The witch’s hut, which we found without difficulty a short distance from the riverbank, looked like half a hornet’s nest sitting on the ground. It had one low entryway, which a man would have to get down on hands and knees to pass through, and had no door. I could not imagine what barrier existed to stop a hungry leopard from coming by in the night to drag the old woman away as its dinner. The hut itself offered not much more room than would allow the woman to curl up on the floor inside; I doubt she could have stretched out her diminutive frame. But the hut must have sufficed to meet her needs, and she had lived here for what looked a long time and remained uneaten.
When I first saw the old woman, I wondered how she had survived, living in isolation as she did, being far too old to hunt or scavenge for food. I assumed there must be men who often sought her out, bringing her supplies or whatever she demanded.
The old woman, or someone, had swept clear the ground encircling the hut for several feet, and had erected a ring of short poles, atop which were mounted the skulls of several animals: a leopard I recognized, and a crocodile; one belonged to a large monkey and another to a large bird with a long beak that curved like a scythe. Atop the pole to the left of the hut’s doorway perched, unmistakable, the skull of a human being. One of the skulls on its crude pole belonged to no species of animal that I recognized. Each of the skulls had been painted, doused and often refreshed by the looks of it, with blood. This caused the fetishes to stink and to draw flies. I can but assume it somehow increased whatever magic potency these were supposed to possess.
The woman herself fit well with such arcane and grotesque decoration. I had never seen, nor have I seen since, such an aged person. Her skin looked like ancient leather, dried-up, cracked and flaking away, loosely wrapped around her small, skeletal frame, skin as black as any tar I have seen. A little white fur grew atop her head, as short and patchy as moss on a stone. The woman had no teeth. She wore no clothes, save for a little skirt wrapped around her loins. Her breasts dangled as flat against her midsection as empty wineskins.
While living among the Christians, I had heard stories of the Egyptians, of the way they used to mummify their dead so that the corpses never rotted but would last, lying for millennia on end in dark, musty catacombs, shriveled and lifeless but whole. I had never seen a mummy, but I could not imagine any such desiccated cadaver looking any different from this old woman. She looked like something dead, and dead for a very long time. Only her eyes were alive. Twin white orbs bulging from the withered skull, wet and cunning, the tiny black irises like the pits of olives, never still, darting around, taking in everything. On those instances when her eyes lit, settled, focused for a moment on me, it did not produce a pleasant sensation.
When she spoke, her voice sounded dry, a dry sound produced by dried-out lungs in the husk of her chest, the words shaped by a shriveled tongue. She spoke the language of the Marmorca, but I could not understand her.
“Do you speak Greek, old woman?” I asked her. “Or must I get one of these men here to translate?”
“Oh, yes, right, right,” she replied, in as perfect a Hellenistic diction as I have ever heard. “I forgot, you do not even know the tongue of the people among which you live. You look enough like them, though. A little paler, not so swarthy, but you wear their clothes, don’t you? A pale Greek, living with barbarians, as wild as they are!”
“You speak as if you know me, old woman,” I said.
“I know you well enough,” she said.
“Who am I then?” I asked.
“The werewolf,” she answered, and giggled, the effort more than the sound shaking her entire frame hard enough I thought I could hear her bones rattling. “Oh, I have surprised you!”
“Not so much. It is an easy enough deduction. Valsalvas told you about me when he came to pay you a visit.”
“The other man, yes? He is dead now,” the witch said. “Ha! See! I have surprised you! Your face tells me so! You are surprised at how much old N’sua already knows!”
“The fact that I am here and Valsalvas is not,” I said, “tells you all you need to surmise his death, I think.”
“Not so!” the old woman said. “The fish told me! Last night I went for a swim in the river and I spoke with the fish. They told me that the other man was dead and that you were coming.”
“Then did the fish also tell you what I wanted?” I asked.
N’sua cackled. “I don’t need the fish for that! A fool could guess aright the answer to that question!”
“Tell me, then.”
You seek more of N’sua’s magic. To keep that beast of yours on a leash! Ha! Beast on a leash!”
The men with me stood still, listening, but their eyes were not still. These darted around, uncertain, uncomfortable. The Marmorca, even their bravest fighting men, have that same cultivated fear of witchcraft and deviltry as all uncivilized peoples. I, however, having a long familiarity with the ways of the evil one, was not so quick to be cowed.
“You will give it to me,” I said to the witch. I intended it as a statement of fact rather than a question.
“For a price,” she said.
“I have brought money.”
“No!” she said, her head jutting forward on the thin stem of her neck. “I do not want money! For you the price is different! Higher!”
“Tell me what you want, then,” I said.
Oran grabbed my elbow, leaning in towards me as if to whisper a confidence but not bothering to whisper. “Don’t make any bargains with her! She can’t be trusted, my lord!” Oran had told me again and again, ever since we’d left the village, how much he detested and feared black magic and that I must not, under any circumstances, place my faith in it. Not that I needed such counsel for something I already well knew.
“Tell your slave to keep quiet!” the witch snapped.
“It could be that he is right,” I said.
“You will strike a bargain with me now,” N’sua said, “if you want what I alone can provide you. You have no choice.”
“I could force you to provide what I need,” I said.
“Could you? I think not, boy. I can see into your soul, you know. You do not have it in you to torture secrets out of old women. If you were the type, you would not be so eager to repress the demon lodged within your flesh. You would welcome the power it brings, not fear it.”
“Tell me your demands, then,” I said. “But don’t play me for a fool. It’s obvious you need something from me, as well. Perhaps we can be of service to one another, if I find your terms agreeable.”
“I don’t like this, my lord!” Oran said.
“Duly noted,” I said, then to the witch: “Speak, old woman.”
“You will go and fetch something for me, boy,” she said, as some bird screeched a warning from a nearby tree. “If you bring it to me, I will give you all the elixir you need to keep your beast caged for a hundred years.”
“And what is this thing you want me to bring you?”
The witch, N’sua, relaxed, settling like a mound of withered burlap and twigs. Her legs danced.
“What do you want?” I repeated.
“Something only you could bring me,” she said. Then: “I am old, boy. Far older than you could guess. I have lived for a long time. But now my lifetime is drawing to an end. I will die soon. The monkeys in the trees have told me. Death I do not fear. I might welcome the rest it brings, in fact, were I not damned.”
“Of course you are damned!” Oran couldn’t resist interjecting. I held up a hand to quiet him.
“I bartered my soul long ago,” N’sua said. “I fear what awaits me upon my death. I would escape that fate.”
“What does that have to do with me?” I said.
She smiled. She knew she had me.
“Far to the south and to the west of here there stands a temple. Only a ruin now, the race that erected it long since gone from the earth. Inside this temple is an earthen jar. If you go get this jar and bring it to me, I will brew for you all the elixir you want.”
“What’s in this jar, to make it so precious to you?” I asked.
“My soul!” she cackled. “It has been sealed inside since the tallest tree in this forest was but a seed! The keeper has long since turned to dust, less than dust! But the jar remains. I must have it to escape my fate. Go fetch it for me, little Doghead! Be a good pup and you will have your reward!”
“Master!” Oran, at my elbow, began to protest.
“Quiet,” I said to him. “Why me, witch? You did not make such demands of Valsalvas.”
“He could not have done it,” she replied. “He would have died in the effort. Any man would die in the effort. But you, with your demon inside you, for you there is some possibility. And then, I think, you are more desperate than other men, yes? Desperation lends a strength found nowhere else. You alone could accomplish this. I do not know if you will succeed. The birds and the other animals can tell me only so much. But I know that only you, alone among men, have any chance at all. Will you do it, boy” she concluded by asking. “Will you return my soul to me?”
But she smiled as she spoke. She already knew my answer.
“I took the liberty,” she said, “of drawing you a map.”