Red blood out and black blood in
My nanny says I’m a child of sin—
How did I choose me my witchcraft kin?
Know I as soon as dark’s dreams begin
Snared is my heart in a nightmare’s gin…
~Walter de la Mare, “The Little Creature”
As the young woman entered the lone cottage on the edge of the moors cradling her newborn in her arms, the look on her face plainly registered surprise and perhaps even a bit of disappointment, for it was after all a perfectly ordinary looking dwelling, both inside and out. Even the witch who inhabited it, though incredibly aged with thinning hair as white as snow and skin that resembled wrinkled old parchment, looked otherwise perfectly ordinary as well. And this was despite all accounts of the monks in the village, who had oft described her as a “hell-black hag all covered with boils.” The visitor, in fact, looked more like a witch than the witch herself, with her long disheveled hair as red as hellfire and eyes as yellow as a cat’s.
Now with a toothless smile in a grandmotherly way the old woman beckoned her uninvited yet not entirely unwelcome guest to sit in the empty wooden chair beside hers. Both chairs were situated close to the hearth, upon which a fire was blazing to keep off the night’s chill. Yet despite the draught, which made her shiver, the young woman declined the invitation to sit, instead hovering just inside the doorway of the witch’s cottage, as though still trying to make up her mind whether to leave or stay.
“At least shut the door, child,” the witch admonished, whereupon the girl did as she was bid, and then feeling rather foolish, slowly made her way across the sparsely furnished room to stand before the old woman in the flickering glow and welcoming warmth of the fire.
“My baby is deathly ill,” she said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the witch replied.
“Was it you? Have you done this thing?”
A look of weariness came over the old woman’s face, but she did not seem at all surprised by the accusation. “Why would I wish to harm your child?”
The young mother stared at her wide-eyed, trembling on the narrow border twixt utter desperation and sheer terror. “They—they say you eat children. And blast crops—and—and—other terrible things. Wicked things.”
The witch arched a bristly white eyebrow. “Do you always believe all that they say?”
The young woman hesitated a heartbeat before answering. “No.”
“Come, child. Sit by me. You’ve nothing to fear from an old woman who’s never done anything to harm anyone, least of all children. Did you know many years ago before the missionaries came to these lands I was a midwife? ’Twas I helped your mother bring you into this world, Maggie Weaver. They never told you that, I’ll wage.”
“No,” the young woman replied. “They didn’t.”
Now she sat gingerly upon the edge of the chair beside the witch, resting in her lap her precious bundle, which was wrapped in furs; and the fire suddenly flared up brighter and hotter, as if to welcome mother and child. Meanwhile, with some difficulty the witch stood, and grabbing a small plain wooden box from atop the mantelpiece, slowly eased back down into the chair again with a complaining groan. Then the old woman slid the lid of the box open, revealing the contents within.
“Do you know what these are?” she asked her youthful guest.
Maggie peered into the box. “Bones,” she said with a shudder.
“Yes,” said the witch. “The bone fragments of my mother, and her mother, and her mother before her, gathered from the ashes of their funeral pyres.”
With that she reached into the box blindly to grasp a handful of the bones, and these she cast upon the earthen floor at their feet, where they scattered willy-nilly. Then she stared at the pattern the bones had made for a long while before speaking again, and young Maggie Weaver, though growing ever more anxious with each passing moment, maintained a respectful silence.
“Who is the boy’s father?” the old woman asked at last.
The girl blushed. “I don’t know.”
The witch nodded slowly, as if this confirmed something she had seen in the bones. Then she continued to stare down at them in silence a few moments more, until the young mother could contain herself no longer.
“What is it? What do you see?” For now she half believed that the witch could indeed see things in the bones; after all, she had not mentioned to her that hers was a boy child, and yet she had somehow known this.
“You will not like what I see,” the witch sighed.
“Will he—” The word caught in her throat.
“I can’t see that far, Maggie…at least not yet. When did his ailment begin?”
“Three nights ago.”
“Did anything unusual happen before then?”
“No… well, yes… he had just been baptised.”
“That explains much.” The witch looked at Maggie, and then at the tiny bundle in her lap, which she now pointed at with one long bony finger. “The black blood flows in his veins… as in yours.”
The young woman’s eyes grew wide and she was scarcely able to choke out her next word, which came out in a whisper: “No!”
“Yes,” the witch insisted. “Your mother was a powerful witch before she converted to the new faith, and you are after all your mother’s daughter.”
“She—she never told me.”
“In order to shield you from the truth, no doubt. But one cannot be shielded from what one is; nor can one ever escape one’s wyrd.”
Maggie looked down at the frail unconscious form in her arms. She herself had never been baptised, but she had been raised in the Christian faith by her mother. “How can it be wrong to baptise one’s child? ’Tis only a blessing after all!”
“A blessing, aye,” the witch admitted. “And also a powerful rite. Yet we are not like other folk. We are subject to the whim and will of ancient spirits. Listen to me, girl. Your son is fey; he is fairy-touched. The Old Things are angered by this dedication of your child to the new god. They are trying to draw him into their world. Only your own power has prevented them from doing so thus far. But they will succeed in the end. ’Tis only a matter of time… unless you do as I tell you.”
“But I have no power,” Maggie protested.
“Your power sleeps,” the witch explained. “But it may be woken.”
The look on Maggie’s face may have been one of doubt. But if it was to whether she had the power or whether she wished to wake it, neither of them could have said at that moment.
Now the girl gazed down at her tiny newborn son once more. He looked so pale, so thin, so fragile; like something on the verge of fading from the world. At the sight of him lying there so limply as though dead, his slight form fairly swallowed by the bundles of fur she had wrapped him in, his distraught mother bit her bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. When she looked at the witch again her yellow eyes reflected the reddish flames that had by now begun to die upon the hearth, and the old woman knew that the power was already awakening within her. “What must I do?” she asked the witch.
“You must take your son to the altar stone, and lay him upon it,” came the chilling reply.
Maggie’s head jerked, as someone waking from a dream. “Altar stone?”
“Yes. You know the one. It lies within the ring of standing stones north of the moors.”
“On Witch’s Hill? Oh no, I can’t go there! ’Tis bad enough that I came here tonight!”
“Then your son will die.”
The will to do whatever would save her son and the will to do right by her faith now warred within the young mother, as was plain to the witch’s eyes. Yet as wise as that old woman was, even she could not tell which would win out in the end. Still, she knew well how strong was the bond between a mother and her child. And she also knew well the grief that attended the loss of one she had birthed from her own womb and nursed at her own breast. She would not have wished that on any woman; least of all this foolish girl whom she had once pulled feet-first into the world.
“Saying I do as you suggest,” said Maggie after a moment, “what will happen then?”
“One of the Gentry will appear to you and issue you a challenge. And listen to me, girl: in this challenge you must not fail, lest your son be lost to you forever.”
“What sort of challenge?”
“That is beyond my ken.”
“What of the evil spirits that haunt that place? The restless dead and other wicked wights?”
“You are not wrong to fear such,” the witch replied. “For the ring of stones is a gateway to the Otherworld, which contains as many things as this world, if not more; not a few of which are harmful or malicious.” Reaching beneath her coarse woolen robes she drew out a small brown leather bag and offered it to the girl. “Take this. ’Twill protect you.”
Maggie looked at the bag fearfully, wondering what horrors it might hold within.
“Take it, child. ’Tis only a mixture of salt and herbs. But in the hands of a powerful enough witch, it may be used to banish any lesser spirit from this world forever.”
“If any spirit vex you, toss the contents of the bag at it, saying, ‘In the Erlking’s name, I banish you forthwith.’”
The young mother accepted the small bag offered to her, but said: “I thank you. But I would sooner die than call upon the Devil for aid.”
The witch nodded, as though she expected as much. “No thanks are necessary. By the blood that flows in your veins I am bound to help you… and your babe.”
Maggie gathered her son up into her arms and rose to go. Her knees felt weak, but her heart would not waver, even if she must venture into the Otherworld and beyond. For what she cradled to her breast was a tiny world in itself, and she knew that ever after it would be her world—her entire world—and if it need be buried, then she would be buried with it.
“Always remember, child,” the witch called after her as she made her way toward the door, “that you are one of us.”
Maggie glanced back at her and then down at the bones scattered on the floor before the old woman’s feet.
“No,” she said. “No, I am not. But I will do what I must to save my son.”
The journey to Witch’s Hill was far from pleasant, for it was well past midnight and the sky was as black as pitch, with neither moon nor stars. The wind wuthering across the moors made a ghastly moan, and this was the only sound apart from her own breaths and the pounding of her heart in her ears. For as ever her newborn son was deathly still, so that she had to keep checking to make sure he yet lived; and each time she did so the terror that she would discover that he was in fact already dead mounted in her, until it became almost too much to bear.
In her panic and desperation she had brought neither torch nor lantern, but now she found that despite the lack of light she could see well enough anyway. And after all, why not? For were not witches kin to cat and wolf and owl and bat? She laughed shrilly, shivering with a mixture of stark terror and heady delight at the thought that the black blood might actually flow in her veins! But then she remembered herself, and silently prayed to the Lord of All that she and her son might yet be saved; even though she feared that both their names had already long ago been stricken from the Book of Life.
“Joshua,” she whispered to the tiny bundle cradled in her arms, and then it seemed to her that the dim outline of her son’s face contorted into a fearful visage like unto that of a demon. But resisting the sudden urge to fling the child from her, she instead clutched him ever more firmly to her breast, crying into the chill wind: “Never! I would not do such a thing, were he the Antichrist himself!”
Then the wind died and she could see the hill rising high above the heath: Witch’s Hill, where since ages past the wicked came to gather and celebrate their pagan rites; where ancient standing stones clutched ever at the sky, now blacker than the black night behind them, looking for all the world like a crown upon a giant’s head. And it was giants, folk used to say, that erected the stones, for these imposing megaliths stood taller than the tallest houses in the village; taller even than the steeple of the newly-built church.
The blood of how many men had watered the stones and the cursed earth in their shadow she could not guess, but it was known that the dead haunted this place, along with many other wicked and unnatural things.
Once a young monk by the name of Brother Thomas had warned that to go there willingly was tantamount to spitting on a crucifix.
Now Maggie crossed herself, and prayed to the Lord for forgiveness, and began her long ascent to the top of Witch’s Hill.
A fog had risen by the time she reached the outskirts of the ring of stones. She guessed it to be early morning, yet it would be perhaps an hour or more before the sun rose. There was no wind. Not a blade of grass stirred. All was eerily still and silent as she entered the ring.
There in the centre of the henge stood the altar; a great table of stone perched upon four smaller stones that served it as legs. The tabletop was worn smooth and darkly stained with the spilling of ancient blood. Tendrils of mist curled round its rough-hewn edges like pale ghostly fingers. She shuddered as she approached the altar and lay her newborn son upon it. What if the witch had lied? What if this was but a trick to get her to offer her child as a sacrifice to the evil spirits that dwelt here?
“No,” she told herself. “She did not lie. I would have known if she had.”
Even as she spoke these words she clutched the magic bag the old woman had given her and felt the witch power coursing through her; and yet she kenned that it was not a power that came from the bag or its contents, but from deep within her own body… perhaps from the very blood that flowed within her veins. Did that make her a witch? So be it. All that mattered now was the life of her son. She would worry about the fires of damnation later. But for now she stood before the altar stone and waited… and waited… and then waited some more.
Then at last, after what seemed an eternity, she thought she felt a presence.
Yes, a shadow stirred beyond the stones. Something had come.
“What is there?” she cried. “Show yourself!”
As if in obeisance to her command the shadow approached the edge of the ring of stones slowly, cautiously, almost timidly, and entered therein. Horned and hooved it came on four legs, and as it neared she could dimly discern the many-tined antlers it bore as a crown.
Suddenly conscious that she had been holding her breath this entire time, she exhaled slowly. ’Tis only a stag, she thought, and chided herself for being so foolish as to think that heathen superstition could save the life of her son.
She was about to collect her child again and make her way back to the village when the stag spoke.
“Have you come to beg for the child’s life?” it asked her with a voice that seemed terribly familiar, as one she had once heard in a dream… or a nightmare.
Startled, she made to reach for her infant, her first instinct to flee with him from this dark place and this unholy visitation. But then she stopped and gathered her wits about her. This was what she had come all this way for after all.
“Yes I have,” she replied, her voice quavering.
“You have abandoned us,” the stag spirit admonished. “You have turned your back to the old ways.”
To this she did not know what to say.
“If you would save the life of your son,” the spirit continued, “then you must unbaptise him.”
So this was the challenge. She would be forced to choose between her son’s life and his salvation.
She knew that to choose the former would be selfish. How could she damn her child forevermore just to keep him in this world a while longer? And yet she was sure that this eldritch wight would no more condemn her for making that choice than the old witch would. And if she only did as it asked, it would release her son… perhaps… and perhaps later Joshua might be baptised anew, once the threat had passed.
Having made up her mind, she now asked the obvious question. “How?”
“By baptising him with your own blood.”
The black blood. It made a perverse kind of sense. She looked down at her child lying still as dead upon the altar stone and saw that now beside him lay a long dagger with a deer’s foot for a hilt. Her hand trembled as she picked it up. But recalling the words of the old witch, she knew that she must meet this challenge or lose Joshua forever. So with but a moment’s hesitation she knelt before the heathen altar and wincing pressed the sharp point of the dagger against the flesh of her palm until it broke the skin and her blood trickled out to rain down in droplets upon the head of her infant son.
But my blood isn’t black after all, she thought as she watched it fall. ’Tis as red as anyone’s.
“It is enough,” the spirit said.
She was no longer kneeling, but standing as before, and there was no longer any sign of a dagger, nor any blood. Wondering, she looked at her hand: the pain of the self-inflicted wound had vanished, and she now saw that there was no cut after all. Her act of blood sacrifice had been but a waking dream.
Yet now she could see in the faint pre-dawn light that the eyes of her child were open, and straight away he began to bawl, so she took him up into her arms and offered him her breast, and once again knew the joy of feeling his tiny mouth close tight around her teat as he began to suck.
“You have passed the test,” the spirit said. “Now I know that you are willing to do anything to keep safe our child. Yet you must do more. You must raise him in the old ways.”
Maggie glanced up sharply from the face of her son to that of the stag spirit. “Our child?”
“Yes,” the other replied. “I fathered your son. Though you knew me in a different guise.”
And with that he at once assumed the shape of the beautiful youth she now recalled had visited her in her dreams on what must have been the night her son was conceived: a fairy man with long raven hair and eyes of silver, and skin as pale as milk.
“You!” Maggie cried. “But ’twas you caused his illness!”
“As I said, in order to test you.”
“And if I had failed your test?”
“Then I would have taken our son away with me, and you would have never seen him again. As I may yet do, if I so choose.”
Maggie Weaver felt her whole body begin to shake with rage, only to suddenly grow rigid as a tree rooted in the earth. The wind was up again and now her red hair whipped about her face like a furious fire, and the yellow of her eyes deepened to the orange of flaring coals.
“I see,” she said. “Well, you are right. I would do anything to keep my child safe. And I will also raise him as I see fit. But you were right about something else as well. I must do more. And now that I know the source of his affliction, I shall.”
And with that she raised up the witch’s magic bag and flung its contents into the spirit’s face, crying: In Jesu’s name, I banish you forthwith!
Then came a sound as of a mighty thunderclap, and with a long wail of despair the spirit disappeared, never to trouble any living creature of this mortal world again.
© 2014 by Strider Lee