Hubert and the Crone by S.C. Hayden [fantasy]
“Can you make my lips rosy red,” the crone asked. “Can you make my skin creamy soft, my bosom plump, my thighs firm, my nest hot and tight?”
The wicker nodded.
“Course you can, course you can.” The crone smiled wet and gummy. “And would you? Would you make me all these things and more? Would you do it for me, Bloody Robin, Black Sam, Wicker Man, King?”
The wicker did not move.
“Would you do it for a blood sacrifice?”
Slowly, the wicker nodded.
The crone ran a bony hand over the killing table, traced the tabletop’s deep runnels with her finger. “So say you,” she whispered.
She’d made the wicker weeks before, fashioned him from sticks and twine, muttering strange old words all the while. She’d filled his sackcloth head with ashes, peat, and yew seeds, given him black button eyes and stitched a silent zigzag mouth. She’d sealed him lovingly with tar and pitch and hardened him with smoke.
When he was ready, she placed a black dog’s heart in his chest and waited. The wind wailed and the bone moon gleamed. The crone rocked and hummed and when the hour was right, she sang.
It took longer than it had when she’d done it last, three hundred years ago, but before her song was through, the black dog’s dead heart thumped.
Hubert woke to the smell of baked bread. He hadn’t eaten in over a week and his stomach clenched, but he knew the crone wouldn’t give him any. Cripple yes, but not stupid. He knew what the old woman was and what was to become of him. “Blood sacrifice,” she’d called him. She wasn’t subtle.
With his true leg, Hubert pushed himself to the rear of the cage. His gimp leg dragged twisted, withered and useless. He rolled to his side and pissed in a pile of woodchips. The crone hadn’t even given him a bucket.
Hubert’s cage was made of ash wood, each bar thick as his wrist. If that wasn’t enough, he wore an iron collar, fixed to an iron chain, fixed to an iron ball as thick as his head.
“Thirsty?” the crone said.
Hubert rolled away from the piss soaked chips and slithered to the front of the cage. The crone was peering in at him, eyes bright and hungry.
“Yes,” he said. “But I’d rather have some of that bread I smell.”
“Ha!” The crone laughed. “I bet you would. Nine days you haven’t eaten. A nine-day fast purifies a man, or boy, as the case may be. Pure, pure, pure; a proper meal for Black Sam.”
The crone slid a bowl of water through the bars. Hubert snatched it up and drank, hating himself more with every swallow.
“Would you believe me if I told you I was once the prettiest creature in the valley?” The crone said, running a liver spotted hand through her thin white hair. “Oh, the lads would come from far and wide for a chance to play with me. And play with them I did, but not always how they wanted.”
“You’re still beautiful,” Hubert said. “The loveliest I’ve laid eyes on.”
“Ha!” The crone threw her head back and laughed. “Do you say so? And I suppose you’d take me to bed? Whisper honey in my ear? A nice pump and tickle, then choke me in my sleep?”
“No,” Hubert said. “I wouldn’t.”
“I should open your belly for you. Feed you to my pigs. Be done with it. A blood sacrifice is too good an end. Lucky for you, Black Sam isn’t picky.”
Hubert felt his eyes burn red. He didn’t want to break down. He didn’t want to cry, but the tears came anyway. Weak, weak, weak, he thought, shaking his head.
“Now, now,” the crone said, “don’t cry, wee one. It’ll all be over soon. No more suffering. Besides, there are far worse things than death.”
“I’m not afraid to die,” Hubert said. “In fact, I want to. You don’t know what it’s like to be a weakling. To be an orphan, a cripple.”
The crone regarded Hubert in silence. A thoughtful look settled her brow.
“Those who go willing make the best offerings. I can make it quick, so I can.”
“Just say it. Just offer yourself to me. Offer yourself to Bloody Robin.”
“What would become of me, after?”
“Even such as me can’t say for sure. But there are some who believe that those who go willing gain power in the next world. Would you like that, wee one? Would you like Black Sam to make you strong in the world to come?”
“Say it then.”
Hubert paused, but not for very long. “I offer myself to you.”
“Yes, wee one, almost there. To me and who else?”
“Bloody Robin, Black Sam, Wicker Man, King.”
The crone’s face twisted. She bent over backwards and scuttled crabwise across the floor. Green smoke billowed from her nose and from her mouth. Yowling and wailing like a cat in heat, she thrashed and shook, then collapsed in a heap.
The crone did not move. As the hours slid past, Hubert thought he’d somehow killed her, but when the sun fell and the window darkened, she rose.
“Time, time, time,” she said, “time to see the wicker.”
With a twist of her hand, the cage door opened and the chain fell away from Hubert’s neck.
“Come my pet, my wee little darling, my honey bunny boy. Come, come, come.”
Hubert slithered out of the cage, rolled onto his back and stared up at the crone from the floor.
“How will I walk?” Hubert said. “You broke my crutches when you took me from the foundling’s home. Broke them and burned them.”
“So I did, wee one, so I did.”
The crone raised her arm and a long gnarled walking stick shot into the air as though it had been held underwater, then released. It floated across the room and came to rest in her outstretched hand.
Slowly, painfully, Hubert pulled himself up with the proffered staff. He hadn’t stood in nine days and his back sang. When he was on his feet, one planted strong and one curled and twisted, his vision dimmed and his head swam. For a moment, Hubert thought he would hit the floor, but he rallied.
“Follow me,” the crone said.
Hubert followed through an archway and into a section of the house he hadn’t been able to see from his cage. On the far side of the room, like some profane scarecrow king, a wicker man sat on a throne of twisted blackthorn branches.
“There are some who say that Bloody Robin is kind to those who come willing,” the crone said, stooping, stoking a brazier. “They say he favors the weak, makes them strong in the after. Gives them all the things they never had but wanted.” The crone stood, moved to a low wooden table and placed her hand on a gold-hilted knife stuck tip down in the blood black wood.
Balancing on one leg, Hubert lifted the staff high above his head. He’d have one shot only, so he had to make it count. To his horror, he saw his shadow, staff and all, cast on the far wall, betrayed by the light of the brazier.
The crone saw it too, for she wheeled round quick as death, but Hubert was already swinging with all he had.
Crack. A solid, satisfying reverberation travelled through his hands, wrists, arms, all the way to his shoulders. Both Hubert and the crone toppled.
When Hubert looked up, the crone was sprawled backward over the killing table. Eyes closed, yet alive, the rise and fall of her chest barely perceptible, but there nonetheless.
Hubert pushed himself to his feet and glanced around the room. In the far corner he spied a sagebrush broom. Quick as he was able, he hobbled to the broom, then back to the brazier. He pushed the broom inside and held it there until it caught. Then, staff in one hand, burning broom in the other, like some wrath filled wizard rousted from legend, Hubert closed on the wicker.
He knew what he was going to do, held it in his mind certain as a thing already done. He was going to burn the witch’s abomination. And when it was burning, he’d torch the cabin, crone and all.
But when he lifted the broom, he caught a gleam in the wicker’s black button eyes and a thought occurred unbidden. Hubert imagined himself strong and tall. He imagined his twisted leg straight and sound. Not Hubert the cripple, Hubert the gimp, Hubert the lame. But Hubert the powerful, Hubert for whom the ladies pine.
Almost without thinking, he spoke. “Would you make me handsome? Would you make my jaw strong, my chest broad, my leg straight and true?”
The dead dog’s heart thumped in the wicker’s chest, but the wicker did not move.
“Would you do these things and more beside?”
Stone still the wicker sat, button eyes dark as endless night.
“Would you do it for a blood sacrifice?”
Slowly, wicker neck creaking, it nodded.
Hubert eyed the crone. A trickle of blood ran from her forehead. The gold-hilted knife caught the light from the burning broom and glinted apple red. Outside, the wind wailed and the bone moon gleamed.
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