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.”