“Be slow. Be patient. Be as ivy, creeping up the wall of your enemy’s defences. Be inoffensive, pretty, charming. Establish yourself, work your way into the brick and mortar. If you are wise, by the time your enemy realises what you have done, he cannot tear you out and destroy you. To do so would destroy his home.”

Bravd, exiled King of Pallos

 

Three days later, Sarea found the first body.

The corpse was mauled and eaten, little more than cold skin and bone amongst a pile of broken, scarred branches, but the tufts of wool were blowing around the woodland clearing.

Wolves? she wondered, looking at the sheep dispassionately. Maybe. They were driven out ten years ago, but that was long enough for their young to have young, and forget that this place was bad for them. She sighed, turned away, and went to tell the only sheep farmer in the village.

Farmer Ochirn, still young in face for all he had three full-grown children, followed her back to the body and stared down at it, brow furrowed.

“Knew I was missing a few,” he said, finally. “Thanks for showing me.”

“Kindly keep my name out of it when you tell others,” she said.

He nodded.

“What was it?” she said.

He shrugged. “Some filching rovers, maybe.”

She raised her eyebrows, surveying the carnage. “They’d do this?”

“Some of them steal an animal for their dogs and let them tear it apart alive. Gives the young ones a want to hunt.” Ochirn shrugged. “Can’t be wolves. Wolves don’t use fire. Here.” He pointed out the wood. “Fire games.” He turned to go, paused. “Might want to lock up that cellar,” he added, then disappeared into the trees.

Sarea crouched down by the broken wood. The marks were blackened, but looked more like it had been clawed. And… she sniffed, then looked at the thing that had been an animal. If it was rovers, why did it still smell a little like burned meat? Where was the fire?

She opened her mouth, shut it again, swallowed. They’d lit a fire nearby and destroyed the evidence too well for her to find it. Dumped the rest here for their animals.

What was it Ionas had said? Hounds with fire for claws? He was joking, she thought uneasily, and hoped it was true.

That night, she took out a long piece of iron-bound wood and barred the door. Tineke had insisted on something stronger than a latch, and that night as Sarea lay by the fire, she was glad of it.

:-#-:

The next day, she walked into the village proper.

It wasn’t much, just a triangle of buildings around a burned pit that became overgrown with wild grasses every summer. An inn took up one side, large enough for the merchants that passed through, a shop, a carpenter, and a blacksmith the second, and a row of attached houses the third. Harvest festival would be in three days. A pair of farmhands were busy uprooting the grass and digging the pit deeper, tossing earth white with ashes into the back of a cart.

In her basket, Sarea carried samples of what she’d found for dyeing in the autumnal woods – nuts, berries, and plant roots. The rest was kept in woven boxes at the back of her cellar, too heavy for one girl with a basket on her arm. It was a good enough excuse to walk into the village as any.

She entered the cramped, lamp-lit shop, and was relieved to find herself the only customer. “Hello?” she called out.

Mistress Treeback came from an open door at the back. “And there I just sent my boy to yours,” she said, hands on her hips. “What are you wanting?”

Sarea set the basket on the counter. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing that can’t be settled when he gets back.” She came forward. “You have something for me.”

“A fruitful harvest,” Sarea said, dipping into the basket and bringing up one of the little pouches. “Here.”

“More than old man Tublin’s going to have,” Mistress Treeback said. She opened it, shaking walnuts into her hand. “Good and big,” she said, satisfied. “Bigger than the ones you can get by trade this year. How do you do it with that little patch of wood you got?”

“Care and attention,” Sarea said. It was Tineke’s wood, really. Attached to the cottage, and surrounded on all sides by fields. Mistress Tineke said any other hedge witch would have had it cut down to make a herb garden, but Sarea was glad she hadn’t. They’d spent happy hours out there, fighting back against bushes and thorny plants that wanted to turn it into a thicket. The village hedge witch could forage anywhere for the plants she needed to serve the village, and in truth both the cottage and the trees were a gift from Mistress Junker’s estate, inasmuch as she still had an estate, but…

It feels like home, Sarea thought, watching Mistress Treeback inspect the walnuts.

“What happened to Farmer Tublin?” she said.

“Someone broke into his smoking shack and took all the meat hanging there,” Mistress Treeback said. “Near set fire to it, too. How much did you collect?”

“Six boxes so far,” Sarea said, holding her hand above the counter to show the height. “There’s more out there, if I had a helping hand. Do they know who did it?”

“Same rovers that killed two of Ochiern’s sheep.” Mistress Treeback pursed her lips. “My boy and I can ride up there day after the festival and deal with the haggling then. You can show him what to pick, he’s got good hands.”

“Two?” Sarea said, startled.

“More than that, he says, but they’ve only found one body, and he nearly saved the second. They must’ve set their dogs on his flock.” Mistress Treeback leaned forward. “He says he saw big black dogs. Can you imagine? He’s had to herd them all into a barn!”

Sarea shook her head. “The things people will do,” she said, through a heavy lump in her throat. “That sounds – that sounds good. After the festival.”

“So what do you want for these, then?” Mistress Treeback said, picking out the other bundles and peering into them, one by one.

“Did you get some more tea?” Sarea said.

“That I did. And I made cake. Tell you what.” Mistress Treeback touched her hand. “My man’s going to out in the fields until sunset. You come in the kitchen and sit with me until my boy comes back.”

“That sounds delightful, Mistress,” Sarea said obligingly, taking her basket off the counter, head racing. What had Ionas brought down on them? Demon hounds? More likely he was hunted by men. With any luck they’d realise he was long gone, since they had dogs to track his scent.

His scent.

He’d stayed at her cottage!

The cake tasted like dust in her mouth.

 

back home forward