“You should go back to the house and rest.” Ivy whispered.
Evelyn rubbed her eyes. “I’m not all that tired.”
Her mother smiled and continued mixing together a cassia and mustard poultice.
It was a dark and still night when yet another family had fallen ill to the quickly spreading sickness in the village where Ivy, the town healer, worked with her daughter. The two had been up for most of the past week with little sleep trying to heal and help the sick townspeople.
Evelyn tried to shake her sleepiness off. “I’m fine, Mother. I can keep helping you.” She reached for some mustard on the table and started to combine it with some herbs to make a plaster.
Mother looked fondly at her sixteen year old daughter, her already slender frame was getting thinner. That past week there had been little time to eat scant meals and no time for indulging one’s self in delicacies. “Evelyn, you’ll be much more help if you get a good night’s rest. Besides, I won’t be here much longer anyway.” she glanced at the Altairs family sadly, “As soon as I apply this plaster I’ll be done.”
Evelyn looked at the Altairs, each sick with the unknown illness lying eerily still and pale in make-shift beds near their kitchen where her mother was working.She could see that death was setting in, that or they would be better before morning. That was how the horrid disease worked. First, the patient would fall ill with a unsuspecting fever, second, uncontrollable vomiting, the third and last stage was the most sinister, they would turn pale, become as weak as a sickly newborn and finally, after battling the illness, they would die.
No matter what she or her mother did, no matter what poultice, plaster or herb tincture they made, death or life was out of their control.
Mother interrupted Evelyn’s thoughts. “Please go home. I don’t want you to come down with the fever as well. Respect my wishes and go get some rest.”
Evelyn nodded sleepily, grabbed her medicine pouch and slipped out the door and into the dark, windless night. “I should really stay with Mother,” she mused quietly to herself as she stepped off of the wooden porch. The townspeople were a superstitious bunch and some had started talking ill of her mother; Talk of witches and curses. Evelyn tried to pay them no mind but each buried corpse heaved more suspicion on her innocent mother.
She walked past the tailor, the dimly lit inn, the blacksmith, and finally passed the drinking house, which was filled laughter, loud arguments, the occasional breaking of glass, and the sound of an ivory-keyed instrument.
She had always hated walking past the drinking house. It had been filled with violence and hate ever since Mr. Goodrich had built it. She knew that people did bad things when people drank too much and she knew it would make God sad, angry even, to see how man had used nature for evil. Not to mention the gambling that went on in there. The card games would often result in heated words and sometimes bloodshed.
Evelyn shook her head, blinking a few times to ward off her grogginess and began to walk at a brisker pace. Before long, her little house came into sight. It was whitewashed with green shutters, a white picket fence, little flower boxes on the windowsills, and a small red barn where they kept their trusty horse, Chestnut. It was small and cozy, but that was the way Evelyn liked it. It was just plain home. And as long as Mother was there, anything could be home.
Evelyn unlatched the fence and went into her garden, the sweet aroma of her little flower garden greeted her, their unblemished petals closed up for the frosty night, as she opened the door to her house. She set her medicine bag on the table and went outside to the well. Ivy and Evelyn’s house was the only cottage in the village that included its own well. She pulled the bucket up and drank like a greedy child, the cool water satisfying her thirst.
She headed back inside and looked inside a pot that had been sitting on the table for hours. Cold stew. Evelyn sighed, wishing for a hot meal to fill her void stomach. This will have to do, she filled a carved wooden bowl and filled her mouth, not even thinking about what she was doing.
As soon as she finished, Evelyn yawned and went to her room, falling onto her bed and into a deep slumber, not even bothering to change into her nightgown.
“Evelyn, Evelyn! Wake up!” Evelyn felt someone shaking her and scrunched her nose. She recognized her mother’s voice.
“What is it?” she rubbed her eyes and sat up in bed. “When did you get back?”
“I left soon after you did, but that isn’t important. The bells! Do you hear them?” Mother’s voice was urgent and Evelyn managed to force her eyes open. It was still dark out.
She listened for a bit and heard the dreaded sound. “More dead.”
Mother sighed and slumped onto the bed next to Evelyn. “The villagers are dropping faster than they can be burried. I heard some villagers calling me a witch and saying I should be burned at the stake” Mother’s eyes held a small gleam of fear.
Evelyn’s pulse accelerated. The time had come. Her mother had prepared her for this moment since the day she was born. She took a deep breath. “How much time do we have?”
Mother looked out the window of their one room cottage. “I’m not sure. Maybe an hour before a mob gathers or someone summons the witch hunters. That’s why we have to get out of here as soon as possible.”
Mother grabbed Evelyn’s hand and dragged her out to the table where she handed her a bowl of mush. “Eat this while I go get a few of our things and get Chestnut saddled.”
Evelyn nodded, her mouth already full of mush. Fear made her throat thick and the mush hard to swallow.
Mother scurried over to their one chest of clothes, stuffing the contents into a sack. She rushed over to the kitchen and scooped food and dried herbs into a hemp sack, looking a bit like a honeybee going from flower to flower.
Evelyn picked up her bowl and finished scraping the mush into her mouth before swallowing it. She grabbed their water skein and ran to fill it from the well.
“Hurry, dearie!” Mother cried as she ran out the front door and into their little barn that housed Chestnut.
Evelyn heard the bells pause for a few minutes before they started to chime once again. She finished grabbing her things and quickly raced through the house and out the front door, quickly latching the lock behind her.
Mother came out of the barn with Chestnut tied down with their possessions and the saddle mounted. “Hurry, Evelyn.” she grabbed the water skin from Evelyn and tied it down. Mother swung onto Chestnut, then helped Evelyn up.
Evelyn gasped. Firelight from torches gave the village an eerie glow. That could only mean the townspeople were gathering. “Mother, look!”
“Hi-ya!” Mother dug her knees into Chestnut’s side and they galloped off.
Chestnut wasn’t a battle horse, that was for sure, but he had sturdy legs and a muscular middle, strong enough to hold two people plus a bundle of possessions. His shiny brown coat was covered by all the bundles Mother had stacked on him.
They rode into the dark forest in silence. Evelyn looked back and saw the torchlight illuminated village diminishing behind them.
“Mother, they wouldn’t really burn you at the stake, would they?” Evelyn asked, wide-eyed.
“They would.” Mother said.
“But they know you do everything in your power to save the sick.” Evelyn frowned. People liked Mother. They said she was an angel because of her healing skills.
“No, they are mourning for their losses and they will blame anything or anyone. And I happen to know more about healing than most...a little too much sometimes. Some even say I possess powers. They would not hesitate to put me to death.” Mother’s voice was sad.
“But they’ve known you for years and years! Mrs. Portle, she knows you aren’t evil.” Evelyn’s words tumbled out in bursts. “Mr. Borkens, he’s known you for half of your lifetime. He knows you don’t practice witchcraft.”
Mother shook her head. “What are a few people going to do when everyone else wants to put me to death?”
Evelyn felt liquid pooling at the bottom of her eyes. “But we’re going to hide, and they’ll never find us, right?”
Mother looked back at Evelyn sorrowfully for a moment, then focused her eyes on the trail ahead. “I pray that they’ll never find us.”
Evelyn was quiet for a few minutes, letting everything sink in. Just a week ago everything had been fine. Evelyn hadn’t a care in the world ...but that changed when marauders had raided the village.
They had come in the dead of night, without any warning, taking very little. It was quite different from their usual ‘plundering everything in sight’. They took the livestock and some other food provisions. They had even been courteous enough to leave them a nefarious payment - a deadly illness.
First it was just one who had come down with the fever, the baker. No one thought it was out of the ordinary, because it wasn’t. Winter had just ended and spring fevers were common when the flowers blossomed. But then the baker’s wife had fallen ill. Before morning, the baker had fallen into a wakeless sleep. Then his wife followed his footsteps. They were buried the same day in the tiny village cemetery.
Soon after that, four more came down with it. Another died. Mother and Evelyn did everything in their power to keep them from dying, but the fever was something that Mother had never seen before. Mother had tried everything she had learned in her forty years but to no avail.
Before long, almost the whole village had come down with the fever. Few survived the fever. Only the stronger, middle-aged individuals really stood a chance.
It was a wonder in itself that Mother and Evelyn had managed to not catch it. So much in fact, that people began to give them interesting looks and would be whispering behind their backs. Mother thought that perhaps the village well had been tainted and that was why she and Evelyn hadn’t come down with the disease.
People had always been a tad bit suspicious of healers. If they could heal too well, they supposedly had demonic powers. If they couldn’t heal at all, they still had demonic powers. It was impossible to ward off the superstitious notions.
Evelyn let out a frustrated breath. Why couldn’t the townspeople just accept the fact that Mother was not evil?
“Mother, where are we going?” Evelyn realized her face was scrunched up into a tight frown. She relaxed it.
“A place that only I know about.” she said as she turned Chestnut to the right. “I was preparing it for a time such as this.”
Evelyn nodded slowly, realizing how oblivious she had previously been towards Mother’s position as the village healer.
“We should make it there before the sun is directly overhead.” Mother added.
They continued riding until the moonlight had completely vanished and it was pitch black in the forest. They ate a bit of cold ham and a slice of bread and cheese while waiting for the sun to come up and light their way so they could continue to ride deeper into the woods. Evelyn looked around nervously. If Mother hadn’t been there, she would have been tempted to light a candle or something so it wouldn’t be so mysterious and dark.
Evelyn’s head started to droop and her eyes felt heavy. Before she knew it, Mother was waking her. The sun started to shoot a few rays between the foliage, hitting the forest ground. The bits of light gradually filled the woods.
Mother mounted Chestnut and helped Evelyn up. She then prodded Chestnut into a slow trot and they continued for a length of time before they made it to a small clearing where there was a small dirt hill. If one were to look closely, they could see a door in the hill leading to a small earthen hut just big enough for two people to live in.
Evelyn quickly hopped off of Chestnut and carefully opened the door to the dirt hut.
Chunks of dirt tumbled out of the door frame and a cloud of dust covered all of the scant furniture that was in there.
“When did you build this?” Evelyn turned back to see mother leading Chestnut over to a post, where she tied him up.
“I didn’t.” she smiled with a distant look in her eyes. “I found it one day as I was searching for cassia leaves. It was completely empty.”
“So you claimed it as your own?” Evelyn raised her eyebrows and looked around.
“Over the years I collected the furniture needed to make this a home. Or at least good enough for living conditions.” She sighed. “I had it just in case I was forced to leave our village. I knew that the day would come, but I never actually thought that it could become a reality.”
Evelyn just nodded, not wanting to break the silence. She walked over to Chestnut and grabbed a sack from the saddle. She headed into the hut.
“What are you doing?” Mother cast Evelyn a curious glance and followed her inside.
“If we’re going to be living here, we might as well be comfortable.” she pulled out a cloth from the bag and started to wiped the table with the cloth. A thick layer of dirt covered every available surface.
Mother smiled and pushed her sleeves back. “I’ll go get our supplies and fix us something to eat.”
Evelyn’s stomach growled at the last comment.
Mother laughed as she headed back outside.