When her mother found her, Lowen was sitting on the rough-edged balcony running alongside her family’s home, cross-legged on a bench carved from the large alder tree felled in a storm three winters before.
“Why are you hiding out here?”
“I’m not hiding,” Lowen replied. “I was reading.”
“Well, you’re not reading now, are you?” Her mother eyed the closed book on Lowen’s lap. “Why don’t you go and help Cade clean the fish? He’s brought in quite a haul this morning.”
Lowen placed the book beside her on the bench. It was a weighty novel with a garish purple cover called “The Trials of the Frost Prince”. The Wild Scrat were a storytelling people but historically their legends and histories had been passed down from memory, recited to children on their mother’s knee or shared with the entire village beneath the branches of the Scrat-Heart. The reading of books brought back from Armoria was a new trend amongst the younger Scrat. They passed the volumes between each other like contraband, to the extreme disapproval of their elders. Lowen’s mother had often chided her daughter for losing whole afternoons in the pages of a foreign culture, traversing city streets she had never seen and swimming in seas she had never heard of. She braced herself, expecting Kerra to launch into the familiar diatribe. Instead, the older woman sat down beside her.
“You have been even quieter than usual these last days,” she said. “Is something troubling you, Lowen?”
As Lowen looked into her mother’s eyes, she felt like a child again. She suddenly longed to fall into her arms, to tell her the truth about Nicanor, to have her stroke her hair and tell her everything was going to be alright the way she had when she was ten years old and had broken her arm following Jenifer up into a tree. In reality, Lowen knew that would not happen. If she did tell her mother her secrets, the chieftain would be heartbroken and horrified. So instead, Lowen lifted her chin and said, “I fought with Jenifer again.”
“I know,” her mother said. “I heard about the spectacle you made of yourselves.”
Lowen winced. “Yes, that all got rather out of hand,” she admitted.
“Are you sure that is all it is?” her mother pressed.
“Yes, I’m sure.” The lie coiled like a snake in her stomach.
“I think Jenifer was upset, too. That is why she’s been out hunting these past two days.” The chieftain’s expression was pinched, but with relief, Lowen realised she was willing to let the matter drop. For the moment at least.
“I was thinking of paying grandmother a visit,” Lowen said, surprising herself. She had wanted to change the subject but still, she was not sure if she felt ready to approach her grandmother yet. The old woman’s revelations at the festival had fallen on her like lead. Koth Conwen had also been conspicuously absent since the Changing of the Moons. The thin, blue smoke seen snaking from the roof of her hut meant she had been brewing bitterblue, the seer’s brew. This only filled Lowen with foreboding.
“That’s a good idea, Mother’s been ominously quiet herself,” Kerra mused as if reading Lowen’s mind. “That rarely bodes well.”
Uncurling herself from the bench, Lowen stood and made her way down the steps at the side of the balcony, onto a longer walkway below.
“Tell your grandmother if she’s not at dinner tonight, I’ll come to fetch her myself,” Kerra called down, leaning over the balcony railing. “An old woman can’t live on herbs and rainwater alone.”
Lowen nodded. “I’ll tell her.”
She strode quickly along the walkway, wrapping her arms around herself. The morning air was damp with chill. She had been sitting on the bench so long, dew clung to the fluttering stiff cotton strips of the skirt she wore over her tan-coloured breeches, glinting in the early sunlight like tiny shining beads. For all the crushing weight of her secrets and the cold fear that her grandmother would let them slip, Lowen was yearning to see Nicanor. She wondered if he was thinking about her, if he was also afraid. Maybe he was angry with her. The thought made her blanch and she had to push it away.
To distract herself, Lowen looked out over the small village, awake now and beginning to thrum with the day’s activities. The walkway circled the wide clearing at the village centre, hugging the tree trunks ten metres from the forest floor. Behind her, the house of the Scrat Chieftain rose to meet the low hanging branches of the great beech tree against whose trunk it was tightly pressed, flush with spring leaves that brushed the roof with brilliant green. Lowen passed steps leading to other lodgings, crafted from the logs of fallen trees and coppiced branches. Each one was unique, their sloping roofs overgrown with moss and trailing ivy. In the clearing the remains of the giant pyre were still gently smouldering, overshadowed by the Scrat-Heart which towered above all. Yet more huts were crowded together on the ground, moulded from river clay and dried summer grass.
Skipping down a sloping gangway and onto the soft mulch of the forest floor, Lowen ducked beneath a sagging shelter, overgrown with bindweed. Several leather workers were hunched over a large, scarred table, cutting and sewing the tanned hides the Scrat bartered wine and dyes for in Amoria. They had become an industrious people in the two decades since a tentative trade had been re-established with Armoria, a place once spoken about in hushed, fearful tones. Lord Dewer would always be a threat, but the Scrat had long decided that friendly co-operation with his people was the best way of keeping a wary eye on him.
One of the workers waved Lowen over, holding up the soft boot he was sewing. “What do you think, Lowen? Will your grandmother like them?”
“I’m sure she will, Gryff,” Lowen replied.
Gryff grinned, the ruddiness in his cheeks deepening. “I noticed her old shoes were looking worn. Making these is the least I can do after she helped my Mya.”
“How is Mya feeling now?” Lowen asked. A week previously, Gryff’s little girl had been suffering from a terrible fever. Conwen was sent for in the early hours of the morning and had arrived armed with a poultice and a concoction in a thick, scarlet bottle that smelt like ashes but soon had the child up on her feet again.
“It is as if she never took ill at all,” Gryff said. “She’s already back at her lessons.”
“That is good.”
Gryff turned back to his work and Lowen made her way across the clearing, past the elders who were working to clear away the remains of breakfast from tables set out at the foot of the trees. The Scrat were happiest outside, during the warmer months when they could live and work in the open air and only had to venture into their huts to sleep. Even the tribe’s babies lived the majority of their lives outdoors, tied to their mothers’ chests with leather and long strips of fur and then left to discover the forest floor for themselves once they could crawl. Their toys were acorns and leaves, their pets fat, hairy caterpillars and snails with shells the colour of jewels.
Lowen turned away from the village centre and followed a narrow path that eventually led to her grandmother’s home, built by her grandfather many years before beneath the shade of a sycamore tree. The hut seemed to blend into the trunk so you could not see where the tree ended and the house began. Branches grew over the roof and twined themselves around the door. Beside the hut, Koth Conwen cultivated a garden filled with neat rows of herbs and sprawling rose bushes thick with blushing pink blooms.
Just before her grandmother’s home, Lowen paused, suddenly afraid to enter. She thought briefly about simply turning on her heel and walking away. She could keep walking until the forest petered out, until the plains swept in and gave way to farmland, until Armoria came into view and beyond that the boundless blue of the ocean. The thought was horribly comforting.
“Come on in, Lowen,” her grandmother called from inside the hut, “before your feet turn to stone.”
Bracing herself, Lowen swept back the curtain of feathers and beads from the entrance and stepped inside. Her grandmother was sitting on a stool, slowly stirring an inky blue liquid in a blackened cauldron. It was strung above the fire pit at the centre of the hut and smoke was tumbling up and out into a clear sky from a hole cut into the sloping roof. Although it was comprised of a single round room, Grandmother’s hut always looked far larger inside than it did from the outside. Bundles of dried herbs hung from boughs overlaid across the high ceiling. Despite the brightness of the morning, thick beeswax candles flickered on every available surface and from the roughly hewn window frames hung tiny skulls of shrews, rats and mice, strung with beads and stones washed smooth in the river to create delicate little totems that shivered in the spring breeze.
“Good morning, Grandmother,” Lowen said. She hovered at the doorway. It felt unnatural to be so nervous in her grandmother’s presence.
“Come in, come in,” Conwen said, beckoning. “I’ve made tea.”
Lowen looked at the blue liquid swirling in the pot with a quizzical expression.
Conwen rose from the stool, stifling a groan as she straightened her aching back. “Does that look like any tea you’ve ever drunk?” she asked. “Don’t be so silly.”
Lowen followed her grandmother to the back of the hut where two cups of gently steaming rose hip tea were cooling on a table worn smooth with age. There were two rocking chairs nearby, facing each other in a congenial manner. Their long curved legs, carved into bulbous swirls and leaf shapes, were almost touching. Lowen picked up her tea and sat in one of the chairs, padded with woollen cushions fraying at the edges. Grandmother nodded her approval and sat in the opposite chair, her own cup of tea cradled in her hands.
“Now,” Conwen said, “can we please talk about why you have been avoiding me?”
“I thought you had been avoiding us,” Lowen said, her eyes fixed on her lap. “Mother says she hasn’t seen you since the Changing of the Moons.”
“You know no lies are to be told beneath this roof,” Conwen chided. “You usually come and visit with me every day, rain or shine, whether I’ve busied myself away or not. You, my dear, have been avoiding me.”
“I wish I could avoid everyone,” Lowen said, whispering into her tea.
Before her grandmother could reply, a sudden flurry of wings startled them both. They looked up to see Odelin perched on the windowsill, his head cocked to one side as he regarded them with bright, black eyes.
“Ah, your little familiar is here,” Conwen said. “I was wondering where he was hiding himself.”
“Please do not call him that,” Lowen said. “Only witches have familiars.”
“There’s no shame to be found in witchcraft,” Conwen replied. She drained her teacup and set it down on the table.
“No, but I’m no witch, Grandmother.”
“Yet that bird is loyal to none but you.”
“That’s only because I rescued him. He would have died when he broke his wing in that storm if I hadn’t brought him to you.” Lowen paused as a thought occurred to her. “Odelin actually owes his life to you, not me. Maybe it is you he should be loyal to.” She turned and reached behind the rocking chair to stroke the bird’s head with the tip of one finger. “Did you hear that, Odelin?” she said to him. “You are friends with the wrong Scrat.” The bird looked down his sharp beak at her, unblinking. Lowen turned back to her grandmother. “It was also you who told me how to bind his leg with hair, so he might find the owner. Perhaps you are a witch, Grandmother, to know such things.”
“I only know what the bird has told me himself,” Conwen said. “Some creatures are more sensitive than others. They have a thread of magick running through them. The bird is the one with the gifts, he just likes you well enough to share them.”
It was peaceful in Koth Conwen’s hut. The world on the other side of the door felt less pressing when she was there. For the briefest of moments, she forgot the troubles that had kept her from sleeping and allowed herself to relax.
“Sometimes I wish I was a witch,” she mused, half to herself.
Conwen watched her carefully, prompting her to continue.
“If I was a witch, I would at least be useful.”
“What is that supposed to mean, child?”
Lowen took a deep, shuddering breath, briefly closing her eyes as she fought to compose herself. “I don’t have a place here, not really.” And with a little one in tow, a little one who will be so unlike the other Scrat, she wanted to add, I will truly be a burden. She felt her head lowering as it became harder to hold her grandmother’s piercing gaze. For the first time, Lowen let herself imagine what the future would be like. In her mind’s eye, she could see a toddling infant with a satyr’s horns and glossy hooves, running to keep up with the other children who would surely shun her. Chieftain’s daughter or not, Lowen was under no illusion that the Wild Scrat would be accepting of an abomination in their midst.
“What nonsense,” her grandmother said.
“But I have no purpose here. Everyone else has a talent or an occupation. Jenifer leads hunting parties. Cade spends all day waist high in the river, catching fish. Talwyn helps my mother, Arran makes mead and his sister Nalla journeys to Armoria once a month to trade our goods. What do I do? I get in the way or I hide and read books.”
“More nonsense. For a clever girl, you can be fool-blind sometimes, Lowen. You come here every day and help me with my work. You know all the herbs and medicine plants that grow in this forest. You know how to prepare them, how to keep and store them. Why do you think I show you these things? You were to carry on my work when I pass. The village was to look to you for wisdom and healing. You should have more confidence in yourself.”
Lowen had not failed to note her grandmother’s use of the past tense. “You no longer believe I will continue your work?” she asked in a small voice, afraid of the answer.
“I think we both know your path has altered somewhat,” her grandmother replied. She stared at her as if trying to read her thoughts, before finally flinging her hands up with an agitated sigh when Lowen failed to reply. “For Goddess’s sake, Lowen. Let’s stop pussyfooting around the subject, shall we? Talk to me, child. Spit it out before it poisons you from the inside out.”
“I’m in trouble, Grandmother,” Lowen finally relented, a strange relief washing over her. “I’m in trouble and no one can help me.”