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Good Woman

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Elsie McGraw was a fine-looking woman with a bit of the devil in her. She smiled low at him when they passed in the street, and on Sundays when they sat in church. For all that, she was not so fine to see as his own goodwife, Marian Redferne. They’d not yet been married a year, and he adored her utterly. And yet Elsie smiled low at him, and purred her ‘good day’s, and he couldn’t help but notice and be… startled by her.

“She is not Godly,” Marian put calmly through eyes full of tears. “She is a wicked temptress, an adultress, and now she casts her eyes to you.”

He’d not felt tempted, he was sure.

“You do nae love me,” she protested. He’d tried to show her how he did, but mistrust was in her heart. “A pretty face has turned you from me.”

There had never been so pretty a face as Marian’s. This he tried to tell her, but she would have none of it. “You’re a fine liar, Giles Redferne, but I have seen you watch her. But if I am not pretty enough, I can be – you are my husband, and I’ll not lose ye to some common trollop.”

He’d left angry – at Elsie for her behavior, at himself for his own, and at Marian for her cutting words and lack of faith. He tried to avoid Elsie, but it was hard, and harder as she sought him out, and lured him in to conversation. She seemed to take his avoidance as encouragement, perhaps thinking it a sign of guilt or of lowering resistance. “You must stop this,” he told her. “Stop what?” she’d asked, with a saucy smile and laughing eyes. It was Marian he thought of, always, but she, too, saw guilt in his actions.

One night Redferne came in late from the woods where he’d been working to clear land. Light spilled from gaps in the cabin wall, and when he came in Marian was seated in a rocking chair, reading. She closed the book, without looking up.

“Out late again, my husband.”

“Aye,” he’d answered, blind to the trap, “it’s rough work, and the days grow short. You spoke of stew this morning – I’d have some now, for it is hungry work also.”

“Oh it must be,” and then she’d looked to him, and he could see in the candle light how different she looked – an unnatural beauty sat upon her features. “I am sure your appetite must have been well roused earlier, but you did nae come home hungry then.”

“What vanity is this!” It was shock first, then finally indignation, but in between was a moment when a quiet voice acknowledged that she was still lovely, so lovely, and that he desired her though he should not. “You paint yourself like a whore and think to please me? What you must think of me!”

“I think you do not love me as once you did.” She rose, coming towards him. “You’ve been lured astray by a fallen woman, and if I must fall to keep you, so I will.”

“I will not have it!”

“You will not have me!” She fairly screamed, her hands twisted into balls. It was a lament, and a threat, and a cuttingly-false accusation. He’d struck her before he’d formed the thought consciously. She was his wife, it was his right, and for such behavior a good beating was surely deserved. But he’d never raised his hand to her before, and never felt such a moment of anger and confusion. Marian fell to the floor in tears, her cries falling upon him like blows returned.

Who was he to lay a hand to one of God’s creatures? To his chosen love and his own goodwife? Redferne did not trust himself, but turned from their home and fled back to the woods.

He spent a cold night wrapped in furs and rose with the dawn. For a while he worked at clearing the land, as though all was well and they might plant more than a simple garden in the spring. But his mind was not on the work. It was filled with thoughts of Marian – how he had hurt her, and what he might do or say to recover her love and trust, if even he ever could after his own ungodly behavior.

He returned at midmorning, heavy-hearted, but heard a voice from within that belonged not to his wife, nor any neighbor known to him.

“And how lovely you look now, hmm? Who could resist such charms.” The man laughed, but no answer came.

What was this? His anger flashed again for a moment, but some other sense took hold, and a cold sweat broke at the back of his neck. The door hung open, and all around the house a stillness had settled. Even the chickens had fled the yard for the safety of their coop.

There was an axe by the stump near the path, left from where he’d been chopping wood the previous morning. He picked it up, telling himself that it was to scare off whatever stranger had entered his home and spoke so disrespectfully, but knowing that it was fear that drove him.

The scene inside was a horror. A blond man in severe black dress, his long hair neatly tied back, stood behind Marian. He held her upright, one hand on her shoulder, the other with her arm outstretched as though they might be dancing. She wore only her shift, dull linen now streaked and spattered in red. A few small pots of colored creams leaked across the table before them, their contents mingled with more spilled blood. When the man looked over to him, her head lolled to the side, her eyeless face turning to him. Blood dripped from its sockets, was smeared across lips that hung slackly open. There were other defilements on her body as well – bruises and bite marks that his mind couldn’t process.

He screamed, but the man robbed him of both voice and strength to lift the axe. It clattered to the floor uselessly, and he slumped to his knees beside it, unable to move further, or tear his eyes away from that slight but wicked grin and piercing blue eyes.

“You must be Goodman Redferne, then. She called for you, at first.” The blonde man – surely some fiend spawned by Satan himself – gave him a thoughtful, almost quizzical look. “But not for long.”

With a wave of his hand, the contents of the table scattered themselves away across the floor, and he laid Marian’s body almost reverently in their place. “I’m afraid I’m not quite through with her, but I hope you won’t mind the wait. You’ll be more than welcome to what is left.” Mercifully, perhaps, the scene on the table was not clear to him from where he lay. He heard the tearing of fabric, and occasionally the tearing of flesh.

While the witch was distracted, he found that with effort, he could move. It was not enough – to curl his fingers, shift his knee a bare inch. He tried words instead – “Please, stop,” “leave her” – but the man ignored him. As the work progressed and the horror rose to further choke his throat, he tried prayer. But the witch turned on him then, raising a bloody finger to his cruel smile, and Redferne’s teeth clenched tightly and bit into his tongue. Blood flavored his mouth – he felt it spill from his lips, mingling its salt with the tears that streaked his face.

When the witch was done, he stepped over to the axe, leaning it carefully against the wall and kneeling in its place. Bloody hands lifted Redferne’s head – the man’s face was strangely clean save for his lips, and the black cloth of his garb absorbed all color, as though he might have only spilled water or beer and not a most precious life.

“Just kill me,” he hissed with effort, but the pale-haired man smiled instead, leaning forward so that their lips touched…. He struggled to get away, but still his limbs lacked strength. The taste of Marian’s blood mingled with the taste of his own, and he felt nauseous. His captor laughed, releasing the embrace.

“You ask mercy from a witch? I think I should rather leave you as you are, and you should feel grateful that I’ve left you what I have.” Despite his claim, he wiped Redferne’s eyes, streaking red across the lids, and anointed his cheeks in a similar fashion. That done, the witch removed some unseen things from the table, the thought of which refreshed the dizzying coldness in the pit of his stomach, and stepped out past Redferne where he lay, helplessly weak.

Of course he’d sworn to stop the monster. He’d come so close, only to have justice snatched away at the last moment, and found himself swept away to a strange, confusing land. When the first face he’d seen had been such a garishly-painted mockery of his long-lost love, he’d thought her some spirit conjured to torment him.

But she was not Marian, and he sat across from her now, her hands held in his. He saw the despair in her face, weighed down by unnatural aging, and swore again that it would end. “We will find your bracelet,” he found himself saying, “and see him stopped so he can cause no others harm.”