Bryony was running through the woods, running for her life. She scrambled over tree stumps and climbed over logs and then she was falling…falling…
A noise somewhere. Early morning sunlight pierced her closed eyelids. Bryony’s head ached, her hands were raw and her legs scratched and bruised. She heard Bethany murmur in her sleep. She must have crawled into bed beside me, Bryony thought. She smelled the familiar morning porridge smell, then sensed someone moving about nearby, but what was Hodge doing making porridge in their bedroom?
Bryony opened her eyes. For a moment she couldn’t work out where she was. Then she remembered. The woods, the burned buildings, the men on horseback, and running from them…
Good morning, lovely,” Issell bent over the couch and gently touched her forehead. Bryony looked up at the woman’s smiling face.
“Come now, sit up.” Issell took Bryony’s hands and turned them over. “We’ll put some salve on those scratches. How are your legs?” Bryony looked down. There was a nasty bruise on one knee and an angry graze on her ankle, but nothing particularly serious. “Can you wake your sister? I’ll take a proper look at her now.”
Bethany blinked and sat up. She looked about her wide-eyed. “You’ve slept such a long time,” said Bryony, putting her arm round her.
Bethany rubbed her eyes. “I feel all funny.” She looked around again. “Where are we Brynee?”
“Don’t you remember?” Bryony stroked her hair, which was still matted with bits of twigs.
Bethany shook her head. Bryony looked up at Issell who raised her eyebrows.
“You’re both staying here with me for a little while. Come on, let’s get you up. It’s time you broke your fast,” Issell said briskly. She sat them down at the table and brought two bowls of porridge. “After you’ve eaten, we’ll find you something clean to wear.”
“Why have we to wear these long skirts?” asked Bethany after Issell had helped them to get washed at a large cream-coloured bowl in the far corner of the room. There was a large wooden screen around it. This, apparently, was the nearest thing Issell had to a bathroom.
“It’s what we wear here,” said Issell holding out her own skirt. With her needle, she’d swiftly managed to alter two of her own skirts to fit them. Bryony’s hardly needed any alteration as Issell was small and slender and not much different in size.
“Where’s Hodge?” asked Bethany.
“She’s at home, of course,” replied Bryony. If Bethany had somehow lost her memory of what had happened yesterday, perhaps she could pretend that this was some sort of game, at least for a while. Maybe even until they found their way back? But how? She pushed that thought away. Toby had said that Issell would know what to do. After all, Bethany had gone, or rather come here and returned.
“What are we doing here though?” Bethany was becoming agitated.
“It’s a sort of game…to see how people live in a different place to ours.” Bryony wasn’t sure whether she would be able to get Bethany to believe this. She looked at Issell for help.
“Yes, that is so. We’re going to learn about each other.” Issell didn’t like to tell lies, but this was true enough.
“It’s a sort of experiment,” continued Bryony, looking sideways at Issell.
“Like one of Mr Eyre’s?” Bethany sounded pleased. “Is he here too?”
Over on the other side of the village, Mr Eyre was indeed here, and not for the first time. He’d found his way through the woods twice before. The first time he’d visited only briefly, but he’d seen enough to realise that he had somehow stepped back into the past which, he had felt at the time, was all rather jolly. On the second occasion he’d spent rather longer, a day and a night, and he’d made an important discovery: virtually no time had passed while he’d been away, back in his own time. He’d also realised that several years must have gone by between his first and second visits to this other… dimension?
But now in this ‘other time’ things had changed. The village had altered and sinister forces were evident. Worse still, this time he was deeply concerned that he’d not crossed over alone. It was entirely possible that the girls were here too. The risk of that happening hadn’t occurred to him when they’d chased after Astra into the woods since it had been broad daylight. Both times he’d crossed over it had been at night time. He’d had a vague suspicion from something Bethany had said when she’d shown her little wooden bird to him, that she might have also gone back, but he’d dismissed the thought. Now he was kicking himself for not having asked her about it. He’d avoided questioning her in case he was wrong and she and Bryony thought him mad. He shook his head.
Now his priority was to find the girls. Of course it might be that they were still safely at home, back in 1911. However, if that wasn’t the case, he’d better find them, and fast. The problem was that he was currently imprisoned in one of the outbuildings on Lord Childecott’s estate.
Back at Issell’s cottage the girls were learning about the work of an apothecary. Issell was pleasantly surprised at their skills and knowledge. Bethany, despite her tender age, could draw a very passable likeness of a plant specimen and Bryony had a keen eye for identification and description. Much of this learning was the work of someone called Mr Eyre who was their tutor. A tutor for girls? Who’s ever heard the like? Issell had thought. Not that she disapproved. Far from it.
Bryony was carefully turning the pages of Issell’s book of healing recipes (or ‘receipts’ as Issell called them). Issell had taken the book from its hiding place when Bryony had shown an interest, explaining that she was a writer. Issell did not doubt her, especially when Bryony showed her the notebook she carried around with her, which she’d quickly retrieved from her ruined pinafore when Issell had taken it away to wash and mend earlier that day.
“How did you come to learn all of this?” asked Bryony, smoothing her hand across one of the beautifully written and illustrated pages.
“My mother taught me from when I was very young. She came from a long line of healers and plants-women. Then, when I was just a little older than you, Bryony, I was sent to be an apprentice to the herbalist here.” Issell shivered, although it was warm where they were working. She had stoked up the fire and set the apparatus on it which would extract a concentrate from the lavender heads she’d added to the pewter cup below the flask. She shook herself and seemed to recover, turning to them with a big smile on her face.
“You will be my apprentices,” she declared. “If anyone asks, that is who you shall say you are. You’re my cousins from beyond the Valley.” Issell nodded emphatically. It was a perfectly plausible explanation, and the girls had certainly come from beyond the Valley. As she had just explained to Bryony, that was how she had come to live here. Why shouldn’t other members of her family do the same? After all, she was the only herbalist in the village now.
“What happened to Toby?” asked Bryony. “He said something…” she tailed off not wanting to utter any kind of reminder about the previous day’s events in Bethany’s hearing.
Issell shook her head. “Foolish boy.” She stared at the fire for a few moments. “It was nothing really, but he upset Lord Childecott, and that is a stupid and dangerous thing to do.”
“I heard that, Issy,” Toby bounded into the room and stopped. “Aha, it’s the three witches.”
“Don’t say such things, Toby,” said Issell sharply. “You know…well, you know what.”
“Sorry, Issy, I wasn’t thinking right.”
She walked over to him and put her arm on his shoulder. “It’s not thinking that got you into trouble, and more trouble’s the last thing we need,” she said quietly in his ear.
“So,” she said turning away from him. “What did your morning bring?”
“Well, I kept my head down and went about me business like the best of them. Did me bowing and scraping, although it pained me sorely,” he held up a string bag. “And I got what you wanted.” He laid the bag on the table and took a step towards her. “I also got a nice bit a gossip.”
“Lord Childecott’s men have arrested someone else in the woods. ‘E’s not from round here either…goes by the name of Eyre.”
©2019 Chris Hall
From my latest work-in-progress. How do you think my story is progressing?
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