They feared her in the town below. Hilda knew this, as she could see the fear on their faces when she went into town to buy bread. Her bread never rose, it would always fall in the centre. Hilda suspected this was because the air wasn’t as damp up here than it was in the valley, but she knew what they thought in the village. She could hear their answer whispered behind closed shutters and concealing hands. Witch, they’d whisper, hiding their children behind their aprons.
Witch. She could hear it louder today as she walked through the village to buy some mint. It shrivelled and blackened near her home, shaded beneath the dense cedar trees and old pines, and the feral cats ate what survived. It preferred the sunny shores of the river that ran through the village, where it grew too plentiful even for the rats to eat. She frowned slightly at the farmer in the market, who recoiled from her coins as if they might poison him. “No charge for the lovely lady.” He insisted. “How could I charge for something so plentiful?” But his eyes spoke louder than his words. Witch.
That night they came to her house. The cats scurried away in their wake. Not the one or two visitors who came to her dead of night, cloaks held close to ward away prying eyes, begging for favours, but instead a small posse of men, wielding torches and makeshift weapons. One stepped forward to hammer the cottage door with his massive hand. “Come out Hilda! The children are sickening!” The door remained closed and dark. He beat the door again. “Get out here, girl! You’ll undo this curse you placed us under!” Still no answer was forthcoming. He beckoned the men closer as he hammered again. “Last chance, Witch! Come out or we’ll see you burned!”
The door caved easily beneath his boot as the men poured into the small cottage. They cast about for their prey in the single room, eyes alighting upon the empty bed, the cold hearth. Not a soul to be found but for the ones they brought with them. Feline eyes watched them leave the room from the roof. Such fear. Hilda thought as she watched them head back to town empty handed, the moonlight reflecting off long fur. They will never understand.
Man was such easy prey, these men did not look back once on their hike back to town. But of course, they need not fear the dark with their torches burning brightly, and most certainly did not fear the black-pointed cat that followed their trail, eyes burning brightly in the moonlight. As the men slipped away quietly to their houses, torches near extinguished, Hilda shadowed Jeb to his home. He was the initiator to tonight’s events, he was the one who stepped forward, and he was the one whose eyes told a different story. Anger, of course. And fear, as always, but not of Hilda. No, his eyes spoke of fear of loss. He was the one whose child had sickened.
The houses in town were built strong and large, meant to last generations. As Jeb entered the home, Hilda slipped through a window left open. The concerned voice of his wife drifted down the hallway, mixed with the disappointment in Jeb’s, but Hilda paid them no mind as she slipped into the child’s room. The boy coughed weakly as she jumped to his bed, her tail twitching. His eyes fluttered open, bright with fever as he reached towards the cat, small hand feebly petting the long soft fur. She purred reassuringly as she lay beside him, licking his forehead which tasted of salt, until the boy fell back asleep.
A pair of footstep fell through the house as the witch lay by the boy, ending with a creaking door. Quiet reassurances filtered through the thin walls, whispered under covers in the neighbouring room, before quiet fell upon the house. With a stretch, the cat padded softly through the house towards the kitchen. Tomorrow’s stew already simmered over the low fire as her feline nose sniffed, questing for the scents of rot and decay. An old leg of lamb was found, showing fresh cuts from yesterday’s meal, and the moonlight revealed to her what human eyes may miss, small footprints on the packed dirt floor as they led to a crack in the wall.
As the fire crackled beneath the old black pot, Hilda stood in the kitchen, a cat no longer, and considered. The leg of lamb disappeared into an apron pocket, to be replaced by two heads of garlic, and a large sprig of oregano and basil for the stew. From a different pocket, she produced the mint she’d bought at the market, now slightly crushed. Deftly wrapping it in a rag, it was packed in the crack, a box of potatoes wedged in front. Pleased with her work, she slipped out the back, the light of the full moon reflecting off flaxen hair. From the shadows of the house strolled a new cat, long haired and black as night, save for a white star on her forehead. Hilda knelt to greet her.
“Hello, Mother.” She whispered, brandishing the rotten lamb. “The rats have grown bold in my village again.” She tossed the lamb towards the river, where it landed in the tall weeds, the scent of mint rising off the ground. Bring the coven. Whispered as she disappeared into the grasses after it, black pointed tail a-swish. We will teach them to fear the scent of mint again.