Down a choked and muddy stream, through dense thickets, warrens, and vine curtains, lay the charmed coven of Cain. None knew it, as it was bound with a spell of bewilderment. Through the attrition of years, most of its first thirteen souls had gone to grass, their bones and plasma powdered and cast into the blue. Only the strong, the hale, and the powerful remained. Being different in the extreme from common men and women, these tall but stooped creatures shunned the light of the wide world. Known only in legends and wives’ tales, they were called Witches. Never were they found by purposefully looking, though legends had sprung from chance encounters in deep dusk.
In the second century of Cain’s existence, a singular event occurred there. A baby was born to one in the coven. Its mother Merylyn had been held in awe, suspicion, and fear when the changes to her body had begun in earnest. She was made a pariah and was cast out of their hovels to do for herself. But Merylyn had a knowing, and instinct was seeded within her. The birthing was hard, and she came nigh onto dying, but lived to suckle and to warm her daughter Elfeena. In the fragrant warmth of a rotting oak, she stayed thus, wrapping the girl to her breast and sleeping for two days.
In want of food, and still with some pain and bloodiness, Merylyn swaddled the girl in what fabric she had, and covered her somewhat in the oak’s leafy mold. Risking the light of late afternoon, she went abroad in the dense wood, unprotected by any hiding spells. Her cunning and her patience soon brought her two coneys, and she sacked them in her canvas bag, thinking to reach her bower by half-light.
Those at Cain Coven, numbering now only four, were aware of her, and sent a fetching spell to the ravens of the valley. With dusk coming on, the birds began an assault on the unfortunate woman, hitting her in thuds and tearing at her flesh and hair. All defenseless and streaming from many cuts, Merylyn was at last close to her home when she suffered an attack from the largest raven of the black flock. As it went for her head, grappling with sharp talons and marring her face, her terrible rage was aroused, and she fled no longer. With swift motions, she broke the beast’s neck and tore off its ebon wings. The rest of the flock took flight. With her warm quarry still in its canvas sack, she found the ancient oak at the close of day. Too weary even to tend her wounds at first, she gathered Elfeena to her. Her breast would suffice until morning light. The red blood she could staunch with a poultice of wet leaves and vine.
As was said, those of Cain Coven differed greatly from common men and women.
Now the girl Elfeena, born of a Coven witch, might have elicited fear or revulsion if seen by an ordinary person. Approaching three years of age, and learning eagerly from her mother, Elfeena was all spindly, with skeletal limbs and fingers. Her tallness (for her age) was achieved, in spite of a short torso, by very long legs and neck. The roundness of her large head was made more startling by her widely set eyes, by a mouth that was barely more than a slit, and by the strange appearance of her tiny ears. All of this set within a complexion of perfect albinism.
With Elfeena’s willing help and surprising strength, mother Merylyn had gathered sufficient deadwood to build them a small but comfortable shelter. Walled on one side by the roots of an enormous fallen tree, then cleverly disguised as a green hill, it served them well, having been favoured by whatever oaths that Merylyn could lay upon it.
Elfeena had proven to be a quiet child, and her mother despaired at times of her slowness of speech. Whenever they went for their dusky walks, Elfeena would wear a faint smile and would reply to Merylyn in monosyllables, all the while keeping a firm grip on her gown.
On the sixth day of the sixth month, Elfeena’s sixth birthday, Merylyn had made them a nice stew of roasted rabbit, mushrooms, and leeks. When they were done their supper, she gathered her daughter to her. Stroking her hair, and having kissed her forehead, she spoke in low tones: We need help, and you will need more than I can give you. Our walks have been a little longer each night, to a purpose. I have had a visitation in the night, a guidance. We must go, many miles, over the tall hills. There, we will be welcomed. The people are Others, like us. They know we come. It is called Coven Gryndal. It will take many days, and we must shelter as best we can.
The little girl raised her face to her mother. There was that faint wistful smile.
“It is all right” was all she said.
Gran of Gryndal Coven had been expecting them.
In a carved-out clearing she had waited since mid morning. Peeping through fronds and foliage, one would have seen her resting on a stump, holding onto a string that curiously disappeared upwards. Clothed in a sagging fabric of shabby brown that resembled cheesecloth, she seemed to be fighting sleep, nodding every once in a while. This was exaggerated by the tall but squashed hat that she wore, seemingly strapped under the chin.
Indeed, she was fast asleep at an hour past high noon when Mother Merylyn and her odd little daughter came to the clearing. They had seen the bright kite that Gran was flying, fashioned from dyed and scraped skins. Not wanting to wake the old woman, Merylyn motioned for Elfeena to stop, sit, and wait.
It did not take long. When Gran had snored a particularly loud one, she woke herself and sat bolt upright, blinking her eyes. Merylyn and the girl stood up and walked slowly into the sunlight. Gran rose to her full height, adjusting her wayward cap. “My Meryl” she said. “Ye I have not seen for too long. I see grayness, Meryl. Come to me.” With Elfeena still clutching her robe, Merylyn moved to meet Gran’s outstretched hand. The old woman cradled both of Merylyn’s hands within hers and turned them palms upward. “You’ve been alone and without Sisters for years.” Looking for the first time at Elfeena, she said “How comes this one? Why was it not killed? For it is an abomination.”
Merylyn stepped back, struggling to control her anger. “SHE is of me. She came from my body, six years ago. I was nigh unto death. You will please call her Elfeena. She is my child.” “Does it speak?” said Gran. Merylyn took her daughter by the hand. “Come. We go.” “Mother, it is all right. We have come so far.” But Merylyn was unmoved and made as if to leave.
“Stay” said Gran. “I spoke out of turn. I have not felt fear in a very long time, but she has a look that disturbs me. Please give me your hand, Elfeena.” Even in Gran’s old and wrinkled hand, Elfeena’s looked so small and white. “Sit here a moment if you will. I must talk to your mother.”
Gran spoke quietly to Merylyn by the clearing’s edge. “We will keep you safe here if they get over the shock. How was she fathered?” “I don’t know” Merylyn said simply.
“I see by your eyes that you believe this”, said Gran. “Were you perhaps sick for a time, and losing your faculties? Laying unconscious?” “No. And you know that none comes to Cain of their own free will.” “But this child is not of our kind, nor of other kind that I have seen in my long life. She has spoken but ten words here, and yet I feel that she can command.”
“Please, if you will, Meryl. Come with me. Our hold is some distance away, but you have come many times that much already.”
Merylyn knelt to her daughter. Saying nothing, she searched her eyes and found encouragement and assurance therein. And so, they turned to follow the old woman, Merylyn maintaining a suitable haughtiness and silence for a time.
Gran Gryndal was not to be denied at her coven. Nonetheless, she had gone ahead to prepare them for the shock of the peculiar visitors, and to caution them sternly about hasty assumptions and liberties they may have thought to have taken. She apprised them of the pair’s circumstances, and of how Merylyn had been banished from Cain.
They were to help in the care and upbringing of the strange and white daughter.
Her last words in private to her women were “She is not of us. I know it. But she was born to of one of ours. We will see her colours soon.”
And so, the three made entrance, through a land of confounding dimness, to the hidden coven of Gryndal. The forms of seven cloaked women stood waiting in a semicircle, some looking grim, and others displaying a keen curiosity. They had ornate headdresses, fashioned from vines and the flowers of summer. On Gran’s right hand was Merylyn. Her headdress was of simple black, crowned with the wings of a vanquished raven. Elfeena had broken her habit of clinging to apron strings, and held gingerly onto Gran’s fingers. Her big round eyes did not blink as she looked unabashedly from one face to another. A keen observer would have noted that her small thin lips moved as if with words while she studied them, though she did not speak.
“Come. Lay on your hands.” said Gran to her coven. “These are ours, now.”
And so they did, without waiting, though more than one averted their eyes in the embracing. “Speak, Elfeena. I know you can.” So, as each of them knelt to embrace her, the girl said, with her simple shy smile, “Thank you. Thank you. It will be all right.”
Though tired from their long journey, Merylyn and Elfeena spent their night around the fire, hearing stories of Gryndal. Speaking but little, they began to feel, even on this first night, the tentative beginnings of acceptance. As the dawn glow crept upon them, and they were preparing their beds, Gran took Merylyn aside and asked a strange question.
“I had asked you whether you were ever in a bad sickness or had lost your faculties for a time. Please think, Meryl. Has nothing odd or out of place happened to you that you could not explain?”
“Yes, I have thought on it, Gran. My sleeps are at all times the same. Except that one day I awoke some two hours later and did not know why. One of our women said to me “Where did you go? I did not see you in your bed and went out to look, hurting my eyes. And now, here you are, back where you should be.” “I ridiculed her, saying that I could not sleep and took a walk.”
Merylyn and Elfeena became used to the customs and people of Gryndal and helped as they could with the coven’s work. Some few of the women were slower to accept the girl than were others, but her mild manners and willingness at chores served, in the end, to endear her. She had, at times, some curious ideas as to how things should be done or could be improved, but was never ostentatious or arrogant in presenting them. Indeed, her quietness sometimes made one listen to her more closely, and she had a way that made the women think that these new ideas were their own. The girl smiled her smile when a group discussion took place, and the ideas were bandied about.
Merylyn did much of the hunting for game, since she was an accomplished trapper, and many days they had fresh rabbit or even a wild turkey or two. On a time, she spotted a large hare and resolved to trap it. It was amazingly fast, and she had laid out a number of snares before it was finally caught. She was home in time to clean and dress it for their supper, when, on close inspection, she felt an oddness about the animal. Its eyes were not right, but it was not from illness. As she made her cuts to do the skinning, its veins and arteries stood out more than they should have, and, most peculiar, its blood had a greenish cast to it. The gutting gave her the real shock, for the rabbit’s stomach held a hard object. As Merylyn rinsed away the offal, she saw it: a small golden medallion.
It was the symbol of Cain Coven. She quickly stowed it away, and told the sisters that her catch was diseased, could not be eaten, and was to be burnt in the fire.
And now Merylyn knew that the Sisters of Cain had placed a spell of finding and of withering in the gullet of a hare, for they had seen Merylyn’s changes as the work of the devil, and were in fear lest she return.
Seeing that her mother was quiet and withdrawn at the night’s fire, Elfeena sat by her, stroked her hair, and drew her pale lips to Merylyn’s ear. “Mother, I see you have a sickness. You shall tell me, for you know who I am. Tonight, I will not leave your side.”
“Those at Cain have hexed me” said Merylyn to her child. They were in their bed chamber, and Elfeena was helping her mother with her dressing gown. “Mother, why do you make fists like this? Let me see your hands!” Merylyn, shaking with emotion and with weakness, sat down on the edge of the bed and unfolded her hands. Elfeena gave an exclamation of shock. Her mother’s hands were red and blistered in the palms and fingers, as if burned. “It was in the hare that I caught today. My hands were bathed in its cursed blood before I knew what it was. At the last, there was something I was meant to find. A thing of gold with unique design. A proof from Cain. Its handling has burned me. The blood of the hare has mixed with mine. I wither, Elfeena. They cast me away, saying I was under thrall of the Devil. And now, they have done this last evil.”
Elfeena slowly closed her round eyes and bowed her head. Quietly, she said “and where is this thing now?” “I have stowed it in a rag underneath the bed.” “Give it me, that I may see it.” “NO! You are not to handle it!” “It will be all right.” Elfeena reached and found the knotted rag. Undoing it, she held up the glinting gold. Merylyn, crying, said “What do you do?” “Mother, see. It will not harm me. You know who I am. I must keep this. I will have need of it.” To comfort her mother, Elfeena tried salves that the coven had for the treatment of cuts and burns. Helping her into bed, she lay beside her until sleep took them both.
In their morning, Merylyn was in a fever of delirium, and Elfeena ran to get Gran. She begged two things of her- that Henna, Shaman of the coven, should care for Merylyn above all else, and that the women should swiftly prepare a travel pack and make ready the pony for her, as she meant to leave as soon as could be made possible. Gran balked at this, saying “Where do you mean to travel, girl, by yourself, leaving your sick mother?”
Elfeena said “I go to Cain. Please get Henna, and I will tell you both.”
And this eldest sister of Gryndal coven, long accustomed to command, turned on her heel and went to do the bidding of a tiny pale girl.
She ran once more to the bed chamber where her mother lay sleep talking.
“I may be a fortnight” she said to Henna. “May you be blessed in what you do. Her blood is in mine, and I hope that I may do honour to her grace and courage.”
Elfeena kissed her mother upon the forehead and was startled to see her awaken from the talking dream. With bandaged hands, Merylyn gestured to her nightstand. “Wear my wings. They were for you, all along.” Elfeena did not cry but closed her eyes once more with bowed head as Henna set the raven crown upon her. And so, uplifted to see her mother lucid, at least for a time, and in Henna’s good care, Elfeena kissed her once more and made ready to leave. All of the sisters stood to watch as Gran finished loading up the pony. “Wait a moment, girl, before I wish you Godspeed”, she said, and went into her private quarters. She returned with a long parcel wrapped in linen. “I do not know your full purpose at Cain, but I know what you carry. I do not know how you will find your way, for they have confounded the airs with a hiding spell. If you win through, they will fear you, small though you are. They may even guess the import of the raven’s wings. Carry this staff, and at least they will know from where you came. Its crescent moon is the symbol of Gryndal.”
For six days, Elfeena made her slow passage through hillside, bush, creek and thicket. On three of the nights, she faced a cold and torrential rain, a tent of oilcloth her only protection. The sad looking pony grazed despondently on wet grasses. They came upon predators in the forests, but the beasts kept their distance. On the seventh day, they came to a choked and reedy stream and followed it up current. At last, a dense thicket blocked their progress, and here Elfeena tied the pony. From her mother’s tales of the place, she knew she was close, and so left all behind save for the staff of Gryndal. The keening of cicadas grew stronger as she cut her way through clinging vines and undergrowth. The very air grew warmer and crackled with the noise and feel of static electricity. She felt as if she were breathed upon by some hot-blooded beast. But Elfeena and her ken were not known to the spell-makers, and fear of earthly artifice did not come to her.
In an hour’s work, she had climbed through the coarse bush, and stood upon a rise with an open view ahead. She saw, as though wavering behind a heat curtain, the thatched roofs and fencings of a compound. Her mother’s home of old. There was no one about, only a few sheep in a pen. Elfeena rightly guessed that the inmates had not arisen yet. On a stump she sat, some few hundred feet away, and waited. One could see the whiteness of her face, the roundness of her eyes, and her slightly open mouth as she read what she could of this haven and divined the scriptures of its shut-in inhabitants.
The airs about Cain still wavered some and would have vexed an ordinary seeker.
The four crones who abided there had never seen an intruder during their lifetimes, and, coming and going as they chose, they caught game and harvested what fruits the forest had to offer.
Elfeena had camped upon her stump since mid afternoon, and now the slant of late sunrays made long silhouettes on the greens of the pasture. In heightened alertness, she spied the coven’s four come trooping out for their morning chores. She did not move, for she wanted them to discover her. This did not take long, as her whiteness was in stark contrast with the darkening trees.
One of the crones was surely their leader, shown out by her stature, her age, and her habit of command as she moved about her work. Of a sudden, she spotted Elfeena, dropped her rake, stamped her foot, and let out a scream of alarm. The others rushed to her side and stood abreast, blinking in the half-light.
Elfeena, sitting until this moment, now stood and began her slow approach. Appearing as a bent old woman, she leaned upon Gryndal’s staff. “STOP!” said the tall crone.
“What are you, and what do you do here? This is forbidden ground.” But the small and stooped creature walked on, head bowed as if in supplication. Thinking it was either deaf or quite brazen, the mother of Cain signalled her brood to join hands. All was silent until they began the feverish uttering of a seldom used but long-practiced spell of banishment. One of separation, with no return. They feared indeed the touch of this creature and would not lay hands upon it.
Having stopped just a few paces away from the Sisters, Elfeena stood erect, and each beheld the other. Her round eyes seemed to grow larger as she studied her adversaries. Fear, hesitation, and confusion were betrayed in their faces. Their spell was left spinning in the crackling air. Head Mother spoke once more in a wavering voice. “Who are you? What is your name, pale one? What is your purpose? Know that I have hexed you, and soon you will be banished from this earth. Your staff says you are from Gryndal, but they do not wear raven’s wings, and they do not suffer such things as you.”
Elfeena gave a short and unsettling laugh. “Yes, I have a name, dark one, but I will not suffer such things as you to know it.” Reaching into her gown, she brought forth a small thing of gold. “I bear another token. You will know it, as it was in your employ.” Looking quickly to her cronies, the Mother said, “and what is this to you?”
“You have done the unforgiveable to one that has my blood. She lies now in a death fever. LISTEN NOW” And her voice rang suddenly within their minds. “Today we will have two reversals. Take ye this thing in your hand and put upon it your voiding spell.” The Mother, shaking with a desire for control, nevertheless reached out her hand. Taking the medallion, she bowed her head and muttered so none could hear. Returning it to Elfeena, she said “It is done. I care not for your mother, and I see that you stand here as proof of her contract with the Devil. Now go!”
“I said that we would have two reversals today. Take ye the second one.”
A witch’s spell stays not unused for long. The four Sisters doubled up, as if from a gut punch, and began their lament, for now they knew that their cruel spell had been set upon them instead, at the behest of this queer and vexing creature. As if guided by a puppeteer, they started their long walk of fate, each to a compass point, their pinched faces looking back, looking back on the author of their misfortune.
Upon Elfeena’s return, Merylyn was still walking through forests of fever. Drenched in sweat, she had become even more thin and delirious. Henna had only been able to try and cool her and to give her drink.
Rather than come to her mother directly, Elfeena gave the token to Gran, asking her to bestow it. And Gran came and put it into Merylyn’s hand. The sleep talking trailed off and was quieted. “My Meryl” said Gran as the breathing slowed and became deeper. Elfeena came into the room and saw her mother’s eyes open in recognition. “More cold cloths!’ said Gran. Merylyn began to cry as she saw her daughter, raven-winged and road weary.
Elfeena bent down by her ear, and said these things:
Mother! You will be healed tonight. By tomorrow, your strength will begin to come. Then, we are to go, Mother.
“To go? Where, child?”
Oh, Mother! We have many meetings! You know who I am. We meet the Others!
[Art by Scott Radke]