The Twofold Lesson…
A door slammed somewhere in the house, awakening Lilith. She opened her eyes, blinking in the warm rays of the late spring sunshine that streamed through the eastern windows. She rolled over, still sleepy and wanting to return to her dreams.
A paw against her cheek brought her eyes open again. Sooty lay sprawled upon the pillow beside her, his nose inches from her own. He greeted Lilith with a yawn then stretched out further, patting her again with his paw.
Ge-Iad might be home! The thought surfaced in Lilith’s befuddled mind, stirring her to rise. It took a moment longer to muster the will to leave the warmth of her bed, no matter how much she wanted to see Ge-Iad after his week’s absence. It had been the longest time he had spent away since Lilith’s arrival here almost half a year ago.
Sooty regarded her with interest as Lilith slipped out of bed and padded across the floor, her bare feet sinking into the rug’s pile. She stepped into her crimson dress—a trifle dirty at the hem and sleeves but still her favourite—and then the hose. Opening the cupboard she selected a pair of red velvet slippers, little roses of red gems twinkling at the toes.
Lilith picked up her girdle from the dresser and clasped it around her waist, her fingers stroking the owl’s eyes. She loved the way that the jewels sparkled and shone, the beauty of the silver chain, the way it made her feel when she wore it—as refined as any blue-blooded Lady. She loved it so much that she hated the thought of putting it aside, even to sleep at night.
Leaving the room at a run, with Sooty still lying on the bed, Lilith hurried into the corridor and down the steps, two at a time. She entered the lower corridor still running, swinging the kitchen door wide.
‘Ge-Iad! You’re home!’
The sorcerer stood by the hearth. He didn’t look up at her greeting and Lilith immediately sensed the sourness of his mood. She pulled back a chair from the table and sat down, watching him quietly, wondering what was wrong and wishing she could help him. She waited for him to speak, but the silence continued.
The old woman went about her business, setting the table for the breaking of the night’s fast, her steps unnoticed by the brooding sorcerer. Lilith ate the bowl of porridge that Hesta set before her, but her eyes wandered back to Ge-Iad. Then Lilith saw him look up, his attention captured by something behind her.
Lilith followed his gaze.
Sooty had wandered into the kitchen. Twitching his tail and looking proud, the kitten lauded his kill. He held Lilith’s poppet within his mouth, feline teeth piercing the body. With barely a pause he flicked it up into the air, and then with gleeful mischievousness, pounced upon it, pinning it down beneath all four paws.
Ge-Iad frowned. He walked closer and the kitten stepped back, relinquishing his prize.
The sorcerer picked up the doll. ‘What is this?’ he asked, turning to Lilith with a lowered brow.
Lilith struggled for words. Something about the sorcerer’s mood, a certain tenseness, warned her not to irritate him.
‘It’s a doll,’ she said. ‘Just a doll. Hesta made it for me.’
As soon as the words left Lilith’s mouth she realised her error. ‘I’m… I’m sorry Ge-Iad. I really am. I didn’t mean to…’
A flick of the sorcerer’s finger and the old woman scurried outside.
‘You went against my orders.’
‘I didn’t mean to,’ Lilith said again. ‘Please, Ge-Iad. I really am sorry.’
‘I don’t ask much, Lilith,’ the sorcerer said, his voice heavy with disappointment. ‘Only that you obey my rules. I told you twice not to speak to my servant, nor engage in her affairs. Did I not?’
‘How am I to teach you if you go against me? I gave you everything and you failed to follow my one command…’
‘I’m sorry Ge-Iad. I didn’t think!’
Lilith fell silent.
Ge-Iad looked at the poppet. ‘It pains me to have to do this, Lilith, but there are lessons here that need to be learnt, and I can think of no other way to make you fully realise their importance.’
Lilith nodded. ‘Yes, Ge-Iad.’
‘The time has come for your first lesson in magic,’ the sorcerer said. ‘Come here.’
Dismayed that she’d angered him, Lilith walked to his side. She’d feared a beating, like the Cook had dealt out in the past, but the reference to magic confused her.
Ge-Iad grasped her chin, lifting it up. He held her gaze, his grey eyes piercing. ‘Magic is energy, Lilith. Channelled, harnessed, and used.’ His grip tightened. ‘Energy, from man or beast. Grief. Lust. Terror. Love.’
He released her then held up the poppet. ‘Can an object be invested with energy?’ he asked. ‘A cherished object, something held, something loved?’
As Ge-Iad produced a small, stone blade from within a pocket of his robe, Lilith fought the urge to step back.
‘Stay still,’ he said as he seized her hand. Quickly, calmly, he cut the tip of her middle finger.
‘And how do we channel magic, Lilith?’ He lifted her hand to the doll and smeared it with the droplets of blood that welled on the tip of Lilith’s finger. ‘We channel magic by utilising emotional energy—energy coupled with any physical components that are sympathetic to the spell.’
Grasping Lilith’s arm, he led her to the fire. He spoke a low incantation. Then Ge-Iad held the poppet in reach of the flames.
An orange tongue flickered across the creamy muslin cloth.
For a second Lilith just watched him, a bewildered expression on her face.
Then the heat struck. Her slippers ignited. Lilith screamed.
Fire engulfed the poppet’s slippered feet.
Lilith’s screams became shrieks as the heat intensified, burning through her shoes and then her hose, blisters bubbling up on the soles of her feet.
She looked at the burning poppet and at the sorcerer with horrified comprehension. ‘Make it stop! Please! Make it stop!’
Ge-Iad dropped the poppet onto the floor. He ground his boot into the burning cloth, scraping it across the stones. He dusted off his hands.
Sobbing, Lilith staggered back to her chair and sat down. Cold shock kicked in. The pain was excruciating. The smell of her charred skin and of the burnt poppet filled the air.
‘Let this serve as a two-fold lesson, Lilith,’ the sorcerer said. ‘For you will remember not to cross me again. You were foolish in not listening to my commands. I stated my reasons. You chose to ignore them. You compounded your foolishness by accepting a gift, nay, a poppet, made in your likeness. You must understand, Lilith,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘To all others you bear the Taint. You can expect no mercy at the hands of those who have not inherited the Gift. I would have thought that was made abundantly clear to you…’
He pointed a finger at Lilith’s feet. ‘Prdzar.’
The intense pain lessened to a deep throb. Lilith sagged in her chair.
‘I shall not remove the injury entirely,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘Only enough to bring your mind back to matters at hand.’
Lilith looked up at the sorcerer with dull eyes. She couldn’t believe that he’d hurt her so much. She didn’t want to believe it.
‘I have done this for your own good, Lilith. I know that may seem hard to believe at this moment, but I have your best interests at heart. Now attend to my words, for there is much to do. I am in need of a certain component for my spells. You will obtain it for me.’
‘I hope that you do not intend to be sulky, Lilith?’
‘No, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said quickly. She just wanted to get away from him, to nurse her wounds and cry.
‘Good,’ he said with a swift nod of approval.
Lilith listened carefully as the sorcerer explained what to do once she had finished harvesting his traps.
When Ge-Iad left, she gave into her tears. She pulled off her burnt slippers and then her hose to examine her feet. The skin was red and blistered, horribly tender. Lilith eyed the poppet, wondering whether she dared to pick it up. She hated the thought of leaving it lying on the floor, exposed to any further injury, knowing full well now that the damage would pass onto her. But she couldn’t risk inciting Ge-Iad’s anger again.
She left the shoes off, standing gingerly then leaving the kitchen in a hobbling gait. Lilith retrieved the bucket from the herb room and walked down the cobblestone path, pausing to cool her feet upon the stone.
The pain had been shocking and intense, so unexpected. He’d said that he’d done it for her own good, but Lilith couldn’t understand why he needed to hurt her so much. She knew she’d gone against his command not to speak to his servant, and she shouldn’t have accepted the poppet. But the command didn’t make sense anyway. Hesta wasn’t simple, nor was she given to strange fits, and Lilith knew she’d meant her no harm by giving her the poppet.
Ge-Iad had called it a ‘two-fold’ lesson. Two lessons, one to tell her what would happen if she didn’t follow his commands, the other—a lesson in magic. Lilith thought about what he’d done to the doll, as she limped along the path through the orchard, the bucket gripped tightly in her hand. Magic and energy. She wondered how you harnessed it. How it was channelled.
Grief. Lust. Terror. Love.
Lilith was still thinking hard as she walked down into the gully that lay behind the orchard, her feet squelching into the mud. The sorcerer’s fields were green and high with late spring’s abundant growth. The air smelt fresh after the night’s rain. Swarms of insects buzzed and droned. Lilith swatted a mosquito that landed on her hand and rubbed the reddened flesh.
She checked each of the sorcerer’s traps, poking at the circles of bones and the strange symbols that surrounded them, the powdery outlines long blurred and washed by rain. She wasn’t going to risk being shocked again. Lilith filled her bucket quickly, dropping in each of the captured creatures with an expression of distaste and wiping her hands on her dress as she went.
Now laden, Lilith carried the bucket back up the hill, preoccupied with her thoughts. Careful not to dislodge the cloth she’d used to cover the bucket, she limped through the orchard and down the path to the herb room. She carried it inside and lifted it up onto the stone table.
Opening the doors of the drying cabinet, Lilith released a flood of scents into the room. She gathered up the potent-smelling herbs from the cabinet shelves—well dried now—and stacked them on a corner of the table. Then Lilith armed herself with a pair of long, leather gloves, a ball of twine, and a small bone-handled knife. She set them on the table, then lifted off the cloth and grimaced as she looked down at the contents of the bucket.
Lilith turned her attention to the twine and knife, cutting five equal lengths of string. She donned the gloves, then reached down into the bucket and delved into the muddy water in search of a long and slippery leg.
With her face set in lines of concentration, Lilith struggled to gain purchase, her efforts foiled as the toad slipped from her hand and landed back in the bucket with a wet thud. She tried again, grasping a second toad, but just as she had placed the loop of twine around its leg, it escaped from her hand and landed on the floor with a loud squelch.
Cursing loudly, Lilith pursued it around the room, irritated by its agile movements, her feet throbbing painfully with each step. She caught it, cupping it in both hands, yet once again as she tried to attach the loop around a wet and warty leg, the toad leapt. Seizing the fleeing amphibian in one frantic lunge, Lilith returned to the table. She whacked the toad against the bucket, releasing all her pain, anger, and frustration through the violent motion.
She looked at the limp toad in horror. Ge-Iad would be angry. He’d stressed the importance of its exact manner of death. It was essential that the toads die slowly, so that the poisonous secretions condensed in the coagulating blood. Lilith quickly wrapped the twine around the dead toad’s leg. Then she tied the thread to a drying line in the herb cabinet. She took more care with the rest, and after some time the four toads danced desperately on the ends of their strings, while their more fortunate companion hung lifelessly beside them.
Pulling off her gloves, Lilith wiped a hand across her face. She lifted up the empty bucket and walked to the door, sloshing the muddy water outside. She looked up at the grey sky above. The sun was lost behind the heavy clouds, masking the time of day. Lilith glanced towards the house then went back inside. She ignored her hunger. She didn’t want to see him yet. She wasn’t sure how she felt. She wasn’t sure she’d forgiven him—the lesson had been too painful.
Lilith closed the door and positioned a cloth to stop the draught. She shook her tinctures, looking at them with satisfaction. The results were a far cry from her fledgling efforts when she’d first arrived at the sorcerer’s house. She checked her stocks of fresh and dried herbs, roots, and toadstools, referring to the sorcerer’s list of requirements. Then she turned the pages of the Botanicum to determine when to harvest the plants she needed.
Lilith tried not to think about the sorcerer and her beautiful doll, burnt and ruined, but her mind kept drawing her back. She’d gone against his order. Lilith knew she had. But she still thought his punishment had been overly harsh.
Lilith glanced at the drying cabinet that still covered the hidden space within the wall. She hadn’t dared move it or take out the box with its strange, glowing flask. Lilith remembered all too well the compulsion that had seized her and the horrible feeling as her body, and then the world around her, had slipped away.
Yet the knowledge of its existence was always there, in the back of her mind, a niggling presence. She couldn’t tell the sorcerer about it now. It had all gone too far. First she’d opened it, without his permission, and then she’d lied when he’d entered the room and had seen her pushing the cabinet back into place. No, it had to remain forever a secret.
Especially now that Lilith knew what he would do to her, if he found out that she’d gone against his orders again.
Lilith walked to the door, preparing herself for the inevitable meeting with the sorcerer. She resigned herself to accept the punishment, the two-fold lesson. She resolved to put her feelings of betrayal behind her.
Sooty met Lilith as she closed the herb room door and walked out onto the path. She took a moment to cuddle him, knowing that the kitten had meant no harm by his over-exuberant play. He pushed against her, seemingly sensing her distress. Together they walked down the cobblestone path to the kitchen.
Lilith pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The kitchen was deserted. The hearth fire dead and the embers cold.
The sorcerer’s footfall sounded behind her.
‘I’m afraid that my servant has suffered an unfortunate turn. I have sent her home to recover.’
Lilith didn’t turn around. She didn’t want him to see her dismay.
‘If you had listened to me earlier, Lilith, this could have been avoided.’
‘As I have no time to spare to seek out a suitable replacement and little patience with strangers in the house, you will have to take over the domestic duties for now. I trust you can cook?’
Lilith nodded quickly.
She heard the sorcerer stride away then the corridor door closing as he left the room. She surveyed the kitchen with a sinking heart.
She’d lied to him. She couldn’t cook. She’d only ever watched from a distance. Lilith had always been more interested in what came out of the pots rather than what went in. Lowering herself onto a chair, she stared at the darkened hearth, the poppet still lying on the stones before it, the cloth charred, the red dress blackened.
The kitchen felt empty without Hesta.
Ge-Iad had been right, and Lilith felt terrible that she had been the cause of all this trouble. If she had only listened to him. Now Hesta was ill. Lilith didn’t doubt that both the morning’s excitement and the sorcerer’s anger at both of them had triggered the old woman’s sudden turn. She wished she could undo the damage she’d done.
Sighing deeply, Lilith stood up. She swung the cauldron out from its position over the cold hearthstones and lifted it down with both hands. The stew had burnt down into an insoluble mass.
Lilith bent her back to her new duties. She lugged the cauldron outside to the pump, rucked up the skirts of her red velvet dress, and tucked them into her drawers. She rolled up her sleeves, selected a large pebble from an earthen bowl by the pump, and set to scrubbing at the congealed, burnt offerings.
She scrubbed the pot clean, her hands rubbed raw with her efforts. Working the pump with one hand, she turned the cauldron around to wash out the muck, the cold water splashing onto her bare legs, soaking her shift and hitched skirts. Lilith hefted it back inside, grunting with the weight, and hung it back on its hook.
She sprinkled the old tea leaves onto the embers of the fire to stop the ash from flying around, something she’d seen the scullery maid do so many times before. Then Lilith shovelled them into a bucket. She rubbed the firedogs with a piece of dry leather and polished the black stone wall around the hearth with mutton fat. She took down the brander and skillets, the pots and pans, carried them outside to scrub, and then hung them back on their hooks. She raked out the bake-oven’s embers and polished the door. She stocked the hearth fire, ready for the night.
Lilith mopped the flagstone floor, putting her worth into it, pushing the mop head into the corners and crevices. She lit the kitchen’s candelabras and then the fire itself.
Then with all of it done, dirty and sweaty and her shift and dress stained and sodden with water, Lilith came to a standstill, her eye drawn to the poppet, burnt cloth and ash still ground onto the stone beneath it.
She’d skirted it, cleaning the floor right around it. The stones were still wet—a gleaming perimeter.
She needed to get rid of it.
She had to get rid of it.
Lilith felt cold, then horribly hot.
She dashed over and snatched it up, thrusting the doll down the bodice of her dress, tucked in tight. She barely stopped to think as she ran outside, quietly closing the door behind her. Lilith made for the herb room, not slowing her pace until she had reached it, her feet raw and her heart beating madly. Opening the door she slipped inside, taking a moment to catch her breath.
She had to get rid of it for good. She had to bury it. Deep down in the earth, somewhere no one would ever find it. Somewhere no one would ever go.
The walled woods—the idea came to her all of a sudden. Lilith knew it to be perfect. A place so bleak and desolate that no one would ever have any cause to venture there.
Lilith slipped outside. Night had wreathed the garden in nocturnal shades. The clouds had gone; the stars were sprayed across the velvet blackness. She looked up to the crooked tower, outlined by the moonlight. The sorcerer’s window was dark.
An owl hooted loudly from within the folds of the willow tree. Lilith’s heart skipped. She’d stopped thinking about her injured feet, wincing only when she encountered twigs or stones upon the ground. She scurried down the cobblestone path to the rickety tool shed, lost within the willow’s shadow. The tree’s thin, pendulous branches scraped eerily across the shingled roof.
Lilith felt her way to the door and pulled it open. The hinges creaked loudly. She stared into the shadows, her eyes slowly adjusting as she searched the corners of the shed. Lilith extended an arm, holding her breath and trying not to think about the strange things that might lurk in a sorcerer’s shed at night. She felt along the lengths of a dozen stacked tools until her search produced a shovel.
Creeping back down the garden, keeping to the shadows, Lilith kept alert to any movement. The manor house stood dark and still. She slipped under the cover of the ash trees, seeking the gleaming, black stones of the partially obscured path that wove its way through the grove. The stark white stone of the statue that stood at the entrance of the bower shone in the moonlight, highlighting the way.
As she stepped into the inky darkness of the elder bower, she struggled to hold her panic at bay. The high, arched branches of the tightly interwoven roof were covered in leafy growth. A pale light beckoned at the end of the long, black tunnel and Lilith hurried towards it. She stifled a cry as she stumbled over a fallen branch, her feet sticky with blood as the blisters burst.
Wincing with each step, Lilith emerged into the moon-lit garden. The high, black wall loomed, the skeletal trees rearing above it, and the crooked black tower glimpsed through their twisted branches, the lone window dark. She had to hurry. She couldn’t afford to be gone from her room for too long. He might be looking for her even now…
The thought sent her pulse pounding again. Lilith hurried to where the matted remains of the long-dead ivy still scaled the wall. She looked up, her eyes following the gnarled and knotted wood to the top most branches and tendrils that climbed the edge of a crumbling crack, high up in the wall—a gap wide enough to pass through.
The thought of entering the dead woods at night was outweighed by her desperation. She had to get rid of the poppet for once and for all. She had to protect herself from further harm. She couldn’t destroy it. And hiding it would never be enough. While the poppet lay within anyone’s reach, she remained vulnerable.
Lilith searched for footholds in the wood. She held the shovel tightly in one hand, leaving the other free for climbing. Lilith began to scale the high stone wall, her toes felt for the crevices and holes within the thickly entwined branches, each step another agony to her blistered and bleeding feet. Her fingers gripped the cracks and branches. She didn’t look down, keeping her body hugged to the wall, terrified that she would fall.
A segment of dead wood gave way, her stomach lurching as she dropped. Lilith grasped another branch. She secured her foothold, breathing heavily from the shock. Her arms ached as, stone by stone and branch by branch, Lilith climbed the wall.
The ivy’s remains grew thinner and sparser as it neared the top of the wall, the gap now an arm’s length above her. Pushing herself up so that she stood on tiptoes, her feet screaming in protest, Lilith reached up to the gap. Her fingers felt for the stone, clasping it tightly.
The vine gave way beneath her. For a second she hung, gripping the stone with one hand, trying not to scream, to wail. Then Lilith managed to wedge her toes into a crack in the wall and she slowly hauled herself up, her arm straining with the effort.
She perched in the gap and looked down into the spreading branches of a twisted and lifeless tree. Lilith dropped the shovel, flinching as it cracked through the dead branches then landed on the ground below. She lowered herself down. Her skirts snagged and her arms and legs grew scratched and torn as she climbed down, dropping the last distance and gasping again with pain as she hit the stony ground.
The woods seemed to kill all sound. She felt as if she should hold her breath. She shouldn’t be here. Her senses told her to run, to flee this dreaded dead place.
Lilith searched beneath the tree for the shovel then, gripping it tightly, she made her way deeper into the woods. She crept through the darkness, skirting the moonlight, keeping to the crooked shadows thrown by the trees that loomed above her.
And as she walked in that desolate and forlorn place, Lilith felt a heavy sadness descend upon her. The sensation increased with each step—a horrible, lost feeling that chilled her, smothering any happiness, any hope. She came to a small clearing surrounded by a ring of cracked and split trunks, a wide and deep depression in the ground marking the site of a long-dry pond filled with broken branches and dust.
Lilith walked clear of the hard roots of the trees. She took the poppet from her bodice and laid it gently down then lifted up the shovel. She worked with determined thrusts, her arms aching with the effort, her bones and muscles jarring with each strike to the barren ground. Branches moved and shadows shifted as Lilith dug the poppet’s final grave. She dug until she could dig no more, until her body trembled and her dress clung to her sweat-soaked skin and her tears streamed down her face, blurring her vision.
Lilith picked up the poppet. She kissed its singed hair. She stroked the soft red dress.
Then Lilith dropped the poppet deep within the earth.
She shovelled the dirt back over the doll, spade by spade, until the hole was filled in and the surface firmed down.
Good and buried.
As the flat of the shovel struck the earth a final time, Lilith felt strangely solemn.
She dropped the shovel, wiping a hand across her face, drying her tears. An empty, aching feeling lay inside her. She felt changed, no longer a child, any innocence she might have possessed buried along with the poppet.
Lilith looked at the woods around her, forcing down her panic as she tried to remember which way she’d come. Peering amongst the skeletal trees, her imagination lent form to the misshapen shadows that danced across the bleak earth: spectral horses reared; bestial creatures slithered; winged monsters raged and writhed.
Lilith bit back fresh tears. She hurried through the trees, searching for the one she had climbed and the high gap within the wall. Clouds passed over the moon, plunging the woods into deeper darkness. Lilith stumbled on, near senseless with terror, her hands outstretched before her, feeling the way. She imagined again the sorcerer searching for her, discovering her absence, while she roamed the woods, lost and crying.
Then her fingers felt the cold stone of the wall. She ran a hand along its length, using it to guide her, her eyes straining upwards, searching for the high, crumbling gap and the branches of the overhanging tree. Her fingers touched the edge of a woody roughness that criss-crossed the stone, a tangle of dead vines, then the smooth wood of something else—a gate, or a door—and the coldness of the iron keyhole.
Then Lilith spied the tree and the gap above it, and she set off at a run again, grasping her skirts in both hands.
She scaled the tree and then the wall, scrambling through the crumbling gap, her toes seeking the ivy’s branches, her heart thumping madly.
A branch broke. Her feet slipped. She fell backwards.
Lilith hit the ground and rolled, the speed of her tumble taking her unawares, leaving her bruised and shaken as she picked herself up and limped down the cobblestone path to the kitchen.
Coming of Age…
She woke up bleeding, her sheets stained red with the flow.
Lilith searched for the wound, confused and thick-headed with sleep, finally lifting her shift to find her drawers wet with blood. Her bewilderment turned to dismay. At first she thought that she must have damaged something inside her when she’d fallen from the wall—she ached, deep down inside—then Lilith realised what was happening to her…
Cursing loudly, she stood up, wincing at the tenderness of her twisted ankle as she searched her cabinet for another shift. She hesitated briefly before ripping it in two, unnerved by the wanton damage. Lilith folded the soft cloth into a wide, thick strip then placed it in her drawers to absorb the blood. She sighed deeply. Well, it wasn’t something she could ignore, was it? It came to all women, although she didn’t feel excited like she’d expected at her coming of age, instead she felt weary, dizzy, and strange, and somehow close to tears…
Sudden movement drew Lilith’s eye to Sooty, sitting on the windowsill, his back leg raised high as he groomed himself. The kitten met her gaze with steady, glowing eyes. Leaping down from the sill, Sooty padded over and thrust himself under her shift, weaving between her legs.
‘Not now, Sooty,’ Lilith chided. She gently pushed him away and sat down on the end of the bed to inspect her feet. Her left ankle was swollen and blue, her feet still too painful to wear shoes.
Lilith stripped the sheets from her bed. She pulled on her dress, twisting around to do up the bodice’s buttons. She smoothed down her red velvet skirts, brushed off the crusted dirt, the tiny twigs and leaves, and gathered up the soiled sheets and hurried downstairs.
It felt horrible to enter the kitchen and not see Hesta standing before the hearth. The room still felt empty without her. Lilith sighed and dropped the sheets into a wooden tub. She carried it out to the pump. She’d wash them later and hang them out to dry and no one would be the wiser.
Lilith set to clearing the embers and relighting the fire, then acquainting herself with the stock in the pantry. She ducked to avoid the legs of ham and strings of fat sausages that hung low from the rafters. Dressers lined the walls, stacked with boxes, crates and baskets laden with provisions: fresh, bottled, smoked and dried. The pantry’s wooden floor and a trapdoor at the far end lent weight to the notion of a cellar beneath it. Kneeling down, she lifted the door, peering into the darkness below. The cellar smelt old and dank. She closed the door again and returned to the problem at hand. Just what was she to prepare for Ge-Iad’s morning meal?
She settled on the idea of a stew, surely a relatively simple task. Lilith walked back and forth from the pantry to the kitchen, placing her chosen ingredients on the kitchen’s long wooden bench, the well-scrubbed surface gouged and scratched from its many years of use. Sooty leapt up onto a high shelf, watching her as she worked.
Gathering water from the pump, she poured it into the cauldron and then swung it over the flames. She chopped, pared, and peeled, throwing the ingredients into the pot. Then with the stew boiling nicely, Lilith walked outside to wash the sheets.
She rolled up her sleeves and hitched up her skirts. The pump’s water was icy cold as Lilith washed and pounded the linen. She pulled out the first sheet and lay it on the beetle-stone, then set to whacking it with the washing bat until the stains shifted. Then into the tub it went and out came the second sheet to be treated in the same manner. She wrung out the linen, tipped the water onto the cobblestones then straightened up, massaging her back and rubbing her bare legs to warm them.
Lilith struggled with the sheets as she hung them out on the line to dry. The freshening wind tore the cloth from her hands, the corners of the wet linen whipping her face. A snaky line of black smoke, rising up from the direction of the incinerator, drifted towards the house, casting a dark pall above her. Lilith glanced up, frowning. She’d be dammed if she was going to repeat the backbreaking task, and all because the ash dirtied them while they were still on the line. She sighed deeply, gathered up her tub and went back inside.
Her nose wrinkled as she entered the kitchen. She put the tub back in its stack in the pantry, then walked over to the hearth and took up a long wooden spoon. She stirred the bubbling brown concoction that simmered and seethed within the cauldron’s depths. She blew upon the broth then tentatively tasted it. Lilith lowered the spoon with a thoughtful expression, wondering whether she dared to throw it out and start all over again.
The stew was a mixture of things she liked eating. Lots of meat: ham, bacon, and several long, black sausages. She’d dropped in a few token vegetables and seasoned it, something she’d seen the Cook do. She’d had to guess how much to add and what each spice was. Somehow she’d thought it would all just go together. But the stew had a strange, unpleasant taste. She could water it down a bit more. Make it a bit less salty. Yet Lilith had the feeling that something more fundamental might be astray.
The kitchen door swung wide and Ge-Iad entered the room. He carried a bundle: a coarse and darkly stained sack. Lilith looked away, still worried that he might glean her guilt from her eyes, but Ge-Iad strode by her without speaking, slamming the door behind him as he headed deeper into the house.
Lilith set the table, resigned to the fact that her stew must be eaten. She arranged the vessels carefully, gathering a handful of short-stemmed daisies that grew outside the kitchen door and placing them in a vase at the centre of the table. Picking up the wood basket, she walked outside. The wind tugged at Lilith’s skirts, too cold for late spring, a sharp and icy gust that brought the blood to her cheeks. She struggled with the basket on the way back. She’d filled it too high and pieces of wood tumbled out as she hobbled along.
Lilith pushed the kitchen door open and hefted the basket onto her hip, negotiating the step.
The flames licking the blackened cauldron winked out.
A chill seized the room.
A misty figure began to materialise before the hearth.
Lilith screamed. The wood basket slipped from her grasp and hit the floor with a crash.
The figure resolved, growing more solid, forming the features of the old woman: bent and wizened, ashen faced, her grey lips stretched wide as she screamed…
The door swung wide and the sorcerer walked into the kitchen from the corridor, whistling jauntily.
Stopping suddenly, he sniffed the air then strode to the hearth, passing straight through the old woman’s shade. He swung the cauldron back.
‘Lilith, the stew burns!’
Ge-Iad shook his head as he looked at the smoking embers. He turned to regard Lilith with a raised brow. ‘I admit that I am no expert when it comes to the culinary arts, Lilith,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Yet even I am aware that the heat should be monitored as one cooks, rather than burning the food then dousing the flames.’
Lilith trembled violently. She looked away, horrified by the superimposed figures: Hesta’s pale and ghostly form standing hunched before the hearth and the tall imposing sorcerer.
Ge-Iad seemed ignorant of the unearthly presence as he walked to the table and sat down in his chair, his long legs stretched out before him. ‘Well, I suppose I had best sample your wares, Lilith,’ he said with a mock sigh. ‘Let us hope that they do not prove fatal.’
Lilith picked up a bowl from the table. She forced herself to approach the hearth, her eyes closed, gasping at the dreadful cold nothingness as she stepped through Hesta’s ephemeral form.
Her hand shook as she took up the wooden spoon and filled the bowl with the sticky brown stew. She set the bowl on the table and then stood back, her gaze passing from the ghost to the sorcerer then back again.
Ge-Iad raised his spoon to his mouth, a startled expression crossing his face as he tasted the stew. He pushed the bowl away. ‘Perhaps we may need that replacement sooner than I thought. You may prepare me a tray of cold meat and bread and bring it to my quarters,’ Ge-Iad said as he stood up to leave. Sooty leapt down from his resting place, rubbing his small, soft body against Ge-Iad’s legs. The sorcerer bent down to stroke him. ‘A most agreeable cat,’ he said as he straightened up and left the room.
Lilith stood staring at the hearth as Hesta’s ghost grew thinner and fainter, the tracings of her transient body fading into the black stone surrounds.
Still trembling, Lilith sat down, her head in her hands. Had she really seen the old woman’s ghost? Had Hesta died suddenly and her spirit returned here, to the house where she had worked for so long? Feeling sick with guilt, she wished again that she hadn’t gone against Ge-Iad’s commands. He’d warned her about the old woman’s turns. Why hadn’t she listened? If she’d left well enough alone, none of this would have happened. It felt as if she blundered from mistake to mistake.
Remembering Ge-Iad’s request, Lilith rose, snuffling and wiping her tears as she walked to the pantry to prepare the sorcerer’s tray. She took care in her selection, choosing the finest ham and the softest bread, filling the plate high, wanting to set things right.
Sooty badgered her, rubbing against her legs and wheezing loudly. Then as Lilith set off, tray in hand, he pranced ahead, doubling back to swipe at her playfully and tangle in amongst her skirts. Walking up the black stone steps to the landing, Lilith ducked as she passed under the dragon lintel. She continued up the next flight of steps to a small antechamber. A glowing stone orb that rested upon a stone recess in the wall gave forth a faint light. Lilith stopped in front of the massive door, devoid of handle or latch, the crimson wood unmarked by whorl or grain.
She raised a hand to knock.
The door heaved as if stirring from sleep. As Lilith gasped in surprise, steadying the tray in her hands, the door swelled within its frame, undulations rippling across its polished surface. A small and ugly face thrust its way out of the wood.
‘Who’s a pretty pussy then?’ the imp taunted. ‘Who’s a pretty little harlot?’ It opened its mouth to extend a long, grey, and pointed tongue, which it wriggled lewdly.
‘Please,’ Lilith said hesitantly. ‘I’ve got to give this to Ge-Iad.’
The door rippled again and two more imps appeared. Gibbering and gibing, drooling and leering, they thrust various parts of their disproportioned, scrofulous bodies in and out of the wood’s bulging surface, heckling her obscenely.
Lilith blushed. ‘Please…’ She tried again, ‘Ge-Iad said I was to…’
‘Got something for your “Ge-Iad,” little girlie?’ the first imp sneered. It laughed, long and crudely, and then stopped to gasp for breath: the rasping wheeze of an old, old man.
The door’s surface suddenly stilled, leaving no trace of the imps to be seen.
As Lilith waited for the sorcerer to appear, Sooty took the opportunity to rub himself against her legs, his small body warm and soft, his odd sound of contentment muffled by the folds of her red velvet skirts.
The door stirred into life again and the first imp reappeared, his wrinkled, motley grey face disgruntled as he intoned in a bored drawl, ‘I, who am bound by the yew, guardian of the heartwood door, announce the arrival of the Great Lord and Master, the all-powerful “Ge-Iad”.’
The imp’s jaded expression changed with a shocking abruptness—registering swift, startled surprise—then the door’s surface cleared as rapidly as a back-handed strike.
The door opened.
‘Ah, my dear, you have brought me something with which to relieve my hunger.’
Lilith nodded quickly, wanting to be away.
Ge-Iad took the tray from her, bestowing her with his charming, boyish smile. The door slammed closed.
Lilith hurried back down the steps, relieved to be released. She dashed under the dragon lintel, scraping her shoulder and tearing her dress as she went. As Lilith glanced back, she saw a movement in the darkness, the hint of something large slithering up the stone and onto the lintel. With her heart in her mouth, she turned in a rush and sprinted down the remaining steps.
In the corridor she stopped to catch her breath. She thought about the imps that guarded the sorcerer’s door and the scaled creatures that lurked upon the lintels and shuddered, remembering how often she’d passed beneath them.
Lilith looked for Sooty. She called his name then peered up the steps, too terrified to venture back into the darkness. She waited, softly calling his name again, but the kitten didn’t reappear…
The sorcerer rode out by dawn’s first light, the noise awakening Lilith from sleep.
Lilith dressed and went down to the kitchen, her eye drawn first to the hearth and thoughts of Hesta. She desperately wanted to ask Ge-Iad about the old woman, yet she knew it would only provoke his anger. She dreaded the thought of the ghost appearing again. She still felt horrible, sad, and guilty at the same time.
As she crossed the room with weary steps, Lilith saw a note lying on the table, the writing in Ge-Iad’s small, tight script. “Perhaps today you might attend to the task of improving your cookery skills? I will return this afternoon, possibly later.”
For once Lilith was pleased by his absence. She’d grown used to his frequent trips away. He never told her where he went, nor why, and Lilith had begun to understand that the sorcerer was a man of many secrets. Secrets he did not wish her to be privy to.
So, she was to attend to her cookery skills? Lilith snorted. She knew he was punishing her, assigning her the duties of the hearth rather than those of magic. She might as well resign herself to her lot and hope it would improve. It wouldn’t do to fall out of his favour yet again.
Lilith pondered on her inability to cook. She figured she’d better keep it simple. She remembered watching the Cook preparing the meat for the spit. The turnspit dog, a mongrel who worked the treadmill, would often slink away at the merest hint of the task, his tail between his legs, disappearing so well that no one could find him, and then the job would be assigned to Lilith, the lowliest of the low.
The labour had been hot and hard and the Cook quick to use the flat of her spoon or pan should Lilith slow her hand and the meat blacken. But the smell of the hot fat dripping into the pan on the hearthstone had been almost worth the hours of drudgery. The temptation had always been too great, and Lilith had burnt her fingers each and every time, making the most of the Cook’s diverted attention to pick at the searing-hot meat.
This, Lilith decided, was something she could accomplish.
Rolling up her sleeves, Lilith took up the carving knife and went out into the brightness of the garden. She paced down the cobblestone path with determined steps, searching the garden for sign of movement.
The chickens scratched beneath the rowan trees. The rooster crowed a warning as Lilith crept stealthily towards them.
Halting in front of the flock, she marked her target. The realisation that she should have brought some grain to draw them closer came too late. She’d just have to manage it some other way.
Lilith chose the fattest of the chickens, a big black hen scratching industriously, head down and talons digging into the rich brown earth. Hitching up her skirts and clutching the carving knife tightly, Lilith ran, scattering chickens as she plunged through their midst, a whirl of wings, feathers, and squawks erupting around her.
The chosen hen ducked to one side and Lilith leapt, seizing her by the legs.
Lilith wasn’t prepared for the frenzy that followed. She held the chicken tightly as it struggled and flapped, then it stilled its frantic fight, awaiting her next move. Lilith knelt down, held it firmly on the ground, and brought the blade down quickly. She didn’t let go as the hen’s body convulsed and shook—she’d seen chickens killed before; she knew how messy it could get.
Dripping body held in one hand and carving knife clasped in the other, Lilith walked back up the garden path. As she struggled with the door handle and thrust the kitchen door open with a foot, Lilith heard the sound of the sorcerer returning, his horse trotting down the road to the rear of the house.
She dropped the chicken on the bench and smoothed her skirts as best she could. As she stood on the doorstep, awaiting the sorcerer’s arrival, Sooty emerged from the nearby bushes with a small bird in his mouth. At the sight of Lilith’s frown, he disappeared back into the overgrowth to enjoy his meal in peace.
The sound of hooves grew louder and Lilith looked around as the rider came into view, her frown changing to an expression of surprise as she realised that it wasn’t the sorcerer. A visitor had come to the manor house.
The man dismounted from his horse, tying the reins to the tethering post, and walked towards her. He took off his hat as he approached her, smiling broadly. He looked younger than she’d guessed at first glance, no more than a few years older than she, with sandy-brown tousled hair and tanned skin.
‘I’ve come to deliver a message to your Master,’ the young man said.
‘He’s not here right now. I’ll give it to him when he returns if you like,’ Lilith said, noticing with an unwanted blush how handsome the young man was.
‘Well I reckon I could do that, but I’d rather wait and deliver it to him personally, if that’s all the same with you?’
Lilith smiled shyly, secretly pleased that the young man would stay a while. She hadn’t had the chance to talk to anyone else but the sorcerer in so long, and Ge-Iad spent so much of his time away or alone in his tower.
‘I’m Lilith,’ she said.
‘Giles,’ he replied. ‘How long did you say he’d be?’
‘He said it would be this afternoon, maybe later,’ Lilith said again. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to leave the message with me?’
‘And pass up the chance to talk with a pretty girl?’ he said with a laugh. ‘I can wait. I can always leave it with you, if he’s too late in returning.’ He opened the door for her and they entered the kitchen. Lilith crossed to the fire, suddenly self-conscious. She threw more wood onto the flames.
‘You’ve come from the coast?’ she asked, covering her moment of discomfort.
‘My ship just came into port.’
‘You’re a sailor?’
‘My Captain’s a Merchant. We sail the Isles, buying and trading in goods.’
‘You’ve been to the other Isles? All of them?’
‘Well, almost. I’ve only been onboard for a year. This is the first time I’ve been to Gort. Do you mind if I sit?’ he asked with another broad smile.
Lilith nodded eagerly, keen to ask him about his travels.
‘I can get you something to eat, if you like?’ she voiced the thought without thinking, but surely there was nothing wrong in offering a visitor a little hospitality. Ge-Iad would approve—after all, the young man had travelled a long way to deliver his message.
‘I wouldn’t say no to a bite to eat,’ Giles said as he put his hat on the table and settled back in the chair. ‘Very kind of you, Lilith. Have you been working here long?’
Glancing back at him from where she stood in the pantry, preparing a platter of cold meat and bread, Lilith started to correct him, then stopped. How could she say she was Ge-Iad’s apprentice without revealing her Taint? Lilith imagined the young man’s reaction—his smile would fade and his eyes would grow cold. ‘Going on half a year now,’ she replied.
Setting the platter on the table, Lilith noticed with a small start of pleasure the way Giles’s eyes followed her. Yet clearly he was a gentleman, for he didn’t leer or act crudely. She felt comfortable in his company.
‘I’ve seen no other staff. You manage the house, all by yourself, then?’
Lilith nodded. ‘Tell me about the other Isles,’ she said as she sat down opposite him.
‘Well, like I said, I haven’t been to all of the thirteen Isles, but damned near enough… begging your pardon, Miss, for swearing. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a woman’s company,’ Giles said with another broad smile.
Flattered, Lilith returned the smile. She hoped he’d continue talking about his travels, about the other Isles. She wondered if she should offer him some ale, to wash down the bread.
‘I’ve seen some amazing things, there’s no doubt about it,’ Giles said as he ate his meat. ‘I’ve seen the high white castle of Tinne. It overlooks the white city and the harbour where we anchored. That’s where we stocked the hold with silks and spices. It’s warm on Tinne,’ he said, ‘not like Duir, where I was born.’
‘The Stag King’s Isle?’ Lilith said. ‘Have you seen him?’
‘I have at that. But I’ll admit it was from a distance,’ Giles said with a laugh. ‘A lion of a man, as tawny as all the Anghard Kings before him.’ He picked up a piece of bread and began to eat it. ‘No chance of something to wash this down with, is there?’
‘I can get you ale if you’d like,’ Lilith said as she stood up and made for the pantry once more.
‘If it’s not too much trouble.’
‘I think I saw a keg in the cellar.’
‘I can help if you like?’
‘No, you keep eating,’ Lilith called back. ‘I can get it easily enough.’
Raising the wooden trapdoor, Lilith descended the creaky stairs into the cold damp darkness of the cellar. As she lifted a nearby keg onto her shoulder and started to turn back, she heard the sound of someone walking down the cellar stairs.
‘I thought I’d come down and help you anyway.’
‘It’s not that heavy,’ Lilith insisted.
‘I’m not going to let you lug that while I’m here.’
‘Well, alright then,’ Lilith said hesitantly.
But instead of taking up the keg, Giles reached out and clasped her hand, drawing her towards him. ‘Come on then, give us a kiss first,’ he said, pulling her closer.
Lilith pushed him back. ‘I don’t want kisses, thanks all the same. I think we should go back to the kitchen now, my Master wouldn’t like it…’
‘But your Master isn’t here now, is he? Come on then, you were friendly enough in the kitchen. I reckon you must get lonely for company, out here all alone. We could have a little fun, you and I. No one needs to know.’
He lunged forward suddenly, grasping her waist and pressing himself against her, his mouth seeking hers, hot and urgent. Shocked by his cheek, Lilith fought back, bringing up a hand to slap him. He seized it and laughed.
‘You know you want it. I could see it in your eyes the moment I arrived. That’s why you invited me in.’
He kissed her again, then shoved her roughly, backwards, onto the stairs. The violence of his attack left Lilith reeling. She felt him thrust a hand under her skirts. His breath was rapid, hot, and heavy upon her neck.
She screamed, fighting madly beneath him. Then she heard a creak upon the cellar stairs… Lilith felt the weight of Giles’ body lift momentarily. She heard his gasp of surprise and then his gurgled breath. Warm wet droplets sprayed across Lilith’s face.
She looked up to see the dark figure of the sorcerer.
The young man tried to stagger to his feet. His hands clutched to his throat, as his blood left his body in spurts.
Lilith saw Ge-Iad reach out, seizing Giles’s head. She heard the trace of a whispered spell.
‘Affa Pugo Teloah.’
Giles whipped and struggled within the sorcerer’s grasp, then Ge-Iad released him and he toppled from Lilith’s body.
Scrambling to her feet, Lilith’s sobs increased as shock set in. ‘He… he said he was here to deliver a message to you… then he followed me down here and… and…’ Her words died as her tears burst forth anew.
The sorcerer knelt over the corpse, patting the chest with his hand and retrieving something from within the young man’s jacket.
Lilith staggered up the stairs and into the kitchen. She stood at the kitchen bench, shaking violently, as Ge-Iad strode through the kitchen, the corpse hefted over his shoulder as if it weighed little more than a sack of flour. He returned a few minutes later, smoothing his coat.
‘Why did he do it?’ Lilith asked. Her voice sounded small, pitiful even to her own ears. ‘He seemed so nice… Why did he do it?’
‘What was he doing in the house?’
‘He said he was happy to wait until you got back…’
‘And so you invited him into the kitchen?’
‘As much as it pains me to say this Lilith, I think much of the fault may lie at your own door.’
‘What?’ Lilith gasped, staring at him in surprise. ‘He attacked me! You saw…’
‘Tell me Lilith, why did you invite the man into the kitchen?’
‘I… I… didn’t want to be rude. It didn’t seem right to ask him to wait outside…’ Lilith stammered her reply. She found herself blushing, she didn’t know why—she hadn’t done anything wrong.
‘And yet you were alone at the time,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘Did it not strike you, Lilith, that by doing so you may have led the young man into believing it was an invitation to further intimacies?’
Lilith saw Ge-Iad’s eyes travel the length of her dishevelled form.
‘No doubt he mistook you for my servant.’
‘Well aren’t I?’ Lilith snapped. She bit her tongue as Ge-Iad’s eyes narrowed.
‘I would think that you are smart enough to know that your temporary kitchen duties are due punishment for your earlier transgressions.’
Lilith looked away.
‘Truly my dear, I have given you gowns aplenty, you do not have to go about looking like a kitchen trull. You are a beautiful young woman, Lilith, and you are my apprentice. You should act and dress as such. I am sorry that this has happened to you, but I have warned you about strangers, about those who do not bear the Gift. You cannot trust them. When will you realise? And now that you have come of age, this is especially important to remember.’
Lilith’s eyes widened in surprise, she blushed, relieved that her back was turned and her expression not visible. How did he know?
The sorcerer fell silent for a few moments, before speaking again. ‘It seems that I must travel again. I may just take you with me this time, Lilith. But it shall have to wait a day or two. I must return to my studies. I am not to be disturbed, Lilith. Do you understand? Go about your endeavours with the Botanicum. I am pleased with your progress. I shall also require a tincture of aconite root, and be sure that you have a large stock of vervain. I will be in need of it in the coming week. ’
The kitchen door swung closed. Lilith turned around. She felt sick, humiliated, hating him, hating the world, hating herself.
Lilith picked up the chicken and walked outside, seating herself on the doorstep. She held the chicken between her knees as she plucked, the glossy black feathers falling in drifts around her. Her terror, her distress, slowly soured into anger.
Lilith tugged at the feathers with short sharp jerks, as resentment swelled inside her—the pain she’d bottled up for so long.
She stood up, wiped a hand across her face then, scowling and slamming the door behind her, Lilith strode to the hearth. She shoved the chicken onto the spit, skewering it in one violent motion.
Lilith looked at the blackened coals, fixing them with the sum of her wrath. She jabbed a finger towards the hearth.
She snarled, spitting out the incantation, the sound vested with a seething rage, ‘Prt!’
A fierce ball of blue flame shot out before her.
The force of the inferno thrust her backwards, the heat singeing the hair on her face and arms, searing and blackening the wall, the hearth, the spitted chicken and all.
By morning’s light Lilith knelt on hands and knees by the hearth, scrubbing at the stones with a rag.
She rinsed the dirty cloth and wrung it out, the black water dripping into the bucket. Lilith stacked the hearth with kindling and lit it with a spell, shielding her face, unsure of the outcome. A single flame ignited in the kindling, enough to catch the wood and set it ablaze. Then she walked back and forth to the pump, filling the cauldron and then several large pots with water which she set over the flames to boil.
Closing and bolting the kitchen door, Lilith propped a chair under the handle of the door to the corridor. She lugged out the tin bath from where it stood in a corner of the pantry and then the dressing screen. Checking on the pots that hung over the hearth, Lilith dipped a finger into the cauldron then bent down and threw more wood onto the fire.
When the water was hot, she filled the bath. Thick steam enveloped her as she emptied the pots and then the cauldron. Then Lilith took off her girdle, placing it on the table. She undid the buttons of her bodice, letting the red velvet dress drop to the floor. She’d burn it in the garden later and be well rid of the memories.
Lilith took off her shift and drawers and dipped a toe into the bath. She climbed in carefully, her tender feet stinging with the heat. She didn’t linger in the water. Lilith washed herself as well as she could, scrubbing at her hair, rinsing and combing the tangles free with her fingers. She washed her face with her hands and used a brush for her nails.
She climbed out of the bath and dried herself. Slipping on her shift, she stepped into her dress, the cloth as grey as her mood. Lilith clasped the girdle around her hips.
She didn’t like how her body had changed. It had betrayed her, inviting unwanted attention. She remembered how petrified she’d been when Giles had climbed astride her. Then how his blood had sprayed across her face, as the sorcerer slit his throat…
Giles’s death had been overshadowed by Lilith’s own terror and then by her anger. Now with the coming of the new day, she felt frightened. The sorcerer was not the person she’d thought him to be.
Lilith knew she should feel grateful to Ge-Iad for saving her, but the brutal way in which he had killed Giles, and then blamed her for provoking the attack, had shocked her. At this moment it seemed as if the world was against her, and Lilith had never felt more alone.
She could muster no trace of her usual enthusiasm as she emptied the bath and went outside to the herb room. Sooty followed her down the path. He sat outside as Lilith walked into the room and closed the door. Stocking up the stove, she lit it with a spell, pleased by the fact that the flame seemed more manageable now. She thought again about energy and magic.
Last night her flame spell had resulted in a blaze, but her anger had been just as heated. She’d channelled the emotion and created the fire that blackened the hearth, using the ancient language of the Gods. And now she could control it by controlling the energy she released.
Then Lilith remembered Ge-Iad’s final spell that had made Giles twitch and jerk. Lilith had no doubt that the wound to his throat had been a fatal one. No one could lose that amount of blood and live. So why did Ge-Iad cast that final spell?
She tried to think back, looking beyond her shocked emotions, remembering how she had stood, sobbing by the bench, as the sorcerer strode through the kitchen carrying the corpse over his shoulder as if it weighed nothing at all. And then Lilith thought she understood.
Ge-Iad had drained Giles’s death throes, emptying him of energy, harnessing it for himself. The stolen energy had given him the extra strength to carry the body up the cellar stairs and outside without any effort on his behalf.
One word of the spell came back to her. Affa. She had heard Ge-Iad say it before, although Lilith couldn’t remember when. Something about the remembrance made her uneasy. She struggled to remember more, but it had been earlier in the year, late winter or early spring and Lilith just couldn’t recall the exact moment.
She wondered if Affa meant to drain, or to empty of energy. If only she knew more magic, and more of the ancient tongue, then she would be stronger, more able to defend herself. But despite the sorcerer’s insistence that she learn to read and then study the Botanicum, he had taught her no more real magic. The only spell that she knew she had gained by overhearing him. Yet he whispered his words. Lilith was beginning to suspect that he did it on purpose, so that she couldn’t hear, and remember…
She reminded herself again that she ought to be grateful. She had a home where others didn’t. He’d saved her from the gallows, he fed her, given her everything. He’d taught her to read and then had rescued her from being raped, all these things she should appreciate, yet something had changed in Lilith’s mind.
She didn’t know whether her gloomy mood and jarred nerves made her think the worst, but Lilith felt as if her wonderful new world was unravelling before her eyes, just as the Cook had predicted. Since she’d arrived, she’d gone from magic and gowns to ashes and soot.
At least she would be left in peace today. He’d only asked for the tincture, and to make sure that she had a large stock of vervain. The rest of the day would be hers. She could go back to bed and shut out the world and its problems through sleep.
Lilith pulled her stool up to the stone table and opened the Botanicum.
She knew that she had some aconite root, harvested not long ago, yet she wanted to understand more about the plant before she prepared the tincture.
“Aconite, also known as wolf’s bane. A tall perennial plant with spikes of hooded blue flowers…”
Pressing on, Lilith turned the pages, seeking more of its usages. She still had troubles with some of the longer words, but she persevered, wanting to know what Ge-Iad would do with the tincture. She wanted to understand just what she was aiding him with. And if Ge-Iad wouldn’t explain, and he wouldn’t teach her, then she’d have to figure it out by herself.
Then Lilith turned to a section of the Botanicum that made her pause.
“On the Various Possible Usages of the Most Potent and Baneful of Herbs.”
The list began with aconite. Lilith read the passage, her finger underlining the words as she went.
“…all parts of wolf’s bane are poisonous, the root of a particular potency. A tincture of the root can be used to dip arrows, spears, or daggers, ensuring a most lethal wound. It may also be applied to animal traps. A cure for the poison can be sought by drinking brandy spirits mixed with a goodly quantity of flies that have feasted upon the herb…”
So the sorcerer needed the aconite tincture for his traps. Lilith recognised several other plants on the page. She read on, drawn by a morbid fascination.
“Atropa bella-donna, deadly nightshade… the berries bring sleep and in large quantities can be used to procure death…”
She kept turning the pages until she came to a diagram of a graceful plant with toothed leaves and spikes of pale mauve flowers. Vervain. Lilith felt fairly sure she had some left on her shelves. If not, no doubt there would be some growing in the garden.
“Verbena officinalis, persephonion, vervain: a most versatile herb, with numerous usages, both beneficial and baneful…”
The herb seemed to have many pages describing its importance and its possible uses. Lilith knew that the leaves and flowers could be steeped to make a tea that soothed headaches. Ge-Iad had requested some not long ago. She herself had steeped it for him. Perhaps he suffered more headaches and wanted to be sure that he would not run out. But you didn’t need much to make the tea. Why did he want a large quantity in the coming week? And why was vervain listed as being both beneficial and baneful?
She read the passages on vervain’s inclusion in love potions, its use in purification, and as a charm. Then Lilith came to a halt again, both repulsed and fascinated by a drawing of a severed and withered hand, the long grey fingers moulded and ending in tappered wicks, like candles.
“The Hand of Glory: Take the left hand of a felon or of a hanged man, wrap it in the funeral shroud and squeeze it well, so as to remove as much of the blood as possible. The hand should be placed in an ample earthenware pot along with nitre, salt, and long peppers, all of these well powdered. The hand should be left in the pot for fourteen days, then taken out and left to dry in full sun. It should be noted that, should the sun not be strong enough to sufficiently dry the hand, it may be placed in an oven, with fern and vervain.”
Lilith looked at the drawing again, curious yet horrified as she read that the fat of a hanged man was needed to mould the fingers into candles, the wicks lying upon the lengths of the fingers.
Closing the Botanicum, Lilith stood up and crossed to the shelves to check her stock of vervain. She still didn’t know why Ge-Iad wanted it. At least she had a better understanding of the plant, however macabre some of its uses were.
She’d stacked the dried plants on a top shelf. Lilith needed to pull the stool over to reach them. She gathered the bundles into her arms and started to step down, seeing as she did that from this angle, the drying cabinet didn’t sit flush with the wall. She could even glimpse the hole, a dark shape where the stone had been.
Lilith hurried down from her stool. She placed the vervain on the table and walked to the cabinet, wondering what she was to do. Would her attempts to wedge the stone back into place merely make it more obvious? Maybe it was best to remove the box and hide it elsewhere, then pretend to be ignorant about it, if the hole was ever discovered.
Lilith felt a sudden, pressing need to take the box from its hidden space within the wall. Whatever the secret that lay behind the key and the glowing blue flask, it had been she who had found them. Whatever magic they possessed was hers. And however awful the sensation had been when she’d tasted the strange liquid, and however great her past reluctance to try it again, Lilith knew that she didn’t want Ge-Iad to find it. She would take the box up to her room and hide it there. She would give herself time to think carefully about whether she wanted to drink of the liquid again.
Lilith pushed at the cabinet and its feet scraped loudly across the floor. She heard Sooty wheezing to be let in, but ignored him as she carried her stool to the wall. Now was not the time for the little black kitten to get underfoot. Climbing up onto the stool, Lilith put her arm in the hole, searching for the box. She lifted it out and carried it to the table, then returned to the cabinet, slowly pushing it back into place.
Her gaze passed around the room, settling on the long shelf she’d stacked with baskets. She placed the box in a deep-bottomed basket of tightly woven osier, covering it with a sheet of muslin.
Lilith turned her attention to making the tincture, producing a large, well-stoppered flask which she placed in a dark corner of the shelf. With butterflies fluttering unpleasantly in her stomach, she took up her basket and hurried from the herb room.
Sooty leapt up immediately to sniff at the basket. Lilith shooed him away, worried that he might dislodge the cloth. Glancing up at the sorcerer’s tower, Lilith tried to keep her stride casual as she made her way to the kitchen. Her heart raced, both with the dread of being discovered with the box and with the excitement of now having her own secret to hide.
Once inside the house, Lilith hurried to her room. She wedged a chair under the door handle, feeling safer for it. She didn’t want to be disturbed by Ge-Iad, nor by anyone else.
Now that she stood here, with the basket at her feet and the door securely wedged, Lilith knew she would drink from the flask again. The urge to do it increased as the minutes passed, and Lilith struggled to reason with her impulses. At first the flask had been a fearful secret. If Ge-Iad had found the hole in the wall and he’d realised that she had not told him of the discovery, who knew how harshly he would punish her? But with the box in her room, the discovery would damn her anyway, whether she drank or not.
The liquid had made her nauseous, and the sensation of being outside of her body and in someone else’s had unnerved her. But maybe she didn’t have to fear it? The liquid was magical. It had been left in the wall for a reason. And right now Lilith needed a little magic in her life.
Lilith took the box out of the basket and walked to the bed. She climbed up, placed it on her lap, and looked at her finger, wondering how she could draw blood. She didn’t have anything sharp that she could think of—except perhaps, the wingtips of the owl clasp that sealed her girdle.
Lifting it up, Lilith pricked her finger with the point of the wing, pushing the clasp deeply into the tip. Then she held the finger up and squeezed until a tiny droplet of blood appeared. She smeared it across the box.
The wooden box changed, the carvings etching into the sides, the white crow and runes appearing on its lid.
She lifted the lid, blinking in the glow of the flask as she drew it forth.
The compulsion to drink the liquid struck again and Lilith didn’t fight it as she unstoppered the flask. Lifting the flask to her mouth, she tipped it backwards, swallowing the glowing, viscous contents.
As the liquid slid slowly down her throat, Lilith fought the urge to retch. She swallowed, forcing it down.
The flask dropped from her hand and onto the floor.
Her body convulsed. Her head whipped back. Her muscles clenched…
…as the rain fell in a fine mist like shower…