The problem with hunting witches…
Jehanne warmed her knuckles on the hot cast iron of the cooking pot, blew into her cupped hands, and stretched her fingers toward the small, smoking, fire. She peeked under the lid but the water was not yet boiling. She had wanted to make a bigger fire but was afraid her pursuers would see the light. When the cauldron’s heavy lid began to jiggle and steam whistled out of the sides she loosened the ties on a leather knapsack. She removed a bloody cloth bag from which she pulled handfuls of greasy pink and white pork fat to add to the boiling water. Once the pungent mixture began to smoke and bubble Jehanne removed a sharp rasp and a green scale the size of an aspen leaf. Holding the scale over the pot she carefully filed away the edges until the remnant was too small to safely grate; this piece she threw in after. When done she wrapped herself in a thin wool blanket, huddled close to the dying fire, and tried to get some sleep.
The next morning Jehanne awoke to the early morning sun, removed the pot from the ashes and opened the lid. Tallow had floated to the top of the liquid and hardened into a pale green disk. She rolled up the sleeves of her dress, thrust her hands into the cool, plastic mire, and formed the material into a soft ball the size of an orange. She began to work the ball with her fingers shaping it into a crude form: four limbs, a tail, and a head ending in a narrow snout. As she sculpted she hummed an eerie tune, the melody composed of unresolved dissonance and tritones. As she sang her countenance changed: her cheeks paled, her jaw went slack, and her eyes widened, her pupils fixed on a point in the middle-distance. The figurine began to take shape rapidly, bat-like wings springing from its back, it’s jaws spreading and revealing a maw full of sharp fangs. Suddenly she stopped singing and froze; after she snapped out of her trance she looked down to admire her handiwork. In her hands, in green wax, was a perfectly formed dragon statuette, its leathery wings curled against its long scaly body, each scale rendered in exquisite detail. She gently packed away the completed piece of sculpture before cleaning up camp.
The day’s hike was almost entirely uphill, onward into the foothills of Mont Ventoux. When Jehanne reached an exposed dirt face she turned to examine her progress. Far below she could see a train of horsemen winding their way up the hillside beneath her. They were too far for her to see the spindly hafts of their lances but she could see where the sunlight glinted off their sharp tips. They had found her.
She turned and hurried up the side of the mountain, when she reached the next rocky ridge she turned to look again: the riders were gaining on her and she could now clearly see the red cross on their tabards. The men had shed their heavy armor and the horses’ barding. They were not warriors, they were hunters.
Jehanne now ran up the mountainside, she ran until her sides hurt, her feet threw wafers of shale skittering down the rock face behind her. The riders were only a couple switchbacks behind her when she reached the ridge. In front and to her right Jehanne saw stone outcroppings that marked a cavern entrance. She sighed in relief, the riders would not follow her there. When she arrived at the entrance of the cave she stopped for a moment and looked back. A heavy steel-tipped arrow clattered against the stones to her left, she glared fiercely at the lead rider, who had just crested the rise and was notching another arrow, and turned into the darkness. The riders pulled up on their reins and held up a safe distance from the entrance; their horses whickered nervously.
Within a handful of steps from the entrance Jehanne could no longer see beyond her next step. She tripped on a pile of brittle branches that crunched beneath her and, on closer examination, she found the floor was littered with animal bones. She tore a strip of fabric from the hem of her dress to wrap around one end of a longer bone, the femur of a cow or horse perhaps, which she soaked in lamp oil and lit with flint and tinder. Holding the macabre torch aloft in one hand and the dragon figurine in the other she descended deeper into the cavern. She heard trickling water and the stone became cold and damp beneath her; soon she was walking alongside an underground stream and shortly afterward the tunnel expanded into an expansive grotto surrounding a subterranean pond.
The cavern ended here and, as Jehanne swept her torch from side to side, she could see it was abandoned. The area was covered with piles of bones and a rotting, half consumed, corpse of a large animal, perhaps a mountain goat. While Jehanne searched the rough walls for a possible exit bubbles began to rise up from the underground pool behind her, the reaction intensified until the surface of the pool was frothing. As she turned toward the pool a serpentine head and neck rose dripping from the water. The huge beast flicked a forked tongue at her and placed a claw upon the rim of the pool. As it pulled its long glistening body from the pool it spread bat-like wings, the tips touching the far ends of the grotto.
Jehanne felt her knees weaken and her head spin as the monster advanced toward her but quickly pushed fear from her mind and thrust the lit end of the burning torch toward the beast. It recoiled for a moment, its yellow eyes narrowing, unused to the light, and Jehanne took the opportunity to shove the wax figurine into the flames. The dragon screamed, the sound deafening as it reverberated in the enclosed space, and rolled onto his side kicking its limbs and whipping its tail in agony. Its skin started to smoke and blister and soon its flesh, roiling, began to slough off to reveal an immaculate scaly hide beneath which began to smoke and melt in turn. Through this process of decoction, this cycle of destruction and renewal, the beast was shrinking away. When the figurine was completely consumed by the fire and the beast was no longer in sight behind steaming piles of offal, Jehanne searched and pulled, from the folds of discarded skin and flesh, a tiny, wriggling, winged reptile the size of her thumb.
She wrinkled her nose in disgust, this was the part she hated, deposited the wretched thing into her open mouth and swallowed hard. She gagged; she could feel it squirming all the way down. Instantly she was ill; her stomach was wracked with shooting pains and her mouth swam with thick saliva. She dropped the torch and began to stumble back toward the exit, feeling her way along with one hand on the walls. She steadied herself against the dank stone wall and heaved up a small amount of bile. She was bloated and found it hard to breathe, something was wrong, she must have made a mistake.
She was delirious and stumbling as she exited the cave and never saw the arrow coming. The steel arrowhead tore easily through muscle and lodged itself between her shoulder and breast. Jehanne fell to her knees. The knight, now on foot next to his steed, nocked another arrow but was so taken aback by her appearance that he didn’t raise his bow.
She was doubled over in agony, convulsing spasmodically, visibly green and frothing at the mouth. Jehanne raised her head and looked at the knights with large eyes yellowed as if with jaundice. The blood soaking the dress at her shoulder was bright green. The archer drew a second arrow and let it fly but his shaking hands made it miss its mark and it bounced harmlessly at Jehanne’s feet. She spasmed violently and lifted herself from the ground on her toes and fingertips. Her skin was turning gray-green and the flesh underneath was gathering and hardening into shield-like scales. She opened her mouth in a hiss and revealed two rows of razor sharp teeth, a forked tongue darted out of her mouth. As she rose up to her full height her green scaly body burst through the straining fabric of her dress and a third arrow bounced harmlessly off of her armored chest.
Fully transformed, Jehanne spread her wings and leapt toward the horsemen, gliding to quickly close the distance between them. The horses panicked and scattered some throwing their riders and one dragging his unfortunate master down the mountainside with a stirrup hooked around his ankle. The bowman, abandoned by his terror-stricken steed, could not escape and was plucked from the ground by an enormous talon. As Jehanne tore into her hunter with hooked teeth she thought grimly:
The problem with hunting witches is sometimes you find one.