Now Thomas screamed and started the whole room’s worth of screaming once more. Lord Reese tried to reach for him and calm him, but half the room’s women mimicked this, and when Thomas saw all their hands reaching for him, he turned and ran. His feet took him out of the inn, into the stable, onto his horse, and his horse carried him only so far as his hangover would let him. Then he fell off the horse and cracked his skull.
The innkeeper was the next to peek inside the room. “Girls,” he said. “Where are the lords and knights?”
“I am Lord Reese,” the womanly lord said. “My men are here too. We were transformed in the night by witchcraft.”
All the innkeeper took from those words was “witchcraft,” at which point he barred the room’s doors and sent a messenger to find knights, priests, anyone who could help in such a crisis. Those inside the room waited for three days, having nothing to eat or drink but bread and wine. The women who came from the tree tried touching the men-turned-women, but their approaches were shrugged away in fear that some worse taint would spread from their fingertips.
After three days, the doors opened. A legion of armored men entered the room, led by the master witch hunter, Ser Edgar Ames.
Lord Reese had never felt so relieved. “Ser, you must help us break this curse. Look what these witches have done to us!”
The witch hunter raised an eyebrow. “What curse? Who are you?”
“I am Lord Reese.”
An identical feminine voice spoke up at that moment. “I am Lord Reese.”
Lord Reese turned. Another girl opened her mouth. “I am Lord Reese.” Soon half the room was spouting it.
“No,” Lord Reese said, and the others took up the cry. He was a natural leader. That was why so many men followed him without question. Such a gift seemed to carry with these tree women as well, and he would’ve strangled each of the green-growth, Gilly-looking nymphs if he hadn’t been arrested before he got the chance.
“Whoever you are, you’re all under arrest for the sin of witchcraft,” Ser Edgar announced. “Your trial will commence within a day.”
The women and men-turned-women were dragged to the village’s edge, their arms and legs tied to stakes in the ground. There they waited under a cloudy sky, the once-men calling out their true names, the women copying them. All sounded alike, Lord Reese knew. All sounded guilty.
The trial began at dusk, out in the open. The witch hunter spoke while his men piled brush and dry wood around every stake. A great crowd had gathered over the day, from this town and others nearby, as far as news could travel in such little time. It wasn’t often that so many witches were burned at once.
“The guilty stand accused of having bewitched Lord Reese and his men,” Ser Edgar said. “Their whereabouts are unknown. The women here claim to be the lord and his men transformed.”
“And we are!” Lord Reese bellowed, but his plea was useless. Several women took up his cry. He couldn’t prove a difference between them. Then he saw a familiar face in the crowd. His skin was bruised and a bandage wrapped around his scalp, but he was certainly Thomas, the only man in the party to go unchanged.
“Thomas,” Lord Reese said. “Tell them what happened. Otherwise we’ll all be burned alive.”
Thomas tried, much as any squire would try for his lord. He told the witch hunter about the tree and the long night, and he said he believed that half these women were really the men, for there were many more than had been cut from the tree. His words didn’t move Ser Edgar. The witch hunter couldn’t trust the word of a man whose head had just hit the ground off a horse, especially one without noble blood.
Next the innkeeper was asked to speak, and he spoke of Lord Reese’s arrival and the morning after.
“And are there more women now than there were that evening?” Ser Edgar asked.
“I didn’t count,” the innkeeper said. “Could be more, could be less, couldn’t say.”
Lord Reese had never felt so helpless. At last it came time for the sentencing, though it seemed the sentence had been decided a day ago.
Ser Edgar stood before the stakes and the women tied to them, kindling piled at their feet. “For the bewitchment and disappearance of Lord Reese, and all the knights and lordlings and lesser men who followed him, I sentence these witches to be burned until they live no more.”
Torches were lit. One man-turned-woman screamed and the other women began screaming as well. The torch-bearers strode briskly through the field of stakes, touching the edge of brush here and dead sticks there. Lord Reese closed his eyes. He saw no way out.
A monstrous howl tore through the crowd, shaking the stakes and snuffing out the flames. Screams filled the twilight gloom, and so did a towering, bulky shape that tore from stake to stake, freeing woman and man-turned-woman alike. All the way it went on howling and soon the women took up the howl themselves. They charged after the shape when it barreled into the woods, and Lord Reese felt he had no choice but to follow. To stay here meant being put to death for crimes against himself. He ran into the woods. His once-men ran right after him.
They ran through darkness and trees, over soil recently trampled by familiar horses, now owned by the innkeeper. They passed a tree that Lord Reese hated more than he thought he could hate a tree. Their journey only ended when they reached a house in the woods where the air nipped the skin and chilled the blood. The hulking figure that led them opened the front door and ushered all the women and once-men inside.
Only when the door closed did the lord realize where he was. “I’ve heard of this place,” he said. “A place that is cold no matter the season. The place where a monstrous witch dwells.”
“Respectable lady witch would suit me better and you should say so,” the hulking witch said. “Whoever you are, your whole coven’s revealed. You’ll only find safety among fellow witches like me.”
Lord Reese knew she was right. Bad enough the women and once-men were charged with his disappearance, but now a well-known and terrible witch had come to their rescue, forever damning them in the eyes of the people.
“You’re a gaggle of outlaws and heretics now,” the monstrous witch went on.
“We’re not outlaws or heretics,” Lord Reese said. “We’re not witches or women either. We’re men. They’re my men and I am Lord Reese who rules this part of the kingdom. These women transformed us into their image. All this is a misunderstanding.”
“These women made you like them?” The witch squeezed his arm. One of the girls squeezed the other. “They made you young and beautiful and thin and firm and—”
“Yes,” the monstrous witch hissed. “How did they do it?”
The lord eyed the witch. Her face was full of yearning, her words filled with glee. She wanted this. For the first time since this nightmare began, he felt like a lord with some measure of control. “I want to be my old self again. And I want my men restored too. Can you do that?”
“You dare bargain with this witch, little man?”
The witch nodded. “Very well. Make me young and I shall make you a man, along with all your fellows.” She shook the lord’s hand and then rubbed her palms together. “Now, tell me.”
“We … loved them,” Lord Reese said.
“Loved them with your hearts or as men love?”
The witch gathered the girls close to her and began kissing them one by one with her ogrish mouth. They mimed her as they had the men, kissing her in return, and then they did other things. With so many women touching her, the changes came much faster. The monstrous witch shrank and shed layers before the lord’s eyes.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” Reese said to his men-turned-women. “Soon we’ll have our own bodies back and it will be as if none of this ever happened.” He expected a cheer, but none of the men answered. Something wasn’t right—looking at the crowd of women, he couldn’t tell his men from any of them. “Men, answer me!”
“Here, lord,” said one of the women. “I think.” Another woman repeated his words.
“Where are the others?”
“Where are the others?” the man-turned-woman said. “I mean, I don’t know. Why would I ask that?”
“Why would I ask that?” Lord Reese replied. The change did not seem exclusive to his body anymore. Given time, his mind was changing too. He turned to the less-monstrous witch, her transformation nearly complete. “Witch, break this curse right now. My men are losing their minds and soon they won’t miss them.”
“Patience, patience,” the witch said. Her hands patted her body, her hair, her face. “This is wonderful. Why would you ever want to turn back?”
“Why would you ever want to turn back?” the lord asked.
“Do not mock me, little man. There’s nothing making me carry on my end of the bargain, except that you and your stinking lordlings don’t deserve to look so beautiful.” The witch began mixing potions and powders. “A pinch of this, a sip of that, and a drop of the Good’s Green.” She reached for the bottle and then paused. “Strange. I can’t remember if this is the poison or not.” She heard several women repeat her, and then she repeated herself. “Now, why would I say that twice?” The words echoed through the room again. With so many women having touched her, the changes came much faster, even those in her mind.
Within minutes, not a mind besides the seemingly empty ones of the tree women lingered in the witch’s home. Words said by the lord or the witch echoed to and fro through the crowd, their messages mixing, echoing again as if the women’s heads were nothing but hollow caves, until the sound became a ringing, and the ringing became a voice that spread between all the women at once, a voice from before their lifetimes and yet was part of them all.
Their mouths opened in unison. “We are Gilly. And we were asked to perform a task.”
One of the many women grabbed the bottle the witch had been reaching for, and the others mimed the action in the empty air. They left the house and walked into the woods, leaving just minutes before Ser Edgar and his knights came roaring up to the house to burn it down They thought they were victorious and they were right—the house put up no fight.
On the women went, deeper into the forest, past the place where a tree grew half of them, and soon they arrived at Gilly’s little home. The crowd of women were a tight fit, but they all managed to squeeze inside and the potion was passed to the bedroom, where one Gilly lookalike poured it down the throat of the god who lay in her bed.
He murmured something, tried to ask if she was sure it wasn’t poison. Then his boils melted away, and leaves and twigs grew in their place. His skin took on an earthen warmth and he hopped out of bed, lighter than air. “You did it!” he cried. “Thank you, thank you, thank you all!”
The women nodded in unison. “We are Gilly. You are welcome.”
The god clicked his godly tongue. “But there weren’t so many of you before. You’ve been through quite an ordeal to help and now I’ll help you in return.” One by one, he tapped the women’s foreheads and planted a seed on their skin. Each seed slurped up a girl inside it, and then one by one he dropped the seeds down the last girl’s throat. Her belly rumbled and she moaned loud, but after a moment, she put on Gilly’s smile and Gilly’s clothes. “There you are. Worry not about any strangeness you hear, mortal girl. It’s no concern of yours what witches do out in the woods. After all, you’re not one of them.”
Confused, Gilly nodded. “But shouldn’t I be off to fetch your potion?”
The god laughed his way out the door. A few things seemed amiss about the world from what he heard from the birds. A lord was missing, along with all his hunting party, many women were blamed, a monstrous witch had ruined a perfectly good witch-burning, and yet it was all better now because a few men set fire to a witch’s house. Yes, the world seemed right enough that he didn’t have to worry about it, and he went off to join his fellow gods in whatever places they go.
Gilly had the feeling that she had lost a few days, but she didn’t think she would miss them. Nothing much changed in her life. At first there were more rumors that she was a witch, but then as less witchy goings-on occurred, the rumors of there even being a witch in these woods died entirely. Some small war went on over who would be lord of some place or another nearby and some knights were given honors, but Gilly didn’t worry about all that. She preferred a life alone in the woods.