Content Warning: This Chapter contains scenes bringing forward outdated religious opinions, sexual innuendo and craziness that might offend.
In the Saint year of The Watcher, Anno Domini 1347
Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut
The Black Death hits Europe with full force. Physicians and healers are desperately trying new medication, but are forced to helplessly watch how hundreds, thousands, millions of people inexplicably die.
The population turn towards religion to get an explanation where science fails. Jews, foreigners, gypsies, beggars, and even pilgrims and friars, are accused of poisoning wells and generally bringing the divine wrath upon the earth.
Many healers are women, and if by chance a patient survives, those women are accused of sorcery and tortured to confess, often ending up hanged or burned on the stake… The survivors flee into the forests, up the mountains. Away from the persecution. Away from the bubonic plague…
Nobody knows how newborn Valinor, a peasant orphan, ended up on the old crone’s doorstep in the middle of nowhere. She was taken in and raised by the old woman who hadn’t set eyes on a living soul for years.
She taught the little girl everything about medicinal plants and herbs, and how the human body functioned. She showed the attentive child how to heal using leaches and other modern useful things. Valinor also learned how to cook good meals out of nothing, how to read weather and when to plant and harvest the barley to make the best beer…
But the old crone was also a real witch, and during the long winter months, she taught young Valinor the secrets of love charms and poison, spells and sacrifices… Valinor was eager to learn, and little by little, the incredibly gifted child outgrew her teacher.
In the harsh winter of her 10th year, the old crone died of old age. “I have passed on all my knowledge… When I’m gone, you shall set the cottage on fire and leave for Alnor… The roads aren’t safe… You must find the… the sorcerer… Find him and show him this…”
Valinor followed her step-mother’s instructions and hurriedly left the small cottage deep in the woods. She only took what she could carry in a bundle as she started out for Alnor. Some herbs, some dried meat and bread. And of course the ring that was too big for her finger, so she kept it on a long string around her neck. With her stepmother’s knitted shawl tightly wrapped around her, and fresh straw in her clogs, she felt ready to face the cold. Alnor couldn’t be that far! Or could it?
The still deep snow obliged her to follow the route, but as soon as she heard someone coming, she dived for the shelter of the evergreens. She had no idea how far she had walked when a cold rain replaced the snow, progressively turning the road into a muddy river. Spring brought more people travelling the road in both directions; there were barefoot pilgrims and noisy gypsies, rich travelers and merchants in carts or litters. Peasants brought their cattle to the market in the morning and in the evening she watched them return home, drunkenly singing and slapping each other’s shoulders. They slowed her down as she was forced to definitely pick her way through the forest.
Her stepmother’s words of warning about the dangers in the world rang fresh in her head. “The church is afraid of science, my child… Never show everything you’re able to do… Don’t get in trouble with the priests… Better be quiet than say too much…” The curious little girl asked a lot of questions, and she understood perfectly well why she should be careful about her “powers”.
“Tsk tsk tsk… Men just want one thing, my child, and once you lose it…” the old crone used to grumble, shaking her head knowingly. Valinor never dared asking her step mother what “it” was, but it must surely be very precious! Better stay away from the route and those travelling it…
The scattered farms and villages provided welcome shelter at night, and in some extent, fresh food. Sleeping in the hay next to the livestock helped her keep warm, the cows and goats gave her enough lukewarm milk to calm the hunger and the poultry gave her eggs. Without knowing it, drinking milk like a newborn helped her grow strong and tall but she thought gobbling the eggs was disgusting.
Spring brought forward wild leek and asparagus to a grateful Valinor. She was happy to change the diet and munched on the brittle stalks along the way. But she still had to peel bark from the willow tree from to time to still the ever present hunger during the short periods she didn’t come near any civilization.
She got used to drink rainwater and the tepid water from the wells, as there was no ale. She listened carefully for frogs before hoisting up the bucket, always afraid of the mysterious water-borne illnesses that made even children drink beer for breakfast.
She lost her clogs on the muddy road a foggy morning when she was almost ridden down by a company of men in arms on huge war horses. When she crawled back up onto the road, her clogs were reduced to splintered wood, to no use anymore. With her knife she cut off the arms of her dress and wrapped the cloth around her feet, to protect them against the cold. Goats ate her shawl one night while she slept.
So it was barefoot under a drizzling April rain, she first saw the huge commanding walls of Alnor…
Amazed and intimidated, she stopped and stared. She had never seen anything as huge! The defensive walls were more than 50 ft (15,24m) high…
The impressive gates were still open but the sun was setting so she knew she’d have to hurry if she didn’t want to spend yet another night in the open.
Swallowing her fear, she briskly walked past the guards, but they didn’t even glance at her.
She had made it! She had finally arrived! But where could she find the magician? She gnawed on a nail, looking around her. There where people everywhere! She wanted to ask, but deep down inside she knew she couldn’t without drawing attention to her. No. She must find him on her own… But where to start? Her eyes roamed the surroundings and suddenly she knew what she had to do. Without hesitating she made her way towards arrogant King Godfrey the Brave’s huge castle…
Valinor was hired in the kitchen as a scullery maid. It was hard work from early morning until late night – depending on if the castle had visitors or not. An ordinary day started before sunrise, when Valinor had to heat up the water to do the scullery and light the fire in the oven before the cook woke up. She helped cleaning vegetables, scaling fish and also plucking fowl. It was her task to clean and scour the floor in the kitchen, and to keep the pots and sinks clean. She usually stumbled to bed around midnight, which at summer left her about 3 hours of sleep next to the hearth.
She hated the proximity to the other servants, as it kept her from reading. But the cook had taken a liking to the raven-haired skinny girl. He came to her rescue when the kitchen scullions got too rough with her, pushing her so she spilled water from her bucket, calling her names. All this because they had found her book… He told her about an abandoned house on the cliff overlooking the sea, a house that presumably was haunted so no-one cared if she moved in or not…
Valinor didn’t mind, she had gotten used to sleep alone in the woods. And ghouls didn’t scare her, she could defend herself against the supernatural.It was what real people could do that frightened her.
So she spent more and more time in the scary, empty house, playing with the dusty old things she found while cleaning up…
Summer turned to fall and then winter.
Seasons came and went…
… Years passed…
Valinor has grown up to become a beautiful, but solitary, young woman. She knows the surroundings both inside and outside the high walls just as well as the woods she roamed as a child, and when the moon is full she doesn’t hesitate to go on her errands alone, picking rare flowers and collecting beautiful and powerful magic stones…
She doesn’t work at the castle anymore. Instead her knowledge of plants has made her the village’s physician, and she crafts healing salves and potions that Apothecary Chadwick is selling in his shop. She’s greatly inspired by Hildegard of Bingen and she cherishes Causae et curae, the old tome her stepmother made her read over and over until she knew it by heart.
The villagers were reticent at first – nobody wanted to set foot on the haunted hill where green specters could be seen from afar on nights with a full moon. But her curative tonics and healing salves soon made them change their minds. When Valinor saved the merchant Prince Donovan of Tredony’s leg after a hunting accident, and he promptly admitted he used her Sleeping Drought every night -and sometimes even at daytime- her fortune was made. No one seemed to care anymore about where she lived, even less about where she healed her patients! As long as they didn’t have to enter the tower that is…
But that suits Valinor fine, she doesn’t want curious eyes prying on her business in the high tower anyway. It’s where she studies ancient spell books and stocks the ingredients to her magic potions. She has finally succeeded in obtaining the Magnum Mysterium Tome*, an old spell book dating from the Egyptians, and that only can be read by a witch with certain powers.
*Known to us as Lady Ravendancer’s Spellbook
It is also in the Tower she makes magic elixirs as varied as Luck Potion, hugely favored by gamblers (nobles and peasants alike) and Elixir of Allure that is her best answer to a love potion. She has even succeeded in making an Ethereal Elixir that makes you invisible! But she has never sold that one, judging it too dangerous.
She tests all magical potions on herself, to make sure there are no health issues…
Her garden isn’t very big. She cultivates vegetables like leek, garlic, carrots and parsnip, but also different species of cabbage, beans and peas. Her herbal garden contains various herbs with medicinal properties necessary to heal her patients; Sagewort, Eaglewood and Lordleaf, Bloodmoss and Valoroot. But there are also herbs for her more secret activities in the tower, like Belladonna and Nightshade…
Even though she delivers her magical potions and elixirs for special occasions, the clients usually come after sunset, and wait in the little garden. She can see them from high up in her tower, and let them wait a little to make them suitably nervous before making her appearance.
The love struck youngsters come for her Elixir of Allure, and the soldiers boldly just to have a closer look at the beautiful physician… She often keeps her hair covered in a linen wimple, like the married women, to avoid the young soldier’s attempt at charming her, but more often than not she has to put her foot down to get them back on track.
What brings her most gold is her homemade Mystic Grog, which is said to not only make you happy, but also take away fear in battle and make foot soldiers raging war machines. She doesn’t know, it’s only rhum with lots of honey and spices with a little something that gets you instantly drunk…
Since she started to sell her Drunk-Me-Not potion, that causes any drunk to stop being drunk, the King’s soldiers has seemed to become her best clients. As they usually combine a Mystic Grog and a Drunk-Me-Not potion, they are buying far more than the lovesick young folk and thus competing with the Tavern’s income.
The villagers have helped her to clean out the rubble and renovate a part of the big house, to install a kind of basic hospital with an operating room where she can amputate and do minor surgery, using dwale or opium as an anesthetic.
But mostly she cures her patients directly in the usually crowded waiting area.
Small infections and sore throats are treated straight after a quick diagnosis. She applies first aid, seizing the opportunity to give advice concerning their diet to avoid bad teeth, skin diseases, scurvy and rickets, and off they go – usually with a vial of mouthwash!
Mostly, when she can’t make a reliable diagnosis, it’s enough to bleed the patient. Hence the weekly expeditions to collect leeches in the river.
Sprained ankles, cuts and warts on private parts are treated in the adjoining room where the impressive operating table thrones in the center. Many patients feel cured just after a look at the nightmarish contraption…
She has recently found that you can heal people from air borne illnesses using blood from the infested person and reinjecting it after a couple of days. She would have liked to try it on horses first, but the King didn’t want to hear about such nonsense…
Sometimes serious illnesses appear, which require new medication never tried before. It’s a challenge for young Valinor, who dives into her books and does research that keeps her up through the night.
At that time death was ever present and a part of the daily life…
Valinor is usually lucky, but collateral damage happens on the way to find a cure. The patient would probably have died anyway, sooner or later…
Valinor’s home brewed special Feast beer has become essential to the village wedding feasts, and the very same peasant women who used to come to her for love charms, now asks her to add herbs and a spell to ensure their fertility. When the time comes to give birth, naturally the women call for Valinor’s help… Her herbal teas take away the pain and stop the bleedings faster, changing the risk of death in childbirth from 1 in 10 to 1 in 35.
She learned the trade directly from Midwife Amabel, who saw the potential in Valinor and treated her like she was her own daughter.
Amabel died pelted to death at the pillory, accused of witchcraft by the Jacoban church, after helping a woman get rid of an unwanted child. Valinor still remembers her helplessness, how she watched with disarray as the High Shepherd Jacob exposed poor Amabel’s so called devilish doings to the jeering and mocking crowd. The midwife was restrained at the pillory in the early afternoon, and had her hair shaved to utterly humiliate her.
The young girl sneaked back after sunset to bring her water and some bread. She waited until the guard was dozing off before approaching her friend. She cleaned her up a bit, removed the goo rotten vegetables, mud and excrements had left on her face, and gave her herbs to chew on to help ease the pain in her muscles. But when Valinor came back in the early morning, she found her friend dead, her head smashed by a large brick. She sat by her side until sunrise and they had to pry her away from the dead body.
High Shepherd Jacob saw to it Amabel’s remains were hung from the city’s defensive walls – as an ultimate warning not to interfere with The Watcher’s -and thus the Jacoban Chuch’s- doings…
Amabel’s death didn’t scare Valinor off. Instead it filled her with a silent fury and motivated her to help the poor women. A midwife was needed to help give birth, so she continued her education with Amabel’s assistant, now “chief” midwife.
The first child she delivered on her own was Master Blacksmith Mahom’s firstborn son. He was so grateful he made her a whole set of extremely sharp knives…
That was the usual way at that time. Most villagers were poor and didn’t have gold to pay for services, instead they traded food, useful tools and sometimes fabric woven by the village women…
But it’s what the merchants and seafarers brought that got her heart beating faster. Books. And documents…
She studies documents from countries as far away as Aarbyville and Gastrobury, always searching for something innovative that can help her cure new illnesses. Her good relations with Trader Evrart, has permitted her to constitute an impressive archive, mostly of science books like Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine and The Four Books of Sentences (Libri Quattuor Sententiarum) by Peter Lombard. But there are also fantastic stories about knights and dragons, filled with adventures and chivalric love.
Her favorite is the controversial Romance of the Rose*, which keeps her blushing awake until the wee hours of the night. Tossing and turning, longing for something just out of reach. How she would love to be Lillian to Rosewall, Iseult to Tristan, Lady Guinevere to Sir Lancelot of the Lake… Or just Valinor to Bran…
*The book was written around 1275
“The work’s stated purpose is to both entertain and to teach others about the Art of Love. At various times in the poem, the “Rose” of the title is seen as the name of the lady, and as a symbol of female sexuality in general.” Wikipédia
Even though she’s an extremely pretty young woman, she doesn’t have many suitors – the villagers being too intimidated to approach her romantically. But that doesn’t really matter to her, her heart is already lost to someone who doesn’t even know she exists…
Valinor’s best friend, Bowyer Dirk, has known her since she first set foot at the castle. With his knowledge of the forest he was the one who showed her the best places to pick herbs and catch fish. He showed her where to cross the river on foot and where to swim and wash without being disturbed by the other villagers. She taught him to write his name and read a little and he taught her how to use a bow. He escorts her on her weekly hike to the nearby village shoppe and carries her bundle on a sling on his back when they return. He’s 17, and it’s time to settle down. His father is bugging him, but he has so far succeeded to stall the unavoidable arranged marriage. He has someone on his mind, but he doesn’t really know how to ask her…
Valinor isn’t very talkative, and she has something important to do that involves the well and a certain potion. She studies her friend while quickly telling him about a new flower she has discovered and that she thinks might help to heal rashes. Dirk has been so weird around her lately, stuttering and looking at her in a strange way. She smiles and waves and hurries on, leaving Dirk scratching his neck, looking after her disappearing silhouette with a long face…
Poor little peasant girl, wishing for a doll. Well. I can’t give her a doll right now without drawing too much attention, but I can give her a treat nevertheless…
She pulls a gold coin from her purse and gives it to the little girl, who thanks her profusely and promptly throws it into the well.
Valinor just stares. ‘Do you know how much you just threw away?’
‘Yes, m’am. There was enough gold for a huge wish! I wished for toys for all my friends!’
Valinor just shakes her head. The little girl could have bought all Trader Evrart’s toys with that coin.
As soon as the little beggar has left, Valinor pulls a vial from the folds of her skirt. She quickly checks that no one’s around before emptying the bottle in the village well…
Ha! Mouthwash for everyone! Now let’s see if it works… But before she has had the time to draw water, a familiar voice interrupts her…
‘I saw her!’
Oh, no. Nosy Ismael the Villager… Rolling her eyes she turns towards the annoying voice, a sharp answer on her tongue.
‘I saw her! She poured something maleficent into our well! She’s trying to venenate* us!’ Imael screeches, pointing an accusing finger towards Valinor who freezes at the sight of the man accompanying the prying villager. High Shepherd Jacob, the Jacoban priest, steps forward, frowning.
Valinor gulp as the priest sidesteps onto the slight slope, towering over her. He raises an eybrow and loks down his aquiline nose at her.
‘I didn’t pour anything-’
‘How dare you lie!?! We caught you red-handed – I saw you too, whipperginnie**! How dare you not speaking the truth? The Watcher is observing you and his fury will hit you with a lightning!’ The priest gesticulates towards the sky, but the sun keeps shining down.
‘-maleficient,’ she finishes under her breath.
‘Don’t be impertinent, or you know what will happen!’
‘Yes! To the gofe***! Take the sorceress to the stocks!’
Valinor throws a glance at the excited Ismael. Sorceress! He didn’t question how she made the love charm he acquired last week. Or the cure serum for his little son with a bad cough. Or the Drunk-me-not he consumes every Sunday after mass, when he finishes the Holy day at the Tavern… She opens her mouth to say something, but the priest silences her.
‘Quiet! And cast down your eyes, woman. Keep her away from the well, so I can undo what she has done.’
Valinor sighs. Undo. Pfft… He’s in desperate need of some mouthwash… They both are… She knows better than to answer the almighty Jacoban priest back. But the snickering Ismael is another matter. ‘Lickspigot****,’ Valinor mouths and he blemishes.
Arms crossed, she watches the priest do his religious mumbo jumbo. There’s no way he can undo what she just poured into the well. It was only mouthwash, nothing magical… She lets her thoughts flow, this will probably take some time…
*Venenate: To poison
**Whipperginnie: An abusive term for a woman
***Gofe: The pillory
****Lickspigot: One who fawns or behaves in a servile manner
Ever since she came to church barefoot as a child, she has been terrified of the bearded priest. Little orphan raised in the woods, she had never set foot in a church before and Alnor’s Jacoban Cathedral seemed magical to her. The huge colored windows and the statues that looked like living beings. Even the songs seemed lovely, the villagers’ mixed voices echoing from the cold stone walls… She didn’t take in much of what the priest said, she was too busy looking at all the wonders surrounding her…
But the priest had studied her during his sermon, noticing how she wide-eyed looked around her, squirming on her seat. He radiated pure evil when he after mass grabbed her shoulder and dragged her in front of everyone as an example of the debauchery that for sure would follow if they kept letting poor people like her into the vicinity of the castle… When he finally let go of her she left the edifice, tears streaming down her face.
She went to church on Sundays with the others from the castle because she had to, but avoided the huge menacing building as much she could the rest of the week. She silently sat through mass, her mind elsewhere. The mean Jacoban priest did all that was in his power to scare the population, installing fear of The Watcher, and she hunched in a back row behind a pillar out of view of the priest. As soon as she was old enough to make her own decisions, she didn’t come back at all.
She’s brusquely drawn back to reality as the priest grabs her arm and starts dragging her towards the Cathedral. ‘You shall henceforth come to mass every day… We shall find you a husband who can tame your wild spirit and keep your mind on more feminine matters!’
‘Feminine matters? Let go of me!’
But her struggle only makes his grip harden. She might be as tall as he is, but he’s definitely stronger. She tries to keep up with his stride, stumbling on the hem of her dress. Resolutely she hoists it up a bit, showing her feet. The Priest doesn’t miss a beat, tugging on her arm he continues his lecture about the sin of the flesh and how it’s the Devil who made her hoist up her skirt to drive men insane by looking at her calves, witnessing the flesh of the depraved person that she is.
Out of breath he stops in front of the huge doors. Trembling he puts a moist hand on Valinor’s bare shoulder, making her shudder with disgust, ‘Yes. You have stayed on your own long enough. You are baptized, aren’t you?’
Valinor doesn’t know if she is, and she doesn’t care, but when she sees the maniac glare in his eyes, she nods.
The heavy doors open, and High Shepherd Jacob pushes her down on a seat behind Mahom, the Master Blacksmith, who is deep in prayer.
‘Sit here until I’m back,’ he hisses, ‘Pray for your poor soul.’
Valinor sighs and looks around her. The cathedral is cool and dark, it feels good after the scorching heat outside. Nothing has changed… Except… There are carpets on the floor. She smiles to herself, imagining herself barefoot on the soft material.
Mahom silently leaves, nodding to her. Where is the priest? Maybe he has forgotten about her… She starts to rise when there’s a rustling of clothes and High Shepherd Jacob is back, with his attendant, Tabatha, in tow.
‘Watch closely, Sorceress. The power of The Watcher is tremendous.’
Valinor watches the High Priest bestow The Watcher’s blessing, or something like it, lifting that stupid goose Tabatha’s spirits… Whatever… I wonder what he would say if he knew what I could do with my Staff? I could make Tabatha swirl up to the high ceiling and nail her there until I die of old age…
What spell would I throw him? Miasma? Inferno? No… I would throw him the Spirit Thief spell, and gather a fragment of his spirit to wear around my neck… She chuckles to herself.
‘What are you smiling at?’
‘Stand up when I address you!’
Valinor is very tall for a woman, slightly taller than the priest. He has to bend his head back to be able to look at her down his nose and that makes him even more annoyed with her. Especially as she unconsciously mimics his superior attitude and looks at him down her nose! Never mind, he’ll soon break her… Maybe he should talk to the Great Inquisitor about having her corsned*? Yes… That would definitely make her submit to his will. But she could also die… Not yet…
*Corsned – The ordeal by bread, a medieval test to determine guilt. The accused was ordered to swallow an ounce of bread consecrated by a priest with an exorcism. If she went into convulsions she was pronounced guilty, but if she had no reaction she was proclaimed innocent.
‘You do know the Great Inquisitor will soon come for his yearly visit, and he is not seeing witchery and sorcery -and just common healing- with a kind eye… Stakes are burning along his path all over the kingdom!’
Valinor gasps, memories of the old crone’s tales resurfacing in her mind, calling up terrible visions of torture and death. The priest smiles with satisfaction at her reaction. Good… She shows fear…
‘We have to take care of your religious education. How old are you? 16? 17? I have never seen you in church, I would have noticed such a bellibone* – I mean tall and gangly girl.’
He gesticulates angrily, ‘We’ll start with your knowledge of the sacred texts. You shall make penitence and come to Lauds at daybreak, then Prime, Terce, Sext and None. After Vespers we shall… study…’ he gulps, ‘… together until Compline**…’
He licks his lips and lets his gaze linger at her chest, ‘And you mustn’t come to church uncovered like a fallen woman!’
He reaches out and tugs at her blouse to cover her breasts.
*Bellibone: A lovely maiden, pretty lass
**Matins: Post Midnight/ Lauds: Daybreak / Prime: 6:00 / Terce: 9:00 / Sext: 12:00 /None: 3:00 / Vespers: Early Evening / Compline: Before Bed
Valinor shrugs away his hand, ‘A fallen woman!?! Get your hands off me! If I recall the events right, you are the one who dragged me here. And you are supposed to have made vow of celibate! You… you filthy-’
The High Shepherd Jacob raises his hands and backs away, surprised by the young woman’s sudden outburst. ‘Just do what your superior tells you to do, woman!’
Valinor tries to calm down, her rage turning into frustration, ‘But that means I’ll spend the whole day here? ‘ll never be able to go all the way home and back!’
‘You can sleep by the fire in my room! And I’ve heard you know your way around a kitchen, so I’ll even let you cook for me. You are not a married woman so you don’t have to care for your husband or snotty peasant children. That leaves you a lot of free time, young lady. And if you’re obedient and…er… accomodating, The Watcher will surely reward you.’
Valinor turns and walks out before the priest can see her eyes fill with tears that are threatening to burst forward.
‘I have means to make you obey…’
She stops at the threshold, clenching her fists but doesn’t turn around.
‘I’ll have you thrown into the pitch for heresy!’
Angrily she pushes the huge door open and steps into the sun, the High Shepherd Jacob’s last words following her out, echoing from the bare stone walls… heresy heresy sy sy sy…
Brianna the Commoner is nervously walking back and forth wringing her hands when Valinor shows up at the Jacoban Church just before daybreak. At Lauds the Cathedral is empty, except for Tabitha who is laying out what the High priest needs for the last rites at Terce. Valinor drags Brianna up the nave, and tugs at Tabitha’s arm.
‘Where is the priest?’
‘His Holyness is taking confession from-’
‘Good. Tabitha, I know you’re as scared of High Shepherd Jacob as I and Brianna, but if we stay together he can’t do us any harm.’
‘But he doesn’t want to do you harm. He just wants to ensure you’re following the right path. The Watcher sees everything and the High Shepherd talks to The Watcher…’
Valinor sighs. Tabitha is a dead end, she’s too brainwashed by the Jacoban Church -or just too stupid- to understand she’s being manipulated… She tries again. ‘Tabitha. You love The Watcher, don’t you?’
‘Oh, yes!’ Tabitha’s round face lights up and she raises her eyes towards the nef. ‘Good. Er… Do you think he loves you back?’
‘Of course he does! The Watcher is filled with love and grace.’
‘Well. So why doesn’t he treat you the same as the men? He might even be a she!’ Tabitha looks taken aback but Valinor pushes on, ‘We’re supposed to carry their children and aren’t even authorized to go out after giving birth!’
Tabitha stares round-eyed at Valinor. ‘But that’s what “churching” is for. You know there’s a ceremony to wash away the sin and impurity of labor. Think of the demons!’
‘The “sin” of labor! I have been helping at enough births to know there aren’t any evil spirits present! Nor the Devil!’
Tabitha and Brianna quickly cross themselves.
‘That’s blasphemy!’ Tabitha squeaks, ‘Giving birth is the woman’s punishment for Eve’s fall from grace.’
‘Really? And who puts the child in you?’
Tabitha blushes and looks over her shoulder in the direction of the High Priest’s living quarters, before lowering her voice, ‘You know we must endure it so as not to infect our husbands with the shame of our evil bodies…’
After confessing Bowyer Dirk, High Shepherd Jacob decides it’s time to have little man to man talk. He puts an arm on the shoulder of the young man, steering him towards the door. ‘The Watcher blesses your union, my son. But you will have to keep your wife on a short leash, just like a reticent filly!’
‘sheart*, Your Holiness.’
‘You seem strong like a young bull.’ The priest nods knowingly and winks conspiratorially, ‘An expecting woman works less towards the end of her pregnancy, but her mind is more- let’s say- conciliate.’
‘Er… Yes, Your Holiness. Thank you.’
Bowyer Dirk doesn’t understand all High Shepherd Jacob is saying, but he gets the general picture. Valinor will soon be his, their union are to be celebrated after the harvest, when there would be plentiful to eat, and the hard job out in the fields would be done…
* ‘sheart: Shortening of the phrase God’s heart, meaning to make an oath
After dismissing the young man, Jacob looks at himself in the mirror. He feels good after his morning flogging, and the horsetail shirt he’s wearing under his ceremony outfit itches pleasantly, reminding him of the sinful flesh. He is ready to break the young girl waiting in the nave. Waiting for him. Her Master… Oh, yes. Breaking her will be a pleasure even more intense than flogging himself…
‘… and so man became the master. Who was responsible of the expulsion from Paradise?’
The priest’s piercing eyes looks up from the holy book, directly at the girls. Brianna’s hand shoots up but the priest continues to stare at Valinor. Grudgingly she raises her arm.
‘Eve.’ She mutters, hating to let the priest win.
He puts a hand behind his ear, ‘You said?’
The priest raises an eybrow and Valinor sighs, ‘Eve. Your Holiness.’
‘Yes. Eve… An evil, sinful woman… And what is a woman’s duty in life?’
Brianna blurts out, eager to please the priest and show off her knowledge, ‘To keep our home clean and tidy and raise the children.’
The priest nods towards Brianna to continue. ‘… And… Er… Help with the daily chores in the fields?’
The priest doesn’t say anything, so Brianna closes her eyes briefly and continues, ‘We shall obey without questioning and assist our fathers and husbands with their daily occupations like brewing beer and wine, and taking care of the beasts. We shall learn to spin and weave, to… to make clothes for our family or to sell to bring in money to the household so we can pay the taxes!’
‘And why is it so?’
‘Because… Because that’s the way things have always been and to question it is heresy.’
The high priest nods, adding triumphantly, ‘Because women are less intelligent, weaker, and less fit than men for most tasks… That’s the way The Watcher have decided and questioning The Watcher is heresy!’
Brianna keeps her eyes dutifully downcast, but Valinor is seething next to her.
‘Have you got anything to add, Valinor?’ The priest’s voice drips of honey.
Valinor meets his gaze boldly. ‘Yes, I have. I don’t understand… You say women are stupid, but Anna Komnena’s books are in the archives of the Castle and read by monks and scholars in the universities all over the world,’ she starts hesitantly. But as her voice grow firmer and the words almost stumble out of her mouth, the High Shepherd leans forward, anger in his posture and eyes.
‘You say we’re weaker and less fit, that we need men to look after us but Lady Romaine, our Queen, is not married and she even chases the bear alone! You say we’re worthless and shall obey, that men have the right to beat us, to punish us! But in the books we are to be respected and loved and even worshipped!’ Breathless, Valinor continues, ‘If women are so worthless – how come we’re supposed to work harder and longer than the men, cumulating lesser paid jobs to-’
‘HERESY! Do NOT question your situation! If you absolutely have to read – which is in no way part of a woman’s activities- try “Aristotle’s On A Good Wife”! Even in antiquity the woman’s roles in the house were defined! It has always been that way! You mustn’t neglect your duties, but carry them out without questioning. Do you understand? I can see the absence of a father’s strict corrections have left you brazen, but you’ll soon be married and I’ll see to it your husband will teach you obedience!’
She opens her mouth but he silences her with a gesture.
‘REPENT Sinners! Four the hour of The Watcher is at hand! Come forward and CONFESS! Confess your SINS! You are BOTH sinners! By confessing you will reconcile with The Watcher and He will forgive you… Because The Watcher is merciful to his flock… most of the time! But there are sins and crimes that will send you right to HELL! Where you will ROT eternally! ROT! Only the FAITHFUL will receive Divine. Mercy.’
Jacob wipes his brow and glances at the young women on the bench. Obediently they hold up their hands in a gesture of receiving. Oh, they will receive… But first he shall punish her. He shall take her into his quarters and strip her naked and whip the sin out of her lustful body until she quetches*! Until she begs him for mercy… He will show her the satisfaction of penance…
*Quetch: To moan and twitch in pain
‘Valinor. Come with me. We’ll further this discussion in my bedroo-. Study. In my study. You can leave, whatever your name is.’
‘Brianna, Your Holiness. My name is Brianna.’
‘Well, you’re free to go, Brianna the Commoner.’
Brianna hesitates, Valinor had asked her to stay with her, that together they were strong…
‘Didn’t I tell you to leave?’ The priest’s eyes burn into her, his piercing eyes seem to see right into her soul. ‘The Watcher is everywhere, Brianna! He sees that you are not obedient like a girl should be! Maybe I’ll have to punish you to get the vice out of your body? 20 lashes from The Watcher’s whip should make you understand you’re NOTHING but a whifling*! A wallydraigle**! You’re here to OBEY The Watcher! Now… LEAVE!’
*Whifling: An insignificant creature
**Wallydraigle: A worthless, slovenly woman
‘Don’t you dare hurt her!’ Valinor defends her “friend”, but Brianna scurries away with downcast eyes. Valinor looks around for Tabitha, who is intensely studying the intricate patterns of woodworms…
She knows she’s alone, but she refuses to back down, ‘You should get down from your high horses and stop talking to her like she-’
‘ENOUGH!’ High Shepherd Jacob lashes out and violently slaps Valinor. Astonished, she lifts her hand to her cheek. Nobody has ever hit her before.
The next blow takes her by surprise and she falls backwards, pain shooting through her head when she hits the pew. Tabitha ventures a quick glance over her shoulder when she hears the commotion behind her.
‘I told you to OBEY! I told you to LISTEN! I told you to SHUT your glapping MOUTH!’
Panting heavily he looks at Valinor slowly rising to her feet, a bewildered look in her eyes. Her cheek is burning and there are tiny white flecks dancing in her field of vision. The priest’s hateful voice seems to come from a distance…
She steadies herself, tasting blood in her mouth. Tabitha has left, too scared to witness what might come next.
The High Shepherd draws his breath. She has never seemed more beautiful, her eyes dim and that thin trickle of blood from her mouth… He licks his lips. He wants to kiss the blood away. No. Bite it to draw more blood. Looking her over, he imagines what he shall do to her later with a whip or a rod…
He shakes his head as if to clear his mind, ‘Your body is a shell for SIN! Men LUST after your body and you turn them to into bedswervers*! We have to put an end to it! NOW! I will see to it you’re yerded** while restrained in the pillory! That should teach you NOT to bring sin into the head of man!’
He pants heavily, spitting with rage as he approaches again, his eyes illuminated by a feverish glint. ‘Soon you’ll be a married woman. SOON! I have already made the necessary arrangements.’
*A person unfaithful to the marriage bed
**Yerd: To beat with a rod
Valinor hesitates, afraid to get another blow. ‘But I can’t…I… I don’t want to get married!’
‘It’s not a question of what you want or not! You’re well past age! 16 is it? You should already be carrying your second child!’ he hisses. ‘Bowyer Dirk will be a good husband to you. He’s young and strong, and a fervent believer in The Watcher.’
‘Bowyer Dirk? But he’s my friend! I don’t love him!’
‘Love? Love? That’s all you women think about! Marriage is not about love! It’s about procreation! As Andreas Capellanus said “married people are in duty bound to give in to each other’s desires and deny themselves to each other in nothing”.’ The priest seems to take an evil pleasure in seeing Valinor pale. ‘You should be grateful to The Watcher that someone as respectful as Bowyer Dirk even thinks about taking you for wife! You will respect him and you will do you wifely chores and you will bring forward healthy sons to work the land and learn their father’s trade!’
‘You can’t force me into marrying him.’
‘Can’t? CAN’T? HahahaHAHAHAHA!’
Valinor watches the priest’s glee with apprehension. Somehow it scares her more than when he spits of rage. Abruptly he stops laughing.
‘A couple of days at the stock will make you more… compliant. Sorceress!’ The priest advances, stabbing his finger at Valinor who shies away. ‘I have kept a watch on you, sorceress… For years I have spied on your doings. You have thrown spells over the whole village, selling your demoniac potions and using the Devil’s learnings to make healing elixirs! But that will change! I shall drive the demon out of your body! The faithful shall burn your so called hospital down to the ground! You will stop healing using MAGIC! Science is dangerous and condemned by the Jacoban church – the future will prove me right! It’s HERESY! Science is MAGIC and you-’ he stutters, ‘You. Are. A. WITCH!’
The heavy pew stops Valinor from backing any further. The priest approaches his face to hers making her lean away from his putrid breath.
‘A dangerous witch who blinds men with lust!’ he hisses. ‘Ptui.’
Unbelievingly she dries her face with her sleeve. The priest just spat her in the face! Humiliated, she pushes past him and runs out of the Cathedral.
So it is strange fate (or was it The Watcher?) decided to let Valinor meet the handsome Captain of the King’s guard in the Cathedral where her future had just been decided by a man who hated her.
Still wiping her face, she literally ran into Sire Bran’s arms. She lost her balance and he steadied her by her shoulders, looking deep into her grey eyes…
And that is where and when the love story between Valinor the Sorceress and Sire Bran Winterwolf, the King’s Knight and Captain of the Guard, began…
The Grey Witches Medieval Part I – End of Chapter 01
Next Chapter > Coming soon…