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January 21
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As for this, it happened long ago....                                         

1

Once, up in the high hills of Oconee, there lived a hermit. He was a strange and wild man, who rarely spoke or came down from his old house on the mountainside. It was whispered by some that he guarded some great treasure up there; a hoard of stolen confederate gold, a stream that sparkled with shining gems, or something even more precious. Whatever it might have been, none could pry a word about this treasure from the hermit on the few times he came down the hollow and into town. Eventually the hermit tired of the constant questions and declined to come at all.

Now there were rough men who did believe in the treasure, and together they went up the mountain to find it. They plundered his tiny house, looking for any sign of money or jewels, and found nothing. In a rage, they found him on the mountainside and shot him a dozen times. Then they left his blood to stain the stone.

So much for him. So much for them, too—every man of them was hung or shot for a different crime. The hermit’s body rotted away on the high rocks, leaving only bones and a splash of red that could never be washed out. And rooted in the blood there grew five stone eggs.

Years passed. The leaves unfurled, fell, unfurled again. The people in town forgot the hermit and his lonely house. And the stone eggs grew larger, and larger, until they towered over the bones.

2

It happened in the dead of winter, when snow covered the mountainside and the wind shrieked over the boulders. As the shortest day of the year wound to a close, the first egg hatched. Something cruel went down from that high lonely place and into the hollows, walking on top of the snow, its head scraping the tops of the trees. It broke open the rooftops of the farmhouses in its path and devoured those it found inside, leaving their bones picked clean and piled beneath the trees.

The first the townspeople head of it came when a trapper caught a glimpse of a tall, thin shape walking through the trees, its hands and mouth stained with blood. Strange footprints appeared on the road leading from town. Strange sounds echoed from the woods. The Cherokee in town whispered that it must be an anisgina, an evil spirit. The preacher-man called it a devil. People took to huddling in the church, afraid to go out to their lonely homes in the forest.

There was a traveler wintering in town, a wandering witch named Anna O’Brien. She was not a cruel witch, who spoilt milk and hexed cattle, or a wise witch, quick with dowsing rod or healing herb. She was something else. She walked with a wooden leg, and people said that she had lost it to sorcery of the strangest kind.

At first people avoided her from fear of that. But as the cold nights went on, and more blood stained the cold ground, some of the townsfolk begged for her help.

“I’ll have a price,” she said. “But it’s a fair one. I've a long road ahead of me when the snow melts, and I’ll need food. Give me some for the trip when spring comes, and I’ll beat your demon.”

The townspeople shook with relief and agreed. They asked her what she needed and when she planned to do it. The preacher-man offered her a wooden cross, and a trapper offered her his own rifle. But she turned them both down.

“I don’t need much,” said Anna. “Just bring me a jar of preserves and some charcoal, and I’ll sort out the rest.”

So she took them and went up the hillside, into the hollows. The snow was very deep there, and the streams were frozen over with ice. Icicles grew like fangs on the trees, and the higher she went, the more she found white bones poking above the frost. Now and then she pulled out the jar and doodled on it with the charcoal stick, before putting it back inside her coat.

Finally, as night fell over the forest, she heard loud footsteps in the snow. She found herself a flat boulder, swept the snow off, and sat. With quick movements, she opened the jar of preserves and set it on the stone before her.

The footsteps grew louder. Through the deep shadows came the great thin demon, stepping on top of the snow, its head scraping the high branches. Its eyes glowed from a face like a grinning mask, and inside a hole in its chest danced a droplet of roaring fire. It paused as it saw her and its grin widened.

Anna took a preserve from the jar and popped it into her mouth. She chewed for a moment, smiling, and then swallowed. “Good evening,” she called to the demon. “I want a word.”

The demon came toward her, rattling its long thin fingers. "Speak as you like," it said. "I’ll suck the flesh from your bones when you’re done."

“Maybe,” Anna said. She picked out another preserve and swallowed it, licking her fingers as she did so. “What’s your name, and where do you come from?”

"I am Handsome Elder Brother," said the demon. Its eyes followed her movement. "I come from stone and shame and the blood of murdered men. Shall you tell me your name before I eat you?"

"Maybe," said the witch. "What do you want?"

"To eat," said the demon. "To crack bone and chew flesh and drink marrow, until I stand alone on a mountain of cracked bones. Starting with yours.”

It came toward her, reaching out with its horrible hands. The fire in its chest burned with hungry light.

Anna shrugged and tossed another preserve into her mouth. “Eat me if you want. I’ll be the one dying with a sweet taste in my mouth.”

The demon paused. "Sweet taste?"  

Anna pulled out a preserve and held it up for the demon to see. As it watched, she bit down, rolled the taste on her tongue, chewed, and swallowed. "Nothing better," she said.

The demon sat back on its haunches and cocked its head. “I do not believe anything could taste better than screaming flesh,” it said.

“Try one,” said Anna, tossing a preserve toward the demon. Fast as a striking snake, its hand snatched it from the air and stuffed it into the grinning mouth.

“Oh,” it said. Its eyes glazed over. It swallowed, its long tongue slithering over its hand. “Give them to me.”

“No,” Anna said. She took out another and ate it. “They’re mine. Beside, right now I taste terrible. Unwashed and smoky. I need to eat all of them to be at all edible.” Her fingers tinkled against the glass. “Just wait a moment. They’ll all be gone soon.”

The demon's eyes gleamed with a cunning light. "I've eaten enough man flesh these past few days," it said. "Let me have them all, and I'll let you go free."

Anna sighed, and frowned and shook her head. Then she held out the jar. “Alright.”

The demon picked it up awkwardly in its bony hands. It fumbled with the glass, trying to force its huge fingers inside to get at the preserves. It growled in frustration. “It’s too small! My hands won’t fit. If I can’t have the sweets, I’ll eat you instead.”

Anna slid off the flat boulder. “Shrink down. Then you can push your hand in and grab them all at once.”

She’d hardly finished speaking before the demon shrank. Its head sank below the tree tops, bones cracking and settling, until it was only half again as high as Anna herself. Greedily it forced its hand inside the jar, seized a fistful of preserves, and tried to pull them out. But now its closed fist could not leave the jar. It pulled and pulled, its grinning face blackening with rage. “I’m trapped! You’ve charmed the food!”

“Calm down! I did no such thing. Your hand is still too big," Anna said. "Shrink a little more and it'll come right out."

The demon hissed. It shrank a little more, its head falling to Anna’s height. Then, suddenly, it began to shrink faster. Its eyes widened. Its muscles surged like angry snakes. For a moment it sprouted upward, snarling, but moments later it was doubled over and shrinking again, faster than before, until it was barely as big as the jar. It leapt at her, long fingers reaching for her throat, but she caught it easily in one hand. In a flash she’d bundled it inside the jar and screwed the lid on tight.

“That’s all for you,” she said.

"Liar! Witch!" screamed the demon from inside the jar. It pounded on the glass, churning the fruit into mush. "You swore you had not charmed the food!"

"I charmed the jar," said Anna. She pulled out the stick of charcoal and scribbled on the side of the glass. “It turned your own power against you. You’ll stay there ‘till I decide to let you out. And I don’t think I will.”

"You cheated me!" the demon shrieked.

"I did not," Anna said. She held the jar up to her face. "We agreed I'd go free if I gave you all the preserves. Well, you have them, and I'm free. Enjoy your sweets."

She scrawled a few more markings on the jar and spat, a blue glow rising in the air for a moment. "But you’d best eat them slow. They’re all you’ll get after I bury you.”

"Do as you like," said the demon. "I am only the first. When Handsome Older Sister wakes in spring, she'll find you no matter where you hide, and crack your bones for marrow. If she does not take you, than Slender Younger Sister will. And if she does not, than surely Proud Youngest Brother will. And if all three fail, than you shall fall into the hands of our Ugly Little Brother, and him you should fear most of all."

"Shut up," Anna said. She stuffed the jar inside her coat and picked her way down the mountain. In one of the broken houses she found a rusted shovel, which she slung over her shoulder. When the moon came out she found a lonely spot, far off the trail, and there she buried the jar as far down in the rocky ground as she could. She kicked snow over the turned up earth, and shook the trees around the spot, until the ground looked as pure and clean as the first snowfall. Then she threw the shovel away and went back.

She returned to the town at midnight, chilled to the bone, soaked, tired, and told them it was done. At first the people in the town did not believe her. Every cracking branch and howl of the wind had become a monster to their imaginations. But as the sun rose, and no new footprints dotted the snow on the road, they began to rejoice, and promised Anna as much food as she could carry.

But Anna was in a reflective mood. “Don’t go dancing just yet,” she said. “If what the demon said was true, then I’ll be staying a little longer than I thought.”

“Is everything alright?” said the townsfolk.

“Near enough for now,” she said. “We’ll see, come spring.”

And no matter what they asked, or how they begged, she would not say more.
...in which there is a murder, a witch, a monster, and a jar of preserves. 

Consider this something of an experiment. I'm currently brainstorming a rather complex story, one that centers around the lies and inconsistencies in a cycle of folk tales. Easy enough, right? Except these folk tales don't exist. So before I tore them apart, I had to write them, and in a style as much like typical folklore as I could. 

This is experimental in another way. I'm not sure how much of an interest there is here for writing, so since I'm working on this anyway, I thought I might as well put it up. If you like it, tell me so! If something jumps out at you, leave a comment. I'm not terribly prickly about my writing, and I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Copyright Asher Elbein 2014, naturally.
 
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:iconparasky:
Parasky Jan 31, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Nice! I love it. Very folksy, with a Grimm's fairy tales feel to it. I look forward to reading the rest!
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:iconashere:
Ashere Jan 31, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
It's a fun change of pace from my usual writing. It's a lot more stripped down, and flows better because of it.
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:iconorionide5:
Wonderful! There's nothing I would even think of changing. Looks like the start of a great novel. 
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:iconkitwhitham:
This is the most chilling, epic, humorous, and foreboding stories I had ever read!! Very well done! I can't wait to read the rest!!
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:icondrakonial:
This is quite possibly the coolest witch story I've ever read.
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:iconashere:
Ashere Jan 21, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thanks! I'm looking forward to writing the rest. 
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