Crone’s Curse – a historical flash fiction

It was a nondescript hut amid some nondescript fields somewhere outside a nondescript town on the edge of Hampshire. There was no mark worth speaking of here, no-one Alice could trick with a sob story or a play on their greed. But if what she’d heard was true, then there was something even better – an accomplice for her greatest con yet.

A woman answered the door. She was stooped and dishevelled, with a jutting chin and sagging eyelids. A black cat rubbed around her ankles. The whole scene could have come straight from one of the witch hunters’ pamphlets.

Alice almost squealed in delight. This was too perfect.

“Judith of Mowbray?” she asked.

“Aye, that’s me.” Judith looked Alice up and down. “I don’t meet many ladies in fancy dresses with fancy ruffs.”

“I think we can help each other. May I come in?”

Judith led Alice into her house and closed the door behind them. The door didn’t quite fit right in its frame, the hinges sagging and the wood warped. It went perfectly with the battered chairs, odd herbs, and cauldron bubbling over the fire.

“They say you’re a witch,” Alice said. “I work the same trade.”

“Aye, I’m one of the guilty.” Judith stirred the pot, then settled into a seat. Her cat leapt into her lap. “Thought I were just making salves for aching joints, but these last years, they’ve opened my eyes to the truth.”

It was a good act, one of the best Alice had seen. That bit about being persuaded made it feel more real.

“You’ve been here for years, right?” she asked. “Since good Queen Elizabeth was still young?”

“I was only a girl then. Thought I were talking to myself, not to devils. But then Adam the carter broke my heart, and I muttered ill wishes against him. Just a month later he broke his leg, the first curse of many.”

“That’s what I need, someone well-established. I have this whole act where I use my powers to find hidden treasure, then promise them more in return for a room and some pay. I set them doing a day-long ceremony to the faeries, then clear the place out and head off while they’re distracted.”

“You’re a con woman?” Judith gaped at her.

“Of course. Don’t pretend that’s not what this is all about. Convincing people you can curse them, then getting paid to curse their enemies.”

“I’m no trickster. I’m a real witch.”

“Witches aren’t real. I should know, I’ve met enough of them.”

“I am! I cursed poor Adam without even meaning it. Same with Mistress Emily, and the alderman’s cows, and a dozen others. Its why no man ever settled with me. It’s why I’ve only my familiar for comfort.” She stroked the black cat behind his ears and he purred happily. “I’m cursed, and when they arrive this noon, I’ll burn for it.”

Alice couldn’t have made a living if she had space in her heart for pity. But looking at this poor woman, dragged down by misplaced guilt and anxious neighbours, something sad and sympathetic stirred inside her.

She knelt beside Judith, took her hand, and spoke softly.

“People have accidents. Milk goes sour. Any time you get angry at someone, something bad will happen to them in the next month, because something bad happens to everyone every month. It might be a broken leg or a bruised toe, but it’s not your fault.”

“Then why am I alone?” Judith wailed. “Why’d it come to be just me and black-furred Jack?”

Heavy footfalls approached the hut. Judith had said they were coming for her at noon. The smart thing would be to leave now and claim no knowledge of the woman or her works.

For once in her life, Alice didn’t choose the smart thing.

“You’re not alone,” she whispered. “Quick, tell me three things about the man who leads this mob.”

As soon as the answer was out, she got up, flung open the door, and stepped outside.

“Alderman Henry,” she boomed. “You come seeking witches? You have found one.”

The crowd was twenty strong, most of them men. They stopped, uncertain, at the sight of a strange woman in rich clothes.

“You want to burn with her?” A large man stepped forward, better dressed than the rest.

“I want to offer you our services,” Alice said, holding out her hands. “Magic can bring curses, but it can bring blessings. I sense things about you. A sickly wife, old debts unpaid, a storm-blasted tree beside your house.”

The crowd murmured to each other excitedly, as if this was the most shocking thing they’d ever heard. It must be witchcraft. After all, that was what they’d come for.

“Want us to burn you too?” the alderman asked.

“Or take my blessings. There is a treasure close to you, one that could cure your wife.” It would be easy to hide a silver crucifix in a storm-blasted tree stump, then guide this man to find it. Judith could help, providing a distraction and authenticity. “Give me three days with my powers and I can heal your Kathryn. Then we can talk of where other treasure might be found.”

The alderman hesitated. She could see him wavering, tugged one way by pain and greed, the other way by cynicism and anger. His eyes narrowed and Alice feared she had finally overstepped.

Then the door behind her creaked and Judith appeared. A wicked smile crept up the Alderman’s face and Alice knew what he was thinking. Profit from his witches, then burn them. Best of both ways.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll give you your three days.”

Alice took Judith’s hand.

“Come, sister,” she said. “Our powers are needed.”

“But the burning…” Judith looked bewildered.

“No burning, Judith,” the alderman said slyly. “You’re going to do some good.”

Judith’s face brightened.

“Really?” she whispered.

“Really,” Alice replied.

They were going to teach these men a lesson, then be gone before the kindling came out. What more good could a woman possibly do?

With the mob flanking them like an honour guard, Alice and Judith headed across the nondescript fields towards town.

***

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From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Gonzalo Marched Away – a flash historical story

I was nine years old when the Spaniards were billeted on us. My father and both my brothers had died of a fever the previous winter and all that remained of our family was me, little Maaritje, and my mother. I helped mother around the farm, but Maaritje could barely walk, never mind plant beans or milk the goats. We had enough food to live off, but only just.

The Spaniards arrived in uniform, carrying their muskets and their swords. Both were mud-spattered and wary-looking. The officer accompanying them knew some Dutch and my mother spoke a little Spanish from when she had lived near the docks in Amsterdam. It was enough for explanations.

These two men – broad Barros and lean-faced Gonzalo – would be staying with us for the winter, until their company was gathered again. We had to provide them with beds, firewood, candles, and a roof above their heads. There was talk about the officer sending food or the money to pay for it, but even I could tell from his tone that it would never come. Within an hour, he had ridden off, leaving his men with us.

Barros and Gonzalo took mother’s bed, leaving her to sleep on a pile of straw beside Maaritje’s cot. They took most of the food at meal times, though Gonzalo was more sparing, his eyes flitting uncomfortably across what Maaritje and I ate.

We were hungry all the time. Maaritje wailed into the night despite mother’s soothings. My ribs showed more clearly than ever beneath my shirt.

After a few weeks, mother began setting some of the food aside when she cooked. Barros and Gonzalo seldom left the house, so she had to do it furtively, sliding scraps of meat and crusts of bread into the folds of her apron. In the dead of night, while the soldiers slept, she fed me and Maaritje these secret feasts, and we were a little less hungry.

Neither man knew any Dutch, but mother talked to them in Spanish, and as the weeks went by she was able to talk more. Barros started lurking around her while she cleaned and cooked, a hungry look in his eyes. Now she was hiding food within inches of him.

It couldn’t last.

I was out in the yard, my breath frosting as I fed the pigs, when I heard a shout from the house. I ran inside, slamming the door back against the wall in my haste.

Barros and my mother were by the fire, where our dinner was cooking. He had hold of her arm. They were talking over each other in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. Gonzalo sat on the edge of the bed, a knife and a stick in his hands. Maaritje sat sobbing in a corner.

As I came in, Barros tugged at a pocket on my mother’s apron. The stitching gave way. Half an apple and a chunk of bread fell out.

My mother froze. Barros pointed accusingly at the food. Then he slapped my mother.

She staggered back, holding her face. Barros advanced on her, grabbed her by both arms, and pressed her up against the wall.

I ran over and tried to pull Barros off my mother. He hit me with the back of his fist. Lights flashed across my eyes and I fell to the ground, the taste of blood in my mouth.

Mother struggled harder, her voice rising in panic. Barros tore at her dress. Maaritje screamed.

Gonzalo rose. He strode across the room in three steps. Barros turned to him with a wicked but welcoming grin.

Then came a moment I could never have imagined, as Gonzalo punched Barros in the nose. There was a crunch, a spray of blood, and Barros fell. His head hit the wall with a sound like a hammer hitting wood. Then he slid to the ground and lay very still.

For a long moment, we all stared at the body. Gonzalo seemed the most stunned of all, unable to comprehend what he’d just done.

I remembered the officer who had brought these men. He was coming back when the army mustered. What would happen if he found this?

I staggered to my feet, took hold of Barros’s boots, and dragged him towards the door. He was twice my size, but I was fuelled by a terrible determination. I had to protect my mother and Maaritje.

After a moment, Gonzalo was with me, lifting his dead companion by the shoulders. Together, we carried him out into the biting winter wind.

I led us towards the trees where we had buried father, Jan, and Lieven. But Gonzalo stopped and pointed at the pigs. He said something in Spanish, but all I could do was stare in confusion and fear. Didn’t he understand that we had to hide this body? Had the shock of killing his friend addled his mind?

He pulled a knife from his belt and my terror deepened. I was sure that he was going to kill us all, and so cover his tracks.

But it wasn’t me he cut.

The pigs ate well that week. Afterwards, we took the broken bones and flung them in the river. Then we settled down to living through the winter, a little less hungry with only four mouths to feed.

In the spring, the officer came. Whatever Gonzalo and mother told him about Barros, he didn’t seem surprised. He just rolled his eyes, muttered something, and set off down the road, his horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the dirt.

Gonzalo laid his musket against his shoulder. With his spare hand, he held something out to Maaritje – a toy pig whittled from a lump of wood. She smiled in glee and he smiled back. Mother nodded her approval. I just felt sick.

Then Gonzalo marched away.

* * *

 

Billeting soldiers on civilians was a feature of life in Europe for centuries. It seldom went well for the civilians. They were seldom compensated properly, if at all, for their losses. Many suffered cruelty and even murder at the hands of their enforced guests. In regions where the billeted forces were hostile to the locals, things could get very ugly.

I wanted to show some of that in this story, but still find some ray of hope, some glimmer of justice amid it all. If this one seemed a little too dark, just remember, the truth was worse.

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Heresy by S. J. Parris – The Past is a Hazardous Country

heresyI’m currently a little obsessed with 16th-century history and in particular Tudor England. It was a time and place of transformation. Religion and politics were closely tied together and both going through upheavals. Saying the wrong thing could get you executed. Deviance from acceptable doctrine – religious heresy or a lack of patriotic loyalty to your country – was a recipe for exclusion, deprivation, and death.

I’m therefore loving reading Heresy by S. J Parris. It’s a well-written historical murder mystery in the style of such predecessors as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books. Like any good historical fiction, it makes use of what’s distinctive about that time. Intense allegiances and prejudices come into play. Structures of religion, gender and social standing all provide potential motives. The criminal investigation becomes compromised by the secret agendas of espionage and underground religion.

Like the best sci-fi and fantasy, it creates another world in the mind of the reader, and helps you to understand that world’s values. If you enjoy historical fiction then it’s totally worth a read.

 

 

And if you’re looking for something briefer, my collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is available as a Kindle e-book for 99c.

The Shoeless Cobbler – a #FlashFriday story

From A Foreign Shore - High ResolutionOlivia pushed her cart down the track, feeling each stone beneath her feet. Up ahead was a small lowland town, the sort where people kept their voices quiet and did what their lord told them. Hardly a place to start a revolution, but maybe one more she could connect in to the cause.

There was a wooden palisade around town, charred and battered by an English raiding party. No-one stopped Olivia as she walked in and set up shop in the muddy square, pulling out needles and thread, hammer and rivets, all the tools of the cobbler’s trade.

“What’s this then?” The man striding toward her was tall and stern, flanked by a pair of guards in chainmail. She knew him by reputation.

“Lord Fraser.” She bowed her head deferentially. “I’m just a cobbler on my way to Edinburgh. Hoped to drum up business here on the way.”

“What kind of Cobbler wears no shoes?” He glared at her bare feet.

“A poor one.” She didn’t say where her money had gone. Depending on his views, that could get her arrested.

Olivia’s stomach tightened as one of the guards leaned over her cart and start peering into bags. If he found her Bible, that one precious object on which she’s spent all her money, and if he realised it was a translation…

Fighting the trembling in her hands, she tore her eyes away from the cart and looked up at Lord Fraser. She took a deep breath. Perhaps she would get lucky, and he would be the contact she needed. Perhaps he’d have her locked up. But if he was going to find out anyway then better to stand by her belief than to try to weasel out of it.

“You’ll want to see this.” She rose, reached past the guard and took out the Bible. Heart racing, she handed it to Fraser.

“I see.” His voice was icy cold as he turned the page and saw it was printed in Scots rather than Latin. “Another Protestant plotter.” He slammed the book shut and glared at her. “The last thing this country needs is more plots.”

“The last thing this country needs is foreigners trying to tell us how to live.” Barely able to believe that she was talking to a lord this way, blocking out the terrified voice of panic in her mind, she nodded toward the town’s damaged defences. “Whether they’re Protestants or the Pope.”

Lord Fraser’s guards had closed in on her. One of them grabbed her arm. But then Fraser held up a hand and the man released her.

“This I should confiscate.” He held up the Bible. “But I also think it’s time I had my boots mended. And there’s no law against us talking while you do that.” He placed the Bible in the cart. “Let’s hope I don’t forget that when we’re done. Now, about my boots…”

* * *

The more I read about the 16th century the more fascinating it is to me. I’ve recently been doing some freelance work relating to Scotland in this period, which is where the subject of this week’s story comes from. Maybe another day I’ll write a story about a Catholic in the period, to balance things out a little.

This one’s for Olivia Berrier, who recently wrote a lovely review of my history and alternate history collection From a Foreign Shore on her blog. Please go check it out, and if you like what you read then you can get From a Foreign Shore for free today and all this weekend via Amazon.

And as always, if you enjoyed this story then please share the link or leave a comment below.