by Rebecca S Kightlinger
The stranger steps into the lee of the hillfort wall, and the ripping winds go still. In the sudden quiet, she hears the thud of axes and the ring of shovels.
But it’s too late in the year to till, she thinks. Too hot and dry to plant. What can they hope to reap from this parched ground?
A low fire draws her eye to a roundhouse deep in the shadows. This beehive dwelling has fared no better than the others in the scorching heat: its roost is silent, its field a mosaic. The grey-haired little lump of a woman tending the fire tilts her head and looks up at the stranger with her one good eye. “What one plants at daybreak,” she says, “another harvests after dark.”
“Sit, Anwen,” the seer says and gives the fire a jab. “I’m called Myrga. And we’ve little time.”
She takes Anwen’s hand and rubs her thumb over fingertips as black and calloused as her own. “A hunter,” she muses with a glance at the bow. “Yet, your ink stains and calluses tell me you etch.” She fixes that eye on Anwen. “You’ll do.”
A young woman holding a bundle in her arms hails Myrga from across the barren fields. Myrga nods to her and beckons, “Come, child.”
“There is hunger here,” Myrga whispers to Anwen, who already knows of the hunger. Everyone knows of the hunger in this blighted place outsiders now call Bury Down.
Myrga looks over her shoulder and calls into the house, “Bryluen.”
Cheeks flushed, a small girl emerges from the roundhouse carrying a square oak plank, its edges rounded with age and wear. With a nod, Myrga takes it and jerks her head toward the door.
Bryluen runs back inside the house, and Myrga places the board in Anwen’s lap. “It was passed to me from a mystic called by a dream.” Carved into the wood are the symbols and images Anwen has seen in her own dreams.
Bryluen returns with a tanned hide and lays it in the seer’s arms.
“The meanings of the symbols are etched in this hide.” Myrga places the stiff hide on top of the board, and then takes Anwen’s hand and lays it upon her writings. “Together they call forth the power to return to the living world.” Myrga’s eye goes to the feathers showing atop Anwen’s quiver. “And I’ve but this child to guard them when I’m gone.”
Now Anwen knows why she’s here.
A sound like the mewling of a cat causes Anwen and Myrga to look up. The young woman from across the field has come to stand near the fire. All bones and points, she cradles in her arms a blue-hued babe too weak to muster a proper cry. Myrga gets to her feet and takes the elbow of the wasted young mother whose son won’t see another dawn.
“Come, child.” Myrga says and leads her to to her grain bin. She scoops out a heaping cup and puts it in the young woman’s hand.
Movement from across the hillfort catches Anwen’s eye as a leather-aproned colossus comes out of the smithy and strides toward the seer’s hut, a sledge hammer swinging from his hand. Anwen looks to see if Myrga has noticed, but the seer is steadying the hand of the young mother, for she has spilled her grain.
The blacksmith stops at the young mother’s back. He looks first into Myrga’s face and then into the dusky face of the slack-mouthed babe, and he smiles. Leaning forward, he whispers into Myrga’s ear. She turns her head and spits in his face.
The smith shouts, and villagers come from the burial grounds with their shovels and picks. Circling the blacksmith and Myrga, they drop their tools and take up a chant. “Witch. Murder.” Now a mob, they seize the old woman, drag her off to her grove, and pin her up against a sturdy rowan. A moment passes, and they part to make way for the blacksmith, who carries beneath his arm the plank and the hide that bear Myrga’s writings. Bending down, he smiles at Myrga and holds them out to her. When she struggles to reach for them, he whispers in her ear, “To hell with you, Witch,” and calls over his shoulder for rope.