They needed someone to blame for the course of nature. And so they chose a black stallion as the horse that I would ride to my death.
It was a grey October morning and I watched the sun rise slowly over the wide expanse of forest from my prison tower window. Those trees and the life within had been my home since I could remember. My entire family had died of the plague and the town’s spinster herbalist took me in as her own before I could walk.
I thought about the creatures and plants, the changing seasons and the incredible joy I felt within the dense woods. Mother Martha, as I called her, had taught me the secrets of the earth; which species could heal and which could cause death. I had learned well and succeeded her when she left to die alone in her woods two falls prior.
I had been called to the Queen’s bedside to help with the pain of delivering the first heir to the throne. I knew from the moment that I arrived that the child had already died and it would be an arduous task to expel the fetus from her body. I also knew better than to announce the death as I would be called a “seer of evil.” I would do what I could to ease the birth and leave the decree to the royal physician.
I selected cat’s claw leaves, sage and willow bark and added a sprig of licorice to cut the bitter taste. These were bound together and put in a kettle of hot water simmering on the grate in the fireplace. A cup of this brew would cause the Queen’s uterus to contract and hopefully push the little body through the birth canal. A second kettle of steeping chamomile flowers sweetened with maple tree sap would aide in helping the Queen sleep afterward.
The herbs did their job and within the hour a limp, blue child slipped from between the Queen’s legs.
“A male,” was all the midwife said before whispering a prayer, swaddling him and shaking her head as she handed him to the physician. He was whisked from the room before the Queen could see her dead child. The attending women changed the bloodied sheets and left the room, leaving me alone to comfort the Queen.
“My son! Where is he?” The Queen was exhausted and barely able to move or speak.
“Hush, Your Highness. You must rest. Surely the physician will be back soon.” It wasn’t my place to tell the truth, although my heart ached for her. She was young and had time to bring other children into the world.
As I prepared the sweet tea, the Queen suddenly cried out. A blood-curdling scream made me drop the ladle and rush to her side.
“My God! I am dying! This is worse than birthing the child!”
The Queen was sitting up, doubled over in pain. I had seen the delivery of the after-birth and had no idea what was causing such distress.
“Help me! Call the physician. I can’t bear this!” the Queen wailed.
I ran to the door, told the guard to bring the physician and returned to the birth bed. The Queen was sweating and grunting. With a primal scream, she fell back and we were both shocked to hear the cry of an infant. She had delivered a healthy child.
I hadn’t caused the boy to die. In fact, I had most likely saved the life of his twin and mother by moving the dead body out of the birth canal. Unfortunately, the live child was female, a wasted birth to a King in need of a male to assure the continuation of the royal family’s reign. I was blamed for making the wrong child die and condemned to death.
The Queen was unable to stay my execution but she was allowed to send her personal attendant to dress me and lead me to the old tree just outside the castle walls. A quiet hanging would take place instead of the usual public event on the same day as the royal son’s burial. It would be only me, the attendant and the executioner.
The gown was simple black wool over my own undergarments, which included pantaloons for ease of movement through the forest. But instead of my calf skin moccasins, I was given an old pair of men’s riding boots.
Since I was already considered a witch, I chose to ride astride instead of the ladylike side saddle position. As we approached the tree, I could see the heavy corded rope readied for my neck. The executioner would tie my hands behind my back and then whip the horse’s hind, making it bolt and leaving me swinging to my death.
“Pray tell, what is this fine creature’s name?” I asked the attendant, who had remained silent despite my other questions that morning.
“Azreal. It is the Queen’s steed. A gift from the King when she became pregnant,” she answered as she caught my eye.
It happened quickly, just as the execution was reaching for the horse’s lead. The attendant tripped on her skirts, causing the horse to rear up and knock down the man. I dug my boots into the horse’s sides and the tiny sharp prongs attached to the heels spurred him to run.
Azreal, known in my Jewish faith as the Archangel of Death, was now my savior as we headed for freedom in the woods.
Written for the To Live and Write October 2020 “Flash Lit” #1. We were challenged to write a piece of fiction, non-fiction or poetry of 500 words or less to the theme “The Horse I Rode In On” and post the link in our group.
It has literally been months during this pandemic that I would start a story but never finish. This is my first piece to come to fruition and it feels so very, very good to be in the creative flow again! This is the long version, before I cut it in half to hit the 500 words limit for the challenge. During November, I am going to make this into a 10 chapter book with each chapter inspired from the October prompts. If you’e read to the end, thank you. I appreciate the support and encouragement I’ve received with this blog and my journey as a writer. xoxoxo HBS