The Beginning

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The village was small. Set in the dip between the mountains and the valleys, just a short way from the River Rhine.

The fields were green and the trees rich with grapes that the villagers gathered to make wine for the gentry. Such people seldom visited, not unless they were passing through on their way from a hunt, bringing tired hounds and horses to rest by the river bank while they sampled the hard work of the peasants without a small payment of thanks.

The richer landowners, those who the farmers paid their rent to, lived within view of the hotchpotch of cottages, but far enough that the smell of cattle and dirty bodies was dulled. 

Beyond, colouring the dull of the mountains, trees formed a dark forest, home to game and other life, both placid and dangerous. 

It was a fair existence, even if local tongues gossiped about any happening in the world of the rich. 

That was the sole thing that never failed to rankle the nerves of the gentlewomen, despite themselves being as bad.

The latest target of their barbs and pity was Catherine Grimshaw. The wife of an established land and mill owner. 

Married at seventeen, the shapely brunette hadn't a clue about life outside the centre of a town, and had expected her husband to be a simpleton. However, she had been swept off her feet when the handsome, tall man, dressed impeccably in silks and fine fabric, had come to their door.
Chiselled, blonde with the most vibrant blue eyes, she could not help but be impressed, feeling like a duck amongst peacocks compared to her mother and her late sister.

But William hadn't eyes for any other. Her figure was ideal for children and her face was ideal for him to admire. The modesty about her looks was an added appeal, for back then, she lacked vanity, something that his spoiling would alter.

Their home on the outskirts was smaller than her childhood home, but large enough to be more than ample. Three stories looked out with a panoramic view of all around them and a fenced off garden was space for entertaining and cultivating a pond that attracted all manner of birds and seasonal visitors.

To the right was a small stable block, home to three horses and the groom and his wife, who worked as their cook and housekeeper. Two others maids lived in the village, supplementing their meagre income with work in the local shops or market.

Only on a Sunday was the house quiet, with only her husband and herself present after morning mass.

It was on such a Sunday that this tale started.

Catherine sighed as she pegged the last of the washing to the fraying line. A soft breeze wafting the droplets onto and down her bodice.

"I ask one simple thing," she grumbled to herself. "It would hardly have made any difference to her getting home! I even said I would fetch it in!"

The wind grew colder and she paused to pull her shawl about her. Her temper was already frayed with the weight of her pregnancy, becoming ill was the last thing she needed.

"Spare a coin or crust of bread, fine lady? A gift to feed the children?"

Catherine turned abruptly at the sound of the hoarse voice. A few feet away stood an elderly woman. Her body was swathed in an array of rags in a rainbow of brown and her face was so wrinkled that it took some time for her to catch sight of the narrow eyes peering from between them and around a bulbous nose.

She held out a lined hand again, tipped by long, yellowing nails that well matched the hue of her sun-kissed skin.
A soft sent of wild herbs and damp grass wafted about her, taking the edge away from her strange visage.

"Give charity to bring you luck, to annoy the Devil, fine lady," the gravelly tones cooed with genuine kindness and need. "A pure act can bless the child, and blessing I feel you need."

Catherine stared at her. Worry had been coursing her veins since her pregnancy had been confirmed. Three times now and not a child to show. Two lying sleeping beneath the earth of the chapel, cold and alone until their parents returned.

"I do not give to travellers like you," Catherine tossed her head, tears burning her eyes. "And watch your forked tongue lest you be hung a heathen!"

The woman didn't move, but her hand dropped. "Think of others, my dear, and life opens many doors. So far, you have locked them rather than peek through the keyhole. Do not cast away the key to the locks."

"Be gone with you!" Catherine grabbed hold of the empty washing basket, moving as if to throw it. "I've no time for this!" Tears trickled from the corner of her eyes as she glanced to where the spire of the church was visible over the trees. "It is against the Lord to believe in the nonsense you promote. And I shall not support it."

Silence fell and all Catherine could hear was the flap of laundry on the line. The sound felt distinctly sinister as the woman's gaze was heavy and icy on her shoulders. Even as she turned away from the judgmental stare, she felt it penetrating her, delving deep into her soul. 

"Leave," she said again, somewhat weaker. "Or I shall call my husband to evict you more forcibly."

"You have the nature of a sow." 

The voice cut through her and slowly Catherine dared look round, immediately wishing she hadn't.

The woman's eyes were ablaze with anger, sparks seeming to dance in their knowing depths. They froze her to the spot, even though she yearned to run to the safety of the house. 

"You have the nature of a sow," the woman repeated with more emphasis, pointing towards Catherine's stomach. "And your child will bear the mark of it."

With that she was gone, as if she had never been. Perhaps she hadn't, Catherine mused, for such an elderly woman she had moved so quickly that she was out of view before she had time to blink. Only fallen leaves where left. Dancing in the wake of the wind.


Catherine's scream shook the house to the very foundation. 

Despite the midwife's stern order to keep out, William tore up the stairs as if Hell itself chased him, bursting into the room and nearly knocking the matronly nurse off her feet. He was met with wide-eyed shock rather than the bitter chastisement he expected.

"What's happened? Please," he grabbed the shaking hand in a vice like grip. "She has not lost another?"

The woman shook her head, unable to speak, and gestured to her young charge, holding a bundle and rocking it robotically. From the swathes of fabric came a strange cry, high and almost like a squeal of a wounded animal.

"Keep it away from me!" Catherine waved the woman away before covering her eyes and sobbing. "Why must I suffer such a wretched existence? Throw it in a well! Send it to a peasant, I don't care!"

"My word, woman! What is the matter?" William strode forward and took up the bundle, his hard gaze on his wife. Her words had momentarily struck all pity from his heart. "This child is alive! How dare you say such things? God has blessed..."

The tirade died as he looked down and if it was not for the quick reaction of the nursemaid, he would have dropped the child in horror.

Staring up at him was the face of a pig. 

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