Happy Halloween and blessed Samhain! For my treat to you, as with every Halloween, I will release a new spooky short story. This year’s edition, A Life for a Life, is a witchy story about family, sacrifice, and what you’re willing to give up for those you love.
Witches have not stopped being a source of cultural fascination since the Middle Ages, when the Christian church burned those people (usually women) who would not stop practicing the Old Ways, pagan traditions that got in the way of the church’s agenda. This morphed later into a way to control women, particularly ones who spoke too loud, knew too much, were too intelligent, independent or often, owned too much property. The lesson was: stay in your (subservient, obedient) lane, or you will be burned.
Those days are behind us, but there is still a general suspicion around women who demand too much – like equality or the right to safety or control over their own reproductive rights. And women have a fascination with the archetype of the witch, like a siren song for something they’ve always wanted.
The true allure of the witch for women is the concept of power – not power bestowed on us for our youth and beauty, which will fade and our power along with it – but true power, that we’ve grabbed with our own two hands, that belongs to only us.
A Life for a Life
by Cordelia Kelly
The banging was relentless. Fuzzy with sleep, I rolled over, puzzling where the sound came from. I slept on the same pallet as Mother at the back of the hut, mounded with blankets against the autumn chill.
Someone was pounding on the door. I sat up, but Mother’s hand snaked out, restraining me.
“No,” she hissed. “Stay here. Ada … hide under the blankets. You’re not here, understand?”
I nodded, although I didn’t. Mother fussed with her shawls, covering her unbound hair.
I heaped the blankets over myself, leaving a spyhole.
“Open up!” The voice was raw. “I know you’re in there!”
Mother lit a candle and took a deep breath, the embodiment of calm. With one more assessing peek at me, she unbolted the door.
A swirl of leaves blew in, nearly snuffing out the candle. A bulky figure crashed over the threshold.
“Peace, sir. What brings you to my cottage at such a late hour?”
“Don’t play ignorant.” The man’s face loomed large in the flickering light. Fyrsil, the tanner. He stank of rotting flesh, his shoulders piled high with furs. The stench permeated the hut now. “She’s told me everything. I know you’re a healer. “
Mother blinked as Fyrsil shoved someone into the hut. Beth, his young wife, was dwarfed by his size. I stifled a gasp. Beth had been battered bloody, her features barely recognizable.
“I’m sorry.” Her whisper slipped through swollen lips. She had visited the hut before, as had countless other women. Her baby had a cough, and she sought a remedy. She had been kind then.
Kindness seemed a distant memory in the stifled tension of the hut.
“All is well,” Mother said. A tremor in her voice betrayed her fear, but her head remained high. “What do you seek?”
“My boy.” Fyrsil’s voice broke. Amongst the furs, he carried a child in his arms. “Make him better.”
Understanding flashed over Mother’s face, and she became The Healer. I could always tell by how her brow furrowed.
“Show me.” She gestured them to the freshly-scrubbed table, laying soft fur over the surface. Fyrsil settled his child there with more gentleness I imagined in a man his size.
The boy, Bryn, took after his mother, a delicate three-year-old. Now he thrashed, eyes tightly shut, as though trapped in nightmares.
Mother felt his forehead and examined his eyes. “He’s burning up. Is there a wound?”
“No.” Beth shuffled forward. “It’s the red fever.” She opened Bryn’s shirt, the scarlet flush on his chest visible. “It’s spreading through the village. Sadie’s girl was taken last night.”
Mother wavered. “Beth, there is no cure.”
“Not all children succumb.” Beth’s voice was pleading. “Your own daughter survived, I remember.”
Mother’s eyes flashed, a warning, but Fyrsil overheard. “Your daughter survived? Then my son will, too. Make it happen.”
I cringed. There was no stopping death once it was barrelling down on its course.
“I can’t perform miracles.”
“Seems like you will when your own family’s at stake.” Fyrsil loomed over Mother, his hands clenching into fists. I squeaked, then covered my mouth in horror.
He spun, dark eyes seeking me. I burrowed deeper in the blankets, but it was too late.
Fyrsil lunged and fished me out from the coverings. He snagged my hair and yanked me upwards.
“You’re hurting me!” His fingers dug into my scalp like firebrands. I turned my face from his rancid breath.
He thrust me forward like a prize on display. “Is this your miracle child? Tell you what.” From somewhere deep in his furs, he pulled out a serrated knife and held it before my face. I shrank away from the rust-flecked metal. “Save my child, or lose your own. A life for a life.”
Mother’s spine straightened. All tranquillity disappeared; she was carved from stone, eyes burning from her face. She stared at Fyrsil, then her eyes flicked to mine, and she gave the briefest of nods. Everything will be okay.
She looked down her nose at Fyrsil. “I’ll do what I can.”
He stabbed the knife towards Bryn. “Now!”
“Beth, we must build the fire. Can you tend to it?”
Beth, weeping over Bryn, startled when addressed by Mother. She sniffed and wiped her face, but went to fuss at the hearth.
“I’ll need roots pounded. Ada, fetch some blankets.”
Fyrsil pulled me close. “She’s not going anywhere.”
Her look would kill a bird in full flight. “I assume the point of this exercise is to save your child’s life. I’ll need the appropriate help; otherwise, we might as well kill everyone now.”
The breathless standoff between Fyrsil and Mother was broken when he relented, releasing his grip on me. “Fine, the girl can help. But the agreement is still in place.”
I darted away, swiftly arranging a blanket over Bryn’s trembling body. “What’s the plan?” I murmured.
Mother shook her head.
She didn’t have one. My chest tightened.
“Start pounding the roots. We’ll make broth.”
Under Mother’s directions, Beth and I made the hut piping hot, brewing herbs with healing properties. Bryn moaned, weakening. Fyrsil paced behind us, growling in the most unhelpful way possible.
An hour passed before Mother paused and leaned on the table, wiping away sweat.
“It’s not working, is it?”
She gave me a blank look, chilling me. Mother was rarely helpless, but it seemed she’d found her limit. “I need to think.”
“What are you doing?” Fyrsil was on her in a moment. Mother’s head whipped up with such savagery I was surprised I couldn’t see her canines.
“I’m doing all I can. Do not hamper me in my work.”
Fyrsil backed off in face of her fury. Mother placed her hands over Bryn’s shoulders, muttering pleas for guidance.
The air stilled, and time froze. The candlelight haloed her crown as she sank further into herself. Mother sought her “quiet voice” in these moments.
The candle flared, and her eyes snapped open. She was there, but not, and her voice came from somewhere deep. “A life for a life.”
Then she returned. She blinked, and gestured for me. This had happened before; she didn’t know what she had said.
“A life for a life,” I whispered.
She nodded. “If that’s what it takes.” She found a package of dried herbs, scrutinizing them.
“What is happening?” Beth asked.
“Do you wish to save your son’s life?”
“What will you sacrifice?”
Beth straightened her shoulders. Her eyes cleared behind the swelling as she met Mother’s gaze, an understanding between mothers. “Anything.”
“Then I will do what I must.”
Mother flung the herbs into the fire, a violent gesture that belied her fear. A billow of lemon-tinged smoke clouded the air, and Fyrsil choked. “What’s this?”
Mother ignored him. She stood over Bryn, and I took her hand. Together we stared into the candle. “A life for a life,” we murmured.
We continued until the words held no meaning. If I focused my eyes the right way, the room was full of other lights. Luminescence drained from Bryn into the ether. I concentrated on keeping his light in place.
Mother fixated on the dark force breathing down her neck. He had light, too, hidden under the fur. As she spoke, it streamed from him into Bryn.
It took him long minutes to notice his fading strength. “What?” Fyrsil stumbled, nearly tumbling into the fire. He fell to his knees, face tight with fear.
Mother’s gaze still focused on the lights beyond. “A life for a life,” she chanted.
“No!” Fyrsil lurched to the door. “Witches! You will burn!”
Mother looked to Beth, who hovered over her child. “If he leaves, your son will die.”
She held out her hand.
Beth stroked her son’s chest. Not once did she look to her husband as she took the offering, reaching her hand out to take Mother’s. “A life for a life.”
It was enough. Light flowed against time and space.
Fyrsil collapsed backwards, blinking slowly. A last breath bellowed out of him, and he went still.
Bryn stirred. “A life for a life,” we said together, and he opened his eyes.
“Mama?” he whispered.
“I’m here.” Tears shimmered in her eyes, but she hesitated. She looked to Fyrsil, his eyes a void.
“Is he here? In Bryn?”
“No, this is your son. His honourable father gave his strength to save him, but Bryn’s soul is his own.”
Beth sighed and took Bryn in her arms. “It’s a dream, my darling. Come, sleep now.” Beth moved him to the bed.
“I expect a full recovery.”
Beth nodded to Mother. “What now?”
We circled Fyrsil’s body. As in life, it took up so much space.
Mother chewed her lip. “Your husband sought help last night but never returned from the forest.” Her look to Beth was significant. “You cannot be found here.”
Beth gestured. “He cannot be found here.”
“We’ll take care of it.”
“I’ve time enough.” Beth brushed out her skirts. “Ada, would you watch over Bryn?” As they dragged the body into the woods, I suspected we would see more of Beth in the future.
For more of my short story work, please check out my stories here. And recently my short story “Herbalista” was published in Stacey Kondla’s horror anthology Prairie Witch – the anthology is now out, so grab it here!