A week after the flood crested, the river had receded enough to begin cleaning up. All of the men of the village and quite a few of the women collected the fallen trees and branches—most of which would be put to use in fires and repairing buildings damaged in the rain. Stones were collected to begin rebuilding the mill and bridge across the small river. The now-slow-moving current allowed anyone to swim across, and in places even wade through, helping the villagers reconnect with their friends and family on the other side of the river.
For Isabel, though, life was the same as ever. She and 3-year-old Sophia were busy every day in the neighboring forest collecting food to supplement Edmund’s income. Everything their father made went to the local alehouse keeper, so Isabel did what she could to supplement the family’s income, selling the eggs and fish she and Sophia collected that they didn’t need to feed the family of five. If she had wanted to, Isabel could have called all of the fish in the river and driven them into town to sell, and was tempted to do just every once in a while. She knew, however, that would not help her convince her uncle she was not a witch.
That week after the flood, Isabel and Sophia spent more time in the forest than usual, trying to stay away from the public eye. One of these days, she knew, Peter would begin telling everyone what he had seen her do, and then her life would be forfeit. She only prayed that she would have enough foreknowledge to be able to flee the village before her uncle came to collect her.
Isabel and Sophia were returning to the village one late afternoon with a collection of fish, eggs, herbs, and other assorted foodstuffs when a stranger stepped out of the underbrush onto the path in front of them.
Isabel pushed her little sister behind her and stood ready to defend her little sister if necessary.
“What do you want?” she asked, perhaps a little more harshly than she had intended.
“To thank you for saving my sister,” Peter said, his brown eyes locked on hers. There was an emotion there that Isabel could not read.
“I… I do not know what you are talking about,” Isabel stammered.
“Do not worry,” he said, holding up his hand. “I simply wanted to assure you that I will not tell anyone about what you did and Mary is still too emotional to remember much. Your secret is safe.”
Isabel had no idea how to take this new information. Why would the badger’s boy, who did the odd jobs around the village his father refused to, help her in any way? Especially after what happened between their families.
Peter and Mary’s father had once sold her father a few rare supplies he needed to finish a dress for a noblewoman, but then claimed to the magisters that the tailor shortchanged him. The local solicitor and mayor heard the case and ruled in the favor of Isabel’s father, and the badger had never let anyone forget it. After a time, the badger was told to stay only on his side of the river, and was never to return to Isabel’s side.
“Why?” was the only thing she could think to ask. “Why are you doing this?”
“Why are you even asking? You saved my sister’s life,” Peter said, taking a hesitant step toward her. “You are amazing.”
Isabel looked over her shoulder at Sophia, who was looking up at her with wide, fear-filled eyes the same color as their mother’s had been.
“We should get back home. Edmund will be worried if we tarry too long.”
Peter smiled widely and for some reason Isabel felt her heart leap at the sight. “That is why I am here. Your brother has hired me to be his caddie. He told me to come find you and bring you home.”
“You?” Isabel asked. The thought of being reminded day in and day out that her life was forfeit if she, or now Edmund, did anything against this boy filled her with dread. However, she had learned to trust Edmund’s decisions in the past three years, and if this was his decision, she would have to live with it.
“We will be able to see a lot more of each other,” Peter said. “I do hope we can become good friends.”
Isabel looked at him strangely. Why would this boy—knowing what she was—want to have anything to do with her? While they rarely saw the badger himself in Mass, Peter always made sure that his younger siblings were in every Mass unless they were practically dying of the plague. Why would such a righteous person want anything to do with someone as “touched by Satan,” as her uncle always put it, as her?
Shaking her head, she allowed Peter to lead the way home. Whatever the reason, they were not able to discuss it with Sophia around. Maybe one day, they would find themselves alone somewhere where they could speak freely.
Photo credit: James Allan
Isabel laid awake on the musty straw-filled pallet between her baby sister and 10-year-old brother long into the night. Her older brother, apprenticing with their father in his tailor’s shop, worked diligently on a suit for the mayor by the light of a single candle while their father slept off his nightly overindulgence.
Mama had been gone for three years now, dying in the process of giving little Sophia life. The midwife, the accoucheur of the neighboring town, Father Gerard, and, ultimately, the Lord were not able to save Mama. At 14, Isabel had suddenly found herself the lady of the house. Before her mother’s death, Isabel’s father had been trying to encourage her to marry the local lord’s son, Arthur, who everyone knew fancied her greatly. While the feeling was not completely mutual, she did have some feelings for Arthur. However, after the birth of little Sophia, the local lord terminated their courtship and Isabel was left to care for the home. Their father turned to drink out of grief, and had spent the better part of the last three years allowing his once-profitable business to decline. Isabel's older brother, Edmund, had stepped in and was becoming a well-respected tailor in his own right.
If what happened earlier that day, though, reached their uncle, the town’s Protestant priest, Isabel knew bad things would happen to her. Father Gerard, her mother’s brother, was always searching, always looking out for the evil influences of witches. Witches were trying to turn the innocent and unwary hearts of the village away from God and toward the Devil. They were infiltrating every aspect of life. They were turning men’s hearts away from their wives and children with their wonton behavior. They had superhuman powers given not by God, but by the Devil himself. Yes, if Father Gerard knew that she had a special way with animals and could hold her breath for what seemed like forever without her lungs even beginning to burn, he would light the bonfire to roast her himself, with no sympathy for her age, sex, or even who her mother had been.
Isabel sighed and got up from the pallet, doing her best to leave Sophia and Jacob undisturbed. She walked over to Edmund and offered her help. Edmund, who had just turned 19 that week, had been forced to take over the family business when Mama died, and was currently scrimping and saving every half-penny he could spare after taking care of the family in order to have enough to provide a home for his love, even taking on mending and other “women’s work” in order to make a few extra coins to hasten the day he would be able to provide a home for himself and his beloved and finally marry her.
“Go to bed, Issie,” Edmund said. “It is too late. Sophie will be hungry in a few hours, and you will need all your strength to get Papa cleaned up and presentable in the morning.”
“Ed, I may have to leave soon,” Isabel said quietly. “There was a girl in trouble at the river today. I... I couldn’t let her drown.”
“Again?” he asked with a sigh, putting down his needle and thread to give her his full attention. “Did anyone see you?”
Isabel nodded. “The girl’s brother, Peter. The badger’s children? It was Mary who fell in.”
Edmund sighed again. “Father Gerard does not care for their father, and the animosity between Papa and the badger is well known. Perhaps he will not listen to the rumors. But, Issie, you must control these urges. I know you are special, and I have been able to protect you as Mama asked, but it is getting harder and harder to do so. You need to stop this. Sophia and Jacob need you. I need you.”
“But she would have died, Ed,” Isabel said, finally allowing the fear and stress of the day show. “I don’t care who her father is, or what their family has done to ours. How could I let a little girl drown? What would the Lord say if I simply refused to help when I know that I can?”
Edmund sighed and looked at his younger sister.
“With all this charity in your heart, you should have joined a convent, but I don’t think they would accept a witch,” he said with a hint of a smile. “I will do what I can to keep Father Gerard off of your trial, and it will be a few days at least before the river is able to be crossed again. I will see about speaking to Peter when we can cross the river.”
“You know I’m not a witch, don’t you?” Isabel said, her bright aqua eyes brimming with tears. If her own brother believed she had evil in her heart, how would she ever convince a tribunal if her secret came out?
“You know I don’t,” Edmund said, putting an arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry. It was just a bad joke. I will protect you always, just as Mama wanted.”
“Thank you, Ed.”
“Don’t think anything of it,” Edmund said. “Now, go back to sleep. I will speak with Peter as soon as it is possible to do so.”
Isabel knew it was wrong. She knew she shouldn’t do it. She knew what her family would say, but how could she just stand by and not do anything? The little girl was drowning and she was the only one in her small English village who could save her.
The rains, which Father Gerard had called “God’s wrath on the ungodly witches that stalked unseen in our midst,” had swollen the small river that ran through her village into a raging torrent. Trees and other debris pushed downstream by the usually-tranquil river had taken out the small footbridge that connected the two sides of their small, close-knit community.
Isabel, the oldest daughter of the town’s tailor—and Father Gerard’s niece—had been designated the “watcher of the water.” The rains in the village had stopped the day before, but the river continued to rise. If the water hit a certain point, she was to run to her uncle so he could sound the church bell. The people had been trained—through many natural disasters and plagues—to gather what they could and leave the village when the church bells pealed for anything other than to call people to Mass. It was an important job, to be sure, but the 16-year-old girl knew she had been chosen to have this mind-numbing job because her father and uncle knew of her fascination with water and wanted to instill in her a fear of the element.
The longer she sat there, watching the water’s destructive power, though, the more Isabel fell in love with the river. It seemed to be calling to her. She wanted to swim in the frigid deluge, to feel the weightlessness she loved so much when bathing in the family’s small duck pond. The strength of the current did not concern her; she knew she could swim against the river if she had to, and she was just waiting for the chance.
When Isabel heard the splash and a panicked call for help from the other side of the river, she knew she had to do something. Squinting through the mist rising off the angry water’s, she saw the local badger’s daughter foundering in the swift current. The girl—Isabel seemed to remember her name was Mary—tried clutching at the weeds growing along the side of the river, but the swift current and the overly-saturated bank made the reeds and saplings give way under the strain of holding the small body. Mary was quickly being dragged through the water, battered on all sides by all manner of floating debris.
The girl’s brother, a boy she had seen around the village often doing odd jobs to help support their family, was running along the bank, trying desperately to get ahead of his sister. The boy was looking for a place to pull Mary out of the water. Isabel knew just by looking at the river, however, it was not going to give up its prize easily.
Without stopping to think, Isabel stripped out of the heavy jacket, skirt, and shoes she was forced to wear every day and slipped noiselessly into the churning water in just her shirt and hose.
In the silty water, she was not able to even see her hands in front of her face, and the dirty water stung her eyes. Taking a deep breath, Isabel, closed her eyes and allowed her other senses to guide her closer to the girl.
Isabel had always been a powerful swimmer. Her late mother had often joked that Isabel was part fish—though never in the presence of her overly-superstitious brother. Mama would always remind Isabel, in private, that the gifts she possessed were from God, to be used to help others. The Apostle Paul talked about spiritual gifts, and her ability to swim as well as she did was just one that he forgot to list, Mama said. Mama hadn't known everything, though.
Isabel had always been the one to bring home the largest fish from the river for dinner, catching them by hand. Though she never told anyone—the village would have branded her a witch without even thinking—she had befriended many of the local river otters, asking them to provide her with some of the goods she now used to feed her father and siblings. When in the water, too, Isabel was able to hold her breath for an extraordinary length of time, much longer than when she had contests with her older brother above the water’s surface.
Different animals in the water, she had learned over the years, created different ripples and waves than the water running over and around rocks. Now, she used her special abilities to find Mary, who was floundering wildly in the choppy and swift-moving. Going up under the panicking girl and wrapping her arms around her chest, Isabel’s head broke the surface a few yards from the shoreline.
Mary was still flailing around, splashing Isabel with water and trying, in her panic, to break free. Any other person would have been pulled under the surface, even in calm water, but paddling with one strong arm, Isabel was able to make it to shore fairly easily.
Mary’s older brother, Peter, was waiting anxiously for them on the riverbank. As soon as Isabel dragged both Mary and herself out of the water, Peter was at their side, pulling his sister away from the river as quickly as he could.
Peter and Isabel locked eyes for just a moment before Isabel, suddenly aware that she was severely under-dressed, leaped back into the water and swam back to the place she left her clothes. She thought that perhaps Peter may have called out to her as she dressed quickly and ran back to her house, but she prayed he didn’t. If her special abilities were made common knowledge, not even Most High would be able to save her from her uncle’s fear and wrath.
To Be Continued.....
So, I'm supposed to write something about myself. Well, I am a Christ-follower, first and foremost; then a wife, now of 14 years; then a mom to a very busy almost-10-year-old; and then a writer. All of that, unfortunately, means my writing sometimes gets pushed to the back burner.
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