Margaret Frazer

Circle of Witches – Chapter 6

December 17th, 2012

Circle of Witches - The Midwinter Blog Tour

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CHAPTER SIX

Autumn dwindled into early winter, with the last ploughing done and the sheep and cattle driven down from the farthest hill pastures. The weather continued wet and chill, and Damaris came down with the fevered cold and cough she had helped treat in others with her aunt all autumn. It took deeper hold with her than it had with most. She was moved from her high room to one near her aunt’s and uncle’s. There she was nursed through the nights, turn and turn about, by Aunt Elspeth, old Agnes, and Betty, for more than week. Even when the worst was past, she remained weak, only too happy to lie abed or – when she was stronger – sit at a window for hours, first in the bedchamber, then in the parlor, watching cloud-shadows shift along the winter-grayed dale or, in worse weather, the rain falling in icy sheets.

Her body’s exhaustion as it struggled to heal had exhausted her mind, too, but when she was well enough for visitors, she was stirred a little more aware by Irene’s company a few afternoons and even several visits from Lauran. Irene brought fashion magazines and chattered on about nothing in particular, requiring only slight answers from Damaris in response. Lauran, unexpectedly more thoughtful, came his first time with a book of ballads and read aloud to her – strong, stirring ballads of danger and daring; of desperate battles won or heroically lost; of perilous loves and fatal sword fights and wild rides to safety.

“Irene says I should be reading you softer stuff,” he told Damaris as he settled into a chair. “That these aren’t for ladies. Are you become a lady, Damaris?”

“No,” she said. She might be presently too weak to do even embroidery, but she was quite sure of that. So he had read to her by the hour, and when he was done she was no stronger in body, but her mind was stirred more awake than it had been since she fell ill.

He came twice more, the last time bringing not the ballads but a novel of dire doings in Scotland’s past. This he left with her after having read from it. “To keep your mind from having nothing but Irene’s fashions to think on,” he teased before giving her a surprising kiss on the cheek and leaving while she was still too startled by that to say anything.

Damaris sat with her hand to that cheek for several bemused moments after he was gone, but the book beckoned – he had left off at a particularly exciting moment – and she was still reading when Aunt Elspeth came in a time later to see how she was. Pleased to find her doing more than gazing out the window, hands limp in her lap, her aunt said as much and added, teasingly, “How good to know that Lauran can be at least a little useful once in a while.”

Almost, Damaris rose to Lauran’s defense but heard the teasing and stopped herself in time, at the same time hoping her aunt did not notice the sudden pinkness of her cheeks. If Aunt Elspeth did, she did not say so, but left the parlor smiling.

The November full moon had passed while Damaris was at her sickest, and when the December one came she was still being given medicinal draughts to strengthen her and was too prone to falling asleep early and sleeping late to have any idea whether or not there was anything different about that night.

She refused to admit to herself how glad she was of that.

Then, at last, the Christmas holidays brought Nevin and Kellan home from school. An end to the dire, damp weather came with them by way of a light freeze and the winter’s first light snowfall. Uncle Russell, Aunt Elspeth, and Damaris were waiting in the parlor for them, but the snow had muffled the carriage wheels, so that the first warning they were there came from them entering the hall with merry shouts that they had arrived and where was the hot spiced wine and all the rest of their expected welcome? Damaris was first from the parlor and flung herself in a great hug at Kellan, who left off shaking his cloak clear of a snow flurry that had caught them between the carriage and the door long enough to return her embrace before she left him to his parents and flung herself at Nevin. Nevin met her hug with his own, then caught her by the waist and swung her around, exclaiming, “Well met, little cousin!”

Set on her feet again but still gripping his arms, Damaris looked up at him and said, astonished, “You’re taller.” And accusingly, “You’ve grown!”

Nevin grinned down at her. “It happens. Look at Kellan.”

She spun toward Kellan, just finished shaking hands with his father, and indeed instead of the half-head shorter than his brother he had been, he now matched Nevin’s greater height. “You’ve both grown!” she declared, offended.

Kellan reached a forefinger to tap her on the nose. “And you haven’t, small one. Which means that when we can’t find any ball, you’ll be useful to toss back and forth between us.”

“You wouldn’t,” Damaris protested.

Nevin and Kellan looked at each other, nodded once, then made to grab her from either side. With a protesting half-shriek of laughter, she darted to safety behind Uncle Russell as Aunt Elspeth said, “The warmed wine you were shouting for and Betty’s cakes are waiting for you in the parlor. No, give me a hug before I let you go,” she ordered both sons, and it was with her arm around Nevin’s waist and Uncle Russell’s hand on Kellan’s shoulder that they went into the parlor with Damaris following after, well content that school had not changed her cousins at all, no matter they were grown too much taller. And in the double pleasure of her returning strength and them being home, with the last full moon well behind her and most of a month before another one, she gave herself up to simply being glad with all the readying for the holidays.

But the fourth morning after her cousins’ return, only a few days before Christmas, she awoke knowing she had slept the Sleep again. The Taste had not been in the evening tea. Of that she was sure, but was equally sure the strengthening draught she was still taking in the evenings was bitter enough to cover anything beyond what she knew was in the mixture she had helped her aunt make; and she lay quietly in her bed – she was returned to her high room now – surprised that what she felt more than anything was disappointed. That forced her to try sorting through her feelings to find out why, of all things, “disappointed” was what she felt. Had she truly hoped that with Virna gone out of her life, the problem of the Taste and the Sleep would be gone, too?

Because she had been spared the full moon nights in November and December, she had slipped to the safety of telling herself, as she had told herself before, that, after all, it – and she never let herself look deeply at what “it” in its vagueness truly covered – probably did not matter, that very possibly she was only imagining it because Virna had put the thought into her head, and since it was Virna’s doing, the best thing to do was to ignore it altogether.

Yes.  Ignore it altogether.

But now…

She threw back the covers. The cold morning air instantly cut through her nightdress, chilling to the bones, so that she willingly let go all thought except the urgent need to dress in her undergarments and warm wool gown as quickly as might be.

And yet, before she left the room, she took out her loathed list and scribbled yesterday’s date in stiff-fingered haste, before thrusting the offending paper deep into the drawer.

After that, she determinedly forgot about it and all else she did not want to think on; instead gave herself up to enjoying the holidays and her cousins as completely as she could. That was not hard, even though the weather returned to dreary. On Christmas Day umbrellas were needed when going from the carriage into church and back again, but once home the fires in all Thornoak’s fireplaces and the greenery everywhere and holiday good things to eat and laughter-ridden games with Nevin, Kellan, Aunt Elspeth, and Uncle Russell brightened the day past any dreariness, and on Boxing Day the Ashbriggs came to visit. Lauran was in particular high humor, mercilessly teasing Irene over the impractical size of her beaver-furred Christmas bonnet and his mother about the number of her petticoats. He even managed to catch Damaris under the mistletoe in the front hall and kissed her soundly on the mouth before she realized what he was doing. That set Kellan and Nevin in pursuit of Irene who dodged around her brother, squealing in delighted protest. Lauran, still holding to Damaris, treacherously put out a leg, slowing her flight so that Nevin caught her and kissed her cheek. Kellan, having lost her, all unexpectedly swung away and grabbed Damaris around the waist just as Lauran let her go. She was still under the mistletoe but, startled, she ducked Kellan’s kiss so that it landed somewhere near her ear.

“Cheat!” Kellan cried. “I’m taking another one.”

“You’ve had your one!”  Damaris laughed, fending him away.

“I’ll help hold her if I can have another,” Lauran offered.

Aunt Elspeth, appearing from the parlor, deftly removed Damaris from both of them, saying with mock sternness, “You’ve both had all the kisses you’re going to have. Nevin, stop tickling Irene’s ear. You’re making her shriek. Off with all of you to the punch bowl and see what cakes Cook has graced us with this time.”

Cakes being apparently an acceptable alternative to kissing, they all obeyed, and all in all the day went by in merriment until the Ashbriggs went home in the drenching twilight.

Six days later, with the weather turned to cold again, the hospitality was returned on New Year’s Eve at Ashbrigg Manor, the festive evening only imperiled by the number of mistletoe sprigs Lauran had hung around the house. Damaris avoided them despite Lauran and Kellan both laughingly trying to chivvy her to them.  Irene, for her part, ended up under them noticeably often, usually when Nevin was near enough to take advantage despite her supposedly protesting squeals, until at Mistress Ashbrigg’s beseeching Uncle Russell used his height to take all the sprigs down.

Irene turned then to talk of how the frozen roads would make it easy now for her brother and Nevin and Kellan to escort her and Damaris to Skelfeld town’s Twelfth Night dance in a few days time. She pointed out that, “If only we could become friends with people our age there, we might be invited to parties there in Skelfeld, and have them come to parties here, too.”

“But I don’t want to go to their parties or have parties here,” Lauran said with brotherly callousness.

“Yes, you do!” Irene protested.

“No, I don’t.”

“You do!  Stop saying you don’t!”

“But I don’t.”

Lauran went on teasing her long enough that finally Damaris told him to stop or she would box his ears for him. “Especially,” she challenged him, “since I can tell by the way you’re grinning that you mean to take her anyway.”

“Not if you and Nevin and Kellan don’t come, too,” Lauran returned.

Taking for a certainty that Damaris wanted to go as much as she did, Irene immediately turned all her pleading on Nevin and Kellan. Kellan stepped back, hands raised in what could have been either denial or surrender, while Nevin looked with a silent question toward his father, received a nod in silent reply, and promptly gave in to Irene’s imploring.

The plan quickly formed for them to travel all together in the Ashbrigg carriage with Mistress Ashbrigg for chaperone and stay the night at Skelfeld’s largest inn. Mistress Ashbrigg invited Aunt Elspeth to come with them, but Aunt Elspeth said firmly that while she had no objections to anyone else going, she had no desire at all to go herself. Irene pointed out later that it worked out quite well that way, with three and three, rather than three and four.

“There’ll be nobody left over,” she said happily. “Lauran can escort Mother. Nevin can escort me. Kellan can escort you, Damaris.”

Behind his mother’s back, Lauran said at Kellan, “Trade?”

Kellan laughed and shook his head.

* * * * *

The Ashbrigg carriage rolled into Skelfeld’s marketplace as the last sunset light was fading from under the low-riding clouds. There had been rain rather than snow here at the milder end of the dale. The wet cobbles were sheened with yellow lantern light as the carriage stopped in front of the Skelfeld Arms and the young gentlemen (as Mistress Ashbrigg was determinedly calling them today) jumped out first, to turn and help the ladies descend, then lend their arms to see them safely the few yards to the inn’s broad front door. Three floors tall and stone-built right up to its dark slate roof, the inn stood flat-fronted to the marketplace, making no bid to be noticed save by its size and the sign above its door of the long-extinguished Skelfeld family’s heraldic arms, but warm light streamed from all its windows tonight, beckoning all to enter its wide front hall. The clerk behind the counter greeted them, assured them their rooms were ready, gave them their keys, and turned to help the mother with two daughters crowding in behind them. Two sturdy lads in servants’ garb came forward, offering to carry their luggage up the two flights of stairs to their rooms, and in very short order all were arranged and settled, with Nevin, Kellan, and Lauran sharing a room across the corridor from the one that Mistress Ashbrigg, Irene, and Damaris had together. Supposing the “young gentlemen” could fare for themselves regarding supper, Mistress Ashbrigg sent an order for only a light tea with bread and butter for herself, Irene, and Damaris by way of the lad who had brought their bags.

“We don’t want to be over-fed,” she assured Irene and Damaris. “We have our waistlines and gowns to consider. There will be simple drinks and cakes at the dance. They will suffice, so long as you remember not to indulge too much.”

By now Irene was in what her brother unkindly called “a high twitter”, hardly interested in food at all, but Damaris, letting Irene’s excited chatter flow over her, regretted the lack of a better supper. Dancing was all very well, but she was hungry. Knowing nothing of all this, however, it was not for her to gainsay Mistress Ashbrigg, and she submitted to everything asked of her, including allowing Mistress Ashbrigg to do as she wanted to with her hair, while Irene mourned that it was such a pity Damaris was too young to have her hair put up and had to wear it loose down her back.

“Nonsense,” said Mistress Ashbrigg, deft with pins around Damaris’ head. “I’ve gathered the sides into very pretty wings. You’ll do quite well, Damaris.”

Damaris, looking into the mirror, thought she looked nothing like herself, but liked what she saw and thanked Mistress Ashbrigg while trying to smile. The truth was that she was feeling overwhelmed. She had not left the dale since her parents’ deaths and never been to a dance at all, nor would she have been to this one except it was, “More or less a public one,” Mistress Ashbrigg lamented. “For all the tradesmen and common farmers and their families in Skelfeld and all the neighboring country around. But you would come, Irene.”

“Well, there weren’t any others, Mother. It was this or nothing.”  And Irene was not about to settle for nothing if something could be had.

Damaris found herself almost glad of that when the time came that they all gathered in the inn’s upper hallway, ready to go down and to join other brightly dressed holiday folk Damaris had seen from her room’s window, streaming into the town hall across the marketplace. Nevin, Kellan, and Lauran were resplendent in their best suits, with ruffled shirt fronts and smoothly-combed hair, hardly like themselves at all. But then she hardly felt herself either, with extra petticoats under the holiday dress borrowed from among Irene’s many gowns and her hair loose instead of in its usual plait, with a silk flower behind one ear. This last was insisted on by Irene. Irene had even had her practice her curtsy and taught her some dances, humming the music and dragging her around the sitting room at Ashbrigg. Despite knowing she was as ready as she might be, she was nonetheless a little frightened under her excitement, but thought she was hiding it as she put her hand on Kellan’s offered arm for him to lead her down the stairs to the inn’s front hall behind Lauran with his mother and Irene with Nevin; but at the stairfoot, as the others went ahead, toward the outer door with a wide sway of  the ladies’ skirts, Kellan paused, looked down at her, and said, quite kindly, “You’re going to enjoy yourself. Don’t worry. You won’t have to spend the evening standing in a corner.”

That had been among her secret fears, and despite Kellan being as great a tease as Lauran, Damaris believed him and was suddenly able to smile at him and be glad she was there as he led her out the door into the lantern-lighted evening, mild for January and mercifully dry, so that they hurried without either shivers or splashes across the marketplace to the town hall. There, in the crowd of people she did not know, Damaris’ shyness came back on her, even while she was being surprised at how charmingly well-mannered her cousins and Lauran could be when they tried. Rather than disappearing, as she had half-expected they might, they took turns to dance the first set of dances with Mistress Ashbrigg, Irene, and Damaris.  After that, though, Mistress Ashbrigg had seen some friends among the women, claimed she was ready to sit, and went aside to join them. Irene meanwhile had begun to draw various young men around her, drawing her heed away from Damaris, who took the chance to retreat to the shelter of a potted palm near a corner, clutching a cup of punch and willing to spend a time simply watching everyone.

After her months at Thornoak, so many people and so much happening at once were daunting, and she was thinking that maybe Virna was right – she was only a silly little girl, unlike Irene talking so happily and readily to those young men. But Kellan shortly found her, teased her for trying to hide from her doom, and drew her out to dance again. To her surprise, after that there were other young men who wanted to dance with her, even some who had been with Irene earlier. Between all of  them and her cousins and even Lauran, she hardly sat down again and at the evening’s end found herself surprised at how much she had enjoyed herself.

The next morning brought rain again, and Mistress Ashbrigg made haste to leave, to be home before the roads returned too far to mud. A few miles beyond the second village, though, they found it was snow, not rain, they had to worry over. Fattening flakes swirled down the wind under heavy gray clouds, with no telling if it was only a flurry or the beginning of a storm. With the Ashbriggs set down at their front door, the coachman set the horses at a sharper pace the last few miles to Thornoak and was probably as glad as Damaris was when she and her cousins and their baggage were delivered there and he could turn back down the dale for Ashbrigg.

Scurrying with the cold, Agnes and Betty helped bring their baggage into the front hall while Aunt Elspeth welcomed them gladly with hugs all around before urging them into the parlor where a fire burning high on the hearth and hot chocolate in deep mugs was waiting for them.

“Home,” Kellan said with great satisfaction as he drew a cushioned stool near to the flames. “The only place really worth being.”

Damaris, her chilled hands wrapped around a satisfyingly hot mug, agreed silently and whole-heartedly. Here was better than anywhere else.

Yet she awoke in the morning with a single warm tear trickling down her cheek, as if she had been grieving in her sleep. Whatever she might have been dreaming was already gone from her, though, except for a lingering, formless sense of something being lost; but she had learned after her parents died that crying cured nothing, so she wiped the tear away, realized she was hearing rain on the roof close above her head, and huddled deeper into the feather mattress and her blankets, unwilling to leave her bed’s warm comfort for the room’s chill.

She maybe even slept a little, or at least drifted along the edges of it, neither sleeping nor awake, not rousing again until Agnes came with the morning’s hot water, warned her not to linger in bed until the water cooled – “I don’t come tramping up those stairs to have that hot water go to waste, you know.” – and left her to rise and dress as she would. Usually, indeed mindful of the hot water, Damaris rose promptly. This morning she did not. Instead, she went on lying deep in her bed, her body motionless while her mind quested after a thought that had almost come with her out of sleep but was now trying to escape into forgetfulness again.

She caught it before it fled, lay still a few moments longer, making sure of her hold on it, then forced herself out of bed into the chill air, did the morning’s necessities as quickly as might be, and dressed with matching haste.  But rather than hurrying downstairs to the warmth of the dining room and breakfast, she went to her worktable and rummaged through the drawer until she found the hated list, shoved as usual to the back among stray other papers. She gave the confusion of dates a quick look before putting it in her pocket. She would need it when she followed her new-come thought and did not want to have to come back upstairs to fetch it.

It was mid-morning before she found a chance to go unnoticed to her uncle’s study.  Everyone in the household was busy somewhere else and she was supposedly going to sew a while by the parlor fire, but no one would think anything in particular if they found her, as she so often was, curled up on the sofa with a book. Uncle Russell shared his library freely and she had explored its shelves thoroughly through last winter’s months and lately. It was memory of something seen in a book that had brought her here now. She did not remember exactly what it was she had seen, but her vague morning thought had told her there had been something… something that went with something about her list. Unfortunately she did not remember the book’s name, either, only that it had dark binding – black or maybe very dark green – and was on the bottom shelf farthest from the window.

The books had no stringent organization. The most that anyone ever did was put them back more or less where they had come from, and so she sat herself down on the floor in front of the shelf, her skirts spread around her, her list lying ready beside her, undismayed that so many of her uncle’s books were black-bound. She never minded spending time with books, for whatever reason. Still, she began with the two green-bound books there in hopes her hunt would after all be brief.

The first was a treatise on the benefits of marling one’s fields for a better yield of crops. A single glance told her it was most definitely not the book she sought. The second, entitled Travels in Strange Corners of the Continent, seemed far more promising, and she settled down to ruffling through its pages in a first hopeful look, although still unsure exactly what she sought.

From the front hallway, Kellan called, “Damaris!  Where are you?”

Bent over the book, Damaris jerked upright and, as if guilty of something, grabbed the list, slapped it into book, slammed the volume shut, and was shoving it back onto the shelves as Kellan opened the door and thrust his head into the room. Sounding deeply aggrieved, he said, “I was looking for you. You’re supposed to be in the parlor. The rain has stopped. Nevin and I are going riding. Want to come?”

Damaris scrambled up. Against expectation, there was indeed thin, moist sunshine outside the window, and she found herself more than willing to put off whatever she had hoped – feared? – to find in the book. It would wait, while weather clear enough for riding very likely would not.

By common consent they took the main road toward Ashbrigg and were unsurprised to meet Lauran riding toward Thornoak. “Great minds think alike,” he observed cheerfully. “You’ll notice Irene isn’t out here. Whatever happened to white Christmases?”

“Variety is the spice of life.” Kellan looked down at their already deeply muddied horses. “Or something.”

They left the main road in favor of riding up to the moors where the thin turf and rocky soil made drier going. The clouds cleared and the sunlight strengthened.  By the time they had ridden up to a high crest of the moors and were circling back toward Thornoak there was blue sky overhead. At The Place – Damaris’ name for the open, grassy space around the Lady Stone where she and her cousins had gone her first time to the moors – they all drew rein and dismounted to let their horses rest and crop the grass while they stood in companionable silence, looking out over the dale stretched winter-barren below them, etched gray and black by leafless trees, the river silver-glinting down its heart. Familiar and yet – depending on the day, the time, the season, the weather – always different; always beautiful to Damaris.

For a while the only sound among them was the rip of their horses’ grazing and the wind soughing the bracken surrounding The Place. Then Lauran stirred and said, “I think Resme was starting to limp before we stopped. Come hold him, Nevin, while I see if there’s a stone.”

As Nevin and Lauran walked away, Kellan sank down on his heels, still looking out over the dale, still silent. Damaris, as she always did when she came here, went to the Lady Stone and laid her hand against it in a kind of greeting. She never thought about why; it simply seemed right. But afterward she went to crouch on her own heels beside Kellan, companionably silent before she said, “I’ve wanted to ask you something.”

“Of course you have,” he agreed. “I’m brilliant.”

Damaris poked him with her elbow and pointed to their left where the moor track slanted away down the slope through Thornoak Scar. It was one of a series of gray limestone cliffs running along the hillsides above the pastures and below the moor along both sides of the dale. Of steep, bare rock, the scars could only be passed by going around their ends or where a path had weathered through, as one had near The Place. “There,” she said. “When you stand at the Lady Stone, you can see right through the gap in the scar to St. Cuthbert’s church tower.”

Kellan looked. “I don’t see St. Cuthbert’s.”

Damaris poked her elbow into his ribs again. “You’re not standing by the Lady Stone.  Pay attention. If you stand by the Lady Stone, you can see St. Cuthbert’s. Now I’ve followed a Way from St. Cuthbert’s through Ellerbee farmyard and some other places eastward down the dale…”

“I thought you’d given up the Ways.”

“I gave up telling anyone about them. I can go riding without you or Nevin or anyone else if I want to.”  Damaris did not try to hide her satisfaction at telling him he did not know everything about her. “Sometimes I like to follow a Way when I go riding.”

She waited, but Kellan did not say anything. His face was turned from her, eastward toward the scar so that she could not clearly read his expression, although suddenly she wanted to as she went on, “I thought St. Cuthbert’s was the end of that Way because you can’t see the Lady Stone from the church. But just now I’ve thought to wonder if, even if you can’t see the Lady Stone–” she turned from the dale back toward the moor behind her, “–you can see the Old Woman from the church.”

“The Old Woman?” Kellan asked.

“There.”  Damaris swiveled enough to point over her shoulder toward the crest of the moor some fifty yards and more above them where another stone stood, black like the Lady Stone but not so tall, hardly Damaris’ own height, and with no Place around it, only the rough heather sweeping up to crowd around its base where it stood sharp against the sky.

“Who told you it was called that?” Kellan asked.

Damaris shrugged. “I don’t know. Nobody. I made it up. This is the Lady Stone, and on the hill is her elder. The Old Woman.” She looked at Kellan, curious. “Why?”

He shrugged in his turn. “No reason. Just wondering.”

“So, do you think maybe you can see it from St. Cuthbert’s?”

“Maybe,” said Kellan, not sounding much interested.

Disappointed, Damaris let the game drop. A little gap of silence followed, before she asked, “Kellan, why doesn’t Virna like me?”

“Virna?”  Kellan looked at her. “Why care whether Virna likes you or not?”

She pretended to be interested in poking at the grass in front of her with her forefinger while she said, “I don’t care if she likes me or not. I’ve just wondered why she doesn’t. She’s said things–”

“What things?” Kellan asked sharply.

Startled, Damaris stammered, “Just… things. One thing really. The full moon… that I should pay attention to it. Or… something like that. I didn’t really listen to her. She just… said it and… it was odd.”

Have you paid attention to the full moon?”

“Not really. No. It seemed so… silly.”

It was the first real lie she had ever told him. She did not think she did it very well but Kellan seemed to accept it because after a moment all he said in answer was, “I shouldn’t give any heed at all to anything that Virna says. She’s too fond of hurting people.”

Damaris nodded ready agreement to that last and was glad that Nevin called then that everything was all right, they could ride on. They all mounted again and, once they were below the scar, swung to ride along the bare, dripping woods below the cliff, taking the longer way back to Thornoak. The path was wide enough that they were riding by twos, Damaris beside Lauran who was teasing her that now that there was hardly enough sun to worry over, she was wearing a hat.

“To hide my disastrous hair. It goes all straight in damp weather,” Damaris said.

“Don’t you know you’re never supposed to admit to having disastrous hair?  Hasn’t Irene taught you anything about womanly vanities?”

“Lauran can teach you all about vanities,” Kellan said from ahead of them. “Vanity was his particular interest at school.”  He looked back over his shoulder. “Didn’t you know?”

At that moment Nevin’s horse shied away from the trees, thudding his shoulder sideways into Kellan’s horse and Nevin’s knee into Kellan’s. Kellan cried out in startled pain, and Lauran’s and Damaris’ horses flung up their heads and tried to shy aside with Nevin’s. Lauran and Damaris both gathered their reins and steadied them, while Nevin, who rarely swore, cursed not at his horse as he wrenched it straight again but at the gray-cloaked figure who had stepped out nearly under its nose from behind a tree. “Damn you, Virna!  You know better than to do that!  Kellan, are you all right?”

“Only bruised, I think,” said Kellan, rubbing his knee.

“What are you thinking?” Nevin demanded, still angry, at Virna. “You don’t come out like that under a horse’s nose!”

One hand pressed against her breast and her eyes wide with distress, Virna dropped a deep curtsy and answered in apparently intense dismay, “I didn’t see you coming. I’m sorry!  Are you both all right?”

As her gaze swept them all, imploring them to be undamaged, she was a picture of frightened, apologetic girl. Too much a picture, Damaris suddenly thought.  Virna was almost always a picture of something, rather than being… whoever she really was. Besides, even if she had somehow not heard the clopping of the horses as they came, the tree she had been behind was too narrow to have hidden them from view – or her from theirs unless she had been standing very still, to seem part of the gray shadows among the trees.

Whether or not Nevin thought any of that, he accepted her apology curtly and they rode on, Kellan still rubbing his knee and Lauran not even looking aside at her as he passed. It was Damaris who briefly turned her head and met Virna’s eyes and saw the white, taut anger in them and knew as certainly as if she had done it herself that Virna had not stepped out by accident. She had meant what she did and now meant for Damaris to know it. Only with difficulty did Damaris wrench her eyes away, yet still felt Virna’s angry gaze on her back as she rode on.

And then, without warning, her throat closed, cutting off her breath so suddenly she had no time for any sound. In a panicked need for air, she dropped her reins and grabbed her throat with both hands.

Lauran turned toward her. “What’s wrong?”

She could not tell him. Desperate blood roared in her ears and there was no air for her lungs. Horribly no air. Darkness swirled up into her mind. She tried to fight clear of it, fought to breathe.

Failed.

And then knew nothing. Not even the darkness.

PART II

Four years later…

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Circle of Witches - Margaret Frazer


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