Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Wrong Door



I write this because by the time anyone reads it, there won’t be anything they can do.

It began when I opened the basement door the wrong way.  Before, it pulled open to the downstairs.  But I was drunk that night and wanted to get drunker, so I had to get where I keep the beer cold, down in the basement.  I pushed on the door.  Putting a sign up telling me to pull wouldn’t have helped—I was drunk beyond reading.  I pushed and pushed.  A right door would’ve held closed or its hinges would’ve strained or broken, but this was no right door.  I pushed and cursed until it swung the wrong way.
What I saw was not my basement.  It got me sober right quick.  The stairs weren’t the kind that went down, for one thing.  They did go down, but they were angled to go up, like if I crossed onto them I would’ve swung around.  Like gravity was fucked beyond the door and down the stairs.  What they descended into reminded me of a TV show I saw where they opened up some woman’s tumor, all tissue and teeth and hair and eyes.  Those eyes looked at me.
I pulled the door shut.  Then I pulled it open, but see, it was too late then.  I’d opened something I shouldn’t have, an opening that was more than the door itself, and there was no closing it.  This was told to me soon enough, but somewhere in the depths of being drunk, I already knew there was no going back.
The next morning said hello with a hangover and a knock on the front door.  The knock came from a man in a suit, and he had friends.  Not the kind of suit you probably think I should be in after seeing a toothy tumor in my basement.  These were government spooks, though what government, I couldn’t say.  They showed me their credentials whenever I asked, and they always looked official, but I could never remember what they looked like.  Even now, I can’t recall.
They told me that because I was the asshole who opened the way to her little nook of the universe, it was my responsibility to keep her there.  We had some back and forth, but eventually I got the message—what I’d seen was real and it was my problem.
There were two rules.  Keep the basement door closed except when feeding her and to feed her what they brought—everything they brought and nothing else.
That night, they brought a body.  He was an older man in his sixties with a big gray beard, I remember that, and best I can tell, that was the last time I saw one of her meals as a person.  I cried.  I’m man enough to admit it.  But the spooks stayed and saw the job through.  They said I’d be tried for treason if I didn’t and I had no need to be court martialed again.  I did what I was told, but I didn’t pretend I was happy about it.
The thing is, she doesn’t really have a mouth.  She probably has all the pieces you need for a mouth, somewhere, but not in one place.  When I tossed that bearded man in his sixties through the basement door (and I swear it looked like he floated up) it was her hair that grabbed him.  It squeezed him inside its locks, against her red muscles, between her eyes and teeth, and sort of crushed and rubbed him until he was creamy enough for her to slurp, bones and all.
That is the worst sound I will ever hear.
The second worst was the knock on the door.  Those spooks have a slow, obnoxious knock.  They knew I was living on a pension and had my food delivered—they must have, because they never arrived at the same time as the mailman, the grocery boy, girl scouts, any of them.  Always alone, whenever they wanted, day or night.
Whenever they wanted, not when she wanted.  I could tell she was hungry because of the smell, a rotten eggs mixed with animal musk kind of a smell.  It got so bad once that even when the spooks finally brought the body, I couldn’t bring it to the basement.  The smell of death on that body was nicer than the smell coming from her.  Of course, I had to bring him eventually.  The smell’s from a gas she gives off.  The spooks wouldn’t tell me this, even when I asked.  I sorted it out for myself.  The smell’s the sign, but the gas does worse than stink.  It gets in the skin.  First you get a dark ring.  Then a bump.  Soon you’re leaking yellow and that was enough to get me to open the door and feed her.  The smell stopped and the rings faded in a day or so.
I didn’t delay feeding again her for a while.  I couldn’t if I tried.  The spooks used to bring a body once a week or so.  But then they came knocking twice a week.  Then three times.  Then it was daily.  Then I lost track.  They’d come two, three times a day.  Or night, for that matter.  Feed her, feed her, always that.  They’d bring men, women, children.  If I asked how they died, the spooks would say it was a car crash, or a mob hit, or political enemies of their leader.  People who were dead anyway.  I started to wonder how many of them were killed for her.
And then I started to wonder if it was even for her.  There had to be a benefit to having her around.  Kill the people they don’t like, get rid of the evidence.  They had a leader to answer to, at the very least.  If that was so, maybe they weren’t above the law.  Could be this had nothing to do with keeping her fed and everything to do with the spooks and their desires.
If all that was true, it made sense why early on they would let her go hungry.  They didn’t care about feeding her.  They just wanted a place to put their bodies, and if a time came that they didn’t have any bodies to toss, she went hungry.  Like I mentioned, she has no mouth.  She can’t cry.  Best she can do is give off that smell.  It’s not fair.  I wasn’t brought up without a sense of honor, and even though our good government took some of that honor away from me once, damned if I’ll let them do it again.
That leads me to this night.  Halloween night.  This morning I left the basement door open.  I know she can move, at least a little, and I’ve heard her down there.  She’s working her way up here.
The air’s thick with her smell.  I still hate it, but I’ve gotten used to it, and I don’t hate her.  She was left in a prison to starve, a neglected animal in a cage.  She wants to hunt.  I know the feeling.  For me it was wrong.  I represented something greater than my own little life and I stained its image with what I did.  But she belongs to no military, no government.  Her allegiance is to herself.  The spooks brought her their leftovers, like they always do, but I think she wants live prey.  She’s coming up here to get it.
The work is done now.  I didn’t feed her the bodies.  Neighborhood kids think those are decorations in the trees, covered in stained sheets.  They think the bloodstains on my porch are fake.  They think my leaky sores are a costume.  They like me.  They’ll come to my house for treats.
I’d like to see the spooks wring their pencil-pushing hands, see them try to cover this up.  Everybody’s going to know.  Everybody’s going to see her hunt.  Well, not everybody.  I’m not leaving this house except to mail this off and when I come back, I’ll wait for her.  Give her a whiff of live prey.  It’s what she wants and after I’ve starved her for a week, it’s only fair she gets the one she’s seen at the door, but couldn’t taste.  I gave her my apologies.  I’ll make up for it when I get home.
Tonight the kids will come trick-or-treating and they’ll come to my door looking for me to hand them candy, but I’ll be gone.  She’ll be here and she’ll be to the front door by then.  And she’ll be hungry.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

News: Hello, Stranger

Hey there, people.  Been a while.  Surprise news--I'm not dead!  Although if I was and still managed to post this, I'd consider it an accomplishment.

Anyway, between some financial issues and other kinds, work on the site and stories has kind of fallen behind.  At the moment I'm doing work on another novel, work ranging from light preference editing to heavy revision and rewrites, depending on the chapter.  I won't say all my time has been eaten, especially with some difficulties caused by the government shutdown, but it has been eating at my energy.

Let me be clear that the site is not over and done.  It's just not my top priority right now and my creative energy is mainly being put towards this other project.  I still intend to write stories to post on Looking for the Witch.  But I don't know when, or what they'll be--more fairy tales?  Perhaps.  Not sure if they'll be like the ones already on the site or something else entirely.  Or a mish-mash.  It's hard to say.  I do what to continue entertaining the people who come here to read a good story.  I appreciate everyone who has been following for this long.

I will be posting a story this week.  I unfortunately can't promise when the next one will come.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gravely Good



The gravedigger Mr. Good had little good to say to the living.  On days when he needed food or supplies, he strolled through the village streets, paid his money, and went back to the graveyard without a word passing through his lips unless someone spoke to him.  The words returned from Mr. Good weren’t kind.
“Good morning, sir,” the baker said when Mr. Good came for bread.
“It will be a good morning when I take your measurements.”
“Getting yourself something to eat?” the butcher’s wife asked when Mr. Good had his food in hand.
“That’s plain to see, unless your body’s rotted so greatly that your eyes fell out of their sockets.”
“In a bad mood again, sir?” a young boy asked.
“Hardly any other kind is appropriate in this village.”
Mr. Good eventually reached the graveyard and sighed with relief.  After a short meal, he went to work with the people whose company he preferred—the dead.  He dug graves, selected wooden coffins, and set to work putting people in them.  Wakes and funerals were held in the church, for no one in mourning would benefit from Mr. Good’s presence, and he liked to put the bodies in the ground with his own personal care.
“There now, sweet one,” he said to a silent man, dead three days from a knife wound in the gut.  “All is taken care of, all set to lie still, and all’s well for you in the earth.”
He finished three graves that day and felt he’d done a proper day’s work by evening as he sat down at his table for supper, when suddenly the wind picked up, blowing out his candles.  Then a harsh knock echoed from his front door.  “Has someone died?” he called, standing from his table.  “Someone had better have died, because I’m in no mood for the living at this moment.”
Someone had indeed died—many, in fact, on different days, in different months, and in different years.  The ghosts of the graveyard lingered at Mr. Good’s doorway, arisen from all the graves he’d cared for in all his many years of service.
“Good evening, Mr. Good,” the throng of spirits said, their voices echoing through the house and on the wind, through tree branches and over headstones.  “We’re happy to see you’re well.  Together, we’ve devoted a lot of thought to you, as you’ve devoted care and kindness to us, and we’ve decided you belong with us.”
“I belong with you?” Mr. Good asked, surprisingly unafraid for having seen a ghost or two hundred.  “You mean—”
“In death, Mr. Good.”
The fear found Mr. Good at last and he slammed his front door shut, as if that could keep the ghosts out.  A few slid through the cracks in the door’s wood, while others emerged from beneath the door, and still more appeared at the windows, smiling their ghastly smiles and waving their sheet-white hands.
“Come now, Mr. Good,” the ghosts said.  “You’ve treated us well for all these years, but the living have suffered your presence and you have only suffered from theirs.  No one benefits from your continued living.”
“I should have a say in this,” Mr. Good said.  “I bury the dead and that’s a help to both the dead and the living.  I must be the caretaker.  Many people appreciate me.”
“Is that so?”  The cluster of ghosts grew dense, as if the spirits were all pressing against each other to share their thoughts and feelings.  “We’ll give you a chance to show us, Mr. Good.  Tomorrow, you may go out, still one of the living, and find one living person to vouch for you that their life has been better because of you.  If you’ve found no one by the time the sun sets, we’ll take you with us, where you belong.”  The ghosts then parted like leaves blown in the wind and slunk away from the house, back to their graves.
Mr. Good scarcely slept at all that night, worried over the ghosts’ demand.  He didn’t want to die, as is the case with most living things, especially not for the sake of accompanying the dead.  He liked them for being quiet, for not asking him inane questions, for being put in the ground peacefully.  “Who would vouch for me when they’re too busy pestering me?” he asked himself.
In the morning he went into the village, in need of a miracle rather than supplies.  He found the baker at his shop and approached the storefront with a bowed head.  The baker said nothing, as if he didn’t notice Mr. Good, and the gravedigger coughed out a greeting.  “Sir, I’m in a predicament.  I need someone to vouch for my good use in this world before sunset, or else the dead will claim me as one of theirs.   Would you come to the graveyard and tell them I’m a good man?”
The baker roared with laughter.  “You’ve been spending too much time in your graves, Mr. Good,” he said once he’d calmed down.  “Besides, how could I vouch for the quality of a man so indignant and cross that he can’t wish his fellow man a good morning?”
Not to waste his precious remaining hours, Mr. Good stormed away from the baker without a word and soon came to the butcher’s shop, where he found the butcher’s wife.  “Madam, I’m in a predicament.  I need someone to vouch for my good use in this world before sunset, or else the dead will claim me as one of theirs.   Would you come to the graveyard and tell them I’m a good man?”
The butcher’s wife chortled.  “You’ve been spending too much time in your graves, Mr. Good,” she said, still chuckling.  “Besides, how could I vouch for the quality of a man so stern and unapproachable to his fellows that he can’t answer a simple question?”
Refusing to give up, Mr. Good blustered away and ended up running into the child he’d met yesterday.  “Little one, I’m in a predicament.  I need someone to vouch for my good use in this world before sunset, or else the dead will claim me as one of theirs.   Would you come to the graveyard and tell them I’m a good man?”
The child snickered.  “You’ve been spending too much time out there, Mr. Good,” he said, giggling.  “And I’m supposed to vouch for a man so angry that he doesn’t even know how he feels?”  Mr. Good was about to run off and find someone else when the child spoke up again.  “I suppose I could vouch for you, if you’ll do me some favors.”
Spiteful words clambered over Mr. Good’s tongue, ready to spring like poisoned arrows into the little boy’s ears, but then Mr. Good glanced back down the road he’d walked and saw the distant gates of the graveyard.  The dead would only wait until sundown.  “Very well, child,” Mr. Good grumbled.  “What can I do for you?”
“First, get me a meat pie,” the child said.  “And you’ll address me as sir.”
“Yes.  Sir.”  Mr. Good led the child back to the butchery, where the butcher’s wife was busy making meat pies.  “One meat pie for the boy.”
“What’s this, Mr. Good?” the butcher’s wife asked.  “Doing kindnesses for children all of a sudden?”
“It’s an agreement,” Mr. Good said with a tired voice.  He paid for the pie and handed it to the child.  “There is your pie.  Now, come with me to the graveyard.”
“This one’s crust is too blackened,” the boy said, tossing the pie on the ground.  “Get another—a better one.”
Mr. Good’s fists shook, wishing to box the boy’s ears, but the boy smiled and the gravedigger remembered their deal.  He bought the boy another meat pie and strode off with him before he could demand a different one.  The boy ate the pie in a flash and at the moment they passed the bakery, he said, “Now I want a sweet pie.”
“You’ve already had one, you bottomless brat,” Mr. Good said with a hiss.
“You don’t seem to want to see tomorrow.”
Grinding his teeth and muttering under his breath, Mr. Good approached the baker.  “One sweet pie for the boy.”
“What’s this, Mr. Good?” the baker asked.  “Doing kindnesses for children all of a sudden?”
“I am a slave to my good nature,” Mr. Good grumbled.  He paid for the pie and handed it to the child.  “There is your pie.  Now, come with me to the graveyard.”
“This one’s a blueberry pie,” the boy, tossing the pie on the ground.  “I wanted apple.”
Mr. Good’s feet twitched, wishing to kick the boy’s rump, but the boy smiled and the gravedigger remembered their deal.  He bought the boy another sweet pie, this one made with apples, and strode off with him before he could demand a different one.  The boy ate the pie in a flash, but by then they’d arrived at the graveyard’s gates.
“Enough stalling,” Mr. Good said, leading the child inside.  “Tell the dead that I should be kept alive.  I’ve done your favors.”
“Just one more thing,” the boy said.  “I want money.  Then I can buy my own pies.”
Mr. Good rolled his eyes and emptied his pockets, handing the boy several coins of different metals.
“No, no, this isn’t enough.  Surely you have more coins than this.”
“All I have left are my savings.”
“Then let’s fetch them.”
Mr. Good’s heart quaked, grateful that he’d never had children.  He fetched a shovel, led the boy to an unmarked grave, and dug through the dirt until he found a small, iron box.  Inside were all the coins Mr. Good had put aside over the years.  His heart sinking heavily, he handed the box to the boy.
“This is wonderful,” the boy said dully.  “Still, it’s not enough.”
“It’s all I have!” Mr. Good cried.
“Don’t you have wages?”
“I receive my wages from the lord, several miles from here.”
The boy smiled.  “Then we’d best start out riding or I won’t be here in time to vouch for you.”
Mr. Good’s entire body shuddered with anger and suddenly his arms swung the shovel down, clonking the boy on the head.  He dropped instantly, spilling his body and Mr. Good’s coins over the dirt.  “Of all the tricks, of all the hells, of all the horrors,” he growled, gathering up his savings into the box again.  “Of all the people I’ve known, you are the worst, you despicable little boy!”
The boy didn’t move.  Mr. Good crept close and touched the boy’s wrist and neck, but he felt no pulse.  The frown on the gravedigger’s face softened, the hatred ebbed from his heart, and his arms gently lifted the dead boy into his arms.  “Don’t worry now,” he said soothingly.  “No worries now, child.  That terrible hunger of yours will cease forever.”  Bending carefully, he laid the boy into the grave where his money had been buried and picked up his shovel.  “All is taken care of, all set to lie still, and all’s well for you in the earth.”  He was about to toss the first shovel’s worth of dirt onto the body when he heard voices.
“Mr. Good, are you in?” the baker called.  “We’ve come to pay a visit.”
“We felt sorry for turning you away earlier,” the butcher’s wife said, approaching the gravedigger and the grave.  “It’s not right to say you should be kinder and then not show kindness ourselves when you need it.”
The two stopped short when they saw the body of child who’d accompanied Mr. Good earlier to their shops.  He dropped the shovel and his mouth searched desperately for an explanation, but all he said was, “You would’ve done the same.”
The baker and the butcher’s wife ran shouting back into the town and soon a mob came rushing into the graveyard.  The men seized Mr. Good, while the women lifted the child from his shallow grave, and then others took to Mr. Good’s shovel.  The gravedigger was dragged first to his home, where the coffins were held, and then he was put inside one.  The mob nailed the wooden box shut and then carried it back into the graveyard, where the hole for Mr. Good’s savings had grown much, much deeper.  The gravedigger pounded the box and shrieked for help, but the mob was full of anger and wouldn’t listen.
“I always knew he was no good, despite his family name,” said one man.
“Never thought he was a murderer though,” said one woman.
“Especially not of children,” said a small voice.
Mr. Good went on banging on the lid of the coffin, even as it thumped back from the dirt being dropped from above.  The gravedigger had nothing left to say but to shout for help, until at last the dirt had covered the coffin and he was left alone in the dark.
But even the loneliness was temporary, and Mr. Good guessed that if he was still above the ground, he would’ve seen the sun disappear below the horizon.  The stench of rot seeped over him and while the coffin’s lid remained solid, the coffin’s sides seemed to have melted into the soil, and then into the other coffins resting in the graveyard.  Cold fingers stretched through these openings, grasping his hands and creeping across his face.  Damp bodies slid against his and he shrieked, banging fists and head against the coffin lid until the foreign hands held him down.
“We told you, Mr. Good,” said many voices.  “You belong with us.  All is taken care of, all set to lie still, and all’s well for you in the earth.”
Mr. Good began screaming, and screaming, as more of the dead joined him, touching him, lying with him, but you wouldn’t have heard a sound unless you stood atop his grave in the gloom of dusk.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Children of the White Wolf - on sale

I'm not sure how long this will be the case, but Children of the White Wolf in paperback is on sale at Amazon.com for $13.49.  Get it while it's at reduced price!

From the back:
 
In thirteen years of children’s homes and orphanages, Alice Krimbly never had a problem she couldn’t fight through. Her outlook was simple—hit the other kid until everyone left her alone. Then one fight gets her transferred to White Wolf Valley and her whole world changes. Her caretakers always told her that monsters don’t exist.

They were wrong.

Now Alice is running, because she can’t win fights against shadowy demons, cannibalistic children, and a witch who turns orphans into pigs. Not alone. Into her life explodes Fauve Maxime, a girl whose violent past without tea parties and playing princess has turned her into a loudmouthed delinquent. She’s of a mind that running and hiding won’t keep anyone safe in White Wolf. When Alice realizes she’s been cursed by the witch, she has no choice but to stand against the evils of the valley and the ancient presence they feed.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Witch Tree, Part 2 of 2



 Part 2
Now Thomas screamed and started the whole room’s worth of screaming once more.  Lord Reese tried to reach for him and calm him, but half the room’s women mimicked this, and when Thomas saw all their hands reaching for him, he turned and ran.  His feet took him out of the inn, into the stable, onto his horse, and his horse carried him only so far as his hangover would let him.  Then he fell off the horse and cracked his skull.
The innkeeper was the next to peek inside the room.  “Girls,” he said.  “Where are the lords and knights?”
“I am Lord Reese,” the womanly lord said.  “My men are here too.  We were transformed in the night by witchcraft.”
All the innkeeper took from those words was “witchcraft,” at which point he barred the room’s doors and sent a messenger to find knights, priests, anyone who could help in such a crisis.  Those inside the room waited for three days, having nothing to eat or drink but bread and wine.  The women who came from the tree tried touching the men-turned-women, but their approaches were shrugged away in fear that some worse taint would spread from their fingertips.
After three days, the doors opened.  A legion of armored men entered the room, led by the master witch hunter, Ser Edgar Ames.
Lord Reese had never felt so relieved.  “Ser, you must help us break this curse.  Look what these witches have done to us!”
The witch hunter raised an eyebrow.  “What curse?  Who are you?”
“I am Lord Reese.”
An identical feminine voice spoke up at that moment.  “I am Lord Reese.”
Lord Reese turned.  Another girl opened her mouth.  “I am Lord Reese.”  Soon half the room was spouting it.
“No,” Lord Reese said, and the others took up the cry.  He was a natural leader.  That was why so many men followed him without question.  Such a gift seemed to carry with these tree women as well, and he would’ve strangled each of the green-growth, Gilly-looking nymphs if he hadn’t been arrested before he got the chance.
“Whoever you are, you’re all under arrest for the sin of witchcraft,” Ser Edgar announced.  “Your trial will commence within a day.”
The women and men-turned-women were dragged to the village’s edge, their arms and legs tied to stakes in the ground.  There they waited under a cloudy sky, the once-men calling out their true names, the women copying them.  All sounded alike, Lord Reese knew.  All sounded guilty.
The trial began at dusk, out in the open.  The witch hunter spoke while his men piled brush and dry wood around every stake.  A great crowd had gathered over the day, from this town and others nearby, as far as news could travel in such little time.  It wasn’t often that so many witches were burned at once.
“The guilty stand accused of having bewitched Lord Reese and his men,” Ser Edgar said.  “Their whereabouts are unknown.  The women here claim to be the lord and his men transformed.”
“And we are!” Lord Reese bellowed, but his plea was useless.  Several women took up his cry.  He couldn’t prove a difference between them.  Then he saw a familiar face in the crowd.  His skin was bruised and a bandage wrapped around his scalp, but he was certainly Thomas, the only man in the party to go unchanged.
“Thomas,” Lord Reese said.  “Tell them what happened.  Otherwise we’ll all be burned alive.”
Thomas tried, much as any squire would try for his lord.  He told the witch hunter about the tree and the long night, and he said he believed that half these women were really the men, for there were many more than had been cut from the tree.  His words didn’t move Ser Edgar.  The witch hunter couldn’t trust the word of a man whose head had just hit the ground off a horse, especially one without noble blood.
Next the innkeeper was asked to speak, and he spoke of Lord Reese’s arrival and the morning after.
“And are there more women now than there were that evening?” Ser Edgar asked.
“I didn’t count,” the innkeeper said.  “Could be more, could be less, couldn’t say.”
Lord Reese had never felt so helpless.  At last it came time for the sentencing, though it seemed the sentence had been decided a day ago.
Ser Edgar stood before the stakes and the women tied to them, kindling piled at their feet.  “For the bewitchment and disappearance of Lord Reese, and all the knights and lordlings and lesser men who followed him, I sentence these witches to be burned until they live no more.”
Torches were lit.  One man-turned-woman screamed and the other women began screaming as well.  The torch-bearers strode briskly through the field of stakes, touching the edge of brush here and dead sticks there.  Lord Reese closed his eyes.  He saw no way out.
A monstrous howl tore through the crowd, shaking the stakes and snuffing out the flames.  Screams filled the twilight gloom, and so did a towering, bulky shape that tore from stake to stake, freeing woman and man-turned-woman alike.  All the way it went on howling and soon the women took up the howl themselves.  They charged after the shape when it barreled into the woods, and Lord Reese felt he had no choice but to follow.  To stay here meant being put to death for crimes against himself.  He ran into the woods.  His once-men ran right after him.
They ran through darkness and trees, over soil recently trampled by familiar horses, now owned by the innkeeper.  They passed a tree that Lord Reese hated more than he thought he could hate a tree.  Their journey only ended when they reached a house in the woods where the air nipped the skin and chilled the blood.  The hulking figure that led them opened the front door and ushered all the women and once-men inside.
Only when the door closed did the lord realize where he was.  “I’ve heard of this place,” he said.  “A place that is cold no matter the season.  The place where a monstrous witch dwells.”
“Respectable lady witch would suit me better and you should say so,” the hulking witch said.  “Whoever you are, your whole coven’s revealed.  You’ll only find safety among fellow witches like me.”
Lord Reese knew she was right.  Bad enough the women and once-men were charged with his disappearance, but now a well-known and terrible witch had come to their rescue, forever damning them in the eyes of the people.
“You’re a gaggle of outlaws and heretics now,” the monstrous witch went on.
“We’re not outlaws or heretics,” Lord Reese said.  “We’re not witches or women either.  We’re men.  They’re my men and I am Lord Reese who rules this part of the kingdom.  These women transformed us into their image.  All this is a misunderstanding.”
“These women made you like them?”  The witch squeezed his arm.  One of the girls squeezed the other.  “They made you young and beautiful and thin and firm and—”
“Womanly!”
“Yes,” the monstrous witch hissed.  “How did they do it?”
The lord eyed the witch.  Her face was full of yearning, her words filled with glee.  She wanted this.  For the first time since this nightmare began, he felt like a lord with some measure of control.  “I want to be my old self again.  And I want my men restored too.  Can you do that?”
“You dare bargain with this witch, little man?”
“I do.”
The witch nodded.  “Very well.  Make me young and I shall make you a man, along with all your fellows.”  She shook the lord’s hand and then rubbed her palms together.  “Now, tell me.”
“We … loved them,” Lord Reese said.
“Loved them with your hearts or as men love?”
“As men.”
The witch gathered the girls close to her and began kissing them one by one with her ogrish mouth.  They mimed her as they had the men, kissing her in return, and then they did other things.  With so many women touching her, the changes came much faster.  The monstrous witch shrank and shed layers before the lord’s eyes.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” Reese said to his men-turned-women.  “Soon we’ll have our own bodies back and it will be as if none of this ever happened.”  He expected a cheer, but none of the men answered.  Something wasn’t right—looking at the crowd of women, he couldn’t tell his men from any of them.  “Men, answer me!”
“Here, lord,” said one of the women.  “I think.”  Another woman repeated his words.
“Where are the others?”
“Where are the others?” the man-turned-woman said.  “I mean, I don’t know.  Why would I ask that?”
“Why would I ask that?” Lord Reese replied.  The change did not seem exclusive to his body anymore.  Given time, his mind was changing too.  He turned to the less-monstrous witch, her transformation nearly complete.  “Witch, break this curse right now.  My men are losing their minds and soon they won’t miss them.”
“Patience, patience,” the witch said.  Her hands patted her body, her hair, her face.  “This is wonderful.  Why would you ever want to turn back?”
“Why would you ever want to turn back?” the lord asked.
“Do not mock me, little man.  There’s nothing making me carry on my end of the bargain, except that you and your stinking lordlings don’t deserve to look so beautiful.”  The witch began mixing potions and powders.  “A pinch of this, a sip of that, and a drop of the Good’s Green.”  She reached for the bottle and then paused.  “Strange.  I can’t remember if this is the poison or not.”  She heard several women repeat her, and then she repeated herself.  “Now, why would I say that twice?”  The words echoed through the room again.  With so many women having touched her, the changes came much faster, even those in her mind.
Within minutes, not a mind besides the seemingly empty ones of the tree women lingered in the witch’s home.  Words said by the lord or the witch echoed to and fro through the crowd, their messages mixing, echoing again as if the women’s heads were nothing but hollow caves, until the sound became a ringing, and the ringing became a voice that spread between all the women at once, a voice from before their lifetimes and yet was part of them all.
Their mouths opened in unison.  “We are Gilly.  And we were asked to perform a task.”
One of the many women grabbed the bottle the witch had been reaching for, and the others mimed the action in the empty air.  They left the house and walked into the woods, leaving just minutes before Ser Edgar and his knights came roaring up to the house to burn it down  They thought they were victorious and they were right—the house put up no fight.
On the women went, deeper into the forest, past the place where a tree grew half of them, and soon they arrived at Gilly’s little home.  The crowd of women were a tight fit, but they all managed to squeeze inside and the potion was passed to the bedroom, where one Gilly lookalike poured it down the throat of the god who lay in her bed.
He murmured something, tried to ask if she was sure it wasn’t poison.  Then his boils melted away, and leaves and twigs grew in their place.  His skin took on an earthen warmth and he hopped out of bed, lighter than air.  “You did it!” he cried.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you all!”
The women nodded in unison.  “We are Gilly.  You are welcome.”
The god clicked his godly tongue.  “But there weren’t so many of you before.  You’ve been through quite an ordeal to help and now I’ll help you in return.”  One by one, he tapped the women’s foreheads and planted a seed on their skin.  Each seed slurped up a girl inside it, and then one by one he dropped the seeds down the last girl’s throat.  Her belly rumbled and she moaned loud, but after a moment, she put on Gilly’s smile and Gilly’s clothes.  “There you are.  Worry not about any strangeness you hear, mortal girl.  It’s no concern of yours what witches do out in the woods.  After all, you’re not one of them.”
Confused, Gilly nodded.  “But shouldn’t I be off to fetch your potion?”
The god laughed his way out the door.  A few things seemed amiss about the world from what he heard from the birds.  A lord was missing, along with all his hunting party, many women were blamed, a monstrous witch had ruined a perfectly good witch-burning, and yet it was all better now because a few men set fire to a witch’s house.  Yes, the world seemed right enough that he didn’t have to worry about it, and he went off to join his fellow gods in whatever places they go.
Gilly had the feeling that she had lost a few days, but she didn’t think she would miss them.  Nothing much changed in her life.  At first there were more rumors that she was a witch, but then as less witchy goings-on occurred, the rumors of there even being a witch in these woods died entirely.  Some small war went on over who would be lord of some place or another nearby and some knights were given honors, but Gilly didn’t worry about all that.  She preferred a life alone in the woods.