Matthew and his mother hurried home. His mother was anxious to get home and hide the book before the workers got back from the fields. She reminded him again, “And don’t tell anyone where we went or about the book. Not anyone, you understand?”
“What about Father?”
“I will talk to your Father.”
He knew she wouldn’t. It made him uncomfortable, but he didn’t argue. He thought instead about his new book, his glorious new book. He wondered how its gold leafed pages and warm leather cover had remained so immaculate in the midst of all the mold and decay of the crumbling house and the dying woman. Wrapped in a large square of molding canvas, he held it out gingerly, afraid the canvas might find a way to damage the beautiful book. He didn’t know what he could possibly do if that happened. Just the thought of it made his heart ache. He knew he could never more live without the book.
He paused in his thinking, glancing down at the moldy cube in his hands. Had the book bewitched him already? The more he thought about it, the more uncertain he became. Just moments before, he had felt near to worship of the book. Now he was a little worried. Witches were bad, everyone knew that. And this book had been in a witch’s keep for Heaven knew how long. His mother had taught him about the white, holy magic of the priests and priestesses, and the dark, counterfeit magic of everyone else. There was no way to know under which the book fell until he read it, but he worried. Even if it had started good, could the witch have tainted it? The more he thought about it, the more worried he was. He knew why he had chosen the book in the first place. He wanted to educate himself, to get out of the tiny village like his mother wanted him to. He was going to be a great man, he was going to make her proud. His whole family was going to be rich and he would take them there. He glanced down at the book. But had he chosen wisely? If the book bewitched him, would he know it?
Gripping the book a little more tightly, he thought, ‘I’ll know. I’ll train and I’ll know. I’m going to be a great man.’
Matthew and his mother got home quickly and without seeing too many people. Most everyone was still out. She immediately sent him up into the loft to read and went to check the stew. He hesitated to watch her for a moment. To see her again working in the kitchen as he had seen her every day of his life almost made the visit to the witch unreal. The precious dress was even immaculate, despite all their cleaning and wood gathering. He looked down at himself. Clean. It was a marvel. It made him nervous. He quickly pulled away the canvas from the book and his breath caught in his throat once more at its beautiful allure. He looked up, gazing off into the distance. Oh yes, it was real. He hurried up into the loft, forgetting the cloth on the floor. He dangled his feet over the edge of the loft and settled the huge tome in his lap.
He still didn’t know what the book was. There was no title on the front or the spine, and he hadn’t had a chance to look through it at the witch’s cottage. For all he knew, it was a blank journal, but he doubted it. Nobody made a journal so fine as this. Would he be a historian? A doctor? A treasurer? The possibilities were endless. Whatever was in the book, he knew, that would be what led him to be a great man, the companion of kings and nobles. It would be what took him and his family away from the drudgery and work of the village and into the prosperity of the cities. He felt his future was printed on these pages. With trembling fingers, he opened the book, reading quickly through the first line.
The Great God, that Master from beginning to end, created the heavens and the earth and all things that in them are.
Matthew blinked in surprise. Scripture? The witch had given him scripture? He kept reading.
He created the sun and the moon, the sea and the land, the plant and the beast, the man and the woman. He created the times and the seasons, the thoughts and the emotions of the human heart, the birth and the death. All things He created and all things He sanctified in His name.
Matthew glanced down at his mother, wondering if she knew what was in the book. He was surprised to find that she was already looking at him, her dark eyes questioning. So she didn’t know. They looked at one another for another few moments before he looked away. He could be secretive, too.
His eyes scanned over the pages as he flipped through. Starting at the next chapter, he started reading again, still hoping to see what his future might hold.
And the Great God desired servants to guard His creation while He went to start another. So the Great God took the fingers from His hands and threw them to the earth. One finger landed in the sea. This finger became Desi, the goddess of the sea. Another finger landed in the earth. This finger became Jath, the god of the earth. Another finger landed among the trees. This finger became Fenlas, the goddess of plants. Another finger landed among the beasts. This finger became Mesnam, the god of animals. Another finger landed in a fire. This finger became Hesnil, the goddess of fire. Another finger was carried away in a whirlwind. This finger became Bilst, the god of the skies. Another finger landed on a mountain top, standing straight and true. This finger became Kelse, the goddess of justice and balance. Another finger fell into deep caverns and dark depths. This finger became Tillas, the god of darkness and discord. (This was he who quickly fell from grace and from the company of his fellows and went about the earth sowing distress and destruction.) And the two greatest fingers, one the left and one the right, fell to the earth and landed in the hearts of a man and a woman. These became Saraven and Nimsha, and they were king and queen among these the lesser gods.
Matthew turned the pages to just before the end of the book and found himself looking at pages and pages of incantations. He turned back to the heading of the chapter, nearly a full third of the total book. The Sacred Spells of Saraven.
Matthew stared at the title for a long while, too shocked to accept it. So that was it then: he was to be a priest. Only the priests of Saraven were allowed to study the Sacred Spells. There was nothing else it could mean. He closed the book and pulled his legs back up, ignoring his mother who was staring at him again. He lurked back to a corner where she couldn’t see him and set the book on the edge of the bed he shared with his siblings. He sat on the floor, drawing his knees up to his chin, and stared at the book.
He didn’t want to be a priest. Though he lived along the road to the Sanctuary of Saraven, the thought had never occurred to him. The priesthood was a great and a needful thing, but it just wasn’t something he had ever felt the desire to pursue. Besides, becoming a priest would mean cloistering himself in the Sanctuary for years, leaving family, friends, and belongings. The pay was usually barely enough to survive on, nothing more than the division of the tithes among all the Saraven priests in the Sanctuary. Should he ever choose to leave, he might actually have a real life, but priests weren’t allowed to be in positions in governments, the military or to have families. Their white magic, amazing and powerful as it was, could only be used for defense or in the offices of their priesthood, with few exceptions even in the most dire of circumstances.
He was supposed to be a great man. He was supposed to take his family to the city and take care of them in comfort and happiness all the rest of their days. As a priest, all he could do was abandon them and everything they had ever given them. Even his name would be cast aside for that of his god. He looked away from the book. No, he would never be a priest. The witch was mistaken.
Within a few moments, Matthew found himself reading again, hungrily this time. He didn’t even notice when his mother left to bring Mary home, or when they returned. When the rest of his family came home for the evening, he was disappointed to have to hide the book. He coughed purposely over supper so that his father would pronounce him, again, too unwell to work tomorrow. Inwardly, he celebrated. Now he would have more time to read. He got up with the rest of his family, still faking a cough, and pulled the book out again as soon as they left the house. The witch had said that the magic changed things. The day before, all he had wanted was to go back out into the fields with his father. Now all he wanted to do was read. He was pretty sure he had been enchanted and he found himself spending long hours pouring over the spells to find a cleansing countercurse.
The book seemed to be divided into three parts. The first seemed to be the history of the Creation, a general overview of all the gods and goddesses, the history of the ancient world and the conflicts with the fallen god Tillas. The second part was fully devoted to Saraven, describing his place and purpose among the gods and many stories and parables involving him or taught by him. The final section was entirely composed of the Sacred Spells.
It was all fascinating, almost to the point of addiction for the young boy, but he kept telling himself that he still had no desire to be a priest. The idea held no appeal to him. He was still intent on becoming a great man.
“No, I swear, I’m right this time.”
“Rebecca Smith, you have been swearing you are right for years. Leave the woman in peace. She’s done no harm.”
“You’re not listening to me! I saw her this time!”
“You saw what, Rebecca?”
“I saw her go in the woods with her boy, that serious little child Matthew. They went out into the woods and, when they came back a few hours later, he had something.”
“What did he have?”
“I don’t know. They had it wrapped up.”
“How do you know they weren’t gathering food or wood?”
“Nobody goes into the woods dressed like that to forage! Besides, it was square-shaped, like a box. I know I’m right this time! I’m not the only one who thinks it. You’ve thought it yourself sometimes, I know you have.”
He sighed. “Amelia is strange; that doesn’t mean she’s a witch.”
“If I can figure out where she went, would you come with me out there to decide?”
“Fine, track her, if you must. But if this is just another-”
“It’s not, I swear. I’ll prove it this time. This very night, I’ll prove it to you.”
Rebecca had never forgiven Amelia for ruining her life all those years ago. Why should anyone care about the opinion of one loudmouthed teenager, hardly more than a child? But once the girl accused her of using false weights on her scales, she just couldn’t keep her business going. She wouldn’t take it back, she wouldn’t shut up, she told everyone, spreading the lies faster than Rebecca could counter them. So everyone went to the Johnson bakery down the street and Rebecca found her family destitute. They lost the business, they lost the home, and, in the winter, they lost the baby. She swore revenge, even as the little witch brought her family charity meals and pretended to be so generous and kind. Already, Rebecca had brought the accusation of witchcraft against the woman twice. The first time, it hardly got past her mouth before it was laughingly shot down by the widows the woman was constantly shoving food and blankets at, but Amelia had grown bold since then, especially since she became a mother. Amelia afforded her many opportunities to accuse her of cheating, adultery, lying, and all sorts of other crimes, but Rebecca waited until she was way out of line to bring up the possibility of witchcraft again. Amelia had been glaring at them all through a noose before her husband managed to calm the crowd enough to explain his way out of the situation. Rebecca recalled how she felt at the time. She hadn’t felt so cheated since the death of her baby.
Tromping down a little used game trail with her oldest son, a tall strong boy of eighteen summers, Rebecca smiled coldly. She would have that little witch soon. She had spent the whole morning spreading rumors and planting ideas. By the time she took the constable out to wherever Amelia had been working her black magic, the town would demand her execution. She was too dangerous to be simply banished. She had her this time.
Her son paused. “I think they left the trail here,” he said, examining some recently broken branches. Sure enough, there were faint shoeprints in the mud and moss leading off into the woods. Rebecca was so excited she thought she would burst.
Glancing down at his mother feeding Mary, Matthew took a deep breath and turned back to the last section of the book. Oh, how this section pulled at his heart and mind! Shuddering, he let his fingers gently trace down the creamy page covered in thin, graceful script. He ached to take it all inside of him, all at once, to know and do and become everything in this book, every sacred word and beautiful story and drop of precious ink. He was certain now that he was bewitched, but he didn’t care. He didn’t even bother looking for a countercurse anymore. He would absorb it with the rest. He would know it all. He reverently looked at the first words on the magnificent page. It was a chant that was supposed to make people more peaceable. After that was a charm that could tell if someone was lying. He didn’t try any of them, not yet, but he was amazed at how explicit some of the spells were. There were spells that snapped knotted ropes from the necks of the innocent, that broke swords used for evil purposes against unarmed people, and that ensnared the ankles of thieves when leaving the premises of the place they just stole from. Some were much more generally useful, such as charms that purified water and shielding spells. There were incantations for scrying and invisibility. There were so many spells! How could anyone ever learn them all?
Rebecca whispered fearfully, “Saraven save us…”
“Mother, stay back,” her son breathed to her, holding her by the arm.
“We’ve got her now. By Tillas, we’ve got her.”
“Mother, come away, please. This isn’t safe.”
She looked over at her son. “Yes, we have to get back quickly. We have to bring the constable out here.”
He nodded, just eager to get her away from that decrepit house and the scowling white face in the dark window.
Away at the Sanctuary of Saraven, one of the priests, an older man of the second order, glanced up from his spell book. His divination was directing him toward one of the small villages along the way to the larger towns, a place called Clearwater. There was urgency in the call, but he hesitated. Dark mystery shrouded his Sight. A priest might See where he was needed, but there was no telling if the priest would ever return from such a trip. Just last month, one of the brethren had been lost trying to save a child from warlocks.
The priest turned to the door. One of the younger priests was leaning in, his face concerned. This young man was promising. His devotion was amazing in one so young, and his fervor for a righteous cause was unparalleled.
“Has Clearwater been in your thoughts lately?”
He blinked in surprise. “Yes, it has. In fact, I was just thinking about it when you came in.” He smiled at the younger man. “Have you been divining?”
He shrugged in frustration. “Trying to. It’s so cloudy. Something’s up, but I can’t get a good look at it. There’s the usual taint from the local witches, but this… I don’t know. It just seems different.”
“Divination comes hard to you, doesn’t it?”
He nodded glumly.
“Come over here. Let me show you something.” The young priest came further into the room, standing at the older man’s shoulder. The older priest was seated before a large stone bowl of pure water. He recited the proper chants over the water, then washed his eyes with it, indicating to the younger man to do the same. The same vision opened.
Dark haze drifted over the river and streams of Clearwater, seeping into the water, the ground, the trees… Shadow forms of people moved through the mist, drifting in and out of the woods where the witches lived. There was a sudden explosion of activity, flurries of movement through the fog and muffled shouting. A somber child, dressed in formal black, was moving calmly in the midst of all the flurry, and he was a little clearer than the rest, the mist shrinking back from him a little bit. His shadow was tall behind him, its movements not always in sync with him. White light gathered at his fingertips, but it couldn’t seem to find its way out. The mist turned red and the boy disappeared from the fog, leaving his shadow behind in the form of a tall dark-clad woman that was suddenly very still.
“What do you make of it, brother?” the elder asked. “Past, present or future?”
“I was thinking future. Not by much, but the future. It’s actually much clearer when you help me, but still… it’s difficult to tell what’s happening or why. And who is the boy?” He paused. “Do you think I should go out there?”
The man shook his head. “It is dangerous. We have no idea what’s happening there or when.”
“But if the people need help-”
“And the brotherhood needs to stop losing its brethren. You don’t see the priestesses of Nimsha running off at the first-”
“But if there’s trouble-”
“Listen to me, my brother. Just last month, we lost one of our finest third order priests. He was a rusher, too, you know. We have not even finished mourning for him. Do not make us start over so soon.”
“But it’s why we’re here!”
“Take a bit of advice from an older man, a more experienced priest: wait until morning. Clearwater is only a few hours’ ride from here if you push the horse a little bit. You can go there and sit in the inn waiting all week, if you like. But you know how the bandits love to harass priests, and nighttime is when dark magic is at its strongest.” He rose and rested a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I will not command you, my brother, but I strongly recommend you at least wait until morning.”
Rebecca was livid with the delays. By the time she finally managed to drag the constable out into the woods, it was nearly dark. Her son hesitantly led them back out to that little cabin. Night was falling as they reached the crumbling cottage in the overgrown glade. The constable seemed a little more convinced, but was still unprepared to declare Amelia a witch.
“Fine,” Rebecca snarled. “We will go ask the witch that lives here what they were doing here yesterday.”
The constable hesitated. “A witch lives here?”
“Someone does. Let’s go ask.” She was so angry at the thought of being cheated again that she lost all reason. She started to the house. Her son darted forward, catching her by the arm.
“Do not be such a coward! Are you a man or a cringing dog?”
“Mother, please don’t. Please, let me go instead.”
She hesitated. “I…”
Before she could stop him, he ran down the overgrown path and pounded on the door. After a few moments of tense silence, a shrill old voice demanded, “What?” He didn’t know what to say. He was terrified. He glanced at the window. That old woman was leaning out of it, glaring at him. She pulled back inside and, in less time than it takes to blink, the door swung open, the woman standing there. She was a tiny creature, so short and thin she looked like she could fly away at the first stiff breeze. She was ancient, every inch of her skin wrinkled and papery, her hair whiter than hoarfrost. Her wiry brows were deeply furrowed, deeply disapproving. Sunken black eyes… those eyes… The boy was lost in those eyes…
Rebecca and the constable both jumped when the door opened between the boy and the witch. Her heart lurched painfully and she rushed forward, falling to her knees a short distance from her son. She heard a low moan escape her throat as the witch put hand over hand on her walking stick, effortlessly climbing up the gnarled wood with supernatural grace. She stopped eye level with the boy, one hand on the stick and her feet dangling in the air, and placed her hand firmly on the top of his head, turning him to face his mother, his eyes wide and unseeing.
The witch smiled inwardly. It was a good thing Amelia brought her such fine food the day before. She felt strong.
“Rebecca Smith,” the old woman said heavily. “You are a curse to friends and enemies alike.” Then the witch crushed her son’s head.
“Matthew, my darling, they’re coming. Put your book away.”
Frustrated nearly to the point of tears, he choked on the tightness in his throat and forced himself to stuff the magnificent book down among his clothes in the trunk. As his family came through the door, he slowly made his way down the ladder. Head down, he went to his father to greet him home. He father smiled at him, then looked concerned. “Matthew, your face is so red. Is your fever rising again?”
He started crying. He wanted to tell him so that he could just go back to reading, but he knew he shouldn’t.
His father looked to his mother. “Amelia?” He hugged Matthew as the small boy sobbed into his shirt.
His mother came away from the fire, shaking her head. “I don’t know. He was fine just a little while ago. He’s been up in the loft resting all day.”
“Feel his forehead.”
“It’s not terrible, but he does seem a little warm.”
“Has he been eating?”
“He didn’t want to come down so I took him some food up there.” She knelt by her son and asked gently, “Sweetheart, did you eat the food I brought you?”
He kept crying, gasping, as he tried to explain, “I- I just wa-wanted to r-read!”
“You didn’t eat your food?”
“I was b-busy!”
His father picked him up and Matthew wrapped his arms around his neck, still crying. “Matthew, you can read if you want to. Do you want to have supper in the loft?”
He calmed a little and nodded. His father gently carried him to the ladder and sent him up into the loft. He could hear his parents whispering.
“I think he’s getting worse, Amelia.”
“He seemed to be getting better, though. I was almost ready to send him back out.”
“I know. Has he been drinking anything?”
“He’s had water and I gave him a little of Mary’s milk with his lunch.”
“Has he been like this all day?”
“No. I had no idea anything was wrong. I’m sorry. I should have watched him closer.”
Matthew knew he was being cruel to behave so poorly, especially after his father had lost two other children to fevers. He wished he could tell his father what was really wrong. Still sniffling, he pulled the book back out of the trunk and opened it to the back again, quickly finding solace in those magnificent pages. He quickly tucked it under the blankets when his older sister Margaret brought him some food, but pulled it out again just as quickly when she left.
A strange wail sounded in the distance, away toward the edge of town. It was distant, but the family stopped eating and Matthew looked up from his book. Slowly, he went to the edge of the loft, looking toward the door with the rest of his family. The sounds of a commotion were slowly gathering, the sound of spreading panic. His father stood and commanded everyone, “Stay here.”
His mother stood. “Matthias!”
“It’s alright, Amelia,” he soothed her. “I’m just going to see what the matter is. Stay here.”
He left the house, closing the door behind him. Matthew put his book down in the trunk and slowly came down the ladder, moving to the huddle of his frightened family. The noises were still spreading, growing toward their home. A few minutes later, their father rushed into the house. “Amelia! What have you done?”
She stood quickly. “I didn’t do anything!”
“You have to go, now! At least for a few days until things-”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
Her face was drained of color, cold fear gripping her into immobility. Mary started crying and Martha followed her soon. Their father grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the door, ordering the children to stay there no matter what. He flung the door open and they dashed down the front step.
Matthew watched the surreal scene unfolding through the narrow window of the door. His parents froze just outside the door, looking to the left like startled deer. They took off at a dead sprint to the right and a few moments later, a stream of people rushed after them. Margaret screamed and he snapped out of it. He dashed to the door as Mark, the oldest, shouted, “Matt, wait!” He vaulted out into the darkness, rolling his ankle slightly on landing. The crowd surged around him and he fought to keep his footing. Then he followed along through the crowd, sprinting as fast as his ten-year-old legs would carry him. He glanced to the right and left, looking for signs of his parents. He screamed into the night, “Father! Mother!” Nobody answered him. The familiar villagers were strangers to him in this dark night, demonic and menacing. “Mother! Father! Mother!” He followed along through the dark streets lit sporadically by sputtering torches and wondered what sort of nightmare he had fallen into.
His mother screamed up ahead and the mob suddenly surged forward only to stumble to an instant stop a few feet later. Matthew pushed quickly through the sea of legs, shoving his way to the front of the crowd. His father was nowhere to be seen, but his mother was in the center of the ring, held captive by a pair of shadowed men.
He rushed forward, kicking hard at the shins of one of the men. He was pushed to the ground, but quickly found his way to the man’s knee and bit hard. The man yelled and kicked him off. Someone grabbed him from behind and dragged him backwards.
Rebecca Smith appeared in the ring and snarled, “You!” The crowd fell silent at the powerful vehemence in that one word and turned as one to stare at the woman. Her salt-and-pepper gray hair was smeared with gore, an explosion of blood and flesh spattered all down her face and front. She stumbled closer to Amelia, the pale constable just behind her. “You!” Matthew struggled to get between the woman and his mother. She pointed a bloody finger at his startled mother and screamed, “That woman has caused the death of two of my children! I demand justice!”
His mother stammered, “Mistress Smith, I don’t know-”
“You witch!” she screamed. “I’ll kill you!” She threw herself forward, but one of the men holding Amelia stepped forward, catching her. She snarled and cursed, turning her fury on him.
The constable shouted above the melee. “Amelia Jones, I have received irrefutable evidence that you have been consorting with witches in the woods. Furthermore-”
Her husband’s voice hailed from somewhere in the crowd, pleading, “Wait! Let her explain!”
“Explain?” Rebecca screamed. “Explain?! Let her explain why she went to the witch’s home and came back with an unholy relic! Let her explain the curse she placed on my family! Let her explain why I am covered in the blood of my oldest son!”
The man holding Matthew started to pull him away. Matthew turned and rammed his fist into the man’s groin, then escaped into the crowd. He broke back through into the central space, shouting, “No, you’re wrong! The woman was sick! We were only looking after a sick woman!”
“Lies, lies! You were selling your souls to Tillas!”
The constable was still announcing, “… and in accordance with your crimes, you are to be hung until dead, as a witch and a murderess.”
Amelia cried, “No! You don’t understand!”
He looked down at Matthew. “Somebody take this child home.”
He rushed at the man, but another pair of hands grasped him from behind, dragging him away from the constable. He watched in horror as a rope shot through the dark air, catching on a tree limb and dropping back down to the earth. “Mother! Mother!” Matthew tore away from the man’s grasp and ran to the house, shouting curses back at the entire village. He struggled to pick his way back through the nightmare streets, finally finding the shaft of light from the still open doorway of his home. Leaping up the front step, he ran past his scared and crying siblings in the main room, practically flying up the ladder to the loft. Mark was holding the toddler, feeding her the rest of her meal. With startling ferocity, Matthew screamed, “Get out of here now! Go!”
Mark stood and said sympathetically, “Matt, it’s okay. I understand.”
Mark thought he understood. After all, he’d lost a mother, too, and he loved Amelia almost as much as he’d loved his own mother. He left without further attempt at comfort. Matthew tore through his trunk and pulled out the book. He ripped one of the pages in his frenzy to get to the spells. Trembling fingers ran down the long rows of incantations, searching. Finally, he found it: the spell that broke knotted rope on the necks of the innocent. He heard a bloody cheer from the distance outside and was certain they had just kicked the stand out from under his precious mother’s feet. He read off the spell, struggling with the strange words and praying desperately that it would work.
They all stared in surprise at the broken rope, their cheering silenced in the blink of an eye. Even Amelia, fallen to her knees on the ground, looked in surprise up at the dangling end of the rope, the other end still hanging harmlessly around her neck. Her mind racing, she started to say, “Kelse has spa-”
“Witch!” Rebecca screamed over her, pointing down at her. “She’s a witch! You all saw how she hexed the rope! Witch!”
“No, no, Kelse protected me! I’m innocent!”
Matthew raced back to the mob, his heart pounding, his legs aching. It must have worked. It had to have worked. A loud scream of agony rippled through the village. Matthew felt he could die on the spot. He pushed himself faster, shoving through the crowd again and slipping through the walls of grasping hands, shouting and cursing the whole way. There was a light up ahead in the center of the ring. That had to be where his mother was. That primal scream tore through the air again, longer this time, and Matthew realized with horror that her treble shriek was couple with the deep roar of a fire. “Mother! Mother! No!” Someone grabbed him and he ferociously lashed out at anyone within reach. People jumped back and he threw himself forward, clearing the last of the crowd.
And there was his beautiful, glorious mother, that charming and frightening Amelia Jones, tied to a flaming pyre, her magnificent dress shimmering with the glow of rising flame and ember.