The night was chilly and cold, and the breeze had a bitterness in it that seemed to hint at a premature winter for the inhabitants of Culsbury. Almost everyone in the little village was sheltered against the stiff wind, huddled against the oncoming cold-front behind shabby wooden clapboards, or thin, fraying blankets. Nothing was to be heard in the village except the howling of the wind, and the occasional clopping of horse hooves against the cobblestones.
Lord Tybalt of Culsbury was braving the frosty night air with nothing but his horse, an expensive velvet cloak, and grim determination. It was out of character for Tybalt to be venturing out into this weather, (“You will catch cold if you remain outdoors too long!” his wife, Lady Margaret, fretted) and let alone at night, (“So many scoundrels lurk about in the nighttime…”). But Lord Tybalt wouldn’t risk his honor, or his nobility, if it weren’t important.
Tybalt drew his cloak tighter around his shoulders and shivered, not at the nip in the air, but at the cacophony his horse was making as its hooves clattered against the stone. If he were caught, he could be hung, or worse, burned at the stake. It was no small thing, venturing out into the forests just outside of Culsbury; all sorts of things could go wrong. But it wasn’t as if he had a choice.
Soon enough, the cobblestones became littered with dried leaves that crackled underneath his horse’s hooves, and he knew he was getting close. The stones gradually faded into a roughly beaten dirt path, which he blessed as it muffled the sound his steed made. Skeletons of dead trees hung over his head and clawed at his clothing, and somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted. Goosebumps skittered up Tybalt’s spine as he remembered what his wife said about owls- “Bringers of bad luck and ill-health, they are,”- but he brushed it off and urged his horse into a brisk trot. The sooner this was done, the better.
Finally, he passed the gnarled old pine tree his servant was telling him about, the one that spewed sap from it’s knots like pus from infected wounds, and he saw it: the smoking, unevenly lit shack, flanked by a lopsided sign that proclaimed, ‘The Witch Doctor’. Below the words that were written in the vernacular was a strange, scratchy script, most likely a translation into a language Tybalt doubted really existed.
Lord Tybalt dismounted his horse and rapped on the knotted wood door, tense. He waited for a moment, then two, before it creaked open and a rasping voice said, “Come in, come in…”
Tybalt took a step forward and was immediately affronted with a pungent, bitter odor, no doubt originating from the dried herbs that were hung from the rafters. Smoke was rising from the fire in the grate into the crooked, sooty chimney, on which something equally acrid was boiling in a rusted kettle. The scarred wooden table was cluttered with various nuts, herbs, plants, and roots, all thrown about in disarray around a large, yellowing book, its pages packed with an uneven scrawl. For a moment, Lord Tybalt was so taken aback by the untidy appearance of the hut that he didn’t notice the strange little man standing behind him.
“Customers? At this hour? Very unusual, very unusual indeed…”
Tybalt started and whipped around to face a short little man with wild, overgrown white hair and an assortment of rotting, crooked teeth. His eyes seemed to be arranged on his face lopsidedly, his nose adorned by several large, black moles, and wearing a burlap garment smeared with soot and soil. Lord Tybalt swallowed to disguise his immediate disgust for the man.
“Are you the man everyone speaks of as the witch doctor?” Lord Tybalt said in a tremulous voice.
“It says so on the sign, does it not?” the man cackled.
“I am in need of…” Lord Tybalt coughed on the sour fumes rising from the kettle, “A favor from you.”
The witch doctor approached Lord Tybalt, and though he was several inches shorter than he was, Lord Tybalt flinched away from him. “Most people who come here do,” the witch doctor wheezed. His voice crackled like the dying leaves his horse had trampled underfoot earlier. His breath smelled of wet earth and decaying undergrowth. “What is it you need of me?”
“I… that is, well—” Lord Tybalt blustered. His chest swelled underneath a rich velvet doublet. “That is… my daughter—wild girl, does not agree with me…”
Lord Tybalt coughed again and puffed his chest up even more; an act that gave him confidence. “My daughter is to be married to a lord; a Lord Richard of Kingstead. Very wealthy man, very influential…” Tybalt wrung his expensive cloak between meaty hands. “We arranged for her marriage to the man as soon as we heard of his looking for a wife.”
“Understandable, understandable,” the witch doctor croaked, sprinkling dried leaves into the kettle while mumbling strange words under his breath.
“Yes, well, but—my daughter—she will not have it!” Lord Tybalt was getting flustered now, his face gaining color and fingers uprooting hair almost subconsciously. “She has taken up with…with this… with this peasant! I will not have it, doctor! It would ruin me if word got out that…that…” Tybalt’s voice broke off and he sank into thought as he considered the numerous consequences that would befall him if word got out his daughter was associating with a commoner.
“Ahh,” the witch doctor said wisely, stirring the kettle on the fire thoughtfully. “You wish me to make the girl fall in love with her arranged husband.”
“You must understand. It would ruin me, my reputation and wealth, if she were not married to the man.”
The witch doctor nodded and waved his hands through the smoke from the fire absently. “And what do you offer me in return?”
Lord Tybalt removed a ring from his finger, thick and golden and inlaid with precious stones. He dropped it into the witch doctor’s dirt-stained palm. Yellowing, gnarled fingernails pinched it tight and held it up in the light.
“Worth quite a lot, I’m expecting, and very potent in alchemic studies, yes… I believe I can help you, dear sir…”
And the witch doctor disappeared into a side room, no doubt collecting supplies for a potion or spell.
Lord Tybalt wrung his hands and flushed in the heat of the fire, despite the cold outside. Five minutes passed, then ten. Lord Tybalt was just considering leaving the hut, riding home, and attempting other means of pairing his daughter with the Lord Richard of Kingstead when the witch doctor hobbled out of the room, carrying a small brown package tied with a scrap of twine. He thrust the thing into Tybalt’s hands.
“This is for your daughter’s eyes, and your daughter’s eyes only. You must not open it nor let anyone else open it for you- your daughter must be the only one to see the contents.”
Lord Tybalt’s eyes widened. “Is it a spell, witch doctor?”
“Yes, yes. You must let her open the package, then leave her in her quarters for one whole day and night. Do not talk to her. Do not attempt any contact with her other than leaving food and drink by her door. Do you understand?”
Tybalt nodded fervently. He clutched the package tightly.
The witch doctor patted his hand, then limped over to his table. “One last thing,” he said, two sprigs of something dried and dark green clutched in his hand, “you and your wife must steep these in a cup of tea directly after you give your daughter the box. Drink all of it. Do you understand what you are to do, good sir?”
Tybalt nodded. “Give my daughter the parcel, leave her in her room untouched for one day and one night. Directly after giving the box to her, my wife and I will drink a cup of tea with this,” he gestured with the sprigs the witch doctor had given him, “steeped in it. Thank you, witch doctor.”
Lord Tybalt then gathered his parcels, herbs, and dignity, and mounted his horse. He urged the mare into a stiff trot and made his way toward home, already dreaming of the wealth his daughter’s betrothal would bring him. His daughter would love the man she must marry, and all would be well.
But behind him, concealed in the shadows, the witch doctor smiled.
Catherine, daughter of Tybalt and Margaret of Culsbury, woke in the morning to unusually cheery parents.
At first, Catherine had blanched, running through all of the special occasions that their family celebrated and making sure she had not forgotten their dates- birthdays, anniversaries, holidays- but none of them were today. Catherine slowed her graceful stride down the stairs and looked quizzically at her parents.
“Whatever’s the matter? Why are you smiling so?”
Her father rose from his chair and took her hands.
“Daughter, you have received a gift from your husband-to-be, Lord Richard of Kingstead.” He pressed a small parcel into her hands, wrapped with brown paper and tied with a bit of twine.
Catherine stared at it blankly, hiding her disappointment behind a flat mask. She took it in her hands and walked slowly back up to her chambers to be alone, closing the door behind her.
She sat down on her bed and tore off the paper slowly, as if dreading what might lie inside the tiny brown package.
The first object she saw inside the package was a thick golden band, inlaid with all sorts of gems and obviously worth a great deal. She turned it over in her hand and admired it as it glittered in the early morning light.
The second was a small piece of paper with the address of a stables near her, one that could arrange voyages for two to faraway towns and villages. With it came the description of a house in a town called Abercoombe, a river town far away from Culsbury.
The third was a palette of homemade paints meant to, as the note that came with it proclaimed, ‘conceal one’s identity’, along with thick, woolen traveling cloaks to keep two people warm on a bitter winter night.
And lastly, there was a yellowing envelope filled with dried rose petals, a symbol of true love and a prosperous future.
Catherine knew at once this was not a gift from her fiancé. She knew it could not be from her father, nor her mother. She also knew the purpose of the contents; what she was now able to do, as soon as night fell.
With the contents of the gift, everything she needed for escape was at her fingertips; now all she needed was to wait until the cover of night, when she would sneak out to find her lover and make haste for first the stable, then the quiet little village of Abercoombe.
Catherine’s fingers were tingling with anticipation, her mind working feverishly to compose an inventory of things that she and her lover might need to survive and make it to Abercoombe- food and water being high up on the list. She opened her door soundlessly and crept down the stairs, planning to filch something from the kitchen and dodge her parent’s questions. It soon appeared, however, that sneaking was unnecessary.
Tybalt and Margaret were slumped over in their chairs, breathing deeply as their faces pressed against the polished wood of the dining room table. A platter of unfinished breakfast food lay between them, and two unfinished cups of tea were still loosely clutched between their fingers. Catherine approached them tentatively, made sure that they were only asleep, (not dead, thank the heavens) and sniffed the dregs of tea left in their cup. It smelled foul; bitter and sharp, making her nostrils sting. The sender of the package had drugged her parents’ morning tea.
This changed things, thought Catherine. With her parent’s unconscious, escape was now possible as soon as it suited her.
With this in mind, Catherine trekked through the forest on the outskirts of town toward her lover’s house, who at that very moment was removing the paints he used daily on his face and teeth to conceal his true identity.
At last, Catherine rounded the corner by the old pine tree that was spewing sap as a wound did pus and saw her destination, where her lover was waiting for her: a crooked shack labeled with a sign that read, ‘The Witch Doctor’.