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When Lilith woke to discover that the bear cub she'd rescued had demolished the last of the grain in her larder, she realized she could no longer put off a trek into the village. She scolded the cub, thrashing him with the brush broom and chasing him from the little shed she housed her stores in, but it did not change anything. She still had nothing to make her bread and the burst of temper did not even help her feelings, for the young bear, she knew, was only doing what came natural to him. He was hungry and so he had searched until he found something to eat. He did not understand why she was angry with him and beat the brush broom on his rump until she had broken most of the brush. She had been feeding him since she had found him alone in the forest trying to nurse his dead mother.
Panting slightly with exertion and temper, Lilith dropped the broom and glared at the cub, which had run no further than the edge of the wood and hidden beneath a frond that covered little besides the top of his head. "If you are big enough to break down my shed door then you are certainly big enough now to fend for yourself. Go back into the forest, little man. You belong there and I will not coddle you anymore!"
Instead of obeying her command, the little bear settled on the ground to watch her with mournful eyes as she turned to assess the damage and clean up the mess he had made.
There was not even enough left for a small loaf of bread, Lilith discovered, feeling her spirits plummet and anxiety begin to churn in her belly.
She hated going to the village. Everyone stared at her and whispered about her at the best of times. If she happened to arrive on theheels of someone's misfortune, instead of merely staring and whispering, they glared at her as if their misfortune was somehow her fault.
They thought she was a witch. She supposed she was, but she was no threat to them. The gifts she had could not harm anyone or bring misfortune them.
She knew that much, for she had always feared and hated the villagers, and they had always feared and hated her. There had been many times, when she had been younger and had gone to the village with her mother, that she had left the village so angry that she had tried very hard to curse them, to weave some spell that would teach them a lesson.
She did not have the power even when she had the will, and mostly, she did not have the will. She only wanted to be left alone. She had lived in the cottage her whole life, tucked safely away in the forest with her mother until the winter that had taken her mother's spirit and set it free from her body. Since that time, she had lived alone except for the animals and the trees.
She had the gift of communing with the creatures of the forest, and on occasion, she had found that she could use that same gift that soothed the wild beasts and allowed her to move among them as she pleased to bend people to her will. She knew because her mother had taught her which herbs to gather from the forest to make potions that healed, that soothed pain and fevers.
She supposed that made her a witch, but it hardly made her a creature to be feared and hated and distrusted.
There was no hope for it, though, she realized with dismay. She had no magic to make grain appear. She had no magic to make bread from dirt. She would have to go into the village and trade for grain. And if she had to go for that, she decided that she would make certain that she got all that she would need for many months so that she would not have to go again before the fall.
When she had finished cleaning up the mess the little bear had made, she went to the well to draw water and wash the filth from her face and hands. She stared at her reflection when she had finished bathing off, wondering if it would be better to tidy herself up more, or better to go with her hair all a tangle and wear her most worn and stained dress.
She did not especially like to go into the village looking so slovenly, but she decided that it would probably be for the best. If she tried to make herself presentable and happened to catch the wandering eye of one of the village louts, they would accuse her of using witch craft to lure their men away.
As if she would have one of the pigs! she thought angrily, for there was not one, young or old, who had not tormented her when she was a child, or leered at her since she had reached womanhood and she hated the lascivious looks they gave her. She had not been with a man, but she did not need to to know what thoughts ran through their minds. They wanted to mount her and plow their man things into her body and fill her womb with their nasty seed.
She did not think that she would mind having a babe of her own, but she did not want their babes in her belly. One day, perhaps, she would do as her mother had and make her way to the village two days down river and find a male she was willing to couple with to have a babe, but she was in no great hurry. In any case, summer would be a better time for breeding. Then she would bear the child in the winter when there was little to do anyway and she would be strong enough to plant her garden in the spring.
Having decided that she would do as she was, she went into her yard to survey her beasts and decide which would be best to take to market for trading. Pig was huge, and ate a great deal, but he was also very good for dragging and carrying the things that were too heavy for her and he mostly foraged for his own food. She would take him, she decided, but not for trade. She would need a great many things to carry her through the season.
It would be better to trade the flock of fat geese. She was a little unhappy with the thought, for she had planned to keep them until she had enough down to make new pillows and stuff her mattress again, but it could not be helped. It would have to be the flock or the pig.
Dismissing her qualms, she went into the shed and gathered up bags for carrying her supplies, a harness for pig and her staff to herd the birds. Calling to pig when she came out, she slung the bags over his broad back and tied them securely. He was not happy about the harness, but she insisted. The villagers would be unnerved if she allowed him to roam at will, for he was a huge pig now, more than waist high to her.
When she had fashioned the harness around him, she attached a lead rope to the harness. Tucking the end into her sash, she told him to behave himself, called her flock and set out for the village, using the staff to redirect the birds whenever they would try to wander into the woods.
It was nearly noon by the time she reached the edge of the village. The geese had thoroughly exasperated her. Her shoulders were aching from swinging the staff. She was thirsty and hungry.
She supposed that was why she did not notice, at first, that an ominous quiet hung over the village. It wasn't until she glanced up and discovered the sullen glances of some of the villagers that she began to feel uneasy.
"Witch!" one of the women hissed, the comment barely audible to Lilith.
She heard, though, and more than heard for it was not as if she had not heard herself called witch before. There was a thread of hysteria in the comment that she was not used to hearing, however. Frowning, Lilith looked away at once before the woman could accuse her of giving her the evil eye.
"Look at the animals! See the way she makes them do her bidding!"
"They are so fat. Why is that she has such fat animals when all of ours are dying if it is not witch craft?" someone muttered nearby in a perfectly audible whisper.
Lilith's vague uneasiness blossomed rapidly into full fledged fear. Something had happened in the village, and they had only to set eyes upon her and she was being blamed. Realizing she'd left the pig's lead tucked into her sash, Lilith pulled it free, holding it in one hand and the staff in the other, hoping if it looked as if she was leading the beast they would not be so unnerved.
The urge to turn about and leave as she had come was strong. She saw, though, that she was already nearing the market in the center of the village before she had emerged from her contemplation of her discomfort enough to realize that the atmosphere within the village was dangerously unstable. Nursing the tiny hope that their interest in her would wane and they would go about their own business fairly quickly, she did her best to pretend to be deaf and blind to their grumbling complaints and sullen looks. The atmosphere of hate did not improve once she reached the market, however. Instead, it darkened rapidly as more and more of the villagers gathered, the growing numbers seeming to bolster the courage of those who'd first eyed her so uneasily.
The vendors, she saw in dismay, had little to sell. Most of them were gaunt, as if they had had little food for some time, and glassy eyed, as if with fever--or some madness that seemed to have gripped the entire village.
Feeling her belly tighten sickeningly, with no idea of anything else to do, Lilith tried to behave as if she had noticed nothing and headed straight for the miller, hoping to conclude her business quickly and leave. "I have geese to trade for grain," she said, keeping her voice steady with an effort.
The miller looked her over for several moments, carefully avoiding eye contact. "What about the pig?"
"He is not for trade," she said firmly. "I," she hesitated a moment. "I have trained him to carry my burdens. I will need him to carry the grain home."
He snorted. "You could carry the grain I have in a pack on your own shoulders," he growled, gesturing toward the small stack of bags behind him. "The harvest is poor this year. I do not suppose you would know ought of that?"
A wash of coldness joined the tension in Lilith's belly. Her skin grew clammy with her growing fear. "How would I know ought of that? I have not been next or nigh the village in months!"
"See! She admits it. She cursed the fields when she was here last!"
Lilith felt the hair on the base of her skull lift, realizing that the people she'd noticed gathering nearby had not come to trade as she had hoped.
She could not ignore that accusation, she realized, and glanced around to address her accuser. "I did no such thing," she said, her voice quavering slightly when she turned and discovered nearly a dozen villagers had gathered behind her. "The planting had barely begun when I was here last. Why would I have come to trade if I had known that there was nothing to trade for?"
"Came to gloat!"
"Don't look in her eyes!" someone near the back of the growing crowd shouted. "She will bewitch you!"
"I only came to trade for supplies," Lilith stammered, clenching her staff a little more tightly when several of the villagers abruptly began to chase her geese about the market, trying to catch them. "What are you doing? Those are mine!"
A man jostled her, snatching the lead from her hand so that the rope left a stinging burn along her palm. The moment he did, the crowd seemed to explode into motion, as if they had only been awaiting some signal. Three men leapt at pig. Pig squealed and ran, bowling over everyone in his path. The geese squawked, running around and around in circles and flapping their wings madly. Men and women screamed, dashing around after the birds, dodging Pig, who was frightened by the people charging him and grabbing at him and only wanted to flee.
"Stop it!" Lilith cried out, her anger finally overcoming her fear enough to thaw her. "Thieves! You can not take my stock!" she yelled, beginning to lay about her with the staff. She was on the point of threatening to summon the constable when she realized that he was one of the men chasing her pig about the market place.
She had managed to beat several of the men on the back and shoulders when someone grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms to her sides. The staff was wrenched from her hands. A cloth came down over her eyes.
Screaming, she fought her captors with strength born of fear, managing to wrest free briefly before someone slammed into her back and pitched her forward into the dirt. She grunted as the air was forced from her lungs by a heavy weight.
Gritting her teeth, she wiggled and squirmed anyway, jerking against the hold on her arms as they were twisted behind her back and tied with rough hemp. The heat and stench of unwashed bodies made it evident that the crowd had gathered around her even though she could no longer see her tormentors.
"Don't let her go! Hold her!"
A mixture of terror and fury filled Lilith as they dragged her to her feet, pulling her first one way and then another, as if they were fighting over her. "Free me!" she screamed at them. "Or I will curse you! I will make your manhood wither and fall off!"
A gag was shoved into her mouth and bound there by something rough that bit into her cheeks before she could spit it out.
She could hear them though, bickering over what to do with her, how to make certain they rid themselves of her without risking the chance that she would be able to curse them. A wave of weakening terror washed over her and her heart began to pound so hard against her eardrums that even her sense of hearing was all but lost to her, as well.
"Take her to the cave of the beasts!" someone shouted. "Mayhap it was them who cursed us and it will appease them if we give her to them?"
"Yes!" someone else seconded the first woman. "We should take her to the beasts!"
"That is it! Give her to the evil ones! They will take her into the belly of the earth and we need not fear her curses anymore!"
Lilith would not have thought it was possible to be any more frightened than she already was, but the mention of the realm of the beasts doubled her heart rate until she thought she might pass out from sheer terror.
Her mother had told her of that place, which was not merely a great cave but a labyrinth of caves where dwelt many demons, creatures so horrific her mother could not even find the words to describe them. When her mother had been a girl, they had taken her there and left her as offering to the evil ones. She had never told Lilith what had happened to her there, only that she had escaped when few ever did. She had said that, despite what she had had to endure, she had been glad, because the 'innocent' never escaped according to the villagers. They were forgiven, having proven themselves innocent, but they did not come back. In their minds, only a powerful witch could do so, and they had been too afraid of her to bother her again when she had come back.
Lilith was in no state to appreciate that particular silver lining at the moment, however. She could think of nothing except her mother's comments that 'few survived to return to the world of man'.
She fought them, struggling with every ounce of strength she could gather to her as they lifted her off her feet and began to carry her.
Twice she almost managed to break free of them, but more hands grabbed her, pulling at her, binding her more tightly still.
They began almost to chant as they bore her off to the labyrinth. "Vanquish the witch! Our crops will flourish and our children will not go hungry!"