“You’re a filthy, disgusting monster!” Clyde shouted.
He flung a full plate of food off the table.Food splattered across the chair in front of him, all over the floor and up the wall on the other side of the room. The tin plate followed quickly behind and smacked into the wall and then fell, with a clatter to the worn, wood floor where it spun noisily to a stop.
“Well, now you’ve gone and done it,” said an old woman, barely paying the outburst any mind. She stood by the stove, stirring an enormous, steaming pot with an equally large, wooden paddle. Inside the great black, iron pot, liquid roiled from the heat of the fire and vapours rose up in multicolour. Grinning crookedly, the haggred, old woman, in her layers of black rags, returned her attention to the stove and continued to stir, swirling the colourful steam until it settled back down, wispy and grey again.
“Didn’t you hear what she said?” Clyde shouted as he grabbed the spoon from his little sister, Alicia. He pushed away her plate of food.
“Didn’t you hear her?” Clyde demanded, “How could you eat that?”
Alicia hardly looked shocked, she stared up at Clyde blankly, blinking her big, brown eyes at him.
“Did you hear what she said?” Clyde pressed.
“M-hmm,” Alicia replied.
Clyde turned towards the old woman and demanded, “What did you do to her?”
“Oh, my dear boy,” an old lady replied. She stood by the wood stove, stirring the pot with a large, wooden paddle. Colorful wisps again slithered from the pot and again she stirred them back into grey tendrils. She huffed and shifted her weight, but didn’t bother to so much as look at Clyde when she spoke. The old woman’s focus lay somewhere in the depths of that huge, black pot.
Clyde pulled Alicia up sharply by the arm and she rose lethargically, not seeming to notice.
“Let’s go, we can’t stay here anymore, we’re leaving,” he urged. Alicia allowed herself to be dragged along, but didn’t acknowledge Clyde’s urgency.
The old lady grinned, she made no motion to stop them.
“Will you play with me?” Alicia asked, turning her gaze up toward Clyde, “It’s a beautiful day out, isn’t it?”
“Yes, uh, of course it is,” Clyde replied, “I’ll play with you, but we have to play somewhere far from here, okay?” He had no idea what was talking about, but something had come over her.
Alicia had been acting strangely since yesterday, right after supper. Clyde hadn’t eaten much in days though, he didn’t trust the old lady at all. He turned towards the old lady again, she was still standing by the stove, but had turned to watch them with bemusement.
She’s putting something in the food, Clyde thought, I’m sure of it.
Clyde got Alicia to the front door. He grabbed the handle and gave it a good pull, but it didn’t budge. “Come one,” he screamed, tugging repeatedly with his whole body. He pounded and pulled, then kicked and pushed, but the door was immovable.
The old lady watched and laughed. Well, it was really more of a cackle. “This isn’t funny,” Clyde shouted, “You can’t keep up locked up in here, we’re not your prisoners. You said that you’d help us, that we were free to leave whenever we pleased.”
“I say a lot of things to a lot of people,” she replied, her eyes narrowed “I am many things to many people.”
“Let us out of here,” Clyde pleaded.
Ignoring him, the old lady removed a glass jar from the shelf above the stove. She took a pinch of dried herbs and sprinkled some into the pot, then replaced the jar on the shelf. There were many things wrong with this place, Clyde noticed. How had he missed the signs before?
Clyde and Alicia left Elmdale in the dead of night with their parents nearly a week ago. Her father, a farmer, needed them all to help him at the market and they were making the trip from Elmdale to Grimaulding.
In the wee hours, they were beset by Marauders, bandits. They assailed the small, family caravan looking for valuables and money. When they found nothing but turnips, carrots and leeks, they grew angry.
The children were hidden beneath blankets, their parents had urged them to get some rest. They had so far gone unnoticed and Clyde’s mother whispered for them so sneak down from the wagon and head for the woods.
“Do not stop running, not for anything or anyone,” their father ordered, “Get as far from here as you can, do you hear me?”
“I’m not leaving,” Alicia pleaded.
“Shhh,” her mother begged.
Their father shoved them quickly and under the cover of darkness, the men had not even noticed the children’s departure. Their small shadows disappeared quickly into the trees and that was the last time the family was together.
Alicia was bawling and Dorain had to practically drag her along. “Come one,” he urged, “father told us to keep moving, to get far away.”
“Father’s not here,” Alicia sobbed. She looked up at Clyde and asked him through the tears, “Don’t they love us anymore?”
Clyde stopped. He was only thirteen and she eight, but at that moment, they had to grow up. He crouched down, getting face to face with his sister. With both of his hands on her shoulders, he said to Alicia. “They sent us off because they love us, don’t you understand?”
“No, I don’t understand. I want mommy and daddy. I’m scared,” she sniffled and cried harder.
Clyde hugged her tightly and let her bawl. The truth was, he was just as scared. They had no food or money and nowhere to turn. They were lost in the woods, but Clyde and Alicia were all each other had.
“I’m going to protect you,” Clyde told her, though he had no idea how.
It worked though, Alicia stopped crying and looked up at him with puffy, reddened eyes. “You promise?” she asked.
“Look!” Alicia shouted out, wiping the last of her tears with the back of one hand while pointing westward with the other. “I see a house.”
Following her finger, Clyde saw it too, the unmistakable silhouette of a stone cottage and smoke was rising from the chimney, so someone was home. “Come on,” Clyde said, grabbing Alicia’s hand, “hopefully, whoever lives there will take pity on us and have enough food to share, maybe even a place for us to sleep. Oh, a bed would be nice, even a lumpy, horrible bed would do.”
Alicia managed a smile as she looked back up at him. She squeezed his hand with both of hers, as tightly as she could, Clyde looked down at her and saw her clenching her jaw. That always made him smile, seeing such a small person showing such determination and courage. He paused a moment, took a look around them and then, began walking toward the cottage.
It didn’t take long before they were at the door, Clyde felt Alicia’s hand trembling in his, but that jaw of hers was dead set and determined not to show fear. “Ready?” Clyde asked.
The cottage looked very old from up close, the wooden front door was grey with age and moss grew on it in spots. The metal strapping was dotted by rust, however, the knocker, an iron crow’s head mounted in the center of the door could have been made that morning. It was well polished, not a spot of rust or dust to be found on it.
Clyde reached for it, steadying his own hand, not wanting Alicia to see any signs that he had any reservations, he needed her to stay calm. He grabbed the beak of the crow and rapped the knocker against the door. The hollow thud echoed through the cottage and out into the woods. They waited for a moment or two and then heard the shuffling of feet from the other side of the door. No bolt slid back nor latch lifted, just the gentle creak of an old door being opened, it wasn’t even locked.
The pleasant, smiling face of an old woman poked out of the gloomy cottage, through the partial opened door. Alicia let out a squeal which she quickly stifled.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” the old woman said, her voice was gentle and calm, “I promise you, I don’t bite.”
Clyde forced a smile.
“There, there dears, what can I do for you?”
The unmistakable smell of meat roasting on a fire clambered up Clyde’s nose. He swallowed a mouthful of saliva. If he hadn’t, he’d have slobbered like a dog from the aroma.
“Are you hungry?”
Clyde hunched and sighed, embarrassed, “Yes ma’am, I am. We both are, my sister and me,” he put his hands on Alicia’s shoulders and continued, “We’ve been lost in these woods for days and we’re starved.”
The old lady’s face sagged, her eyes widened, as if she might cry for them. “Come in, please,” she begged, “I’ve got plenty of food and beds for you to sleep in. You can stay as long as you need to, please, let me help you.”
Clyde looked down at Alicia and she looked back up at him. She nodded and motioned for them to go inside.
“Thank you,” Clyde said as they both entered the cottage. The old lady shut the door behind them and locked it.
Clyde was so angry with himself, he should have noticed that something wasn’t right. The door was unlocked when they’d arrived and now, they were trapped inside of this insane woman’s nightmare funhouse.
Clyde put himself between the old lady and Alicia. “Let us out of here, right now!”
The old lady grinned at him. All of the kindness that she’d shown on the day that they’s showed up at her doorstep was gone and the look in her eyes was that of pure evil.
“My dear,” she hissed, “you’re not going anywhere. Not you or the little girl. You’re mine now, just like all of the others.”
Clyde swallowed hard, looked back at his sister. Alicia was blinking her eyes as if she’d just woken up. She looked up at Clyde and asked him, “Where are we Clyde? Where’s mommy and daddy?”
“Just stay behind me,” he told her, “We’re lost, but we’re going to get out of here.”
He turned back to see the old lady holding a gleaming kitchen knife. She ran her finger across the blade. Clyde pushed Alicia toward the door.
“Have you heard of the Witch Elsmirelda?” the old woman asked.
Clyde shook his head, backing away.
“Do you know about witches?” she asked.
“Do you know what they feed on?” she asked.
Clyde shook his head again, his face was growing pale. He knew the answer, deep inside, he knew what she was going to say before she said it.
Smoke rose from the chimney of an old cottage. It looked to be as friendly a place as Henry had seen. He was lost and hungry, he hadn’t slept in a bed in almost a week, so he headed toward it.