Thomas and Brandon finished the fire-pit while Jacob gathered firewood from the surrounding trees. They’d made a great time that day, laughing and chasing each other all across the foothills while slowly growing closer to the lowlands. The weather was clear without a cloud in the sky, which suited Thomas just fine. He preferred camping without rain and always made it a habit of pitching his tent uphill, a fact he decided not to share with his friends so he could have the spot he desired.
Brandon, who’d packed the caldron for their nightly soups, had set it over a makeshift spit, where the flames from the campfire would cause the water to boil with whatever meats and roots they decided to add to the stew. Each of them added a strip of venison, while Thomas added several tubers that he knew from experience with his father made any stew heartier. Brandon added half a bottle of mead while Jacob took his bow with him while gathering firewood, claiming he’d catch a fine meal to be added to the stew.
That had been half an hour ago and Thomas and Brandon’s bellies were grumbling in protest. When they were about to get up and go gather firewood themselves, they spotted Jacob walking back, several logs under one arm and a dead badger beneath the other. Thomas was flabbergasted but took the heavy creature from Jacob while Brandon took the firewood.
“Where did you find this Badger?” Thomas asked as he pulled a sharpened skinning knife from his belt.
“I saw it up and about digging holes near some bushes, so I shot it once. The first arrow was enough to kill it, but I shot another just in case. I’ve heard they can be dangerous if cornered.”
“Very,” Thomas said as he began deftly cleaning the kill. “I’ve eaten Badger a handful of times, the meat is kind of fatty but it’s very flavorful. If I wrap this in some hide I can use it for the next few night’s meals.”
“Go ahead, just don’t expect me to go hunting again anytime soon!” Jacob laughed, earning a round of laughter from the other two.
After a half hour of jokes and stories being bandied about, the stew was well on it’s way to being a delicious meal. Thomas had removed the heart and the kidneys, tossing them in the pot.
“They have some great flavor to them, and once cooked we can snack on them tomorrow while we hike.” He’d said, earning nods of approval from Brandon and Jacob.
As the half-moon reached the zenith in the sky, surrounded by sparkling gemstones over a curtain of darkness, the boys ate from their wooden bowls with spoons, each taking seconds and thirds of the hearty meal. Once they’d drained the pot of all the soup, Thomas pulled a roll of hide from his backpack and slapped the Badger meat, which he’d hung from a tree to bleed out while they ate, onto the leather before adding the cooked organs.
“Jacob, since you downed the beast I think it’s fitting that you carry it!” Thomas said with a smile.
“What? How is that fair?” Jacob laughed.
“Because my bag is packed full and I know yours has room in it,” Thomas smiled.
Jacob sniffed. “Well that’s the last time I go hunting for you ingrates!”
“Oh come off it, we just need someone to hold it while we hike tomorrow.” Brandon said, whipping Jacob with a switch he’d harvested from a nearby tree. Jacob cried out in pain, shooting Brandon a murderous glare.
A sudden crack of dry timber from a nearby copse of trees caught the boys’ attention, all three spinning their heads to look. Their night vision ruined by the campfire, the only one to see anything was Jacob, who let out a pitched scream, jumping up with his bow and arrows. The other two boys, now alarmed, asked what he saw when they heard it. A slow keening noise, like a tea kettle beginning to whistle; looking out, they saw a pale leg, veins blue and dark in contrast to the ivory appearance of the sagging flesh, partially obscured by the trees, a single hand with long fingers and even longer nails curled around the bark.
Jacob nocked an arrow and took aim when the keening slowly warped into a high-pitched voice, cracking and popping like the campfire before them.
“You seek the Witch?” The figure asked, slowly peering from around the corner. A single red eye gleamed in the darkness, while the rest of the face was sagging and old, wrinkles stark against the creatures face in the failing light of the campfire. Whatever it was, it had a black shroud wrapped over the top of its head and around its upper body, like a tunic. The creature hissed and slid further behind the tree when it looked at Jacob.
“Lower your arms and share your fire and I’ll tell you about the Witch… should you be interested?” The voice cracked at the end of the question, dry and wheezy.
Jacob looked at Thomas, who slowly nodded. Lowering his bow, Jacob called out to the creature. “All right, you can come out. I won’t shoot you, but don’t try anything funny!”
The creature stepped out into the shadows created by the dancing flames of the campfire, revealing that the black cloak concealed most of the upper body as well as the other eye of the androgynous figure. Nude, it had visible ribs showing and a low belly that seemed to be full of fluid, shaking as it took unsteady steps toward the group. It’s feet were cut up from brambles, though no blood seeped from the wounds. Instead white flesh stretched and tore to reveal putrid tendons beneath the cracked skin.
As the creature neared the campfire, Brandon gasped and pointed at the figure. “You’re Mother Handel, the woman who killed herself six-years ago!”
The other boys turned and looked at the creature, who slowly turned its arms out to where they could see the inner arms. Slit from wrist to elbow were jagged black marks that crumbled with sand and dirt. The old woman cackled as the boys showed their revulsion, her shroud slipping to reveal her other eye to them.
It was an empty socket of dry bone.