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Witches and Ogres

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Once there was a girl who lived in a green place. She lived with her mother, aunts, sisters and little brothers, but no grownup men. They were the Many Mothers.

Her name was Furiosa and she was eight years old. She had a mop of tangled honey-coloured curls, green eyes and freckles on her nose. As her name would suggest, she was not a tame and quiet child. Although by no means the oldest or biggest, she was the acknowledged chief of the Swaddle Pups. She always had the best ideas for games and could be relied on to entertain her friends and adherents on the dullest days. She could fight and shoot and run along the narrowest of fences. Which was all the more remarkable as her left arm was missing below the elbow.

But stories were her favourite...

*****

The Swaddle Dog clan were hosting the Harvest Celebration that year. The first sister clan to arrive had been Hedgerow. Furiosa and her favourite sister Val (a pudgy seven-year old with long ropes of black hair and mischievous eyes) were in charge of hosting the junior Hedgerows. They were very proud of this. Furiosa loved being in charge. But it wasn't easy to put up with Zephyr and Div. Zephyr was a graceful, pale girl of ten years old, with wavy reddish-brown hair and supercilious grey eyes. Furiosa thought she was overbearing, bossy and obnoxious. Her little brother Div was slightly more tolerable, although he had a runny nose and kept breaking Furiosa's stuff. But Furiosa often broke her own stuff, so that didn't bother her much.

There had already been several run-ins between Zephyr and Furiosa about who was really in charge. And it was only the third day of Harvest.

That evening, as the stars were coming out, the Mothers were in the main tent, celebrating as grownups do. The children had been shooed off to the equivalent of the kids' table - a small campfire of their very own.

Zephyr tossed her auburn mane and smiled sweetly. "You know, I heard you were really tough - but now I see you're mostly armless."

Furiosa pretends to clutch at her sides. "Oh Mothers, that is just the best joke. I mean, it was really funny the first two or three hundred times I heard it...But after that, it's got a teensy bit boring, y'know?"

Nothing daunted, Zephyr tries again. "So, Furiosaaaa...how come you've only got one arm?"

Furiosa looks wearily at Val, who raises an eyebrow.

"Do you really want to know? It's a scary story. Might give you nightmares."

"Please..." Zephyr scoffs. "I'll risk it."

"Alright then...don't say I didn't warn you."

Sighing, she begins...

"About two years ago, we were on a trade delegation, Val and me..."

"...and I suppose you were negotiating?" asks Zephyr innocently.

Young as she was, Furiosa knew not to spoil a good story with improbable details too early on. So she merely shrugged and said "The Mothers didn't want to leave us behind, so we tagged along." However, she had vanity enough to add, with a confident nod "...But I will negotiate someday. Look, do you want to hear this story or not?" (Zephyr nods grudgingly) "Then I'll continue."

"We were passing through the canyons about four clicks northeast of here. You know those ones with the caves and sinkholes?" (Zephyr nods, looking faintly troubled) "Well, one night we were asleep in our tents, and I really needed to pee. Val came with me, and so we went to the edge of the camp, behind a big rock."

The listeners are tense with apprehension.

"I could smell something awful...like rotting meat. Suddenly I was grabbed from behind and gagged before I could shout. All I saw were hands, covered in blood and hair, and Val getting dragged away. I fought them and got one of them with the knife I keep in my belt, and then they hit me..."

"When I woke up, we were lying at the bottom of a sinkhole. It was dark, too dark to see, but when we felt around the walls, we felt things rattling and cracking under our feet. I reached down and felt a bony hand...There were bones everywhere...tiny human bones. We could hear singing and cackling above."

"Witches...! Ogres...! They're going to eat us! We have to get out!"

"We could just about see the moon at the opening of the sinkhole. We waited til the voices faded and we thought they'd gone away or were asleep. I boosted Val onto my shoulders and helped her climb up and out...you know Val's a great little climber...(Val shrugs modestly). She managed to scramble over the edge. But I couldn't get out...so I called up to her "Run to camp and get help!""

"And so I was left there among the bones."

"A little while later...the moon had shifted and it was all dark...a rope dropped down (Gasps of relief). I thought it was someone come to rescue me - but it wasn't (Gasps of horror) Hairy stinking arms grabbed me and I was pulled up out of the hole. They tied my feet and dragged me into a circle of fire..."

She paused, shuddering.

"What did they look like?" breathed Zephyr.

"There were maybe eight of them. Covered in fur and feathers. Carrying long sticks with bones hanging from them, rattling when they moved. They were all covered in red and black - paint or blood, I don't know. One, the smallest one, grabbed me by the hair and shouted in a hoarse voice..."

"Great Destroyer, we beg you - end our pain. We offer you the flesh of this child - may the world end and relieve us of our suffering!"

They all started chanting and rattling their sticks, and another one - man or woman, I couldn't tell - brought forward an axe...they held me down..."

Div, wide-eyed with horror, scrambled to his feet and pelted off, crying for his mother. Zephyr sat on, transfixed.

"I couldn't remember any more...just a thud, and a smell of burnt meat. I must have blacked out with the pain. When I woke, Madge and Iris were carrying me in a sling. I could just see my mother behind, carrying a shotgun. And the bodies of the ogres, charring on the fire..."

Holding up her stump, "...and my left arm was gone."

Zephyr suddenly put her hand to her mouth, as if considering whether she could keep hold of her Harvest dinner. She bolted, ashen-faced, in the direction of her brother's flight.

*****

Furiosa, delighted, rolled backwards and hugged her knees, chuckling "Oh Mothers, that was the best one yet!" Val, giggling uncontrollably in her own quiet way, gave her the thumbs up.

"I'm glad you both found that funny" a voice rang out from the shadows, making them both jump. "You're not the one who'll have to explain this to their mother..."

At the sound of Mary Jabassa's voice, Val checked her giggles and scuttled off. "I'd better see if they're alright."

"Yeah, you'd better" Mary called after her.

Abandoned by her friend, Furiosa remained unabashed.

"Why can't you just tell people what really happened?" groaned Mary. "You do this every year..."

"But the truth is so boring" whined Furiosa. "Compound break...infection...amputation. There's no good story in that...unless...hmm...maybe..." she stopped to think.

"Well, you've shot yourself in the foot this time. The Hedgerow clan have to go home via that very canyon you've just slandered...I'd bet that Zephyr and Div will be very reluctant to go home any time soon. We'll probably have to host them for much longer..."

Mary chuckled at the sight of Furiosa's aghast face. "Thought that'd get your attention."

"But when they do go home, it means they won't want to come back!" concluded Furiosa, happily, getting the last word as usual.