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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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.