Ice blue fire licked the night, crowning the trees like volatile party hats. Amongst them the most darling deer and rabbits darted every which way, in and out between the candle stick tree-trunks. Intermittently, the gaunt winged beast that the creatures fled from swooped down and hoisted them up into the acrid smoke that consumed the air only to drop them seconds later. Clouding every yell and call of a plummeting stag or bunny was the cacophonous din of the villagers who brandished mops and shovels as weapons fuelled by a combination of pent up adrenaline and decade long grievances. With the beast concealed by smoke and out of reach, their aggression was turned mostly to each other and their aimlessly flung make-shift weapons joined the deer and embers that rambled through the air. Ahead, between the branches of a ruined and fallen oak an adolescent looking girl in a bloodied white cloak straddled the witch Mrs Grinn, hammering her face repeatedly with powerful, lashing delicate fists. And there, in the centre of it all, wondering if she’d ever been so content as she was now, was the cat Mrs Berrit.
This wasn’t the outcome they had been hired to make come about, not by a long shot. Well, technically they hadn’t been hired, they had taken the job with the implication that they wouldn’t get payment for it, but that had nothing to do with how it ended up. They had taken it on as a favour for a friend. Yes, that friend was now thrashing Mrs Grinn’s skull with a loose branch, but there were still good intentions behind how it came out.
The girl that was lambasting Mrs Grinn’s face had come to them in the dead of night in a leaf-thin and leaf-patterned leaf-white cloak. She moved so elegantly that even with her feline senses Mrs Berrit had not heard her approach as she took a seat at the kitchen table and waited patiently for her unknowing hosts to wake up.
‘Cousin, I hope you have been fairing well since we last met.’
Mrs Berrit wasn’t startled to see the woman at their table. It was nearly impossible to be startled by such a person. Everything about the witch’s visage had been tailored to be as pleasant and approachable as inhumanly possible, from her humble white flowing dress to her dormouse brown braided hair to her late-adolescent youthful visage. Despite her appearance, she was in fact several decades older than Mrs Grinn, an affect that showed most prominently from the way she held herself.
‘I am truly sorry to wake you at such an hour, but I have a matter that takes a certain precedence over our usual civilities. Sometime, over the last three weeks an evil has found its way into Heddwich Vale. It is a beast of some sort but I am afraid I have no idea which. Every night since its arrival, it has been slaughtering our livestock, destroying our homes. It has even dug up the graves of our dead, for seemingly no reason but its own amusement. I have kept my people protected so far but I do not know how long that can last. Each week the beast is getting more violent and more dangerous.’
‘Can you not just get rid of it?’ said Mrs Grinn as she eased out of her bed and into a patchwork dressing gown.
‘I have tried Edwina. Oh, I have tried. But the thing is powerful, and I am able neither to coerce it, nor deceive it so that it will leave. I’ve given it plenty of opportunity to do so but it seems to have committed itself to ruining my home. I have already given it more chances than it deserves. I will not give any more.’
‘So, you want it dead?’ Mrs Grinn chuckled. ‘You’re an odd one sometimes Bonnie. Your morals go as far as to not kill it yourself, but you’d happily tell me to do it on your behalf.’
‘That is your own error for judging me too simply Edwina’ she said with a smile that looked notably more forlorn and mature when contrasted with such youthful features. ‘I choose to represent and encourage the ideal of morality. However, to do this at my best, it means I must sometimes actively neglect this ideal myself. The longer this beast remains the more enticing it will be for my people to resort to violence. If I am seen to resolve the situation myself, I will of course be treated as a hypocrite, and it will throw doubt into everything I’ve taught them. No, it is better for a third party to finish the beast.’
‘So instead of you getting the blame for a creature dying, I do.’
It was a statement, not a question. She nodded.
‘Okay, but why not some random mercenary? Why me, exactly?’
The youthful witch wrapped the hem of her cloak through her fingers as she considered her next words.
‘This beast is beyond anything else I know to exist. I have only seen it once, but its image is burned into my imaginings like a candle flame burns into one’s vision. This beast is witch-made, I’m sure. It is a design much older than you or I. I expect no mortal could hope to defeat such a creature, at least, not without boasting of it, and that we cannot have. It wouldn’t do well to draw attention to this issue. We witches have more respect for discretion when it comes to these things.’
‘Fair’ said Mrs Grinn.
From across the kitchen Mrs Berrit proposed a question with a silent glance towards Mrs Grinn.
‘What do we get out of it?’ said Mrs Grinn on Mrs Berrit’s behalf.
‘You will have done a good deed, and you will have helped a great many people.’
‘So, bugger-all then?’
Mrs Berrit hadn’t expected anything else. She chirped what may have been a cat equivalent of a tut and flopped up onto a nearby chair to hear the rest of the proceedings.
‘In the world I hope to bring about, no person should have to buy or barter for assistance, nor would we trade in favours’ said the white witch, addressing the cat. ‘Help would be given freely from all who are able, whatever the issue. It shouldn’t need to be said that I follow this ethic resolutely. And so, from here on out I will offer my assistance towards you in whatever way I can, whenever you need it, whether you help me now or not’ there was an emphasis on the last part of the statement that the white witch made sure to draw attention to. ‘I implore you as an honest person not to abuse my generosity.’
Despite her words, Mrs Berrit couldn’t shake the notion that she was indeed calling on a favour. The two witches’ history was implicit in the plea. Bonnie had helped Mrs Grinn out many dangerous situations in the latter’s more reckless youth.
‘Okay then’ said Mrs Grinn as she produced a hand to shake. ‘I’ll help you.’
‘I do this, not to hold you to a promise,’ said the white witch ‘but as a thanks for a charity I know you’ll deliver.’
Bonnie knotted her first two fingers with Mrs Grinn’s, the custom for witches making an agreement.
After an improvised meal the last parts of the plan were ironed out and agreed upon. Once all was done the white witch lifted a crown locust flowers from her lap and placed it delicately onto her brow. As it came past her temple Mrs Berrit noticed what may have been a pang of guilt flash up, though it was so brief she couldn’t tell if it was anything more than a trick of the light.
The white witch’s territory was, by design, hard to find yet not likely to miss. Surrounding her domain was a chain of black locust trees made into a wall. Through what must have been some gentle persuasion and a lot patience, each tree had had their branches coerced to lengthen and weave around the branches of the next tree in line to form something akin to an elegantly exquisite fence. However, this fence was not built to keep people out or in, at least not in the conventional way, as between each trunk the lowest two branches braided together to make an arch large enough for at least three people side by side or a single horse to slip through. No, this weave was made to preserve a glamour to deter unwanted guests.
To those who are pursued, vulnerable or in need of help the land beyond the woven wall would appear like a haven, with plenty of soft hummocks to rest upon and streams to quench one’s thirst. To those who intend to steal, defile or harm the same land would look harsh and threatening with treacherous, unsteady earth and rivers too deep and fast to dare crossing. All due to the magic of the trees.
Mrs Berrit, who was snaking in and out through the weave of branches, was having dizzying fun keeping one eye in the luxurious and healthy world of the inside whilst leaving the other outside to see desolate and uninviting mirage. Obviously, she didn’t meet Bonnie’s requirements for a person deserving of help. She wondered if there were different levels to how bad or good Bonnie’s world looked like from the outside. If she relieved herself on Mrs Grinn who walked below would her own view of the land within the trees look worse to account for the extra sin? And indeed, would Mrs Grinn’s perspective change for the better as she became someone ‘in need’ of a wash. Unfortunately, Mrs Grinn had already wandered out of range of the fence of trees, so the theory couldn’t be tested.
The witch had spotted the signal they were to follow, a campfire atop a knee-high water fall.
Mrs Berrit, annoyed that she didn’t spot it first, hopped down from the trees so she could at the very least arrive there before the witch.
‘Lo, feline!’ said the man who sat by the campfire as Mrs Berrit scuttled up.
His thick black beard was split twice, firstly by a broad grin that showed at least two missing teeth, and secondly by a deep scar that ran from his brow to the corner of his chin. His sleeveless tunic drew attention to his worn and work hardened arms, most likely to flaunt his muscles rather than ease of movement. He looked like someone who thought he could hold himself in a fight, but the truth of the matter was up for debate. Mrs Berrit stared at him to test his mettle. The tracker met her eyes as best he could, refusing to flinch. Obviously, he had been warned about her already. She yawned to show that it didn’t bother her and turned her attention to the welcoming flicker of the campfire. Mrs Grinn was still a fair few paces away, she might as well give it another shot. She padded towards the rippling flames only to find a pair of large calloused hands hold her by the waist and place her gently to the other side of the rock he sat on. She snarled and scratched as she was taken from the warm embrace of the flames.
‘Now then’ he said rubbing his hands on his tunic, ‘where’s your master then?’
Mrs Berrit met his eyes once more, fiercer and longer. If she couldn’t make him acknowledge his affront, she’d at least make him squirm. This time he couldn’t keep eye contact and within a few seconds he coughed and looked away sheepishly. Good.
‘You must be Henrik then’ said Mrs Grinn as she hobbled towards the campfire. From this low an angle she looked completely dwarfed by the large bulging sac she supported over her shoulder.
‘Aye. And you must be our Lady’s cousin’ greeted Henrik with a hearty smile. ‘I hear you have a solution to our problems.’
Henrik stood up and held out a heavy bristly arm to shake her free hand.
‘Well, we’ll see. You think you can track this thing then?’ said the witch.
‘Back home I was the King Boyle’s chief huntsman and trapper. If you have ever been to the food hall at Ovum Castle, you will have seen some of my greater work. May I help ease your load?’
‘Well aren’t you eager. After the job chuck, sure, but work comes first, it’s only courtesy. Now be a dear and hold my bag would you. “Dear” Hah!’
Mrs Grinn threw the bag to his chest and cackled to herself. Henrik grasped it reactionarily and had to squat down to fumble for a better grip.
‘To explain the laugh, I just made a pun accidentally’ added the witch. ‘Not that you’d’ve noticed it, you don’t know what’s in the bag yet. I’m not going to bother explaining it, it’s not that funny.’’
She caught Mrs Berrit looking at her.
‘Well, I know you didn’t find it funny. For all the crap you eat, you don’t have a funny bone in you. Anyway, come on then, where’s the beast?’
The witch’s attention was back on Henrik before he had realised it.
‘Yes, of course’ he said, still adjusting the bag over his shoulder. ‘Right away. This way.’
They followed the hunter through a garden of flowing willow trees spaced graciously as to not block the sun from creeping through the foliage. The hunter sidestepped around the glimmering patches of light to give the large patches of lavender that thrived there their space. There was not a weed or ugly bush in sight, nothing but the most pleasant and complimentary foliage did Bonnie allow to grow. Even when the blue flowers engulfed the path they followed, the huntsman made sure to delicately place his feet where the least amount of damage would be caused, if any at all, hopping from root to root where he could. It infuriated Mrs Berrit to see such purposeless seedlings being treated with this amount of care and respect. She ate one out of spite. It tasted vile, but it was worth it.
They soon came to a clearing where a short stocky wattle fence circled its way round to the remains of a thatched wooden cottage. The fence and the building had been smashed from the outside, snapped trimmed branches scattered what must have been a chicken coop and the roof of the hen house had crumbled inwards. A brood of chickens scratched and pecked at the grain that had poured out of the obliterated outhouse. They took no notice to the arrival of the tracker, the witch and the cat.
‘Extraordinary’ commented Henrik. ‘Swing a skirt and they scarper away in a flash, but when that loathsome hulking beast enters their home and ransacks their surroundings, they don’t even give it a second’s attention.’
They stepped over the debris that was at one point a gate.
‘They’ve had every opportunity to escape but they’re still here. They must like here after all’ said Henrik with a touch of pride.
He picked up a cobble of flint from the grass. It still had a portion of cement clinging to it, the last remnant that showed it to have once been part of a house.
‘Any idea what manner of beast may have done this?’ Henrik asked the witch.
Mrs Grinn turned to the cat. So, she didn’t know either, thought Mrs Berrit. If something were to go to the trouble of destroying a chicken pen and scaring away the farm hands, you’d have thought it would have at least eaten some of the chickens.
‘How long ago did this happen?’ asked the witch.
‘In the early hours of the morning before sunrise.’
‘And this is the last time it was seen?’
‘Unless it has shown up somewhere else without my knowledge, yes.’
‘Lose any chickens? Any people hurt?’
‘Luckily, no. Farmer Joyce ran off as soon as she heard it coming. And it looks like it’s not interested in chicken meat. No, the animals it seems to have left alone.’
Mrs Grinn was studying the damage, kicking stones and shards of wood around with her feet. She didn’t look convinced either.
‘It’s our chapel that suffered the most harm’ he continued. ‘Half the graveyard was dug up twice over. It came and took old Mr Preve before we even had chance to bury him, poor man. We have a dozen men now guard those graves at all times now, chance the thing should try and take more.’
Mrs Grinn nodded.
‘Okay then, best get tracking then lad.’
The route they took led through another garden in Bonnie’s utopia. Here, the grass could be barely seen through a carpet of poppies, which was only broken by the occasional cluster of yellowed ash trees that broke through the layer of red. Any laymen could have tracked the beast through this meadow, the had just follow the deep grooves that had been carved through the poppies. Whatever it was they followed didn’t put too much effort into lifting its feet as it walked. When they later reached the flowerless meadows and woods, the tracker showed his real skill. The ends of old oak branches that had snapped in the rock gardens, the compressions in the moist soil by the streams of the water gardens, the upturned moss in the spongy moss gardens, each was like a subtle road-sign to him.
‘It’s tall’ he said to himself as much as his followers. ‘It walks on two legs, but it will often use its front legs as support. Look at how the lichen has been rubbed off this boulder. I’ve caught troll before who did the same. She’s on display in the old King Boyle’s guest chamber now. An odd choice of place to put her I thought. Not something I’d want to wake up to. I suspect there’s probably some sort of power play there. Regardless, trolls’ feet are round and flat bottomed. See the claw marks in the softer ground? This is something else.’
‘Can’t imagine old Bonnie lets you do much hunting nowadays’ said Mrs Grinn. ‘Very much against her ethics.’
‘No, I haven’t hunted in a long while. But that’s by my own choice, the Lady never came into it.’
‘You don’t say? What made you give it up?’
‘It’s something about this place. Seeing how these people live their lives, no arguing, no fighting, no trying to compete with each other all the time, just living life fair and simply. It awoke something in me. It was like there was always a part of me that wanted to stop hunting, but I never listened to it until I came here. I can’t believe how vile a person I used to be. All the harmless foxes and boars I slew. It baffles me. I don’t know what I would have become if I hadn’t come here. There’s a special magic our Lady has blessed this place with. It’s invigorating.’
He stopped in his tracks in a clearing of the rock stubbled oak garden and knelt to feel the soil.
‘What do you do now then? If you can’t hunt’ asked Mrs Grinn.
‘I’m the gamekeeper mostly. I make sure the deer and boars have all they need to survive. You know, planting the food that they need, healing them if they get ill. It’s more difficult than you’d expect. Killing deer was easy, keeping them alive is far harder. Some of the lamer ones can’t even feed themselves bless their souls.’
He sighed deeply after a cursory glance at the surrounding soil. It looked like his skills had come to their limit.
‘What’s got you?’ asked the witch.
‘The trail ends here. I should be able to make out the tracks easily in this soil but there’s no more to follow. Lady tell, what is this thing?’
Mrs Grinn drew a short dagger and a fire gem from her inside pockets. Upon seeing the witch’s silent reaction Henrik rested the bag on the floor and drew a hatchet from a scabbard on his hip. Mrs Berrit sniffed the air. It was difficult to pick out anything over the stench of the contents of the bag but there was something unfamiliar nearby. Some animals give a scent to warn off other predators when they don’t want to be troubled. This was that in spades.
‘Open the bag’ said Mrs Grinn.
Henrik slipped the knot, immediately convulsing backwards from the overflow of death-smell that erupted from within. He dropped the bag and staggered backwards retching.
‘Come off it now’ snapped the witch. ‘You’ve smelt this smell before plenty of times if you hunted as much as you say you do. Empty it then.’
The huntsman clutched the base of the bag with his finger tips and prised it upwards so that the corpse of the deer slid out clumsily onto the floor. It announced itself vehemently by a powerful stench of decay. Its eyes bulged out like enflamed boils giving it the visage of an over-stuffed teddy bear. Down its gorged chest ran a series of crude twine knots.
‘Oh, Lady protect! I can’t bear to look’ spluttered the huntsman as he held his arm over his mouth. ‘I was carrying that!?’
If cats could laugh Mrs Berrit would have cackled merrily at the huntsman’s reaction to the dead deer. Being unable to laugh, she remained nonplussed with a slight hint of snootiness.
‘What’s up with you?’ said Mrs Grinn. ‘Surely you’ve seen worse than a dead deer?’
‘I have, I have. But I’ve changed since then. I now see the horror of it. That poor thing.’
‘Oh pish’ snapped the witch. ‘Now get into cover and get ready to fight. We need to be prepared for if the trap doesn’t work.’ She signalled to an area a brisk sprint away from the carrion. ‘There will do.’
They bundled into crook made by a large oak root and a cluster of smoothly rounded rocks. Henrik was breathing heavily, Mrs Berrit smelled a hint of vomit coming from his gullet. She hopped onto a nearby knot of a tree and presented her bottom directly to his face to show what she thought of his chicken heart.
‘Stop that you’ scalded Mrs Grinn as she yanked Mrs Berrit down. ‘And don’t you snarl at me. Now hush, before it hears - ’
It plunged into the soil with a deep expulsion of wretched air that forced the surrounding foliage to disperse in a brief but powerful gush of wind. The silence that followed was met only with a low and choking growl that rumbled like an earthquake. The beast was hunched over the deer.
Mrs Berrit could see it through the branches of the rose bush. It was upright, bent-kneed and looming with a dog-like head and the wings of a bat. Its tight, pulled back lips could not contain its rows of clawing teeth which grasped outwards of its elongated muzzle. Through thin, oilskin flesh, the shape of every rib and joint and strained muscle was so clear it looked as if it should be on a morticians table rather than standing in the middle of a luscious forest. And it stank of decay.
Mrs Berrit watch curiously as it fingered the carrion with its gaunt prying hands. There was almost a longing in its snake-slit eyes as it gently tugged the deer’s flesh and feebly disturbed its limbs. It was quivering, both in its movements as well as in its gentle humming breathing.
Without warning it reared its shoulders and cried to the winds with a nulling decrepit shriek of inhuman anguish. It then shrank tremendously, curling its wings, arms and knees into itself. Mrs Berrit was reminded of the form large spiders are reduced to once their life has been quashed. This was not supposed to be the effect of the trap, that would only come about if the creature ate the deer. This was something else, something more potent. The creature wept.
‘Now, what on earth is this?’ muttered Mrs Grinn ponderously.
Mrs Berrit had no time for guessing, she had a suspicion and she wanted to test it. Already she had been prevented from experimenting with the peeing thing, be damned if she missed the chance to experiment with this. She hopped down over the rocks and moseyed up in front of the beast, ignoring as best as she could as it leered at her approach. She lay down in the most appetising position she could think, turned her head up and willed the beast to eat her with commanding mis-matched eyes. They held themselves in that way for many seconds.
The creature shivered.
‘Don’t assume to tempt me, little grimalkin’ it said in a growl as coarse and unsteady as a heap of slate. ‘I choose to die rather than to sully another deceased. Even if one comes to me so willingly.’
The cat remained.
‘Begone from my sight.’
I want it. conveyed Mrs Berrit invitingly by slight alterations in her expression. I would like you to eat me.
‘You have no power over me witch-spawn. I will not be the impure wretch of a villain your sort made us to be.’
Do you not eat meat? You do not look like a herbivore to me. You are aware you have fangs, yes?
‘We have grown past what you made us to be. We are better now.’
Better? Yet you would let yourself starve? You allow yourself to suffer and die to simply defy your creators? Well bravo! You really put us in our place. We sure have learnt our lesson.
Its hands quivered and tensed in restrained pulsing fists. So, there was doubt there, a weakness in her resolve. The creatures stomach sank upwards behind its overhanging ribs as its breathing deepened. Mrs Grinn and the hunter, thankfully, were wise enough to stay hidden and let Mrs Berrit run this though.
‘Leave my sight. Now.’
Why me? Why not you? You have had every chance to fly away. But you can’t repress that vile urge we put into you. You’ve never seen anything as delicious as me have you?
She rolled over in the most delectable way she could muster.
Feeble minded beast, trying to be virtuous. What are you exactly? What reason would the old witches have to make something such as you?
‘Do you not know? I am a berbalang, a corpse eater. Your kind made us to clean up your messes. We cleared the fields of the cold and decayed wrought from the wars witches fomented upon this world. And once we were done, you cast us out. We scavenged from graves and morgues to survive, the sick beasts that you made us.’
Overgrown bat! Berbalang? You’re a glorified mop, hardly sick or wretched at all. I’ve coughed up things viler than you are. The worst part of you has nothing to do with witches. I heard what you said, ‘we are better now’. These others you speak of, either they’re choosing to follow your example, or you are forcing them. Whichever it is, their suffering is a repercussion of your ego.
‘Leave cat. Leave now.’
Slowly starving your own kindred out of pride and spite, when you could simply eat me and be healthy? Now, that is vile.
Before Mrs Berrit’s cat reflexes could react, she had begun soaring through the canopy of the forest propelled by the remains of a ferociously swung deer carcass. As the berbalang’s howl diminished and the dizzying whoosh of air grew louder, the cat could see all of Bonnie’s forty-eight gardens passing right to left like a roulette wheel. Pieces of what must have been fake deer and sleeping herbs were spinning with her, flying together like a cluster of drugged sparrows. It was an interesting reaction for sure, but she would have preferred if the creature had eaten her. She wondered what Mrs Grinn would have done to rescue her in that situation. Would she have cut the creature open, lowered a rope down its throat, or would she have waited for nature to take its course and build her up again from what she could retrieve from the beasts defecate? No matter. The old bat should have heard what the beast was prattling on about, she probably had some theory to what is going on by now. In a more stationary situation Mrs Berrit would have certainly worked it out by now also. Fortunately though, the stationary world would come soon enough considering the alarming rate that the ground was enlarging.
Were sunflowers made of feathers and cotton buds and shaped like mattresses then Mrs Berrit’s arrival to the ground would have been quite comfortable. Unluckily for her, they aren’t. The earth met her face and carried on upwards bringing Mrs Berrit into momentary darkness.
When the world was no longer dark or blurry, to Mrs Berrits dismay, it was not the eternal void that held her in its welcoming arms. It was Mrs Grinn.
‘Good work’ said the witch. ‘Though, I thought cats were meant to land on their feet?’
Mrs Berrit hissed at her so that she’d put her on the ground.
‘Alright, alright. Well I’m not sure what your intention was there but it worked. Well, it worked a bit. It didn’t take any of the sleeping herbs but the deer’s eye stuck. So, shall we see where this thing went off to then?’
The witch sat down on a large curved root and produced a pair of binoculars from a fold of her skirt and sat down on a grassy hummock. With a flick of her thumb a round hatch slid open large enough for a single deer’s eye. With the remaining eye rolled out of its glass pipe and into the socket of the binocular, she held the longer end of the lens to her eye and filtered the sunlight through the other end with her fingers. Mrs Berrit tucked in beside her and peered through the remaining lense.
‘This magic fascinates me’ whispered Henrik to Mrs Berrit. ‘I rarely ever see our Lady performing spells. What, may I ask, are you doing?’
If Henrik expected an answer, he wasn’t going to get one. Even if Mr Berrit could speak and even if the eye-glass didn’t take an enormous amount of concentration she wouldn’t have dignified his ramble with a response.
The fake deer’s eye was stuck to the berbalang somewhere, and through its other eye Mrs Berrit and Mrs Grinn were able to see what it was seeing. The eye must have been pointing in the right direction otherwise they would be seeing nothing but fur and skin.
Slowly the eyeball-white haze merged towards becoming the sky, and the dark pulsing blur grew into the shape of a wing. It appeared it couldn’t fly for too long, as soon it had given up on its wings and was dragging its feet along the ground once more. Deer and wild boar fled to the trees but the berbalang gave them no more than a lingering glance. The forest opened up to a contained meadow divided by branching streams. After wading through moss sprung purple-tinged heath the creature came to a base of a rocky outcrop where a gulley had been carved into the rock by the water. There, in the crook of the stone slabs there was movement, a slight feeble twitching. Figures flopped and crawled out of the shadows and towards the berbalang. They hobbled on all fours with bat-like wings drooping down beside them, so thin they looked as brittle as twigs. Those that could crept forward to meet their mother, the weaker stayed behind only able enough to raise their heads. The berbalang carefully and deliberately lowered to her side tilting the viewpoint from the eye-glass’s perspective. The more capable of the brood hobbled to her breast to nuzzle. Though Mrs Berrit knew there wouldn’t be much nutrients there for the wretches. She didn’t need to see a berbalang in full health to know this was not it. Mrs Grinn lowered the eye-glass silently.
‘So’ she said after a long while. ‘The berbalang has a brood, six of them.’ She knotted her fingers and rested her chin on them in contemplation. ‘They’re a few weeks old maybe, still at suckling age. Of course, the mother is starved so they’re not getting anything from her. A few days and Bonnie won’t have a berbalang problem at all. There’s nothing we need to do.’
Henrik nodded solemnly.
‘It appears it is natures wish then’
Mrs Grinn swapped silence for deathly silence. The huntsman had irked her and Henrik knew it. His attention immediately moved to his boot, which may or may not have had a stone lodged in the sole.
‘Not nature, no. Nature’s wish is fight for survival, eat or be eaten. This… this is something other’ the witch pronounced deliberately.
She stood up and stepped forwards to assess the huntsman closer.
‘What made you stop hunting again?’
‘Nothing’ replied Henrik confused by the question.
‘Nothing!? What was your train of thought, your reasoning?’
‘Nothing made me change my ways. I just knew it was the right thing to do.’
Mrs Grinn shook her head.
‘Let me guess, this wasn’t the only revelation you had that day. What other morals did you discover when you came here? Avoiding stepping on flowers? Saying thank you to trees when you take their fruit? No nug-a-nug before marriage?’
Henrik was clearly rattled. The witch was on to something.
‘Indeed’ he said.
‘Vegetarianism as well I expect.’
‘It is the way we all should be.’
‘Everybody here agrees with you? Never any arguments at all?’
‘We’re not children. We settle our differences by talking.’
‘And are there any differences you’ve had to talk over?’
‘No, not that I can recall. We’re all similar minded here, that is all. What we have in common is that we know what’s right for this world. If you would see how we live you would understand.’
‘You may be right, I mean, who am I to decide?’ said Mrs Grinn putting the spy glass back into her pocket. ‘But all this is certainly not a conclusion Henrik would have made on his own.’
‘They’re not your morals Henrik, they’re Bonnie’s. You’re right that there is a magic around this place. That little voice in your head telling you what’s wrong and what’s right isn’t yours, it’s the trees that surround this place, and by extension, your good Lady. I don’t think you have made your own decisions since coming to this place, neither has the berbalang, nor anyone else here.’
Henrik raised a finger to the witch but held the words that were meant to accompany it.
‘I know my own voice’ said Henrik after short consideration. ‘Don’t you dare speak of our Lady in that manner. She is nothing but pure. And I was not made to be the man I am now, I chose to be who I am.’
‘Prove it’ the witch snapped sternly. ‘Walk out of this land, past the circle of trees and see if you want to come back in. Go on. Nothing stopping you. Nothing immoral about walking outside is there?’
Henrik was remarkably tense, he almost looked as if he might hit the witch. Of course, he didn’t.
‘It was nice to meet you’ he said, stumbling his words as he said them, almost as if he was saying the words because he thought he should say them rather than because he wanted to. He strode away from them without a second glance back. Mrs Berrit was still dizzy from being launched a hundred feet into the air by a giant bat though she was pretty sure Henrik was walking away from the heart of Bonnie’s land and not towards it.
‘I have to say, it is rather efficient’ admitted Mrs Grinn to the cat once the huntsman was out of earshot. ‘A lot easier than trying to convince them to be better. I bet it’s quite comfortable here as well. I’m sure many people would kill for a place here, despite the irony of such a thing. Also, explains why she came to us while we were asleep. That’d be just enough time to put on us an anti-glamour so that we could be immune to the tree-spell and would be able to kill the poor beast.’
The witch studied the eye-glass, not with the intention of using it, but just so she had something to entertain her hands while she wandered alone around her thoughts. Mrs Berrit was very interested in what Mrs Grinn was going to do now. She hadn’t seen her this conflicted in decades.
‘So, the berbalang dies, I can’t imagine any witch-spawn would last long here. Given Bonnie’s ambition, she likely hopes this little haven will spread further. She could make kingdoms out of it given time. I have to say, it’d be nice to be able to travel to the next town without fear of your eyes being stolen, or your ankles to be cut short. Though, does anyone here, actually want to be here? Debatable. Do they choose to follow Bonnie’s rules? No. Are they better off for it? I suppose, maybe. Does it benefit us?’
‘No, if this catches on, it sort of puts us out of a job doesn’t it? No problems to fix if no-ones got any.’
Mrs Berrit didn’t say anything in her look. It was her well-practiced look for people talking bollocks that she used.
‘Yeah, you’re right, this is kind of abysmal in a way. Trust Bonnie to make brainwashing come across as saintly. We could stop this now, save the beralanglets… berbalings… babylangs… whatever. We’d make a mortal enemy out of one of the most skilled witches I know, that’s for sure. And who am I to say she’s wrong in doing it this way, I’m just as uninformed as she is. Heaven knows she’s been sympathetic to the benefit of humanity for centuries longer than I have.’
She tucked her spy-glass away and pressed her hands together, pointing them towards the cat.
‘So, Mrs Berrit, here we are, what do you think we should do?’
Mrs Berrit already had a suggestion in mind.
‘No Bea,’ said Mrs Grinn flatly ‘I’m not going to turn her into a cat.’
The outside world was in front of him, but he was not yet there. Henrik stood by the outer ring of his Lady’s land, motionless. Every fibre of his being was telling him to turn back, to return to the good Lady and apologise for even thinking of leaving the beautiful world of Heddwich Vale even for a second. It simply wasn’t the right thing to do. Out there, he never knew if he was doing the right thing. Every decision he made lingered long afterwards with a better image of how it could have turned out. Every action he made was in some way morally grey. He could never be sure if he did the right thing. That didn’t happen here. In the Lady’s land, there was never any question or doubt, the best action to take was always obvious.
When he thought logically, he knew that this side of the trees was better for him. He was healthier than ever, was never far away from assistance or a friendly face and was never concerned about being double crossed or back-stabbed literally or figuratively. There wasn’t the same freedom here, but was that really necessary so long as he and his family were safe? His family…
He was back with his wife now, that was another thing that came from stumbling into the Lady’s land. They had separated years before but when they came here, they knew in their hearts that the right thing to do was to move back together, to raise their girls as one again. He loved her again as he knew he always should have. They were as whole and perfect as a family could be.
That being said, as sinful as it was, he couldn’t help missing the lady he met since they first parted. But no, it was easier here. It was better here. He knew then that it would be better to stay and forget he had ever met the witch.
However, before he could forget ever meeting the witch an unavoidable reminder of her came hurtling towards the back of his head in the from of a large red stone. His face promptly met the earth with a blinding thud.
‘Jump me from behind will you!?’ he snarled with a mouthful of grass.
He snatched the stone from the ground and leaped to his feet to face his attacker, wielding his hatchet in the other.
‘Come on and face me head on you gutless arse-stain, I’ll slice you apart like a pig-skin! Craven-hearted, chicken fart!’
The stone was alarmingly warm in his hand. Upon glancing towards it, he noticed there were cracks of unearthly red emanating from the glimmering smooth surface. There was a note stuck to it.
This is a fire gem. It’s a bit like a water balloon but full of hellfire instead of water, and you shouldn’t bring it to your kid’s birthday party unless you really can’t stand their friends. Instructions are overleaf and for your own sake read I’d them before trying to use it, it can only be used once. You can pay me back later, what you do with this it is entirely up to you. – Mrs Grinn
Henrik’s mind raced with the opportunities this brought and he suddenly realised he was outside of the ring of trees. They looked so ghastly now he hardly recognised them. It was interesting. The feeling of freedom was not as relieving as he thought it might be, but the potential of it all was overwhelmingly alluring. Oh, did his mind race.
Mrs Berrit was not there to see Henrik’s reaction to his gift but from the carnage before her, it was not hard to guess.
Another of the trees of the ring caught alight, exploding in to a rift of butterfly-blue air. Every man and deer standing were cast to the ground by the force of it, Bonnie included. With her cousin floored, Mrs Grinn took the opportunity to roll away and gain her footing again.
‘Come now Bonnie, surely we can settle this maturely?’
‘You’ve made my home, my utopia a beast ridden hellscape you careless bint! I think we’ve gone far past mature!’
‘You can’t judge a creature on how it pretty it looks frolicking in the meadow Bonnie, monsters have just as much right to be there. You shouldn’t have let those berbalangs starve like you did, that wasn’t very good of you.’
A pair of talons swooped out of the blue-grey smog and dragged a faun that had just darted between the two witches into the depths of the air above them. They heard its cry fade into the thunder.
‘Oh, poor pissing berbalangs, forgive me while I weep!’ yelled Bonnie. ‘And it’s all well and good you tell humans how they should behave but don’t you dare think to tell me what’s right and wrong! I’ve known how the world works since before you were born.’
The muddied-white witch was holding something behind her back, out of view of Mrs Grinn. Her fingers were weaving their way through a ring of flowers, tying loops and pulling leaves. It was a crown, the same crown she had put on soon after she had first told Mrs Grinn about the beast back in the wagon. It was black orchid, the same flowers that grew on the wall of trees that were now aflame. So, she intended to brainwash the old witch. Mrs Berrit purred gleefully. Bonnie didn’t know she was there.
Mrs Grinn reached into a pocket to withdraw a wind dagger but was caught off guard by a root that shot up from the ground as she threw it. The dagger missed and Bonnie’s hair and skirts flew back but she remained on her feet. Grinning darkly, the youthful witch dug a short speckled-bark staff further into the ground. The roots of the grass and bushes beneath Mrs Grinn fingered their way upwards, around legs and arms and in between her fingers. She drew a blade with her remaining hand, but the roots forced her wrist back before she could use it.
The white witch swept towards her restrained cousin. The roots that had risen up from the ground found their way to Mrs Grinn’s jaw, clamping it shut as she tried to writhe and wriggle her limbs free.
‘If you could see it from my point of view, you would understand’ Bonnie said solemnly and decidedly. ‘It will be good to have you on my side Edwina.’
She grimaced in relief and victory and held the crown of flowers aloft, its leaves and petals straining to find a scalp to latch on to. Mrs Grinn eyes widened as the leaves probed at her matted grey hair, defeated and scared. Though admittedly Mrs Grinn was a bit of a preachy arse Mrs Berrit suspected she'd be far more unbearable with Bonnie's abhorrent moral code wriggling around her brain. Fine then.
Mrs Berrit pounced and caught the white witch’s hood in her jaws. Bonnie shrieked and flung her arms back to try and swipe her off but her feline teeth held fast onto the fabric. The white witch tossed the crown and staff away to get her hands free, flailing erratically. As Mrs Berrit watched to see where the crown went, three soft smooth fingers clenched savagely into her neck, causing her to yowl and she was tossed against the tree like a bean bag.
'Someone get that cat!' Bonnie shrieked to her warring citizens. 'Stop your squabbling, please! Can't you see I'm being attacked? Your Lady is in danger!' but they were far too involved in their own conflicts to give any consideration to the white witch.
Snarling to herself, she plucked her root staff from the ground and drew circles in the ground with the tip of it, causing hundreds of thorny shards to pop up out of the earth like pins through a cushion, spreading like spilt water over the ground.
But Mrs Berrit wasn't on the ground anymore. She positioned herself above her friend's cousin, primed her legs and dropped. They toppled in a heap to the ground.
The cat scrambled and scratched her way through the mound of Bonnie’s skirts, vying to get free and return to the fight, but when she emerged, she saw the fight was no longer needed.
The white witch was sat upright, wide eyed and quivering. Her teeth were sunk deeply into her lip, tears ran silently from the corners of her eye. The crown had found a host. Its leaves weaved through her mouse brown hair, its locust flowers hooked around her small round ears and its thin green stems dug their way into her scalp and under the skin. Small delicate, droplets of blood trickled down her forehead where the flowers had found their purchase. She no longer wanted to keep up the fight. Her morals would not allow it.
‘Well then’ said Mrs Grinn after the roots had subsided enough to allow her to move. ‘Now that that’s all done with.’
She dusted off her skirts and rolled her beaten shoulders.
‘You told me earlier that, whether I helped you today or not, you would go out of your way to give me assistance should I need it at any point.’
Bonnie nodded slowly.
‘Well, don’t you feel the need to keep that promise on behalf of me, okay? You do you.’
A large oak tree, overcome by the force of the flames that were creeping up it, fell dramatically to the floor, causing a dozen men to drop their weapons and scarper before they could be crushed. The berbalang plunged down to wrench out a boar that had been pinned by one of its branches. As the squealing creature was pulled into the mist there was a blinding flash and thundering boom that came from the other side of the ring where another tree had caught alight.
‘We’d best be off then’ said Mrs Grinn. ‘It was good to catch up.’
‘It was good to see you too’ replied Bonnie blankly. ‘Have a good evening.’
Mrs Grinn blanched for a moment , but swiftly regained composure. After all, the fate had been intended for her.
‘You too. Be seeing you then.’
Mrs Grinn lingered for a moment as if she had something more to say. Then, after deciding she hadn’t. Picked up Bonnie’s root staff and walked away with Mrs Berrit at her heels. The white witch remained sat with her legs tucked beside her either uncaring or oblivious to the carnage around her.
‘Job well done I think’ Mrs Grinn said to the cat.
Mrs Berrit didn’t bother responding. The smell of burning stag was making her hungry.
Written by Calvin Lowe
Illustrations to be uploaded
Concepts and ideas from the collective stream of consciousness of Alastair Fleming and Calvin Lowe
The Vague Grinn & Berrit Chronology
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