The trees were no more than cracks against the sky when she came.
Her cloak of crow feathers glinted darkly in the low autumn sun, and it sighed about her as she walked. Her hair was black and wild and it splintered up from her head in cold chunks like shivered wood. She knew the old magic of blood and clay, and she sang songs of earth and sky and water. They called her the Bird Witch, and her coming was as inevitable as the dying of summer.
The carrion birds arrived ahead of her, settling like flakes of ash on the rooftops and the wires, and when she melted out of the forest and appeared in the town they announced her arrival in coarse and rusty voices.
When the people of the town caught sight of her their bones shook. Some turned and hurried away, others took refuge in doorways and hid their faces. Only those with nothing to lose held any kind of courage.
An old man in a heavy coat scowled at her as she passed him by, and he breathed a curse and spat thickly at her feet. How long it had been since they had forgotten how life had been before, how the winters had gnawed at them and exposed their bones, how the bandits had come down from the hills and robbed them of their bread and of their dignity.
The Bird Witch conjured to her tongue the language that these people used: “You know why I am here,” she said, and as she spoke all the birds shrieked. The man in the heavy coat shrank and fled.
She crossed the street to the grocery shop, and on the road her shadow spilled out from the soles of her boots and stained the asphalt. That shadow had once stained gravel, and before that dirt, and time had sharpened and hardened its edges.
The shop was small and she drifted down aisles with shelves stacked high with food. Caught unawares the other shoppers froze, and only once she had passed did they thaw and find themselves able to flee. One by one they dropped their baskets of groceries, took their children by the hand and yanked them outside, and each time the bell above the door announced their escape.
The Bird Witch marvelled at the quantities of food that these people hoarded and consumed, and she remembered also the times when the shelves were empty and people were vicious with hunger. She picked up an apple and took it to the counter, and she took a crumpled wad of banknotes from somewhere inside her cloak and peeled one off as though stripping the outer skin of an onion. She held the note out to the shopkeeper, but the man refused to touch her money.
“We don’t want you here,” he said.
“You invited me,” she said, though she knew that those who had struck the deal were long in the ground.
“How many pebbles are left? How many more before you leave us be?”
She’d done only what they’d asked of her, and she’d set a fair price. They had welcomed her when she had made the harvests plentiful and the lonely roads safe, but that was an age ago. The bandits were long gone and the crops had been immunised against failure. There was a new kind of magic now, and she was an intruder from a time of myth.
But a deal was struck, and a price agreed must always be paid.
On one occasion some people from the town had followed her back after she’d come for payment, a few brave men who’d armed themselves with clubs and razors, but when she’d disappeared into the caverns of the deep woods they had been left stranded among the jealous, whispering dead, and none of the men was ever seen again. After that night the townspeople understood. After that night the debt was always paid.
The Bird Witch stepped out of the grocery shop and back into the street. The wind had picked up, and it tugged at her cloak and scraped dead leaves down the road. The air here was dry and bruised and smelled of synthetic things, and she wondered how it could have so wronged these people that they would try to poison it.
Then, into the street, a child: a blue coat, blonde hair, running and pealing out laughter, tumbling like a ball. When he saw the Bird Witch he stopped and waved to her, and she smiled and lifted a pale hand in reply. The child’s mother darted forward with a cry and gathered up her son, but she knew already that it was too late. Above her the birds jittered and called, the gulls split the sky with their shrieks, the crows cackled among themselves; they knew that a choice had been made.
The Bird Witch took a leather pouch from inside her cloak and plucked from it a white pebble. The child’s mother began to cry. The Bird Witch held the pebble between her thumb and forefinger and placed it into the mother’s open palm, where she let it rest, then she held out her hand for the boy. The child looked up at his mother, at the pebble in her hand that seemed to weigh nothing at all, and asked her what was wrong.
“You’re coming with me now,” said the Bird Witch, and she took the child by the hand. At her touch the boy fell silent and turned from his mother, and the Bird Witch led the child easily out of the town. She did not look back, for she had seen more times than she wanted the fortunate mothers and fathers look out from behind curtains and squeeze their children tight, exchange guilty glances with the other lucky ones, try not to look at the hollow childless mother left holding the pebble. She understood already why they hated and feared her.
It took them a long time to reach the forest, and the town followed the Bird Witch a little further each year. As the houses crept nearer to the edge of the forest the trees drew back like an ebbing tide, and their stumps remained like gravestones.
Inside the forest the air was cold and darkness swirled, and the hard, sharp edges of the town felt at last far away. The Bird Witch led the boy on, for they were still a long way from the places where the ancient things slept. Each year the forest shrank and pulled the half-folk deeper, and each year they strayed less and less from the dark and secret places. The child would revive them, for a time, but the Bird Witch knew that soon they would be lost.
She wondered, as she always did, what might have happened if she had rejected the deal and left the town to face its perils. What if she had allowed the bandits to steal their goods? What if she had let the corn wither on the stalk? Fate might have stumbled, but its course would not have been altered. Brick and mortar were insatiable, and the old world had been decaying even then. The pebbles had slowed its decline, but when they were gone the ancient things would fade into myth.
When the Bird Witch and the child reached the heart of the forest the ancient things awoke and drew near, and the child was so overcome with wonder at what he saw that for a moment he was unable to move.
“They were once magnificent,” the Bird Witch whispered, but the child did not hear.
The ancient things approached them slowly, on their cracked and broken limbs, and the child pulled at her, impatient to join them. His hand was hot in her own, and she was struck by the newness of him and by the thought of how many others there were just like him. In her other hand she took the leather pouch. It felt stiff and cold, like the skin of something mummified. She ran her thumb over it, searching for lumps, but it was flat. The Bird Witch opened her hands, and as the child ran laughing to the ancient things the empty pouch fell to the ground.
For a time she watched the child with the ancient things, listened to their voices for as long as she could bear it, but by the time they had begun to draw back to their secret places she had already gone.
Simon John Cox was born in Tunbridge Wells, has a degree in chemistry, a job in marketing and a black belt in Taekwon-Do. He has been writing fiction for as long as he can remember, and his short stories have won competitions and have been published in a number of places, both in print and online. He currently lives in Bristol. Find out more at simonjohncox.com.