The Taint series
Georgina Anne Taylor
She sat in darkness.
Lost within a realm of perpetual night and enveloped by grief.
Her long hair flowed over her slender shoulders, sweeping the ground, her wraith-like form trembling as she wept bitter tears. Trickling down her cheeks and onto the rocks below, they formed a spreading lake that crept across the cavern floor.
Reason had long since faded, leaving only an inner tarn of sorrow. Too soon. Too young. Too soon.
Immersed in her long lament, she paid no heed as her womb slowly swelled. The birth spasms struck her unawares, the cavern resonating with her cries, as she expelled her newborn infant from her cold womb and into the dark depths of her sorrow’s tears…
To The Gallows...
To The Gallows...
The Lictor’s cart creaked its way down the rutted road.
The wheels mired in the mud. The bony nag strained against its harness, its hoary breath steaming in the frost-bitten air. The slow passage through the village drew people from their dwellings. They followed in the cart’s wake, grey and sombre spectres, as it reached the square and came to a halt beneath the high wooden gallows.
Lilith huddled in the back of the cart, her dark eyes wide with terror. She searched the faces of the villagers who had come to watch her die, people she’d known all of her fourteen short years. Yet all were now strangers, their once friendly features twisted by anger or fear.
Beware the Witch. Beware her Taint.
She couldn’t see the Master, nor the Cook or the Mistress. And with their absence, hope fled. No one would save her now. They’d bury her body in a shallow ditch with no stone to mark her passing. A foundling, no mother to mourn her.
The wind whirled through the square again, billowing leaves before it. A strange silence settled over the gathering, broken only by the sound of a raven’s caw. Time seemed to stop. Lilith’s heart beat savagely. She wasn’t ready to die.
The raven cawed again. Appearing in the leaden sky, it swooped down on shadowy wings and landed on the gallows crossbeam. It turned its beady, black gaze upon Lilith and its eyes flared with an unearthly light.
Dark murmurs started up amongst the villagers. The Lictor strode forward, the robed hangman by his side. Seizing the rope that bound Lilith’s wrists, they pulled her from the cart.
The Lictor thrust a hood over Lilith’s head. A deep horror seized her as the inky darkness fell. She would die without seeing anything more—they had snatched away her last sight of the world. And now they would steal her life.
Lilith struggled wildly. Desperation lent her strength. She struck out blindly. A sudden blow forced her to her knees. She gasped for breath, hindered by the hood, dizzy, sick, and sobbing.
Lilith knelt before the gallows, overcome by terror, hearing the crowd’s rising excitement, the Lictor’s curses as he hauled her to her feet, and her own weak and wretched pleas. They dragged her up the scaffold steps and onto the platform itself. The cold wind lashed her. Lilith trembled violently as she felt the rasp of the hempen noose lowered around her neck.
An expectant hush fell over the crowd as the Lictor began to proclaim the Witch’s Maleficia.
‘In this, the year 1501, in the reign of Fernes, fifth Stag King of the royal house of Anghard, sovereign of the Meda Isles, the servant Lilith, formerly owned by the Squire Mather of Linton, has been accused and found guilty of committing the most heinous and foul crimes of sorcery…’
The raven’s strident caw rang out. Once. Twice. Thrice. The Lictor’s words faltered.
Lilith screamed as she felt the raven’s talons dig deep into her shoulder. The grip grew tighter. Wings fluttered madly as it struggled to gain its balance.
The crowd erupted into anger, hurling rocks and rotten fruit. Shrieking for her to hang upon the noose.
A low pounding of hooves rose above the noise—the sound of a horse and carriage racing towards the square.
Lilith held her breath, a flicker of hope kindled as the pounding grew louder.
The Lictor began to speak again, his voice raised loudly above the din, as he proclaimed the final words of condemnation.
‘Suffer not a Witch to live.’
Lilith reeled. Breath left in a rush.
Then she felt the raven strike at the hangman’s noose…
The trapdoor swung wide.
The noose snapped taut.
The Grey Stone Keep...
Lilith’s scream pierced the darkness, shattering the stillness of her oblivion, hurtling her back into the world, back into consciousness, back into her body. She gasped, choked, spluttered, flailing wildly, senseless in her panic.
Then she felt the motion of the carriage and the smooth wooden floor beneath her, and her struggles slowly ceased. Shock brought quick tears. At first she cried with relief, then grief shook her, the terror of the day leaving her in deep, harrowing sobs.
When her tears were finally over, she pulled herself up and brushed back the long, black strands of hair that clung to her face. Her dark eyes blinked in the dim light. She was alive. Someone had rescued her. The high, lone window behind her gave scant light, but Lilith could see by the quality of the leather seats and the fine-grained wood that she rode in a rich man’s carriage.
She reached up gingerly to feel the gross swelling at her throat, wincing as her fingers touched the raw and bruised flesh. She recalled the terrifying sensation of falling, the jarring, burning pain when the noose snapped taut, and then the blackness. Then Lilith remembered the raven.
Just who had rescued her and why?
The raven must have severed the noose, or else it had broken, saving her neck and her life. She didn’t know how the carriage driver was able to free her from the Lictor and the villagers. She’d heard them shrieking—they wanted her to hang.
Lilith hugged her arms around her. She wiped a hand across her cheeks, brushing her tears away.
Everyone and everything she’d known, all that she’d cared for, gone, lost to her in that one, horrible moment when her Taint had been revealed. She flinched from the memory but it rose up, taunting her: the night’s rain had turned the yard into mud and muck, her wet hair had hung in her eyes, the slop pails were heavy. She hadn’t even noticed the goose until it was upon her. She’d screamed, shocked, terrified, and angry…
And the goose had hurtled backwards; feathers, blood, and brains splattering across the coarse lime-washed wall.
The stable boy screamed. ‘Witch!’
As Lilith had stood there, stunned and disbelieving, the Cook and the kitchen maids had gathered in the yard.
‘Gods help us… She’s Tainted!’
They’d looked at her in horror. She’d seen it in their eyes—their fear, their disgust. An icy chill had filled her as she’d realised what she’d become—a Witch, feared and reviled by all.
Pulling herself up onto the seat, Lilith felt again the noose’s mark upon her swollen neck. There had been no Witch’s Trial, no need for a confession. She didn’t know how she’d done it. She’d just wanted the goose to go away. The Lictor had arrived at the Master’s house with his birch rod and cart. Binding her wrists, he had taken her, mute and dazed, straight to the gallows. For that Lilith knew she should be grateful. She’d heard of the days when they’d rid the Isles of the Witches, burning and hanging them in the thousands. The Cook had told her of Anghard the Red’s Witch Finders, and how they made the Witches confess.
The Lictor said the Taint was in her blood. She’d been born a Witch. Born of that accursed line. Born damned. Abandoned by her kin and kind. She’d been taken in and raised by the village workhouse and sold to the Master as soon as she could walk. She’d slept in the stables and carried the slops to the pigs. The Master’s house had become her home.
How many times had she wished that she hadn’t killed the goose—that something else had occurred instead? That the goose had attacked and she’d turned and run. That it hadn’t even been there in the first place. And then none of this would have ever happened. And no one would know of her Taint…
Lilith sat, slumped on her seat, weighed down by the darkness of her thoughts. The carriage window misted over. A soft pitter-patter on the roof signalled rain.
She must have finally nodded off, worn out by her worries, for Lilith awoke with her neck cricked and her throat so bruised she could hardly breathe. She eased herself upright, aching, her pains transforming her so that she felt herself aged—an old and bent crone.
The rain had intensified, pounding on the carriage roof. Through the high window, the night sky was split by a jagged bolt of lightning. The carriage slowed and came to a stop. Lilith waited, beset by nerves. The carriage door opened and a figure appeared in the doorway, his face concealed beneath the folds of his hooded cape and scarf. He offered no word of explanation as he led Lilith outside.
Lightning struck the sky again, revealing the stone face of an immense building that loomed above them, its high walls disappearing into the storm. The sight brought Lilith to a standstill. The driver prodded her with his whip, directing her towards a low stone portico and a glimpse of amber light in the sea of darkness. Lilith lurched through the sleet-like rain, slipping in the muddy puddles. She hurried under the entrance, her bare feet leaving wet footprints across the cold, stone cobbles. A woman stood in the open doorway, silhouetted against the light of the corridor that stretched out behind her.
‘This is the one?’
The hooded man muttered a reply then he turned, disappearing into the darkness.
Lilith stared at her feet, watching as the water from her sodden skirts pooled onto the stones. Her long black hair hung limp and wet, hiding her face. She could feel the woman’s disapproval; she didn’t dare look up.
‘Well?’ the woman said, ‘what are you waiting for? Come inside.’
Lilith stepped inside the corridor and the woman swung the massive door behind them, shutting out the sounds of the rain and storm. She turned to regard Lilith with a critical eye.
‘I am the Housekeeper,’ the woman said. ‘If you must speak at all, you will address me as Mistress. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Mistress,’ Lilith said. She bobbed a swift but clumsy curtsy. Yet the Housekeeper’s manner remained as grey and dour as the stone walls that surrounded her.
The Housekeeper’s thin, bony face set in disapproving lines. Her eyes travelled Lilith’s dishevelled form, lingering on the marks around her throat. She frowned, her eyes narrowing and her pale lips pursed. Lilith’s spirits sank further.
‘Come,’ the Housekeeper said. She turned and walked with a brisk step down the long passage.
High sconces held torches that burnt with a smoky light, throwing shadows across the grey stone floor, the tall, lean figure of the Housekeeper striding ahead of Lilith. As they passed a set of large wooden doors, delicious aromas vented forth. Lilith heard the sounds of a busy kitchen: the scurry of feet, the clatter of dishes, and the angry yelling of the irate Cook. Her mouth watered and her stomach roiled in protest. She longed to stop, to slip back into the bustle and warmth of the familiar, but the Housekeeper kept her swift stride and Lilith had to rally to keep up.
They walked through an arched entrance and across a covered walkway that spanned the inner courtyard to the tower. The Housekeeper didn’t slow her step as she walked through another entrance and up a set of narrow, winding stone steps. Lilith’s feet dragged, her legs felt wobbly.
The Housekeeper stopped on the landing above and knocked loudly on a set of tall, highly polished doors. She opened them and motioned for Lilith to enter.
With wide eyes, Lilith walked into the chamber, a room swathed in velvet and dust, the scent of the past heavy in the air. Tall yellow candles cast pockets of flickering light, the slender sticks held in finely-wrought silver candelabras. Faded tapestries lined the walls, pictures of yesteryear, revellers hunting and feasting in and around the old stone Keep, the once-colourful cloth worn by the passage of time.
Lilith glanced behind her. The Housekeeper had gone. She looked around the chamber again, and realising herself to be alone, Lilith walked slowly around the room. She gazed in amazement at the tapestries and the silverware, the smooth wooden tables and chairs, marvelling at the richness, the grandeur of it all. Walking to the fire she positioned herself before the flames, the heat a welcome relief after the cold.
As she stood, warming herself, wondering why she had been brought here, Lilith heard a low murmur of sound.
She swung around with a sickening start and searched the chamber again, her gaze returning to a dimly lit corner, where an old man sat by a small, open window, staring into the darkness beyond.
Lilith straightened up and curtsied, blushing madly. She walked forward, her head bowed and her hands clasped behind her back, whilst she watched him out of the corner of her eye.
The candlelight etched the old man’s heavy jowls and the rolls of wrinkled flesh that bulged beneath his bloodshot eyes. His left cheek was marked by long, ill-healed gashes. Thick grey hair fell to his shoulders, curled strands scattered across the velvet cloth of his maroon coat, one side of which was marred by a long white stain. His fat, bejewelled hand held a silver chalice from which he drank in deep and thirsty draughts.
The minutes passed but the old man continued to ignore her. His lips moved in endless murmur as the chalice rose and fell, washing down burgundy wine.
A sweep of shadowy wings and a strident caw, and the raven flew through the open window, coming to rest upon the old man’s shoulder.
The old man flinched. His eyes widened. Rivulets of sweat began to trickle down his furrowed brow. His mumbling ended. His gem-adorned hand trembled as he clutched his chalice, sloshing droplets of wine onto his coat and down over his pale, be-whiskered chin.
The raven swung its beady gaze upon Lilith.
‘Who,’ came the raven’s guttural caw. ‘Who. Are. You?’
Each word sounded clipped and awkward.
As it spoke, the raven defecated in a long white stream down the old man’s stained maroon coat. It hopped onto the table and walked towards Lilith in a rolling gait upon its thin and scaly legs. At the edge of the table, it paused, scrutinising her again, eyes glinting in the candlelight.
‘Your name,’ it cawed. ‘Your name?’
The raven turned its head to regard her with one brightly flaring eye. Lilith stumbled backwards, horrified by the sorcerous creature. She shuddered, turning away from the intensity of the raven’s gaze.
‘Witless,’ the raven cawed. The word was a lashing, heavy with scorn.
The raven launched itself off the edge of the table. Swooping down, it landed before Lilith, stabbing at her foot with its sharp beak and slicing the skin deeply. Lilith screamed, striking at it with desperate blows as it flew back to the table, its beak glistening with the stolen blood.
The raven tilted back its head, its throat bobbing as the blood passed down its gullet. It tensed, its eyes flaring.
‘Ah,’ it cawed. ‘The blood reveals all.’ It tilted its head again, swallowing the last of its gruesome fare.
‘You bear the Gift,’ the raven cawed. ‘But of whose line? Whose line?’
Launching into flight, the raven returned to the old man’s shoulder.
The old man whimpered softly while the bird whispered in his ear. The raven began to peck at his wounded cheek, the blood mixing with the tears that trickled down the old man’s chin. A final strident caw sent him to his feet. Bellowing loudly, he staggered forth to seize the bell pull, knocking over the table, wine, chalice and all.
The raven flew into the night.
The Housekeeper opened the chamber door.
‘Feed her! Clothe her!’ the old man roared.
The Housekeeper ushered Lilith from the room, closing the door behind them. She turned to address a chambermaid, who hurried away to do her bidding.
Lilith followed the Housekeeper back down the steps. The hope of food and sleep revived her but her thoughts were on the raven.
As grateful as she was to be rescued, Lilith knew with certainty now that a Witch had been behind it, the raven its pet. The old man had listened to its words and done its bidding. What Witch could be powerful enough to control a man who lived and dressed like a Lord? The thought both scared and fascinated her.
The Cook said the Witches had all been killed, all the full-blooded families that carried the Taint. No one wanted to return to the old days when the Isles had been ruled by the Witch Kings. But it stood to reason in Lilith’s mind that a few must have escaped, for every few years they’d hang or burn a Witch for spreading blight and disease…
Lilith’s stomach twisted. But she was one of them now, wasn’t she? They were of a kind.
As the thought surfaced in her mind, Lilith stopped. The realisation that her rescuer might be kin, perhaps even her own parents who had abandoned her so long ago, came as a shock. Yet the more she thought on it, the more sense it made. And for the first time since the fateful morning had begun, hope returned and Lilith felt a tremor of excitement.
The Housekeeper turned and gestured impatiently. Lilith hurried to catch up. The splendour of her surroundings compounded Lilith’s wonder. The air itself smelt rich and old. Her footfall slowed again and her eyes wandered as they made their way through the Keep. The Housekeeper voiced her discontent as she was forced to stop repeatedly to urge Lilith on.
They arrived at a second stately chamber, this one lit by the glow of candlelight and hearth and filled with the quick movements of maids. The Housekeeper nodded towards a large copper bath, positioned before the fire, a chambermaid pouring steaming water into its depths.
‘You’ll wash before sleeping here,’ she said to Lilith curtly. ‘Bad enough to suffer his peculiarities. Though the Gods know I’ve had all the experience I need with this accursed family.’
Lilith cast the bath a horrified glance. ‘Please Mistress,’ she said ‘I don’t want no bath.’
The maids smirked behind raised hands. Whispered words set off peals of high, mocking laughter. Lilith scowled, angry that she was being made a fool of and confused by the Housekeeper’s request that she bathe. Her cheeks flamed. Then Lilith remembered the goose and the heat left her body in a rush. She looked away quickly, fearful of her own anger, of the magic it might unleash.
The Housekeeper snorted her contempt. She grasped Lilith’s arm and pulled her towards the bath, the certainty of her command undermining any lingering resolve. She unrobed Lilith, letting her patched dress and grimy shift and drawers drop to the floor.
Lilith hung her head. She wrapped her arms around herself, hiding her nakedness. The Housekeeper pursed her lips as she directed Lilith into the bath.
Lilith gasped, the heat scalding. Then gradually the warmth wooed her and she sighed and sank deeper into the bath. She paid no attention as both the Housekeeper and the maids departed. The steam rose up in soft white tendrils from the gently undulating water. Lilith picked up a wedge of soap and held it to her nose. She breathed in deeply, enjoying the sweet smell. It seemed almost too lovely to use. She dunked it into the water and rubbed it slowly between her hands to build lather.
Lilith worked the soapy suds into her long matted hair. She attempted to tease out the knots with her fingers, but it tugged and pulled, so she settled instead with immersing her head under the surface to rinse the locks free. She lingered in the water, trying the array of scented soaps, amazed by the luxury. The palms of her hands and fingertips wrinkled and the warmth of the water saw her head nodding. The terrifying day, her fears and worries melted away.
The chamber door opened and Lilith looked up to see the Housekeeper entering the room. The chambermaids followed, bearing clothes and trays of food.
‘Quickly now,’ the Housekeeper said, ‘I haven’t got all night to tend to your ‘Ladyship’s’ needs.’ She ignored Lilith’s sleepy hesitation, placing a foot sheet on the floor and directing her out of the bath. She thrust a large bundle of cloth in Lilith’s arms. ‘Dry yourself,’ the Housekeeper commanded.
Lilith followed the Housekeeper’s brusque order, covering herself as best she could.
‘Your clothes have been disposed of,’ the Housekeeper said as she laid out Lilith’s new clothes: a long blue dress, soft white shift and drawers, and long white hosen. ‘Though why you should be granted the privilege of wearing the stuff of your betters, I’ll never understand.’ The Housekeeper shook her head again. ‘To think I’d live to see the day this family sank to such a state.’
Lilith pulled on the drawers and shift. She struggled into the beautiful blue dress, her fumbling attempts causing the Housekeeper to intervene.
Lacing the bodice ribbons with a swift efficiency, the Housekeeper bent down to draw up the hosen, then thrust embroidered slippers onto Lilith’s feet.
While the maids finished laying the table and prepared to leave, Lilith eyed the array with astonishment. One person couldn’t eat all that! The Cook had never served the Master and Mistress such sumptuous fare. Lilith didn’t even recognise half the dishes. There were bowls of vegetables and platters of thinly sliced meat; a roasted bird, the skin crisp and brown; soft rolls and a large jug of creamy soup. The aromas filled her mouth with moisture. Scarcely believing her good luck, Lilith sat down.
In the manner of those who survived on whatever scraps fell their way, she grabbed a roll, tearing it in two. Lilith gnawed upon the roll, barely pausing to swallow. Her bruised throat instantly rejected the fare, bread crumbs spraying across the table.
‘No manners,’ the Housekeeper tut-tutted. ‘No manners at all. Eats like a pig.’
Gesturing to the giggling chambermaids to accompany her, she walked to the door, stopping to point at the sleeping berth. ‘The pot’s under the bed. Mind you use it!’
They left Lilith alone, absorbed in her task. This time she proceeded carefully. She ripped the crust off a roll and dunked the inner portion into the soup to soften it further. She chewed slowly, her eyes closed, delighted by the fine tastes, disbelieving her luck.
Thinking of the Housekeeper’s talk of manners, Lilith looked for the biggest spoon and pulled the soup jug towards her. Despite her best efforts the passage of the spoon left a corresponding trail of soup across the white linen cloth. She grew full all too quickly, the food far richer than any she had tasted before.
Lilith wiped her hands on the bodice of her new blue dress and pushed back her chair from the table. It seemed as if she were in a dream, to be sitting here, dressed in such finery and eating such food. Seeing a goblet and a flask of wine, she poured herself an ample share. She held the goblet between two fingers as she slurped her wine, feeling quite the Lady. Her gaze slowly passed around the room, a sudden sight of her own reflection in a nearby mirror catching her interest.
Lilith stood up and walked closer. As she gazed at the tall, slender girl in the standing mirror, a strange feeling passed through her. She’d seen herself in the surface of the water trough often enough, but her reflection in the mirror surprised her. Long black hair, tangled and still wet from the bath, framed a heart-shaped face. Her skin was pale, accentuating the darkness of her eyes. Her lips were full and a little too large.
She ran a finger over the tiny scar at the base of her left eyebrow that altered the shape of the curve. A scar she’d had since childhood, when Hugh, the stableboy had played with the Master’s whip, accidentally striking her. She remembered how she’d screamed, the blood running in a wash down her face, and how Hugh had been beaten for his rough play. Then the Mistress herself had applied a healing ointment that had been given to her by a visiting Priestess of the Goddess Achaiva, the Virgin Spinner. It had healed the wound quickly, but the scar remained.
Lilith looked at her reflection and ran her hands over her hips, seeing the new curves, her swelling breasts, the recent changes in her growing body. She didn’t look like a child anymore, nor a woman, but somewhere in between. She wasn’t sure she wanted to become a woman. She’d listened in on the kitchen talk too many times—women had the hardest lot, what with working and the raising of babies.
How grand she looked in this dress. How surprised they would be if they could see her now! The dress was corn-flower blue with tiny gems stitched onto the bodice, the ribbons that laced it a lighter shade of blue. The skirts were wide and full. Lilith turned this way and that, admiring the dress. The Cook would be speechless, and Sally, the new scullery maid, who Lilith disliked for her sharp and vindictive tongue, would be green with envy…
A sudden twist of pain. The girl in the mirror grimaced. Lilith stepped backwards, drawing up a hand to touch the swollen and bruised band that marked her throat. She could never go back. She wasn’t one of them anymore. She would never be safe with anyone other than her own kind.
She turned her back on the mirror. What good would it do to remember, to dwell on a past she could never return to? Lilith crossed to the fire and fed more wood to the flames.
Determined to push aside her sadness, she climbed up onto the bed, marvelling at the softness of the mattress. She stroked the crisp cloth of her skirts and lifted the hem to regard her slippered feet. Lilith lay down, resting her food-smeared cheek upon the head sheet.
Her mind swirled with the sum of her day, thoughts of what was to come, long-forgotten hopes rising up from where they had been buried. Faces and figures appeared in rapid succession, spinning madly. She felt the hangman’s noose around her neck, snapping taut as she dropped. She sank into darkness, and into dreams…
Sooty, and the Long Crossing to Gort…
A cold wind gusted through the chamber, awakening Lilith from sleep. The morning sun cast a crimson hue across the grey stone walls. She sat up slowly and noticing the cold draught, glanced towards the open window.
The raven sat perched upon the sill.
Lilith pressed back against the bolster, smothering a scream. The raven cawed mockingly. She pulled the blankets up, covering her bare arms, eyeing the bird warily.
The raven cawed a final time, a long and lewd sound, before launching itself from the sill and gliding out of sight.
Lilith clambered to her feet and hurried across the room, barring the window before it could return. As she climbed back into bed, a knock sounded on the chamber door. The Housekeeper stepped briskly into the room, the chambermaids following behind.
‘Make haste then. You’ll be departing within the hour.’ Taking a laden tray from the first maid, the Housekeeper sent her off with a nod of her head. She placed the tray on Lilith’s lap. ‘Rouse yourself,’ she said. ‘It won’t do to keep the driver waiting.’
Lilith looked at the steaming porridge, stewed fruit and baked rolls with anticipation. How well the rich ate! Scooping up the sticky fruit with her fingers, she ate slowly, delighted by the sweetness. She swallowed carefully, her throat still bruised and swollen. Lilith licked the empty bowl and then her fingers clean of the remaining syrup. She reached for the porridge, watching with idle interest as the Housekeeper directed the remaining maid in the laying out of fresh clothes.
When Lilith had finished eating, the Housekeeper aided her in dressing, this time in a red velvet dress, with matching red boots and a heavy, hooded cloak. Then she led Lilith through the Keep and into the waiting carriage. The carriage door closed, the vehicle set off with a lurch, speeding Lilith away from the grey stone Keep. Glancing back through the high carriage window, she caught a glimpse of dark wings against the sky. The raven followed in the carriage’s wake.
Lilith passed the journey in sleep and thought. Midday came and went, the carriage trundled on. The afternoon passed slowly. Lilith nodded off, awakening with each unexpected jolt, her neck cricked and sore. By the time the coach finally stopped, daylight had fled.
The driver opened the door, and this time Lilith caught a glimpse of his coarsely bearded and pitted face. ‘Out,’ he said. He led her to the edge of a long wooden pier, beneath a dark headland, a small fishing vessel moored at the end, a lantern casting a weak, orange light onto its deck.
Pulling her hood up over her head, Lilith hugged her arms around her in an effort to keep warm. A fine salty spray misted her face. Her cloak grew damp quickly. Foam-crested waves broke upon the beach of the small cove, and then surged back out to join the dark and seemingly endless sea. She’d never seen the ocean before. The Cook sometimes went to the fish markets at Kern, taking one of the kitchen maids with her to carry her purchases. They’d returned with tales of all too-greedy fishmongers and the bargains they’d haggled for. Yet even after listening to their descriptions, Lilith had never imagined the sea to be so vast. The air was heavy with the smells of fish and brine.
She glanced down the pier. The driver was speaking to someone who had just emerged from a cabin on the boat. Lilith listened carefully, hoping for a clue as to where she was bound, but the interchange was muffled by the pounding of the waves. Then gradually Lilith became aware of another sound—a strange rasping wheeze that came from behind her. She turned around.
In the dim light she could make out the shape of the carriage and the two horses that drew it, their noses now deep in their feedbags.
Then Lilith saw a small, inky shadow slide out from the darkness that lay pooled beneath the carriage. Two yellow eyes glowed with a sinister light as the creature crept towards her…
Lilith looked to the driver, still deep in talk, wondering whether she dared cry out. She turned back with a start of surprise to see the shadowy creature pounce.
Barrelling down upon her in a burst of speed, it struck her leg, tumbled over on the rough wooden planks, then bared its stomach and wheezed loudly.
Lilith looked down at the little black kitten and laughed with relief. She knelt to stroke the proffered stomach and the kitten responded with another long wheeze, all four paws flailing in the air. Charmed by the kitten’s odd antics, Lilith wondered where he had suddenly appeared from.
‘Now who are you?’ She asked as she stroked him, feeling the protruding ribs beneath his fur. Not a kept cat then. It was all too clear the kitten had no one to love him.
‘I think you’re a stray. Like me,’ Lilith told the kitten as she picked him up. He snuggled into her arms, rubbing against her and wheezing loudly. ‘Why, you’re as black as the soot in the kitchen hearth,’ Lilith said with a smile. She cast a glance at the driver as he stepped back onto the pier and strode towards her.
‘Come ‘ere,’ the driver called to her gruffly. ‘Hurry up now.’
Lilith looked at the kitten again and he returned her gaze with large, imploring eyes. A decision quickly formed in her mind. ‘Hush, Sooty,’ Lilith whispered as she concealed the kitten in the folds of her cloak. ‘Not a sound!’
Sooty fell silent, as if instinctively understanding the need to remain hidden. He didn’t struggle as Lilith clasped him to her and hurried down the pier.
‘Right you are then,’ the driver said in parting. ‘The crossing to Gort’s a rough one. Stay in the cabin. Keep out of the way. He’ll take you where you need to go.’ He jerked a thumb in the direction of the fisherman.
Lilith nodded quickly. She stepped down onto the vessel’s rocking deck and struggled to keep her balance. The fisherman didn’t look up as Lilith walked to the cabin, ducking low to enter. She looked around, seeking a place amongst the baskets and crates, the piles of carefully folded nets and coiled ropes. Lilith sat down in a corner. Sooty wriggled within the folds of her cloak, pushing his way free of the constricting cloth.
The kitten didn’t appear to be perturbed by the pitch of the boat nor the sudden change in his surroundings. He settled in her lap, his tail curled over his nose. Lilith stroked him under the chin, her mind on where they were bound.
The Cook had called Gort the Ivy Isle. She’d said that the people from Muin’s neighbouring isle were shifty and couldn’t be trusted. Their forests were wild and ancient and filled with the darkest of fey creatures. The only good thing that came from Gort, according to the Cook, was their ivy ale, of which she was very fond, but Lilith remembered how sour the Cook’s temper had been the morning after she’d had a few.
But now, for the first time, Lilith found herself questioning the Cook’s wisdom. She’d grown up on the Cook’s stories. Although she’d often felt the bite of her spoon and the sharpness of her tongue, Lilith had looked up to her. The fear and disgust she’d seen on the Cook’s reddened face as the Lictor had dragged Lilith to the cart had hurt more than all the rest combined. The Cook’s hatred had been deep and instant. It didn’t matter that Lilith hadn’t meant to kill the goose, that the magic was unwanted and beyond her control. She remained damned forever in the older woman’s eyes.
She hadn’t changed. Her Taint had not altered the way she felt inside. Although she feared the magic she possessed and she worried that she could kill with a thought, she didn’t want to… did she? She wasn’t the monster they thought her to be. And if she wasn’t, then perhaps the rest of her kind weren’t either.
‘We’re going to Gort, Sooty. We’ll be safe there,’ Lilith said. ‘We’ll be with our own kind.’
Lilith felt the pitch of the boat increase as it set sail. She wondered about her new home and whether she would be greeted by kin. She hardly dared to hope. Either way a new life unfolded before her.
The driver’s words proved all too true as the boat crossed the straits of Muin, the pitch increasing to the point that Lilith began to feel distinctly unwell. She clutched a nearby crate that was bolted to the deck and closed her eyes, but the awful sensation grew worse with each moment.
Nausea washed over her, ebbing and swelling with each new crest and trough. The fishy stench added to her distress. The putrid taste filled her mouth and coated her skin. Lilith rested her head upon the crate, moaning pitifully, sure that she had never felt so wretched in all her life. She finally sank into a fitful sleep, not looking up until she felt somebody tugging at her arm.
‘We’re here. Get a move on then.’
Lilith blinked. Bleary-eyed and thick-headed, she looked up at the fisherman, slowly comprehending that the journey had ended. She stood up, lurching unsteadily before finding her feet.
As Lilith stepped off the vessel and onto the waiting pier, she breathed in deeply, relieved to be out of the oppressive cabin with its revolting stink of fish. Sooty followed her onto the pier, his tail held high. The moon shone down from a clear, star-studded sky, illuminating a rolling shoreline. Lilith wrapped the cloak tightly around her shoulders. The cold night air was a refreshing change. Her sickness receded a little with each breath, although the ground still rolled beneath her feet. She looked around. The pier was empty, the shore deserted, the silence broken only by the soft sound of waves lapping against the sand. She couldn’t even see any dwellings, no distant lights, nothing at all.
‘What now, Sooty?’ Lilith said as she bent down to stroke the kitten. ‘There’s no one here to meet us…’
The kitten arched his back under the stroke of her hand. He looked up towards the end of the pier, his yellow eyes shining brightly. Lilith followed his gaze. A horse and cart had appeared over the crest of the hill, the light of a single lantern a beacon in the dark.
Lilith picked the kitten up, concealing him again within the folds of her cloak. The cart stopped, the horse assuming a weary stance. A wizened woman sat upon the driver’s seat. She gestured for Lilith to climb up onto the cart bench. Then with Lilith seated, she urged the horse back up the winding road.
As they drove along the bumpy track, Lilith cast curious glances at the old woman. A serving woman, she surmised. Her clothes looked rough and worn, her thin, white hair whipped into disarray by the wind, her face deeply creased and lined. Her cheeks were ruddy, the hands that held the reins gnarled and the joints swollen.
Sensing Lilith’s inquisitive gaze, the woman turned and smiled, then patted Lilith’s hand. She made the symbol of the mute, explaining her silence and smiled again.
Lilith felt a warm glow fill her. Everything would be alright now. She was on her way to her new home. Soon she would be safe, with her own kind. She need never fear again.
The horse trotted on, the landscape altering as they travelled in the darkness. Small bushes replaced the coastal scrubland, and then the bushes became trees, the trees a forest, deep and dark. The road narrowed as it climbed an escarpment, the horse’s gait slowing as it negotiated its path. Night began to pass into the grey light of day.
Lilith watched the world with wide eyes. Her enthusiasm brimmed as dawn brought colour to the forest. Old trees towered above them, the canopy alive with the flight of tiny birds. An avian chorus of trills and warbles filled the air. Sooty stuck his head out of a gap in the cloak, inspecting the passing scenery with a yawn before retreating back into the warm fug within.
The dense forest gradually thinned, shafts of sunlight piercing the overhanging branches. The horse slowed its pace as they rounded a curve and the forest gave way to rolling fields, the track bordered by an avenue of tall and stately trees. Lilith peered into the distance, seeing the shape of a dark manor house at the end of the avenue.
This must be it—her new home! Yet as the manor house grew before her, Lilith felt a moment of trepidation. The structure seemed to absorb the light of the morning sun. A crooked tower stood adjacent to the building, reaching precariously into the sky, monstrous stone gargoyles leering down from its heights. A walled wood surrounded the tower, the skeletal trees stark and bare, the twisted branches reaching up over the high stone wall that bound them. Lilith could sense the power emanating from the manor house’s deep black stone. It filled her with foreboding, it filled her with unease, and strangely enough, it thrilled her too, quickening her senses and bringing a flush to her cheeks.
The old woman urged the horse on, passing to the rear of the manor house where a rambling garden spread out before them. Lilith could see that it had once been grand. Towering trees spread their branches over the garden. It was steeped in secrets, Lilith decided at once. A garden that begged to be explored. Saplings sprouted in thickets, obscuring the view, but she caught glimpses of hidden recesses beyond them. A cobblestone path ran its meandering way from the back of the house into the overgrowth. Lilith could make out a thatched roof and what looked like a tall stone chimney in the distance.
The horse and cart came to a halt and the old woman climbed down from her seat, tethering the horse and beckoning for Lilith to follow. As Lilith stood up, Sooty wriggled free. He leapt down from his place of concealment and stood waiting for her to alight.
Chickens roamed the rambling garden, scratching industriously in the leaf-litter beneath the trees and amongst the shrubs and spent flowers. As the old woman walked down the cobblestone path to the house, the chickens ceased their foraging, greeting her with eager clucks and clustering around her skirts. Sooty stalked amongst them, eyeing them intently. Lilith quickly called him to her side.
The old woman paused at the doorstep, turning to regard Lilith with a reassuring smile, but the gesture was at odds with the dread now visible in her eyes.
The door swung wide. The old woman cringed.
A tall, striking man stood in the open doorway. His flint grey eyes widened in surprise then he smiled, his lips curving mischievously, as if they shared some inner secret. Long, dark hair fell to his shoulders, swept back from his face, a scattering of grey hair at his temples and brow. A short beard defined his jaw. A strong face, yet something of the boy still present in his features.
He stood with casual grace, his clothes immaculate both in cut and cloth, the frock coat dark and sombre, his long leather boots spotless and polished to a high sheen. Yet despite his boyish charm and grace, he radiated an aura of indomitable strength, of power mastered.
He regarded Lilith with an intensity that brought a blush to her cheeks Lilith found herself smiling back. The man bowed, and then straightened.
‘I am Ge-Iad,’ he said. ‘As in the tongue of our ancestors. And you are?’
‘I’m… I’m Lilith.’
Ge-Iad raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you indeed? Well enter, Lady Lilith, and be welcome.’
Ge-Iad and the Getting of Knowledge…
Flustered and warmed by the welcome, Lilith stepped inside. She stood quietly, feeling shy, suddenly tongue-tied despite all the questions she so desperately wanted to ask.
The old woman shuffled past them into the kitchen. She walked with her eyes down and her shoulders rounded as she made for the wide hearth set into the black stone wall.
The kitchen was large, with heavy beams and a low ceiling, sparsely furnished, benches, cabinet, and a rough wooden table, pitted and scarred by wear. Ge-Iad pulled out a chair and indicated for Lilith to sit. He sat down opposite her, his long legs stretched out before him.
‘You must be hungry after your long journey?’
‘Yes, please, Sir,’ Lilith replied with a vigorous nod of her head.
Ge-Iad laughed, a sound as charming as his manners. ‘No, Lilith, not Sir. Ge-Iad will suffice.’
‘Are you my kin? Only I never knew my parents, or my family. They left me… well I was found… as a baby… by a river…’ The words came out in a rush. Lilith blushed again.
‘I am sad to say that I am not kin, Lilith. Although I don’t doubt that your parents were driven by desperation into abandoning you,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘I have also lost people that I have loved. I would be honoured, Lilith, if you would think of me as family.’
Lilith nodded, fighting the moisture that welled in the corners of her eyes, feeling silly for crying. She was safe. She had a home. A place where she could belong again.
Ge-Iad pulled a long stemmed pipe and a leather pouch from the pocket of his jacket and began to pack the bowl. He looked at her and smiled. ‘I became aware of you when you cast your first spell. A powerful spell for one who has had no training or initiation into the arts.’
Lilith felt a surge of pride.
‘How old are you, Lilith? Do you know?’
‘I’m fourteen, Ge-Iad.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘You are tall for your age,’ he said. ‘I would have taken you for far older than your years,’ he said and nodded as if to himself. ‘An apt age to begin to understand your Gift. Indeed, I’m sure you have skills that will prove most beneficial to me and to our people.’
‘Are there others here? Other Witches?’
‘There are all too few of us left. We’re as scattered as the Isles we once ruled. In fact, your birth amounts to a miracle in itself…’Ge-Iad paused as the old woman bustled from hearth to table, setting a bowl of steaming broth before Lilith and a platter of meat and bread.
A low wheeze sounded from beside Lilith’s chair as Sooty made his presence known, his eyes upon her platter.
Ge-Iad laughed. ‘I see you have a friend?’
‘He’s Sooty. I met him on the way here. He’s a stray. I haven’t done nothing wrong, have I?’
‘On the contrary. A cat is always welcome. They keep the mice from growing too bold,’ Ge-Iad said. He waved a hand in the direction of the platter of meat. ‘Please. Eat. I must apologise for the humble fare. I live simply. I find my studies take up much of my time, and so I have fallen into the practice of eating, here, in the kitchen. I will attempt to remedy this now that you are here.’
Ge-Iad turned his attention to his pipe, intoning a single word, ‘Prt.’
A flame appeared in the air just above the tightly packed bowl. It hovered as the tobacco glowed, a thin tendril of smoke curling up from the pipe. Then the flame disappeared.
Lilith watched Ge-Iad perform the spell with wide eyes. She grinned, and when the sorcerer returned her smile, Lilith felt her heart soar. She ate with care, lifting the bowl to her mouth, and spilling only a little down the front of her dress in her hurry to consume the broth.
‘I would like you to be my apprentice, Lilith.’
Lilith spluttered, momentarily choking on her soup. She put the bowl down on the table and wiped her mouth on the back of her sleeve. ‘Me?’
Ge-Iad laughed again. ‘Yes, you, Lilith. In fact, I think you’ll find that I have great things planned for you. Great things, indeed.’
A sudden sound of coughing drew Lilith’s gaze to the old woman, bent double over the hearth. Taking up the wood basket, the old woman hobbled to the door and hurried outside.
‘You must excuse my servant,’ Ge-Iad said in an undertone. ‘Her family have long been in service to mine. In truth, she is a simple creature, given to odd fits and starts. I would prefer that you don’t speak to her, or engage her attentions.’
Lilith nodded, disappointed. She’d instinctively liked the old woman, yet clearly Ge-Iad had warned her for good reason. Lilith didn’t want to provoke some kind of attack.
‘What do you say then? Will you be my apprentice and I your guide and Master?’
‘You’ll teach me magic?’
‘I will indeed.’
‘Yes!’ Lilith said.
‘Babalon Pa Sa Nana-e-el,’ the sorcerer said.
‘Is that another spell?’ Lilith asked.
‘A ritual greeting to a new apprentice,’ Ge-Iad replied as he placed his thumb on the bowl of his pipe, smothering the embers. He tapped it out and slid it back into his pocket then stood up. ‘If you’re ready I’ll show you to your room?’
‘My room?’ She asked incredulously.
The sorcerer laughed, throwing back his head, the sound lifting Lilith’s spirits further.
‘Why Lady Lilith, you are not only a beautiful young woman,’ he said when his chuckles had subsided, ‘you are also a highly amusing one. I can see we will get along famously.’
Ge-Iad led the way from the kitchen into a long passageway, the smooth stone floor covered in thick rugs, the walls hung with tapestries and ornately framed paintings. On the right, a set of curving stone steps led up into darkness. Ge-Iad walked up the black stone steps, pausing on the landing, a darkened entrance on either side. ‘The way to my quarters,’ he said, pointing towards the right hand doorway, the lintel carved into the likeness of a crouching dragon, its talons curving downwards and its wings wide.
He turned to the left, passing under a second lintel, this one resembling a strange, horned beast, all teeth and scales. Another flight of steps followed, ending in an antechamber that opened onto an upper passageway. The sorcerer paused before a door, opening it with a bow.
Lilith walked inside and gasped with delight. Filled with the light from the large-paned windows, the curtains a soft golden cloth that shimmered in the passing breeze, the chamber took her breath away. She looked at the enormous bed with its high mattress and at the furniture: bed, cupboards and a mirrored cabinet, a broad table and two chairs and even the arm chair that sat before the hearth, made of honey-coloured wood, all carved with woodland scenes or strange and curious beasts. Multi-coloured rugs, thick and soft, fine enough to sleep on, layered the floor.
‘My room?’ Lilith could hardly believe it.
Ge-Iad watched her as she walked around the room. Lilith could feel his eyes upon her—she felt shy and flustered and excited, all at the same time. She stopped by a window that looked out over the garden.
‘I’m glad you like it.’
Not trusting herself to speak, Lilith smiled, overwhelmed with happiness.
Ge-Iad walked to the hearth. Crouching down, he pointed a finger at the wood and kindling stacked within it. ‘Prt,’ he said, and the wood burst into flame.
A delicious shiver ran up Lilith’s spine. So this is what magic felt like, this strange tingling that warmed her to the core. Maybe she didn’t have to fear the Gift that lay inside her. If Ge-Iad taught her how to use her magic she could control it. Lilith tore her gaze away from the fire as the sorcerer stood up and began to speak again.
‘The dresses, the shoes are yours,’ he said, the sweep of his hand taking in a series of cupboards and drawers.
‘I never had nothing of my own before,’ Lilith said in an awe-struck voice. ‘Thank you, for everything. For saving me and…’
‘If only I had found you sooner,’ the sorcerer said as he walked to the bed and sat down and then looked at her with grave eyes. ‘I would have spared you those years in service.’
‘It wasn’t so bad. I liked living there before—’
‘They are superstitious and ignorant savages. One and all,’ the sorcerer interrupted. ‘It’s high time you understood this.’ He smiled to take the edge from his words. ‘For your own sake, Lilith, you must be careful.’ He stood up. ‘But you must be tired. I will leave you to rest. Perhaps you will join me later, so that I might show you the rest of the house and grounds?’
‘Thank you, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said again.
The sorcerer bowed before leaving the room.
Lilith waited until the door had closed before throwing herself upon the bed. She bounced up and down a few times to test the softness of the thick mattress then sat grinning, looking at her new room, amazed by it all. Who would have thought that her life would change so greatly in such a short space of time? She who had slept in the stables and looked after the pigs, living with a gentleman in a manor house!
And now she would learn about magic…
A few days ago the thought would have terrified her; now Lilith couldn’t wait to begin.
She remembered the spell he’d used to produce the flame to light his pipe and then the fire in her room. Lilith frowned, forming the sound of the word in her mind. ‘Pirit!’ she said, pointing a finger at the hearth. Nothing happened. Lilith scoffed at her own foolishness. Of course she couldn’t do any magic yet, but she’d work hard, she’d make Ge-Iad proud of his new apprentice.
Lilith turned her attention to her new room, flinging open the windows to let in the breeze. The morning light streamed in. The windows offered views down the avenue of trees and part of the overgrown garden. She could look down over the spreading branches and even catch a glimpse of the skeletal woods that lay behind the tall, stone wall encircling the tower.
She ran across to the cupboard, opening the doors to look at the beautiful clothes inside, stroking the velvets and satins, marvelling at the sumptuous cloth, the dresses with threads of gold and gem-encrusted bodices, the finely woven cloaks and trim, fitted jackets. A lower shelf housed rows of pretty slippers, heeled shoes and suede and leather boots. Some were clearly far too big for her, but a few might fit her. She remembered the Cook’s tales of bargains with demons and witches, and the ill-fortune that would surely come from such dubious dealings. Lilith closed the cupboard doors carefully, as if any sudden move might make it all disappear in a puff of smoke.
She walked back to the bed and sat down, plumping the pillows into shape. But when she lay down to sleep, her thoughts would not leave her be. Too excited to rest, she rose and left the room, eager to see more of her new home. She walked back into the corridor, resisting the temptation to open the doors and peer into the other rooms, pushing her curiosity aside. Instead, she descended the curving steps, two at a time, with her hands outstretched on either side to slow her leaping gait. She glanced up quickly at the horned beast on the lintel, ducking a little as she walked under it, even though Ge-Iad—as tall as he was—could passed easily beneath it.
Lilith stopped to stare at it from the safety of the landing. The carving seemed so lifelike. She could almost imagine that its tongue moved a little as she watched, the tip wriggling obscenely…
Then Lilith gave a small scream and staggered backwards. It had moved! She was sure of it. She crept forward again and stood staring at the carving, breath held, suddenly uneasy in the dim light, fearful of what might be lurking in the shadows.
The carving showed no further sign of life. Lilith let out her breath. She turned and ran down the remaining steps, emerging into the light of the corridor with a sigh of relief.
She walked into the kitchen, finding neither the sorcerer nor his servant, and continued on outside. The sun shone brightly, and Lilith turned her face to the sky, her eyes closed, enjoying the warmth. A soft stroke of fur against her legs as Sooty pushed his way beneath her skirts and a loud and excited wheezing, informed her that her kitten had found her. Lilith lifted her dress and coaxed him out then stroked him gently. The sound of footsteps brought her head up.
The old woman trudged down the cobblestone path, her back bowed and her arms laden with firewood. Lilith hurried over to help.
‘Do not interfere with my servant’s tasks.’
Lilith stopped mid-stride at the sound of the sorcerer’s voice. She turned around to see him standing on the kitchen step. Her heart sank at the sight of his frown.
‘I’m sorry, Ge-Iad. I really am. I forgot.’
Ge-Iad nodded but the frown remained. ‘I would ask that you take care to remember next time.’
‘Yes, Ge-Iad. I’m sorry,’ she said again.
The sorcerer looked at her a moment longer, grey eyes piercing, then the frown left his face and he smiled, all charm again. ‘Then let us speak no more of it. Come, apprentice, let me show you your new home. And since we are in the grounds, it is fitting that we begin with what will be essentially your domain.’
They walked side by side up the path, the chickens scattering before them. Sooty followed behind. Lilith looked at the garden in delight. Ge-Iad seemed pleased by her happiness and she was relieved to see he had forgiven her.
‘These gardens were planted for a distant ancestor of mine,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘Within the grounds there are copses of all of the sacred trees, the saplings or seeds brought here from each of the thirteen Meda Isles: the birch trees from the Isle of Beth; the rowans from Luis; the ash from Nion; and so on and so forth.’
‘I think it’s beautiful,’ Lilith said.
‘It is overgrown and tangled with ivy now. I have not had the time to restore it to its former glory.’
‘You were born here?’
‘No,’ Ge-Iad replied. ‘Ah, here we are!’ he said, drawing Lilith’s attention to a small thatched building that stood beside the path, camouflaged by the moss covering its roof and the twisted trunk of an old bent tree that had long ago sprouted beside it.
The door creaked loudly as Ge-Iad thrust it open. Foetid smells enveloped them as they stepped inside.
Weak wintry light, diffused by layers of grime, filtered down through narrow windows. Shelves lined the white-washed walls, holding rows of stoppered jars, piles of yellowing bones, strange twisted roots and misshapen fungi. A potbellied stove stood next to two large wooden cabinets and a huge stone table lay partially hidden beneath bunches of dried herbs.
‘This will be your responsibility, Lilith. Ultimately, I would like you to have a good stock of all the herbs and ingredients that I require for the working of my spells.’
The sorcerer strode over to a nearby shelf and retrieved a large leather-bound book. Pushing aside the dried plants, he placed it on the table and opened it.
‘“The Botanicum Compendium of Herbal Lore. A detailed discourse on plants both beneficent and baneful”. You will find this book to be invaluable,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘I would like you to take the time to read it, Lilith. Know its contents.’
Lilith stared at the colourful and intricate drawings of leaves, seeds, and flowers. Small spidery symbols, utterly indecipherable to her eyes, surrounded them. ‘I… I can’t read,’ she admitted in a small voice.
The sorcerer looked momentarily perplexed. ‘But of course,’ he said. ‘How remiss of me. How could you have been expected to have learnt anything, given the conditions of your upbringing? Well, we can soon remedy that.’
He frowned, as if gathering his thoughts. ‘Each letter of the alphabet has its own name and sound, Lilith,’ he said, pronouncing his words with care.
Lilith nodded eagerly.
The sorcerer pointed at a squiggle in the book. ‘For example, this word begins with the letter “R,” the sound is “Are.”’ His finger pointed to a second squiggle, ‘and the name of this letter is “U.” And the sound is pronounced “You”.’
Lilith’s gaze dropped; she was hopelessly lost.
‘The last letter is an “E,” pertaining to the sound “Ee.” And now you merely place each sound together in succession—as such: “R, U, E,” and the consonant and vowels form the word. “Rue”,’ he concluded with a smile.
Lilith’s face flamed. She had no idea what to say. She opted for an attempt at mimicking the sound of the word. ‘Rwoo,’ she said, her cheeks burning with shame.
The frown returned. Lilith saw the sorcerer’s eyes narrow. A moment of uncomfortable silence followed.
‘Perhaps it is time to cheat a little? What do you say?’
‘Yes,’ Lilith said with relief. Anything to complete the task. Cheating sounded good.
‘Come closer,’ Ge-Iad said. He grasped her head and forced it towards the open book. ‘Keep still!’ he said, betraying his irritation as she squirmed.
With the chanted word, the sorcerer’s spell shot through Lilith, deep and piercing, a savage assault of mind and senses. She screamed, reeled, gasped, gagged…
…and the spidery symbols blurred and twisted, resolving into letters…
The sorcerer released her. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Of course, you will still have to learn to read. I suggest that you begin with the Botanicum.’
He smoothed down his frock coat and glanced at the door. ‘Unfortunately I must leave you now. Become acquainted with your new duties. I shall join you for dinner, of course. Perhaps we shall eat in the dining room? Yes? Good.’ He turned on heel and strode out the door.
Lilith staggered from the table. Her head spun madly, overwhelmed by the violence of the spell. She bent double, retching repeatedly until her stomach had emptied and her mind had cleared.
She sat down on the stone floor, her body atremble, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees and her head against the wall. She breathed deeply, shocked by the spell’s effect.
Lilith stood up on shaky legs. Using the wall to steady herself, she lurched over to the table. She propped herself up with both hands against the cold stone. Her vision still swum. A headache, now a dull throbbing at her temples, remained. She pulled over a tall wooden stool and sat down at the table, staring at the book. If she’d had any idea of what she’d been getting into, she would have opted to learn the slow way, rather than cheating. The pain had been so shocking. He hadn’t warned her…
Lilith pulled the book closer. She stroked the parchment. But what good was an apprentice who couldn’t read? And just how long would it have taken her to learn the slow way? She should be grateful for the gift, no matter how painful the spell had been. Lilith scanned the page, mouthing attempts, and then finding a few words that she could pronounce. ‘O..n,’ she read, ‘t..h..e… j..u..g.’
The second word didn’t sound quite right, but there was no doubt about it—the spell had given her the ability to read. Lilith closed the book with reverent care. She’d never even hoped to learn to read. True, she’d never really wanted to. The thought of it just hadn’t crossed her mind. There had been no opportunity to read, nor a need to. Now it would lead to magic. What better reason to learn?
Feeling proud of her new position and all that it entailed, Lilith looked around the herb room, dismayed by its unkempt state. Reading would have to come later; first she had to get things into shape. She pushed up the sleeves of her dress and tucked up her skirts and set to cleaning.
Spying a mop and bucket leaning against a cabinet, she propped the door open with a rock and went outside in search of water. Sooty lay sprawled outside in a patch of winter sunlight. He glanced at her with idle interest as Lilith crossed to the nearby well and began to work the winch.
Hefting her bucket with a grunt, Lilith carried it inside. A handful of pungent herbs crushed into the water sweetened her task, as Lilith applied herself to the job of mopping the stone floor, emptying and refilling the bucket several times before it was done.
Next she attacked the grime-covered windows, standing precariously on the top rung of an old, rickety ladder that she found lying in the garden.
When all was done, Lilith placed the mop outside to dry. She viewed her endeavours with a feeling of satisfaction. Noting that a cold, brisk wind had picked up, threatening to disturb the bundles of herbs strewn across the table, Lilith went outside in search of a wood pile. She returned to her herb room—as she had already come to think of it—with her arms full of kindling and logs, which she placed by the side of the stove.
Lilith searched the shelves until finding various tools: knifes and scrapers; spatulas and spoons; then finally, a tinderbox, half hidden beneath a pile of muslin.
After several attempts to ignite the kindling, and a few strong curses, she had a fire burning in the potbellied stove. Then with the hard work done, the room light and airy, smelling fresh and clean, and warmth beginning to radiate out from the stove, Lilith felt ready to tackle reading again. She pulled her stool up to the stone table and reached for the Botanicum. She lowered her nose over the yellowed parchment; it smelt old and musty, but somehow nice.
With the aim of sorting out the piles of herbs, Lilith picked up the first bundle and looked at the dried foliage carefully, turning the pages of the book to find a match. She attempted to read the descriptions, but gave up after a few moments, realising that her newfound skill was not up to the task. Instead, she studied the colourful illustrations, yet the shrivelled leaves and flowers that lay before her looked little like the drawings of foliage, flushed with full life.
Lilith satisfied herself with sorting the plants into like piles. She worked throughout the rest of the day, allocating space for the bundles of herbs in the shelves. A deeper understanding of her responsibilities would come in time, Lilith assured herself. She ignored the rumblings of her empty stomach, determined to work hard to earn the sorcerer’s admiration and pride.
At last, content with the result of her day’s labours, Lilith left the herb room and walked back through the garden. Daylight faded quickly as the sun set. She hurried her stride.
High above, a flickering blue light sparked into existence.
Lilith glanced up, her eye drawn to the high, crooked tower. The sorcerer performed magic.
Breath held, she stood with one foot upon the kitchen step, her mouth open and her eyes wide, all else forgotten in that magical moment. What was he doing? What spell did he use? She longed to know. Her breath came quickly, as if she’d just been running. Her palms felt moist. She couldn’t remember feeling like this before—so excited. Butterflies fluttered, deep, deep down in her stomach, but it wasn’t a nervous feeling—it felt good, warm and pleasurable.
Enraptured and spellbound, Lilith stood on the kitchen step until the light above winked out. She blinked, returning to her senses with a start of surprise.
The old woman stood in her customary position before the hearth. She turned to smile at Lilith as she entered the room. She pointed up at the ceiling, shook her head, and then indicated for Lilith to sit. She mimicked someone spooning food into their mouth.
Lilith nodded. She’d understood the old woman’s gestures clearly enough. The sorcerer worked in his tower. She was to eat alone tonight. Disappointed by his absence, Lilith sat down at the table. Remembering Ge-Iad’s warning that she wasn’t to speak to his servant, nor aid her with her tasks, she kept her eyes on the table. Yet the effort proved too hard and she glanced up to see the old woman watching her in turn.
Again came the gentle smile, the lines creasing at the corners of the old woman’s hazel eyes—she didn’t look simple, or given to fits. Then Lilith chided herself for doubting Ge-Iad’s word.
The old woman set a bowl of soup before her. Lilith ate quickly, feeling awkward, finishing her food and mumbling her thanks before scrambling to her feet.
The old woman placed a hand upon Lilith’s arm, curbing her flight. As Lilith waited, she hobbled off into the pantry, returning with a lantern and a small cloth bundle. She placed the lantern on the table and opened the bundle, taking out a small book.
Lilith recognised it as a book of prayers to the Great Triple Goddess: Achaiva, the Virgin; Urania, the Maid; and Iachema, the Crone. The Cook had owned one and so had the Mistress. The travelling Priestesses gave them to those in need of the Goddesses’ solace.
The old woman placed the book in Lilith’s hands and gently opened the cover. She pointed at the top right hand corner, where someone had written their name in small, careful script.
‘H..e… sta,’ Lilith read. ‘Your name is Hesta?’
The old woman nodded, taking the book and wrapping it in the cloth again.
‘Thank you, Hesta,’ Lilith said as the old woman hobbled slowly back to the pantry with her precious bundle clasped to her breast.
Lilith lit the lantern and left the kitchen, relieved to have the small light glowing in the darkness of the corridor. She gathered her courage to run up the steps, still scared by the strange beast on the lintel, emerging in the upper corridor out of breath and trembling.
In the sanctuary of her chamber, she placed the lantern on the table. The warm yellow light radiated into the corners of the room, banishing the shadows. The room was bitterly cold, the curtains flapping in the breeze. The fire had burnt down, the embers dark. Lilith hurried around the room, latching the windows and drawing the curtains before returning to the hearth.
She looked around the chamber, feeling a glow of satisfaction at the beauty of the room. Lilith thought about what she would learn, the wonders of magic about to unfold, and a delicious tingle passed down her spine.
What had horrified her, only days ago, now intrigued her. Seating herself on the floor by the hearth, in front of the cold ash and embers, Lilith closed her eyes. She let her mind drift back, trying to recall the moment of quickening that she had experienced, watching the arcane light in the sorcerer’s high tower. She remembered the word Ge-Iad had used to conjure the flame, forming the sounds of the letters in her mind.
Lilith coaxed the heat back into her body, breathing faster, conjuring up the fire deep down inside her. She opened her eyes and stared at the embers.
A tiny red glow sparked into life within one blackened coal.
For a fraction of a second—no more—the spark burnt. Then it died; the ember swiftly dark and cold again.
Lilith laughed. Elation filled her, and then—with shocking abruptness—a great and overwhelming tiredness. She felt drained. Horribly weak.
Lilith crawled to the bed. She lay down on the covers, fully clothed, boots and all, and surrendered to the darkness.
Toadstools, Tinctures and Teinds…
Lilith sat on a stool in the herb room, the Botanicum open on the table before her.
‘The… root… of Ruta… Gra… ve… ol..ens… kn… own… in the… c… common t… on… gue… as Rue… is cream-c..olour… ed and fib… fibrous…’
She paused in her reading to glance at the sorcerer.
‘Good. Good,’ he replied, without looking up from his inspection of the herb room stock. ‘You have improved greatly in the past weeks. I am very happy with your progress.’
Lilith smiled, pleased by his approval. She watched him with warm eyes, admiring the way he held himself, the fine cut of his clothes. His grey eyes were so forceful, yet solemn. His hair had been swept astray by the wind. His hunting jacket was undone, revealing a spotless white shirt beneath. A rolled parchment stuck out of his jacket pocket.
The sorcerer inspected a large basket that Lilith had filled neatly with an assortment of dried roots. He held a gnarled brown root to his nose, breathing in its scent. He placed it back in the basket and lifted up a second root, then turned to Lilith with a raised brow. ‘Mandragora officinalis and Inula helenium. An interesting choice of companions,’ he said. ‘Can you tell me, Lilith, why such an arrangement might not prove fortuitous to the careless apprentice?’
‘No Ge-Iad,’ Lilith admitted. ‘I had trouble with the roots. I can look them up in the Botanicum though.’
‘Do so. There is no room for error when dealing with plants of such potency, Lilith. Yet I am well-pleased with the state of this herb room. You have proved to be of great benefit to me already. Now we shall speak of my requirements, and of the making of candles, tinctures and tisanes,’ he said.
‘I have set quill to paper and have written you a list of ingredients that I am to have at my disposal at all times.’ He pulled the rolled parchment from his pocket. ‘When the plants are in season, fresh and repeated harvesting is essential. At other times, dried stock and tinctures and tisanes will be required.’
The sorcerer unrolled the parchment, revealing it to be a map, a second parchment unfurling from within it. He separated them, placing them on the stone table, each weighed down at the corners with jars.
‘My requirements,’ he said, indicating a long list, written in a small, tight script. ‘I hope you can read my writing,’ he added with a smile. ‘Now to the making of candles, tinctures and tisanes…’
Lilith listened carefully. She watched as he pointed out the various jars, and appropriate tools, and demonstrated the making of a tincture. She struggled to keep up with his hurried explanations and instructions. By the end, she felt more than a little confused.
Do you understand?’ He asked at last.
‘Yes, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said quickly.
‘Good. I’ll be setting you three tasks, one of which depends upon how well you have listened to my instructions. The map you see before you is an original drawing of the grounds. It will assist you in your undertakings.’
‘The first task: Amanita muscaria, or the ‘fly-cap’ toadstool. Using the resources at your disposal, the Botanicum and the map, locate and harvest the said item.’
‘Task number two: within the garden grounds I have laid certain traps in order to procure various substances for my spells. Where and how these traps are laid depends upon the type of creature that is to be ensnared. This is not your concern. Your role is to gather my harvest when directed. In this case, the said trap is located beneath an oak tree. Find it. Harvest it. Bring the bounty to me.’
‘Yes, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said again. She couldn’t wait to start. They didn’t sound all that hard and she would have a day to spend wandering in the overgrown garden. Something she hadn’t had the chance to do yet, as the sorcerer had been concerned that she should concentrate on her reading.
‘For your third task, you will make a tincture of Convallaria majalis, commonly known as “lady’s tears”,’ he said. ‘The tincture will be made with fresh ingredients. Again you will need to call upon the resources that I’ve given you. As I will be riding out late this afternoon, I will inspect the results of your labours tomorrow.’
The sorcerer departed the herb room, leaving Lilith slowly leafing through the pages of the Botanicum. When she had read each entry carefully, Lilith turned her attention to the map. The grounds were laid out in a large rectangle, divided by hedgerows and stone walls into smaller ‘rooms’. The larger portion of the garden and grounds were set to the rear of the house. A patchwork of paddocks lay between the back garden and the spreading forest that surrounded the sorcerer’s lands.
Lilith located the oak trees easily enough on the map. Rendered in beautiful detail, in full green, summer growth, the oaks were positioned next to a summer house that lay at the end of a long, elder bower. Bower, oaks, and summerhouse stood near the walled woods, so they shouldn’t be that hard to find.
She turned to the Botanicum, searching through it again until she came to the passage that referred to the fly-cap toadstool, Amanita muscaria. She read the passage aloud slowly and carefully then looked on the map again, finding the birch, fir and pine that they were said to grow beneath.
Now for the third task. Lilith turned the pages of the Botanicum, flipping back and forth. It seemed to take an eternity before she found what she was looking for: a colourful drawing of a rhizome plant with two main leaves and spire-like stems covered with tiny, white, bell-shaped flowers.
“Convallaria majalis: Lily-of-the valley, Lady’s tears…”
She read the page twice, stumbling over the longer words yet feeling proud at her ability to read. She stood up and stretched, her muscles feeling stiff and sore after sitting for so long. Lilith pondered on what she would need to bring with her for harvesting—a basket to carry things in, perhaps a knife with which to cut the foliage of the lily-of-the-valley. Nothing else came to mind. Choosing a large, wicker basket with a good, strong handle, she placed the map, knife, and a small trowel inside it. Lilith walked outside and into the garden, excited by the prospect of discovering its secrets.
The wind blew brisk and cold. Pockets of frost still lay in the shadows. Lilith put her basket down and glanced at her map, and then looked up at the unkempt sprawl that lay before her. To Lilith’s eye the wild and tangled overgrowth had a mysterious and magical air. Evergreen trees and shrubs grew amid the newly budding deciduous, softening the bareness of the early spring garden. Huge yellow spruce, grey firs, and deep green pines towered over the canopies of the lesser trees, throwing perpetual twilight over their domains.
As Lilith stepped onto the cobblestone path, turning west and consulting her map again, she felt something warm and soft slip under the red, velvet folds of her skirts. Sooty wheezed enthusiastically as he rubbed against her bare legs. Lilith lifted up her hem to see his eyes glowing brightly in the dim light.
‘Come on,’ she said as she gently coaxed him out. ‘I’m off exploring. Do you want to come too?’
The kitten wheezed a reply and Lilith laughed and bent down to give him a quick cuddle. As she set off down the cobbles again, her basket swinging, Sooty stepped in beside her, his tail twitching and his eyes on the tiny birds that flittered between the shrubs, hedgerows and trees.
The kitten grew tired of Lilith’s slow pace and bounded ahead of her. The sight of him frolicking through the garden brought a smile to Lilith’s face.
Lilith’s gaze passed from the trees and shrubs and then to the map. Sooty raced back to her, swatting at her skirts, before charging down the cobblestones to where the path forked, three wizened willows growing at the juncture, spreading their long draping branches over the paths.
An old, rickety shed sat in the shadow of the first willow, nearly hidden by its pendulous branches. Lilith slid back the bolt and the door swung inwards, creaking loudly on long, disused hinges, letting in the sunlight and scattering mice in its wake. Tools were stacked neatly inside: spade, rake and shovel, and an old, rough-handled axe. Empty muslin sacks lay on the dirt floor and a stack of wooden crates stood next to the tools.
Lilith closed the door and returned to the path. A brief look at the map and she quickened her stride, taking the right-hand path to where the stands of tall pine trees grew near the stables. The stable’s thatched roof and a tall, stone chimney were visible behind their needle-covered branches. Lilith rolled up the map and placed her basket down. Sooty sat down in a patch of sun and watched as Lilith searched underneath the lowest branches amongst the thick cover of fallen, resin-scented needles.
She saw the red and spotted fly-cap toadstools almost instantly, the easy find buoying her. So too the fact that she’d used her new-found skills to figure it out. But Ge-Iad hadn’t told her how many to harvest. After a moment’s deliberation Lilith pulled them all up. She dropped them one by one into her basket, then returned to the path and reflected on the second task. She brought to mind what she’d read about the lily-of-the-valley. The plant liked moist spots in woods and forests, under the dappled shade of deciduous trees.
Lilith searched the garden, walking back the way she had come to the three willows and the old dilapidated shed. She carried an image in her mind of the plant as she had seen it in the Botanicum, peering into the shadows under the trees and shrubs until spying several clusters. She knelt down and dug with her trowel, lifting the rhizomes out of the rich brown soil. Again she wasn’t sure how many to dig out. Lilith erred on the generous side. Lifting out the map, she pushed aside the toadstools and filled the bottom of her basket with the lily-of-the-valley. She dropped her trowel into the basket, and then stood up, dusting off her hands. She shook her skirts, the cloth a little damp at her knees.
Lilith looked up at the sun, judging it to be close to midday. She’d completed the first steps of her tasks in good time, leaving the afternoon to make the tincture. Lilith unrolled the map; the oak trees and the trap lay close to the high stone wall that enclosed the tower’s woods. Picking up her basket, Lilith walked back towards the house. She held the map out before her, trying to match the existing trees to their carefully drawn counterparts.
A sprawling hawthorn hedgerow grew beside the path, the trunks twisted with age. Opportunistic birds had built their nests high up in the thorny mass. Lilith pushed aside the branches and peered into the garden that lay behind the hedge. Ivy covered the ground, rising up in hillocks where it had overwhelmed the less-hardy plants. The stark white stone of a fallen statue: a shattered torso of a woman lay partially submerged beneath the spreading sea of green.
Behind the hedgerow, tall trees grew. Lilith looked up at their enormous, furrowed trunks, and then at her map. “Fraxinus Excelsior. Ash. The World Tree.”
According to the map, the track to the elder bower led through the copse. But as Lilith searched for it in the garden, she found that, although the main path had proved easy to follow, where it split into smaller trails the stone was harder to see. She almost missed the smaller path, with only the odd, gleaming-black stone discernible beneath the thick cover of decaying leaves.
She walked through the ash copse, looking up at the branches above her and the patches of blue sky between. The air smelt moist and fertile. Birds called noisily from the trees as she passed beneath them. A lone grey squirrel scurried up the side of a furrowed trunk. A twitch of his bushy tail and he vanished from sight.
Where the ash copse ended the elder tree bower began: a long walkway of intertwined trees and branches. A second statue stood to the left of the bower, a willowy beauty with long stony tresses. Her naked body was twined with questing ivy, her arm outstretched, a hand extended, an apple resting on her palm.
Lilith entered the bower feeling slightly panicky at the close surrounds. She walked quickly, stepping over fallen branches and a displaced nest. Her unease grew as she continued on, her pace increasing as she broke into a run, her basket swinging wildly in her hand. Lilith emerged into the dim shadows of the garden with a sigh of relief.
She followed the half-hidden path, arriving at an ivy-enveloped structure that Lilith took to be the summerhouse. The massive trunks and spreading branches of the oaks rose up behind it. Weeds and clumps of herbs surrounded the house, but between the summerhouse and the high, stone wall surrounding the woods and tower, nothing grew—not a tree or shrub, not even grass.
Placing the basket down, her gaze travelled up the wall to where the skeletal trees reared. There was something strangely compelling about the walled woods. With her head tilted back, she looked up the high, black stones then along the wall’s curving length. Noticing a rectangle of a deeper darkness amid the ivy branches and stones, Lilith reached up on tiptoes, her finger’s grasping the edge as she peered inside the hole. A bleak and barren wasteland lay within, nothing but dead and blighted bushes and trees. A desolate, forlorn, and forgotten place.
Shuddering, she retrieved her basket and picked up the map. How different the walled woods looked on the parchment: green and fertile, the tall alder trees growing around a series of spring-fed ponds. Lilith wondered what had happened to make it as it was today. What had killed the trees and left the soil so dry and barren?
Recalling her task, Lilith turned her back to the wall and made her way around the summerhouse to where the mighty oaks towered. Fallen leaves and acorns blanketed the ground. Tiny saplings inched their way out of the rotting mulch, seeking the sun’s light. The layer was thick and springy beneath her feet, any trace of the path long since concealed. Lilith saw something soft and white that lay within the hollow of a nearby twisted root. She couldn’t quite make out what it was—a bird perhaps, or a small animal.
She walked closer to see that it was an owl, lying within a carefully constructed circle of bones, blood, and feathers. It didn’t appear to have any injury, but the soft, feathered body showed no sign of life.
Lilith gave a whoop of joy—she’d found the sorcerer’s trap! Three completed tasks! Well, almost. She just had to make the tincture from the lily-of-the-valley, but that shouldn’t take too long.
Her success made her confident. Lilith put the basket aside and bent down to pick up the owl.
As her fingers touched the feathers, a bolt of force hit her, sending her flying.
Lilith pulled herself up from where she’d fallen, her entire body shaking with shock.
She stood up, feeling dizzy from the after-effects of the spell. Seeing a nearby stick, Lilith picked it up and advanced on the trap with determined strides. She looked at the circle of feathers, blood, and bones, frowning as she contemplated how to stop it from working. In the end, Lilith decided to prod the circle with her stick, holding it out with a shaking hand. Her tentative efforts dislodged a small bone from its place. Lilith reached down, flinching as her fingers touched the owl’s wing, expecting the blow.
Nothing happened. She picked it up. The owl’s body was still warm; it must have died recently.
As Lilith stood looking at the owl, admiring the softness of its pure-white feathers, the static body stirred.
The owl’s eyes opened. It lunged at her, slashing at her hand. Lilith staggered backwards, tripping over her basket before righting her fall.
Wings flapping and talons flailing, the owl tore itself from her grasp, leaving cuts and gashes in its wake. A flurry of feathers and it was gone, disappearing into the darkness of a hole within the enormous trunk of an oak.
Lilith clutched her bleeding fingers, feeling the tears welling in her eyes. She looked at her basket, her sobs increasing as she saw the contents strewn across the ground. Lilith hurried over to salvage her harvest. The rhizomes were fine but the toadstools were broken and crushed. Not a single one remained whole. What was she to say to him? She’d lost the owl and now she’d ruined the toadstools. Lilith picked up the map and the rhizomes and the pieces of toadstool, placing them all in her basket, her fingers still bleeding from where the owl had pierced her skin with its beak.
She dried her eyes, resolving to make the best of it. She could still produce the tincture and she had found both the toadstools and the trap, however poor her results. Lilith set off back to the herb room.
Sooty was waiting for her by the door when Lilith arrived. He greeted her with a chorus of wheezes, and Lilith dropped down beside him and picked him up. She held him close, feeling the tears flow again. Sooty didn’t squirm or fidget as Lilith held him tightly, as if the kitten sensed her distress and wanted to comfort her.
Lilith heaved a sigh and walked back into the herb room, leaving Sooty to sleep in the sun. She’d better start making the tincture. That, at least, she hoped to get right.
Placing her basket on the table Lilith separated the rhizomes from the pieces of toadstool. She snapped off the leaves and removed the dirt as best she could. She tried to remember what the sorcerer had shown her. First he’d crushed the herbs in the mortar, then he’d put them in a jar and added the alcohol, stirring with an agitation of his hand.
Lilith looked for her knife in the basket only to find that it wasn’t there. She must have dropped it somewhere in the garden! It would be easier to pound them if she could cut them into smaller pieces first. But then again, she just needed to get it to the right consistency; it didn’t matter how. Lilith threw several rhizomes into the mortar and set to work. She ignored the pain in her fingers, noticing belatedly how much the blood still flowed.
The work proved hard. The inner parts of the rhizome crushed easily, but the outer layers would do nothing but shred. Then the thin and wizened roots would not mix with the rest. Lilith ended up scraping the leafy, rooty mixture into a large jar, filling two-thirds with the oozy green stuff, leaving ample leftover in the bowl of the mortar. She tipped in the alcohol, spilling the excess over the lip and then stoppered the jar.
Right. Now she had to shake it. As Lilith began to agitate the jar vigorously, the stopper flew off, dousing the room with the would-be tincture.
Lilith sighed deeply. She repeated the process, scooping the rest of the horrible green stuff into the jar then tipping in the rest of the alcohol from the bottle. This time Lilith pushed down firmly on the stopper. She shook it well, the thick mass moving heavily from the top to the bottom of the jar, the alcohol slowly infusing with a brown and green tinge. Lilith shook it again. She held the jar up, peering hard to see through the darkened glass. The pounded rhizome sat in a lump at the bottom, while above it little bits of grit and strands of shredded foliage swam in the layer of greenish alcohol.
Lilith put the jar down on the table and picked up the one that the sorcerer had prepared. She held the jar up to the light and swirled the tincture around. Then she put it back down on the table with a frown. The sorcerer’s tincture looked nothing like her own. But then he’d used dried and powdered herbs, hadn’t he, while she’d used fresh root—they were bound to differ.
Glancing around the herb room, she was horrified to see the mess she’d made. Thick puddles of green tincture lay on the floor. The wall by the farthest drying cabinet was splattered too. Droplets of blood stained the stone table. Lilith stacked the leftover rhizomes on a shelf. She dropped the pieces of toadstool into a small earthenware bowl and placed it next to her tincture. Taking the bucket, she held it under the edge of the table and swept the dirt and debris from the stone surface. She threw the bucket’s contents out the door and set to cleaning the room.
She tidied and swept, then boiled water to clean the floor. Collecting her mop from where it stood, leaning against an outside wall, Lilith began to clean, putting her back into her endeavours. She pushed and prodded with the mop, sloshing hot water onto the floor. When she reached the wall splattered with green strands and glop, Lilith stopped. She leant the mop against the wall, moving the drying cabinet aside by pulling and pushing. Then Lilith lifted up the mop and began to wash the dirty wall.
At first her cleaning only made matters worse, smearing the substance further across the wall. Lilith frowned. She pushed the mop harder against the stones, digging it into the mortared gaps where the worst of the tincture had wedged itself. Then to her horror, a stone gave way, the mop head plunging deep into the wall.
Lilith pulled it out quickly. She looked with dismay at the hole where the stone had been.
What more could go wrong?
Maybe she could reach inside and pull it out, and then somehow fix it back in place again. Lilith put her eye to the hole. She didn’t like the idea of thrusting her hand into the darkness at all. Anything could be in there. She closed her eyes and reached in, feeling for the stone. Stretching and straining her arm into the space within the wall, her fingers touched something. She just couldn’t reach in far enough to grasp it.
Lilith withdrew her arm. She looked around the room, her gaze fixing on her stool. Positioning it under the hole, Lilith climbed up. She plunged her whole arm in. She reached around in the darkness, her fingers touching a corner of the stone and then something else—something hard and wooden.
As she stood with her arm deep in the wall and the stool wobbling precariously beneath her, Lilith became aware of the pounding of hooves and the rumblings of a cart or carriage coming towards the house. Visitors! She pulled her arm out hastily and climbed down from the stool.
She stepped back and looked at the wall. She couldn’t very well leave it the way it was. She wondered if she should stuff something in it to hide the hole until she’d had a chance to get the stone and wedge it back into place. Then Lilith looked at the cabinet. She leant her weight against it, pushing it bit by bit until it covered the hole.
Lilith smiled. She quickly completed her mopping, sloshing the dirty water onto the path. Resting mop and bucket outside, she swung the door closed behind her.
Lilith ran down the path towards the house, her skirts and shift held high, freeing her legs for the race. She arrived outside the kitchen, out of breath and excited, just as the horses and carts rumbled in slow succession around the side of the house. Lilith watched as they drew nearer. Two of the carts were loaded with crates, sacks, and barrels, the third piled high with wood, cut and split, ready for the hearth. The monthly Teind had arrived.
Lilith propped the kitchen door open. She stood aside and watched as the men alighted from the carts and began to carry the goods inside. The offerings both from Ge-Iad’s Isle and from Muin did not fail to amaze her, compounding her respect for the sorcerer. The men walked back and forth with their many, and to Lilith’s eye, intriguing burdens, until the carts were emptied and the firewood stacked neatly.
When the carts had trundled away again, Lilith entered the kitchen. She could hear Hesta in the pantry sorting out the newly arrived food. Lilith sat down at the table. Warm, rich smells drifted over from the cauldrons that hung above the hearth.
The door opened and Ge-Iad walked into the kitchen from the darkened corridor. His haggard appearance startled her—he looked drained of energy and of colour. He wore no jacket, his sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and his shirt stained. Lilith knew how hard he’d been working of late. He often spent all day and night within his high, lone tower.
‘I wish I could help you, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said spontaneously. ‘You know. With your magic. I could… well, lend you a hand.’ She searched his face for sign that she’d presumed too much. ‘I think I’m ready—as your apprentice…’
‘All in good time, Lilith,’ he replied. ‘I’m riding out now; I should be back tomorrow. You will continue with your tasks. Become acquainted with the herbs that grow in the gardens.’
‘You will not venture beyond the outer fields. It is not safe. I would not have you come to any harm.’
He nodded then rose. As he left, the sorcerer gave her shoulder a rough, friendly squeeze. ‘Affa,’ he said, the word a whisper.
‘Ge-Iad?’ Lilith asked. ‘Sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.’
The sorcerer didn’t stop to answer as he strode from the room.
Lilith yawned, suddenly horribly tired. She didn’t have the energy to stir, looking up only when a plate was laid before her: a roughly cut piece of bread, smeared with dripping and topped with thick slices of roasted meat.
She ate it quickly, unexpectedly famished and pleased when Hesta made another slice, this time with more meat. Lilith wiped up the grease on her plate with a final hunk of crust, which she sat chewing slowly.
The door flung open and Ge-Iad strode back into the kitchen, whistling, chirpy. His booted feet pounded the black flagstone floor. He had changed, looking impressive, tall and debonair, clothed for riding. He raised a hand in passing, bestowing her with a charming smile. The door slammed shut. The sound of his boots pounding the path faded into the distance.
The old woman placed a tankard of ale before her, and Lilith raised it to her mouth with a sigh, gulping it down. Unable to muster the energy to rouse her self and walk upstairs to bed, she watched sleepily as Hesta sat before the fire and rummaged in a large wicker basket. Taking cloth, shears, and needle, her grey head bent over her work. She measured, cut, and sewed, her bone needle passing in and out of a piece of creamy white muslin cloth.
Lilith’s vision glazed and her head nodded.
She dragged herself up, realising that she’d slipped off to sleep. As Lilith yawned and blinked, Hesta stood up from her seat by the fire, something held in her hands. She hobbled across the room and placed it in Lilith’s arms.
Lilith looked down in wonder at the doll, with the finest, softest black wool for its gleaming long hair and a beautifully stitched face. The poppet wore a dress of red, the shade an echo of Lilith’s own. Its body was soft, stuffed with wool or fibre.
‘It’s beautiful!’ Lilith said. ‘It looks like me!’
Hesta smiled and held a finger to her lips.
Lilith held the beautiful doll carefully, surprised by the old woman’s skill. She loved the fact that it looked like her—a smaller, precious version of herself. The expression, with its rosebud lips, heart shaped face, and large dark eyes, was perfect.
She left the kitchen, the doll tucked under her arm, longing for bed. The stone steps to her quarters were lost in darkness. Lilith hesitated, thinking it might be best to go back for a lantern. Then Sooty emerged from the shadows. Braver for his company, Lilith staggered up the steps to her room.
She placed the poppet upon her pillow while she undressed and then climbed into bed. Lilith fell asleep with the poppet nestled in her arms and the little black kitten curled up at her feet, warming her toes.
Within the Wall…
Lilith shook her tincture and held it up to the light. Then she held up the sorcerer’s, comparing them, noticing the difference in consistency with a sinking heart.
Another failure. So she’d lost the owl and crushed the toadstools, and then she managed to make a hole in the wall with her over-enthusiastic attempt to clean the splattered tincture.
That at least she could fix today, or try to. She’d work out how to mortar the stone into place later. Lilith put the tinctures back in a dark corner of the shelf.
Shoving and pushing, she moved the drying cabinet away from the hole. Lilith positioned her stool beneath it and climbed up, quelling her unease, and plunged her arm into the darkness. With an expression of extreme concentration, her brow furrowed and the tip of her tongue clenched between her teeth, Lilith felt for the stone, gripping it tightly in her fingers. Drawing it out, she climbed down from her stool. Then Lilith remembered how she’d felt something else in the hole when she’d searched inside it yesterday.
She put the stone down and climbed back onto the stool, reaching inside the hole again, her fingers searching until they touched wood. With a tremor of excitement Lilith realised that it was a box. A secret box—sealed in the hidden space within the wall! She pulled it out as quickly as she could. Holding it carefully, her nerves all a tingle, she climbed back down from the stool.
She should tell the sorcerer. She knew she should. But then she’d have to tell him about the hole in the wall. It was true, he might not be angry at her for causing such damage, but from Lilith’s past experience at the Master’s house, damage brought about beatings. The sorcerer hadn’t raised a hand to her, but Lilith wasn’t going to risk it. She’d messed up things enough already. She didn’t want to fall out of his good graces and prove herself unfit as his apprentice. And although Lilith would not admit it to herself, her curiosity was far too great to stop now.
She carried it to the table and set it down. The box was plain, uncarved, the red wood without visible whorl or grain. Lilith couldn’t find a way to open it. She turned it over and over, hearing something moving around inside it, but she could see no gap or seam that would indicate a lid, let alone a keyhole. She placed it back down on the table.
Lilith searched her shelves, finding a small, curved knife hidden beneath the spatulas and spoons. She hesitated before trying to wedge the blade into the place where the lid ought to be. It seemed a shame to mark the box, but how else could she open it? Lilith pushed and poked with the blade, but the hard wood resisted all attempts. Frustrated, she tried again, this time succeeding in breaking off the tip of the blade. All the more determined, Lilith held the box tightly in one hand as she pushed with the broken blade.
The knife slipped, slicing her finger. As Lilith held it up to see her injury, a droplet of blood fell onto the box and was swiftly absorbed by the wood. She gasped as the box altered, carvings appearing on the wooden sides and upon the surface of its lid: trees grew in thickets by the sides of gushing brooks, their roots in the banks and their catkins hanging low over the water. In the centre of the lid three symbols were carved: a crow, inlaid in white wood where the rest of the box was red; then two runes, the first a single vertical line with four small horizontal lines branching out to the right-hand side. The other looked like an ornately carved ‘F.’
Lilith lifted the lid. A soft, glowing blue light illuminated the interior of the box, the source a tiny crystal flask filled with a shimmering aqua-coloured liquid. Beside the flask was a key, the bow fashioned into the likeness of a spreading tree, the roots linked into the bottom of the bow, and the branches growing into the curve at the top. It looked too large for a cabinet or drawer, more like a door or gate key.
She held the flask up between her fingers. The liquid undulated gently, then began to swirl.
A strange sensation seized Lilith as she stared at the glowing blue liquid—a compulsion to taste it, like a niggling voice in the back of her mind. A voice that grew ever louder.
Lilith pulled out the crystal stopper, and holding out her hand, she tipped a tiny droplet of the shimmering liquid onto her finger tip. The liquid tantalised her, the urge to taste it grew stronger.
Lifting her finger to her mouth, Lilith licked the liquid with the tip of her tongue. Thick and oily, it slipped down her throat with a horrible, sinuous motion.
Nausea struck, sending her double. She retched, dizzy, disorientated… and felt raindrops, fine and soft, falling in a mist-like shower, beading on her face and soaking into the thick wool of her cloak.
Lilith slid to the floor, clutching at the edge of the stone table as she fell… as the waves crashed against the rocky shore, sending up spray into the air, and the room was a spinning vortex, whirling madly and… she could taste the salty tang upon her lips…
Moaning softly, Lilith gripped the edge of the table as the sensation of being outside of her body gradually subsided. The cold stone reassured her of the solidity of the world as the room slowly stopped spinning.
A pounding still rang in her head.
It took a moment longer for Lilith to realise that the sound was real. Ge-Iad had returned!
Clambering to her feet Lilith stoppered the flask and placed it back in the box. She closed the lid and the seams and the carvings vanished, the red wood box became as it had been—a simple square of wood.
She dashed to the wall. Grasping the box tightly, Lilith scrambled onto the stool and thrust the box inside, her haste causing her to topple from her precarious perch. The stool clattered to the floor.
With her heart hammering madly, Lilith ran to the other side of the cabinet. She pushed and thrust at it with all her might, and the cabinet wobbled on its feet, threatening to topple.
She couldn’t hear the sound of hooves anymore. Lilith pictured the sorcerer walking down the path to the herb room and her stomach clenched. She shouldn’t have opened the box!
Lilith pushed the cabinet with an agonising slowness, inch by inch, concealing the hole and the hidden space within the wall.
The herb room door swung open. Ge-Iad strode into the room. Seeing Lilith pushing against the cabinet, he raised an eyebrow.
‘I’m… I’m just moving things around, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said. ‘Tidying up the room a bit…’ She fought to keep from blushing, but failed. She felt the heat rise up into her cheeks.
‘Very industrious, I’m sure,’ Ge-Iad said as he bent down to pick up the toppled stool. He threw off his black robe and draped it over the edge of the table, and then leant back casually against the stone edge. He drew his pipe and tobacco pouch from the pocket of his jacket.
‘Have you completed the tasks I assigned you?’
‘Yes, Ge-Iad… well, sort of,’ Lilith said. Then covering her surprise and discomfort, she found herself speaking quickly, spilling her woes in a rush. ‘I lost the owl. The toadstools got crushed and my tincture doesn’t look much like yours…’
Yet to Lilith’s surprise the sorcerer laughed. ‘So all in all, Lilith, you are telling me that yesterday was not a good day.’
‘No… I mean yes,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t a good day.’ She returned Ge-Iad’s smile, pleased that he wasn’t angry.
‘And yet you found all three items within the garden, using your resources to guide you,’ he said as he began to pack his pipe.
The sorcerer nodded his approval.
Lilith’s smile broadened. ‘I found the toadstools under the pine trees,’ she said. ‘You know… the ones growing along the path to the stables.’
Ge-Iad nodded again. His smoke wafted up into the upper reaches of the herb room. Lilith was struck again by his impressive stance and bearing, the way he leant back against the table, his pipe in one hand, his intense, grey eyes regarding her in turn.
‘And…’ Ge-Iad urged.
Lilith blinked, drawing herself back from her awed daze. She blushed again. ‘And I found the lily-of-the-valley. But I had troubles with the trap,’ she admitted. ‘Then the owl bit me, and it got away. I’m sorry, Ge-Iad…’
‘No doubt you have learnt from your mistakes,’ the sorcerer said, interrupting her apologies. ‘You have done well.’
Made bold by his show of further understanding, and remembering the dead woods around the tower, Lilith asked, ‘Ge-Iad, what made the trees die? You know the ones that used to grow around the tower? The map says that alders grew there, and there were springs and ponds and…’
‘A fire, I believe, or something of its kind. But we are diverging from our topic,’ Ge-Iad said. He tapped out his pipe, returning it to his pocket, and drew out a small, black, silken pouch.
‘I have a gift for you.’
Lilith’s eyes grew big. ‘A gift?’
‘Indeed, that is what I said,’ the sorcerer said with a laugh as he held out the silken pouch.
Hardly believing it to be true, Lilith took the pouch from his hand. The fabric was soft, the thread tiny. She untied the drawstring with trembling fingers, beside herself with curiosity. Lilith held the pouch up and something silver and shiny slid out onto her hand.
Lilith held up the girdle, the silver chains so fine that it slithered softly over her fingers. The silver clasp was fashioned into the shape of an owl, the wings wide, its eyes two sparkling black gems. Only the wealthy wore girdles! And even the Mistress had never worn anything as fine and costly as this!
‘I know how well the weaker of the sex adore all things that glitter and gleam,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘I had a silversmith adjoin the clasp to the chain. Put it on.’
Lilith could feel his eyes upon her as she draped the girdle around her waist and struggled with the catch. The silver links slung low around her hips. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, let alone owned before.
‘Thank you, Ge-Iad! I love it!’
The sorcerer smiled at the warmth of her reply. ‘I am glad it pleases you.’
Lilith held the girdle’s clasp cradled on her hand, mesmerised by the owl’s twinkling eyes. The jewels alone had to be worth a small fortune. She still couldn’t believe he’d given it to her.
‘I am pleased with your services, Lilith. This is a small token of my appreciation. Continue to learn, follow my commands, and a bright future awaits you.’
‘Thank you, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said again. ‘Please, Ge-Iad,’ she said smiling shyly, ‘when will you teach me magic?’
‘Magic cannot be hurried along, Lilith. The language of our ancestors, and that of magic, is also the language of the Gods. A true Witch or Sorcerer must learn to control their own emotions and impulses, before they can even contemplate manipulating the complex and difficult forces that are involved in mastering the language, and therefore the casting, of even the most rudimentary of spells. Apply yourself to your lessons,’ the sorcerer said. ‘Magic, like knowledge, comes to those who are prepared to study hard, and above all, to those who possess the patience to wait…’