“A cat may look at a king, but nothing stops the king from putting the cat’s eyes out afterwards.”

Grand Warlock Ionas

 

Ionas hadn’t turned her cellar upside down.

Before Mistress Tineke took the cottage, the cellar had been used as a brewery, and it still smelt like cider. Then it had been a hole in the ground. Now it was deeper, more like a barrow chamber, lined with bricks and with steps down. It flooded a little less.

She surveyed the shelves, full of small glass bottles. Most of them were freshly filled. It had been a good summer, and she’d spent a lot of time in the woods. Tineke had taken her on for her medicine-making, and kept her for… she didn’t know what. Only that it was happier than her da’s house.

Two were missing, only, the ones she’d had Ionas fetch. Easy to replace.

She frowned at herself. Still checking if something had been stolen.

“Either you’re a crappy medic, or the people around here don’t respect their hedge witch,” Ionas said. She turned. He was sat on the steps, hands on his knees.

“Medic?” she said.

He shrugged. “Old word.”

She shook her head. “It’s not a matter of respect.”

“It’s what your grandfather did,” he said.

“They know I won’t harm someone in need,” she said quietly. “So I can pass amongst them as I wish. But I’m not a member of the community. I am isolated.”

Ionas’ brow furrowed. “So why are you staying?”

She glanced past him, judging the daylight. “Fetch my basket,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

:-#-:

Her basket full of precious bottles, she led him across rain-wet fields, crops harvested to stiff, stabbing stubs, under a dark sky and through muggy heat. Off the ground, Ionas was clumsy, tumbling over rather than climbing each stile. On a narrow bridge across a stream two paces wide, he nearly fell straight in.

“Do be careful,” she said, and sighed.

He grinned at her. “You should see me on the dance floor.”

“Crippling everyone in sight?” She smiled. “Not far to go.”

“Where are we going?” he wondered, dusting himself off with his feet on solid ground.

“Every seven day, the women gather in an old barn,” she said. “They built a shrine there.”

He stared. “A shrine to what?”

She shrugged. “Does it matter? This way.”

Up one last hill to the fallow field the barn stood in. It had been well cared for, new supports lashed to old, the roof held together with rope, nails, and luck. The door was ajar. She slid through it sideways, not daring to open it any further for fear of squeaking hinges, and sacred shadow fell over her.

Some twenty girls and women knelt on the ground in front of an old white statue holding wheat, features long since worn away. Around its feet were ribbons, painted wooden beads coloured like berries, old household tools and a baby gown decorated in exquisite lace. A hole in the wall captured a stray ray of light, turning a dead thing of stone and moss into something beautiful and alive.

Sarea crept to the steps on the side, leading up to the ruins of an upper floor, and sat, basket beside her. Ionas stood in the dark corner, a ghost in shadow.

There wasn’t a priestess here, but Mistress Treeback was most often a leader, and once she caught sight of Sarea she made a point of quietly rising and coming across to her.

“You’re early,” she said, voice low. She still had a twang; she’d grown up in a more isolated hamlet, where the people took no trouble from anyone. “Something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Sarea said. “But it’ll storm tonight, and fierce.”

“Least the crops are all in, hey?” Mistress Treeback rolled her eyes. “The men’d have a fit if that weren’t so.”

“And how’s your man?”

“Grumbling like a bear but running like a goat,” the woman said, “And humping like a dog, I’ll tell you that.”

Sarea looked down into her basket and picked out a bottle of murky red liquid. “Just a drop in a pitcher -”

“- and a spoonful to a keg, girl, I know.” Mistress Treeback nodded. “I’ll see you get the bottle back.”

After a while, the next came.

 

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