Lena was lost.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle and gray mist settled on the ground. She could no longer see the downed branches and barbed thicket that tore at her skirt and clawed at her skin. Her cloak was soaked, the weight of it a burden on her shoulders. All she could think about was how much easier it would be to simply give up and let them catch her, but she promised her mother that she would save herself. If nothing else, she would do it for her.
The day had been long and difficult, and when the night fell into blackness, she could barely see the trees in front of her. There were no stars in the sky, and every sound was terrifying. The men looking for her might be nearing. Maybe they had already spotted her, and she would not make it after all. Her heart raced, and a feeling of dread washed over her.
“Mother,” she said, quietly and pleading. “Help me.”
Silence followed as if everything around her had been hushed on command. She stared into the darkness, but there was nothing, no hint of light to guide her. It was as though she had been devoured by the earth, the only sign of life her quickened breath and pounding heart. And then in the distance, a tiny light blinked, then another, until many lights appeared. Fireflies, hundreds of them, suddenly lit up before her. They danced and flickered, shining a path through the trees.
She followed them down a steep hill and into a clearing. They had shown her the way out of the woods, and she was thankful and relieved.
At her feet, flowing water trickled over stones and sloshed against protruding rocks on its way down to the Great River. She remembered it now, remembered being in this place as a child and seeing large ships with billowing sails far away on the horizon. She would hop and skip from one rock to the next, following closely behind her mother and watching for the ships.
Her mother was not there for her now, but the fireflies led her safely across the stream and into an open meadow of tall grass that stretched before her. Galen Cottage stood waiting in the night. With its large stone walls nestled in the valley, it was as much a part of the landscape as the undulating mountains in the distance. It was a modest cottage, isolated by miles from its nearest neighbor, but it was welcoming, with warm light emanating from its small windows and smoke billowing from its chimneys.
Her mother had insisted she come here. Old friends could be trusted. But Lena wondered if Thomas Blackburn would help. Their mothers had been friends once, but that had been a long time ago. What would he think of her showing up and asking for shelter after so many years, knowing she put his life at risk by doing so?
She wiped her wet, dirty face with the back of her hand and removed the drenched cap from her head, running her fingers over the little blue flowers her mother had embroidered. Mud smeared across them at her touch. The harder she rubbed, the deeper the stain.
Despair returned in a sickening wave and everything seemed hopeless. And then a rush of light filled the air around her; every little firefly suddenly lit up at once, glowing brightly and filling her with warmth. Lena felt mysteriously comforted. It was as though her mother was there with her, holding her close, reminding her that she was loved. The display had renewed her strength and sense of hope. It was not time to mourn the loss of her mother, not yet. At least not until she knew she was safe. That is what her mother had wanted.
The wooden gate in the stone wall clanked behind her after she entered the yard surrounding Galen Cottage. Gravel crushed beneath her feet along the narrow path leading to the door. Her heart pounded and her hands shook. She rapped the large knocker against the front door and waited.
The windows still glowed warm and bright; the slow burning of wood filled the air. When no one came, she knocked again. Still, no one answered.
She could hear the bleating of sheep from around the back of the house and went looking there for someone to help her. Just as she reached the corner, a man startled her. She jumped back, a small cry escaping from her lips.
The dimly lit lantern in his hand revealed a handsome face with sun-kissed skin and dark eyes. He said to her, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. You must be Avalena Grey.”
How he knew who she was after so many years was astounding. She answered a small, barely audible “yes” but said nothing more. Seeing him again was not going as originally planned. Everything she intended to say upon meeting him again was lost. Instead, she just stood before him, dumbfounded. An icy breeze from over the Great River penetrated her wet clothes, sending a chill through her. She shivered beneath her drenched cloak.
“I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Thomas Blackburn,” he said. There was pity in his voice. “I’ve been expecting you.”
She didn’t think she would recognize him, but she did. He was, of course, much older than when she had last seen him. No longer a lanky boy of eleven, but a grown man. And though she remembered his dark eyes as bright and mischievous, they now seemed beautiful but haunted, filled with sadness.
He said, “Come with me. We need to get you in front of a warm fire.”
She followed him, trying to listen as he spoke.
“I received a letter from your mother before she was arrested. She knew it was imminent,” he said. “We were hopeful they would find her innocent. No one anticipated this, but she must have sensed something. That is why she wrote to me. I still can’t believe what I’ve been told. She was taken by a mob on her way to trial; is this true?”
Lena nodded but couldn’t speak. She was cold, tired, and numb.
“I’m truly sorry for it, Miss Grey,” he said. “But you were right to come here. Your mother was right to send you.”
It was difficult to hear him speak of her mother. Nothing felt real. His words floated away in deafening gusts of wind. The skies had cleared. The moon hung low, full, and red, a ball of fire in the starless sky. She froze, and a sharp pain gripped her chest and choked the air from her. It all came back to her then. The blazing fire and the horrific wailing of her mother as the flames consumed her.
Lena tried to inhale but couldn’t. The air burned in her lungs, the earth grew unsteady beneath her feet, and just before the world went completely dark, she saw Thomas drop his lantern and reach for her.
She awoke to the crackling of burning wood. The room looked oddly familiar, though she had no memory of having ever been in it. A soft mattress stuffed with flock was a comfort to her aching body and pounding head. She was no longer wearing her gown. Her boned bodice had been loosened over her shift but not removed, and a light wool blanket had been draped over her. The cap with little blue flowers had been neatly laid out to dry on a small wooden table beside her, next to the leather satchel she had carried on her belt with all the money she had in the world. Swollen glass panes reflected the burning lights of candles in the window. It was still dark outside, so she must have only been out for a short time. The smell of warm stew filled the cottage, and her belly grumbled. She could not remember the last time she had eaten.
When she heard footsteps climbing the stairs, she sat up and tried to tidy herself. She could only imagine what a wretched thing she must appear to be, the orphaned daughter of an accused witch come begging for shelter. But Thomas Blackburn wore no expression of disgust when he entered the room.
“Don’t hurry to rise. You need to rest.” He indicated for her to lie back down and placed another log on the fire.
“I’m fine,” she said.
She wrapped the blanket around her and rose to her feet, but her legs weakened beneath her. The room began to spin, everything blurred, and the table crashed to the floor as she stumbled backward onto the bed.
Thomas was across the room in a few long strides, catching her by the arm with one hand and the table with the other.
“I apologize,” she said.
“No harm is done,” he said.
He eased her onto the bed and stood the table upright beside it. While bending to gather some items that had fallen on the floor, he spoke lightheartedly, no doubt to ease her mind.
“It has been some years since I last saw you,” he said. “You were a little girl then. I must admit that I was almost expecting to see you just as you were all those years ago. I should have known you had grown into a young woman by now. But imagine my surprise to see how you’ve changed. Honestly, you look very much like your mother.”
He stopped abruptly. His smile faded. He regretted bringing up her mother, knowing how the tragedy of losing her was still raw. But his apologetic look was quickly replaced by one of deep concern.
“You’ve been injured,” he said, looking down at her.
The hem of her once-white shift now seeped in red, and torn and bloody stockings clung to her scraped and slashed legs. In her exhaustion and despair, she had not realized just how badly she had injured herself while making her way through the woods. Dried blood and dirt had given way to fresh blood that now oozed down her legs. She shouldn’t have tried to stand so soon, for it had most certainly aggravated the wounds.
Rising to his feet, Thomas left the room and returned with a pitcher of water, clean cloth, and a clay jar.
Lena recognized the clay jar immediately. Her mother stored medicinal remedies in them. The one Thomas held was more recently made, with her mother’s initials etched into one of the bulging sides. This could only mean that Thomas had seen her mother in the years since she had last been to Galen Cottage as a child. Why had her mother never mentioned it?
“If you will allow me, Miss Grey,” Thomas said, kneeling before her.
She nodded and bit her lip. This was going to sting.
He rested her leg over his knee. With great care and gentleness, he slowly peeled the fabric away from her skin. The pain was sharp. Lena winced and tried to keep from shaking. The water washed the blood away, revealing the wounds beneath.
Thomas’s chest rose and fell with a deep sigh as he closely examined one cut that looked particularly deep. He covered it with the thick, sticky salve from the jar and blew lightly on it. His breath was warm, but it sent a shiver through her.
He hesitated before continuing. Their proximity felt intensely intimate. He wiped his brow on his sleeve and avoided looking up at her. He threw the next torn stocking to the floor on top of the first one and concentrated on cleaning the wounds and applying the salve again.
When he was done, she placed her feet together on the floor, so he could examine his work. His dark hair fell forward, slightly covering the side of his face. His shoulders were taut, and his back was lean. The strength of his arms pushed at the white fabric of his shirtsleeves, and she could smell the faint aroma of freshly cut oak emanating from his skin.
Her head suddenly felt light and dizzy again. She closed her eyes, hoping deep purposeful breaths would help slow her racing heart. It wasn’t until he stood up and opened a large trunk at the end of the bed that she opened her eyes and watched as he searched through it. It took him a few minutes to find what he was looking for, but he finally pulled out what appeared to be an old shirt. The bone-colored fabric ripped easily, his teeth bearing down on it until he had several good strips. His fingers brushed over his lips to remove some remnants of thread, and she sat there foolishly unable to look away from him. When he peered at her from beneath his tousled hair, her cheeks flushed.
She didn’t look well, and he was afraid she might faint again. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she answered, but she was embarrassed. She hated that her breathing was uneven, and her skin felt hot.
He responded with an awkward glance and then focused on wrapping the torn strips around her wounded legs. He said, “You need to eat something. I’ll pour a bowl of stew for you as soon as I wrap your wounds. It looks like they may take some time to fully heal, but you should be well enough in a few days.”
The room was warm enough, but she tightened the blanket around her shoulders anyway.
“Here,” he said, returning to the trunk and handing her a clean shift, petticoat, and gown. “Your clothes are not yet dry. These are not fashionable, but they should do. They belonged to my mother... when she could still fit into them. Don’t ever tell her I said that.” He chuckled.
Lena loved the sound of his laugh, low and throaty.
“Your mother is still with us?” she asked.
“Yes, she’s very much alive. And doing well. She doesn’t live here anymore.” Thomas said nothing more about it. He excused himself, so Lena could change.
She untied her boned bodice and pulled the blood-stained shift over her head. The torn stockings fizzled and wilted before catching fire after she threw them onto the burning logs. The shift Thomas had given her was too large. It hung off her shoulders no matter how much she tried to tighten the strings in the front. The sleeves swallowed her hands, so she rolled them up.
The fire crackled and the logs whistled. Once again, the cries of her mother haunted her. She sat down on the floor to gather her strength and watched the thick smoke swirl up the chimney, and in it, the face of her mother’s accuser appeared. Idella Tench, a young woman she had known all her life, had screamed the loudest for her mother’s execution. Lena couldn’t imagine why she had done such a horrible thing. And now, Lena was alone, the daughter of a witch bringing shame and suspicion wherever she went.
The thought of staying at Galen Cottage was tempting. She could imagine a life here if Thomas Blackburn would have her but staying could put his life in danger. If she was ever going to live free from persecution, she needed to know that she would never be found.
Thomas rapped lightly on the door, and it creaked open. What a sight she must be, sitting there crying in front of a dying hearth filled with nothing but ash and smoke. Thomas said nothing, just helped her to her feet. She broke down in his arms. Her face buried in his chest, she sniffled and sobbed until her sorrow slowed.
He held her tightly and comforted her. “I would take it from you if I could, but the pain is yours to bear, I’m afraid. And it will always be with you. Always.”
Lena knew he would do anything for her, just as her mother had promised. She should never have doubted her. In his arms, she somehow felt safe. They had a strong connection, there was no denying it. She lifted her face to look at him, his eyes intense and filled with longing. He felt the same way, it was obvious, but the time wasn’t right; her grief was too raw.
After her crying subsided, he guided her down the stairs where a chair in front of a warm fire waited and a bowl of stew had been prepared for her. He handed her a blue and gray quilt, the colors and patterns faded, and she slid it across her lap after she sat down.
Thomas knew something he wasn’t telling her. She could tell by the way he sat forward in the chair across from her, his elbows resting on his knees, his fingers rubbing across his bottom lip. She had already been through too much, and he was tender-hearted, reluctant to speak what was on his mind until she pressed him into revealing what bothered him.
He was hesitant and slow at the start but eventually blurted it out. A trusted friend had visited while she slept and delivered some news. The mob had set fire to her childhood home. Nothing of her life remained there. The men were still searching for her, determined she should meet the same fate as her mother.
The news was unsettling but only confirmed what Lena already knew. Nothing in her life would ever the same again.
Thomas was adamant that he would never allow anyone to harm her, and if it meant leaving Galen Cottage, he would do it. His vow was sincere; Lena had no doubt. It was as though he was bound to her in some way, some force compelling him to protect her, just as her mother must have known.
“The clay jar,” Lena said, a realization coming to her. She leaned back and studied him.
“I’m sorry?” Thomas shifted in his chair, looking guilty and uncomfortable.
“The clay jar with medicine. It was my mother’s and made recently, but we haven’t seen you for years.”
Thomas said. “Your mother came to see us on occasion. She and my mother were remarkably close.”
“But she no longer brought me along with her. How strange.” Lena released Thomas from her fixed stare, much to his relief, and thought back to her childhood. Her mother had said something about Mrs. Blackburn being enchanting. It pleased her to know the women were such good friends, and she smiled to herself before having a spoonful of stew. It tasted good and was warm and soothing on her throat, still sore from having cried much of the day.
She glanced over at Thomas again. His shirt was still wet from her tears.
A log tumbled loudly from the fire, and Lena almost spilled her stew from fright.
Thomas grabbed the log with iron tongs and placed it back on top, poking at the embers beneath to enrage the flames again. He said, “I’m just glad you were able to find your way here again, after all this time.”
“I don’t know if I would have done so on my own, to be honest,” Lena said. “The woods were dark. If it hadn’t been for a swarm of fireflies, I might never have made– “
“Fireflies?” he interrupted. “You saw fireflies in the woods?”
“Yes, strange isn’t it? This time of year, it’s too early for them. But they appeared, all gathered in one direction, creating a path leading straight here.” Lena knew it sounded strange, but it was true.
“Hmm…” he grinned. “Well, my mother has always said there is magic in them.”
“Mine used to say it as well.” She smiled, but the thought of speaking about her mother in past tense made her feel sick.
He noticed and changed the conversation to lighthearted stories about lost sheep and ships on the Great River. His ability to occupy her thoughts was appreciated, and she was finally able to finish her stew and satisfy her grumbling belly. But there still seemed to be a secret behind Thomas’s smile, something he wasn’t telling her. She worked up the courage to ask, but he assured her it was nothing and soon bid her goodnight. The hour was late, well after midnight.
Lena remained by the fire for quite some time after Thomas retired to his bed. Every thought about what to do next was an internal battle. If she left, she might never see Thomas or Galen Cottage again. She chastised herself for feeling at home so easily. It was just that there was something about him. But if she stayed, she might bring nothing but misery and even death. Thinking about what to do was exhausting and would not let her sleep. It nagged at her through the night.
Eventually, she made up her mind. To go where no one knew her and to start again was the only way. Her mother had prepared her for that as well, only she had intended for Thomas to go with her.
But how could she ask him to leave this beautiful place for an uncertain one? Lena knew she must go alone. She would find her way to the nearest port and aboard a ship leaving for the Virginia Colony. She would be safe there. They didn’t hunt witches in Virginia. Everyone knew that. The people in her village considered it a form of shallow religion, believing that witches were everywhere, and it was their duty to find and expose them. The country was changing, but her village was not, and Idella’s accusation of witchcraft had fueled their fears of witches and renewed their zealot passions. It was best to leave. If she didn’t tell anyone about her mother, she would be safe. No one would suspect her. There was hope in Virginia.
As the hour passed, she heard nothing more from Thomas. Outside his bedroom door, she listened and knew he did not stir. All was quiet. His sleep had deepened.
She crept back down the stairs and wrapped her belongings in a cloth, tying them to her belt. A few pieces of dried meat and some bread would sustain her for now. She lingered a bit before leaving, taking one last look around the cottage. The temptation to stay still ached within her, but she had made up her mind. It was best to leave. The flame from the candle near the door danced in resistance to her but eventually dissipated into a wisp of smoke with one final puff from her lips. The room went dark, and the door clicked shut behind her.