Mary took a deep breath and inhaled the cool air of the forest. She smiled to herself, never more content than when she was in her sanctuary of the wilderness, leaning against her tree by the stream, and getting ready to open a book – especially a new book. Vicar Price had bought it in London and read it on his way back. His face was so bright when he gave it to her. I hope that you enjoy this. I’m excited to hear what you think.
As soon as she finished cleaning the church she had stolen away with it, eager to open it up and digest its words. Books were magical to her, and intimate. They were like the friends she remembered having when she was a young girl – before they all grew up, got married, and only saw each other in the context of wives and mothers.
Books still had dreams in them.
She had been reading for nearly an hour when the sound of something stumbling through the woods startled her. The noise was coming from behind her, and she stayed very still – hoping that it would go away. As the minutes passed, she could tell that whatever was behind her was struggling. She could hear erratic breathing, followed by consistent swearing.
Peering out from behind the tree she had been leaning against, she saw that the man was on the trail, doubled over and holding his hand against a tree to steady himself. His hand slipped and he fell against the tree, then slowly slid to the ground. He stared up toward the sky, then swore some more.
Mary got to her feet, taking a few paces toward him.
“Sir! Are you hurt?” Mary asked.
He lowered his head, his eyes studying her. She could see his jacket was torn, and his face scratched.
“I’ll be fine,” the man said after a few moments. “I just need to catch my breath.”
Mary kept her distance.
“Are you sick?”
“Plague,” Mary said.
The man stared at her, then rolled back his sleeves and showed her his bare underarms.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Mary Cabell,” she said. “Are you Mr. Hopkins?”
“Mr. Matthew Hopkins,” Mary said.
“No,” he said, struggling back onto his feet. “My name is Richard Hornes.”
Richard stood, catching his breath.
“Are you injured?” she asked.
“Mostly just my pride. The goddamn horse got away from me.”
“You lost your horse?”
“Not for the first time.”
“Well, it may not have gotten far. I can call for some help from town and we may be able to find it if we search.”
“Trust me. The beast is long gone. We’re both better off for now. One of us is going to kill each other otherwise.”
Mary didn’t understand why he wouldn’t be more concerned about retrieving his horse.
“If you would wait here, I can go get help,” Mary said.
“No, I’m not an invalid. I can walk. How far is town?”
“About a half hour walk,” Mary said.
Richard nodded, his face falling.
“Here,” Mary said, and went back to her tree. She picked up a large walking stick and carried it over to Richard. “I leave this by my tree for when I want it.”
Richard looked at it with contempt.
“Or you can continue clamoring through the woods like a wounded deer.”
Richard looked at her then smirked. He took the walking stick.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice quiet but sincere.
“Let’s go, I can lead you to town,” Mary offered. “Let me go and grab my things.”
She ran back to her tree to grab her book and knapsack. Glancing back, she saw Richard trying the stick, testing it with his weight. She laughed inwardly at how awkward he looked, then put the book in her bag and walked back to the trail.
Richard looked up at her as she approached.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said.
She walked a few paces forward as he made very deliberate steps behind her, letting the stick bear more and more of his weight.
“Plague came through?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mary said.
“Has the town recovered?”
“It finished about six months ago. We are finding our feet. A lot of the poorer families have moved in from the country. They feel like they’ll have more luck here, plague or not,” she sighed. “We lost over 50 families. After a while we stopped having individual funerals. We just collected the dead.”
“That’s what most towns have had to do when it comes through.”
“Do you travel, then?” Mary asked.
They walked in silence for a few moments.
“Did you fight in the war?” she asked.
“Why do you ask that?”
“Why else has anyone travelled all these years?”
Richard swore for a few moments as he struggled to keep his balance.
“I saw my share of bloodshed,”he said.
“Do you think this peace will last?” Mary asked.
He shook his head.
“There’s too much tension in the air. Too much resentment. I think the fighting only stopped because people got tired. Civil war will break out again,” Richard said.
“Doesn’t the world have enough problems?” Mary asked.
“Never seems to. It always finds room for more,” Richard said.
They walked in silence for several minutes.
“Who is this Mr. Hopkins you were asking about?” Richard asked.
“Oh, I don’t really know the details, Vicar Price only shared that he’s been commissioned by Parliament on some church business or whatnot. He received an official letter telling us to anticipate his arrival. We had to collect an extra tax to pay his fees.”
“You sound skeptical,” Richard said.
“The rumors are that he is a witch-hunter.”
“Does he suspect witches in your town?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“People are on edge, especially after the plague.”
“Are you worried?”
“You know that scripture ‘seek and you will find’?” Mary asked.
“Yes – I do,” Richard said.
“That’s what I’m worried about. People look at each other differently after so much death and sickness. I don’t like it. It’s like we all got sick with something, even if it wasn’t the plague. I’m afraid some people want to find something.”
He looked at her knapsack and saw the book sticking out.
“Is that a book?” he asked.
“Oh – yes.”
“I don’t see many books in the wild, especially outside of the cities. Which one?”
“It’s called ‘The History of Lionbruno.’” she said.
“That’s a very good one. The boy abandoned on an island for the devil to collect,” he said.
“Do you read too?” Mary asked, looking back at him.
“As many books as I find,” Richard said, then winced as he took a step.
“That horse really hurt you.”
“One of the few things that can – and get away with it,” Richard said. “Pestilence.”
“Pestilence is the horse’s name?”
“Yes,” Richard said. “So where did you come across the book?”
“A friend collects them. He just got back from London.”
“He would have seen the political climate firsthand then. What does he think about the peace?”
“He says he prays men come to their senses.”
“Prayer won’t help with that,” Richard said.
“Are you not a man of faith?”
“Oh – I’m a man of faith. I just don’t have anything to believe in.”
Mary looked back at him and smiled, “I think we all kind of feel like that sometimes. Like Lionsbruno – we’re waiting on an island anticipating the devil.”
“I do identify with that story,” he said. “It’s a shame Lionbruno left the island.”
“I didn’t finish the book yet,” Mary said, “But why is that a shame?”
“Would it have been so bad? For the devil to have come for him?” Richard asked.
“The devil wanted to claim his soul.”
“I don’t think the devil cares about things like that.”
“What else does he care about?”
“That’s a very good question,” Richard said. “Finish your book and decide.”