Jeremiah the baker was woken up from his dream about sunbathing hippopotamuses by a faint tap at the window. He pried his double chin away from the pillow, blinking groggily. Beside him, his wife mumbled in her sleep, and he looked down on her. After all these years, he still couldn’t get over the way her moustache glinted in the moonlight; he would have to lend her his razor again. Sighing, he rose from the bed and went over to the window, gazing out over the rows of houses it faced.
He blinked. Still half asleep, he wondered if he had just seen what he thought he had; a shadow had flitted across the window, a shadow that looked for all the world like an old woman on a broomstick. He wiped his hands across his tired eyes, and pressed his face up to the glass, peering out over the street beyond.
Nothing. Just his imagination.
“What’s the matter?” his wife mumbled from the bed. “Hippopotami again?”
“It’s actually hippopotamuses, dear,” the baker said. It is the sign of a successful marriage when a couple can move from waking up to a petty argument within fifteen seconds.
“Either is acceptable, actually,” his wife murmured; her subsequent snore told the baker that she did not want to talk to him anymore. “Old cow,” he said under his breath as he took one last look at the street outside.
There! A shadow had definitely passed across the window, cutting off the pale moonlight for a split second. The baker stepped in close, his jowly face pressed right up against the glass.
BANG! The baker threw himself backwards as a face smashed into the other side of the window. It stayed there for less than a second before vanishing back into the night, but would imprint itself in Jeremiah’s memory forever, or at least until the story had been told a few times down the pub. It –whatever it belonged to, because to the baker’s frightened eyes it did not look even vaguely human-it had long grey hair that trailed down its forehead like poisonous snakes, murderous bloodshot eyes, and a long nose covered in massive, hairy warts. It was the ugliest thing the baker had ever seen, and he had seen his bride undress on their wedding night. He started to tremble; the look in those eyes, the sharpness of the red-stained teeth! And, for that brief moment of time they had been almost nose to nose at the window, the smell…
It must have been a demon, he thought wildly, some devil, come to steal away children, or… His heart beat loudly in his chest, and sweat started to roll down his chin and drip onto his already-stained nightshirt. It couldn’t have been-it must have been-please let it not have been…
“Witch,” he said aloud. His wife threw a pillow at him, catching him squarely in the groin.
“Don’t you dare call me a witch, you fat bastard!” she screeched; and the argument began anew.
Up on the roof, Scrote removed his wig and untucked the broomstick from in between his legs. Quentin was busy coiling up the rope he’d used to swing his assistant across the window.
“Good job, Scrote,” said Quentin. The rarity of this tender moment between them almost bought a tear to Scrote’s eye, no mean feat given that goblin tears are highly acidic and usually used as a form of self-defence. “Now, on to the next house…”
It was the next morning, and the Mayor of the small village of Springar had arrived at the village hall to find a crowd of villagers already gathered outside the door. Given that it usually took them until noon to wake up, let alone drag themselves to anything resembling a place of work or industry, the Mayor had immediately realised something was dreadfully wrong, and had called a meeting on the spot. It was this kind of decisive action, he knew, that had won him the position of Mayor in the first place, and the accidental death by sheep stampede suffered by his only rival for the role six months previously probably had very little effect on the final outcome of the vote.
After about thirty seconds, he wished he hadn’t been so decisive. Half the village was shouting at him, the other half shouting at them for interrupting their own tirades. The Mayor banged the gavel he had for some reason on his special Mayoral lectern.
“Order!” he shouted, his voice completely lost in the cacophony of complaints. “Order!” he shouted again; this time, he was heard, but the people simply decided to ignore him.
“Gurt big it were!” shouted Ern the combine harvester (combines were a type of roof vegetable found only in Analgesia). “Caught me roight with moi shorts down!”
“Bloody thing damn near made me drop my Emmeline!” yelled Marjorie Carter the weaver. “You’re fucking right!” shouted her two-year-old daughter Emmeline, who stood beside her, middle finger proudly upraised.
The Mayor took a deep breath, and decided to change tack. “WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THE HOLY GODS ARE YOU ALL DOING HERE?!” he screamed at the top of his voice. Finally, the people fell silent. Hrolf the blacksmith, the muscles of his enormous shoulders rippling, stepped forward, holding his anvil effortlessly in his mighty hands.
“Sorry, old chap, we thought we’d told you. We really are most dreadfully sorry,” he said.
The Mayor took another deep breath. “That’s fine, Hrolf. Now, please, will somebody-one person-” he added as several of the crowd simultaneously opened their mouths- “-one person kindly explain why you are all here?
“Well, it’s the witch, innit?” said Jeremiah the baker, who was sporting a bandage covering half his face. He looked around at the other villagers, all of whom were making the sign of the evil eye. “We all saw the witch last night. She’s back.”
“She’s not taking my Emmeline!” said Marjorie, clutching her foul-mouthed spawn to her breast and bursting into loud sobs.
“Now, Marjorie, I can’t see why she’d want to,” the Mayor said soothingly; luckily, Marjorie was too busy caterwauling to register his actual words. “Now look, people,” he said to the room at large. “You know it can’t be the witch. We have a deal with her, remember? We give her two pigs and thirty combines a month, and she leaves us be. I sorted that out ages ago.”
Some of the villagers nodded at this, clearly swayed by the Mayor’s superior powers of recollection, but Jeremiah was not to be denied.
“Well, I saw her, last night, with my very own eyes!” he said.
The Mayor looked at him. “Did she do that to you?” he asked, pointing at Jeremiah’s bandage.
“Naw, that was the wife, but that ain’t the point,” said Jeremiah. “She was there, outside our windows, looking in! She’s back!”
The Mayor shook his head. “Look, if she was back, we’d know it! None of our pigs have gone rogue, have they? No cats turning into dogs and dogs turning into cats? No mysterious noises coming out of the vestal virgin’s room of a night, like the last time the witch visited town?”
The villagers all reluctantly shook their heads. The Mayor, sensing victory, continued.
“And in any case, how could you know it was the witch? None of us have ever seen her, have we? Except for Blind Dave, and he can’t speak anyway.” The unfortunate man in question did not respond, having not heard the Mayor’s slightly insensitive words. The villagers shook their heads again, some even beginning to sport relieved smiles. Only Jeremiah seemed unmoved.
“I know what I saw,” he said. “It was the witch. Saw her with my own two eyes.”
The Mayor put a conciliatory hand on the baker’s shoulder. “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry,” he said. “We appreciate what you do for the village of Springar, we really do, but can’t you see this kind of scaremongering is just causing trouble?”
The baker’s answer was lost as the door to the hall flew open. “Actually, Mayor, your trouble has only just begun,” said a deep, booming voice. The villagers stared open-mouthed as a figure dressed entirely in black-black cloak, black shirt, black boots, black gloves, and a black hood which concealed his face in shadow (also black)- strode purposefully into the hall, coming to a halt in front of the Mayor. Although only of average height, the figure seemed to tower over the cowering public official.
“Your citizen is right to be concerned. The witch is indeed back, and ready to wreak terrible vengeance upon your village for the crimes you have committed.”
There was a gasp from the villagers, and many of them began to make the sign of the evil eye again. The Mayor, though clearly intimidated, did not, however, seem convinced.
“But, we haven’t done anything! What could she possibly want vengeance for?” he said.
The figure in black shook its head, emitting a short, humourless laugh. “You put on a good show, Mayor, but your act will not fool her. You know very well that the pigs you gave her last month had curly tails, but you hoped she would not notice! And now, you have doomed all of these people!” There was another gasp; Marjorie started wailing again.
The Mayor’s forehead wrinkled. “But pigs are supposed to have cu-“ he began, but the figure in black cut across him.
“Silence! For though you are all in grave peril, I bear good tidings. I, Cornelius Ravenheart, have tracked the witch to her lair, and this afternoon intend to end her reign of terror forever!” the figure said. The villagers burst into cheers; even the Mayor smiled. Then Cornelius, as the figure styled itself, raised a hand for silence, which instantly descended.
“Of course, I will only do this for the right price,” he said.
“Name it!” shouted Jeremiah the blacksmith. Despite the Mayor’s protestations, the rest of the villagers nodded and called for the same. Cornelius raised his hand again, and silence once more descended. The Mayor enviously wished he knew how Ravenheart was doing this; he’d kill to be able to make this rabble shut up occasionally.
“Very well,” Cornelius said, and turned his hood to look straight into the Mayor’s face. “For this mighty task I will require a payment of…” he paused for effect, the villagers hanging on his every word- “one hundred gold pieces.”
The villagers gasped. The Mayor’s jaw fell open.
“One hundred…” he began. “There’s no way we can pay that!” The villagers, for once, seemed to agree with the Mayor; there was a great deal of muttering among the crowd, though their faces still showed traces of fear.
Cornelius shrugged, spreading his long-fingered, gloved hands wide. “Well,” he said, moving around the crowd, “then I don’t suppose you mind putting your wives,” he gestured to the baker, “your daughters”, pointing to Emmeline, “or your…erm…anvils,” pointing to the lump of iron Hrolf was cradling in his arms, “in mortal peril,” he finished, turning to face the Mayor again.
“Pay him!” shouted a voice in the crowd. The rest of the villagers, Marjorie and Jeremiah loudest of all, picked up the cry.
“Pay him! Pay him!” they chanted. The Mayor frantically looked round for support, but none was forthcoming as Cornelius stood in the middle of the crowd, unmoving. Finally, the Mayor’s shoulders slumped.
“OK then,” he said. “We will pay, if you can provide evidence that you have done the deed.”
Cornelius’ hood bobbed up and down as he nodded gravely. “Then it shall be done,” he said. “I shall present the witches’ corpse to you by this evening. Gather in the square outside this hall, and bring my payment.” With that, the black-cloaked figure turned and strode out of the hall, leaving behind an awestruck crowd.
Once he had made his way outside the village, Quentin took off his gloves and pulled down his black hood, a wide grin on his face. “Did they buy it?” asked Scrote, who was busily mashing up some cabbage in a chipped and well-worn bowl.
“No, Scrote, I’m smiling because they said no,” said Quentin. Scrote’s brow furrowed for a second, but then he too smiled as he worked out that Quentin was being sarcastic. “Now, hurry up, we need to get you ready for tonight. This is the one, Scrote, I can feel it. Nothing can go wrong.”
In the next village over, a farmer happily chalked the number 14 on the blackboard that hung on the door of his chicken coop. As he turned away, an egg fell out of his pocket and broke upon the ground; grumbling, the farmer turned round and changed the “4” to a “3”. “When will I learn,” he asked himself with a rueful smile.