"I don't like this, Christie. A witch lives in this forest. You know the
sister laughed. "Don't be a scaredy cat."
He glared at
her. "I'm not a scaredy! I'm just... trying to protect you."
her eyes. She was eight years old, a girl of skinned knees, pigtails, and
freckles. She carried a walking staff and a knife; she was always carving
staffs from fallen branches. Henry was two years older, but today he felt very
young. He looked into the forest and shivered again.
The oaks rose
tall and twisted, bark grey as corpses, leaves blood-red. Those leaves didn't
rustle; the entire forest was silent, deathly. This place is cursed,
Henry thought. We should never have come here.
Christie said. "I dared you, remember? You have to go into
the forest now."
She was right, he knew. You never backed down on a dare, especially not a dare
from your younger sister. What self-respecting boy would? And so he stood
here, outside the gates of his town, and stared into this shadowy, silent
go," he said, trying to keep his voice deep. He began walking into the
twigs crunched under his boots. The sound reminded him of snapping chicken
bones and crackling skin. I wonder if human bones and skin would sound the
same. He clutched the knife at his belt. Does the witch in this forest
eat human bones and skin?
pale," Christie said. She walked beside him, eyes narrowed and
determined. If she was also afraid, she was hiding it well.
you," Henry said.
He glowered at
her. "Shut up, Christie. Let's walk quietly."
"Why's that? Are you still scared of the witch?" She made a scary
face, pulling her mouth wide, sticking out her tongue, and crossing her eyes.
"Scary witch, scary witch!"
he said. He clenched his jaw and looked around, but saw nothing. Nothing but
these trees, tall and stern and knobby, topped with red leaves. They looked
like old men with bleeding heads.
the witch will hear us?" Christie asked.
just to speak those words. Even Christie paled and gripped her staff tight.
know that," she said.
knows it," Henry said. He stopped walking and approached Christie. He
loomed over her, staring into her eyes. "The whole town does. He walked
here too. Tania Miller dared him, so he walked here alone. They say he made
too much noise, talking to himself and singing. He fell silent when he saw a
shadow among the trees. At first he thought it a swooping owl, or maybe a bit
of mist. But no. It was her. She had heard him. He tried to run, but
you can't run from the witch." He leaned closer to Christie so that their
faces almost touched. "She caught him with her claws. She turned him
into a toad. And she placed him in a cage in her house, where he still
was ghost white. Her eyes were wide. Her knees knocked. But she managed to
frown and push him back.
rubbish," she said. "Absolute twaddle. How would anyone know that?
How could they? Nobody saw it, Henry. There was nobody to come back to town
and tell the tale."
"Somebody saw it. Maybe a woodsman—a hunter or lumberjack. People know
about the witch. Everybody knows. And now Jeremy Cobbler is croaking in some
scrutinized him, eyes narrowed, as if seeking some conceit. Finally she
snorted and kept walking.
twaddle," she repeated, walking deeper into the forest. "Come on,
I'm going farther. I dare you to follow."
and his stomach sank. He did not like any of this. But he kept walking. He
could not let his little sister, an eight-year-old girl, walk here alone. He
could not let her call him a scaredy cat. And so they walked among the trees.
There were no
animals, Henry realized. He heard no birds, saw no squirrels, not even
insects. Lichen hung from the branches, brushing against him like fingers. He
imagined the witch's claws caressing him and shivered. His heart pounded and
his tunic clung to him with cold sweat. Mist floated among the branches, and
he couldn't see the sky. He kept searching for a shadow like in the stories,
but saw nothing.
he told himself. No witch. Maybe Christie is right. Maybe those are only
Christie gasped. Henry spun toward her, heart thrashing. Cold sweat drenched
"What is it?"
he whispered, staring from side to side, seeking witches.
pointed at the forest floor, gaping. "Candy!"
and saw a cluster of honeyed almonds. It looked just like the treats Misty
Baker would prepare back at town.
touch it," he said when Christie started walking toward it.
him, raced toward the candy, and lifted it. "It smells good."
it!" Henry said. "What if the witch baked it, or—"
ignored him and shoved the candy into her mouth. She chewed lustfully. Henry
stared, eyes wide and fingers trembling. Would she turn into a toad? Would
she shrivel up and die? His breath caught.
mmm," Christie said. "It's dee—li—"
gasped and clutched her throat. Her eyes crossed, and her tongue hung from her
Horror pounded through Henry and he raced toward her. "Breathe! Can you
around, eyes crossed and tongue lolling. "I... I'm turning into a frog! Ribbit,
As Henry stared
in shock, Christie doubled over laughing.
funny," Henry muttered, frowning at her.
around in the dry leaves, laughing and pointing at him.
should have seen your face!" she said, howling with laughter. "Oh
Henry, you are such a scardey cat. That candy was splendid. I bet you wish
you ate it."
under his breath, but had to admit that he was rather peckish. He
craved honeyed almonds too. His belly grumbled, which made Christie laugh
harder. Henry smiled hesitantly, feeling a little better. Maybe there was
nothing to fear here after all.
took a few steps deeper into the forest. Henry gasped. A second candy lay on
the forest floor ahead.
He looked at
Christie. She stared back. For an instant they stood frozen. Then they
longer legs and reached the candy first. He stuffed it into his mouth, closed
his eyes, and sighed with content. It was delicious. It was the best
damn candy he had ever eaten, even better than Misty Baker's creations. The
almonds were thin, crunchy, and bursting with nutty flavor. The honey melted
in his mouth. He tasted berries too, sour and sweet at the same time.
innit?" Christie said.
He nodded and
pointed. "Look! There's more candy ahead."
through the forest. This third piece of candy was a purple square of jelly,
nuts, and fruit. Christie broke it in half, and they shared the treat. Henry
had to close his eyes as he ate. It was, without doubt, the best thing he had
ever eaten. He tasted grapes, almonds, and pears. He let out a long, happy
moving through the forest. Every few feet, another marvel of confectionery
awaited them: ginger cookies, nut-clusters, honey oat squares, and many other
treats. The siblings raced between the trees, stuffing their cheeks full.
Honey covered their faces and crumbs covered their tunics.
this fo'est wa' a great 'dea," Christie said through a mouthful of
mouth full of licorice. "Mhmmm."
walking through the forest, eating more and more, until they saw the house
froze and stared.
looked ancient; holes filled its thatch roof, its clay walls were cracked, and
its door hung crooked on its hinges. And yet somebody must have lived there,
Henry thought. Strange plants grew in the garden. He thought they were
mandrakes. Wind chimes hung from the trees around the house, clanking
discordantly. Henry looked more closely and his breath caught. Those wind
chimes were made of bones.
this place?" Christie whispered. She held her knife before her.
witch's house," Henry said.
The trail of
candies led toward the house. These candies looked marvellous. Henry could
smell them over the forest's smells of moss, rotting leaves, and old bark. He
saw gingerbread men, Turkish delight, cookies, and more wonderful creations.
He wanted to eat them all, but dared not move closer.
look good," Christie said and reached for a treat.
her wrist. "Wait. We better turn back home now. I'm... not so hungry
But he was
lying. He was hungry—famished. The more treats he ate, the hungrier
he felt. His mouth tingled for more.
you, Henry," Christie said. "Just one more candy. Just the one
closest to us."
Henry looked at
it. It lay a foot away—a gingerbread man smiling up at him from the ground.
It still lay a good thirty feet away from the house. Henry gulped, stepped
forward, and grabbed it. Before his courage could leave him, he stuffed the
gingerbread man into his mouth and chewed. It tasted like heaven, like
childhood, like pure joy. A sigh fled his lips.
"I dare you,"
Henry said. "Eat the next one."
problem," Christie said. She walked toward the next treat, ate it, and
smacked her lips.
A dozen candies
more, and they stood right outside the house. Henry looked up at it. Shredded
grey curtains swayed in the windows like ghosts. Dead spiders covered the
porch, and dead ants filled cavities in the walls. A faint stench of rot
wafted from within, but above it rose the smell of more treats—cookies, cakes,
candies, and endless wonders.
dare you to peek into the window," Christie said.
Are you being a scaredy cat again?"
"Shut it, Christie. I'm much braver than you."
She stuck her
tongue out at him. "Prove it."
hesitated. He didn't want to. What if the witch waited there, a shrivelled
crone with fangs, long claws, and red eyes? But Christie began taunting
him—"Na-na-na na-na!"—and sticking out her tongue. Henry squared
his jaw, clenched his fists, and walked toward a window.
inside... and his breath died.
God," he whispered, trembling. "Oh my God...."
it?" Christie ran up and peeked through the window with him. Her eyes
widened. "The mother load!"
house looked like a candy shop—the best candy shop in the world, ten times
better than Misty Baker's back home. Cookie jars covered tables, brimming with
goodies. Cupcakes piled atop shelves and lollipops stood like flowers.
Candies of all colors filled jars along the walls. Henry's mouth watered.
Christie drooled beside him.
in," Christie said. "I dare you."
She didn't need
to dare him this time. His hunger overpowered his fear. He leaped toward the
door, yanked it open, and entered the house. The sweet smells filled his
nostrils. Henry and Christie inhaled deeply, sighed, and tucked in.
good," Christie said, mouth full of cookies.
talk," Henry said, stuffing cupcakes into his mouth. "Eating."
He'd eaten a
pound or two of treats before he noticed the woman in the room.
At her sight,
he started and gasped, crumbs falling from his mouth. He nudged Christie, who
gasped and froze.
sure if the woman had been there the whole time, or had suddenly appeared. His
first thought was: The witch! Only... this woman didn't look like a
witch. Witches were old, warty crones; everybody knew that. This woman was
young and beautiful. She had long blond hair, green eyes, and red lips. She
wore black robes and held a thin, whorled horn; it looked like a unicorn's
children," the woman said. "Welcome to my home. I am Madrila."
placed down the cupcake he held. He wiped crumbs off his face and shirt.
he said awkwardly. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I... I mean, we... didn't know
anyone lived here. We smelled the candies, and they smelled so good,
that...." His tongue felt heavy. The woman watched him, and he didn't
know how to continue. He finished by saying, "We'll be on our way
him for a moment longer, eyes cold. Then she laughed, and all the ice left
you are welcome here, children!" she said. "I laid out these candies
to bring you here. I love little children. I wish they could all eat my
reached for a cookie on the table, hesitated, and looked up at Madrila. The
young woman laughed.
it!" she said. "Eat it, young Christie. Eat to your heart's
at Henry, her eyes large and uncertain. Henry looked back, not sure what to
do. He remembered the stories of Jeremy Cobbler, how a witch turned him into a
toad and caged him. But... surely those were only stories. Surely this young,
beautiful woman could not be a witch. The treats were so good, and his hunger
wouldn't leave him.
He bit into a
His teeth ached
and he spat it out.
The candy in
his hand had turned to stone. It was nothing but a pebble. Christie also
cried in dismay. She spat out a second pebble. Suddenly Henry saw that all
the treats were actually made of stone—the cookies, the cupcakes, the candies,
nothing but rocks. His stomach ached. It felt like stones filled his belly.
He wrapped his arms around him, moaning. Christie also moaned and doubled
said Madrila, standing before them. "You see, there is that little
thing. When you eat stones, you get tummy aches."
As the siblings
moaned and clutched their bellies, Madrila laughed. Henry looked up. Through
the mist of pain, he saw Madrila's green eyes blaze, cruel and calculating.
witch," he whispered.
She nodded and
pointed the unicorn's horn at Christie.
is what happens to greedy, piggy little children," Madrila said.
strange words in a harsh tongue. A bolt of light shot from the unicorn's
horn. The light slammed into Christie.
Henry cried. He wanted to attack the witch, or to run to Christie, but couldn't
move; the stones in his belly wouldn't let him. He watched in horror as
lightning raced across Christie. Smoke rose from her. She screamed.
she cried. "Henry, run!"
But he could
not. He could not leave her. Christie began to spin. She fell to all four.
Sparks and steam rose from her. Her skin turned pink, and her hands morphed
into trotters. A coiling tail sprouted from her. The sparks died and the
smoke wafted away. A small, pink piglet stood in a pile of Christie's
clothes. It squealed.
Henry grabbed a
stone from the table and lobbed it at Madrila. He missed. The witch laughed
and pointed her wand at him. She repeated her spell.
Henry. Pain filled him. A year ago, Matt the blacksmith's son had punched
him. This felt like ten such punches. He fell to his knees and light spun
around him. Smoke rose. He felt caught in a maelstrom. He tried to scream,
but only a piggish squeal left his throat. He held his hands before him, watching
in terror as they became trotters.
the magic died, he looked up and saw Madrila looming above him, ten times
taller than before. He could see himself reflected in her shiny leather boot.
He too was a piglet.
He turned and
ran for the door.
Madrila was too
fast. She scooped him up and held him tight. He squealed and struggled, but
couldn't free himself. Christie ran too and almost reached the door. Madrila
caught her leg at the last instant and yanked her up.
piggies," the witch said, holding them. "Now you will meet your
friend Jeremy the toad, and Anne the monkey, and all your other little friends
who dared enter my home." She laughed, a cold and mirthless sound.
and kicked and struggled, but couldn't free himself. His heart pounded. His
snout quivered. Would he stay like this forever? Would he ever see his
parents again? His eyes stung. Madrila carried him and Christie to a squat,
heavy door at the back of the room. When she opened the door, Henry saw a
staircase plunging into darkness. He squealed louder, but Madrila only
carried them downstairs into a shadowy basement. A single oil lamp hung from
the ceiling. In its flickering light, Henry saw dozens of cages. One big cage
held a screaming monkey. A smaller cage held a toad. Other cages held strange
creatures: a thing of many eyeballs and snouts, a slimy blob, a cat with no
fur, and a bat with no face. Henry's eyes stung and his belly ached to see
like my creations?" Madrila asked. "I made them myself, molding them
from nosey, greedy children. They will be your new friends."
an empty cage, tossed the piglets in, and slammed the cage door shut. Henry
and Christie cowered behind the bars, mewling and staring around with wide
examined them, hands on her hips. Her eyes laughed. Shadows swirled around
she said, "to the rest of your lives."
and slammed against the cage door, but couldn't free himself. Christie
whimpered beside him. She tried to bite the cage bars, but couldn't nick them.
laughed. "Yes, piggies, try to escape. You cannot." She knelt and
stared at them. Her eyes were green ice.
"I did not
have a childhood," she said. "Did you know that? I did not get to
play with friends. I did not get to eat candy. So now, you and your
friends—you pampered, spoiled, piggy little children—will suffer. You will
suffer like I did."
in the back of the cage. Christie huddled against him. He wanted to hug her,
to tell her it would be all right. But how could he?
have a mother?" Madrila asked him. "Answer me, piggy."
"I had a
mother once," Madrila said. "A cruel, wicked mother. She abandoned
me. She cast me out into the cold, harsh world. I had no home. Are you two
good," Madrila said. "I have siblings too. But they were not cast
out. They did not shiver in the cold. You might have heard of them. They are
mercenaries of some infamy. They call themselves... Bullies for Bucks. An
absolutely ridiculous name, if you ask me."
swallowed. Yes, he had heard of the Bullies—they were heroes from a town called
Burrfield nearby. He'd heard tales of them defeating the warlock Dry Bones,
killing the monstrous vulture Vanderbeak, and going on many adventures. How
could those heroes be related to this vile witch?
to leave. She crossed the basement and began climbing the stairs. After two
steps, she turned and looked back over her shoulder.
will have new friends," she said. "Soon the Bullies will join you.
They grew up in warmth while I suffered... and now they will suffer too."
Madrila climbed upstairs and slammed the basement door behind her. The oil
lamp swung and guttered. Darkness flowed over Henry's world, full of fear,
pain, and cries of horror.