They called her the Witch’s Daughter, but in truth, she was just a little girl.
From the tales in town, I’d expected to see a monster. Some terrible misshapen thing, too horrifying to behold, too scary to even begin to describe. From the stories, I expected bulging eyes, sharp white teeth, claws, an inhuman snarling voice, a hunched back and webbed toes.
So when I came to the place where they kept her, I peeked through the window to the little black room where she was held. There were no bulging eyes and sharp teeth. She was just a normal looking little girl.
They called her the Witch’s Daughter and everyone in town knew that she was a monster. Magistrate Bailey had her confined to the little black room at the top floor of his house. For the people’s safety. To stop her black magic seeping down into the town. To stop wickedness from surfacing once more and spread door-to-door, as it did when her mother, the Witch walked these lands.
The stories called her a monster. A snarling, vicious thing who communicates only in lies. A forgotten thing of flesh and shadow. An unnatural union of devil and man, like her mother before her. I find that even my children whisper of a creature in the Magistrate’s halls whose feet do not touch the ground.
I hear the stories well.
But you see, I remember the Witch.
I even remember a time before she was called ‘Witch’, before it was forbidden to speak her name. I am not allowed to say it aloud. None are allowed to speak it. Magistrate Bailey goes as far as to say that he will know if any of us so much as think it.
Still, when the night is cold and the north wind blows, even though it is forbidden, I remember my friend and I pray for her child.
I edveileb eh dluow llik em.
The Witch’s Daughter has a split tongue like that of a snake! I heard she has no tongue at all, that Magistrate Bailey had it burned out to stop her from calling to the Devil himself. I heard my mother say that the Witch’s Daughter speaks backwards with her words all jumbled together. And she has bumps on her forehead from where her devil’s horns have been worn down for grace of God! She speaks in lies and falsehoods and howls in the night like a beast. I hear she runs around on all fours like a hound. No, no, I heard that her feet do not touch the ground. I hear that her eyes are red. I heard pitch black. I heard she sleeps through the day and rises with the moon at night.
I went by Magistrate Bailey’s attic once and I heard evil laughter. My father was a guard there for a while and he swore blind that she tried to call him into her cell. Old Robert told me that men who look at her die three moons later in mysterious circumstances. My ma says that the Witch’s Daughter can see how you’re going to die if she looks at you.
I heard her hair is blood red – no it’s all white like an old woman. I heard she has black hair and reddened skin. I heard her skin is covered with pricks and marks from Father Bryant’s crucifix. I heard that her body won’t endure harm. She won’t bleed or burn. I heard she could survive on no food or water.
I heard she eats children. No, that she drinks blood. Children’s blood. No – anyone’s will do! She drinks blood once a month. And her teeth can transform to be sharp like a dog. I heard that Magistrate Bailey is the Witch’s Daughter’s father.
No. No. That’s not true at all. Don’t you dare let me hear you saying so again, Jonathon!
Are you awake now, Iris?
Father Bryant said the pain would subdue you for longer than this. Can you hear me, little one? Don’t cry now. You know how I feel about crying. You know why you must suffer, don’t you, my dear? Yes, Iris, that’s right. Because you are wicked. It is not your fault, but it is the reality of the world, child. It is in your body, your blood, carved into your soul.
Your mother was a truly wicked woman.
Like you, she seemed ordinary at a glance. Nothing to fear. But if you looked closer, she wore her evil in plain sight. A fool could have seen it, and yet so many chose to ignore it.
It is why you live here, Iris, so I can protect the good people from you and your cursed nature.
I knew your mother for what she was. I have known wickedness all my life and fought against it. Stop crying, girl. I have warned you once already!
Now listen. I want to make you a good and proper young girl. I know you want that, my dear. Do you know why I do not allow the servants to read to you? It is because your mother could read forbidden texts and spoke to a Dark God who taught her to write her name. She tried to pass on that sickness to other women in the village. Wives and mothers and impressionable young girls. Claiming that the book was only the bible, but that was a lie, Iris. The book she read from had been filled with deception: pages and pages with dark words and spells. She spread her lies to the good people of this town as easily as the rain comes.
Of course, child, you don’t understand. You have never seen the rain and you won’t. You’ll never leave this room.
I never paid much thought to who my husband would be. My sister has a particular love of fairy tales, silly, frivolous stories. I do not. I never imagined that I would marry a handsome prince or a noble thief. If I was to be completely honest, I may have fancied that I would marry a man with a townhouse in the capital. My mother believed in the family legacy, of doing the proper thing, the proper way. She passed when I was but a child and my father lost his mind to the pursuit of righteousness and a holy life. My husband is an important man, a magistrate. He saved this small town on the edge of the woods, from wickedness and witchcraft – should you believe the rumours. I was five and ten when I became his wife.
We are yet to be blessed with a child of our own. He suspects the little creature he keeps upstairs has placed a curse on me. I am not permitted in that wing of the house to ask her myself if this is the case.
The old lady said that she would be vicious and bite when I went to bring her food. She showed me a scar on her leg, dents from teeth deep and reddened. She told me that the marks never faded and always felt fresh and wet. Reckon she just said it to frighten me a little. But as I climbed the stairs, I found my hands had started to shake.
Don’t you dare leave them old plates, she’d said to me.
I’d need to go in there, into the little black cell, put down her food and get her leftovers. I’d heard the stories me whole childhood. I knew that the Witch’s Daughter was more beast than girl. I heard that her feet did not touch the ground. I heard that her mouth was filled with fangs and her forehead bore stumps where her horns had been removed. I heard she spoke in lies and riddles, that she could prophesise my death like.
As I reached that cell, I was shaking, trying to imagine if I could fight back a beast like that, someone more animal than child. Would I be able to fight her off?
But I reached the cell and she was just sat there. Quiet and still at her bed. She didn’t so much as flinch when I opened the door. Didn’t make a sound. But when I reached over her to put her tray down before she, she sort of squealed and put her hands to her head like she was expecting me to strike her.
She reminded me of Mabel then. Me sister. Scrawny and shrill thing, she is. Cries easy. And when I went away, I kept thinking about how much Mabel would cry if she was locked up all alone by herself in that room painted black.
It’s never discussed, o’ course. We don’t talk like that round here – certainly not where no-one can hear. But we all know where that kid came from. The Witch’s Daughter, don’t we? Seems awful convenient, doesn’t it? I swear he must reckon we can’t tell the days from the years. I remember a time before he was Magistrate Bailey. Just jumped up young Bailey who wants to be magistrate so bad if old Gordan had died in mysterious circumstances like, we wouldn’t ‘ave needed to look far for his killer.
And let’s not forget how he had his eye on Lady Margaret. Back then she was comin’ of age. A real lovely young thing.
But Bailey was married, wasn’t he? To old Gordan’s daughter no less. He thinks we don’t remember, but you’ve got to admire the old dog. It seems an easy enough thing for a man to be rid of his wife n’ child by spewing out words like ‘witch’.
She didn’t help herself, none. You remember, don’t ya? What kind of girl she was.
It was a tragic affair, but you have to understand, there were too many things about the young lady for the accusation to go ignored.
She was wild – her father said that she was just a free spirit.
She wouldn’t bind her hair behind a bonnet as a lady – we thought that would change after she got married. But she wouldn’t listen. I told her as much myself, do you know what she told me? She said that her hair was God’s gift to her and why should she have to cover it.
I never found out who taught her to read. Deceitful girl would play act that she couldn’t in church. But I caught her reading the bible to the other girls when she was barely three and ten. She promised that her intentions were pure. For my foolishness, I believed her. I let it slide. That will always be my sin.
And the way she carried on with the other girls, dancing and singing in the fields. It was very ungodly. She caused disruption wherever she went. Quick to talk back. Of course, we all said that it would stop when she married, but Bailey couldn’t control her. He came to me about it often. I told him to seek out her father for advice. But alas Gordan was… well, he wasn’t that sort of man, the kind who forced an issue, not even to aid his daughter and son-in-law to a more Christian life. I know it is not meant to be said, but Gordan was a dear friend. What happened to him was wrong.
The trial made all of the facts so clear. Things we had all known for years but had let slide. To our own sins. That book Bailey produced when her room was searched. All spells and enchantments, hateful words and poisons. She argued that the book was not in her hand, that she could not write. But had I not seen her drawing words into the soot of her fireplace? And had the book not come from her very chamber?
She was pregnant while she stood trial. Bailey saw the child wasn’t his. He claimed that they had not been together as husband and wife in many moons. He swore to me and the court on the bible that he hadn’t touched her. Yet throughout the trial she grew large, even after starvation, even after torture. Bailey claimed at first that she had been observed lying with devils in the fields, then that she bewitched men into her bed using dark magic – but when no such men came forward, he claimed it was the devil attempting to shape her into a figure of pity.
He denied there was a child at all.
She said the child was Bailey’s. No, her story never changed.
When I realised my husband wanted rid of me, I fled to my father’s house. I believed with all my heart, that if I remained in that house, he would poison my food or push me down the stairs. I believed that with that distance between us, I would be safe from him. I believed that by returning to my father’s open arms, I could not be touched.
Milord is a good man. A man of virtue and righteousness. He trusts me. Appointed me to his personal guard when I was just a lad. He confides in me. Has me look after his lady wife, protect her from prying eyes and unworthy mouths. Milord told me once he was born to sniff out wickedness and burn it to ash.
Some down in the tavern sneer behind milord’s back when he speaks at church. They sneer and look down their nose and fill their insides with bile and drink. They say I’m a fool to believe him in all he says and does. But what would they have me do? Turn to ale for answers and drip sin from my skin as they do?
He rescued me from wickedness, so if milord says that child is the Witch’s Daughter, then she is. If he has me hold her down as Father Bryant dowses her with holy water, then I will. If he says that her cries and pleas are devil’s tricks, then they are so. If he says to tell him if anyone, anyone at all, is heard communing with the child, so he can purge that person of the wickedness the Witch’s Daughter has passed along.
I must. Milord is a man of God.
It was handy having Daisy on the serving staff. Useful to have someone who didn’t weep or cry at the notion of going upstairs. I spoke up as much as I dared when the Master said that the girl would be culled for consorting with demons. I tried to tell him that she was a good worker, just simple in the head, friendly of disposition and soft of heart.
It did nothing for her in the end, but I’d tried.
Kind girl she was and a hard worker. She deserved better than what happened.
Iris, are you awake?
I know you’re sad about your little friend from the kitchens, but you have no-one to blame but yourself. Silly, girl, what am I always telling you? You are cursed. Everyone who comes into contact with you dies. You know this to be one of the truths of this world.
It was cruel of you to befriend the kitchen girl. I know it is your nature to be wicked, but you promised me that you would try. Father Bryant and I have worked so tirelessly to show you the right path. I’m disappointed, Iris. I know this must cause you pain, but this is your fault and one day you will understand.
Magistrate Bailey says that we’re safe from the Witch as long as we have her daughter. The Witch wouldn’t dare use her magic against her own child. Mam says that’s how all mothers are, even the bad ones, I suppose.
It’s hard for Mam because the Witch used to be her friend and a lot of people remember that. Mam says when the Finders get their hooks into a witch, they always find more, and people get silly and start pointing fingers at anyone whose done them a wrong turn. She don’t like people remembering her and the Witch being friendly in case they start to think she’s a wicked one as well.
You know, I remember her a little, the Witch. Know I’m not supposed to say. But I do all the same. People say witches are ugly, but I remember that she was beautiful with all this long red hair. When I was right little, she used to carry me around on her shoulders. I remember her laugh, it was loud and happy, not like an evil cackle like what witches are supposed to have. And she told these dead good stories.
I’m not supposed to say though.
I was ti nehw yeht dellik ym rehtaf.
When I miscarried for a third time, he left my bedside to scream and rage and curse the creature he keeps under lock and key. Some men might offer words of comfort, though it is scarcely expected of them, when their wife is in pain. Within minutes, I heard her screaming.
He has instructed my maids to sing loudly when she screams. We are all supposed to pretend it isn’t happening, even me.
Mr Grey, who worships my husband like the most devout cleric, stands guard for me often. He counters the presence of the child in our house with long, rambling speeches of my husband’s goodness. It is more tiresome than the maids who sing and raise their voices to the heavens.
It makes me feel as though the world has gone mad.
That’s the thing. Peter’s brother’s got a job as a guard at Magistrate Bailey’s house and he says that the Witch’s Daughter is dead ordinary looking. I didn’t believe him like, we all know the stories. She’s meant to have fangs and red eyes and horns. Mam’s friend used to clean for Magistrate Bailey and she reckoned that the Witch’s Daughter had hooves instead of feet, like a goat.
But Pete’s brother swears that she’s just ordinary looking. Skinny and pale. And she just sits there all quiet, like someone’s little sister. I told him I didn’t believe a word of it. So Pete’s brother asked Mr Grey if I could go along with him one day. Told him I had designs on being a guard when I’m older, and I got to go see her, the Witch’s Daughter.
I hoped she’d have claws and webbed hands and feet. I heard that she had long ratty white hair that trailed past her feet. I reckoned Pete’s brother was just trying to trick us into thinking she was just normal, but he wasn’t.
She really does look like just a regular girl. I looked right at her through the bars and all she did was cower away n’ cry. I had to do a whole day’s work with Pete’s brother after as well. All that, just to go n’ look at a regular little girl. Could’ve done that at home, ya know?
But, you want to know something else? I noticed when I was there like, she’s got eyes like Magistrate Bailey. All pale and grey. I saw his eyes up close once, I dropped the big silver candle in church last year, n’ he rushed down and took it from me. I was right frightened – he’s got this scary look and his eyes are so pale it’s like looking in a mirror. Only she’s got them too. The Witch’s Daughter.
Funny, right? Anyway, I told the boys back in the square that Pete’s brother was lying. Said she had fangs and claws and wings like a bat – all twisted and sharp and bound to her with chains to stop her from flying off.
It’s a much better story, right?
I don’t much care for beggars. Laziness and sin, I always thought. How with some of them, I can’t see how they’d find work any other way. The Harding boy with his twisted spine, when his parents passed, how was he supposed to support himself? Too slow to work the fields. He begged until Magistrate Bailey took pity on him, had him working with Father Bryant. The Harding boy is unsightly, sweeping the floor of the chapel, but it keeps him from the streets.
It’s the same for Mad Madge. Twisted with scars all over her face. Who could say how old she is? There are times she carries herself like a young thing, and at others she hunches and contorts herself like she’s not long for this world. Scraggly white hair, missing a few fingers. Some days, she’s clear as a bell – please sir, spare me a coin – and at others, she babbles in tongues and twisted verses.
Magistrate Bailey and Father Bryant offer beds in the church to those on the street, to keep them from the rain and the cruelty of others.
Magistrate Bailey says it’s our Christian duty to have mercy on the weak, old and diseased.
Like I say, I don’t much care for it, but I can see his point, I suppose.
I was asleep when the men came to our home with pitchforks and fire. I watched them, terrified, from my window in the attic room. My father told me that he would send them away and I believed him. I crept to the foot of the stairs, believing that my father could fix it. But then Wendy, our housekeeper cried out in pain as they forced her to the ground and trampled over her body to get into the house. My father told me to hide, he shouted it, it was the first time I had ever heard him raise his voice. I heard glass smashing. The servants were screaming, my handmaid crawled under my bed and sobbed silently.
Witch, they called, Witch!
I knew then that nothing would ever be the same again.
I saw it when they killed my father. He was trying to talk to them. He still believed that this matter could be resolved peacefully. He was mid-sentence, hands up above his head. So calm and so still. ‘Good people,’ he said, ‘You know us, you know me’. Then Joab York knocked him to the ground. I ran back, I tried to pull them away from him. I was knocked down when I tried to throw myself over his body to stop them from stamping down on him.
When they killed my father, I screamed for so long it felt like it would never end. The world could crumble away, and I would remain, red and pulsing like a sore. I tore at my hair, beat my fists against the ground and I howled at them when they came close, I swiped and fought. My eyes felt heavy in my head from sobbing and I cursed them, I cursed them all.
Three men died that night.
Bailey said that I was the one who did it. He said that when I screamed, blood poured from their ears and they collapsed. I didn’t care if that were true. My father was dead and the world so much colder.
Witch, they called me. Men and women, I’d known my whole life, blamed me for rotten harvests, for sickness and death in the town. They tortured me, hissed at me, spat, beat me with sticks, starved me, burnt and bled me. Tossed my aching, pregnant body into the filthy river to see if I would drown.
There were days where my grief and pain chocked all sound out of me. There were others where I would be brave and defiant and repeat the same truth that got my father killed, the same truth that had me on trial for witchcraft. And there were days where, for my shame, I’d ramble and rave and scream and cry. I’d talk in tongues and snarl like an animal to watch the husbands tremble in fear and the wives cover their children’s eyes.
Bailey told me that he could free me from the devil’s hold on me. He said I should confess. He said that I should write a confession admitting that the child inside me was that of the devil. I know he has designs to marry little Lady Margaret, just fifteen. I know he wants me gone so he can free himself from our union. He said that I should confess, and all of this pain and suffering would end. He said that I should stop claiming that the child inside me was his. He said that I would be burned if I did not comply.
It was the last time we spoke.
I told him that there was no place in God’s light for a father who murders his own child.
She was born with her father’s pale eyes. And taken from my arms before she’d so much as made a sound.
When I was pregnant for the fourth time, I had decided that I was tired of beds of blood and my husband’s rage.
So I waited until my sanctimonious husband had business in the city. I found Mr Grey something to do to get him out of my hair. Then I dismissed my ladies for the day and travelled upstairs to the Witch’s Daughter’s room.
Unsurprisingly, she had no claws or talons of so to speak. There were no hooves or horns. If not for her hair, which has grown scraggly past her waist, she could be just another scrawny peasant girl. She does have his eyes though. Such distinctive pale eyes.
She was afraid to speak at first. She scrambled under the cover her bed like I was the one the town feared and just cried and cried. I told her that I was the lady of the house and commanded her to answer me when I spoke.
In the tiny voice of one unused to speaking, the wretched creature told me her name was Iris and that Magistrate Bailey gave her that name. I asked her if she was cursing me to miscarry my babies over and over, and she told me no, no, she would never, she could never curse anyone.
This came as no surprise to me.
Quite frankly I’ve had rather enough of my husband and his stories.
It was a cold and crisp All Hallows Eve night when the Magistrate’s house perished in the fire. The townspeople looked on in horror. The heat of the flames blew out the windows, even the little red one at the very top of the house. Amongst the chaos, someone screamed that Magistrate Bailey was still trapped inside. Men and women tried to douse the flames with pales of water, but the fire roared against it, reaching up high towards the sky like a great red hand.
Lady Margaret blended in amongst the common women of the village, her finery hidden beneath a dirty, soot covered cloak. She watched her marital home crumble beneath the flames. Her baby howled and wriggled restlessly against her chest. She watched as her husband’s men busied themselves with pales of water, shouting instructions over the blaze as the servant girls wept. She watched Old Cook stare at the ruined house, silent for the first time, her mouth hung open in horror.
Mad Madge danced in the street as Father Bryant begged her to cease at once, to show some respect.
While the common people rushed around her, Margaret felt frozen in place. How trivial it seemed, their panic and their rush. She knew plainly that John would never leave the ruins of their home. She thought to open her mouth and tell those attempting so desperately to rescue her husband from the blaze to stop and wait, as she was, for the fire to burn out. A piece of ash touched her cheek and Margaret brushed it aside, rocking her baby gently in her arms.
“Hush, little one,” she said softly. “All will be well.”
In the chaos at the town square, nobody noticed a child slip out from under Lady Margaret’s soot-covered cloak. Why would they? She was such an ordinary looking thing after all. Pale, scrawny and slightly sooty. Nobody noticed her slip away from the crowd, past rows of houses and finally out into the woods that surrounded the town.
In the morning, a rain came that doused the fire that consumed the house of Magistrate Bailey. His blackened remains were buried in the town cemetery and his fearful congregation grieved for him most admirably. Lady Margaret did not attend. She made a new match with a rich merchant in the city. She left the town in a smart black carriage and never looked back.
The townsfolk would whisper reverently about their fallen leader, who saw witches in every shadow and made one of them his prisoner. They told stories of the witch even as the years passed and those who remembered her came to rest in the earth behind the chapel. The town would whisper about the Witch and her daughter and the fire as the years stretched on. They whispered of the Witch’s Daughter, who perished in the fire that destroyed the house that had been her prison all of her eight years, of the fire that killed the jailor that had likely been her father.
Some would whisper that the Witch’s Daughter caused the fire that killed Magistrate Bailey.
Some would claim that the Witch had returned at last for her child and burned the house to cinders to take revenge on Magistrate Bailey for keeping the two of them apart.
Strangest of all were the rumours of a girl with pale hair and pale eyes who wandered the woods at night. It was said that her feet never touched the ground.
Rachael Llewellyn is a novelist living in Wales. Her previous work includes the Red Creek series (Down Red Creek and Impulse Control, both with Sulis International Press), and her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Heartland Society of Women Writers, Nymphs Magazine and Jazz House Publications. Her first collection of short fiction, Human Beings, is due for publication with Bear Hill Books in 2021. She is currently a PhD candidate at Swansea University, and is completing her thesis on trauma and memory in folklore.
photo by Feix Braas (via unsplash)