The Fire Witch's Tale

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Love, Freedom and Security

Eva completed her chores with haste, despite her hand still being sore and of little use. She desperately wanted to join her friends by the river and didn’t want to spend her only afternoon off doing dull house chores. By the time she was done, Matthew had finished up helping Randolph with the horse shoe that needed mending, and had decided he would join Eva in the afternoon’s activities, bringing his bow and arrows.

The River Wey was a short walk outside of town. It was lined by large clumps of Ash trees, their branches still sparse while winter was still fading, the bank green, yet still blanketed by frost and slush. Beyond the murky river, lay the thick forest and the main road leading to other faraway towns and villages, including the city of London.

When Eva and Matthew reached the river bank, they found Lora, Adam, Margery, Sarah, John and Alexander all lazing around on a thick woollen blanket, eating dried fruit and chatting. The boys and Sarah were shooting at targets with their bows and arrows, trying to shoot down some wild birds and small game to take home as a treat. The air was chill, but the group took in whatever sunrays they could. It grew tiresome being behind walls for months on end, so they seemed to relish the fresh air.

When they saw Eva and Matthew approach they all cheered and laughed heartily.

“That was a mighty punch,” Alexander said, patting Eva’s back.

“Yes, well done,” Adam cackled. “No one saw it coming.”

“Well, I’m regretting it now with the pain in my hand and the amount of chores I’ll be doing. I’m afraid I’ll be a recluse from now on. You’ll all never see me again.”

They all fained their disappointment, and then roared with laughter, prompting Eva to throw one of their precious dried fruits at them.

“I’m sure Matthew will be gallant and cover for you,” Lora said, studying Matthew with her large blue eyes.

“She can forget about that. I’m going to enjoy watching her labour away and I’ll be quick to hand down the orders. ‘Ah, you missed a spot there.’ ‘Fetch me those pliers, serving girl.’ ‘Don’t talk back now.’”

“Matthew Tyler, you spiteful rogue,” Eva protested, giving him a light push against his arm.

“Well I’m glad she did it. One of us girls had to do it. I hate Jacob, he’s so revolting,” Margery added, flicking aside her caramel tresses.

“Oh please Margery. Eva’s the only one of you mewling girls that would have done anything about it. You would have cried Lora, you would have been too shocked Sarah, and you, Margery, would have gone completely dumb,” John said, imitating the scene he conjured up.

Margery scowled. “I never said I would have done anything. I said someone had to do it and Eva would’ve always been the one to do it, and I’m glad she finally did.”

“Now, now you two. Let’s end all this fighting. We have some hare and pheasant to catch and I dare say Matthew will probably feed us all tonight,” Alexander said, with a cheeky grin.

“You know me well Alex.” Matthew took up his bow and loaded an arrow. He aimed for a bird above him and shot. The arrow went flying into the air with great speed and shot the bird dead between the breasts.

The group clapped and cheered, giving out plenty huzzahs.

Matthew gave an over-emphasised bow. “I better go pick up my winnings. Lora, would you like to join me?”

“I’d love to.”

Matthew went before Lora as she held her out for him. Before helping her up, he kissed her hand, as if he were a Knight and she his damsel. Everyone wooted and cheered, making exaggerated kissing noises at the pair. Except for Eva.

They ambled off, arms linked, following the river down to Matthew’s kill.

“Those two will make pretty children,” Sarah said, watching them with her squinting brown eyes.

“Those two? I doubt it,” Eva said.

All of them looked at her quizzically.

“Jealous?” Adam said, giving a wry smile.

“Why would I be jealous?”

“Eva, you’ve been living with one of the most handsome young bachelors in town. Some would argue the most handsome,” Sarah said, waiting for confirmation from Margery. “Yet, here we stand, you alone and him with Lora,” Sarah said.

They all eyed each other. Eva was unsure what was going on. She had never thought of Matthew as handsome, but now looking at his muscular, thin body and golden mop of hair, his crooked smile and dazzling green eyes, she finally saw what everyone around her saw. It didn’t change that he was her adopted brother, the one she called her closest friend and ally against the world. She felt Lora a stranger in that world and she felt betrayed. She had recently felt Lora distancing herself though, and wondered if this was why.

“Even if what you all say is true, and Lora is so deeply in love with him, along with all the rest of you it seems, why is it all of a sudden that he wants Lora? He never mentioned her or showed any attention to her before, why now?”

“We’re all wondering that, Eva,” John said.

Sarah nudged her brother, as if to keep him quiet.

“You all are acting very strangely today. Is there something you’re keeping from me?”

They all eyed each other again. Margery was about to speak out when they saw Matthew and Lora approach with the fowl.

“A good catch as always,” Alexander said.

Matthew smiled, Lora glancing up at him lovingly.

“It’ll make a good meal for tonight,” Eva said.

“Actually, Lora invited me to her home for dinner. I’ll be taking this along with us as a gift to her parents.”

“Oh,” Eva balked. “How kind of you Lora.”

Lora simpered sheepishly.

“I think it is now Eva who has gone dumb,” John muttered to Adam. Sarah gave him a dirty look and the group fell silent.

“We better head homeward now. Mother and Father would want us home soon. We wouldn’t want to be kept out past dark,” Alexander announced. His comment just made everyone feel more awkward – it was still early in the afternoon, there was no danger of them staying back till after dark.

Sarah glanced at her elder brother and then at Eva. “I think I’ll stay here. I really want to go flower picking with all the early spring flowers out and I’m sure I saw a fat hare by those bushes that would make a great stew. Eva and Margery can keep me company and escort me home. I promise I won’t stay out too long.”

“Okay, come on John. Let’s go.”

Everyone said their goodbyes to John and Alexander and they left for town.

“We should probably go too. Mother will be starting our evening meal soon and I’d much prefer fresh pheasant than preserved mutton,” said Lora.

“Tell your parents I won’t be out too late,” Matthew said.

Eva nodded and Sarah, Margery and her said goodbye to Lora and the boys.

“What’s going on girls?” Eva said, as soon as Lora and the boys were out of ear’s reach.

“There’s been rumours,” Margery admitted.

“Rumours? What rumours?”

“About you and Matthew being betrothed. Your father ensuring your marriage to one another. That it was agreed to before Matthew’s father died,” Sarah said.

“That’s not true.”

“That’s not all,” Sarah went on. “There’s been talk amongst some people that you and Matthew have had... carnal knowledge. Some rumours say you’re with child and are planning to run away with him like you’ve always dreamt about.”

“Tell me you don’t believe this? Who’s been spreading these lies?”

“I’m surprised it hasn’t reached you. They’ve been going on for a few months now. The sexual relations and pregnancy ones are new though,” Margery said.

“We don’t know who started them. Anyone could’ve,” Sarah said.

“They’re not true!” Eva exclaimed. Her head was spinning. How could she not have known?

“We never believed the one about you running away and having a child. But...” Margery paused.

“But the one about you and Matthew bedding each other was believable. So was the betrothed part. You were always close.”

“He’s like a brother to me,” Eva said. “I would have told both of you, and Lora, if something was going on. My father would never betroth me and Matthew. He knows we don’t see each other that way.”

“We believe you Eva,” Sarah said.

“But I’m guessing Lora doesn’t?”

“No. She’s had her eye on Matthew for a while. She never told you because she thought you’d hate her for it. When she heard the rumours though... well you know how Lora is. When she wants something, she gets it. She thought you were finally a real threat I suppose, and made her advances on Matthew before it was too late.”

“Frankly, Lora’s become a bit of a gossip herself. I don’t care much for her lately,” Margery added.

“I thought she was a friend. No wonder she’s been acting so strange.”

“Forget about her. Let’s enjoy the afternoon together,” Sarah said, taking up her bow and arrow.

For the final hours of the day, they hunted and caught a few hares and a duck, and then went picking flowers, creating posies of snowdrops, colt’s-foots, crocuses, glory of the snows, primroses, spring snowflakes, sweet violets and three-cornered garlics. When they were finished, they took their meals and posies home with them, each getting a hare each and Sarah getting the duck she struck with her arrow.

“I don’t like weaving as her apprentice. She is so cold and hard. I never know what she’s thinking and she often scolds me for making mistakes, but never teaches me how to better my technique.”

“You could go home to your village and help you parents on their land, can’t you Margery?”

“I could, but there are no men in the village my age. But I’m not having much luck here either. I may just have to become a Weaver for life.”

“Don’t be so glum, you’ll probably marry before me,” Eva said.

“Everyone will marry before you, Eva,” Sarah snickered.

“That is true. Including Matthew.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Margery said, rubbing her friend’s shoulder.

“It’s just that, with Lora how she is now, it won’t be long till Matthew follows suit. If he is to be her husband, he will have to honour her and her friends will become his and her enemies will become his too.”

“Matthew would never turn his back on you, not even for his wife. You have always been close. The first memories I have were of you two playing along with us. While the other boys avoided us girls, Matthew was always by your side. I doubt Lora’s influence could undo all of that,” Sarah said.

Eva nodded. “I guess it’s best not to think about it.”

They dropped Margery off first and saw Beatrice, the woman whom she worked under and completely understood what she was saying. Beatrice’s stony face welcomed Margery without a word, and Margery’s gazed back at her friends forlornly. Sarah lived close by to Eva, so Eva walked her home and went on to her tenement alone.

When she went inside, through the workshop and into the kitchen area, she found her mother was still in a bit of a mood, hanging over the iron cauldron, and her father was enjoying some mead by the warmth of the fire. The room was lit by candles and the air within was thick with a salty smell. She said hello to her parents and her Father gave a hearty good evening, her mother only mumbling a short greeting.

“Here Mother. I brought you peace offerings,” Eva handed her mother the posy of flowers and the fresh, plump hare, and her mother seemed to brighten just slightly. She placed the blooms in a pretty blue vase she had displayed on a buffet cabinet and hung the hare from the rafters by its feet.

“Thank you my dear,” she said, still hesitant.

“I’m sorry for what I said. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Who are you? What have you done with my daughter?” her father joked.

“Very funny. But I mean it. I’m sorry.”

“Not to worry. I don’t know what you could mean anyway,” her mother said, giving a tinge of a smile.

Eva sat down by the table, feeling as though a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Then she recalled. “Matthew won’t be home for supper.”

“Oh?” Randolph perked up.

“Yes. He’s visiting Lora Miller and her family.”

“What for?” Juliana enquired.

Eva raised her brow at her mother and it seemed to dawn on Juliana.

“Well she is a lovely girl. Just in time for St. Valentine’s Day too. They’ll make such a handsome couple.”

Eva rolled her eyes, “I’m sure they will.”

“You should take a favour to Jacob on St. Valentine Day. I’m sure that would smooth things over. He really is a very good prospect for you. Remember that a woman’s lot in life is thanks to her husband’s status, not her father’s.”

“Is that why you married Father?”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”

“Dear, Jacob Hegeman is not a good choice at all. I know you only want the best for Eva, but the boy is shameful. Whatever status he has will soon disappear. The business his father has built and the fortune that family has accumulated will dissolve under that boy.”

Juliana fell silent for a while. “I suppose you may be right.”

The room was quiet again, the sound of the bubbling beef soup all that could be heard.

“It is dull without Matthew here. We should play a game Father.”

Randolph looked up and smiled. “If you’d like my girl.”

Eva went to fetch their game board and pieces for Merels from within the wardrobe by the kitchen table. The board and round pieces were placed in a supple animal skin bag and closed with a leather drawstring. She took the board and pieces out, positioning the wooden playing board in the middle of the table and placing her father’s twelve white pieces before him, taking the remaining twelve grey pieces for herself.

“You can go first,” Eva said.

Her father placed one of his pieces in one of the round notches close to him. “Walter told me a bit about what was going on in London.”

Eva leaned in after she made her move.

Juliana gave Randolph a warning glare.

“No stories or adventurous occurrences. Just about what was happening with taxes and prices,” he said, more to Juliana than Eva. “The taxes are just as high there as they are here. Food prices don’t seem like they will go down either. It seems we’re still recovering after the last war in France and the Great Mortality. Not to mention it seems the sickness is still lingering, outbreaks being reported everywhere.”

“The war is over now though, right? Things will start to get better won’t they?”

“Well, with so few people working the land, Walter says he doubts things will get better. Lords everywhere have been forced to pay higher prices for labour because villeins have threatened to walk away. But who can blame them? Things are tough at the moment for everyone, and Lords can be so greedy. But it does mean taxes won’t go down and neither will inflation. I doubt the war has truly ended too, which doesn’t help the situation.”

“How do you really know the war isn’t over?”

“Well, we are still holding hostage French aristocracy and I doubt the French will really allow that to continue without more of a fight, even if they raise the ransom needed. But I do hear that King Edward is making English the official court language now, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he will lose interest in French soil after all, despite saying he is entitled to it.”

“I still say the King should just give the throne of France to King John. I know the Pope is French, but it seems unwise to go against his judgment when he is meant to be the voice of God and said himself the King has no right to a French throne,” Eva said.

“Will we be ok, Randolph?”

“We will persevere as we always have. Luckily for us, Blacksmithing is a trade always in need. Business hasn’t been as busy, but it’s been enough to keep us afloat. Our garden is always full of fruit and vegetables as well, so we will never go hungry. We will be just fine.”

Eva nodded. She realised with all this bad news, maybe they were right. The road was uncertain and there were never guarantees of making coin. Walter was wealthy, but wealth was precarious. Now that things were in such strife, there was even less chance of survival on the road. She felt a bit robbed of her dream and fell quiet, biting her nails as she tried to figure out a way she could still see the world.

“Oh, I’ve won.”

Eva looked up and saw her father had made a row of three with his pieces. She hadn’t really been paying attention, as the win was not a calculated one.

“Sorry, I was just so deep in thought.”

“Well you can help serve out dinner now, the soup is ready,” Juliana said.

Eva smiled and did as she was asked, still wondering how she’d ever escape Weycombe and her mundane life. Maybe never.

She was wrong, of course.

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