The Witch's Curse

Keith McGowan; illustrations by Yoko Tanaka

Henry Holt / Christy Ottaviano Books

CHAPTER
1
THE HUNTER

 
I DON’T WISH to hunt animals who were once children. But I must. I’m woken from my long sleep by Monique, the witch of these woods, and told whom I have to hunt next. I’m cursed, you see.
It’s a terrible fate.
If you are a child, you might well ask, What kind of terrible fate is that? We are the ones being turned into animals and hunted, not you. And I admit it. Those I gallop after, bow in hand, have it worse than I do.
It’s worse to be hunted than to be the hunter.
Still, you can’t imagine what it’s like being me. When I halt by the river so my horse can drink and I see my face reflected in the rippling currents, a villain staring back. I never wanted to be a villain. I was going to settle down to a grand estate—my family’s—with forty servants and a dozen carriages. Centuries ago, you see, I was a wealthy young man and, besides, a great hunter of animals. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?
My friends and I would ride into this valley. We’d blow our hunting horns, daring the animals to run from us. We always gave them a fighting chance, you see? Then we’d chase them down on our horses. It was a thrill, showing off our skills as horsemen and archers. I was the most skilled of all and proud of it.
Had I heard these woods were accursed? Yes, I’d heard that children shouldn’t enter the valley. There were rumors—of lost children disappearing and an evil witch who lived here. But I never saw the witch or any evil creature. And I wasn’t a child. None of us hunters were.
I thought, What does it have to do with me?
I learned soon enough, though, that the terrible fate of the children was tied to my own fate, as tight as my horse to its bit. That some of the animals we hunted WERE the lost children, transformed into woodland beasts by the witch Monique. I should have known. It should have been obvious. But they ran from our horn blasts and our horses just like the other animals. There was nothing in their eyes to warn me when I took an arrow from my quiver, nocked it, drew back my bowstring, aimed, and let the arrow fly.
Now I am cursed because of it, and the absolute worst thing about my curse is … knowing the truth. That the animals I now hunt—with my special arrows—once were children, they played childish games, and, just maybe, they lay alone at night, watched shadows on the wall, and dreamed of evil creatures that might soon be chasing them, like me.
So I am writing in this logbook of mine with the hope that it might someday get out of this accursed valley—I do not know how.
So that children may learn.
Because, children, I am NOT pleased to meet you.
And if by chance you ever do see my face, the one I see in the river when my horse stops to drink, then do me one big favor—if you can remember it.
Run! As fast as your legs will carry you. All four of them. I fear, though, that by then it will be too late.…
*   *   *
SO wrote David Bittworth one summer night in his stone lodge in the mountains, far from town or city. He wrote in a small book he called his log, using a stubby pencil he sharpened himself with the sharp blade of his cooking knife. Around him stood animals, forever still: a bear, a fox, a huge caribou, an opossum, an armadillo, a duck, rabbits and weasels and beavers; near the door that opened to the mountainside stood two wolves—they had been sisters, Lisa and Nicki. So many still eyes staring at him or at the crackling flames in the fireplace or out the dark window, depending on where they were posed.
Preserved, Monique called it.
David leaned back, stretching his feet in comfortable slippers toward the fire. He wore a white nightrobe that hung from his broad shoulders. He looked very strong. He closed the logbook and kept it on the arm of his chair, the firelight flickering over it, until he rose and went to the leather bag of arrows that hung near the hearth. He took that bag down—his quiver—drew out the magic arrows, and stuck the small book and pencil into the bottom. He put the arrows back, checking each as he did for straightness. Only the straightest arrows were good for the hunt. They flew accurately through the air then, and struck whatever he aimed at.
Or whoever.
Unlucky children, he thought.

 
Text copyright © 2013 by Keith McGowan
Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Yoko Tanaka