Chapter 2 – The Forestwife
Gran's familiar humming roused Susannah from her strange dream. She snuggled further into the bed but instead of cool linen, her hands found soft, dry needles. She opened her eyes. Above her spread the branches of a grand yew tree dappled with beams of morning sunlight. It hadn't been a dream. She really had fled her home and everything she had ever known to avoid an arranged marriage to the disgusting Lord Compton.
But...if she had run away, why could she hear Adele's deep croaky voice, the same voice that had woken her every morning since she was a child?
Susannah sat up, and blinked at the unexpected sight before her.
Adele was crouched before a fire of smoking beech wood, cooking big, flat mushrooms threaded carefully onto sticks.
Susannah, her blonde braids knotted and spiked with yew needles, scrambled out of her tree shelter and flung her arms around her nurse.
"What!" laughed Adele, stroking her hair. "Is this a forest fairy, or a fierce wicked sprite?"
Susannah burst into tears and hugged the woman tighter. Then without warning she released her nurse and backed away, her face suddenly cautious. "I'll not go back, whatever you say. I'd rather die."
Adele pulled a sour face. "And I'd rather die than take thee back. Do you think I fed thee as a babe, and taught thee all I know, to provide a breeding sow for a rich old hog?"
Susannah gaped speechlessly.
Adele sighed and flexed her stiff fingers. "I was making my own plans. Perhaps I should have told thee. I never guessed tha'd go galloping off like a furious colt at the first sign of a bridle."
"I'm sorry I didn't tell thee...I just...I just couldn't marry him," Susannah tried to explain.
Her nurse just nodded and turned the hissing mushrooms before drawing a loaf from the linen bundle beside her. She broke the bread and piled golden-singed mushrooms on top before handing Susannah her portion.
"How did you find me, Gran?" Susannah asked, between bites.
"Twasn't easy," Adele chuckled. "While your uncle went a-banging and a-bellowing round the manor a-calling out his grooms and horses, the kitchen maid set me on thy track. The servants think tha's a silly spoiled brat – no need to pull that face at me young mistress, I'm only telling truth – but they've no love for their master and they wish thee no harm. Then the charcoal burner gave me the nod, though I had terrible trouble with that daft, pregnant daughter of his. She'd tell me naught, though I could see she knew."
Susannah smiled. The girl she had met at the crossroads had kept her word.
"I puzzled a bit where the paths all meet," Adele continued, "but I remembered telling thee of Saint Lafayette's Well and suspected that tha'd be drawn to the only familiar place in this wilderness, even if tha only knew it in stories."
"I nearly went to the abbey," Susannah confessed.
"And, tha'd've found no joy there," Adele replied sadly. She brushed the crumbs from her skirt. "Still, here we both are, and 'tis time we were on our way."
"To where? No one will dare give us help and shelter? They all fear my uncle."
"Aye, here they do, sure enough, but I know where to go, my lovely. Just trust me and follow me, and though we've a long way to go, we shall be safe by nightfall." Adele grabbed the bundle beside her. "Now, tha might help to share my burden, for I didn't leave in such a rush that I forgot my common sense."
Susannah opened her mouth to retort that she'd been sensible enough to bring her cloak, but thought better of it and said nothing. Adele produced a pair of riding boots.
"I took these from the youngest groom. I guessed they'd fit thee well enough. He went tearing round in circles in his bare feet, cursing and swearing when the master ordered him out to search."
Susannah looked down at her soft, leather slippers. They were shredded to ribbons on her feet. She gratefully took the boots and pulled them on.
Gran tossed her a dark red kerchief.
"Tie this around your head, like me. Aye, do it thyself...tha must learn, for I've more to do now than act as a lady's maid. Now, kilt up thy gown, aye, that's right, like the maid that carries the slops."
Adele stood back to admire Susannah's transformation. "Tha's actually fit to go striding through the woods now," she proclaimed. "Here's a good wool cloak tha can use to make a bundle, along with two knives, some twine, needles, candles, and a tinderbox with flint. And hide that fine purple cloak, 'tis far too noticeable. We shall have to change it when we get the chance."
"All right, all right. I see tha's well prepared," Susannah said with a touch of resentment. She gathered the goods into her bundle. Then, she reconsidered her response and bent forward to kiss her nurse on the cheek. "I'm glad tha came. I'd be lost without thee."
When she thought about it, Susannah wasn't terribly surprised that Gran had followed her into the wilderness. Adele had always been something of a law unto herself, the unofficial matriarch of Hale Manor. She'd insisted on tramping to Northman Valley for a few days every month to visit her brother and nephew. Bartlett de Hale had accepted it, though any other servant would have been whipped. Of course, they'd needed Adele at Hale Manor. She was a fine herbalist. Gran's special salves and potions had eased the aches and pains of all at the house and it was well known that she had saved the reeve's life when he was set upon and beaten by robbers. It occurred to Susannah that Adele would be missed at Hale Manor far more keenly than she.
The morning was bright and sunny and with Adele walking ahead of her, Susannah felt safe and hopeful. The forest, in the lush green hold of summer, was jewelled with leaves of emerald, olive, and beryl and spiced with the aroma of fresh sap.
Still keeping to the woodland paths, they passed through the forests of Pardloe and headed east toward Pickens and Pelt Wood. A few folk passed them with brief nods, too weary and harassed with their own concerns to be interested in the two women carrying rough bundles.
An old man approached, his mule piled high with coppiced wood. He nodded to Adele and was continuing down the path when he suddenly growled and snatched up Susannah's wrist. He grabbed violently at the silver-and-garnet ring on her forefinger. Susannah kicked him in the shins and yanked her hand back.
"Let go," she screamed.
He hung on tight, his face determined. He released his mule and used his free hand to wrench Susannah's head back painfully. Her kerchief slipped, revealing the intricate braids of a lady. His lips split into a greedy smile at his discovery.
Before Susannah even noticed she had moved, Adele had grabbed a fistful of the man's greasy hair and pressed her sharp meat knife to his throat.
"Leave her be!" she spat.
When the man laughed, Adele pushed the blade into his skin until blood trickled down over his Adam's apple. His hand loosened from Susannah's arm and she fled out of his reach.
"Get on thy way," Adele snarled, pushing him toward the mule that had set off without him.
"I go...I go," he protested, his eyes risking one more avaricious glance at the silver on Susannah's hand and the gold of her hair.
Adele kept the knife in her hand until the man disappeared into the distance, then she turned on Susannah with fury. "That damned ring of yours," she snapped. "Tha'd be better off if tha'd thrown it in the stream."
"Tha well knows it belonged to my mother. I'll not be parted from it," Susannah bit back.
"Then don't wear it on thy finger for all to see like some daft rich lady."
Susannah glared at Adele. She grabbed Gran's knife and used it to cut a length of twine that she pulled from her bundle.
"Get a move on, tha silly wench," Adele barked, shoving the knife back into her belt. "We'll have to travel even faster now." She stamped off leaving Susannah to hastily thread her ring onto the twine and knot it behind her neck.
They walked for hours, each silently seething. Susannah's legs ached and feet blistered trying to keep pace, but she dared not complain. Her fussy old nurse had suddenly become a strange, alarming woman. Adele's quick action with the meat knife had saved them from being robbed, no doubt of it, but the speed and fierceness with which she'd moved had been shocking.
For the first time in her life, Susannah was wary of the woman who had raised her. As the forest grew thicker and more tangled, she grew warier still. They seemed to be heading right into the heart of the Bon Temps wilderness, a forest so forbidding that travellers skirted it for miles to avoid stepping under its dark canopy. Even those travelling through on the great Roman road feared its wild bands of cutthroats who swooped out to prey on the unwary and the evil witch who could control the trees.
The terrifying red-eyes of the witch flashed through her mind. No! She wouldn't think about Her. Gran had promised Susannah that she would be safe. She would never take her anywhere near the Forestwife.
The midday sun was high in the sky when they stopped at an ancient stone well. Adele stooped to drink the water, then brought out the last of the bread from her baggage. She broke it in two and held half of it out to Susannah.
Susannah took a bite but she could not swallow it. Her mouth had gone dry with cold realization.
"What well is this?" she whispered, dreading the answer.
"'Tis the Old Wife's Well; what else?" Adele grunted.
Susannah crumpled down beside the carved stone trough, her bundle falling at her feet. "They say that those who pass this well are following the secret path to seek the Forestwife."
"Aye, they do say that, don't they."
Susannah rose to her feet almost hysterical. "How dare tha bring me here? The Forestwife is a witch. All decent folk live in fear of her lest she blight their crops and sicken their infants. Yet tha'd lead me right to her door."
Gran chewed her bread, unperturbed. "'Tis true, my girl, all decent folk do fear the Forestwife and fear the woods she lives in." Adele's steely gaze locked on Susannah's. "So, if we don't want decent folk to be finding us, 'tis straight to the Forestwife that we must go."
"We will not!"
Adele picked up her bundle. "Well, that is where I go. Thee must please theesen."
"No...wait. Gran! Come back!"
But Gran strode away, following the narrow path straight into the dreaded forest that haunted Susannah's nightmares. After a moment of sheer, dithering panic, Susannah picked up her bundle and followed her. What else could she do? She had nowhere else to go, and Adele, marching ahead without a backward glance, knew it.
The afternoon light began to fade. Susannah's shoulders were sore where the bundle rubbed, and her arms ached with the carrying. Every drop of her morning's joy of the woods had drained away. This forest was a cold, damp, frightening place. The tall thick trees blocked out the sun and made the barren ground beneath them smell mouldy and dank. Gran, her saviour, had turned bitter and sharp.
Yes...she'd grown sharp. Where had her vague, forgetful Gran gone?
The change was jarring for Susannah, especially since Gran had not been her old busy, efficient self for a while. Not since last year when the terrible news came to Hale from Northman. Adele's brother had been found with his throat slit, out in the fields next to his plough. Eric had vanished, and he'd been named as his father's murderer.
After that, she'd started to lose things and forget what she was doing. Sometimes she'd stop in the middle of speaking, as though her mind was on something else. She'd even wandered off for whole days at a time and not even seem to know that she'd been gone. Everyone pretended not to notice but whispered to each other that the tragedy had been too much for a woman so fond of her nephew and brother to bear.
Was it that same vicious Eric that Gran searched for now? The thought made Susannah uncomfortable. Adele had always claimed that Eric was innocent but Susannah was sure her nurse had been blinded by affection. From what she had heard, he was a violent, unpredictable troublemaker who was remarkably fast and accurate with a bow. Now that he was a murderer and an outlaw, he must have become an even harder and more frightening man. Susannah truly hoped that their paths never crossed.
Ahead of her, Adele turned at a path junction without hesitation. She walked with such confidence that Susannah began to wonder if her Gran had been this way before, another new mystery about the woman that Susannah had supposedly known so well.
They were still moving as twilight faded into thick blackness. She walked into branches and rocks and groaned with pain and exhaustion. At last Susannah's anger was overcome by cold and worry. She ignored the rubbing of her feet and strode ahead to catch up. A bad-tempered friend who led you to murderers and witches was still better than no friend at all in this dark and frightening place.
Gran stopped and took her arm. She spoke kindly again. "Not far now, my honey. Not far. 'Tis a hard long way to walk, I know, but I promise thee we shall be safe."
"By nightfall you promised."
"I know, my lovely. I misremembered how far."
They stumbled on along the nearly invisible path, arms linked, each depending on the other not to fall. When Susannah was convinced that she couldn't take one step more, they came to a great oak tree that stood at the entrance to a clearing edged with yew trees. The moon showed just enough for them to see a small hut. There was no light within, only the tremendous din of unsettled animals—chickens clucking, goats bleating, and a great squawking and fluttering of wings.
Gran hurried forward. "Where is she?"
Before the oak tree stood an ancient carved stone. A smaller, wedge-shaped stone set in the curved top pointed toward the cottage door. Adele touched the stone.
"She should be here."
Susannah dropped her baggage and looked around. Three cats ran among chickens and goats, jumping and nipping at the poor goats' udders. Even in the dim light, she could see that the goats desperately needed milking.
Adele pushed open the doorway and haloo'd inside the hut. There was no reply.
"Well, I don't know. I really don't." She wandered around the side of the hovel.
Susannah scooped up a small cat with white patches, just as it pounced on a screeching hen.
"Susannah, come quick!" Adele called from behind the hut. "Fetch the candle and flint."
Susannah carried the tinderbox around to Adele. Her hands shook as she struggled to drop a spark onto the tinder and make a flame.
"Hurry, child, hurry!"
At last she had the candle lit. She bent down toward Adele with a sharp intake of breath. A very old, wrinkled woman lay quite still on the ground, her flesh yellow in the candlelight.
"Is she dead?" Susannah whispered.
"Aye," Adele sighed. "Dead at least a day and night, I should say."
"But... who is she?"
Adele stood up, and Susannah caught the glitter of a tear on her cheek. "She is Octavia...She is the Forestwife."
"Nay." Susannah shook her head. "She is just an old woman."
"Just a woman," said Gran. "Just a woman, like me and thee. Poor Octavia, she has waited too long already. She can wait until daybreak; then we must bury her."
They left her lying where she was, but Gran covered her with her own cloak.
"Let's go and see what must be done." She nodded toward the hut.
Susannah carried the candle inside. A half sack of grain lay in the corner, the top fastened with twine, though one clever chicken had pecked at a hole in the side.
"We'll get not peace here till these animals are dealt with," Gran said, entering the hut. "Fill that pot with grain from the sack, and throw it to the poor hungry hens."
She snatched up another pot herself and set to milking the three goats. One of the cats leaped onto her shoulder. The others purred and rubbed against her ankles, winding their tails around the goats' legs.
"I see the way of it." She laughed. "I see where the milk's supposed to go."
Susannah smiled too. It was comforting to hear Adele's laugh at so ordinary a thing. Though she was puzzled by the place, she was too exhausted to do much questioning.
"I thought perhaps you came here seeking your nephew?"
"Eric?" Gran looked surprised for a moment, but then answered firmly, shaking her head. "No need to seek for Eric. He'll come looking for me."
"Will he?" said Susannah, uneasy at the thought. A thought which stayed with her until both they and the animals were fed and nestled down to sleep on the beds of dry bracken, in the home of the Forestwife.
Please review :)
Eric should finally be making his first appearance in the next chapter.