Authors: Laura E. Williams
“Not yet,” Allyce had said, interrupting yet again. And though she was a small woman, she had prevailed, and no more was said about it.
Lily knew the tools were for executing and punishing the wicked and unholy. She knew her father, with her mother's help, vanquished evil. And though he was not allowed in church by the townsfolk, surely there would be a place for him beside God for ridding the land of criminals who sinned against the holy Lord above and the lord of the castle.
“Stay close to the cottage while we're gone,” her mother warned Lily as she trailed out the door behind her husband. She looked as though she might say more, but then just pressed her lips together and left, leaving the door wide behind her.
Lily watched them move down the rutted path, her father tall and broad, clutching the bag over his shoulder with his black gloves on, and her mother barely taller than herself, her head bowed as though in prayer. Lily closed the door and made her way to the apothecary. For the rest of the morning, she tried not to imagine what was going on in town. Did the criminal cry for mercy? Did the crowds cheer as they did at the hanging years ago? There was no one to ask.
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Lily baked the risen dough, filling the cottage and even the yard with the nutty scent of fresh bread. For her midday meal, she ate warm slices of bread spread with fresh goat cheese, washing it down with a mug of cider.
Just as she finished tossing a crust to Blossom, a soft sound came from the back door. Lily jumped. If her parents caught her feeding the dog food that had not gone stale, there would be extra chores for a sennight at least.
The scratching sound came again. Lily hurried through the apothecary and opened the back door. Mistress Smith stood in the shadow of the door frame, her face partially covered with a veil. The woman slipped into the room quietly, glancing back over her shoulder to make sure no one had followed her.
Lily was used to people acting skittish. For as long as she could remember, folks had come to request help and healing from her father, and from her mother, too, but usually under the cloak of night or in secret during the day. Today most people would be at the execution and wouldn't notice Mistress Smith slipping away.
“I have the tincture,” Lily said, moving to get the medicine her father had left for the woman. Normally, Lily was told to stay in the cottage when her parents attended to an injury or illness in the apothecary. But lately, she had been asked to do small things like make simple tonics or administer medicines when her parents weren't at home.
The blacksmith's wife gratefully took the small flask that Lily held out for her. “My babe is fretting,” she said.
Lily noted the dark circles under the woman's eyes, proof of long nights awake with a colicky child. She nodded warmly. “This thyme will calm her. Come again if you need more,” Lily offered with a smile.
The woman looked grateful and tucked the flask in a pocket pinned to her overdress, then she handed Lily an arched piece of metal. “'Tis a new handle for your pot. Your mum said she needed one and that it would do for payment.”
Lily inspected the handle. “'Tis well made,” she said. “Thank you kindly.”
Mistress Smith smiled shyly, then looked around nervously as though she would be caught chatting with the executioner's daughter. With a quick bob of her head, she slipped outside and hurried up the path and out of sight.
Lily shrugged. Her animals were her friends, but it was pleasant to talk to someone once in a while. Someone who could talk back with more than a squawk, bark, or purr.
As she stood in the doorway, she noticed a flicker of movement off to the side. Blossom noticed, too, and dashed over to the bush, barking insistently. Living outside the town walls, they had to be vigilant about thieves, but thieves tended to avoid the executioner even more than other folks, so Lily had little fear as she approached.
“John the hunter!” she said in surprise when she made out the shape hiding inside the branches.
“Get your dog away,” the small boy cried, fear stretching his voice thread thin.
“Blossom!” Lily commanded. Blossom sat and wagged her rear with excitement.
The boy crawled out of the bush, not bothering to brush the dust from his knees or hands. He stared at the ground and shifted uneasily. Though he was quite small, Lily decided he must be around seven years.
Finally Lily said, “If you've come for your rabbit, you'll not get it.”
“Where is it?” John craned his neck to look around Lily, but she moved purposefully to block his view.
“You may as well go home now.” She raised the hand that still held the new handle. The boy flinched as though he expected her to hit him with it. Hastily she lowered it to her side.
“I want to see my rabbit,” he said stubbornly.
The boy glowered up at her, apparently forgetting his fear in the midst of his anger. “Fine! 'Tis your rabbit! I just want to see what you've done with it.”
“You promise not to come back and steal him in the middle of the night?” Lily asked.
The boy's eyes widened. “Sneak out of the gates in the dark?”
Lily snorted. Of course not! She'd forgotten that the townsfolk were all frightened of their nighttime shadows.
“Then come along,” she said. “This way.” She led John to the arrangement of cages she kept on the side of the cottage where they were hidden from view.
His mouth dropped open, amazement replacing his fear. “Are they all yours?”
“Nay. I'm just caring for them till they can run off on their own.” She moved to the cage holding the rabbit and tenderly lifted it out while John looked on.
“You saved its life?”
Lily nodded. She didn't usually think of what she did as saving lives, but she liked the sound of it. “Aye, I am a healer like my parents, only I heal animals instead of people.”
The frightened look returned to his eyes at the mention of her parents. “They're not home yet, are they? I saw them at the execution.”
“Aye, 'tis where they are,” she said abruptly. She put away the rabbit. “They'll be home very soon.”
The boy didn't need another hint. He fled.
Lily brushed her hair over her shoulders. She didn't want a boy nosing around here anyway. He would just be a nuisance and probably try to steal the animals when she wasn't watching. She tossed her head, glad to be rid of him, and walked around to the front of the cottage.
She was just about to enter when her mother trudged toward her down the path. “Did you see anyone along the way?” Lily asked, unsure of how her mother would feel about her visitor.
Wearily, Allyce shook her head. “Just a shadow here and there. Did Mistress Smith come by for the medicine?”
“Aye,” Lily said, following Allyce inside. She wondered if her mother longed to have friends. She didn't even have a collection of animals to talk to, and Lily's father wasn't one to waste words on idle chatter.
Her mother passed her into the apothecary, going straight to the bucket of water they kept in the corner. Using the strong soap that burned Lily's nose, she knelt down and scrubbed her hands all the way up to her elbows as she always did after an execution. She used her fingernails to scrape at her skin.
“He deserved to die,” Lily said. “He was a thief.” Her voice rose as her mother continued to wash, scratching at her hands till they turned as red as the blood she was trying to wash off. “He was a vile sinner who had to die! Father said so.”
“Judge not lest ye be judged,” her mother snapped. And then in a softer voice: “Do not judge so harshly, child.”
“But Father saysâ”
“Aye, Father says much,” Allyce interrupted, “but he doesn't know all. No one does. Not I, not you, not even Lord Dunsworth.”
Lily stood silent. She might not know all, but she did know when it was futile to argue with her mother.
At last, Allyce stood up from the bucket, holding her dripping hands before her. “Father will be home soon. Help me lay out supper.”
Lily followed her mother through the apothecary and into the cottage. How was it possible to judge a criminal too harshly? she wondered.
Lily watched her mother as they prepared the evening meal. As her mother chopped and sliced, she seemed to lose the tension from her face and shoulders. She was even humming by the time they were through.
Once the table was set and supper was heating over the fire, Allyce took Lily's hand. “Come walk with me.”
Lily smiled. She and her mother often used to walk together with Allyce pointing out herbs and flowers and telling Lily their medicinal uses. But lately, her mother hadn't had time. Or perhaps it was more a matter of desire.
They took the path Lily had made along the edge of the forest. “There is a cluster of yarrow,” Lily pointed out.
“Aye,” Allyce agreed. “And yonder some wolfsbane. That, you mustâ”
“Never pick because 'tis poisonous,” Lily finished for her mother with a laugh. “I remember your lessons well,” she assured her.
The two wound around trees and cut across corners of fields. Lily didn't fear a taunting crowd of children with her mother beside her.
Allyce suddenly stopped walking. Without a word, she looked up to the sky. Above them circled a pair of doves, their tail feathers pointing out behind them.
“How beautiful,” Allyce said softly.
They watched silently as the doves flapped off toward the town.
Hand in hand, the two continued to walk aimlessly, heading deeper into the forest. The rotting leaves from seasons past cushioned their steps. When they came to a stream, Allyce lay back on the mossy ground. Lily sat by her and wove a garland out of twigs and ferns she found around her. When she placed it on her head, she felt like a princess wearing a crown.
“Have you ever seen a princess?” she asked her mother.
“Nay. Where would I have a chance to see a princess? Or a prince? I've not even seen the King. Only Lord Dunsworth. And he's not such a sight to see.”
“But you've seen knights,” Lily said.
“Aye,” Allyce replied. “At the castle they come and go. They are rather common, in fact.” She said it as if she were describing a type of rat.
Lily laughed. “Are they all brave and handsome?”
“Nay, they fart and spit like any other man.”
Lily groaned and threw a fern at her mother, who batted it away. “Tell me true,” she begged.
“I don't know what is true, daughter. I've only seen them from a great distance. They are not interested in the likes of us,” she said flatly.
Lily gently tugged off her crown and tossed it into the stream. She watched it slide over rocks and tumble through rough water until it was whisked around the bend. She tried to imagine its journey, but she had never been farther in the forest than the old stones from the days of the Druids, nor had she ever crossed the meadows to see what lay beyond. But if she were a garland, sweeping down the stream, or even better, a bird flying highÂ â¦ She took a deep breath. What use was there in imagining such impossible things?
She lay down beside her mother and stared up at the evening sky that winked at her from between the overhead leaves. “How did you meet Father?” she asked, her voice sounding barely louder than a puff of air.
For a long moment, her mother said nothing. Lily thought her mother hadn't heard her, but she didn't want to ask again. Her whole life she'd known that her parents didn't like to talk about the past. She had come to accept this silence, but sometimes she longed for a history. Something more than the story of how the midwife wouldn't attend when Allyce's time was near, so Will had had to act as midwife and help bring Lily into the world. “The best midwife in the land,” Allyce always said at the end of the story, making Lily laugh and her father wince.
“He saved me from my fate,” Allyce said slowly, breaking into Lily's thoughts. “Your father was my own knight, though his armor was black as death.”
“What do you mean?” The words were barely out of her mouth when her mother sat up in alarm. Then Lily heard the clop of hooves hitting an occasional rock and the clank of buckles and harnesses. Fear shot through her. All travelers in the forest had to be careful, but especially a woman and her daughter, alone and unprotected.
They sprang to their feet. Allyce grabbed Lily's hand and lifted her skirts with the other. They started running. Lily heard a shout behind them, and her mother pulled her along faster. Whenever Allyce glanced behind her, Lily caught a glimpse of her fearful eyes and two bright spots of color on her cheeks.
Lily opened her mouth to breathe easier, but still each breath came ragged. She swiped her hair out of her face, tripped over a log and sprawled forward. The air was knocked out of her.
“Come along,” Allyce panted. “Quickly now.”
Lily staggered to her feet. Once again her mother took her hand and they ran. The jangle of harnesses seemed to come from many directions, and the pounding hooves beat into her body until she didn't know if it were the horses or her own heart she heard thumping.
When they neared the clearing where they lived, they didn't slow until they'd burst out of the forest. Gasping for air, Allyce bent nearly double. Lily held her arm. She tried to listen for the sound of pursuit, but all she could hear was the deep in and out of her own breathing.
At last their racing hearts slowed and Lily wiped a sleeve across her forehead. Allyce placed her hands on Lily's shoulders. “We must not tell your father what happened, do you hear?” she said.
Lily nodded. She was used to keeping secrets. She no longer told her parents when children chased her or if a farmer's wife had come upon her unexpectedly and spit at her. As for telling others, whom would she tell?