Victims of Love
A Story of the Crow Witch
by Mike Phillips
Lights shined in the darkness, dancing amongst the trees, the unearthly glow flickering in and out like the fractured beat of a broken heart. Swept like pollen on the springtime winds, the lights traveled the forest, seeking a receptacle for its master’s affections, some flower to join with. But something was wrong. Something hinted that it was not love, but malice and sorrow that drove the lights on their errand.
“Did you see that? It looks like starlight come down to Earth, or maybe even angels,” said Jim in a quiet voice, bent forward as he looked through the windshield and into the darkness of the forest. “Oh, now it’s gone.”
It was a hot night in late summer. The moon was only a sliver of pale white in the deepening sky, allowing a few stars to show themselves in the opposing distance. Jim and his friend Bill had decided to get out of town, find a nice quiet place to talk and to listen to music, to enjoy the summer as only the young can. Bill had even swiped a bottle of whiskey from his father’s secret stash for the occasion.
They drove out a dirt two-track and came to a park that wasn’t much more than a wide place where the road made a sweeping curve as it scaled the mountainside. From where they parked, the young men had a view of the wooded slope as it ran down to Lake Superior, the waters looking as vacant as the endless sky.
“I don’t know,” Bill said, not at all listening. He set the whiskey bottle to his lips and took a big swallow, the rough character of the alcohol making him shudder as he forced it down his throat. Releasing a deep breath, he tried to keep himself from coughing but it did no good. He hacked in deep spasms, covering the opening of the bottle with the palm of his hand in an attempt to keep from spilling as the fit passed.
“Don’t know? You don’t know if you saw it or not?” Jim said, the spell of what he was witnessing broken as he turned his head to face the young man seated next to him. “What’s that all about?”
Bill was famously unconcerned. True to his usual manner, he checked his hair in the mirror and said in a tired voice, “Whatever snowy owl or albino deer or whatever else is so important just doesn’t mean that much to me. I just don’t care.”
“Shut up and take a look. It’s not any of that. Maybe it’s even aliens.”
Indulging Jim mostly because he didn’t want to walk home, Bill did as he was asked. He didn’t at all see what he had expected. It wasn’t some moose with part of an antler missing or a black bear with cubs. As amazing as his friend Jim would have considered witnessing either of those sights, none of these were what Bill now saw as he looked into the darkness.
There were lights down the slope. As the forest faded into obscurity for the nighttime gloom, the lights, perhaps as many as a dozen, turned round each other in complex forms that seemed at times to merge into one. Then just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone.
“Fireflies,” Bill said after but a moment’s scrutiny.
“No, too big, way too big,” Jim replied. “You think I don’t know fireflies?”
“Okay, college boy, you aren’t a zookeeper yet.”
Bill laughed, knowing the insult had hit its mark. “Same thing, whatever. But to us dummies who go to community college, it sure looks like fireflies. If it walks like a duck and quacks, well, you know the rest.”
Turning off the engine and pulling the keys from the ignition, Jim said, “You can do what you want, but I’m taking a closer look.”
“And what am I supposed to do if you don’t come back?”
Opening the car door and stepping lightly onto the gravel so he made as little sound as possible, Jim said with a shrug, “What are you worried about?”
“Being accused of murder, that’s what,” Bill said, looking up. He wanted to get drunk and didn’t have a mind to go chasing all over the forest.
“Come on,” Jim urged him.
Bill scowled. “Two guys go to some out of the way place like this, you know what people will think when they hear about that, then one turns up dead. It’s movie of the week stuff. I’ll end up doing thirty years with Big Ricky as a cellmate.”
Filling the void left by the radio was quiet singing, coming from somewhere far, far away. It was a woman’s voice, captivating beyond words, soft and sweet and filled with longing. The music drifted like dry leaves on an autumn wind. The sound of the singing called to them, drew them to it. They couldn’t help but fall under its spell. Bill looked at Jim and made a silly grin, needing no more convincing to investigate.
* * *
There was something strange going on in the forest. It was a pleasant enough night, but the insects and frogs were quiet, no longer singing out to their lovers. The wolves did not morn. Bats were not chasing after their meals. Miss Weigenmeister sat in a chair on her patio, a book closed in her lap. She had been about to go inside, but was unnerved by the quiet. Standing, she looked across a field that had been allowed to grow wild and into the mountains. Something was happening out there.
A soft breeze blew. Flower pedals, delicate and white, tumbled across the bricks of her patio. She was well versed in the local flora, being interested in the herbs most people shunned in favor of modern medicine, but these were unknown to her.
Rubbing the flowers between her fingertips, Miss Weigenmeister felt the softness of the petals, smelled the aroma as the delicate tissues bruised under her touch. She sensed the life within the flower, the possibility of creation that would never be realized, the end of purpose and the death of what might have been. The flower had been plucked and its usefulness was over. It would never now join with pollen. It would bear no seed.
With the flower fixed in her mind, Miss Weigenmeister reached out into the world, traveling through the nothingness to find the source of this new threat. She heard whispers of danger, felt the stirrings of magic. Darkness surrounded her. There was no feel of heat or cold, stillness or wind. There was only her mind and the emptiness, the flower and that which she sought.
Light bloomed before her eyes. She saw an open meadow deep within the mountains, the gentle slope running into a forest of popple trees, their bark seeming to shine with a light of their own. A trickle of water flowed through banks of rock and clay, growing as it went, possessing a life of its own. The smell of flowers was thick in the air. Wind blew through the grass, singing a song of woe and heartache.
Seated on a throne of living wood, a tangle of vines with flowers like horns pointed in expectation toward the rising sun, was a woman of strange and wondrous power, one of the enchanted peoples. She was clothed in a shimmering silk like moonlight and there were white flowers in her hair. She was full of longing and pain, and all the growing things seemed to share in her sadness.
Figures moved around her. The grass rustled with the passing of their feet. They were young men, all of them naked, dancing in a circle. The woman watched them with lurid fascination, but they brought her no joy, only more pain, more sorrow. They had come in answer to her call, but now she did not want them. Or if she did have a desire for them, it was only in their destruction that she would take pleasure.
Their eyes met. The woman saw Miss Weigenmeister. For a moment their minds touched, but just as quickly the contact was broken. Miss Weigenmeister gasped. She was standing on her patio, alone. She knew what was soon to happen and what she had to do.
* * *
Closing and locking all the doors and windows on the first floor, Miss Weigenmeister made her way upstairs. Certain she was alone and unobserved, she went into the bathroom, firmly bolting the door shut behind her.
Ready to begin, Miss Weigenmeister took off her clothes and folded them neatly upon the basin, chanting the words that would set her transformation in motion. The way of the change was in part the speaking of an ancient spell and in part the imagining of what it was to become a bird. She thought of the profound hunger and the wasting of the body as the cold winter winds blew and the snow piled deep in the forest, covering what little food remained. She remembered the coming of spring, the joy of winter’s end, flying high in the air free of the punishing northern winds, the welcomed heat upon her back and wings.
And in this way the change began. Looking into the mirror, Miss Weigenmeister saw her dark eyes grow black as night. The fine hairs on her arms broadened to shiny, black feathers. Her arms grew into wings and her feet to claws. Then all in a rush, the transformation was complete. She stood upon the tiled floor as a crow. With a flap of the wings, she was gone.
* * *
Taking the guise of a crow, into the night sky Miss Weigenmeister flew. Contrary to what their appearance might suggest, crows are children of the light and have little talent for nocturnal activity. All the same, Miss Weigenmeister knew that she must go, risk the hazards of the night, taking to the air in pursuit of the enchanted woman of the forest. When her wings ached and she feared she could go no farther, she at last found the clearing of her vision.
Marveling at what she saw, Miss Weigenmeister lit upon a branch of a popple tree at the clearing’s edge. Every plant, from the grasses and clovers of the meadow to the shrubberies and trees of the forest, was aglow. Each blade and leaf glinted with an unearthly light, pale white, much like the light of the moon, as if the plants were giving up what the sun had gifted during the day.
In the clearing, the men were yet dancing, stepping in a rhythm they alone knew, turning in circles around the center of the clearing. Their feet were caked with mud, their legs scratched and bloodied. Flies buzzed like mad, drawn by the scent of stale sweat. The men looked haggard, exhausted from their incessant display, and they had the blank expressions of those who had lost control of their minds.
Seated upon a throne was the woman. She had the purest skin, flawless, white as milk, with hair like spun gold and eyes like moonstones. Her features were ageless but somehow Miss Weigenmeister could sense the profundity of time the woman had witnessed. There could be no uncertainty that she was one of the enchanted peoples, but now that she had a closer look, Miss Weigenmeister thought she knew exactly what the woman was.
“Wood nymph,” she said to herself in amazement. Not since her childhood had Miss Weigenmeister seen one, but there was no way else to describe what she saw. Their eyes met.
“Come,” the wood nymph called out. She was soft spoken, barely audible, but her words carried weight, held command.
“I did not recognize you, dear child, or else I would have invited you sooner. Do you like my entertainments? Come, I invite you, such peoples as ourselves should be friends and share all that we have. Wouldn’t you agree? Please, do not be shy. I am Diana of the Lost and I am your friend, or wish to be.”
The wood nymph stood, her gown shining. She extended her arms, offering a gesture that beckoned Miss Weigenmeister forth. Behind her the throne of living vine grew up in her support, cradling her body like a lover. Flowers budded and bloomed, the scent of sweet nectar as pungent as wine and as dulling to the senses.
Diana said in a hypnotic voice, “You are from the old world also. Come, be my companion here in the forest.”
“Yes,” Miss Weigenmeister said in a daze, the fragrance upon the wind an intoxicant beyond any the arts of man could produce. She was lost to the smell of the flowers and the sound of the woman’s soft voice, all her senses collecting rapturously beyond her control. The gentle whispering entered her mind, became a part of her thoughts, was more important than any objection or principle. She took to the air, flapped her wings with no sense of flight, and landed on the woman’s open hand.
“Now my pet, come and kiss my lips and our friendship will be consummated. Be my friend. That is all that I will ever ask of you. Be my friend and we shall rule the forest, make these silly men our slaves, live as our people were meant to live.”
“No,” Miss Weigenmeister said in a far off voice. “No, we can’t, we can’t.”
“Certainly we can,” Diana soothed, stroking the black feathers, the palm of her hand warm and soft, as smooth as silk upon glass. “We are the enchanted, women possessed of great and terrible power. These boys are but playthings for our amusement. Look how they dance for me. Look how they wish to please me.”
“But no, it’s not right.”
“Worry not, for they love me and they will love you. Just be my friend.”
“Be your friend.”
“Yes, be my friend and you will see. They are happy to please and gladly give all that they have. And we will treat them well, as all good masters do.”
Putting a hand to Miss Weigenmeister’s beak, Diana of the Lost said, “But hush now, listen to my voice, be my friend. Forget all your worries. Just be my friend and everything will turn out as it should. These men live to please us, to serve us. Be my friend and…”
“No!” Miss Weigenmeister shouted, breaking the spell, turning her head in a flash and taking a savage nip at the woman’s hand. Then she was off, making a short flight to the ground below, careful to perch upon a boulder to stay away from the enchanted plants. “I have come to set them free.”
“Silly girl, I am Diana of the Lost, daughter of the trueborn lords of the forest. Here I rule above all others.”
“I have come to save those young men and I will stop you if I may.”
“Arrogant fool, you may not!” Diana said, her hands twisting in obscure patterns, the light of some magic fire starting to burn within her grasp. She raised her arms and the throne grew up around her, a thorny armor following her every turn. The whole forest seemed expectant, every leaf and twig a possible advisory. Diana was beautiful and terrible, given the power of all that grew, master of the woodland realm.
“Stop,” Miss Weigenmeister shouted, investing the word with command. Powers of the mind were her particular talent, and even in the guise of the crow, she could use those powers to great effect.
Diana lowered her arms. The light of the fire was extinguished. She seemed confused, but then in her eyes the light of reason returned, and she remembered herself once again. In a cold voice, she said, “Use my own tricks against me, I think not. Perhaps I shall trade with you in kind.”
In the beautiful woman there began a change. A white light surrounded her, growing outward, radiant like the sun. The outline of the woman that was could be seen through the brilliance, and as the light grew in intensity, she grew small, the shape of her limbs changing. Her nose and face curved in a beak and her arms grew thick with feathers. In a few seconds, she had transformed herself into a sparrow.
Screeching wildly, Diana soared down to where Miss Weigenmeister perched upon the boulder. Testing her foe, the crow waited until the last moment before taking flight, causing the smaller bird to cast herself against the rock as she flew away. But Diana was not so easily beaten. She chased after the crow, following her under the branches of the forest.
The night had not yet abated. The forest seemed utterly black, as dark as the deepest cave. Miss Weigenmeister flew with caution, hardly able to see, regretting her decision to go amongst the trees, a feeling of malice growing in the air like fog.
Something breezed by her face, missing her by fractions. The crack of a whip, a branch shot out from nowhere, striking her in the wing. She tumbled to the ground. The wound was painful. She had lost feathers and maneuvering while in flight would be much more difficult because of it.
The trees and shrubs reached out with skeletal hands. The grass grew up around her, enveloping her, the edges knife blades cutting her. Frightened, Miss Weigenmeister pumped her wings and was away, making a short flight to the safety of a nearby rock. She knew that she could not stay here. The contest would have to be joined in the meadow, and so to the meadow she returned.
Diana was not far behind her. The sparrow flew into the clearing, coming to rest upon her living throne. She had done little better than Miss Weigenmeister in the forest. Though she did not have angry flora to contend with, the darkness was her enemy and she was little tested in her present form. She had caused herself some small injury and the experience had left her exhausted.
“You look as bad as I do. Shall we talk, now?” said Miss Weigenmeister as they caught their breath. “I must compliment you on your choice of antagonist. Many would have chosen an eagle or an owl, thinking a greater bird more likely of victory.”
“Is it such a wonder to you? I have seen the tribes of men rise and fall, and have known all that happens in the forest. Only the sparrow and a few others are ever really the match for a crow. Might does not always make right.”
“How correct you are,” said Miss Weigenmeister, her voice becoming stern. “Can we not settle this contest another way?”
Looking scornfully toward the dancers Diana said, “Men, they deserve it.”
“Tell me why you have done this thing. You are not evil and I believe they have caused you no harm.”
All through the meadow, the plants seemed to wilt, to grow less alive as Diana sunk into a profound melancholy. “I am troubled, humiliated to speak of it.”
“Tell me and I may help you.”
The coloring rising in her face, Diana said quietly, “Sardis the elf, we had a disagreement. We quarreled and said things that we shouldn’t.” Her voice trailed off.
Miss Weigenmeister laughed. “All this hullabaloo over a man? You should be ashamed. It’s just silly.”
“I do feel rather foolish now,” Diana agreed, breaking into a smile.
“And what purpose does it serve? Putting these fellows through this, did it accomplish anything?”
“No,” Diana admitted weekly.
“You’re better off without a man like that anyway.” Miss Weigenmeister paused for a moment, thinking, and then her face lit with amusement. “Awful funny, though. And a few of them are, well, certainly attractive.”
“They are a handsome bunch,” Diana agreed in a lurid voice, looking to the men as they continued to dance.
Giving a crow’s equivalent of a sidelong glance, Miss Weigenmeister said, “It would be a shame to waste the show.”
The wood nymph shrugged. “Not a bad way to get over a lover. Unadvised, perhaps, but I would have let them go after a day of two, when I was done. I would have wiped their minds clean. They wouldn’t have remembered any details, just had the pleasant feel of satiation.”
“Then the only question left for you, Diana of the Lost, most honored and noble of the woodlands, will you be my friend?”
The wood nymph laughed. “Yes, my mysterious crow, I will.”
* * *
Mike Phillips is the author of Reign of the Nightmare Prince, available in fine bookstores, online booksellers, Kindle and Nook. His short stories have appeared in ParABnormal Digest, Cemetery Moon, Sinister Tales, The Big Book of New Short Horror, World of Myth, Dark Horizons, Mystic Signals and many others. Online, his work has appeared in Darker, Lorelei Signal, Midnight Times, and Fringe. He is best known for his Crow Witch and Patrick Donegal series.