They say an evil witch lives in the forest. They say she turns children into toads and pigs. They say her army of monsters will soon march to war.
Only the bravest, strongest heroes can stop her. Unfortunately… only a few misfits are around.
A couple failed squires. A jinxed wizard. A banished spirit of the forest. A childlike demon and her teddy bear. They are outcasts, failures, oddballs. Can they actually defeat the witch, or will the kingdom fall to her dark magic?
Daniel Arenson is an epic fantasy author.
He began his career writing short stories. He sold his first story, “Worms Believe in God”, in 1998. Since then, dozens of his stories and poems have appeared in various publications, among them Flesh & Blood, Chizine, and Orson Scott Card’s Strong Verse.
In 2007, Daniel sold his first novel, Firefly Island, to Five Star Publishing. He’s been writing fantasy novels since, including several standalones and two series: The darker Song of Dragons and the lighter fantasy Misfit Heroes.
“Henry shivered. “I don’t like this, Christie. A witch lives in this forest. You know the story.”
His little sister laughed. “Don’t be a scaredy cat.”
He glared at her. “I’m not a scaredy! I’m just… trying to protect you.”
Christie rolled 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.
“Come on!” Christie said. “I dared you, remember? You have to go into the forest now.”
Henry gulped. 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 forest.
“Let’s go,” he said, trying to keep his voice deep. He began walking into the forest.
Leaves and 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?
“You look pale,” Christie said. She walked beside him, eyes narrowed and determined. If she was also afraid, she was hiding it well.
“So do you,” Henry said.
“Ooh, good comeback.”
He glowered at her. “Shut up, Christie. Let’s walk quietly.”
She snorted. “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!”
“Quiet!” 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.
“Afraid the witch will hear us?” Christie asked.
“She heard Jeremy Cobbler.”
He shuddered just to speak those words. Even Christie paled and gripped her staff tight.
“You don’t know that,” she said.
“Everybody 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 lives.”
Christie’s face was ghost white. Her eyes were wide. Her knees knocked. But she managed to frown and push him back.
“That’s 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.”
He shrugged. “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 cage.”
Christie scrutinized him, eyes narrowed, as if seeking some conceit. Finally she snorted and kept walking.
“Absolute twaddle,” she repeated, walking deeper into the forest. “Come on, I’m going farther. I dare you to follow.”
Henry groaned 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.
No shadows, he told himself. No witch. Maybe Christie is right. Maybe those are only stories.
Beside him, Christie gasped. Henry spun toward her, heart thrashing. Cold sweat drenched him.
“What is it?” he whispered, staring from side to side, seeking witches.
Christie pointed at the forest floor, gaping. “Candy!”
Henry looked and saw a cluster of honeyed almonds. It looked just like the treats Misty Baker would prepare back at town.
“Don’t touch it,” he said when Christie started walking toward it.
She ignored him, raced toward the candy, and lifted it. “It smells good.”
“Don’t eat it!” Henry said. “What if the witch baked it, or—”
But Christie 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 mmm,” Christie said. “It’s dee—li—”
Suddenly she gasped and clutched her throat. Her eyes crossed, and her tongue hung from her mouth.
“Christie!” Horror pounded through Henry and he raced toward her. “Breathe! Can you breathe?”
She hopped around, eyes crossed and tongue lolling. “I… I’m turning into a frog! Ribbit, ribbit!”
As Henry stared in shock, Christie doubled over laughing.
“Real funny,” Henry muttered, frowning at her.
She rolled around in the dry leaves, laughing and pointing at him.
“You 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.”
Henry grumbled 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.
The siblings 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 bolted forward.
Henry had 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.
“Good, innit?” Christie said.
He nodded and pointed. “Look! There’s more candy ahead.”
They raced 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 sigh.
They kept 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.
“Comin’ to this fo’est wa’ a great ‘dea,” Christie said through a mouthful of cookies.
Henry nodded, mouth full of licorice. “Mhmmm.”
The kept walking through the forest, eating more and more, until they saw the house ahead.
The siblings froze and stared.
The house 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.
“What is this place?” Christie whispered. She held her knife before her.
“The 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.
“Those look good,” Christie said and reached for a treat.
Henry caught her wrist. “Wait. We better turn back home now. I’m… not so hungry anymore.”
But he was lying. He was hungry—famished. The more treats he ate, the hungrier he felt. His mouth tingled for more.
“I dare 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.”
“Nooo 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.
“Double dare you to peek into the window,” Christie said.
“Come on! Are you being a scaredy cat again?”
He growled. “Shut it, Christie. I’m much braver than you.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Prove it.”
Henry 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.
He peeked inside… and his breath died.
“Oh my God,” he whispered, trembling. “Oh my God….”
“What is it?” Christie ran up and peeked through the window with him. Her eyes widened. “The mother load!”
Inside, the 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.
“Let’s go 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.
“Mmm mmm good,” Christie said, mouth full of cookies.
“Can’t 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.
Henry wasn’t 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 horn.
“Hello, children,” the woman said. “Welcome to my home. I am Madrila.”
Guiltily, Henry placed down the cupcake he held. He wiped crumbs off his face and shirt.
“Hello,” 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 now.”
Madrila watched him for a moment longer, eyes cold. Then she laughed, and all the ice left her.
“Oh, but 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 candies.”
Christie reached for a cookie on the table, hesitated, and looked up at Madrila. The young woman laughed.
“Eat it!” she said. “Eat it, young Christie. Eat to your heart’s content.”
Christie looked 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 candy.
His teeth ached and he spat it out.
“Ouch!” he said.
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 over.
“Ahh,” 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.
“You’re a witch,” he whispered.
She nodded and pointed the unicorn’s horn at Christie.
“And this is what happens to greedy, piggy little children,” Madrila said.
She uttered strange words in a harsh tongue. A bolt of light shot from the unicorn’s horn. The light slammed into Christie.
“No!” 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.
“Henry!” 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.
Light blasted 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.
When finally 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.
“Good 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.
Henry squealed 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 laughed.
The witch 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 these creatures.
“Do you like my creations?” Madrila asked. “I made them myself, molding them from nosey, greedy children. They will be your new friends.”
She approached 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 eyes.
Madrila examined them, hands on her hips. Her eyes laughed. Shadows swirled around her feet.
“Welcome,” she said, “to the rest of your lives.”
Henry yowled 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.
Madrila 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.”
Henry cowered 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?
“Do you have a mother?” Madrila asked him. “Answer me, piggy.”
Shivering, Henry nodded.
“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 siblings, piggies?”
They nodded, trembling.
“Good, 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.”
Henry 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?
Madrila turned to leave. She crossed the basement and began climbing the stairs. After two steps, she turned and looked back over her shoulder.
“Soon you 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.”
With that, 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.”