As I wrote the witch into the story, I first thought she would just be a quick in-and-out minor character. However, I felt like exploring and contrasting the righteousness of Artur with the mysterious, morally ambiguous worldview of the witch. I also wanted to go into how the hunter and the witch have affection for this snake vine creature.
I also decided, when I revise the story, that Slip will refer to himself in the third person, not unlike dull witted servants in fantasy literature, and not unlike Smeagol from Lord of the Rings. In Slip’s case it will be the linguistic curiosity of his people.
Here is the story fragment:
The hunter paced himself, and with the single minded focus of a feral hunter he carefully counted out the distance in his head as he pushed through the fog and the darkness of night. Before long he saw the diffused light of the raised lantern. Here he stopped, and felt around for some tall reeds or swamp grasses. Finding a cluster of reeds, he slowly eased his basket into them, and turned hit attention to the lamp. Why would these people leave their lamp up in such an obvious place? Other humans had come through in the past, and always took their lamps and torches with them. There was something odd about this. He eased his way forward, slowly, just his head above the water, and saw the bloodied hand print on the birch tree. That was no print from someone stumbling after holding a wound. He could tell it was deliberate, as though he had slit a rabbit’s throat and left it for a fox to find.
The prey fancied itself the hunter.
Slowly, he retreated a few feet into the darkness and drew out his blowpipe, some darts, and the Keckle bladder. With the skill of a veteran hunter, he set the pipe between his teeth, and dipped a dart into the bladder. He than slid the dart into the pipe, and rocked it back until it slid back close to his lips. Taking advantage of the sound stopping quality of the fog, he then proceeded to blow dart after dart into the foggy region surrounding lamp. After about a dozen darts, he eased back to the reeds, took his snake-in-a-basket, and quietly swam his way back to the boulder he came from.
* * *
Artur, Oak, Acorn and Slip crouched silently in the fog where they could see the haze of the lamp. Each was hidden from the others, but knew about where the others were hidden. As soon as a figure walked into the lamplight, they would charge.
An hour passed at least, and nothing happened save for wet feet, wet bottoms, and mosquito bites. The Rhinos shrugged off the mosquitoes thanks to their tough leathery skin. Slip covered himself with mud to keep them away, but Artur steeled himself for a time, until he too figured he could roll in the mud. As he stood up, something else bit him in the arm. It felt like a hornet’s sting.
Slapping is right arm, he felt a tiny dart with feathers, and inadvertently drove the dart deeper. Realizing his peril, he estimated the angle of approach, yanked out the dart, and began to stumble in search of his attacker. The site of the wound rapidly began to swell, burn and itch terribly. Before long he tripped on the cluster of reeds where the basket was previously stashed, and fell headlong, choking on muddy water. Artur coughed and sputtered, and spun about, trying to get his bearings.
He began to feel feverish, and in a moment uncharacteristic of such a great warrior, began to panic and spun about, desperate to get his bearings in the foggy black of night.
Suddenly a hoarse voice spoke from behind, it was Slip. “Artur!”
Artur spun about, almost decapitating the frog with his sword, but thankfully he swung too high.
“It’s Slip! Don’t kill Slip, Artur!”
“Oh Slip. I’m dying,” gasped Artur. “ He shot me with some dart. I don’t know where I am. I…”
“You not going to die. Come. Take my hand.”
Artur felt for the frog’s hand, and upon finding the suction cupped fingers, let Slip take him back to the island where Oak and Acorn waited. He stumbled forward onto the wet mossy island and passed out.
* * *
The first thing Artur noticed, upon awakening, was the buzz of insects. He blinked his eyes a few times, and he saw above him, in the awning in front of a mossy, moldy wooden hut, were two great hornet’s nests buzzing with activity. He almost jumped up in panic, but a sudden splitting headache put him back down on the hard planked porch of the hut.
There was a familiar laughter of Rhinos and the Frog behind him, and he craned his neck back to see his three companions lounging on the porch. They looked quite content. Then he braced himself on his elbows and rose slowly, looking about. To his right a curtain of hanging lichen covered a doorway, and a faint smoke or incense wafted out through the tendrils. Above him, great white hornets darted away and returned to the two nests, but none of the insects disturbed him or his companions. All around the hut, but a few yards out, was a thick gray fog that seemed to glow in the diffused daylight.
“Good morning sleepyhead!” said Oak. “Or afternoon more likely.”
Artur flipped over, and now realized he had a poultice of stinky herbs wrapped around his arm where the dart had pierced him. The smell made his nose wrinkle. He pulled his attention away from his wound and finally sat up. “This is the witches hut, I presume.”
Slip hopped over Artur and crouched next to him. “It is! Lucky for you we found her. She waits inside.”
Artur turned to the thick tendrils of lichen hanging over the doorway. “Waits inside for what?”
Oak said, “She’s preparing the cure. But we have to pay her.”
Artur felt his coin purse. “I don’t have much money on me.”
“Oh she doesn’t want money. She won’t say yet what she wants. She seems friendly enough.
At this, the heavy curtain parted and a short, fat young-looking woman with dark brown hair twisted into dreadlocks came out. She wore a patchwork dress and leaned on a gnarled stick a head taller than she was. She had a great smile of large gapped teeth that gave her an ogreish appearance. A pretty ogre, if ogres could be pretty. “Feeling better Artur? Oh good. That husband of mine can be quite a nuisance.”
Artur’s eyebrows went up at this. “Your..your husband? What is your name?”
“Yes my husband, well ex-husband to be precise. As for my name, they call me Joy.”
Acorn chuckled softly. “And they’re all terrified of a pretty witch named Joy?”
The witch’s eyes shot directly toward Acorn, which was enough, but she pointed with her free hand for dramatic effect, and then two swarms of hornets whipped from the hanging nests and began to buzz around the Rhino’s head. He ducked and rolled off the porch, splashing in the muddy water, and the swarms gave way and then returned to their respective nests.
There was a mix of nervous and sincere laughter. Artur was genuinely amused, but it took all Slip could to save face and be polite around this witch his and the rival tribe feared so greatly.
A muddy Acorn poked his head above the edge of the porch, and seeing it safe, dragged himself back up. Half covered in mud and bits of woody debris, he bowed to the witch and said “I stand corrected, Joy.”
The witch beamed at this, and flicked back her dreadlocks. “Shall we get down to the business of this cure you seek?” Joy began to turn toward the curtain of lichen, as to go back into the hut. She stopped when Oak spoke.
“Indeed Madam,” said Oak, rising. “If you would be so kind. But what payment would you take?”
The witch turned to him, “Oh a trifle really. I want my snake vine back. My husband, my ex husband, took it.”
“Snake… vine?” asked Artur.
“Yes, think of it as a thorny snake, only it’s a plant. He’s a plant. I have its mate, so to speak, in my hut. They only flower once every thirty years and this year is the year. I can only delay flowering for only so long.”
Artur slowly shook his head. “I don’t see why I should get involved in your post marital conflicts.”
The witch took a few steps forward, and Artur noticed her furry toes. She pointed with her free hand at the two Rhinos. “You should if you want to help your friends.”
The two Rhinos looked at Artur expectantly. At this point Oak was willing to curse Artur’s name and go find this snake vine himself, if he had to. He didn’t want to. Acorn, not knowing Artur as Oak did, merely hoped Artur would continue to help them. Hunting in this swamp, in this fog, they would need all the help they could get.
Artur was not intimidated by the witch, but stepped to the side rather than away, and circled her slowly, so she knew it. She in turn was no fool, and turned about, not intimidated by the great muscled warrior. Artur stopped next to his Rhino friends. “It’s not the custom of my people to meddle in others domestic affairs. If not for my friends, I’d say you need to find this snake vine on your own. Nevertheless, I’ll get it back for you if you have the cure for what ails them.”
“I do.” said the witch. “Give me the snake vine, and I’ll give you the cure.” She smiled, and deep inside this bothered Artur. He never exacted a price for helping people, and the witch’s willingness to use the Rhino people as leverage to get her pet back rubbed him the wrong way.
In this moment, the witch could see Artur was troubled. From a pocket in her cloak, the witch pulled out a polished, orange marble stone. Immediately, the fog around the hut dissolved to thin air. “Hold this stone, Artur, and the fog will give way. Put it away, and nature will reassert itself.” She put the stone back in her pocket, and fog began to rise from the marsh about them. She gave it to Artur, and he put it in a belt pouch.
“Very well, Witch…Joy. You’ll get your snake vine.”
He turned to his companions, “Are you ready to go?”
“Not Slip!” said the black frog. “Slip did his part! He wants no part of chasing hunters or witches. But…” he walked over to Oak, his feet flapping on the wooden porch. “Oak is a black frog now. If Oak wants Slip to help, Slip will go.”
Oak looked down at the little person who honored him with membership in his tribe. An extra hand in dealing with this hunter would be welcome, but the dart that struck down Artur could strike the frog down a well. More importantly, his own people needed the witch’s medicine.
“Slip, if you will help us find the hunter, the three of us will deal with him, and you can go.”
Slip rubbed his chin with his four fingered hand, and he rocked back and forth on his webbed feet. His own people were terrified of this hunter and the witch, and it took a lot for him to overcome this learned fear. “Alright. Slip will find this hunter. Get out your pretty stone.” With this, he hopped off the porch with a splat onto the wet mud.
The three warriors on the porch each looked at one another, and descended the steps to the marsh below. Artur asked Oak which way they came from, and drawing out the stone, set about retracing their steps through the swamp. As they proceeded forward, the fog about them dissolved so they could see for some thirty yards in all directions. If they did not find the hunter, the hunter would find them.
* * *
As the fog began to reform, Joy went back through the curtain of lichen into the dim, candle-lit hut. Embers smouldered in the fireplace. The petite ogress put wood into the fireplace and blew it to life, and then hung her iron cauldron over it. She left it to simmer and surveyed her inventory. It was a typical witches hut, with shelves filled with jars and pots of ingredients, crystals, charms, knick knacks and paddy whacks. There were even bones for dogs, but no dogs had come by in years, the witch noted sadly. She needed some fresh dog tongues for spells to enhance taste, and some dog noses for spells to enhance smell.
Setting aside the distraction of dog parts, she refocused herself. Ah yes, what she needed was in the the drawer under her desk. She pulled out a heavy black, glass globe from the little writing desk and sat on the bearskin in the middle of the hut. She felt the smooth, oily fur of the bearskin, and briefly remembered when her husband-to-be brought it to her as an engagement present. She remembered how he had self-sewn stitches in his left shoulder, still healing, and festering, from the beast whose skin he claimed. She accepted his gift and healed his festering wound, and the two married soon thereafter.
Distractions again. This business with the Rhinos had disturbed her tranquility. She cleared her mind and focused on the glass globe, reaching out beyond time and space and then coming back, observing the world in the abstract: The red haired Horsemen of the north as Centaurs; the dwarfs as animated pickaxes, chopping away at stone; Artur’s people as anthropomorphic pigs. There were rats among the pigs with meat cleavers. How odd. She looked to the lands of the Cat people, and the lands of the Rhinos, and saw rats with needles. She looked to the desert lands of the Snake men, and there were rats there, shaking hands with them. And then there was a rat looking at her. “Who are you,” it said without speaking. It was not an anthropomorphic rat. There were no rat-men as far as the old witch knew.
“Who are you?” it said again. This was not abstract, but a real rat asking a real question. There was something amiss with this. The witch pulled out of her trance and put the glass globe away in its drawer. If there was a rat playing with sorcery, then that would explain the rats in the images she saw. It must have a seeing stone of its own, or perhaps some other means of surveying time and space that intersected with hers.
The pot began to simmer on the fire, so Joy went to her storage racks and added a little of this and a little of that. The last ingredient she added was ground rhino horn. That ex husband of hers had slain a rhino warrior so long ago. Its eyes, brain, heart and liver proved useful, and finally the horn was serving a purpose. They didn’t need to know this, though.