by Sue Babcock
The ancient knife glowed as if alive. It pulled and twisted Margryth’s mind until nothing else mattered. Its warm hilt and cold blade glistened in the embers of the long abandoned fire, beckoning. Forged in the searing heat of a village smithy and honed on stones dislodged from her own garden, the seax – the knife of her ancestors – mesmerized her. Symbols and runes circled the handle. Silver inlay contrasted with dark, glossy wood. She touched the gleaming blade to her arm. A pinprick. Blood oozed. The sharp pain begged for more. It released her mind from the incessant hate and loathing she felt for herself, and for her husband. His violence erupted night after night. Angry bruises, torn flesh, cracked ribs were testament to his temper, and to her own sins. She deserved it: she snubbed him, she nagged him about fighting and the strong mead he drank like water. He’d tell her, “Saxons had always fought, had always drank. You weren’t a man if you didn’t.” And then he’d grab her by the neck and throw her on their straw-fill cot. And yet, even then, she defied him.
Here, alone with her thoughts, she pricked her arm again. And again. Blood trickled. Dark, red. Sins and life seeping away. Fascinated, she pressed harder. Pain seethed.
Wlwine peered through the cracks between the timbers. Her eyes narrowed and a silent groan rumbled in her throat. People said that she was older than the trees in the Weald, a never ending forest with knotted branches of ancient yews and hawthorns and birches and oaks. She let them believe what they wanted. It made no difference to her. All that mattered now was the woman inside. As blood dripped to the dirt floor, the old woman licked her dry lips. A wind howled through the village, a wind from the Weald, a wind sent by the Fates. She turned her face into it. Long gray strands of hair whipped behind her as the cold air frosted her eyelashes. It was time.
Margryth licked the blood. Salty and metallic, the viscous liquid dappled her lips and chin. She rubbed her stomach and gripped the knife. Just one more cut. One more to finish everything. I will not bear that monster’s child. She pressed the knife against taut skin even as nape hairs tingled in warning. A feeling of being watch stayed her hand. It is my husband. He’s watching. She studied the door as swirling wind rattled it.
“Who’s there?” she said, her voice an angry roar.
Only the wind answered. The thatched roof whispered and wind whistled through cracks in the timber walls. She shivered. Her hand shook as she again pressed the knife again against her belly. Embers flared, filling the small hut with heat and light, bathing her face in warmth. She jumped, startled, and jerked the knife away. What sorcery is this? The fire should long be as dead as I feel.
“I will finish it.” Her voice raged against the fire. Light burned her eyes, heat flushed her cheeks. As the fire died to embers her voice died to a raspy whisper. “There is no other way.”
Wrinkled eyes squinted against the sudden light. Parched lips puckered. She whistled, matching the song of the wind. The woman inside paused and looked up, a moment of hope shone in her eyes before they were again shadowed in despair. The old woman whistled again. She could not enter the woman’s house: the Fates would not allow it. But the Fates said nothing about enticing the woman out into the wind and the storm brewing from the north. The storm that promised everything, or nothing.
She smoothed gray strands out of her face and slid a cowl over her head. The woman inside did not know that the Fates were not done with her. She was frozen in a sea of misery. She did not know that life meant more than pain and heartbreak. Wlwine squinted against the wind and into the dim red glow of embers inside. She whistled again.
The embers glowed yellow hot. Flames flickered, casting eerie shadows. The knife shimmered between shadow and light. Margryth spun around, studying every inch of the walls, the roof, the door, the floor.
“Who’s there?”There is something watching, I can feel it. But I cannot tell if it is good or evil. Tears welled and spilled. Sins of her past haunted her. There’s no way out. I deserve this death.
She could walk away. Divorce was allowed. But she had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.
An eerie song echoed as wind whipped around the small hut. She sobbed, broken. The whistling grew louder as the knife called to her. She crumpled on the floor as memories of long ago times, when life was good, danced around her. A wail filled her world as the scenes shifted, showing her the good she’d done, showing her the evil and sins of her husband were not her own, showing her a life separate from him. She raised her head as the fire flared and, for just one moment, bathed the room in golden light before. Maybe there was a way.
She’d heard stories of the women of the Weald. Stories of women who spoke to the Fates. Priests and monks, so new to this land, told her the stories were lies to make small children behave. How could they know more than people who had been here for centuries, perhaps forever?
The weight bearing down on her heart shifted as the flickering fire grew brighter. Decades ago, long forgotten, the women of the Weald had promised her grandmother their everlasting protection in exchange for helping three small children escape before they were burned alive. The whistling reminded her of their promise, reminded her that she was not alone, reminded her that promises to a long dead grandmother were promises to her as well.
She studied the knife again. It lay still and silent in her hand.
The Fates could not promise happiness nor evil effects; they could only foretell what might be and promise what was. They spun threads of fortune, destiny and judgment. They twisted and wove the threads that made up a person’s life. Wlwine knew with every venerable and primordial ache of her ancient bones that the woman inside was not with child. Her flow had ceased when she had quit eating, when she had become so emaciated that the Fates would not allow her to have a child. The woman must live. The dark times ahead needed her light. Wlwine whistled again. It was time. Time to help. Time for hope.
A timeless ember of hope born from the ephemeral flames filled Margryth. She again studied the timbered walls, the dancing fire, and lifeless knife. Warmth enveloped her. She slipped the knife into its sheath at her waist, its beckoning calls silenced. She wrapped a wool cloak around her and walked out into the frigid night and the coming storm. It was time for hope, for a new life, for whatever the Fates demanded.
Dr. Sue Babcock spent years and years as an engineer, living like a troll in a dark hole under a rock in the broad expanse of the Rio Grande valley. For decades she'd peer out at the gaudy, dazzling world around her, then scurry back into her comfortable darkness where she researched, constructed, supervised and wrote (dry, technical) reports. One day a dragon visited her valley, and its fiery breath and incendiary heat shattered Sue's protective rock. She closed her eyes for a heartbeat before trying to climb on that dragon's back. Someday she will succeed. She's the publisher for Liquid Imagination and Youth Imagination, and is on the Board of Directors of the Silver Pen Writers Association. Mostly retired, she delights in writing short stories, especially stories of human failings, and when she remembers to submit, she even occasionally gets published.