A short story from
“The Wicked Wolves of Windsor and other Fairytales”
Bess was milking her favorite cow as her stepmother entered the barn and asked her to kill a sorcerer.
She continued the squeezing rhythm, enjoying the satisfying sound of the liquid stream hitting the tin of the pail. The barn was filled with the low murmur of contented farm animals. The early morning was usually the time of the day she liked best, mostly because she could be private before her family awoke.
“Did you hear me?” her stepmother demanded. Being a short woman, the cow blocked her from seeing the girl’s exasperated countenance.
Bess stood up, putting aside pail and stool. She returned the cow to its pen, letting the calf finish off whatever milk was left. She hooked the gate latch, retrieved the milk bucket, and headed back toward the house.
Her stepmother broke into a trot to keep up with the girl’s stride, their long dresses whipping behind them.
“Why can’t Annie do it?” she finally replied.
“You know how she is about blood!” protested her stepmother. “Remember what happened at the last fall butchering?”
Her ever-practical step-parent did have a point, admitted Bess. Her half-sister Annie had never really taken to farm life and its realities of growing, harvesting, and dying.
She pondered the request while she fitted the top of the stoneware jar with a straining cloth. while Bess poured the milk her stepmother tapped her foot impatiently.
“What’s he done that requires killing?”
“He’s been winning at cards, dice, you name it. Taking the hard earned pay from the farmers as thoughtlessly as a child plucks a summer daisy.”
Bess felt no sympathy. She hadn’t forgotten how, after Father’s death, their neighbors had gossiped the land would now sell cheaply. But we didn’t sell, the girl thought with grim satisfaction.
Bess looked down on hands that were no longer soft and white but were calloused and red-chapped and replied in a mild tone, “Maybe they should be going home instead of swilling ale at The Pipers?”
“Annie’s young man, Trevor, is one of those farmers. He could lose the wedding dowry his father gave him,” her stepmother said, adding mournfully, “if he hasn’t already.”
In the gloom of the root cellar, Bess said nothing aloud about this potential for catastrophe. Neither of them cared for the match between Annie and Trevor. Probably because he was the type who would wager his bridal savings with a stranger at a local posting inn.
“I’ll go in this evening and see for myself.”
Her stepmother smiled, patting Bess’ arm. “I knew you’d take care of it.”
When his city business had failed, her father brought his family to the country. From the windows of their hired coach, all Bess saw was a dark, small cottage and a falling-down barn.
Seeking reassurance, the young girl had turned helplessly to her stepmother. There she found only blank horror on the woman’s face.
It took three years before Father’s dream of a pastoral paradise finally wore out his heart with life’s reality. Sent to the fields to bring him lunch, Bess had discovered his corpse in the dirt behind the plow, the patient farm horse standing still in his traces.
Country life had already taught Bess that work couldn’t be left unfinished. Carefully stepping over her father’s body, she completed furrow. Afterward, she brought him home across the back of the horse to be greeted by the wails of his wife and youngest daughter.
In the face of this calamity, her stepmother proved smarter than her husband by immediately admitting she knew nothing about farming. Instead of trying to manage the land she turned the farm over to Bess, who had already shown aptitude and interest.
For herself, she said, “Ladies will be tired of dullness,” predicting that a market for fine goods would soon flourish as the war with Napoleon had ended.
Her stepmother’s prophecy came true as the fancywork she had taken to town was appreciated and admired. It seemed city ladies were ready to spend their coin on beautiful things to decorate themselves and their homes.
With a growing demand for her work, her stepmother taught her needlework skills to her daughter Annie who proved an eager pupil.
Recently turned sixteen, Annie much preferred the genteel picture of sitting at a window in a fresh, clean dress, plying a needle rather than feeding chickens and milking cows.
Amusements were thin and so just a few months before, settled about a winter’s fire, Annie had proposed a wager. To Bess, she suggested they see who would be first to draw a husband to their door.
They paid no heed to their mother’s statement that “To marry in haste was to repent at leisure.” Willing to do anything to alleviate the tedium, Bess agreed and the girls shook on the deal.
With whispered secrets and giggles the cold weeks flew faster now. Poppets were quickly hidden under their pillows if Mother ventured by their shared room.
When Trevor arrived at the farm, looking for a lost hunting dog, the three women exchanged knowing looks behind his back.
They welcomed the tired traveler to their table for a bite of supper. He was served off their fine city dishes, one of the few things saved from their creditors, and given the choicest piece of meat.
Annie shot Bess a triumphant look across the table.
What passed for a village lay a distance of five miles from the farm which gave Bess plenty of time to think about her sister’s suitor.
“Trevor,” muttered Bess darkly to herself. Her stride grew faster in response to her inner agitation.
No other man had arrived to court so Annie’s Cunning Work was declared the winner. Still, Bess did not envy her half-sister her choice for not only was Trevor a poor catch being a second son but Bess thought him without integrity.
Her dismal thinking almost caused the girl to miss the turn toward the village at the crossroads. Catching herself in time, Bess stopped and looked about to make sure no one was in view.
To work the Glamour that her stepmother insisted she wear, Bess spat on her finger and drew a quick sigil on the center of her forehead, the wrists of her arms, and the toes of her boots.
Turning clockwise she pulled down the Glamour over her face and form changing her appearance.
Settled into her new skin, Bess braced her shoulders and took a step forward: time to take the measure of this spell-caster’s mettle.
The Piper was an old building of thick timber and stone, in a Tudor style. Its size often made the villagers brag that it must have been an old manor house, perhaps once owned by Squire Ackerman’s family.
In her former town life, Bess had once seen the Squire’s mighty fine house and estate. She doubted that a man with real glass windows would have called the Piper home.
Regardless of past glory, today it served the needs of travelers and tradesmen going through to the large city beyond. But what the inn really did best was ladle out gossip to its patrons.
As Bess approached the building a group of laborers stood on the stoop, blocking the doorway. Their refusal to give way forced the girl to squeeze through them to gain entrance.
It was an intimidation game that Bess usually avoided by going around to the back door. Today, feeling irritated by their boorish behavior, she used her powers to give one a discreet electric shock. Bess hid a smile as he cursed, spilling his tankard.
The Piper’s current owners were Stoney and Maggie Tolliver. Town-bred like Bess and her family, they had owned the inn only for a few years and so were still viewed suspiciously as newcomers.
Stoney was at the counter, working the bar. He was a former sailor, a small, dark-haired, wiry man who moved with quick grace as he served the crowd their drinks.
“You want Megs?” he asked her and tossed his head back, nodding behind him. “She’ll be in the kitchen.”
The outdoor kitchen was behind the inn in a former courtyard enclosure with four stone walls higher then Bess’ head. During the summer months, extra tables and benches would be set up for weddings and funerals as the area was quite large.
A set of buildings along the perimeter that had once been stables now housed chickens, ducks, and a sow named Grandella.
Bess found Maggie pulling fresh bread loaves out of a dome-shaped oven using a long paddle board. Each loaf was placed it into a basket and the smell of the fine bread made the girl’s mouth water.
Maggie was dark like her husband and her face was flushed from the heat of the oven. In her exertion, strands of black hair had escaped from under her cap and now blew in front of her eyes.
“Oh!” Megs cried out in surprise when she finally noticed Bess. She laughed self-consciously before adding, “You’re the answer to a prayer! There’s too many dining tonight for Stoney and me to handle. Can you help us out?”
Bess had not lived three years in abject poverty not to know the value of her labor.
She had already noticed the Piper’s famous sow was suckling a new batch of family members. Grandella produced exceptional offspring of the highest quality and the many trophies displayed in the inn’s great room stood as proof that Stoney’s bragging had merit.
“I can help in exchange for a piglet from Grand’s litter.”
“Now that’s a bit much for one night’s work…” began Megs, narrowing her eyes. She also knew the value of Grandella’s farrow.
“I’ll give you five days of work, including sweeping, mopping, laundry and making beds,” Bess emphasized each task by unfolding a finger on her hand.
“And I’ll settle for the runt. She’ll kill it anyway.”
“Well, you’ll have to agree on the number of work days with Stoney, but I am that desperate for the help,” conceded Maggie. “Men! Men don’t realize everything that needs doing!”
Ready to earn herself a piglet, Bess grabbed up the baskets to take back inside. Working side by side with Maggie made Bess realize the truth of her friend’s comment.
Stoney stayed at the bar throughout the evening, talking and spinning tales, picking up coins to put in the metal box kept under the counter. Meanwhile, the two women cooked the dinners, cut bread and cheese, carried serving trays, and collected the dirty dishes.
The cycle of serving, collecting, and washing never seemed to end. However, her work let Bess ask questions without being obvious about her real interest.
“Why so busy tonight?”
“It’s been getting busier every night since that man came ten days ago,” grumbled Maggie. She quickly added, forcing a more cheerful tone to her words, that rang rather falsely, ”but that’s been good for business.”
“I heard something about that…?”
“I’m sure your mother has heard about him,” confided Megs, always ready for a gossip. “That no-good Trevor has been in every night this week. He’s been mewing after that man like a toddler refusing to be weaned.”
Bess never thought it a good policy to criticize family or soon-to-be-family to others, so she just shrugged.
“Annie and he haven’t posted the banns yet, so the coin is his own.”
Maggie clucked like one of her hens as she used tongs to pull drumsticks out from the cast iron pan.
“He’s not the only one here spending his coin as if he was the county squire, so perhaps I’m being too harsh. They do love to be entertained by our guest.”
“Oh, so the man is an entertainer?”
Maggie gave a snort, coupled with raised eyebrows.
“He’s an entertainment of some sort. You’ll see.”
Bess was stacking dishes from the tables onto a tray so her back was to the staircase when the general chatter of the room suddenly quieted.
Bess moved to stand in the front hall alcove, so she was half sheltered by wall and drapery. From her position, she could view the stranger unobserved.
The newcomer was enormously fat, a huge man that topped her own beanpole height by at least two hands. His labored breathing was raspy and the oak stair risers groaned under his weight as he came down them.
He was dressed in the height of finery with tailored clothes and on each of his fat fingers was a ring of gold holding a colored stone. From his vest chain dangled a crystal fob the size of a pigeon’s egg.
By the time he was four steps short of the landing the dining room had become oppressively silent as if royalty or a two-headed goat had come among them.
He looked expensive and rich. He had presence.
He reeked of sorcery.
Bess bit her own thumbnail as she watched the power of the man’s Glamour rise like steam from a pile of cow dung on a cold day. The foggy wisps moved away from him, to hover over the heads of those who he passed.
The stranger greeted many by name as he moved among them, clasping hands and tapping shoulders. His jovial remarks invited them into a intimate circle of friendship while they unknowingly inhaled the invisible smoke of his magic.
One man jumped up from his seat, to wave the sorcerer over to his bench, telling him he had saved a spot for him. Bess pursed her lips in aggravation as she recognized the fool as Trevor.
Dumb as that cockerel who refused to stop crowing last summer. The only way to shut that rooster up had been to kill him.
In disgust, she cleaned her hands on the towel hanging at her waist before she lifted up the heavy tray to head back to the kitchen.
She had seen enough.
Mother was right.
The sorcerer needs to go.
“Best do it now,” advised Maggie, with her arms plunged up to their elbows in hot, soapy water as she washed plates.
“Now?” repeated Bess, puzzled.
As part of their agreement, one of Bess’ tasks was to clean the bedrooms of the guests staying at the Piper. However, with so many dishes still to do, surely Maggie could use her help in the kitchen.
“He never leaves his room unless it’s to gamble with them,” explained the innkeeper. “He’s already been down at least an hour, so nip upstairs and do what needs doing.”
Sensing the girl’s reluctance, Maggie added, “That is if you want that piglet. The runt’s a girl this time.”
The room smelled of the heavy musk of male magic. Despite the evening chill, Bess opened the bottle-glass window and breathed in the fresh air.
The lodger’s room was at the back of building and thus gave a good view of the courtyard. It gave Bess ideas, but for now she had work to get done.
With the terrible efficiency that often gave her mother equal parts awe and horror, Bess soon had the room cleared away to her satisfaction. While stripping the bed she discovered some coarse black hairs. These she carefully wrapped inside the clean handkerchief that her mother insisted both the girls carry.
Snapping off a piece of twig from her broom, she dipped it into the chamber pot and than carefully wrapped a napkin around it. Both small bundles Bess dropped out of the window, to the courtyard below, where she would collect them later.
Her last deed was to grasp the handle of the Ash broom and sweep it in concentric circles, Widdershins, across the bare floor.
The girl hummed and sang until every corner of the room had met the ends of her Birch twigs and broomcorn. She swept the pile of dirt out the doorway and said, “Good riddance to you.”
Due to his heavy, shuffling tread, Bess had time to get into position. As he threw open the door the view that greeted him was of her counting a pile of coins she had spilled from his purse onto the bed.
He might be fat but he was fast and powerful. In a few steps he reached her and twisted her arm behind her back. Bess cried aloud in pain.
“What are you doing?” the man hissed angrily, spraying her ear with spit, as he searched her pockets.
She uttered a few silly denials which earned her more pain before confessing, “She told me to do it.”
“The innkeeper? That bitch…” began the sorcerer but Bess was quick to contradict him lest Maggie and Stoney find themselves in trouble.
“No, no! She told me, she told me…”
The sorcerer released her but slapped her with causal brutality across the cheek. The blow sent her reeling backwards to land again on the bed.
Bess felt as if she had been downed by a bear.
He leaned over her prone position, threatening her with an upraised fist.
“Who? Who told you? Are you the village idiot?”
Up close his eyes were small amongst folds of cheek fat. His face was such an unhealthy color of purple that Bess rather hoped a heart attack would save her some trouble.
“The sorceress,” the girl gasped behind a hand she held up to conceal her mouth and blistered cheek. Her words stopped the next blow in mid-strike. Bess dropped her eyes to hide their triumph.
“I knew there was someone here. It’s the only reason I’ve stayed in this hell-hole backwater this long,” he said. Jubilant, he rubbed his hands together while his fat pink tongue traced around a wet mouth in excitement.
“They told me… warned me not to test her… but I’m hungry, starving for another taste of power.”
Noticing the skinny serving girl scuttling away on all fours to the door, he kicked her backside. His boot sent her sprawling face down on the oak floorboards.
“I’m hungry, did you hear?” He said louder, poking her ribs with his shoe to emphasize each word. “Where is she? I can’t wait to eat… meet her. Tell me and I’ll let you go with just a beating, wench.”
“She’ll kill me!” cried Bess, cowering and holding her arms over her head.
“You’ll have nothing to worry about once I’m done with the witch,” said the sorcerer. “However, I could make your life very difficult.”
He made a coarse gesture, thrusting his hips forward. Bess swallowed bile.
“She’ll be here tonight. That’s all I can say, as my life is worth it.”
“Tonight?” He sat down on the bed, the mattress sagging to touch the floor. His weight strained the ability of the rope sling in the bed frame to support him.
“Why tonight? Why here?”
“It’s a full moon. She does magic on the pig every month at the full moon. Grandella is no ordinary pig. Ask anyone.”
“A magic pig?” He looked at her with a frown before laughing as he remembered the praise he had heard in the tavern for the sow.
“I’ve heard something about this pig from these country yokels. I put it down to the inbred boasts of the insular ignorant.” Ignoring her, he laid down on the bed, patting his large girth.
“Tonight I will do something I’ve never done before: conquer a pig-witch.”
He chortled and told her to go as he was tired. Bess hastily complied.
After closing the door, Bess ran down the stairs only to collide with Trevor who stopped her rapid descent by grabbing her wrist. He dragged her into a small antechamber where the gentry had private teas while waiting for their carriages to be ready.
“What are you up to?” he demanded. “You’re always watching me with those judging eyes. I don’t trust you.”
He held the arm the sorcerer had misused and she barely restraining herself from punching Trevor in the face. However, Bess knew hurting her sister’s swain would put Annie in a position of defending her lover. This would only entrench her sister on a path that Bess and her mother considered disastrous.
“I’m helping Stoney and Megs. For one of Grand’s piglets.”
“He’d never barter one of Grand’s piglets,” he replied, shaking her by the arm again.
“It’s the runt,” Bess explained while grimacing at the pain. “Grand will kill it anyway.”
He had heard her say many times that she wanted one of Grand’s offspring so Trevor let her go. As he stepped away to leave, Bess couldn’t resist one parting question.
“Have you lost all of the settlement your father gave you?”
“That’s none of your business, Bess!”
So the money was gone, or near enough, thought Bess.
Once the full moon cleared the top of the Piper’s roof, its glow illuminated the old courtyard and the drama about to unfold.
The sorcerer was standing in the middle of the inn’s courtyard. He still wore his earlier finery as his black eyes searched the shadows for his adversary.
“I feel you, witch. Come out and face your fate.”
“My fate?” questioned a beautiful and womanly voice, “so you put yourself on the level of gods to decide such?”
The sorceress stepped from the shadows, garbed in a long white dress with draping that recalled ancient times and temple acolytes. She was tall and stately, her long profile, wide brow, and slim neck of the type that rode to war with their breasts bare and their hands clasping a drawn sword.
“I was told you wished to make my acquaintance.”
“Nay, not a meeting but a battle,” he said, odd shadows distorted the cast of his features making him more monster than man in appearance. They were the same in height but from eating magic he was treble the size of the woman’s slim form.
“I heard rumors that someone of power resided in this sewage ditch of a village.”
She gave a smile of pleasant disdain as if she had received a compliment by a suitor far beneath her notice. The sorcerer continued his oratory with a sneer.
“You won’t be the first I’ve swallowed, my little country bumpkin.”
“Do you think you are my first?” she countered, her tone coy. “My dear sir, I hope you are not laboring under some misconception. I’m no trembling virgin, waiting with bated breath for her first kiss of a challenge.”
She gave a pretty little yawn, covering her sculptured, full lips with long, tapered fingers before continuing.
“I do have cows that need milking soon. Shockingly early hours in the country you know. So let’s get this tiresome meeting done. If I recall the protocol of such matters, you are the challenger, thus I chose the form.”
He gave a courtly bow, slow and measured, his left hand going towards her as if inviting her to be his partner in a dance.
“I chose the forms: each must be found in a barnyard.”
At her words, in a blink, they both changed: he into the form of a draft horse, a black stallion of great height. His massive and powerful hindquarters propelled his bulk towards her in a rush.
Yet, where she had stood was now also a horse, a fine-boned chestnut mare of madness and savagery, her hooves sharp as knives.
Instead of clashing chest to chest, she dodged aside. Her hooves raked a slice across his shoulder, opening flesh as easily as a blade skins a rabbit.
The sorcerer did not pause at the first blooding but spun quickly, slamming his body down across the top of her back. His neck snaked forward, teeth snapping but his attempt to grab her neck met nothing.
She had transformed to a small donkey and nimbly ducked under his wide girth. His miss caused him to land with a hard jolt, stumbling.
The jenny gave a double barrel kick aimed at his ribs but this time it was her own blow that missed connection. The sorcerer was no longer horse but mastiff. His dog muzzle grabbed a donkey leg in mid-kick.
His lips pulled back in a grin as he began to crunch down to break bone. But in relishing his premature triumph the sorcerer had waited too long. She vanished – becoming a tiny flea on the top of his nose.
Grandella lifted her head to watch the commotion as the mastiff ran in circles, angrily shaking his head, and howling. Despite the clamor, the Piper’s windows remained dark and shuttered.
“Come out, come out!” he howled.
The girl’s flirtatious voice replied, “I dare not, kind sir.”
Enraged, the sorcerer went through a rapid-fire sequence of forms: tomcat, rat, gander, and rooster. Finally noticing Grandella, he became a boar and his thick hide proved impervious to the flea’s bites.
With his last change, the sorceress quickly exchanged her own form. From flea to chicken, riding his back, the hen’s beak plucked out one of the boar’s coarse body hairs.
In triumph, she jumped off the boar and the sorceress returned to her natural form. She held the hair in one hand and a small, crude wax carving of a pig in the other.
“Thank you for providing the last element I needed to make your transformation permanent.”
The sorceress spat on the carving and pressed the single hair into the malleable tallow wax. As her spell froze his form permanently into a hog, the enraged sorcerer spun about the courtyard in a frenzy, giving desperate, pleading squeals.
Bess watched him with pleased satisfaction.
“I think I shall call you Herbie.”
Mother eventually got used to the pig like all the other animals Bess had brought home over the years. However, the heavy coin purse that accompanied him made the new acquisition even more welcome.
“I thought about returning a portion back to Trevor,” began the tall blond woman with the face of a goddess. Bess was still wearing the sheets she had borrowed from the Piper’s beds.
“However, I figured he’d spend it on some other worthless endeavor. Besides, without his stake, I don’t think Annie will find him quite as appealing. Do you, Mother?”
“We’ll just keep this back for our own rainy day,” her parent reassured her. Tucking the purse into her skirt pocket, the women closed the gate on their new hog pen.
As the seasons turned again, the village grew sleepy with winter. A few coins from the rainy day fund made life in the cottage much easier and the roof was repaired and meat was at the table twice a week.
Mother made plans on opening an exclusive shop in the city. Annie, promised the role as mother’s assistant, was too busy to visit with Trevor. As the weeks passed into spring, the intensity of the courtship started to wane.
But for Bess it had always been about the farm.
Herbie had proved himself a productive sire. Bartering his breeding services had given them a girl for managing the garden. It was already looking better with nice tidy rows of spring lettuce.
Bess strolled across the yard in the early morning, a milk pail in hand, feeling good about the farm’s prospects. Whistling, she placed her stool under her favorite milking cow, the very first sorceress who had challenged her.
She gave the cow a loving pat as her mother entered the barn. Seeing her parent, Bess put both hands on her hips and demanded, “Not another sorcerer?”
“No!” Her parent’s voice held happy excitement so the girl relaxed, sitting down on her stool, reaching for the cow’s teats.
“It’s Squire Ackerman from Braydock,” said her mother. “He heard about our pig and wants to buy him!”
“He’s not for sale,” Bess replied automatically.
She neither sold nor butchered any of the livestock she had acquired through her magical duels.
The girl mentally corrected herself: except for that one rooster that would not stop crowing. For their sanity his death was necessary but they hadn’t eaten him. She had buried him in the woods under a good Hawthorn.
Her mother noticed Bess was wearing her true form.
“Daughter, did you forget to change this morning? Do it now and go talk to him. Think what a man of his stature could pay for that pig’s breeding services.”
When Bess still had not replied, her mother begged. “Think of the rainy day fund!”
Finally, Bess agreed to talk with the squire. Watching her mother’s back as she walked away, the girl muttered to herself, “But I’m not changing.”
Squire could take her or leave her.
Besides, she had begun to suspect her mother of being disingenuous about the reason why she insisted on her step-daughter hiding her true beauty. Was it to make Bess appear dull and stupid so the limited number of available men would see only Annie?
She continued to grumble about how the rich made life inconvenient for the poor as she stomped off at a rapid pace, looking down at the ground. When she rounded the corner she crashed into the Squire and would have fallen except he caught her.
She looked up into the blue eyes of the man her Cunning had called to her doorstep. He smiled and said, “Beg pardon.”
Bess smiled back.
She would never have to milk a cow again.
Unless she wanted to.