R. C. SmithShort Stories and Vignettes

Do not read my works if you are offended by descriptions of sexuality and violence.
(Do not read them just for those descriptions, either.)

The Witch

To have a witch in your town is a dangerous situation. You cannot let her go. You cannot keep her locked up for long, she’ll find a way to harm you. You cannot risk to have her seduce the wardens, the magistrate, or even the judge — she is a good-looking woman, after all, even now, lying naked on a heap of straw, cold and hungry, dirty and bruised, chained to the dungeon wall. You cannot put her to death, without proof of her guilt. You cannot have proof without her confession. Only pain will make her confess, only pain will make her name the other witches she knows, only pain, pain that goes beyond the limits of what she can bear, can prove her innocence, if innocent she should be. But no one, high or low in the hierarchy of justice, is allowed to harm her, beyond keeping her restrained. The judge will have to find her guilty, the executioner will have to end her life, quickly or slowly, according to the judge’s findings, but, until then, only the torturer has the right to cause her pain, as only the leech has the right to administer medicine to the sick, and only the priest has the right to give benedictions to the fallible. And against a witch, neither medicine nor benedictions will help. But, suddenly and unexpectedly, when he was needed most, the torturer has died. Maybe he died from a heart attack, or maybe he fell down the stairs of his house in a drunken stupor and broke his neck, but now he is dead, and the town is in dire need of a replacement, and has sent a petition to the court, stressing the urgency, asking for the appointment of a new torturer. He will be sent to them soon, they were relieved to be told, carrying a letter with the Queen’s seal as his credential.

~

Hunger had driven the boy to pluck a fruit from a tree, but it had been the wrong tree, standing on the wrong side of a fence, and now he is on the run. If they catch him, he knows he will be dead. He hides during the days, he stumbles along during the nights. He is not really a boy anymore, he is a young man, but he is shy, he has kept to himself for as long as he can remember, he feels uncertain about the ways of the world. He knows he must keep moving, but he knows he has no hope of finding safety. He will not be forgiven nor forgot, there will always be a reward on his head that will far exceed the value of any fruits he may ever have stolen, and he will always stand out, always raise suspicion, as someone who has no business being there, wherever he may go.

He follows an overgrown former footpath near the bottom of a ravine, where high above him the paved road precariously clings to the slope. Dark clouds fill the narrow gap of sky between the mountain ridges, then thunder rolls through the canyon, and heavy rain begins to pour down. He finds shelter in a small cave, just a recess in the rock, only a few yards deep but enough to protect him. A flash of lightening is followed by a deafening thunderclap, and then, his ears still ringing with that sound, some strange noises he cannot identify, then the deluge drowns out their echo. After a while, as swiftly as the thunderstorm and the pouring rain had arrived, they end. He comes out of the cave, to see not far away from him, below, splayed out on a rock and half immersed in the water of the now swollen stream, the broken remnants of a carriage, with two dead horses, in their harnesses, lying next to it.

Carefully, so not to fall into the stream, he approaches, sees the body of the coachman, and then, among the debris, three more bodies, the passengers who have died with the horses and the coachman. An elderly man, an elderly woman — from their clothes they seem to have been well off, but he shies away from the thought of searching for the possessions they might have carried with them. And the body of a young man, not much older than himself. For a short and eerie moment, when he looks at the dead man, he has the feeling of looking into a mirror, before he realizes that the semblance is very superficial at best, and more about the build of their bodies than the features of their faces. Still, he cannot dismiss this young man, as he had dismissed the other dead, human and equine, as not concerning him. There is a bag with a strap around the corpse’s neck, made of leather, and tightly closed. He takes it and opens it, and finds in it, protected in its own thin leather pouch, the paper with the royal seal, stating its owner’s name, destination, and appointment.

It is the idea of a moment. He takes off the dead man’s clothes and boots — still better than his own, even though they are now torn, dirtied and soaked — and exchanges them for his own. He stuffs the pouch with the paper into a pocket of his new clothes — he takes the bag, but only to dispose of it somewhere where it will not be found, he does not want to take more from the dead than he needs to take. He drags the body, now in his own old clothes, the few feet to the river’s edge, he throws it in, he watches as it gets carried away by the water. Even if it will not get carried far, in this wilderness it will take some time before it will be found, and by then, he hopes, it will not be recognizable. Not be recognizable as the dead body of the man who now begins the arduous ascent to the road above, and the long walk towards the town that he hopes will welcome him.

~

It is already evening when he arrives at the town. He presents the crumpled letter of credentials to the guards at the town gate, who express their joy at his arrival. On foot, without a purse, without even a small bundle of his possessions, dirty and in torn clothes, he explains that he has been robbed, but the bandits had spared his life. It happens. They understand his need for rest, the mayor gets informed of his arrival but all business can wait until tomorrow, the official introduction into his office, the long overdue first torture of the captive woman, of the witch. They lead him to his new home, the house that has always been the torturer’s residence. The house is close to the town wall, dark, small and old, simply furnished, but better by far than any place he had ever called a home before, and for a long time now there hadn’t even been any such place. There is a room for him with a bed, there is food, there are candles, and there is a girl, who comes with the house. She has already served the old torturer. She had not rejoiced at his death. He had beaten her and raped her, often when drunk, sometimes when sober, but most of the time he had not paid her much attention, had left her doing her job, to keep the house clean, his clothes mended, and his meals prepared. It could have been worse, and when he died she knew that with a new master, it might well be.

And now, by the light of a single candle, for candles are expensive, this young man, this boy, sits with her in the kitchen, silent and shy, and, obviously, in great distress. Two guards had brought him here, he had looked more like a prisoner walking between them than like an agent of the law, they had knocked at the door and she had let him in, and had shown him his room, which she had diligently cleaned and prepared for its new lord whenever he might arrive, where he had no luggage with him to put into the wardrobe or the chest of drawers, and she had apologized for not having hot water ready for him to wash, as she hadn’t known that he would arrive today, but he said cold water would do, and she had brought it and filled it into the washstand, and then had gone to fire the kitchen stove, which she had not used during her solitary stay in the house, as firewood was expensive, too, and not for her to use for her own comfort. So, now she waits for the water to boil, to cook a simple meal, potatoes and vegetables and some herbs and even a few scraps of pickled meat, and he conceals from her his hunger as best as he can, but he cannot conceal his shyness, and his distress.

And she, finding him so different from what she had feared her new master to be, from what she had expected him to be, feels kindness towards him, and asks him if there was anything, besides the obvious, which he may want from her.

“No,” he says, “just a meal, and then I’ll wait until midnight, climb the town wall, jump into the moat, swim across, and be on my way.”

“But why?” she asks. He does not reply. “The witch …” she says, “do you fear that she might … harm you?”

“No,” he says, “not that. I do not believe in witchcraft.” Is he fully aware of how dangerous an admission this is to make?

“But why, then?” she asks, and there is something in her voice, a gentleness, a genuine concern, that makes him forget all caution, and so he tells her his story.

And, he tells her, he has never been with a woman, never seen a naked woman from close up, let alone ever hurt one. Inevitably, this will show, they will become suspicious, they will find him out, he will be dead. He had thought he could hide here for a while, a few days at least, to rest from running. He had not known a witch would already be waiting for him, to be his undoing. He cannot stay for even a night.

A pleasant heat is radiating from the stove. The water has begun to boil, she puts in the ingredients, keeps standing to slowly stir the pot from time to time, dispersing wafts of steam and kitchen scents. No one had ever talked to her like this boy had, with such openness and trust, and with such need for her help. How could she deny it to him?

“It will be all right,” she says. “Have supper, now. And then …” She takes off her gown, the single piece of garment that she wears, and stands before him naked. “Don’t be afraid,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to look at me. Don’t be afraid to touch me … and …” For a moment her voice falters, but then she speaks on. “Am I not a woman, and don’t we have the whole night, for you to learn? I don’t bear pain well, but the walls are thick … don’t be afraid to hurt me … I will show you how …”

(10/2017)

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