She was overtaken by him in the forest, as she sauntered back home from her morning gathering mushrooms in the early mist. The patchwork skirt she wore clung tightly to her round buttocks and shapely hips. Her loose blouse was stained from cooking and gardening, and it was threadbare from the two sisters who had worn it before her, but she filled it out well. Her hair was a deep chestnut. Her face pale but the apples of her cheeks pink and her round jaws subtly dimpled. She carried a basket she had made herself the previous spring from green vines, and it was filled with morels. 

As a hawk, he had followed her trail from above. As a snake, he had sniffed the sweet perfume of her girlhood with his flickering forked tongue. As a toad, he hopped along as she skipped, admiring her fair ankles and attempting to look up her skirt. As a rat, he nibbled her dirty toenails as she slept on a bed of ferns. She awoke when he bit her too hard, and she wondered at the bleeding toe she hadn't noticed before. As a shadow, he licked the blood from his intangible lips.

As a cat, he enticed her farther and farther into the forest. The creature looked remarkably like her childhood pet, orange and stripes, and she followed it through brambles calling a name she only half remembered. 

He led her down paths that she inexplicably didn't know, paths which he created with his infernal magic, and which disappeared again as soon as they curved and curled out of sight. 

He came at her from behind, knocking her off balance as a strong wind and blowing her skirts away from his target. She fell to the ground face first, scraping her palms bloody as she stopped her fall. She smelled the sulfur even before she felt his burning skin against hers, and where he touched her, he left welts and blisters. Her hair sizzled and curled where he caressed it, and when she saw the black skin of his hand from the periphery of her left eye, it clouded over and went blind.

When he entered her, she felt as though she had been pierced with a red-hot poker, branded from the inside out. He sang songs to her in an ancient demon tongue, and they sounded like thousands of souls being rent into pieces, and she was driven mad. When he was finished with her, she felt as though her womb had been penetrated by a jet of boiling water.

Her brothers found her that afternoon. They were hunting a rabbit, and found their sister burned and bruised and splayed out on the trail. The smell of sulfer and brimstone made them both nauseous, and they wet their kercheifs with wine and covered their noses and mouths to stay the scent. Her arms and legs were red and blistered in the shape of a pair of hungry six-fingered hands, much larger than human hands had been. Between her legs, which was prominently displayed, looked as if it had been sliced with tiny razors. Black spirals grew from her womanhood down her thighs. The spirals smoked as if they were trying to burn their way out.

"We can't just leave her."

"We can't take her, brother. What if it isn't she that we're bringing back? It's obvious what has happened here. If either of us were real men, we'd kill her as she sleeps."

They turned away from each other in shame, both at their lack of spiritual certainty and at the idea that they'd kill their beloved sister for the name of any God who would allow such a thing to happen.

"Father Petrovic will know what to do."

But he said it weakly, and his brother knew he wasn't sure.

They left her where she lay and ran for the priest.

A couple of hours later, her brothers returned with her father, the priest, and a farmer who lived nearby. The girl was sitting against a tree, whistling, and smiled as she recognized the party that was approaching her. She ran to her father and embraced him. Her burns had disappeared, but her eye was still white and bits of her hair were still scorched. Her breath smelled of sulfur. 

When the priest approached, she hissed and bared her teeth. He presented his book to her, and she bounded away into the forest. They pursued her until darkness fell, and then, at the cleric's request, they returned home to the village. He instructed them to say nothing.

The next morning, a cow was found slaughtered, its throat mutilated and most of its blood drained. Wolves were suspected and a hunting party was formed. That afternoon, the party returned with several rabbits and a deer, but no wolves. No traces of wolves could be found.

Each morning for a month, another animal was found slaughtered. One morning, a farmer out to milk his cows caught the culprit in the act. The girl jumped on him, knocking him to the ground, but the symbol of his faith worn around his neck warded her off. She ran into the forest. The farmer awoke the village, and soon the woods were filled with torches, and muskets and flintlocks.

It was her own father who found her. He had been a prize-winning archer in his youth, and he shot an arrow into her shoulder, an arrow which had been blessed by the priest. She fell to the ground immediately, and her father slung her over his shoulder along with his quiver and carried her back to his home.

She was chained to the bed. The priest blessed the chains and the locks. When she awoke, her wound had already been dressed, her fever had already been broken, and the walls of the room where she was imprisoned were covered with crucifixes. Some were ornately carved, donated by the church or neighbors. Some were nothing more than two sticks tied together with vines or rattan. Others were painted on the wall with mud, or animal blood, or whatever was handy. The dirt floor surrounding her bed was covered with broken glass in case she might possibly break her bonds. She would shred her soles on the glass and bleed to death before causing any more harm.

Night came, and when the sun set the spell came over her. She spoke in voices not her own. Using words no one in the village dared speak. She struggled against her bonds. But she was a weak girl, and the faith of the priest was stronger than the power of the demons working inside her, so the chains held strong.

A group of villagers approached the priest, who was sitting in the garden outside his rectory. They were anxious.  "We should kill her, Father. We should exorcise this demon."

He looked up from his book and closed it slowly. His eyes revealed patience and sadness. "She is not a demon, just an unfortunate girl. You've all known her all her life, and now you want to kill her? All that has happened to her is God's will, as is everything that happens and will happen. If she dies, it will be by the hand of God and none other, as long as I shall live."

She carried his seed for thirteen months. 

Daily, the priest would visit her, and attempt to feed her. She would have none of his blessed bread, and seemed to draw her nourishment from some infernal source. He read scripture to her, to which she'd reply in riddles which the priest never bothered trying to decipher.

When she gave birth to his bastard, she was alone, but her family and neighbors waited outside the door of the squat stone house, holding their hoes and pitchforks and knives, waiting to rush in and kill the child should it live. It didn't. The screaming stopped, and the girl's parents crept in and found their daughter had hemorrhaged. Her lifeless eyes open and staring at the thatched ceiling, her cold stiff hands grasping a crude wooden cross. Her child, actually two children joined at the chest and sharing one heart, lay still and gray on the dirt at the foot of the bed.

The girl's father and brother collected the stillborn brothers in a bag, and walked for days to the Keep, from where the babies' father no doubt hailed. The crooked spires rose over the hills like the claws of a crow, their shadows spreading like fangs over the farmland surrounding it. The men, satisified they had traveled far enough, hurled the bag into a refuse pile outside a pathetic little village. And then they turned and ran until they were holding their ribs and wheezing.

AuthorBrennen Reece