“Careful there, young master!” Crooned a voice issuing from a throat harsh with age. The very air shivered at the sound. Martin shook sandy blond curls from an apple-cheeked face as he stopped on the muddy lane. The young boy turned around, looking back down the rain-soaked pathway. There, limping between wagon ruts that ran deep into rock-strewn trenches, walked an aged woman.
If Martin had been older and had paid more attention to the grave expression his mother had given him earlier that day he would have given heed to her words on the Widow Agnes.
But youth had stolen away wisdom and fear, replacing it with what would turn out to be fatal ignorance.
“Please young master, halt!” The aged form called, waving an arm. The boy stopped, looking around the rolling fens and vague outline or trees. Away off from the path stood a foreboding line of trees, the beginning of the North Forest. Martin had been expressly forbidden to walk even within its shadows lest an Undesirable should take him into its depths.
And now an Undesireable was calling out to him. And he was deaf to the mounting danger.
It was as the boy admired the rain washed scene before him that the woman picked up her skirts and, with unnatural strides, closed the gap between them. As he turned back towards her she slowed, walking with wooden shoes caked in mud. Her stooped form wrapped body streamed with the days stormwater.
“Hello there my sweet, having a lovely stroll this afternoon?”
Her bent form picked carefully over a chosen pathway. Wizened hair stuck out from a wide-brimmed hat.
“Sorry to you disturb you, young master, but I have need of your services.” Her voice called to him, as gentle as a grandmother’s embrace.
“Who are you?” Martin called back, more curious than suspicious, “Why are you so old?”
The widow Agnes cackled to the sky and she smiled wide, showing only a handful of teeth to the boy. He smiled too, considering himself sharp-witted.
“I am old, young master because I am a grandmother!”
Martin’s face brightened at the woman’s words, “A Grandmother? Like Grandmother Anna back in the village?”
The Widow Agnes smiled as if her lips were filled with honey.
“Why of course, dear one!” She pulled his arm through hers and they both set off down the path, leading to the edge of the forest.
Martin followed, feeling a sort of kinship to the woman. He would indeed be her hero today, and maybe she would even offer to give him a treat in return.
The crosses over into the forest and found themselves in a small clearing hoarders by a woven fence taller than either of them were. The fate stoodnipen and they passed on through.
A cozy hovel with slanted eaves smiles back at them, windows glowing in the darkness of the storm.
All around Martin sat carved and woven figures made by deft and talented hands.
“What are those?” Martin said, pointing to one side of the slanted house. A line of woven wreaths and figurines hung, swinging in the wind. The house’s eves had kept them, as well as a vast pile of cut wood from becoming soaked in the storm.
The Widow Agnes smiled in delight and lifted, “Those are my wares I sell in town, my dear! Don’t you see them all over town? I usually sell them at the Harvest festival.”
Martin tried to remember but all was distracted as a delicious wave of baked bread and roasting meat filled his senses.
They boy’s mouth filled with saliva as he spoke, “Are those meat pies baking in your stove?”
“Why yes, Dear one!” Said the widow Agnes as she gestured for him to follow her through the yard. A fire burned in the worn hut as Martin walked quickly behind the old woman.
The Widow Agnes waved at several piles of twigs dripping with rain.“I’ll save you a fresh meat pie if you just help me gather these bundles of sticks and lean them against that table there.”
Martin could taste the buttery crust in his mouth already. His stomach spoke for him with a growl.
“Delightful child! Thank you ever so much!” Clapped the Widow.
It was short work, made all the easier by promises of food and drink beyond the young boy’s imagining. Soon all the bundles sat round a narrow table.
Martin notice a beautiful entwining oval of symbols ringing the wood surface, large enough for him to lay himself down in.
“Grandmother Agnes, what is this here? It’s strange and beautiful!”
The boy missed a hungry look from the wizened woman as she fetched a black candle stick from inside her hovel.
“Oh my dear! Those are carvings made by my grandchildren! I was blessed with thirteen shining grandchildren!” Her face reflected a deep sadness at the memories. At her words Martin wanted to hold her close.
“But alas thirteen was an unlucky number for my family, and they all died. Every one.”
“I’m . . . So sorry.” He said, resting a hand on one frail shoulder. He continued to stare at the symbols as the woman sniffed into a dirty cloth. He missed the flash of excitement that crossed upon the twisted face. Yellow catlike eye flashed around as she gently patted his hand.
“Never you mind about that, it’s ancient history, written in the good Lords book.” She said.
The woman held on tight to his hand, tracing lines and unnoticed symbols across his palm.
“Could you do one more thing for me, Child? As a grandchild would for their grandmother?” She added pressing something firmly into his palm.
The boy’s shoulders relaxed and his eyes grew heavy lidded.
Yes,” he said, voice thick and unfamiliar to his ears, “anything for you, Grandmother.”
A thin rivulet of blood courses it’s way over his fingers and down onto the wood tables carved surface.
“Excellent!” She all but cried as Martin hoisted himself up, blood continuing to drip onto the bundled twigs.
“Step up onto the table and lie down for me, yes just like that, all the children would do that for me.”
Martin laid down, feeling cool rain pelt against his skin. He felt calm and at peace with the world. At the edge of his vision the grizzled main of grey hair moved around him in a gentle dance. The widows voice whispered low, growling working her chest.
Suddenly Martin’s mind was transported back into his home, where his mother had said, “Now boy, remember to stay away from the forest, there the Undesirable lies in wait to steal young children away for dark purposes.”
“But who is an Undesirable , Mother?” He heard himself ask, feeling himself slipping deeper into his own essence.
“The Widow Agnes for one, she’s a Witch she is. You’ll never come back to me while under her spell.” Thunder his mother’s voice.
His eyes flew up as he jerked awake. Above his head the Widow Agnes stood with a lit candle in her hands it’s black stick glowing unnaturally between her gnarled fingers.
He watched her as she lifted the candle up into the air, water hissing from the flame. A look of demonic zeal and fervor gripped her face and she smile wide broken yellow teeth.
It was then that young Martin realized what the Widow Agnes was up to, even as the candle fell from her withered and cracked hands and onto the pile of kindling at her feet.
“But I thought you were a good grandmother!” He screamed, kicking now tethered legs. “Let me go!”
“Ahahahaha!” She all but screamed in ecstasy, “I’m not your grandmother you sorry brat!”
The fire spread to under the pyre where Martin sat screaming and crying. Around him, the circle of carved symbols and blood began to glow.
The widow Agnes threw her hands into the air with a laugh and shrieked, “I’m a VVitch!”