The witch’s cottage was a ten minute walk from the village. I made it in less than five. Madame Wood’s body was gnarled, and her skin had a distinct bark-like quality to it. Whether her name or her appearance came first, no one left alive knew. Yet she had a friendly demeanor and was always willing to help.
Despite my own sense of urgency – even panic – I retained enough of my wits not to barge into a witch’s cottage uninvited. Knocking, I paced anxiously. It took only a moment for the door to open, seemingly on its own, and I heard Madame Wood’s voice from within the gloom inside.
“Come in, Ser Johns.”
“Madame, you know I’m not a knight.”
“You protect the village. You’re a knight in the ways that matter.”
As much as I usually enjoyed our verbal sparring, there wasn’t time for it now.
“That’s what I’ve come to see you about. While I was out this morning, I came across armed men heading straight for us. I rushed back, but the hunting parties had already left. I know this isn’t a usual request, but is there anything you can do to help? I need to hold them off.”
My eyes were beginning to adjust, and I could tell she was looking at me.
“Are you sure they mean the village harm?”
“Can you evacuate everyone?”
“Even if I could, there is no where for them all to hide.”
“There must be . . .”
“There isn’t.” I was getting more desperate by the minute.
“I do not think . . .”
“Please, Madame.” I refused to let her deny me. “Our need is great.”
She continued to stare at me. “I am sorry . . .”
“Madame, if you really do think of me as a knight, then help me safeguard the people.”
“It is because of your position that I do not want to . . .”
“Please.” I had to leave. They would be at the village soon, and I needed to get back before they arrived.
“Drink this.” She handed me a vial. I could not see what color the liquid inside was, but I didn’t hesitate. It tasted like nothing.
“Now you will not die at the hands of another. You may fight without fear of injury.”
“Thank you, Madame.” It was more help than I had dared hope for.
“Do not thank me. And if at all possible, do not kill anyone.”
“Don’t kill anyone?”
“If you can avoid it.”
“Is there anything else?”
“It can wait until later. For now, you must go.”
I hurried back to the village. There was still time before the attack, and I made sure everyone was inside. Mostly, there were just children and the elderly; everyone else who might have helped was on the hunt.
When they arrived, i fought with abandon. I tried to heed Madame Wood’s caution, but they had spread out. Even I could not be hurt, others could. So I had to dispatch opponents as quickly as possible in order to get to the next. I had worried that killing someone would break the magic, but it continued to work. In the end, I had killed one shy of a dozen, and no villagers were harmed.
The hunting parties did not return until after the sun had set, so I stayed in the village to guard against another attack. None came. When the hunters returned, I informed them about what had happened. Sleep would no longer be ignored, and I headed off to bed. It was the next day before I made my way back to Madame Wood.
The door again opened by itself after I knocked. This time, there was no friendly banter.
The question was abrupt and serious. “What?”
“How many did you kill?”
“Eleven, by my count.”
She nodded, as though that answered a question she hadn’t asked.
“Well, come in. Have a seat.”
“Thank you, again, for the help yesterday. Without you, the village would have been lost.”
She set a cup of something hot in front of me before sitting down herself. Exhaustion appeared to weigh on her.
“I should tell you about the curse you now have.”
“The potion you drank.”
“It was cursed?”
“That is why I did not want to offer it to you.”
A loud roar filled my ears as I felt the world falling away. All thought was crowded out of my head.
“You can avoid its effects as long as you do not kill anyone.”
The roar lessened just enough for me to hear her. “But I already . . .”
“I know. Each death takes a year off your life. Do not kill any more.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Would you have refused it? Sacrifice the village to save your own life?”
She asked the questions but already knew the answers. I would have accepted the curse. And knowing may have caused me to hesitate, to avoid killing blows. That hesitation might have cost lives. She was right not to tell me.
“How many years do I have left?”
“I do not know. We have know idea how many years anyone has. Taking eleven years from an unknown future still leaves us with an unknown.”
“But the curse must know.”
“After a fashion, but it cannot tell us.”
“Is there a cure?”
“None that I know of. Everything has a price. You cannot be killed by another person, and the village was saved. But every life you take shortens your own.”
And that is the story of how I came to be cursed. The village still needs me. I just do not know how much of myself I have left to give.