In this excerpt of Fire of Norea, from “1992”, a young man named Clint unfortunately got lost in the woods of West Virginia and, more unfortunately, has been found by a witch and her kin:
Clint dangled from the rafters of the barn, a thick length of woven hemp twine wrapped around his wrists and shoulders. His clothes smoldered in the yard outside, where they had been thrown onto the fire of an open pit.
The old woman made her way into the barn, accompanied by four young men.
Granny: “Shorty, go take that thing off him so he can breathe. Ain’t nobody to hear him scream out here no how.”
Shorty: “Yes, ma’am.”
Granny: “Jesse, get that fire back up. We’re going to need it.”
She stood in the bay entrance, diminutive in the morning light, and stared at Clint.
Clancy: “Yes, Mamma?”
Granny: “Go open a barrel of hempseed oil. We’re going to need that after a while.”
Clancy: “What you want me to do with it, Granny?”
Granny: “Just open it and draw out a couple of buckets, so it’s not wasted. Bring the whole barrel in here when you’re done. Get Raine to help you if you need it.”
Clint looked at the old woman. She stared into his eyes.
Clint: “Heh. Hi, Granny.”
Granny: “I ain’t your Granny.”
She turned to Jesse. A small pot hung from a tripod. He stoked the flames.
Granny: “It boiling yet?”
Jesse: “Starting to.”
She walked over to the pot, pulling a leather sack from her apron. She drew dried flowers and berries from it, grinding them to dust between her crooked fingers. “Hand me that,” she said, pointing at the pile of split logs.
Jesse gave her the horsehair brush.
Granny: “Now bring that pot with you.”
Jesse pulled off his shirt and wrapped it around his hands. He lifted the boiling pot from the tripod and followed her into the barn.
Clint watched her. “So what do I call you?”
Granny: “You don’t call me nothing.” She stepped close to Clint, the brush in her hand, and studied his naked body. “Put it right there, so I can reach it.”
Jesse set the steaming pot on top of a short post wedged against the wall.
Granny dipped the brush in the pot and then leaned against Clint, placing her cold hand against his chest, pushing her weight against him. She held the tip of the brush over his heart. She brought it against his trembling flesh and painted a circle.
Clint screamed and pushed against the ropes.
Granny pressed against him with strong fingers. “Be still, child, that’s an awful distraction.”
Clint: “Hot, it’s hot!”
Granny: “Expect it is. Pine sap’s hard enough to work with, you don’t keep it heated.”
Methodically, the brush flowed over his skin and angular patterns emerged. She drew a circle around his navel, and then a crooked line to the one at his heart.
Clint: “What is that? What are you doing?”
Granny: “You sure ask a lot of questions. It’s as though you don’t know nothing about this world.”
Intricate designs developed over his chest and stomach. She dipped the brush into the pot and made her way behind him, her hands sliding over his bare flesh as she walked.
Clint looked down, surveying his body. “Look-looks like some kind of letters. Are they letters? Is that what they are?”
Granny nodded. “After a fashion. If I were to tell you so you could understand?” She pointed to Clint’s right foot. Jesse leaned over, grabbed Clint’s right ankle, and lifted the foot up for Granny. She drew symbols on the sole of his foot, on his ankle and on his shin. With the brush, she pointed to each set of symbols in the same order. “If I were to tell you in a language you could understand, you would see here letters something like the ‘Q’ and the ‘S’. And here, the letters ‘TTSQS’. And here, ‘YHMYW’. What’s all that mean to you?”
His eyes wide, Clint shook his head.
Granny: “Well then, they aren’t much good at being letters, are they?”
She painted a circle around his bare anus and surrounded it with more brush strokes.
Clint tried to laugh, but coughed instead. His throat swelled suddenly, and he panicked, struggling against the rope.
Granny: “Getting harder to breathe, is it? I expect it is, if I’m doing this right.”
Clint’s eyes rolled about, blindly. He rubbed his burning cheek against the coarse rope and thick saliva hung from his gaping mouth.
Granny spoke softly. “Close your eyes. That’s it, child, just a little more. You’re doing good.”
Clint rolled his heavy eyes in her direction and stopped breathing. His chest felt like it was collapsing on itself.
Granny moved the brush lightly over his eyelids, one and then the other. “Your soul’s moving up into your head. I’m going to trap it there.”
Clint’s body shook violently, bouncing at the end of the rope. A lonely wail poured over his dead tongue.
Granny: “You better relax, unless you mess around and choke on it.”
Clint’s body fell limp then and hung from the rafters.
Granny: “Raine, come over here and grab his head. There, yes. Hold it steady for me.”
She swirled the brush in the pot and painted a circle around Clint’s mouth. She fashioned symbols on his cheeks and then encircled his nostrils.
Granny: “All right, let him go now.”
Raine did, and the head stayed up on its own, still and erect. Clint’s eyes bulged in their sockets, staring deep into the abyss.
Granny nodded, smiling. “Good. Clancy, you got my barrel?”
Granny: “All right, you boys cut him down from there and put him in it. Careful, now, just set him in there.” She waved her hand. “You don’t have to tie his hands, he ain’t going nowhere. Just make sure he’s got enough of his head above the oil so he don’t drown. It ain’t finished yet.”
Jesse: “We got him, Granny. How long we going to leave him in there?”
Granny: “Can’t say. We’ll come back out here tomorrow and see what we got.”