Doubt not. The truth will be known.

Unknown

 

The rest of them followed, one by one. Even the girls, though they left the barn in a gaggle of giggles and whispers.

Her basket was half empty by the time the last woman left. Ionas seemed to sag, putting his hands in his pockets. “What were they?” he said.

She reached into the basket and held up a bottle. “Clear liquid to keep from bearing child,” she said, swirling it with a twist of her wrist. “White powder to help a child that can’t get enough of good food. Blue and green powder to make a paste for rashes and spots. Red liquid to help with a heart, black like earth for aching bones, brown like tree bark for a bad head and cramps.”

He stared at her.

“It’s how Tineke taught me to explain it,” she said. “Tell a farmer they’re taking something with a strange name and they’ll call it magic, and they’ll fear it.” She set the glass back in place, holding her hands up. “The names the women know them by. Barren Fruit,” she said, curling a finger down. “Mother’s Joy, Blue-Gay, Heart’s Ease, Soother, Ease of Passage.”

Ionas said, “Huh.” He stared at her.

She stared back. It was like he was trying to look inside, to the deepest parts of her secret self –

He grinned at her suddenly. “I’ve always wanted to know how women ran their villages,” he said cheerfully. “Turns out it does have to do with strange rituals.”

She shook her head, reeling from the sudden chance. “What were you -”

“So who’s this lovely lady, then?” He strode across to the statue. “Goddess of women?”

“A messenger,” Sarea said. “To the spirits of the season and the ancestors. What were you doing to -”

“Oh, Helena,” he said. “How far you’ve fallen…”

“Ionas!”

He glanced back at her, half in dark, half in light. “Yes?”

“Don’t do that,” she said. “You shouldn’t.”

“Shouldn’t what?” He put his head to one side.

“Try to tear people apart by looking at them,” she said. “Looking into them. People keep their secrets for a reason. It isn’t comfortable. It isn’t right.”

He smiled, a strange thing on a man suddenly grown beyond himself, with a presence he hadn’t had before. “Oh, the grand things you could do if you were put to them,” he said fondly. “I’ll never get you to leave, will I?”

“Not whilst people need help,” Sarea said. They wouldn’t send another hedge witch as long as she was here, even if they wouldn’t claim her. She was good enough for an inconsequential village far from the main road. She’d never be more than an assistant to nobody for the rest of her life.

Ionas nodded, turning back to the statue. “Then I’ll show you something beautiful,” he said.

He held his hands out in front of him, palms up, bare skin in the light. He said something in a language she’d never heard.

The statue glowed, rising off the ground. A hand moved. Faded white wheat became golden and ripe, resting against a voluminous white robe and cream-pale skin. Leaning against the rotting railing, Sarea looked down, to legs that’d never been scarred by brambles or sting by nettles, then up into a face as soft and gentle as the moon on a summer night.

“Why wake me?” it said, in a voice that may well have been a breeze. “Why, when the world is cold and dark? When the sanctuary walls begin to buckle?”

“It isn’t for myself,” Ionas said. “It’s for her.”

The statue turned to look at her. Sarea was frozen in place by a pale blue gaze.

“So the sun rises,” the statue said, and smiled.

“If you can offer her a little protection,” Ionas said. “Anything to help. Helena, please, after all I’ve done -”

“After all you’ve failed at,” the statue snapped, attention back on him. Bereft of its notice, Sarea rested her forehead against the wood, gasping for air. This was insane. Stone didn’t turn to flesh. It had to be an illusion. Just a trick. If it wasn’t…

“At least I’m trying,” Ionas snarled back. “Should I be like your kind? Dig a hole so deep the darkness can’t reach you? I have a duty! Whilst the Wall stands, there’s always time.”

The statue was silent. Sarea looked up again, just to make sure it was real. It was looking to the lone ray of light.

“The Wall will fall,” it said. “Our strength is little, and we will save ourselves from the flood. But for the sun, I would offer what I can spare.” It paused. “Don’t wake me again,” it said.

And suddenly it was stone again.

The piles of trinkets at its feet shifted. Out of them came a shining thing, and Ionas caught it. “Thank you,” he said, and turned to Sarea.

“What are you?” she said, hoarse with disbelief. “What aren’t you telling me? This – you can summon goddesses? Magicians can’t do that!”

“Everything and nothing,” Ionas said. He approached with the thing. It was a necklace of beads and woven ribbons, held at the back with a glittering gold clasp. She stayed perfectly still as he put it on her, then leaned in and kissed her forehead. “Be calm. You don’t need to know this yet.”

A pause.

“And I’m a lot more than a magician,” he added.

The world whitened.

:-#-:

They left the barn as the sun was setting behind black clouds. Early dusk, Sarea thought. Never a good sign.

“Are you sure?” she said, fingering her new necklace. “They were given to the messenger.”

“Protection charm,” Ionas said, and grinned. “You can’t turn down a gift in return for services given. I know the hedge witch rules. Besides, all ribbons look the same. How would anyone else know?”

“Magicians,” she sighed, and peered up at the sky. “We’d better hurry.”

“You lead and I’ll follow,” he said.

“Just keep up,” she said, and set a punishing pace all the way back to the cottage, basket on her arm, and didn’t look back no matter how many times he fell off a stile. Served him right for taking beads from a shrine.

 

back home forward