Witch Wife

winter was the night
I went to take my wife back
from the witch

snow broke its back
under my boots
as I trod out
across the wasteland
under the mountains

with me I had my sword
and whale-tooth knife

and braided the hair
wore down my back

I blacked my eyes
with war paint

fear was all I knew
of the magic
that made bare
my bed as I slept deep
from the hunt

‘twas said
the cause of it
was a flesh-eater

knower of women
breaker of moonlight

she’d made her home
of wormwood
and wolf spirit
running on many legs
where she bid it
so said my people
of the witch

she drank the soft strength
of men as soup
and went in a bear skin
to the woods

she ate of our children
and yet no-one killed her

for when one of us was sick
she was all that we had

our wise-woman had died
in a storm
that we’d thought
witch-sent

I carved a map
on narrow bone
and staggered miles
through
haggard wood

fiends howled
and cried
the wind’s competition

and as I walked
my heart was whispered to
by those
who’d spit my heart
over their fire

monsters I’d only seen
upon stone walls
were lashed with firelight

I watched them twine
between the firs
but nothing came for me
from the bracken
and the dark

nothing took me to its nest
to fatten its young
nor kept me like a dog
as the Gods
were said to hoard
our men

perhaps the forest
knew my purpose

I cracked the necks
of supple trees
to find a cavern
in the mountain

charms I saw worn
upon the pines
red wool and roots
lay down like death
and fertility

I spoke upon the doorstop:

“wood-birthed mother
hear me,
in this realm of spells
I ask for entry;
cold bed and hearth
left behind me

I am wretched in this reckoning

I beg your will: unwind
an unpleasance from the past—

my wife
so young and whole
you took her in

and I would have
that she be mine again.”

the door swung swift aside
in the breath of this

and in the wet and weeping silver
crouched a woman

beautiful in the face
as January morn
and wild as October
though her eight arms
were eldritch

black she wore,
the torn fabric of the night

and like so many fingers
crawled her hair
live limbs of filigree
caught up in spell work

she turned blunt eyes
upon me

“long cometh thee,
dread husband conqueror,”
she said
“of woods and ice:

weeks weeping
over pallet cold
and vacuous:

tis now
you take your sword
and run to she
you blame
without a cause.”

I saw, upon the walls
bottles of charms, and poisons
harsh in their handling
of the flesh

and lights
that did not all come
from flame
in their strange colouring

naught did I speak of this
to the odd woman,
merely of loss

“lady,” said I, “I’ve cause enough;
no blood nor stain
was there behind
from some starved animal

nor murderer of human hand–

the sheets:
they were still warm
and smelled of her

who else took
my wife from me
but you?

answer in lies
and I will know
so speak your truth

and I will seize she
for whom I’ve come
and leave you
swiftly after.”

the witch, she looked on me
with hatred, and yet
a fascination

as some cruel child may eye
an insect before it breaks a shell
under its thumb

I smelled about the witch
warm wax
and flowers burned

the ripe song of offal
and incense

the musk of sex
and the skins she wore
oily with the stink
of the bear
she ran as
in the woods

I heard within that cave
bell song
and breathing
the wet
of the witch’s tongue
unseamed
from her mouth
to speak

“brother, you are
a lord of war
and honour,
but you cannot
bind a woman to you
no more than you
can ride a storm cloud

nor drink
your thirsting fill
of the sea

no ring is emblem
of your ownership
nor promise uttered
into the corpse light
of day

an incantation
to seam a soul to you

you are unmarried:

she who was your wife
revoked you
and came, willing
as my bride
in shadeless snow

uncoupled,
thee I bid too well
back home
upon the frost.”

thus grief and anger
were my masters

I struck my armoured fists
upon the wall
and begged
to see my wife again

I would know in an instant
her loyalty
the sanctum of our hearts
in balance

and up
from the scarlet shade
she came

my rose-cheeked lover

sloe-eyed and mumbling
from a pile of furs
her yellow hair undone
her lips like fruit
from lands abroad

“you see,”
murmured the witch,
“she sleeps

sated
from a feast
that I prepared
for her,
and clinches wondrous

to she who knew
only the bed
beneath her chin
and nothing
of starfalls
until I called her
down
into the woods.”

my wife, indeed,
appeared quite dull
from pleasures vast
and sweeping
in their miracles

this I could not promise
when, in our village
we had gnawed boiled leather
so that we would not starve

and donned thin garments
more of stitch than cloth
to stave off the harsh cold

our prey was scarce
all beasts, enchanted
having gone up
into the forest
that we so feared
and dared not go
such was
its curse

all this I knew

and still I held my sword aloft
to call the witch’s challenge

no warrior
would I have been
to moor my quest
before I’d drawn
the blood of fiend
immortal

“sorceress,” said I,
“you cheat my folk
of flesh and bread

and now the feed
of love you make
your own;

this night I put an end
to scourge tyrannical
as your foul hand
has been
upon my village.”

at this the witch stood up
six feet in height
and pale of skin
that tended
blue and black
about her lips

frost-eaten
deathly and fearsome
was the measure of her beauty
like some cruel queen
of night

“then I must fight you
as a bear,”
she said
“as in this form
a touch of mine
would end you

such is
the sheer strength
of my power;

yet if I am an animal
then evenly we match
in battle

me with my teeth
and talons
to your sword
and mettle

face me, man

for he who wins
will take your wife.”

and then
upon her head
she drew
her skull-hewn helm

so when she stood
a witch she was no more
but bear obsidian

her teeth of flensing knives
and claws
cut jet, and wicked
their sharpness

raking white flames
up from the walls

up came my sword
from sealskin scabbard
and so we fought
in swings of silver

back I drew her
through the dire
and glimmering
cave

her blood, petrichorous
sopped air with salt
and crimson sweeting

mine she broke across
the floor like grog
on virgin ship deck
bound to sea

our shadows
fought their battle
on the walls

I staggered;
my left arm, unjointed
hung like a doll’s

and the witch
lost an eye;
through mottled red
she watched me come
to loose my knife
within her womb

then up before us
blonde as sun
my wife rose
to hold our battle

we dared not touch her

even as an animal
the witch knew her love

she was a beast on its belly
its broad snout bloody
thrust into my wife’s hand
where once
she’d worn
my ring

then said my bride:
“by the Gods:
I am no carrion
to be quarrelled over
by blade or talon

see me!
I am a woman
and my heart
will not be won
through war

I’ll live a life divided:
with men I’ll stand
in all the hours
of summer

then in the winter
home I’ll come again
into the witch’s lair
and to the bride
that I have taken
as my own

will you consent, my lovers

or else find yourselves
without me
souls unpaired
in the blistering snow?”

a silence came then
with the thickness of time
tipped down the mountain
all ice and stone

tumbled in the weight
of our lives we decided
in a moment

first spoke the witch
in bear’s breath bold
and deep

“love, what you should ask
then I will do,
or be

to object is not my dominion

I’ll do as you will
until your heart is dust
amidst your bones.”

but in my pride
I suffered

what was a man
to a magician?

what could I offer
a maiden

who, on cold nights
warmed her marrow
at a witch’s kiln?

a half life:
watching her kinsmen die
while magic proved vital
the veritable lustre of her;

in and out
the breath of babes
made meat
for eager death

I could not stand for it
for her, nor I—

and so I turned on heel
and put behind me
the thing
I could not have

the last I saw
before I soldiered slackly
for some frozen heath

was woman
blue, and blonde
bound together
in the shed skin
of the bear

they looked to me
no more than shadows
striving for light
in their
close
darkness

Published by (Not actually a Lady) Ruthless

I'm a Manchester based horror writer! Non binary. Stuck with this domain because I'm lazy

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