The priest was taking too much interest in her; Gwendolyn was afraid
She had not wanted Iain to be buried in consecrated ground, his grave marked by a whitewashed wooden cross. He had not been a Christian; none of them were Christians, in truth, except for the priest in Glencorrie, the laird of Glenwilloch and his family, and one or two others. But there was nothing she could do about it. Father Oswald, preparing to leave Glencorrie, had heard of the accident and sent a message by Piers to offer his services.
“It would not be well to refuse, Gwendolyn,” Piers warned her shortly after daybreak the morning following Iain’s death. He was standing outside the croft, head and shoulders through the window as he spoke. “I know it grieves you, but we cannot conduct our secret ceremony with Father Oswald so near. Let the kirk lay him to rest and we’ll bid Iain farewell in our own way after the Monsignor leaves Glenwilloch.”
Distracted by grief, she agreed. In her heart, she recognized the necessity of hiding her true feelings. With rumors of witch-hunts traveling from the towns to the villages, it was necessary to be very careful indeed. But now, as she stood beside Jennet in the kirkyard, with the hood of her cloak pulled forward to shield her from the sympathetic looks of her neighbors, under the cloak, out of sight, she clenched and unclenched her fists.
The afternoon was not cold, but a fine misting rain dimmed the brilliance of the colors around them: the green may hedges white with blossom, the pale purple lilac, the yellow cowslips. The scents of lilac and may, intensified by rainmist, drifted through the kirkyard as Father Oswald intoned the Latin of the kirk over Iain’s grave, dug that morning by the able-bodied men of Glenwilloch.
Gwendolyn, trying not to look at the long, shrouded coffin of her dead husband on the bier next the open grave, felt as one with the day: as the soft gray drizzle dimmed the colors of spring, so did grief dim her delight in the world created by the Mother, the beautiful world with all its gifts of sun and rain, seed and fruit, meat and grain, glen and loch. With Iain no longer here to share this world with her, how would she take pleasure in anything, ever again? She wished herself in the next life with him.
A whimper from Jennet brought her back to reality. She had to look after their daughter, what had she been thinking of? She squeezed Jennet’s hand, wishing that they had not to endure this dreary Christian ceremony.
“Let us pray,” Father Oswald intoned. He bowed his head and the rest of the villagers inclined their heads with him: all except Gwendolyn.
She would not bow her head to the Christian god who hated the world and everything in it, especially those of her sex. All of these except Father Oswald were her neighbors, who met secretly in the woods with her on nights of the full moon and on the eight sabbats, as the Wheel of the Year turned with the seasons. And yet they one and all pretended to be members of the kirk.
Because they have to, the voice of reason reminded her. Looking at the bowed heads of her neighbors, Gwendolyn almost gasped when she realized that Father Oswald’s pale bright eyes were watching her as he continued to intone the Latin. He and she alone, of the assembled company, had their eyes open.
She could not tell what he was thinking: indeed, his face seemed to lack all expression, except for the glance that pierced her armor of grief. Because she refused to bow her head, he would now have cause to look on her with suspicion. The more fool ye, Gwendolyn, she chided herself. Ye should have pretended, like the others.
Trying to calm the rapid beating of her heart, she studied him. He was a tall man, with blond hair and a fair complexion; aged thirty, perhaps; not fat, but well fed, she had noticed when he rode up to the kirk on his fine chestnut horse, Alaric. Piers had told her that the Monsignor loved Alaric almost more than he loved God.
The prayers ended. With a collective exhalation of breath, the company prepared to throw clods on the coffin as Colum Bannister, Angus Fairgreves, James Throgmorton, and Dirk MacLeod, the village blacksmith, lowered Iain into his grave.
All life and love are at an end.
They were burying Iain; they might as well bury her with him. But the Mother was kind: she and Iain would meet again, not in a passionless realm of neutered angels and dreary Latin hymns, but in the other world of spirits, in the Summerland.
The service ended at last. Almost immediately, the sky began to brighten and the rain disappeared. A warm, dry wind, almost like a sigh of love from the Mother, swept over the kirkyard and Gwendolyn, with the instinct of the country-dweller, noted with part of her mind that soon Gwenwilloch would be sighing with the heat.
One by one the villagers came up to Gwendolyn, shook her hand or kissed her, depending on their age and gender, and patted Jennet on the head.
“My prayers are with you, Mistress Redfearne.”
The irony in Father Oswald’s voice did not escape Gwendolyn as she looked up at him. Silently he traced the sign of the cross in the air before her, and silently she visualized a five-pointed star inside a circle as he did it.
“Your husband has departed this sinful world for a far better place, there to dwell in eternal bliss with our Lord.”
Gwendolyn sincerely hoped not. Iain should be in the Summerland, waiting his turn to be reborn into a new life, with new lessons to learn.
“I thank you for your prayers,” Gwendolyn said. It was as well to be polite. “It was good of you to cut short your stay at Glencorrie to come here for this purpose.”
“Oh, but I was bound for Glenwilloch anyway.”
Did he gaze at her a little too searchingly? Why?
“I come to lead the people back to the ways of God,” Father Oswald said. He stood close enough to her that she could see the coarse pores of his skin, the light brown lashes that shaded his eyes, the thin lips as they moved in speech. Why stood he so close to her? If anything, he should stand as far away as he could. As a priest, he should dread the vicinity of Sinful Woman.
“Why think you that we of Glenwilloch have strayed from the ways of God?”
The words were out before she could stop herself. Fool that ye be, she cursed herself. Now he has an opening to say aught!
Father Oswald seemed to savor his words before he spoke. “Why, I have heard of fires in this country at Samhain and Beltane. I have heard of pagan blessings of crops, and of witches flying through the night.”
“Witches!” Gwendolyn repeated the word with incredulity. “There be no such thing.” She hoped she sounded convincing, hoped that she gave the impression of a thoroughly modern woman who had no time for such nonsense.
Father Oswald eyed her in silence for a moment, then smiled. “I am glad you are so sure of that, Mistress Redfearne, for I am not. Not at all.”
Pennyroyal, blessed thistle, black haw. They had dried nicely, tied with string to the eaves over the fireplace, and there was enough of each strong-smelling, crumbled herb to store for the next year. These were three of the major emmenagogues, that would bring on a woman’s moonblood if she took them soon enough. And there were others.
Mugwort, vervain, rue. Sorting them into heaps, estimating their strength and amount, was a good way to deflect the gray wolf of grief that hung about the croft, wagging its tail enthusiastically, ready to jump up on her and lick her face so she would be forced to pay it some attention.
It was now four weeks since the day of the funeral. She and Jennet had struggled on, through the condolence visits and numerous chores, trying to take up the thread of their lives again. But evening after evening the air in the croft hung silent and heavy with grief.
And then yesterday Sarah Primm had offered to keep Jennet in her own croft on the other side of Glenwilloch for a few days, to give the child a change of scene and Gwendolyn a chance to come to terms with her loss.
“Ye’ll no doubt find aught to occupy yourself,” Sarah said. “A wise woman has her herbs to gather, her medicine to make…”
And her spells to chant, but Gwendolyn did not say it aloud. Such talk was not safe these days.
“Jennet can play with my bairns,” Sarah went on. “And she’ll like the new puppies—our brindle dog has had a litter.”
“Thank you, Sarah. I know she’ll be safe with you. And it will be good for her to play just now, for soon she must work.”
Now that she and Jennet had no man in the house to care for them, her daughter would have to be instructed sooner than usual in the Craft. She would have to learn herbal medicine, midwifery, and nursing, so that she would be able to work alongside her mother and earn her keep.
Untie the herbs from the string, shake loose any dust, place the herbs in a stone jar with a stopper. Remember to make a mark on the stopper with a feather dipped in home-made ink, to indicate which herb is in which jar.
Work was soothing, work kept the hands and some of the mind occupied. Work banished the gray wolf to the doorstep of the cottage so that he could not come in, but only lurk at the outer edges of her consciousness.
Soon they would come, the sick and troubled of Glenwilloch. For now, they were keeping their distance, respectful of her grief, but soon they would come again to her croft: the too-fertile woman needing an abortion, a mother needing a cure for a sick child, the farm laborer needing emergency medical attention for a cut or a scrape…but not for a fatal blow to the head.
Gwendolyn banished that thought from her mind and concentrated once more. There was not enough vervain, she would have to gather more. And as well, she would gather the minor emmenagogues—fennel, tansy, thyme, and gentian.
The clop-clop of a horse’s hooves rang outside on the stony lane that led to the croft. The sick of Glenwilloch had evidently decided that one month’s mourning was enough. She was about to have a visitor.
Glancing out the open window to see who might be approaching, Gwendolyn immediately saw that it was danger on a chestnut horse.
Swiftly she swept the herbs into a basket, placed it and the stone jars into a carved wooden chest. Then she sat down on the chest and took up her knitting. If she no longer had a man who needed socks and mittens, she had a child who did. When she heard the hooves clop to a stop outside the window, she waited until Father Oswald’s deep voice called out.
“Mistress Redfearne! Are you at home?”
With the knitting still in her hand, she went through her front door, into the yard.
Father Oswald, sitting astride Alaric, looked at her, then slid out of the saddle until he stood before her.
Gwendolyn could not take her eyes from the horse. In the bright spring afternoon his coat gleamed like well-polished wood; he was so enormous that her head did not reach the tip of his nose. She could see the powerful muscles under the glossy coat and she noted too, how clean he was, how well-groomed, with gold ribbons plaited into his black mane.
He seemed an agreeable creature, standing politely with his feet together, blowing softly through his nose.
“I trust you are well, Mistress Redfearne.”
“Very well, thank you.” Reluctantly, she turned her gaze from the horse to the tall man in his black robe. What did he want? Why had he come?
Father Oswald did not keep her in suspense. “My new servant tells me that you are skilled at healing the sick.”
Gwendolyn’s heart began to beat faster, but she showed no signs of alarm. So Father Oswald had taken Piers into his household, then. In what capacity? And what had Piers said about her? Had he given away too much?
“It has pleased God to answer my prayers for healing,” she agreed. Let this grim-faced man try to make something of that.
Oswald frowned. “Are you sure it is God who has answered your prayers?”
“Who else?” Gwendolyn looked at him, wide-eyed. “Is not God all-great, and all-powerful? And is He not good? And does He not shed His grace on us sinners?”
Father Oswald cut her short. “I came to ask your help, not to debate the ways of our Lord with a mere woman. Alaric, here,” he patted the horse’s nose, “worries me greatly. He does not eat as much as he used to. He no longer likes to gallop. I have examined him and there seems no outward wrong, no cast-off shoe, no twisted limb. I am afraid he may have a wasting disease.”
Gwendolyn was nonplussed. She was a healer of humans, not animals. Did he not know that? Still, she would see what she could do. It would be a pity not to try to help Alaric, if he were indeed ill. This proud, powerful animal standing before her in all his pagan glory symbolized the very essence of the life force she worshipped. But she was not going to say that to this priest.
While she asked Oswald question after question about Alaric’s daily diet and habits, she put her hand on the animal’s neck and chest, with a smoothing motion, as if she were admiring him. But as she rubbed her fingertips against the warm, satiny hide she silently asked the Lady of All Creatures to send healing energy to her hands. And when she felt the tingling sensation in each fingertip, she knew that her request had been granted.
The message sent by the energy was bad, very. The tingling sensation went from her fingers, up her arms and into her brain; and as if someone had drawn a picture, in her mind’s eye she could see the stomach of the big animal, with a purple-red ulcer in the lower part of it. The ulcer bled a little, and she knew that one day the ulcer would spread, consuming the horse’s stomach, and Alaric, for all his power, beauty, and strength, would die.
She did not know how to convey this information to Father Oswald in a way that would quell his suspicion of her and yet reconcile him to Alaric’s fate. She decided to hedge.
“I will prepare a potion for him,” she said. “It will take a little time. He—his stomach needs a calming liquid, that is all.”
With some effort, she would be able to find out when the bleeding ulcer would kill Alaric, but she would have to be alone to do it. With luck, the horse would survive until Oswald was far, far away from here. She could certainly make up a mild tonic for the horse, one that would do him no harm at all and might even make him feel a little livelier.
Father Oswald, visibly relaxing, smiled. “A soothing potion. A little spring tonic, eh, comrade?” He patted the horse’s neck. Then, evidently feeling that such a display of affection required explanation, he said, “I’ve had him from a colt. He has carried me all over the Highlands, aye, and to Edinburgh, once. We’ve been enlisted in God’s army for ten years now, haven’t we, Alaric?”
Surely, a man who was so fond of his horse could not be all bad. If only there were something she could do about the ulcer—but that was beyond her skill. Only a miracle, and that provided by the Mother, could remedy such a fatal illness.
“I will have the potion ready tomorrow,” Gwendolyn said. She wanted him to leave. The way he stared at her so intently made her uncomfortable. And again, why did he stand thus close to her? Were he not a priest, she would have said…but no. Even a nonclerical man would have better taste than to show such interest in a woman so recently widowed. She wanted him away from her croft, even at the price of his having to return tomorrow. “I must find certain plants, brew a medicine for Alaric…”
“And pray, of course,” she agreed. She gave Oswald a sweet smile of farewell, curtsied, and went back inside her croft. And she was uncomfortably aware that he remained where he was, gazing after her, until she shut the door.
The air in the croft hung hot, heavy, and still. She felt as if she could not breathe.
Nor could she sleep. The pain in her heart was too great. The bed, without the huge, warm bulk of Iain in it, held no promise of oblivion, whether induced by sleep or sexual ecstasy.
Long experience had taught her that moving around, using her hands to carry out a task, would keep the nerve impulses in her body too busy with physical motion to register the presence of pain and grief.
She was wide awake, feeling hot and sticky, and the moon was just past the full. She could rise now, take her cloak, her gathering basket, her digging stick, and go out into the woods.
It was too dangerous for the coven to meet just now, but she could go out to gather herbs and celebrate the wonder of the Goddess quietly, by herself.
A few minutes later she was on her way, Rumple following silently after her. It was a magical night, like the night four weeks ago when she and Iain had made love, not knowing that it would be for the last time. A sob suddenly burst from her lungs as her heart cried, Iain, my love! I canna believe I’ll never hold you in my arms again! Never, never, for the rest of my life!
She wiped away the warm tears that were blinding her, sniffed, and fought for control of herself. Along the little worn path, up the hill, along the ridge…her feet knew the way. There was enough light of moon to see, although not well, and she walked with caution. The grass felt cool and wet with dew under her bare feet, and even her tread, light as it was, crushed it just enough to release the sweet wild smell of the herbs that grew within it.
The night was gentle, unusually warm as this whole strange spring had been. As a rule Glenwilloch, like the rest of the Highlands and the whole of Scotland, suffered the cold mists and rains of spring as they gave way to the cool mists and rains of summer. Only in this year of 1659 had the warm winds come, parting the clouds so that the sun shone day after day and the faces of those who worked outdoors turned red and then brown.
Here was the beck, rippling quietly in the moonlight, and a little way off in the woods lay the pool. The herbs that she required grew thickly along the banks of the stream, so she knelt and picked them, murmuring as she did so. She asked each herb for permission to take just a little of it, and blessed each plant she touched in return for lending her its healing energy.
When she had gathered enough, she loosened her cloak, let it fall, and stepped out of her dress. She wanted to slide into the pool and float on her back, looking at the moon as it silvered the surface of the water.
The water seemed to gurgle its pleasure as she splashed into it, spreading her arms wide and taking a deep breath for buoyancy. As she turned on her back and floated, her long hair streamed out on top of the water. The Mother, in her guise of white moon, seemed to smile at her, showing her face through the silver-tinged, ragged clouds that first revealed, then concealed Herself from view.
Be with me, Great Mother. Give me the strength to heal my grief and take up my life again. Help me to help the people of Glenwilloch and bring up my little girl to follow me in this work.
How peaceful was the night, how cool the water. How blessed were the gifts of the Mother: the moonlight, the fragrance of the earth in early summer, the healing power in the plants she had just gathered. Gwendolyn swam back and forth, quietly, and then played a little: rolling over and over in the water like a sleek, streamlined otter, laughing and splashing in the silvered waves she made.
If she came out, dried herself, and walked home, she would be relaxed enough to sleep. The new day would dawn in a few hours. The peace of the Goddess filled her; gratefully, she decided to make an offering when she awoke in the morning.
The water whooshed off her skin as she grabbed at a bush growing on the bank of the stream and hauled herself out. She dried herself with her cloak, put on her dress, and over that, fastened the cloak, turned inside out. Picking up her basket, she turned to start the homeward journey, and walked right into a wall.
But walls did not breathe rapidly, nor did they have hands that gripped her shoulders: Gwendolyn gave a cry of fright.
“Be still! There is no reason to be afraid.”
“Father Oswald,” Gwendolyn whispered. Her heart seemed to stop. What was he doing here in the woods tonight?
“I would ask you, Mistress Redfearne, why you wander the woods at night alone, and why you removed your garments to immerse yourself in water. Do you not know that the uncovered body offends the sight of God?”
“A fever,” Gwendolyn said. Her voice was faint, her thoughts racing. “I could not sleep, a fever kept me awake. I sought to cool myself in the water.”
How long had he been standing here? Had he followed her from the croft? And he had evidently seen her swimming, had seen her leave the water without her clothes, and—
She shivered violently.
“If you have a fever, you should ask God to cure it.” His voice was stern. “I will pray for your fever to cease. Our Blessed Father will give me the power to heal you.”
Before she could protest, he had laid his hands on her head and begun a Latin prayer of some length. She endured it in silence, although her thoughts were frantic. Thank the Goddess she was alone. And equally, thank the Goddess that she had not cast a circle or made a fire. If others had been present, standing in a circle around a bonfire, being spied on by Father Oswald, there would have been grounds for a mass arrest.
“And where else does thy fever rage, Mistress?”
His voice had thickened, and before she could protest, his large hands had moved from her head to her shoulders and over the curve of her breasts. She stepped back, appalled.
“The fever is gone.”
His breathing was still fast, still harsh. If she had a mind to find out, not that she would dream of doing such a thing, but if she were close enough to him she would very likely find that beneath the black wool robe, priest or not, Father Oswald resembled a stag in rut.
“Let us give thanks to our Father. Recite it with me.”
Obediently she echoed the words of the paternoster, while her mind considered possible ways to extricate herself from this situation.
“I will accompany you to your dwelling. You should not be out alone at night, there is evil afoot. The night is the Devil’s own.”
Gwendolyn repressed what would have been a sigh of contempt. So thought all those who followed the Christian faith: night was evil, day was good; good equaled white and evil equaled black. Did these people not know that dark and light were both necessary? She loved the night because it brought the healing of sleep; and the darkness was kind, it protected all the little creatures who scurried about their business—whatever business had been given them by the Mother—through wood, field, and stream.
“And do you wander oft in the woods at night, Mistress Redfearne? What have you in the basket?”
“Herbs.” She shifted the basket further to one side, so that he should not demand to hold it.
“I hope they are for no evil purpose, Mistress Redfearne. They do say that midwives defeat God’s plan with their herb simples and potions.”
She willed herself to speak calmly although beneath her dress her heart was beating faster than a running hare. “And what is that plan, Father Oswald?”
“That women should suffer pain and sorrow in bringing children into the world, as punishment for Eve’s wickedness.” Oswald’s voice became silky. “I’ve been hearing about you in Glenwilloch, Mistress. They say you know how to ease the pain of women in travail, and even have potions to keep women from getting with child at all. That is against the laws of both God and man.”
“God knows everything,” Gwendolyn said, in a voice just as silky as his. “It is God who tells me what herbs to gather, and what medicines to make. These herbs are to make a medicine for Alaric.”
“Ah. I will be glad to see Alaric eating heartily again. And to feel him gallop once more, over the moors, with me on his back.”
“How long do ye tarry in Glenwilloch, then?”
“Not long, Mistress Redfearne. Only a day or two more, to satisfy myself that no witches practice their black arts here. Of course…”
She could feel his sinister presence beside her, knowing that he was adopting this musing tone so as to prolong the suspense of his next utterance, no doubt in the hope of frightening her.
“Of course, if my investigations prove fruitful, I will stay in Glenwilloch.”
“Why, in that case, ye’ll be on your way right soon. There are no witches here.”
They had reached the top of the rise; another step would put them on the lane that led to her croft. She hoped he would not come all the way to her door with her; he made her skin crawl.
“Not all witches fly through the air on broomsticks, Mistress. I believe there are some who dance naked in the light of the moon, to entice the attentions of their lord and master, the Devil.”
Gwendolyn had taken a step forward, but she stopped and glanced back. “Dancing in the moonlight, Father Oswald?”
“In the air, or in the woods, or in the water, Mistress Redfearne. I’ll bring Alaric to you in the morning.”
When, finally, the members of the coven met to conduct their own rites for Iain, Piers was not present. He was part of Father Oswald’s household now, and when Oswald left Glenwilloch, Piers went with him. Before he left, he came to bid Gwendolyn goodbye.
That morning she heard him give the clear, three-note whistle that announced his presence. Rumple, asleep by the hearth, lifted his head.
“Blessed be,” said Piers’ light voice.
Gwendolyn looked up from her mortar and pestle to see him standing in the open doorway. “Merry meet, my friend.”
“May I come in?”
“You know you are always welcome, Piers.”
“But now I am one of the enemy…in a manner of speaking.”
He dropped in one graceful movement to a small stool, sitting on it as he watched Gwendolyn pound herbs. Rumple, his purring much louder now, leaped into Piers’ lap. Gwendolyn often thought the two of them very alike. Both possessed great skill—Piers in painting, Rumple in hunting; both loved comfort; and both sought to go their own way.
“You know, you never came for those boards I prepared for you,” Gwendolyn said, stirring the comfrey she had pulverized into a fine dust. Pain stabbed her heart as she remembered how she had worked on the boards for Piers that evening, the last evening of Iain’s life. She repressed the memory and hurried on. “I thought you wanted to paint a picture for Father Oswald.”
“I showed him some of my old ones. He was so impressed he offered me work that very day. So now I’m his servant. I take care of his fine things—his embroidered surplices, his golden chalice, his altar cloths. And hear this, Gwendolyn, he took some of my paintings to put in his house. He has rich friends: if they like my paintings, they might buy them.”
Piers appeared beside himself with glee at the prospect of his bright future.
Amused, Gwendolyn asked, “But what will the laird do without you?”
“Oh, he’ll manage.” Piers yawned suddenly, managing to invest even this mundane act with charm, then sat up straight and looked at her solemnly. “Gwendolyn, I pray you to take care. Father Oswald speaks of you often—and always, when he does, he questions your devotion to the kirk. I think he suspects you.”
Gwendolyn shrugged. “I doubt not he does.”
“Perhaps…perhaps it would be well if you did no more healing. Perhaps you should get a strong man to take over Iain’s task of cutting peat and firewood, so you can sell it and keep yourself and Jennet. It would be safer, I think.”
Gwendolyn paused in the act of pouring the comfrey powder into a jar. “Piers, I could not refuse to help the sick. I simply could not. And I must help all others who need me, the laboring women, the nursing babes, even the dying, if they need aught to ease their pain.”
In the half-gloom of the croft Piers’ blue eyes shone like jewels. Gwendolyn could see the fear in them. “It is too dangerous! You must stop!”
“I cannot.” She took a deep breath and stared at Piers. “Nay, more than that, I will not. I have a gift, Piers, just as surely as you have the gift of painting. If I could not use it, I would not want to live.”
“Gwendolyn!” He jumped up from the stool and took her hands in his. His hands were warm and light; he looked absurdly young, as he stood before her with pleading eyes. “If you do not heed my warning…I fear that you will neither heal nor live.”