Authors: Shirley Martin
Books We Love
Copyright 2012 Shirley Martin
Cover art by Michelle Lee Copyright 2012
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Shirley Martin Avador Series
Published by Books We Love
Book 1 – Night Secrets
Book 2 – Night Shadows
Book 3 – Enchanted Cottage
Book 4 – Allegra’s Dream
“Get out of here, witch!”
“We don’t want you here!’
Along the narrow dirt road, Alana ran past the wattle and daub cottages as fast as her legs would take her.
She ran from all she had known, all she cherished. She stifled her sobs, her only thought to escape this torrent of hate and abuse. Nearly tripping over a child’s doll, she caught herself. She dashed on, wanting only to reach the forest and safety. All she had with her were the clothes on her back, her only valuable a gold bracelet her mother had given her.
The voices died away, the stones missing her as she ran farther on.
Miles later, she entered the forest, this vast woodland that stretched far beyond her small village of Cairn. A dense expanse of maples and oaks mantled the forest, interspersed with chestnut and ash trees. An overhead curtain of grapevines climbed from branch to branch and tangled together on the tops of trees. The thick green gloom of the woods made it all but impossible to find the path that led through the forest. Finally seeing the path, she worked her way among the trees, shoving branches out of the way.
How had it come to this?
she agonized as her eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness. She couldn’t spend her life in the forest, but she had nowhere to go, no one to turn to. Her parents had died of a mysterious illness three nine-days apart, over six moonphases ago. She had an older brother who lived in Uisnech, far to the north, but he had his own family, his life to live. She would never burden him.
Shortly after her parents’ deaths, several more villagers died of the same dread
ed disease. One afternoon, Duncan Murdo developed a high fever and a wracking cough. By the next morning, his face had turned purple, his throat constricted so that he couldn’t breathe. The following day, he was dead. His wife’s keening carried throughout the village. The same malady struck Baird Olamh and Fiona Dearg, and one nine-day later, Regan Cantaigh, all healthy men and women until the disease struck them down. The people of the village mourned and prayed that the disease had run its course. A few more deaths occurred, then Cairn remained free of the plague.
With the loss of her parents, Alana knew she had no choice but to support herself.
After a period of mourning, she had begun teaching reading and arithmetic, as her father had done. She tutored in their homes, these children of wealthy parents who lived in neighboring, prosperous villages.
Now, every fateful scene that had led to her eviction came back to haunt her.
And every word from Morag Delaney tormented her.
“Isn’t it odd,” Morag had said as they stood by the village well, “that your parents died of this strange illness, and now several of our villagers have died of the same disease?”
Struck by the implied accusation, Alana had stared at her, speechless, but finally found her voice. “What are you saying, that I caused my parents to die and then the villagers to lose their lives?”
“But of course,” Morag replied with a look of smug satisfaction.
“Everyone knows your parents didn’t want you to marry Brendan—“
”So I put a spell on my mother and father?”
Tears misted her eyes, their deaths still a pain in her heart. “I was never promised to Brendan. And why would I kill the villagers?”
Morag leaned closer and whispered.
“Because you’re a witch. You enjoy casting spells on others.”
Alana forced a laugh.
“Who will believe you? And isn’t it strange that you—of all people!—should accuse me of this evil?” She had long suspected Morag of practicing black magic. And come to think of it, perhaps Morag had killed the villagers. The thought chilled her, a painful stab to her gut. Talk about strange—wasn’t it weird, the very day that Maude Mulligan disappeared from the village, an unfamiliar dog trotted into Cairn?
“The people will accept my word when I tell them you killed your parents and the others. By the time I get done with you, no one will believe a word you say.”
Alana tried to put on a brave face, to speak, but fear clotted her throat.
“What’s the matter?
Lost your voice?” Morag snickered.
“I haven’t lost my voice or my senses.
And I couldn’t—wouldn’t—practice magic if I wanted to, which I don’t. You know as well as I that Queen Keriam entrusted the druids with codifying magic, so that we know what is good and what is bad.”
Pah! Stuffy old men, who cares what they say?”
Alana swallowed hard.
“I care, and so should you.”
It will be a scorching day in winter when I give a damn what the druids say.” She wagged a finger at Alana. “And just you wait. By the time I get done with you, no man in the village will want you. People will shun you.”
Chills raced across Alana, a trembling from deep within.
“Why?” she whispered. “Why would you harm me?”
“Don’t you know?
For years, I’ve wanted Brendan to notice me, but like all the other men of the village, he has eyes only for you.” She looked around. “And by the way, where is Brendan?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but he’s in Sligo, doing carpentry work for a wealthy merchant.”
“Ah, too bad. He won’t be here to see what I’m going to do to you.” Morag walked on, her laughter trailing after her.
Days later, Alana stood in her bedroom, combing her hair.
Holding her hand mirror, she frowned upon seeing two purple bumps on her left cheek. Each succeeding day, more appeared, until her face became a mass of purple splotches.
She threw her mirror down and screamed.
“Goddess, what is happening to me?”
Then the accusations began.
“Witch,” the villagers whispered and turned their backs on her as she walked past them. All the good will she had accrued over the years, all the affection they’d had for her, was now gone. The accusations increased with each passing day. Life in the village became unbearable. She had tried to explain, to clear her name, but no one listened. Her students’ parents shunned her, telling her not to return.
“You see,” Morag hissed one day outside Alana’s cottage, “the people are saying you’re a witch.
Your ugly face is a sign of your guilt.”
, Alana lamented,
here I am in the forest, away from all I’ve ever known, from all that is dear to me.
What will I do now
? She had no way of supporting herself. She plodded on farther through the trees, and resolved that somehow she would make a life for herself. But how? Not here, not in this woodland.
She followed the path through the dense forest, too heartsick to delight in its sights and sounds, as she had in the past.
She jumped as a furry snake slithered past, well aware its bite could kill in an instant.
—birds with wide wingspans—screeched from the tops of trees. A spring breeze cooled her face but did nothing to lift her spirits.
Tired and hungry, she pressed on, stepping over thick tree roots, careful not to fall.
Off in the distance, sunlight filtered down through a clearing. Strange, she knew this woodland by heart but had never seen a clearing here, not on this path. As children, she and her brother had amused themselves by playing hide-and-seek in the forest and swinging on vines. Approaching the clearing, she spotted a cottage in its midst, dappled with shadows and sunlight. She stopped and gasped. Who had built this cottage, and when? A few more steps brought her to the stone dwelling, its thatched roof appearing freshly-made. The sun was sinking in the east, its fiery rays illuminating the house.
Alana slowed her steps, fearful she was encroaching on someone’s property.
The squawking of chickens brought her to the east side of the house. There, hens and roosters browsed in a garden, pecking the ground for worms. And vegetables, so many different kinds. Not only vegetables but flowers and herbs flourished here. She caught the beautifully sweet scent of honeysuckle, the comforting aroma of chamomile. Orange blossoms of calendulas waved in the breeze. Among the herbs, she saw fennel, sage, and thyme. She knew much about herbs: aye, herbs for cooking and those for healing. She’d never seen such a variety of herbs—parsley, peppermint, and comfrey. Comfrey, that was it! An herb, well-known for healing the skin. If only she could try it this evening, before the sky darkened….
A few more steps brought her to the front of the cottage.
She pressed her hand to her pounding heart, afraid to believe, fearful this was all a mirage, soon to disappear. Warily, she headed for the front window. She stood on tiptoe and peered inside, seeing no one. The owner must be away, she mused, reluctant to just barge inside. A table and two chairs occupied part of the space inside, that much she saw from where she stood. Another room—the bedroom, she surmised—led off from the front room.
Shrugging, she walked up the front steps and opened the door.
“Is anyone here?” she called, on the very slim chance that someone, indeed, resided here. Silence. A small but clean area greeted her. A wide stone fireplace dominated one wall; a brick oven abutted it. With a cursory inspection of the fireplace, she thought it must be newly-constructed and never before used, for its walls looked clean. Scads of implements hung from a rack above the fireplace: a skillet, pots and pans, a large spoon, and so many others she gave up counting. Logs rested in the fireplace, a pile of logs to the side. Also hanging at the fireplace was a tea kettle filled with water, suspended from a trammel. A tin bucket stood to the right of the fireplace. She found everything she would need for herbal uses or cooking, even a tinder box with flint and steel.
For a short while, she’d forgotten about her marred face.
Enough of the inspection; she had to try the comfrey, certain it would clear her skin. She could hardly wait!
Thankful the weather had been dry, Alana rushed outside to gather the comfrey and leaves.
She ignored the foul smell of the herb, nearly tripping in her haste to get back to the cottage. Back inside, she struck the flint to steel, watching as the leaves slowly started to burn. While she waited for the water to heat, she looked around the room again.
A small stone counter stood under one window, a larder beside it.
Dishes, mugs and spoons rested on the counter. A wooden bowl filled with apples sat atop the counter, their sweet scent a painful reminder of her hunger. She grabbed an apple and sat down, delighting in the apple’s tart taste, the juice running down her chin. Close to the larder, she bent low and looked inside. Well-stocked, the larder held a loaf of bread wrapped in a linen cloth, a wedge of cheese, a large bottle of mead and countless other foods. Using a sharp knife that rested on the counter, she cut a slice of bread with cheese. That completed her evening repast, washed down with a mug of mead.