Margaret Frazer

Circle of Witches – Chapter 4

December 15th, 2012

Circle of Witches - The Midwinter Blog Tour

Start with Chapter 1!

CHAPTER FOUR

Damaris went to breakfast the next morning embarrassed by how promptly she had fallen to sleep and expecting to be teased, but her cousins and uncle were deep in talk of the sheep-shearing and the likely price of wool this season. They gave her smiles and nods as she joined them but nothing else. Damaris supposed they might be trying to be kind, but she thought resentfully they could have done that better by letting her go to the bonfire last night.

Aunt Elspeth was not there, and Damaris asked Betty, coming in with a plate of fresh-baked muffins, where she was.

“Already gone out to the garden,” Betty said, setting the muffins closer to Damaris than to her cousins, giving her first chance before their quick hands.  “Says you’re to come out when you’re done, Miss.”

With nothing to say about sheep or wool and refusing to ask about last night – especially whether Nevin or Kellan had danced with Virna – Damaris ate in silence, left the men still talking sheep, and went out to the garden that was now in the full-leaved richness of late June, the flowers of high summer blooming in their scarlets and yellows and a few blues among the varied greens of other plants that had finished their year’s glories or were still to come to them. Aunt Elspeth, in the far corner from the gate, looked around as Damaris entered and raised a dirtied hand in greeting.

Damaris joined her, scooped her skirts around herself, and sat down on the grass. She thought maybe her aunt would say something about last night, but rather than that and as if yesterday hadn’t happened at all, Aunt Elspeth began to talk about the herbs she was weeding, just as usual. Damaris still felt wronged, but being wronged did not lessen her pleasure in learning; she leaned close and listened.

“You see how it spreads by its root along the surface,” Aunt Elspeth said, holding aside the spear-pointed leaves of a thick-grown bed of lily of the valley. “It grows abundantly, given the chance, and is useful…”  She paused and looked at Damaris.

Pleased she remembered what her aunt had told her in the spring when the plants were flowering, Damaris said, “It’s useful against inflammation of the eyes, palsy, and apoplexy. It comforts the heart and vital spirits, and in quieting disorders of the head and nerves. It need be used in only very small amounts for any of those.”

“Do you know why?”

Damaris paused, then shook her head. “Why what?”

“Do you know why it should be used in only very small amounts?”

“Oh.  Because that’s all that’s needed and enough is better than too much. Waste not, want not.”

Damaris stated that with assurance. It was something her mother had often said about almost everything, from a serving of dessert to rising early rather than late in the morning.

“Yes,” Aunt Elspeth agreed, but then added, “And also because the entire plant is deadly poison if too much is taken.”

Damaris looked at the quiet green leaves, remembering the tiny, bell-like, delicately scented, cream-white flowers, and wondering how there could be any danger in anything so lovely.

Aunt Elspeth went on talking of how the poison showed itself and what could be done against it, then went on to the tall monkshood. Damaris already knew it was serviceable in a decoction to wash venomous bites and against plant poisons.  Now Aunt Elspeth told how it was also deadly if taken in too great a quantity.

Damaris sat listening hard but also puzzled. Her aunt had never talked of anything but the good qualities of the plants she grew and used. Now, in the same quiet voice she had taught those, she detailed their dangers; and just as Damaris had learned the first, she now worked to learn these, disquieted though she was to find that plants that could be used to the good could likewise be used to the bad.

That brought a question to her mind, but she kept it to herself until, lessons done for a while, she and Aunt Elspeth were digging out the encroaching grass along the rose bed’s edge. The sun was warm, the quiet pleasant between them, and only after a while did Damaris ask, “Is Virna coming today?”  Because it was odd for Aunt Elspeth not to teach both of them together.

Aunt Elspeth went on working a stubbornly long grass root from the soil while answering, “No. Not today. Nor for several days.”

“Why?”

“Because I told her not to.”

Something final in her aunt’s voice stopped Damaris from asking anything else. They went on digging and pulling out the grass in the pleasant quiet, until finally Damaris said softly, “She doesn’t like me.”

Aunt Elspeth paused, sat back, and said, looking at a half-opened red rose in front of her, “I sometimes think that Virna doesn’t like anyone. Even herself.”

“She likes Nevin,” Damaris said, watching her aunt. “She said she meant to dance with him at the bonfire last night.”  And then, needing to know, she asked, “Does he like her?”

“No, Nevin does not,” Aunt Elspeth said sharply. She bent to her work again, wrenching out a long strand of ambitious root with unusual vigor. “Did I show you last year how to make a compress of roses to ease aching eyes?”

Damaris let herself be led away into talk of the various virtues of rosebuds, roses, and rose hips, keeping her wondering about Virna and Nevin to herself.

Still feeling wronged about the Midsummer bonfire, she kept that and much else to herself the next few days, until one morning, while Aunt Elspeth was still in talk with Cook over a kitchen matter, she went out to the garden before her and found Virna waiting beside the lavender bed as if she had never been away a single day. Her dress was simple; her hair was gathered back into a neatly fitted cap; her hands were folded demurely over her apron’s waist. Standing there gazing down at the budding lavender, she looked everything she was supposed to be. But seeing her, Damaris paused. And Virna, without raising her head, returned her look, staring from under her brows as if they would hide her face’s white anger.

Unbidden, Damaris suddenly thought:  She more than doesn’t like me. She hates me.

But that was so unreasonable a thought that she made herself smile and go forward and, trying to sound glad of it, said, “You’re back!”

“I’m back,” Virna agreed flatly. “What has your aunt been teaching you while I was away?”

Damaris turned aside, pretending a sudden need for a long look at the pink-flowered soapwort – used externally, it cured itching – while saying, “Just things. About rose decoctions and suchlike.”  Which was the truth but far from all the truth. Every day that Virna had not been there, Aunt Elspeth had gone on telling Damaris the ill things that plants could do as well as the good, things she had never said for Virna to hear.

“She said nothing about Midsummer night?” Virna demanded. “Has she told you anything about that?”

Stung and incautious, Damaris said back at her, “For all you said you’d dance with Nevin, you didn’t, did you?”

A flush darkened Virna’s face, unpleasant over her paleness. “If she told you that, she lied. Nevin danced with me and Kellan would have, too, if I’d wanted it.”  She moved toward Damaris with the tense grace of an angered cat. “Why do you think your aunt forbade me here this while except I made too bold with her Nevin?  He’d have made bold with me, too, if he’d had the chance, but she stopped him. She’s afraid of me, your aunt is. She’s afraid of me and a great many other things and you’re too simple-witted to see it.  The bonfire isn’t all you haven’t gone to. Stay awake at the next full moon until everyone should be asleep and mark what happens then.”

Damaris took a step back from the sudden lash of anger, but just as suddenly as it had come, it was gone, and Virna smiled as if they were friends and said, “You just remember that. Two nights from now when the moon is full and everyone should be a-bed, you watch out a window toward the stables and see what happens.”  Virna’s smile vanished. Voice low, hissing the words, she added, “Only best not tell your aunt. She won’t like it.”

Then, with a satisfied swish of her skirts, she turned away and went back to gazing at the lavender bed.

* * * * *

The rest of that day and through the next, Damaris kept as far from Virna as she could. She also tried to forget everything Virna had said, because someone who disliked her as much Virna disliked her would say anything to hurt her. Still, she found herself watching Nevin, looking for something about him to be different but seeing nothing. He seemed the same as always. So did everyone else.

Everyone but me, Damaris thought unhappily as she faced that something had seeped into her from Virna’s poisoned words, knowing that however much she told herself she wouldn’t, she would watch the stableyard when the moon was full and everyone should be asleep.

She sat silent over supper that evening, letting everyone else’s talk go on around her, not rousing to interest until over the pudding Aunt Elspeth said she had heard through Agnes from one of the maids that the Ashbriggs were said to have come home today.

“They’ve taken their time,” Uncle Russell said without surprise. “Where do you suppose Lauran persuaded his mother to go instead of coming straight home?”

“We’ll know soon enough, and all about it,” Aunt Elspeth said serenely.

“Things will be lively now,” Kellan grinned. “Lauran could always think of more things to do than ought to be done.”

“And you two always went along with him if you had the chance,” Uncle Russell said.

“Not always,” Nevin protested. “We’re not completely crazy.”

“It wasn’t so much the times they went along,” Aunt Elspeth said musingly, “as the times they thought of things and dragged him into them.”

“Dragged him?” Kellan exclaimed indignantly. “Lauran never needed dragging!”

“Remember the time–” Nevin began, and the talk went off into happy reminiscences that meant nothing to Damaris but distracted her until supper was over and they all settled as usual into the parlor. By the late-lingering midsummer light, Aunt Elspeth took up her embroidery. Nevin and Uncle Russell brought out two of the farm ledgers to check past records and discuss what best could be done with the high meadow above Headrow Farm. Damaris and Kellan settled to their usual happy arguing over a game of chequers.  For them arguing was part of playing, made easy by Kellan’s creative, one-sided, ever-changing of the rules.  Uncle Russell had once suggested that chess would provide even more opportunities for changing rules and arguing, but Kellan had claimed there would be no challenge in quarreling over something that was easy to quarrel over anyway.

“Besides,” he had added, “I can hold my own at chequers. Damaris is clever enough she might win at chess.”

“You only hold your own because you cheat,” Damaris had said, and they had set to quarreling about that, laughing while they did.

This evening, though – too aware of the deepening twilight and that tonight the moon would be full – she could not keep her mind to the game or quarreling, until Kellan quarreled at her for not quarreling, and that made her laugh and almost things were as usual.

Still, it was a relief when Betty brought the tea and biscuits that always ended an evening. That meant they would go up to bed now, and nothing would happen when the moon rose, and Damaris would know Virna was a liar.  Dry-throated from arguing with Kellan, she took the cup Aunt Elspeth passed to her and drank deeply. The biscuits were shared around, and when they were done and the cups and saucers returned to the tray for Betty to clear away, Aunt Elspeth said as always, “Are you for bed now, Damaris?”

Used to being the first sent off upstairs, Damaris made her good nights, kissed her aunt and uncle, and went out to find Agnes waiting as always for her in the hall to see her to bed. There seemed to be an idea that she would scant on washing if she were not supervised and tonight she might have, so sleepy by the time she reached her room that she only wanted to fall onto her bed and into sleep, but Agnes saw her through washing and into her nightgown, saying as she drew up the covers to Damaris’ chin, “Sleep well, child.”

Damaris nodded, turned on her side, and curled comfortably into sleep.

She awoke to the dim light of a cloudy morning that promised rain. Stretching out from under the covers, she lay for a while looking at the gray sky beyond her open curtains, not thinking of anything in particular, simply savoring being awake with a untouched day ahead of her all uncomplicated yet by any need to move. And then, unbidden and unsought, the thought came, “I’ve fallen asleep like that before.”

She sat up, trying to follow where that thought had come from and what it meant, her ease gone. What had been enough different about last night’s falling to sleep to make her think that?  She remembered she had been all awake downstairs, not sleepy in the least, but between the parlor and her room she had grown so heavy-tired she had hardly been able to keep to her feet while Agnes readied her for bed, and when she lay down, there had been no pause while her mind and body let go of the day and relaxed to sleep. Instead she had pitched into a black unknowing almost on the instant she had sunk into her pillow.

Exactly as she had on Midsummer’s Eve.

And hadn’t there been other times?

When?  When had she fallen asleep that way before?

She did not know, but was suddenly sure it had been more than once.

Slowly she dressed and went downstairs to breakfast. She was late, the last to arrive. Aunt Elspeth was just going out and kissed her lightly on the cheek in passing. “Join me in the garden when you’re ready, dear.”

Damaris nodded but lingered over her porridge and toast until her uncle and cousins had gone out, then slipped upstairs to look out an upper window into the garden.  As she had feared, Virna was there, working near Aunt Elspeth. Not ready to bear Virna’s knowing look and thin-cornered smile, she ran back down the stairs and out the front door, crossed the yard to the gateway onto the road and crossed the road to the stile in the stone field wall there that led to the path down to the river. She would rather spend the morning on her own and tell Aunt Elspeth why later – when she had thought of a why she could tell – instead of facing Virna now.

As it happened, even the feeble reason she finally chose was unneeded. She came home at mid-day with barely time to wash her hands before they all sat down to dinner, and all Aunt Elspeth said then was, quite kindly, “You enjoyed your walk?  Agnes said she saw you leave,” and returned to listening to Uncle Russell’s talk about sheep. Only later, in the garden together, with Virna not yet returned from her own dinner in the village, did Aunt Elspeth smile at her and say, “You like Virna less all the time, don’t you?”

It was a near guess to why she had stayed away, but enough of a miss that Damaris was gratefully able to answer, “I don’t think I like her at all anymore.”  Then, because the question had been in her too long to keep, she asked, “Why is she here? Why do you let her come here?”

Aunt Elspeth went on gathering together a sprawl of sage to see if it might do better tied into a tidier clump while she answered, her words considered and slow. “There’s no need for me to be the only healer here. She has a deep skill with herbs and healing. I’d hoped – I still hope a little – she would learn to use well what knowledge I gave her.”

“But she’s angry at you. If you’re teaching her, why is she angry at you?”

Aunt Elspeth let go of the sage and looked around to meet Damaris’ gaze with her own. Quietly, seriously, as if this was a lesson she particularly wanted Damaris to learn, she said, “She’s angry at me because I’ve not taught her what she wants most to know. I’ve hoped she would turn what I teach her to more good than her mother and grandmother ever did, but – too much like them – what Virna most wants is to have power over people. She’s angry at me because I won’t teach her that. She thought I would, but I won’t.”

Confused, Damaris looked around the garden. Everything here was for medicines or soothing teas or sweet-scented potpourries. She knew some could be harmful as well, so that care had to be taken, but nothing here was for the sake of having power over anyone.

As if understanding what Damaris did not say, Aunt Elspeth answered, “You see it that way and so do I. Virna does not. If nothing else, she wants the sick to come to her so she can show her power over them by making them well. She would make money at it if she could. She thinks I’m a fool because I do what I do out of love and for nothing else.”

Fierce with sudden anger, Damaris said, “She’s the fool!  I wouldn’t go to her for anything even if I were dying, whether I had to pay or not!”

Aunt Elspeth smiled. “If you were actually dying, you might feel differently.  But, yes, I feel that way about her, too.”

“Then why are you teaching her?”

Aunt Elspeth’s smile saddened. “I had hope that she’d change. That she’d learn more than herbs from me. But she hasn’t. She’s set her mind and her heart too much to one thing, and I doubt anything but her desire is very real to her anymore.”

“What desire?” Damaris asked, wondering if her aunt meant Nevin.

Aunt Elspeth looked startled, as if she had not meant to say that last thing aloud, then shook her head and said, “Let’s see to the thyme. It wants to creep anywhere but where I meant it to.”

Damaris accepted that talk of Virna was over. In a way she was glad; even that much to do with Virna made her uncomfortable. It maybe made her aunt uncomfortable, too, for when Virna came a little later, Aunt Elspeth set her to working alone at the far end of the garden while she and Damaris worked on together at edging the thyme, the sunshine warm on their shoulders now that the morning’s possibility of rain had ended, their silence companionable until Betty came out to tell them, “Mistress Ashbrigg, Master Ashbrigg, and Miss Irene are on their way here. Albert was washing the carriage in the stableyard and saw them coming along the road. Cook’s been warned to start tea.”

Aunt Elspeth rose, unwillingly distracted from her work. “They only came home yesterday. I didn’t expect them to come calling so soon. Meant to visit them first. And who knows where Russell and the boys are, so there’ll be only Damaris and I to see them. And no time to change.”  She looked down ruefully at her gown. It was one of her plain work dresses, and though she gardened neatly enough that she was not dirty except for her hands, the dress was old and certainly not meant for receiving guests. Damaris was dressed much the same, though not quite so cleanly anymore. Aunt Elspeth looked herself and Damaris over and shrugged with a little laugh. “Ah well, Ellen Ashbrigg is used to me. Thank Cook for starting the tea. Come, Damaris, we must at least wash our hands and faces for them. Virna, you may as well go home. We won’t do more today.”

Virna rose and curtsied, the very blankness of her face betraying that she was feeling something she did not mean to show as she said, “Yes, mistress.” Damaris felt her eyes burning at their backs as they left the garden.

She and her aunt had scrubbed their nails free of any hint of dirt and tidied themselves a little before Agnes came to say she had seen the Ashbriggs into the parlor. Damaris had grown used to meeting people in her aunt’s company, but was always glad it was her aunt to whom people wanted to talk, letting her stay shyly and contentedly in the background as much as possible. She was hoping for the same now, as Mistress Ashbrigg rose from the parlor sofa to greet Aunt Elspeth with a wide embrace sufficiently distant not to disturb the ample lace emboldening the front of her gown. The next few moments were a flurry of Mistress Ashbrigg’s greetings and exclaims over how everything and everyone had so changed while they were gone and how wonderful it was that Elspeth looked the same as always and this grown young lady must be the poor, dear niece, how delightful to meet her, and surely she and Irene would be the best of friends, wouldn’t they.

Damaris and Irene came obediently forward to be properly introduced, Irene smiling readily, Damaris somewhat less willingly, immediately aware that although Irene looked to be much her own age, she had the advantage of town-bought gown and bonnet and school-bred poise over Damaris’ home-made gown and uncertainty. But Irene, rather than noticing that, seemed honestly delighted to meet Damaris, giving Damaris hope of warming to friendliness, although they had chance of no more than, “Hello,” and “Good afternoon,” between them before Mistress Ashbrigg was going on, “And Lauran of course. The best to last. Hasn’t he grown, Elspeth?”

Lauran Ashbrigg had placed himself the other side of the parlor from his mother and sister, well apart from the opening flurry of greetings, so only now, turning toward him with her aunt, Damaris saw him straight on. Since all she knew of him was that he was a few years older than Nevin and had been in mischief with them all the time they were growing up together, she was not ready for the tall, gracefully built gentleman with golden brown hair who came forward to bow to Aunt Elspeth with a murmured greeting, then bent his head silently to Damaris who made a slight and silent curtsy back to him.

He had nothing of his mother’s softness and flutter about him, nor anything of the scapegrace of her cousins’ tales, and when he had finished his greetings, he moved aside to lean on the mantle of the fireplace, looking as at ease as if all the world were his and he was greatly pleased by it, while Aunt Elspeth was agreeing with Mistress Ashbrigg on how wonderful it was they were back and persuading her to sit again, the two of them together on the sofa, Damaris with Irene on the settee across from them. Damaris wanted to look at Lauran again, hoped he would say something so she could hear his voice more than the murmured greeting he had given Aunt Elspeth, but Irene was claiming her attention, saying, “It’s going to be such fun having you for a neighbor when there have been only boys all this while. And you’re pretty, too. We’ll make my brother and Kellan and Nevin take us to the dances in Skelfeld, and we’ll make all the men there swoon, we’ll be so lovely. They have balls there, you know.”

Damaris had not known and was momentarily distracted by the thought of Nevin and Kellan being made to do anything they did not want to do, while Irene burbled on, “Mother and I shopped profoundly all over France and Italy and Germany. You must come see what I have.” She touched delicately at the brim of her flowered straw bonnet. “But can you believe I got this when we paused in York, of all places? The new fashion in hats sets off one’s face so amazingly well, I think.”

“Yes,” Damaris agreed, while still resisting the urge to look at Lauran’s face. But under the flow of Irene’s happy talk, and her own answers, she heard him respond to one thing and another his mother occasionally said to him. Otherwise he held his silence, giving nothing of his own to the general talk, and Damaris wondered if she were the only one who felt his hidden laughter at them all. Certainly Irene did not, happily declaring, “We must become great friends. We can take walks together. I’ll show you all my favorite ones. There are some lovely ones along the river. And when the weather won’t let us walk, we can sit snug inside by the fire and look through all the fashion magazines I’ve brought home with me.”

“I shall very much like that,” Damaris said, and meant it. Both the shared walks in Irene’s delightful company and the fashion magazines. She remembered her mother and she had used to do that on rainy days – sit by the parlor fire looking through magazines together.

Tea came. Aunt Elspeth poured and Damaris handed the cups around, very aware of nearly touching Lauran’s hand as she gave him his. Irene took her cup with thanks and barely a pause in explaining her plans. “I don’t mean to be dull, even if we have come back to the country. At least now that we’re all home, we can have parties at Ashbrigg again. Lauran says he hates parties–”

“Because I do,” Lauran put in.

Damaris looked at him. There were irony and laughter at his sister in his face and in the glance he turned on Damaris. She quickly looked back to Irene who went on, unheeding his words, “–but he looks so wonderful in evening clothes that I can’t believe he means it. We simply have to have parties. I have this pale peach dress from Paris. It’s a year old now, but that hardly matters here and…”

Talk of clothes and of parties past and future saw out the rest of the visit. Only as they were in the hallway on their way to leaving did Aunt Elspeth say, momentarily aside to Lauran, “Nevin and Kellan are looking forward to times with you again.”

“So am I,” Lauran answered. “I’ve missed them.”  For once there was none of the hidden laughter under his voice. “And Thornoak. The only sanity in an otherwise quite mad world.”

Then his mother claimed his attention to help her down the step to the drive and into the carriage. He handed her in, then had to wait while Irene and Damaris exchanged a quick hug before helping his sister in, too, following her himself with a lithe leap and a flourish of his coat tails as he sat facing them, his back to the horses. Damaris stood beside her aunt on the doorstep to wave them all farewell, Aunt Elspeth asking as the carriage rattled away down the drive and out the gateway, “Will you be friends with Irene, do you think?”

Thinking that being friends with Irene, which promised to be a pleasure in itself, would also surely be a way to see more of Lauran, Damaris answered readily, “Oh, yes. I’m sure to be.”

Continue with Chapter 5 tomorrow!

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Circle of Witches - Margaret Frazer


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