Excerpt from The Furies

The Furies by Mark Alpert


Essex, England
September, 1645

Dressed only in her nightgown, Goodwife Elizabeth Fury hid behind a haystack in the midnight darkness. Inside her cottage, just a stone's throw away, the men from the village of Manningtree were torturing her husband. His screams echoed across the farm's pasture.

"Please, sirs! I speak the truth! I-"

Arthur let out a shriek, high and hideous. Elizabeth couldn't see what the villagers were doing to him inside the cottage, but she'd glimpsed the knives in their hands a minute ago when the men came marching down the road. As her husband howled in pain, she tightened her hold on Lily, their daughter. The four-year-old buried her face between her mother's breasts.

Arthur's howls subsided. There was a long, dreadful silence, and then one of the villagers in the cottage shouted, "Where is she?"

Elizabeth recognized the voice. It belonged to Manningtree's blacksmith, Tom Bellamy, a man she'd known for twenty years. She'd never heard him raise his voice before, but now he was bellowing at the top of his lungs. "By God, tell us where thy wretched woman is!"

"I speak the truth! I know not-"

"Lying cur! Where is she hiding?"

Arthur screamed. The sound was as sharp and horrible as a knife, and it tore into Elizabeth's soul. He'd been a good husband to her, loving and loyal. Although she knew she couldn't save him, she couldn't abandon him either. She peeked around the edge of the haystack and saw shafts of light pouring out of the smashed doorway of their cottage. The villagers inside held torches. Arthur, a lifelong insomniac, had been awake and smoking his pipe outside the cottage when the torches had appeared on the horizon, approaching their farm. He'd ordered Elizabeth to carry Lily to safety while he tried to appease their neighbors.

Then, as Arthur's screams faded, she heard other voices coming from the cottage.

"He won't last long. He's bleeding like a pig."

"A fitting end for him. He was just as wicked as her."

"But how will we find the witch? Her satyr can't tell us now."

"She won't get far." Bellamy's voice drowned out the others. "You two, go to the barn and look for her there."

A moment later a pair of villagers rushed out of the cottage, each carrying a torch. Elizabeth ducked behind the haystack, but she'd already recognized the two men in the firelight: Simon Pearson, Manningtree's carpenter, and Guy Harris, the baker. Now she knew why the villagers had come. A wave of illness had swept through Manningtree that summer. Pearson's son and Harris's daughter had died of fever. Bellamy had lost all three of his children. The men were convinced that someone had used black magic against them, and they'd focused their anger on Elizabeth, who'd been a target of suspicion ever since she and her sisters came to the county of Essex twenty years ago.

She sat in the dirt, very still, while Pearson and Harris tromped toward the barn. The haystack was less than thirty feet away from the barn door. Elizabeth's plan was to wait for the men to go inside, then sneak through the darkness to the woods on the other side of the pasture. But as the footsteps grew louder Lily squirmed in her mother's arms and whimpered.

The footsteps stopped. Elizabeth clapped her palm over her daughter's mouth, but Lily kept squirming.

"Did you hear that?" It was Pearson's voice, low and gruff.

"It came from the barn," Harris whispered.

"Nay, it was outside. The witch is somewhere over there."

She heard a soft tentative step, crushing the loose bits of hay scattered across the dirt. Then another step. Pearson was coming closer. Elizabeth tensed her leg muscles, getting ready to sprint from the haystack to the shelter of the woods, but she knew it was hopeless. Even if she were alone, she couldn't outrun Pearson. With a squirming four-year-old in her arms, she had no chance at all. She heard a third step, then a fourth and a fifth, each one a little louder. He was just a few yards away. At any moment he would see her. In agony, Elizabeth closed her eyes. Her lips moved soundlessly, mouthing a prayer.

Oh Mother of Creation! Help me in my time of need!

Then she heard a different sound, a high-pitched bleating. One of the lambs in the barn had woken up. The noise awakened several other lambs, and they began to bleat too.

"She's in the barn, cuz!" Harris whispered.

"Nay, the witch is-"

"I'm going inside. You can do what you will."

She heard footsteps again, but now the men were moving away. First Harris strode toward the barn, and after a couple of seconds Pearson followed. Elizabeth waited until the barn door creaked open and the men went inside, which triggered another chorus of bleating. Then she crept away from the haystack and ran barefoot across the pasture.

Clutching her daughter to her chest, she dashed to the far end of the farm and dove into the woods. She felt a burst of relief as she passed the first line of trees, but she kept on running. She hurtled over roots and stones and puddles, sobbing as she ran. She was thinking of Arthur. The poor man had sacrificed everything for her.

She didn't stop running until she reached the top of Clary's Hill. She dropped to her knees on the hilltop and let go of Lily, laying her down at the foot of an oak tree. The girl was quiet now and breathing deeply, as if she were asleep, but her eyes were wide open. She seemed to understand what was happening. Lily was a precocious girl, the wisest four-year-old Elizabeth had ever known. She'd probably remember this night for the rest of her life.

Rising to her feet, Elizabeth turned eastward. Clary's Hill was the highest point in the area, and from its top she could see her farm, more than a mile away. She spotted three torches near the barn and another three moving across the pasture. The villagers were still looking for her. Then she turned north and saw a much larger fire in the distance, an inferno the size of a house. It rose from the cottage where her sister Margaret had lived with her husband and children. And to the southwest another giant blaze climbed toward the night sky, on the farm where her cousin Grace had started her own family.

Elizabeth was dry-eyed as she stared at the flames. It was all her fault. She should've seen the danger coming. She and her family should've left this place years ago, as soon as the villagers started gossiping about them. But this wasn't the time for second-guessing. The first thing to do was find out if anyone else had survived. Long ago she'd told her sisters and cousins that if they came under attack and had to leave their homes, they should meet at an appointed spot near the town of Colchester, about seven miles to the southwest. That's where she would go now. If she and Lily made steady progress across the countryside, they'd reach the meeting place by dawn.

Before they set off, though, she had to retrieve her Treasure. Squinting, Elizabeth searched the ground near the base of the oak until she spotted a big gray stone shaped like a turtle. She slid her fingers under the stone and heaved it aside, then began digging in the cool, dry soil. Lily propped herself on her elbows to watch. The girl's eyes shone in the light of the crescent moon, which had just cleared the eastern horizon.

"Mama," she whispered. "Where are we going?"

Elizabeth kept digging. She fixed her attention on the ground. "We're going on a journey, child. A long journey to a faraway place."

"Why do we have to leave?"

The question made Elizabeth's eyes sting. She shut them tight. She wasn't going to cry now. "Because our neighbors don't like us. They know we're different, and it frightens them."

"They shouldn't be frightened. We wouldn't do anything bad."

The child was so calm. So calm and so beautiful. Elizabeth shook her head as she scooped out another handful of dirt. Lily had enough goodness in her to save the world. "That's true, dearest. We would never hurt them. But they can't see that. They have too much fear in their hearts."

"Will it be better in the faraway place? Will the people there like us?"

"We're going to the wilderness. There won't be anyone else there. We can live in peace."

"What about Papa? Will he come with us?"

Elizabeth opened her eyes and stared at her daughter. The girl's face was full of sorrow. Lily already knew the answer to her question. She'd heard her father screaming.

"Nay, child. Thy father is dead. Remember him always, for he loved thee well."

The girl nodded. Then she fell silent. Elizabeth waited, ready to console her, but Lily simply stared at the rising moon.

Elizabeth turned back to the hole she was digging. Soon her fingernails scraped the lid of the iron box that was buried there. After another minute she unearthed the box and opened its rusty latches. Inside were a dozen gold sovereigns, enough to buy new clothes and cover the expenses of the journey. But Elizabeth's Treasure wasn't the pile of gold coins. It was the leather-bound manuscript lying beneath them.

She opened the book and was relieved to see that the pages hadn't been damaged by dampness or insects. The parchment was velvety and covered with runes. The language was so ancient that no one spoke it aloud anymore, not even Elizabeth or her sisters. But they still used it to record their secrets. They wrote their dreams for the future in the runes of the past, which marched across the parchment like footprints.

Satisfied, Elizabeth closed the book, latched the box and hefted it under her arm. Then she stood up and stretched her other arm toward Lily. "Come, child. Let's start walking."

The girl took her mother's hand. They headed southwest toward Colchester, but their ultimate goal was the port of Southampton. There they would book passage on one of the ships sailing for America.