Lambeleia, England, 1342
The screams were raw and filled with agony. To those outside the small cottage, the screams brought forth images of a victim being slowly stretched upon the rack, of limbs being torn from the sockets, elbows, knees, ankles being ripped asunder one by one. To those inside, where the sound reverberated off the walls, each scream felt like a knife being driven through both ears.
The enormously fat midwife was sitting at the side of the bed, her weight causing the thin mattress to sag through the ropes so that it nearly touched the ground. Lambeleia was without a physicker, but the local farrier who tended the village sheep and pigs when they developed colic or mange was in a shadowed corner, drinking himself into a resentful stupor. He had attached leeches to the woman’s belly to no effect and was convinced he would get little more than a basket of sour apples and perhaps a turnip for all the long hours he had thus far squandered watching the woman keen and wail and produce nothing.
The priest had come at the behest of the distraught husband. Between screams, he prayed with the righteous convictions of one who knew his appeals were being sent straight to God’s ears.
Another contraction ripped through Mary Carpenter’s belly and as she writhed, her teeth clenched, her fists reached up and gripped the twisted lengths of linen tied around a ceiling beam. Her face was drenched, her hair trailed in wet, lank strips across her brow and down her back. Her nightdress was soaked with sweat and bloody fluids and though she had been squatting over the birthing chair for the past three hours, nothing was happening.
The babe was reluctant to emerge, and Mary was clearly exhausted trying to push it out. There was a sudden flurry of voices and commotion outside and the door opened to a rush of cold night air. Over the midwife’s strong objections, Mary had begged her husband to fetch her best friend, Cecily Ware. A young widow with a child, Cecily’s skill with possets and tinctures had begun to win the attention of the villagers and they had started going to her to cure fevers and injuries rather than the ale-soaked farrier.
Both he and the midwife glared resentfully at the healer as she set down her basket and spoke softly to Mary Carpenter.
Cecily had brought her young daughter with her who was immediately given the task of brewing a strong, sweet tea. Before the brew was finished, Cecily added some herbs and powders and, as the priest and midwife would later avow, murmured incantations as she stirred it.
When the next contraction passed, she pressed the cup to Mary’s lips. “Sip this. Small sips only but drink all of it if you can. It will give you strength and help ease the pain, I promise.”
Mary’s dark eyes looked up through the tangle of wet hair as she drank. When the cup was emptied, she keened softly, “Please. My baby.”
“Your baby is stubborn, like his mother.” Cecily laid a hand on Mary’s belly and, after some gentle manipulations, smiled. “He wants to come out. Just a few more strong pushes, Mary dearest. Just a few more.”
Mary groaned, feeling the constriction begin, the pain. “I… I cannot.”
“Yes, you can. Look at me. Hold my hands and keep looking into my eyes and I will give you my strength.”
Mary released her sweaty hold on the linen strips and clutched Cecily’s hands. Her friend’s face was lovely and calming; her pale blue eyes held Mary in a comforting grip, seeming to banish all else in the room until the world became a narrow tunnel with just the two of them inside. In short order, Mary felt the quickening inside, felt the muscles across her belly tighten, her body begin to flare open.
“Push, my weary darling,” Cecily whispered. “Push and it will soon be over.”
Mary pushed and whimpered and pushed harder, never taking her eyes away from Cecily’s. The pain was there, and yet it was not, and in moments was replaced by the sensation of something sleek and slippery sliding slowly out between her legs.
“Enndolynn,” Cecily spoke softly to her daughter, “make ready. The babe is here.”
But it was the midwife who heaved herself off the bed and pushed the eight-year-old girl out of the way. She crouched down and reached out with pudgy hands to catch the slithering body an instant before it hit the dirt floor. She lifted it and set it on a cloth, then tied off the cord with a bit of string before severing it from the mother.
The babe was quiet. Unmoving. The midwife pinched it on the thigh, smacked it on the ass, but it remained unresponsive. She turned it onto its belly and smacked its back… but the child did not move.
The farrier stumbled over and poked a finger into the infant’s belly. He leaned over and while the sheer stink of ale should have brought forth a response, there was none. “Gone. The child is gone. There is no life.”
The priest hastened forward and made the sign of the cross over the tiny body.
Mary tore her eyes away from Cecily and looked at the still form cradled on the midwife’s lap. “No! Oh no, dear God, no! My baby! My baby!”
The priest signaled the midwife to take the body away but Cecily let go of Mary’s hands and took the child. She wiped the clots of mucus from the baby’s face and, without thinking, covered the babe’s nose and mouth with hers and gently blew a small breath through the blue lips. She blew again. And again. On the fourth gentle breath, the child hiccupped and coughed and gave off a weak mewl. The mewling turned into choking gasps that burst into fully blooded howls. The little chest heaved to fill its lungs and the blue began to fade and brighten into the angry red of a newborn as it wailed and trembled and clenched it’s tiny fists.
“You have a beautiful baby boy, Mary. Ten fingers, ten toes…”
Mary’s terrified sobbing turned to relief as she reached for her son, but the midwife, the farrier, and the priest wore expressions of shock.
“The child were dead,” the midwife whispered. “I swear it were.”
“Aye, dead,” Master Crumbewell declared.
The priest’s face had taken on a yellowed hue as he stared at the child, then Cecily, then the child again.
“He was not dead,” Cecily said through a placating smile. “He simply had not figured out how to breathe.”
“Nooo,” said the midwife as she stumbled back toward the door. “Sum’mit’s not right here. I know a dead child when I holds one. It were stone cold an’ blue an’ dead.”
Her gaze flicked down to an object glittering at Cecily’s throat. It was a cross, but unlike any cross the old woman—who had never set a foot outside the village—had ever seen, wrought of fine, ornately filigreed metal with a circle surrounding the intersection of the arms and stem. Marking the juncture where it crossed the stem was a blood red ruby.
“Witchcraft,” she gasped. “It be witchcraft to breathe life into the dead.”
“’Tis only common sense,” Cecily argued gently, “to try to breathe life into a newborn who may not have the strength to do so on his own.”
“Mama has done it before,” Enndolynn offered, hoping to help.
Cecily gave her a quick warning glance, but the priest clutched the wooden crucifix he wore around his waist and raised it against this further proof of the devil’s work.
“Be gone,” he commanded hoarsely. “Be gone from this place at once and take your dark, demon magic with you.”
Cecily looked to Mary for support, but her friend was too exhausted, too happy to be rocking and cradling her squalling son to pay heed to the conversation.
“I will return on the morrow, Mary, to see how you and the little one are faring.”
“Be gone!” the priest shouted. “You and your devil spawn!”
Cecily wiped her hands on her apron and tipped her head at Enndolynn to follow her out of the cottage. She kept her head down as she passed the handful of villagers gathered outside. The midwife was already amongst them, whispering and pointing.
Enndolynn looked up at her mother with eyes that were startling, crystalline blue. “Did I say something wrong, mama? Did they not want the baby to live?”
“You said nothing wrong, sweet girl. I think they were just overwrought and tired. We will pick some lovely wildflowers and take them to Mary tomorrow. They will make her feel so much better. In fact--” she turned her head slightly, hearing a commotion in the village behind them. "You could pick some now, if you like."
“Oh, could I, mother? I can pick some for you too, to make you feel better.”
Cecily stopped and looked at her daughter, whose expression was so earnest and concerned, she could not help but lean down and place a kiss on her forehead. “That would be lovely indeed. And perhaps, if you venture a little farther into the forest, you might be able to find that grove where we saw the wild roses growing. I know Mary loves roses, as do I.”
“Then I will search until I find them. And some onions and mushrooms for a pie. And berries for a tart.”
Cecily smiled and gave Enndolynn her basket. “Why yes. Berries would be wonderful too. Fill the basket, my love, and do you not eat so many berries that you forget the roses.”
Enndolynn scampered happily off on her quest. She searched two full hours but could not find the rose grove. She picked handfuls of sweet berries and wild mushrooms and tart little apples, hoping her mother would not be too disappointed. After filling her basket to the brim, she lay down in the dappled afternoon sun for a moment to watch the clouds. When she woke, the sun had dipped well below the trees and she ran quickly back toward home. Along the way, a splash of brilliant red caught her eye and she veered through a swath of waist-high ferns, hooting out loud when she saw a rose bush. It only had one rose in bloom, but it was perfect and Enndolynn culled it carefully so as not to bruise the delicate petals. She smiled and skipped all the way home as she pictured the look on her mama’s face when she gave her the rose.
But she never had the chance.
By the time she reached the village, it was full dusk and she could hear loud shouting coming from the market square. She saw men with torches and women waving their fists and chanting, “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!”
Cecily was there. She was bound to a stake in the village square, the smoke starting to rise in treacherous sworls from the pyre of twigs and branches stacked beneath her. The villagers, roused into a frenzied crowd of zealots by the priest and the midwife, had not wasted time or patience on a trial. She was a witch, they declared, for they had borne witness to her bringing the dead back to life with her foul breath!
Enndolynn dropped her basket and froze where she stood. Cecily saw her at the edge of the village, her small face shocked white, her mouth moving soundlessly with the horror. Pale, silvery blue eyes locked on pale, silvery blue eyes and Cecily shook her head, whispering in a voice only Enndolynn could hear: Save yourself, my sweet girl. Run. Run like the wind and remember all that I have taught you.
The flames started to rise and the wind rose from nowhere, sweeping through the village with a savage roar, carrying the smoke into the crowd, causing most to choke and cough and stagger back. Cinders exploded from the pyre and set clothing on fire, singed hair, burned exposed flesh. The screams of the zealots turned to terror and the villagers beat one another trying to douse the flames, trampling their neighbors as they ran to find water.
Through the chaos, Cecily was smiling at her daughter. Smiling with all the love in her heart.
A glowing, red-hot cinder rose from the pyre and was carried by the wind to where Enndolynn stood. It fell on her neck, scorching into the skin. The pain jolted her out of her horrified stupor and the sound of her scream was as terrifying as the sight before her.
Someone else followed the path of the cinder, followed it with eyes scorched by the heat and flame and saw Enndolynn standing in the middle of the rutted road.
“The devil’s spawn!” screamed the priest, turning to the crowd. “Get the devil’s spawn!”
When he looked back, however, pointing with a blackened finger, Enndolynn was gone. The road was empty save for an overturned basket of berries and a single red rose.