The Witch of the Forest

I breathed in the smoke as the trees settled and the magic dissipated from the air. The smouldering ashes of burning herbs and hair rested around the points of the wax arcane circle. Sigils of protection encircled my seated position in the centre. The nine piles of burning hair belonged to the nine young women left in the small village that I arrived in a week earlier. I had been wandering through the mossy forest down from the mountains when the wind blew my name. It told me interesting tales of a small town at the edge of the forest; young women had been going missing and I was to protect them, but from what, I was unsure.
The song of birds awoke me from my reverie. I was to meet with some of the girls at the market soon.
When I had first arrived I had met some elder women, they were quick to warn me that the village was unsafe for girls like me.
'You shouldn't stay here, darling. The forest is cursed, I heard strange noises in there the other day. It lures girls in and they get lost, or maybe attacked. I've been keeping my girls away from it, it's terrible!'
'I think I might leave the village,' her friend responded, 'and the poor boy who lives on the edge of the forest, it's cursed him. His garden leads straight out into it! You see, he had been pursuing some of the women who went missing.'
But I knew the forest. I was part of it. I knew that the green leaves and the tree bark held no ill will, only worry.
The young women however, told a different story.
'I'm not sure… but I do have a strange feeling about that Huxley; he's just kind of … odd.'
'Creepy is more like it! Not to mention that every girl that's gone missing was previously the object of his affection- Yes, every girl.'
'I don't know, he seems nice enough.'
'I wouldn't be so sure.'
And he did seem nice enough, a little shy perhaps, a little dangerous too; he always kept his distance. But there was a hunger, a desperation in his eyes. Long, lingering looks down dark streets.

I arrived at the market square then, and began to peruse the stalls with the small group of women. I caught sight of Huxley over the top of the carved fox totem I was inspecting. As we walked past him I promptly dropped my handkerchief, which he was quick to pick up. I thanked him, to which he made an amusing quip. I turned to the girls and expressed my desire to search the forest for the missing women.
'No, you don't want to do that!' he interjected, 'The forest is dangerous. You should be sure to stay as far away as you can.' He was fiddling with the small silver key that was attached to his pocket, as he often did.
'Anyway, why don't we take our minds off that for a while … try to lighten the mood? My family is hosting a party tonight, so consider yourselves invited.'
A few of the girls and I accepted.
I parted from them shortly after, and hurried toward the forest. It was time to discover if there was anything to be discovered.

Fallen leaves crunched underfoot as I followed the wind, my heart thumping against my chest. What would be there, hiding in the forest? The trees turned strange, as if they were coiling away from something. Dappled sunlight squeezed through the branches and illuminated a small hill, the wind slackened and I warily walked towards the hill. Partially obscured from view was a small hut. As I neared it, a tang of iron filled my nostril. My gut roiled as if caught on fire. I yanked on the handle but the door didn't budge. I wonder if this was what that key opened. A splatter of blood was oozing from under the door. I pounded my fists against it, but there was no response. If anyone was in there they were dead.

The party was a charming affair, apart from residing under Huxley's persistent attention. I waited for twilight before strolling the garden alone, I didn't remain so for long. Huxley joined me and informed me that he'd changed his mind.
'Maybe we should look for the women. I'll come with you, so I can protect you.' His knife glinted in the dying sun.
I made a show of searching the dusky forest, it didn't matter, I knew where we were headed. We paused under familiar coiled trees, away from where the iron air would touch us.
'You know, you're very beautiful … and, you seem really intelligent too.'
'Thank you.'
'You know, I could treat you better than any man you'd find on your travels. You could settle here, and I would protect you from the curse.'
'No thank you. I'm not interested.'
He paused, eyes narrowed and his posture shifted to that of a predator.
'What do you mean you're not interested? You've been nice to me this whole week, and you laughed at my jokes!' He scoffed, 'all women are the same. They're so ungrateful towards nice guys like me!' He flung his arms about, 'you're probably more interested in Maximus. No, this won't do, I can't be rejected again.' He raised his knife, 'You deserve this.'
I swept under his arm and lay my palm against the skin of his cheek. A sigil I had drawn there glowed and Huxley's body froze where it stood.
I yanked the key from his pocket, walked towards the hut and unlocked the door to reveal the remains of four other women. I turned and stepped to the side, licking a finger and swiped it across the sigil. Huxley's body slackened and was thrust forward by a great gust of wind that struck like a hurricane. He plunged head-first into the hut and the door slammed with a thundering crack. I turned the key on his screams as a quiet fox mounted the hill beside me.