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A short story turns into a medieval mystery

The following started as a short story in 1994. It went through four major revisions as a short story and none of them satisfied me.

A few weeks back I decided to redo the story based on everything I’m learning. Behold, a similar while completely different story emerged.

Far from complete, it seems to be taking on novella if not novel proportions. This rewrite is pretty much a rough outline, a scene by scene rendition waiting for more scenes to take place. I’ll create the connecting sections, et cetera, as I progress. I would like to know what you think, though, so please do comment.


The witch’s hand climbed the black oak’s trunk like a strangely shaped, five-legged insect, the fingers finding purchase in the bark’s crevasses. Cartilage, sinews, and ligaments trailed from the wrist where Eric’s axe severed it from the witch herself, her hold on Julia weakened by the sudden rain.

Now the hand turned to stone where raindrops struck it, freezing it forever to the oak’s trunk, forever separate from the witch hiding in the oak’s bole.

Julia stood at the top of the rise slapping at her sleeves as if walking into a spider’s web, as if beating out still burning embers, her face white and her breathe panting, staring into the hollow, to the witch imprisoned in the oak, imprisoned by gently falling rain.

Eric spun her to face him, the witch’s blood already blackening on his axe, on his sleeves, his hands. “Julia! We have to go. Now! Julia!”

She spit at the witch. “What can she do now?” She outstretched her hands and glared at him. “The rain!”

“I have cursed us both, you fool. She’ll not rest until that hand has killed us both and it will take more than my axe to finish her. Get back to the village with me before the sun clears the skies. This is for Father Baillott and the men to deal with, not us.”

He grabbed her rain soaked arm and pulled her after him.

***


Father Baillott, one hand holding his wide brimmed saturno to his head, the other holding his Rosary and Cross before him like a shield, led a group of village men, Eric by his side guiding them, to the hollow, the host of them sweating in the afternoon sun.

“There, that oak. The one with the hollowed bole. She hid in there when the rains protected us.”

Baillott Crossed the boy. “Praise Jesus you’re safe.” He slapped the boy’s face. “What were you doing out here? This is beyond the village lands, young fool.”

Eric put his hand to his jaw. “We looked for apple grafts, Father. We meant no harm. Our orchards grow weak. Didn’t you command us to look beyond our borders if our village is to survive?”

“The men I commanded. You’re a boy.”

Eric stood tall, the hand at his jaw falling to his side, the other pulling his axe from its scabbard. “I am not a boy.”

Baillott raised his hand a second time.

Eric’s father, Verduan, caught the priest’s hand before it fell. “He’s learned his lesson.” Then to Eric, “Haven’t you, Eric.”

Eric nodded. “Yes.”

Julia’s father, Paelo, came up from the hollow. “If the witch was there, she’s gone now.”

“She was there.”

Paelo pulled on his mustache and beard to hide his smile. “We believe you, Goodman Eric.” He emphasized the last.

Gallo, the oldest of the men in the hunt, joined them. “Your axe, Eric.”

Verduan nodded, standing behind the priest and the boy, rolled his eyes between them and shook his head.

Gallo added, “May I see it?”

Eric held the handle out towards him.

“It is witch’s blood. It rots the handle but can’t cut the iron. We’ll need to fix this when we get back.”

Father Baillott turned, his cassock snapping about his ankles like a pack of hungry dogs.

Verduan waved the remaining men back up the rise.

Julia’s brother, Thomas, pointed t something on the tree. “What is this?”

Gallo went back down. “Your eyes are better than mine.” He called the others. “Eric spoke the truth. He took the witch’s hand here.”

The men gathered. Molded into the bark, camoflaged by overgrowing bark until you discerned the outline, an old hand, fingers outstretched and clinging to the tree, sinews and cartilage running like vines into the earth.

“Do we tell the priest?”

Verduan shook his head. “That one’s not happy with a few lost souls, he wants to save legions. I’m gone the next few days to Tomeka. The priest there is a good man. He’ll know what to do.”

***

Father Patreo listened, his eyes on a mechanical stylus, a gift of his parents upon his ordination. He let the stylus slide through his fingers as he pushed down, his fingers meeting his writing desk, then flip the stylus over so it was top down and repeat the process over and over. Whenever Verduan hesitated he said, “Go on.” When Verduan seemed unsure, he said, “Take your time.”

When Verduan finished, Patreo nodded, his eyes closed, as if asleep.

“Father Patreo?”

He smiled, his eyes still closed. “Yes?”

“That’s all I can tell you.”

“Do you know the bishopric wishes to transition me to one of the eastern cities?”

“That’s quite the honor, Father. Will you be able to help us before your move?”

“I’m not in favor of the transition. Our Holy Father thinks I’m too forward thinking for these small townships.”

Verduan sighed. He asked a question without asking a question. “Our Holy Father knows what’s best.”

Patreo pulled his head back, the answer so obvious. “D’accord.”

“Beg pardon?”

“French. ‘But of course’.

Verduan rose. “You’re an educated man, Father. Sorry to have troubled you with this.”

“Sit, sit.”

Verduan hesitated, half in half out of the chair.

“Sit.”

Verduan obeyed.

“It is because I’m educated I must stay and help the townships. I’m learned in the old ways and forward thinking. That’s too good a combination to waste in politics, especially church politics where the old will forever war with the new.”

“I…uh…”

Leaned forward, his eyes staring down at the tapestry of two eagles warring over an empty nest, an gift of his explorer uncles, twins who found more love in adventure than in the arms of any woman. “Let’s go over this again. Your son and his friend…” Patreo, looked up under his brows, “Friend?”

“If there is more, they’ve never shown it. We are a small village. It would be hard to hide.”

“Because you are a small village, hiding things would be easy.”

***

The old woman entered the cellar from a bulkhead concealed in a thicket of stranglebushes. She wore thick clothing even on the warmest days so the bush’s thorns couldn’t slow her. Sometimes she needed to hide in a hurry.

She lit candles then a lantern, trimming wicks so there’d be heat and light but no smoke. A wall held animal parts, a workbench several tools. An pigskin glove, the fingers spread and held open with pins, rested palm up in the center of the workbench. Pig ligaments and sinews ran up through the fingers. The woman picked up a magnifier and studied the glove, sometimes pulling the sinews to see if the fingers fought the pins. They did.

She smiled.

There was a cough behind her.

She spun, lifting a fine edged knife from the bench as she did so.

“Sorry to frighten you, Grandmother.”

“How did you get in here?”

“The same way you did, I imagine. Is that glove mine?”

“How long have you been sitting here in the dark?”

“Not long. The glove?”

“You have my money?”

She heard coins jingling in a pouch.

“Does the glove work?”

“You were there. You heard the children’s story. You still doubt?”

“No one else knows the secret of making these?”

“Those schooled in the East. The Arabs. Anatomy is not favored by our Church.”

“May I try it on?”

“My money first.”

“The purse is heavy. Let me bring it to you. If I throw it, the silk might burst. If I toss it and miss, the coins might scatter. Just a few steps. You can ready the glove for me.”

“Alright.”

She turned.

She barely felt the knife.

She hardly noticed the lamp and candles rolling on the floor.

She coughed once, almost twice, as the flames caught the animal fats and resins, her cellar’s smoke revealing itself at last and the side of the hill that contained it blazing so that all could see.

***

The peddler pulled a two wheeled cart behind him. Breakfast smells greeted him and he smiled. “Metal working,” he called as he walked the village road. “Smithing, Repairs to any and all.” He passed one house. Thatched roof with chickens roosting. “Tsk. They’ll lose their eggs that way.” He raised his voice in song, “Blades sharpened, knives and axes all, test them on some good sausage to prove their edge.”

Laughter came from the next house.

“Eggs taste better when fired on iron,” he sang.

The door opened. A strong man, gray haired, tall, a rope belting his pants and boots cleaned so as not to bring work into the house, shirtless, dark eyebrows, heavy, smiled with unbroken teeth. “You’ve not had breakfast?”

“A traveller, a peddler, a worker in metals and ores I am, Noble Sir, with no one to feed me — ”

The man finished, “Except these two arms and legs. Yes, I’ve heard it before.”

“Do you need something repaired? Something made?”

“My son’s axe. The shaft is gone and the head won’t accept another. If you can’t mend it, can you make him another?”

“The head won’t accept another shaft?”

The man twisted his lips a bit. “Do you believe in witches?”

“I’ve been with women you might call some.”

The man laughed. “Breakfast for a new shaft?”

“For a new shaft. Hickory. If that won’t take, we can talk some more.”

The man offered his hand and his name. “Verduan.”

“Forgeron.”

“Foreigner?”

“French. Long ago.”

***

Father Baillott, his face close to the strangely shaped growth on the oak in the hollow, whispered and Crossed himself, whispered and Crossed himself, whispered and Crossed himself.

He stood. “I do not fear you.”

“Are you talking to the oak, Father?”

Baillott spun, falling back against the tree, holding himself up by sliding his hands down the trunk behind him as if holding a lover against him.

A man in old clothing stared down from the rim.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“My name is Forgeron, a Traveler, a metal-worker, looking for hickory to replenish my stock.”

Baillott smoothed the folds of his cassock, straightened his Crucifix and saturno. He walked up the rim and past Forgeron without looking at him. “There’s a hickory grove the other side of the village. Replenish your stock there.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Forgeron watched Baillott walk away, hurrying without hurrying, his steps nervous, articulated, an almost mechanical gait. The priest’s voice came and went with the wind. When Forgeron could no longer hear him, he walked down the rim to the oak. “What is it you do not fear, Good Father?”

***

Julia watched her mother shape two loaves of bread. “Take these to the baker. Here’s a copper for his oven.”

She closed her gate, the two loaves on a wooden tray under her arm and heard singing. The peddlar came around the corner.

“Hello, Woman of the House.”

Julia blushed. “I am not the woman of the house.”

“Don’t fool an old man, woman. Someone of your beauty, your wisdom, your delicious loaves of bread.”

“They’re not baked yet.”

“Two loaves of soon to be delicious bread.”

“You’re funny.”

“So if you’re not the Woman of the House, may a humble Traveler know your name?”

“Julia Atraea. My mother’s inside. Do you want me to fetch her?”

“Oh, please. But first, you’re Eric’s friend?”

Julia blushed again. “Yes.”

“Oh, I think there’s more than friendship there. No hope for a lonesome Traveler, then?”

“You’re funny.”

Julia’s mother opened the door. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“He knows Eric, Mother.”

“I breakfasted with Verduan and did some work for him. You would be Ide? He said you might have some pots and pans needing mending.”

Ide moved closer to Julia. “And what’s your price?”

Forgeron laughed. “Good Mother, I’m too old to care about such things.”

“No man is that old.”

Forgeron raised his hand in protest. “Madam, I mean no harm. Work comes easier when I make people smile and laugh, that’s all. My price is a meal and some coppers. If not both, a silver will do. If I trouble, you, I’ll walk on and we’ll both be the wiser.”

“Bring those loaves to the baker, girl.”

Julia hurried past Forgeron, her eyes focused on the road before her. She didn’t hide a smile as she walked past him.

“I have two pots that’ve seen better days. There’s potatoes and mutton for dinner. One copper.”

“Can you spare some conversation while I work as well? Surely there’s no charge for pleasantries?”

Ide opened the gate wide. She went back into her house and came out with two pots needing some hammering and rebrazing. “I have work to do, but I’ll talk a bit to suit you.”

They chatted about the weather, villages Forgeron had peddled through, who else might need metal-work, and when she was at ease, sharing gossip and laughing with him, he said, “Master Eric’s axe, did you know about it? That was a challenge to mend.”

***

Paelo stood beside Verduan in the common fields outside the village. “The crops are wasting. Something burns our fields without fire.”

Verduan pulled a withered stalk from the ground. “They sprout then turn brown in a matter of days. No fire and it’s hot to the touch.” He dropped the stalk and put his fingers in his mouth, wetting them to cool them and removing them quickly. “Ugh. Bitter.”

“The witch cursed us. Your boy cut off her hand and she cursed us.”

“My boy cut off her hand saving your daughter’s life.”

“Where is the Tomekan priest? You returned two weeks ago.”

Verduan wiped his brow. “I don’t know. Church matters weighed heavily on him. He’s probably forgotten us.”

“Father Baillott hasn’t forgotten us.”

“Father Baillott blesses our lands when the collection plate is heavy. Otherwise…”

“Where are all the good priests these days? Do you remember Daskele? He was a priest.”

***

Patreo rode a lope-eared donkey into the village. He passed Verduan’s house and Verduan ran out to him. “Father Patreo!”

“Verduan. Sorry not to come sooner. Church politics. Had to get permission to enter another parish.”

“Father Baillott doesn’t know you’re here?”

“He’s my first stop. Unless you have some water for Geselda here.” He patted the donkey’s neck.”

“What happened to your hand?”

Patreo held up his hand and laughed. “Oh, nothing. A slight burn. I wear the glove to keep some ointment on it while it heals.”

A woman walked hurriedly to the center of the road, shaded her eyes from the sun and scanned in both directions.

“Looks like the woman has a concern.”

Verduan nodded. “Ide, Julia’s mother. I mentioned her when we talked.”

Ide marched up to them. She spoke as quickly as she walked without acknowledging Patreo’s presence. “Is Julia with Eric?”

Patreo asked, “Should she be?”

She ignored him and grabbed Verduan’s arm. “Tell me, is Julia with Eric?”

Verduan shook his head.

“When did you last see her?”

Ide ran down the road, her skirts lifted in her hands, without answering Patreo’s questions.

“You have an interesting village.”

“I wish it weren’t so.”

“I should go tell Father Baillott I’m visiting. A short respite from my parish duties. I’ll offer the bishopric suggested I council with an older, wiser priest.”

“Oh, he’ll love that. Come. I’ll walk you.”

They saw Ide conferring with Baillott in the town center. She ran off as they approached.

“Father Baillott, we have a guest in our village.”

Patreo bowed. “I’m Patreo – ”

“Patreo?”

“Yes, from Tomeka.”

“Patreo from Tomeka? What is your parents’ name? What brings you here?”

“I seek your advice on some parish matters.”

“I might have known your father.”

Color left Patreo’s face. “You knew my father?”

“Who sent you?”

Patreo stammered. “Your ecclesiastical knowledge is widely known, Father Baillott.”

“The bishopric sent you?”

“I apologize if I come at an inconvenient time.”

“The bishopric sent Patreo of Tomeka to me?” Baillott turned to Verduan. “Do you know who this guest is?”

Verduan drew back. “His is Father Patreo, parish priest of Tomeka.”

“He is Patreo, that’s true, and from Tomeka, also true. He’s also Il Serpe’s youngest son.”

Patreo shook his head quickly, “No, wait – ”

Verduan stared with wide eyes. “Il Serpe? The Witch of Kolnismere? And you’re a priest?”

“How do you know this man?”

“He walked into the village and asked for some water for himself and his donkey. He asked for you and I brought him here.”

“Hold him!” Baillott ran into the church.

“Are you truly Il Serpe’s son?”

“Yes. Let me explain – ”

The tower bell interrupted his words. Townsfolk came running.

Baillott came out of his church, breathless and speaking loudly so all could hear. “This man is Patreo, Il Serpe’s son. He claims to be parish priest of Tomeka. We need two men to travel to Tomeka and learn if this story is true. Until then, lock him in a barn and call for the sheriff. Il Serpe’s son can’t be trusted.”

Patreo looked into Verduan’s confused eyes. Verduan’s eyes widened and his shook his head, “No, don’t!”

Patreo heard something hard crack against his skull. The world went black.

***

“How long?”

“Not quite a day.”

Patreo realized Verduan was wiping his brow with a wet clothe. He pushed Verduan’s hand away and sat up. His motion continued into a forward roll and Verduan caught and steadied him. “Easy.”

Patreo looked around. “This isn’t a barn. It’s a gaol cell.”

“Your powers of observation are not diminished.”

“Baillott said a barn. Has the sheriff arrived so quickly? And what am I accused of?”

Verduan sat back against a cool, stone wall. “Us. We.”

Patreo took a second look at their surroundings. “You’re in here with me?”

“Is Il Serpe truly your father?”

“What did you do?”

“I made the mistake of befriending you on a dark day. Is Il Serpe your father?”

Patreo stood and tested the bars of the cell. “Yes. Have we had any visitors?”

“Baillott to make sure we’re in here, the bars are strong and no one but him has the key. Why?”

“Will Eric visit you?”

“My son? He’ll bring food some time today. Are you planning on having Eric enjoy Baillott’s hospitality as well?”

“I’m planning on Eric getting us out.”

***

Ide couldn’t stop screaming. She pointed at the body and screamed anew.

Baillott, the sheriff, Gallo and [somebody else] stood around the body as well.

Tardiff the sheriff took off his coat and handed it to Gallo. “Cover the body.”

Ide seized the sheriff’s coat from Gallo. She gently laid it on Julia’s remains.

Tardiff shook his head. “Are you sure this is your daughter?”

“You don’t think I know my own daughter?”

“But that face. That is not a child’s face. Her hand is severed. No animal did this.”

Gallo looked around the wood. “This is the witch’s work. She’s come back to haunt us.”

Baillott agreed.

Tardiff knelt down and examined the body. “I can’t say what’s become of this poor child’s face. But that’s a doctor’s cut on the arm. Not a sword or a knife wielded by a military man or a thief. Whoever made that cut knew how to slice through bone, how to cut muscle without tearing. Who in your village knows such things?”

Baillott shook his head. “No one has medical training. Each house does their own butchering. Sometimes they help each other with larger animals.”

Gallo agreed. “Aye, but no one has skill such as this.”

Ide said, “No one except Il Serpe’s son, I’ll bet.”

Tardiff considered. “But you saw your daughter this morning, you said. Forgive me, woman, but blood still puddles from these wounds and the Tomekan has been in gaol too long to have done this. He may be guilty of some things but for this we seek another.”