The morning dew clung to the sage and native grasses in the pasture, their scents mingling pleasantly in the air. However, a stronger odor corrupted the tranquil morning. The tang of iron and stench of fetid greenery overlay all other smells. In one corner, the buck rail pasture had been knocked over and the occupants were nowhere to be seen. Look a little further to the west, however, and a macabre sight covered nearly a quarter acre. Six of the highland cattle were dead. Only their hooves and horns remained untouched. The rest of them was strewn across the field or carried off by the murderer.
Willem Cronley stood horrorstruck in the crisp air. Half of his livelihood had been destroyed, and the other half was either lost in the woods or had met a similar end. He heard a gasp as his wife, Helen, came up behind him.
“Keep the kids inside,” he said, his voice hoarse.
Helen picked up her skirts and hurried to stop her children from witnessing what she just had. She nearly made it through the door of the cottage before her breakfast demanded it be let loose. Her boots would need another polish before she started her daily chores. But without the cows to milk, there would be no butter to churn and she would have to start in the chicken coop before tending to their modest garden.
“What is it, Mother?” Her youngest stepped outside, and before she could usher him back inside he screamed at the top of his lungs. His siblings came running, and they too screamed.
From somewhere in the forest, a low mournful cry echoed back to them.
The knocking at Artemisia’s door was incessant. She knew without a doubt it was the sheriff. People in her profession rarely got any respite from superstitious lawmen. She took her time, carefully grinding the mugwort root into a paste with her mortar and pestle. When it was completed to her liking, she stood, brushed her long blonde hair behind her ear and rose to answer the door.
“Miss Corax,” the man said as politely as he could through gritted teeth. He wore his hair loose and shoulder length, had a well-groomed mustache, and a five o‘clock shadow along his jawbone. His gray eyes further demonstrated how disappointed he was to be making this house-call. He wore black trousers, knee high polished boots — a wise choice in the infernally muddy town of Northgate — and a steel gray peacoat. As she suspected, it was Sheriff Ruckstead.
“And to what do I owe this untimely surprise?” Artemisia lilted. Her own brown eyes reflected the same attitude as the lawmen on her doorstep.
“I’m afraid it isn’t to incarcerate you this time. I have something I need your help with,” he said reluctantly.
She smiled broadly. “I refuse.”
The sheriff shot out one of his dark hands to stop the door from closing in his face. “Something happened down at the Cronley’s farm. Something killed half of their cattle and the other half escaped. They think it’s the work of some demon.”
“And naturally you come to me for aid,” she said demurely, but nonetheless pulled on a heavy woolen jacket. From her pocket she extracted her riding gloves. “I will only need a minute to prepare my horse.”
“Of course,” Ruckstead said amiably enough. But just being in the woman’s presence made his skin crawl. The door and window frames of her home were covered with wolf lichen, the bright green fungus pinned up with nails before it had taken to its new substrate. Along the south side of her home was a vegetable garden, half of the plants in it poisonous. In two planters in the front of her house were crops of nettle. Why she grew the plant escaped the sheriff — unless it was to deter visitors. Lining the well-worn path to her front door were numerous shaggy mane mushrooms. Their soft, scaly caps were already beginning to blacken at the edges and some had begun to drip dark tendrils as the fungi consumed itself.
The sound of leather stretching and groaning alerted him that Artemisia was ready as she adjusted her weight in her saddle. Her horse seemed impossibly large for her, Ruckstead was certain it was part draft. The animal’s glossy white coat matched with the woman’s blonde hair made for an ethereal pairing straight from an old wives’ tale, but the sheriff knew better. Artemisia had plenty of dark secrets, a few of which, he was loath to admit, had substance familiar to him.
He mounted his own jug-headed, buckskin horse, easily swinging one long leg over the saddle to settle in the right-hand stirrups. A quarter-mile down the path they intersected a cobblestone path and turned their steeds south. The evergreens gave way to aspen trees, which in turn gave way to supple saplings, reaching greedily towards the sun. Oak brush dotted the landscape as it became more and more sparse, yet a few grew to tree-like status. Paintbrush, flax, and other wildflowers swayed easily in the breeze from between bunch grasses. A mill could be seen growing larger in the distance, a wheel noisily splashing water as it generated movement for the machinery within.
Artemisia grimaced, the sight of such industry so close to her home always struck a chord, though she was on good terms with the owner of the mill and found him and his wife to be extremely pleasant. Soon the natural landscape was broken by the monocultures of food production. It was equally as beautiful as the forest she lived in, but Artemisia would never feel at home among the crops.
Sheriff Ruckstead nodded to some of the familiar faces he saw tending the fields. Many of them were indentured servants, slaving away until they could afford to strike out on their own. Of course, that would never happen. His eyes picked up the trickle of irrigation ditches meandering throughout the field, running their courses happily until they were diverted and spilled across the soil surface. Potatoes, corn, soybeans, and squash were common staples of farmers’ fields, not to overlook the cereals: wheat and barley. Three years ago, ergot infected much of the wheat yield, and as such few farmers had been bold enough to replant. The Cronley’s were one such family, and no doubt their recent tragedy would cause a flurry of rumors. Witchcraft, demons, and more. Ruckstead turned a wary eye onto the witch next to him. Artemisia claimed she was a simple herbalist, but most of the town knew otherwise. Her business was a front for her darker rituals.
“Something on your mind, Sheriff?” She broke the silence with a cold drawl.
“Nothing different from the usual,” he muttered darkly.
“Ah, so nothing,” Artemisia purred and kicked her horse into a canter.
Ruckstead scowled, and urged his horse, Wineae, to follow the pearlescent gelding ahead of her. The sun struggled to peer through the heavy haze of clouds that left Northgate in a perpetually sun-starved state. If the growing season wasn’t so long, the crops would surely produce meager yields year in and year out. It took weeks for the plants to even grow two inches once they had burst from the soil, and nearly a month until they were knee high. Yet the farmers tended their fields lovingly, and somehow produced enough crop to feed their family and the town. Perhaps it was the rich soil. It was said that nearly three hundred years ago a great battle was fought. The blood and bones of the First Peoples fed the ground that they now stood on.
Suddenly the town was before them, the wood shingled roofs and shuttered windows only increasing the drab look of the buildings. Everything was painted in dreary grays, mournful blues, and sickly greens. It might have just been the moss and lichen clinging to the houses that tricked the hues into shining a little more emerald than they had been intended to be. Chamber pots were emptied into the streets, and drunkards could be seen teetering dangerously close to the gutters. The town of Northgate was by no means large, but its population still fell prey to the sins of a larger city. They crossed from the Main Road onto Raven’s Barrow, and Artemisia scrunched her nose as they passed by a series of apartments.
Her younger cousin, Mission, lived in one of them. She didn’t know which. It was a point not to visit his apartment, but he was frequently invited to her forest dwelling. He brought her supplies from town so she could maintain her status as a hermit, and she gave him tinctures and salves to sell at a discounted rate to the poor in the community. If she had to guess, she would say he lived in the Oyster Shell block, judging by its seedy reputation.
It only took twenty minutes to cross the entire town. A few more miles southwardly they came to a crossroad and turned right, to the west. The Cronley Farmstead was only a half-mile further. There wasn’t much to the farm, a few outbuildings and the main house. A single windmill stood alone against a dark hillside, its sole purpose to mark the watering hole for the livestock.
The Cronleys were a poor family and soon the richer businesses would buy them out and send indentured servants out to tend the fields that the Cronley family had had for six generations. Willem, Helen, and their six kids did their best, but it was simply not enough to keep them afloat. And now half of their livestock had disappeared, the other half massacred. Like vultures sensing death, the businessmen and investors would no doubt swoop in at the promise of an easy bargain.
Willem stood by the open gate, wringing his hands nervously. He was an ugly man, with thick eyebrows, a hooked nose broken many times over, hair like straw, and a smile so crooked a drunk couldn’t even walk its line. Luckily for his children, they had inherited his wife’s plain beauty and had large, baleful, brown eyes, high cheekbones and curly, dark hair.
“Sheriff Ruckstead,” he said and nodded respectfully. He broke into a smile he quickly tried to hide when he saw Artemisia. “Milady.”
“Malady is more like it,” Ruckstead said sourly under his breath. Artemisia snickered.
“Willem, I wish the circumstances of our meeting were on better terms.” Artemisia looked past him to the six children pressing their faces against the glass.
“It is always a pleasure when you visit our humble home. The children are still overjoyed with the gifts you brought them last time, and the crops-” Willem was cut off as the woman lifted a hand to stop him.
“Careful now, we wouldn’t want our good sheriff to cart you off to jail,” she warned.
Willem stammered for a moment but Ruckstead harrumphed to voice his displeasure.
“We only arrest criminals and witches.”
At that the farmer blanched. Ruckstead sighed and continued, “Let’s get to the heart of this matter, though. Where are the poor beasts?”
“I left them as they lay.” Willem turned and led them towards the closest pasture. How his entire family hadn’t been woken by the slaughter of the animals was beyond the sheriff and the witch. They were assaulted by the smell before they had a glimpse of the massacre. As they crossed the pastureland, Artemisia caught a glimpse of something white gleaming from its burrow in the grasses. She reined in Newt, her horse, and slipped gracefully to the ground. She saw the pupil as she brushed the green blades from overtop of it. The gentle brown color of the iris made the eye seem peaceful even in death. She scooped it from the ground and held it aloft in her gloved hand. Without an explanation, she dropped the eye into a pouch held at her hip. She didn’t bother climbing back into the saddle, but instead lead Newt by the reins towards the epicenter of the bloodshed.