The Hassle & Hob Of A Hag

            We've stopped moving! The diminutive, old woman rolled over in her bed, a woolen blanket upon a cot of stretched merfox hide. He'll come to wake me up now that we're in town.

            Chrrp! The chirping of a bird came faintly through the tarp.

            The old woman kicked the tight, beige muslin ceiling above her. The force of it shook down the curved roof and sides of the caravan in an arch, and the bird flew off.

            She closed her eyes with a sigh, and resumed her sleep - desperately wringing every moment of rest from her well-aged body. There was a soft sound, as of metal against dirt, and it reminded her of the farm where she grew up. Before I married him, ever to be the guard of his traveling wealth. And, having grown sick of her greedy husband, she dreamed of childhood nostalgia. He has become a hassle.

            Moments passed with the sounds of the forest. She awoke to the gentle drip-dropping of rain. It was falling from the trees above, onto the caravan. From one canopy to another.

            He's not coming, is he? Again, she rolled, tossing about the wool blanket with its rich, indigo dye. It was abrasive, yet sufficient - and the colour was that of royalty. Merchants were, after all, the next closest thing to nobles. Hmm... trouble with the horses again?

            Outside, there were voices that she could hardly hear, hardly enough to be certain of what was said.

            "That's as far as the rocks will let me dig. Got no shroud without stealing, so I reckon he won't become a ghostm eh? Heh, just a zombie! It'll be a shallow gr--" and the voice was momentarily drowned out by the rain.

            A villager of the Slough?

            And when its rhythm slowed, the wind no longer stirring as many drops from the trees, she continued to eavesdrop, "--listening to me? I know you understood me the first time."

            "Urrghh...eihhm?" The second voice was a tenor, lower than the other, and incomprehensible - as if lips and tongue were limp.

            "Oh, them? Yeah, I'll wake your sisters and mother up once I trust you , okay? I saw what he did to those horses."

            "Nyohh..." The voice trailed off, tired.


            What's happenin' outside? the old woman wondered. She pulled the blanket off her feet, deciding her afternoon nap was over.

            She could hear the sound of horses walking slowly, and something grating against the ground. And then came the sound of a woman singing, off-key. I could show her any day.

            Then, the merchant's wife slid off the wooden frame of her bunk. Her feet landed upon her husband's wares, messily packed with haste at the back. And she was wedged between the back flaps of the caravan, which were tied down, and the clutter piled beneath the supports of her bunk.

            The rain began to fall again, as a gale caressed the limbs of the woods. It dampened the sounds outside.

            She was stuck inside the caravan, as it was tied on the outside. Calmly, she assessed the situation, My love is a fool, to tie me in like this. We have extra rope thus he cannot tirade me if I cut my way out. Blades are, among all things, what I know best. Oh, and music. And so, without humility or uncertainty, she pulled a knife out from a sheathed pocket at her right thigh. With a quick movement, her wrinkling arm moved down and cut the knots from behind, at the base of the flaps. They came free from the wooden frame of the caravan, and the dim light of the forest met her eyes.

            However, she had come out on the wrong side of the caravan to analyze the strange events that had come to pass while she was asleep. With vigilance, she glanced around the corner of the caravan, and saw that the horses were untied.

            The brown mare was leading the other two in pulling a tree out of the road. So that's why we've stopped.

            However, when she looked around to find her husband, the old woman became very surprised and very confused. Thus, she huddled at the side of the caravan - once again, assessing the hassle of her predicament.

            There was the familiar set of three horses. Brown in the middle, blacks on either side. And the one on the driver's right-hand side with its white nose. However, they were harnessed to the tree rather than the caravan. And that was all very understandable, given its original position which she presumed based upon the drag marks.

            What surprised her, though, was the woman. There was a young woman, goading the horses onward against the forest's edge with a collection of apples, rather than from behind with the lashing of a whip. Where is my husband?

            Then she saw what was confusing. There were four bodies and a shovel on the opposite roadside. She did not see the mound of dirt thrice a dozen yards off the path, nor the shallow grave behind it. Now, she was peeking around the corner intently at the four bodies. Why did he unload the slaves? And, oh, demondung, one of them woke up! A dud of a stinger in the load we bought fresh, hmmph!

            The young man had lost the green bruise of the stinger upon his neck. All that remained was a bloody hole.

            Waking him up will cause great hob! I suspect that that boy is of more importance than my husband knows - but perhaps now is the opportunity to learn!

            The rain fell, moistening her tangled gray hair. She saw it glistening upon the naked bodies.

            The beautiful sisters and their vintage mother - they will surely sell. Again, she eyed the young man, and her eyes fell back upon where she had stung him. It had been easier than the months of feeding their conscious bodies, and dealing with their pitiful escape attempts. And now he has escaped the venom of endless sleep, the Spider's Kiss.

            It was, she reckoned, as if one gifted in the arts of poisonous magics had siphoned the most of it out of him, out through the neck. And the small drippings of blood upon the dirt and weeds confirmed this. It would take him out of the coma.

            Was he the one, earlier, who mumbled with lethargy?

            "Eat up, hazel one."

            Those are our apples! She eyed the young woman who was feeding the middle horse. And then she noticed, before the drag-marks of the tree, a smear of blood upon the dirt and a tear of fabric. It matched her husband's tunic. Fearful, she darted in front of the caravan and into the woods.

            The softly falling rain dampened her noise. However, the semi-conscious boy turned his head, slowly. And all he saw was the stirring of ferns that had remained unsettled since her  hasty passage.

            As she lay, breathing heavily behind a tree, she reassured herself, I can handle this. I can save him. I am the famous, travelling, Banshee Bard! Geriatric or not. And she wanted to scream, to let out her magic - but she did not. She simply looked down, calmly at the forest floor.

            There was a pile of ashes, still smouldering, from the death of a crudely summoned creature. And amidst the pile, at its heart, she made out the horrid form of a dead fetus.

            That was when, only a dozen yards from the road, she screamed. It was a loud, alarming shriek - a normal one. No magic in it, none of her experienced singing talent or the self-defensive imbuing that had earned her the title 'Banshee Bard'. No shock-wave. Just a scream. And she ran.

            The young woman turned towards the forest's opposite edge. The horses became restless, and the tree ground to a halt - close enough to the edge. And the young man looked over his shoulder, trying to see past the trees.

            And when she had finished running twice a dozen more yards into the forest, the Banshee Bard of Broche screamed again at the even more disturbing sight before her.

            In the puddle at the bottom of a shallow grave, beside a mound of dirt, her husband was floating dead. Blood fogged the water from around his throat. His face looked cold and pale.

            Her scream, seeming endless, echoed through the woods. It cascaded by trunks and branches, bushes and stumps - out over the meager farms of the Slough Inlet, over the buildings and docks and, now quiet, across the marshy waters.

            Then she fell, slipping against her will at the edge of the grave. With a splat, she landed face down against her husband's corpse. Wet and cold, she seethed. Clutching her knife still, she drew the other one out of the other pocket on her left thigh, now soaked. That woman's gonna hear some real screams soon enough!

            And she groped awkwardly against the slaver's body and then the edge of the grave. Scowling, she emerged. She better get her thieving hands off my horses, cause I'm gonna gut her from skull to sphincter!

The End

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