THE WITCH, THE WOODCHOPPER AND THE ELFIN MAID
The door, which hung untrue on its hinges, ricocheted off the jamb when the boy slammed it. “A pox on them,” he spat. “A pox on them all, the foul, poxy lot of them.”
“Ranulf,” Gisela said sharply. “Close the door properly.” His dog followed him in, his muddy paws fouling the hyssop reeds and mats on the floor. It ran wildly through the house, diving at one of the calico cats, barking hoarsely.
“A pox on the door.”
“Get that damned dog out,” she shouted. She lunged for the dog’s collar, but the animal merely turned with a growl and a yap and leaped to Ranulf’s side. The boy strode to the board by the fire and picked up a loaf of nutbread and tore into it.
“Ranulf,” she glowered. “T’was for supper.”
“Aye, madam?” he glared back. “’Tis supper.”
“”Tis not, and you’ve not closed the door, you whoreson.”
“Whoreson, am I? Well, mother, what does that make you?” He fed a great chunk of the bread to the dog.
Gisela turned her back on him and strode stiffly to the door, raising it to nestle it into place. She put down the bar for the night and turned back to him. “Will you not even break bread with me?” she asked wearily.
“I’m done,” he said, brushing the crumbs on the floor. “Besides, it tastes like oxdung.” He threw himself on the straw bed and pulled the cover up over himself. The dog, glaring at her, circled a few times and laid down against him.
“Ranulf,” she said, trying to calm herself. “You must find something of value to do with yourself. Nothing good will come of the way you are. You must learn a trade or an art. You could learn my art…”
He turned over and looked at her in the firelight. She felt a pang. His face was so like that of his father’s, so long ago, and his expression so like that which his father’s had become by the time they parted. “Woman,” he retorted. “Your art is the useless, senseless tossing of old dried up herbs by old dried up crones.”
“Ranulf,” she spat.
“Like you. Enough, let me sleep.”
“My father is the devil,” he said darkly.
Gisela snorted a little and looked at her rough hands in the dancing firelight. “If he were, my son, I’d send you to him for your education,” she retorted bitterly.
“And I’d gladly go,” he leaned up on his elbow, and she watched his eyes glow malevolently in the firelight.
“I fear you shall.”
“Let me sleep.” He rolled over, and she sat looking at him, at his shoulder, thin, clad in his coarse tunic. She had wanted so much for him. His father had been a young scholar in Londinium, studying alchemy under the great Desederius Peglar who had come out of the east at the time of the war with the Magyars. They had met and wooed and loved each other without reserve, each matching the other’s passion and she had known happiness in her life for the first time in his embrace.
But he was meant, he said, for better things, and a bride was procured for him from a good lineage. And though she, heavy with her son, begged him at least to keep her as his mistress, he insisted a clean break was all that would be proper, and sent her away, and, in the end, even imputed to her son a father other than himself.
There is a peculiar madness that settles on a woman thus treated, and she bore both her son and the madness alone. When she was well enough, she took her few belonging and her child and walked away from Londinium into the world. She fell in with a group of women likewise situated. Destitute and abandoned, they were clever enough to keep body and soul together by the practice of the recondite arts, forbidden by the church but greatly sought out by those for whom the church and her methods had failed to produce timely results. She learned from them the art of herbs and divination by the stars and signs, which she coupled with what she had learned of alchemy from Ranulf’s father. But the wandering life does not suit a woman well, and thus, in time, Gisela had come to Limenthorpe, where she settled on the edge of town.
So, for the space of nearly nine years, she had made charms and uttered words, thrown sticks and watched the skies, and eked out a modest living assisting young girls to divine the names of future husbands or making poultices for the legs of prized cows who had got themselves stuck in bramble bushes.
What was to become of Ranulf, though? All the dreams she had for him, the tender love she had shown him had resulted in this, in this cursed boy, wild and unmanageable. He turned and glanced over his shoulder. “Why are you staring at me. Don’t you have something better to do?”
She rose wearily from the stool and put it under the heavy plank table. When she bumped it, it swayed dangerously. It would come down one day, and surely crush the baskets below it, and the cats who slept upon and between them to be out of harm’s way when the dog thundered through. It was senseless, of course, to tell Ranulf to fix it, or anything. She had, indeed, raised him to her own profession, not to be a laborer, and now, with the house coming down around her ears, she regretted it sharply. Her anger turned to apprehension. She had found this old cottage when she first came to the village, and patched it together as best she could. She had befriended some of the older people in the village, women who were without husbands because of the ravages of war and injuries and age. Her kindness to them had resulted in their generosity, and their servants or sons or grandsons had put the house to true. But they were gone now, these many years, and now the rain came in, and the wind, as if they were old accustomed friends and invited guests. She wrapped the tattered woolen blanket around her shoulders and held it tightly to her thin body, and stared into the fire. A cat leaped onto the table, upsetting the mortar in which she had been grinding antimony.
“Pepin,” she scolded. “Can’t you be still?”
He me-umphed at her and pawed through the half-ground powder, tracking it up over the papers and books on the table. She sighed, staring, unblinking at the dark iron pot hanging on its hook over the fire. There was precious little in that pot. Where would it end? She had a vision flash through her mind of she and Ranulf starving in the winter, their bodies, emaciated and frozen, lying unattended, unblessed, their souls disquieted. She closed her eyes. Surely this was only the result of the madness which was closing in on her, and not a true vision of the future. Ranulf would neither starve nor freeze to death. He was clever enough a boy to run away and join up with the king’s army to fight foreigners in wars, the causes of which were beyond the comprehension of normal intelligence. The wars were as ubiquitous as the changing of the seasons. During three seasons, the people grew great crops of young men and in the last, mowed them down. But there wasn’t a worry. The next year would see a new crop, and so it had gone for a great many years.
A tear rolled up on her lashes and she closed her eyes again. Gisela not a woman to weep. She had never been. And yet, in these last weeks, there seemed little else that she could do. She sighed heavily and sat down, leaning against the table and staring into the fire. At length her head came to rest on her arm, and she slept.
Thunder woke her with a start, and she trembled. Deep inside she felt a burning foreboding. It was only a storm, she thought. Water was dripping from a broken place in the roof onto the tins on the shelves on the west wall, and she stared at the quickly dripping water drops coursing from the rough hold. Lightening flashed, whitening the sky, brightening the hole, which had grown, since summer to a size large enough to admit a cat. There was something perversely beautiful about them, these elongated drops catching the light of the nearly burned down fire. She rubbed her sore temples with cold fingertips and sighed. There wasn’t much point in moving anything to avoid the water. It was beyond her.
If it was her fate to starve to death here, why should she not merely end it all herself? There was a sharp twinge in her upper jaw that sent pains throughout her head. “Dear God,” she thought. “Not this too.” She rubbed her jaw briskly, nauseated by the pain, and paws on the table for a vial of ground cloves with which to make a poultice. She muttered incantations against a toothache, and yet, deep down, she knew the only incantation that would be of effect would be the one in which she asked the barber how much to pull it. Even in the age of miracles, she had never heard of a single instance in which either a witch or a saint had cured rotting teeth. It was one thing to conjure a husband for a young girl, quite another to conjure a whole tooth from a broken one.
Conjure a husband. She paused, the open vial in her hand, the dark scent of cloves filling her senses. The cat sneezed and shook his head violently. Conjure a husband. “Why not?” she said to the cat. “Why shouldn’t I?” Her inside voice scoffed. “Because you are too old. What man would want you?”
“I am not so very old,” she argued. “Not as old as Goodwife Luitgard, who married the limner from Weogorn.”
“Did you take a look at the limner? He wasn’t any prize. You’d be better off alone than bearing such a weight as his.”
Frustrated, she narrowed her eyes. “He was a man. I am neither so petty nor so pretty to scoff at love coming from any quarter. A good wine poured from a cracked and ugly jug tastes just as good. Why should I not do as I advice young girls to do? What harm can it do?”
She went to the board by the fire and picked up a hard boiled egg. She scraped the wax from it and cracked the shell, dropping the bits into the fire. Quickly, she cut a whole in the top of it, scooped the hardened yolk out and filled the cavity with salt. Pushing her hair from her face, she leaned over and ate the whole of it. It tasted wretched, the familiar smooth goodness of the white of the egg, coupled with the coarseness of the salt and in such a miserably great quantity that it tasted both hot and sweet. Within minutes her pulse had quickened fearfully, but it was to be expected with such powerful magic.
Sickened, she lay down on the narrow mattress. Four cats converged quickly on her, kneading and purring, one on her chest, his face against her neck, one at her feet and the other two against each other at her side. She waited for sleep to come, despite the staccato of many raindrops coming in the house, and her increasingly painful thirst.
When the skies were still grey, she awoke with a start, a deep thirst burning her entire body. This was the moment of truth. She should change her clothing before going out on such an important morning. She glanced at Ranulf. He was still sleeping soundly. She pulled her underkirtle off and stared at herself in the mirror.
The mirror was dark and wavy, but she could see enough of herself to know. Her breasts were not so bad, she thought. True, when she was a young thing, they were liked halved melons high upon her chest, topped with a perky pink nipple, and now bore more resemblance to a summer squash, halved the long way. Her nipples had likewise migrated downward. Still, she thought grimly, ‘twas not a bad body for a woman of her age and station in life.
She pulled her other underkirktle over her head and put on a dark gown. She brushed her hair out quickly. It had been days, maybe weeks since she had brushed her hair. There were elflocks to be sure, which had never bothered her before, given her profession, but now she felt them with dismay. Taking the little knife, she cut them from her hair and brushed the balance vigorously until it lay smooth and dark against her shoulders and back. She was too old to wear it unbound, but she had never been one to do what the other women did.
“You’re dawdling,” she chided.
“Not so much,” she answered. “Give them a chance to be abroad. You rose too early.”
“The magic does not say that the practitioner can manipulate the times.”
“It doesn’t forbid it either. Fine, I’ll go.” She rose, took a last glance into the mirror, and sick with apprehension, excitement and far too much salt, she set off for the spring with a small earthenware jug. If the gods were with her, she wouldn’t meet any elves on the road. They were irritating on the best days, totally insufferable on bad ones.
It was a beautiful walk on any day, and this morning, it was particularly stunning. There was now a warming glow to the ear, portending a hot day, and dark clouds to the west, the same ones that had dropped so much rain into her cottage in the night. They caught the first beams of the sun, and looked even darker, and more beautiful, cutting stark shapes against the brilliant gem blue sky. She walked from her cottage down the dirt path, between the bowing blades of grass, each blade tipped with a drop of pure crystal, reflecting the light. The path turned into the wood where even the slightest breeze shook the droplets from the leaves and onto the growth beneath as if it were raining anew. She drew a deep breath of the fresh air as a dun colored rabbit loped easily across the path a few paces in front of her, unaware, or unconcerned by her presence. Her path met the main one near the old sycamore tree and she walked along, clutching her jar and listening for the sound of any other approaching footsteps. The warmth of the morning turned almost within a pace or two to a coolness not unlike that of early March as she approached the spring. The spring lay in a small grotto of rocks, grey flat jagged edged stones, stacked one on another in a haphazard manner. Here and there stones had slipped down onto the ground, jutting up at all angles. More flat stones, smoothed and polished by the waters since time before time, lay at the bottom of the shallow streambed that carried the springwater away. The water itself flowed from out of the earth, trickling in a pure stream, splashing down from its shelf, just above her head, onto the rocks beneath. She put her jar under the stream of water and caught it. It splashed cold on her hand, and she raised the cup to her lips and, closing her eyes, drank deeply. She felt almost instantaneous relief throughout her body, as if her body was a sponge absorbing the water. She drank again and yet again and then turned back to the path.
She was alert, like a cat on the prowl, scanning the path, and, where it turned sharply here and there, trying to see through the trees to where it bent. Surely people would come soon, for now the sun was full up, gilding the tops of the trees with red gold and casting long shadows over the meadows beyond the woods. She heard a sound, and stopped so that the sound of her feet on the dirt would not mute it. Someone was coming. Involuntarily, she crossed herself. It was a man, for certain. Whistling. He had a merry little whistle at that. She quickly considered and discarded all the men who might be abroad at this hour on the road to Limenthorpe. Whoever it was, her fate was in the hands of the fates. She smoothed her kirtle with her hands and took a deep breath. “You are not so very young anymore,” she chided.
“Young enough for these purposes,” she argued. “For what a man wants is in the dark. What matter it if I have a few lines about my eyes, or it pain has dug creases between my eyebrows. What man is perfect?”
“You are pale, and grey,” she argued.
Frustrated, she pinched her cheeks like a young coquette to bring the color back into them. The whistling continued. It was an old song about spring and love, though it was the shank of summer, and descending into winter. She walked forward a little shakily. The first man she saw after eating the egg and sleeping and drinking the water, the first man would be her husband. How many foolish young girls had she instructed thus. If they were brave enough to eat the salty egg, then the spirits would give them this intelligence.
She stood on the path and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the man was walking toward her. She blinked several times. It was Giles, the village woodchopper.
“Good morning, lady,” he said, a little warily.
“Good morrow to you, sir”
He smiled a little, swung his ax over his other shoulder and passed her. She turned and stared at his broad back. The woodchopper?
“What brings you to this part of the wood,” she asked quickly. “Don’t you work the eastern side of the village?”
He turned and took a few steps back toward her. “Aye,” he said resting the blade of his ax on the ground and leaning against it. “Usually. I’m only here to scout out good trees here. Good stout ones for planking for the flooring of the burgher’s new house. He’s building onto his, you know.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Aye.” He laughed a little. “If I were here to chop wood, I’d have brought my ass and my cart, for it would be difficult for a mortal man to carry away wood on his back sufficient to keep the town in fuel.”
“Aye,” she said, trying to soften a voice that years of yelling at Ranulf had harshened. “Aye. Well, I wondered.”
“Aye. Well, you could probably just say a few words and it would just fly to whatever destination you commanded it.”
She blushed a little and looked at the ground. “Good sir,” she said. “You do wrong me. If I could work magic such as that, I would not live in a tumble down cottage would I? I am a practitioner of small arts only, of love potions and predictions.”
“Love, you say?”
She looked up, taking him in. He was a stoutly built fellow, probably not much younger than she, but unencumbered by the cares that had weighed her down, he still retained a youthful demeanor. “I’ve been thinking about love a lot these days.”
“Aye,” he said. He came closer, his curiosity making him bold. “You have the arts to make a woman fall in love with a man?”
“I have those arts,” she said confidently. “I learned a great number of spells and practices that can be employed for such a use. What do you need?”
“I desire a woman to fall in love with me.” He looked at her piercingly and she felt herself grow faint. His eyes were uncommonly beautiful, greenish, large, expressive, his face square, his features bold. He was of fair coloring naturally, but the suns of many days had ripened him into a warm brown tinged with red across his cheeks. She smiled faintly.
“I think,” she said slowly. “That can be arranged.”
“Aye?” he said cheerfully. “Aye? How is this to be ordered?”
“When you have finished your work for the day, come and see me at my cottage, and we will with all possible speed, see that your wishes are fulfilled.” She smiled and dropped him a curtsey.
“Are you quite sure?” he asked,
“Quite,” she nodded, trying to look demure.
“Then I shall come when the sixth hour is come.”
“I will be ready,” she smiled. He turned and walked away. She looked after him, at his figure and form. It was almost too miraculous. She felt faint, and rested the back of her hand against her mouth and stared at him until he turned to follow the winding path and disappeared from view.
Gisela turned back toward home with a feeling of lightness in her breast that she had not felt since she was very young. The woodchopper. He was a wonderful catch, a perfect man. He was a diligent worker, an honest and good man by the looks of it. Scandal had never attached itself to him in the two or three years he had been in the village. Small wonder, then, that he was ready to seek a wife, for a man of that stripe should not be long alone. He was certainly well liked by all, given to a cheerful and open disposition. True, he was not exactly what she had in mind, having thought herself more a wife for a man of intellect, but he would do nicely. If the spirits had chosen him for her, who was she to argue? Whatever obstacles there were, Fate would smooth them. It was not until she reached home that the moment of what she had done descended upon her.
She wrung her hands for a moment before the fire and then sighed. If it was to be, it would be. She looked to Ranulf. He was still asleep. There was so much to do. The dog awoke suddenly, shook himself and went toward the corner where she kept the broom and squatted. She dove at him, grasping him by the collar while he yapped. She opened the door and pushed him out. “Enough,” she said. “You shall not relieve yourself in my house again. Things are going to change around here.” She closed the door on him and put down the bar. Turning back to the single room, she mournfully tried to ascertain where to begin.
She worked throughout the day until she was exhausted. She left the door open, to let in the cleansing sun and let out the moldy humors. She took up the floor mats, and took them outside to air. In the sunlight, that which had been tolerable inside, was ugly and tattered. She furrowed her brow. It was too late to do anything about it for now. She went back in and swept the dirt floor, tossing out the bits of old food and the residue from the cats and dog which had somehow managed to accumulate. She brought the mats back in, put them on the floor and then drew patterns in the dirt where the mats did not cover. She strew fresh hyssop and lavender overall.
Ranulf woke near the time when the sun had reached the midheavens. “Well, what are you about?” he asked sleepily, scratching his stomach.
“You will be gone again today?” she asked briskly.
He glanced up at her. “You combed your hair,” he observed, scratching at his own tangle mop.
“I did, and what of it?” she asked sharply.
He snorted. “It’s not going to do any good. Your still a bitch and a hag.”
Reflexively, she felt her hand reach out and slap him across the face, but she was too late, and he had already turned away. “You are a saucy boy.”
He snorted. “You’ve naught worth the eating here.”
“Well, hire yourself out and make some money and bring in something for us to eat, then, that’s more to your liking. What are you off to today?”
“Whatever I choose to do is my business, woman,” he said sharply.
“You are ten years old, you little byblow. You will burn in hell for dishonoring me.”
“You will burn in hell for conjuring devils. But then, you’d like that.” He ladled some of the thick stew from the pot hanging over fire, blew on it and ate it. He made a face.
“I hate you,” she said bitterly, and instantly regretted it. “Ranulf, our lives will be changing greatly, and soon. When will you be home today?”
He spit in the fire and went to the door. “When I get home. You’ll know I’m here because I’ll be here.”
“Why are you such a saucy little monster?”
“I don’t know, mother, why are you such a bitch?”
She shrieked but he was already out the door, having slammed it without letting it catch. “Why doesn’t he run away?” she demanded of the cat on the stool, who merely reached out and caught his claws in her gown and yowled sleepily.
She disengaged his claws from her clothing and went back to work. The house smelled of must now, since the day was heating up, and water had shot through all the straw and the roofing. There was nothing to be done for it. She went out into the yard, and caught up a pullet, quickly dispatched it, plucked and spitted it and put it over the fire. She had baked yesterday, so there was good bread
She went out into the garden and plucked greens and herbs, and washed them carefully. She made herself as pretty as possible, anointing herself with sweet smelling oils. She gathered flowers from the edge of the woods, the last of lady’s mantle and the ubiquitous yellow ragweed, and put them in a tall earthenware vessel. She wove a garland of daisies and hung it above the door.
He was coming. She saw him as she finished hanging the garland. He swung his ax and let it rest beside her door. He looked around and nodded.
“Your house needs some work,” he said.
“Yes,” she said breathlessly. “Come in, come in. You must be hungry.”
‘Aye, that I am,” he said with a tone that bordered on surprise.
“I’ve a fresh pullet over the fire. Would you sit and eat?”
“Aye,” he said, again in a tone of surprise. “I’ll not turn down a meal that smells as fine as this.”
She smiled, feeling a little faint. When he looked at her with that half curious expression, she felt as if she was walking on sand in knee deep water, unsteady and unwieldy.
‘You have always been a single man?” she asked, serving the food. She had put sage in the poultry to inspire his love, and served sliced radishes to further enchant him.
“Aye. As was my father before me.” He laughed. “But I would make myself a married man as soon as possible,” he said, tearing the bits of chicken from the bone. “Which is why,” he said in a smooth, warm voice, leaning close to her. “Which is why I need your assistance.”
“Yes?” she asked. Without an appetite, she mechanically compelled herself to eat, though sparingly. “Tell me.”
“Aye. Well. For some time I’ve had in mind a woman. A rather unusual woman. Not well thought of perhaps in the village, and so I’m a little afraid to woo her openly. But she’s a good woman.”
“And how do you know that,” she asked, a little breathlessly. “You will take ale, good man?”
“Aye, if you’ve any.”
She nodded and filled a tankard and set it in front of him. “A man who drinks in moderation is healthier and fitter, they say, than the man who drinks not at all or too much,” she said.
“Aye, well, I’m not a tippler, you’ll see. A good stout tankard with my dinner. That’s enough for me. I work every day, you see. Except the Lord’s day, when I, like all my fellows, rest and pray. I never see you at chapel.”
“I do not find myself a welcome guest in the house of God,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Aye. Well, the priest talks of you frequently. He says you are an example to us all.”
“Aye,” he said, his eyes twinkling over the lip of the tankard. “Of how not to live.” He laughed aloud, a deep, resonant, merry laugh. She would mark that priest down for a special plague, she thought, just after he’s wed us. She sighed.
“People can be quite unkind to those that are different.” She said, a little stiffly.
“Aye. But to hear you spoken of from the pulpit last Sunday put me in mind of you.”
“Yes, and how you might be of assistance to me in my desire to make a marriage.”
“I will do what I can.”
“And what will you do?” He pushed his trencher away and wiped his fingers on his leggings.
“First, I will advise you,” she said. “Woo slowly and carefully, and leave nothing unturned so that this lady might fully come to love you…”
“Aye,” he leaned forward, so close that when he snorted, she felt his breath on her forearm.
“Aye,” she said softly. “You are a right handsome man,” she said boldly. “Any woman would be delighted to have you for a lover or a husband.”
“Yes,” she said softly.
“What about you?” he asked, leaning back on the stool. He regarded her with a slow smile.
“I…” she faltered. The door swung open and the dog burst into the cottage, followed by Ranulf. He threw down a bundle onto the floor. The bag fell open, revealing a moderate sized dead sheep.
“Ohhh, you,” she jumped up quickly. “Where have you been?” What she really meant was why are you come back so soon.
“I’ve been out, Mother.”
“What have you there?” the woodchopper leaned over and looked at the dead sheep. “Whose is this?”
“I found it,” Ranulf said in a surly tone.
“Aye? Well, if they find you, there’ll be a hanging. You stole the beast, didn’t you?”
“What’s it to you?” Ranulf spat.
“Son,” she began.
“Don’t “son” me. You tell me I don’t do enough around here. You tell me to get us something to eat. I do and I get this. Well, a pox on you. On you both. What the hell is he doing here anyway?” He turned quickly and stormed out the door.
“He….” She turned back apologetically to the woodchopper.
“He needs a good beating.”
“He needs a good father,” she argued gently.
“Aye. Well, a good father to give him a good beating.” The woodchopper’s dark face lightened. “Ah. So tell me, now, witch, what am I to do to procure this bride?”
She sat down on the stool again her hand falling on the table a scant inch from his. “You must leave the how and what to me. The why’s are in the hands of the gods, and the who’s have already been determined. Now. Get you to home and don’t worry another moment. I will order everything.”
He rose and turned to the door and gazed at it. He pushed it gently but it would not budge. He pushed it harder so that it closed, not lining up with the jambs. He sighed and swung it open again. “I’ll come back on the morrow,” he said. “This door wants fixing.”
“Aye,” she said breathlessly.
“Thank you for the dinner,” he said cordially.
“When will you be back?”
“Tomorrow,” he said quizzically as if she had not been bright enough to understand his first words.
“I know,” she said, suddenly nervous again. “But what time?”
“Oh, about this time.” He picked up his ax and walked away, raising a hand in salute without looking back. The western setting sun caressed his curves and lines and she clasped her hands against her breast and drew in a ragged breath. “Yes,” she thought. The gods had done well. All the misery of these years would be washed clean by his kisses, the tears of many years dried by his warmth.
The next day he came and fixed the door, and on not the following, but the day after that, he mended the table. She fed him every aphrodisiac she could easily manage to work into a meal, cloves and radishes, and rocket, three leaves picked with the left hand, pounded and put into a drink, saffron, and sage, summer savory and valerian. If their effect in her was gauge, he must surely be affected as well. She had not felt so young or so beautiful in years. They talked, at first in riddles, but then as the days progressed he told her a great deal about him, about his life now, and what he did, about how he had grown up in the streets of Londinium, a harsh life.
“I would have ended up much like your son, had not an honest good Christian man found me and brought me home and raised me amongst his own. It wasn’t ordained that a woman should raise up a child by herself. She needs a man. You need a man.”
She glanced down at her hands and felt a blush grow across her cheeks. “Really, you shame me.”
“How came you by the child anyway?”
“I know not how to answer that question,” she said. “There are a great many mysteries in the world.”
“Aye? Well, my mother was a whore,” Giles said pragmatically. “That’s all the mystery there is in that story.”
“Do you remember her at all?”
“Aye, a drunken wench, she was. She put me out on the streets when I was a wee boy, and I would slink back from time to time, until Goodman Octhar took me into his house. I never saw her after that. I never told her where I was off for. But I never slept in a proper bed until Goodman Octhar, never sat at a table for a proper meal. Many’s the beating he gave me, I’ll tell you that, but it made me a good boy, a God fearing boy and I think a good man.”
“Yes.” She answered faintly.
“You need a husband and right quick, lady, to take your boy in hand afore he turns into something from which there’s not any turning back.”
She looked up at him. He put the cup down and smiled at her. “You’re young enough and right pretty enough to give a man a flock of children of his own, and he’ll take to this one like it’s his own once you have. And if your young terror will bow to his authority even now, he’ll be a good ‘un when he grows to manhood.”
She felt her eyes sting with tears. His words brought some strange relief to her already. He would take care of her, take care of the boy. It had always been her fear to let any man in, lest he want her and reject her son.
“You are goodness itself,” she said breathlessly.
“Aye. Am I?” He laughed and squeezed her arm a little. “Aye. I’ll make a fine husband, yes?”
“Yes,” she said, the tear running down her cheek.
“Here now,” he said quickly. “What’s this?” He leaned over and brushed the tear from her cheek with his thumb and she caught his arm by the wrist and held it. He opened his hand and she laid her cheek against it.
It was in her soul to give herself to him that moment, to make her vows to him bodily as Dido did Aenius. But she stinted, held back and reserved herself.
“I must go,” he said softly.
“Yes,” she whispered. He rose and went to the door.
“It’s going well, isn’t it?” he asked, tuning back and gazing soberly at her. “My wooing? When I make my request, I will not be denied?”
“You will not be denied,” she said and he passed out of the cottage into the night. She stood watching him, the moonlight shining on his hair, on his boots as they flashed toward the wood. Far away, one lone dog cried out and, from the opposite horizon, another answered. She closed her eyes and let the cool night air embrace her feverish skin
She expected him the next afternoon. He had made her cottage a regular stop and himself very nearly a fixture in the place. He had done so many of the small jobs around the place that had so long been neglected, that the house was very nearly as good as it was when she had first been comfortable in it.
She always fed him, and he always did something in return, so that, she surmised, and quite accurately, that they were both well pleased with the other. One evening, he leaned back from the table and sighed. “You are a fine cook,” he said. “I have formed a very different opinion of you than the one I first had. I must tell you, good witch, that I will staunchly refute all slanderers of your name from henceforth.”
She smiled. “You are kind, good man.”
“Your charms and magic and incantations, I believe are doing their job. I am so much more confident than I was ever before about my wooing. But tell me, fair witch, when should I ask the good lady for her hand?”
She looked at her hands and sighed. Though they were rough and reddened, she somehow had come to appreciate them more in the last weeks, knowing they would soon be put to use on his fine firm body. They would serve the purpose, and he would be as pleased with her as scholar had been when he first taught her the arts of love.
“When?” She laughed a little. “Why, good woodchopper. The time, I would think, for middling wooing is done.”
“Then I should come to the point?”
“You should, and with all due haste.”
She closed her eyes. “Aye,” she whispered. “Tonight.” She opened her eyes. His brow was furrowed. “What is it?”
“The hour is late. It is quite dark. Should I come to her now, her father would surely rage at me, and though I find her feelings have warmed toward me, I am still in great doubt about his. In fact, I should have asked you to conjure a more pleasantly disposed father in law for me.”
“What are you saying?” she said, something cold passing over her.
Giles laughed. “Her papa does not like me,” he leaned over and kissed her cheek lightly. “But I will do it, if that’s what you advise.” He put his cap on his head and stood in the doorway for a moment. She rose more slowly, wavering. “I put myself entirely in your hands in this matter, and you have been of such great assistance. I will speak to her forthwith.”
“You,” she whispered. “You have not told me anything of her, really.”
“I haven’t, have I? Her name is Elissant, and she is the daughter of Brickold. They say he is a half-elf. Do you believe such things?”
“I believe in a great many things,” she said darkling. Elissant. Elissant. She would not forget that name.
“Well, she is fairer than any I have ever seen, with skin the color of milk and as soft as the down of a milkweed. Her hair falls quite nearly to her knees and is as silky as spiders’ webs and the color of a moonbeam. The robins copied the color of her eyes for their eggs, but could not mimic the gemlike quality of them.”
“Enough,” she said sharply. “Enough with your poetry and rhapsodizing about her. Get ye gone.”
“Ahhh.” He said continuing to smile. “You are tired. I can see it in your face. You should rest more. Is your son being tiresome again?”
“I would not know,” she said briefly. “He has not been here to bed in days.”
“That’s terrible. Well, I shall make inquiries after him tomorrow, and when I come back perhaps I will have some news of him.”
“Don’t bother,” she snapped. “And I shall be unable to see you tomorrow.”
“Why?” he said, with innocent curiosity.
“Because I shan’t.” She slammed the door and pushed the bar into place. She dragged her hands through her hair, and shook back and forth in anguish, trying to escape the misery like a dog shakes water from his coat. But it would not budge, and only settled in more deeply, like a woodtick, burrowing into her.
She pulled her hair and let out a low moan. How could this have happened? What went wrong? It had been so perfect? Had another witch, stronger than she cursed her? It was the priest. He had done this, mayhaps, anything to confound and contradict her only chance at happiness. She had lived like a virgin for all these years, how was it now that on the very cusp of happiness, on the lip of the cup, it had been torn away from her.
Ellisant? An elf-girl? What fool was he to want some insubstantial pale occult creature? She would not be thwarted. She pushed everything from the table and dragged down a thin volume of spells, and paged through it. There was one for returning a strayed love, and she read it quickly. But it was not good enough. She did not want the strayed love back, she wanted him to suffer. To suffer for what he had put her through, for enticing her to fall in love with him and then being false. There were stronger things for that.
She went through page after page, reading slowly and carefully. Finally, she found the perfect spell, copied it out on a small and precious piece of parchment and readied all the accouterments of the art.
“By all the saints,” she said, “And the gods, I claim the power withal to do my bidding. Curse the woodchopper that he might be stricken and never rise up again, that he will be visited with pain as deep and burning as that which he has given me, that he should never be the man that he was, and he should crawl upon the earth like the snake that he is. And as for his mistress, the fair Ellisante, may she be separated from that which she loves, never to be reunited again, never to sleep a peaceful night in her bed, that she might suffer neverending toil in sadness for her part of my misery.” She gasped and clutched her chest, tearing her garments and weeping until she could only cough out dry sobs. She dragged herself to the bed and laid down.
“Be comforted,” she said to herself. “He will get what he deserves, and the little bitch shall have hers too.” She sighed. In truth, it did feel a little better, knowing she had put this into motion. Days past. He didn’t not come to the cottage, but she did not expect him to, nor was she sure of what she would do if he did. The warm love that she had held for him was like the coals in the fireplace in the early morning when the fire has died down in the night, hard and strangely cold. She repeated the incantations three times a day, and thoughts of her revenge were never far from her mind.
She sat in the cottage day and night, the door bolted and the windholes shut up. She ate but little, slept hardly at all. Ranulf did not return, and she lacked the strength or even the desire to find out if he had been taken up for the theft of the sheep or for any of the other petty acts he had most surely been involved in. One afternoon, as she sat, her shawl tight around her, tearing at the elflocks that had grown in her hair again, she heard shouts.
She threw open the door and saw a two wheeled cart, pulled by a small donkey, coming up the road and men alongside it, prodding the animal and attending closely to the cargo.
They stopped where her lane met the main road and a man ran forward. “Come quickly, witch,” he said. She ran toward the other men with the cart. “It’s Giles, the woodchopper.” They moved aside and she say him lying on the straw, his ax at his side, a bloodstained woolen cloth over his legs. His face was drawn and white, a ghastly shade. He opened his lips but nothing came out.
“What happened?” she asked shortly.
“He must have hit himself with the ax. He didn’t come home last night and we grew fearful for him, and at mid morning set out to find him.”
“I can do nothing for him,” she said coldly.
“You have herbs, and poultices. The priest will come and sew him up as best he can but you have things that will make the pain go away.”
“I have nothing for him,” she said turning way. She walked back to the cottage, dizzy with a surfeit of feelings. The curse was working. It was working. She felt a strange mixture though, of pity and dread. How powerful was she that she could call down so dread an injury upon a man’s head. He would not live more than two days time, she was certain of that.
Not too many days had passed when she found occasion to be in the village on market day. She walked slowly between the stalls with a basket over her arm, a little bundle of herbs in her hand. Few were the people who bothered to greet her. A gaggle of young girls came up to her. “I need some chickory oil,” a tall, thin one said, her voice too brittle and arrogant for her peasant station.
“I’ve chickory,” she said. It would take more than oil of chickory to make so unpleasant a girl seem pleasing to others, or to make others want to grant her wishes. “You can make it into oil yourself and ‘twill work as well. Two pennies for the bundle.”
“Aye.” The girl fished in her bag. She waited patiently, like a dull ox, insentient. “Oh look,” another of the girls pointed. ‘There’s that strange elf-girl.”
She followed the pointing finger. There was, indeed, an odd looking young woman, tallish, with a single long braid down her back. She also had a basket over her arm, buying not selling, from the looks of it. She did not come near them.
“What’s she doing in town?” one of the other girls asked.
“I can only find a penny and a ha’penny,” the girl with the bag said. “I’m sure there’s another ha’ penny in here though.” She shook it.
“They say she’s come to care for the woodchopper.”
“She’s half elf,” one of the other girls said. The Gisela shaded her eyes from the sun and looked at the elfish girl again.
“There aren’t any such creatures,” she said shortly.
“The priest married them the night after the woodchopper was found. “
“What fool of a priest would marry a man on his death bed?” Gisela asked. “Here girl, give me the penny and the ha’ penny and have done with it. I don’t have all year.”
The girl put the money in her hand and she closed her fingers around it and started for home. She heard a sound behind her, a melodic, light voice. “Wait.”
She kept walking. There wasn’t a mortal girl in the world with a voice like that. The steps quickened and she turned at the edge of the square to see Ellissant. The girl dropped her a curtsey.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“You are the herb seller, aren’t you? My husband has spoken of you.”
“Has he now,” she asked, continuing to walk.
“Aye. May I speak with you?”
“Speak, if you like.”
“I would buy some herbs of you, if you please,” she said. “I know you will be happy to hear that he is much better.”
“Oh, I am delighted,” she said coldly.
“I haven’t any friends here,” she said, slipping her arm under Gisela’s. “And he has told me that you are a most loving and warm woman. I feel as if we should be good friends.”
Gisela looked away.
“You know,” the girl continued. “I barely liked him at all. You know, it is said that I am of elfin stock, and whether that is true or not, my father is a great mistruster of all people who live in towns. So he had expressly forbidden me to consort with anyone from the village. The woodchopper heard me singing one day in the woods, though, and began to speak to me. I didn’t fancy him at all. He is, he was, so brash, such a braggart, and I found him too forward.”
“Yes. But in time, he grew quite a bit more pleasant. I suppose he was at first, just shy and didn’t know how to behave toward me. But once we grew to know each other, he seemed much nicer. I enjoyed his company. For a few weeks, I even entertained the idea that I might possibly fall in love with him. But I love those who had given me life, more than I loved anyone else, and could not consider leaving my people in order to go and live amongst your kind.”
She paused and reached up to stroke the leaves of an overhanging tree branch. Gisela glanced at the girl’s face. It was longish, placid, with great beautiful eyes, the same deep sky blue he had described. She blinked quickly. The girl shrugged a little, tightening her arm under Gisela’s.
“Then, very late one night,” she continued. “He came to our home and asked for my hand. I thought the house would come down around all our ears as much as my father stormed and raged. He was furious, that the woodchopper would dare to ask for my hand, and then so late at night. He forbade the woodchopper speak to me again and derided me for encouraging his wooing. I said, ‘in faith, I’ve not done ought to encourage him,” for in truth, until that moment I had considered him just a foolish man who prattled too much about pretty things. My father said, ‘what sort of life will my poor girl have among your people? They hate us, deride us, treat us with contempt. She will be nothing among you when she has been a princess among my people.”
“My father drove him from the house and I from my window watched the poor man go away broken in spirit. I kept to my room all the next day, and then, the following day, word came to us that he had been injured. My father said it was an answer to his prayers, and that was when I knew I could not spend another night under this roof. I put my few things in a little bundle and I came away from that place, the only home and people I had ever loved and came here to throw my lot in with him.”
“How came he to be injured?” Gisela asked wearily.
“He was cutting wood, a tree for planking for someone’s new house.”
“Yes,” she said brightly. “I think that was it. Well, he had chopped at one tree for a while when he, and he says he was distracted thinking of me and how miserable he was that his wooing had been so rent asunder, he struck a blow and hit his own leg. He said the pain was so great that he threw himself about from tree trunk to tree trunk. But the blessed thing was that the tree he was chopping had a rotted place in it and crashed to the ground a few seconds after he was struck. It surely would have killed him had it struck him. So in a way, it was a good thing that he was injured.”
Gisela snorted, her eyes filling with tears.
“Well, I came to him as quickly as I heard, and when I arrived the priest was with him, stitching up the wound. I wept when I saw him, but he held up his fingers and asked me why I had come and I said, ‘why to be with you,’ and he said, ‘what of your people?’ and I said, ‘what care I for them as long as you are in this world?’ and he said to the priest, ‘will you marry us?’ and the priest said, ‘why now? This may be your deathbed.” And he, my beloved woodchopper said, “’h, but if I die, and she is my wife, she will have my home and belongings, and be secure for her days.’ And so the priest married us and my husband recommended me to you and said that you had been so good a friend to him as he planned his wooing of me, that should anything happen to him, I should betake myself to you and put myself in your care.”
“He said all that, did he?”
“Aye, and he has grown stronger and stronger with each day. He says it is my love that makes him strong.”
Gisela sighed. “Take this,” she said, digging a bundle of herbs from her basket. “It is great mullein for the pain. Mix it with fat and smear it on the wound. I could give you cowsbane, but it is too dangerous, or hemlock. And you, take this.” She pulled out a batch of lemongrass. “Make a tea of this. It will strengthen you and give you rest. If you are caring for him day and night, you must surely be weary.”
The young wife took them in her pale long fingered hands. “I have naught to pay you,” she said softly.
“Did I ask for payment?” Gisela snarled. “Get home with you and tend your man.”
The girl dropped her another curtsey and kissed the witches cheek. Her lips were soft, her breath sweet. Miserably, the witch turned away. “May I come and see you from time to time? I fear there are not many in this place, save you and the priest, who will accept me.”
“You may come when you like,” Gisela said reluctantly. ‘Or not, as you see fit.” She walked away toward her cottage, the near empty basket weighing on her arm like a millstone.