She said she ran into the table while in the kitchen by accident. They believed her.”
Elana giggled into her pillow at the ending she knew very well.
“So, the two travelers ate the bacon and shared the bread. The kind lady had some bread too, but no meat, claiming she wasn’t that hungry. The next morning they asked her if there was just one more piece of that bacon. It was so good with the seasoning she had they wanted a little more. She agreed and left them, closing herself into the kitchen again. It was taking her longer this time to cook it, and they couldn’t smell the meat yet. So, one of the travelers went to see if she needed help. He opened the kitchen door to find the lady bent over her own leg with a knife. There was a bloody gash down her leg where she had been peeling away her own flesh to feed them!”
“Gross!” Elana exclaimed, laughing.
“I know! So the travelers grabbed her and threw her outside, probably throwing up too. They told the entire village what she done. All the proof they needed was etched down her leg. She tried to explain that she didn’t have enough food to share, like the rest of them, but she couldn’t turn them away. Everyone was horrified that she would do such a thing, and they starting throwing rocks at her. The travelers wanted to kill her, but she ran and managed to escape into the forest. She couldn’t escape the gods though. Phaos had been watching the entire time, disgusted that she would ruin the rules of hospitality that way. So, he cursed her to never leave that forest, and always crave the taste of man flesh!”
Nori screamed the last few words causing Elana to jump then laugh. Two loud thuds on the wall behind Nori startled them both. They had woken mama and papa by accident again. They waited for papa to come in and scold them for being too loud. Neither of their parents came in though after a moment of nervous waiting. They turned back to each other, looking slightly guilty.
“Is she still in there?” Elana whispered.
“Oh yea,” Nori whispered back. “She’s been there for years. If you ever smell cooking by the trees just run the other way, or else she’ll find you and gobble you up.”
“Mama said those stories aren’t real,” Elana said. “That they’re made up so we don’t wander off.”
“They’re real alright,” Nori insisted. He didn’t like how smart his sister was getting, she wasn’t so gullible anymore.
“The kid down by the lake told me his dad found a body in the forest. Well, it wasn’t exactly a body. It was just bones still dressed in traveling cloths. All of his meats were gone!”
“What?!” she believed him now.
“Yea, like I told you, if you smell bacon, you run.”
The storm came down heavy and fast. Evander clutched his cloak tighter, but it did nothing against the cold biting into his bones. He cursed the merchant who sold it to him back home. Evander wanted the black velvet one with thick white wolf trim, but the merchant talked him down to this traveling cloak the same colour as the mud under his boots. The merchant had said it was “sensible” and “durable.” How durable could it be when he was practically drowning in the rain?
Thankfully, Evander caught the light of a lantern bobbing in the wind. He quickened his pace, as much as the mud would allow, and finally reached the lantern. It lit a swinging sign over the rain-streaked door. The sign read “Bare Tree Inn” and depicted a beautifully carved dead tree. A little morose for his liking but Evander didn’t care at this point. He trudged inside and threw his hood back. Shaking most of the water from his light brown hair, he was finally able to breathe without inhaling more rain.
Evander took in his surroundings. The Bare Tree wasn’t very busy tonight, but there were a handful of patrons. The barkeep was the only one to acknowledge his presence when he entered with a small nod. There was one thin man asleep in the chair by the fire, and another group with a woman all playing a round of Chase Me at another table. The place wasn’t as rundown as Evander assumed, he gave it credit for that.
Evander removed the drenched cloak and hung it over the stool next to the one he took at the bar.
“Some ale, sir, along with whatever meat you have on hand,” Evander called to the barkeep. The meat was probably dog for all he knew, but he didn’t care, he was blessedly warm.
“You got coin for it?” the barkeep was a balding brute with stubble partially down his neck.
Evander reached inside his leather vest and jgiggled his coin purse, “Of course.”
“Money first, then food,” the barkeep crossed his arms, leering at Evander.
It grew too warm under the brute's gaze. Evander removed a few coppers and put them on the bar, forcing himself to meet that gaze.
The barkeep took the coins and pocketed them. He then picked a chipped flagon and filled it from the barrel behind him. After handing Evander the ale, while sloshing some on the bar surface, he left to the back room.
Evander didn’t like the feel of the other patrons at his back, it was as if they watched him. He had intentionally taken the stool at the end of the bar so he could keep an eye on them if he angled right. The only one he couldn’t see was the sleeping man.
The barkeep returned with a fresh steak and placed it in front of Evander, who said his thanks, but the man didn’t bother replying. Evander shrugged it off, ready to dig into the food, wondering if it was rat rather than dog. To his surprise, it was actually beef, a little gristly, but fine. He ate his fill. He ate his fill and ordered another ale.
“The steak was good,” Evander told him. “You have a special seasoning?”
The barkeep blinked, surprised. “Not exactly, just salt, extra butter, and pepper if I have it.”
“It was very tasty,” Evander saluted him with the ale.
“Thank you,” he seemed genuinely surprised by the complement.
In truth the food wasn’t glorious, but it was fine. Working some charm on the barkeep at least avoided one possible robbery tonight, hopefully.
“Mind if I stay the night?” Evander asked.
“’Course, but it’s two extra coppers,” the barkeep replied, “no actual room either, but a solid spot on the floor.”
Evander nearly swore at the last part. Only homeless people slept on the ground. Still, it was the dry floor compared to the storm outside. He tossed the barkeep the coins and his best smile. “That’s fine.”
Evander ordered a third ale intending to nurse this one longer. He wasn’t fond of hangovers. He only had a few minutes of peace though. The woman who had been playing cards sat on the stool next to him, on top of his cloak.
“Hey!” he said. The large fabric draped over the stool was a little hard to miss. It wasn’t going to dry with her ass on it.
“So, where you headed to, city boy?” she asked.
“That’s my business,” he replied annoyed, and tugged on the cloak under her leg. “Do you mind?”
“I know it’s there.” The woman smiled over her own flagon, and took a generous gulp.
The woman didn’t have anything particularly pretty about her, but she wasn’t ugly either. Just boring-looking, really, with a nose too large for her face. Her dark hair hung loose and clearly hadn’t been brushed in weeks, possibly months.
“Come on,” the barkeep said to the woman. “Leave him be.”
The woman frowned, missing out on the fun of bullying. She got off the stool and Evander took the cloak back. She sat down again as soon as he moved it to the bar top.
“Still curious on what you’re doing.” She continued leaning her back on the bar.
“Everyone is, we don’t get visitors often.”
“And that’s still my business, but there is something you could help with.”
“What’s that?” she asked intrigued.
“What can you tell me of the Witch of Katesar Woods?”
The sudden silence was like a physical blow. The woman just stared at him like she hadn’t heard him right.
“Boy’s chasing witches.” A red haired man with a hatchet scoffed. He was probably trying to lighten the mood.
“Tell me you ain’t chasing ghost stories,” the woman said.
“It ain’t no story!”
Everyone turned to the man in the corner, he wasn’t asleep. Judging by his heavy eyes he wanted to be. Evander noted his thinness again. Some people were thin by nature, but it looked like this man hadn’t eaten in weeks.
“What do you mean, o’ course it is,” the barkeep said to the thin man. “A folk tale meant to keep children out of the woods.”
It sounded like the barkeep was having a hard time believing his own words though. This village feared the witch just like the others, though no one wanted to admit it.
“I had thought so too,” the thin man said, staring at the table, “but I found my brother.”
“You found him?!” the woman exclaimed, approaching the thin man.
The rest of the patrons were instantly wrapped in what the thin man claimed. Evander felt left out by the turn of events; there was a history here he hadn’t known yet.
“Where was he?” the woman asked softly.
The thin man took a swig of his ale before responding, “I knew he hadn’t just run away, so I kept lookin’. I found him in those gods forsaken trees. His . . . his arms and legs were missin’”
“By the gods,” the barkeep cursed.
The woman sat next to the thin man with a hand on his back. His breathing was painfully hitched.
Evander turned to the barkeep, trying to be quiet he asked, “I’m sorry, but what am I missing here?”
The barkeep snapped back to reality with fresh grief.
“His little brother’s been missing for a month now. He’s . . . was a good kid. A little rowdy at times, but what seventeen year old isn’t? We held a search party for days looking for him, but eventually people accepted that he just left. Off to find some adventure that most boys dream of. Others accepted that he was already dead. It ain’t easy living in these parts, especially so close to the Katesar Woods.” He nodded to the thin man. “He never gave up on his brother though. He went searching every day. I was worried the trek alone would kill him.”
The barkeep called to the thin man, “When did you find him?”
The thin man took a breath that shook, “‘bout a week ago.”
“And that’s why you’ve been in here drowning yourself since?”
The thin man nodded, not looking up. The woman stayed by his side.
“He didn’t say anything about finding him until now,” the barkeep told Evander. “I thought he just accepted his brother’s disappearance.”
“What makes you think it was the witch?” Evander asked the thin man gently.
He was quiet for a long time, but finally said, “The people who saw him last said he was walking from the market with a lady. They couldn’t describe the lady, only seeing the back of her. And his body was cut, not torn by animals. Well, he was . . . chewed on, obviously, but the stumps were cut with a blade.”
He looked up to Evander. Tears welled, but the rage was hard to miss. “If you find that bitch, you kill her slow.”
“Actually, I’m trying to prove if she even exists,” Evander admitted.
The thin man’s rage deepened.
“I believe you,” Evander quickly clarified. “And I know the witch was coined from a children’s story, but there has to be an origin. Your brother’s death is proof enough there is something out there hurting people in those woods.”
Evander stood and approached the thin man’s table. Taking the seat across from him, Evander said, “Back in my city, about five days ride from here, there was a house everyone claimed was haunted. Before that story arose there was a family living there, I didn’t know them personally, but they were normal. There was a man and his wife and their three children. One night he snapped, no one knows why. He took a poker from the fireplace, murdered his family, and then killed himself. It wasn’t until the bodies started rotting that the smell gave them away.”
“Ever since then there have been people who hear noises from that house, and screams. Even lights when it should be empty. For years people stayed away and no one would buy it. Kids dared their friends to knock on the door and run.
“I wanted to know why it was haunted, what was in that house. So, I spent the night inside. Everyone thought I was crazy, my own mother practically gave me up for dead. But I stayed that one night, and I saw the lights that weren’t there before. Candles lit by themselves when I left the room. And I heard horrible screams from the walls.”
The Bare Tree Inn was silent listening to Evander’s story.
“And I saw a figure. A shadow of a child. I thought it would kill me then and I believed the stories of the dead. But then the shadow ran from me, and disappeared behind a rotten shelf leaning on the wall. I wanted to leave, but I followed the shadow, and I found a door behind that shelf. It was only about three feet high and led to a crawl space.
“There was a little boy inside, but he wasn’t dead. He was so skinny I’m surprised he wasn’t, and I could see the lice crawling around in his hair. The boy was homeless and moved into that house after the murders. He played up the haunting story to scare people away. The kid was living in the walls, and even made secret passages to get around faster. It was quite impressive.
“It took some coaxing but I got that kid out and took him to an orphanage. They cleaned him up and fed him. He’s safe and relatively happy now.”
Everyone watched him, enwrapped in his tale. Evander wished he hadn’t left the ale on the bar, mostly as a distraction at the moment. The attention of them staring at him made his skin crawl.
“Has the boy been adopted yet?” the woman asked.
“He wasn’t when I left, but he’s being taken care of properly.”
“So, you think the witch is an actual person?” the thin man asked. “Not a myth?”
“Exactly, you said yourself she’s not a story.”
“But no one has seen the witch,” the thin man said, “Legends say she lours men away to eat their flesh. That she’s made of rotting flesh herself.”
“I think she exists, but not as a walking corpse,” Evander said. “That’s why I asked in the first place to gain info before I move on.”
“Move on?” the woman asked.
“When the storm’s done, probably in the morning, I’m going to gather supplies and enter the woods.”
“If my brother couldn’t survive, why should you?” the thin man accused.
“Because I know what to look for. The myths help with that. You can’t hunt a deer unless you know what the tracks look like. The variations in the myths are the witch’s tracks. I’d like to hear this one.”
“All right.” The woman got the barkeeps attention, and ordered more ale for the three of them.
“There’s not a lot to it really,” she said. “A traveler came to her house seeking shelter for the night. She let him in, all nice like, and made him tea. But it was spiked, and he passed out. When he came to he was starving. Hungry enough to eat an entire horse. He didn’t even care that he was tied to the chair; he begged the woman for some food, even a crust of something. She obliged, having an entire pie ready for him. It was the greatest thing he’d ever tasted. He ate the whole thing, and the food cleared the drugged tea from his system. That’s when he noticed the pain in his legs, or where they should have been anyway. She had chopped them off and put them in the pie. The gods cast her out of her own home, and sent her to the woods. They morphed her into a beast that could only consume human flesh. She’s been there ever since.”
It was similar to the story the children in the previous town gave. Only that one painted the woman as kind, not wanting her guests to be hungry. The choice she made of serving them her own flesh was different too. Before, it was twisted. Intentionally good. Plus, she fed them her own flesh.
“Thank you,” he said to the woman, before turning to the thin man. “And I’m sorry about your brother.”
The thin man looked sick. “I don’t know if the monster can actually die. But if she does, you kill her slow.”
He didn’t want to kill anything. He’d never even twisted a chicken’s neck before, but if finding the truth meant taking a life, than he’d deal with that when the time came.
Some people back home hadn’t believed him about the boy hiding in the house. His own neighbors thought he had planted the kid, or just found him on the streets. He hadn’t been lying, and the haunting occurrences did stop. Several people started mocking him as the supposed “ghost hunter.” He wanted to prove them wrong, and everyone knew about the Witch of Katesar woods. So, he vowed to dispute that myth too.
Evander packed his bags, brought the damnable mud brown cloak, and arrived at the back-river water villages clustered along the edge of the forest.
The closest one, this very village, was right at the tree line.
“We should get you home,” the woman said to the thin man, “your wife will worry.”
He looked to her and nodded. He stumbled while getting up, but the woman helped him enter the storm. Both were lost in the gloom.
The inn was quiet after that. The three others at the table packed up their cards and the barkeep cleaned up a bit. No one spoke. Whether they were either morose about the thin man’s brother, or shocked about Evander’s goal, he didn’t know. Evander didn’t feel like talking anyway.
He kept thinking of that boy he found in the haunted house. He had been terrified and starved. His arm was nothing more than skin stretched over bone. The end of that story had been a lie. He had gone to the orphanage to check on the boy the next day, but he was already dead. The woman running the place said he ate too fast and his gut burst.
The fire burned down to embers, and Evander stretched out on his not-quite-dry cloak in the corner. Sleep did not come quickly, but listening to the rain was soothing.
The next morning, after paying for some porridge to break his fast with, Evander left the Bare Tree for the market. The sky was blessedly cloudless, and the leftover puddles from last night's storm were all steaming away below a welcomed sun.
The ground in the main market was still muddy from constantly being churned up berating rain.
The market was busting with life from the village. Evander watched the blacksmith talking to a tall red haired man over horse shoes. A heavily pregnant woman was exchanging several herbs for fresh tomatoes. Children ran around barefoot, throwing mud balls at each other.
Evander entered the market, side-stepping around a young man hurrying off someplace. Evander knew he should hurry in gathering what his supplies, entering the woods close to dusk would be a fool's errand. He wanted to explore among the trees, and then find a decent camp before dark. Still, he enjoyed people-watching and he didn’t know how long he would be in the woods, so he took in the sights of the people when he could.
After buying a blanket, extra meat, and flint, Evander paused by the communal well to rearrange his pack. The sun had almost reached its high point. Plenty of time to explore the woods.
The pregnant woman from before was walking past. She looked out of breath as she hobbled over to the well, and leaned against the wall, her soft green eyes smiling pleasantly at him through dirty blond hair.
It looked like it hadn’t seen a brush in months. He thought if it was washed she would be rather pretty. She set her crate of groceries down, and eased herself onto the bench beside the well. Evander shifted the blanket to a more comfortable spot as she drank her fill from the water bucket. The crate she had was old, and split down the side. How it was holding water, Evander had no idea.
The woman stood with a hand supporting her swollen belly. That baby had to be due any day now. With a slight grunt she hefted the box onto her hip and waddled off. The box itself was crudely made and probably wasn’t light even when empty, let alone filled with food for a week.
As he watched her go, hoping she’d be all right, the split widened and a rusty nail gave. One wall of it slid under her arm, and most of the vegetables fell into the dirt. Apples were rolling down the road in carriage wheel tracks. She nearly fell with it, trying to keep her balance while catching what she could.
“Hold on!” Evander caught up to her side, throwing his pack over his shoulder. “let me help you with that.”
The woman looked up to him sheepishly as he knelt to collect the pieces of her broken crate and spilled food.
“I can manage,” she said as they rearranged the food in half of the crate. Evander was still holding a few tomatoes that wouldn’t fit.
“I’d still like to help. You shouldn’t strain yourself too much,” he insisted. “Let me carry the crate. I don’t want you to cut yourself on that nail.”
He knew he should be heading to the woods, but helping this lady couldn’t take too long.
“Well, I would appreciate it.” She admitted, smiling.
Evander took the crate of groceries. The woman sighed in relief as the pressure was taken off her hip. She took the tomatoes he still held, and an ear of corn to help with the balance.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he smiled back. “What’s your name?” She was pretty when she smiled, even with the wild hair.
“Derein, and yours?”
“Evander,” he held out a hand, and she shook it.
“So, where do you live?” he asked. It couldn’t be far considering she walked here.
“A good way, actually,” she said.
“I have time. Lead the way.” Setting up camp might have to wait until tomorrow. He couldn’t help grinning back at her.
Derein led him to the western exit of the market.
“You and your husband must be excited,” Evander said to start a conversation. “Is it your first child?”
Derein’s smile died. She stroked her stomach. “I am excited, and it is my first, but my husband is dead.”
Guilt gripped Evander. “I-I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right, you didn’t know.”
“Your parents though, are they around to help?”
“They . . . tried to be, but they’re gone too.”
That was an odd way of putting it. Evander didn’t know how to respond. At this rate, her entire family could be dead for all he knew.
“What about you?” Derein asked, probably trying to lighten the awkwardness. “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
He didn’t want to get into his life story again like last night. Besides, it might worry her needlessly.
“I’m a hunter,” he replied, “I’ve heard there’s some good game in these woods. “So, would you rather a boy or a girl?” It would be a long walk if they were silent.
She took a second to gather her thoughts, and brightened again. “It doesn’t really matter, but a daughter might be easier to handle. Either way I will be very relieved when they’re finally born.”
“You must be due soon.”
“Any day,” she said distantly stroking her stomach. “Any day now the gods will grant me a glorious birth.”
Evander had no idea how to respond to that either, other than, “Good.”
Derein led him out of the town then left the path. Evander followed, shifting the crate and trying to not drop anything, and caught that she was heading for the tree line and there were no houses in sight. He trusted her and kept following. Derein walked past the first several trees into the woods, still heedless of any trail.
“Do you live in the Katesar Woods?” he asked, trailing behind.
Derein chuckled and considered to him guiltily, “I know what people say, but it’s really not that dangerous.”
Evander followed the pregnant woman deeper into the woods. She turned at seemingly random intervals, following her own mental trail. Given how uneven the ground was with roots and rocks, Evander quickly caught up to her again. He left one arm loose in case she stumbled. She continued on steadily though while supporting her back with her hands.
After sometime they came to a clearing surrounded by pine trees. The scent of them was intoxicating. Inside the clearing was a short cabin and a garden full of herbs, flowers, and mushrooms. A stone chimney poked out of the center of the roof.
“Nice little place. Do you live here alone?”
“Yes, and I’ve been blessed with safety so far.”
She giggled, like her last comment wasn’t odd. Evander brushed it aside, lots of people thanked their safety to the gods. She certainly was lucky to be alive out here, pregnant and alone.
Derein walked up to the door and let Evander in behind her. He wondered if Derein knew of the Witch stories and felt safe because people avoided the woods, like the homeless boy.
The woman might have been odd, but the home she lived it was just as strange. The central fire place was well-made, and even had a section attached as an oven. There was a single bed tucked into the corner with furs of several large animals as blankets. The bed looked sound enough, but the entire frame looked like it had been chewed on.
“You can put the box there.” Derein gestured to a long countertop that housed several pots, and jars filled with herbs. The ceiling and walls were covered in drying leaves and flowers.
Evander set the box down in a free space, along with the broken side, and was able to examine the bed further. It hadn’t actually been chewed on. Thousands of notches messily scared every surface.
“It’s not much, but its home,” Derein said shyly.
“It’s lovely,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t sound too stiff. “Did you grow all of these herbs yourself?”
“Not all of them.” Derein eased herself down into a rocking chair in the corner. “Most, you can find among the trees.”
Beside her was a huge chest with a basket of yarn and needles sitting on top. A half-completed green and yellow baby's sweater poked out of it.
“Would you like a bite to eat?” she asked. “Some tea maybe?”
“Thank you, but I should get going while the sun is still up.” He looked out the window, wondering if there was still time.
“Ah, yes, hunting.”
“I could bring you a couple of rabbits. I noticed the box was mostly vegetables.”
“I’ll be fine; there's meat stored in the cellar.”
“Oh, well, good then.”
Evander felt he should leave, but it seemed wrong. This woman was ready to go into labour completely alone. He wasn’t going to pretend to know anything about childbirth, but he knew it was dangerous. She or the baby might end up dead.
There wasn’t a deadline in finding the Witch. And given the size of Derein’s stomach he might only need to stay a couple of days. A week, maybe. He wasn’t exactly good with blood though. He could hunt when hunger demanded it, but human blood always made him queasy. He knew full well that childbirth was not a clean process, either. Still, he didn’t want to imagine Derein on the floor, in pain, alone.
“I don’t want to sound too forward or anything, but um . . . are there any chores I can help with? Maybe gather firewood, or get more food?” he offered.
She lit up instantly. “There is actually. I don’t want you to feel obliged though.”
How could he not feel obliged when a pregnant woman needed help?
“I want to help," he said. "I know you must get along fine here, but I’d still like to.”
“Well, there’s a hole in the roof. It’s not very big, but it does leak badly in a heavy rain.” Evander looked around the room, only then noticing the buckets placed beneath every leaking ceiling panel. Most them were already overflowing.
“I’ll fix it then. I can go back to the village for supplies.” He had enough coin left for shingles, he thought.
“I already have the supplies,” Derein hoisted herself up, hand on her belly, and pulled another crude box from a shelf. It was filled with wooden shingles, nails, and a hammer. “The hole is on the back side.”
“All right then,” he said taking the box smiling.
“Come,” she took his hand and led him back outside. Her hands were rough from gardening work.
“I bought the supplies a couple of days ago,” she explained. “The ladder has always been here, but I couldn’t lift it on my own, let alone climb the thing.”
Evander set the box down by the house and grabbed the ladder. Derein helped him angle it. Once in place Evander picked the box back up and climbed to the roof.
From the ground, holding onto the ladder, she called up, “Be careful.”
After a couple of hours of removing the old, rotted shingles and replacing them with the new ones, Evander’s mind wandered. He couldn’t stop wondering how a woman could survive alone in these woods. A huntress could be fine but Derein could hardly walk without waddling.
His thoughts drifted to the Witch as well. All of the stories said she was alone, and most said she started off as a kind lady. One story said she had even lost her child because he was born dead.
Evander paused with the hammer over a nail. He looked over to her, his heart sinking. Derein sat on a rock in the shade stroking her swollen belly. She appeared to be watching the clouds and birds lost in thought with a pleasant grin. Evander dismissed the idea of her as the Witch. The woman could hardly lift a ladder let alone kill someone and take his limbs, but maybe she used the story to her advantage.
Evander reached back into the box for a nail to secure the final shingle. His hand scraped the corners, but found nothing. He grimaced in annoyance and left the hammer on the roof, climbing back down.
“Are you finished?” Derein called from her shady spot a few years away. “That didn’t take long.”
“There’s a few shingles left, but I ran out of nails,” he explained.
“Oh, I think I have more inside,” Derein moved to rise.
“Don’t get up, just tell me where they are.”
“They should be in the chest by the door.”
Evander walked back into the house scouting out the chest. The only one he saw was the large one with the knitting basket. He moved the basket to the rocking chair and opened the chest. Hundreds of small baby clothes caught him by surprise. Expectant mothers must get excited and make several outfits, but there had to be two hundred stored here. She would have to make one a day to fill this chest. The kid only needed a fraction of that in reality.
Evander shifted through the clothing, the ones at the bottom were rather musty and moth-eaten, but couldn’t find any nails.
On his way to ask Derein if she might have misplaced them he spotted a smaller box under the corner of the table by the door. Inside was an assortment of small tools, but no nails.
“Did you find them?” Derein asked as he came out of the cottage.
“I found the box, but no nails. I can head back to town tomorrow for more.”
“If you like, and let me cook you something,” Derein said back inside the cabin. “It’s the least I could do as thanks.”
“That would be wonderful.” His stomach churned, thinking about the walk back. Setting up camp would probably have to wait until tomorrow.
Once inside, Derein chopped up some meats she had stored in the cellar below them, and mixed them into a stew with lots of vegetables. Evander had offered to climb down into the cellar for her; he had seen the trap door out back. She insisted on doing it herself, that she had been for years, and being pregnant didn’t stop her. He obliged and settled back into the rocking chair, wondering how long it took Derein to make all of the clothes inside the chest beside him.
With the stew finished, he decided to wait until after they ate to ask about the Witch. It wasn’t exactly dinner conversation.
Evander waited while she added final seasonings, her back to him on the other end of the tiny kitchen. She turned to him with a hospitable smile, and placed his steaming bowl of stew in front of him.
He took it, and said his thanks, insisting she take the rocking chair. He stood by the window, glancing between her bowl and his own. They didn’t look any different.
Evander tried a chunk of meat with a potato. It tasted fine, good beef in fact. Maybe the seasoning was nothing?
It was probably nothing, but paranoia told him not to eat it.
He glanced at Derein who was eating heartily. She noticed him looking and smiled.
“So, where are you from?” she asked.
“The city about a week’s walk from here.” He tried to sound pleasant while stirring around his food. He even pretended to eat some, sticking to another potato and a carrot.
“The city! What’s it like? I’ve never been to one. It must be really crowded.”
“In some places, yes, but the thing most people complain about is the smell.”
“Too many people packed in together does not smell nice.” He could have elaborated into the smell of dirt, sweat, shit, and other waste, but to him it was home, and he didn’t want to tarnish it.
“I’d still love to go someday.” Derein said resting a hand on her stomach, staring wistfully out the window.
The sun was setting. Evander took one bite of the stew while Derein was watching.
While standing by the window, Evander saw his advantage. A mother deer and a foul entered the clearing to graze. They were only a few yards away.
“Derein, come here!”
“What is it?” He helped her up and they crept up to the window.
“Oh, they’re beautiful!”
While Derein was distracted Evander dumped most of his food into a potted plant. The foliage was thick enough and there were no flowers, it was probably another herb she collected. There were a few spoonfuls left but he had to ignore them as Derein turned back towards him.
“Did you like it?” she asked, noticing the nearly empty bowl.
“Yes, working on the roof in the heat was exhausting,” he said. “But the food helped.”
“You must be getting tired,” she said setting down her own empty bowl. “You should stay the night. Then we can get the nails in the morning.”
Evander set his bowl down by hers wondering if the drug was meant to put him to sleep. She had jumped on that idea as soon as he mentioned feeling tired. He was about to fake a yawn but thought better of it, overplaying it might tip her off that he was lying. Or he was overthinking the entire situation. The seasoning could have been nothing. Maybe it was something she knew tasted good, but couldn’t have it herself, for some reason.
The other idea that he didn’t entirely want to admit to was that Derein might actually be connected to the witch. She was a woman alone, living in these woods, and she added something to his food.
He came here to find the witch, so he’d play her game for now. He hoped he was wrong, but he had to be sure.
He settled with scratching one eye, making them appear drowsier. “That might not be a bad idea.”
“You can take the bed,” Derein offered. “You deserve it.”
“I am not making a pregnant woman sleep on the floor.”
She smiled at his kindness. “All right, but you can use the pillow.”
She set up a spot for him in the cabin. There wasn’t a lot of room, so he laid along the floor by the counter and the warm fireplace. She sacrificed her only pillow and an extra fur pelt for him to sleep on. Taking his own blanket and tucking his knife in it, he settled down for the night.
“I hope you won’t mind if I stay up longer,” Derein said. "I'm nearly finished with the baby's new shirt, if you can sleep over the sound of needlework."
“Not at all,” he slurred his words together, so it sounded like, “no-a-all.”
The fire still burned, but Evander closed his eyes and forced his breathing to relax and deepen. He listened as the rocking chair creaked back and forth, almost in time with the knitting needles clicking together.
The room grew colder outside of Evander' blanket. Inside he kept a grip on his knife. He laid completely still, as if unconscious rather than just asleep.
The clacking of the needles stopped.
The chair creaked one more time, followed by soft footsteps. He felt Derein’s presence standing over him. Every instinct told him to move, but he stayed put.
There was a shuffling and a small grunt. Derein had knelt beside him, he could feel her hair brushing his cheek. A small, rough hand touched his jaw, and moved his head to role to the side.
The tension snapped like a bow string.
Evander’s eyes flew open as he turned and struck Derein with the handle of his knife. It smashed her temple before she could do more than shout. He saw the sharp edge of her own blade inches from his ear before she reeled back with a defiant cry.
Derein fell sideways from his blow and hit the wall hard. Her own knife fell from numb fingers as she slumped over, already unconscious.
The bitch had tried to kill him! He had seen the shock in her eyes before she was knocked out. She wasn’t odd, she was crazy!
But laying there slumped and senseless she appeared innocent again. Evander held the knife under her nose. Her breath fogged the steel; she was still breathing.
Scrambling though his pack, he pulled out a length of rope. The merchant back home who sold him the mud brown cloak said a traveler should always have a length of rope with him. Evander didn’t really know why, but in every story he’d heard the hero always had a rope if need be, so he’d obliged. Thank the gods he did.
He dragged Derein to the foot of the bed and tied her to the post where the bed met the floor. There was no way she could lift it to escape, and she was well away from any tools or knives.
Now he could get some answers.
As he tied her up Evander kept glancing at her pregnant stomach. She had tried to kill him, but he didn’t want to hurt the baby. He didn’t want her to go into labour, either. He knew when pregnant women were under a lot of stress, it could induce an early birth. He’d probably vomit at the sight of blood if it just fell out of her.
There was a basin of water next to the bed with a small cup knocked over next to it. Evander filled the cup, thinking about dumping the entire thing on her. Instead he dipped his fingertips in, and flicked the cold water into her face. It took a moment before Derein stirred away from the water, then jerked awake in surprise.
Even though she was stuck, Evander kept his distance. He didn’t move to help as she awkwardly rose, with her bound hands, to sit on her hip leaning against the bed.
“Why did you tie me up?” she hissed.
“You tried to fucking kill me!”
She paused, but eventually said, “I had to," and looked away.
He wasn’t buying the innocent act anymore.
“Why?” he demanded.
“They told me it was right,” she said softly, “it has to be done for the baby.”
“How does murdering a man help an unborn kid? I wasn’t threatening you. I fixed your bloody roof! And who told you it was right?”
She looked away, uncertain.
“The gods,” she finally met his eyes. “In their own way.”
Evander could only stare dumbfounded. She was crazy.
“You don’t understand.” She insisted, growing uselessly frantic in her ropes. “You don’t know how long it’s been, how much it hurts to have this thing growing inside me! They said the meat would help.”
“How does murdering a person help?”
“Too long, so long, it won’t come out,” she kept saying. Evander could see the fragile mind in her eyes now. Forcing an answer might push her away. A gentler approach was clearly needed.
“You mean the baby, it's been taking too long?” Bring overdue wasn’t uncommon, and he’d heard it became uncomfortable in the later stages.
The way Derein sat hunched over her stomach showed more pain than discomfort. He remembered the chest with the baby clothes. There were hundreds of tiny outfits inside, some looking much older than just a few months.
“Derein,” he said softly, “how long have you been pregnant?”
She didn’t answer right away, but Evander could tell she was thinking. There was enough rationality in her eyes to prove she wasn’t entirely insane. Her mind had cracked a bit, but it wasn’t shattered.
“Five winters,” she finally replied.
His breath caught. He had been expecting a few weeks, maybe a month overdue, not five years.
“I know it’s not possible.” Desperation filled her voice. “It’s also impossible that the babe grew this big in only two months, but it happened!”
She was staring at him wide-eyed, willing him to believe. He didn’t want to, there had to be a reasonable and sane explanation.
“Tell me your story then," he said. "All of it." Evander leaned against the wall, his arms folded, waiting.
“Will you untie me?”
“That depends if I believe your story. I've got all night.”
“It hurts sitting like this though." She was bent, sitting at an awkward angle. If he had tied her hands behind her back, she might have been more comfortable. His sympathy surprised him, but he bit it back this time.
“Too bad.” He folded his arms.
Derein slumped over further and shifted, trying to get comfortable. “Fine." She sighed. "I lived in one of the villages around the forest with my mother and father. It’s about three days from here, but I haven’t set foot there in for so long.
“They were always good to me. Everyone in the village was kind too, nothing remarkable ever really happened. One day, it was Spring I think, I got sick. I was nauseous all the time, there was a horrible pain in my stomach. It’s like a snake was writhing around inside me, and it would bite. When it did, I would be left doubled over, screaming. It hurt so much. My stomach started growing after a week of pain and in two months I was this size.
“Father was furious. Demanding who the father of the bade was, and how it happened. I know how babies are made, but I’ve never.” She couldn’t meet Evander’s eye. “I’ve never done that. Father believed me, but he was just as confused. Mother was scared. I could hear them talking sometimes when I wasn’t in the room. She thought the gods had cursed me with a monster. Father thought so too.
“I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, and I couldn’t even open my bedroom window. Until this little demon was born, I couldn’t leave. The nausea faded, but I still couldn’t eat much. The pain never stopped. Mother said that was normal sometimes. She said when she was pregnant with me that it was mostly pleasant, but sometimes I would kick the wrong way and hurt her.
“I could hardly move, or even sit up. I couldn’t even bend around the pain. You know, how people curl into a ball, I can’t do that. So, I could only sit there, or lay down with mother’s help, in agony waiting for it to rip its way out of me.
“But that never happened. It grew this big, and I thought it was going to kill me, but it didn’t. After three more months I was still in my room just waiting. It grew warm in the summer, and when night fell I risked opening a window. It was dark enough and the village was asleep. So, I lit a candle and practiced my knitting, enjoying the breeze.
“After a couple of hours two boys crept up to my window. I hadn’t known until they saw me. There had been rumours of my sudden illness, and they dared each other to spy on the sick girl. I tried to beg them to stay quiet, but they ran off the moment I spotted them. I shut the window only thinking of how angry father would be.
“That morning I heard the commotion outside. People were yelling at my parents, demanding to see me. Father refused. I heard fighting, then my door flew open. The blacksmith and his son where there and they grabbed me. They dragged me outside and threw me to the ground in front of the entire village. Father was yelling at them to stop, Mother just kept crying.
“They called me a witch and a whore. That I slept with monsters. But I didn’t! They wanted to burn me. And Mother and Father didn’t do anything! They just watched. The blacksmith and his son had always been kind before, but now they were angry and hateful. I was a monster to them.
“The old woman in the village spoke up then. She said killing one of the gods' creatures, whether it was born or not, would curse the village even more.
“It was actually Father who said to banish me, Mother just wailed. Everyone else agreed with him. They pushed me towards the edge of the village towards the trees. I couldn’t see my parents anymore. The kids started throwing rocks at me, like it was a game to them. So, I ran.”
Derein was crying, staring at the floor but not seeing it. Evander sat engrossed in her story, sitting against the cold fireplace.
“Running even hurt, and I didn’t know where to go. I knew which plants and berries were safe to eat, but I never learned how to make a fire. I didn’t have flint anyway. I just walked around the forest. Somehow, I wasn’t eaten by wolves. I was starving, and I kept thinking I was going to lose the weird baby. I didn’t entirely mind at the time.
“I had no sense of direction but I kept walking. I felt that if I stopped I’d end up dead. I found this cabin by accident, and the old woman who lived here, she took me in and gave me food. I told her my family had died in a raid, but I escaped. She was nice and let me stay. I didn’t tell her the truth about the pregnancy. She would have thrown me out.
“She taught me how to hunt rabbits and squirrels with a bow, along with skinning and cooking them. After a couple of months, I could tell she was getting suspicious.
“She would ask if I felt any labour pains, or anything different. I played along, insisted that it had been nine months. She was worried the baby might be dead. She made a tonic that was supposed to make the labour start and force the baby out. I was actually excited. I wanted to see what was growing inside me.”
Derein stopped again, taking a few breaths. The tears stopped, but she still looked withdrawn. Her eyes had grown darker at the thought of the inducing medicine.
“That tonic tasted vile, and it … didn’t work. It was like a giant hand was squeezing the life out of me. I could hardly breathe around the pain and, I laid there screaming for two days.
“The old woman was scared then, knowing the baby wasn’t right, but she saw how much it hurt me, so she let me stay. I miss her.
“When Autumn came she had started complaining about a pain in her chest. One day we were out gathering firewood and without any warning signs she just fell over, gripping her heart. She couldn’t breathe. I could only watch as her face contorted in pain as she died. I managed to bury her by the pine trees; she always liked how they smelled. I started making the notches on the bed that day. I added one for every day after she died. I’m not sure why, just to pass time I think.
“So, I stayed here, waiting for my baby.”
Evander didn’t want to believe her, but he had a feeling if he stayed for six months, maybe even three, she would still be pregnant. He had seen how many clothes she’d made, that many would have had to take years.
“That-that’s . . .” he had no idea how to reply. “I’m so sorry.”
Derein remained silent.
“But that doesn’t explain why you tried to kill me,” Evander said. “You could have sent me away in the morning. I wouldn’t have known anything about the ... baby, or threaten you.”
“I saw how you kept looking at me, how you wanted to help. Were you planning to leave a poor defenseless woman alone and pregnant in the woods?” she accused without sounding angry.
Evander didn’t bother replying, she had basically read his thoughts. The Witch rose in his mind and the connections to cannibalism. She had to have some connection to the witch. Given that she lived in these woods, she might have more information. She told her story, so he might as well be honest about his.
“You have a point,” he said, “but you would have been a murderer. Taking a man’s life who’s been nothing but good to you.”
At least she had the decency to look guilty.
“Anyway, considering we are being honest with each other, like civil adults, I’ll tell you why I came to these woods.”
“Why?” she asked. “I mean, why tell me anything?”
“Because you might have some useful information on the Witch of Katesar woods.”
Derein looked guilty again, and shifted. She groaned, trying to hug her stomach.
“Hold on, if you let me go I’ll tell you everything,” she said grimacing.
“Please! You have no idea how much this hurts,” she begged.
“You won’t attack me again?”
“I won’t, you have my word.”
Evander hesitated, but Derein was on the verge of tears. He approached her, untied the ropes, and he helped her to her feet. She kept one hand under her belly for support. He guided her to the bed then stood away when she was settled. Derein massaged her side that had been bent.
Keeping hold of the rope, just in case, Evander took the basket with the knitting needles off the rocking chair, and put them behind him.
“Now talk,” he said.
Derein relaxed gradually, but she still couldn’t quite look him in the eye.
“I am the Witch,” she admitted.
“How?” His stomach rolled.
“If you asked around more you probably would have found out those stories really started just five years ago. The people of my village twisted my story to keep children out of the woods, or to keep girls from making bad choices, like I supposedly did. The only reason I know is because I went to the other villages for food sometimes. One woman even talked about ‘the girl impregnated by monsters’ to me directly without knowing it was me! So, I played along, even added to the rumours. Since it kept people away I was safe, and so was my baby.”
“But most of the stories were connected to eating people, so you just made up that detail?” It was relieving to think that cannibalism was fiction.
Derein stared at the floor, rocking back and forth slightly.
“That was one of the rumors you made up, right?”
“... I can explain.”
Evander’s heart dropped to the floor. “You murdered people!” She had been willing to kill him moments ago, he shouldn’t have been surprised.
“I didn’t want to.”
“Did you eat them?”
“I . . .”
“Did you eat people?!”
“I would have died in the first winter!”
Derein basically stomped on his heart while it was on the floor. He couldn’t respond.
“The old woman died in Autumn. She never told me what winter alone was like. I stocked up as much as I could, but a lot of the rabbit went bad after a few weeks. I’d go hunting, I wasn’t very good at it, and the baby wasn’t helping. Traveling alone was hard enough. Every now and then the babe would kick, and I’d be left in the dirt screaming, with all of the animals scared away. I was hungry and my baby was probably dying. I could feel him dying, the pain was awful. I found a man in the woods shortly after a bad snow storm. He was already dead, frozen from that blizzard, and he didn’t have any food on him. You don’t know what it’s like to go without food for five days, especially when you’re eating for two. I did what I had to. I got my axe for the fire wood and took his legs. I was just as revolted as you are but my baby was dying. So, I cooked it and ate him. Then the pain stopped, Evander. Not just the hunger but the pain. My baby was fine: alive and well. I know this baby isn’t human, but it’s mine and if it wants human meat, then it doesn’t matter what I want.”
Derein watched him now, daring him to challenge her. Everything timid about her was gone, probably emboldened by finally telling someone her full story.
“So, you kept hunting people.”
“Is it really so different than hunting deer?”
“But the pain stopped. You may see it a wrong, but the gods themselves have blessed me with this child, and if that’s the only way to care for him, and keep the pain at bay, then so be it.”
Evander leaned against the counter, feeling more spent now than he had working on the roof. She must lure people here as she had done to him.
“The meat in the stew?” he had to force himself to finish the question.
“It was human, yes. I would have used rabbit, but there wasn’t enough.”
Evander was retching into the fire pit before she finished talking. He hadn’t had much of the stew, but he’d still eaten some chunks of meat. His thoughts drifted to the thin man in the Bare Tree Inn. He wondered if it was bits of that man’s brother he’d eaten. Evander vomited again.
“Oh, come now, it didn’t taste that bad,” Derein said.