Ana’s awakening began with pain. Pain in her chest and stomach, where she was hit, across her face where she had been cut, in the deep muscles of her shoulder, in her raw, bruised neck; pain roused her from unconsciousness. Every other sense followed. There was a faint scratching sound somewhere to one side, and rain all around her. She was drier now, though. She could feel it in her clothes. She could also feel the tightness of her own manacles around her wrists, and ropes around her ankles. Another was around her chest, preventing her from reaching towards the rest of the bindings
She opened her eyes. She was on a short, simple bed, close to the floor. Above her was a mud-thatch ceiling with heavy reinforcements of wood; to one side, a plain wall with a few empty shelves, and to the other a bed. Her eyes refocused on the source of the scratching. The witch was slumped in a chair, slowly whittling at a piece of wood with a knife. All of Ana’s tools were laid out on the table, from her man-catcher to her ward to the dull metallic shine of the barrel of her pistol. Her knife was nowhere to be seen. Dim, overcast light poured in from a crudely shuttered window; the rest was made up with a candle that gently burned on the table.
A peasant’s home. Belonging to a wood-cutter, or hunter maybe.
Ana coughed, her throat spasming in her first attempts to speak.
“You didn’t kill me,” she replied.
The witch looked different now; her muscles less intimidating, and her figure somehow smaller. Her eyes were different too, a simple dark brown, not marked with the inhuman irises of a predator. It wasn’t unusual for witches to have transformative abilities. The first one that Ana had hunted had been able to turn himself into an unusually large black dog.
Hunt was a generous term for what had happened there. He had turned himself in a few days after they had arrived. They hadn’t even found any substantial evidence pointing to him yet, but he couldn’t take the pressure.
The witch didn’t give Ana an answer. She was in a position of power now. It would make sense for her to be defensive, emotionally and verbally.
Saints below, I am fucked, thought Ana. I’m still alive, but she’s planning something. Time to probe, look for options.
“Do you have a name?”
“What?” Asked the witch back, puzzled.
“You’ve taken me hostage and brought me into your home. The least I could do is know your name.”
“What does it matter to you?”
“Well,” said Ana, “It’s part of my job to talk to witches, not just hunt them. Interviewing and interrogating them is part of that process. Hunting witches is one thing, it’s all well and good, but finding out their motives and preventing them from existing in the first place is better. Cuts down on the work, and saves souls at the same time.”
“And what are my motives?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Ana admitted, “You haven’t given me much to go on, besides the fact that you were a prisoner at one point. Where were you jailed? In the stocks in town?”
“Not there,” she said. She paused her whittling for a second.
“My name is Gema.”
With that, she resumed, continuing the whittle away at the hunk of wood. Ana’s eyes adjusted to the low-light, and she took a greater inventory of her surroundings. The bed she had been bound on had a woolen blanket and a simple cushion fashioned from some kind of animal fur. Trophies from animals adorned the walls, mostly bones, horns, furs and leathers – macabre, but not unusual for the mountains.
“My name is Ana. Gema,” she said, racking her brain, “That’s a Veleda name, no?”
“I don’t know,” said Gema, “Just the name of my grandmother, on my father’s side.”
“Last name?” Ana asked.
“The name your mother or father gave you.”
“Oh. Klaetona. Why are you asking all of this?”
“I want to have it all in my report on you. You’re an interesting case – the patterns you go through, your apparent tutelage by a devil, your use of foci. My superiors would want to hear all of this.”
The witch shifted quietly from her hunched position, placing her bare feet on the floor again.
“And how would they do that?”
“I’d send a letter after I get out of here,” Ana said plainly. It was a push, certainly, asserting that she would get out, but it was something she needed to push. She couldn’t give Gema the idea that whatever she was planning was going to work.
“That’s presumptuous,” said Gema, “Thinking you’ll be able to get out.”
“You don’t intend to hold me hostage, then?”
Gema looked up, as if the idea hadn’t occurred to her before.
“Hostage? What could I get with a hostage?”
“I’m not exactly high-ranking,” said Ana, “In fact, quite the opposite. But the Church does have its resources. Gold, rubles, paper notes, things reserved for charity or times of emergency.”
“And what would I do with all that gold and money? I am a hunter, much like you, not a banker or a trader. I hunt, and I eat what I hunt.”
She nodded her head to the opposite wall. Ana had to crane her neck, but sure enough there was a bow in a simple stand, and a quiver close behind it.
“I see,” said Ana. The question was on the tip of her tongue. She went for it.
“What inspired you to start hunting humans?”
“The devil asked it of me. I answered. It was a fair deal. And it’s only because I was hungry.”
Her tone was rough and harsh. She had hit a nerve. Ana stayed quiet for a while. She had heard rumours of people resorting to cannibalism high in the mountains; legends of the Kolet pagans who would eat the hearts of their enemies when they killed them to gain their strength. They were only rumours though, spurious myths about a period over a hundred years ago. The closest things that resembled that were within the former nobility, and they were long ousted. She noticed the Heptagram on the far wall, next to the bow.
“You said the Godhead was dead,” ventured Ana.
“Why do you have a Heptagram up, if you don’t believe in the Godhead anymore?”
“I guess that’s a good point. I never had a reason to take it down.”
She stood, and strode over. Ana’s suspicions were confirmed; she was shorter now than she was before. The wooden boards groaned even under a lighter step, and the distant rattle of thunder seemed to shake the house even more than the downpour. Lightly, she took the Heptagram off of the wall and took it back to the table with her. It was a simple one, constructed from a set of similarly-sized twigs.
“I should use this for something else. What do you think?”
Out of nothing, Ana found herself stifling a laugh. The choking must have taken some of the wits out of her too; something about the question and the way she had said it made it seem quaint.
“As a servant of the Church of the Sepulcher, I can’t advise the destruction of holy artifacts. The best I could say is that if it were defiled or broken in some way, it should be burned, and the ashes should be buried.”
Gema nodded, and walked back to the table, before snapping it in two. Ana cringed at the sight.
“Kindling it is.”
“You’re that callous to the divine?”
The witch leaned back and gave her a long, angry look.
“The Godhead never helped me. Neither did the Saints. I can pray to either, and neither will ascend from their so-called hallowed places beneath the earth and help me. A devil has helped me. I give thanks to one, and have no reason to give thanks to the other.”
“Is that how you see this?” Asked Ana, “Have you been helped?”
“Yes,” she answered curtly.
There was a long quiet as she continued to disassemble the Heptagram back into constituent twigs and twine. Eventually, it was just a small pile. She had figured her name, her thoughts on religion – she clearly felt abandoned by the Church. Not a difficult conclusion to come to, secluded far from other people, high in the mountains. She tried to focus through the pain in her chest. Next was probing the details of the case, and pulling on emotional strings to set the suspect onto the track she needed. The only difference here was trying to convince Gema to set Ana free, not getting information for a court case.
“Two beds,” said Ana.
The witch silently returned to her whittling. Whatever she was making had started to take shape – it was some kind of figurine, large enough to fit in the palm of her hand. If she was making a focus, she must have been inexperienced in it. Talking would distract her and spoil it.
“Why two beds?”
Ever so slightly, the witch picked up her pace. She shaved a long sliver of wood off, and it flew towards the floor. She knelt, picked up, and placed it on the table with the rest of the chips and shavings. She had found a string. Time to tug.
“What are you getting at?”
“Why have two beds if you’re the only person living here?”
“How do you know that I live alone? Perhaps I have a husband, or a sister,” Gema said, putting her whittling project down.
“Could be that, I suppose,” said Ana, “But that doesn’t strike me as your style. Unless you were doing quite a lot of blackmail to keep them in line, or they were fine with your… eating habits. And you wouldn’t need two beds if you had a husband unless things were going very poorly for your marriage.”
The witch looked to the window.
“So that leads me to an idea. You could be an escapee from a convoy headed for one of the Antipodes – we had two in the last month – and you could have killed whoever lived here before you. You took the home as your own.”
The witch laughed, and half a dozen voices laughed with her, some low and throaty, others high-pitched as children. Each seemed to come from a different point in the room.
“It’s a good idea, if you’re trying to make some kind of case against me. But you’re wrong. I grew up here. It’s been my home for my whole life.”
“And the second bed?”
The witch was quiet for a long while. She crossed her arms over her chest, as if trying to warm herself from a chill.
“It was my father’s,” she said, nearly spitting the words out. Past tense. Either her father had left, or was dead. Ana’s mind raced. Alone, secluded, not able to sustain herself, possibly starving – she had said that she was hungry. The devil offered to alleviate the hunger with a fresh kind of meat. Tragic, and pitiable.
“I’m sorry,” said Ana, trying to sympathize, “I was an orphan. I never knew my parents.”
“Why are you bothering with talking again? I’m not going to let you go just because you threw some three-ruble words at me and gave me a sad story about your childhood.”
She was deflecting and raising her voice. There was something more than just loss there.
“I understand that you’re reluctant to let me go. I’m just making conversation. You haven’t left me with much else to do.”
“I could gag you,” she said, fiddling with the knife.
“You could. I don’t think you will though. You’ve been alone for a while and you clearly need someone to talk to. And I’m not posturing. I’m sorry you lost your father. It must have been difficult for you.”
“Difficult? My father dying was the easiest thing in the world.”
Ana didn’t respond. She waited for more. Sin weighed on the soul; it demanded confession and remittance. Suspects had a tendency to give themselves up when guilt was heavy on them. If there was even a sliver of it in her, she would give her more.
“He was a cruel man,” added Gema, “And loud. If he had lived in the village, I think that he would’ve been kicked out for how much he yelled.”
“I see. How was he cruel? You don’t need to feel afraid to answer.”
“How? You’ll just use it against me,” said Gema, “Drag me into some court with it. Trick me.”
“I’m not trying to trick you,” said Ana with all the honesty she could muster, “I’m trying to be polite, that’s all. Besides, it’s like you said. There’s no hope of me getting out of here, so I may as well talk with you. If you’re kind, maybe I can leave behind a record for my compatriots, but that’s still up to you.”
“Fine. He was cruel because he kept me here even after I had come of age. He made me do the busywork, whatever he was too lazy or too incompetent to do. Yelled at me whenever I didn’t do it to his liking.”
She looked over her knife, fiddling with it, pushing it from hand to hand.
“He made me his servant. Refused me shoes so I couldn’t run away. Made me stop hunting so that I wouldn’t have a chance to slip from him. He never hurt me, but he’d threaten to kill me. To mutilate my fingers – that was always his favorite.”
Ana sat stock still as a second voice joined Gema’s. It was lower and raspier – definitely a man’s. Then a third, another woman.
“I’ll cut off your fingers. Cut off your toes so you can’t run. Just like that. I knew it was wrong – what kind of man does that to his own daughter? Treating her like a slave? And he was such a heavy sleeper. It could have been so easy to take a knife to him while he slept, but I was a coward then.”
Cowardice is attacking two defenseless women and a seventeen-year-old boy in the dark of night, thought Ana. She didn’t say it. She needed Gema to believe that she was on her side.
“And the devil told you to do it?”
“The devil said that he would give me the strength to do it. That he would let me run barefoot across the ground as freely as a stag. That I would have the strength of a great warrior, and that – that I would be able to make silence and sound as I wished. And all I had to do was offer flesh and blood to him when I felt the need, for the rest of my life.”
The wind slowed and the rain started to stop its incessant pouring. Somewhere, to her front, she heard a strange, hollow rattling noise.
“And you killed him with your newfound confidence?”
“I didn’t – he tried to murder me. I- I made silence, when he tried to yell at me. Made it all quiet. When he figured out what was happening, he was furious. He tried to make good on all his promises.”
She put the knife down, and stared towards the window.
“I’m very sorry. You didn’t deserve that, and what’s happened to you – it’s wrong.”
Ana thought for a moment, then stopped posturing. She needed to find a way out, yes, but if any of what she had said was true, it needed to be addressed as well.
“It’s unfair. Sin is a weight, yes, but it also accumulates. It can drag other people down with it. What your father did was awful – I can’t say you were right to kill him. I do believe in the due process of the law, and executing it to its fullest extent, with all parties heard. But if I had encountered him, and he was a witch, I might have found reason to execute him on the spot too.”
The witch stayed very still for a while, staring at the window again to some distant and unseen point. There was no flicker of a smile or satisfaction on her face. If she enjoyed the murder, she was hiding it.
“I must ask – to satisfy my curiosity and my duties – where did you bury him?”
“I didn’t,” she said.
In between the soft rhythm of the rain she heard the rattling sound again, and the terrible pieces fell into place in Ana’s mind. She had read once that amongst certain pagans, and among those that still lived high in the mountains and far from the reach of the Church, there was a superstition to bones. The bones of a predator could be set as rattles and wind-chimes reinforced with iron to ward off evil. The more dangerous the predator, the more powerful it would be. She was a cannibal – hungry, as she put it – and had eaten what could of the corpse, and the rest could be left as a sort of ward.
Her constant mention of hunger now was making more sense now too. She didn’t want to be a cannibal – but whatever penalty the devil was inflicting for not holding up her end of the bargain was unbearable. It must have been, if the devil wished to create such a ravenous appetite.
“I see,” said Ana. Her gut churned at the idea.
Gema picked up her whittling project once more. The rasping noise returned to its regular rhythm as she knocked chips and pieces of wood off of the base of the statuette.
“Did you do that often? Execute people before they could go to trial?” asked Gema.
“No,” said Ana, “Some of my compatriots are less restrained. Particularly those of the Order of the Sliced Tendon and Gnawed Sinew. That’s in their nature, though – they’re devoted to different virtues than I am, and people like me exist to keep them in check, and make sure that they don’t shirk from their appropriate place. I have executed people, if that’s what you’re asking. Twice, to be exact.”
“Do you regret it?”
“No. Both were… unfortunate cases, but necessary. The first was actually during my apprenticeship. A starving blackblood came to me and my mentor of her own accord, giving us some information and asking for a peaceful end to her life. I was left to do the deed.”
Her name was Mira. She had sad, watery blue eyes, cut up by the rotten veins that came with the awful transformation. She wasn’t looking for power or vengeance or anything, really; just a person who had been dealt a bad hand, and she faced it with far more bravery than Ana thought she could ever muster. She was a mother. Ana cried afterwards for her.
“The second time, I was working with my partner Edam. We had received word of a series of disappearances in a small fishing town – Meshukh. It’s pretty far south of here. People going missing in the middle of the day, suddenly nowhere to be found. The witch who was doing it had this strange quality to his voice that seemed to seduce people from whatever they were doing, though he could only do it one at a time. We-”
“What was he doing with them?” Interrupted Gema.
“He was from Darea, and he had a ship and crew. Once he’d convinced them to come with him, he’d take them onboard, bind them up and have the crew look over them. Slavery is still legal there. It’s disgusting, but he was intending to sell some eleven people into bondage, or more if we hadn’t stopped him. All men he thought would make good workers or women whom he found comely.”
“Oh, Saints below,” muttered the witch. She picked up the pace of her project again. She seemed to be making a crude stand for the statuette.
Apparently some habits die with difficulty, thought Ana.
“The problem was that while they all identified him as one of the Darean sailors who had come in a month ago, none were willing to step forward and identify which. They didn’t know the full extent of his powers, and even then they weren’t familiar enough with the Dareans to know all of them. The law says that we cannot search a foreign ship without a very strong quality of evidence, or direct knowledge that a fugitive is in the ship. So, we spent a week cooling our heels. My partner and I took to plain clothes, trailing the Dareans where they went.”
Edam had been wearing a simple white dress. The detail stood in Ana’s mind so prominently. It had little embroidered flowers with red thread near her shoulders, neatly adorning her waist. She couldn’t remember what she was wearing for the life of her, but she recalled that dress perfectly.
“We were in luck, if you could call it that. The Darean was this big fellow, pale as bled fish, muscles like a bear. He chatted with Edam, and they walked away together. Now, I knew she wouldn’t leave me without consulting first. I slipped into an alley to load my gun – just half a minute or so. When I caught sight of him next, he was panicking and trying to kill her. I think he spotted one of her focuses in her pocket. Whatever the reason, he had a knife on her, and that was more than sufficient reason. I gave a warning, he cut her arm and yelled to get away, but it was a rather shoddy attempt at taking a hostage – she was mostly out of the way of his body. I shot and hit him in the head.”
“Just like that?” Asked the witch.
“Just like that. It was a deep cut, but my partner was fine in the end. The would-be slaves went home, worse for wear, but they did get to go home, and the remainder of the Dareans were arrested for civil crimes. Being accomplices and all that. Unfortunate that it happened, that I had to execute him, but necessary.”
Ana had been avoiding one gnawing question.
“I have to ask – what do you intend to do with me if you aren’t holding me hostage?”
Gema looked at her like a wolf sizing up a deer.
“You’re not what I thought you were. Kinder, maybe. But-”
She rose from her seat, entering her full height.
“The hunger grows day by day. Nothing else sates it. I’ve been starving and gorging myself for months, but that’s no way to live. It hurts too many. I need to treat it like winter. Ration myself. Ration-”
Me, thought Ana.
She strode to her side of the room, and Ana closed her eyes and prepared for a blow. For her to cut off a finger, or a hand, or to slaughter her on the spot. Everything went silent. The rain, the rattling, the creaking of the boards, even her own breathing seemed to quiet.
When she opened her eyes, the witch was at the far door, carrying her bow.
“I’m going to get something for you. You should sleep. I’ll start tomorrow.”
She opened it, and left into the gentle rain.
Ana’s gut churned with hunger, bruising and dread, and she leaned back and stared towards the ceiling. The pillow was stiff, and the chains chafed her skin.
She closed her eyes to calm herself. Death was coming. Maybe in a few weeks, maybe over the course of a month. Death was what she had signed up for. What she had prepared herself for time and again, horrific as it would seem. Death, she reminded herself, was not the end. Paradise would follow for her good deeds. There was nothing to be afraid of.
She relaxed her hands, pulled what she could of the blanket over herself, and fell into the depths of sleep.