Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
 
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The Dew Pond

by E.V. Wallace




Wiltshire Chalk Downs – August 1646

            “Devil take it!” Margary staggered; her chalk caked skirts caught underfoot in the dark. Alas, the slippery grass was against her and she tumbled head over heels into the dew pond.

            She choked on foetid water, her hands tangling in water weeds and slime. Laughter rang out through the night air.

            “All of a ruckle again, eh?” Hannah extended a hand so pale it appeared spectral. That was nothing new for Hannah Dartnell, whose chalk white colouring and red flecked eyes pegged her for a changeling since she first drew breath. She smirked as Margary squelched to her feet. “It’s no fault of mine if you can’t keep your feet, Margary Cripps - and under a full moon too, it’s bright as day.”

            “That’s the problem, everything looks white under this light.”

            “First time I’ve blended in then. Stir your stumps, we’ve got snares to check and not long to do it.”

            Margary’s hair dripped slime when she shook her head. Meanwhile Hannah’s snowy tresses sprang loose from her bonnet, giving her the air less a shepherd’s daughter than a sprite of the downs.

            Cursing the sodden skirts that entangled her feet, Margary scrabbled in the mud. Her fingers wriggled in the mud like bait worms, before closing upon something hard. It was still in her grasp when she hauled herself to her feet, encrusted with filth and duckweed.

            A shriek rent the air.

            “A hare! Quick.” Hannah grinned fierce as a fox and darted off, leaving Margary to tramp along behind. She dragged along the hill fold, ignoring fox screams whilst she wiped pond scum from her salvaged prize. It sat heavy in her palm, two clasped hands surmounted by a heart, all glinting in the moonlight.

Margary gasped, staring at more gold than she had seen since the parson melted down the king’s altar cross.

            “Margary, you waiting for the gamekeepers?”

            “Be there dreckly.” Slipped her treasure into her pocket, Margary followed.

Hannah was crouched, checking the twisted wire they had lain two nights prior. She straightened, her lips snarling in disgust.

            “Not so much as a coney. Let’s check the others.”

            Margary nodded, following in Hannah’s wake across the moon drenched grass. Here and there a fox screeched, but their snares remained empty.

It was pre-dawn when Margary slipped home and a scrambling from the garden caught her eye. There sat a hare, its fur black as midnight. The creature met her eyes, never blinking until Margary darted inside.


 

“Mine, it be mine, it can never be yorn!”

            Tendrils of black hair filled the freezing water, playing through Margary’s fingers, ensnaring her limbs. She struggled, opened her mouth to scream, only for it to fill with the taste of rot.

            “Mine, he be mine! He gave it me!”

            A face thrust into Margary’s own. Bulging eyes, their dark centres surrounded by red, glared into her own. Blue lips parted, giving vent to a wail that tore through the waters between them, redolent with fear and rage. The head tipped back, revealing a neck disfigured with bruises, black and purple finger marks blotched and bloated as they reached to crush the caved in windpipe.

            “He gave them me! He gave it me, it be mine, it can never be yorn!”

            “Margary! No lollygagging girl!”

            Margary jerked bolt upright under her blanket.

            “On my way, Mam.” Margary forced her breathing to slow, even though ice water pounded through her veins.

            Early morning it may be, but the broiling heat already rendered the loft airless. Sweat poured from Margary whilst she groped for her gown of the night before, the mud encrusting it now dried enough for her to brush off. Her heart sank at the prospect of heavy russet in this heat, but her head provided no alternative.

            When she emerged into the garden the sun’s heat hit her like a body blow. The air hung blanket heavy over the earth, thick with the drunken buzzing of bees.

            With Mam already busy weeding the beans, Margary hauled a bucket free of the wasp-ridden early fallers under the apple tree. They wouldn’t be missed by the look of their ripening peers, the cider of which should pay enough to get them through the winter. Margary caught herself. Four years of soldiers marching through, stealing all they didn’t burn had taught her the danger of hanging her hopes on that. In the meantime, Polly awaited feeding in the piggery at the back of the garden, her curling tail twitching with impatience.

            When Margary emptied the slops into her trough Polly grunted, but showed little other signs of appreciation, preferring to devote herself to lining her sty with yet more straw. She circled restlessly about her task, milk glistening on her swollen teats.

            Due Sunday at the latest I’ll be bound.

            “God’s grace to all.” Hannah strode down the lane, a wide brimmed hat shielding her white skin and red-flecked eyes. Margary waved, feeling ruddy heat squeeze into her face from every tight bound inch of her flesh.

            “God’s grace.” Mam called, “what brings you down to the village so early? Your folks all well, I trust?”

            “Yes Goody Cripps, but Ma said you’d be needing more than prayers to deliver Goody Alder’s latest and what with Polly here due soon too she sent me with these.” Hannah rooted around in a pack from her back, extracting a package wafting the pungent scent of tansy and thyme.

            “How thoughtful.” Ma’s smile faded as her eyes slid past the garden. “Goody Sexton, is there something I can do for you?”

            Hannah whirled. The wizened Goody Sexton stood in the lane; crossed fingers pointed directly at her. Margary repressed a grin at the crone’s discomfiture but said nothing as her friend raised her chin and handed her packet to Mam.

            “Send her my thanks.” Mam riffled through the packet’s contents. She frowned. “Juniper?”

            “Sarah Lacock’s been looking peaky since she was walking out with Jonny Wilton and what with him gone to Gloucester for an apprentice now…” Hannah giggled whilst Margary’s Mam pursed her lips.

            “Thank ee Hannah. Care to catch your breath before you climb back up to the Downs?”

            Hannah shook her head. “I’ve got a bundle o’ washing to get done in the stream afore I go back though.”

Visions of shade and cool water filled Margary’s mind.

            “We’ve got quite a pile ourselves, I’ll come long wi’ you if you like.”

Hannah frowned, but Margary bolted to gather laundry before she had a chance to object.

            As the two girls tramped down the lane, Margary fought against wilting in the growing heat. Beside her Hannah pulled the brim of her hat down as low as it would go, her eyes set upon the dusty path.

            The first children’s mutters were easily lost amongst the cricket’s song, although Hannah’s face suggested they were not lost on her. When the first flint clattered into her skirts she whirled, pack and all, to grab two small children mid-flight.

            “God curse the pair of ‘ee! Don’t ‘ee know the devil hungers for brattles souls?”

            She gave the boys a shake before releasing them to flee. Claps and a laugh rang through the leaden air.

            “You keep a tart tongue yet, Mistress Dartnell.” Rob Amor sauntered towards them, a handsome sight with his blue eyes flashing and black hair neatly cut under his ears. Margary’s mouth dried as she looked up into his face, colour flooding her face.

            “Away wi ye, young Sergeant.” Hannah stuck her tongue out, then simpered up at Rob. “I can answer insults any way I choose.”

            “No doubt,” Rob sobered. “But it might not be wise to threaten Satan’s wrath, not with Master Hopkins about.”

            “The witch finder?” Margary asked, ignoring Hannah’s glare. “We thought he was rooting out the devil’s servants in Oxford now the King’s brought to heel.”

            “He was, but the county justices decided we needed his services here,” Rob made a face, then turned to Hannah. “Either way, it’s as well for good folk to be a little careful, tattling tongues being what they are.”

            Hannah nodded, a smile flashing across her face as their eyes met. Margary shifted from foot to foot.

“Mistresses.” Rob doffed his hat and left them.

Margary followed his progress through lowered eyes, then tramped on under the relentless sun, collapsing on the riverbank when they finally arrived. Willow and alder sprang up all around, shading them in the cooler air around the swift chattering stream.

Washing the packs full of clothes and linens took until the sun was well past noon, by which time Margary’s arms were numb with pounding She lowered herself on to a smooth looking rock, her hands thrust into the pockets of her gown.

“Here, what’s that?” She leaned over to peer at a trinket which glinted gold when Margary drew it from the gown pocket. Hannah gasped as the exquisitely sculpted hands and heart flashed in the dappled light. Margary shivered at the sight, the girl from her nightmare flashing through her mind. She shook her head, fearful dreams replaced by reminders of the slender thread keeping her family from starvation this winter. Just one storm, a murrain or another company of soldiers storming through the village and . . . she shoved the clasp into her pocket.

“I dredged it up from the dew pond last night. Worth a dunking, eh?” Triumph warmed Margary at Hannah’s silent pout.

Their washing now gathered, the girls scrambled up the bank. It was only when Margary turned back that her veins froze and her breath caught in her throat. There, by the bank of the stream, a black hare sat in the hedgerow, its eyes locked upon her own.

“Mine, it be mine, it can never be yorn!”

            Black hair snagged around Margary’s throat, blinding her as putrid water filled her nose and throat. Margary screamed, only for her cries to be drowned by the spectre before her.

            “Thief! It be mine!”

The girl’s eyes blazed red, her mouth gaped as another hare’s shriek rang out. The waters between them pulsed hot with fury.

            “He gave it me! Give it back lest it cost you all that it cost me!”

            The world splintered. Jagged scars seared vivid white across a black night. Margary shot upright on her pallet, her ears ringing with the echo of the thunderclap.

            Squeals of terror erupted from the garden. Lightning flashed. Answering thunder slammed through the air. Margary charged outside, her head ringing whilst smoke burned her throat.

            Sheets of rain lashed down, whilst the split apple tree crackled with flame, spitting sparks into the downpour. They spread like glowing poison over a garden so parched that the rain did little to restrain flames that feasted upon crops Margary had tended all year.

            Screams from Polly’s sty cut through the chaos.

“She’s farrowing, I can’t move her with all this!” Mam screamed through the scorching smoke.

            Margary coughed, fighting to breathe, but she lunged towards her mother.

            Flames reared around them, famished fingers groping for sustenance whilst rain sheeted through the air. Polly tore away from Mam’s grip, pulling her off her feet. Margary struggled to help, only to sink knee deep in the sty filth.

            The world split into shards, all zigzagging across the sky. Margary was thrown from her feet, slamming her through the back wall of the sty. Her head rang from the after effects of the lightning strike which finally silenced Polly, leaving leaping flames in its wake.

            The stench of charred flesh still befouled the air come morning, combining with smoke fumes to render breathing nearly impossible. By the mercy of god, the fire hadn’t reached their home, but Margary’s heart sank at the blasted remains of the garden.

The charcoal remains of the apple tree lay strewn about ashes that should have fed the family over the winter. Unable to raise her eyes to the ruined remains of the pig sty, Margary swallowed her sobs, ignoring the burning lump that all but blocked her throat.

            Her mind raced, but nothing they could sell would bring enough to replace what the storm had destroyed. Unless . . .

            Mam moaned from the blackened porch where she lay on a pallet. Margary hurried to attend to her, wincing when the gold clasp thumped against her thigh.

Make that one thing worth selling, if it stays safe until michaelmas market.

Cold suffused her veins as the pond hag swam before her eyes. She shuddered, then Mam moaned again.

            Margary sat down upon the pallet, unwinding the linen bandage that bound her mother’s arm. Mam gritted her teeth, but Margary pursed her lips, then tugged at the linen where it stuck to a wound. Mam yelped.

            “You should learn to wield a gentler hand my girl. Hannah can show you when she gets here.” She sighed when her eyes settled upon Margary, then gasped at the sight of her seared arm.

            “I’ll be careful, but we’ve got to get your bindings changed.”

            Mam cracked a smile.

            “Don’t teach me to suck eggs Margary Cripps, I’ve been tending worse than this since I barely came up to your knees.”

            “Then hold still while I clean it.” Margary reached into the bucket at her feet and fished out a clean cloth.

            “Ah, but that looks sore. Can I help?” Hannah hurried through the ashes of the garden. Mam’s lips curved upwards.

            “I’ve lived through worse, mi’ love.” She jerked against Margary’s attempt to bind her arm.

            “Here, let me.” Hannah’s white hands brushed Margary’s aside, to a sigh of relief from Mam. Margary bit her lip at Hannah’s answering smile.

            “To think one wild night could cause all this.” Hannah shook her head.

            Aside from an occasional raindrop glistening under the now bluebell sky, there was nothing outside the Cripps property to indicate anything amiss. The neighbours’ gardens grew in cheerful abundance, tended by families reluctant to look upon their neighbour’s ruined holding.

            “I know it's not much, but I thought you could use this.” Hannah drew a bundle from her cloak.

            Margary’s breath stopped. Hannah gripped a dead hare by the ears, swinging it in mid-air between them. Its fur was a perfect midnight black, marred only by bloodied foam at the mouth and neck.

            “Odd looking thing, but that won’t matter once it’s in the pot. Here, you alright?”

            Margary nodded, stuttering thanks through a parched mouth. She bit back a scream when the golden clasp in her pocket jabbed into her thigh.

            “Margie?” Hannah’s expression demanded an explanation. Margary hesitated, but Mam lay in a deep sleep. She leaned forward, apprising Hannah of everything that had happened since their night on the Downs.

            “Well, this thing isn’t going anywhere,” Hannah strung the poached hare up over the hearth. “You could give it back.” Her eyes dropped to the bulge in Margary’s pocket, glittering with sudden interest. “Or if you’re scared to go up there, I could always…”

            “Thank ‘ee, no,” Margary clutched at the clasp, visions of a selling price fit to see the Cripps through the winter filling her head. “This be my muckle.”

            Hannah glowered then directed a brilliant smile over Margary’s shoulder.

“Well if it ain’t Rob Amor, quite the swaggering sargeant this morning.” She smiled, smoothing down her cloak.

Heat flushed through every inch of Margary’s face. She scrambled to her feet, painfully aware of a gown smeared with ash, mud and blood.

“Why thank ‘ee Mistress Dartnell, but I’m just here to pay my respects to the Cripps'. Who’d a thought such a storm could ruin just one property.”

Margary blush deepened, but she managed to flash a smile at Rob. He doffed his hat.

“Just one?” Hannah’s sharp tone cut across the garden, even caused the closer neighbours to stare.

“Aye, got tongues wagging all over the village, not to mention…” Rob stared at a stranger at the end of the lane. The man’s tall hat and buff coat could have belonged to any well-to-do farmer, but Margary knew the local gentlefolk by sight. She turned back to Rob, who chewed on his lip.

“Master Hopkins,” he explained, then paused as Goody Sexton hurried past, not bothering to hide the fingers she crossed in Hannah’s direction.

“Mistress Dartnell, may I accompany you home?” Rob offered Hannah his hand, whilst Margary bit her lip against a jab to her heart. Not a glance did Rob spare for Margary Cripps as he and Hannah left, all under the watchful eyes of Master Hopkins.

She had to gird her loins to examine the wrecked pig pen. Flies swarmed over Polly’s lifeless corpse, as if drunk upon the smell of sun addled flesh. It took most of the afternoon to bury her, by which time Mam shook with fever.

Only once the sun went down did Margary sit down, looking out over a village shining silver in the moonlight. Then shadows rippled and a dark shape hopped across the ash field of the Cripp’s garden.

Margary grabbed at a nearby hoe, rage pulsing through her veins as she advanced upon the hare that sat cleaning its ears by the gate. She swung at it. The creature retreated, its black fur stark against the moon drenched earth.   She swung again, this time bringing the blade down upon the its head.

A scream ripped through the night, but no body lay upon the ash. No trace of blood befouled the hoe. Margary raced back to the house, only to stare at the midnight hare Hannah had gifted her earlier, still hanging by its neck above the hearth. Its flesh had softened under fur well on its way to being tanned, normal for a corpse that had spent the day hanging over a fire. Margary swallowed, then her leaden feet drew her to a restless sleep at the mercy of the lady of the dew pond.

            Margary emerged onto the porch the following morning to sunlight that stabbed her eyes from high in the sky. Its rays scorched all before them, but proved insufficient to banish the cold sweat that bathed her skin.

            “Margie, that you?” Mam wheezed, her voice barely carrying from her pallet. Margary shivered.

            “Coming Mam.”

            “Well, quick, quick then. This won’t wait for slugabeds.”

            Beside Mam Rob stood with one arm draped around Hannah’s shoulders, his smile was radiant enough to send Margary’s heart plummeting. He doffed his hat, whilst Hannah kept her eyes demurely downcast, her mouth curled up into a shy smile.

            “Ah Hannah, no need to get all bashful, the world will know come Sunday anyway.” Laughed Mam.

            Margary held her breath, the world swimming around her.

            “True enough. If my future mam-in-law has her way, the news will be all over the Downlands by noon.” Rob squeezed Hannah’s shoulders whilst Margary struggled not to vomit.

            “I spoke to Hannah’s Da,” Rob continued. Following which Hannah did me the honour of agreeing to marry me.”

            “Ain’t you going to wish ‘em joy?” Asked Mam through a fit of coughing. “Not every day your best friend gets betrothed.” Margary forced the corners of her mouth upwards.

            “Of course, I’m happy for you both,” she managed, ignoring Hannah’s sharp look. A flush invaded Margary’s cheeks as silence fell, tightening like fiddle strings in the sweltering heat.

            “Well, duty calls me to the muster this morning.” Rob sounded like he was miles away. “I fear I must leave my betrothed under your protection Goody Cripps until I can escort her home this afternoon.”

            Margary fought not to slap either Hannah or her Mam as a cheery guffaw emerged from the pallet.

            “Always a pleasure Sargaent Amor, now away wi’ ye. Won’t do to be gettin’ tardy to your duties just when you’re looking to wed.”

            “My thoughts precisely. Ladies.” Rob bowed, then caught Hannah’s hand and brought it to his lips.

            A knot of neighbours loitering upon the lane scattered, revealing Master Hopkins smoking his pipe under the shade of an oak tree. As Rob approached, he doffed his hat, whilst departing neighbours murmured congratulations. Sidelong glares swept over Hannah as they went back to their business, marked contrasts with the sympathetic looks reserved for Rob. Despite the hollow in her chest, Margary did her best to hide a grin.

            The weakness in her mother’s limbs shocked Margary as the girls set about tending her. Mam had collapsed back on the pallet, her skin searing hot. A grim look from Hannah sent a chill through Margary as they unwound the bindings protecting her burnt arm.

            The smell hit Margary first, twisting her stomach so she fought to keep down what little food it contained. Hannah gasped, Margary swallowed bile, cold sweat breaking out at the sight of angry tendrils spreading from the festering wound.

            “What happened to your Downland poultices? According to Mam they couldn’t fail.” How fear could propel flames of rage Margary had no idea, but such was the case.

Hannah drew a ragged breath, but Mam cried out before she could launch a defence.  Margary gritted her teeth, helping Hannah clean the rotting burn, ending by running a white hand down Mam’s cheek. Mam sighed, but the rotten odour remained.

            She glowered into the house, where Hannah’s black hare hung lifeless, then back to the lane. A small group of neighbours slipped Hannah crossed fingers, whilst behind them Master Hopkins leant against his tree trunk, missing nothing.

            “Did you dump that trinket in the end?” Hannah perched by Mam, her bright eyes settling upon Margary who shrugged, forcing a snarl behind her teeth.

            “Not yet, why?” She narrowed her eyes at the twitching corner of Hannah’s mouth.

            “Well,” Hannah twisted her hands together, rose pink staining her white cheeks. “Wha’ with it being a love token an’ me and Rob being intended now . . .”

            Margary’s rage exploded with her with enough force to set her ears to ringing. An image of Rob flashed before her eyes.

            “A love token?” Margary hissed. “And how will that help Mam if we need to pay an apothecary? And what about when winter comes, do you think I’ll risk starving because you’ve ‘mazed a man into taking you?”

            Hannah shot to her feet; her fists clenched. “Better that than a jealous lump pining for a man who never looked at her twice. Envy is Satan’s work Margary Cripps!”

Neighbours broke from their work to stare. Mam stirred on her pallet, muttering something Margary couldn’t catch. Rage ripped through her anew when Hannah stooped and took her hand.

            “Be easy Goody Cripps, all will be well.”

            Margary’s throat closed as Mam quieted, giving Hannah time to slip off the porch and onto the lane. She swept from the village, ignoring the villagers who followed her passing with wide eyes and the occasional spit gobbet launched at her path.

            Silence rang in Margary’s ears, whilst her eyes told her only of an ash strewn garden and her neighbours’ pity. The golden glasp jabbed unto her flesh, which recoiled at the reminder of its existence. She bit her lip, made to return to the house, then froze as the light glinted off the dead eyes of Hannah’s hare. She spun back, heart pounding, to the sight of a black hare among the ashes of the garden, holding her gaze while it washed its midnight ears.

            Her every muscle froze whilst her brain tumbled. Hannah’s hare, caught in the traps Hannah had set when Margary had found the clasp. When out with Hannah, whose attention to Mam had accomplished . . .

Margary looked down, wincing at the rot stains on her mother’s dressings. She swallowed, her eyes sweeping across the wreck of her family’s winter food, the parched lanes, the neighbours whose sidelong stares gave no doubt as to their opinion. In the lane beyond her garden Master Hopkins stood straight beside his tree, his pipe belching smoke and his eyes boring into her. Margary gripped her trinket, then marched to meet him.

            The village buzzed when Hannah failed to visit the next morning. Margary ignored them and tended to Mam, wincing at her pain filled wails. It was doubtful Mam grasped Hannah’s absence, either way her complaints subsided into fitful sleep once her bandages were changed. Margary was clearing up the mess, fighting her rising gorge at the smell, when Goody Sexton leaned over the garden fence. Hannah had been taken at dawn, was now languishing in the gaol.

            “But don’t ‘ee fret,” Goody Sexton grinned. “Master Hopkins has wrung the truth from more cunning witches than Hannah Dartnell, mark my words.”

            Another burst of putrid wound hit Margary, twisting her stomach. She managed a smile for the departing Goody Sexton. Even this faded when Rob marched past in a company of other soldiers, his face turned steadfastly away.

            Despite Margary’s desperate hopes Goody Sexton proved a poor prophet. After three days Hannah’s had yet to confess, but black hares haunted her days, whilst the pond hag rendered sleep impossible. Mam appeared worse, veering from incoherence to unconsciousness with a fever that burned ever higher. She barely woke when Margary changed her bandages and even then, whispered Hannah’s name.

            “Margary, quick! They be swimming the Dartnell witch!” Goody Sexton waved and hurried along the lane, their neighbours at her heels.

            By the mood of the crowd when she joined them Margary might have believed they were headed to a fair. Excited voices and jostling bodies headed up to the Downs, although where they meant to go Margary could not at first figure. It wasn’t until they cleared a fold in the hills did Margary’s insides hollow out and fill the ice water.

            The Dew Pond glittered in the morning sun, cheerful as the crowd that shoved for a spot stood close to its banks. A few children even climbed the willow on the far bank to claim the best view of the promised proceedings.

            By the tree a group of soldiers worked upon a wooden platform which stretched from the bank to the deepest part of the pond, filling the air with hammering. Together with the crowd’s chatter the work sounds almost drowned out a drumbeat coming from the main road, getting nearer with every beat.

The drumbeat drew closer until the procession it heralded halted by the platform. The workmen retreated, revealing two columns of mounted soldiers surrounding Master Hopkins, his face thrown into shadow by the brim of his hat. Margary wrung sweat slicked hands together as he stepped to one side.

A gasp swept the crowd. Hannah hung between two soldiers whose grasp appeared to be the only thing keeping her upright as her feet trailed twisted and blue black behind her in the chalk. Her once white hair, now befouled with who knew what filth, tumbled to her waist, shielding her bowed head. Not an inch of the skin exposed by Hannah’s soiled shift remained its natural white, was instead marred by welts and bruises in a patchwork of purple and red. The crowd muttered until Master Hopkins stepped on to the platform. Silence fell.

“Let it be known that Hannah Dartnell, having refused to confess to witchcraft, is hereby committed to the Lord’s judgement.” Hopkins ushered the guards forward. They dragged Hannah to the edge of the platform, her thumbs tied to her toes in less time than it took for Margary to draw breath.

“As water abhors corruptions, so it rejects the devil’s own. Should it expel Mistress Dartnell so she floats upon its surface her guilt will be manifest.” Hopkins snapped his fingers and Hannah’s guards kicked her into the water.

The shock as she hit the water jolted through Margary as if she were drowning herself. White spray dissipated into the black water, leaving it to close over Hannah’s sinking form. The pond stilled, a picture of serenity in the morning sun.

Rob broke from the mounted soldiers and slammed into the water with such force Margary feared for his neck. He resurfaced once, twice, both times to no avail. Villagers nearest the bank waded into the water, dredging it with hooks and hoes. Margary’s chest burnt, but she couldn’t suck the thickened air into her lungs. Even Master Hopkins stared at the water, biting his lip so hard blood slid down his chin.

Rob burst through the surface, a white bundle in his arms. Margary’s heart leapt, only for her relief to curdle as he set about cutting the motionless Hannah’s bonds on the bank.

“The waters accepted Mistress Hannah Dartnell. She is innocent to witchcraft.” Master Hopkins’s clenched teeth were visible to Margary from the other side of the pond.

“She is dead, Master Hopkins.” Rob’s head snapped around, eyes blazing. A soldier grabbed his shoulder, outwardly in consolation but his fingers dug into Rob’s flesh, forcing him back to the ground. Rob subsided, taking Hannah in his arms, his sobs echoing around the silent crowd.

            Margary stood motionless; eyes locked upon the water. Sounds drifted by here and there. Rob’s curses screamed into her face, the murmurings of neighbours now reluctant to approach her, all passed by like the gathering clouds above her head.

            The pond remained glass smooth, its waters dark under the leaden sky. Only Margary’s treasure drew her attention from it, dragging against her gown until she feared it would tear the woll. Part of her longed to hurl the thing into the water, but her arms remained locked by her sides. How long she stood there Margary couldn’t say, but it was a long shadow that finally flickered in the corner of her eye.

            Two hares, one black, one white sat silent by the water. Across the pond the two creatures observed her, their eyes glinting, whilst Margary stifled a scream when her eyes met the red-flecked ones of the new white hare.

            Her heart slammed into her chest so hard Margary feared it would burst. She turned, forcing her feet to obey her as she fled back to the village.

            She raced faster than she had ever done in her life, stumbling into brambles, mud and even a stream as she went. By the time she staggered on to the porch her gown was torn and muddied to her knees, whilst her nut-brown hair hung in shanks.

            Her appearance may have set her neighbours to twittering, although none met her eyes. Only Mam, who lay tossing and stinking on her pallet, failed to notice it. Margary gritted her teeth, remembering at the last second not to draw a chestful of the stench from Mam’s arm into her lungs. Instead, she concentrated on cutting away the filthy bandage, a task that made her gag even more than the sight of the rotten wound.

            “Hannah?” The name was slurred and whispered in so weak a voice Mam had to repeat it twice before Margary understood. Resentment drew tears from her eyes, but she turned to cleaning the wound. Mam yelped, twisted against Margary’s ministrations.

            “I need Hannah, where’s Hannah?” Mam spat at Margary. Margary bent over her until her eyes were inches away from Mam’s pain clouded orbs.

            “Hannah’s gone Mam. You hear me?” Margary bared her teeth, ignoring the triumph that ran through her when Mam shrank back. “There’s just me. You remember? Your daughter? No one else can take care of you now. So you can put up with it or wallow in your own filth alone.”

            Mam subsided with a wail. Margary nodded, waiting until Mam’s eyes closed before rebinding her wound, which now spread black tendrils almost to her shoulder. So large was the festering sore that it was nearly dark by the time all of it was bound in clean linen and Margary could dose her with willowbark.

            Margary’s was not surprised when Mam’s mouth remained closed at her first attempt to pour the liquid down her throat.

            “Mam?” Margary shook her shoulder. Nothing. She forced her eyes down to her mother’s chest. Not so much as a flutter could she detect, her pulse was still.

Margary squeezed her eyes shut. It hurt unbearably to swallow, or indeed breathe past the burning lump in her throat. She slumped over her mother’s corpse, whilst rain drops began to fall and thunder rumbled far away.

            By nightfall rain scythed down in sheets, turning the lane into a gurgling stream. Mam’s body was safely under cover, leaving Margary able to do little and feel even less. Instead, she stared dry-eyed across the quagmire that the garden had become.

            She drew the golden clasp from the folds of her dress, examining the perfect hands, holding on to one another in an eternal embrace. Margary choked back a laugh. The Lord knew eternity hadn’t lasted long for the black-haired hag in the pond. She glanced at her mother, around the garden, then back toward the clasp.

            As if in answer to this thought a movement from the garden caught her eye. Two hares, one black, one white raced around the garden, their fur impervious to the rain.

            Margary screamed. She hurled the clasp at the black hare, but it just dodged before darting to the far edge of the garden, its companion at its heels. They turned, staring back as if daring Margary to come after them.

            “Devil take you both!” Margary charged into the garden. By the time she retrieved the clasp rain plastered her hair to her face, whilst her boots and gown were so soaked each step was a struggle. Nevertheless, Margaret waded through the mud of her garden, the rescued clasp in her outstretched hand as she strained towards the waiting hares.

            They scampered down the lane, then up the hill when Margary advanced upon them. The animals danced forward, over slick grass and slimy mud wallows then up on to the Downs, always just out of Margary’s reach. She yelled curses into the storm as she gave chase but they continued, dancing inexorably into the hills.

Fighting through the storm, it wasn’t until her boots struck wood that Margary realised where they led her.

The hares paused on the edge of the wooden platform suspended over the Dew Pond. Margary tried to stop, but her feet skidded on the rain swept boards, dropping her onto her backside. The animals leapt into the water seconds before the platform lurched. Margary shrieked, only for the sound to be drowned by the crack of collapsing pilings.

Hitting the cold water knocked the air out of Margary’s lungs. She kicked, only for her feet to catch, dragging her down. Margary struggled; her chest burned but a pull on her feet strengthened. Her head spun; voices whispered through the surging water.

“Mine, it be mine, it will never be yorn!”

“Envy be Satan’s work, Margary Cripps!”

Black and white flashed before her face. White hands like Hannah’s held her fast, the night hag’s bloated face swam before her eyes. Margary opened her mouth to scream, only for water to pour into her throat, filling her chest. Her ears roared; Hannah’s red-flecked eyes danced before her face. Then sound died leaving Margary’s world to fade into nothingness with it.

            The day after the storm broke warm and muggy. Sticky though it was, the shepherds sighed with relief at the drought’s breaking, although some shuddered when they passed the dew pond.

            “Well, will ye look at that.” The leader pointed ahead.

            “Well, I never. Not seen hares that brazen afore.” The oldest of the group crossed his fingers. “Come on, sheep’ll not get to pasture theirselves.”

            The other men exchanged glances, then followed suit. On the brow of the hell three hares, one black, one white and one nut brown chased one another in circles in the dawn light.


THE END


2023 E.V. Wallace

Bio: "Although born and raised in rural Wiltshire, I am currently an Edinburgh-based aspirant author, working on novels and short stories in the folk horror, fantasy, and historical fantasy genres. I write whenever I can in, between working for the University of Edinburgh, looking after my son, husband and humous-loving cat."

E-mail: E.V. Wallace

Website: E.V. Wallace's Website

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