The woman just showed up one day, leading a mule pulling a bright colorful caravan clothed in tents of yellow and purple and hanging with jingling bells and chimes. Curious cats peeked out between the cart's gauzy drapes as the covered wagon bumped along the dusty road.
The people of Farhollow halted their tasks—farmers dropped their sickles and bundles of wheat, venders and buyers' chatter died, and children left their games as they all craned their necks to observe the newcomer. Farhollow didn't receive many new visitors, especially one as odd-looking as this woman.
The woman was tall and long-limbed with inky black hair and tanned skin, darker than anyone they had ever seen. In contrast to the villagers' bland clothes of brown and beige, she wore a billowy green dress and golden bangles which shone blindingly under the sun.
The caravan winded through the bustling cobbled streets until it reached the town square and settled down with a creaky groan of relief. The woman rustled behind the wagon's curtains for a moment, and then leapt down, folding out a table and setting up an array of trinkets and glass bottles of varying colors and sizes. A paper-parched sign rolled down from the top of the wagon read "Potions and Mystical Charms."
The other venders—the farmers with their crops, the candle maker, and the seamstress with her dresses, to name a few—narrowed their eyes, unsure if this new "business" was a threat to their pockets. The noise of the square picked up again as people continued to mill about, sometimes glancing at the bright cart yet maintaining a wide invisible circle around it. The woman perched on the side of her wagon, serenely stroking a purring tabby on her lap as she waited for her first customer.
It didn't take long. A young teenage girl with half of her face rough and scarred from a fire, the baker's daughter, broke free from the crowd and crossed the invisible line. She hovered over the table, her eyes running over the bottles and their labels: they were cures for things such as rash, boils, hair loss, swelling… Uninterested in the potions, she turned her attention to the trinkets. There were bracelets and necklaces carved with symbols and designs she didn't recognize. There were gleaming silver daggers and a strange deck of cards with words under the pictures that said things like "three of cups" and "the fool."
But what caught her eye was a small shimmery mirror which seemed to ripple like a puddle when she stared at it too long. She rubbed her eyes and looked back, only to see the glass surface wave again before settling. Revealed within was her young face with downcast eyes, a small smile, and rosy smooth skin. Eyes wide, the baker's daughter jerked back and clutched her rough, bumpy cheek.
"The mirror shows your true self. The spirit beneath the skin." The woman watched her face placidly, still methodically petting the cat.
The baker's daughter hugged the small mirror to her chest, against her heart. "How much?" she asked.
The woman smiled, her green eyes alight, as she negotiated over her first sell of the day. After the baker's daughter, more villagers stepped forward, brave now that one of their own had confronted the stranger without any hardship.
By sunset the woman was satisfied with her profit, and drove her wagon through the streets and fields again until she reached the edge of the woods. Here she stopped and set up a wide round tent with her wagon beside it. Her mule contentedly grazed on the fresh sweet grass while the cats stretched their legs with relieved meows after the long cramped up journey. Some of the more adventurous felines disappeared into the woods, hiding underneath leafy foliage and behind tall trunks and fallen logs as they prowled for prey to fill their bellies. The woman was inside the tent, laying out blankets for her bed when a small figure burst through the tent flaps. The baker's daughter smiled sheepishly as she smoothed down her ruffled skirt and loose hair.
"Sorry to interrupt. I'm Agnes, the girl who bought the mirror," she introduced. "My mother sent me to invite you to stay in our home. We don't have many guests in Farhollow, but we know how to be good hosts." Agnes pulled at the hems of her sleeves as she spoke. She smiled uncertainly, hoping she was acting friendly and polite like her mother told her to.
The woman smiled warmly back. "Thank you for your offer, but my animals and I will do better here outside than behind walls." She gestured to the expanse of her tent with the small cot covered with soft white blankets, the table stacked with drink and bread and cheese, and a calico cat sprawled across the ground. Agnes frowned at the dozing cat. Her hands clenched her sleeves.
"The midwife says it's wrong to have too many cats. She says they summon witches and evil. Nobody is allowed to own more than one."
The woman's smile faded. Even though her gaze held no anger, Agnes still blushed and twirled the hems of her sleeves between her fingers.
"And what do you say?"
Agnes let go of the fabric and wrinkled her forehead. "I say what I'm told to say." That was the way it was supposed to be, wasn't it? She thought. But the woman's sad eyes said otherwise. Fear gripped her chest. Oh no, I can't upset her! Mother will be angry!
"I'm sorry!" she blurted, face red. "I didn't mean to be so rude, madam. Please forgive me."
The woman clasped Agnes's hands as her bangles chimed. Then she softly kissed the girl's scarred cheek, not cringing at all at the disfigured skin. Agnes froze at the sensation, unsure of what to do. Except for her mother, the others mostly avoided any physical contact with her. If someone did accidentally touch her, it was usually followed by a frenzied jump back, as if she was an iron hot stove.
"Don't ask for forgiveness. You've done nothing wrong." The girl sighed in relief as the woman continued, "And there's no need to call me madam. Susannah will do just fine." The woman, Susannah, smiled again, a wide open smile that reached up into her soft eyes.
Agnes returned the smile with a small one of her own.
To Agnes's delight, Susannah's yellow and purple cart returned to the town square the next week, and the week after too. Susannah had confided in her that she planned to stay in Farhollow for at least a few months.
"It's a lovely village," she said as the beaming baker's daughter led her through the cobbled streets and pointed out all the small shops and thatched houses.
Agnes also told her who was who: "That hunched old woman is the seamstress. Everyone owns something she's sewn up. That huge hairy man is the butcher. He never smiles and yells a lot, especially at the blacksmith's boys… Oh! And there's farmer Geoffrey! He makes the best cheese…" And on and on until Susannah was certain the girl had named every single villager and horse and cow too. Well, almost everyone…
Agnes had been showing her the cobbler's shop of shoes when a yowl tore through the air, followed by yelling. On the other side of the street, behind the small crowd of onlookers, was a large bear-like man with blood-streaked arms and face swearing as he struggled to wrestle a fighting black cat into a cloth bag. Near him stood a sickly pale man with stringy hair and a short petite doll of a woman ranting about demon cats trying to murder babies. Susannah rushed forward, bangles clanging. Agnes stumbled over her skirt to catch up to the black and green blur.
"Leave that cat alone!" Susannah cried.
The short woman stopped yelling. The bear-like butcher clamped the bag shut, having finally succeeded in trapping his victim, and held still as the bag rustled and howled. The pale man blinked his watery eyes as he emerged from his daze. The crowd held its breath, motionless so as not to disturb the scene. Agnes cringed under the scrutiny of so many pairs of eyes. She grabbed onto her sleeves and ducked down, wishing she could shrink into the earth.
The short woman narrowed her stony eyes as she spat, "Don't interfere, outsider. This demon will see justice for its crime!"
"What did he do?" Susannah asked as she stared at the moving bag. The look she had reminded Agnes of her own mother when she first saw her daughter's face after the fire.
The pale man croaked, "Since my son was born last week, that cat hasn't left his side, except to kill rats. It even slept by him." The pale man swallowed and then winced, raising his clammy hand to massage the two swollen bumps on his neck. "After I got back from visiting my brother two days ago, the cat wouldn't let me anywhere near my boy. When Eleanor came to check on my wife and son, she found the cat in his crib trying to suck out his breath." Tears dripped like rain from his cloudy eyes. "All those years I fed and housed it, and it pays me back by trying to kill my Thomas!" He held his bony hands to his face, shoulders shaking as he silently wept. A whimper sounded from the bag.
Susannah slowly shook her head. "No. You're wrong. Your cat was protecting your son, not trying to harm him."
"You think I made a mistake?!"
Eleanor stalked up to Susannah, grey eyes as sharp as knives. Though she had to tilt up her head to meet Susannah's gaze and barely came up to her chest, the taller woman still averted her eyes and almost stepped back, suddenly feeling chilly despite the warm summer air. She pushed the sensation away as Eleanor, voice low, went on to say, "Do you know who I am? What I could do?"
Susannah kept her face blank. "I don't want to fight. I only want the cat. I'll take him far away from here. None of you will ever see him again."
Eleanor's lip curled. "I don't take orders from people like you," she sneered.
Agnes and the onlookers shivered as the iciness between the two women spread. The crowd tensed in anticipation, edging closer for a better view when a tired voice cut the silence.
"Stop," begged the pale man. His cheeks still held traces of tear tracks. He pointed a wavering finger at Susannah. "Give her the cat."
"Ulric—" Eleanor started.
"No," he interrupted. "I just want it gone. I just want this all over with." He slouched heavily as if the earth itself was pressing down on his shoulders, and he was about ready to just give up and just let it crush him.
Eleanor pursed her lips but said nothing. Only nodded at the butcher to hand Susannah the bag, who cradled the bundle in her arms the way a mother held her baby. She walked away, the crowd quietly parting to let her pass through. Their eyes followed her green figure until it disappeared around the corner. Agnes used the distraction to slip away in the opposite direction, hoping everyone would forget she was ever here. No one needed to know her part in this. Especially her mother.
The heat hung heavy in the air, pressing down into every crack and corner of the house and wrapping itself around Agnes like a heavy wool blanket. Salty sweat trickled down her forehead into her eyes and mouth. Her clothes clung like a second skin which she longed to shed off like a snake. The basket's handle dug into her wet palm.
One would expect that she would be used to this, even love it after spending her whole life in a bakery. But Agnes didn't. Even before the accident, she had never cared for the heat or the flames, always keeping on the opposite side of the room from the brick oven despite her mother's coaxes and orders. Of course, the one time she finally was brave enough to venture close she ended up burning half her face off. At least her mother didn't ask her to come near the oven anymore.
From across the room, Agnes watched her mother, a woman made up of hard lines and angles (sharp cheekbones and pointy elbows and bony knees) balance a fresh steaming loaf of bread on the edge of a long wooden paddle, and then quickly but skillfully slide it to join the other stacked rows of bread on the large rectangular table in the middle of the stifling room. She set the paddle to the side and wiped her hands on her flour-streaked apron.
"Agnes. Come here." She patted the table expectantly, shoulders back and head held high.
Agnes obeyed, holding up the simple woven basket in her outstretched arms as the baker filled the inside with warm soft loaves and spoke.
"The two on top are for Ulric and Joan. Deliver theirs first. Then one for everybody else: Gilbert, Matilda, Hugh, and Elizabeth. It doesn't matter what order they receive their bread in as long as you do it. And no dawdling or playing around. Make it quick. Got it?"
Agnes nodded, juggling the cloth-covered basket from hand to hand and running over the names in her mind, absorbing the words like butter melting into bread. Ulric, Gilbert, Matilda, Hugh, Elizabeth. Ulric, Gilbert, Matilda, Hugh, Elizabeth.
"Good. Now go!" The baker shooed her off with an impatient wave and turned around to prepare a waiting risen blob of gooey dough for the oven's flames.
The girl skipped over a grey furry cat, her mother's adored mouser, to twist the doorknob and emerge outside, slamming the heavy door behind her as she deeply gulped in air that wasn't hot and stuffy and didn't overwhelmingly smell of bread and cinders. The clean breeze was cut short with a gag, followed by a chunky waterfall of vomit from above. Agnes yelped in surprise as the foul acidic mess splattered on the stones nearby.
Body half folded out of the second story window was the baker's neighbor, the potter. Strings of spit and sick trailed from her heaving mouth. Dark boils dotted her pained face and her eyes were rimmed with red. Another lurch spewed forth more bile mixed with red streaks of blood. Since when had Katherine gotten so bad? Agnes wondered as she hurried away. Three days ago the potter had only had a headache and fever, and now...
The girl hoisted the basket higher when she noticed a black rat scurry into the small dark gap between the hunter's home and the brewer's place. Another rat ventured out across the street, over the shoes of a muscular bearded farmer (who gave a high-pitched scream) and jumped straight onto the bottom of Agnes's long skirt, frantically scrambling up to reach the basket of delicious bread. She kicked out, the toe of her boot catching the rat in the stomach, which sent it flying to land in a squeaking heap upon the hard cobbled street. She sprinted forward to kick the filthy creature again, but a sooty fifteen-year-old boy reached the rat first. The blacksmith's eldest son, Ralph, held the squirming rat up by its long pink tail from his ash-blackened hand with a gap-toothed smile, beaming like a nobleman who had just caught a fox with his hunting party.
"Miles!" he hollered, "I've got another one!"
A younger boy around her age, and as equally dirty as his brother, emerged from behind a rickety hay-filled wagon. His wild blond hair was dusty and dull and his clothes had tears and holes in the knees. A squeaking burlap bag thrown over his shoulder bounced as he galloped to his brother's side. Miles loosened the rope holding the bag shut, creating a hole just big enough for Ralph to squeeze in his struggling captive. Agnes's mouth slacked open as she realized what was in the burlap sack. Ralph noticed her expression and grinned, motioning for her to join them against the wooden wall of the brewer's home. Seeing that the bag was tightly closed up again, she huddled near, basket securely wrapped in her arms.
"We're gonna set 'em loose in the butcher's house," Ralph whispered. His teeth were blindingly white in his face.
"You shouldn't do that," she whispered back, nervously glancing around to check if they were being watched. The few villagers in the vicinity ignored the three teenagers as they carried on with their own tasks, having stopped caring long ago in whatever mischief the blacksmith's boys were in or causing. As long as it doesn't directly affect me, I don't care, each one thought.
"He deserves it," Miles muttered.
"He does," Ralph agreed, grin replaced with a scowl. "Gave my brother a black eye and nearly chopped my arm off with a cleaver!"
"And called our ma a harlot," Miles added.
Ralph's scowl deepened. "That too." The frown quickly flipped back into a charming smile. "Don't ruin the surprise, alright, Aggie?"
Agnes blushed and nodded. Her hands itched to play with her sleeves. Instead they tightened their grip on the basket's handle.
Ralph winked a beautiful sky blue eye. "I knew we could trust you." A shrill scream of "RAT!" pierced the air, and the brothers dashed past her, on the hunt again.
Alone once more, Agnes quickened her pace along the edge of the street, sidestepping rubbish and peering at corners and gaps in case they hid any more hungry thieving rats. The streets were emptier than usual. The few villagers walking around were too upset or distracted to idly chat; only speaking when needing to buy or barter goods or to ask about the doctor's whereabouts or Susannah's potions. The shops and houses were different too—dark and quiet with windows shut off from the outside world.
The only sounds out this far next to the cobbler's small shop were the chirps of distant birds (save for the crows, who huddled on straw-thatched roofs looking like gangs of black robed monks) along with gusts of wind rustling through creaky wooden pillars, the swish of her skirt against her legs as she walked, and the rattle of wheels as they bumped over pebbles and cracks. The haggard gravedigger grunted as he pushed ahead an open-topped cart carrying a body covered from head to toe in a heavy white cloth. She lowered her head and crept across the street to Ulric and Joan's cottage. When knocking brought no one to the door, she pushed it open and entered the murmuring darkness. As her eyes slowly adjusted, she spotted candlelight pooling out from a cracked door where the murmurs and a scent of flowers emitted.
She tiptoed past a small crib and noiselessly pushed open the door to unveil the small room inside. Numerous bunches of fragrant flowers filled the corners. A small table near the corner of the far wall displayed a fat burning candle. Two people hovered over a shell of a man limply laid out on top of a sweaty bed. The person on the right side of the bed was Joan, a woman with a wrinkled dress and frazzled brown hair who looked like she hadn't slept for days. Joan quietly spoke over the bed to a tall figure clad from neck to ankle in a long bulky black cloak with gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed leather hat and an odd bird-like mask that had a curved beak for the mouth and glass holes for the eyes. A small clay jug and wooden cane waited next to his thick boots.
"Excuse me. Joan?"
Joan's head swiveled at the new noise. Upon seeing that it was only Agnes, she sighed in relief.
"The baker's girl! Why are you here?"
"Yes," rasped the bird-masked man in a low voice she recognized as the doctor's, "Why are you here? Can't you see we're busy?"
Agnes lifted up the basket. "I brought bread. No one answered the door, so…"
The doctor huffed and turned back to the bed. "Don't care. Leave the bread and get out."
"No!" Joan quickly said. "Stay a bit, will you?" She stretched out her arms, baggy eyes silently pleading for something she couldn't voice.
Agnes joined her side, holding the basket of bread in one hand and Joan's hand in the other, and immediately wished her hands were free to cover her nose. While the flowers' perfumed scent still clogged the air; a new fouler smell that had been hidden before crawled into her nostrils. It came from the pot next to the masked doctor's feet and the weak stringy-haired man with glazed eyes sprawled on the bed below. She realized the man was Ulric. Or rather what was left of Ulric.
The only color on his bone-white chest was the smattering of purple boils. The tips of his nose and fingers were black—and nothing like the ash or coal coating the blacksmith's boys' skin—this blackness would never wash off. Under his armpits and on his neck were leftovers of large dark purple swollen bumps which had deflated due to the sharp cuts of a blade. Slimy yellow-white pus oozed from the gashes along with a smell which would've made Agnes throw up had the strong waft of flowers not been there to smother the stench. Her nose wrinkled further as the undeniable smell of feces (and maybe tree sap?) strengthened, but it didn't come from Ulric. It came from the sticky brown paste the kneeling doctor spooned out of the pot onto his patient's pus-drained lymph nodes. Agnes suppressed a gag as the poop was smeared into the open cuts and then bandaged. Finished, the doctor stood up.
"Will my husband get better?" Joan asked.
"There's still hope, as long as you follow my instructions," the doctor replied. "Don't remove the wrappings. Keep the house closed and smelling of flowers and herbs at all times. Don't feed him any meat, cheese, or fish. Make him drink a glass of your urine every day. And ask God for forgiveness for whatever sin you or your husband has committed to receive this punishment."
The curved beak turned to the young teenager. "And you, girl. Tell your mother to kick out her cat."
Her face crinkled up. "Why?"
"Because," the doctor explained slowly as if she were stupid, "cats bring witches. And witches bring curses like this." A gloved hand gestured to the corpse-like Ulric.
He gathered up his tools and pot, grumbling about rude stupid children as he swept on out. Joan stared down at her husband as his bony chest slowly rose and fell. His eyes gazed into a faraway place neither of them could see.
Agnes pulled her cramped hand free from Joan's crushing grip. The other woman wobbled at the loss of contact, blinking down at her open palms as two bread loaves were placed on them.
"Thank you," she whispered with a watery smile. She held the loaves to her chest and closed her eyes. "Thank you."