Lilathena was finally in a place where she felt she might belong. This was the fourth village she had seen in a month, the eighth since she had lost her mother, and the tenth since they had left behind their old home together at the beginning of the planting season. Unlike all the other towns Lilathena had seen, which were surrounded by stone walls and tall gates, and guarded by burly, hostile men bearing arms, this village-by-the-river was full of homely-looking people who appeared to be wearing old tarps for clothing, and didn’t seem to pay any attention to a bedraggled newcomer standing in the swampy fields at the outskirts of town.
This is the perfect place for the daughter of a whore, Lilathena thought, and then instantly chided herself. She knew that her mother, like her mother before her, had never been given any other option. When she had become ill with the Whore’s Death, she had insisted they leave their village together, so that Lilathena might find other work in a place where the people would not know her lineage. Mother wanted better for me, Lilathena reminded herself, and it’s not her fault she died.
Lilathena pushed back her long, black hair and sighed. She was tired of wandering the country by herself, looking for work. Every village she had come to had been closed to her, to all travelers. While standing at the gates of towns in small crowds of confused merchants and beggars who had also been denied access, Lilathena had learned that children had been disappearing from all over the kingdom, and there were rumors that a witch was responsible. Travelers who had come from far-off cities recited what they had heard from distraught villagers: Wherever children were disappearing, a witch woman was spotted nearby, lurking in the forests by day or flying across the moon by night. No one knew where the children were being taken or what was being done with them.
“Eaten, most likely,” a carpet merchant said outside one village.
“Boiled and used for potions,” an old spinster said outside another.
Village after village, there was no entrance to outsiders. Lilathena’s supply of apples and dried squirrel meat was running low. She needed to find a town that still welcomed outsiders and could put her to work. If only someone could catch that witch and kill her! Lilathena thought as she moved through the countryside. To stave off her boredom and despair, she conjured visions in which she, a lowly orphan, encountered the witch one evening. She’ll be sitting by a fire, Lilathena mused, nibbling on salamanders. I’ll sneak up behind her, and before she even knows I’m there, I’ll cut off her head! Then I’ll find all the children she’s stolen and return them to their mothers, and then every village in the world will welcome me in and I’ll never be lonely or hungry again!
Farther and farther Lilathena walked, heading south toward the Great River. She knew there would be fishing villages there and hoped she would be able to find work and food. Then at last, after traveling for more than a week with nothing to see but sky and trees, this morning she had crested a hill and caught her first glimpse of the sparkling Great River. And nestled on its banks lay a small village of modest, achromous dwellings.
Lilathena was determined to find work here and prove her worth to these people. She reached into the pocket of her traveling cloak and squeezed the handle of her mother’s dagger. It was the only thing her mother had been able to give to her when she died.
“Take it,” she had croaked as she lay in Lilathena’s arms. They were huddled in a damp haystack on a farm outside of the last village that had denied them entrance, and her mother was gasping for every breath. “You’re a fighter, Lilathena,” she said and pressed the blade into Lilathena’s hand. “This blade fought for me many times, and it will do the same for you. Use it to protect yourself, and use it to protect those who need it.” She looked deep into Lilathena’s eyes and gave her her last smile. “You are braver and stronger than I ever was. Do not allow other people to make you feel worthless. Make me proud, my darling.”
“I will, Mother,” Lilathena said to herself now, and she strode into the village.
The buildings were all nearly identical, squat and windowless. Some of the structures leaned to one side until they rested upon their neighbor. There did not seem to be any sort of a main road, but everywhere Lilathena looked, people hobbled about, carrying baskets full of fish on their shoulders or dragging some sort of animal carcass behind them in the mud. The people would suddenly appear from behind one structure and then disappear behind another. They didn’t look particularly friendly, but at least there weren’t any sword-carrying guards approaching to toss her out on her backside. Lilathena pushed back the hood of her cloak, took a deep breath, then randomly chose a path between two buildings.
The paths were narrow, just wide enough for a single person to pass through, and they curved around every single building. It seemed to Lilathena as though each structure had been squeezed in wherever there was room, with no planning whatsoever. It was impossible to tell if she was about to come upon anyone, or, she realized with a chill, if anyone was behind her.
As she trudged through the mud, manure, and offal that covered the pathways, she noticed that what she had thought were buildings from afar were really just simple straw huts that had been packed together with mud. Why, this whole village could have been built in a day! she thought in wonder. She reached out with one finger and touched the building to her right. The mud was still wet.
She turned a corner and came across an old woman standing in the doorway of her straw house, laying strips of river weed to dry over a bed of coals. The thick leaves emitted a meaty aroma as they sizzled and Lilathena’s stomach grumbled. “I could do that for you, Grandmother,” she said.
The old woman looked up from her work and snarled at her, revealing teeth as green as the weed. “Be gone with you!” she hissed.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lilathena mumbled as she backed away. “I was just–”
“Nothing here for you!” the woman screeched. Lilathena twisted on her toes and hurried away.
After turning a dozen more corners, she finally emerged on the banks of the river. After seeing nothing but the maze of straw, mud, and filth for almost an hour, it was a relief to see the fluidity of the water and feel a cool breeze blow the sweat from her brow. And, for the first time, Lilathena saw the children of the village.
She was surprised to see that not a one of them, not even the older children who seemed almost on the verge of adulthood, had a stitch of clothing on. There were about four dozen children, and they all were working hard at pulling nets from the river. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed around their naked bodies, but the children did not seem to pay them any attention. Lilathena watched as an older girl scooped up a handful of mud and smeared it on the face and neck of the little boy standing next to her. The boy kept pulling at the nets without stopping. Lilathena was happy to see that, in this village at least, the children remained unharmed.
Lilathena could see several men and women in the river, helping to keep the nets untangled as they were brought out of the water. They, too, seemed to be naked, at least from the waist up, and they had covered their bodies in river weed. The water around them churned and frothed as the trapped fish flopped wildly.
A few feet away from where she stood, a man was hunched over a large butcher’s block table, with a woven basket of gasping fish at his side. As she watched, he lay one flopping fish after another on the table and hacked off its head with a hatchet. Lilathena winced, but forced herself to smile. “Excuse me?” she called. “Are you in need of any help?” Whack! Whack! Whack! The man didn’t look up from his work.
Lilathena sighed and turned back to face the people who were fishing. She raised her arm in the air and was about to call out to the group when a purple bolt of lightning streaked past her and exploded into the middle of the river. Bodies flew in every direction and the air was filled with the screams of children.
Lilathena’s lungs burned as she sucked in a deep breath, which tasted of sizzling flesh and hair. She spun around to see where the lightning had come from. Standing between her and the straw village was a woman with her hands outstretched. Emanating from her palms was a bright, purple light.
The witch! Lilathena instinctively grabbed hold of the dagger in her pocket, but she was too frightened to move an inch.
The witch stood almost seven feet tall, and her face was abnormally chiseled and strong, as though her skeleton were made of stone. Her high forehead sloped backwards and her jaw jutted forward in a vicious grimace.
“Out of the way!” she commanded and shot another bolt farther down the banks of the river, where some of the adults had started to swim to shore.
“Stop this!” Lilathena cried, but her words were drowned out by the explosion and the sound of death screams. Then the witch, without turning her head, flung one arm behind her and released another bolt of purple magic into a crowd that had just emerged from the village. Lilathena had just enough to time to see the expression on the villagers’ faces turn from anger into agony before the reverberation knocked her onto her back. She felt her neck and spine crack as she hit the ground, and all the wind evacuated her lungs, leaving behind a hollow ache.
I’m going to die, she thought as she stared up at the gray sky above her. It seemed time had slowed down to a crawl, and, though her ears were filled with mud, Lilathena could still hear more explosions and screams as a streak of purple lightning arced over her. Lilathena squeezed her eyes shut against it all and prayed it would not hurt when death finally came.
Then she heard the pitiful crying of the children. The witch was growling in her raspy voice: “Come to me now, all of you.”
No! Lilathena forced her eyes open. Her vision of defeating the witch flashed through her mind, followed by her dying mother’s last words: “Make me proud.”
Lilathena gritted her teeth together. No other children will be taken from their mothers! Not if I can help it! Then she did the only thing she could do: she screamed.
She screamed and she jumped to her feet, dagger in hand, and raced toward the witch.
The children were all gathered around the witch as she inspected them one by one, poking and prodding with her long, bony fingers. Most of the little ones had their heads down and were weeping, but the older children had their chins lifted in defiance as they stared out over the river.
Lilathena did not think at all about what she was doing; she let her feet fly as fast as they could through the river weeds and when she reached the edge of the circle of children, she leapt through the air over their heads. The witch had only enough time to look up in surprise before Lilathena brought her mother’s dagger through the witch’s eye.
“Nooo!” she cried and collapsed onto the ground. Lilathena landed on top of her and rolled off into the mud. The witch was struggling to get back to her feet, but Lilathena was faster. She scrambled onto her knees and quickly yanked the dagger from the witch’s eye, then drove it into her hand, pinning the witch to the ground. The witch bellowed in pain, but her cries were abruptly cut off when a noose was dropped around her neck and yanked tight.
Lilathena looked up. It was the old woman she had seen drying river weed earlier. The woman smiled down at Lilathena. “We’ve got this under control now,” she said and jerked the rope hard. The witch’s blue tongue spilled out of her mouth and she gave a garbled moan. Lilathena gasped. “Oh, what?” The woman sneered down at her. “She’s just an ugly, old, meddling witch!” She glared at the children. “Move!”
The group of children parted, and Lilathena was astonished to see dozens of people gathering behind the old woman. She craned her head to the side to see behind them and felt her heart stop.
The people she had seen blown apart by the witch’s lightning were pulling their bodies back together, piece by piece, the gory muck fusing together seamlessly. Now Lilathena could see that they were not covered in river weed, as she had thought. Green-scaled creatures with tentacles for legs were slithering up the banks. As they left the water, the tentacles shriveled up and fused into two legs. By the time they joined the crowd gathered around Lilathena and the children, their scales had smoothed into human skin, as well.
Lilathena looked around at the children standing above her. The little ones were wailing now, and the older ones were trying their best to comfort them. A few of the braver children were staring at her with rage in their eyes. “Please, I want to go home,” a little boy moaned. “I want my mommy.”
“Quiet!” a villager commanded and Lilathena flinched as the boy was struck across the face.
The witch, who was strangling at the end of the noose, reached up with her free hand towards the boy, but the old woman yanked the rope and the witch fell onto her back. “Disgusting, filthy vermin!” the old woman spat.
“Traitor!” someone else said.
“String her up!”
This last cry was echoed through the crowd.
“String her up! String her up! STRING HER UP!”
A few of the little children reached out to the witch, but their hands were slapped away. The witch’s remaining eye filled with tears, which spilled down her cheek and mixed with her blood.
“Come on!” said the old woman, then turned her back on the witch and began to drag her away. Quickly, Lilathena lunged forward and pulled the dagger from the witch’s hand, then slid it back into her pocket.
The witch left smears of blood on the ground as she was pulled through the mud. The villagers laughed and kicked at her, and whipped the bare backsides of the children as they straggled behind.
Lilathena was left on the banks, trembling with fear and fighting the nausea growing in her stomach. Bits of the villager’s words floated back to her:
“Now we can finally stop running!”
“Once she’s dead, every village in the kingdom will re-open its doors!”
“…every human brat…”
“…our slave or our meal…”
The group faded away into the maze of straw houses and their conversation was lost to the wind. Lilathena hung her head and cried. Oh, Mother, what have I done?
Just then she heard wet, mucky slurps in the mud behind her. “Hello there,” someone said, and Lilathena gasped. She twisted around to see one of the creatures standing behind her, its writhing tentacles slapping the ground, green foam dripping from its mouth. It was the fish butcher. “You didn’t think we’d forget about you, did you, human?” he said as he reached for her.
Lilathena’s pupils narrowed to slits and her fangs curled down past her lips. She flexed her fingers, stretching the skin to make room for her growing claws. The creature’s eyes grew round and he backed away from her, choking on his saliva. Lilathena’s heart pounded against her rib cage as she tightened her grip on the dagger in her hand.
“Who said I was human?” she growled, and lunged.