Shouting closed in behind them, pushing them deeper and deeper into the wood. Tihomir and Vuk dodged trees and bushes. Vaulted fallen logs and large rocks in their path. Running as fast and far away as they could from the villagers intent on killing them.
They’d been run out of towns before. So many, they’d lost count of all those before the three times this year. No one was fond of witches. There were too many bedtime stories warning of the evil they did. So, when the town folk discovered what Tihomir and Vuk were capable of, it didn’t matter if they were evil or not. They were witches and had to go.
Tihomir stopped, then Vuk a few feet ahead of him. “What are you doing?” Vuk asked.
Tihomir doubled over and said between heaving breaths, “I think we lost them.”
They looked back. The woods were still and dark. Void of the torchlight pursuing them.
“We should keep going. They might circle.”
“I can’t run anymore, Vuk.”
“Then we’ll walk, but we can’t stop again. Not until we’re absolutely sure they’re gone.”
Tihomir nodded and followed his companion at a brisk pace.
The wood was dark. Even in the daytime the canopy cast a thick shadow over the underbrush. So it came as a surprise, many days later, when the two emerged from the trees and found the middle-of-nowhere village bathed in the orange light of the setting sun.
Though the walls and gate were less than inviting, the pair were desperate for a warm bed and cold ale.
As they approached the gate the gatekeeper called from the battlement, “State your business, sirs.”
Not wanting to be mistaken for beggars, Tihomir answered, “We are healers looking to offer our services in exchange for shelter and supplies.”
“No path led you here.” The gatekeeper scrutinized. “How do you find yourselves at our gate?”
Vuk snapped, “Please. We only wish for a room and to provide a valuable service to your community. We’re hardly in any shape to fight, you must admit.” He gestured at their tattered cloaks and dirty, unshaven faces.
“Excuse my companion,” Tihomir said with a hand on Vuk’s chest to calm him. “He’s weary from our journey and has forgotten his manners. To answer your question, we lost sight of the path some days ago and find ourselves here quite by accident, and perhaps by a fair bit of luck, as our supplies are nearly spent.”
The gatekeeper considered the men for several moments, then said, “I will put your offer before the council and return at dawn with their decision.”
Tihomir and Vuk waited by the gate. Soon the dark ate the light and the men fell asleep against the wall.
The next morning, Tihomir and Vuk woke with a start.
“I knew it,” the councilman declared to the gatekeeper and the four other councilmen, as he dumped the contents of Tihomir’s pack. Two paper-wrapped parcels, a pouch of coins, and a crystal the size of his fist fell on the ground at Tihomir’s feet. “Witches.”
Vuk was on his feet, protesting the invasion of their privacy, before Tihomir fully grasped what had unfolded.
“Vuk,” Tihomir said, hoping to calm him before he did something regretful, then he picked up the crystal, the thing that had damned them, and put it back in his pack.
Tihomir stood next to Vuk, who had quieted his tongue, but kept his angry eyes fixed on the councilman.
“I do apologize for my companion’s outburst,” Tihomir said, “but if you’d allow us to explain ourselves. Our alignment—”
“There is only one alignment in witchcraft. And it is not welcome here,” the councilman declared.
“You misunderstand,” Tihomir said, his own patience running thin. “We only wish to offer our services as potions masters and healers. We can offer blessings on your lands and animals. Bring you better harvests and fatter meats.”
“Only to put us in your debt. To have to pay you in flesh and blood and ungodly servitude. We are not fools.”
“A fool is exactly what you are,” Vuk burst out. He hadn’t meant it as a threat, but it sounded, all the world, like one.
“Be gone,” the councilman barked. “Or be detained and put to the fire.”
More men in guard’s dress emerged from the gate.
Out numbered and too tired for another fight, Tihomir and Vuk took their leave and their lives before disappearing, again, into the woods.
With their trail rations exhausted and no sign of a road or another village, it wasn’t long before the men took to the wood to replenish their supplies.
“Why can no one see,” Vuk said while stooped to pluck the herbs and mushrooms to sweeten the rabbit stewing over their fire, “we’re not the witches from their tales? If they’d just listen. Let us in. They’d see.”
The two were lucky enough to find a clearing next to a stream at the base of a small fall over a granite cliff. These were cleansing waters, perfect for any witches brew and the delicious broth Tihomir stirred as he said, “It’s easier to cast us out than it is for them to accept a truth contrary to what they know. I don’t begrudge them this and neither should you, Vuk. It only invites dark thoughts. As you said, we’re not the witches from their tales. And we shouldn’t risk becoming them.”
Vuk sat beside Tihomir. He chopped the thyme, sage, halved the mushrooms and wild onions then tossed it all in the pot. “What are we to do, Tihomir?” he asked. “We have no home. We can’t find our way out of these woods, and the snow is nearly here. They’ve killed us.”
Tihomir ladled a bowl of stew and handed it to Vuk. He couldn’t bear to see his companion, strong man that he was, weeping as he did over the comments of such small minded folk. But what was he to do? It was the way it was. For as long as they could remember and why they were chased out of the last village. After the villagers learned witches resided in the room over their favorite pub. Tihomir sighed over his bowl. Tendrils of steam filled with the scent of savory herbs and meat wafted and curled into his nose. He thought about Filip’s ale and how well it would have paired with his stew.
“At least we have each other,” Tihomir said after sipping the dregs from his bowl. “If not for long.”
“I won’t have this.” Vuk stood and cursed. “We don’t need them. If anything, they need us! So far out here. They can’t get traders going out of their way to do business. If they could even find the wretched place. One of these winter’s will be too harsh, their supplies will dwindle, and they’ll wish they hadn’t turned us away.”
Tihomir turned to the bubbling stream.
They might have been at risk of freezing to death, but with access to such a source for their magic, they would never starve.
“That’s it,” Tihomir exclaimed. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“We’re wasting time we don’t have trying to find a house.” Tihomir leaned in. “Why don’t we instead use the time we do have to build one. Here.”
Vuk scoffed, “I can smell the snow. A house—”
“Then not a house. A simple shelter against the wind and a warm fire will do us just fine for a season.”
“You’re overoptimistic, Tihomir.” Vuk paused, waiting for him to retort, but he didn’t.
Instead, Tihomir said, “Tools,” then took off into the woods.
That winter was harsh, but no more so than any other. While this had been best for Tihomir and Vuk, in their cobbled and stick built lean-to overlooking the stream, it had also been best for the wretched village who’d turned them out.
Too bad the same was not true of the following seasons.
A blight befell the village. Crops failed. Cattle took sick and died. Wells dried. All this left the village with less than what they needed. And less and less after every death.
“Serves them right,” Vuk said, after he returned from foraging. Where he found the gravedigger in a forest clearing, overrun with a cart full of the dead.
“Vuk,” Tihomir chastised him. “You mustn’t speak foul. This is tragic. They are families. Children, be sure, who have no idea of the council’s decision to turn us out. They don’t deserve this.”
“Perhaps not,” Vuk said and settled onto the pallet bed, padded with straw and blankets, beside the stone hearth that held their cooking fire.
Tihomir ground the grain and mixed the dough for their bread. Vuk greased the skillet with lard, then flattened the dough to fry it.
While the villagers starved, the witches’ garden flourished and gave them more than they could ever have eaten on their own. As they sat by their fire and cooked their third meal for the day, a sickness grew in their minds, then ached in their hearts, keeping them awake that night.
“I can’t live with myself,” Tihomir said, “knowing I could have helped them, but left them to die.”
“They had no problem doing the same to us.” Vuk felt the ache as much as his companion, but he held onto his resentment too tightly to admit it.
Tihomir sat up. “Well, I can’t.”
“What do you propose?”
Tihomir, always the idealist, said, “We feed them.”
“As much as we have, it’s not enough to feed a village.”
“It is, if we bewitch it.”
Vuk turned over and tucked the blanket under his chin. “They won’t accept it. It’s a waste of food and magic.”
Tihomir pulled the covers off and said, not too gently, “It’s no cost to us in the end. And they’ll be so grateful for the gift, it won’t matter. Now, get up. We’ll cook tonight. Deliver at dawn.”
If the wind had been in the right direction, the witches might have found the villagers at their door before dawn, but as it was, the two finished their basket of peppers stuffed with meat and rice, flatbread, and a spicy relish of carrots, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, and conveyed it to the village that had left them to die.
If it hadn’t been necessary to cook the magic into the food, for it to stretch until every belly was full, they’d have simply sent the raw ingredients. Perhaps the villagers could plant and replenish their lands. But when the witches crossed into the fields, their hearts were heavy when they discovered the sickness plaguing the land was not of nature, but magic.
“You didn’t…” Tihomir shot a look at Vuk to pierce his heart.
“Why would I go to all the trouble of cursing their land, only to turn around and tell you about it, inevitably putting myself out to feed them?”
“Well, you can’t ignore, you were more than a little reluctant to help.”
Vuk left it there, and Tihomir a few steps behind. The accusation was preposterous and he’d entertain it no longer. But he must. Since this occurred to Tihomir, it was sure to occur to the councilmen. Who, as far as they knew, were unaware the two of them settled in the wood. Vuk’s guess, since he suspected they’d have been run off by now if the councilman was aware of their living nearby.
“This is a fool’s errand,” Vuk said and made his misgivings known to his companion.
“Their misfortune is our blessing, Vuk. The councilman, if he still lives, isn’t likely to waste his energy and resources hunting us down. And if he allows the villagers to partake of our gift, they won’t soon want to see us dead and lose this lifeline.”
Reluctant to make their presence known to the councilman, Vuk followed Tihomir to lay their offering at the gate.
And so the seasons passed. The food untouched, save by the witches when they came to replace it. Until one autumn day, when they found a girl, emaciated—near death—kneeling before the rotting offering, her fingers tripping along the edge of the wicker basket.
“I wouldn’t eat from that one,” Tihomir said, startling the girl.
She fell back like a feather on the wind. Tihomir crouched next to her with the basket of fresh bread and pot of piping hot stew. “Here.” He handed her a square of the flat bread.
The girl gasped. Then, in a raspy, small voice, she said, “Are—are you the witches that cursed our land?”
“If we were, would we bother to feed you?” Vuk barked.
Tihomir shushed him, then smiled at the girl. “We are not those kinds of witches.”
“My parents made me swear never to eat it. They said it was bewitched and if I ate it you’d come for me. You’d take me away from them… But—” She weeped, but lacked the moisture to form tears. She choked, her throat parched. “They’re dead now, and I’m so very hungry.” She stared at the bread Tihomir still held between them.
“I will not lie to you,” he said. “The food is bewitched.”
“To enslave us?” she pushed the flat of her back against the splintered wall.
“To save you,” Tihomir said.
“Don’t you dare,” the councilman’s voice split the pestilent air, thick with the stench of the sick pouring out around the opened gate. “If you eat that… The things they’ll do to you.” He could barely breath, his body eating his lungs in the absence of other meat.
“Changed in so many ways,” Vuk said with a gesture at the councilman’s hunched, frail body. “But still a fool.”
“Heed the tales, girl. It’s them who have cursed us. For turning them away those years ago.”
The girl stood. So much a struggle she leaned into Tihomir’s offer to assist her. “Them, maybe. Or any of the dozen other witches you’ve since burned.”
“Yes, and I’d put these to the fire if there were any of us able to detain them.” He stumbled forward. “I can’t see them burned, but I can see my citizens free of these monsters, by not letting them eat their damned food.” He knocked the bread from the girls hand.
Vuk took the councilman under the arms and held him against the village wall. “You care not for this girl. You let her starve, while good food goes to rot at your gate. You, sir, are the monster from which she needs to be freed.”
Tihomir touched Vuk’s shoulder. The only telling he needed to put the man down. But not easily. The councilman hit the dirt. His last breath expelled with the force, along with every hateful word he had left.
Tihomir offered the girl another square of bread and explained, “Take this. Eat. Share. And the curse on your land will see its end.”
“But, I thought—”
“Trust us and turn the bitter ash of the witches in your fields to right.”
The girls fingers trembled as she took the bread from Tihomir. “This isn’t enough to share.”
“Share, and it will be.”
The girl did. Each villager ate from the witches’ basket till they were full. Each day, as autumn turned to winter, then winter to spring, the villagers welcomed the witches and their offering. When the thaw came, so came the buds on the once barren trees and bushes. The farmers tilled and sowed. The cattle bred and birthed. The curse, as Tihomir predicted, was lifted.
“Will you still visit us?” the girl asked after the witches as they made their way to the woods.
“Would you like for us to visit?” Tihomir asked.
“I would like for you to stay,” the girl said.
“I’m sure the village does not share in your sentiment,” Vuk said with a wrinkled brow.
“Quite the contrary. I’m here on their behalf. They fear if you cease your daily visits the curse will return.”
“Tell them,” Tihomir said, “they need not fear if they are just in their judgment of those seeking refuge here.”
“What if they’re judgment is poor and they let an evil in?” the girl asked.
A smile curled into Vuk’s cheeks. “Then you’ll be glad you made friends with witches.”