L is for The Lady. Lady Cadblister is the murdered man’s widow.
Lady Cadblister stared, fascinated, at her reflection in the glass.
“Widow’s Weeds,” she whispered. And then, so quietly that it was barely a sound, her voice came again. “Free,” she said. Her eyes were bright behind her veil, and not with unshed tears. No, she burned with a joy from within. Her husband was dead at last.
“Free,” she said again, this time quite audibly. And then she threw her head back and shouted with laughter. It was, she knew, an utterly wrong sound to come from a recent widow’s chambers, but she couldn’t help it.
“My Lady?” Susan, Lady Cadblister’s personal maid, had drifted silently into the room. “Are you feeling quite well?”
“Ah, Susan. Yes, quite well, thank you. I just- one looks so odd in mourning. It struck me as amusing, that is all, my reflection in the glass.” Lady Cadblister reviewed this last utterance with displeasure. One did not explain oneself to servants. One ought not to be invited to do so by said servants, she thought further. For a moment, she toyed with the idea of handing Susan her notice, impertinent little minx that she was. But cooler councils prevailed. After all, if Susan had heard her laugh like that, it was as well that she’d provided Lady Cadblister with an opportunity to cancel any unpleasant impression it might have left on the girl’s mind. Unpleasant… or suspicious. And if any other servant had heard… well, Susan would be able to tell them how very innocent the laughter had really been. Still, the girl was getting a bit above herself. She had to be put in her place. “Did you have a message for me?” She asked, coldly.
“Yes, my Lady. The sign is upon the window again.”
“Very well. You may go.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Susan curtseyed and departed.
Alone once more, Lady Cadblister surveyed herself in the glass again. Black was so very aging, she thought discontentedly. Oh well, she would not have to wear it forever, whereas her husband was forever dead. Hallelujah.
But the sign on the glass again. That made the second day in a row that the Countess of Cadblister had been summoned by an illiterate old hag of a witch. But- well, she would have to go. She’d disobeyed once, and only once. She would not disobey again. She donned a dead black cloak and dead black gloves and dead black boots. Presently she was walking through the woods, a dead black figure drifting through the shadows and the snow. She reached the part of the wood that she always thought of as owned by Mrs. Goodkind, though it was Cadblister property legally. The Witch Wood. She shivered.
An owl hooted as she came to the path that led to the little cottage.
It always did.
The wood was darker here, and it smelled different. It smelled like dead things that yet moved, like teeth that came to points, like blood summoned up from a sudden wound. And if she were to stop upon the path, she knew that she would hear the noises of thousands of small animals, all rushing towards her, through the leaves and the grass underneath the snow. She didn’t stop. Her heart was pounding and she could hear the singing of blood through her veins. And there was a pressure, a terrible pressure, inside her skull, and she couldn’t keep images of evil and darkness from tearing through her imagination like thunderstorms. The trees pressed so close to the path, and they moved as if blown by winds, yet no winds blew. They whispered, and they plucked at her dead black skirt, and made sudden grabs at her long widow’s veil.
And then – the clearing, the witch’s little cottage, and a light shining in a window. It was not, in itself, a comforting or a safe sort of building, for it leaned crazily to one side, and the roof seemed to be on the point of sliding off, and the stones poking through the snow and indicating the path to the little front door looked like black teeth in white gums. But after the path through the woods, it always seemed comfortable and safe.
Until, that is, you met Mrs. Goodkind. Well, there was no help for it. The Countess of Cadblister knocked upon the cottage door. It opened with a creak that spoke directly to some animal sense of danger buried within the brain.
“Enter,” came the old voice. And Lady Cadblister did enter.
“Welcome, Veronica Francis Crabtree, Dowager Countess of Cadblister. You are looking sore weary. Aye, and your hair grows gray, and there are lines cracking across the face that were once so fair. Come and warm your old bones by my fire.” And the horrible old woman shrieked with laughter. Lady Cadblister winced, but she came to the fire.
“You have summoned me.” Lady Cadblister spoke simply and without her customary arrogance. That was the first lesson the witch had taught her, so many years ago, when she was young, and her husband was young, and she could not give him a child.
“I did, that.”
Lady Cadblister waited silently and watched the flames crackle among the logs upon the fire. Suddenly the witch’s horribly strong hands gripped her by the wrist and pulled her close to that old and terrifying face.
“Your Lord is dead,” she hissed.
“Not by your hand,” Lady Cadblister replied.
“These hands have long arms, oh dowager, oh Countess with the heart of a shrieking fishwife, oh shriveled old wanton of a woman. Do you say I did not reach out and pluck his heart from his chest? Do you?”
“I do. The deed was done by another.”
“Do you know what other? Do you know what force compelled the deed?”
“I do not.”
“Truthfully lying heart! But whether by my magic or no, he is dead. The inquest is tomorrow at noontide, and his corpse shall be after consigned to cold churchyard grounds.”
“And your son inherits a barren crown. Your son, and not his.”
“And the moneylenders yet are owed.”
“And the village will be destroyed, like as not. That is hidden to me, for it is tangled up in things not yet chosen, but where there’s money owing, money must be paid, or the surety forfeited. That is good law- and good magic.”
“The village is in great danger of destruction, yes.”
“And this cottage?” This was accompanied by a tightening of the witch’s grip.
“Yes, this cottage is within the area of the contract.”
“You must give me the cottage, or your last rags of beauty will fall from you, oh vainglorious hussy.”
“There is magic in a deed, in a contract. There is power in the words men write down and sign with their true names, oh Lady Veronica Francis Bloater Crabtree, Dowager Countess of Cadblister. There is magic, and it is not mine. I want that deed. You will get it, and you will bring it to me, and you will sign your true name, and your son- your son that I brought forth from the coldness of your womb- he will sign his true name, and it will be given me.”
“I cannot. I don’t know how to get it. I don’t know if it would work.” Lady Cadblister’s voice contained the shrillness of rising hysteria.
“Calm yourself, girl. Do it in good faith and ye shall keep thy beauty. Defy me, or trick me, and on the day I leave this cottage, never to return more, your face and your body shall wither until none will be able to look upon you.” The witch released the Countess’s wrist. “Pick up that glass and look into it.”
There was a looking glass, old and elaborately wrought, lying face-down upon a crooked little table. The Countess reached out a shaking hand and lifted it to her face.
And screamed. The witch watched impassively as she screamed and screamed, and when she sank, exhausted, to the floor, the witch plucked the mirror from her grasp and threw it into the fire.
“Will you do as bidden?” The witch asked.
“Yes. Oh God yes. Anything.”
The witch nodded, satisfied. “Then I offer ye a boon. You, too, are wanting a deed. A cottage in the village where roses grow out of wedlock.”
Lady Cadblister’s eyes, fever-bright and lustrous behind her veil, were fixed upon the old witch. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Then consult ye the sermons of old Vicar Fallow, girl. Your vengeance is within. Now get out of my sight.”
And the shadows that moved in the play of firelight were suddenly living things, writhing snakes, giant monsters with great jaws. Lady Cadblister fled the little cottage and ran down the path and ran through the woods as if something indescribably horrible were pursuing her close behind.
And the old witch chuckled softly to herself and fingered the bit of veil she’d cut away while the Countess was sobbing on the floor. “It likely won’t come off, mind,” she said, as if still conversing with her titled visitor. “Likely it won’t.” And, still chuckling to herself, old Mrs. Goodkind drifted off to sleep.