In Which Charity is Discovered
It was half past eleven when Father and Charity arrived at the place of sacrifice, which was the bakery in the centre of town. The shop was lit up with festive lanterns, and the large wooden tables were piled with freshly baked goods. Clearly, the baker and his family had put in many extra hours of work.
“Why the bakery, Father?” Charity asked as they hung up their travel cloaks in the entrance.
“It has the most suitable oven,” Father said shortly.
“Oven? The witch is to be sacrificed in an oven meant for food?”
“The oven will be properly cleansed with fire, over the next days.” Father gestured to onc of the tables of food. “Thus the extra bounty that has been prepared for all beforehand. Enough questions, I have important matters to attend to.” He strode over to a cluster of heads of houshold, and joined their conversation.
Charity had no need to listen to them congratulate Father for capturing the witch, and instead looked around the room to gauge the composition of the crowd. There were about thirty men, a few of whom were clerics, talking heartily about important matters in small groups. Many were locals who lived either in town or on surrounding farms, but there were some she did not recognise, who had to be visitors from nearby towns. There was a lesser number of wives, arranged in larger groups and keeping their conversations properly subdued. A few young men stood by their fathers, and some maidens attended their mothers, though a greater number were occupied carrying plates laden with treats from the tables or mugs of steaming hot cider.
The door to the kitchen part of the bakery opened, catching Charity's attention. She recognised her friend Abigail, one of the baker's daughters, at about the same moment as Abigail saw her. Abigail beckoned her forward, and hurried to meet her in the middle of the room.
“Charity, you're not a moment too soon. I need someone to trade places with Priscilla out the back. She's at the door to the east storeroom with... one of the out of town girls. Rebeccah, I think. It's a chore to keep track of everything tonight!”
“I imagine it is,” Charity said in understanding. “No problem, I can do it.”
“Make sure you try the cinnamon rolls,” Abigail said as she began piling several of those very items onto a clean plate.
Charity snatched one up as she passed the table. She thought of taking a cream bun also, but she needed a free hand for the doorhandle.
Priscilla was easy enough to find, in spite of the dim candlelight in the back hallway. “Abigail sent...”
“Shh!” interrupted the other maiden, likely named Rebeccah. “Whispers only.”
“Sorry. Abigail sent me to relieve Priscilla. Um, she didn't say what it is you're doing though,” Charity said, whispering as instructed.
“Guarding the door. The you-know-what is in there. Thanks, I've got to go!” Priscilla said, her rapid whispering difficult to follow. The short girl rushed away, walking rather uncomfortably. Charity figured she was headed for the outhouse.
“Why are we whispering?” They were far enough from the storefront of the bakery that they shouldn't be able to disturbe the men by speaking normally.
“The witch might hear us,” Rebeccah said.
“The witch? She's locked in the storeroom? Why should it matter if she can hear us?”
“No idea. Maybe she can curse us from beyond the grave?”
“She doesn't get a grave.”
“Oh. Right.” The maiden, who was taller than both Priscilla and Charity, shrugged.
While Charity had wanted to see Skids again, she'd had no real plan for accomplishing that. Now that she was a single door away from the witch, the thought of actually talking to the strange maiden was extremely uncomfortable. What was she supposed to say? What did she want to say? But none of that mattered, unless she could get rid of Rebeccah.
“Uh, have you tried the cinnamon buns?” she asked, having finished the last of hers.
“Haven't had a chance to eat anything since I got here.”
“Oh. They're really good. If I'd known, I would have brought you one. But if you're hungry, I'm sure I can mind the door myself.”
“No, it's fine. Someone should be along to switch with me soon.”
“Abigail might forget to send someone. She's pretty busy. Um, are you Rebeccah?”
“Me? No, I'm Mary. I switched with Rebeccah”
“See, she lost track of who's out here. For all we know, we'll be out here all night.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Mary asked. Charity thought she sounded suspicious, though the whispering made it hard to tell for sure.
“Of course not, I'm just trying to help.”
“It seems to me that you want to be left alone with the witch,” she accused.
“Shh! She'll hear you!”
Charity was sick of whispering. “I really don't think it matters. Besides, wouldn't they have covered her ears if it was important?”
“I don't know. But I do think you're up to no good. You're here to help free her, aren't you?”
“Of course not!” Charity said, hissing in anger. “My own father caught her, and he's going to use the sacrifice to petition the Maker to heal my fever and bless my marriage. I wouldn't dare jeopardize that!”
“I don't believe you,” Mary said, still whispering.
“It's true!” But Charity didn't fully believe herself. While she greatly desired to be healed, and knew that it was proper to burn a witch, a small part of her balked at the thought of being blessed in exchange for Skids' life. She understood the necessity of cleansing fire, but her impression of Skids - as strange as she was - didn't fit with the concept of someone who deserved to be burned to death. Couldn't proper correction and training put her on the correct path? What was it about magic that made a person irredeemable? Charity didn't doubt the truth, but she didn't understand it either.
Mary considered the situation in silence for a while. “No, you're definitely up to something,” she finally said. “Your father ought to be informed.”
“But... but...” Charity couldn't let that happen, but she couldn't find the words to make Mary believe her.
Charity could almost taste the surge of hope that shot through her veins. “What? Although what?”
“Since there's no way you could get that door open, I suppose I could leave off telling anyone. If you owe me a big favour.”
“I'll do anything. Anything!”
“For a start, when Priscilla returns, ask her to find Rebeccah so I can take a break with you.”
“Why don't you switch with Priscilla yourself?”
“And leave her with you? Not happening.”
“I'd never hurt Priscilla!”
“I don't trust you.”
“Fine, but why don't you ask?”
“What part of owing me a favour don't you understand?”
“Alright, I'll do it.”
“Good. So what's this about you getting married?”
“Two months from now. I am to be wed to Timothy Douglas. Have you heard of him?”
“I can't say that I have.”
“He's a butcher, from Deepbloom Creek.”
“Oh, I've never been there.”
“You haven't? It is only two rail stops south of here.”
“I'm from the north. This is my first time this far south. You said you're marrying a butcher? What's he like?”
“Father says he's very hardworkng, and quite the gentleman. Devout too.”
“You haven't met him?”
“No, I have not had occasion to do so. We have a satisfactory butcher here in Forrester's Crossing. But I trust Father to select a good match. He spend many evenings interviewing him, to make sure he is suitable.”
“But if you haven't even met him, you've got no idea whether you'll li...”
“What are you two whispering about?” It was Priscilla, back from her necessary business.
“Sorry,” Priscilla said, whispering. “And sorry I was away so long, there was a queue.”
“You can make up for it by fetching Rebecca back,” Charity said. “Mary hasn't had anything to eat.”
“Alright, but what were you two talking about?”
“My upcoming marriage, not that it's any business of yours,” Charity told the younger maiden.
“Oh, you're marrying that widower from Deepbloom Creek, right? Is it true that his first wife drowned herself because she...”
“You're too yong for such talk, now go find Rebecca!”
Priscilla hurried away.
“Well?” Mary asked, once we were alone.
“Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“He's been married before?”
“Yes, he has, but there's no shame it it. It's not as if he was divorced!”
“No need to get defensive, I was merely asking. You just seem young to be marrying a widower.”
“I'm seventeen! That's old enough to marry!”
“But how much older...” Approaching footsteps cut off the argument.
“Thank you, Priscilla,” Charity said. “And Rebecca.”
“She was easy to find,” Priscilla said. “She...”
“Whispers only,” Mary interrupted. “Unless you see or hear anything strange, then scream for help. And no one opens that door, under any circumstances, got it?” she ordered, using a serious whisper that demanded obedience.
“Got it,” Priscilla and Rebecca echoed, with dutiful nods.
“Good girls.” Mary swept down the dim hallway, with the shorter-legged Charity trailing behind.
“There should be plenty of food left. Warm cider too,” Charity said.
“Sounds great. Grab as much as you can and meet me at the west storeroom,” Mary ordered. “One cider each.”
“Why? What's at the west...”
“You owe me, remember?”
Charity wasn't satisfied with that answer, but she knew she couldn't risk her freedom by breaking the deal. “Fine.”
The hallway took the pair into the kitchen, and they split up, Mary continuing past the ovens to the hallway on the other side of the kitchen, and Charity turning aside to rejoin the crowd. It was a simple matter for her to locate an empty plate, put a pair of mugs in the centre, and surround them with an assortment of buns. No one gave her much attention. As she returned to the kitchen, she noticed clock on the sales counter showed twenty minutes until midnight. At this rate, it was highly unlikely she would see Skids before her final moments.
“Are those for us?” The question was asked by Ruth, a maiden just a little younger than Charity, who was presently guarding the west storeroom beside Mary.
“They're for Charity and me. You can go get your own,” Mary whispered.
“Sorry, I only brought two ciders,” Charity said, figuring that was why Mary had only asked for two. She didn't know why Mary wanted to get rid of Ruth, but she was smart enough to know to play along.
“That's alright, I wasn't done talking with Justine. But you really don't need to whisper. There's nothing in there but sacks of flour and the witch's things.”
“Do you know what magic can and can't do?” Mary asked.
Ruth shrugged. “I'll let you worry about that. Have fun, but don't eat too much. See you at the sacrifice!” she said cheerily.
“I think someone let her have coffee again,” Charity grumbled.
Mary grabbed a cider mug and chugged it all down like she hadn't drunk anything in hours.
Charity sipped at hers much more carefully. “Isn't yours hot?”
“Painfully,” Mary said, stuffing a cream bun in her mouth. “Oooh, this is good!”
“Did you have no dinner?”
“Had to skip it.” She licked her fingers clean. “Ahh, that hit the spot,” she said in satisfaction. “Now, I need to borrow a hairpin.”
“What for? Can't you use one of your own? I don't want my hair hanging out of my bonnet.”
“Neither do I, but I'm not the one who owes a favour.”
“Seems like a lot more than one favour,” Charity said, handing over the requested pin.
“They're small favours. Don't worry, it's almost over.” Mary pulled something out of the pocket of her dress. The candlelight glinted off the sharp edge.
“A knife? Why...”
“Shh!” Mary inserted both the knife and the hairpin into the door's lock. “Let's see if I remember how to do this... no that's not it... steady... there!” She carefully pulled the door open.
Charity stared in shock and horror as Mary used her knife to pry open the crate that sat alone in the middle of the storeroom floor. “You can't open that!”
“Can, and have.”
Charity shied back, crossing her arms in front of her face to protect herself. “Those are dangerous magical items!”
“Calm down, there's nothing dangerous in here,” Mary said, still whispering.
“Then why are we whispering?” Charity hissed back. “I should tell my father! This makes you guilty of witchcraft!”
“That's a real bad idea. You're my accomplice now.”
“You tricked me! And now they'll burn me as a witch! They'll burn us both! This can't be happening to me!” Despite her utter panic, Charity still had the presence of mind to keep whispering.
“Not if we don't get caught,” Mary said, stuffing the contents of the crate into a pair of empty flour bags. She handed one to Charity, who held it away from her body as if it was a venomous snake. Mary quietly shut the storeroom door and popped a sticky-date bun in her mouth. “Mmm!”
Charity continued to regard the bag with horror. “I can't...”
Mary stuffed a cream bun into Charity's mouth. “You really need to relax. There's nothing but clothes in that bag. Just follow me, and everything will be fine.”
Charity wanted to protest, but her mouth was full of cream and jam. Instead, she followed Mary as she walked boldly out the back door and away from the bakery, avoiding passing near the outbuildings. No one stopped them, and soon they were hidden by darkness. They continued on, avoiding any illuminated buildings, until they reached the edge of the city.
Now that they weren't moving, the combination of cold and sheer panic made Charity shiver. “Should have brought coats,” she said, breaking the silence with her softest whisper.
“There's one in your bag.”
“It's a witch's coat!”
“Then I'll wear it, and you can wear two dresses.”
“You would take off your dress?”
“I'll put pants on first, of course. Don't want to freeze any more than I need to.”
Charity reluctantly rummaged in the flour bag for the requested items, steadfastly ignoring the underwear. “Really, you're as brazen as the witch,” she said. Then she realised that she'd just admitted to knowing the witch. But given how witch-like Mary was acting, it probably didn't matter.
It turned out that she was correct, though not for quite the right reason. “Don't be such a prude, Char,” Skids said, dropping the whisper for the first time.