Image: Ta Prohm, Cambodia
Chief Jeffrey and his men set out to kill the Dark Witch, convinced she’s murdering their children. Are they right, or are they about to make a grave mistake?
Suzannah woke at the sound of a soft squeal. Half-asleep, she yawned, turned over and closed her eyes. At a second squeal, she sat up. There was a wail, high-pitched and terrible, raising the hairs on her arms and filling her heart with dread.
She leapt from her bed and raced over. ‘Shara!’
It was deep into the night, moonlight creeping through the broken shutters in a thin stream. A shadow shifted over her baby daughter, squawked, batted its wings. There was a flash of eyes, of sharp teeth.
‘Get off my baby!’ She lashed out at the terror and threw herself over her daughter.
The creature hissed and shrieked, flapping its black wings as it took to the air and shot through the window, shrieking into the distance. Susannah cradled her baby, shaking her gently. ‘Shara. Shara.’
But her baby didn’t squirm, didn’t cry, didn’t even whimper. Something wet and warm soaked her wrapping.
Suzannah lifted away a hand. It was covered in something sticky, black in the moonlight.
She stared at it, and it was several heartbeats before she realised it was blood.
Chief Jeffrey pulled himself onto his horse with a grunt. There were at least forty men, almost all the men in the village, except the youngest boys and the oldest men. All mounted and armed, most with axes or clubs or cleavers, a few with swords, some with only a knife in their boot, but all harbouring the same rage, the same hatred of the Dark Witch.
After the death of Suzannah’s baby, they had united. Gone were their petty annoyances, their disagreements over land and dowries and who cheated whom. There were more important things to fight for. The witch had taken her last sacrifice. She would die today.
The baby’s father, Ashwarth, glared into the woods, eyes puffy and red-rimmed, shoulders bunched against his neck, beard knotted and matted with dried snot.
Jeffrey pulled up beside him, sharing his anger. His own son had been attacked two weeks before, his tiny body almost sucked dry of blood. He remembered the horror of seeing that thing hovering over him, fangs bared, its demonic wings blacker than night. But his son had survived, and he had flung the bat into the flames.
Jeffrey tightened his grip on the reins. ‘We will succeed.’
Ashwarth clenched his mouth and kicked his mount into a trot.
The Dark Woods was no place for any God-fearing man to tread. It stood like a black shadow over their village, instilling uncertainty in the bravest men and nightmares into their children.
The trees were ancient, seeded in a time before man’s ken, so tall they disappeared into the heights, blocking out much of the sun, their trunks so thick four big men could barely encircle them with their fingertips touching. Thorny, ropey vines coiled along branches and hung over the witch’s winding trail. Jeffrey flung one aside with a start when it brushed against his shoulder.
Snakes and lizards and slimy things slithered through the groundcover, hissing and croaking. Things flapped and squealed amidst the branches, and the men stiffened, gazing above, grips tightening on their weapons.
And there was poison, everywhere, Jeffrey knew. In some way or another every tree, every beast, every flower, every crawling thing, was out to kill. This was not God’s creation, and anybody who would choose to live out here was no Godly person.
Someone behind him began to sing. It was a hymn, deep and sonorous. Quickly, the rest of the men took it up. Jeffrey’s heart lifted. God may not be in the branches, but they carried Him along with them, in their hearts and minds and spirits. The woods would not defeat them, and neither would the Dark Witch, not while they had faith.
It was less than an hour before the path widened, and they reached a large clearing. A trickling creek cut a swathe through the trees and just beyond was the most enormous tree Jeffrey had ever seen, its canopy so large it cast a shadow fifty men deep if they were to lie on the ground outstretched, toe to finger. Its trunk was as large as a house, twisted and arched, and bulbous in the middle like a pregnant woman. Tangling vines looped along the branches and hung, swaying. Roots snaked and coiled through the knee-deep cover of leaves, all as thick as a man’s body.
But the most disturbing thing was the noise. While the rest of the woods were silent, except for the calls and slithers of beasts and the rustling of wind through the leaves, there was the crack and creak of wood, as though the tree was growing or moving at a rapid pace, for a tree at least, imperceptible to man’s eye but not to his ear.
The men muttered fearfully to each other. A few turned their horses and fled back the way they came, branches snapping into the distance. Ashwarth and his nephews sat astride their mounts, stalwart. Belial, his oldest nephew, lifted his axe. The rest of the village men held their nerve; many of them had watched their children suffer. Nevertheless, their mounts sensed their fear, nickering, ears twitching left and right, stomping the ground.
Chief Jeffrey dismounted. Ashwarth followed, rusty double-headed axe in hand.
Jeffrey’s voice rang loud and clear. ‘Come out, witch, and meet your justice.’
Silence, except for the creaking of the branches. Ashwarth hefted his axe and chopped deep through a root with a dull thud. He yanked it free and lifted it again.
‘Wait,’ rose a voice, high and smooth, yet somehow hoarse at the same time, like two voices speaking as one. A shiver ran down Jeffrey’s spine—a demonic voice.
A woman approached through the vines—or what was once a woman. Men cried out. Horses whinnied and stomped. Swords pulled from sheaths.
‘Keep back, vile thing, or I’ll have your head,’ Jeffrey said, pointing his sword at her. His beard might be turning grey, but he still had plenty of strength left to fight.
She stopped, blinking, her left eye long-lashed and round, her right wrinkled and empty. Half the creature was young and beautiful, with auburn curls so long they almost touched the ground by her left foot. Her breast was round and firm, her skin smooth and golden, and in her eye was a shine that could have brought them all to their knees, spellbound—if not for the horror that was her other half. Wrinkled and drooping and so pale she was almost blue, she watched them through a black eye socket, snarling her lipless mouth. She was balding with strands of grey hair shedding into the air even as they watched. And where her left breast sat high and perfect, the other hung stretched and blue-veined, resting flatly against her navel
Over both halves, leafy vines looped and coiled. Small green and blue flowers grew through her hair and over her scalp like a crown. On the hideous side, the greenery was taking over: roots had buried themselves beneath the skin of her leg and ran upwards like an obscene imitation of veins before disappearing into her groin where a thick covering of moss intertwined with her auburn thatch; spotted mushrooms grew under her arm and in the folds of her wrinkled skin, and there was the stench of dirt and rot. On the other side, slithering amidst the vines along her supple left arm and around her neck, was a great yellow snake with eyes the same fiery colour as her hair. It watched them, its black tongue flicking in the air.
‘What devil is this?’ somebody cried.
Her eye flicked to the man who called out. He stepped back, dropping his scythe.
Aswarth stepped forward, gripping his axe. ‘You don’t frighten me, demon,’ he spat. ‘I’ll have your blood for what you did.’
What we did? What we did? What we did? The men looked around the trees as the question whispered through the branches in a haunting echo, as though the forest itself were talking. A bird took to the sky with a squawk. They all looked up at the sound of squealing and screeching.
‘There!’ one of the men cried. ‘Those monsters.’
The creature looked up too, auburn hair falling back in a sweep. She held out a wrinkled arm, and the men yelled and hissed and raised their weapons as a black shadow glided down. It landed lightly, digging its claws into her shrivelled forearm, folding its dreadful black wings as it screeched again.
‘Our children,’ said the creature’s two voices as she brushed a tender finger along its face. It gnawed at her fingertip, drawing blood.
‘There you have it!’ Aswarth roared. ‘She’s leagued with them. That bitch-demon murdered our children!’
He hefted his axe, prepared to charge, but Jeffrey slammed a hand against his chest. ‘Wait. Let her explain herself.’
Antwarth’s eyes were wide with madness as he glared at Jeffrey. ‘I want my vengeance,’ he hissed, spitting into his beard.
Jeffrey gripped his arm. ‘You will. I promise you. But you’re not the only one who’s suffered.’ He looked at the rest of the men.
Antwarth glanced at the others, then pulled back with an ugly grunt.
Jeffrey turned to the creature. ‘Tell us why. Why do you seek to hurt us? What have we done to you?’
Why? Why? Why? Why? rippled through the leaves.
‘She needs no excuse,’ Belial cried out. ‘She’s a demon, prepared to wreak evil for no reason.’
Her eye flicked his way, and he tightened his grip on his axe, lips white.
‘We wreak no evil,’ the creature said. ‘We seek no hurt.’
‘Answer the question!’ Antwarth roared. ‘Or I’ll chop you right down the middle.’
The creature stared at him. The bat flapped its wings and screeched. The snake stretched out in front of her, holding itself in the air, hissing. The tree’s creaking seemed to become louder. There was a crack, followed by snapping as a branch broke and crashed through the branches below, hitting the ground with a thud.
‘We are what we are,’ she said. ‘We are the Mother. We grow tall and bathe in light. Nothing more.’
Nothing more. Nothing more. Nothing more.
‘Enough of this!’ Antwarth lifted his axe and took a step towards her.
The creature lifted her smooth arm and pointed at him, or more specifically the axe. He paused. She blinked, eyelashes fluttering, her eye dark with sorrow as she gazed at the rusty iron blades. ‘Chop us down. Burn us. Fuse us into lifeless shapes. You wake our children, and they fly where there is food. To you, now.’
The men looked at each other. Antwarth glared at her. Jeffrey shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. They were a relatively new village, and he remembered how thick and sprawling the forest had been when they first arrived. After only ten years they had cleared half, replacing it with rolling fields of wheat and barley and potatoes.
‘We must. Or we starve and die,’ Jeffrey said.
‘And it is our right,’ Antwarth added, glaring at her. ‘Ordained by God: “Fill the earth and subdue it.” As I shall subdue you, witch.’
He charged, axe raised high. The creature didn’t move, didn’t even blink, watching as Antwarth chopped through her head. Black blood spurted, her eye rolled up, then Antwarth yanked out the axe and she collapsed to the ground. The bat screeched and flapped back into the branches. The snake slithered away, disappearing into the ground cover. The tree stopped its creaking, the forest stilled, as the men looked on quietly.
‘Let’s go,’ Chief Jeffrey said after several moments of silence, staring at the creature’s body. She was lying face down, slumped over her lap in a twisted heap, blood soaking into the forest floor. Antwarth nodded at Jeffrey as he cleaned off his axe with some leaves.
The return home was quick and uneventful, but Jeffrey looked around him with renewed fear. It was far too quiet: nothing moved between the branches, nothing rustled through the leaves. He never felt more in danger. It was as though he was being watched.
It was with relief that he left the forest behind and rejoined his family. He kissed his children, hugged his young wife and tried his best to forget about the Dark Witch.
They would be safe now. They had to be.
The creature’s death proved futile; the very evening of her slaughter, the black devils returned, and every day after that. A month later, they were worse than ever. One night they arrived in a swarm, screeching and squawking, the loud beating of their wings sending his children into fits of terror. Jeffrey closed the shutters and kept the lights low, but the beasts still worried at their windows and doors, chewing on brick and timber, scratching for a way in.
It was sunrise before they flew away. The men watched them go, a black cloud disappearing into the forest.
‘Could it have been a mistake killing the witch?’ Belial said.
‘Clamp your lips,’ Aswarth said. ‘She had to die, but maybe I made a mistake letting her body rot. Should have burnt it.’
‘Too late now,’ Jeffrey said, though he doubted it had anything to do with her body. They had cleared another chunk of forest. The farmhouse was built, the field already planted. Jeffrey rubbed at the hair on his neck. Had the witch spoken the truth? Had they laid the blame falsely?
It didn’t matter in the end; the deed was done. And the following morning, the first man was dead.
It was Dillon. A good man. A brave man. Father of six children. A skilled farmer. And only thirty years old and in the prime of health. Jeffrey could hear his wife wailing in the next room as they stood over his bed, looking down on his still form.
‘It’s not natural for a young, strong man to die like this,’ Belial said.
He died peacefully by the looks of it, eyes half-shuttered, not a mark on his body. An old man’s death.
‘But it happened,’ Antwarth said.
‘What do you think, Chief?’ Belial asked.
Jeffrey suddenly felt old and very tired—and guilty. They stood in the newly built farmhouse, the newly planted field spread before them. He had thought he was giving Dillon a real gift, a choice piece of land, but had he merely gifted him his death?
‘I think we need to prepare ourselves for a dark road.’ He looked at the two men, feeling every minute of his fifty-five years. ‘This was no coincidence. The witch is out to seek revenge.’
He was not mistaken. By the end of the week, three more good men were dead.
‘All men from the forest,’ Aswarth said as they stood over Clyde’s body. He hadn’t been as fortunate as Dillon, eyes wide, neck arched back, mouth hanging open like he’d been screaming or gasping for breath. His abdomen was purple with blood and a deep welt encircled him from front to back. Squeezed to death. By a snake—or a root.
Jeffrey pressed his lips together. ‘Gather everyone together, arm every man and boy. We look out for each other.’
But no matter they slept in the same houses or kept watch through the darkest hours or prayed until their knees ached, somehow men continued to die, found dead in their sleep by morning. Some had clearly suffered agonising deaths, others peaceful ones, but always quietly and unwitnessed.
The morning Aswarth was found shrivelled up in a pool of blood, Jeffrey decided they needed to leave. They packed their wagons, harnessed their horses and trotted into the gloom, leaving everything behind. Women wept, children sobbed, men frowned. It wouldn’t be easy. The nights were freezing, the roads difficult and it would be many days before they reached the next village. Still, anything was better than the evil behind them.
They stopped for the night beside a chain of grassy knolls. It cut out the icy breeze but did nothing for the villagers’ dread. They were miles away from home, but would it be far enough from the witch?
Jeffrey tossed and turned, trying to get some sleep, only to doze in short, useless bursts, waking each time with a fright, hand on his sword. In the early hours of the morning, Belial roused him, Jeffrey’s turn to take watch.
Belial gave him a sharp nod before lying down to bed, close to Aswarth’s wife and children so he could keep an eye on them. He hadn’t said much to Jeffrey since they discovered his uncle’s body, and Jeffrey wondered if Belial resented him. If they had left a day earlier, Aswarth would still be alive.
Yawning, Jeffrey collected some kindling around the perimeter of the camp and tossed it on the two small fires. He stoked them until they blazed. Not only for warmth but to keep the worst of the shadows at bay. It was black outside their camp, the moon shrouded in heavy clouds.
He sat on a rock, gazing into nothing. There were trees here too, but they were spindly and weak, nothing like the Dark Woods. Nevertheless, they were too close, standing in a crowd around them. He wrapped himself in his cloak. At least there were no bats.
Soon, he began to nod off, but his doze didn’t last. His eyes sprang open at the rustle of leaves, the crunch of debris underfoot, a crack. Jeffrey leapt to his feet, hand on hilt, looking around wildly. Nothing. The camp was safe, the trees empty.
He whipped around at a flash of movement to his left. He heard giggling, a rush of footsteps. He swept his eyes around the sleeping camp. Nobody was supposed to leave without telling the man on watch.
He followed the sound of more giggling. Whoever it was, they were just around the nearest knoll.
‘What do you—?’ he stopped. ‘Emma?’
His wife was sitting in a small nook in the knoll, bare bum on a slab of rock. The flickering light of the fires was a dim gleam behind him but enough to reveal her breasts, the tangle of dark hair between her legs, the shine in her eyes.
‘What are you doing?’ He looked around anxiously, making sure they were alone. Her breasts lifted as she held out her arms, the nipples brown and soft.
He shook his head. ‘We should go back to camp. And it’s freezing. Aren’t you cold?’
He took off his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders, but she shrugged it off with a seductive smile. ‘Jeffrey,’ she whispered, holding out her arms again.
Jeffrey stared at her. It had been weeks since they had last been together. He looked around him again, then unhooked his pants. ‘All right. But we need to be quick.’
Jeffrey took the slab while she straddled him, his arse freezing against the cold stone. He gasped as he entered her, grabbing her hips as she thrust. She arched her neck, hair tumbling down her back. Jeffrey pulled her against him, pushing his face into her breasts.
‘Uh, uh, uh, uh, oh, oh, oh, Em.’
He grimaced, gasped, ready to come, gripping her arse so hard it must have hurt. Then she suddenly stopped thrusting. He looked up at her, panting, sweat trickling down his back, his cock throbbing to bursting. ‘Em?’
She was clinging onto him, fingers digging into his shoulders, her neck craned back painfully far, hair falling in a curtain. ‘Em?’ Jeffrey swallowed, a tingle of dread rushing down his spine.
In the quiet he could hear how ragged her breathing was, the hoarseness of the air in her throat. Something oozed beneath his hands. He raised his left hand, smoothing the liquid between his fingers. He sniffed it—sap.
He suddenly couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, struck with terror. Her fingers dug hard into his shoulders as she slowly straightened her neck, and it sounded like the tree in the woods, creaking and cracking.
Then she was staring at him, left eye whole, right wrinkled and empty. Her head had been almost split in two from Aswarth’s axe. Black blood had congealed inside and patches of pale brain shone wetly in the light.
‘A man of God, of stone and brick,’ she spoke in her two voices, smooth and innocent, hoarse and cruel. ‘So shall you be.’
She lunged, and Jeffrey screamed.
‘Wow!’ Stacy said, taking several pictures. ‘Can you believe this?’
‘Incredible isn’t it? The way nature can take over like that,’ Danielle agreed.
‘See how the trees have buried themselves into the rock?’ their tour guide said, brushing aside her ponytail as she indicated a particularly astonishing tree sitting atop one of the crumbling stone buildings. It was enormous, stretching high into the sky, its tentacular roots, far bigger than a man, penetrating deep between the stone bricks. ‘There is no way to separate them. To do so would destroy the buildings. The trees are essentially holding them together.’
‘It’s more tree than building now,’ Stacy said, gazing above, hand shielded against the sun.
‘Look at that,’ Danielle said, pointing.
Stacey looked over. ‘Oh, cool,’ and took another dozen pictures. A tangle of enormous roots snaked and weaved through a hillock of mossy bricks, and at its centre was a large, bronze cross, the roots coiled tightly around it, almost as though they were strangling it.
‘That was the chapel, and as you can see, completely destroyed. The cross is all that’s left,’ the guide explained.
‘What happened to the people who used to live here?’ a woman with a thick accent asked, peering at the sight beneath a broad-brimmed hat.
‘Nobody really knows. It’s thought they simply left. Probably chased away by war. They might have been starving.’ The guide shrugged. ‘Some think disease. The plague was raging during that time. But nobody can know for sure. Come on,’ she continued, waving them over, ‘if you’re impressed by this, wait to you see what’s next.’
They all scrambled into the bus. Danielle and Stacy sat in the backseat, gazing through the windows as the countryside rolled by, all grassy fields dotted with sheep. Danielle looked back through the rear window, watching as the ancient village with its clump of towering trees grew small.
‘Amazing to think it was once a jungle here,’ Danielle said, turning back to the front.
Three hours later, after much hopping on and off the bus viewing the sights, they finally reached their last destination. Their guide took them over to a chain of small, green hills. On top, sheep were grazing.
‘You’re going to love this,’ the guide said, smoothing her hair as a strong wind blew. Danielle zipped up her jumper, shivering in the afternoon cold.
The group followed her over to the little hill at the centre. They stopped and peered into a small rocky nook. There were resounding gasps, followed by Stacey’s, ‘So cool!’
The guide grinned at them all. ‘We call him the Screaming Man.’
Danielle stared. A man’s face peered at them through the rock, mouth and eyes wide, hands raised up in defence, fingers bent into claws. He was so detailed—and so terrified.
‘An odd place for a carving,’ a man said.
The guide’s grin broadened. ‘You might be surprised, but, uh, modern excavation tells us that our Screaming Man here is not a carving at all.’
Danielle looked at her. ‘What?’
Her eyes shone with excitement. ‘That’s right. He is, in fact, a real man—bone and tissue and hair embedded in stone.’
‘Nobody knows. Nobody can explain it. A little scary, isn’t it?’ She stepped away to let them have a closer look. ‘To think: What happened to him? And why was he screaming?’
Silence fell. Danielle shivered.
There was a flash as Stacey took a photo. ‘So awesome!’
© Morgan Tonkin 2018