(1 of 1. Originally posted on October 07, 2022 for the prompt “The Cottage.”)
Jonathan struggled to quiet his breathing, but the primal need for oxygen overrode the temporal need for stealth. He leaned on a tree, gasping the ragged breaths of a scrawny boy not used to running. The shouts and crashes of pursuit grew louder each second.
Jonathan fixed his eyes on the witch’s cottage ahead. Moss grew so thick on the roof that it looked like part of the forest floor. A small window frame outlined a square of dirt that may or may not have hidden glass beneath it. A slab of solid oak served as the door, with a simple latch that seemed the only new part of the entire structure. He’d never met anyone who’d actually seen the witch. Maybe because everyone knew to avoid the place. Or maybe because nobody ever met her and lived to tell about it. Some claimed she died years ago, but not one of them dared to look into the cottage to confirm it.
A guttural yell of triumph spurred him on to one last desperate attempt at escape. He’d have no chance in a fight, and he clearly couldn’t outrun them. Summoning the dregs of his strength, Jonathan sprinted for the cottage door.
Heavy footfalls approached from behind, then slowed to a stop as Jonathan clambered onto the creaky porch.
“Choose your death, freak! You can come face us and die on your feet like a man, or you can hide in that cottage and die as a toad in the witch’s brew. I’m betting you choose the cottage, since you’re half toad already.” The bully laughed at his own clever taunt, but didn’t get any closer. Even the Havok Gang respected the cottage.
Jonathan stood paralyzed with his hand on the latch, crushed between the weight of two terrors. A dull thunder of footsteps announced the arrival of the rest of the gang. The leaders wouldn’t dare approach the cottage themselves, but there were always new members looking to show off their courage and usefulness. The bubble of safety afforded by the porch threatened to burst. Jonathan gulped in a deep breath, and held it while he pushed open the door and bolted inside. He slammed the door shut behind him and leaned against it.
His eyes adjusted, but didn’t show him much. Dim slivers of light pierced cracked timbers only just enough to reveal the dark outlines of a small room, empty save for one bulky shadow in the far corner. Jonathan shuffled forward, waving one arm in front of him to clear cobwebs, holding the other in front of his mouth to filter the dust he kicked up with every step. Terror pounded in his ears, driving him deeper into hiding.
The shadow in the corner resolved into a giant woodburning stove. The slightest tug opened the stove door without a whisper of sound. Before he could think too long, Jonathan scrambled into the stove’s black belly and pulled it shut behind him, trembling.
Another door swung open at the back of the oven, releasing warm light and the sound of children laughing. A familiar impish face appeared in the new opening.
“Come in, Jon. You’re safe here.” Sherry adjusted the glasses on her freckled nose. Her grin showed a mess of teeth untamed by the braces that clung to them.
Jonathan crawled into the light in stunned silence. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, but the cheerful room in front of him didn’t waver. A friendly fire blazed against one wall, and bookshelves lined every other wall from floor to ceiling. A pair of cozy-looking bunk beds stood near the fire. A table laden with various foods stood on one side of the beds, and a bathtub with a free-standing privacy curtain stood on the other side. But it was the witch that took his breath away.
She radiated comfort and peace. She looked like a queen-size feather bed, and smelled like fresh cookies. Her smile melted his fear like ice in the summer sun. “Welcome, dear. You are safe here. The witch stories will keep everyone else away. Rest for a while. Eat. Sleep. Read by the fire. As soon as you feel up to it, you can go home if you wish. You are welcome to return any time, and stay as long as you like. This place of refuge will always be open for you.”