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The Witch in the Well
By Sharan Newman
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2004 Sharan Newman
All rights reserved.
The keep at Vielleteneuse, near Saint-Denis. Tuesday 3 ides August (August 9) 1149. Feast of Saint Alexander, burnt at the stake in 295, patron saint of charcoal burners. 28th Av 4909.
D'un lay vos dirai l'aventere: Nel tenez pas a troveure, Veritez est ce que je dirai. ...
I'm going to tell you a tale of an adventure: Don't believe it's only a story, It is the complete truth. ...
—The lai of Guingamor, II. 1–3
* * *
It was the hottest summer in living memory. Blind Garna said so and no one doubted her. She had been the midwife for every soul now alive in the village. She swore that it was worse even than the year the crops had all shriveled to dust before the vigil of the Feast of Saint James when the forest had spontaneously burst into flame.
The heat sucked moisture from men, animals, plants, the earth itself. The summer spared no one, from village hut to castle.
Marie, lady of Vielleteneuse, yawned over her embroidery. After a week of working on it, the blue and yellow flowers on the green linen seemed insipid. The material crumpled under her perspiring hands and the needle kept slipping from her fingers. She looked over at her husband's sister, Catherine, hoping for sympathy. But Catherine was poring over some musty parchment, apparently unaware of the heavy air.
Suddenly, Marie sat bolt upright. From below their tower the afternoon lethargy was cut by shouts and cries of anger. They were being attacked! She heard the shouts of the guards as they tried to stop the invaders. The clanking of metal against wood echoed harshly up the spiral staircase.
Startled from her reading, Catherine looked up. The noise was coming closer. She realized that the troop had managed to get past the guards and was even now climbing the narrow steps to the solar.
"Marie!" Catherine called a warning to her sister-in-law. "They're coming!"
"I have ears," Marie answered. She put her embroidery safely back in its box. "Are you ready?"
Catherine shook her head as she hid the parchment under a cushion. "There are too many for me!"
She ran to the window to call for help but it was too late. The hordes were upon them.
Marie stood proudly, her hands on her hips, defying them to attack.
"Not one of you touch me until you've washed!" she ordered the intruders as they burst into the room. "Hubert, put down that stick before you fall on it! Beron, stop poking your brother! Ma-bile, just what have you been eating? Evaine, give the baby to your aunt. Why did you run away from your nursemaids?"
Gingerly, Catherine reached out her arms and took her youngest child, Peter, from her niece. He was as filthy as the others, his tunic stained with grass, mud, and, she sniffed, probably horse dung, although it might be his own. At only a bit past the age of one, Peter wasn't about to look for a chamber pot.
Her other two children, James and Edana, were somewhere amidst the cluster of cousins. Catherine didn't even try to identify them under the muck. She held Peter out at arm's length. The child let out a hungry wail. Catherine sighed and set him down long enough to strip off his short tunic before she nestled his naked body against the slit in her clothing. Peter relaxed at once and sucked eagerly at her breast.
"He's still getting mud all over you," Marie observed. "That's what comes of not getting a wet nurse."
Catherine shrugged. She'd heard the argument before, but all the authors she had consulted said that a child could ingest weakness and unwholesome traits if fed by a hired woman. Nursing him herself was sometimes inconvenient, but necessary to the moral development of her son. And, although she knew Marie would laugh, Catherine loved being able to hold Peter, to snuggle his solid, healthy body against her. It was worth a bit of grime.
"We'll have to change, anyway," she reminded Marie, "if my brother is bringing back his hunting party to be fed tonight."
"They'll get cold chicken and trout pies unless they've brought down a deer," Marie answered. "Yes, I know. I suppose I should see what else the cooks have come up with. There are berries enough and greens, I suppose. Although who would want to eat in this heat, I can't imagine. Now," she returned to the children, "Evaine, get these wild animals back to their nurses to be washed and dressed. Beron and James, don't forget you are to help serve tonight."
The two six-year-olds were hopping with excitement. After much pleading, they had convinced their parents that they were old enough to carry the hand towels and small trays of sweetmeats at dinner. They had been practicing all week and spent their idle hours speculating on how much they could snitch from the platters.
Catherine finished feeding the baby, who had fallen asleep. She held him until the nurse finally appeared to clean and dress him again. As he lay in her lap, she let her fingers play in his soft curls, golden as summer wheat. He seemed so sturdy, but Catherine knew how fragile children were. She had lost one at birth and another to a winter ague. No sacrifice was too great to ensure their safety.
With a sigh, Catherine gave her youngest into the nurse-maid's care and resigned herself to an evening in tight sleeves, hot slippers, and an elaborate headdress. It was the price she paid for spending the summer out of the miasma of the Paris air. Vielleteneuse was a small town well north of the city. Even though it was on an important roadway, hence the need for a fortified castle, it was cooler and quieter than Paris, with healthy breezes to sweep away foul humors that could cause sickness. At least it had been until this suffocating heat had settled in.
Still, she thought, as she stood impatiently later that afternoon waiting to be fitted into her sleeves, it would be nice if the price for the children's safety didn't include heavy, elegant robes.
Elegance was Catherine's main objection to life at Vielleteneuse. She wouldn't mind living in the castle if her brother, Guillaume, didn't take his position so seriously. Although their father had been only a merchant, Guillaume had been raised at the castle of their maternal grandfather, Gargenaud. The lords of Boisvert were very minor nobility in terms of property, but they had the pride that comes with knowing that not only had their ancestors fought with Charlemagne, but that they were able to name the links of that lineage all the way down to the present, almost four hundred years later.
Guillaume intended that he and his children live up to that heritage. His oldest son, Gerard, was now a page in the household of the count of Vermandois, regent of France. The boy was home for a visit until Saint Matthew's Eve and Guillaume took every possible opportunity to show him off to friends, neighbors, and important visitors.
Although much less concerned with position than Guillaume, Catherine's husband, Edgar, had encouraged her to pass the worst of the summer at the castle.
"It's time our children learned how to behave properly," he had told her. "And speak. They sound like the urchins in the streets of Paris. Half the time I can't understand what they're saying, their speech is so slurred and full of parleroie de vilain."
Catherine had agreed. Whatever the children did in their lives, they would receive no advancement unless they were well spoken and knew how to behave among the nobility.
Of course, now that Catherine's children were in the country, they had begun to sound like the peasants who lived near the keep. Added to that, James was learning vulgarities from the men-at-arms that Catherine could only guess the meaning of, despite her classical education.
Still, she reminded herself, Canon Hugh of Saint Victor had written that no knowledge is useless. Perhaps Edgar would explain the words to her when he returned from Lombardy.
Catherine smiled at the thought of the conversation, trying to ignore the twist of worry in her stomach at the thought of her husband so far away. Edgar's party had been well protected, she reminded herself. The mountain passes were clear in the summer and he wore enough charms and herbal bags to keep him safe even from the sweating sickness. He would return soon. It wasn't as if he had gone off with King Louis on that disastrous expedition to the Holy Land. There were many women who had already learned that they were now widows and many others who would never know the fate of the men they loved.
"Ow!" Catherine was brought out of her thoughts by a piercing pain in her arm.
"Stop fidgeting and you won't get stuck," her maid, Samonie, told her. "If you don't stay still, I might easily sew your inner sleeve to your robe. A fine fool you'd look then!"
Catherine settled obediently. As a trickle of sweat slid down her back, she wondered again if there might not be some less tortuous way to educate the children.
She was barely sewn together and hadn't yet started winding the long scarf around her looped-up braids, when she heard a clatter of horses' hooves on the hard earth of the bailey below. Samonie went to look.
"It's Lord Guillaume," she told Catherine. "Whatever is he doing here? He shouldn't be back for hours. Nothing is ready!"
"Is anyone hurt?" Catherine asked.
"Don't think so," the maid answered. "Everyone seems to be upright in the saddle, even young Gerard. Wait! One of the men has something ... someone slung in front of him. If they've brought down some poacher for sport, we'll have mobs hurling rotten turnips and waving torches by nightfall. Idiots!"
Alarmed, Catherine gave up on style and draped the scarf loosely over her head. Together, she and Samonie hurried down the stairs and out into the bailey, where a crowd had gathered.
"Guillaume!" she called. "Why are you back so soon? What happened?"
Her brother looked down at her and waved angrily at the body slung across the horse.
"Fetch Marie!" he shouted. "Tell her to make up a bed. Some old woman. I don't know where she came from. One minute the path was clear and the next, she was right there. I couldn't avoid her!"
Catherine tried to push through the throng. At least the woman hadn't been hit by an arrow. But if Guillaume's horse had knocked her down, there wasn't much hope that she still lived. Ernul was bred for fighting, short and solid with powerful legs. A blow from one of his hooves could cripple a grown man.
As the body was carried past her, Catherine was surprised to see movement from inside the blanket. She grabbed the nearest servant.
"Go! Run for the priest!"
The man nodded and left at once. At least there might be time for the last rites.
Marie was at the top of the stairs to the keep. She took one glance at the slight body in the knight's arms and moved aside, pointing to the corner where a bed was hurriedly being set up. Before following him in she waved down to Samonie.
"I'll need your help!" she called.
"Go," Catherine told the maid. "I'll be up soon. Call if you need me."
"Just keep all those louts from stomping around," Samonie answered. "Good thing we were going to eat in the courtyard tonight."
Catherine wasn't sure that would be possible. At the moment, the place was full of horses, hunters, dogs, and various onlookers all getting in the way.
A load of nets and snares landed on the ground right next to her. Catherine jumped back and collided with a squire trying to lead three horses to the stables.
"Sorry, sorry, my lady," he said. But his tone asked what she was doing there instead of being up in the solar at her sewing.
Guillaume was in the center of it all, still mounted, shouting orders. Catherine tried to find a path to him through the commotion, but there didn't seem to be one. Finally, she grabbed at the first man moving toward the keep and followed in his wake.
"Hamelin!" She touched the man's shoulder. "What's going on? Who is that old woman?"
The young sergeant stopped abruptly, causing Catherine to bump against his back. He turned around. His usually cheerful expression was somber.
"I don't know who she is," he said. "Not from any of the villages around here, I can swear to that. It was a bad day all round. No game but a few rabbits. Heat that stuck us all to our saddles. Even the forest seemed bent on tripping us up. And then, out of nowhere, this crone leaps onto the path, right in front of Lord Guillaume. It was a miracle she wasn't killed outright."
They both crossed themselves. Hamelin shook his head and shoulders, as if trying to cast off the memory of the woman falling under Ernul's hooves. He leaned closer to Catherine.
"Osbert says that he saw her come out of a tree trunk," he whispered. "As Lord Guillaume approached, it just opened up and tossed her out."
He stared at her, daring her to laugh.
But Catherine didn't. There was something about this day, the long afternoon shadows, the muggy air, the way that even the loudest voices around her seemed muted. She felt the heaviness pressing upon her, like a harbinger of evil.
She took a deep breath to clear her head.
"Osbert may have been mistaken," she told Hamelin. "That sort of thing doesn't usually happen outside of Brittany."
Catherine gave him a doubtful smile. After a moment, Hamelin chuckled, albeit nervously.
"You're right," he agreed. "No one else saw it, or will admit they did, at least."
His laughter helped to dissipate the vague fear that had gripped Catherine's stomach. She was glad she had asked Hamelin for information. For a young man, he had an air of gravitas about him that usually came with years of experience. One reason, she supposed, that her brother trusted him so much. He didn't come from a great family. He had simply been the man chosen by the rest of his village to fulfill the duty of providing a soldier for the lord's guard. But his natural talent had brought him to Guillaume's notice and Hamelin had been rewarded enough to decide to stay at the keep, earning more responsible positions each year.
Catherine put a hand on his arm. "Thank you," she said. "Now can you make a pathway for me to get back into the keep without ruining my clothes any further?"
A low cot stood in an alcove off the Great Hall. Marie had called for candles, but for now the only light was what filtered dimly in through a small window of thick green glass. As Catherine approached, her sight clouded after the bright day outside, she thought that instead of a withered crone, a young woman lay on the bed, her face the color of the moss that grows on stones by a stream. Then her eyes adjusted to the gloom, and the woman became aged again, her thin white hair tangled with bits of twigs. She gave a heart-wrenching moan.
"Water!" Marie shouted.
Samonie rushed past Catherine, carrying a pitcher and basin, drying towels, and bandages draped over her arm. She knelt next to the bed and began wetting the cloths.
"Will you need more, my lady?" she asked Marie.
"I don't think so," Marie answered. "She doesn't seem to have any cuts or broken bones."
She looked at Samonie in amazement, not believing her own words.
"How can this be?"
"Perhaps Lord Guillaume was able to avoid her, after all," Samonie suggested. "And she fainted from terror."
Marie shook her head. "No, that's impossible. I saw the hoof marks on her cloak when she was carried in. They tore through the fabric."
She felt again all over the body of the unconscious woman. "Nothing. Not even swelling. There must at least be some terrible bruises." She raised her voice. "Where is the girl with the candles?"
"I'm coming, Mother!"
Evaine entered the hall, carefully balancing a pair of candle-holders.
"There was no fire inside so we had to go to the storeroom for the candles and then to the kitchens to light them. I'm sorry it took so long."
"Thank you, ma douz," Marie said. "Give one to Samonie and the other to Catherine. Now, you two, hold them up so that I can see her better."
Catherine hurried over to do her part. The candles tilted as she took the holder, causing the hot wax to drip onto her fingers.
"Ouch," she said absently, trying to look over Marie's shoulder. Samonie had the better view from the other side of the bed.
After a moment, she noticed that Evaine was still there. Catherine smiled down at her niece.
Excerpted from The Witch in the Well by Sharan Newman. Copyright © 2004 Sharan Newman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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