Thought I’d share a short chapter/excerpt of my novel-in-progress (was titled Deshay of the Woods, but I’ll be changing that). Enjoy! It features Matthew’s first encounter with “the Witch.” Granted, not all the context will be clear if you haven’t read the pages leading up to it, but you should be able to fill in the gaps fairly well.
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Outside the tavern the night air was crisp, the brutal chill foretelling of winter’s imminent arrival. Matthew thanked the numbing effect of alcohol for shielding him from most of the cold. Empty branches swayed above, inviting him onward like beckoning fingers. He had a walk ahead. It was a shame the Elder Council did not allow the tavern to reside within the town walls. They had worried about rowdiness and late-night racket disrupting the sleep of the citizens. He had always thought they might have a point, but would never voice that opinion to the other loyal patrons of the tavern.
The flames of the torches staked into the ground danced angrily outside the building and offered just enough light to reveal the start of the path home. Beyond that, it would be a dark trek. Though Matthew knew the way, having walked the path in the dark many times, the story of the Witch had managed to unnerve him. She doesn’t exist, Matty. The words rattling in his brain almost sounded like they came from Jonah’s voice; he could almost hear his friend’s contemptuous laughter.
Matthew’s first step within total darkness was a stumble. He was able to keep to his feet, but could not help but snicker at his clumsiness. Above him, a bat screeched a chilling welcome, and Matthew ducked instinctively. But the dark, shadowy thing fluttered upwards to a higher roost, its eyes reflecting the moonlight with a seductive sparkle. Matthew snickered again, but this time with less jollity.
By the Guardian, I’m drunk, he thought, hunching over to regain his composure. They say these are the Witch’s woods. If Gant can’t withstand her powers, what chance do I have?
“There’s no such thing as witches,” he said aloud, but was finding that more and more difficult to believe. Matthew had heard of mysterious women appearing in forests all over Seriyah. His mother had even mentioned woods women in many of the fables she had shared with him as a boy, but he had always thought the truth of any tale to be in the message, not the particulars.
He began with slow steps at first, but soon picked up his strides as if doing so would protect him better. After an evening at the tavern, it wasn’t unusual for him to fall into a ditch or trip on a stone, but as he continued to walk he began to feel oddly sober given the amount of ale he had consumed. Though, he suspected fear had its way of supplying the body with vigor and did not trust his own sobriety.
Here and there a moonbeam crept through skeletal branches above, partially lighting the way and revealing a covering of dead leaves upon the ground. He could hear the screeching of wood rats as they gnawed at trees, and even saw the occasional pair of reflective eyes. Hoot owls made their presence known, flying near to inspect the passerby who invaded their woods. Matthew welcomed the company–forest sounds were better than none at all.
But to his left came a sound that didn’t belong in the forest–a delicate hum of sorts–and at first he couldn’t be sure whether the sound was real or a trick of the mind. The ale’s scrambling your brain, Matty. You’re hearing things. The Guardian knows it wouldn’t be the first time. But the hum grew louder until he recognized it as a woman’s voice in song. Small bumps rose on his skin–this effect gradually maturing into a prominent euphoria. Have I been drugged? The song seemed to have a physical presence to it and that presence wrapped around him like the vines of stinging nettles…only there was no pain, just a gentle tickling and warming on his skin. And now those nettles poked poison into his veins, each drop mixing into his bloodstream and alternating between hot and cold like an infection, but one that satiates instead of debilitates. Ah, but this is no poison at all. This is an ointment for everything wicked—a cure for all sadness!
His euphoria grew despite a racing heartbeat and sweat brimming in the furrow of his brow, and he was only distantly aware that the scavaging wildlife had disappeared. His head felt swelled and light at the same time, for he was
far away…his consciousness falling into some deep receptacle within the mind where Mother held him and comforted him and Father made him always safe and he could play and run and do what he pleased and there was nothing to cause worry or fear.
Matthew saw a faint, pulsing light from the corner of his eye that was nothing like the glowing eyes of a wood rat. Fear begged him to continue forward, but intrigue overcame fright and his eyes shifted—unwillingly—and his head followed obediently. A woman draped in a scant layer of white silk appeared from behind an oak tree. Matthew narrowed his eyes for a better view of her features, but the glow of light encapsulating her form made it difficult.
There was another sound coming from the other side of the path. Something large was stirring. Matthew broke free of the trance and darted behind a nearby tree, nearly tripping over a mossy log on the way.
As if it had been sleeping in the bushes, the large, stirring figure emerged and approached the woman who was now standing mere feet from where Matthew had just been. She must have seen me. By my grave, she couldn’t have missed me!
Though Matthew could not make out the details of the figure in the darkness, he could identify the man by his voice.
“My lady, what do you ask of me?”
Matthew gasped as Gant knelt in front of the Witch, remembering that she appeared to each man differently, as what they found most desirable in a woman. Gant had said he saw a blonde seraph.
Matthew gazed upon her as her features became clearer, forgetting the direness of the circumstances, seeing her as his own mind projected her. He did not see the blonde woman Gant saw. Instead, straight, silky strands of jet-black hair spilled from the top of her head past her pearl-white shoulders, resting at her mid back.
Just as abruptly as she had appeared from the shadows, a heavy shower of rain began to fall. Clinging to the tree, Matthew hoped the few dense leaves still fused to its branches would keep him dry. Neither Gant nor the woman ran for cover, however, and she approached Gant, still on his knees. Each hip swayed outward seductively as she walked, and her legs glistened against the moon’s light. When she was close enough, she knelt in front of him and wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders.
“I want your loyalty. I want your love. And I want you to do something for me,” she said. “But we cannot speak here, for we are not alone.” She looked to the tree Matthew was hiding behind, and he thought he saw her wink. She took Gant’s hand in hers and Matthew watched as the woman led him into the deeper part of the woods until the soft glow faded and then vanished as if it had never been there at all.
The world began to sway again as his inebriation reacquired its dominance over his perceived sobriety, and he hugged the tree to maintain his balance. This is trickery—it has to be. Nobody glows, Matty. You’re overfilled with drink! There must be enough alcohol in you to cause the blackberry weeds to wilt! This has to be a trick! But he realized this idea was more a wish than his belief, so when he finally mustered the nerve to come out from his hiding place behind the great oak, he had no urge to follow.
He vomited then and there as rain pelted him like small stones, spattering against the ground and stinging his skin with each icy droplet. A Great Horned Owl returned to a nearby branch and perched just under a cluster of leaves to keep dry. The owl glared at him with large, yellow eyes, tilting its head to one side, then the other, as if it recognized his fear. Matthew breathed in the cold dampness of the air and twisted his face as he picked up a faint stench that reminded him of death.
And then a voice that was not his own pierced his thoughts like an arrow. “Do you find me beautiful, Matthew?” His head throbbed, as if burning from the inside of his skull, and he dropped to his knees in agony. The voice snickered and began reciting a phrase in a foreign tongue. The world started to spin around him as a cry escaped his lips. Somewhere to his left the owl had taken flight and was swooping toward him—and the last thing he saw before losing consciousness were two large, yellow eyes approaching at great speed.