The Fire Witch's Tale

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The Piglet and The Shrew

Eva woke with a start to Matthew’s bangs.

“Wake up. You slept in.”

Eva bolted upright in bed and opened the shutters. The sun was already high in the sky, its rays peeking through dark clouds, and she knew she was well behind her morning chores. As she got up and washed her face and hands in the wash basin, she noticed Little Flame was back at the foot of her bed, licking her paws clean, and the candles on her bedside table were now nothing but a stiff puddle. She quickly dried herself and put on her favourite crimson kirtle, which had long sleeves that reached down her palms. Once she had laced that up, she braided her long brown hair and pinned it to her scalp, placing her coif over her head and wrapping her dirtied apron around her waist.

“How do I look?” Eva asked Little Flame.

The cat perked her head up with blank expression.

“I’ll change before mass,” Eva said defensively. “Now don’t you come out until we’re gone or Mother will throw you out.”

She rushed down the stairs to begin her work. Matthew had already prepared the hearth and forge fire, but she had to go fetch some more water from the well for the day and wash and hang the dirty clothes as well as ensure the kitchen area was swept and cobwebbed before her mother got up. She managed to get the water from the town square and clean the clothing in the wash bucket, but by the time her mother came down with her father, she had only just hung the washing over near the fire to dry.

“The house is a mess,” her mother chided.

“I accidentally slept in,” Eva confessed.

“Well there’s no time to clean now, you will just have to do it this afternoon.”

Eva wanted to argue. She had wanted to meet with her friends by the river, but that would have to wait. She was already in trouble with her mother and didn’t want to vex her further.

She quickly went upstairs to her room again to take off her apron and coif. Over her kirtle, she put on her cerulean woolen surcote, with the yellow geometric pattern embroidered at its base, and then buckled her thin leather belt around her hips, hooking her drawstring leather pouch onto it. She unpinned her hair and let her long braid fall down against her back. She washed again and checked herself in her small looking glass.

Eva’s hooded, hazel eyes peered back at her; heavy bags beneath them. She was lightly freckled over her wide-bridged nose and cheeks, and sported full-lips, inclined to smiling. Her moon face was strengthened with high cheekbones and thick eyebrows, making her appear less feminine than she may have liked. She was not an unattractive girl by any means though, but she was not extraordinarily beautiful or delicately featured either, and she certainly did not possess the type of beauty spoken about in troubadour tales. In any case, it would be her wit, amiability and her wise, searching eyes that appealed to people – to some anyway.

Eva was satisfied with her reflection. It was sufficiently clean for mass and she had long ago accepted she was not a stunning creature of romantic tales and ballads. In fact, she took pride in her uniqueness and her unashamedly lack of traditional feminine airs. She even avoided plucking her brows and hair line like some girls did. People could like her well enough as she was or they could leave her be.

Little Flame was asleep on her bed, so Eva gave the cat a quick rub and kiss goodbye on the head.

They were all waiting for her when she got downstairs.

Her father gave his usual friendly good morrow, but her mother gave a resentful scowl of disappointment. Matthew’s face of stone turned soft when he noticed the bags under Eva’s eyes.

“You weren’t joking,” he whispered to her, as they made their way outside.

“Of course not,” Eva grumbled back.

“I’m sorry.”

Eva noticed that her mother had placed the usual morsel of bread on the doorstep outside. It was meant for the Fay. Like Randolph, Eva had always thought such things were nonsense. Keeping The Little People and their mischief at bay just by placing a piece of bread at your doorstep seemed ridiculous and superstitious. She was not the type to believe in things so steeped in the old ways and thought those old beliefs a little silly, only tolerating her mother’s whims. But after last night, she wondered if there could possibly be some truth to her mother’s beliefs and the old tales she was told by her and her grandfather before he died.

It wasn’t until they were half way to the church, the town bustling with women, men and children on their way as well, that Matthew finally asked her.

“What happened?”

“I’m not sure…” Eva trailed off. “I think it was just a bad dream.”

“A bad dream? You looked like you had seen a ghost. I was sure it was some sort of trick, but I saw your eyes this morning and knew something must have gone on last night for you to have lost so much sleep over it.”

“Maybe I did. But I don’t believe in such nonsense anyway. I’m not Mother. Besides, the Vicar says ghosts go to purgatory, heaven or hell. They don’t walk among us.”

Matthew sensed Eva felt uncomfortable talking about it and ended the discussion there.

“I’m sorry too…” Eva said, averting her eyes.

Matthew smiled. “I know that must have been hard for you to say. It’s ok. Maybe you’re right.”

“It doesn’t matter if I am or not, if you really like her, or even love her, you should tell her.”

“Thank you Eva. I will,” Matthew said with a glint of hope in his eye.

They all entered the stone church, sitting behind the town gentry with the rest of the townspeople. Petronilla and Walter entered soon after and people had already begun whispering and giggling as the old woman passed them. The reason for the snide remarks and shocked reactions was on her head. Petronilla wore an elaborate crespine that framed her elderly face. It was a style Eva and no one else in town was familiar with, including Lady Eleanor de Berkeley from the nearby manor house. It looked intricate and very expensive and was probably the present Walter had brought her. Clearly business was good. It was showy and one detail short of dangerous, Lady Eleanor clearly not pleased with the display, whispering angrily to her sisters-in-law, Ladies Matilda and Cristina, in French as they stared back at Petronilla. Along with her elaborate headdress, Petronilla donned a miniver fur edged gown of velvet blue, long yellow-lined tippets flowing down to the floor from her elbows, her short sleeves revealing a bright yellow silk kirtle beneath her gown, and a girdle with golden mountings cascading down from her hips. Her mien was all pride and pomp as she passed by, nodding regally to all those that greeted her.

Walter looked a sheep-herder beside her, his more modest woolen tunic and hose less befitting of his station as an up and coming member of the gentry. Eva supposed Petronilla took up the entire budget herself for clothing them.

“Yes, it is all the rage in London,” she replied, when someone commented on her garments.

Matthew and Eva giggled, unable to help themselves.

“Quiet you two. It is the Sabbath. Have more decency and respect,” Juliana chided.

Matthew and Eva tried to hold straight faces, but muffled laughter still ensued and quick slaps were handed out equally. When Eva received her’s though, Juliana eyed the scratch marks on the back of Eva’s hand suspiciously. Eva pulled down her sleeve in response and her Mother just gave her a stern look and then turned her attention elsewhere.

“That was close,” Matthew murmured.

Eva nodded, hoping she hadn’t given herself away.

Eva glanced about and saw Lora enter, along with her parents, sister Sibyl, and brothers Adam, Robert and Gregory. Eva gave a quick wave as she passed by and noticed Matthew grin at her. Lora smiled back at him, tilting her head at Eva. Eva also noticed Margery, another friend of hers, come in and saw her other friends Sarah, John and Alexander, come in with their mother and barber father.

She nodded and whispered greetings to them all. Then she noticed the Constable and his wife walk in and watched as Jacob, their revolting son, sat down, openly leering at all the young maidens in the church.

He even ogled back at her and she avoided his scrutiny, but still felt him staring at everything but her face. She crossed her arms uncomfortably and Matthew leaned forward, cracking his knuckles. Jacob got the hint and turned his attention to the empty pulpit in front.

Eva gave him a nudge. “I can look after myself you know.”

“Yes, but someone has to look out for him.”

The service began with the Vicar praying, and then he proceeded with his smite-ridden and brimstone-filled sermon, followed by the offering of communion to his parishioners. Eva struggled to stay awake. The Vicar’s voice was monotone and it was only when he got particularly animated and seemed to yell at his parishioners that Eva would jolt herself awake again. What she could gather was that he was speaking about ill deeds and how those that did not seek forgiveness and change would burn in hell for all eternity. He also seemed to speak about the seven deadly sins, especially greed and pride, seeming to always glance over to Petronilla’s side of the church during his rambling.

Eventually it was over and Eva breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn’t sure how long she would have lasted until she fell from the pew where they had been sitting.

The townspeople exited the church after the Lady Eleanor and her sisters-in-law left for their grand manor nearby. Beside the church lay the small town graveyard. Eva stared at it as they passed by it on their way out. Outside the iron gates was a grassy mound. An unmarked grave on unhallowed ground. Rumour said it was the Weycombe Witch that had been buried there, but this was hardly ever spoken about. Not many towns or villages would willingly share their sordid past without fearing retribution.

Eva’s mother, Juliana, made her way to see Petronilla. Petronilla was like Juliana’s surrogate mother, always giving her advice and speaking to her about the ways of a wife and mother. Petronilla had three of her own girl children, but they had married men in faraway towns and villages, away from the reach of their mother and father’s influence, so Petronilla enjoyed Juliana’s company as much as Juliana enjoyed hers. The match only ever brought inconvenience to Eva though.

Eva’s father, Randolph, found his friends from town. Richard Chandler and Hugo Brewer were close friends with Randolph since childhood. Of course, they weren’t as close to Randolph as Helen and Matthew’s father, William were, but William was dead and it was unbecoming for a married man to show too much attention to another woman that was not his wife. Helen was nowhere to be seen anyway. She lived a fair way’s out from the market square and had only good use of one leg, making it hard for her to make the journey to mass every Sunday.

Matthew joined Randolph, attempting to become more familiar with the craftsmen in town who he would soon associate with more as Journeyman. Eva found Lora, but she was being questioned by one of the elderly townswomen about marriage and children, a subject Eva avoided. Her other friends were nowhere to be seen and were surely on their way to the riverside already to begin their afternoon activities.

It was then that Eva spotted Jacob coming towards her and tried to give her attention to something or someone else around her: anything to stop him in his tracks. She attempted a conversation with a man near her, but he seemed in heated debate with another and the conversation dwindled.

Before she could find another escape, Jacob was before her, looking down at her in a most explicit manner.

Jacob Hegeman may have been an attractive man if he had washed his hair once in a while and shaved his scraggly beard, and maybe even used his heavily-browed eyes to better use than to leer at unsuspecting females. Instead, his whole demeanour lent a slimy mien to his appearance that was altogether unsavoury to Eva.

Jacob may have seemed an eligible bachelor on parchment, but there was always a reason the other gentry evaded marriage talks with his parents.

“Good morrow Eva.”

“Good morr –”

“My mother tells me you want to marry me” Jacob interjected, rubbing his thin nose with a dirty forefinger.

Eva spotted his rotund mother a few paces behind him, watching on expectantly. “Does she?”

“Yes. I would have you know though, Eva Smith, that your face is quite plain and unappealing to me.” Jacob paused, inspecting Eva’s chest below. “But you do have a more than ample bosom and that is enough for me in a wife. For that, I think you shall do.”

Eva was shocked. Even to Jacob’s standards, this was a deprived thing to say. She went red in the face, both angry and embarrassed as people around them began to stare and whisper. Eva’s fists clenched and she gave Jacob an impulsive punch to the nose.

Being a blacksmith’s daughter had its advantages: the monstrous punch appeared to have given Jacob a bloody nose.

Jacob screeched a most unmanly sound and held his hand to his nose, blood gushing from it and caking on his upper lip.

“I’d have you know, Jacob Hegeman, that you make my skin crawl ‘til I want to tear it from my bones. I’d rather be hanged and have ravens peck out my eyes than marry a horrid, repulsive man-child, such as yourself.”

“Mother!” Jacob cried, holding his nose and cowering away. “Mother! She has well and truly embarrassed me. I will not have this shrew of a woman!”

Matthew came rushing up to Eva, along with Henry Hegeman, Randolph, Juliana and Jacob’s mother, Amice.

“Eva, what have you done?” her mother said shrilly.

“You bumbling disgrace of a man,” the Constable chastised. “A mere woman hits you and you cry like a mongrel pup. You are an embarrassment to this family. How can I trust you to run my business when I’m gone? You’re a fool.”

“It is not his fault, husband. This girl is so common. How dare she make such a public display? He’s right, she is a shrew.”

“Hold on there. My Eva is no shrew. Your son very publicly insulted my daughter. She may have taken the wrong course of action, but I won’t have any man speaking to her like that,” Randolph said.

“I demand the shrew be placed in a cucking stool,” Jacob sputtered.

“No!” Eva shrieked, thinking of the public shame it would bring her and her family. Randolph held his daughter close, trying to comfort her.

“Hold on, that’s a bit hasty,” Matthew interjected.

“I agree. If you take a proper course of action to punish your daughter, I will take proper course of action to see that my son is fit to be let out into society,” Henry said.

“I will make sure of it.”

“Husband, this is not right. He is our dear boy.”

“Your dear boy has been coddled till he is a shameful excuse for a man. This girl only said what any girl would have said to this disgraceful piglet. I will hear no more.”

The Constable strode away, dragging his son along by his collar and Amice Hegeman following behind like a wounded duckling waddling along.

The crowd that had seemingly watched on, quickly broke up and went about their own business. Some were very impressed by Eva’s response and the amusing reaction from Jacob, and some were not so impressed by Eva at all. The Vicar was particularly taken aback by the display and muttered something about how this all occurred, “On the Sabbath!”

Eva shook her right hand out. It was now aching and red, but nothing was broken and if she was careful, she suspected it would not swell up.

Eva looked at her father. “Thank you Father.”

“You did well my girl. But maybe next time, don’t hit the Constable’s son. At least not in public.”

Eva smiled, “I’ll try not to, but I can’t make any promises.”

“The look of shock on his face when you punched him. I think he finally fell off his high horse. I did try to warn him,” Matthew said, laughing.

Juliana glared at them all. “It is no laughing matter. That was Jacob Hegeman. Jacob Hegeman! Her only chance at a comfortable life in this town and she ruined it. If you do not punish our daughter, I will.” Juliana strode away, heading back home.

“Your mother is right, Eva. I have to punish you. You will have to help Matthew early in the mornings to complete his chores in the workshop. You will also need to complete your chores for your mother. Do you understand?”

Eva nodded. Compared to what he could’ve handed down, the punishment was very merciful.

Petronilla and Walter walked up to the three of them, Petronilla still adopting the mannerisms of a lady.

“You should listen to your mother, girl. She knows what is best for you. This business of you trying to become some vagabond, selling whatever nonsense, has to stop,” Petronilla said sternly.

“Yes... Milady Mercer.”

Petronilla’s old, haggard face turned a furious red. She abruptly turned and floated away in her regal gown, her arm interlocked with Walter’s. Walter turned as they walked off, giving Eva a powerless look that said he was sorry. She wouldn’t hear any of his stories today.

“Come on. We better get on home now. You still owe your mother some chores, and we need to look to that hand too. And you, Matthew, will need to help me with Walter’s horse.”

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