Ana had known even before she arrived in the little mountain town of Erezus that she would be too late. They said that the killer struck like clockwork, once a month, when there was no moon – and dread had filled her heart the night before when the empty, black moon occultated the stars. It was morning now, and all the farmers and swineherds stood silently at the side of the road. Their faces and hands were dirtied from the unending toil; their mouths taut in grief and upset. Mothers held children close, and the sky forlornly threatened rain. The village had some four-hundred souls in its count, and it seemed a whole quarter had come to see her arrival.
Her legs were sore from riding. When she left the back of Dot, the mud squelched beneath her boots. The crowd parted and a yeoman emerged from the throng. He was short, somewhat fat, with a nose that should have been sharp if he hadn’t eaten more than his fill. One of his eyes drooped lazily as the other darted to meet her gaze.
“I expected two of you,” he said.
“I was sent alone. My cohort was indisposed and on leave. If this takes too long, she should arrive in a fortnight or so. I promise that I’ll do everything I can to solve this alone,” she replied. Ana had mastered the art of keeping her affect flat as she could. Two years ago, she might have flinched or stuttered when speaking about Edam. She could deal with her when they were both together again.
The yeoman nodded solemnly.
“Where are the bodies?”
“A barn, Not far from here. I’ll show you. Shapagin will take your horse.”
One man emerged from the crowd and gently led Dot away. The yeoman strode out with a slight limp and took her down the dirt road. The houses here were squat and small, puffing smoke into the damp spring air. A throng of the serfs and freemen followed, some brave ten. One bore an ancient-looking matchlock; another a pitchfork. She picked up her pace. There’d be nothing to track if water swept any prints away. The barn was simple, unadorned, made of wood, thatch and wattle.
The thick wooden door to the barn stood wide open. The light of day scarcely reached the interior – it seemed afraid to illuminate anything except the entrance of the awful place, hay strewn about on the dirt floor and an overturned bucket lying off to one side. The rest was black as the pitch of the roof. A woman, short and thin, sat next to the door. She sobbed and mumbled incoherently. One of the serfs went and sat beside her. The rest stopped in a crude semi-circle as the yeoman produced an oil lantern and handed it off to her, the little light springing to life with a flick of his match at its base. They both went in.
The orange light brought the struggle into grisly detail; oil smoke mixed with the scent of dung and blood. The stalls were empty of animals. In their place, in one stall after another, three victims had been arranged. The first was a man, and the least mutilated of the lot. His throat was blue and black with the marks of strangling; his mouth lolling open as if to gasp for air again; his hand clasped tight around a bloody knife.
Man seemed to be the wrong word. He looked younger than that. A boy.
The others were not so lucky. Ana could not tell if either were men or women at all. They had been ripped to shreds, faces ripped from skulls, muscles from bone, blood spattered everywhere in dark streaks and awful spatters. Flies buzzed and festooned the exposed ribcage of one – the chest of the other had been cracked open and collapsed, with the messy remainders of organs strewn inside. A hand laid disparate and severed in one of the stalls opposite.
That made seven victims in three months.
“What were their names?” asked Ana.
“The boy is Damav. He was seventeen. One of them is a woman, Savil; the other we haven’t managed to-”
The yeoman paused.
“We’ve yet to find out who it is.”
She began to run through the possibilities, and the diagnostics of investigation. The first was the motive – countless things could drive a person to witchcraft. The first was petty vengeance.
“I doubt they had enemies?”
“No, Inquisitor. All of the victims were well-liked.”
She stared again at the boy. His limpness, his open eyes. She was only three years older than him.
She didn’t put the thought out of her mind. She couldn’t. Instead, it boiled. He had gone into an impossible struggle to protect two innocent people. He had sacrificed himself. The thought turned to anger, to a simmering fury. She breathed the anger out, and focused herself. The time for it was later; now she had to concern herself with the details of the case.
“Where are the animals?”
“They’d been let out. When Ludmil – Damav’s mother – came to bring the sheep back in, she found them like this. The poor woman has been lying outside all morning. They say-”
The yeoman lowered his voice, even with no one around to overhear them.
“Some are saying that the witch is skinning people. Like the one out in Darvily.”
“I doubt it,” said Ana.
“I doubt it. If you were skinning people, why kill three at once? Why skin them so poorly? A proper skinning would take more time than this. This is different.”
“I don’t know that much about devils. Could it really be that different?”
“Each one is a matter of details, sir,” Ana replied, “Each witch is unique. I’ve dealt with eight, so far. Three more I’ve dealt with after they were behind bars. Each is different. And we caught each by paying attention to the details. And skinning is not the detail here.”
Ana walked to the corpse with the cracked rib cage, and knelt before it. The bones of the ribs had been driven apart and opened. She cocked her head. They were covered in markings, and she leaned in further, trying not to breathe in the awful stench. Though it was difficult to make out through the red morass of congealed blood, there was something off about them. Small dents had been drawn into the bone, and when she leaned to see the inside, the marrow had been crudely removed.
She stood again, now understanding. She turned, looking to Damav again, and at the trails of blood that were scattered throughout the barn. She traced the path of the knife, where it shed its blood into the dirt, trying to find a source. The trail was obscured by bare footprints – quite abnormally large, to the point that they must have belonged to a person of great stature. She shuddered at what gigantic deformity had to occur for such a massive stride. The footprints went bloody, and by their side regular spatters of the stuff. She put together her theory, and knew what had been done.
But the diagnostic said to check her work.
“Say you’re a fox in a henhouse,” said Ana.
“Sorry?” Asked the yeoman.
“Say that you are. That you’ve made your way into the henhouse, and you find yourself amongst some defenseless chickens. You beat them around about a bit, and then you eat one, then another. Chew the skin and muscle from their bones, and suck out the marrow.”
She returned to Damav.
“And then a rooster comes. The fox is already full, but the rooster is more of a threat. He gouges with a claw, but the fox gets the better of him, thrashes his neck, and the rooster is gone. But, the fox has already eaten its fill. So, the fox leaves the rooster behind in spite of having perfectly good meat.”
The yeoman seemed to understand now.
“A witch and a cannibal,” he said, shuddering.
“I’ve heard of worse cases,” Ana offered as a condolence, “And they’re bleeding. They’ll be easy to track.”
She took the lamp, and followed the confused, convoluted track of the footprints. They didn’t leave back out the front door, instead leading to a small window on the far side of the barn. The frame had more blood on it. The witch had left through the window. Still, at the back of her mind, another thought bothered Ana.
She returned to the light and handed the lamp back to the yeoman before exiting the barn. She looked to Damav’s mother, still crying by the doorway. Ana bowed before her on one knee so that they were eye to eye. She was a slight thing, her face well-worn by years of labor, with hard-cheekbones and eyes red from crying.
She stopped sobbing for a moment.
“Why- why are you kneeling? I didn’t-”
“Your boy, Damav, is a hero. He was brave beyond words. He went in to save those two women. You raised him better than most could.”
Ana paused, reaching for something to comfort her.
“I am certain that he is with the Saints now. I know that does little for your grief. I will make the witch that did this answer for their crimes, and I will send for relief to your village, and for you. You’ve earned it. I hope the Almighty gives you strength till then.”
The woman didn’t seem to know what to say. She looked away and continued to cry. Ana felt a heaviness in her chest. There wasn’t anything else that could be done for her for now. She stood again, and continued as she walked around the barn. On the opposite side, the window bore the same bloodied tracks. They trailed away into the field and towards a darkened forest. The yeoman was not far behind.
“Has anyone followed these tracks?”
“None. The last person to try didn’t return. We didn’t count them amongst the killings, but…”
“Good. This witch picks people off in secluded places. If we go as a group as we hunt, it’ll be safer. Now, do you have men skilled with archery?”
“May I ask why?”
“Rain’s on the horizon. Maybe in the next hour, maybe not till tomorrow. We wouldn’t want to be caught with muskets in a storm. If they only have muskets, then have them bring them anyway, but it’d be better to be prepared. Do many people live out in those woods? Or are they owned privately?”
“Formally, they belong to the lord, but there are quite a few houses out there. Woodcutters, hunters, eccentrics. It’s a good hiding place.”
“Mm. We’ll want a dog to track them, too. My partner would normally manage that, but in this case we’ll make do. I want to end this quickly. Gather whoever’s willing.”
The yeoman nodded and entered into the crowd. They mostly dispersed over the course of a few minutes, and those that returned were mostly men, fit, lean and young. Most carried bows and wooden arrows, some matchlocks, some spears. Only two women stood among the fifteen or so brave enough to come. The first was older, with her straight hair just starting to turn grey with age, carrying a massive brush knife that bordered on being more a one-bladed sword than a tool. The other looked to be about Ana’s age, and held a boar-spear at attention. She had a rope laid around her back. A black bloodhound ran faithfully alongside her and slobbered onto the ground. The mob came to her in a loose circle and waited for her next words. This speech was one that she had prepared.
“Keep your weapons at attention, but take care; I will engage the witch first if we come to find them. In spite of what heinous crimes they’ve committed, I will try to take her alive, so that she may have a fair and reasonable trial. If she tries to flee, we pursue but do not bring force immediately; we will not bring force onto her until she attacks one of us. Is all of this understood?”
There was a murmur of assent.
“Good. I’ll take the lead; the rest can make a column. You, do you own that bloodhound?”
The woman nodded.
“You’re at the front with me.”
The lot formed up and wandered through the dewy field. A few mottled cows gave a lopsided look to the group as they passed away from the town and onto a small backroad. The hound snuffed at the bloody, bare footprints and started along with them, the woman following close behind. The overcast sky was even more gloomy when it was obscured by the thicket of ash and oak trees that filled the forest, broad shadows covering the ground alongside the green ferns and various pale mushrooms that grew here. The footprints quickly diverged from the path and went deep into the underbrush, the blood being cleaned and soaking into the black soil. They were now certainly ascending through the hills.
Ana turned to the woman beside her.
The rope looped around her shoulder was already tied into a noose. She sighed.
“What’s your name?”
“Untie that, Ivya. We’re not executing anyone today.”
Ivya gave a sidelong glare as they walked, the bloodhound a few steps ahead.
“What? Planning on showing mercy?”
“No. Not exactly.”
“What do you mean by not exactly?”
“From what I’ve seen here, unless there’s some wondrous reversal of evidence, I’ll testify as thoroughly and completely on the heinous crimes that this witch has committed as possible. And I’ll bring supplementary evidence which will be provided by your yeoman and the testimony of the citizens and so on and so on.”
Ivya was quiet.
“When will that be?”
“A half a month from now, I suppose. Assuming we catch her today. Maybe a little longer,” said Ana, “Some prisoners are unruly and difficult to transport. My compatriots in the Order of the Bloodied Head would help me there. A good two weeks travel to the Antipode at Dzhemor. There they’d be tried over the course of a few days. Then maybe a few appeals before either a life sentence in the Antipode or an execution.”
“A life sentence,” scoffed Ivya.
“You laugh. Life in the Antipodes is boring, brutish and harsh. I’d consider it just as bad as death. Some prisoners don’t even get clothes. The best sorcerers certainly don’t.”
Ivya was quiet for a second, then handed her spear to Ana. She then began to undo the noose, one loop at a time.
“Also, the only legal ways to kill a witch are beheading, shooting, or field execution,” added Ana as she balanced the spear against her body, “So even if we caught them and we were forced to kill them because they were too difficult to keep as a prisoner, the noose would be pointless. Save it for ropes to bind them.”
“So, you think she can do sorcery, then?” Asked Ivya as she took back her spear.
“Not necessarily. What was done back there could have been done through witchcraft alone. The murders could have been done with a gun and a knife and some time, I suppose. But the bodies had bite marks all over them, and I doubt any normal person could eat that much raw meat. Not naturally, not that fast, and some of those bite-marks were downright-”
“Sharp,” said Ivya. When Ana turned to face her, she looked pale but not frightened. Her jaw was clenched tight as the fist around her weapon. Her hound stopped for a second, trying to pick up the scent again.
“I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”
“I doubt you did.”
She stayed quiet for a second, thinking about what to say. There was a distant crack of thunder and a drizzle of rain began to patter on the tree-tops.
“Did you lose someone?”
There was a murmur from behind them; the rest seemed to have picked up on their conversation. The dog picked the scent back up, leading them deeper into the wood. Ivya pushed a sapling aside to follow the little beast.
“Everyone did. There are too few of us to have not.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ana, quietly, “If there’s luck, we find them today. I can’t promise much else.”
Ivya nodded, and started to walk ahead with her dog, apparently done talking with Ana. She didn’t blame her. The forest grew thicker, and the rain ever-louder, now beating down on them at a steady pace. A bluejay cawed restlessly at them as they passed into the depths of the woods. Far away through the branches Ana could see the distant peaks that stretched northwards. From here, they seemed less like mountains and more like a great ocean of stone and wood and snow.
She wondered what Edam would say. It seemed like the kind of poetic comparison that she’d say was foolish, the kind of thing she would scowl at or make an odd little chuckle for. Ana took the thought out of her head, and continued to trudge through the mud. It was no use thinking of her now.
After what felt like hours of aimless rambling, they came again to a different, separate dirt road. It was no sooner that they had arrived onto the path that a cackle echoed through the hills. It was vast and deep and had an awful warbly undertone which spread through greenery like a mold. All of the mob except Ana readied weapons. She grabbed at the amulet at her chest, folding a thumb over it, feeling the wooden grain against her fingers.
“Crocuta,” said a man from the back.
They all went silent again.
The warbling, awful laugh came again, this time closer and to their left. The wind whipped against the brush and made it rustle all at once. The column became a rough defensive circle, and Ivya lowered her spear, ready to receive the charge of the oncoming animal. The bloodhound shuddered and growled.
And then there was silence – or as much silence as there could be with the constant pounding of the rain.
Then, there was a voice; it was high-pitched, strained and screaming.
“Help! Help! Help me!”
The rest of the men faltered. One man broke the formation, a young fellow with dark hair.
“Daddy! Please! He’s hurting me!”
Another joined her, at first sputtering as if a gag had been undone, then screeching. It was a fully grown woman.
“Karlas! Please! He’ll kill us!”
Out of the corner of her eye, Ana spotted a flicker of movement. She turned to face it. A figure in the brush. A man? The voice was coming from the other direction. It must have been tall – all she could make of it was the peering fragment of a face, a flash of hair and a tightly clenched hand before it disappeared behind the broad trunk of an oak.
More voices joined Lucia’s, coming from all around. Young, old – some twenty in total, all pained and screaming for help. There was a sudden loosening of the loop that they had made. She was losing control of the formation. Lucia’s father ran headlong into the brush first.
“Wait!” Yelled Ana.
Too late. More scattered, trying to find the source of the voices.
“I saw someone that way!”
Ivya stood faithfully at her side, then paled. Through the crowd of voices came a ponderous, low yell for her name. She looked at Ana, distraught.
“If it’s him – my husband-”
If the witch could transport people long distances safely – if it could use that to kidnap them and bring them here as hostages – then that would explain how she managed to get three people easily cornered into that barn. Ana twitched her gaze back to the brush. She made a split-second plan.
“You take the lead of the rest. I’m going to go after what I saw. If it’s nothing I’ll circle back here. And-”
She faltered. If she was wrong, she could be sending them into a trap.
“Save him. Stay wary. Stay safe.”
She rushed headlong into the brush towards the clearing, the clamor and cacophony of voices only slightly fading as she ran. Almost immediately, she found a trail of broken branches and pushed-aside saplings. She traced it through the brush, pushing through the brambles and forcing it away. Her heart pounded with the stress, chest heaving against the rain, her eyes pulsing in their sockets. She pushed through a thicket and found herself in a broad clearing. The trees had been cut away so that there were only a few stumps which ponderously emerged from the ground, grass and moss proliferating in the place of the forest detritus.
And there in the center of the clearing was the witch.