This is a story that originally appeared in Whispers from the Shadows, an independent Halloween anthology. The book is free to read or download! This one was mine, but several other authors contributed — there’s even a spooky poem!
Okay, then – listen! I’ll tell you the story of a guy who got what he bargained for, and didn’t want it after. Once upon a time, a thousand years ago at least, when there was still such a thing as magic, Vaelan – Lone Crow in the Traders’ tongue – went out in the woods looking for Silath the Witch. He wasn’t too smart, Lone Crow, but he knew what he wanted, and that was Felada – Sweet Woodbine – the chief’s beautiful daughter. He’d gone to her longhouse a hundred times before to ask her to walk out with him, but she never would, and he knew unless he got a little help, she wouldn’t; so he went out into the woods on a sunny afternoon, and ‘round about twilight he found Silath in her rocky hollow. A tiny crick dribbled through the stones, so the sound of water came constantly to his ears, and the trees bent close around. Every limb dripped skeins of moss.
She’d already lit her fire to cook supper, but there wasn’t any food, only a pot of water on the boil. She sat with her eyes shut and one hand held out, cupped in front of her like she wanted to catch something in her palm. The flames cast flickering reddish light in the hollow, and the shadows danced with the breeze that tickled the moss. Lone Crow said, cheerful-like, “Hello, Witch.” I told you he wasn’t too smart!
“You hush, Lone Crow!” she said to him, and he shut up. He didn’t even think to be afraid, not until a crow landed in her palm. In a flash she grabbed it, and with a little snap she broke its neck. Then he swallowed a little sourness, believe me. “Now you tell me,” she said, dipping the crow in the boiling water while it twitched, “what it is you want. What’s so important you’d come to Silath in the dusk?”
“Felada,” said Lone Crow. “I love Sweet Woodbine, like crazy I love her, but she won’t pay me no mind.”
“Mm-hmm,” hummed the Witch. Her eyes were still closed, but she worked away on plucking that crow the whole while. “And I guess you want a love potion.”
“If that’s what’ll make her take notice, I guess I do.”
“Won’t take that much, Lone Crow,” she said, and she turned her face partway toward him, so he could see her looking at him out of an eye white as milk. She kept turning until she showed her other eye, black as pitch. Except for that, she looked young and beautiful as any maiden in the village, but those eyes – well, she had ‘em, and they were spooky to put it mild, so spooky not even Lone Crow could fail to notice. And she smiled. “All I need is one thing from you, and I’ll take it right now if you’re willing.”
Lone Crow spread his hands. “What do I got to lose? If Sweet Woodbine won’t love me, I don’t got a thing.”
“Come by here then,” said the Witch, and Lone Crow picked his way over to her and squatted next to her leaping fire. She raised up one hand all covered with bits of black feather and almost, not quite, touched him on the shoulder. No, she didn’t quite touch him, but Lone Crow felt it all the same, and when she tugged her hand away it was like she got something stuck to it. It sure did pull at Lone Crow’s skin, and when he felt it peel off he shivered. He couldn’t see it, but she shoved it in a little crock by her side and put the cork in fast. “Go on home now, Lone Crow, and the next time you see Sweet Woodbine, you’ll have more than you want.”
Well, he went on home through the darkness, and the next day he asked Sweet Woodbine to walk out with him, except that this time instead of no she told him yes, with her beautiful green eyes shining like she’d waited her whole long life for Lone Crow to come. Seeing love-light on her face didn’t feel as good as he thought it would. They went out walking, and he laid her down on a sunny hillside; but she didn’t satisfy him, no, it wasn’t as good as he thought. They got married a couple months after. He’d get used to her, he told himself, and anyways it was what he wanted, wasn’t it?
At their wedding he didn’t smile, and the feast didn’t please him either. Seemed like everything was gray and lifeless, where before the world was bright and sweet, and all the things he loved before didn’t even lift his heart for a moment. Music, love, food, family, or friend, it didn’t make one lick of difference: he couldn’t care about nothing and he couldn’t love nobody. Lone Crow couldn’t feel a thing, and most especially he felt no joy. Even when Sweet Woodbine came to him and said soon they’d have a baby of their very own, he just felt flat – and so he went back to Silath’s hollow, and found her there laughing at the squirrels that tussled through the red-and-yellow leaves. Lone Crow didn’t find it funny.
He said to her, “I don’t know what you took out of me, but I want it back.”
“Did you get Sweet Woodbine?” she asked.
“Yes I did,” he said, “but I can’t feel. I can’t love her like I did, and I can’t love nothing else either – my life’s a misery since I come to you.”
Oh, she laughed at him then, as happy as he used to be! “How’s that my fault, Lone Crow? You got yours and I got mine, and the deal’s done.” And no matter how much he begged, she wouldn’t give it back.
Lone Crow went on back home again, but he couldn’t go in the longhouse. Half the night he stood there thinking of what he’d given away. When Sweet Woodbine came outside in the morning, she found her husband lying cold, with a sword sticking out his back and his blood in a pool on the ground, ‘cause he couldn’t stand living no more without even one taste of what makes it all worthwhile – and you can take my word on that.