V oices startled him. They grew louder, approaching.
His recited softly, 'Assess the danger, your weakness.' If the newcomers were hostile, he would be unable to defend himself or escape. He dragged his heavy self over the dank earth into the shadows, behind a looming rock. Women's voices! Out here on the blasted heath! He waited and strained to hear. They were entering the cave. He made himself as small as he could, but his leg would not bend. He sat hunched, tense.
One voice laughed, a high piercing sound. "Oh, the hurly-burly!"
Another joined in the laughter.
In the darkness, there appeared before Fleance two green eyes. They blinked. In one invisible movement they reappeared, this time on top of the rock that shielded him. Now he could see they belonged to a great grey cat. The creature watched him.
What was that strange sound? Surely, it was a toad croaking. There it was again.
A second voice called, her voice slurred, "Go, Paddock! Hop! Dance!"
Now Fleance froze. He forgot his cold body, his chilled damp legs. He froze with fear.
A cat. A toad. A staring cat. A dancing toad. Old women.
His mind raced. His grandmother's stories flashed before him. The castle rumours of strange sights, the stable groom's tales of unspeakable acts threatened to materialize and close in around him.
From the time he had watched his mother feed his newborn sister, whispered recipes filled his dreams.
Here, now, Fleance could not prevent himself from swallowing noisily.
Fleance's body was shaking out of control.
The boy lowered himself closer to the dark earth.
A third voice whispered, "Hush, Agnes. I smell boy."
Fleance's mouth burst wide open in a silent scream.
He waited. He heard the flutter of wings.
"Harpier!" It was the last voice again, "What do you find?"
Outspread wings were silhouetted against the grey light. The flutter became a roar. The boy felt claws in his hair. An owl screeched above him. He jumped up, his hands clamped over his lowered head, his forearms clasped over his face. He tried to run towards the light and safety. He was felled by another lightning strike down his spine. His legs crumpled. He found himself falling headlong into a stinking pile of rags.
The rags exclaimed, "Why, Geillis, you speak true! A boy. A crippled boy."
"I'm not crippled. I'm... I'm injured that's all. And I can fight. My father... he is a warrior. You'll not eat me!"
A bony hand touched the top of his head. "The boy is afeared. He is cold and wet."
Another voice said, "A fire, the child needs warmth."
From the voice of the hand that was now stroking his hair, "Agnes, Geillis! Kindling!"
"You shall not boil me! You shall not make an ointment from me! And fly with the rubbing of it on your skin!"
"You are lost, boy," she crooned, "and so you are afraid. You fear the worst and see what you fear."
Fleance lay still.
"In your fear, you are prone to believe any thing. You receive such impressions and steadfast imaginations into your mind, as even your spirits are altered thereby."
The boy buried his head in the woman's lap and wept. A voice began to sing a cradle song. He yielded to the smooth hands that peeled off his garments, damp with mist and the sweat of pain and fear. He winced as his left arm was shifted to release the sleeve.
"Favour the inside of the hosen against the fire."
The blaze warmed his skin. Lavender soothed his brow. The thick stew of hedge pig and sorrel filled the boy's belly. An infusion of camomile calmed his spirits.
Capture an un-baptized baby. Kill it. Bury it. Dig it up. Boil it.
From the thickest sludge, make ointments.
Slice the fat from an infant, boil in water, add parsley oil, wolf's bane, fern leaf, soot. Stir in spider, bat blood, deadly nightshade.
In moonlight, rub the mixture on a witch's body and she will fly .