Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Skinless Hag

They were three old women who needed passage through the cold mountains.  Snow blinded them, cold bit at their bones, and a stranger watched their progress, yet they had marched for three days to reach the white, windy pass, and they had only another two left to their journey.
Nonetheless, they were three old women and they needed rest as would three wanderers or three warriors.  They cleared the snow from beneath a great pine tree and each set off to gather firewood as the night blanketed the mountains.
After an hour, each returned with a bundle of sticks, and the crone whose fingers remained nimble built a fire with flint and tinder.  Soon a roaring blaze told the snow to fall elsewhere and the three old women warmed their hands by the flames.  Two ate cold turnips from their packs, while the one whose teeth remained strong chewed salted jerky from with her big mittens wrapped tight around the meat as if the others might take it.  The one whose eyes were clear watched the storm swirl around their camp.
Beyond the firelight, a shadow slipped through the snow.
The crone called Fingers told the others this was so.  The one dubbed Teeth said she had noticed nothing.  The last woman, Eyes, said she had seen a shape, and the shape’s eyes had seen her.  The cold mountains were well-traveled and each woman lived in the region—each knew of what lived there.
“Rubbed Raw Snow Lass,” said Fingers.
“Scarlet Hide Molly,” said Teeth.
“The Skinless Hag,” said Eyes, giving the most common name.  “Likely been watching us since we wandered here.”
“Keep the fire bright and be willing to fend her off if she gets brave,” Fingers said.
“She fears fire?” Teeth asked.
“Perhaps,” Fingers said.  “I can’t say for certain.  But I know what goes wrong when the Skinless Hag skulks and the fire burns low.”  Her forlorn sigh was the kind only a woman can breathe.  “When I was a lass myself and lived on the north side of these mountains with my family, there was a winter when one mountain came crashing down, like it was all ice and snow, and no soil or stone at all.  The village was buried, as was my home, but we dug paths from house to house, and had food to last until spring melted the mountain away.”
Fingers rubbed her hands over the fire.  “But we did know the Skinless Hag was on the mountain, and to this day they say she brought the ice and snow down upon us.  Whispers traveled through the tunnels faster than men and all set fires to keep watch for her.  My home had little enough firewood, and one night when my pa was away, we heard her coming through the tunnels, crying of cold and pain.  My brother said it was a ghost and couldn’t hurt us.
“He was wrong about that and didn’t take to keeping the fire lit.  When it went out there was screaming and you’d swear another mountain was coming down.  I lit up the fire again like my pa taught me, and there my brother sat, a little blood on his face, but no worse for wear.  He tells me he fought her off, that raw woman.  But then the fire flitted out again, and when I lit it up again, I found hands on me, wearing his skin, only they weren’t my brother’s hands.  You could see her own nails poking through his fingers, long and sharp and black.
“I shoved her away with a flaming stick, but the fire wouldn’t last long.  I did the only thing I could think—put my own house to torch.  It burned bright and hot enough to melt the snow and let in the sun.  That’s when we found my dead brother, robbed of his skin, and likely that witch ran off with it.  Don’t know what she did with it later.  Maybe she wore it, pretending she was a strapping lad, only to lure maidens away from their villages.”
“Feh,” Eyes said.  “You never had a brother that handsome.  Not if he looked like you.”
Fingers nodded.  “This was many years ago.  I suppose such a skin shriveled up, even up here in the cold.”
“No one’s skin lasts long up here,” Teeth said, lowering her jerky.  “Be it on a live man or a dead woman, it’ll turn red, and then black, and it won’t be good to anyone.  Same was true for Scarlet Hide Molly.”
“Said that name before,” Eyes said.  “My eyes might be best, but my ears are fine as well.  She some girl who came up here to die?”
Teeth nodded.  “Yes, but not like you think.  Molly is the Skinless Hag.”  Firelight glowed off the old woman’s teeth.  “In days past, these mountains weren’t always cold and most anyone would have the legs and will to pass through them, even a slip of a girl like Molly.  Of course, it wasn’t always decent folk who’d come wandering by.  Not at all, ladies.  Up in the higher peaks, you’d have ruffians, outlaws, and savage men.
“One day, Molly comes through with a song on her lips and flowers in her basket, and she stops to pick a few more.  That’s when the shadows fall on her, not three, not ten, but thirteen, and they all belong to the worst lot of men you’d ever seen.  They want all she has to give, but this Molly comes from tough blood and old stones, so she fights them like a wild cat. 
“The men knock her down and say she’s dead.  They go about taking the few copper coins she had, but they got nothing else to get from her, to hear it said by men of the cities.  But the mountain men weren’t all from cities, ladies.  They figure, if her hide isn’t good alive, it’s good dead.  So they take out their knives and cut the skin from her, leaving nothing but a red mess where a girl had been.
“Only this girl isn’t dead then, not yet.  She chases after the lot, wanting her skin back, and they don’t notice since they don’t think anyone’s around to follow.  Up, up, up they climb, up to the mountain peaks where the savages camp.  When all goes quiet and dark, Scarlet Hide Molly sneaks in and slits their throats.  She’s looking for her skin, looking everywhere, and finds it’s already dried by the fire.  Could only make a vest out of it, if you stretched it thin.
“Some say she dies then, but I say she doesn’t.  I say she goes around that camp, cutting the men’s flesh, learning how to skin them one by one until she can peel it off with nothing but her fingernails.  Then she cuts out their bones and breaks them up, so they can’t go looking for their own skins.  No rest for the wicked, they say, and she won’t let them have it.  When all the bones are powder, filling up some big bowl, she tosses the stuff over the mountainside and all the bones dust up the air.  Ever since, the mountains have gotten dusty, cold enough so Molly’s flesh don’t rot, but too cold for her to get a real skin.  Those killers’ skins kept her raw flesh warm for a while, but all this time since she needs new hides to cover herself.  Can’t leave on account of cold keeping her going and can’t quit killing or the cold will kill her.”
“Was your husband a fisherman?” Eyes asked.
“Might be.”  Teeth shrugged.  “Why you say that?”
“Because that sounds like a fishwife’s tale.  These mountains have been cold all my life.”
“How old are you?” Fingers asked.
“Old enough not to answer that,” Eyes said.  “Never heard the tale either.”
“Might be your ears are going after all,” Teeth said.
“Not so.  I hear that Skinless Hag creeping closer when even I can’t see in the dark so well.  Crunch, crunch, that’s how she goes in the snow.”  Firelight flickered in the old woman’s eyes, and Eyes went on.  “I also heard some men were killed here just last week, her most recent slaying.  Band of sellswords, I hear.  They were coming over the mountain one way or the other for one war or another.  Had a local guide who warned them not to head through at night, but it was some emergency, or so I’ve heard.”
Eyes lifted a shriveled finger.  “Only that boy who was leading them made it out.  He came down from the slopes and met a few of those sellswords’ friends, told them they were gone, that the Skinless Hag had them.  Those friends spit in his face, told him no woman would get the best of their company, and they went marching into the mountains as well.  Not a one came out.”
“As it is with the Skinless Hag,” Fingers said.  “Gone to the cold mountains, and never seen again.”
“None of them went home, true,” Eyes said.  “Didn’t say no one saw them again.  That guide went back in, maybe looking to get even, maybe looking to get money, but he didn’t find payback or pay.  Middle of the mountain pass, he looked up during the dawn as the sun was just coming up behind the slopes, and there he saw the black shapes.  At first he thought they were flags and banners from the sellswords’ camp.
“Then the sun came up a little more and he saw a little better.  The sellswords’ swords were dug in the snow, and from the hilts flew their hides, like the banners of the Skinless Hag herself.  She’s not keeping warm.  The skins are her bloody trophies and a warning for all good people to keep clear of the pass.”
“So we’re not good people then?” Fingers asked.
“Don’t live to our age by being good,” Teeth said.
“Might not live much past this age,” Eyes said.  “The shape of her is upon us.”  She pointed.
Fingers turned to follow the finger and grasped a burning stick from the fire.  “You keep back, witch or ghost, or whatever you may be.  Go bloody the snow around someone else.”
“That’s right, you shove off,” Eyes said, standing.  “You’re not about to make us your next skinned sacks of meat.”
“Too late,” a voice croaked from out in the shadows.  A red, skinless hand breached the outermost firelight and a shivering, crimson creature clambered through the snow.
“It’s not too late,” Fingers said, waving her skinny torch.  “I’ll burn out both your eyes and that’ll be the end of that.”
“I just told them what you’ve been up to most recent and we’re not ready to be your bloody banners,” Eyes said.
“I’m what she’s been up to most recent,” the red thing rasped.  The creature dragged herself closer to the fire.  She was a cringing old woman, missing the skin of her limbs, her body, and her face.  Nothing looked all that strong about her but the teeth, pearly white and all present.
Fingers and Eyes turned back from her to Teeth.  She swallowed her last bit of jerky, grinned a glowing set of incisors, and peeled the face from her flesh with long, black nails, unbidden from their mittens.  “I say she lives,” the red woman said.  “And I say this skin’s gone cold already.”  A clump of snow crashed through the fire then, dousing the place beneath the tree in darkness, and the Skinless Hag leaped on Fingers and Eyes, who both still had their skins.
No one came down the other side of the mountains that night and none on the next day.  Some told of travelers who had left one side and weren’t seen on the other.  They were seen by one man who spied hides flying from the ends of burnt sticks, but he didn’t know their names and told only briefly of them when he returned home.
They were three old women whose screams echoed through the cold mountains.

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