As a bonus feature for the Midwinter Blog Tour, I’m going to serializing Part I of Circle of Witches. We’ll be posting a new chapter each day, with the shameless intent of getting you to try the whole thing. You’ll be able to find them here on the blog and on my Facebook page. (If you click on the RSS or Facebook buttons on the left, you’ll be able to subscribe or like and get notified each time a new chapter goes up!)
Spring had come early that year. The carriage-ride up the dale two days ago had been beautiful with greening fields and trees in young leaf and sunshine on the hills. But these were the Pennine hills, and today snow was swirling down the wind. Along the garden wall the betrayed daffodils bent under its weight, and Damaris, curled on the window seat with her nose nearly to the thick-glassed, small-paned windows, watched the far shadow-shapes of the hills come and go as the wind tore the snow apart or thickened it in gusts.
Here in her uncle’s study there was a fire on the hearth, but the warmth did not reach as far as the window. She was cold but unwilling to move, as if staying still would somehow change everything back to right. Behind her, in the house that she had never seen until the day before yesterday, she was aware of quick movements in the hall and on the stairs and of voices kept low, speaking hastily. There was an urgency where yesterday had only been her mother’s laughing pleasure at home-coming and the excitement of relatives Damaris had not known she had.
Now there was only strangeness. A strange house full of strangers and not even its sounds familiar. Damaris knew the sounds of home: Maid’s padded tread on the carpeted stairs, the third step from the bottom’s squeak, the solemn thud of the door from hall to kitchen, the iron clash of horses’ shoes on the cobbles under the front windows. Familiar sounds she had never thought about. But home was far away, beyond the hills and near the sea. Here nothing was the same or right – here where the hills rose to mountains beyond the moors and the houses were all made of stone with the walls so thick she could not even hear the wind except when it rasped the snow across the window glass or she was upstairs to hear it worry and moan along the eaves. She had come down here to be away from the wind as much as might be. And away from the other sounds upstairs.
No one had noticed she was gone and no one had come looking for her, but she was aware of everything she heard, and when she heard her father’s crisp, quick footsteps on the stone floor of the front hallway she gasped with relief and untangled her feet from her skirts, scrambled from the window seat, and ran to fling open the study door.
He was there in the hallway, grabbing his greatcoat from the rack beside the door, saying angrily to her Uncle Russell, “I’m going. She needs a doctor. I’m bringing her one.”
Uncle Russell said back, not angrily but with plain worry in his voice, “In this storm you’ll be lucky to keep the road long enough to reach him, let be coming back.”
“I’ll reach him.” Her father shrugged into the coat and wrapped his scarf high around his neck. “And if he won’t come, at least I’ll have him ready to set out as soon as the storm slackens. You’re not talking me out of this so don’t even try.”
Damaris, unnoticed yet, had the sudden, disconcerting thought that her father’s anger was only a thin cover over… fear. But that was wrong. It was her mother who always had fears – of the greengrocer’s horse or a passing dog or the crack in the parlor ceiling or a mushroom that was perhaps a toadstool after all because it seemed a little different from the others on the plate – constant little fears that Damaris hardly heeded any more except to know it was her mother who was afraid of things, never her father.
“Daddy?” she said faintly.
He turned from reaching for his hat, surprised, as if he had forgotten she might be somewhere. Then he came and caught her up and hugged her close. But even his hug was not the same as always. It was too tight, too quick, and she thought of fear again even as he said, “It’s going to be all right, Ris-Ris. I’m going to find a doctor for Mommy. You be a good girl and stay out of people’s way and I’ll be back as soon as may be. All right?”
Damaris nodded. She understood staying out of the way. But the idea of the doctor frightened her. Last night at bedtime her mother had been herself, warm and kissing when she came to put out Damaris’ candle, promising they would do something fun today. But this morning everything was wrong and Damaris clung to her father, wanting him to make it right. Instead he put her down, saying over her head to her uncle, “You’ll let me have a horse?”
“You’ll have my own. He’s big enough to handle the drifts. If you lose the road, let him have his head and he’ll find shelter.”
“I won’t lose the road.”
“Stubborn,” her mother had often said. “So stubborn you couldn’t move him with an earthquake.” Or with her own pleading a month ago when he had first announced they were going to visit her sister here at Thornoak. Her mother, who never set herself against her father’s wishes, had set herself against that one, and the arguing had gone on for what had seemed forever. Damaris, listening, had learned things about her mother she had never known.
All she had ever heard of her mother’s life was that she had been companion to an elderly lady until she met a handsome young solicitor who had fallen as much in love with her as she had with him and they had married and become Damaris’ mother and father and lived happily ever after. Damaris had never heard of Thornoak and the family that her mother had left behind as soon as she had been old enough to do so.
“I wanted to leave there and I did and I never mean to go back,” her mother had said over and over during their quarreling, angrily but desperately, too, because she knew as well – or better – than Damaris did that simply because he loved them her husband would not change his mind when it was made up.
And his mind had been made up. “Damaris has no relations except my own uncle in Lancashire and your sister’s family in Glavedale,” he had said. “She’s never seen any of them. She ought to. Uncle Robert has invited us to him at Easter and we can go by way of Glavedale as easy as not.”
“Then let’s not,” her mother had said.
But they had, and now her mother was ill. Damaris had not even been allowed in to see her this morning but had had her breakfast brought to her and been told to stay in her room. She had crept along the hall once, unseen, and stood outside her parents’ closed bedroom door; had heard the sound of retching and then a groaning that could not possibly be coming from her mother, no matter what it sounded like, and then had fled back to her room until the wind-sounds had driven her here, to the study.
Now, miserably, she pulled at her father’s coat, wanting to beg him not to leave her. He had to make Mother well, but she did not want him to go out into the snow and wind to do it. She tried to tell him that but no words came, and he bent to kiss her, freeing his coat from her hand as he did so, promising, “I’ll be back, Ris-Ris. Be a good girl.”
He reached for his high hat, but Uncle Russell took a close-fitting wool cap from the rack and said, “Take this one. It will stand the wind better.”
Her father thanked him, pulled it closely around his ears, kissed Damaris again, and went away through the hall and the back way to the stableyard, Uncle Russell with him.
Shivering with more than the hall’s drafty chill, Damaris returned to the window seat and to watching the storm. There was no sun to tell the time by, only the storm’s white twilight, but it was probably near mid-day when there was a light tap at the study door and an older girl came in with a cloth-covered tray. She sidled carefully, more aware of the tray than Damaris until the door was closed behind her. Then she smiled briefly in Damaris’ direction and said, as she brought the tray toward a small table at the end of the couch near the fire, “Warm soup and some cheese and bread. You’ll feel better for eating something, then.”
She was not anyone Damaris had yet met at Thornoak. A servant probably, though she was not dressed like one. Her dress was faded with washing and age, but still red, not a servant’s color, and the collar too wide around her shoulders. She was perhaps sixteen, older than Damaris by years and far nearer womanhood. Not buxom but slenderly curved, with a woman’s grace and sureness in her movements as she set the tray down and uncovered the food – a bowl of thick vegetable soup, with sliced bread and cheese beside it. Her eyes were dark in her narrow, pointed face, and her very pale, fair hair was caught back smoothly into a modest bun at the nape of her slender neck. She smiled again as Damaris slowly uncurled and rose from the seat. “I’m Virna.”
Virna nodded. “I know.” Of course she did. But that did not explain at all who she was, or why she was standing there as if she meant to wait while Damaris ate. Uncomfortable, Damaris came to the food and found, first, that the soup was wonderful and warm and something to put into her belly besides the fear and, second, that she was too hungry to care whether Virna watched her eat or not.
Apparently satisfied by sight of the soup disappearing, Virna said, “Your aunt is teaching me about herbs. Do you know about her herbs?”
Damaris shook her head, her mouth now full of bread and cheese.
“She knows more than anyone about what can be done with herbs to make people well,” Virna said.
Damaris looked up quickly. “My mother?” she asked. Could Aunt Elspeth help her mother? But her father had gone for a doctor.
Virna shook her head, looking regretful. “Your mother is ill beyond herbs. Your aunt is doing all she can but she can’t always help. I mean, she couldn’t help the storm.” She gestured toward the white windows. “Or probably it didn’t matter, so she didn’t. She didn’t know.” Virna frowned a little and repeated, more to herself than Damaris, “She didn’t know.”
“What?” asked Damaris.
Virna did not answer; asked instead, “You don’t know about your aunt and… what she does with herbs?”
“I didn’t even know I had an aunt until we came here,” Damaris said uncautiously, and then wished she had not because Virna’s attention on her sharpened, along with her questioning.
“You didn’t know? Your mother never said? Never told you anything? At all?”
Damaris took refuge with another mouthful of bread and only shook her head in reply. Her mother had never said anything about her family even after she had lost her quarrel to stay away from them, and all the way from Hull to Skelfeld where the hills began, she had ridden in clenched silence. But when the carriage had left the careful streets of Skelfeld and the hills had begun to rise up on either side, she had leaned to the window, almost as if despite herself, and then had taken Damaris on her lap, had held her around the waist and begun, hesitantly at first but then with growing excitement, to point out places she remembered as the miles went by and the dale changed quickly from a broad valley between soft hills into a narrow band of green along a swift-running river while on either side the hills swept up steeply to the rough, ungreen moors that, higher still – shoving against the sky – broke into ragged cliffs of harsh gray stone. The carriage had carried them through miles of dale lined and criss-crossed with graystone walls and solitary, graystone farmhouses set among the green and black of pastures and spring-plowed fields. There had been villages whose names her mother had repeated to her like a well-remembered litany: East Ridley, Daleton, Gillingthwaite. Every turn of the road had brought something new for her mother to exclaim over and tell her about, until, as the road had made another twist and humped onto a stone bridge across the river her mother called the Glave, her mother had gone suddenly still, leaning nearer the window. The road had come down from the bridge, turned sharply to pass through a small wood, and begun to climb, and her mother had breathed, “Thornoak.”
Set above the road and back from it, poised on an out-thrust shoulder of the steep hillslope, with the curve of far cliffs behind it like a shield, Thornoak Hall had risen up gaunt and gray but with sunlight diamond-glittering on its many mullioned windows. And Damaris had looked up to see tears likewise glittering in her mother’s eyes and a look of such longing on her face that even Damaris, young for her eleven years, had felt the pain there was behind it. Was this the home her mother never wanted to see again?
It was, and at the manor house door, Aunt Elspeth had been waiting, standing in the door’s stone archway. Damaris had known without being told she was Aunt Elspeth because she belonged there in that doorway, as if she and the house belonged to one another. Yet there had been nothing gray or stony at all about her aunt, in her blue gown and lace shawl and bright hair and smile. She had a faint resemblance in face and build to her sister, but she was older, with more of years and living in her face, and more of feeling, as if her emotions ranged deeper and went farther than her younger sister’s. For a moment after the carriage had drawn to a halt in front of her, the two of them had looked at one another in silence, a long looking until Damaris’ mother had cried out as if joy were hurting her, “Oh, Elspeth!” and went down out of the carriage into her sister’s arms, crying with what was plainly happiness, leaving Damaris altogether confused.
Why there had been all the years of never mentioning Thornoak or her sister or anything about the dale, Damaris still did not know, and now to Virna’s questioning she shook her head and pretended to be very interested in the food that no longer seemed to have a taste. When Virna tried to talk to her, she did not answer anymore, and when she had eaten all she could and Virna took the tray away, she returned to the window seat and huddled in on herself again, more afraid than she had been before without knowing why.
The day went on and on and she was left alone, watching the snow and listening to the come-and-go on the stairs and in the hall. Partly she hoped her father would return, turned back by the storm, but the hours passed, and finally, with twilight and shadows thickening in the study, she uncurled carefully, stiffly, and went to the door. There was no one in the hall. No one anywhere that she could hear, and carefully, sure she would be sent back if she were found, she crept up the stairs to the upper hall, to where she could see the door to her parents’ room. It was slightly ajar, letting out a thin band of yellow lamplight. Soft-footed, she went toward it, afraid to hear what she had heard that morning, but there was only stillness, and resisting the urge to slip away downstairs again, back to the shadowed study and the safety of not knowing, she went nearer. Her mother was there, beyond that door. Damaris could feel her. And silent as the shadows, she slipped thinly through the door’s small opening, into the shadow cast by a bureau there. No one noticed. The room was mostly darkness, the window curtains drawn and the lamp set below the edge of the high, curtained bed to keep its light from her mother’s eyes where she lay, a still figure hardly showing under the coverlet, utterly unmoving. Only her open eyes showed she was awake, her gaze fixed on her sister sitting beside the bed, hands folded in her lap, gazing back at her.
They had been saying something, Damaris thought, but had lately stopped, as if run out of words if not of feelings. Her mother stirred one hand, barely, as if afraid that moving it would hurt but wanting something. Elspeth quickly reached both her own hands to hold hers, saying, “I’m here, Julia.”
Damaris could hear only the murmur of what her mother said then, but her aunt answered, “He’s not come back yet. There’s not been time. He’ll come to you as soon as he’s here. Russell knows.”
“She’s downstairs. Do you want to see her?”
Her mother moved her head side to side on the pillow. “Not yet. In a little. Elspeth.”
More silence then, before Elspeth answered quietly, “I have, Julia.”
Damaris saw her mother’s grip tighten on her sister’s hands. “Promise again.” Her voice was weak, forced. “If anything happens to Joseph, there’ll be only you to take her. There’ll be only you.”
“Swear you’ll make her no part of it. Swear it again. Swear it by the hills and your hope of harvest. By birth and death and all the power you lay claim to. Swear it.”
For a long moment, Aunt Elspeth made no answer, then said slowly, as if each word mattered greatly, “Again then. I swear by all of this to do your asking so far as I am able, so far as life and time and chance allow, to the end of all my days. Is that enough?”
Damaris’ mother sank back into her pillow and turned her face away. “Yes,” she said, all the strength faded from her voice. “That’s enough.”
Damaris, even more quietly than her mother’s voice, slipped out of the room and down the stairs.
Someone had drawn the study curtains and built up the fire while she was gone. She sat down near the flames, as much for their company as for their warmth, and she stayed there, not sure how frightened she should be but very frightened, until Uncle Russell came, bringing another tray with supper for both of them on it. More like a boy than a grown-up uncle, Uncle Russell sat down on the floor to eat with her. Damaris doubted she could manage food, but Uncle Russell seemed not to notice her hesitancy. He talked to her while he ate, asking about her home and how she spent her days and what she liked and did not like as if it were ordinary for them to be together, and somehow the tightness that was knotted all through her eased enough that Damaris found she was hungry after all and could eat.
“And you’re eleven now,” her uncle said when they had been talking for a while. She nodded. He smiled. He had an easy smile that went all over his face. “Your cousins Nevin and Kellan are sixteen and fourteen. You’ll have to meet them sometime. Do you ride?”
Damaris shook her head. Her mother was afraid of horses and what they might do.
“Nevin could teach you. He’s the horse one of the two boys. Kellan likes dogs best. Have you ever had a dog?” Damaris shook her head. They shed on the furniture and might bite and could go mad, her mother said.
“Are you done eating?” Uncle Russell asked. “Then let’s sit on the couch, off the cold floor.”
Damaris found he was comfortable to lean against. With his arm around her, he went on talking to her, not asking questions anymore but just talking in his kind voice so that she must have fallen asleep because suddenly the girl Virna was standing in front of them, and Uncle Russell was sitting her up from his shoulder saying, “We’re going up to your mother now. She wants to see you.”
Abruptly wide awake and her insides twisting to knots, Damaris looked up at him. “Is she all right now?” she whispered.
“No,” her uncle said gently. “She’s not.”
Is she going to die, Damaris wanted to ask but whispered instead, “Is my father come back yet with the doctor?”
“Not yet.” Her uncle rose and held out his hand. “We’ll go up to see your mother together.”
Holding his hand made it easier to enter the bedroom again. Virna followed them in but stopped by the door while Uncle Russell led her across the room and her aunt rose from the chair beside the bed. In the lamplight and silence everything was much as before. Her mother’s face was waxy pale, with shadows lined wide around her eyes and along her mouth. Her lips hung slightly open as if she had no strength for closing them, and her eyes were drifted half shut. But she roused, opening them with heavy effort as Aunt Elspeth leaned over her and said, as if trying to reach her gently from a great distance, “Damaris is here. You wanted to see her.”
Damaris saw her mother’s head faintly wobble, as if she were trying to nod. Her aunt stepped aside, Uncle Russell let loose her hand, and Damaris – knowing what was expected of her – moved closer to the bed, to where her mother could see her without turning her head.
“Mother?” she asked. There were answers she desperately needed to hear: that her mother was going to be all right now; that Daddy was nearly back; that they would be going home soon. But the only question that came was, “Mother?” so faintly she hardly heard herself.
Her mother’s lips moved in the possibility of a smile. “Kiss me,” she whispered.
Trying not to heed the sick smell, Damaris leaned over the bed and touched her lips to her mother’s cheek, remembering how pretty she had been just yesterday, then drew back hastily, away from the feel of her thin, chill flesh.
Her mother smiled and moved her hand, wanting to hold Damaris’. Damaris let her, but the slack fingers seemed nothing to do with her mother’s loving, busy hands. They had nothing of what Damaris wanted so badly from her – comfort and certainty that everything was going to be all right again. But she stood there, holding her mother’s hand and wondering what she was supposed to do, until her mother’s eyes sagged closed and her hand went limp in Damaris’.
Aunt Elspeth took Damaris gently by the shoulders and moved her away from the bed. “I’ve given her medicine to dull the pain. That’s why she seems so hardly here. Partly why.”
Damaris looked up at her aunt, then bent her head over the tears that were flowing helplessly now that her mother would not see them.
“Perhaps you should put her to bed now, Virna,” Aunt Elspeth said.
Damaris grabbed at her uncle’s hand in wordless need and he said, “I’ll see to her for a while.”
He took her back to the study couch and tucked her into a corner of it with cushions and blankets and sat telling her stories about Nevin and Kellan and the mischiefs they made for each other until she went simply to sleep, still holding his hand.
* * * * *
She awoke wondering where she was and why. Then she remembered and lay very still, as if perhaps not thinking and not moving would make everything she was remembering a dream. It helped that it was morning. A new morning, with a slant of yellow sunlight between the curtains. The terrible day and the dark, dark night were over, and maybe they had been only a dream. In that hope, Damaris sat up and threw off the blankets someone had put over her. The cold of the room caught at her but she padded stocking-footed to the window. Maybe it would simply be spring outside and the storm had never happened nor any of the rest of it. Maybe it had only been a nightmare.
But when she shoved the curtain back the sunlight was shining on snow. Along the wall the daffodils’ yellow heads were bowed bright over its wind-shaped stillness. Yesterday had happened.
“Damaris,” her aunt said from the doorway behind her.
Damaris turned. Aunt Elspeth’s face was tired and defeated and her high-necked, long-sleeved dress was utterly black.
Very softly Damaris asked, “My mother’s dead?”
“Just before dawn. A few hours ago. She never really woke again after you saw her. I’m so sorry.”
Damaris nodded, still staring at her aunt but not seeing her. Not seeing anything except the nothingness where her mother had been. The emptiness. Aunt Elspeth came and drew her away from the window to the couch, made her sit and sat beside her but did not try to comfort her or hold her yet or make her stop feeling what she was feeling. Instead she said, “And there’s something else. Your father.”
Damaris jerked her head around, eyes widening to huge. “He’s come back?”
“No. He’s… As soon as it was light this morning, we sent a man out to meet him on the road, to tell him, and to let the doctor know there was no need to come further. The man found… A little way down the road, where it goes steeply to the bridge… Yesterday after your father left here, the horse must have fallen there at the bridge. It’s a stone bridge. Your father is dead, too, Damaris.”
Nothing seemed to move in Damaris, not even feelings. She simply sat, empty, until the pain began. It was a rending in her heart at first and then all through her. She shuddered, seemed to freeze with the intensity of the pain, then shuddered again and began to cry, first with all the tears of this morning and then with all the tears she had held inside through yesterday – an agony of tears that seemed would never stop – while Aunt Elspeth held her and rocked her and cried, too.
Continue with Chapter 2 tomorrow!
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