A Journey North and the Witch's Tale
As twilight yawned settling down so that the night could rise, all the light in the forest had gone cold. Out in the west there was the sound of dogs raising their howls into the air, an electric sound echoing into the twilight. In the dying light the world had given itself over to them, the hunters, their dogs, and whatever darkly creatures stalked the night. The rest of the villagers however, found themselves called to sleep. Yielding to the gods of wool blankets and feather mattresses; men, women, and children alike settled down to close their eyes until it was time to rise again. And rise they would, long before the sun, even before they had the chance to wring the dark and chill of winter night from their bodies. Crawling from warmth and comfort into stark morning light, they would work until it was time again to settle down again like ashes beneath a dying fire. There was no other way to live. Winter was coming with its heavy arms of snow to drape over all it could reach, with its breath of ice and darkness as it swept through the forest. It was in this shivering twilight that Caroline Forbes found herself at the bedside of her very best and very sick friend, Elena Gilbert.
"I hate getting sick," Caroline said before yawning widely. She swung her little legs back and forth and leaned further into her chair. Caroline rarely ever fell ill but when she did it was horrible.
Just outside the waning light scattered across the ground through the trees as if fleeing from the darkness of night as it swallowed the waking world whole. The light crawled low over the ground like a sick dog on its belly before climbing up to the windowpane of the Gilbert house. It filtered in through the glass and into Elena's room. Across Elena's face it fell and draped her features in shades of blue and deep purple. The light did not reach Caroline.
"Guess you're pretty glad it's me that's sick then," Elena croaked in response.
Caroline scrunched up her nose and puckered her little mouth into a sour frown.
"I am not," Caroline replied feeling scandalized because although she would not say it aloud there was some small part of her was thankful that it was Elena and not she who was laid up in bed. Caroline felt the sickening stab of guilt in her throat but swallowed it quickly. "Hurry up and get better already. It's not any fun being inside all day."
While Caroline remained sour at the prospect of losing even more of her precious time to enjoy the outdoors before winter arrived, Elena neither pouted nor complained. Even as she shuddered at the feeling of cooling sweat upon her feverish skin, her features remained impassive. Caroline noticed her friend shudder and took up the cloth that had been sitting in her lap. Gently she placed the driest side upon Elena's forehead. Her little hands shook as she performed the task. She pulled her hand back, folded the cloth over again. Caroline patted the cloth over Elena's cheeks, upon the curve of her round chin and all the way down to her neck. She inspected the cloth closely in the darkness. Caroline folded it neatly and placed it upon a small wooden table that sat adjacent to both the wall of the Gilbert home and the little cot that Elena had taken up in her illness. On the table was a bowl of water that had once been warm and four other folded clothes. Two of them were cold and damp with sweat while the other two were still warm and dry after being wrapped around hot stones from the fire that burned across the room.
"Easy for you to say," Elena croaked from her bed. Shifting from her left side and then to her right, Elena began to ease herself up on her elbow. She coughed softly before continuing. "This is your fault anyway. You and Tyler were the ones who made me fall in the well."
Tyler Lockwood and Caroline Forbes fancied themselves to be quite the tricky pair. Children would always have their strange and cruel games but Tyler and Caroline had always taken a special pleasure in their tricks especially against their dear friend, Elena. It was just that she made it too easy. Caroline could never resist having a bit of fun even if it was often at the expense of the Gilbert girl and she could not help it if sometimes her games went slightly awry.
"We said sorry," Caroline mumbled but bit her lip as she glanced at her friend. She had never liked admitting that she had done anything wrong but at the sight of her friend so pathetic and frail Caroline wanted to take back every trick she had ever played. Silently she asked the great gods of the forest to make Elena better and in return she would give them a gift. She was not quite sure what it would be yet but she was sure she'd think of something. "Besides I'm paying for it aren't I? Not only do I have to wait around for you to get better but I have to waste my precious time taking baked goods to those creepy witches."
Caroline crossed her thin arms over her chest, tilted her chin downwards and glared. It was something she had seen her mother do many times before when she was faced with something of which she did not approve.
"You shouldn't talk about them like that, Care. We give them our best of the day, of the week and of the month. In return they keep us safe. It is in this way that the children of the Path and Witches of the Forest live in harmony. It has always been so and always will be."
Any other person in her village might have said those exact words. Caroline had heard them so many times before she wondered if they were permanently written behind everyone's eyelids except her own. How could things have always been exactly the same? If the sky could change colors, the trees die and come back to life then how could it be that the rest of her world could only ever stay the same? Elena of course did not think very much of these questions. She had always been unimpressed with Caroline's curiosity. Though they had known each other since infancy Elena and Caroline were as different as night and day in almost all ways.
Elena was small and dark, her features rich and blooming; even at the age of twelve anyone could tell she would grow to be a great beauty. Caroline was less refined. Though her hair was of bright gold and fell in natural curls around her head like a halo of light, its color was too stark against her ruddy skin. And though she was made of pinks and yellows and bright blue, Caroline was a shadow in comparison to Elena.
"Protection from what, Lena?" Caroline said her voice going soft, the words scratching on their way up her throat.
"I don't know and I don't want to," Elena replied her little voice stern, so certain yet Caroline could not believe her. She could not help but feel as though it was not enough. "The forest is dangerous for people like us, you know that, Care."
Elena turned her head to catch Caroline's eye but Caroline kept her eyes to her hands. Her thumbs were restless folding themselves over and over, tapping the back of her hand. Elena sighed and perhaps Caroline felt some shame to worry her sick friend but she could not bring herself to agree. From infancy they had been told stories of darkness, evil, and danger. They were told of aberrations that stalked the night, specters that lurked out beyond the boundaries of the village's protection. The world that lay beyond the Path was perilous. And though they never gave a name to what was out there hiding in the fallen shadow of the trees, in the space between the waking world they all lived in and the darkness of oblivion; it was known something lurked in depths of the forest. Caroline however was a skeptic at heart. If she could not see it then she could not believe.
"All I'm saying is it's weird how we always have to take them stuff," Caroline said. "Why can't they just come and get it themselves? I mean what? Do they turn to stone if we breathe on 'um?"
There was a soft cough from the bed. Elena turned over until all she could see was the wall and the window above her head. Sometimes she envied Caroline. Caroline could be as whimsical and strange as she pleased. And no matter how many times she was berated, scorned Caroline never faltered. Elena however was expected to be responsible, tactful. She understood that some things just were and needed no explanation. The witches never came into the village simply because they didn't. Caroline, however, could never accept things at face value, always inquiring or searching things out. She did not notice how uneasy she made others feel with her questions, her curiosity or it could have been that she simply did not care. At times Elena believed that if she did not have Caroline then she would not know how to be. In all the places where Caroline failed, Elena knew it was her duty to succeed. When Elena could not speak, did not have the courage to fight, it would be Caroline who would raise a voice, shout, kick and scream. They understood themselves in relation to each other like the wind only knows its own voice when it rustles the leaves.
"You ask too many questions," Elena mumbled then closed her eyes. She curled up into herself her thin limbs folding neatly against her torso.
Caroline bit down on her lip. There was more she could say. There was always more that Caroline could say but she decided not to continue. It was dark now. There was only the light of the fire across the room shifting only when there was a sudden wind that whipped down the chimney the howl of it low and soft. Caroline stood up and sat down upon the bed. The wood frame barely made a sound beneath her weight as she swung her legs up onto the bed and stretched out besides Elena.
"You'll get sick too if you get too close," came a murmur from Elena.
Caroline remained silent and waited. After a few moments Elena turned over. Caroline shifted her weight as well so that they faced each other. She reached out and took Elena's hands in her own. They were very warm in Caroline's hands. Her fever had not yet broken.
"You'll have to stay in all day just like me. Maybe even longer."
Caroline put her forehead to Elena's. There was sweat there and Caroline winced. The feeling of Elena's warm skin and her cold sweat against Caroline's skin was unpleasant but she pulled herself closer until she could smell Elena's hair, her breath, her skin musky and damp from sweat but there was a sweetness as well. Elena's mother had purchased one bar of scented soap months ago from a merchant traveling through the forest. It had the softest smell of some far off flower. And Elena was careful to only ever use just enough in the hopes that it would last long enough until some other weary traveling merchant came through again.
"Its okay if I get sick," Caroline replied keeping her voice low. "You'll stay with me if I do won't you?"
Elena let out a sound that was somewhere between a cough and a laugh. A hot puff of air rushed over Caroline's cheeks. She held her breath.
"Yeah," she mumbled her low voice scratching as she spoke. "Of course I will."
They lay in silence for a few moments until Elena spoke.
Caroline hummed in response.
"I can't fall asleep," she said. "Will you tell me one of your stories?"
Caroline glanced over quickly at Elena. It was clear that she would fall asleep soon enough with or without her help but it didn't matter. Caroline took a moment and thought about what story she should tell. A lonely howl pierced the air this time it came from the east far from the hunters' route. Hearing the high lonesome sound, Caroline knew what story she would tell.
"Once upon a time there was a girl who loved a wolf," she began.
The story came easily and soon enough it was already spun. As the last words of her tale left her mouth Caroline felt the lids of her eyes grow heavier and heavier. Her breathing had become shallow. Warmth was all around her and the soft smell of Elena's soap seemed stronger like a mist of it had fallen all around her. Once more she heard a howling and though she knew it was impossible but the sound seemed so loud that is was as if the wolf were there in the room with her. Caroline closed her eyes. She meant only to keep them closed for a second but they were heavy with exhaustion and would not open again no matter how hard she tried.
There in the darkness an image came to her so clear she could not discern if it was a dream or reality. A wolf stood at the foot of the bed. Its fur was dull and matted. In its eyes there was a wild look as though it had gone mad. There was a dark foam being to form at the corners of its horrible mouth. Caroline held her breath and became so still praying that she would become like a stone but it was too late. The wolf had seen her. Its lips rose and the muscles in its snout pulled its black lips back to reveal rotting teeth and a bloodied mouth that smelt of rotting corpses and dark sweet flowers. Its powerful jaws snapped, a spray of saliva fanning out from its mouth and then the wolf pounced its wild eyes grew closer and closer until she was swallowed whole.
Caroline shot up from the bed. Her chest heaved as she fought for air. There was no wolf, no rotting teeth or the smell of corpses and flowers. Even the scent of Elena's soap was so faint now that she could detect it no longer. She looked to her left where Elena slept soundly. Caroline put a hand to her friend's forehead and waited a few seconds to be sure. Elena's fever had broken.
There were only two routes that led out of the village. One cut through the forest winding North and the other led South. Caroline stood before the one that led North. She eyed the rough stretch of marked earth. As grand as the stories and dictum made it seem, the Path was not much more than dirt trail about seven feet across. Calculating her chances of getting out of her predicament, Caroline took a step towards the passageway. On either side banks rose a few feet from the ground a mixture of dirt, stone, and the roots of ancient trees that lined not only the Path itself but the boundary of the village as well. The limbs and branches high above curved overhead creating a tunnel that was like the long dark throat of an bottomless well that seemed to stretch on and on in the morning fog. The wind moaned somewhere down the path and it sounded as though some great beast waited just out of sight, starving. The sound became louder and louder as though soon the beast would be upon.
"Getting scared already?" came Tyler's voice from behind.
Caroline jumped at the sound of his voice but recovered quickly enough to whirl around and land a blow upon the older boy's shoulder. She huffed and crossed her arms. Tyler smiled brightly though his arm was sore. Caroline had an impressive swing. He strolled up to stand besides her his smile insistent, so much so that soon enough Caroline was smiling as well. He had promised the day before that he would be there to see her off. With her friend beside her, Caroline felt a little bit of courage but still the marked earth before her moaned and creaked and she felt fear in her heart. Suddenly Tyler swung his arm over her shoulder and let out a bark of laughter.
"Don't worry too much, Care," Tyler said his voice so loud that Caroline flinched away causing his arm to drop from her shoulder. "Stick to the Path and you'll be fine. I wouldn't let you walk right to your death now would I?"
"Hmm I'm not so sure," Caroline replied. "Are you trying to get rid of me, Lockwood?"
Tyler laughed and threw his arm around her again. "Like it would be that easy."
Caroline smiled but still she was uneasy. And though the weight of his arm over her shoulder was comforting, she was still afraid. There was something in the air. Something was about to change. She trusted Tyler more than most but he barely a year older than her. What would you know? Caroline thought to herself. Remembering something very important, Caroline's attention snapped back to the village. She turned around sharply searching for someone. Tyler watched her and he knew exactly what she was looking for. His good humor left immediately and Caroline felt him pull her closer.
"If you're looking for Matt he told me to tell you good luck," Tyler said his frown evident just from his tone. "He's tending to Elena."
Tyler watched as Caroline's hopeful expression fell but she shrugged as if it meant nothing to her. It wasn't that she had expected anything else. The four of them, Caroline, Tyler, Elena and Matt, had all grown up together knowing their roles were very clear. Matt had loved Elena the moment he saw her and Caroline had wanted Matt all her life and Tyler was caught between them all.
"Well I guess someone's got to watch her while I'm gone," Caroline replied with her little mouth puckered up and her brow a crinkled by discontent.
Caroline knew that she would never get Matt to love her the way she wanted. She wasn't stupid but sometimes she felt that she had been born starving for something she could not name. And if she could make Matt want her just half as much as she wanted him then maybe that burning desperation could be quelled.
For as long as she can remember an utter loneliness had pervaded her life. Elizabeth, Caroline's mother, never really looked at her, always through her. Caroline's father, William, had long since abandoned her without even a proper farewell. The last thing her father ever gave her was the pressing of cold lips to her forehead some summer morning before he left forever. And though Elena had loved her fully and honestly she could never quite understand. With her perfect family, her perfect life full of love and happiness, how could she ever truly know Caroline's sadness.
There was nothing that Tyler could say to her. He knew her loneliness better than most and for that Caroline was incredibly grateful. Tyler was sweet when he tried and could always make her laugh. Caroline supposed she might bring herself to love him one day even more so than Matt if she tried. Tyler believed that he loved her already. So they had made a pact. Two children unpicked and unloved, they promised to never abandon each other even in the face of certain death. Within themselves they had begun to build a home in which they could live together if only so that they would not have to be alone in their loneliness. If they had been destined to never know true love or romance then they would at least have loyalty instead.
"Well I guess I better go," Caroline said after a few more moments. "Don't want to ruin Elena's perfect track record."
She had tried not to sound so bitter but the look on Tyler's face told her she failed. It wasn't that she didn't love Elena. Of course she did, just as much as everyone else in the village if not more so. Loving Elena came easily so much so that it was if there was not even a choice.
"Sorry I didn't mean for that to sound so-" Caroline tried to explain but found that she did mean to be bitter. She was so very bitter.
Tyler only shook his head and pulled her closer. There was to be no judgment between them. That was promised as well.
"Just stick to the Path, Care," Tyler leaned in to give her a reassuring hug. "And come back safe okay?"
Caroline nodded into his shoulder. Before pulling away she tightened her arms around him trying to draw any bit of courage or luck she could from her friend. Tyler had traveled outside of the village limits with the men on their hunts a few times before but never very far. He had always returned unscathed. With a great sigh Caroline pushed away from Tyler. Turning swiftly from him, she started toward the forest but was stopped by a hand on her wrist. She turned back to Tyler confused and ready to protest. Quickly he pulled her in and placed a kiss to the corner of her mouth. He had only kissed her once before when they were five, when things like that were meaningless. But this was not like that at all. It was harsher, as though he were on the brink of devouring her whole. She could smell his breath and his sweat. She thought she could feel his heartbeat. His lips were cool and soft, with time and practice Tyler would become quite good at it. When he pulled back, he grinned widely down at her. Caroline felt something expand in the pit of her stomach at the look in his eyes. It was not a horrible feeling but she couldn't bring herself to smile back.
"Well go on," he said his dark eyes dancing with laughter. "Don't wanna be late."
She glared at him. His teasing was endless but she resisted the urge to stick out her tongue thinking it too childish. Scrunching her nose up in distaste, Caroline gathered her basket closer and started quickly down the path. By the time she even thought to look back she could see neither the village nor Tyler through the trees anymore.
After ten minutes of walking, Caroline began to swing her basket to and fro but her grip never loosened. Under her breath she began sing some song or other. When she found that she did not know the words she either made them up or changed songs completely. After twenty minutes Caroline could barely remember why she had been so anxious in the first place. Now that the sunlight had burned away most of the fog and the trees had thinned a bit, the Path was hardly anything to be afraid of. In fact she quite enjoyed the feeling of moving forward though she still did not loosen her grip on her cargo. One foot in front of another, again and again without anything or anyone to hold her back. Caroline, having spent all her life kept in by the vivid white stones that made up the village boundary, had never known such freedom. She paused a moment to close her eyes and throw her head back and enjoy the fragments of warm sunlight that managed to cut through the branches above. It was bliss.
"Hello there," a voice came suddenly.
So suddenly that it caused Caroline to shriek in terror. She had never lost that iron grip on her basket and now it came in handy. With all her strength Caroline pulled her arms back and swung. When she felt that she had landed a blow she thought to herself, well better not stop now. She pulled back again and she felt another hit. The contents of her basket had fallen with her first blow but that did not stop her from landing her second one nor her third. When she went for a fourth blow she was stopped suddenly by a shriek almost as distressed as her own.
"Please! Stop!" came the cry still disembodied.
Caroline had kept her eyes closed through the entire ordeal. She opened her eyes and found that it was not some monster or great beast that she had come upon but a young man who was now doubled over in pain. She could not see his face clearly. It was obscured by both the angle at which he was bent over and his right hand that was positioned before him trying to block her next blow.
"Oh my goodness," Caroline said her chest still heaving.
Mason Lockwood craned his neck so that he could look at her. As she lowered her wicker basket, he felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. He was sure that one more blow would have surely ended him. He opened his mouth to speak but found that he could only let out a high-pitched squeak. The pain in his groin was still too potent for him to even form words. When he had spotted the girl, head thrown back, eyes closed; he would have never guessed that she'd have such an impressive swing.
"W-wha?" she stuttered. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
She glanced down to see that her basket was in ruin. The contents of it, a couple loaves of bread, a large jar of fresh jam and a bottle of cider had all fallen onto the ground. Immediately she dropped to gather the items together. Then stopped and jumped her feet.
"What's your problem?" she demanded her face flushed now with shame. "You nearly scared the piss outta me."
Mason had no idea what to say. Caroline threw her hands up letting out a frustrated sigh. She dropped to one knee and began to gather all her things together. Soon she realized that it would do no good to gather up her things if she had nothing to carry it in. Seeing no other option she pulled up her top skirt revealing her stark white underskirt. There was a whoosh of cold air as she pulled her skirt up; the skin of her legs were covered in goosebumps.
"I'm sorry," Mason said his voice still strained from the pain that ran through his entire lower half. He wasn't sure why he should be the one to apologize. Then Caroline glared up at him briefly and he knew for sure that apologizing was for the best. "I thought you heard me coming. You shouldn't walk so leisurely in the forest."
Caroline rolled her eyes. She began to gather her things up faster unwilling to have some stranger tell her how she should walk. The faster she could be on her way the better.
"I was doing just fine before you showed up," she snipped as she retrieved the bottle of cider dropping it into her skirt.
"I wouldn't be so sure," Mason replied. He watched as one of her little pale hands reach out for the jar of preserves but it had rolled too far. She could not reach it from her kneeled position. "If I had not announced myself you may not have noticed me. At least not until it was too late."
His words felt too much like a threat for Caroline to ignore it. Caroline became hyper aware of the stranger before her. She inspected every bit of him as he kneeled down reaching for the jar as well. She had never seen him before in her life but there was something familiar about him. There was something in the angle of his jaw, the shade of his hair that gave her the strangest feeling that she knew him from before.
"Isn't that the point of this Path?" Caroline said keeping up an illusion of fearlessness. "To keep us all safe from the evils of the forest, to keep out the monsters?"
"No such luck I'm afraid," Mason replied a slow smirk cut its way across his face.
She knew that smirk.
"You're a Lockwood," she blurted out.
"Mason Lockwood," he replied. "You must be from the village just south. I'm visiting my brother and his family there."
Caroline nodded slowly still wary of this so-called Mason Lockwood. He could be lying. He could be insane. He could have been a murderer. He could be an insane murderer on his way to massacre the entire village. Caroline cut off that train of thought catching herself before it got too far. Her mind could wander so carelessly down dangerous paths. It would do her no good to dwell on those strange thoughts but still she sent up a prayer to anyone that would listen to keep her friends safe.
"Well that's nice and all but I'm going somewhere," she said feeling very strange to stand with him after secretly accusing him of whatever bizarre, heavy crime her thoughts. "And I don't want to be late."
"Right! 'Course you don't," he replied and moved to the side to get out of her way but Caroline did not proceed.
Mason continued to smile but Caroline would not budge. She cleared her throat and held out her hand.
"The jar," she said.
Mason feigned surprise when he pulled his left around from behind his back to find the large jar of preserves still clutched tightly there. He chuckled as though it was some joke shared between them.
"Well now how did that get there," he mumbled his grip had yet to loosen. "I must have forgotten."
"Sure you did," Caroline quipped grabbing for her last item but Mason thwarted her.
"Though something sweet would be nice," he said his expression hopeful. "Your earlier assault still pains me."
Had it been any other girl she would have fallen for that look but Caroline was already at her young age impervious to the Lockwood charm. Her hand shot out and swiped it from his grasp. Caroline shook her head as she packed the jar in her makeshift sack so that it sat tightly against her stomach with the other things.
"No such luck," she echoed his earlier statement.
She pushed past him satisfied now that all of her belongings were safely stowed away and continued on her way towards the Witch's cottage. Mason realized that he had an appointment to keep as well. So they parted ways neither one looking back or sparing much thought for the other on their way to their destinations.
The witch's cottage was an old dark structure made from clay and dirt. It had been built long before Caroline's time even before the time of the Path. The shackles of the roof were bleached from black to a bright rusty red. A yard of substantial size surrounded the cottage and to the left of the cottage there was a garden of varying flora and fauna. Around the property was a low fence made up of wide wooden spokes that were breached only by a gate that opened to a narrow trail that branched from the Path.
Caroline had never met a Witch. The closest that she had ever got was an old fortuneteller who had come with a group of traveling performers a few years ago. Caroline had not been allowed to go to her as the troupe was not permitted entry into the village but Caroline had caught a glimpse of her one morning when Caroline had escaped her duties and ran out to her favorite hiding place, the Eastern Well. She had been a small-shriveled crone who hobbled as she walked. When she noticed Caroline staring she had turned and smiled. The seer's smile had no teeth only dark, nearly black gums that she ran her tongue over as she beckoned Caroline to her. Frightened by the old woman's appearance, Caroline had shaken her head and ran back into the village where she was met with the stern disapproval of her mother and a painful switching.
Caroline looked upon the scene and felt a sudden stab of fear. Elena had always spoken very little of the witches. When she did speak of them she was always vague as if she herself did not know very much about them or her time spent with them. Elena had never mentioned if they were ugly or strange or mean. Her thoughts turned to blackened gums smacking into a smile. Elena had never said that they were especially kind either. All Elena would ever say of them was that they were an interesting kind of people to be respected and appreciated.
"Like that helps," Caroline muttered under her breath though she was more irritated at herself for being afraid than at Elena for her vagueness.
Caroline made her way towards the cottage, through the gate and stood before the door. She was about to knock when a voice called from inside.
"Elena, girl, you're late!"
The door creaked open to reveal a beautiful woman. Caroline stood slack-jawed and in awe. The woman had five or six inches over Caroline. Her skin was dark and without blemish. Her cheekbones sat high on her face and above them were two dark eyes that bore into her. The Woman's full lips were pulled into a tight frown. Her hair was deep gray with wisps of stark white curling through the swirling mass that sat atop her head pulled back tightly from her face.
"I'm not Elena," Caroline breathed.
"Obviously," the woman replied raising one eyebrow while dipping the other low.
The Witch sounded even more beautiful than she looked. Caroline could imagine the rich sound of it flowing through the air like cool calm water over river stones. Never before had she ever seen a woman like the one before her. The Witch looked over the child before her with her skirts in her hand and gooseflesh on her exposed ankles. Her cheeks were ruddy, flushed red with hair like sunshine. Then suddenly in a flurry of loose-fitting robes and curling gray hair the Witch turned and retreated back into the depths of the cottage. Caroline shifted from one foot to another unsure of whether she was to enter or not. A flush of heat came over her cheeks. She felt guilty. The woman had been expecting Elena but had got Caroline instead.
"Well don't just stand out there all day," the woman called from inside the cottage where the air was cool and heavy with the smell of spice and witch's work. "Come in or go back."
Caroline glanced back from where she came. She considered simply leaving her cargo upon the stone doorstep and leaving. Tyler may have still been waiting for her but then she though of the kiss he had given her earlier. She remembered the look in his eye and heat of his breath upon her mouth and she decided that she did not want to see Tyler again just yet. Caroline turned back to the entrance into the Witch's cottage and dashed forward over the threshold.
She only made it a few steps in before she heard the Witch shout, "Stop!"
Caroline froze mid-step.
"Remove your boots before you come in here."
Caroline made a face but did as she was told. She settled down on the low stone step that rose up from the dirt to meet the doorframe having only a little bit of trouble keeping her balance as she held her skirt and the Witch's goods up. When she had gotten comfortable, Caroline began to work at the laces of her boots. After a minute or so her feet were free of her boots and she entered the witch's home.
"I'm sorry," was the first thing Caroline could think to say. Then as an after thought she added, "I brought you your things."
She made her way from the door to stand at what was roughly the middle of a strange cottage and the only free space. The cottage was made up of only one large room that contained all of the furniture and belongings. To Caroline's left seemed to be a sort of kitchen area. A pitch-black stove sat darkly in the corner, the space around it blackened by soot and heat. A large table was besides that pressed up against the wall. Upon it sat the strangest things. There were jars filled with creatures of all kinds submerged in some kind of goo the color of the sky and some were the color of sunset in the middle of the winter.
Great tomes were also among the items that sat upon the great table. Some were bound beautifully while others were beaten and worn. Flowers and herbs sat in piles upon a shelf just above the table and in jars as well and some were in boxes of both clay and paper. From the ceiling mobiles dangled from strings. Some glittered like the sunlight on clear water while others were made of dull bone and there were others still, made of materials that Caroline could not even begin to name.
Across the room was a fireplace. A cluster of furniture surrounded it, two large cushioned chairs angled towards the fireplace, a small table between them surrounded and cluttered by even more books. A tall wooden stool was placed against the wall besides the fireplace. There were two long beds neatly made squashed up against the adjacent wall to the hearth. The Witch had take a seat in one of the cushioned chairs, the red one, while the other chair remained empty. Looking around at the many items Caroline came to realize that there was only one other person living in the cottage. There were two of all the personal items that peppered the cottage.
"What were you apologizing for?" the Witch said startling Caroline from her attentions to the details of the Witch's home.
Caroline's eyes snapped across the room to where the old woman sat. The Witch was angled so that Caroline could only see half of her face.
"What?" Caroline replied quietly her cheeks no longer burning with embarrassment.
She had been too busy marveling at the oddities before her to remember to feel ashamed.
"You said earlier that you were sorry," the Witch drawled. Caroline watched as the Witch reached out to her beckoning her to come closer. "What does a girl like you have to be sorry for?"
Caroline's face scrunched up in thought. Her eyebrows came together as if stitched to the center of her forehead on an invisible string. The pout on her lips was twisted at an inquisitive angle. Many times people had asked Caroline if she was sorry. The answer was usually no. They then proceeded to tell her that she should be sorry but no one had ever told her why she should be sorry beyond that she had been bad. She wasn't aware that one needed a reason.
"Well," Caroline considered the Witch's question. "You were expecting Elena to bring you your things from the village. When you saw me you seemed disappointed. I was sorry for that, I guess."
The Witch laughed. It was a deep husky sound that sent low vibrations through the air. Caroline could feel them run through her. The air in the cottage was suddenly heavy with the Witch's mirth. Caroline even fancied she could taste that laughter. It had a deep flavor of spice and darkness. It tasted of the copper and of the smoke of scorched earth just after lightning had struck. The Witch's laugher tasted of power.
"You were sorry for not being another?" the Witch said after her laughter had ceased. "Only a child would apologize for such a thing."
Caroline kept her eyes to the ground. She felt small. Never before had she ever felt so small. Surely being a child was exactly what Caroline was supposed to do. Only she didn't feel like a child. At the Witch's words and the tone they took Caroline could not help but feel like she was fool. The Witch saw Caroline's expression and smiled. She truly did enjoy children and their habit of swinging violently between the extremes of hubris and absolute shame. It was always a gamble.
"Come, child. Come closer. Do not be ashamed. The price of youth is ignorance."
Caroline pulled her lips into a tight crinkle across her face but she did as she was told. She moved across the room her basket still in hand. The Witch waited patiently for the yellow-haired child shuffle closer.
"Put those things there on the table," the Witch said to the long table across the room. "My apprentice will be back soon and she will take care of it."
Caroline nodded as she set her cargo down piling the loaf of bread that had gone cold, the jar of preserves, cider, and a large block of cheese onto any space that she could find that was not taken up by some odd item or other. She fiddled with the sleeve of her dress and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. The smooth stone of the floor felt cold against her feet. A nervous energy had crept up into her skin. Never before had Caroline felt so intimidated by an adult. She had always shown no fear in the face of their praise and censure alike but standing before the Witch, Caroline felt for the first time some shame for her youth. She felt bashful.
"Don't look so meek, sweet girl," the Witch chided gently. "It is not in your nature I can tell."
Then as if to prove the Witch's words right Caroline snapped her face up to look the Witch straight in the eye. She straightened her back and set her shoulders into a rigid line. Although she still felt the burning of hot blood rushing to her cheeks, Caroline found some relief in her bold display of childish bravery.
"That's better," the older woman crooned.
A smile appeared stretching the dark skin of her face. Wrinkles gathered at the sharp corners of her mouth and at the places where her eyes smiled. Caroline had never seen such beauty.
"Now listen closely for I am going to tell you a truth. Very few people will ever tell you the truth in this world, dear girl but I swear upon the dark earth from which all life rose and the North Wind that breathes eternal over this land that what I will tell you now is the truth."
The Witch looked at her expectantly and Caroline nodded in earnest. The Witch motioned for Caroline to lean in closer and closer she leaned.
"No Thing ever apologizes for being exactly what it was made to be, monster and man alike. And if they do they are lying. Never trust a thing that would apologize for its purpose. Such things are full of tricks and darkness."
Caroline nodded her eyes growing with wonder at the woman's words. No one had ever spoken to Caroline with such conviction. What a new thing it was to be told the truth.
"So never apologize for being what you are and never ask for another to apologize for that. You will only ever find yourself dissatisfied or betrayed. Now tell me why is it you have come to me today and not the Gilbert girl?"
"She's sick," Caroline mumbled breaking eye contact.
Caroline cast her glance to the ground as she uttered the word 'sick' partially out of guilt but also because she wished to hide the tiny twitch of the corner of her lips. Caroline was still quite proud of the trick she and Tyler had played even if it had gone slightly awry. However, the Witch saw her mischievous smile and replied with a grin. The girl was a wicked thing.
The Witch inspected Caroline closely. There were no coincidences in life. The powers that be would never leave the destiny of witches and children in the hands of something as fickle as chance. There was a reason Caroline had come into her home that day. The girl was marked. The Witch could feel it.
"And who are you?"
"Caroline, Caroline Forbes. I'm Elena's best friend," Caroline exclaimed.
"Ah! Good," the Witch replied. "Then you would have no trouble delivering something to your best friend for me."
Caroline paused and considered the Witch's words. Caroline knitted her brow and her eyebrows nearly met in the middle.
"What will you give me if I do?"
This time the Witch's laughter came out as a bark of amusement. It was clear like fresh running water or the blue sky in summer.
"What an intelligent little thing you are Caroline," she said then fell into thought. "Now what can I give you in return. Do you like stories, clever girl?"
Caroline's face lit up.
"I love stories," she exclaimed grinning so wide that she was sure her face would split in two.
"Then in return for doing me a favor you shall have a story," the Witch said, "does that sound fair?"
Caroline nodded with enthusiasm the yellow curls upon her head bouncing as she did so. The Witch motioned for her to sit upon the other chair and then began her tale.
The Witch's Tale
This is the tale of the first Beast born from the darkness in the heart of man. Most stories begin either in a time of great light or in times of great darkness. This story however begins at the twilight of a wild age. It was so long ago that not many people remember and those who do are have long since shed their mortal coil along with their mortal shells. The forest was a dark place in those times, back before the Path and before those who guard it. And the world was overrun with beasts that could speak and dream and doze in the afternoon haze. It was a time of darkness that held no evil. No man or beast knew fear in those days.
These monsters devoured each other as they pleased and never took revenge for give and take was currency of the realm. They ran wild and drank from puddles and never did they have war with one another for they had no alliances. This was the way of the world. That is until the Well appeared.
Man and Beast were one in the same at this time. They ate under the same roof and bathed in the same water. They sat around fires as brothers would until one day. A hole appeared in the world so deep and dark that there was no way to tell just how deep it went.
One beast who walked on four legs, was thin and swift but vicious and strong very much resembling the wolves that you know now demanded they leave. The Wolf Beast was not the cleverest of them but he was the most intuitive.
"I sense it is not like us," the beast said, "what thing appears suddenly so deep and dark that is among us? Surely this thing is evil."
Take note child for this was the first time that particular word was uttered. The Beast's companions shared confused glances amongst themselves. What was "evil"? They have never heard such a word. What did it mean?
"Do you not understand?" the Beast who was like a wolf said, "Do you not feel the fear that pours from that thing?"
And this was the second word that held no meaning for the men and beasts that had gathered around the hole. They all began to murmur amongst themselves their voice growing harsh and ragged like the bark of the trees.
The Fox Beast, who was in possession of the quickest wit, knew immediately what the Wolf Beast was implying and he spoke into the crowd. He said that the Wolf Beast mocked their intelligence.
The Man Beast who was very mindful of community knew what the Wolf Beast aimed to do. He wished to tear them apart with these new words and he offered his knowledge up to the group.
The Beast who was like the bear was the strongest of the company and grabbed hold of the Wolf Beast. He gripped him tight in his arms so that he could not be swift, could not be like the wind and run from their accusations.
"We do not understand your words," they all cried together, "we do not know of these things you speak."
And even as they claimed not to know those words they became them. The Men and the Beasts felt fear. Fear of the Wolf Beast who seemed to know far more than they did. They were fearful of the hole that seemed to yawn open wider as the seconds ticked by. It demanded retribution. It demanded a sacrifice.
Man and Beast felt evil tunneling deep down into their souls, into their guts. Poisoning and curdling their insides, the evil and fear had already begun their work. They had already decided what to give the Well. They had found their sacrifice.
"How?" cried the Wolf Beast, "how can you not know? Are you dumb like the grains of dirt? Are you like the stones that cannot speak or the blades of grass that have gone dark with Death?"
The Beast who was like a bear lifted the Wolf Beast above his head.
"Why are you doing this? Why?" asked the Wolf Beast confused by the looks on the faces of his brothers.
Never before had he seen such madness. Never before had he known wrath and fear turned to red murder. But he would know. He would be the first to know. Murder is not the same as killing my dear girl. They are two very different things that is why they are different words.
The Men and the Beasts took hold of the Wolf Beast and broke his bones. They tore the skin from his flesh and took his head from his neck. Then they threw him down into the hole, the first Well of Darkness and fed the thing that lived deep down in the depths of the earth.
They all waited for a very long time. No one moved. They barely breathed as they waited for the sound of their mutilated friend to hit the bottom but it never came. Instead there was a different kind of sound. The sound of tearing, of cloth, of skin, bled into the air. It was like a screech without words or tongue and it broke out across the forest calling all moving things to come and attend to it.
Then from the hole rose a dark liquid that glinted red only when it caught the sunlight. It smelled sweetly of musk and dark things that hid in shadows and whispered in the bleakest of dreams. The Beasts and Men of the forest had no choice. They dipped their hands and mouths into the sweet madness and drank until their bellies were full. They drank until they were no longer what they were before.
The Beasts became dumb. Their tongues turned to lead in their mouths and they never spoke words again. They were Beasts no more but mere animals.
The Men forgot their brothers. They forgot that they ate under the same roof and bathed under the same stars. Never again would they understand the language of the trees, the dirt and the stars.
When night fell they looked up from Well. All around them they saw the faces of strangers and fled. They ran from that place where they had spilled the blood of their brother not out of necessity but out of fear and rage. They fled from their sin and fled from the evil that had poured out of their own guts.
When all was quiet and night had fallen a nose broke through the surface of the dark liquid. Then came the rest of a hairy snout. A paw soaked red all the way through appeared as well and from the liquid rose a monster that could not speak but was not dumb. It was a wolf but inside was the skin and bones of a man. He cried horribly into the night a sound caught between a howl and a scream. A full moon was out.
This was the setting of the sun. This was the beginning of the age of the Werewolf.
"What are werewolves?" Caroline said slowly once the Witch had finished her story.
Caroline was curled up in the large green cushioned chair as if she had been born there and had lived her whole life in that very chair. The light outside had turned from bright yellow to a cooling orange. She had been there for nearly three hours listening to story after story. The Witch had only promised one but Caroline had convinced her to sweeten the deal.
"My goodness child were you not listening?" the Witch said, "They are beasts born of anger and evil caught between man and wolf capable of great violence and of even greater deceit. Do your parents not teach you anything about the world?"
Caroline shook her head.
"What sort of deceit are you talking about?" Caroline asked.
"The werewolf can assume the shape of both man and wolf," the Witch replied more focused on the needlework before her.
During the course of the story the Witch had begun to embroider a piece of pure white cloth. Caroline had tried to peak over at what the Witch was making. Each time her efforts were thwarted by a slight tilt of the bone tambour frame.
"They can't possibly be real," Caroline declared, "that was only a story."
The second statement didn't sound quite as sure as the first. She eyed the Witch carefully watching for any answer. Her search turned up unfruitful. She could not tell if the Witch agreed or disagreed.
Caroline wasn't sure which she preferred. If werewolves were real then surely the world was an even darker and more dangerous place than she had imagined but it would be fantastical too. If werewolves were real that meant all the fairies and fawns in her stories must be real as well.
"The Werewolf was the result of great evil, a sin that will mark this forest for all time," the Witch replied not fully answering Caroline's question.
Caroline eyed the Witch's smug expression. Surely there was no such thing but who would make up such a thing? All stories have some truth that is what separated them from lies.
"Well if they are real," Caroline said, "how can you tell them apart from normal men?"
The Witch smiled at Caroline. She was an inquisitive little thing and she had made quite an impression upon the old Witch. She was already half in love with the yellow-haired girl.
"Men who wander the forest, traveling men they will call themselves," the Witch replied, "these are men you should always shy away from, girl."
Caroline wrinkled her nose in thought. She considered the new information and thought briefly of the man she had met along the path. He seemed to be somewhat of a traveler.
"What if they travel along the Path?" Caroline asked sitting up fully now, "surely then they must be safe."
The Witch only shook her head. The girl was still so young and so naïve. It would be a shame to ruin such innocence but it was better to be disillusioned than dead.
"I'm afraid not even my magic and all the witches of the path can keep out the Evil people welcome into their homes willingly and I'm afraid Monsters tread even here, my dear."
It was then that Caroline became very aware of the time. She glanced out the window and saw the blue of the sky turning dimmer. The yellow light had bled orange and was fading to pink. The Witch looked as well. The day was running out and Caroline still needed to travel the Path.
"Now listen here, child and listen closely," the Witch said stealing Caroline's attention away from the dying light outside, "it does not matter if you are of fur, tooth and claw or of cloth and live beneath a roof. Man can make as much evil as Monsters. Do you understand?"
Caroline was confused by the sudden admission. She had seen the bruises that Tyler wore some days when their pranks had gone too far. More than once she had been on the less fortunate end of switch but she had never seen these things as evil. Caroline had a feeling that these things were not what the Witch was referring to when she spoke of evil. Caroline thought of the Wolf Beast and how he had been sacrificed to the Well. A man had been among the company who committed the act.
"No I don't think so," Caroline replied although she was still conflicted.
"No matter one day you will," the Witch said.
The sound of the door creaking open broke out into the air. The apprentice had returned.
"Gran did Elena already –"
It was a young girl she couldn't have been any older than Caroline. Caroline had been expecting someone older perhaps more elegant like the Witch. The only thing the Witch and the apprentice had in common was their perfect smooth complexion.
Bonnie looked over the girl who was sitting in her chair. Caroline too was not at all what Bonnie had expected to find.
"You're not Elena," Bonnie deadpanned a critical eye aimed at the newcomer.
Caroline at once felt ashamed all over again. She hopped up from the chair that burned her now that she knew to whom it belonged. A bright pink blush fell over her cheeks and the place where her neck met her shoulders. The Witch watched the two. She saw Bonnie's glare. Caroline's embarrassment was written obviously on her skin. Girls could be so cruel to one another.
Caroline opened her mouth no doubt to let apologies spill out but the Witch caught her eye. The apology caught in her throat. Instead Caroline crossed her arms over her chest. Her hips swung right and she put on the most unimpressed expression she could muster.
"Obviously," she said as she tilted her chin down to look Bonnie in the eye.
Bonnie huffed at the display. Who was this blond girl to sass her in her own home? Though the cottage did not in fact belong to Bonnie, not yet.
"And if not Elena, then who are you?"
"I'm Caroline," she said walking forward the offering a hand in greeting, "Elena was sick so I brought the basket today."
Bonnie ignored Caroline's hand. She moved right past her to speak to the Witch.
"But Gran how will we-" Bonnie began but the Witch cut her off with a stern look and a gesture of her hand.
"Caroline was nice enough to agree to take Elena a bit of medicine for her flu," the Witch said, "to help her get over it faster."
The Witch and Bonnie shared a look that Caroline was certain had nothing to do with Elena's flu or medicine to aid it. There was more, far more going on in the Witch's cottage.
"Caroline my dear you should be heading home," the Witch said glancing out the window again.
The sky had turned an even deeper shade of orange. The pink of the sky had gone purple.
"Aww but can't I have one more story?" Caroline cried.
"No," the Witch said gravely, "you must get back before moonrise."
Caroline pouted but the Witch would not budge. However after all that talk of evil and beast in the shadows of the full moon had shaken Caroline just the slightest bit. The Witch began to remove her needlework from its hoop. Caroline opened her mouth to protest but closed it again thinking of werewolves and traveling men. But surely one more story would not make such a difference but before she could voice her thoughts Bonnie was at her side. She had a small bottle made of a deep blue opaque glass stopped with cork in her hand.
"Come I'll walk you to the door," she said handing the pretty bottle to Caroline.
Bonnie began to pull her towards the door but Caroline resisted. She ran back to the Witch's side.
"Can I visit again," Caroline said, "I can come with Elena or if you need me to run errands in the village or-"
The Witch's grave expression broke and a smile slipped across her lips. The sight of her smile silenced the younger girl's ramblings.
"Sweet girl the Witches of the Path never have business in the villages," she said but she noticed the girls fallen expression, "but you are always welcome here."
Caroline smiled widely. Bonnie rolled her eyes at the little conversation. She was sure her teacher was going soft in her old age. Encouraging little girls to go wandering through the forest to visit a couple of witches. How irresponsible but Bonnie said nothing. Instead she gripped Caroline's arm and pulled her towards the door again.
"I don't see why I have to leave before moonrise," Caroline said as she put on her boots, "won't I be safe on the Path."
Bonnie waited patiently for Caroline to put her shoes back on.
"We can only protect you from the beasts that dwell beyond the Path," Bonnie replied evenly, "besides didn't you realize?"
Caroline looked up at the girl. She shook her head genuinely confused.
"It's a full moon tonight."
This was the setting of the sun. This was the beginning of the age of the werewolf.
A/N: Hiya. It's been a while yea? I'm putting everything back up kind of unrevised. I'm planning to finish the whole thing in one fell swoop, revise, edit and then make it one large story (the Path and Debitum Naturae).