The Witch of Dark HollowbySabledrake©
She moaned fitfully, emerging from a sleep that felt as deep and dark as Goodman Miller's millpond.
The voice, crooning. And then a laugh. A laugh that seemed familiar. High, shrill, tittering, a laugh like rusty nails and icicles.
Pain. Sharp and twisting. At the tip of one breast, then the other.
Leah gasped. Something was on her. Sitting on her chest. A hot, furry, loathsome weight. And the pinching. Through the thick wool of her night-dress, those sharp pinching twists to her nipples.
Her eyes snapped open. The room was dark but for the edges of moonlight around the muslin curtain. She recognized the familiar bulky shadow-shapes of the furniture, recognized the scents of candle-tallow, lye soap, the apples in the pantry, the bitter tang of smoked ham.
But over all of those, rushing eagerly into her senses with each startled breath, was the stink of the thing upon her. Rancid and yellow, like bacon fat and garlic spoiling in a pan of sour milk.
She could only see it as a black shape, a black shape with glinting red-rimmed eyes that peered with avid cunning into her upturned face. It was hunched and small. Its paws, clever as a raccoon's, reached to tweak her painfully sore nipples again.
A revolted cry caught in her throat. Leah thought she would strangle on it, this scream she was unable to voice. The air felt locked and feverish in her lungs. Her mouth worked like that of a landed fish.
With another shrill, grating laugh, the creature on her chest scurried forward. Its little claws snagged her gaping lips and forced them apart. Her vision drew in the moonlight, and the dull umber glow of the banked coals out in the kitchen hearth. She could see the thing more clearly now.
Its form reminded her of drawings of monkeys from far-off Africa – the parson was a learned man, and had many fabulous books in the parlor. Yet it was no monkey. There was something of the cat to it, and the rat as well. Most of its body was shaggy with matted fur. It must have teemed with fleas and lice. Its heat was terrible, its stench worse.
Leah could not move. Her body felt as rigid as if it had been turned to stone. She heard the creak and groan of the house settling, and fancied she could hear the parson's snores and his sister's restless tossing and turning from upstairs.
Laughing again, as Leah lay prone and helpless, the creature stopped with its hind feet planted on her collarbones. Its forelegs, tipped with their deft little paws, still held her lips open. Red eyes glittered maniacally down at her.
Something hot and slimy brushed her lower lip. It flexed and curled like a worm. She tried to jerk her head away but could not move. The appendage slithered over her teeth and touched her cringing tongue. It tasted of rotten eggs.
The creature closed her lips around the vile length. With a cooing sort of grunt, it began rocking its misshapen body back and forth. Leah strained her jaws, wishing to gnash her teeth together and sever the slippery, coiling thing that had invaded her mouth. She could not.
"Leeee-ah," the creature whispered. "Ooh, niiice Leee-ah."
The pace of its movements increased. So did the noise it made, grunting and grunting. Dribbles of scalding saliva drooled from its chin onto Leah's face. All at once, the appendage went stiff, then convulsed. A flood of thick, sticky fluid spurted from its end.
"Soooo niiiice," crooned the creature. It voiced its piercing trill of a laugh again.
Leah gagged. She struck the floor with a hearty thud, jarring her bones. Without knowing how she got there, she huddled in the tangle of her bedclothes and retched. A thin stream of vomit sprayed the floorboards. She spat and spat, desperate to rid herself of the taste. Tears ran freely from her stinging eyes, clear mucus from her nose. Just when she thought she might be able to sit up, another cramp seized her gorge and she retched again. And again. Until she felt husked out and empty.
At last, she collapsed onto her side, shuddering from head to toe and sobbing. She raised one shaky hand to wipe the mess from her face. Her abused nipples throbbed, chafed as the scratchy wool moved over them.
Slowly, lest she trigger another episode, she pushed herself into a sitting position. Her back rested against the edge of her cot. She drew her knees up and tucked the skirt of her night-dress around her legs.
The creature was gone. If it had ever truly been there. The residue of its foul seed was gone from her mouth, which was filled with the acidic flavor of her vomit. Leah gingerly touched her lips, thinking that she might find them pin-pricked from the grip of the claws, but they were unmarked. Only the ache in her breasts remained.
Her next thought was to go up and wake the parson, and tell him of this nightmare. But she blushed at the very idea. Brother Ezekiel was a staid and sober man. She couldn't imagine having to answer if he asked what had happened in this nightmare to cause such distress. She simply could not tell him what the creature had done to her.
And what if he called upon her to testify? What if Brother Ezekiel deemed that it had not been the mere wanderings of a sleeping mind, but the touch of Evil? The touch of the witch?
Leah trembled. She climbed hurriedly back into her bed and pulled the blanket over her head. There, entirely in darkness now, she prayed urgently.
Not the witch. Please, in Thy mercy and goodness Oh Lord, not the witch.
She couldn't think of any reason that the witch would single her out. She and the accused barely knew each other well enough to bid good morning when they passed on the street.
But then, why did Evil need a reason? Was it not an end unto itself?
All at once the close confines of her makeshift cocoon turned from comforting to coffinlike. Leah sprang up. She could not abide another moment in the room until her nerves had settled.
Her tiny chamber had once been the butter-pantry. When Brother Ezekiel and Sarah had taken her in to cook and clean for them, they'd generously given it to her as her own room. Her cot was narrow, but she needed no more. The wardrobe was a scarred old hulk, but Leah had few clothes to store within it.
She dashed chilly water from the washstand onto her flushed face. Her hair had come partly undone from its nightly plait, wispy strands now stuck to her brow. Donning her heaviest mantle and warmest shoes, she went into the kitchen.
All here was neatness and order. The bowls were already set out for the next day's early baking. The woodbox was full. Leah knew that in only a few short hours, she would be wakened by the crow of the rooster from the henhouse out back, and her long day would begin. Much as she needed her rest, much as she knew she'd regret this by afternoon, she could not go back to bed.
It was the middle of the night, all of Dark Hollow's good and decent folk long since abed and asleep. When she moved aside the kitchen shutter, she saw no lights below the parsonage hill. The houses were touched with wan moonlight, but in no window did so much as a candle burn.
Leah stepped onto the back stoop to take the air. It felt fresh and welcome, and the briskness to it helped drive the last of the night-terror from her mind. She breathed deeply and gratefully. Her head was clear now, and she knew that no devil's imp had disturbed her slumber.
No wonder, though. With all that was going on in town. Why, the trial was the talk of Dark Hollow and likely the surrounding villages as well. Some folk had even come twenty miles to hear the parson and the magistrate from Johnstown interview the witnesses. Three days now it had been going on, and they still had yet to question the accused witch herself.
It made Leah shiver to think of the way Judith Greene sat there, eyes frantic over the metal bars of the scold's bridle. The way she'd wrench at her bonds, as if freedom was worth a broken wrist or sprung shoulder. Not that she'd get far if she did free herself … the magistrate had ordered two of the stoutest men to stand guard over her.
The assembled crowd, everyone from Dark Hollow and the visitors from neighboring settlements besides, had heard many a horrifying testimony already. Mordecai Brewer's dog birthing a succession of deformed pups. The little Creekwater boy losing his eye that awful way. The curse on the Samuelson twins, making them bark and foam and run on all fours like dogs. All of Goodwife Webster's milk-jugs clabbering. The coughing sickness that killed three members of the Oakentree family. Lilah Fischer's prized possession, a silver mirror given her by her grandmother, mysteriously vanished.
All that, and more besides. Grievance upon grievance, ill upon ill, and every last one of them leading to Judith Greene's door. She had visited evils upon them, and laughed while she did. Laughed that same shrill tittering laugh.
Leah wrapped her arms around herself. The night was no cooler, but she felt a deeper chill.
She might have been tempted to lay her own misfortunes at the feet of the witch, but Zachary Greene hadn't brought his bride home from Thorn River by the time of the fire that killed her parents and the four younger children. She sometimes wished that she hadn't been roused by the family dog. That she hadn't dashed out to fetch water from the well, only to find the flames too strong to get near. Even the faithful dog had perished. His bones had been found in the blackened wreck, alongside those of Leah's father.
No, Judith Greene couldn't have had anything to do with that. Nor had her name even been known in Dark Hollow when Leah's only suitor, dear Jacob, fell through the ice and drowned in Bennett's Pond.
A twinkle caught Leah's eye as she was about to go back inside. There and then gone again, a flicker between the brooding trees that ringed the churchyard.
And there, another. This one a strange green light like marshfire.
A pretty color, really. Fascinating.
She wanted to go to it.
Which was silly indeed … go into the churchyard? Alone and in the very dead of night? She didn't like the place by full light of day. The six graves of her family, with their pitiful wooden markers – others had stone, and some even fine marble, but the fire had destroyed everything – never failed to bring her to tears.
All the same, her feet were moving. Carrying her across the parsonage yard, through the long dewy grass, through the flimsy gate, down the hill.
Now she could see more lights, dancing and leaping. Cavorting fairies, her baby sister Emma would have said, and likely earned a swat from their father and a stern rejoinder to rid her head of such nonsense. There were no fairies, no pixies, no brownies who needed a dish of cream left out for them on saint's eves. If her father had been here, he would have scolded Leah as well. Chasing a will'o'wisp, roaming off alone in the dark.
Nonetheless, she was passing through the sparse stand of woods and nearing the churchyard. She could see the rising crosses of the headstones, some topped with guardian angels. The lights were brighter now, closer, and such colors as she had never seen. Brilliant blues, greens, and violets. Yellow like sunshine filtered through honeycomb. Red like some dazzling starstruck jewel.
Music, as well! Leah smiled as she heard a pipe and a fiddle.
She reached the churchyard wall, which rose to her knees in irregular blocks of mossy stone, and stopped short.
The fascination and curiosity that had lured her hither abandoned her, but in their place came a horror so paralyzing that Leah might as well have been rooted in place.
The merry tunes of pipe and fiddle turned suddenly to a cacophonous screech. The spinning, frisking lights lost their brilliance and took on muddy, bloody hues. From every corner of the churchyard, strange shapes skulked or trotted or pranced.
She saw dogs with the faces of men. Pigs that walked on their rear legs, and had full woman's breasts and hairy thatches. Men with the hindquarters and heads of goats. Rams with the bodies of men. Birds with the heads of women.
At the center of their circle, as these monstrous beasts gathered, stood a tall figure in a hooded robe. The lights swirled and spun around the hood, but cast no illumination on the features within. Clasped in its arms, the figure held a book.
This was no book like the many in the parsonage parlor, Leah knew. Its cover was a hodgepodge, as if it had been quilted together from many types of hide. Or skin. Human skin, yes, and why not? For those did look to be human teeth and fingerbones describing a symbol on the front.
The robed figure called out, its voice so low and husky that Leah could not know if it was that of a man or a woman. The beasts – nothing could be further in all creation from the fairies, sprites, and brownies that poor little Emma would have imagined – swarmed eagerly in response. They formed a procession, following the robed figure into the heart of the churchyard.
Leah could see better than she wished. Her view was unobstructed, and the will seemed to have fled from her spirit. Her limbs were nerveless, her bowels watery with fear. Oh, this that she was seeing, she knew what it had to be! A coven, a black mass. Yet how could it be so when Judith Greene was kept under lock and key in the gaolhouse, awaiting the conclusion of her trial?
It came to Leah with a numbing dread that perhaps Judith was not the true witch after all. Had not Zachary Greene maintained determinedly throughout that he believed his wife innocent? The other townsfolk clucked with pity at this – what else would the man say? She likely had him enspelled from the moment they met! – but now, Leah wondered.
Could it be that Judith was innocent after all? Could it be that she, Leah, a humble servant in the parson's house, was about to see the true witch unmasked? Perhaps the spells had been done in a way to make it seem that it was she …
The unholy beasts curbed their unruliness, waiting expectantly as the robed figure reverently laid the book open atop the mausoleum of Isaiah Fletcher. He had been the wealthiest man in the region, the founder of Dark Hollow, and many considered his stone tomb to be a final gesture of the extravagance that had characterized his life. Ivy grew in clutching fingers up its sides, and the corners of the flat slab were rounded by the years.
Spreading both hands over the open pages, the witch – Leah had no doubt – commenced a chant. It might have been Latin. The parson and his sister, educated both, spoke the ancient tongue. Leah was familiar with the sound of it. Yet this sounded older, somehow, and harsher.
The congregation of monstrosities responded to each pause with wordless animal noises. Some fell upon their neighbors, and Leah's heart seemed to freeze in her chest as she saw the abominable acts they performed. Males with females, yes, but males with males as well, and females with females, and whole groups of them heaving and bucking and thrashing and thrusting.
One of the pig-women broke away and ran, snorting over her shoulder at the ram-headed man in pursuit. They raced in Leah's direction, and still she could not summon the will to move. Mere yards from where she stood in terror, the ram-man seized the pig-woman and threw her to the earth. He knelt looming over her, holding her legs wide, and drove the naked prong of his erect member into her loins. The pig-woman squealed in what sounded to Leah like utter agony. The wet slapping of their union made Leah's stomach roll again.
Beyond them, with a cry and a flourish, the figure who had been reading from the book flung away the concealing robe. A nude, white-skinned body was revealed, a woman, slim of waist but lush of breast and hip. Her back was to Leah. A pagan flood of wild unbound hair reached to the crest of her buttocks. It was some dark color, brown or black, impossible to tell anything by moonlight except that it was not blonde.
Her head was thrown back in abandon as her arms reached to the sky. She undulated like a serpent, swaying in place as her voice rose in a throaty song. Though she could not understand the words, the melody stirred something in Leah.
Something not unlike the way she'd felt the one time she had permitted Jacob to kiss her. The very day he'd announced his wish to wed with her, that had been. She had wept, because he was so handsome and so kind, not caring that she owned little else but the very clothes on her back. He loved her, he said, and he'd kissed her to prove it.
His kiss had turned her entire body weak and fluttery, making her aware of parts that she usually ignored. The memory of it had made sleep elude her far into the hours of the night, as she'd lain restless and awake with a curiously unfulfilled yearning.
That feeling rushed in upon her again now, but it was much stronger, and much darker. Somehow, Jacob's kiss had been clean and honest. This sensation, which peaked her sore nipples with a mingled pain-pleasure and made her loins turn damply warm, was not. Yet it pulled at her, dredging up desires that she only partly understood.
She took a step closer. The ram-headed man and the pig-woman had concluded their coupling and returned to the others. Leah could see a heap of them, joined in ways that looked impossible and unnatural.
The churchyard fence blocked her way. She wanted to scramble over it, but her legs still felt clumsy and wooden as stilts.
The witch's voice soared to a piercing ululation. At the peak of it, a new figure emerged from the concealment of the trees and approached her. Like she had been, this new arrival was shrouded from view in a long sweeping garment.
Leah sensed that the newcomer was male. Perhaps it was the height – he towered over the witch – or the breadth of shoulder, or the stride.
A second man, garbed in a long night-shirt and cap, appeared as well. He walked toward the witch as one in a trance. The moonlight fell full upon his face, and Leah recognized him. He had been a frequent caller at the parsonage in days past.
The witch turned, finally affording Leah a good look at her as well. Again, recognition, in the dim part of her mind that could still think. The rest of her was riveted as the witch hopped nimbly atop the stone slab of Isaiah Fletcher's tomb.
The man in the night-shirt and the tall one in the cowl moved up on either end of the mausoleum. The capering beasts danced around them in a ring.
What they did next was … obscenity.
"Where is she, that lazy girl?" Ezekiel asked, scowling up from his Bible. "I've no tea as of yet, nor any sign of breakfast."
Sarah Parsons set down her needlework. "I shall rouse her, brother."
He harrumphed, and returned to the good Book. She supposed that in light of what the day would hold, he must be reading that which pertained to witches, and how they should not be suffered to live. It was the mood of the town, and Sarah did not doubt that before much longer, one Goodwife Judith Greene would be hanging from a gallows and her body burned to ashes.
How hideous a death that would be … the slow strangling of the noose, and the knowledge that the pyre awaiting would only be the precursor of the fires of Hell.
She shook off those horrible thoughts and went into the kitchen. Leah had not wakened them this morning as was usual. Nor had she stoked the fire. It had nearly gone out. Sarah knelt and coaxed a lick of flame from the embers, then added wood until she had a hearty blaze.
Such as the one which would consume the mortal flesh of Judith Greene, tomorrow or the next day.
A shudder twisted through her. Pushing the image aside again, she set the kettle on the stove and went to the doorway that gave onto the former butter pantry. She heard rustling and murmuring. It sounded as though Leah were in the thrall of some dream.