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Extract - Witchchild

WHO WOULD BUY HER? Lady Rowanna’s fearful gaze focused desperately on the distant horizon, the glorious range of mountains bringing some ease to her troubled heart. She felt the June heat of the market place thicken as the throng of inquisitive farmers pressed suffocatingly close, making her heart beat all the faster. What was she doing here? What had brought her to this pretty pass? She really didn’t care to consider.

If she turned her head she could see the stocks beneath the ancient oak. It stood in a shady corner of Kendal’s main square where many a recalcitrant daughter or sharp-tongued wife had endured punishment. As she must endure hers. She supposed she should be grateful that her uncle had not subjected her to such pillory. Despite the stocks having been little used in this England of 1645, not since the last witch had been stoned there half a decade ago, Rowanna had feared she might be about to set a new precedent. She’d heard worrying talk lately of witch-finders stalking the land, tormenting innocent girls but none in Westmorland so far, praise be to God.

But what had possessed her uncle to flout family tradition of loyalty to the monarchy and embrace a brand of politics and religion that allowed such diabolical practices, and with such fervour? Could it be hysteria and superstition, or simply his desire for power?

Rowanna looked at the beads of moisture glittering upon his brow, the curl of disdain about his thin mouth, and the hardness in his narrowed eyes. Carus Blamire was lean and scrawny, a man who did not believe in excess, not even in his own flesh. He showed no loyalty or affection, not even towards family members, but believed utterly in his right to dictate and control. She shuddered to think how she was vulnerably in his hands now that her father was dead. Her uncle seemed stubbornly determined to marry her off to his stepson, her cousin by marriage. If he had his way they would be wed before the month was out, thereby giving him the pleasure of revenge on his dead brother. This alliance he planned struck a presentiment of dread in her heart. Nothing would induce her to agree.

 ‘Come, fellow citizens, I have not heard a fair bid yet. See what a fine wench she is, though somewhat stubborn.’ Carus Blamire lifted his whip to prod her chin, tipping it upwards as if about to show off her teeth as he would a horse, thought Rowanna in a flash of rebellion.

‘She’s a li’le bit on the skinny side. You’d mistake her for a stalk o’ corn if you left her in the barn,’ quipped one old wit and the audience bellowed their approval.

‘These are the lines of good breeding, sir,’ Carus swiftly responded, clearly irritated by the mild good humour of his audience. But then he’d brought her here to be punished, not to create amusement for the crowd. ‘Like a young racehorse she is fine-boned but strong, do not doubt it. And if she’s thin, she’ll not cost much to feed, eh?’

Rowanna flinched as the farmers edged closer.

‘You see before you no mere country wench but one of noble lineage. Note the high cheek bones, the slender lines of the brow above the dark brooding eyes.’ Delicately he traced each quivering feature with the butt of his whip. ‘I’ll admit the square chin gives an indication of her obstinacy but she has an open heart and is ready enough to do her penance, as you can see. Come now, what am I bid?’

Rowanna hadn’t believed he would actually go through with this threat to sell her off at auction. Even when he’d bade Meg clothe her in a coarse hodden-grey gown she’d thought he meant only to frighten her. Not until he had tethered her to the saddle of his horse and forced her to walk barefoot behind it into town did she finally realise his intentions were genuine. Dear lord, who amongst this motley band would buy her? And for what purpose she dare not imagine.

‘One shilling.’ The offer that came forth from the midst of this crowd of strangers, shook her to the core.

‘One shilling? Tis an insult, sir,’ protested her uncle. ‘Two weeks hard labour for such a paltry sum? You sadden me. And the money goes to God and Parliament, remember, not into my purse. Do I hear two shillings?’

Rowanna turned pleading eyes upon him, knowing even as she did so that her uncle would be completely unmoved by her agony. She could not fail to notice the look of sheer pleasure upon his sour face. There was about him the air of a man going about his business, a connoisseur adept at extracting the maximum coinage from the uninitiated. But the royalist crowd backed off a pace at his last words, mumbling uncertainly. They had no wish to see their money go to a Parliament they despised. Had he lost them? Would she be spared any further humiliation? Rowanna held her breath, lowering her eyes to stare at her bare dusty feet, so that he would not see the hope that flared in them. What a mess she must look. For that reason alone she hoped no one would want her.

‘I guarantee she will work on your land, in your kitchen, in your laundry and do whatever task you set her.’ A flurry of ribald titters rippled through the crowd as Blamire scanned them with a smirk of satisfaction.

‘As you all know, young girls are meant to do as they are told, and two weeks hard labour on one of your farms will soon knock the mutiny out of this young lass. Dig into thy pockets, gentlemen, and help the wench make good her penance for her disobedience to her aunt and myself. I seek your help so that she learns to honour her betters.’

His whip hand twitched, and Rowanna instinctively cringed as the leather thong licked the periphery of her vision. It would not be the first time he’d raised it against her, but surely he would not do so here before everyone? She was prepared to accept public humiliation if she must, but not a beating. Never again. She’d suffered from that more than enough already, as well as being locked in the cellar.

‘Three shillings. My wife is about to give birth,’ shouted one man. ‘The lass can keep house for a while.’

Rowanna gave a sigh of relief. This was Jock Ashcroft from Penfold farm. She would be safe with him. Keeping house would be all he asked of her, not like some she could mention in this steaming crowd of folk.

‘That’s more like it. Do I hear four?’

Rowanna clasped her hands firmly together so that Carus would not see them start to shake. She was not afraid of hard work, but nor was she such a ninny that she did not appreciate the dangers that might await her in these remote Lakeland farmsteads. She’d heard tell of serving maids disappearing forever on the backs of these lonely fells. Yet could one of these farmers be worse than her own stony-hearted uncle? She sent Jock a grateful glance and prayed no one would offer more. Most of all she prayed for strength.

‘See how she expects deliverance into your good care, and out of mine.’ Her uncle gave a harsh laugh that grated on her frayed nerves. He flicked the whip one more time so that it curled with soft menace about her slender shoulders. ‘Stand straight girl, let them see your assets.’

The crowd edged forward again on a sigh of anticipation. They always relished a public whipping, particularly on a comely young lass, which was even more titillating. Rowanna saw how their eyes roved meaningfully over the thrust of her pert young breasts as they rose and fell in accordance with her panicking gasps of breath. The look in Blamire’s own lecherous eyes proved that were she not his niece he’d be sorely tempted to take her himself, which brought a feeling of nausea to the pit of her stomach. Not wishing him to see the unshed tears that threatened to betray her, she again lifted her gaze to the far distant mountains, hazed a soft blue in the heat. An icy prickle of fear rippled down her spine, but she stoutly held fast to her resolve not to reveal it as she waited for the next unwelcome offer. It was not long in coming.

‘One hundred guineas.’ A deep voice rang out and the villagers gasped, most of them never having seen so much money in a lifetime. As one they turned to look upon the perpetrator of such munificence, a figure on the outer fringes of the crowd.

Heart pounding, Rowanna lifted her head to see who had spoken. Her eyes widened and for a long stunning second the noise of the market place seemed to fade away as she stared at a Cavalier sitting proud and straight astride a black stallion of impressive stature.

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The inspiration for this story came from the myths and legend of Robin-the-Devil, a Major Robert Philipson who was reputed to have ridden down the aisle of Kendal church seeking his enemy, Colonel Briggs, who had laid siege to Robin’s island home and sacked his family church at Windermere. A house still stands on Belle Isle on Lake Windermere but not the one of the legend. Research unearthed no real information about the feud and so my writer’s mind devised my own. I have changed the names of all characters as they bear no relation to any family in the lake district. My story, apart from the inclusion of some of these myths and legends, is entirely fictitious.