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Chapter One


 

Part I

Whirr, click, whirr, click whirr.

The cottage was silent except for the sounds of spinning, and as Lark Willoughby’s slim white hands fed the goldenrod-dyed wool onto the wheel, she envisioned what it would become. Little Clara Beck’s face would light up when she saw the shawl. “Ooo. It matches my hair,” she would say as she rubbed the soft garment against a cheek no longer sallow but rosy with good health.

Lark smiled at the vision. She’d been treating the child for a fortnight now, both with herbal tincture but also with an ancient method as old as time itself. The healing spells were done in the glen under the waxing moon - the perfect time to work for an increase in strength and vigor. But Lark’s grandmother had wisely taught magic could be worked anytime, for what was magic but a the force of will sent out to do it work?

Whirr, click, whirr. “The child will heal, the child will heal,” the spinning wheel seemed to say, or at least that is what Lark heard as she watched the spindle fill with the yarn that would become Clara’s shawl.

On the chair beside her, Shade raised his head and looked towards the door.

Lark stopped spinning and scratched the cat on top of his head. “Are we getting come company then?” she asked. The cat looked up at her as the visitor began knocking on the door, the animal’s expression seeming to say, “You dare to doubt me?”

Lark smiled and stood, smoothing her skirts as she made her way across the one-room cottage. It was a small and comfortable home, nestled in the woods on the outskirts of the village. It was smaller than the houses of the village, but Lark would never consider living anywhere else. The tiny cottage was special to her not only because it was the only home she could ever remember, but also because she could remember it being built. In quiet moments, when she found herself missing her grandparents, she would close her eyes and unlock the memory from her third year, when she’d sat under the oak that still towered outside her door and listened to her grandfather sing a jolly Irish song as he thatched the roof that would protect the three of them from the coming winter.

Her grandparents had died when she was in her teens, but had raised Lark with a sense of independence. Her grandfather had taught her how to do everything a man could do because, he said, “men have a way of dyin’ on you.”

“Women die too,” her grandmother had squawked, and Lark’s grandfather hand winked at his granddaughter.

“Aye, but usually afterwards so they can nag us in the next afterlife.“ When Lark giggled, he tapped her on the head with the stick he was whittling before continuing. "Take your parents for instance. Your da died on your ma’ before you were born and then she died birthing you.”

Lark had known this, but it still made her sad to hear it. She knew nothing of her parents other than the stories her grandparents told her. From what she’d been told, she was her mother’s daughter in every way - pretty, and quick to learn. Not just about how to take care of a house but also how to conjure and brew. Her grandmother had started teaching her the Old Ways when she was five or so, but had cautioned Lark to keep what she was taught to herself. “The colonies are Christian,” she said. “We old folk can get by with our heathen ways. But you’ll be expected to be like them.”

It was the only way Lark had failed her grandparents. She was nothing like the other villagers. And they knew it. But it didn’t stop them from coming to her door.

She opened it now to find Duncan Beck standing on her stoop, a basket clutched in his large hand. He removed his hat clumsily with the other hand when he saw her.

Lark smiled at him. Duncan was large, with a heart as big as he was. Little Clara’s illness had been as hard on him as it had been on his wife.

“Afternoon’, Miss Willoughby,” he said. “Sara wanted me to come by to give you this.” He held the basket out to her and Lark took it, surprised by its heaviness. “There’s bread in there, some jam, some eggs., some honey…Sarah wanted you to have it. As a way to say ‘thank you.” He looked up then, with tears of gratitude in his eyes “I don’t know what you did for Clara, but you did what the doctor couldn’t. She’s up and playing this morning with nary a sign of fever.”

Lark felt a flush of warmth. “Oh, that is indeed good to hear, Duncan.”

Duncan Beck looked down now and blushed as he rolled his hat in his hand. “I put a few thing for you in the basket myself. Nothing fancy, just some things I carved. I know it’s not much and we wish we had money to pay you, but…”

“Don’t apologize, Duncan,” she said kindly. “I don’t need money. Your gift is splendidly sufficient.”

“Thank you, Miss Willoughby,” he said, backing away. “Sarah says you can keep the basket.”

Lark nodded. “Tell her I am grateful. And if your family needs anything else, feel free to call.”

“Yes. Yes indeed.” He turned, put on his hat and ambled away towards home.

Lark pulled her shawl around her slim shoulders and went back into the cottage, where she placed the basket on the table and removed the cloth covering the top. Grimalkin jumped up to investigate.

“How kind of them,” Lark said to the cat as she removed the items. There were fig preserves, two jars holding honeycomb swimming in clover honey, a dozen eggs, fresh bread and a still-warm tart. Then she gasped as she began pulling out the carvings Duncan had made - perfect little forest animals that included a rabbit, a pair of deer, an owl and a wolf. Lark held the carving of the male deer up until it was bathed in a shaft of light coming through the window. She turned it around, marveling at the detail.

“He will be wonderful for the altar,” she said to the cat. “Don’t you think?” Shade looked up at her and blinked. She didn’t have to touch him to know he was purring loudly. “We’ll use him tonight.”

She looked out the window. It was a crisp, clear day and in a few hours, the moon would rise, full and luminous, on the horizon. Perfect timing for her circle.

But there were things to be done before night fell. Exchanging her shawl for a cloak, she picked up the basket Duncan Beck had given her and headed for the door, scratching the cat's chin on the way out. “Be a good boy and I might bring you something back from town,” she said.

Part II

The path to town was littered with leaves that crunched under Lark’s feet as she walked, and she enjoyed the sensation of the colorful foliage swirling around her. Unlike so many villagers who trudged through life without a thought of the natural world beyond worries of drought or cold winters, Lark reveled in it. The subtle changes from one season to the next delighted her - the tangle of morning glories and clouds of butterflies that marked summer’s end, the smell and sight of frost lacing itself across the landscape, the warm, almost vibrating feel of spring ground set to burst forth with flower each spring, the droning of cicadas through long summer days.

The scent of cooling earth and leaves was soon mixed with the pleasant smell of wood smoke as she passed more dwellings, and then less pleasant smells as she neared the village. The quiet of the forest fell away, too as sounds drifted in her direction. Somewhere a woman called out to her husband, her high, keening voice mixing with the sounds of a blacksmith’s hammer and the clop, clop, clopping of hooves on the hard-packed streets.

Lark looked out from under her hood at the shops and decided to go to the general mercantile first. Unlike many women in the village, she knew how to read and write and glanced down at the list she’d tucked in her basket. The time had come to replace the precious sewing needle her grandmother had left her; she’d do that at the mercantile and possibly buy a bit of muslin if it could be had for a good price. She needed flour from the mill and some milk and butter from the creamery. She frowned at the last items on the list --chicken and kidney --not because she did not want to get them, but because she did not care to face the butcher, Lester Hatch.

It was no secret that Lester fancied her, or that his meddling mother Gertrude was obsessively orchestrating a match between the two of them. Gertrude, who was as thin and pinch-faced as her son was plump and jowly, had even gone so far as to spread rumors that Lark and her son were courting. The rumor had put Lark in the uncomfortable position of disabusing the few trusted acquaintances of the notion that she would do such a thing without telling them.

Sara Beck had been the first to ask her about it, drawing a scowl of distaste from Lark. “My lot in life is to be a healer, not a wife,” she’d told her friend. “And if I were going to marry, Lester Hatch would be the last man I’d choose. Besides, I suspect his mother is behind all of this anyway and her motives have nothing to do with a loving match for her son.”

Sara had nodded knowingly, indicating to Lark that she need not explain, for her solitude and unconventional healing abilities were only part of Lark’s mystique. Her grandparents had been seen as equally odd, and when they died a rumor began circulating that they had come to the village from Ireland with more than the clothes on their back. Village lore had it that Lark was in possession of a large amount of gold, safely buried somewhere near the cottage. The only thing that stopped less scrupulous villagers from digging up her property was the notion that something more than personal eccentricity made Lark different. Astute visitors to her cottage noticed small signs of a religion brought over from the old country - a small poppet here, a sigil carved into a beam there, the smell of exotic herbs only she grew. Her near total absence from the local church reinforced suspicions; she only made an appearance at weddings, christenings and funerals.

But despite the strict religious leanings of the village, Lark was left alone, partly because some of the villagers feared her a bit but more so because they loved her. In a time when hard winters could spell the death of beloved children and grandparents, her tinctures worked where they local physicians remedies did not. And when hers failed and she kindly requested their permission to request Divine Intervention, not one villager refused, or asked just whose help she’d sought when their loved one recovered.

As she walked through the village, Lark was greeted with polite smiles by the women and not a few appreciative glances by the men, for she was as kind as she was beautiful. Her long red hair cascaded in waves over her slim shoulders, coming to a stop between her slender waist and nicely rounded hips. Her skin was as fair as porcelain, her green eyes strikingly expressive.

Many a man found her attractive and many potential suitors had been gently rebuffed. The only one who hadn’t gotten the message was Lester Hatch. Now, finished with her other errands Lark reluctantly entered his shop.

His mother was behind the counter, and her lips curled into a scheming smile when she saw Lark coming through the door. “Lester!” she called. “You have a visitor!”

Lark tried not to visibly show her repulsion. “It’s not necessary to bother your son, madam,” she said. “I only need a chicken and a bit of kidney.”

“Fie. It’s no trouble for Lester to help you. And there’s no cause to play coy with me.” The ugly smile remained plastered to the older woman’s face. “Every young single woman in the village fancies my handsome son.” She walked over and looked Lark up and down with the same expression Lark had seen her use on geese she was keen to slaughter and dress. “But we -- I mean, he fancies you. You must feel very lonely indeed, being of marriageable age and yet without a husband. Rather than being stuck out in that stuffy cottage mixing up salves for sick peasants you should be sitting in a fine house, suckling a fine, strong baby son.”

When Lark didn’t respond, she turned back towards the door. “LESTER!”

A clattering noise came from outside and a split second later a back door opened and Lester Hatch burst in, huffing and puffing. In his hand was the limp body of a freshly-plucked chicken. “What? What?” he asked his mother. Lark looked away, trying not to smile. He reminded her of a very slow, slightly confused troll from one of her grandmother's fairy stories.

Gretrude Hatch’s smile tightened as she jerked her head towards the other side of the counter. “I was calling because Miss Willoughby is here, asking after you.”

“No, I wasn‘t ---” Lark began, holding aloft her list, but Lester interrupted her.

“Miss Willoughby, you’re looking well,” Lester said, openly leering at her as his face split into an unattractive, gap-toothed grin. “I’m glad you came by. You saved me the trouble of walking out to your place with my gift.”

“Gift?” Lark shook her head, puzzled.

“Aye,” he said, tossing the chicken aside and wiping his blood-and-feather coated hand on his apron front. From a nearby corner he pulled out a dirty burlap bag and thrust it at her, still grinning stupidly. “Down feathers. A whole bag of them.” Lester looked at his mother, as if seeking her approval. She smiled and nodded at him and then looked at Lark, gauging her reaction.

“I --well, thank you. But really, I cannot accept your gift, sir.”

The door opened and Greta Pratt, the minister’s wife walked in along with Constance Bell. Lark let out a sigh of relief, hoping that the arrival of other customers would divert the mother-and-son initiative, but Gertrude seemed not to notice.

“What?” she asked indignantly. “A man offers you a gift --a fine batch of feather to stuff your bed and you turn him down? Let me remind you, Miss, that any number of women in this village would love to have his attention. And the feathers. So you should --”

“Then let them have both!” Lark had not meant to raise her voice, but she was at her wits end with Gertrude Hatch’s endless manipulations. Blushing a bit, she lowered her voice. But her tone was just as firm when she emphasized her final point. “I am not interested in your son, madam.” Turning to Lester, she nodded. “I apologize if you are affronted by this, sir, but it is my stated intention to remain unattached. When and if I do decide to take a husband, it will be one of my own choosing, and not one that is shoved upon me.”

Everyone in the shop was looking at her now, none so intently as Constance Bell, who - in addition to being friends with the pastor’s wife - was also the village gossip. Lark suddenly regretted speaking in front of her, and felt an urgent desire to leave.

“I would like a chicken and a bit of kidney if you have them available,” she said to Lester.

“We don’t --” Gertrude Hatch began, but Lester was already wrapping the requested purchases in paper, his face nearly as red as the blood that stained his apron. Behind her, Lark could feel the delighted gaze of Constance Bell burning into her back.

She dropped the money onto the counter and took the packages as Lester slid them over. For a moment their eyes met and in them she saw not embarrassment, but the same cold fury that she’d seen reflected in his mother’s eyes. A chill suddenly blew the front door open, and Lark shuddered. Bitterness and anger could have powerful, negative influences, and she recognized an omen when she saw one.

Turning, she walked out the door of the shop to find that the sky had turned an ominous gray. Above her a flock of ravens circled, disturbed and she reached beneath her cloak to clasp the talisman she wore to ward off the Evil Eye.

Lark walked faster, shifting the basket in the crook of her arm as she sought to envision a ball of protective light surrounding her as she walked. But she felt distracted and unnerved and found her energies scattered. Her heart was beating in her chest, and all she could think of was her cottage, her sanctuary, where she would feel safe. Just outside the village she was walking so fast she was nearly jogging, and with her cloak pulled up around her face did not see the man until she had run into him.

His large hands grabbed her when she nearly fell, and suddenly, in a rare moment of panic she began to struggle, dropping the basket on the ground. The flour sack thudded to the ground, spewing a white wispy cloud through its fibrous surface as the paper-wrapped meat and other purchases landed beside it. But Lark didn’t even seem to notice.

“Let me go!” she cried, frantic.

But the man ignored her. “No,” he said. “Stop your struggling, Lark Willoughby. Stop your struggling this instance!”

 

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