Margaret Frazer

Circle of Witches – Chapter 5

December 16th, 2012

Circle of Witches - The Midwinter Blog Tour

Start with Chapter 1!


For the next few weeks, however, Damaris found that her best chance of seeing Lauran again was not by way of visiting Irene, but by being out and about with Nevin and Kellan, since her cousins and Lauran were together more days than not.

“Making up for lost time,” Kellan told Damaris.

“And avoiding his mother,” Nevin added.

“And you two having no more sense when you’re around him than you ever had,” Aunt Elspeth said the evening her sons came to supper late and damp from climbing near a waterfall farther up the dale with Lauran who was going to be even later to his supper, having farther to go to home. “Let you be glad you weren’t with them today, Damaris.”

Uncle Russell shared a grin with both boys and said, “They’re sensible enough under it all. Lauran has been talking to me, and my guess is he’ll steady to his duties at Ashbrigg by autumn’s end, once these two are off to school again and stop bringing him into ill ways. There are brains in that handsome head of his, no matter what he pretends. Which is more than I’m willing to say about these two oafs of ours,” he added with a dire look at them that no one, including them, took seriously.

The trouble for Damaris was that when Lauran grew used to her sometimes being with Nevin and Kellan, he was the same toward her as they were, and it was impossible for her to remember he was handsome and think him charming while he and Kellan were trying to put a frog down the back of her dress and she was both avoiding it and throwing stream water at them. As the summer went through July, Lauran became less the handsome youth from the next manor and more like simply another cousin.

But she could not be always with her cousins and him. Instead, she often kept company with Irene, a kind of friendship growing between them. Their talk – mostly Irene’s talk – was of clothing and of all she had seen and the admirers she had had while traveling with her mother. Damaris could not quite understand how she could have had so very many admirers, being only two years older than Damaris and not even come out yet. Irene talked much of her coming out. “Not that it can be here in Glavedale,” she said more than once. “There’s simply no society here, just friends. It will have to be in York, with my aunt and uncle. They’ve a very fine house that will suit perfectly. I might even be able to use their carriage instead our shabby old one. Surely I will. They won’t want to be embarrassed by their niece!”

She also confessed to Damaris in absolute and utter confidence that she had romantic hopes of both Nevin and Kellan. “I’m awfully used to them, of course, but they are handsome and there’s no one else nearby at all.”

As nearly as Damaris could tell, Irene was not particular which of their hearts she captured so long as she captured one of them. Unfortunately, Nevin and Kellan seemed never home, or else just leaving, when Irene came to Thornoak, and were as adept as Lauran at avoiding teatime at Ashbrigg, leaving Irene mostly reduced to fluttering at them in the churchyard after service each Sunday. And that, she said, was hardly satisfactory, with Father Gedney there to hear and see everything, making Nevin and Kellan shy of talking with her.

Damaris kept to herself her doubt that kind old Father Gedney was the trouble, and tried to help, but her best suggestion – that Irene join her in riding with them – Irene scorned as altogether too hopeless, protesting, “Have you ever ridden with them?  They’re all hopelessly thoughtless. As if I went riding for the sake of breaking my neck!”

Since Damaris had never ridden with anyone else, she hadn’t known there was anything amiss with how her cousins rode and forbore to tell of the race she had won yesterday across the river meadows, Nevin, Kellan, and Lauran all having to pay her a shilling apiece afterward. Without being told, she was fairly sure Irene would be appalled at both the racing and her winnings.

Along with all of that, hours were still happily spent learning with Aunt Elspeth in the garden and making visits with her to elderly and ill folk, taking them medicines and – to the poorer ones without family – sometimes food. The weather held bright and dry, perfect for the haying; the sweet smell of the freshly cut grasses laid in their swathes across meadow after meadow, drying in the sun, filled the air.

Toward the end of haying, though, there came a morning when Damaris, sitting with the household mending at the parlor window, saw one of the field workers running up the drive toward the front door with an urgency that made her throw the mending aside and start for the hall, calling for Aunt Elspeth. Her aunt was there before her, come from somewhere else in the house and already opening the door to the man, who gasped out, “It’s Ted Higgins. Cut with a scythe. They’re bringing him.” Without hesitation, Aunt Elspeth ordered, “Damaris. My box. Rags. Bandages. Hot water. Agnes.” Damaris ran to obey, met Agnes already hurrying from the kitchen but exclaimed her message anyway as Agnes passed her, put her head in the kitchen to order Betty to begin heating water, then fled to the herb room to gather up a pile of folded linen bandages, another of clean rags, and her aunt’s box of medicines and instruments. As she returned quickly along the hall a cluster of men were laying a woven field hurdle bearing a groaning man on the drive in front of the doorstep, the hurdle being too wide to come through the door. She thought they would lift Ted Higgins then and bring him in, but they all stepped back for Aunt Elspeth to come to him there, and Damaris had horrified sight of why they did not want to lift him: his trousers were soaking with dark blood flowing far too freely from what must be a deep cut on his right thigh. Until then, Damaris had never seen more blood than came from a small cut nor a man so badly hurt he was fighting not to writhe with his pain, but Aunt Elspeth, with her sleeves shoved up, was already on her knees beside him, saying, “This has to be stopped before he’s lost enough to kill him,” with such steady certainty that Damaris steadied too, understanding that paralyzing dismay would not be forgiven.

Her aunt looked around, nodded for her to put the box, bandages, and rags beside her, and ordered again, “Hot water.” Damaris set everything down, then ran to the kitchen where Betty was putting a fresh kettle of water to heat on the stove. Not waiting for that, Damaris filled a wide metal basin from the tea kettle always warming at the back of the stove and went with it as quickly as sloshing allowed. By then Aunt Elspeth had cut Ted Higgen’s pant leg away from the wound and was taking things from her box, readying to do more while Agnes on her knees beside her was pressing a wad of rags to his leg, hoping to slow the flowing blood. Damaris set down the basin beside her aunt who did not look around but ordered, “The syrup. You know the one. Bring it.”

Damaris knew which she meant. It would ease Ted Higgins’ pain and quiet him while Aunt Elspeth did what had to be done. But all the while she was fetching it, she was thinking how he was to be married at the end of harvest to pretty Ellen Sawyer and must not – must not – die. And yet she knew how easily he could with a wound like that.

Giving the syrup to Agnes, she went for another basin of hot water from the kitchen, dumped the bloodied water in the first basin into the flower bed beside the front door, and was sent then by Aunt Elspeth to make a poultice, her aunt saying which herbs she wanted in it without looking up from her work on the groaning man. Damaris left the emptied basin with Betty in the kitchen, telling her to fill it and take it to Aunt Elspeth, and then went fearfully to the herb room. Until now, she had never worked there alone and at first her hands shook as she mixed and ground the herbs in the mortar. But as she found she knew what she was doing, she steadied. By the time she returned to the front door carrying the readied poultice, the drug had taken hold on Ted Higgins; he lay quietly, eyes shut, no longer groaning or trying not to writhe with the pain; and Agnes took the poultice from her with, “Best you help your aunt now. My hands haven’t the strength they used to,” so that Damaris found herself kneeling beside Aunt Elspeth, holding Ted Higgin’s leg to keep the wound closed instead of gaping while her aunt carefully sewed it shut with small, neat stitches, explaining to Damaris how and why as she did it. After that she bandaged the poultice in place over the wound, sat back on her heels, and said to the men gathered in a tight knot close by, “He’ll do for now. Take him home before his mother and Ellen hear of it and fly to pieces. Put him to bed. Tell his mother he’s to stay there, that I’ll send some strengthening broth he must drink when his wits come back to him, and that I’ll come tomorrow to see how he does.”

The men all gave hearty nods. Aunt Elspeth rose and stepped back, and they took up the hurdle again and left, careful with their carrying. Watching them go, with Agnes and Damaris standing on either side of her, Aunt Elspeth said, “His mother will see to him. He’ll do well enough.” She looked down at her bloodied apron and Agnes’ and Damaris’ skirt. “And so shall we, once we’ve changed and had a cup of tea.”

Damaris looked down, surprised to find blood on her. Surprised, too, to find it did not matter. What mattered was what they had done and that Ted Higgins, while he might limp down the aisle to his wedding, would be alive to do it.

* * * * *

Other than that single alarum, the summer days passed mostly easily. More easily than even last summer’s, since the shadow of her parents’ deaths was not wrapped so close around her, and there were Lauran and Irene, too.

But there was also Virna.

Damaris, left to herself, might well have let herself forget about the full moon, both the one past and the one coming nearer with every night, but Virna was there too much, with her watching eyes and tight, mocking smile. Damaris was careful never to be alone with her, but there was no way to avoid Virna’s sly, sidewise looks at her behind Aunt Elspeth’s back. Those had been questioning at first, until Virna seemed to guess that Damaris had failed her dare. Then they became challenging, reminding her that time was passing, that another night was coming when the moon would be full, and goading her to dare better this time.

And inevitably the night of the next full moon came. Sharply aware of it all day, Damaris saw no sign that anyone else at Thornoak was, the ordinary day slipping into an ordinary evening. It being summer, the daylight lingered long, with twilight still blue outside the parlor windows when Betty brought in the tea. As usual, Aunt Elspeth poured and Damaris handed the cups around, taking her own from the table last and going to sit on the cushioned stool. The tea was a familiar one, a strong Indian blend that Uncle Russell favored and she had drunk uncounted times. But tonight…

After her first long sip, Damaris paused, set down her cup in its saucer and avoided staring into it while she ate a biscuit.  There could not truly be a difference in the taste, she told herself. It was only her imagination, worked on by Virna, making her think something was there that was not. Sure of that, she drank again, slowly. But with every sip, trying to convince herself there was nothing different, she became more certain there was a very subtle herbal savor, almost lost under the strong Indian taste but there.

And yet she drank her cup empty, made her good nights, and left the parlor. Agnes was waiting for her in the hallway just as always, and just as always, Damaris went up the stairs ahead of her, and by the time they reached her room was so suddenly sleepy she could hardly move through readying for bed.

Clinging to the fading edge of awake, she thought: Just as I was when the moon was full last time. And on Midsummer’s Eve, she thought distantly but only in the last moment before she slid over into sleep, with no dreams that she remembered afterward.

* * * * *

The morning’s early sunshine was slanting up the wall beside her bed when she awoke. She lay looking at it, clear-headed and rested but with no urge to rise, finding she had awakened with the same thoughts she had gone to sleep with. Now, whether she wanted to or not, she was sorting through them, accepting that twice that sudden sleep had come on her, and that last night there had been a strange taste in the tea, subtle but there. Did that taste and the sleep go together?  If they did, did the strange sleep happen only to her, or to the others, too?  Surely not, because if it came on them the way it came on her, they would never make it to bed at all. But if that were the way of it, why her and no one else?

Or was this all something she was only imagining, lured to it by Virna?

That would be best.

And all she need do was simply ask Aunt Elspeth if it was real or not. Or Uncle Russell. Or Nevin or Kellan. Or even Agnes. Surely none of them would lie to her.

Even as she had the thought, she knew she would ask none of them. How could she?  Aside from how she could ask such a thing without sounding witless, how could she let any of them think she had such a thought at all?  How could she let any of them think she doubted them?   It was Virna she distrusted, not Aunt Elspeth or Uncle Russell or anyone else. All this was Virna’s poisoned words working in her, she told herself fiercely. Virna’s poisoned words and Virna’s lies!

And yet… and yet…

She slipped from bed and rummaged in her worktable’s drawer where weeks ago she had put her notes on the Old Ways and given them no more heed, too taken up with the garden and all else that came with summer. Finding a blank sheet of paper among them, she noted down Midsummer Eve’s date and under it the date of the last full moon and under that yesterday’s date.

She sat for a time, looking at what she had written, but no new thoughts came to her and finally she shoved the paper in among the others and closed the drawer.

* * * * *

In the following days, Damaris no longer tried to hide how she was avoiding Virna. Aunt Elspeth must have noticed, but said nothing. Virna surely noticed, but did nothing except to smile at her, hard-eyed and mocking, behind Aunt Elspeth’s back.  She needed to do nothing more: Damaris was all too aware of the days slipping away, ever nearer to the next full moon.

But the moon was not yet full when, yet again, the sudden sleep came on her one night. Because she had not thought to be wary of her tea that evening, she could not say whether there had been any subtle added taste to it or not, but in the morning she had no doubt about the sleep, and even while keeping a tight, denying hold on her thoughts, she rummaged the list of dates out of her drawer and added another.

Time came when there was little more than a week left until the moon would be full, but only five days until Nevin and Kellan would return to school, to be gone until the Christmas holidays, and for their last few days at home, they and Damaris were released from almost all their duties, to roam and wander as they would. Together they spent the time making the boys’ farewells to folk and places up and down and back and forth across the dale. On the next to last day they rode far east along the top of Ashbrigg Scar, where the stone bones of the high hills broke through the turf in a mile-long cliff between the moors and pastures. At the scar’s far end, as the hill smoothed out from cliff to slope, they turned down into the dale through a stand of trees and passed through a gateway in the stone wall that kept the moor’s rough heather and bracken back from the fields. From there they followed a farm track that wound between the fields down to the main road beyond Ashbrigg Manor, where they turned westward, back toward Thornoak. It was the long way home but they were in no hurry, and when they came on Lauran leaning on the wall beside the gate into one of his manor’s great fields where his workers were cutting the last rows of the barley harvest, they drew rein, with the two hounds who had come with them flinging down full length on the grassy edge of the road, panting and content to stop.

“How goes it?” Nevin asked with a nod toward the field.

“The best harvest we’ve had in years,” Lauran answered. “How is it at Thornoak?”

“A little behind here. We’re beginning tomorrow.”

Lauran glanced at the sky. “The weather will probably hold?”

“Mother says so.”

“Then it will,” said Lauran.

A companionable silence settled among them while they watched the last of the barley go down. When all but the last handsworth had been cut, the last reaper straightened and stood aside, his sickle slack in his hand. The other reapers gathered toward him into a circle and Lauran said, “Here we are then.  Time to go out.”

As if something had belatedly occurred to him, Nevin began, “I don’t think we…”

But Lauran had already moved to lift Damaris down from her saddle, saying mockingly at Nevin and Kellan as he set her on her feet, “Afraid of a doll and some shouting?”

Damaris understood neither that nor why Nevin flushed deeply red and Kellan went quite still. But as Lauran swung the gate open, Kellan shrugged and said with a light half-laugh, “Come on, Nevin. There’s nothing much. It isn’t anything that’s not done elsewhere.”

Nevin’s expression seemed to say otherwise, but he held silent and followed his brother in dismounting and going with Damaris and Lauran into the field. The circle of men and women around the last standing barley opened to let Lauran come among them. He took Damaris’ hand and took her forward with him. “So you can see better,” he said, glancing at Nevin and Kellan as if daring them to protest that. Neither of them did, and Damaris would not have heeded them if they had. She liked the feel of her hand in Lauran’s and went with him willingly among the circled workers to the edge of the open space they had made around the last standing barley. All their light talk had dropped away. Except for a crow making demands from the top of an oak at the field’s edge, a silence deep as the moment before Father Gedney began a prayer in church now held the gathering.

Into the silence and the space, an old man, surely the oldest person there, stepped forward. In their midst, alone with the barley, he began patiently and skillfully to plait the uncut grain on itself. His hands were ridged, veined, spotted with age and none too steady, but steadily, surely, he formed the long stalks into the crude shape of a woman in full skirts, her arms outstretched.  When he had finished and stepped back, someone still in deepest silence handed a sickle to Lauran. In equal silence he turned and held it out to Damaris. For a moment, with everyone’s gaze on her, she did not know what was wanted of her, what she was supposed to do. Then quite suddenly and clearly, looking into Lauran’s eyes as he looked into hers, she understood and with a confident smile, took the sickle from him, went forward, and a little awkwardly, unfamiliar with a sickle but cleanly enough at the last, cut off the barley close to the ground, holding it with her other hand to keep it from falling over. When she had finished, she straightened up, lifted the barley woman above her head and turned all around in a circle for everyone to see, warm with a sense of triumph out of proportion to what she had done, but a triumph everyone seemingly shared because they all – from Lauran to the old man who had woven the barley, to the men and women still in the strength of their years, to girls no older than herself – shouted out, “The Maiden!  The Maiden!”, and the men tossed their sickles up glittering into the air, to deftly catch them above their heads while the women and girls pushed forward, crowding around Damaris to take the barley woman from her. They suddenly had ribbons in their hands, and as they began tying the ribbons to the figure, Lauran took her arm and drew her away through the crowd, toward Nevin and Kellan who had stayed apart from it all, explaining in her ear as they went, “It’s an old custom. Old as can be. Even here no one thinks harvest would be rightly done without it. At Thornoak…”

They had reached Nevin and Kellan at the gate, and more abruptly than need be, Nevin interrupted with, “We have to be off home. Come on, Damaris.”

Lauran immediately let loose her hand without finishing what he was about to say and stepped back, making a slight and almost formal bow to Nevin, his smile gone. The afternoon was late enough that, yes, they should be going home, but there was something else – something in Nevin’s abruptness and the mischief still in Lauran’s eyes – that made her look from one to the other and then at Kellan, wanting someone to say why. But Kellan was staring at the ground and Lauran and Nevin at each other. Annoyed at the moment’s pleasure being spoiled and no one likely to tell her why, she shoved between her cousins and away from Lauran, went to Fansome and mounted. From that greater height she said down at them, “Thank you, Lauran,” and, “Come on then, Nevin. Kellan.”

She was turning Fansome away as Nevin and Kellan swung into their saddles. Lauran, as easily as if nothing beyond the ordinary had just passed among them, said, teasing, “You have a wonderful time back at school, my lads. I’ll be thinking of you penned up while I’m not.”

Nevin made a rude, albeit friendly, sound, and Kellan said, “At least we’ll learn something while we’re at it. That’s more than you ever bothered to do, oh ignorant one.”

“There’s learning and learning,” Lauran called after them.

Looking back as they rode away, Damaris saw him going to rejoin the workers now gathering to follow the last laden harvest cart out of the field, singing on their way toward the barns.

“Ah, alas,” said Kellan beside her. “Are you pining after him? Has Lauran won another lady’s heart?”

Damaris disparaged that with a huffing sound.

“That makes two hundred and twenty-four, doesn’t it?” Nevin asked.

“At least,” Kellan agreed. “If not more. And that’s only here in Glavedale.”

Too used to her cousins’ teasing to rise to that bait, Damaris said loftily, “Pray, don’t include me in that count. I gave up adoring him months ago.”

Kellan placed a hand on his chest as if in shock and cried, “How could that be?  How could you alone deny his charms?”

“Easily,” Damaris returned, laughing. “All I had to do was realize he’s no better than the two of you!”  And giving them no chance to answer that, she heeled Fansome into a gallop for home, leaving Nevin, Kellan, and the dogs to try to catch her.

* * * * *

Two days later her cousins departed for school with much complaining and protest, leaving Thornoak feeling very empty without them.

As if they had taken the last of summer with them, the weather turned to chill rain under thick clouds for days on end. The night of the full moon came, but there was nothing strange about it – no taste in the tea or sudden sleep, and Damaris awoke in the morning with a vague sense of disappointment. Still nestled into her covers, she wondered if she had been wrong about the moon having anything to do with anything. But then she sat up, smiling at a different thought. Maybe nothing was happening at all! Maybe it was simply her imagining something that wasn’t there!

Cheered by that, she got up and wrote yesterday’s date on her list, then drew a line through it, to show that nothing had happened.

A west wind rose that afternoon, driving the clouds and their rain away, leaving the sky crisply clear to mirror her cheer. The day passed and the evening came and…

She tasted nothing wrong with the tea, but then she had not been looking for it, and even if she had been, the strongly flavored anise-seeded cake Agnes brought with the tea would have masked the lesser taste. The morning after that, though, she had no doubt about the sleep that had swept over her.

Almost angrily, she took the now-hated list from her drawer and added yesterday’s date to it.

Then, less than a week later, there was another night of that sudden sleep. Because that made no sense at all to Damaris, she left the list untouched in her drawer the next morning, telling herself that since the sleeps were so random, they meant nothing and the list was pointless. But at mid-day she gave way and went all the way up to her room to add yesterday’s date. “For what it’s worth,” she told herself rebelliously and afterwards refused to think about it.

The last signs of summer were gone, faded into deep autumn. The days drew in to darkness sooner; the nights lengthened. Sieges of drizzling rain set in, bringing coughs and chills and rheums. The hours that had been spent in the garden were now spent in Aunt Elspeth’s herb room as she worked to supply remedies and eases for all the complaints that came to her. Damaris had far more share this year than last in the making of poultices, concoctions, and brews, and was glad for it; she loved her aunt’s herb room, with its baskets and hanging bunches of dried herbs, the labeled small boxes and sealed jars of readied medicines, the jars of creams and lotions for weather-hurt hands and faces, the sweet or spicy potpourris to freshen sick rooms. The mingled smells and the warmth from the small fireplace made the room a pleasant haven in the drear autumn-into-early-winter days, even with Virna too often there, with her sideways looks and crooked, mocking smiles at Damaris that Aunt Elspeth never seemed to notice.

Damaris could endure Virna because making a poultice for Mrs. Calvert’s chest or a healing cream for a shepherd’s cold-cracked hands or whatever else Aunt Elspeth set her to, kept her mind from wandering where she did not want it to go. There was also her friendship with Irene to distract her. Even as the weather worsened, there were days when she could ride to Ashbrigg, or Irene come to Thornoak. Lauran showed up surprisingly often, too, coming to talk with Uncle Russell about some manor matters or wanting advice, then often staying to supper and sometimes for part of an evening before riding home in the dark.

The next full moon came – they seemed to come so often now that they were in her mind  – in the middle of a week of constant, drizzling rain. This time, despite herself, Damaris stayed aware of the evening tea not only on the full moon night but each night to either side of it, but neither the strange, faint taste nor the strange sleep came. Not on those nights or any near to them. That had to mean it was the weather that made the difference, Damaris thought. But why?

She did not know, could not imagine, and so – yet again – deliberately turned away from thinking about it.

Not thinking about it proved a useless refuge. Hardly a week later, at October’s end, the sleep came again. This time it was a spice cake rich with cinnamon that concealed any slight difference there might have been in the taste of the tea, but again Damaris awoke in the morning from the strange sleep unable to deny it had happened but seemingly farther than ever from understanding it. Last night had been clear, but there had been several other clear nights since the last full moon had passed in rain. So did the weather matter or didn’t it?  Did the sleep have to do with the full moon or didn’t it?  Or – and this she was very ready to believe – was it all no more than her imagination, a lie started in her mind by Virna?

Damaris liked that last answer best and took it with her downstairs to breakfast and afterward into the stillroom for her morning work with her aunt and – unfortunately – Virna, who seemed unusually sullen today. Or maybe it was simply that she was hiding her ill temper less well than usual.

Whichever way it was, there came a time when Aunt Elspeth was called away to settle some matter in the kitchen, leaving Damaris weighing out the herbs for a mixture to ease coughs while Virna was sorting small boxes on one of the shelves. But with Aunt Elspeth gone, she turned on Damaris and said in a harsh whisper, “You haven’t done anything, have you?  You haven’t heeded my warning at all. About the full moon or anything.”

Damaris froze, knew how that betrayed her, and returned to her weighing, saying without looking at Virna, “There’s nothing to do anything about. You’re making it all up.”

“Am I?”  Virna left the shelf, came far too close for Damaris’ comfort, and hissed in her ear, “Did you sleep well last night?  Deeply and dreamless?  The way you have other nights?”

Damaris stiffened but went on with the herbs, refusing to look at her or make any answer.

Virna drew back a step, and now there were taunting and mockery in her voice as she said, “You don’t understand anything at all, do you? And you don’t want to. You’re just a silly little girl.”

Angry with her fear, Damaris finally looked at her, furious, and whispered fiercely back at her, “So if you think it so important that I know, why don’t you tell me about it?”

Virna’s mouth twisted, losing its loveliness, going ugly as she seemed to fight herself over answering or not. The hard fury in her eyes said she very much wanted to, while some even stronger urge held her back.

Having come unheard along the passage, Aunt Elspeth appeared in the doorway at Virna’s back. Even before the flinch of Damaris’ eyes past her shoulder could have warned her, Virna went rigid, then smoothed the fury and mockery from her face and said as she turned around, her voice gone smooth to match her face, “My lady, we were just about to…”

“You will come with me, Virna.”

Aunt Elspeth said it evenly and turned away in seeming expectation that Virna would follow her. Virna did, sending a last venomous look at Damaris as she went out.

Damaris, her throat tight and a knot in her stomach, set the small bag of herbs she had been weighing on the scale again, having lost all idea of what they weighed while she was resisting Virna’s taunting.

In a while her aunt came back without Virna, returned to her place at the worktable, and said in an even voice as she took up the pestle with which she had been grinding dried thyme leaves in a mortar, “Virna will not be coming here again.”

Startled, Damaris opened her mouth to ask why, but Aunt Elspeth said, without looking at her, “Do you remember what goes with thyme to make a chest rub against congestion?”

Given how often Damaris had made the rub these past weeks, the question was an easy one, and she answered automatically, at the same time understanding that not only did her aunt mean to say no more about Virna, no questions were to be asked either. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

Still, there was likely to be no better time to ask about Virna’s taunting, to simply begin, “Virna said…” giving Aunt Elspeth chance to answer with something that would make everything all right.

Yet the words would not come. Partly Damaris could not make them because any question that way seemed somehow a betrayal, as if she were willing to set Virna’s words against Aunt Elspeth. But also, treacherously, she was afraid of what her aunt might answer. That was Virna’s poison in her, she knew, but still she could not help it. There was too much right in her life; she was afraid to find there was something direly wrong.

So she did not ask, but let the moment slide away, willing to settle for being glad Virna was gone, willing to bury her unease under the familiarities of everyday where she would not have to look at it unless she chose to.

Until the next time the moon came on to full.

Continue with Chapter 6 tomorrow!

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Circle of Witches - Margaret Frazer

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