Despite what Mr. Clark said about the man’s story, Noddie’s dreams were haunted by witches, sickness, and a high wall holding her prisoner. She awoke feeling as though she hadn’t slept at all and ate her breakfast of potage at one of the downstairs tables in a daze.
“Will you be staying another night?” Mr. Clark asked, setting a pitcher of milk on the table.
“No. I need to leave for Bocksbay.”
“You’re going to Bocksbay?” Mr. Clark took the pipe from between his teeth.
“You’re certain of the way?”
Noddie put her spoon down. “The main road leads into Bocksbay doesn’t it?”
He chewed on the tip of his pipe. “You’ll have to take a different route. There was a mudslide caused by all the rain this spring, the road’s no longer there and last night’s storm didn’t help matters any. You have a map?”
Mr. Clark walked Noddie outside and directed her outside of town to a different trail weaving south around shallow hills.
“You’ll follow this path for a while before turning west. Consult your map to know when. Then you’ll turn north upon reaching the road. If I recall correctly, the road should take you straight into Bocksbay. It’s not far, but try and make good time so you can settle in before it gets dark.”
Mr. Clark studied her. “You’re sure you’ll be alright?”
“Yes. Thank you for everything, Mr. Clark.”
He shifted and turned the pipe in his hands. “Don’t talk to strangers and stick to the path. Good luck.”
A lone ant sitting in the middle of Lazren’s ballroom wouldn’t have felt so overwhelmed and forlorn as Noddie did then. Desperate to prove herself capable, Noddie rubbed her eyes and trekked down the overgrown path. The day was warm. The wind having died with last night’s storm. After stumbling along for several hours Noddie found a shady place to rest. Pulling out the map, she located the crossroads where she was to turn west, by her reckoning an hour or two away. She ate a small lunch and returned to the trail.
But after several hours there was no sign of the crossroads. Trees appeared and the path turned rocky. Noddie grew concerned. This didn’t seem right at all. Where was she? After consulting the map, she figured she must have strayed from the original path, continuing farther south until reaching the western end of a vast forest.
Collapsing onto a boulder, Noddie rubbed her face in frustration. It’s all right, she told herself. I just have to turn back and find the right path again. She followed the path back the way she came. But instead of getting lighter and thinner, the forest grew darker and denser. The path becoming smooth and wide. Old trees towered over her with twisted trunks, and their gnarled branches and a curtain of dying leaves blocked the fading sunlight as unseen creatures scurried about.
She had not passed this way coming in. But no matter which direction she turned she ended up among the same sagging trees. Finally she was forced to admit to herself that, despite her map, she was desperately lost.
With a whine of disappointment Noddie stuffed the useless map back into her bag. Her steps became slower and her feet grew heavy as though she were wading through mud. A chilled wind blew toward her from farther up the path with a low howl as if trying to push her back. The branches swayed, emitting a deep moan and the clammy air held the dead scent of rotting wood and drowned, soggy leaves
The hairs on the back of Noddie’s neck stood on end. A faint hissing came from the dark canopy, as though someone were whispering frightening words nearby. Was that the movement of the leaves?
She didn’t like this forest and, not for the first time, wished she was not alone. Night was descending like a curtain. Perhaps she should try turning back again?
Startled she looked up and spotted a dark crow sitting on a low-hanging branch. He was big for a crow and sat more still than any bird she had ever seen. Noddie couldn’t bring herself to move. Her whole body became heavy as stone. She recalled the man’s words from the witch’s story, “some say she turned herself into a crow and you can see her flying overhead on dark nights, placing a curse on any traveler who dares wander down a forest path alone.”
“It’s just a myth,” She whispered to herself.
The crow flapped its wings and began to screech. His cawing cry sounded like laughter, becoming louder and louder until it built itself into a ruckus.
Then a voice, more frightening and unexpected than the crow’s outbursts, overrode the bird’s racket.
“TRESPASSER! You are trespasser.”
The voice sounded female and came from everywhere and nowhere. The crow silenced at once, staring down at Noddie with narrowed yellow eyes.
Trembling, Noddie tried to run, but her body would not move. A heavy weight was on her chest as if she were being held in a giant fist. Why couldn’t she move? Lost in panic she tried to force her muscles to cooperate, but to no avail. She was stuck.
“What is your business here?”
There was a lump in Noddy’s throat. She swallowed hard, but couldn’t remember how to speak.
There was a sly smile in the next words, “Forward then, lost wanderer.”
The pressure lifted as the giant fist released her. A gasp escaped her lungs as she stumbled forward. She wanted to run, but an invisible wall appeared at her back preventing her from turning around. Then her feet carried her forward independent to her will. Her bones ached as she tried to fight it and tears of confusion gathered in the corners of her eyes.
She passed beneath the crow’s branch. It hadn’t moved a muscle since the voice spoke, watching unconcerned as she struggled.
The road narrowed again, becoming soft and spongy. As she turned a corner, Noddie found herself on the edge of a bog, surrounded by rotting trees, sagged down in mourning. Carvings of strange symbols and creatures with sharp teeth and pointed jaws were etched into the trunks. Candles hung from the branches, with strings of beads, dried bones, and an occasional snake skin.
The water was black as tar and in its center sat a crude sort of dwelling; a wooden shack with a thatched roof and a crooked, blackened chimney. It was built on stilts, although half of it had sunk down into the depths of the bog. The same ciphers carved into the trees were painted on the sides of the walls in vivid red, with tearstain trails left from heavy drips.
With vertigo due to lack of control Noddie was forced up a warped boardwalk to the door, clinging to the thick, scratchy rope to keep herself from sliding into the bog. The door had no handle. But as Noddie’s fingers brushed the splintered wood it squealed open sounding like a corroded torture device.
Once inside, Noddie’s eyes darted about like startled fish, taking in everything at once. The shack was one large room with a twisted staircase at the back. More strings of beads and bones hung from cobweb-infested rafters with bottles, rusted cages, and bundles of herbs and roots. Wax dripped down the golden candelabras from tired candle stubs. In contrast, piles of silver and gold crowded the room. Across tables and broken chairs lay every gem one could think of, coins, jewelry boxes, rings, and goblets.
But Noddie only had eyes for the back of the room where a long dark-stained, table separated her from a women slumped, in a chair crafted of bones and dyed animal skins as though it were a throne.
Her gray hair hung in filthy clumps around her wrinkled face and ragged shawls draped across her shoulders.
One wouldn’t think an old woman would be so threatening, but she was. Her sharp, red eyes were piercing and her twisted smile, which contained missing or rotted teeth, made Noddie’s knees go weak.
Noddie jumped as the door behind her slammed, trapping her inside.
The woman scratched her flaky neck. “Haven’t had visitors in a long time. Most don’t come this way. Pity you didn’t know any better.”
Her voice was the same one Noddie heard in the woods. She stared at the woman, paralyzed by fear.
“What would your name be, dearie?”
Noddie kept her silence.
The woman motioned with a boney, discolored finger, “Come closer.”
Noddie, once again, found herself obeying against her will, coming to a stop before the table holding a few strange, yet enticing, objects.
Sitting back in her chair and placing her fingertips together the women studied her for a moment.
“Do you know who I am?” She asked.
Noddie shook her head.
“I am the swamp witch. The one they call Isca. You have trespassed on my land. There is a price for that.”
There was an insane fluttering and the crow appeared again. It settled itself on a perch behind the witch’s shoulder, watching Noddie like the grim reaper. Isca leaned forward and rapped her long, chipped nails on the tabletop.
Noddie wished she could flee, but terror and sorcery held her captive. She was at the witch’s mercy.
The rapping stopped.
“Such a lovely girl.” Isca cooed sickly. “Such a lovely girl must have a lovely name, why don’t you tell me what it is?”
When Noddie held her tongue the witch’s eye twitched. Then, renewing what she must have assumed was a motherly expression she reached over and took up a golden box, holding it out for Noddie to see.
“Do you like my treasures, dearie? This one is a favorite of mine. What do you make of it?”
She opened the box and it began to play a slow twinkling tune. The music twanged in Noddie’s ears and gradually her fear dissolved. Her mind became muffled with a white fog. The box was empty, but the bottom of the lid was reflective. Noddie saw her own relaxed face peering back at her as the tune twinkled on, faster than before, becoming distant as a second thought.
She began to feel sleepy. The reflection in the box began to shimmer and something about it drew her towards it. There was something there, beyond the mirror. She brought her hand up to touch it. To feel it. To find out what it was that called to her. Her fingertips were inches from its cool, light surface.
“DON’T TOUCH IT!”
The voice was stern and commanding. Reality rushed back to her in a jolt as if the mirror before her had suddenly shattered. Whatever spell held her captive broke.
Cursing, the witch shut the box with a snap. She turned to look in the direction of the voice.
A boy stood casually by the stairs. Glaring at the witch, he moved forward into the light.
Mesha strode past Noddie without looking at her. He placed his palms on the tabletop, and leaned toward Isca.
The witch leaned back away from him. Looking at him as though he were a moldy slice of bread she had been told to eat.
“Oh no, not you again.”
There was no fear or apprehension from Mesha. He wore a cocky smile and his demeanor portrayed that he was the one in authority.
“Not causing trouble again are we, Isca?”
Isca spat on the table between them. “She intruded into my territory. The just rights are mine.”
“Perhaps. But I would advise you leave this one alone, for your own benefit,” Mesha said, straightening and folding his arms. He had yet to look at Noddie, who stood lost off to the side.
Isca smirked as her eyes darted from Noddie to Mesha.
“A friend of yours, Mesha? What’s her name?”
“That is not for you to know,” Mesha answered, his voice deep with warning. “Besides, I was referring to the fact that it would sap your strength another level. Bringing you another step downward.”
Isca exploded at these words. She stood, her hair flying around her as she screamed curses and strange words that hurt Noddie’s ears.
Mesha didn’t even flinch. In fact, he didn’t react at all, he just stood patiently waiting for her eruption of rage to subside.
When the witch’s outburst died she was breathing heavily. Her eyes glowed red as she glared at Mesha, who continued calmly. “You may hate to admit it, and despise to be reminded, but the fact remains that your time is coming to an end. With every passing minute your magic is dripping from you like water from a rusted bucket. Age has kept you prisoner too long. At the rate you’re going, your time to pass over is going to come as a hand from the darkness when you least expect it.”
“Filthy, interfering brat! The day I cursed you I cursed myself.”
Mesha smiled. “Curses have a way of doing that.”
Isca slumped into her chair seething. Her narrow eyes traveled back to Noddie, who stiffened.
“Or perhaps not,” the witch pondered. “Come here, dearie.”
Noddie took a tentative step forward.
Mesha was alert, watching Noddie and the witch carefully with a slight frown.
Isca studied Noddie closely as if she were a poem the witch would have to recite from memory later. Then she spoke. “Under the circumstances I have decided to let you off despite your offending fault. And because you’ve been such a lovely guest I’m going to give you a little . . . parting gift.”
Isca stood and walked over to a small, dilapidated cupboard on the wall. Reaching in, she retrieved a treasure sitting on a shelf all its own. She smirked at the object in her hand before turning around and holding it up so they could see it clearly.
Between two of Isca’s long fingers was some sort of bottle, but Noddie had never seen a bottle like it. Each part of the thick glass was a different color. With a disk-like bottom, it then bulged out, like a beaker twice with a skinny neck near the top, and ended in a twisted point. There was no way to open it, and every inch of space inside was filled with a clear liquid.
“Go on,” Isca whispered, holding the object out to Noddie. “Take it.”
Noddie looked at Mesha for guidance. His expression was blank. Then he nodded. She reached forward and took the bottle from Isca’s fingers.
Isca’s gift didn’t make her feel any different. On the contrary, it sat lightly in her hand as if it were no more than a bizarre tonic bottle.
Isca resumed her seat. “It will bring protection. Put it in your pocket.”
When Noddie sent another questioning gaze his way, Mesha gestured with his hand in a motion of reluctant approval.
Feeling uncomfortable with them watching her, Noddie wrapped the bottle in her handkerchief and slipped it into her skirt pocket.
“If I were you I would keep it close at all times and, this is important, dearie, whatever you do, don’t break it!”
Isca leaned her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her intertwined fingers. She smiled as she continued to stare shrewdly at Noddie. “Look around, dearie. My great treasures. Given as offerings and gifts to me in days of old, all to be taken by rust and dust at my passing. Such a fine collection, and yet it is not whole. Some years ago, when I began to age and weaken I was tricked and robbed pitilessly. The fiends took over half my treasures leaving me with practically nothing!”
The witch’s anger was rising to the surface again, huffing before she continued. “Fools. They were ignorant of the true treasure they stole, and although I know not where they keep it, I do know they paid the price of stealing from a witch.”
She leaned back in her chair. “I can see you’re going to be very useful to me, dearie.” She smirked at Mesha. “Find my stolen treasure and you’ll find your answers, Mesha. Who knows? Maybe the girl might find it!”
Isca gave a high cackling laugh, which was much too loud and much too strong for a women so old.
In the din of her boisterous laughter, a chill ran down Noddie’s spine. Something told her that when Isca had said, “it” she was not referring to treasure.