Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
She hadn’t touched a coin in two years, so there was no money to purchase a mirror. She’d learned many skills in her isolation, but not how to blow glass or build the furnace she would need to do that in the first place. Wolfi Cheekin had only her tiny wooden house on the edge of the woods and the skills she brought with her the day she was cast out.
She had steady, warm, strong hands that lent themselves to several things. Her many animals, if they could speak, would insist that there was never a person better at petting. She even knew the separate techniques that were best for each species. Something soft for her nervous rabbits. Something with the nails for her two horses. She even found the time for all of them: rabbits, horses, chickens, turtles, cats, dogs, and one blind old sheep that somehow always knew where she was.
Wolfi was also an artist, though no other human had ever seen her work. Her current project was to take the place of the mirror she couldn’t afford: a mural all across one of the inner walls of her barn, which was nearly twice as large as her house. The paints she used were left over from the house’s previous owner, so she had to be careful with every drop.
She was kneeling in the hay one evening with a tin dish off to the side holding four little puddles of color. Her brush, handmade with the help of her horses’ hair moved across the cracking wood slowly. She had to look over with every stroke to make sure she was really catching the expression in her smallest turtle’s eye. She dotted the pupil with just a touch of white to show the emotion always glittering there. With that the turtle was done and there was only one other animal with a portrait appointment that night.
“Lucas Peck?” she called when the rooster was nowhere to be found. She didn’t want to set the brush down, something would probably chew on it, but she needed to see her model. The mural was for all of them, so that when anything died or ran away their likeness would still be there in the barn, giving comfort to all their old friends. Lucas was not exempt just because he was the newest addition to the family. “Where are you?” she whispered as she checked behind one of the lounging horses. There he was.
He was a beautiful animal, of a breed she’d never seen before. His feathers were bright yellow, like squash rinds that didn’t have a single wrinkle yet. His comb and wattle were golden as well, highlighting the almost ivory-white color of his sharp beak. He had just wandered in the week prior, defending some of her hens from a wild dog. Naturally that earned him a place in the barn, but he would have to pay with his likeness.
She set him down next to the mural only to have him try to wander off again. She had to move him twice more before he would stay put. Wolfi dunked her brush in the yellow, she would need almost all of it, and set to work on the curve of his wing. His features were so perfect, not a feather out of place. That allowed her to finish in less than half an hour. When she was done she stood, worked a knot out of her back with her palm, and sealed up what was left of her paints. The not would surely be back after her next round of chores, but this was the end of her fourth decade in life. She thought it worth it, since she’d made it further than most women. There were no children to steal too much of her blood in childbirth and no husband to nag her to death. Just the animals that seemed to live the short lives of bubbles compared to her own.
Wolfi moved Dusky, the blind old sheep, out into the pasture by tugging on one of his ears. He bleated in protest, bust as soon as she pushed his muzzle down to the grass he gave up and started eating. She wouldn’t need to escort him back, because the only thing he seemed able to see was her hair cascading down her back as she walked away.
When everybody was fed and down for the night she prepared her own dinner from the garden: a roast squash with plenty of herbs and some chilled spring water. Afterwards, the night having arrived two hours ago, she tucked herself into bed and dreamed of the finishing touches on the mural. If she ran out of paint, the dream might be the only complete version, so she made sure to pay close attention.
Focusing on one’s dreams would’ve seemed strange to the villagers that lived where she used to. Dreams were the devil’s playground; he stood over them with a dropper and let all kinds of venom rain into them. That was where he sewed ambition in the heads of women and lust in men.
Wolfi didn’t think so. She thought her own dreams were a little too boring for the devil to get involved. She let hers flourish, and on a few notable occasions, their truth seemed to bleed into her next morning. It was always a delight when that happened, especially since she knew the animals wouldn’t know what they were looking at enough to judge her for this daliance with the sleeping world.
Something had touched her mural, but it was no dream. She gasped the next morning when she saw what had happened. Her portrait of Lucas Peck the glorious golden rooster was obliterated. Something had scratched and pecked it out of the wood completely, leaving only splinters, sawdust, and crumbly yellow wood behind.
“Which one of you did this?” she asked the entire barn, ready to scold until they all felt punished. She remembered how Lucas had tried to avoid being painted. He was the most likely culprit. “Where’s Lucas?” She wandered around in search of him, but the rooster did not present himself. He normally spent his time with the hens, but they were sitting in the corner sleepily, not even paying attention to the peeping chicks running into their sides. “You’re not afraid are you? You don’t think I’m the punishing type. Maybe I’m not. I could always go hire somebody, like that dog that’s been sniffing around. If you don’t come out right now, I’m going to…”
“You don’t need to hire anybody,” a voice declared. She whirled around to see a man standing under the threshold of the barn’s open door. He was dressed in worn hunting clothes, but wearing a black cape. He had with him an executioner’s sword, already drawn from its sheath. “I’ll deliver punishment for no charge.” He stepped in without an invitation, spending more time looking at the animals than at Wolfi.
“Who are you?” she asked, backing up until she hit the mural. Without realizing it she matched her own painted silhouette, down the paintbrush being held in the same hand. The intruder saw someone stuck in a routine, someone likely to do anything just to get him to leave.
“My name is Kizmut,” he said, practically spitting the name into the straw. An inquisitive turtle bashed its nose against the side of his boot; he responded by flicking his ankle and flipping the poor creature onto its back. Kizmut watched her, expecting her to rush over, or at least take a step. She didn’t. Curious. Normally these hermit types picked something to care about and then devoted their entire life to it. He had guessed she would scream and claw at him for even touching one of her menagerie.
“This is my home,” Wolfi said with all the courage she could muster. “You must leave.”
“You’ve no deed to this place,” Kizmut said with a knowing shake of his head. “You’re only allowed here because nobody else wants it. Too close to that cursed forest and the stream the devil pisses in.” He glanced a small trough full of clean water and scowled. He kicked it as he approached to disturb his reflection. He didn’t want to leave his image there the way Wolfi did. This needed to be over quickly, and he needed to leave nothing behind. “I come on behalf on Judge Orcash. I’m part of his hunting party. Not stag. Not geese. Witches.”
“I’m not a witch!” Wolfi blurted defensively.
“I didn’t call you a witch,” Kizmut countered. “Interesting that your mind would go there though. Especially considering you live alone with a bunch of… familiars.”
“They’re just farm animals.”
“One of them isn’t.” Wolfi stopped before she could get another word out. What did that mean. She’d spent plenty of time with them. They were just lovely friendly animals. Just things to paint and pet. If one of them wasn’t, surely a dream would’ve pointed that out.
“What do you mean?” she finally managed to ask.
“I mean that our party has been sent out on a hunt. Several of us may kill her, bu she won’t die. Every time the devil’s heart beats she gets to come back, that’s how far down his trousers she is. We need to kill her enough to drive her out of these lands. Let her be the problem of our enemies.”
“What’s this witch’s name?”
“We don’t dignify her with a name. She’s the yellow hag.”
“There are no hags here, unless you mean me, and I’m not hag-aged yet.” She turned to her more honest horse. “Right?” It whinnied.
“She won’t look human anymore,” Kizmut explained. “We’ve driven her out of three human bodies. She’s forced to reincarnate as animals now, and she’s still trying to wriggle through our fences and spread her dark magic to our innocent girls. Do you have any yellow animals?”
Wolfi swallowed her instinctive answer. It had been an age since she’d had to craft a lie. Lucas Peck. That didn’t make sense though; it couldn’t be him. He was a rooster, not a hen. A shapeshifting hag would surely become a hen. That was how both nature and magic worked, wasn’t it? She couldn’t stop herself from stealing a glance at the mess of scratches that had been Lucas’s likeness. Had he destroyed on purpose? There was now no evidence for Kizmut to find.
“What was painted there?” he asked, noticing her glance. He seemed to notice everything. His eyes absorbed the barn all at once, so much so that she wondered if he was cheating at his own game and using a little magic as well. He looked down as if he could see or hear wood lice moving under the straw.
“What would that matter. You’d be looking for a yellow hen, not a rooster.”
“You’re wrong there,” Kizmut said. He was right in front of her now, tapping the scratched part of the mural with the end of his sword. He leaned in so she could see every individual black hair on his Adam’s apple. “The yellow hag will take any opportunity at rebirth, regardless of sex. The devil’s been teaching her that any spirit can have any body it wants. Could you imagine if children were taught that?”
“I think children always, eventually, figure things out for themselves,” Wolfi whispered back, but she couldn’t stop her voice from quivering. Kizmut looked ready to argue, but he turned away. There was a very quiet sound of feathers slipping past wood. He stomped through the hens, crushing some of their eggs. With one hand he tossed a wood-slatted box and found the yellow tail feathers of Lucas squeezing through a crack in the barn, trying to escape outside. He snatched one of the rooster’s thin legs and pulled it back in. It crowed madly and pecked at his gloves, but it did no good. He raised his sword, prepared to strike right through its body.
“That’s mine!” Wolfi yelped. Her animals responded all at once, rising to their feet and charging Kizmut. He was forced to drop Lucas and fight them off. Wolfi couldn’t be there, couldn’t deal with him directly. Everything about herself felt weaker with other people around. She needed some distance and some time to think. She fled from the barn, but not to her home. She went to the trees, the edge of the forest Kizmut called cursed.
Wolf dropped to her knees near the creek, ignoring the painful stones under them. She squeezed her ears against her head with both hands and closed her eyes. It wasn’t denial or cowardice. She wasn’t counting on her poor pets and livestock to do everything for her. This was the only way she knew to help.
She wasn’t asleep, so it wouldn’t be easy. She would have to shut out everything else and concentrate. Her eyes wandered in their closed darkness, following the panicked sounds of the animals as Kizmut fought through them and exited the barn. He spotted Lucas flapping and running as fast as he could, making straight for the forest.
Wolfi’s ability finally snapped into function. Her eyes were closed, but she was using something else’s. They were the eyes of Loops, her fattest rabbit. He tried to work with her will, bounding after Kizmut, but he was just too sow. Wolfi silently apologized to the unfit creature and hopped her spirit out. She found the eyes of Hamish the honest horse. He could get there in time. She pushed, urging him to run faster, to cut off Kizmut from his golden prize.
Hamish ran in front of the hunter, turning his flank into a wall. Kizmut simply tumbled forward and crawled under the horse’s belly, jumping back to his feet on the other side. He looked over his shoulder once, right at Hamish’s eyes, perhaps seeing a little too much spirit in them. Even far away in the forest, Wolfi gasped. Her spirit galloped away from Hamish, afraid that Kizmut might be able to reach deep into his pupils and rip her out.
She went forward to Lucas, tried to become one with his mind and help him find a path where the witch hunter couldn’t follow. There was a moment where she thought she was in there, where the hair on the side of her head felt a lot more like feathers, but then she was pushed out. There was already something there. She’d only made things worse. Her intrusion had confused the chicken’s tiny brain. He stumbled and pitched forward, flailing and flapping. Before he could recover Kizmut was there. His boot came down on the rooster’s head.
Wolfi’s spirit was close enough to feel it. He was gone. He wasn’t even in the mural, so there was nothing left. She stood, tears in her eyes, and started wandering back just in case he had plans to burn her home down or kill the others. Even without focusing she was able to sense what happened next and know that Kizmut was right about at least something.
A yellow egg rolled out of Lucas the moment he died. It didn’t matter he was a male. The yellow hag needed a way out. The egg didn’t roll far before his boot came down again and crushed the shell. Whoever this hag was, Wolfi only knew that she protected her chickens, so she couldn’t be all bad. She tried not to think about what she might have looked like as a human. What she knew was, if this witch had tried to corrupt girls with black magic, Wolfi would’ve been one of those girls. Her wandering dreamer’s eye, her power to be familiar with more than one familiar, had always made her a target for such people. Yet it was her family that had cast her out, forced her so much closer to the dark trees the devil played hide and seek in.
When she got back to the barn she found Kizmut leaning against the mural. There was a smear of chicken blood on the scratched place where Lucas had been painted. He was eating a pear he’d taken from his bag. All her animals were huddled in the far corner, clumped together to stay warm against the icy wind the hunter seemed to emanate. Wolfi noticed a long gash on poor blind Dusky’s side, with blood still dripping into his wool.
“What did you do that for?” she cried, rushing over to put pressure on the animal’s wound. It bleated weakly and nuzzled her, now aware of nothing but her presence.
“I thought I saw something in your animals’ eyes,” he said, taking a giant bite. Pale juice dribbled down his chin. “They had a little too much fight in them. I thought maybe you were a witch too. If you had possessed them, injuring them would’ve drawn a scream out of you. I heard nothing when I poked that miserable mutton.”
“I’m not a witch,” Wolfi claimed again. In truth she had no idea what she was. It was just luck that the purpose he’d seen in Dusky’s blind eyes was not her spirit. That had been elsewhere. The purpose he’d seen had probably just been the old animal’s sense for her location. He had just been looking for her, and found a cruel sword instead. “You killed him already. Why are you still here?”
“I’m going to be your guest tonight,” Kizmut stated.
“Guests need to be welcome.”
“I’m not playing a game of semantics, I’m just telling you the way it is, pre-hag. I killed a yellow chicken and stomped a yellow egg. That’s not enough to kill her. She’s still around here, in the air, waiting for an opportunity. So I will remain until I’m certain she’s found none and moved on.”
“What do you mean an opportunity?”
“I mean a birth. If any of your animals are ready to litter or calf, the yellow hag will claim the unborn body. It will come out just as yellow as that rooster.”
“None of my animals are due,” she spat.
“I’ll see for myself. Whatever you’re having for dinner, I’ll be having some.” She saw his intentions. He thought he was a good man, so he would never force himself on her, but he would force his will. She would be his servant until he grew too tired of the smell of the barn. Wolfi swallowed down her complaints, whispering promises to herself and the animals.
Hours later, as dusk bruised the sky, they all sat in the barn. Wolfi had skipped the evening meal, instead letting Kizmut have it all. She wouldn’t share anything with him. He showed a strange fascination with her mural, standing up regularly to look into the painted eyes of the animals, but hers especially. Too late she realized her mistake. In painting them she’d perfectly recreated what she saw in their eyes: a reflection of herself.
Those painted eyes looked possessed, just like the witchy ones he’d seen while chasing Lucas. When he turned back his expression was full of suspicion, his Adam’s apple looking as jagged as part of a collapsed stone cliff. He was going to say something. Conversation was a realm where she didn’t have to give him anything.
“If you’re not a witch, what are you doing out here?” he asked, destroying the peace like the smell of rotten eggs.
“I’m out here because other people decided it was where I belonged. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“So you’ve never dabbled in witchcraft. Never seen with a familiar’s eyes?” That was his only true question. If there was any proof left from such magic, a black tear perhaps, Wolfi would be dead already.
“I see through lots of eyes,” she shot back, drumming on a turtle shell, refusing to look him in his eyes. “It’s called empathy. Your judge and your village don’t have it. These animals do. Me moving out here may have been a shove, but it was in the right direction.”
“Why’d you paint that?” he asked, pointing over his shoulder at the mural. “Nobody’s even going to see it. When you’re dead, just because this place smells a little like a witch, I might burn it down. Unless…” he stopped. One more chance to mess with this woman. One more way to injure her without leaving a mark. “How about you paint me into it? Commemorate how I saved your farm from the yellow hag. You can put me right here.” He tapped the spot Lucas had pecked clean.
“I’m out of paint,” was her only response. He didn’t like that one bit. He took a step forward, wringing his knuckles. One of her dogs barked. A cat hissed. A horse’s ears aimed in his direction. Even if she wasn’t possessing them, they were a little too possessive. No sense getting his head kicked in. The man back off, but insisted on leaning on the mural for the rest of the night. Touching it as much as he could. Running his fingers through her painted hair.
He left in the morning, when no animal produced the yellow offspring he was after. The spirit of the yellow hag had moved on, been forced deeper into the forest. She was back in the devil’s fold, and he smugly guessed it would take her two generations to worm her way back into the village. Perhaps as a literal yellow worm. He would be there, watching every squirm out of the ground when it rained; he assured Wolfi of that.
Wolfi didn’t waste any time wallowing in the depression he’d tried so hard to cultivate. She bathed in the creek, put Dusky out to pasture, and threw away several things he’d touched. She brought out the last of the yellow paint and stood before her mural.
Her mind wandered, but she felt closer to her dreaming eye than usual. She knew all her animals thought of her as the victor that day. Kizmut didn’t realize it was men like him that made witches. Their accusations turned guilt into magic. She would’ve been happy and normal, if people hadn’t told her that her dreaming eye was evil. All they had to do was let her keep her childhood pet, rather than fear what she’d accidentally left in its mind. Rather than kill it in front of her.
That made Wolfi as witchy as she was, but not as witchy as she would be. She dragged the paintbrush over her mural counterpart’s hair, turning it blonde. It would only take one generation to get back to the village, to teach all those girls that the people suspicious of them deserved what they got.
Without looking, Wolfi knew the roots of her hair were yellowing. She knew there was something inside her that, in just a few magical months, would start kicking. The yellow hag hadn’t asked permission to use her, but they Wolfi had a feeling that, as her mother, they could eventually see eye to eye.