The Fire Witch's Tale

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No Freedom for the Wicked

Eva and Matthew had cleared things up with her family and she seemed to have less nightmares in the following week. Things had even seemed better between her and Matthew, them mostly going back to their old way and Lora a distant memory. The town was still gossiping for the most part, but Eva stayed away like Matthew had suggested and things started to calm down, fewer people believing the lies. Little Flame had become a permanent fixture in Eva’s bedroom and she had become her greatest confidant during her confinement. Her grandmother hadn’t returned to haunt her, and so she decided to forget about it, believing it would be better to forget about it than to dwell on it. The Sabbath came and went, Eva only receiving some chiding glares. Her friends were all busy with chores and errands in the afternoon, too busy for their usual leisurely time together: Matthew preparing for his move into his family home, Lora clearly not interested and her brother following her lead, Margery saying the old maid she lived with had given her more work to finish than she could during the week, and Sarah and her brothers were busy helping their father treat their new patient, Henry. Eva decided to stay home and help her mother with any extra things that needed doing, instead of spending her afternoon by the river alone, freezing in the late-winter-rain that had descended.

Eva was at the table, drying the freshly washed wooden spoons along with the freshly washed bone cups. Her mother was humming a tune by the hearth, stirring the broth within her cauldron. She abruptly stopped her quiet song and Eva saw her mother staring into the vacant space beside her, fear and shock on her pallid face.

Juliana gave a pained cry and dropped the long ladle from her hand. She shook violently, as if she had been hit by a cold snap, the hairs on her arms standing up like the spikes on a hedgehog.

“Mother, are you alright?” Eva said, jumping to her mother’s aid.

Juliana was motionless, her eyes boring into nothingness and her hand to her mouth. Eva held onto her mother and shook her.

“Mother, Mother. What is wrong?”

After a moment, her mother seemed to snap out of her hallucinating state, her glazed eyes getting the same twinkle back into them.

“What’s wrong? What did you see?”

“Nothing,” she said brusquely, turning back to the cauldron.

“It didn’t look like nothing.”

“Eva, must it always be an argument with you?”

Eva sat back down. After a long moment, she finally decided to broach the subject, “Was it grandmother?”

Eva’s mother turned, taken aback. “Why would you think it was your grandmother?”

“She was the Weycombe Witch wasn’t she? I’ve seen her too.”

Juliana’s face grew angry, “I would not have you speak of such evil in this house.”

Eva left the topic there but later on she watched as her mother burned a bundle of herbs, getting the fragrant smoke in every nook and cranny, an iron crucifix in her other hand following her around as she prayed a familiar prayer. Eva recognised one herb to be sage by the smell of it and the prayer to be one from the Book of Hours. It was from whence her mother had taught her to read and write and be a good, Christian woman. Of course that seemed to have failed horribly, now that she wasn’t only a fornicator; she was also the granddaughter of a known witch.

Eva gave a faint laugh and her mother turned.

“What’s so funny?”

“Just that I was doomed from the beginning.”

Juliana frowned. “I’ll have your father speak to you if you continue on with your strange ideas and wild ramblings. This is not how a good woman should behave.”

“And what will you do Mother, if I’m not a good woman? Hang me and burn the house down to purify it from my evil ways?” Eva left before the tirade began, picking up her cloak on her way out and taking off her dirtied apron. She heard her mother grumble as she closed the door behind her and was faced with the muggy warmth of the workshop floor.

“Where are you going?” her father asked, turning with a small piece of metal between the pliers in his hand.

“I’m getting away. I am sick of being cooped up in the house, having truths kept from me and resentment building up against me. I need to feel the sun and rain on my face and listen to the laughter of children, enjoying the freedom I so wish for.”

“Eva, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing Father,” Eva sighed. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

Eva stepped out onto the street, her cloak tightly wrapped around her. It was raining and she looked up, allowing the hood to fall back and cold rain to patter down onto her face. It was a gloomy, cloudy day, but Eva enjoyed it. The rain smelt fresh and hid the odours of farm animal excrement that always loomed in the market square. She walked across the vacant square and past the market cross, few people outside with the heavens pouring out heavily. She made her way to a bench by the side of the square and watched as a few children played outside their home across the way, splashing in puddles and giggling eagerly as they sang nursery rhymes.

Beware the Weycombe Witch

Hear her ghastly screech

She’ll burn your homes

Then eat your bones

And bate your sinful soul

For the Devil’s toll.

Beware the Weycombe Witch...

It was then that Eva noticed Walter approaching her, his green chaperone hat and matching coat shielding him from the rain.

“Oh you’re back from your travels, Walter. How are you and... what brings you out here in this weather?”

“You actually. I’ve come to talk to you. It’s good you’re not at home, because I bring news your Mother would not approve of.”

Eva sat up straight, moving along the bench for Walter to sit beside her.

“I have a friend from London who’s in town seeking an apprentice. He’s a trader that sources the finest silk for merchants like me. His apprentice has suddenly become betrothed and no longer wants a life on the road. He doesn’t want to go ahead alone on his next journey though. I’ve told him I may have someone that is interested, and he is willing to meet with you to discuss terms. The thing is, do you still want such a life?”

“More now than ever Walter. This is wonderful news. Will you arrange a meeting?” Eva asked, rubbing her hands together for warmth.

“He’s leaving a week from St Gilbert’s Day, taking advantage of the St Valentine’s Day festivities. I can arrange a meeting for you tomorrow night. He should be at the The Lion Rampant, taking part in the revelling. Will you be available?”

“Of course. I’d surely die before missing such an opportunity.”

“Good, I will tell him of the meeting. Just make sure you are there at sunset.”

“I will, but Walter, what of my mother and Petronilla?”

“Girl, you have a chance at your dream. Do not always worry what others want of you or you’ll die a very unhappy old maid. I won’t tell them if you don’t. Besides, you are old enough to marry, so you are old enough to make your own destiny.”

Eva smiled, “Thank you Walter.”

“I best be off. Petronilla thinks I’ve gone to fetch more bread from the Baker.”

“No time for the stories you’ve promised me then?”

“I’m afraid not. You better go inside anyway, or you’ll catch a cold in this miserable weather. Fairwell my girl,” Walter rushed off.

Eva beamed with excitement. This was her chance.

When dusk fell upon the square and the children went inside to their beckoning mothers, shutters flying open and the waft of hot air escaping homes from the cooking of evening meals, Eva made her way home. The rain had ceased and the setting sun shed a glowing hue over the muddied square, making puddles glisten in the light and inviting out straying tabby cats from within their dry hiding places.

Eva was certain tomorrow would bring a brighter day, in more ways than one. Things were about to change for her. Eva had no idea yet how much things would change though.

It was St Valentine’s Day and Weycombe was abuzz with life and spirit. The town square was full of villagers selling their produce and goods, and there were plenty of people about, buying wares, and ignoring the grey skies. Merchants and villagers cried out their prices, wares and products, stopping people as they passed by to try and convince them to buy their particular items. Some out-of-town peddlers and tinkerers even walked around trying to sell their services; such as, sharpening knives or fixing brass or tin wares. There were even some that sold pork pies, pickled eggs, toffee apples or other foods as they strolled around. Stray pigs were foraging in the streets, eating scraps, livestock were being transported through the square to the butchers, and villagers led their oxen or horses into their spots where they would unload their carts for the day. The gentry along with the merchant classes and the villeins all gathered to buy fruit and vegetables, luxurious or coarse cloths and furs, and intricately made or cruder home decor and utensils. Even Lady Eleanor, heavy with child, was wandering around with a servant following her.

Eva saw all this from her father’ workshop, helping keep the fire burning hot and ensuring the patrons were well looked after.

“Are you going to The Lion Rampant this afternoon? I hear there will be a minstrel there singing songs of love to entertain the out-of-town merchants and villagers,” Matthew said, placing down the iron door-hinge he had been hammering.

“Yes, I have someone to meet there.”

Matthew perked up with interest. “A new love, perhaps?”

Eva gave a laugh, “No. Someone who may give me work.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“You’ll see,” Eva said. “What about you? Will you be declaring your love for Lora at The Lion Rampant, along with the other lovers in town?”

Matthew blushed. “I suppose in a way I shall.”

“So, we both have our secrets.”

“Look at these adorable playthings,” Eva heard from the window. She turned to see that it was Lady Eleanor admiring the small iron figurines placed along the window’s ledge for display. The Lady was wearing a sumptuous gown of glistening golden damask, the gown’s rolled up sleeves trimmed with camlet, and revealing a taffeta kirtle of rich blue beneath, a burgundy-coloured woollen mantle around her shoulders of the finest yarn, lined with golden brocade, and her hair hidden beneath a silk-gauze veil, topped by a golden frett.

“How kind of you to say your Ladyship,” Eva said.

“You made these yourself, girl?” Lady Eleanor asked, looking up with her large brown eyes.

“Yes, Milady.”

“You’re quite talented. They are very delicate and elaborate in design. Perfect for my young niece. Just look at the pretty flowers on this miniature, Maria.”

“Yes Milady, It is beautiful,” the young servant agreed.

“How much do you charge?”

“Half a penny per figurine, Milady.”

“A fare price. I would like to purchase all twelve, if you please.”

“Of course, Milady.”

Eva took the coins Lady Eleanor handed over. The Lady took each figurine and passed it to her servant to place it in her basket.

“What was your name, girl?” Lady Eleanor asked, about to leave.

“Eva, Milady. Eva Smith.”

“It is nice to meet an accomplished young girl, Eva. Men often under appreciate the hard work of women, but don’t give up. Your skill is worth the struggle.”

“Thank you Milady.”

Lady Eleanor left then, Maria following her close by.

“Making friends?” Matthew said.

“I suppose so.”

“She’s a good friend to have,” her father said, as he moved over to them.

“Did you see? Lady Eleanor bought all of Eva’s toy figurines.”

Randolph smiled, “Well they were pretty little things. Good work Eva. Maybe we’ll get her business again. Better here than at another Smithy in town.”

The day began to wane and the townspeople began to make their ways home for the day as the rain started to come pouring down. Villagers packed up and made their journeys homeward, the town square emptying quickly till only a few people lingered behind. Eva and Matthew packed up for the day and all three went in for their evening meal.

“Did we make a lot of profit today?”

“Yes my dear,” Randolph said. “Eva even sold all her toy figurines. To Lady Eleanor.”

“Her Ladyship was at our window? Why did you not come and fetch me. I would have brought her some refreshment.”

“I don’t think it would be wise to flatter the aristocracy so, Mother. She’d see right through it and take her business elsewhere.”

Juliana gave her daughter an angry glare.

“She is but a woman, Mother. Flatter her too much and she will resent you for lack of respect. There’s a fine line with flattery. You could be seen as being very kind, or having hidden motives.”

“Well it is hard times these, and if Lady Eleanor shows interest in us, I would like the certainty that she will return,” Juliana said, serving out the grey-looking pottage.

“It is hard times,” Randolph agreed, spooning the gruel placed before him.

“It was the best I could do with our low supplies this month. Not to mention that there’s a ferocious pest eating our garden.”

“Well, we will need to tighten our belts. No more purchasing of the softest fleece or velvet, and we’ll now be buying lye soap rather than olive oil soap,” Randolph said, looking at Juliana. “And no more purchasing wine. We will all have to make sacrifices if we are to weather the storm.”

They began their meal, everyone reaching for any herbs at hand to make the pottage more bearable. It had seemed a long time since they last ate pottage, and the taste of it seemed much worse than their memories allowed.

“I’ll be going to the tavern tonight,” Eva said.

“Alright, but please come home early with one of your friends escorting you. It may not be curfew until late into the night, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t outlaws roaming about earlier in the evening.”

“Yes Mother.”

“Are you going to see your friends?” Randolph asked.

Eva averted her gaze. “Yes, and meeting new ones.”

“And what about you, Matthew? Will you be joining the festivities at the tavern?”

“I’ll be meeting Lora there, so yes. Eva can come with me if she likes.”

“I would like that, Matthew,” Eva’s mother said.

Eva smiled, “It is only sunset, Mother.”

“Still, there are gossips with forked tongues that tell tales to undesirables. What if they were to get a hold of you?”

“Alright, I’ll go with Matthew,” Eva submitted.

The table fell silent, both Eva and Matthew poking at the remaining mush before them.

“Well you might as well go now. The meal won’t exactly get better the colder it gets,” Randolph said.

Both Eva and Matthew made for the door.

“Good evening,” they both said quickly, reaching for their cloaks.

“Wasting food is just ungrateful and foolish. I will be drying this for your lunches, you know that don’t you?” Juliana called after them, and the two of them contorted their faces at each other, showing their disdain, and laughed.

When they reached The Lion Rampant, it was alive with music and frivolity. The door swung open and the heat of the roaring fire within pervaded them. They stepped into the brightly lit establishment, passing two young men on their way out and deep in conversation. Inside there were an assortment of round tables and chairs, the fire at one end and the bar at the other. Behind the bar was Merida, the widowed owner, and her daughters Phillipa and Agnes. They were serving beer, ale, mead, wine and mulled wine, with large barrels and an array of coloured bottles lined up behind them. A minstrel band of a handsome singer, a skinny young man with a pipe and tabor, and another tall young man with a lute were playing by the hearth fire. The song they played when Eva and Matthew entered was a slow and methodical one, with the tenor singing a ballad of love lost.

It wasn’t busy quite yet, with a few tables filled up with young people drinking and chatting after the day’s work. Eva and Matthew spotted Sarah, John and Alexander by a table though, and made their way to it.

“Good evening,” they all greeted happily.

Eva and Matthew sat next to each other at one end of the table.

“How goes the move?” Alexander asked Matthew, once he was on his chair.

“Well. I have organised all my necessities for living and have luckily been left with enough coin from my family to help set me up comfortably. The tenants that were there have now moved on without a fuss and the coin accumulated over the years from their rent has helped a lot too. All in all, I’m quite fortunate.”

“In a manner of speaking, I suppose you are,” Sarah said, referring to his orphan status.

“I have the Smiths now, so I think I am most fortunate,” Matthew said, smiling at Eva.

“Well, Lora truly is a lucky girl. Look at what you can bring to a marriage,” John said.

“Marriage?” Eva said.

“Well, it seems inevitable now doesn’t it? The Millers won’t let Matthew court their daughter for long without a betrothal. So when will it be?” John said.

“John you are worse than a badgering old maid. Let Matthew and Lora enjoy courtship. They are both still young and have plenty of time for betrothal,” Sarah chastised.

Eva glanced at Matthew and Matthew looked at the table before him, not meeting any of their eyes.

“Speak of the devil. Here’s the lucky girl now,” Alexander said.

They all turned to find Lora enter with her brother Adam. She held a small white handkerchief in her hand, embroidered with pink and yellow flowers. Matthew got up to meet her and they watched as she handed over the favour to him and he tucked it inside his tunic, where his heart was - the vessel of his soul.

“Now she’ll always be close,” Adam whispered to Eva, passing her chair as he went to sit at their table.

“If you think me jealous, Adam, you’re wrong. Matthew is a brother to me and his happiness is mine,” Eva lied.

Everyone at the table looked at Eva, confused since they hadn’t heard Adam’s comment. Instead of explaining, she just waved her hand at them to say, ‘Never mind.’

Matthew and Lora made their way over, but instead of sitting in the empty seats beside Adam and Eva, they pulled a table over beside the other and sat by it.

“Good evening, Lora. How are you?” Eva enquired.

Lora gave her a sideways glance. “I am well.”

There was a long stretch of silence at the table when Sarah broke it. “Do you know when Margery will be here?”

“I’d be surprised if she comes at all,” Lora replied. “Beatrice is not a fan of lovers, and loathes St Valentine, being a lonely, bitter old Weaver herself.”

“Maybe Eva should take up the craft then, since she is so hell bent on never marrying,” Adam jabbed.

“Adam,” Matthew warned.

“I’d marry, if I found the right man. But not many men come around seeking a girl to spend a life with them on the road. I’m not willing to give my dreams up for a man though, and I’d rather be some travelling merchant’s apprentice and be single for the rest of my life, than live in a house baring many children for a dull man in a dull life.”

Right then the trader Walter spoke about had entered the tavern, looking around for the girl that had been described to him. Eva recognised him straight away. He was wearing a tattered and worn brown cloak, but his knee-length tunic was made of the finest red and blue mi-parti silk. He was an older man, probably in his mid-thirties, and had a receding hair line and heavily tanned skin. So much so, it almost looked leathery.

“Here is my chance,” Eva announced.

“At marriage?” John joked.

They all chortled.

“No. He is here to see me about an apprenticeship. Laugh now, but soon I will be visiting you all with wondrous tales and you will all be jealous that you did not lead my adventurous life.”

“You may have wondrous tales and many adventures, but I would rather have fine, delicate white skin than what it seems a travelling merchant’s apprenticeship will offer,” Sarah commented, analysing the man in distaste.

“He looks like my father’s boot,” Lora said, with a restrained chuckle.

“Well I’m not one for the vain pursuit of beauty. I would rather enjoy life. Excuse me now, I must meet with him.”

“So this was the secret” Matthew said, as Eva got up to leave.

Eva glanced over at Matthew and gave a twitch of her mouth.

Eva walked over to the trader and she caught his eye, recognition crossing his face.

“You must be Eva Smith,” he said, holding his hand out for her. Eva knew from his voice that he was not an Englishman, although he spoke perfect English. She pinpointed his accent as Castilian. It was an inflection she was familiar with from the peddlers and merchants that had visited Weycombe before.

Eva shook his hand. “Yes. And what am I to call you, sir?”

“My name is Lorencio Sanchez. I hear you are to be my new travelling companion. You have a strong hand. That is good.”

Eva smiled and she found the man had a friendly smile that was overhung by a well-kept black moustache.

“Let us sit and discuss,” he said, offering Eva a seat nearby.

“Thank you,” she said, taking it.

He sat across from her, taking off his liripipe hat and clasping his hands together on the table before him. Eva thought him quite professional. Nothing like her parents or anyone in town had told her the travelling merchant or trader would be like. Usually they would paint her dream as filled with aloof, unkempt men who had wandering hands in both senses of the manner, and only wanted her along to sate their lust and do their bidding. But here was a man who appeared to be more like Walter than that image.

“Now, are you fit and healthy? No aliments?”

“Yes sir. I am very fit and healthy. I rarely fall ill and I am a Blacksmith’s daughter, so very fit and strong.”

“Yes, I can see you are a woman of firm, muscular stature,” he said, inspecting her arms. “Are you well versed in the art of selling? Can you read, write, and calculate sufficiently?”

“Yes sir. I work for my father very often in his shop selling our wares. I am very firm with bartering and am not easy to fool, and can certainly count and calculate. I’m also well versed in reading and writing in the English language as well as in Latin. Although I’m unsure how this may fair abroad, as I know there are many languages I may have to learn.”

“That is not a worry for me. I am fluent in many languages and all I will require is someone to keep records for me. You sound like you are well suited for such a task. What of a betrothed?”

“A betrothed?”

“Yes, a young man that you love.”

“No. I have no plans of marriage or children. I would rather be married to the road.”

Lorencio gave a toothy grin. “That is a wonderful answer. It is also the right one. I do require a minimum of 4 years service. In that time it is unwise to pursue any relationship other than friendship with anyone you may meet. For this strict rule over your personal life, I give you in return a free apprenticeship and a small income for your personal use. I will expect you to wear more luxurious gowns of silk when we speak to clientele of course, but on the road, we must at all times wear the tattered and humble clothing of pilgrims to avoid thievery. If you accept my terms we can make a precursory trip to London, where we can trial our work relationship and see if it is right for the both of us.”

“I accept you terms, yes,” Eva said excitedly.

“Very well. I will meet with you here in a week’s time. Ensure you only bring the necessities.”

“I will.”

“Good,” he said, standing up. “It was a pleasure to meet with you, Eva Smith.”

“And you.”

They shook hands and Lorencio took his hat.

“Are you not staying for the festivities?”

“No, I am very tired from a long day of trade and would rather retire early. You enjoy yourself though.”

They said goodbye and Lorencio left the tavern.

Eva turned to find her friends staring.

“What happened?” Alexander asked once she reached the table and sat back down.

“I’m travelling to London in a week,” Eva revealed.

Sarah and her brothers, John and Alexander, as well as Matthew all chimed in with, “That’s great,” “What wonderful news,” and “I’m so happy for you.” Lora just smiled along with Adam. But Eva could sense it was half-hearted encouragement by the tone of their voices and the pause until the congratulations came.

“You all think I can’t do it?”

“It’s just... It’s dangerous out there. Think of all the stories we hear,” Sarah said.

“It’s not that we don’t think you can do it. It’s just that it can be a hard life on the road. We worry about you,” Alexander added.

“And I will miss my closest friend,” Matthew said.

Lora eyed Matthew.

“I just need your support. This is something I have always wanted. Why can’t you all be happy and leave it at that?”

“We are happy Eva. We’re sorry if we made it seem otherwise,” Sarah said, taking hold of Eva’s hand from across the table.

“It is good news that you finally won’t be bothering us with your pig-headed stubbornness and girlish fantasies. To Eva leaving and never being annoyed by her again,” John said, raising his bone cup.

“To Eva leaving and never being annoyed by her again,” they all roared, holding up their cups of mead, wine and ale and then drinking them down.

They all joined in laughter and Alexander handed her a cup of ale to enjoy with them.

“If it were possible to hate me, one would swear you all did.”

“We don’t hate you. We just find you tiresome and repetitive to the point of monotony,” John joked.

“Oh enough,” Sarah nudged her brother. “We love you. This town won’t be the same without you.”

“We have some good news too, actually,” Lora broke in.

Everyone turned to face her.

“Yes,” Matthew added.

“Well this is truly an eventful night,” John said.

Matthew smiled shyly, seeming tentative with his and Lora’s news. But already Eva knew.

“We... umm...” Matthew stammered, glancing at Eva.

“We are betrothed,” Lora cried.

Sarah shrieked in the delight often heard from girls who hear of marriage news. “On St Valentine’s! How fitting.”

Alexander and John congratulated Matthew, shaking his hand and patting him on his back. Adam already seemed privy to the news though.

“So soon,” Eva said.

“You are not happy for us?” Lora asked.

“No, no. I’m very happy. Congratulations brother,” Eva said, with a timid smile.

“This calls for a round on me,” John proclaimed. “Bar-wench, bring us a flagon of ale!” he called out to Merida.

To this, Merida shook her head, mumbling curses under her breath as she brought out a wooden jug.

“That’s a good wench,” John said, as she came to the table.

Merida slapped the boy on the back of the head. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother. Have some respect you underfed fledgling.”

John looked hurt, “Oh you hurt my pride old maid. I hoped you would give me your fair daughter, Phillipa in marriage. But I am no longer man-enough for such an honour it seems.”

“You can dream on John Barber. I would sooner feed her to the wolves than give her over to you.”

“But I am the wolves, old crone. I would gladly take her if you give her up so freely.”

Sarah gave her brother her usual shove to warn him. “John, you go too far. Sorry Merida, my brother has a flare for the dramatic.”

“More like a flare for the vulgar,” Merida huffed, waddling away.

“You really need to shut it, John.”

“No, I woo her daughter, see,” he replied, pointing Phillipa out.

Phillipa was giving shy, smiling glances in John’s direction from behind the bar as she dried some freshly washed cups.

“Dear Lord, he’s right. I’ll be damned,” Adam said, astonished.

“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, brother,” Lora chastised.

“Forgive me sister,” he replied. “Maybe I too should be so brash with girls. It will help me find a bride.”

“Or a slattern,” Lora interjected.

“Well beggars can’t be choosers. Right Eva?”

“What’s that suppose to mean?” Eva said, frowning.

Adam had been particularly cutting with his comments in the past few weeks and Eva had begun to question whether it truly was his usual harsh sense of humour, or whether it had a hidden purpose.

“Oh nothing. Just that we can’t all be as dashingly handsome as Matthew. Maybe a bit of tongue lashing and wearing down will lower the defences of the opposite sex.”

“Or get you a good wallop. I agree with Lora. You need to be careful what you boys say and do. You may think you’re all strong and untouchable, shadowing over us women, but you may just meet your match in the process,” Sarah said. “Just look at poor Walter. I bet he had no idea Petronilla would be the way she is now.”

“That’s right. Matthew won me fairly, with no dirty play, and I would never defy him the way Petronilla does Walter.”

“I doubt defiance has anything to do with how a man wins his wife,” Eva added.

“Well I guess you would know Eva. You will probably be the most defiant wife of us all, with your spirit. God save the poor man that marries you,” Lora said, delicately yet sharply.

Everyone laughed, but the laughter died down into awkward half-hearted chuckles and giggles once they sensed this was not just in jest.

Eva blushed, angered and shamed. “Often it is not only women who speak their minds and hearts that defy their husbands and rule the roost, Lora. Defiance comes in all shapes and forms. Like using your words quietly and gently, but hiding a stinger within. Or using manipulation to manoeuvre your husband as you please. These defying wives are far worse than women like Petronilla. They are like the snake in the Garden of Eden, rustling through the grass unnoticed until it is too late.”

At that moment the minstrels changed their song to a folk song full of life and rhythm, and many people around other tables got up to dance.

“Maybe we should forget such talk and dance in remembrance of the great Saint and in celebration to new lovers,” Alexander said, tilting his cup towards Matthew and Lora.

Matthew took Lora’s hand and they went up to dance, followed by Adam and Sarah and then John going over to another table to chat to a fair young girl that sat there, convincing her to dance with him. Alexander stood and went over to where Eva still sat, holding out his hand.

“Thank you Alex, but I think I’ve had enough excitement for the night. I’ll just sit here and finish my ale.”

“Are you sure? I’m not a bad dancer.”

“Yes, I’m sure. Thank you though.”

“Alright. It looks like Matthew will be staying a while though. If you’d like to leave earlier, come and fetch me. I’ll be glad to escort you home.”

Eva nodded and Alexander made his way to the dance floor, dancing along with Adam and his sister.

Eva watched them from the table. The tavern had grown busy since she first came and she saw all the lovers around her whispering into each others’ ears and passing around favours of love. Eva’s eyes flit across the room until she was gazing upon Matthew and Lora. Lora was averting her glances every time Matthew would look into her eyes. Like a good girl. Like a true minx.

Eva quickly looked away when Lora noticed her watching them. Instead she watched the flame dance on the candle before her.

It wasn’t long until the minstrels changed their song to a bawdier one and instead of dance with Matthew; Lora came back to the table alone.

“So we are to become sisters now,” Eva said after a period of quiet. She was attempting to extend the olive branch, despite feeling as though a knife had been stabbed into her back.

Lora smirked. “When we are married, I will ensure Matthew is far away from you and your bad name.”

Eva was chagrined. “Lora. The rumours aren’t true. They’re lies.”

"I know that. It was I that spread them. Your father helped though, the silly buffoon he is. Matthew was too special to me and my family to forfeit to you. We had to do something."

It all made sense now. "What? For social standing? That is just... conniving."

"Well, he's the only heir to his Father's money and property and once you marry off, which I will make sure of, he will also have a hold of most of your inheritance – your Father’s home and workshop and maybe even some of his fortune. He's positively perfect for a family such as mine."

"So you were willing to risk not only my name, but also Matthew’s, for your silly social status? You realise if the Vicar found out, it would have been the both of us that would have been whipped in the market square, not just me."

"The Church Court would soon have found it a lie if they were to have held a trial. They are not so quick to punish, you know."

"Still, you risk our standing just from the mere rumour."

"Rumours only sully the name of women, Eva. We are original sin. Rumours do not sully men. They go on with life as if nothing ever happened. That is our lot in life and you will just have to live with it."

“It is your doing that gave me this lot in life. I thought you were my friend.”

“Friends with you? Eva, Jacob was right. You’re a shrew. You’re trouble. Where you are, your tongue isn’t far behind. It seems your parents did nothing to model you into an obedient wife and mother. They just let your mouth run. It is unbecoming, as my mother says, to hold company with one such as yourself. After all, birds of a feather. But you were always around Matthew and he has such a kind heart that he foolishly holds love for you. Getting close to you meant getting close to him.”

Eva was shocked. Lora and she had shared many secrets and dreams together. Eva always thought Lora was a bit stately and entitled in her manner, but it was Lora, her friend. She learnt to accept her for what she was and even learnt to love her for it. But she had no idea that it had all been an act.

“You’re so daft Eva. You never caught on. Not that it matters now. I suggest you step out of Matthew’s life before it causes you too much pain to do so later. Find a husband, settle down and find happiness. Your silly dreams will only bring you trouble and pain in the world we live in,” Lora said, almost with concern.

Eva sensed Lora was made into this rather than chose to be this way. She remembered that Lora’s grandfather was foolish with his coin, spending it freely, but her parents were spendthrifts and coldly determined in their high charges for flour and their uncaring greed towards the villeins and lower classes.

“Matthew won’t let me go so easily, you know. We grew up together.”

Lora looked Eva directly in the eye. “You underestimate my will and charm. I will not fail. You will be abandoned by him by the end of the year. Snakes, as you say, are dangerous. A small bite can spread a poison that soon overcomes the victim.”

“You don’t mean it.”

“You are naive to think that. Marry before it is too late. Besides, with a face like yours, age will do you no favours,” Lora said, getting up to join the revels once more.

Eva watched her dancing and laughing freely with their friends. How long would they be her friends though? Eva never thought her capable of such a thing, but the look in her eyes said otherwise. It was a warning.

Roll over or face the consequences.

Eva forgot of her plans to leave for London at that moment. Her only thought was of convincing Matthew that Lora was a crafty snake and to stamp the witch out for good. She so wanted for Lora and her horrid family to suffer for what they had done.

Eva’s anger burned hot within her and she balled her fists, thinking of how happy she’d be to watch Lora fall on her pretty face. She stared at the candle before her, thinking of all the ways in which Lora could contort her delicate features from a knowing smirk to a grimace of pain and sadness, shock and consternation. How it would make Eva so happy to see Matthew draw back from her venomous touch, and leave her behind, wallowing with grief.

As Eva held these thoughts in her head and heart, the fiery rage within her growing, the flame of the candle danced around, slowly budding. Eva was too late in noticing, as the flame seemed to leap from the candle and onto the table, igniting it in a great engulfing flame, the spilt alcohol upon the table only spurring it on. Eva jumped back in fear, her knee knocking the table over as everyone turned to see the fire that had erupted in close proximity. There were screams and much raucous, the minstrels stopping their music abruptly and yelling, “Fire!”

Merida and her two daughters rushed to bring pales of water out from their brewing rooms, extinguishing the fire quickly until all that was left was a pile of charred and broken wood, smoke wafting from the wooden carcass.

“What happened,” Matthew said, rushing over to Eva.

“I don’t know. I must have knocked the candle over and not noticed,” Eva lied.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes. Just a little startled.”

“Come, I’ll take you home.”

“But Matthew, it is the celebration of our betrothal. I know you hold concern for your dear sister, but no one is hurt. She says she is fine. Please don’t leave me alone on this happy day.”

“She’s right, Matthew. You deserve to enjoy yourself with your new betrothed. I will take Eva home and see to it that she makes it safely there. These things happen. I don’t have enough fingers on both hands to count the times such accidents were made in our own home,” Alexander said.

“Alright,” Matthew agreed. “I won’t be far behind though. I’ll make sure to check on you before I go to bed,” he said to Eva.

Eva, flustered, nodded at what he had said, although it seemed nothing registered in her mind. Her head was reeling and she felt rather drowsy, her eyes becoming heavy and her vision spinning as if she were drunk.

She fell back, Alexander catching her before she hit the ground. Eva regained herself then, holding on to Alexander for support.

“Looks like someone had too much fun on the devil’s water,” John joked.

“I better get her home then. Sarah, I’ll be back once I’ve seen Eva to her home,” Alexander said.

“Not a problem. Just make sure her mother sees to her before you leave.”

“I will.”

They left The Lion Rampant, walking down the alleyways and laneways to Eva’s home, Eva all the while struggling to stay lucid and Alexander continuously reminding her, “We’re not far now.” In her stupor Eva swore she saw a black dog – no, a black wolf – as they passed a small tenement. It sat on its haunches, eyeing her as they walked by. But Eva blinked and the creature was gone, replaced by a skinny black cat with yellow eyes. The cat meowed loudly and stalked away.

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