7 min read

Chapter 22: Blood in the Woods

Saffron tends an injury and learns another secret
An image of a stag is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 22: Blood in the Woods"

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“Saffron, come quick. Alistair’s been hurt.”

Sage’s voice echoed through the cottage. Saffron and Bear both snapped to attention, the cozy autumn morning they’d been sharing suddenly shattered. Saffron dropped the last bite of her toast on her plate and crossed to the door to get her boots on.

“Come on, boy, let’s go.” She needn’t have bothered. Bear was already pawing at the door.

Saffron hurried to town, winding through the narrow streets to the small room Alistair rented. She knocked loudly. “Sage? Are you in there?”

“Yes, yes, come in, hurry!”

Sage’s panic was obvious even before she got the door open. The air was thick with steam and the scent of blood. Alistair was laid out on the bed and Sage knelt beside him, pressing a length of cloth to a wound in his side. Blood streaked the floor from the door to the bed.

“What happened?” Saffron asked, already rifling through her satchel for her healing herbs.

“I don’t know. I found him passed out on the floor like this. It looks like he was attacked. I don’t have anything with me, I did the best I could to stem the bleeding but I can’t… I can’t–”

“Hey. Hey, it’s okay.” Saffron spoke soothingly. It was best for everyone involved, especially Alistair, if Sage could keep calm and help with the healing, rather than spiral into a panic and leave Saffron with two patients to deal with. “I’m here now and we’ll get him fixed up. You just do your best to slow the bleeding while I get this poultice ready.”

“Okay.” Sage took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay.”

Saffron prepared the poultice and brought it over to the bed. Sage moved her length of cloth away so that Saffron could get at the wound. Up close, she could see that it was deep and ragged and almost looked like claws.

“What is this?” she whispered as she pressed the poultice to his side. Alistair twitched on the bed. “It looks like…”

“Like an animal,” Sage finished for her.

“Like claws.” Saffron swallowed hard, trying to clear her throat. “Like a beast.”

“No.” Sage shook her head. “No. It can’t be. That’s gone. It’s gone. You killed it.”

Saffron shook herself. “We can’t worry about that right now. Let’s just get him fixed up and see what he can tell us afterward. I’m going to give him something for sleep.”

“Good.” Sage nodded. “I feel so useless. It’s like my brain went blank of everything that I’ve ever known about healing.”

Saffron put a soothing hand on her sister’s back. “Hey, you called me, so at least your senses didn’t totally leave you. Whatever happened to him, we’re best off facing it together.”

In the end, there was only so much Saffron could do. A poultice, a sleep draught, a few healing spells muttered over the wounds. Once they stopped the bleeding, Alistair calmed and fell into a deep sleep. She left Sage to watch over him while she began to clean up some of the blood. Bear made himself at home at the foot of the bed, keeping a watchful eye over Alistair.

He woke up a few hours later, tired and confused, and managed a few spoonfuls of broth before he fell back to sleep. Once she was sure that he was out of the woods, Saffron left him alone with Sage, with instructions to call her if anything happened.

Bear insisted on staying to maintain his vigil, so Saffron went out on her own. Her mind was whirling with thoughts of what might have left a claw mark like that in the side of a grown man. She followed the trail of blood out the door and through town, though she nearly lost it several times, and across the meadow into the forest.

The trail led to a clearing in the forest where the ground was scuffed with hoofprints and paw prints and splashes of blood. She knew this clearing. She’d been here before, on a snowy January morning after a stag came to the house in the night.

She followed her trail back to town where she stopped to check in again. Alistair was awake now and sitting up in bed, though he still looked pale and drawn. Sage was perched beside him, arranging his pillows more comfortably.

“I hear I have you to thank for my health, Miss Saffron.”

“It was nothing.”

“Not to me, it wasn’t. I think you may have saved my life. Thank you.”

“That’s my job. Besides, you’re basically family.”

“Family.” He shook his head. “I suppose I owe you both an explanation.”

“Don’t push yourself if you’re not ready,” Sage told him.

He took her hand in his and waved with his other hand for Saffron to sit down. “I don’t think it can wait any longer. I never meant for either of you to know. Or I never meant to hide it from you for so long. I didn’t plan to stay, and then it was never the right time, and then… well. Here we are.

“The truth is, I’m not such a stranger here. I knew this town well, once. But I’ve been gone for a long time. I grew up not so far from here. I was part of a big happy family that lived in a big beautiful house… in the centre of the forest.”

“Were you…” Saffron trailed off, not wanting to ask the question. Not wanting to know the answer. Not wanting to face the man she’d tried to kill.

“No. That was my brother. We were close, once. My family was powerful in the magical ways, and though my parents used their powers to help people, as my brother grew older, he became obsessed with the power and wanted more. He became cruel and twisted. He began using his powers to harm others, terrorizing the towns and villages along the borders of the forest. I had to stop him.

“The problem was, he knew every spell, every trick, every word that I knew. I didn’t know how to fight him, so I sought help from a powerful witch. I didn’t want to kill my brother, but I couldn’t let him continue. So I convinced her to help me change him. She would transform him into a skunk. A small, harmless, woodland creature who could live out his days in peace. In exchange, I promised her a powerful object that my family possessed. A crown that could restore any object to a previous state. She said she wanted to use it for healing.”

“She carried out her side of the deal, but when I went to fetch her payment, I couldn’t find the crown. My brother had gotten wind of my scheme and tried to use the crown to save himself. He tried to protect himself from the transformation spell, but all he did was warp it. When I came back to the house, I found him there in the shape of that beast, the poison already beginning to spread. But there was no sign of the crown.

“The witch became enraged. I offered her money or other artifacts instead, but she refused. She cursed not only me but the rest of my family to the same fate I had wished upon my brother. I’ve spent the past twenty years living in the forest in the form of a stag.”

Sage gasped. “It was you. You came to me in the night with a crown…”

Alistair nodded. “After Miss Saffron here did her business last fall, I found the crown in the ashes of the house. I got your messages, same as all the other creatures. I had seen you there at the house, too, when he had you in his grasp. I knew I could trust you, so I brought it to you.”

“But how did you break the curse?” Saffron asked.

“I didn’t. After you burned the house down, something changed. I woke up the next day back in my own form. But every night, I change. I go back to how I was. And that’s how I got this.” He shifted his hand to hold the wound in his side.

“Your brother…?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Just a wolf. I haven’t seen any sign of him since the house burned.”

“And the rest of your family?” Sage asked. “Did they come back to themselves too?”

“I don’t know.” Alistair’s voice was small. “That’s why I’ve stayed around the area. I thought they would turn up too, but I haven’t heard a word of them.”

Sage’s hand tightened around his. “I’m sorry. I wish you’d told us sooner. We can help you look for them.”

“Thank you.” He smiled at her.

Saffron paced on the edge of the room, caught in her own thoughts, but not wanting to interrupt the moment.

Alistair was tired again, and Sage got him settled back against the pillows. When he had drifted back to sleep, Saffron took a seat next to her sister.

“You’ve had the crown all along. Where is it now?”

“Gone.” Sage’s eyes were wide with fright. “I realized what I had as soon as he brought it. That’s why I told my friends to stop bringing me their artifacts. But I didn’t keep it. I wasn’t the one who wanted it.”

“Professor Burton.”

Sage nodded. “I took it to her the first chance I got. I don’t know what she’s been doing with it or why she didn’t act sooner. I’m so sorry, Saffron. I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s okay.” Saffron took her sister’s hand, and Bear jumped from his place on the bed to nestle in her lap. “We’ll figure it out together.”

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can find her on twitter or instagram.