ANGHARAD’S PEOPLE MET the witches the night they camped by Tiercaern, where the heather-backed Carawyn Hills flow down to the sea.
There were two of them—an old winter of a man, with salt-white hair and skin as brown and wrinkled as a tinker’s hand, and a boy Angharad’s age, fifteen summers if he was a day, lean and whip-thin, with hair as black as a sloe. They had the flicker of blue-gold in the depths of their eyes—eyes that were both old and young, of all ages and of none.
The tinkers had brought their canvas-topped wagons around in a circle and were preparing supper when the pair approached the edge of the camp. They hailed the tinkers above the sudden warning chorus of the camp dogs, and Angharad’s father, Herend’n, went out to meet them, for he was the leader of the company.
“Is there iron on you?” Herend’n called, by which he meant, were they carrying weapons.
The old man shook his head and lifted his staff. It was a white wood, that staff; cut from a rowan: witch-wood.
“Not unless you count this,” he said. “My name’s Woodfrost and this is Garrow, my grandson. We are travelers—like yourselves.”
Angharad, peering at the strangers from behind her father’s back, saw the blue-gold light in their eyes and shook her head. They weren’t like her people. They weren’t at all like any tinkers she knew.
Her father regarded the strangers steadily for a long heartbeat, then stepped aside and ushered them into the wagon circle.
“Be welcome,” he said.
When they were by his fire, he offered them the guest-cup with his own hands. Woodfrost took the tea and sipped. Seeing them up close, Angharad wondered why the housey-folk feared witches so. This pair was as bedraggled as a couple of cats caught out in a storm and seemed no more frightening to her than beggars in a market town square. They were skinny and poor, with ragged travel-stained cloaks and unkempt hair. But then the old man’s gaze touched hers and suddenly Angharad was afraid.
There was a distance in those witch-eyes, like a night sky rich with stars, or like a hawk floating high on the wind, watching, waiting to drop on its prey. They read something in her, pierced the scurry of her thoughts and the motley mix of what she was, to find something lacking. She couldn’t look away, she was trapped like a riddle on a raven’s tongue, until he finally dropped his gaze. Shivering, Angharad moved closer to her father.
“I thank you for your kindness,” Woodfrost said as he handed the guest-cup back to Herend’n. “The road can be hard for folk such as we—especially when there is no home waiting for us at road’s end.”
Again his gaze touched Angharad.
“Is this your daughter?” he added.
Herend’n nodded proudly and gave the old man her name. He was a widower and with the death of Angharad’s mother many years ago much of his joy in life had died. But if he loved anything in this world, it was his colt-thin daughter with her brown eyes that were so big and the bird’s-nest tangle of her red hair.
“She has the sight,” Woodfrost said.
“I know,” Herend’n replied. “Her mother had it too—Ballan rest her soul.”
Bewildered, Angharad looked from her father to the stranger. This was the first she’d heard of it.
“But Da,” she said, pulling at his sleeve.
He turned at the tug to look at her. Something passed across his features the way the grass in a field trembles like a wave when the wind touches it. It was there one moment, gone the next—a sadness, a touch of pride, a momentary fear.
“But, Da,” she repeated.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “It’s but a gift—like Kinny’s skill with a fiddle, or the way Sheera can set a snare and talk to her ferrets.”
“I’m not a witch!”
“It isn’t such a terrible thing,” Woodfrost said gently.
Angharad refused to meet his gaze. Instead, she looked at the boy. He smiled back shyly. Quickly Angharad looked away.
“I’m not,” she said again, but now she wasn’t so sure.
She wasn’t exactly sure what the sight was, but she could remember a time when she’d seen more in the world than those around her. But she’d been so young then and it all went away when she grew up.
Or she had made it go away…
* * *
As though the coming of the witches was a catalyst, Angharad found that once again she could see what was hidden from others. Again she was aware of movement abroad in the world that went unseen and unheard by both tinkers and the housey-folk who lived in the towns or worked the farms, and to see it, to hear it, was not such a terrible thing.
Woodfrost and Garrow traveled with the company that whole summer long and will she, nill she, Angharad learned to use her gift. She retained her fear of Woodfrost—because there was always that shadow, that darkness, that secrecy in his eyes—but she made friends with Garrow. He was still shy with the other tinkers, but he opened up to her. His secrets, when they unfolded, were of a far and distant sort from what she supposed his grandsire’s to be.
Garrow taught her the language of the trees and the beasts, from the murmur of a drowsy oak to the quick chatter of squirrel and finch, and the sly tongue of the fox. Magpies became her confidants, and badgers, and the wind. But at the same time she found herself becoming tongue-tied around Garrow. If he paid particular attention to her, or caught one of her long dreamy glances, a flush would rise from the nape of her neck and her heart began to beat quick and fast like that of a captured wren.
* * *
On a night between the last days of the Summerlord Hafarl’s rule and the first cold days of autumn, on a night when the housey-folk left their farms and towns to build great bonfires on the hilltops where they sang and danced to music that made the priests of the One God Dath frown, she and Garrow made a mystery of their own. They made love as gently fierce as the stag and moon in the spring and, afterwards, lay dreamy and content in each other’s arms while the stars completed their nightly wheel and spin in the skies high above them.
When Garrow finally slept, tears touched Angharad’s cheeks, but it wasn’t for sorrow that she wept. She was so full of emotion and magic that there was simply no other release for what she felt swelling inside her.
* * *
The tinker company wintered in Mullion that year, on a farm that belonged to Green George Snell, who once traveled the roads with Angharad’s people. There they prepared for the next year’s traveling. Wagons were repaired, as were harnesses and riggings. Goods were made to be sold at the market towns and the horses were readied for the fairs.
When the first breath of spring was in the air, the company took to the road once more. Angharad and Garrow still rode in Herend’n’s wagon, though they had jumped the broom at midwinter. Newly married, they were still too poor to afford their own wagon.
The road took them up into Umbria and Kellmidden that summer, where the company looked to meet with the caravans of other travelers and to grow rich—or at least as rich as any tinker could get, which was not a great deal by the standards of the housey-folk. They looked forward to a summer of traveling and the road, of gossiping and trading, of renewing old acquaintances and making new friends.
Instead, they found the plague waiting for them.
Copyright © 1993 by Charles de Lint