I learned, after making my way back to the boat and finding the surviving men waiting for me, that there had occurred some debate amongst the group regarding leaving me behind. Oran had upbraided those leaning in that direction, challenging their pride and condemning their, as he called it, abandonment of duty. He’d risked having a sword run through his ribs when he’d suggested to a couple of the man that cowardice perchance was to blame for their faithlessness. In the end, though, he and the others who’d shared his views had won out; the ship and crew had waited for my return, both my return from the forest and my return to human form.
I bore no ill will towards those who’d favored leaving for home without me. In truth I had come through the entire ordeal better than any of them. The provisions we had brought with us from the village, the hardtack and salted meat, had long since run out. The group had for some time survived by hunting and, for the most part, fishing. But a river full of fish does not guarantee those fish will bite a line or swim into a net; a jungle full of game does not guarantee good hunting, even less so when that forest is also filled with hostile natives and a ravening werewolf to look out for. Also I learned that the most plentiful game, and that obtained with the most ease—monkeys—provided a meat not altogether agreeable to the palate. The men were getting hungry. I had myself eaten far better than they over the past few days. I had eaten of the men I had killed while in the form of the beast.
As the beast had also healed in full from all its injuries, and thus guaranteed that I too had healed, I left aboard the ship as its healthiest, most nourished crewman. Healthiest in body, I say. I felt sick in soul, and fought a constant, futile battle to repress memories of my recent rampage.
When we returned to the cabin of N’sua the witch, I promised the others not to tarry long.
“Old woman!” I called to her, approaching her hut. “I have brought you what you wanted!”
She crawled out of her hut with a speed and agility I would not have ascribed to her. As I started to unpack the jugs and jars from my bundle she, down on her knees, took over the chore from me. Any fears I’d had that she might not recognize which of the specimens comprised the correct one, or that she would announce that none of them were it, were banished as she grabbed up one of the larger jugs—squat, fat and smooth with a thin neck and knobby wooden stopper wedged into its mouth, this latter bound in place with strips of rawhide—and began to cackle and, displaying more of that surprising youthful energy and dexterity, to dance around with it.
“Free!” she shouted. “Ha ha! Free!”
It would seem it required no special ceremony for the releasing of her soul from the jar, as after a minute or so she danced over to where a rock protruded through the black dirt that surrounded her hut and smashed the jug against it, shattering it.
“Free!” she cackled.
“This gift to you comes at great cost, old woman,” I told her. “Now keep your part of the bargain.”
“Yes, yes,” she said, still giddy. “The fish told me that you had secured my soul for me and that you were returning. I have prepared the powders for you. Come inside.”
I got down on my hands and knees and followed the witch into her hut. I wondered if it would allow room enough for the both of us. It did, but with none to spare.
We sat cross-legged on the floor, facing one another, the encircling wall at our backs. The witch had a small clay lamp dangling from a cord affixed to the domed ceiling; it hung down between our foreheads, and whatever fuel source fed its meager yellow flame stank and gave off an oily smoke. The witch unrolled a little mat on her knees, on which were several packets of dried skin.
“I am going to teach you how to make the powder for yourself,” the witch told me, “so that you will not have to return here for more.”
“Does it contain ingredients I could have gotten for myself?” I asked her.
“All but a pair, but of those I am going to give you enough to last for many, many years. The potion will only work for you, though, if you mix the correct amounts of each ingredient. It is this knowledge you have come so far and endured so much to obtain.”
“Very well,” I replied. “Show me.”