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Chapter 1: April 1645
The cunning woman's granddaughter is chasing a pig when she learns there is to be no frolicking in the village on May Morning. Minister's orders.
"Bogger...that," she pants. "And bogger...this...pig. There's no...catching...him...."
Clutching her sides, she gives up the chase and collapses, laughing, against the gnarled trunk of a tree. Above her head pink blossoms shake like fairy fists. Spring has arrived. A beautiful time. A time when it feels absolutely right to think of dancing barefoot in the dew, and absolutely wrong to dwell on the new minister, with his miserable ways and face like a trodden parsnip.
"That's what they be saying," the blacksmith's son tells her. "No pole. No goin' off into the woods. No nothing.
It ain't godly, Nell, to frolic so. That's what the minister reckons."
Nell picks a blade of new grass and begins to chew it. Her stomach rumbles beneath her apron, but she is used to that. Out of the corner of her eye she can see the pig rooting around. It is a bad pig. A bothersome pig. Her granny will sort it out. This is how:
A SPELL TO SOOTHE A TRUCULENT PIG
First, catch your pig. Do it on a Monday,
on a waning moon, when the time be right for healing.
Point him to the north, and hang on tight.
Rap his snout three times with a wand of oak, and call: "Powers of earth, tame and soothe this creature that he
may become docile and no longer a bogging nuisance."
Wait seven beats of the heart, then let him go.
So mote it be.
A light breeze frisks the orchard. There are things Nell ought to be doing, but she stays where she is, squinting up at the blacksmith's son and thinking about May Morning.
"And who be you wishing to frolic with, anyway, Sam Towser?" She chuckles. "As if I couldn't guess..."
The lad reddens. He is a month short of sixteen and all swept through with the kind of longings that can tie up a boy's tongue and have him tripping over everything, from clods of earth to his own great feet, twenty times a day. He has a mop of corn-colored hair and a cleft in his chin so deep, it might have been pressed there by his guardian angel. He is too ungainly; too unfledged, as yet, to be truly handsome. But he will be. The promise of it is all about him, like the guarantee of a glorious day once some mist has cleared.
"No one," he mumbles. "I got horses to see to. No time for fumblin' around with some daft maid on May Mornin', nor any other time."
"Pah! That's a fib!" Nell flings both arms wide and twists her face to look like a parsnip. "Beware, sinner! Beware what you say! Repent! Repent! For Satan loves a fibber and will carry you off to burn in Hell. In Hell, I tell you, where fibbers go. And frolickers. And women who wear scarlet ribbons or sweep their hearths on Sundays "
"Hush...Hush up, you daft wench."
"Repent! Repent! For I am your minister. God's representative in this heathen place. Repent! For though my nose drips, and I do not know a hoe from my "
" elbow, I know a sinner when I see one. And a fibber. And a frolicker. All rolled into one vile, wretched "
" body and a...yieeek!"
He has pounced and is tickling her tickling her to what feels like a giggly death while the sun pours down like honey and the truculent pig looks on in mild surprise.
"You two! Have a care! Mind that tree, and stop your messing."
A woman has entered the orchard. She stands some distance away, almost in the nettles. Her face, beneath a bonnet the color of porridge, is grave.
"What?" Nell scrambles to her feet. "What is it, Mistress Denby? What's happened?"
The blacksmith's son gets up. There are twigs and fallen petals in his hair. He looks like Puck. He looks drop-dead frolicsome.
"Gotter go," he mutters. "I got horses to see to."
The woman and the girl pay him no mind. They have already jumped the stile and are hurrying away, along the crooked path leading down to the village. Women's stuff, he supposes. Someone getting born. Or dying. Or doing both in the space of a few breaths.
He doesn't want to be seen trotting at the heels of womenfolk, toward whatever, or whoever, needs their attention in some fusty room. The sun is high now, and he has his own ritual to perform.
The apple tree he chooses is truly ancient; its timber as knotted as a crone's shins, its blossom strangely pale. No one knows how long it has stood here or why it was planted alone. Much older than the rest, it continues to bear fruit so sweet that to press cider from it, and drink the stuff, is said to send the mind dribbling out of the nostrils and the legs in several directions at once.
It is to this tree the Apple Howlers come, on Twelfth Night, to scare away evil spirits. It is here that they form their circle raggle-taggle villagers, young and old, banging pails and pots and howling "Hats full! Caps full! Bushels, bushels, sacks full!" loud enough to wake the dead.
It is on these branches, and around this trunk, that the Howlers hang their amulets and leave cider-soaked toast for the piskies. The orchard swarms with piskies. Everyone knows that. Little folk in rags, their skin as rough as bark, their heads sprouting lichen and moss. A few are downright malicious; the rest, merely troublesome and high-spirited. All are uglier than dead hedgehogs and as greedy as swine. Over the hills, in a neighboring county, lies fairy territory a prettier species, by far, the fairies, but just as pesky, so rumor has it...just as demanding of treats, and remembrance.
Be good to the piskies, the old folk say hereabouts, and they will be good to you. Treat them with respect, on Twelfth Night, and they will stay by the trees, watching over the fruit until picking time comes.
The cider-soaked toast has been eaten long ago by robins and other things. But the amulets are still here, swaying gently at the end of their strings, like small, hanged felons.
"May I?" says the blacksmith's son before pressing the point of a horseshoe nail into the old tree's trunk.
Yep, something replies, the sound of it such a faint rasp that the blacksmith's son assumes the pig has farted.
Slowly, carefully, he begins to cut. Not his full name Samuel for he isn't sure of all the letters. A single "S" is the mark he makes, the downstroke wobbly as a caterpillar against the wood. He can't spell the other name, either. The one that is on his mind day and night. The one he only has to hear, in passing, for a fluttering to start in his belly, as if larks are nesting there.
He knows his alphabet, though. Just. And he knows, from the way the girl's name is said, which letter he needs to entwine with his own. It is one of the tricky ones that sound different, depending on the word. As the metal point of the nail forms the letter's curve, he finds himself wishing it made a soft sound like the beginning of "gentle." He would have liked that. It would have seemed significant.
The girl's name, though, begins with a hard "G," like "gallows" or "god."
When he has finished, he steps back to inspect what he has done. And then he sees one. At least, he thinks he does. There and gone it is, between knots of blossom, its face as coarse and gray as the tree, its small, bright eyes fixed intently on the "S" and the "G."
He looks quickly, all around, and then back again. Nothing. There is nothing there. A trick of the light, perhaps? But, no...His sight is good, and he isn't given to fancies.
He stays a minute more, half dreading, half hoping to see the thing again. What did it mean? Was it lucky, to see a piskie when you were a month short of sixteen and so desperate to get your hands on a certain someone that you would probably die of frustration if it didn't happen soon?
Did it mean that he would?
It takes just seconds for the blacksmith's son to convince himself that he has been sent an auspicious sign. That, come May Morning, he will be frolicking away to his heart's content with the girl whose name begins with a hard-sounding "G."
She will be all over him like a vine yes, she will after all she is the minister's daughter and seems as distant, and cool, as a star. He will have her. No doubt about it. For they are joined, already, in his mind, and on the tree. And their union has been blessed. He has the piskie's promise.
The blacksmith's son feels light on his feet as he swings himself over the stile, and he is whistling as he strides away.
Silly young bogger...goes the sighing and the rasping among the topmost branches of the trees. Silly little whelp. And the letters "S" and "G" begin slowly turning brown, the way a cut apple will do or naked flesh beneath hot sun.
All the way down the path, Mistress Denby had gone rambling on about a pot lid: "That pot lid's about to fall. Things be boiling up quick a bit too quick, if you asks me. There'll be trouble with this one, you mark my words."
Nell had simply nodded and hurried on. She understood. The Bramlow baby is coming, and coming faster than a snowball down a hill. But you never, ever, spoke of these matters outdoors, lest piskies should overhear and come to steal the newborn away. No piskie would be interested in something as boring as a pot lid although Nell often wonders what they make of a village in which pots boil over with alarming frequency, and their lids, when that happens, seem so fragile and important.
Now, beneath the eaves of a squat little cottage, the Bramlows' pot lid is giving everyone the worries. The Watchers all mothers themselves shake their heads and grunt, sympathetically, as the person lying prone on a straw pallet arches her spine and hollers. Her belly, rippled across by contractions, is so huge that she can barely lift herself.
Somewhere in the room a fly buzzes. It has been trying to escape, but the bedroom door is closed tight, and a rough piece of wood, wedged into the window space, is keeping light, air, and piskies out and heat, flies, and anxiety in.
Nell takes a damp rag from her grandmother and begins to wipe Mistress Bramlow's face. She does it reluctantly but with care, as if the sweaty forehead and cheeks were made of red glass. This is her first time in a birthing room, and she has to get everything right. It is important.
The Watchers' eyes, flint-sharp above the glow of their candles, follow every dab and stroke of that rag. Nell takes a deep breath, dips the wad of material three times in a bowl of water, whispers five words, then wrings it out.
"Good girl. That's the way," murmurs the cunning woman. But whether she means her granddaughter or the heaving, panting soul beneath her hands, Nell cannot tell.
The Watchers shift. It isn't regular to have an unwed maid in on a birth. It goes against the grain, and who knows what trouble that might lead to? The Watchers know best or, at least, they think they do. There are gaggles of women like these in villages all over England. Women who gather, as a matter of course, at every birth and death within walking distance. Women who are always first to throw something pulpy and rotten at whoever is slumped in the stocks. Women who like nothing better than a good hanging.
Elsewhere, they are known by other names. Here, though, everyone calls them the Watchers. No one can remember why, but it is probably because whole generations of them have been particularly dour and scarily attentive.
Right now they are directing black looks at Nell, as if they don't even trust her to wipe a birthing woman's chin without mishap.
The cunning woman, sensing an ill mood, looks up, frowning.
"My granddaughter is here to learn," she says. "Or would you rather those yet to be born were left to the mercy of nature and your own cack-handed tuggings once I am dead and in my grave?"
The Watchers lower their eyes. They will keep their own counsel for now.
"Right." The cunning woman bends back to her task. "Good girls."
The trapped fly is crawling up the pallet. It can smell birth fluid and will soon be landing where it shouldn't. Once, the cunning woman would have known it was there and willed it away. Not anymore. She has aged much over the last few moons. Her touch has a tremble to it, and she has difficulty, sometimes, recalling a surefire cure for warts or the correct spell to mend a broken heart. This vagueness has come upon her suddenly, and no one not even the Watchers, who don't usually miss a thing knows quite how splutter-minded she has become.
Time is running out for the cunning woman, and there are certain skills she needs to pass on. Nell is young and wild, but the gift of healing is in her. She will learn fast and make a fine midwife.
The laboring woman howls like a thing in a trap as a fresh wave of pain grips her innards. "Get away from me!" she yells, hitting out at Nell's hands. "Go play hide-and-peep out-o'-doors with all the other brats. Go on, you little streak of cat's piss. I want no unweds here."
Knowing looks pass among the Watchers.
Nell flushes to the roots of her raggedy hair. "Bogger it," she says, setting aside the sweaty rag. "I'm off."
She stamps her feet, deliberately, as she heads for the door. The Watchers tut as she passes, cupping work-swollen fingers around their candle flames so they won't blow out in the draught of her leaving.
"You'll stay," snaps the cunning woman. "And you'll learn. And the first thing you'll learn is that when a birthing woman gets nasty, 'tis time for her to push."
"Oh," says Nell. She is at the door now and can see most of what is happening to the parts of Mistress Bramlow where pot lids come out. "Oh," she says again.
It's not that she is squeamish. No country girl, used to the birthings of piglets and calves, kittens and lambs, would find any of this repulsive. It is just...it is just...
"Think I'll go anyways," she murmurs. "Afore I does something wrong."
"You'll stay," the cunning woman repeats. "And the second thing you'll learn is whether an unborn be ripe enough to drop. Get here. Aside of me. Now."
Slowly, dragging her dirty heels, Nell does as she is told.
Mistress Bramlow has heaved herself up onto her elbows and is glaring over the mountain of her belly. "'Tis coming too fast," she pants. "Too fast....I ain't had the pains more than two blessed hours."
The Watchers' heads nod. Too fast...Not good...
"Hush now." The cunning woman is greasing her granddaughter's right arm with goose fat. Up and around each finger she goes, then over the wrist and down to the elbow, with swift, slick strokes.
Nell blinks. "That pig be on the loose still, up in the orchard," she says. "'Tis him I oughter be gettin' to grips with this day, not no unborn. Don't you think so?"
The Watchers clearly think so. The Watchers think Nell should be just about anywhere except at the foot of this pallet, preparing to stick her fist into a birthing woman.
"Now," says the cunning woman. "Between pains. I'll guide you."
And Nell scrunches her eyes shut tight as her grandmother forces her slippery fingers into slippery flesh and then presses her arm to follow. This can't be right, she thinks, the sweat gathering on her. You could kill a person doing this, surely? Mistress Bramlow is certainly yelling fit to bust. But: "When you reach the top, feel what's there," says the cunning woman. "Go on, girl. Feel what's there and tell me."
Cautiously, carefully, Nell moves what she can of her fingers. It is like groping along a stovepipe, full of hot sludge. Any second now Mistress Bramlow is going to kick her in the teeth, and who would blame her?
"Gently," urges the cunning woman. "But quickly. As quick as you can, or a pain will be on her, and you'll lose the chance."
Even with her own eyes closed, Nell can sense each Watcher willing her to fail...to cry, perhaps...to admit defeat, anyway, and leave the whole messy business to her grandmother.
I'll show them, she tells herself. I'll show those old sows...
"Well?" says the cunning woman. "Well, girl? What is it you feel?"
Cautiously, carefully, Nell waggles the tips of her fingers. "I feel...," she murmurs. "I feel..." Drops of sweat trickle from her hairline as she probes. The straw of the pallet is too damp and hot to crackle, but it makes a slipping sound as Mistress Bramlow braces herself for another contraction.
Too late...Too late, girl.
Then something pulses. Just once. Out, then in. And something wet...something matted and warm, soft yet solid, meets the cramped spread of Nell's fingers. Amazed, Nell wills those fingers to be welcoming, and still.
"A head," she breathes. "I can feel its head."
She moves her hand, just a little.
A person, she thinks. A new person. And I be the first to touch it. The first thing it knows.
"Be sure," says the cunning woman. "Be very sure. For the top of an unborn's head can feel much like anywhere else, to a learner."
"I'm sure," whispers Nell.
"Good," says the cunning woman. "Now get out of there, and let this woman push."
Mistress Bramlow curses and thrashes as Nell pulls her arm out. Then she sets about pushing as if her life depends on it. Which it does. The Watchers shuffle closer, and Nell backs away.
Be alive, she wills the unborn. Just be alive, will you?
From her place beside the door, she can see her grandmother's hands at work. Probing and twisting. Probing and twisting. The old woman's face is in shadow, but Nell knows that her lips will be moving as she mouths a silent spell. There are swaddling clothes beside the pallet and a pail of water, its surface dappled with herbs. There is a name waiting for this unborn, along with five sisters, a cradle, and a beautiful spring day.
Then: "'Tis done," announces the cunning woman. And something slithers out of Mistress Bramlow in a sudden, watery rush.
Nell takes a step forward, but the Watchers have closed ranks, their shoulders and rumps as solid as a wall.
"Let me see!" Nell takes another step, but no one else budges.
Your fault, implies the silence. Wretched little unwed. This is all your fault.
Shut out, behind a blockade of fat bottoms, Nell can feel her fingers tingling where she touched the unborn's head. It was living then, she knows it was. Living, and sensing, and pulsing with the will to arrive. To begin.
If it dies now, will it really be her fault? Just because she is an unwed and has touched it? She can't bear to think this might be true. It seems so unfair to both of them.
Although prevented from seeing, she can hear: the mutterings of the cunning woman; the keening sound of Mistress Bramlow's weeping; then a light splash as if something small has been dropped into the pail.
"Granny!" she cries. "What's wrong with it? What have I done?" And she butted the nearest bottom, so hard that the Watcher attached to it swivels in astonishment, creating a space.
"Does it live?" Nell careens through that space so fast, she almost topples over the pallet.
The cunning woman is holding the unborn the newborn now up toward the roof space. It lolls from her hands, like something made of dough. It is blue, and it is slimy, and it makes no sound at all.
Down into the pail of water it goes again, and then again, and then onto the straw, where the cunning woman sets about kneading its flesh, pummeling and pressing and murmuring all the while.
"Powers of the air...of the wind that howls and the breeze that blows...Powers of the air, I summon you...I summon you...Come unto this newborn that it may breathe and know its life...Powers of the air, be here now. So mote it be."
And as Nell watches, and the Watchers lick their lips, and Mistress Bramlow continues to moan, the scrap of skin and bone beneath the cunning woman's palms begins to twitch, and then to wriggle, and then to cry.
"It lives," announces the cunning woman, grabbing it under the armpits and holding it aloft, in the general direction of the sky. "It lives. And it's a boy."
Mistress Bramlow carries on crying, but softly, out of relief. Nell senses the Watchers pressing in. She feels like spinning round, to give them a mouthful, but her fingers are tingling still, and she wants, more than anything, to touch the newborn's head again.
"But he be feeble," the cunning woman adds. "So if it's baptism you're wanting, Mistress, best do it without delay." She looks up, straight at her granddaughter.
"Go fetch the minister," she says.
Nell scowls. "But "
"Now! Go now. Straightaway."
She has swaddled the baby boy so tightly that he looks like a pullet, all trussed up and ready to roast. Only his face is exposed; waxen and crumpled. Nell feels a tugging in her middle, like nothing she has ever felt before. She would do anything for this newborn. Anything.
"All right," she says. "But if them girls of his do taunt me, I'll slap 'em one."
The cunning woman is edging round the pallet, carrying the newborn to his mother.
"You'll do no such thing," she snaps. "Just fetch the minister."
So Nell throws the baby boy one last gentle look, then turns to leave.
The Watchers are blocking the way.
"I'm on a mission," Nell says. "For my granny. So out of my path, if you please."
They shift slowly, one by one, keeping their eyes upon her as they move. The one whose backside she butted treads, heavily, on her toes as she passes. And Nell knows, though no words are exchanged, that these Watchers would have known a hor-rible satisfaction if that newborn had never drawn breath. And that they would relish it, still, should he die before the minister gets to him. For that, too, would be Nell's fault. Their believing it would make it so.
"Thank'ee," she says to them, flashing the sweetest smile she can manage before rushing through the doorway, down the splintery stairs, and out into the sunshine.
"Old sows," she grumbles. "They can't hurt me." But her heart is thumping as she takes the track leading to the minister's house, and everything, from the beautiful day to the pattern of her own life, seems suddenly less cut-and-dry.
From his place at the forge, the blacksmith's son spies Nell hurrying by. He knows, by now, why she was called away and guesses at once where she is going.
Without thinking twice, he throws down his hammer to follow.
"Oi!" yells his father. "Get back here!"
But Nell isn't the only one with good reason to call on the minister. Young Sam's long legs catch up with her easily, and he makes a big effort to seem casual, even though his heart is pumping like bellows, and he has only one thought in his head.
"Be the pot lid broken?" he asks.
"Shhh. No. It be good and strong."
"Can I come with you, then? Wherever it is you be going?"
Nell looks sideways at him. "You won't see her," she says. "She'll be shut away somewhere, learnin' the Bible or some such thing."
"I might," he mumbles. "I might see her." And just the hope of it is enough to make him grin.
The minister's house is set apart from, and above, the village. Gabled and turreted, with mullioned windows that reflect every sunset, it looks down upon the church and the forge, the inn and the pond, and the cluster of tumbledown cottages like a great, bleak custodian.
Built by a wealthy merchant during the reign of Queen Bess, no expense was spared on paneling its rooms or filling its garden with sweet-smelling flowers and hedges cut to the shape of birds and beasts. It was rumored, back then, that this house was to be a hideaway for some woman. For a deformed bride, perhaps, or a mad nun. For Queen Bess herself, maybe, should she ever pass this way, with her retinue of servants, a string of fine horses, and trunks full of nightgowns and curly, red wigs.
For years, though, no woman, apart from a housekeeper, raised so much as a spoon in the place, let alone a smile or a brood of children. The merchant lived there alone, like a hermit or a mole. And when he died, he left it to whomsoever came to preach in the church, for so long as this person spoke God's truth and lived.
The last minister to take up residence had been a kindly man, and for a while the house had seemed benevolent. Peddlers selling trinkets and mousetraps had been welcome to put their feet up in the kitchen. The singers of Christmastide had been invited in.
This new minister, though, come recently from a neighboring county, is a right miserable bogger. A Puritan with strict ideas on how the villagers should conduct themselves, and no lenity in him toward any who frolic out of wedlock (or even in it, it sometimes seems); get drunk on the Sabbath (or any other day of the week, come to that); and dabble in Catholicism or the old pagan rituals.
Singers and peddlers get short shrift from this minister, and he is letting brambles grow up the walls.
"We should go round the back," Sam says as he and Nell approach the place. "Don't you think so?"
"No," Nell replies. "I'm on an errand, and I needs be quick about it."
So saying, she uses both hands to shove open the iron gate, with spikes along the top, that leads into the garden and right up to the minister's front door.
"You be asking for trouble, you," mutters Sam. But he follows her eagerly enough, ducking his bright head beneath a stray branch that juts out like a skinny arm, barring the way.
"Ooer," he breathes as more branches slap out to meet him, and the pupils of his eyes dilate in a sudden greeny gloom.
This is like no garden he has ever set foot in. Where are the flowers, for a start? Even the tiniest plots, down in the village, are bursting with color this season brimming over with gillyflowers, violets, and clots of creamy yellow primroses. But here...
The brightness of the afternoon is having trouble getting through to what were once neat borders with gravel paths in between. The trees have gone wild. Great topiary hedges originally shaped as a griffin, a hare, a cat, a greyhound, and a peacock are so unkempt now that they all look like sheep. Arbors and tunnels, designed to support roses, are weighed down by a tangle of unpruned stems, seething with greenfly and thorns.
"They'll get piskies living here, if they don't tend to things," declares Sam. "The really bad sort, what need to lie low for a bit."
"Hmmm." Nell is too focused on her mission to care either way.
"I seen one today," he tells her, lowering his voice as they draw close to the house. "'S'truth, I did. A piskie, plain as anything, up in the orchard. What be the meaning of that, do you think? What would your granny say?"
Nell is picking burrs from her hair and the sleeve of her dress, preparing to face the minister. "She'd say you be blinded by love, Sam Towser, and seeing everything slantwise. And don't you be mentioning no piskies in front of the minister. You know he be an unbeliever."
They have reached the studded oak door, with its round knocker the size of a dinner plate. Nell bangs the knocker, hard, and the door swings open.
"Oh," says Sam. "That's good. We can walk straight in, then, can't we?"
"No, you daft beggar," Nell tells him. "We gotter wait. It's manners."
So they wait, on the step. They wait a long time, but nobody appears.
"Come on," Sam says eventually. "Let's go in. You needs be quick, don't you? We can say we knocked. That's manners enough."
Nell thinks of the newborn. If it dies unbaptized, its soul will go straight to the piskies, to flutter forever as a will-o'-the-wisp, lighting up dark places.
"All right," she agrees. "But don't touch nothing. And don't say nothing either. This is my day's business, not yours. Be you listening to me?"
Sam nods. His eyes are as round as the door knocker, and his mouth as dry as a lavender bag. He might see her now; somewhere in there. It all looks extremely promising.
"Come on, then." Nell shoves the door, so that it swings wide open. The great paneled hall is big enough for a family of five to live in. Sam hesitates. There is dung on his left boot, he is sure of it. Dung on his boot, burrs on his shirt, and enough grime on his face to plant carrots in.
"Come on, if you be coming," hisses Nell.
Through the entrance and off to the right, Sam can see the sweep of a staircase with carved spindles and newel posts. She climbs them stairs to bed, he thinks. This is her home. This is where she is. And he jumps the step in one bound.
Nell is peering from left to right, wondering which way to go. Where would he be, the minister? Beside her, on the wall, hangs a long, somber painting of a boy-child dressed in old-fashioned velvets and a plumed hat. He has a sparrow hawk perched on his left wrist. Both boy and bird have yellowish, hooded eyes that seemed fixed on Nell as she stands there, scratching an itch.
"Through here!" Sam tells her. "This way. Through here." He has homed in on a murmur of voices. Girls' voices. Nell hesitates, then taps at the parlor door.
The command is light, but with an edge to it. Bogger, thinks Nell. It's the haughty one. And she throws Sam Towser a warning glance before stepping into the room.
The minister's daughters are sitting, straight-backed, on low stools, either side of a granite fireplace. They have pieces of linen on their laps, which Nell assumes they are mending. They wear identical black dresses and clean but ugly bonnets. The younger, stupid-looking one gapes in surprise and drops her needle. The older girl regards them coolly, then says: "Does my father know you are here, treading mud in?"
Nell feels her face grow hot. "No," she says. "But he's needed. There be a newborn in the village. A boy-child."
"So?" The girl's eyes are such a deep, dark brown, they look black; yet her brows, and the little tendrils of hair escaping from her bonnet, are as fair as wheat.
"So, he be sickly and a worry to his mother. 'Tis baptizing he needs, and soon."
The younger daughter has turned away. She is hunched, once more, over her needlework; too timid, it seems, or too simple to say a word. Her sister continues to appraise Nell, a contemptuous little smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
"Hmmm," she says eventually. Then she shifts her gaze to Sam.
"Hello," she says, and Nell watches the smile soften and dimple. "You're an apprentice at the forge, aren't you? I've seen you there. And at church, of course."
Sam's voice comes out squeaking. "I am," he gibbers. "I am that. And church. Yes. I do go regular to church."
Nell could have belted him one. And that girl...her fingers itch to slap the smile right off her face.
"The minister," she repeats, clenching her grubby fists in the folds of her apron. "Where is he?"
The younger daughter raises her head, startled by such vehemence. The other one ignores it. She is holding up the piece of linen from her lap. It is a sampler, Nell realizes an intricately worked thing, with a border of strawberries and lizardlike creatures and some words stitched in the center.
"Can you read what it says?" the girl is saying to Sam. "No, I don't suppose you can. I don't suppose you know your letters at all, do you? Well, then, I'll tell you." Her voice is low. Hypnotic. Mischievous. "It says: 'Virtue is the chiefest beauty of the mind. The noblest ornament of womankind.' That's beautiful, isn't it?"
Sam can feel his legs wobbling. He is useless, under that gaze of hers. Totally, utterly useless. "It is," he mumbles "'Tis truly beautiful, that is."
In her mind Nell can see the newborn, all swaddled up and doing its best to keep breathing. She has come here on a mission, to save its soul, and now Sam Towser is stuttering like an idiot. And that sly, hoity maid...
Something similar to a growl rises in her throat, and she surges forward, both hands raised.
"Oh! Oh!" The stupid-looking daughter has found her tongue and is squealing like a piglet. "Help!" she yells. And she cringes back against the fire surround, her open mouth drooling as the cunning woman's granddaughter goes hurtling across the room and snatches her sister's sampler straight out of her hands.
"Father! Someone! Help!"
And as the fingers that still tingle from touching damp baby hair prepare to rip straight through an embroidered lizard and the words "Virtue is...," the parlor door crashes open and in strides the minister.
"Ooer," mutters Sam. He had been halfway across the room, preparing to grab Nell by the back of her apron by the scruff of her neck, if necessary. But one look from the minister sends him scuttling into a corner.
It is the three girls, then, who face the man.
"What devilment is loose in my house?" His voice is soft, but there is danger in it. His eyes flick over each child in turn. Grace. Patience. And...ah, yes...the scruffy little heathen whose grandmother follows the old ways.
Nell returns his gaze with as much courage as she can muster. His look is like a shadow falling or the brush of cobwebs on a damp day. It makes Nell shiver. She is glad when his eyes return to the curiously flushed face of his older daughter.
"Well?" he says. "Answer me."
Nell opens her mouth, to speak out of turn, but never gets the chance.
"'Twas a bee, Father. It landed on my sampler. Patience feared it might sting her, until this...this person shook it off."
Nell swallows, startled by the smoothness of the lie, which is also an unexpected reprieve.
The minister narrows his eyes. He looks across, just for a second, at the blacksmith's red-faced son, then back at his pink-faced daughter. The expression on his own face is grim. He would kill her, Nell realizes. If he thought she had been dallying with some lad, even just speaking to one, he would kill her with his bare hands.
"So where is this bee?" the minister says. "For I see it not, nor do I hear its droning."
"It has flown, Father. Through the window."
"Ah. Then you have had a lucky escape, child, have ye not?"
Nell clears her throat. "We knocked," she pipes up. "Me and Sam. But no one came. We been sent to fetch you, if you please, for a newborn in the village. He be...he be not right lusty, so they want God's words spoke."
Slowly the minister turns her way.
"I could have you whipped," he says. "Both of you. For trespass."
Nell lowers her eyes. She is still clutching the sampler.
"I could have you put in the stocks," he adds. "For your insolence."
Nell flinches. There are spells to turn situations like this around, but she has never needed one, until now, and isn't sure how to begin. Her granny would have managed. This is how:
A SPELL TO MAKE SOMEONE LIKE YOU
Hold the head high, and banish all niggling thoughts.
When the mind be as calm as a millpond,
call silently upon the energy of the southern quarter
the Power of fire. Visualize thyself wrapped
thrice around by red-gold light. Breathe in the light.
Feel the strength and the warmth of it,
within and without. Know thyself blessed and
worthy of all company. Wait three beats of the heart,
then smile at thine adversary.
So mote it be.
Nell, though, is in no mood to befriend this particular adversary. She keeps her head down and neither smiles nor speaks. Her hands feel all sticky. They will leave dirty marks on the sampler, but she doesn't care about that, either.
Sam is the one who grovels. He does it well partly because he is terrified, but mostly because he knows, just as surely as he knows that "S" is for "Sam" and that the sun rises in the east, that groveling like an idiot gives him a fighting chance of returning home unwhipped.
And just when Nell thinks she will puke if she has to listen to another minute of the boy's bootlicking drivel, the minister sweeps across the room and flings open the door.
"Get out," he orders.
Sam goes, but Nell stands her ground.
"The newborn," she says. "What of him?"
"I will attend to the babe directly."
The girl, Grace, prods her sharply in the ribs.
"My sampler," she says, "if you please."
Nell looks round at her, really looks; and what she sees makes her fearful in a way she cannot fathom. There is no emotion at all in the older girl's eyes, and her face is as blank as her square of linen would have been before she began to embroider it.
Slowly Nell passes her the sampler. Her mouth, as she does so, seems to open of its own accord.
"Beware," she says. "For a bee, when provoked, do sometimes leave its sting behind."
The words are out before she has time to consider them. Later weeks later she will remember and regret such boldness, but for now she simply wipes her hands on her apron, turns on her heel, and marches away.
The minister's voice follows her into the hall, the menace of it ringing in her ears as she lets herself out of the house.
"I mislike thee, child. I mislike thee heartily. Mark well what ye do, for the Lord is watching and so am I."
Miserable old ranter. Sour-faced bogger. Hope the piskies pay a visit. Hope they come by night, slip-sliding down the chimney to curdle the milk and dance widdershins round your table. Hope they pull out every one of that Grace girl's eyelashes while she sleeps. Hope they piss on her sampler....
Sam is waiting for her at the gate.
"She be swooning for me!" he declares, his face shining. "She be wanting me like nothing on earth, don't you think so?"
And Nell pushes him with such unexpected force that he goes sprawling against the gate's iron bars.
"You're a bogging fool, Sam Towser!" she shrieks. "An' you'll keep well away from that hoity maid, if you've any sense at all in that head of yours."
Sam looks at her in total surprise. Her face is all screwed up and dark with rage. She will never be a dainty thing. Not like Grace. His Grace.
"You're just a chit of a girl, you are," he says. "An impudent chit of a girl. Best you get along home to your granny. Go on. Afore the minister hears more of your shrewish tongue or the piskies do stuff petals in your mouth to sweeten it."
Nell needs no more telling. She is already running.
And hussssh goes the whispering and the rustling through the hedgerows as she passes. Trouble stirring...trouble a-coming...oooo yessssssss.
Copyright © 2005 by Julie Hearn