A preview of Milking Time, 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.
END STORY SAMPLE
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