The Witch's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries)

BOOK: The Witch's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries)
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The Witch's Tale
A Short Story by Margaret Frazer
* * * * *

The gretteste clerkes been noght wisest men,

As whilom to the wolf thus spak the mare.

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Reeve's Tale

* * * * *

The night's rain had given way to a softened sky streaked with thin clouds.  The air was bright with spring, and the wind had a kindness that was not there yesterday.  In the fields the early corn was a haze of green across the dark soil, and along the sheltered southward side of a hedgerow Margery found a dandelion's first yellow among the early grass.  The young nettles and wild parsley were up, and in a few days would be far enough along to gather for salad, something fresh after the long winter's stint of dried peas and beans and not enough porridge.

Margery paused under a tree to smile over a cuckoo-pint, bold and blithe before the cuckoo itself was heard this spring.  Farther along the hedge a chaffinch was challenging the world, sparrows were squabbling with more vigor than they had had for months, and a muted flash of red among the bare branches showed where a robin was about his business.  As she should be about hers, she reminded herself.

She had set out early to glean sticks along the hedgerows but there was not much deadwood left so near the village by this end of winter; her sling of sacking was barely a quarter full, and all of it was wet and would need drying before it was any use.  But she must go home.  Jack would be coming for his dinner and then Dame Claire at the priory was expecting her.

Though she and Jack were among the village's several free souls and not villeins, Margery's one pride was that she worked with Dame Claire, St. Frideswide's infirmarian.  They had met not long after Margery had married Jack and come to live in Priors Byfield.  In the untended garden behind the cottage she had found a plant she could not identify despite the herb lore she had had from her mother and grandmother.  With her curiosity stronger than her fear, she had gone hesitantly to ask at the nunnery gates if there were a nun who knew herbs.  In a while a small woman neatly dressed and veiled in Benedictine black and white had come out to her and kindly looked at the cutting she had brought.

"Why, that's bastard agrimony," she had said.  "In your garden?  It must have seeded itself from ours.  It's hardly common in this part of England and I've been nursing ours along.  It's excellent for strengthening the lungs and to ease the spleen and against dropsy, you see."

"Oh, like  marjoram.  Wild marjoram, not sweet.  Only better, I suppose?" Margery had said; and then had added regretfully, "I suppose you want it back?"

Dame Claire had regarded her with surprise.  "I don't think so.  We still have our own."  She looked at the cutting more closely.  "And yours seems to be doing very well.  Tell me about your garden."

Margery had told her and then, drawn on by Dame Claire's questions, had told what she knew of herbs and finally, to her astonishment, had been asked if she would like to see the priory's infirmary garden.  One thing had led on to another, that day and others; and with nothing in common between them except their love of herbs and using them to help and heal, she and Dame Claire had come to work together, Margery gathering wild-growing herbs for Dame Claire's use as well as her own and growing plants in her garden to share with the infirmarian, as Dame Claire shared her own herbs and the book-knowledge Margery had no way of having.  And for both of them there was the pleasure of talking about work they both enjoyed, each with someone as knowledgeable as herself.

Now, this third spring of their friendship, the soil would soon be dry enough, God willing, for this year's planting.  Margery and Dame Claire had appointed today to plan their gardens together, so that Dame Claire could ask the priory steward to bring back such cuttings as they needed when he went to Lady Day fair in Oxford.

But Margery had to hurry.  Her husband Jack wanted both her and his dinner waiting for him when he came into the house at the end of the morning's work, and his displeasure was ugly when she failed him.  She had left herself time enough this morning, she was sure, even allowing for her dawdling along the hedgerow; but as she let herself into her garden by the back gate from the field path she saw with a familiar sick feeling that Jack was standing in the cottage's back doorway, fists on his hips and a mean grin on his fleshy mouth.  He was back early from hedging -- Margery would have sworn he was early -- and neither she nor his food was waiting and no excuse would make any difference to what he would do now.

Wearily, Margery set down her bundle on the bench beside the door and looked up at him.  It was better to see it coming.

"Y'know better than to be late," he accused.  "Y'know I've told you that."

"I can have your dinner on in hardly a moment."  She said it without hope.  Nothing would help now; nothing ever did.

"I don't want to wait!"  Jack put his hand flat between her breasts and shoved her backward.  He always began with shoving.  "I shouldn't have to wait!"

Margery stumbled back.  Jack came after her and she turned sideways, to make a smaller target, for all the good it would do her.  He shoved her again, staggering her along the path, then caught her a heavy slap to the back of her head so that she pitched forward, her knees banging into the wooden edging of a garden bed, her hands sinking into the muddy soil.  She scrambled to be clear of him long enough to regain her feet. So long as she was on her feet he only hit.  Once she was down, he kicked.  His fists left bruises, sometimes cuts.  His feet were worse.  There were places in her that still hurt from last time, three weeks ago.  From experience she knew that if she kept on her feet until he tired, he did not kick her so long.

But her fear made her clumsy.  He was yelling at her now, calling her things she had never been, never thought of being.  A blow along side of her head sent her stumbling to one side, into her herb bed among the straw and burlap meant to protect her best plants through the winter.  She scrambled to be out of it but Jack came in after her, crushing his feet down on anything in his way.

Margery cried out as she had not for her own pain.  "Stop it!  Leave my plants be!"  Jack laughed and stomped one deliberately.

"Them and you both," he said, enjoying himself.  "You'll learn to do what you're told."

Margery fumbled in the pouch under her apron and, still scrambling to keep beyond his reach and get out from among her herbs, snatched out a small packet of folded cloth not so big as the palm of her hand.  She brandished it at him and screamed, "You stop!  You stop or I'll use this!"

For a wonder Jack did stop, staring at her in plain surprise.  Then he scoffed, "You've nothing there, y'daft woman!" and grabbed for her.

Margery ducked from his reach, still holding out the packet.  "It's bits of you, Jack Wilkins!" she cried.  "From when I cut your hair last month and then when you trimmed your nails.  Remember that?  It's bits of you in here and I've made a spell, Jack Wilkins, and you're going to die for it if you don't leave me alone and get out of my garden!"

"It's not me that's going to die!" he roared, and lurched for her.


After two days of sun the weather had turned back to low-trailing clouds and rain.  But it was a gentle, misting rain that promised spring after winter's raw cold, and Dame Frevisse, leaving the guest hall where everything was readied should the day bring guests to St. Frideswide's, paused at the top of the stairs down into the courtyard to look up and let the rain stroke across her face.  Very soon the cloister bell would call her into the church with the other nuns for the afternoon's service of Vespers, and she would be able to let go the necessities of her duties as the priory's hosteler to rise into the pleasure of prayer.

But as she crossed the yard toward the cloister door, Master Naylor overtook her.  He was the priory's steward, a long-faced man who kept to his duties and did them well but managed to talk with the nuns he served as little as possible.  Bracing herself for something she probably did not want to hear, Frevisse turned to him.  "Master Naylor?"

"I thought you'd best know before you went in to Vespers," he said, with a respectful bow of his head.  Master Naylor was ever particular in his manners.  "There's a man come in to say Master Montfort and six of his men will be here by supper time."

Frevisse felt her mouth open in protest, then snapped it closed.  Among her least favorite people in the realm was Master Morys Montfort, crowner for northern Oxfordshire.  It was his duty to find out what lay behind unexpected deaths within his jurisdiction, then to bring the malefactor -- if any -- to the sheriff's attention, and to see to it that whatever fines or confiscations were due King Henry VI were duly collected.

Frevisse had no quarrel with any of that, but Master Montfort had the regrettable tendency to prefer the least complicated solution to any problem and find his facts accordingly.  He and Frevisse had long since struck a level of mutual hostility neither was inclined to abate.  She was not happy to hear of his coming, and she said, "I trust he's just passing on his way to somewhere else?  There's no one dead hereabouts that I've heard of."

Master Naylor shrugged.  "It's Jack Wilkins in the village, the day before yesterday.  They tolled the village bell for him but you were likely in church for Sext then."

"But why is Montfort coming?  Is there's doubt about the way this Wilkins died?"

"No doubt.  His wife shook a charm at him and cast a spell, and he fell down dead.  At least three of their neighbors saw it.  I'd not have thought it of Margery," he added.  "She's never been known to put her herbs to aught but good, that I've heard."

?  Dame Claire’s Margery?"

"That's her, the herbwife who visits here sometimes."

"Does Dame Claire know?"

"No more than you, I doubt.  It was witchcraft and murder certain enough.  Montfort will have it done a half hour after he's seen her and talked to her neighbors.  He'll probably be on the road to Banbury with her before noon tomorrow and she'll be in the bishop's hands not long after that.  I'd have reported it all to Domina Edith come week's end with the other village business."  He seemed to think that was all the dealing there needed to be with the matter; Jack and Margery were not among the priory's villeins, and so not his responsibility.  The lethal use of witchcraft wasn't usual; on the other hand, all herbwives used spells in their medicines, and it was but a small step to misuse them.  He would not have mentioned it except he knew of Margery's link with Dame Claire.

The bell for Vespers began to ring.  Frevisse said impatiently, "Where is she being kept?"

Master Naylor pointed through the gateway toward the outer yard.  "She's in one of the sheds there.  I've two of our men guarding her.  She's gagged so it's all right; they're safe.  There's nothing to be done."

"Dame Claire will want to see her after Vespers," Frevisse said.  "Please you, tell the guesthall servants for me that Montfort is coming.  I have to go."

The Vespers she had expected to enjoy was instead a prolonged discomfort of impatience; and afterwards she had to wait until supper was finished and the nuns went out into the garden for recreation time -- the one hour of the day their Benedictine rule allowed for idle talk -- before she could tell Dame Claire what was to hand.

"Margery?" Dame Claire exclaimed.  Disbelief arched her eyebrows high toward her veil.  "Killed her husband with witchcraft?  I very much doubt it.  In fact I don't believe it at all!  I want to see her."

That was easily done.  Frevisse waited at the foot of the stairs to the prioress' parlor while Dame Claire went up to ask permission.  Then they went together, out of the cloister and across the inner yard -- Frevisse noting there were lights in the guesthall window so Montfort and his entourage must have arrived -- through the gateway to the outer yard where a stable hand, surprised to see them outside the cloister, pointed to the shed at the end of the stables where the prisoner was being kept.

"I should have thought to bring a cloak for her, and something warm to eat," Dame Claire regretted as they went.  "These spring nights are cold, and she must be desperate, poor thing."

As Master Naylor had said, two stolid stable men were keeping guard inside the shed door, and Margery was gagged and her hands bound at her waist.  But a clay lamp set in the corner on the bare earth floor gave a comforting yellow glow to the rough boards of her prison, and by its light as they stood in the doorway -- Dame Claire explaining to the guards that they were come with permission to talk with Margery -- Frevisse saw that Margery had several blankets, a cloak, and a straw-stuffed pillow to make her a bed along the farther wall, and that beside it were a pot of ale and various plates with three different kinds of bread and parts of two cheeses.  Frevisse knew that in such cases as Margery the nunnery provided a blanket and an occasional piece of bread.  So who had done this much for Margery?

Margery herself had risen to her feet as the nuns entered.  Despite her crime, she was much as Frevisse had remembered her, a middling sort of woman -- of middling build, middling young, middling tall, with nothing particular about her, except -- to judge by her eyes above the gag -- that she was frightened.  As well she should be.

BOOK: The Witch's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries)
13.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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