"Enchanted forests do not just happen," the Head Witch looked down her long and crooked nose at Anya. "They require skill and care. This is the territory you have been assigned."
It was not much of a wood. There were trees, certainly - winnow young oaks standing in the dry yellow remnants of what were once tilled fields, and a few scattered copses of dense thorn that were once hedges.
The younger witch kept a carefully neutral face. The Head Witch gave her a too-friendly pat on the ass.
"I know it doesn't look like much, but there's supposed to be a castle buried in that mess somewhere. Plague hit a little too hard, and the whole region was depopulated. See what you can do with it, and I'll be back in a year."
The "castle" was little more than a dry stone keep, a square and boxy thing being slowly covered by winding thorn and bird shit, but it had its own well. Anya took her time desecrating the chapel, and then moved in.
The Head Witch had, as was tradition, offered her choice of a single tool of Art - most witches chose the athame, but Anya had opted for a hatchet. Moonrise found her in a clearing not far from the keep, scraping a sapling as thick as her wrist, moving in long even strokes so that the bark peeled off in strips, and the yellow heartwood showed. A bundle of grass served as a sweep, and she braided grass and bark together around the base of the staff.
The broom was rough under her hands as she rose into the starry night. The wood - her wood - was not particularly dense; it covered what had been six farmsteads and their adjoining fields around the keep, and formed a rough triangle at the collision of three countries. The southern border was a road that ran between two towns, the north-east and north-west by rumbling creeks. Darkness reigned about the little wood, every neighboring farmhouse nearby locked tight for the night.
Swooping low, Anya began to take inventory.
There were no wolves or bears or great cats; the land had been farmed too recently, the wood too far from wilder dominions. It was a wood of snakes and mice and rabbits, thrushes and owls, worms and beetles. There were no primeval trees, and though she looked hopefully at some of the great grey boulders, Anya ascertained they were more likely glacial remnants than toppled pagan stones. Yet there were corpses, though little more than dry and rattling bones, and in the crypt of the keep a line of petty lords yet slept in their crude stone boxes.
Anya began to plan.
Farmers who had let their fields run fallow near the plague-swept region rose some weeks later noted that the forest around the fallen keep looked different than it had before. Green thorns now hedged in along its borders, as though planted by knowing hands, and oak saplings grew thicker together. The birds had taken to nesting in the branches beside the road, and watching the traffic that passed, and once followed a funeral cart all the way to town. Each bird's beak and speckled breast was tinged with red, though before they had known to all be brown.
At night were scenes as would still a weak man's heart. Boney shamblers dressed in rags, a-work by moon and starlight, planting, seeding, tending tree and thorn. Toiling balls of worms wove their way through the undergrowth, and down by the creeks the serpents multiplied. From the four winds her familiar birds came, bearing news and seed, and in her little keep the witch Anya pored over her plans.
Her diet, to this point, had mostly been rabbit, and that fair raw, for it was too soon for her to be discovered by the tell-tale smoke of a fire; and beside that a little garden with such wild vegetables as were left. Sucking a marrow-bone, the young witch meditated on her neighbors.
The milk began to fall off in the cows of the farms nearest the wood; but not all at once and not altogether, so while one canny old peasant might lay up at night waiting for a milk-thief, when spread between four or five farms the loss was attributed to something in the neighborhood - perhaps the water in the creek, which had grown less sweet of late. In town, the miller was pilloried for his count of flour to the baron coming short, and there were few of his friends and customers that would speak for him, who had his thumb on their scales too often.
One morning, the unhallowed graves outside the wall of the church yard were found open, and the excommunicants within left, no one knew where.
A darkness entered the wood then. The thorns were thick and long and low, so there was hardly a gap into the forest; and it was a forest now, for the saplings grew thick and green at the edge, and though the oaks were still young the branches seemed to knit together in shadowed canopies. A charcoal-burner, breaking through the bracken where the thorns were thinnest, might wander in shadow along quiet, well-worn paths followed by the eyes and hoots of owls who should not be about during the daytime.
Thorn-choked farmhouses still stood in the wood, and there were carefully-orchestrated horrors there where liches lay in scenes in mockery of life. In odd turns along the paths were stones raised and painted red with blood, offerings of bone twined together in strange sculptures, or let to dangle from low branches to clank and ring with the wind. At its heart, if the woodsman had not yet turned back, was the keep - the stones now held together by twining vines of wild rose more than ought else. On the desecrated altar in the chapel lay a figure in black armor, pierced together from the graves of nobility; carved and painted now with runes. Serpents twined through rents in the mail, adder-heads stared out from the visor, and a pale yellow trickle of venom ran down the length of the great blade when it was drawn.
Then, of course, the charcoal-burner would never be heard from again.
At Beltane, on the roof the keep, Anya lit the great fire which shown its witch-light over the wood. The Head Witch's shadow crossed the moon, and the young witch, riding side-saddle, rose to meet her. Silent they wafted over the witch's wood, past the macabre gardeners and bloody shrines, the pits where the serpents bred and the dark holes where the worms dug deep, the poison-tinged creeks and the stout thorn hedges, and finally the keep with its dark chapel and guardian.
"Well, that's a pass." The Head Witch grunted.
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