Violence: Yes, some of it a bit graphic.
Sex: None, but there are seeds of romance. (g)
Setting: This is a story about Meg and Isalba, two characters I created in conjunction with my Kennedy and Carson stories. Someday I intend to write a novel-length story about them, but for now, they are featured in two other stories available online, "Soul Vessels," and Chapter 11 of the 2003 Orlando BardCon Round Robin. For those who own the Fortitude anthology, At First Blush, they are also featured in the short story, "Moondancer's Delight."
Pronunciations and Terms: Megan (MAY-gun); Isalba (E-SAHL-buh); Firinne (FEER-in-yeh); Peadar (PADH-dar); Slaine (SLOYN-ye); Beibhinn (Bay-ving); Seamas (SHAY-mus); Pater Noster (Lord's Prayer).
Mailing Lists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbard (updates + chat) and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbardupdates (updates only)
Feedback Welcome: email@example.com
All-Hallow's Eve, Jamestown Settlement, 17th Century
"Meg! Megan O'Brien! Get yourself inside, lass. The spirits will be a-walking this night." Firinne O'Brien wiped her hands on her apron, and ducked back inside the three-room cottage that had been home for their six months in the new world.
"Hush, woman!" Peadar O'Brien chastised his wife. "We're no longer in the old country. The likes o' our neighbors won't be takin' a shine to the old ways."
"You hush yourself, old man. Our neighbors are nowhere in hearin' distance," she snapped back, but the sparkle in her eyes belied her affections. "And did not my Slaine find herself a good husband by the old ways? And our middle daughter, Beibhinn, betrothed she is to another fine man, first seen in the Hallow's Eve vision?"
"Aye, 'tis true enough, but our Slaine, she's back in Dublin, and Beibhinn performed the rites on the shores of the old country, the night we set sail. Our Megan, she is of this world now. We'll not be testing the priests in this country, my love." Peadar looked around, and assured of their privacy, slid in behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her and nuzzling her neck.
"And what if I'd abandoned the old ways, Peadar?" Firinne closed her eyes, leaning into his embrace. "Did I not first lay eyes on your face in me own vision? Had I not seen it, would I've recognized you, when first you came a calling?"
"Ah, that is also true enough, my love," Peadar chuckled, his breath sending tingles down her spine. "But Megan, 'tis her twelfth year. Surely the child is too young for such doings?"
"She's no child, Peadar. No longer. Our Megan has twice seen the cycle come and go. She's a woman now, a daughter of the earth mother."
"Shhhhhh." Peadar whispered. "These walls have ears, I swear they do. No mention of the ways of the goddess. No druids in this country, Firinne. Here we are fine Catholics, and nothing more."
"And why did we have to come to such a strict land, Peadar?" Firinne slipped from his arms, moving to a large kettle in the fireplace, stirring the contents of a hearty fragrant stew. "I've no understanding of it, the church and the goddess, why they canna live side by side."
"My love," Peadar blew out an exasperated breath. "The tenth son of a poor potato farmer can scarcely hope for an inheritance of the land, now can he? There was nothing for us there -- no living to be made, once Pappa died. I couldna live out my days working as a shopkeeper or working a trade. My hands " he held them up, clenching his fists for a moment. "These hands were made to till the soil. Look around you we've got our farm here, with the town close by. 'Tis the best of both worlds for us."
"I know," Firinne sighed. "But my girls I shall bring them up to remember the old ways, and pass them on, even if they must do it only behind the walls of their own homes."
"Ma." Megan eased inside the door and removed her bonnet, wiping the barn floor dirt from her shoes onto a braided rag rug. "Do you think I shall see him tonight, Ma?" She gazed dreamily out the window. "The man I'll marry will I see him Pa?"
"If your mother has any say in it, lass." Peadar gazed warmly upon his daughter. With a lump in his throat, he noted the first telltale signs of womanly curves, and a sharpening of the planes of her face. Gone was the long blonde girlish braid down her back, her golden tresses now pinned up on top of her head in a style not unlike her mother's. "Though any man who comes calling after my youngest will have to answer to me first."
"But of course, Pa." Megan turned and faced him, her green eyes shining in the firelight. She strode toward him and hugged him briefly, inhaling the scent of tobacco and hay that clung to his clothing. "I'll not be betrothed to any man without your blessing."
"Aye, you are your Pappa's girl, are you not?" He kissed the top of her head, smiling down at his youngest daughter.
"Am I not your girl, too, Pa?" Beibhinn entered the room from behind the curtain that separated the girls' bedroom from the main one.
"But of course, daughter." He opened up his free arm and she slipped under it. "You are my sleeping beauty. Is the headache gone, Beibhinn? Did your mother's powders work?"
"As always, Pappa. There is something to be said for the old ways." She smiled up at him. "Besides, I couldna miss Megan's first night of the ritual, now could I?" She ruffled her sister's head, snatching a few hairpins from the thick coil of hair at the back of it.
"Oh, you!" Megan stepped back, trying to catch her hair, but it was too late, and the mass of thick blonde tresses tumbled down around her shoulders, to her waist. "Now look what you've done."
"Just giving you a helping hand, baby sister. The ritual calls for you to be maiden-like, your hair down and your nightgown of purist white." She chuckled at the blush that crept across her sister's cheeks. "Now, we'd best be helping Ma get the supper on the table. At moonrise the ritual shall begin."
Pale moonlight spilled over the land, lighting the trees in a fairy-like glow. Firinne ducked behind her daughters' bedroom curtain and paused, leaning in the doorway for a moment of observation. The two sisters sat side-by-side in companionable silence at the windowsill, Megan's long blonde hair spilling down her back, and Beibhinn's equally long red next to her. Her daughters had been spared no blessing in comeliness, both fair of face and slender of build. It was true their face was their fortune. Beibhinn had a rash of suitors in the old country, and upon arrival in the new, had an equal number of young lads smitten with her in short order, until finally she accepted the proposal of Seamas, the son of a fellow Irishmen from the next farm over.
"'Tis a glorious night for the ritual, Ma." Megan turned, her eyes glowing with wonder and anticipation. "Did you bring me the ball of yarn?"
"Aye, my daughter, that I did." Firinne handed her a large roll of thick blue woolen yarn. "Now I shall leave you and your sister to perform the ritual. Your older sister Slaine did sit by Beibhinn at this very time last year, and the luck was with her. Perhaps the sisterly luck shall run down your way, child." She cupped her daughter's face and studied her eyes for a long moment. "You'll be breakin' hearts soon enough, Megan. Your Pappa has already turned down a passel of callers. The twelfth year is still too young to be marrying ya off just yet."
"But not too early for the ritual?" Long pale lashes blinked over solemn green eyes.
"Nay. Beibhinn didna see the face of her love until her fourth Hallow's Eve rites. 'Tis soon enough to begin to search your heart, Megan." She leaned over and kissed her head. "Now I'll leave the two of you. Your father has left ya his shirt by the fire, and a fresh pail of water from the southbound brook, for the second part of the ritual. Goodnight, my lovely lassies. May you have sweet dreams of handsome faces."
"Goodnight, Ma," Megan and Beibhinn answered in unison. They watched her leave, the curtain luffing behind her as it settled back into place.
Megan held the ball of yarn in her hands. "Shall I begin?"
"Aye!" Beibhinn laughed merrily. "May the goddess smile upon you, little sister."
"Here it goes." Megan flung the ball of yarn out the window, holding onto one end and watching as it uncoiled, and began rolling down the hill that sloped behind their house. When she was confident it had unrolled completely, she began to wind it back in.
"Megan, the Pater Noster!" Beibhinn tugged at her nightgown sleeve.
"Ah, yes." Megan slapped her forehead with her hand, and closed her eyes, whispering as she continued to re-wind the ball of yarn:
"Ár n-Athair, atá ar neamh: go naofar d'ainm.
Go dtaga do riocht.
Go ndéantar do thoil ar an talamh,
mar dhéantar ar neamh.
Ár n-arán laethiúl tabhair dúinn inniu,
agus maith dúinn ár bhfiacha,
mar mhaithimid dár bhféichiúnaithe féin.
Agus ná lig sinn i gcathú,
ach saor sinn ó olc.
Óir is leatsa an Ríocht agus an Chumhacht
agus an Ghloir, tré shaol na saol.
"No, no!" Beibhinn wailed. "You must say it backward for the ritual to work."
"Backward?" Megan paused in the task of re-winding the yarn. "But the sisters, they say in the catechism class that only witches say the Pater Noster backward." Her eyes filled with tears. "How can I?"
"Megan, you must! You've already started. You might bring a curse upon yourself. The goddess will protect you. There are no sisters of the church in this house." Beibhinn gave her sister a side-hug. "Come on, I'll say it with you."
"Alright," Megan peered at her uncertainly, and they began to chant slowly, concentrating on getting the words right, "Amen. saol na shaol tré, Ghloir an agus "
Megan closed her eyes, the words they spoke rolling over her. As they finished, she ran out of yarn, tucking the end back into the ball. Before she opened her eyes again, she jumped, a flash of a face appearing in her mind's eye. Her eyes flew open. "I think I saw something."
"Shhh." Beibhinn covered Megan's mouth. "Look outside, and say nothing until the vision passes."
Megan nodded and looked up at the full glowing moon. She blinked, and a form began to take shape -- an indiscernible face, surrounded by long dark flowing tresses. She swallowed hard and her eyes narrowed, but the image remained. It appeared decidedly feminine, and she tilted her head to the side, watching as murky facial features took shape, eyes that shone bright blue, and full pink lips that curved up into a brilliant smile, before the vision vanished in a vapor of clouds that blew over the moon. "I " she stopped, and turned to face her sister. "It was all wrong, Beibhinn."
"What do you mean, 'all wrong'?" She took Megan's hand and squeezed it. "What did you see, little sister?"
"I think it was a woman." She closed her eyes, the image still imprinted in her sight. The face warmed her all over, sending a jolt of tingling chills all up and down her back.
"A woman?" Beibhinn practically hissed. "That canna be right. Perhaps you shouldna have said the Pater Noster in the correct order first. Pappa's shirt, maybe that will set things right. Come, Megan. Let's hurry and undo what has been done."
Megan stood mutely, carrying the ball of yarn with her, her eyes thoughtful. In a daze, she wet the left sleeve of her father's shirt in the pail of water, and hung it before the fire on a sturdy nail that had been driven into the thick wooden mantle. "There," Beibhinn soothed her. "Now the vision of your love-to-be will come at midnight and turn the shirt so the other side of the sleeve can dry. But you must not fall asleep, Megan. Do you think you can stay awake?"
"Yes," Megan nodded slightly. "Good-night, Beibhinn. I'm certain the goddess will make all things well."
"Then I bid you a good All-Hallow's Eve, little sister." She kissed Megan's cheek, and helped her settle into a rocking chair by the fire, tucking a soft old patchwork quilt around her to keep her warm. Megan watched her disappear behind the curtain, and sighed, her thoughts turned toward the face she'd seen over the moon.
It was a strong face, full of beauty and courage, and the memory of that smile she shivered, an involuntary smile gracing her own lips. But a woman? It made no sense, and she contemplated that. In truth, Megan O'Brien had little fancy for the ways of the women around her. It was one thing to dream of meeting her husband and falling in love, but quite another to envision a life of birthing babies and keeping house. Men had all the fun, she was quite convinced. They were outdoors all day long, and could joke and smoke and drink ale at the tavern, and learn all manner of interesting subjects in school, while she was allowed only the religious training taught to her and the other girls of Jamestown. She could not even read, but was only allowed to recite the lessons they memorized in the long tedious afternoons with the sisters of the church.
Her thoughts drifted back to the fire and the clean shirt her father had left her. She could see the water dripping from the wet sleeve, back into the pail, and if she listened carefully, she could hear the plink, plink, plinking of the drops, over the low crackle of the brightly burning fire. She closed her eyes, her thoughts flitting from the fire, to the cows in the barn that she would be milking at dawn, to the lads of Jamestown, and which one might be her future betrothed. Slowly, her legs and arms relaxed, and she had almost fallen asleep, when a cool breeze drifted across the room, brushing over the top of her head and disturbing the edge of the quilt tucked under her chin.
Megan's eyes popped open, and she gasped softly, as a translucent figure stood by the fire, its back turned to her. Long dark hair tumbled wildly down the figure's back, and she could just make out dark trousers tucked into high polished boots, their silver buckles glinting in the firelight. An arm lifted up, a white blouson sleeve ruffling slightly, as the figure took the shirt from the nail and turned it, hooking it back down in front of the fireplace.
"Oh." Megan's eyes widened as the figure slowly turned and moved in her direction, gliding soundlessly a little above the wooden floor. As it drew closer, bright blue eyes bore through her, and a long arm reached out toward her. Megan felt the gentlest of touches against her face, sending a skittering of sensation across her skin, as goosebumps danced down her arms and legs. It was the same woman she had seen over the moon. She gazed at Megan intently, and vanished, seemingly sucked up the chimney along with the pine smoke.
Had it been a dream? Megan blinked and closed her eyes, drawing in a calming breath. Her eyes flew open as she sucked in another lungful, the scent of salt water and warm sand lingering in the air. How had such fragrances entered the room? She thought of the mysterious woman in her vision and sighed, still feeling her touch against her cheek. It stirred something deep inside, a warm spark in her heart, and she knew that no matter whom she married someday, she would never forget her All-Hallow's Eve visitor.
Beach Near Jamestown, Same Night
Steady drumbeats sounded on the shore, and a rhythmic rattle shook, shattering the silence of the night air. The full moon shone down on the beach, where several figures gathered around a prone body, laid out next to a bonfire. The figure, a man, groaned in agony, his face pale from sickness, his body emaciated and his features gaunt. Another figure in a mask knelt over him, chanting words in an unfamiliar language and sprinkling herbs along his body. The masked figure moved closer and gently lifted the man's head, placing a rawhide string around his neck. Tied to the string, resting in the hollow of his throat, was a fetish, a small packet of herbs and other mystical ingredients, tied up in a soft suede leather pouch.
The masked figure stood and glided silently toward a basket near the fire. The figure squatted down next to the basket and carefully opened up the lid and reached inside. Slowly, it drew out a coiled body, which quickly lengthened, the body of a fat smooth snake slithering in the masked figure's hands. It made no sound, but settled into the figures grasp, as the snake was lifted high overhead amidst more chanting.
The masked figure moved toward the prone man and held out the snake. "Touch it," a velvety voice purred in a heavy Spanish accent. "Touch it and feel the power of the goddess as she heals your disease." The man reached out and with a shaking hand, trailed his fingers along the serpent's surprisingly soft body. Exhausted, he fell back against the sand, his arm flopping down next to him.
"We've seen enough!" A group of armed men stepped out from behind the trees at the top of the beach. "Arrest the witch doctor."
"Run!" The masked figure yelled. "Don't look back!"
The drums were dropped into the sand, along with the snake, which took the opportunity to escape into the woods. One man stopped and touched the masked figure's shoulder. "What shall I tell the cap'ain?"
"Tell him I'll catch up in the next port." The man looked uncertainly into the eyeholes of the mask. "Go, before they take all of us! It's me they want." The man found himself shoved in the direction the others had run.
The armed men circled the witchdoctor, standing out of reach until they were certain the masked figure bore no weapons. "Don't hurt him," the figure glanced at the sick man still lying by the fire. "He has done no wrong. I I brought him here against his will to try to heal him." The ill man began to protest and stopped as the masked figure shushed him, and kicked a bit of sand in his direction.
"We shall see." One of the men stepped forward and jerked the mask off, gasping in surprise. Long dark hair tumbled out from the mask, the moonlight dancing off it in blue and mahogany highlights. ""Tis a woman!"
"A witch of the devil, no doubt." One of the men spat in the woman's face. Her eyes narrowed in anger, but she remained otherwise still. "Take her victim into town and see to it the doctor takes care of him. As for her, take her out back o' the jail and give her twenty lashes. Bring her up before the elders for witchcraft charges on the 'morrow."
The woman briefly struggled with her captors, then gave in, meekly allowing them to lead her into town, her hands bound fast behind her back and her ankles shackled together by a length of chain that barely allowed her to walk. It was dark out, cloud shadows chasing across the moon, and the sounds of a light wind blowing through the chill air.
One of the men took her behind a low barred building and rough hands shoved her to her knees before a large flat-topped tree stump. Two thick metal loops jutted up from the stump, and the man took her hands, only partially untying them and shoving them painfully over her head, until she felt one shoulder pop out of the socket. She cried out only briefly, as daggers of agony shot down her arm and up into her neck.
"You're an un-natural one, dressing in a man's clothing." The man chained her wrists to the metal loops, and pushed her face down until it almost touched her hands. "You go against the ways of God Almighty with your filthy witchcraft and your trousers." He ripped her shirt open from behind, baring her back to the cold air. She shivered, hearing his feet crunch through the dead leaves on the ground. "You heard them. I have the lash here with me."
She gritted her teeth and heard the whoosh of air, just before the fringed leather end of the whip snapped loudly, and flicked over her back, flaying her skin open. She whimpered once, then made no more sound, enduring ten strikes without a word. The man stopped and moved around, standing in front of her where she could see his boot-tops. He grasped her face in one hand and tilted her head up. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she kept her mouth closed. "What's your name, lass?"
Her nostrils flared in anger and pain, but she kept quiet, her breathing coming hard as her body fought the pain. She could feel blood trickling down her back, an odd mixture of warmth with the cool breeze that brushed over her skin. He slapped her across the face, knocking her head to one side. "Answer me, woman. What's your name?"
The woman's tongue poked out, tasting blood where the blow had split her lip. She glared up at him, refusing to speak, and he struck her again. "Tell me your name, or we'll bring the man you were treating out here, and try him for witchcraft along with you."
"Isalba Cortez," the woman rasped softly.
"You are unknown around these parts, lady. Where are you from?" The man knelt down. "You speak as a Spaniard."
Blue eyes sparked to silver in the low light, peering angrily up at the man. "I spit on Spain and its king and queen." For emphasis, she did just that, spitting on the ground, tasting more blood.
"Are you certain you're not a Spaniard? You have a Spanish name," he goaded her. "Maybe when we try you for witchcraft tomorrow, we will wrap you up in a large Spanish flag. Maybe after we burn you at the stake, we'll send your ashes back there."
"Spain is dead to me," she looked steadily into his eyes. "I serve only England."
"That will gain you no sympathy here," he answered. "Beg me for mercy now, and admit you are guilty of witchcraft, and I shall lay off the lash. No less, and you shall suffer ten more strikes."
She glanced up at him one more time, then lowered her forehead to the stump. The man made an unintelligible surprised sound, then shrugged, and moved behind her, laying into her with the full force of his body for ten more strikes. When he was done, she was panting, blood streaming down her back in rivulets, staining the ground below her. Sweat covered the rest of her body, and close scrutiny revealed that she was shaking all over, tiny controlled movements of her body as she reined in the urge to scream out in agony.
"Silas," another man rounded the building. "Be done here. Lock her in the stocks in front of the jail until morning. Perhaps a night out in the cold will make her see the error of her ways."
The second man moved in front of the stump and knelt down, waiting. "Woman, look at me." Slowly, tear-filled blue eyes raised, glaring at him with unbridled pride and fury, as full moonlight spilled over her face. "May God forgive us," he gasped. "She's a child." She was tall, as tall as some of the men who had captured her, but on closer inspection, her body bore the lankiness of a still-growing girl. Her eyes gave testament to experience beyond her years, but there was a roundness to her face, a softness that would disappear with her womanhood. "How old are you, child?"
"I'm in my fourteenth year," her chin jutted out. "I'm no child."
"Still, we should not have whipped you." He stood, his face lined in worry.
"Ah, Jacob." Silas re-coiled his whip and clapped him on the shoulder. "The girl is old enough to marry. Old enough to bear brats, I'd wager. Younger than her are hanged and burned up north, in Salem. She's old enough to stand trial and old enough to know better than to go against the ways of good Christian folk."
"True, I suppose." Jacob studied the girl for a moment. "Put her in the stocks. We'll let the elders decide her fate. Although what we saw was clear enough -- snake handling and calling out to a pagan goddess. More than enough evidence to forfeit her life."
They unchained her and jerked her to her feet, mindless of her dislocated shoulder. She groaned in pain, but followed meekly, in hope they would spare her friend if she was cooperative. In short order the heavy top beam of the stock dropped over her neck and wrists, the clank of the key turning in the locks sounding loudly in her ears. Jacob un-shackled her legs, and moved in front of her, scooting down until she could see him. "I sadly inform you, girl, your friend died at the doc's cottage only moments ago. Think on that and on your pagan ways. Worshipping the devil will bring you no good in this world. You've cursed your friend and cursed yourself."
"Bastards," she growled, all restraint gone at their news. She began chanting in a language they did not understand, her eyes sparkling with intense anger and concentration:
Babe wetfu losezulwini,
alingcweliswe libito lakho.
Umbuso wakho awute.
Intsandvo yakho ayentiwe emhlabeni,
njengobe yentiwa ezulwini.
Siphe lamuhla kudla kwetfu njengasemalangeni, onkhe.
Sitsetselele tono tetfu,
njengobe natsi sibatsetselela labasonako.
kodvwa usisindzise kulokubi.
Ngobe umbuso wakho, nemandla,
nebukhosi, kuze kube phakadze.
"She curses us with her devil tongue!" They stared at her but for a moment, then scurried away in fear, disappearing into the darkness, leaving her alone as the cold settled into her bones.
She laughed as they ran, stopping only when her shaking sides caused her too much pain. "Fools," she mumbled. She had merely recited the Pater Noster in Swazi.
An insistent knock at the door drew Peadar O'Brien from his warm bed. As he stepped into the main room, he smiled briefly at the sleeping figure of his daughter, who was curled up in the rocking chair near the fire. "Ah, sweet Megan, I hope ya had yourself some nice visions on this night." He walked quietly to the door and opened it a crack, holding a finger to his lips as he recognized Silas and Jacob, two of the village elders. "Quiet iffen ya will. Me daughter fell asleep in the chair over there, and I've not the heart to wake her."
The men nodded and spoke low, describing the girl in the stocks in the village square. Megan awoke and opened one eye, just long enough to identify who was speaking, before she closed it again, feigning sleep. Strange words washed over her "witchcraft" "stocks" "trial" "woman in man's clothing" "just a girl, really," but her heart lurched into her throat on Jacob's description of their captive, "she'd be a beautiful lass if she were to reach her full womanhood, long dark hair and eyes as blue as the summer sky, a tall one. Most unfortunate it's almost a certainty she'll not live to see another night."
Peadar nodded solemnly. "So ya need me at dawn for a meeting of the elders?" The men shook their heads affirmatively and bid him a good night. Peadar closed the door and went to bank the fire, then moved to the rocking chair and lifted his daughter, carrying her into the next room and depositing her into the bed she shared with Beibhinn. She barely stirred, and snuggled down beneath the covers, not moving again until she was certain he had left the room.
Inch by careful inch, she slipped out of bed, stopping and waiting without breath, until she could see her sister's breathing, a slight shifting beneath the covers. She located her shoes and stockings, and a shawl, and crept out into the main room, where she grabbed up the quilt still draped across the rocking chair. Listening for any sound of her parents waking, she edged the door open and stepped out into the cold night air, and struggled into her stockings and shoes. Drawing the shawl around her, she folded up the quilt and began the long trek into Jamestown proper.
The night was eerily quiet, save for the wind brushing through the few dead leaves that clung bravely to almost winter-bare branches. An owl hooted and flapped away at her disturbance, almost making her shriek in fear before she realized what it was. Something was driving her to the village square. It was madness, she knew, and forbidden, but she had to see the girl the elders had described. Her vision she shook her head and hunkered down against the wind, almost running in her eagerness.
In no time at all, her steps slowed, as the jail came into sight, and she spied the lone figure hanging from the stocks out front. She stopped and swallowed, a mixture of fear and anticipation coursing through her veins. She could hear her own heartbeat in her ears, and her legs suddenly felt like liquid. Girding her loins, she moved on resolutely, quietly approaching the girl, who was visibly shivering. "Hello?" Megan crooned softly.
The dark head turned toward her, two eyes studying her intently. The eyes narrowed. "Shouldn't young girls like you be in bed asleep?" a deep rich voice responded.
"I'm only two years younger than you," Megan answered, moving closer.
The head turned toward her again, and a brow quirked upward. "How do you know my age?"
"Two of the elders came by our house and talked to my Pappa. They thought I was asleep, but I was listening." She drew in a shaky breath and stepped up on the platform that bore the stocks.
"So you sneak around in the darkness to get an eyeful of the wicked pagan witch?" Isalba hissed out. "Stare at me all you wish. You can't hurt me little girl. Not any worse than they already did."
"No. I I came because " her voice trailed off as she knelt down and sat down on the ground below Isalba, so they could see each other face to face. She gasped softly. It was the face and eyes in her vision. A face that was bruised from Silas' severe slapping. "Look what they did to you," she whispered sadly. "I "
"Came because why?!" Isalba barked. "You itching to dance with the devil, little girl?"
"N no!" Megan edged back a little. "Do you truly engage in snake-handling?" she asked curiously.
"Yes." Isalba's voice hinted at danger, and her eyes held the slightest suggestion of mischief. "But it is not what they think it is. It is something I learned in the islands."
"Islands?" Megan sat up, her head tilted in curiosity.
"West Indies," Isalba's eyes took on a faraway expression. "It is a kind of religion. A black magic. They call it Voodoo. I've seen it work miracles. I only wanted to save Cookie. He was one of my best friends, and his body was raging with the fever. But I needed a place to build a fire, so we took him to shore when we landed near here. I live on a ship. I'm a cabin boy."
"But you are a girl," Megan teased slightly.
"Yes, and they know of that, now. But when first the captain took me in, he thought I was a boy." She grinned wickedly. "By the time they discovered my secret, the captain had decided I was indispensable, and so he allowed me to stay on. He raised me, I suppose, moreso than anyone else has."
"But your parents?" Megan asked softly. "Such an adventurous life you must lead, but what of your parents?"
"Murdered by the king and queen of Spain, along with my entire family" Isalba growled. "I escaped. Someday " she studied Megan, wondering if she could trust her, then she snorted softly, realizing nothing mattered anymore. She was condemned, and with dawn all her dreams would perish. "Someday," she continued quietly, "I had hoped to have my own ship and crew. I wanted to exact my revenge on Spain for what they did to my family. The captain of the ship I live on, he has taught me everything I need to know. All I needed was a bit more time, but now " she trailed off and looked down.
"You're shivering." Megan stood up and moved around back with her quilt. She cried out when she saw the bloody crusted whip lacerations on Isalba's back. "What did they do to you?"
"Is that not at least obvious to even a girl like you," Isalba shook her head. "I am a witch to them. They whipped me, little girl, and on the 'morrow they will burn me at the stake."
"You were only trying to help a friend," Megan began to cry. "They canna do this thing. I've only just met you."
"You are a curious girl," Isalba continued to shiver. "Make yourself useful and bring me a dipper of water from that well over there."
Megan sniffled and wiped her face on her shawl. "Oh. Of course." She scurried over to the well and brought up not only a dipper, but a pail full of water, lugging it back to the stocks. She held up the dipper, watching as Isalba's full lips closed around the edge and she slurped thirstily at the cold clear liquid.
"Thank you," Isalba finally indicated she was full. "Blood loss, I think. Makes a body thirst."
"Will you let me clean your wounds?" Megan tore a strip of cloth from the bottom of her nightgown. "Please?" She moved closer, resisting the urge to touch Isalba's face, instead stopping short, resting her hand on the wooden stock. "I know it shall probably hurt terribly, but perhaps it will make you feel better, once it is accomplished."
"Why such kindness to me?" Isalba's eyes narrowed and she turned to find green ones boring through her. It touched something inside and she bit off a gasp of surprise. "I'm a witch to you, am I not? A pagan of the devil?"
"No." Megan gave in to her instinct, brushing a hand across the dark head. "No. You will surely think me mad if I explain myself to you."
"They think I am mad," Isalba laughed bitterly. "Why should it matter to one such as you, what I think?"
"Because. It does. That is all." Her hand trailed down and cupped Isalba's face. "Please. Let me take care of your back."
The touch was comforting, warming her and driving back some of her fear of the coming dawn. "Alright." Isalba jerked her head back a bit. She felt the air moving as Megan stepped behind her, and she closed her eyes, determined not to make a sound, as cold water was drizzled down her back. A gentle touch of the rag to her back felt like fire, and she squeezed her eyes shut more tightly, waiting for an eternity until Megan finished, and draped the quilt around her.
She felt immediately warmer, though her skin was still twitching from the pain at her back. Megan moved back around and stooped down so they could see one another. "Oh." Megan touched her face again, catching a few tears as they trailed down Isalba's cheeks. "That must have hurt terribly, but your back is all clean now. We have some herbs at our cottage. I could go get them, but I fear the sun shall be up soon."
"Ale?" Isalba asked hopefully.
"You wish for ale?" Megan frowned in consternation. "Ladies don't "
"I am no lady. I drink ale and I smoke tobacco. Ale would take the edge off the pain." Isalba winced as she shifted slightly, reminding her of her still-dislocated shoulder. "It would be most welcome if you could locate some."
"I shall be back quickly." Megan trotted back to the well and pulled up another rope. At its end was a small keg. She smiled back over at her surprised new friend, as she untied it and lugged the small vessel to the platform. "The elders believe no one knows of this, but all the village children have seen it, though we don't dare touch it. The water in the well, it keeps it cold." She uncorked the round wooden container and poured a full measure into the dipper. She held it up and watched in fascination as Isalba gulped it down in only a few swallows. "More?"
"No, thank you ever so much." Isalba shifted again and turned her head, watching Megan's face. A tear escaped and rolled down Megan's cheek. "Why?" Isalba longed to catch that tear. "If they find you here, they shall burn you with me. I do not understand. You know me not at all."
"I do know you." Megan balled her hand into a fist, and held it over her heart. "I know you in here."
Intrigued blue eyes shone back at her. "Go on."
"It is difficult to explain." Megan swallowed and moved closer, touching Isalba's face once more. Blue eyes closed and Isalba soaked up the touch. "I saw you, Isalba, in a vision. I knew I would meet you one day. I just did not think it would be so soon."
"A vision?" Isalba opened her eyes.
"Please. Do not ask me to explain," Megan answered softly. "Will it suffice to say my mother, she practices the ways of the old country? It sounds not so different from your, how did you say it? 'Voodoo'?"
"Ah, my pagan comrade. We all have our secrets, do we not?" Isalba smiled sadly. "I shall think of you and your kindness always, and upon my death tomorrow, I shall see you in my own vision."
"No." Megan began to sob, covering her face with her hands. "I canna allow you to die. Not now. Wait here."
Isalba chuckled. "I do believe I shall still be here, should you go away and return."
"Oh." Megan managed a smile. "'Tis true. But you shall not be here when the sun rises. That I promise you." She took off at a run, disappearing behind a building in the darkness.
Isalba drew in a breath, grateful for the warm quilt, and the cold ale in her belly, the alcohol settling into her blood and easing the pain, just slightly. Far off, she heard a ship's bell, recognizing it immediately. It was the signal for all who had gone ashore. The ship would be leaving in an hour. "Hurry back, little one," she whispered into the night.
Almost as if she had heard her, Megan returned momentarily, dragging a crowbar and a mallet with her. "I took these from the Smithy's. I believe if I wedge this bar into the padlocks, and beat them with this mallet, I can break them." She eased the long metal tool into the lock mechanism, and hefted up the mallet. "I do hope I do not hit you."
"You can do this," Isalba encouraged her. "I shall say a prayer for you."
"You pray?" Megan's eyes widened incredulously.
"When it seems fitting, yes," Isalba smiled. "Go on." She closed her eyes and winced, as Megan slammed the mallet against the crowbar several times. Each blow shot through the wood and through her shoulder, and she bit her lip until it bled. Finally, she heard a loud crack, and the clunk of metal hitting the platform at her feet.
"It worked!" Megan moved to the other padlock, repeating the process, doing a little dance as it too broke off. "You shall be free, just as soon as I can get this off of you." She reached up and pushed against the heavy wooden cross beam with all her weight, shoving mightily until it teetered and fell off, just missing Isalba's head.
Isalba stood stiffly and moaned in agony, looking around wildly until she spotted the jailhouse wall. Closing her eyes, she lunged for it, ramming her shoulder against it and crying out as it popped back into the socket. She turned and saw Megan cringing back from her, her eyes full of fear. "I shall not hurt you," Isalba rubbed her shoulder. "They pulled it from its joint when they whipped me. I had to do that to put it right again."
"Oh." Megan stood taller and cautiously approached her friend, reaching up with her hand and touching her face once more. Isalba also reached across, mimicking her touch.
"What is your name, little one?" Isalba stroked her cheek softly.
"Meg. Megan O'Brien." Megan smiled up at her. "And I'm not so little. You could take me with you. I could be useful at sea."
Isalba laughed heartily. "No. That I cannot do." The ship's bell rang out once more. "That is my ship. If I run, I can reach them before they leave."
"But " Megan stopped, as Isalba ducked down, quickly brushing her lips against Megan's.
"I shall never forget you, Megan O'Brien." She stroked Megan's soft hair. "May the goddess bless you, all of your days." She smiled once more and reluctantly stepped away. She trotted to the edge of the village square and stopped, turning around once more. She waved, and watched as Megan blew her a kiss. Isalba blushed, and turned resolutely toward the sea, running into the woods and out of sight.
Across the eastern sky, Megan saw the pink edge of dawn, and she sighed. She picked up the quilt and folded it carefully, then walked down past the town to the shoreline, where she spotted Isalba, running down the beach in the lingering darkness, toward a tall-masted ship. "You'll be back with your own ship someday, Isalba Cortez. By the goddess, I know you will be."
Sunrise found Megan safely back in bed, with none the wiser to her nocturnal adventure. It was rumored far and wide that the devil himself had freed the witch Isalba Cortez from the village stocks.