Hippolyta hooked up her cart to the old mule she kept just for the purpose. The poor creature was humpbacked with age, and it was missing patches of fur. The dark, damp conditions of the Hottentot Woods had not been kind to the beast.
She had purchased him off a traveler at the Crow’s Foot Inn in Hazletown. The traveler had been a shabby drunk from Whitecaps who was in need of more drink to soothe his nerves. Hippolyta had got the mule for a bargain. The drunk was just a bonus.
Business was running out in Hazletown, and she now turned her eyes towards the remote mountain village of Hollow Clouds. The mountain folk, often referred to as Cloudies, were a gentle, private folk that did not often venture down from the mountain. Accordingly, there were many rumors about the Cloudies that the Hazeltowners and Whitecappers enjoyed telling one another.
However, the rumors about Hollow Clouds paled in comparison to the rumors people spread about Hottentot Woods. They said people went in and never came out again. They said there were mushrooms the size of redwood trees in those woods. They said there were mushrooms that could consume a man whole and spit out his bones.
Hippolyta chuckled to herself whenever she heard the rumors. They were all true, of course. In fact, she encouraged them. The rumors kept curious children and troublesome hunters out of her woods. That’s how she liked it. She’d much rather choose her prey carefully.
She packed her cart full of her herbs, fungal remedies, rare talismans, bitter teas and tonics. Next to her wares she packed a bed roll, rope, a heavy cloak to shield her against the inevitable fog and rain that Hollow Clouds was known for. There was a small pack of rations for her to subsist on. Pickled tongues, tonsils, and eyeballs. Dried jerky meat. A little jar of salt to bring out all the flavors when she ate.
After her cart was packed, she clambered up onto the tall seat. It was challenging to ascend with her stumpy legs and stout body. She gripped the tanned leather reins in her stubby fingers with their chewed-to-the-quick nails and earthy green hue. She swatted the old mule’s backside, and she lurched forward as the cart started forth.
The ground was soft and spongy, covered with thick moss. The moss completely muffled the hooves of her steed. The rhythmic squeaking of the iron cart wheels was the only sound to be heard in the Woods. Hippolyta guided her cart expertly through the trunks of the enormous fungi that rose all around them. She knew which way to take to avoid the bogs, pools of quicksand, and dens of carnivorous amoeba.
The sweet smell of rot was pleasing to her pug-like nose. It smelled like profit. Of her graduating class at the school of sorcery she attended, she was the only one who had mastered the art and science of mycology. Plenty of the other sorceresses had been adept with botany, but she alone had known how to strum the strings of mycorrhizae and send messages throughout an entire forest undetected.
Her arch rival, Leonna, had been praised for brewing delicious teas and learning how to ferment them in pleasing ways. Hippolyta’s fungal teas were bitter and curdled on the tongue, but their potency and usefulness was beyond anything else her classmates had created. With her concoctions, Hippolyta could heal or kill. Her liqueurs could lure your lover or make you forget your most painful memories. Her work was not delicious. Instead, it was dangerous and deliberate.
As she reached the edge of her beloved woods, Hippolyta knew there was one thing left to do. She pulled a small vial out from a chain around her neck. She removed the cork and swallowed the contents down in one gulp. An unpleasant rise in temperature overtook her body until all of her parts felt as malleable as melted plastic.
Hippolyta grimaced against the implosion of heat, and she focused her mind as she rearranged her features. There was a limited time to complete the transformation before the internal blast furnace began to cool and her features would start to set into their new array.
Her bulbous eyes sunk back into her head and her lids closed more fully over them. Her wide, full mouth pulled together into a tight, pursed expression, and her cheeks drew in tighter over her cheekbones. She strained her neck to elongate it, and sucked in her round tummy to flatten it. The furnace began to cool.
With her disguise in place, Hippolyta was ready to start up the mountain. She pulled hair up into a tight bun, and covered it with her hood. The fog line started at the foot of the mountains, and obscured the rest of the range except for the tallest peak.
The transfigured sorceress pulled her heavy cloak around her to obscure her telltale green gown. She peered at her reflection in a hand mirror, and gave a small, satisfied nod. Priscilla was her alter ego that she wore to the markets of Hazeltown and Whitecaps. She was a travelling saleswoman in this guise, not a tradeswoman. All of her wares were purchased from wholesalers whom she conveniently didn’t name due to “proprietary” concerns.
Hippolyta came up with this alter ego during her school years to spy on her classmates. While Priscilla befriended the other witches and gossiped with them, Hippolyta was scorned and shunned by those same women. She had been far ahead of her classmates in her abilities to conceal her identity. No one suspected frumpy, grumpy Hippolyta could be capable of such a feat. She found their capacity to underestimate her armed her with a hidden advantage.
It had been nearly twenty years since Hippolyta had last been to Hollow Clouds. She had heard business would be good there. Their previous sorceress had been a half-hearted botanist who had almost flunked out of school before making a grade-saving potion. The woman was so unremarkable that Hippolyta no longer recalled her name. She was curious to see if anyone had claimed the territory in the last couple decades.
The old mule struggled on the steeper parts of the trail, and Hippolyta had to feed him some strengthening potions to enable him to finish the journey. The elixirs were just what the poor beast needed to reach the high, wooden gates of Hollow Clouds. Hippolyta doubted if the steed could make his way back down the mountain when she returned to the Woods. Probably best to make him into minced meat. She could sell his hide to the local tanner.
With a tug of the reins, the cart came to a stop before a sturdy pair of gates constructed out of hewed pine wood. There was a guard tower posted at the top of the gates. A crossbow was mounted there, but it was pointed at the sky rather than the ground. A lithe young man with a brown leather jerkin and matching hunting cap covering his dark, floppy hair emerged from the guard tower.
“Hullo there!” he called. “State your name and business.”
“Priscilla Humphreys,” Hippolyta called in her sweetest voice. “Headed to market.”
“Right’o!” Without any further questions, the crossbowman hurried back into the guard tower. The large wooden gates swung slowly inward, and Hippolyta and her cart plodded forward. “Have a good day!” The youngman called from the guard tower.
Hippolyta flashed a smile at him over her shoulder. He’d make easy prey. She thought to herself as she left the gates behind her, heading to the main square. More friendly Cloudies waved at her as she moved down the main street. Yes, I think business will be very good here indeed, the plotting witch thought as she chuckled to herself. Her stomach grumbled as she swung her greedy eyes to-and-fro, licking her lips hungrily.