Dread comes with darkness. Bar your doors and windows, and keep out the evil spirits. That’s what people say. I hide under my blankets, but Mama says they won’t keep me safe. I’m not even safe in her arms. That’s why the mare took baby Bert when he was sleeping, and the blacksmith’s wife. You never know when she might come, but Mama says no night is safe.
Sometimes I dream about the mare, and I think about the night she came. She must have stood right near me, for baby Bert was next to Mama, and Mama is always close. It could have been me the mare chose, and I think it will be next time, but I’m too scared to ask Mama in case it’s true.
Mama speaks to the cunning woman after Bert is buried. When she gets back, she cleans our cottage in a rage, and I get scared and stay with Papa all day. Papa ruffles my hair and shares his bread with me, and we help the miller mend his cart and load sacks of flour for market.
We come home and Mama has set the table with food, but she says we mustn’t eat it. She’s borrowed a mirror and placed it on the table.
‘This will stop them,’ she says. ‘All those evil spirits that want to break my heart.’
She cries and curls up on her bed, and only Papa can talk to her.
I stare at the mirror. My hair is a mess of blonde curls, and my smile is crooked and funny where my front tooth is missing. I’ve only seen my reflection in water, murky and with ripples, but now I can see it clear and I pull faces at myself. The sun is setting and the room’s getting dark. In the gloom, my mouth looks bigger and my eyes are black, and when I move away, I think my face stays in the mirror just a moment longer than it should.
My belly rumbles as I lie awake and stare up at the thatch roof. The food is still on the table, the bread and cheese and butter, but I know Mama will be angry if I eat some.
I think about the mirror. When I ask Papa about it, he says some spirits don’t like to see themselves so will run away, and other spirits are vain and will spend all night staring at their own reflection, forgetting to cause mischief before the dawn. Spirits called good ladies like food and a clean house, and will bless us if we please them.
‘And what stops the mare, Papa?’
The moonlight catches Papa’s white teeth as he smiles. ‘For that, the cunning woman has a special charm,’ he says, and he whispers a verse into my ear, words that tell the mare to swim through all the waters on the earth, and to count all the stars in the heavens before she finds me.
The next morning the food is still there. Papa shrugs and starts to eat the bread, but Mama shouts at him and they argue. I take some cheese and run out of the house.
It’s early, and there’s mist on the hills. The blacksmith is already at work, and I hear the clang of his hammer as it strikes the anvil, but the sound is far enough away to ignore. It rained in the night and I can smell the earth and wet bark.
The cheese is gone far too quick and my belly growls. Mama showed me how to find mushrooms that aren’t poisonous, so I start to look for some. I’m not supposed to go into the woods on my own, but I follow the path, eyes fixed on the ground.
A twig snaps ahead of me and I spot the cunning woman kneeling by some tree roots. Her basket is full with leaves and mushrooms. She doesn’t see me, so I crouch low behind some ferns.
The cunning woman is hunched and slow, and she hums to herself. She leans on a stick and lumbers from one plant to the next, like an old goat that’s lost its way, a beast that doesn’t belong in the woodland. There are deep lines on her leathery skin, and her face is twisted, all bent nose, wonky chin and uneven cheek bones. Her smile is lazy and I don’t like her eyes. I feel like she might see me even if she doesn’t look my way.
I follow her. She crosses back and forth, like Mama’s stitching, gathering more and more leaves. When she reaches her cottage, we are deep in the woods.
Mama says the cunning woman lives with the fairies, and I think she’s right. I’ve never been this far into the woods, and I’m not sure if I can find my way back. The cottage is tumbledown like mine. Smoke drifts out of the chimney.
My belly grumbles and I remember the mushrooms in the basket. The cunning woman has gone inside, so I creep to a window. I see shelves crammed with bottles and leafy plants, and dried herbs hanging from the rafters. I think of my own home, bare and dull and earthy, and I wonder if Mama might let me bring some plants indoors. The air is hazy, and I don’t know if it’s smoke from the fireplace or a magic spell. The basket is on the table, and the cunning woman is chopping leaves. On the bed at the back sits the blacksmith’s daughter.
The blacksmith’s daughter is a lot older than me. I remember her name is Enede. Her face is tear-streaked and almost as red as her hair, and I wonder if her father knows she’s here.
Enede drinks a tonic and lies on the bed. She doesn’t stir, not even when her legs are lifted up on cushions, or when her skirt is drawn back to the top of her thighs. The cunning woman fetches a long needle, half the length of her arm, from a pot steaming on the fire. She shakes it for a bit and hums.
The needle goes under Enede’s skirt and I strain to see what’s going on. The cunning woman’s head is blocking my view and I just see Enede’s pale bare legs. I stand on my tiptoes to get a better look, but my arm knocks a pot off the windowsill. It thumps onto the ground and I yelp with surprise.
The cunning woman spins round. There ‘s blood on her hands and on the needle. Her eyes fix on me and she shouts.
I run. I run and run and hope I’m faster than an old magic woman. Trees blur as I tear pass and the undergrowth crunches beneath my feet. I don’t know where I am and I can’t find the path, so I fling myself behind a tree and try not to breathe too loudly. The wood is quiet except for the rustles of birds and animals. It takes me all morning to find my way home.
I tell my friend Elger what I saw. Elger is the baker’s son, and he always knows what’s going on. There’s flour in his black hair and his face is round and pasty, like a big ball of dough that’s been prodded and pinched to give it eyes and a piggy nose.
‘My ma says that Enede and the cunning woman were with Enede’s ma when she died,’ Elger says, ‘but the blacksmith was in the tavern. She says the blacksmith blames Enede, and hasn’t spoken to her since.’
I look towards the blacksmith’s cottage. It’s quiet at the moment, but I feel like there’s a presence in the dark windows and sunken roof, as if the spirits live there now. Elger bites into an apple.
‘Why does he blame Enede?’ I ask.
Elger chews loudly. ‘My ma says Enede’s a witch.’
‘A witch? Like the cunning woman?’
‘Nah, a witch is bad. The cunning woman helps people, but witches just cause trouble. They can turn into animals at night, and they can fly. Some might even be mares as well, and come into your home when you’re asleep.’ He takes another bite. ‘My ma says Enede’s always sneaking off to do spells in the woods at night, that she goes into other people’s houses and leaves curses. Ma’s heard her arguing with townsfolk and cursing people.’
‘Doesn’t the blacksmith stop her?’
Juice dribbles down Elger’s podgy fingers and he wipes them on his breeches. ‘Not so far, but I hear the blacksmith doesn’t like witches or the cunning woman. He says the priest says they’re all bad, and they’re all in love with the Devil. The priest says they should all die.’
‘Yea, and their bodies burned. That’s what my ma says.’ He chomps the apple like a horse and my belly aches to watch him.
‘But the cunning woman was doing something to Enede. What was that about?’
Elger tosses the apple core and I watch it land in the dirt. ‘Don’t know, but it probably weren’t good.’
I shrug, remembering Enede’s blood. ‘Maybe Enede put a spell on her and made her do dark magic.’
‘Maybe,’ Elger says.
Papa speaks with Mama that night, and they agree that some food will be left out but not the bread that will go stale. Papa has caught a rabbit, so Mama adds this to the stew pot, and my belly is so full when I go to bed that I can’t sleep.
Every noise sounds louder in the dark. The wind whistles down the chimney, and I hear something scrabbling on the roof. It’s just a mouse, I tell myself, or a bird trying to nest. The wind tugs at the door and shutters. I keep my eyes closed, too scared to look at the dark shapes in the room in case one of them moves.
When I sleep I dream of baby Bert, and think I can hear him crying. Then I see his body, small and blue. The mare is cradling him in her black shawl, her shaggy red hair hanging over him and covering her face. Her breathing sounds like Mama’s when she found my brother, tight and short and ragged.
The mare drops Bert and she disappears. My blankets are heavy. There’s something crawling up my bed. A shadow. Rasping. Weight pushes me down. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe!
The mare has got me. Crushes me. I try to scream, try to call for Mama and Papa, but when I open my mouth I can’t get enough breath to make a noise.
I know it’s Enede. Enede is the mare. Her hair brushes against my face and she smells of smoke and hot iron. She’s stronger than me. I can’t fight her.
The charm. The charm. Over and over, I tell the mare to count the stars and swim in all the waters on the earth.
I scream so loud that Mama and Papa come to me. Their voices are soothing in the dark, their hands scare Enede away and hold me close to them. I sob and try to catch my breath. Mama and Papa make a bed on the floor, and I sleep in their arms until dawn.
The next night I wait until Mama and Papa are asleep, and then I climb out the window. Everything looks strange, and I remember that ghosts live in the mist, but the moon is bright and I find my way to the blacksmith’s cottage. It’s silent. I press my face close to the door, shivering with cold and fear, and whisper the mare’s charm to keep Enede in her house until morning. Nothing stirs, and I run home before the spirits get me.
I do the same thing the following night, and the night after that, and I’m pleased that the spell seems to be working. The mare doesn’t come back for me, and I sleep well.
A few days later, Papa rushes indoors and says the miller’s hurt. They were loading sacks of flour and the miller felt dizzy and fell off his cart. He hit his head and won’t wake up.
Mama says she’ll fetch the cunning woman. I run with Papa back to the miller.
The miller’s son is waiting for us and so is Enede. They’re about the same age, and Papa seems surprised to see Enede there.
‘I was just passing,’ she says. ‘Let me help.’
The miller’s son blushes and doesn’t look at Enede. ‘All right,’ he says.
Enede grimaces a little as she kneels beside the miller and checks his wound. She mutters words I can’t hear, and the miller groans. Her hair hangs long over her shoulders and the miller’s son glances at it more than once. I think he’s scared of her.
The cunning woman arrives with Mama and I’m told to go home. I watch Enede as I leave. She folds her arms and glares at the cunning woman, and steps away from the gathering.
‘Why would Enede hurt the miller?’ I ask Elger.
Elger sniffs and rubs his nose. We’re sitting on the fence outside his cottage, and he’s kicking it with his legs to make it wobble. ‘I hear the miller doesn’t like her,’ he says. ‘No one really likes her. Except the lads she casts her spells on.’
Elger shrugs. ‘My brother Herman, for one. He’s always going on about her.’
‘Has she tried to hurt him?’
‘Yea. She gave him a love spell then told him she hates him. He’s not been the same since. All sad and moody and he doesn’t really eat.’
Elger nods. ‘Yea. I reckon she hurt the miller ‘cos he stopped her seeing his son.’
‘Why did he do that?’
‘My Ma did the same when Enede hurt my brother. Happened the other day when Enede came round. She was upset and wanted to see Herman, but my Ma told her to go away. That’s when she called her a witch.’
‘She might hurt your ma, Elger.’
‘I know,’ Elger says. ‘I’ve been thinking about that.’
Elger wants to stop Enede for good. He says the priest is right that witches should be killed, so God will be on our side.
‘We need to be sneaky,’ he says. ‘She mustn’t work out what we’re doing.’
I think of Enede drinking the tonic and falling asleep. ‘I could make a poison,’ I say. ‘My Mama’s shown me which mushrooms in the wood are bad.’
Elger’s eyes go wide. ‘Fridel, that’s a great idea! But how do we make her drink it?’
‘I’ve got a plan.’
I go into the woods and collect the mushrooms I need. Elger’s given me one of his mother’s glass bottles, the sort the cunning woman uses. Carefully, I grind the mushrooms with a stick and put them in the bottle with some water.
My heart’s pounding when I get to the blacksmith’s cottage. I hear the blacksmith in his workshop and dart to the cottage door, hoping he doesn’t spot me.
As planned, Elger is talking to Enede inside. Enede looks bored and groans when she sees me.
‘What do you want?’
‘The cunning woman sent me.’ I show her the bottle. ‘She asked me to give this to you, said she forgot it before but it’ll help with that thing you saw her about. Do you know what she means?’
Enede stares at me but her hand moves over her belly.
‘I think so,’ she says. ‘Did she say anything else?’
‘She just said you need to drink it all quickly, or you might get very ill. It’s really important.’
Enede nods slowly. ‘All right, give it here,’ she says. I hand her the bottle. ‘Now both of you get out and leave me alone.’
We head outside but go round to the back window. Enede is examining the bottle. Her face twists as she lifts it to her mouth. We hold our breath when she drinks.
It takes a while for her to look unwell. She sits on a chair and keeps rubbing her face and holding her belly. We hear her moan and call for her papa, but her voice is weak.
She falls to the floor and is sick. Her body shudders and shakes. Then she is still.
When the blacksmith comes to our house I hide behind Mama. He’s furious. The veins in his forehead pulse and he says that Enede was poisoned. He starts crying and says he held her in his arms while she died, that she told him I’d given her a potion from the cunning woman.
‘Fridel, is this true?’ Papa asks.
I’m scared of the blacksmith, and of Enede’s spirit. She’ll come for me if she knows the truth.
‘Yes,’ I say quietly. ‘The cunning woman gave it to me.’
That night there is a fire in the wood. Smoke billows above the trees and the sky glows flame-red. Mama cuddles me and says we’re safe.
‘It’s not the wood burning,’ she says.
‘Then what is it?’ I ask.
Her face is sad in the glow of our own fire’s embers. She doesn’t answer. I wish Papa were here, but Mama says he’s with the blacksmith.
‘Where were you when you saw the cunning woman?’ Mama asks.
I stare at my hands. ‘In the woods. I saw her in the woods.’
‘But I’ve told you not to go in the woods on your own.’
‘I know, Mama. I’m sorry.’
Mama hugs me tighter and kisses my head. I look at the mirror on the table. Maybe it’s the low light, or the way the mirror is bent towards me, but there’s a shadow on my face. I’ve got dark eyes and bony cheeks, and I look like I’m smiling even though I’m not.