by Larry Bullock
Gather round citizens of Vasalt and listen to my tale. A tale of death, woe, friendship, and revenge.
The Old Crone lived in a modest hut in the woods not far from the village of Ashbree in the land of Temphis – far enough away that she was rarely seen, but close enough that if someone needed a bit of magic to cure a disease or help their crops, people could find her within a few days walk. No one knew if she had another name. No one could recall a time when she wasn't there and wasn't old. She was simply referred to as the Old Crone, a label that fit her. She saw no reason to let anyone call her anything else.
The Old Crone's hut was small, but sturdy. It was more of a small cottage really. It had a cozy little porch with a well-used bench beside the door. The Old Crone could usually be found sitting on the bench whenever anyone came calling. A black crow was usually perched on the railing beside her. Inside, a simple living area took up most of the space. Along one wall, there was a variety of bottles filled with spices, roots, and other mixtures, and there was a small work table that always seemed to have something bubbling and brewing on it. The only other room was a small bedroom that the Old Crone shared with her granddaughter.
"Do you think Keelin knows it is to happen today," she said from her bench seat.
The crow cocked its head at her, its black eye studying her. The bird glanced around the woodlands as if making sure no one was there, then back towards the Old Crone. "You've sent her off before. Nothing has happened yet," it answered with a hint of mockery in its voice.
The Old Crone smiled slightly. "I've done my best to raise her right," she continued. "She can mostly take care of herself. The girl has a gift for potion work; much better than I ever was. What might take me months or years to figure out, she seems to be able to pull from the air. She just seems to know what ingredients are needed."
"Yes, she's a genius. You're the best grandmother ever," the crow cawed.
"She is still only thirteen. She will need protection after I'm gone. You owe me," she continued.
"You can't know anything is going to happen today. You've been wrong before."
"Don't mock me bird. I still have enough of the touch to know that they are already on their way. I'm too old to stop them. It will happen today. That's why I sent Keelin out to gather tirati roots yesterday. She won't be back until tomorrow. I need you to protect and guide her. She mustn't end up like her mother."
"As if you've ever told me what happened to her," the bird scolded.
"I need you to promise to care for her," the Old Crone said.
"I don't see how I can," the crow started.
"Don't play dumb. I know you have gifts of your own. Don't forget what brought you to me. I saved you from those who would kill you for sport. I let you stay."
"A lot of good that's done me," the bird yelled.
The Old Crone sighed. "Let me offer you some advice. Stop worrying about why you are so smart, and start worrying about living."
The bird remained silent. "I need to know Keelin will be protected. You are the only one I trust to ask," she stated.
The two remained quiet for some time lost in thought. "Please? She is all I have left in the world," she pleaded.
The crow thought back to his first encounter with the Old Crone. He was on the run. Duke Chalmud didn't have a sense of humor over being tricked into kissing a cow. He had a reputation for flirting with young maidens and then abusing them before abandoning them to their fate. "A simple illusion would do him well," the crow had thought.
From a perch in a nearby tree, the crow saw the Duke approaching and saw that he would pass a nearby farm and, as chance would have it, the farmer's cow was chewing cud near the fence. The crow cast its spell over the Duke so that he would see the cow as a maiden beckoning to him. He approached and kissed the maiden full on the lips. The crow let the illusion fall as the nearby farm hands began chuckling. Duke Chalmud turned red as a radish as the crow let out a caw and left the tree. However, he marked the bird and hired a witch hunter to track it down.
The witch hunter was relentless in pursuing the bird. It flew many leagues and across many lands, but still the hunter gave chase, never being far behind. The crow thought it lost the hunter when he got to Temphis and crossed the Shadow River. However, the hunter caught up to the bird near the Old Crone's hut. The Old Crone stopped the hunter, but the bird was wounded. She nursed it back to health and took it in. It remained with her from that point on.
"I need you to promise me you'll protect Keelin," the Old Crone pleaded.
Suddenly the Old Crone stood and looked down the path that led to her home. "Get to Keelin," she hissed as she shot her arm towards the crow. A wave of force pushed it from the railing. It heard what sounded like a large group of men coming down the path and flew into a nearby tree.
Shrouded by branches, the bird watches as the motley group of men came through the trees and brush. Only one was using on the path. The rest were forcing their way through the brush. The crow had seen the Old Crone talk sense to villagers before when something didn't go right despite the use of her magic. This was more than a group of angry villagers.
The Old Crone started down the few steps from her porch, smiled, and started to raise her hand in greeting. Her mouth started to open to speak to the men just as an arrow buried itself in her chest. The crow watched in shock as she fell first to her knees, then to the ground. The arrow supported her fragile body a moment, then it snapped and she hit the ground with a thud. The men continued towards her pulling out knives and axes.
Codell Redowl lowered his bow as he drew his sword. The villagers at Ashbree said that she was not a witch, but he wasn't about to take any chances. He was being paid a lot of money to ensure that she died. The rest of the men were already approaching the witch's body. He smiled at how easily they had approached the witch and was glad that she hadn't had time to use magic on any of them.
Suddenly, Codell heard a large rustling as if the woods were alive. The brush around the witch's house seemed to merge forming a thorny wall that looked poisonous. As he turned back towards the witch, he watched her rise, his broken arrow shaft still sticking from her chest. Her skin turned a hellish, sickly green color; her hair grew wild as if a great breeze were blowing. The witch started to cackle.
"You came seeking the witch, did you not," she spoke as her arms raised.
The air grew dark. It was hard for Codell to make out the rest of his men. Wind started blowing leaves and dirt around the area, forcing him to raised his arm to try to block some of it. He held his sword out in a defensive measure.
"Did you not know that witches consort with demons," he heard the witch scream.
There were flashes of fire and a whiff of a foul odor in the wind. Codell heard evil chuckling around him. He saw a glimpse of red claws just before he felt the pain in his arm. He struck out at where the demon might be, but his sword found no target. He heard his men screaming around him.
He headed towards where he heard the shouts. "Stick together men," he screamed.
He saw a red burning form before him and lunged at it with his sword. The blade entered the demon's back and powered through to the other side, the point dripping gore from the demon's chest. As the demon fell, its body twisted and pulled the sword from Codell's hand. He cursed. He felt something hard strike the back of his head and his world went black.
The crow watched as the men attacked each other and fell to the ground outside the Old Crone's hut. The leader wend down with an ax blow to the back of his head. The men were a bloody mess, either dead or dying. The one or two still alive were gasping for air through the blood in their throats. It changed what they were seeing so that the wind stopped and the detritus fell to the ground. A hideous horror hovered over the remaining men and roared, acidic saliva dripping from its maw and onto the men burning their skin. They attempted to scream and then their hearts gave out.
The crow waited a bit before dropping all of the illusion. It went down to the Old Crone's body and looked at her. She was no longer breathing.
"By Lusa, Leyn, and Lailu, I will keep Keelin safe," it told her departed spirit.
Keelin sat by a creek watching the clear water trickle past. It was cool up in the hills, but not as cold as it would have been if she had walked to the mountains. The tirati roots her grandmother sent her for needed to be harvested at night, at least according to her grandmother. She had hours to wait before digging up roots.
Keelin poked at the water with a stick and watch swirls form downstream from it. She enjoyed the quiet. She was lost in thought. She loved her grandmother, but she never got to see anyone but her. She knew that there were other children out there. She helped her grandmother make enough potions to help cure them for worried parents. She wondered what their life was like.
She heard a twig snap and brush moving just over the hill. Suddenly, a small child, a boy, stepped out near her. He had holes in his clothes. There were scratches from branches along his arms and across his face. A bruise was growing just above his left eye. He looked over at her, unafraid and hopeful.
Keelin did not raise but looked at the boy. "Are you all right?" she asked.
The boy froze. He remained silent. "Looks like you lost a fight with a cat," she smiled at the boy. "Why don't you come over to the creek and we'll clean you up?"
He approached her slowly. She remained calm and waited. He must have been only five or six. She opened her pack and pulled out an apple. She set it on a nearby rock. "Here, you must be hungry. Sit down and eat, and I'll see about your scratches."
She started pulling vials out of her pack and a small cloth. The boy sat down, but did not touch the apple.
"Are you a witch?" he asked.
Keelin smiled. "I don't think so. Do I look like a witch?"
The boy grabbed the apple and took a bite and waited. After nothing strange happened, he started eating the apple more quickly. "You look like my friend's sister."
Keelin held up a vial and the cloth. "Can I clean up your scratches? This will take some of the sting out and help them heal."
The boy nodded as he ate. Keelin dabbed some of the vial's contents onto the cloth and washed at his scratches. "It feels cold," he said. "But better."
The scratches were already fading from the boy. "What are you doing out here?" Keelin asked.
"I'm not sure. I had some strange dreams about the sea. It doesn't make sense, but I keep picturing a small town near a mountain. There's a huge waterfall. I am being called there."
"What about your parents?"
The boy quivered and looked at Keelin. "My dad hit me when I told him about my dream," he said as he pointed to his bruise. "Can you help me find the town?"
Keelin saw a crow land in the trees behind the boy. It looked like the one that seemed to live with her and her grandmother.
"I don't know much about any towns," she answered. "I'm out here to collect roots for my grandmother. Maybe you can go back with me when I'm done and we can ask her about it."
The boy looked hopeful. "That would be great."
"I can't gather the roots until it's dark, so you'll have to be patient. I'm Keelin."
The boy never gave Keelin his name. He spoke with her for some time, but avoided talking about his strange dreams. The crow went from tree to tree, looking agitated.
As darkness started to fall, Keelin told the boy to sleep while she went to find the roots. "I'll be gone most of the night. We'll go see my grandmother tomorrow," she said.
The boy nodded off and she left to get the roots. By the time she returned, the boy was gone. The crow flew down and landed on her shoulder. "He left a couple hours ago," he said. "He seemed to have some sort of nightmare, got up, and wandered off."
Keelin looked at the bird. "I knew you could talk!"
"Aren't you the smart girl," the bird replied.
"Why aren't you with…" she started.
She looked at the bird with tears in her eyes. "It's finally happened, hasn't it?"
Through the haze between his ears, Codell Redowl heard a voice: "By Lusa, Leyn, and Lailu, I will keep Keelin safe."
He opened his eyes a slit to look around. His world seemed to spin but he kept still. He saw a black crow standing on the ground near the witch's body. It studied her body and lowered its head, almost as if saying a prayer.
The bird flew off to the woods behind the witch's hut. Codell passed out.
When he came to, it was nearing dark. The back of his head felt wet and sticky. He tried to push himself up, but felt as if he would vomit. Instead he reached up and felt behind his head. He was missing a good chunk of scalp if his fingers weren't lying to him.
With a groan, he pushed himself up and looked around. The bodies of his men were scattered around the space before the witch's home. Codell crawled towards Rancik's body. "If there's any luck in the world, the potion will still be there," he thought.
It took what seemed an eternity, but he was able to crawl his way to Rancik and found the potion. He drank it down and fell onto his back. He felt his body growing stronger and he was able to sit up. He reached up to feel his wound. "A glancing blow from an ax if I don't miss my guess." He let the potion do it's work, but as he felt the back of his head, he knew that there was going to be a permanent scar.
He rose and found a torch from one of his men's body. He couldn't recognize who it was any longer. He lit the torch and threw it into the witch's hut.
As firelight reflected off of his face, he went to the witch's body. He pulled out a knife and started sawing at her neck. As he picked up her head and put it into a bag. He started walking towards the woods behind the burning hut in the direction the bird went. "Now to get Duke Chalmud to pay me."
Keelin cried for what felt like the remainder of the night and felt lost as the sun rose. The crow sat on a log across from her. "Why did she have to be right," she asked.
"She's been predicting her own demise for years," the bird answered. "Any prediction is bound to come true eventually."
Keelin reached down, grabbed a chunk of dirt and moss and threw it at the bird. It squawked and flew over to a low branch. "Go away," she yelled.
The crow flew back down to the log. "I can't. I promised your grandmother I'd look after you."
"Look after me? You've never even spoken to me before this!"
"It isn't safe for me to be talking to people. Superstitious lot of you would kill me just because they don't think it's natural," the bird retorted.
"Yet you talked to my grandmother," Keelin sighed.
"She wasn't like most people."
"That she wasn't," Keelin sighed.
The two talked for most of the morning into early afternoon. Sharing stories of the Old Crone. Keelin grew to understand that the bird and her grandmother shared a special friendship.
In its own way, the crow might have been missing her grandmother more than she was. Keelin was always being told different things by her grandmother. Hints of things to come. It was as if her grandmother wanted to make certain that she was always ready to let go.
The forest seemed unusually quiet as the two continued to talk, but they didn't seem to notice. At least until a knife flew between them and struck the bird.
Codell Redowl had no real idea which way that the bird had gone. He simply knew that finding that bird would mean that he would never have to worry about money again. He wandered further into the hills following any inklings he felt. Such tracking had worked for him in the past, and he thought it would work for him again.
Even through the dark of the forest, he continued walking. He saw occasional feathers, but he had no way to be certain if they came from the bird he was following. He wasn't normally a hunter of birds. However, as the sun rose, he came across a young boy. The boy seemed eager to be rid of him, but he did tell him some interesting news about where to find a certain bird.
Keelin rose from where she was sitting and turned to where the knife seemed to have originated. She saw a rough man emerging from behind a tree. He had a sword drawn and was approaching quickly.
"I have no quarrel with you," he said. "I simply want that creature."
"I don't understand," she said as she stepped in front of the crow.
"If I bring that thing to Duke Chalmud, I will never have to work again." He didn't slow as he continued to approach her. He knocked her to the ground.
Keelin hit hard on her side. The man was reaching for the bird. She reached into her bag and pulled out a potion. She herd a muffled moan from the crow and the man threw it into the sack. "Stay alive for a while bird, and I'll be rich beyond dreaming."
Without really thinking, she pulled the stopper from the potion and threw it at the man. The orange liquid splashed from the bottle as the glass shattered against his face. Anything that the liquid hit suddenly started on fire. The man screamed and started running at random. He ran straight into a tree and fell to the ground unconscious.
Keelin ran to his side. She could already see the man's skull beneath the flames. She reached for the bag that the man still had grasped in his hand. She pulled and pulled, but it did not want to come free. The hungry flames were working their way down the man. She heard his eyes pop from the heat. Her own skin was even starting to burn like when she was outside too long in the summer.
Finally she was able to free the bag. She backed away from the man and opened the bag to free the bird. It was limp and seemed lifeless at first, but there was a shallow breathing. She dropped the bag. It fell with a thud. Something was in it, but she did not look to see.
She brought the crow over to the log to see how it was doing. The knife was stuck in its side. It opened up its eyes and looked at her. Tears started rolling down her cheeks. She had already lost her grandmother, and now it looked like she was going to lose her new friend as well. She bent down and kissed the bird on the beak.
"What did you do that for? Do I look like some sort of frog prince or something?" the bird whispered. "I've known a horny toad or two that would swoon at the thought of a girl kissing it, but really."
"I'm not certain what to do," she worriedly said.
"Aren't you her granddaughter," the bird said.
Keelin smiled. She knew exactly what to do.
A year later, Duke Chalmud was riding through his small, insignificant lands. A young lady was talking with some people along the road. She immediately struck his fancy, as most young ladies did. He dismounted and approached. She looked up at him and smiled. She took a sip from the cup she was holding. "Are you thirsty my lord," she asked.
"Parched, my dear," the Duke said as she handed him the cup. He drained the cup and threw it to the ground. "I think I am thirsty for more than drink," he said as he reached for her. He put his arm around her waist and pulled her towards him.
Suddenly, a burning sensation erupted in his stomach. He shoved the girl away. "What poison did you give me," he yelled.
The people around the girl disappeared into nothing. "Poison would be too good for the likes of you," she said as she stood.
Duke Chalmud fell to the ground and started moaning. He looked up at her as a crow flew down and landed on her shoulder. His eyes grew watery. His whole body felt as if it were on fire. "Who are you," he moaned.
"I am my grandmother's revenge," she said.
"Good luck with the rest of your life," the crow said as the girl turned and walked away.
Duke Chalmud gave a cry as the burning sensation seemed to overpower him. He felt his clothes disintegrate. Suddenly, he felt fine. He worked his way to his feet. Something did not feel right. He had been transformed into a woman's form. He looked down just as his last vestige of manhood fell to the ground and melted away.
Chalmud realized what portion of his lands he was in just as he heard rough men saying, "What have we here." The men started chuckling as they approached.
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