Ledia Runnels' "World of Fantasy Fiction"

{May 19, 2011}   Tales of Nightshade: The Writ
Persecution of witches

Persecution of Witches

It was the end of summer. A cool autumn breeze drifted past Brunda’s face as she gathered the herbs of the season that grew wild in this meadow. A robin’s musical voice filled the air, but the bone-bent old woman never noticed. In a little over a month, it would be All Hallows’ Eve and she had much yet to do.

She turned her eyes toward the western horizon where the sun began to settle. The trees in the distance would be losing their leaves in a few weeks. She could already imagine the stark naked limbs with the chill of winter blowing through them. The cold, she did not like it. It took too much effort to keep her old bones warms.

She gave a great sigh of regret for all the lonely years she had spent, but she had never been one to linger on the past for long. Her solitude was as much or more her own fault as it was anyone else’s. Inviting people into her world had never been a strong point with her.

She gazed appraisingly into her wicker basket. In the entwined recesses there lay bunches of delicate plants, bruised from picking. The pungent aromas filled her nostrils. Now this was good, an excellent harvest with healthy herbs to work with. She nodded her approval while walking the short distance back to her cottage.

Three stone steps led up to the front porch. Old and rickety it was, much like her. Roses entwined the wooden colonnades that held up the sloping roof. Though her eyesight had waned much in the passing years, she noticed right away, the placard affixed to the front door.

The sight of it unsettled her no little bit. Who had been to her house?

She pushed a stray strand of silver-tinged black hair away from her forehead. A useless gesture meant only to get her bearings about her. The same sweeping gesture brought her fingers toward the note twisting the paper as she ripped it from beneath the nail bed. For in that second her anger had begun to kindle. She read the decree, her eyes widening in disbelief that quickly narrowed to fury.

It read: “This Property Has Been Seized by the County of Campbell. All Residents are Hereby Ordered to Vacate within the Next Sixty Days. Signed, Jackson Appleby, The Earl of Campbell”.

“Those Snakes.” Brunda’s voice hissed through the brambles. “This is my land by right! How dare they try to make me leave?”

She crumpled the hateful writ in her claw-like fingers. The paper became a small fireball, instantly consumed. She shoved open the front door of her home and closed herself away in silence.

Her keen eyes quickly pierced the gloom. Shelves of books and a long worktable filled one side of the room, on another wall hung rows of shelves. The last hint of evening sunlight trickled through two small windows, glistening off rows of glass receptacles sitting along the shelves and on a long wooden worktable. At her feet, the bony tail of Mandrake the cat curled about her ankles. The feline’s yellow eyes flashed upward.

“Did you read this, my kitty?”

The cat leaped onto his mistress’s shoulder. He pur-r-r-red loudly while rubbing his ribcage against Brunda’s neck. Of course, he had read the awful news and understood its implications as acutely as had his mistress.

“They’ll not get away with this.” Brunda grit her teeth together. “When I was young and foolish they chased me from my home in Denhalpith. They threw rocks at my back and screamed all manner of evil names that we never deserved. But their hateful tactics won’t work this time. They’ll find them ineffectual as those of Goliath against the child David’s slingshot.”

With a deliberate nod, Brunda stroked the cat’s sleek, black fur. “They won’t win this time, my kitty; not this time.”

High moon rose in the pitch night sky, its pale glow against a cup of grog that steamed on the splintery tabletop. Beside it, Brunda gazed past a massive book that lay opened in front of her. Yet the words were a blur before her gaze, fixed on the black nothingness of a mind deep in thought.

“Fie!” she shrieked. “None of these spells will do.”

Her fist came down hard against the wooden tabletop. The grog and its cup were sent spinning against the wooden floor. In frustration, she caught Mandrake up onto her shriveled lap, her bony fingers sending restless strokes over and over his furry head and back.

A sudden knock at the door jerked her brooding thoughts awry. A frown creased her withered face down to thin lips tightened grimly. Annoyed at the disturbance, she pushed up from the wooden bench, cross the narrow space toward the door and drew back the latch.

In a patch of silver moonlight stood a tall, thin woman dressed in dull brown skirt and waistcoat. Her black hair was pulled into a tight knot at the back of her neck. Her gray eyes, almost white in the luminance stared haughtily.

Magwa,” Brunda grumbled under her breath, what do you want?”

The other woman swept over the threshold. Her stiff linen skirt crackled like a winter wind through dead corn husks. Brunda grit her teeth at the hateful sound.

Her “guest” spoke, her insolent back turned toward Brunda. “You know, I never choose to meddle in your business. But it has come to my attention; all the coven’s request cards for your special herbs are being returned to them, charred to ashes.”

Magwa turned her glacial gaze upon her hostess. “Can you tell me that not one of our assembly is worthy of receiving your mark of agreement?”

The other witch gave a wounded condescending tilt of her head. “You know, I am merely concerned that something might be… troubling you.”

A cold rod of anger bit through Brunda. “Please, spare me your insincere clap trap. You are a busybody from way back, Magwa Witch!” Brunda spat the words.

The other woman frowned her face pinching up like a squashed persimmon.

Brunda waved her hand dismissively. “It is nothing! I just choose not to be disturbed at this time.”

Magwa’s red eyes narrowed to slits, the whites becoming two flaming orbs that stared sidelong. Grim determination was apparent on her homely face. Her burning curiosity was so blatant that it came as no surprise when she stupidly chose to challenge Brunda’s power.

“I hear even your own sister received a pile of ashes when she sent out her card.”

An irritated click fell from Brunda’s tongue. “Druzelle has gotten soft living in that village. She spends her time giving out love potions to sad-eyed youths and belladonna as a cosmetic to charmless girls. She has forgotten what being a witch is all about. I’ve no time to waste on her indulgences!”

“Yes, yes I can see how living too close to Christian folk could prove an undesirable thing.” Magwa stroked her knotted chin. “Have you heard about the witch hunts and burnings? It’s not safe to be suspect.”

Brunda guffawed. “Those fools are burning their own kind. Nary a real witch has been caught and put to their ridiculous tests and nary a one ever will, if the witch keeps hers wits about her!”

Magwa nodded agreement with searching eyes and words that poked and prodded.

She is trying to interpret my every gesture, Brunda smirked, looking for any clue that might reveal something she believes I might be hiding, the ridiculous fraud.

Magwa must have seen how Brunda felt. Her chin went up as she jerked of her head toward the door. “I’m leaving now, Brunda,” she croaked. “but we shall all see you at the Sabbat, on All Hallows’ Eve.” Her words were not posed as a question.

The impertinent wretch! Brunda fumed.

A flash of smoke appeared at her back as Magwa turned to go, but an invisible force held her frozen in place.

Brunda’s strident voice cut through the dimly lit room. “Don’t forget, Magwa I was asked first to be head witch and turned it down.” Brunda’s gaze burned into the other ones. “I shall be at the Sabbat, but only because it suits me.”

The invisible grip released and Magwa Witch found herself sailing pell mell through the opened door. A puff of fowl-smelling, green mist was all that remained of her presence in the herb scented room.

A satisfied grin spread across Brunda’s face as she watched the rank vapors swirl and vanish. With a wave of her hand, the door was slammed shut. She then turned toward her table of books and flasks of dried herbs to resume her search for the perfect spell.

Mandrake lay curled up in his corner by the hearth. Through lazy eyes, he watched intrigue glisten in his mistress’s dark eyes. He stretched and jumped up on the bench beside her. Her gaze was locked upon an entry in the large recipe book under the title “Poisonings.” its subject concerned an herbal toxin that was both tasteless and scentless.

“Listen to this…” Brunda’s voice was crisp with interest. “’The poisons only distinction is its gray-green color and knobbed shape.'” She traced a bony finger across the last words. “‘Its leaves leave no discernible trace save that once ingested the victim is left quite dead.'”

Carefully, she marked the place before closing the massive book. Her fingertips thrummed quietly against the tome’s leather cover.

“If this spell is chosen, there’s still the problem of collecting all the necessary ingredients and figuring out how best to administer them. In all my years, I have never resorted to taking another person’s life, though many of my colleagues have and would do so again with little remorse. I would rather thwart the Earl by other means if other means can be found. Still, I’ll keep this spell in reserve.”

Mandrake blinked his eyes and stretched lazily. He was ready for another nap beside the fire. He was used to Brunda’s outspoken meandering that sought no answer save a willing pair of ears to listen.

It was the night before All Hallows’ Eve. The auspicious date and the moon’s alignment made it perfect for gathering some of the more elusive herbs available only at this time of year. The old sorceress took her wicker basket and disappeared into the night.

The forest seemed to hold its breath in anticipation as the witch and her cat entered its domain. A weeping willow tree bore its tenuous branches to the earth, pointing toward a mound just beneath its leaves. Here Brunda sank to her knees and began digging until she unearthed a root in the shape of a miniature man. Quickly, she wrapped the sod covered radix in a piece of cloth, bound it with twine and placed it in her basket away from the other herbs so as not to spoil them with the manroot’s noxious bearing.

“We are finished here, Mandrake.” Brunda gathered the cat up onto her shoulder. “Let’s be about our other business.” With her broom tucked beneath her and a swirl of black cape, Brunda was airborne, flying low across the terrain that surrounded her land.

Once she had reached the outer perimeter, she drew a small black pouch from inside her cloak, loosened the satin drawstrings and took a pinch of saffron dust between her fingertips. Every few feet she paused to sprinkle the stuff into the atmosphere while chanting incantations. Several hours later, when she had encircled the entire outer rim, Brunda replaced the pouch and flew back to her cottage.

The next night, as a full moon filled the sky, Brunda gathered several hemp bags full of dried herbs and loaded them onto her broomstick. Deftly, she boarded the narrow perch. Mandrake hopped up beside her. In an instant, they were airborne.

Beyond the forest, a bonfire flashed. Around it a group of black clad folk moved with the frenzied gyrations of wind tossed leaves. Brunda guided her broom toward the shadows that clung to the forest’s edge. She dismounted and walked toward a cauldron where boiled a foul-smelling green mixture. She dropped most of her bundles to the ground and waited to catch the eye of a hag who stood close by. Gerda was busy clapping her hands and tapping her pointed shoes in rhythm to the music. Sparks flew here and there each time her withered hands made contact with one another.

Brunda loudly cleared her throat. Gerda turned an annoyed face in her direction. At sight of Brunda, Gerda’s angry expression became a leering grin. “Brunda, Brunda! You are here.” Gerda cackled gleefully.

“Yes… but I’ll not be staying,” Brunda replied. “Pressing matters draw me elsewhere.”

Gerda’s eyes shifted from side to side. “But Magwa…”

“What about Magwa?” Brunda thundered.

Gerda watched in terror as Brunda’s faded blue eyes became two red disks of flame. Gerda raised her hand to her mouth and bit until a small trickle of blood appeared.

“Well!” Brunda drew closer to Gerda, who seemed to shrink in size with each step backwards.

In a small voice, weak as a mouse, Gerda replied, “She … Magwa has been looking for you all … all night. She’s…” Gerda swallowed loudly, eyes darting in all directions. “Magwa is quite annoyed that you, you were not here. Brunda, no!”

Gerda’s eyes had become two empty discs as Brunda raised her hand within inches of the other’s face. Slowly, Brunda lowered her hand until one bony finger rested upon Gerda’s short, pug nose.

“But I am here,” Brunda’s voice was deliberately gushing before it rose several octaves. “No one dictates what I do; not Magwa, not anyone! Do you understand?”

Gerda nodded vigorously.

“Good,” Brunda replied. “That is very good, Gerda. I know you do not relish spending your days as a spotted hog or worse.” Brunda chuckled softly, and then pointed toward the bundles.

“These are the herbs everyone requested. Now I shall be going. Tell Magwa that I … stopped by.” Brunda gave a roar of laughter and turned toward her broom and Mandrake. A bolt of lightning flew from her fingertips and the broom raised itself off the ground. Mandrake jumped lickety-split onto its handle and the broom drifted over to Brunda. She threw her leg over the handle, climbed aboard and was gone.

As her cottage came into view, Brunda slowed her pace and circled over the house. Then she headed toward the far edge of her land. Hovering near the wild herb field, she stepped onto the ground and walked until she crossed the imaginary line where she judged her property to end. She turned and gazed across a small river that skirted the opposite side of her land. Earlier that day, the river had been almost a mile from this place. Now it lay at Brunda’s feet.

A whoop of joy rang from her lips. Her space-bending spell had truly worked! Now the herb fields, her house and the woods that surrounded them would be hidden from all except the creatures that soared into the air, for only from on high could the land be seen as it truly was.

But Brunda did not have long to rejoice in her success. A sudden clamor rose from the western horizon. The shrewd old woman turned to scan the area. The sky was lit as if by a glowing sunset, yet the time was just past midnight. The pungent smell of burning torches preceded a multitude of maddened town’s folk as they swarm over the ridge.

“It’s the witch; just where the Earl said we should find her!” The scream of a crazed citizen rang in Brunda’s ears.

She watched the incensed mob toward her and Mandrake. Shaken, but undaunted, Brunda reached up to stroke her cat. “Well now, isn’t it characteristic of the old goat to use that weapon from his arsenal. Guess the Earl thought he’d make sure this old woman departed alive or dead.”

“Well, if it’s a show they want, then a show they most surely will receive!” she cackled. This time Brunda’s laugh held no glee. It’s a horrible thing to hear.

She leaped onto her broom and flew high into the air. Poised some fifty feet above the ‘citizens’, Brunda sent a surge of fireworks into their midst. Amid their screams of terror, she pointed her broom toward the western horizon and flew over the crowd and away into the night. She didn’t stop until the manor house of the Earl of Campbell loomed below her. Circling near the garden, she leaned down to untie the last bundle of herbs that clung to her broom. The pouch had the word SARAH etched upon it.

“It would take the simplest of spells to lure the Earl’s trusted serving woman,” she whispered angrily as her hand twitched against the string.

The moon hung on the horizon when Brunda flew over where the incensed mob had been. The only signs of their passing were a few smoldering torches lying about the opened fields.

“Good enough,” she muttered triumphantly and flew directly home.

Later as Brunda sat reading a book of magic, Mandrake drew her attention to a massive crystal ball that sat upon the table. She scanned the orb’s smoky heart and found the image of the Earl of Campbell smiling down upon the writ that would make Brunda’s fertile valley his.

“He is foolishly unaware of the latest turn of events, eh Mandrake?”  Brunda chuckled.

A smirk crossed the Duke’s face as he lay the parchment aside and reached to take up a cup of hot tea Sarah had prepared for him. He held the porcelain cup to his lips, savoring the warm vapors before taking a deep draught.

“Too bad I didn’t leave that pouch for Sarah.” Brunda mused. “I’m sure she would have gladly sweetened the Earl’s tea with the fine, poisonous herbs it possessed.” The old sorceress waved her hand across the sphere. It stood like an empty black pearl. “But there’s always next time, eh Mandrake?” She chuckled and went back to her book.

Copyright by Ledia Runnels 2011


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