Chapter 4: A Witch Among Us
Villagers within the Kingdom had always known the stories about the forest, passed down for generations as warnings to their children. Many called it ’The Forest of Ghosts,” or sometimes even, “The Forest of Lost Souls.” While many men found it tempting to enter, some were terrified and dared not to step foot into the dreaded forest alone. It was much easier to lose one’s way than to find a source of light within.
However, long before the forest existed there sat in its place the best of all the lands: beautiful hills, green fields, and the riches soil. At the center of it was a flourishing town called Prosper. Many traveled from far away to enjoy the food Prosper had to offer. They were equally eager to barter for their healthy livestock. Prosper truly lived up to its name.
With the success of their land, and having been spared from any kind of famine or drought, the townspeople of Prosper were full of life. They would gather for many festivals and large feasts for any and all occasions. They had much in common and gave to one another as needed.
Chief among them was the Butcher. He was a natural leader of men. He was respected and admired for his wisdom and his strong sense of morality. He took great pride in his ethic and unwillingness to compromise in his beliefs. He only knew of one way of doing things, his way.
For many years, his wisdom was sought after by his fellow townsmen needing to settle disputes over trade, land, or even matters of the heart. Unfortunately, it was this very wisdom which brought about the fall of this great town.
One morning, the Butcher and his family were awakened by loud bangs at his door. Upon opening the door he saw two men, both wide eyed and shaking as if they were cold or had seen a ghost.
“What is the meaning of this?” He demanded.
“Please, come quickly. We came upon something you should see. This could bring a disaster to our town!”
“Then show me at once.”
The excitement of the men had awakened others curious to see what the commotion was all about. Many even followed behind the Butcher. The men led him down a hill where they could see, at a distance, a small enclosed area of trees which had not been there before.
“Do you see there?” The men asked him.
“I see smoke arising out from the top of those trees. Is it a fire you are in fear of?”
“No, the fire burns…not of the trees, but from a small fire that sits in front of a house.”
“And how can you tell there is a home dwelling within those trees. Even from our sights standing on this hill I see not a house.”
The men were frozen and looked as though they were counting in their heads.
“I know not how those trees have appeared so rapidly,” the Butcher continued, “nor do I know the one residing amongst those very trees. However, those are of little concern to me. What bothers me most is I do not yet understand why you have caused such a panic in our town. What is it you are so afraid of?”
“Please understand, if only under those circumstances we would not have bothered you at such an hour as this.”
“Well then, on with it, what troubles you?”
“Please, again, understand if we ever had the slightest of doubt we would not make such an accusation as the one we are about to make.”
“And you must understand that I do not take too kindly to anticipation such as this when there has already been enough build up to satisfy even the most single-minded of thinkers.”
“Very well…there were not so many trees when we first saw them,” they explained, “there were but only a handful. We could see the house and an oddness of sorts surrounding it. But now, it is overrun by trees. Brother, there is an evil among us! Living so near to our own homes, the homes of our families and dear friends, within these very woods you see before you is a home occupied by a witch.”
The townspeople in attendance all gasped at the same time.
“Yes, a heavy accusation this is,” the Butcher explained, “one with the penalty of death by our laws should your accusation of witchery prove false! Are you sure you have considered the cost of what you are saying? Rest assure, if and when your speculation proves otherwise, prepare to be held accountable.”
“By all that stands, we are fully aware and
swear to it by our own children. We know this to be true.”
“Very well, we mustn’t wait any longer.”
In no time at all, most of the townspeople had arrived to witness the spectacle. What had begun as whispers quickly turned into loud outbursts and hysterics by different members of the community. Many feared, even speculated, but they found assurance in their leader.
Leading the way, like a Shepherd leading his flock, was the Butcher. He marched forward, eyes full of determination. The closer he approached the trees, the louder something inside of him screamed. He wrestled with his thoughts, trying to act as though his heart and mind were steady in dealing with such a wild notion as provoking a witch. He needed to look confident and strong for his people. They depended on him too much for him to waiver. Having played out different scenarios, he had already decided what must be done, witch or not.
Standing at the foot of the trees, the Butcher closely examined them. With his eyes, he could count a hundred crows sitting on their branches deep within. Their eyes were fixed on the Butcher as if they were expecting him. With his ears, he could hear the trees stretching as they were growing before him. His feet could feel a small trembling. Roots were expanding underneath, as well as new trees beginning their ascent. With his hands, he felt the bark of the trees, their afterbirth still fresh. With his nose, he could smell a foul odor coming from within the tree line. He turned back only to see the rest of the townspeople standing far away in fear and awe.
He exchanged no words with them but simply gave a nod before turning one last time to face the trees. With his right foot he stepped forward, breaking the tree line.
Immediately, the crows were restless. They threatened an attack on the Butcher by swarming him violently, inches away from his whole body. They could have just as easily killed him if they wanted, but they didn’t. Instead, they went back to their places on the trees. There, they could once again sit and watch the Butcher as he had made his way in, letting him know he would be allowed to pass through. He took a deep breath before he moved forward.
The air was thick, heavy. Fog had risen from the ground continuously and with every step he took the forest expanded, as if it could have been infinite. He realized it was no ordinary forest and magic must have had its hand in creating it. It was a place of its own, like another world.
Along the way, he heard what sounded to him to be a faint howl, a whimpering. He followed the sound and found an injured wild dog. Its leg looked twisted. Being a butcher, he was familiar with the anatomies of many animals. He wanted to examine the leg so he approached the animal slowly, trying to assure it of his intention.
The animal growled at him at first sight but was in too much pain to put up a fight. In its despair, it allowed him to examine its leg.
“With a couple of snaps, a splinter, and some time, this animal should indeed return to its natural state,” he thought to himself.
He made two quick snaps producing a loud cry from the dog. The creature licked his hands to show its appreciation.
“Good boy,” he said, “Let me find something to mend this. Maybe we can even find a home for you.”
The Butcher wandered off to find the right materials. While in search he heard several dogs viciously barking from the same direction as the wounded animal. He dropped what he had gathered and raced quickly back to the scene. It was too late. Three other wild dogs stood over the lame one, digging their teeth into its flesh. There was no sense for him to try and break them up. The animal was dead and the moment was his chance to sneak away unnoticed by the other dogs.
Farther in, the air was colder and the crows, having been perched in their trees, were dropping dead one by one. Some of their bodies burst on impact, exposing the worms already inside of them feasting away. Another, and then more. Hundreds had fallen and not before long, the ground was covered by them. The Butcher had no choice but to walk atop the dead, rotting creatures.
He could smell smoke and knew he was close. This was the motivation he needed. However, his self-assurances were growing weaker by the distractions of the forest and the fears accompanied with them.
He took a deep breath again, trying to stay calm. Suddenly, a thousand voices screaming in agony surrounded him, coming from all directions. He heard cries for help and the sounds of a crackling fire. The Butcher, filled with panic, covered his ears and yelled as loud as he could in an attempt to drown them out, but they were too much to handle. The louder he screamed, the more the voices intensified. He picked up his pace and ran as fast as he could toward the smell of the smoke.
There were terrible things all around. In front of him were the haunting images of death. The dead spirits of the people he once knew, even those he knew to still be alive. They all screamed for him to save them. Their bodies were ghostly, almost completely transparent. They were disfigured having horrific scars and missing limbs.
The noise did not stop, and so he continued to run for what felt like the amount of time it would take to get to another village.
As he had come upon a dense fog, the ground shook violently with the screams. He was afraid to jump in the fog because he could not see through it. There was nothing visible beyond its outer wall.
He had run out of options. He was trapped, surrounded now by the dead spirits and their pain. The ghastly figures approached him with their arms stretched out, still screaming in agony, pleading with him. He could not bear it any longer. He had no choice but to jump through the fog and face the unknown.
All at once, the voices stopped. The forest was silent. He stood for a short time, both relieved and worried, trying to catch his breath. It was as if all life froze around him. He feared for what other kinds of black magic the forest was ready to offer him. Still, he was not yet ready to admit defeat, nor ready to admit to his regrettable actions. He had already decided what needed to be done and there was no going back for him. His people depended on him too much.
The smell of the fire was undeniable. He knew he would stumble upon it any moment. He followed through the abyss and before he could finally see the faint outline of a house the fog slowly dissipated.
In front of him was a small and unimpressive fire, but the smoke rising from it was frightening. It was nothing like it appeared when he was at the top of the hill. Rather, it resembled a whirlwind spinning in all directions shooting straight into a night sky. There were flashes of lightning and the smell of burning sulfur coming from within. The heat given off was overwhelming.
Around the flame sat large stones, large enough for a person to lie down on. Although the Butcher entered the forest in the early morning he could see the constellations mapped directly above the house.
There was a clearing around the house unlike anywhere else in the forest. The moon was full and very bright. It all felt otherworldly to him. As if he was in a different state of existence. All he had known to be true was lost forever.
The house itself looked old and frail. The windows were open but there was only darkness inside. As he stood in awe of the sight, he could smell a faint odor. At first, he thought nothing of it until it started to sting with every breath he needed to take. He covered his mouth and nose as best he could. It did not matter. He looked for the source, but found nothing in front of him to be guilty of it. That is, until he looked down.
His feet were like rotted flesh inhabited by the worms and maggots of the earth. The Butcher tried in vain to shake off the insects. He reached down with his hands only to notice they were infected as well. To his horror, he could feel his face melting away. The man could no longer withstand the agony. His mind and body gave out on him.
As he lay on the ground, his blurred vision caught a glimpse of the door to the old house. It was open.