Beth ignored the sweat beading between her drooping breasts. She stood in front of the fire tossing herbs into the only pot she owned. She’d rather be doing anything else on this scorching day, yet they would not eat if not for this broth.
She stepped away, hoping to catch a breeze outside. The stagnant air offered little relief. Beth unconsciously played with the skin tag underneath her elbow as she peered down the dirty lane looking for her daughter.
Still daylight. She’ll be back at dark, she will.
Worrying about her daughter was nothing new to her, but worse since the Soldiers of Christ set up tents outside the city of Lynn. They scoured the sprawling city daily for rumours of spell craft and witchery. As unlikely as it seemed to her that a witch would choose to live in this hellhole, they had no trouble finding them. Poor women, with no husbands to challenge the accusations and neighbours whispering they always suspected, were dragged to the tents. None came back home.
Beth was all too aware that it could be her next, or her daughter, Jennett. God had not seen fit to grant either with beauty, but she especially looked a fright with her thinning dark hair, spotty skin and crooked nose. Even the gutterfolk eyed her sideways. It was only a matter of time before someone pointed the finger at her.
She ambled back to the fire, flinching from the waves of heat that sucked the life out of her. Unable to take it for long, she headed back out to check the lane, back in to shake out the straw in her sleep pallet, out to check for her daughter again. Beth filled a cup with broth, leaving all the good bits for Jennett. She sat in the dirt at the edge of her hovel, keeping a wary eye on the rest of the gutterfolk. Some were not above spitting or cursing at her as they went by.
Beth stayed there, as the light disappeared to be replaced by the stars above. She waited while the sounds of the city died down. She waited as her daughter’s dinner cooled to tepid. Giving up and weary from her day, she crawled onto her pallet and slept fitfully, dreaming of hot pincers and fire beneath her feet.
She woke clammy with sweat, knowing without opening her eyes that she wasn’t alone. Jennett’s home!
“Elizabeth!” a quiet voice whispered insistently. “Elizabeth”.
Beth’s eyes flew open, and though she couldn’t see well in the dim room, this woman was not her daughter. Her sleep addled brain had no idea what to do. “Who are you?”
“I’m Grace. You have to leave now, the soldiers will be here soon.” Her voice was soft, easy to listen to, nothing like anyone she knew.
Beth sat up quickly. “Do they have Jennett, my daughter? She hasn’t come home.”
“Jennett is safe, but you are not. You must come with me.”
“Will you take me to her?”
“I’ll explain as we go.”
Beth followed Grace through the dark, eager to see her daughter. She tried to keep up, but laboured breath and weak legs had her falling behind. She wheezed, as she forced herself forward. She ought to be able to move faster, to get to Jennett.
Grace slowed when she realized Beth could not keep up. Coming back along side Beth, Grace touched her arm, whispered encouragingly. Beth hadn’t realized how starved for kindness she was. Those few words did push her on.
They cut across laneways littered with filth and excrement, veered away from the roads and hovels, stopping when they reached the half-toppled over stone wall that should be protecting the city. Beth took huge gulping breaths, thankful for a momentary rest. What am I doing running away in the night with a strange woman?
“Here, hold her for a sec.” Grace deposited a bundle into her arms before Beth could register what she said.
Hold her? She wasn’t sure if she had heard right, and it was hard to think straight with her heart pounding as it did. The bundle was warm. Beth gently pried a corner of a cloth away.
“Ohhhh”. Beth looked over at Grace as she climbed the toppled wall, awed that she had trusted the baby into her arms.
“Here.” Grace called from atop the rubble, stretching out her arms.
Beth carefully handed the child up, heard Grace scramble down the other side. Beth followed, scraping hands and legs on rough rocks as she climbed over.
“Where are we going? Where is Jennett?”
“We’re going into Lynnwood. There is a cottage deep within, where it won’t be found. You’ll be safe.”
“That’s where Jennett is?”
Grace stared at her for several moments, then headed away from the city. “Tell me about Jennett.”
Beth shrugged. “As a child, she didn’t like being told what to do, didn’t mind me much. She’d disappear, for a day or sometime two, even at a young age. I’d fret, but always she cam back with a grin and a bit of food to smooth me over. She grew up and was always bolder than a woman should be. Not a dainty bone in her body. Her heart broke when husband passed, she came back to live with me. She’s all I got, the only person in the world that ever cared about me. I wish she’d be a bit more afraid, specially of the soldiers outside of the city.” She sighed and looked back over her shoulder, then paused her stride. “I don’t want to go if she’s in trouble in there.”
Grace paused. “I’ve known Jennett for some time, she’ll take care of herself better than most can. We can go slow now, the soldiers cannot find us in the forest.”
Beth had expected the woods to be pitch black, but the thin pre-dawn mist glowed around them, as if the moonlight somehow reached in here, reflected off each bead of moisture. She couldn’t see well, just enough to see the outlines of the trees and brambles, to know where to walk.
“I visit the city often,” Grace carried on, “offer help to sick, herbs to relieve birthing pains. Jennett, she had a talent for it, she learned to heal.”
“My Jennett? A healer?” She thought of sicknesses over the years, injuries from the times when cruel words from neighbours became violence. Jennett had never shown that she could heal.
“Yes, only I haven’t seen her help anyone since Graham died. It’s like she lost a piece of herself, the best piece of herself. I haven’t been able to help her; its often cruel words on her tongue when our paths do cross.”
Beth heard the truth of it, the hard eyes that stared at her in the evening were no longer the carefree eyes of her wild child. “She took it hard, when he died, I reckon she did lose a piece of herself.”
Beth looked around, did not recognize where they were in these woods that she knew well. “How will I find my way out?”
“I will see you safely out when it is time. I don’t see Jennett often anymore, but she showed up at the birth of his here baby, unasked by anyone there. The mom was having such troubles, so I paid Jennett little mind. Bridget was born with the birth cord around her neck. I got her free, but under the cord, was a mark around her neck. It happens sometimes, when one is reborn and they are marked by the manner of their last death. I would wager that Bridget here was hung in her last life.”
Grace paused in her telling, as she picked her way through forest, looking over at Beth. Her unsaid words hung heavy in the air between them. Beth struggled with wanting to know more about her daughter, something that would let her know the odd girl better, yet the trepidation in her heart wanted to shy away from something she could never unknow afterwards.
Pushing her fanciful thoughts aside, she demanded the rest. “Your story does not end there.”
“As the mom pressed her baby to her teat, Jennett declared the child was born of the Devil, and was marked as such. She demanded the baby be handed to her. I remember her words, ‘suffer not the baby to suck on the flesh of the mother or the mother will be consumed and her madness will spread’. I was right angry at her, I was. She knows well that it was a mark of rebirth and not the mark of the Devil. Why she’d say otherwise, and why she wanted this baby I cannot say.” Grace’s voice echoed loudly through the trees, terse and clipped.
Beth pictured her daughter, heard the words in her daughter’s voice. It hurt that she could imagine them, that she couldn’t discount this stranger’s tale. “I never heard talk of the Devil from her. I can’t imagine her fearing after Him, nor even a spreading madness, as terrifying as that would be.”
“I made her leave. I stayed with them several nights to be certain she didn’t return. Then I got it in my head that I needed to go find her, to sort it out. That day, the one day I wasn’t there, the Soldiers of Christ took the ‘demon child’ and ‘the witch that had lain with the Devil’. A neighbour told me about it. I know where they heard that from. I’m sorry, but your daughter isn’t who she used to be. I don’t know how much light she has left in her.”
“She’s not past hope, she can’t be.” Beth stopped, stared suspiciously at Grace. “Why are you taking me?”
Grace turned, her delicate features clearly visible in the dawning light. Her eyes were soft and kind, a lightness behind them that offered hope. “You need to get away, the cottage will be safe for you.”
Little else was said, as both wound through the wilderness, each lost in their own thoughts. Beth’s feet burned from the hours of walking in sandals not fit for the trek. Blood trickled from spots where the brambles caught at her. She grit her teeth and tried hard to keep up, not wanting to be a burden.
Grace swung her head to see Beth, started when she realized how far behind Beth had fallen. She waited with a gentle serenity, humming a tune Beth didn’t know. It invoked feelings of love and laughter, feelings she wanted to hold on to or capture in a bottle to save for later. As Grace hummed, the area around them became less wild. They found their way onto a neat trail, well cared for despite being so far away from anything. The trees spread apart, leaving the sun pouring in on the path. Colourful wildflowers lined it, inviting her along. Crystals dangled from branches.
“What are the crystals for?”
“They are pretty, the way they shine the light around them, and they protect against dark spirits.”
Dark spirits? She looked back the way they came, through the tight trees. It was darker now, with a looming presence that seemed to watch her. “Are the woods haunted?” She rubbed the skin tag on her arm. She wasn’t scared of ghosts, not really, she just didn’t want to come face to face with the dead.
The cottage was just ahead now, at the end of the path. “You never said how you got Bridget from the soldiers, or where her mom is.”
A long moment passed. “While I was looking for Jennett, the cleric was prying confessions from Bridget’s mom, using pincers, hammers, and blades to force words that were not her own. She had not the strength to suffer their ministrations. I was too late in coming to save her, her light had already fled her broken and bloody body when I came.” Grace closed her eyes, murmured something to herself, to low for Beth to hear.
Beth’s gut churned, the imagery too strong to resist seeing it. “The child”, she croaked in an unexpectedly hoarse whisper. She tried again, “Bridget…?”
Grace hugged the bundle close to her. “No, thank the light and the Goddess, no harm had yet befallen the child. Children too young to confess are drowned at dawn, that would have been her fate. I will not allow that fate to befall her. She will grow up loved, we will see to that.”
“We? Do you have family in the cottage?”
“Yes, though not the family you might expect. It is a safe place, where we seek to strengthen the light. Before we go in, Jennett was there with the Soldiers of Christ, when I took the child.”
“They have got her then?”
Grace shook her head. “No, they did not have her. The cleric spoke to her, familiarly, as if he knew her well.”
Grace looked Beth direct in the eyes. Beth’s heart rate spiked, her vision swam. How much worse can it get?
“Jennett described you and where you lived. That mark you’ve been rubbing on your arm, she called it the Devil’s teat for when he visits you at night. She said you brought the drought that is killing the land.”
Her heart denied the words she heard. “No”, she offered weakly. “No, she can’t be so bad as that.”
“Her light has become darkness, her heart drying up. You have not lost your light. This is a place of healing, stay as long as you need.”
Beth numbly followed her inside. How did you fall so far, my child? Where did I go wrong?
She crossed the threshold of the cottage, felt as if a light breeze lifted through her very soul. Someone led her to a room. She ignored the wash basin and collapsed on the soft bedding.
It was another day before Beth mustered the energy to clean up and look around. She wandered down an intricate wooden spiral staircase, bearing symbols carved down the rails. The cottage was bright, with giant windows that kept it connected to the outdoors.
She was drawn to a cry coming from outside. She followed the sound, nodding to a man with long flowing hair and sad smile. She stepped lightly onto the deck. Beautiful, was her first thought of the lake nestled behind the cottage.
The cries came again, catching her attention. Bridget was held in the arms of a teenage girl with flowers braided into her dark hair. The girl gestured to the cushion beside her. This tripped her heart, this simple invitation after years of isolation. She took her seat next to the girl.
Her head pounded, her feet hurt, her stomach gnawed in never ending hunger, but more than that, her heart was weary. Wordlessly, the girl offered the fussing child. Beth took her, ran a finger down her soft cheek,through her thick curly hair, and gently across the purple band marking her neck. Beth cradled Bridget to her chest, dropping a gentle kiss to the tiny head that smelled like a mix of baby and a grassy meadow. She breathed it in deep, then let it out on a sob. Bridget quietened, held tight to Beth’s shaking chest. Tears that wouldn’t fall last night, came now.
Crying done, she stole a glance at the girl beside her. The girl had her own tears on her cheeks. “Where are we?”
“We’re at the cottage, an escape from our pasts. I’m Sarah. I’m learning how to listen to the spirits the way my Grandmama could. Do the spirits talk to you?”
Spirits, again. “No, never had no spirits talk to me. Grace brought me here, said I’d be safe here.”
“You will”, a deeper voice pitched in. “May I sit”, the long haired man asked, gesturing to a spot in front of her.
She shrugged, “Go ahead”.
“Welcome to our coven, Elizabeth. I am Maihal. We offer welcome to those whose light has not been lost.”
Her throat was suddenly dry. Her eyes darted to Sarah, who sat passively beside her. Coven. He said ‘coven’.
“Witches?”, she asked in a voice that squeaked.
His eyes crinkled as he smiled at her. “Witches, yes, and warlocks, as we are called by the church. The titles seem overdone for who we are. We listen to the whispers of the goddess and the spirits, sometimes they hear us too. The clerics and bishops would have us as commuting with the Devil himself, but far from it. We harm none. Can the church claim that, with their witch hunts and the countless thousands that have died at their hands?” Maihal grimaced. “I am sorry, I get carried away, but it is hard at times as we are hunted simply for existing. Never mind that. You may rest here as long as you like, a respite from your troubles, or you may stay and learn the teachings of the Goddess. Be at peace here, listen to your heart.”
Days passed as Beth waited for word that the soldiers had moved on. She made herself useful and found a peace she had never known. The unrelenting heat of the summer sizzled out, bringing in the fall winds. The soldiers left the city singing of their victories in the Lord’s fight against the dark. Not a day went by that she didn’t think of Jennett, didn’t worry for her, but she knew that Jennett wasn’t worrying about her.
Beth learned to listen for the Goddess, to find ways in which she could add to the light fading from the world. Recharged from her retreat, spring found her ready to head back out in the world, back to Lynn or wherever fate might take her. This time she was a witch in truth. First, she had to face her daughter.