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Today, the air felt heavy and the voices were hushed in their respected groups with gossip of who's was next. Anders's? John's? Timothy's? Even mine and Philip's names were in the hat and we were usually not involved in the drama of Gresham's Peak. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, the little drops of sweat rolling between the hairs. Usually everyone was drunk at this point, with Toby getting tempted to rattle on the piano until someone takes him outside, usually by his scruffy hair or his thick beard and usually he would be dealt with there by an equally drunk man, with Toby only being seen the following day looking like a sorry puppy with some new bruises to nurse. Usually, the bartender would be helping some crying soul who was begging for advice, usually about his wife, and usually being poorly guided by a barely sober barman. Usually, the poker game would be getting rowdy...There's a lot of "usually"s not happening, which can only mean I had to preform a paradox: To expect the unexpected.
No, tonight was all about cradling beers and gossiping. Things were afoot in Gresham's Peak. "So, who's hexed?" a whisper entered my ears. Philip had leaned over his beer to pose this question. Me and Philip were the only ones with chins and mouths without a single hair, just Philip managed to keep his hair short, while mine was baggy. "It's a sign of age, a sign of maturity" was something my pa taught me about hair generally, which was why we weren't part of the main circle, as well as why Philip looked incredibly young for a 20 year old. "No idea, Jakkie? He has got some new stock in and has annoyed Asworth, who is a bit witchy I will admit". Both of our left hands reached for our mouth, attempting to not let a sound out so we wouldn't have a collection of angry men at our table.
The drama for this month was someone, or something, was causing destruction to property. It started with Wert's window of his cabin being smashed with a log, a log that landed "not a baby's pinkie from my sleeping darling wife's head". Since then, it's escalated, with fences being set on fire, cattle having their throats slashed and things stolen. Who, or what, has been doing it depends on who you ask. Some have claimed to see a tall fox-like man with a bushy tail that wagged in the wind out from under it's long coat. Others saw an old over-weight hairy man stumble out with nothing on. Some even believe that they saw a nude small child with a knife between his teeth, running to a pig, slicing his throat and bathing in it's blood, before running into the forest, his skin turning into bark as he did. In other-words, there was absolute nonsense. The common belief currently, is it's a minion for a witch the elders have offended, so people have been quelling their fear of being next by gossiping who's been hexed and who the witch may be. Only one man went into the woods, looking for the witch. We had to bury stones under a cross with his name on it, after we put out the fire that consumed his wife and child...
I looked up at Philip "...How do you mean?"
"You were looking awfully intensely at that brew in your hands, even more intense than old Toby".
"Just thinking of going into the forest to look for the witch, or at least something hinting who or what is doing this".
His eyes widened, his voice struggling to remain a whisper. "What? Are you insane? Don't you remem-...".
"Yes...Yes...Do you remember how he left with only a stick?"
"And do you remember how he was never found, and how his wife and child was found burning against a post near the woods?"
"Yes, yes, but the stick thing"
"I can't stop you, but think of your poor ma..."
"If it goes to plan, nothing will happen to her. I'll be back in the morning, I promise".
I stood up to leave when Philip gripped me by the sleeve "Look, I worry about you, take me with you".
I looked away, my face souring up, "as long you know the dangers".
Me and Philip stopped by our cabins. I picked up my sword and pistol. I strapped a small bag of bearings and gunpowder under my coat, ten balls will be enough, right? We met, as planned, thirty minutes later at the edge of the forest. Philip was sporting a new rifle, with a dark grey leather knife holster, with frayed string coming off at the point, wrapped around his left leg.
"Sure he'll mind you borrowing that?" I pointed to said holster.
"Pft, doubt he'll notice. Pa doesn't do anything except drink."
We set off for any indication of human life in the forest. Only moon-light lighting the way through the bushes. We managed to blindly make our way through a sharp bush, my sword cutting the way, but as I stepped forward, suddenly my foot fell further than it should of. My front foot landed on a slope, my weight fell forward and my head went for the floor. I ended up tumbling down the hill, my hands letting go of my gun and sword, luckily none of them striking me and without the gun going off. After a few rotations, my body finally laid still, flat, limp. I was staring up at the stars, oh how they shone.
"Are you okay down there?" a light voice yelled from above me.
I titled my head back to see the source, a shadow with the moon behind him stood upon the ledge where I once stood. I rolled over onto my chest and picked myself up. I felt fortunate that no pains or aches ran through my body as I lifted myself to my feet. "Yeah, is there any safe way down or up?" I called back. I nearly slid "luckily" in the sentence before I noticed my sword and pistol not on me any more. My eyes darted around the area. Luckily, it didn't take long to see a shining long piece of metal and even more so to see the slight shine of polished wood. I picked up my equipment, Philip's voice shouting down again "hang on, found an easy way down". I checked my gunpowder and ball bearings. Yep, they still sat in their casings nice and safe. I started to hear the sliding of boots, dirt and gravel. I looked towards the source to find a timid figure gripping onto trees, trying hard to gently slide down, before giving up and tumbling down. There was a high pitch scream, like a bird who just got shot at, as he rolled down and down, snagging his arm on a loose root reaching out the dirt for much-unneeded fresh-air. His sleeve ripped and blood spilled as his screaming turned into a temporary yelp. He collapsed a few metres from me on his chest, painfully rolling over onto his back, having to push the rifle he had strapped around him, down to make it easier. I attempted to examine the wound, but the moon suddenly turned against me, a cloud blocking where Philip laid. "Bah, it's just a flesh wound" I muttered, ripping off a part of his loose sleeve to wrap around the wound. I lifted him to his feet and we continued.
It wasn't long before we came among a clearing we had never heard of, with a small cabin in the middle. Smoke gently rose out of the clay chimney, but the windows were blocked with cloth.
"Look, I'm sure the witch's minion is inside with the witch" I whispered to my ally.
There was a pause before "Well, how do you want to do this?".
A smirk grew upon my face "By the element of surprise".
This too will pass.
I walked up to the door, my boots trudging in the soft mud sat under the thick grass, Philip walking behind with his rifle to his cheek. I went to the left side, him to the right. My voice lowered, my words whispered "On three, I'll break the door down and we storm in. You stand at the door to cover, and I'll get the occupants at pistol and sword point". He nodded.
Everything happened in a flash, like the last minute action as the spark responds to the gas. My foot cracked against the door. My eyes darted left, then right. A fire to light the room. A quilt to warm it. A book to light the soul. A tankard to warm it. A knife to protect it.
I quickly jumped backwards as a well-built man came at me with a knife, putting my sword's point to his neck and aiming my pistol at his face. "Nice try". The chiselled features dispersed from anger into absolute submission. He dropped to his knees, dropping his knife as well, "what do you want from me?! I don't have anything of value".
"But you do, and it's justice. Now, confess to your crimes and maybe the dame of the stars will let you slumber on earth as a spirit in your house instead of casting you into the deep fires below"
"What crimes? What did I commit?". Tears began to creep out from the corner of his eyes.
"Property damage, slaughter of cattle, arson and murder".
"I-...I didn't do it sire! I didn't! I...I live alone in the woods"
I grinned a bit, this was perfect "We know you did, some of the villagers saw you, they described you perfectly".
Philip then butted in "I don't think he did it Robin, come on, let's g-". A clank of lit gunpowder violently struck the air, followed by a heavy thud. I turned back to the pathetic owner of the cottage.
"And now you've murdered my friend, and for that, you must perish. Say hello to Dregdor on his throne of thorns for me". I plunged my sword deep into his neck.
The things I do for a village to move the hell on and stop believing in superstition. I unwrapped the bloodied sleeve from around the now-deceased friend of mine. I grabbed the lantern the hermit owned, place neatly on the bed-side table and put it by the door, at the opposite end of the room to the fire. I took one last look at what actually looked to be a comfortable home, turned the gas on and closed the door.
I walked back towards the village, avoiding the ditch this time. I think it was as I was arriving back at the village I heard a far-off explosion. The explosion of the cottage of the witch I killed. By the time the townsfolk in the public house calmed my crying, they learnt of how I found the witch, but Philip got shot by it. Which then, in a frenzy, I murdered the foul hell spawn. I then burnt her and her house to make sure she didn't come back. Everyone hailed me the hero of Gresham's Peak. Sure, there was future cattle slaughtering and vandalism, but they were all coincidental with each other. The witch was dead after all.
This too will pass.