CHAPTER TWO

Meara was woken the next morn, tickled awake by Pomona's whiskers and the cat sniffed her face. Twyla stood above her, dressed in traveling clothes.

"It's time to leave," she said shortly. Meara, confused, nonetheless got up and looked for the clothes she had laid out last night. In their place was a new set: a robin's egg blue kirtle with the longer hem of a woman's dress, a scarlet sash, and black longcloak. "Twyla," Meara protested. "These clothes are too fine for travel!"

"Put them on, Meara," Twyla replied, in a tone that brooked no disobedience. Meara complied and quickly dressed, plaited her hair into two braids and wrapped them round her head, securing them with pins. When she was ready, she took up her pack and looked expectantly at Twyla. The older woman scooped up Pomona without the cat's usual complaint and slung her across her shoulders. As they silently headed downstairs and out the door, Meara noticed that it was hours until dawn. The entire village was still asleep. Not even the neighbor's dogs barked, which Meara found a bit disturbing, as they habitually barked at every rabbit that happened to hop by.

The moon was low on the horizon, but nothing more than a sliver of a silver crescent; tomorrow night a new moon would rise over the countryside. For now it gave barely enough light for the three of them to see by, but Twyla seemed to know her way in the dark. They passed silently through the village and when they reached the church, Twyla grabbed Meara and pulled her into the shadow, for Father Gideon's light shown brightly through the window.

"Heaven help us," Twyla whispered, a bit exasperated. "Does the man never sleep? It's not natural!" Meara, who knew Twyla was merely venting frustrations, wisely kept silent. The crept past the church, carefully avoiding the squares of crossed light that streamed out from the church. They got past with no problem and Meara headed for the wood, but Twyla grabbed her arm and pointed toward the meadow, where Meara could see a faint track illuminated somehow by the ever-so-faint moonlight. "This way," she whispered, and set out at a lope that belied her years. An astonished Meara followed suit. It seemed that only Twyla's hands, not the rest of her bones, caused her trouble.

They ran smoothly through the meadow, wary of anything that might impede them. Finally, they reached the forest. Twyla slowed to a quick walk, for they were safer in the forest, and Meara looked curiously around them, searching for some tiny detail that would reveal their purpose. Once, she spotted a light off in the forest, and tried to move off the path toward it, but the smaller trees and bushes seemed to move to block her. Confused, Meara stayed put, and Twyla, a bit exasperated, had to double back and grab Meara's hand in her crabbed one and pull her along.

"You've a lot to learn about this forest," Twyla said reprovingly to her young charge. Meara mutely looked at her and Twyla merely sighed, continuing onward. Near daybreak they reached the Old Forest, where the bushes and underbrush disappeared and gave way to large, stately trees, with only a mat of duff on the forest floor. The path widened, and they quickened their pace. Just hours after the dawn, when the sunlight had not even crested the treetops, they came upon a smallish meadow, the shrine nestled between two huge oak trees on the edge of the wood. Meara stopped short, looking about her.

"I know this place," she whispered. Twyla gave her a sharp look, but said nothing and walked briskly over to the shrine. There, she knelt before the form of the Virgin Mary and prayed, "My Lady, the girl Meara and I seek Liam and Gwyneth, please show us the way." When she looked up at the statue, Twyla saw that Mary's left hand was outstretched slightly to Twyla's right and Her eyes looked in that direction also, though her head had not moved.

"My thanks, Lady," Twyla said with a smile, then got up and headed to the right, following a faint path traced in the duff of the forest.

Meara stayed behind, looking in astonishment and no small bit of fear at the statue. She had seen the Lady's eyes move, Her hand rotate, and Her arm lift. As she stared, a beam of sunlight hit the statue and the Virgin returned to Her original position, but not before She winked at Meara. Meara's eyes widened, and she fled down the path after Twyla.

Very quickly, the three came upon a tiny garden and a small cottage built down into the ground with a turf roof. Two wild apple trees sheltered the house and a horse grazed near a small stone byre. Meara's keen eyes heard a pair of robins call and suddenly, they were surrounded by pulled longbows.

Three Gypsy men had dropped down out of the trees and had surrounded them in a heartbeat.

"Who are you?" the eldest (and most fearsome) demanded.

Twyla was not in the least shaken and replied, "Widow Twyla and the maid Marion."

"Prove it," barked the youngest.

Twyla sighed and reached up to her neck and pulled at a fine silver chain Meara had never noticed before. It wound its way out of Twyla's dress to pool in her palm. At it's end lay a flat spiral of wrought silver. The men visibly relaxed and lowered their bows.

"What business have you here, Widow Twyla?" asked the rakishly handsome middle one, less harshly than the others.

"I have come to introduce Marion," she replied cryptically, letting the necklace fall to her waist.

"Ah," he replied. "Then please, let us not delay you," and he bowed with one arm outstretched, opening the way before them.

"My thanks, young man," Twyla said with a small smile, and swept forward, toward the cottage.

As Meara passed, the handsome one straightened, winked, and whispered, "Welcome home, maid Marion," before he and his companions faded into the surrounding forest.

Meara was thoroughly confused. What on earth were Gypsies doing guarding this tiny cottage, stuck way away in the wood? How did they know who she and Twyla were? And what did a silver spiral have to do with proving who they were? But before she had more time to think, she and Twyla were on the step, and Twyla knocking at the door.

The ageing widow knocked three times on the plain oak door. After a few heartbeats (loud, in Meara's case), the door swung smoothly open, revealing a black-haired woman standing behind it. She looked cool and serene, a streak of grey in her loose hair framing her face. But soon, that face was wreathed in smiles.

"Twyla!" she exclaimed warmly, taking the widow's gnarled hands in hers. "You've come at last! We've been waiting for you!" Then she looked over Twyla's shoulder and straight into Meara. "It's good to see you again, Meara." Then she shifted her vision back to the older woman and welcomed them inside. As Twyla entered, Pomona deftly leapt off of her shoulder and into the dusky dim of the cottage.

As Meara followed the elder woman over the threshold, she nearly tripped down the small and unexpected set of stairs in the floor. The cottage looked small, but someone had dug down further into the earth, giving the ceiling several extra feet and more insulation. In fact, as she looked around, Meara discovered that most of the house was underground, the cottage merely providing a façade. And daylight, of course. As she slowly descended down the three stone steps, Meara found herself in a cozy kitchen area, including a huge stone fireplace and hearth, sturdy wooden furniture, and, of all things, books!

"I hope you were not hindered in your travels," remarked the woman carefully as she swung a kettle of water off of the fire.

"Not at all," replied Twyla lightly. "Not until we arrived, that is."

"Oh," the woman blushed. "I apologize. That was Baxt, Parno, and Khamor. They are Rrom and protect these woods from those who wish its inhabitants harm. Their camp is not far from here."

"Ah," replied Twyla. "That explains much."

"Really?" Meara spoke up. "Because it explains nothing to me. Beg pardon, ma'am, but who are you, where are we, and why are we here?"

The woman turned to Twyla, "You mean to tell me that she knows nothing?"

"No!" exclaimed Meara in frustration. Twyla looked apologetic, "There wasn't time."

"Well then," sighed the woman. "That changes things, doesn't it?" She gestured toward the table and chairs and said, "You'd best sit down for this story my dear, it's going to take a while." Meara did so, and Twyla followed suit as the woman took down a ceramic teapot and some peppermint and poured the hot water from the fire over it, making a delicious tincture. Then, she served it up into clay mugs and joined them at the table. "To start with, my name is Gwyneth, Meara, and I am married to Father Liam."

Meara looked confused, "But Father Gideon never said Father Liam was married!"

Gwyneth gave her a wry smile, "Father Gideon never said a great many things, my dear, and has said a great deal more that is not necessarily true. But no matter, I am married to Father Liam, and we left the parish not because Father Liam was defrocked, as Father Gideon is so fond of saying, but because Liam couldn't bear to leave me and Thane destitute, and with good reason! I'd've made trouble, for one thing," she grinned at this. "The truth is, I've never really been a follower of the white Christ. I married Liam because I loved him, not because he was a man of God. And he's discovered that religion isn't all it seems. He was a good man before I met him, and he is still, but our ideas of right and wrong are sometimes very different from Father Gideon's. And sometimes very similar to those of other folk. So we stay here in the wood, tending Mary's shrine, and to the folk of the forest and country. Liam dispenses advice, I dispense medicine. And Thane," she paused with a small smile and a somewhat exasperated smile. "Well, you could say that Thane dispenses justice… of a sort."

"Who is Thane?" Meara asked. "Is he a Gypsy?"

"Oh, no dear," Gwyneth replied, laughing, "Though you wouldn't know it to look at him! No, he's my son. A bit of a rogue, but my son nonetheless." She looked pensive, "Perhaps even more so because of it," she laughed again. "But you've met him before. You may not remember it, but you have." Meara just looked confused, and Gwyneth and Twyla smiled knowingly. "Thane was about three when he met you, and you were just-born." She paused, a sad smile on her face, "It wasn't the happiest of meetings, but we were glad to see you, and that's all that matters. It was a dark and stormy night, when you were born, out here in this wood. I delivered you, as a matter of fact," she grew sad again, "and Liam gave your mother her last rites." She sighed, "A young maid, she was, and cast out by her parents for the 'sin' of you. But she went to her Lord in the end, so all was well."

Meara was saddened by this, but curious enough to ask, "I thought you said the folk you dealt with weren't Christian."

"I said nothing of the sort, my dear!" Gwyneth retorted. "However, you are right, most are not true followers of the Church itself. Its God is another matter. But it was not that Lord of which I spoke. No, t'was another. Jack o' the Green, some call him. Others call him the Greenman. Others merely call him Lord, as I did, and as your mother did before me. Liam saw Him with her, later that night. He said she looked happy, the Greenman by her side. I like to think that she is."

This was quite a lot for Meara to take in. First the long-thirsted for information about her mother and her birth, then the odd news of this Greenman, and of Gwyneth herself. "What does he look like?"

Gwyneth frowned, "Who, dear?"

"This Greenman," Meara returned.

"Well," Gwyneth replied carefully, "some say he is dressed in the plants of the forests, with a leafy face, others say he is like a man, but dressed all in green with a red cap. Still others insist that he has nut-brown skin and antlers coming out from his curly brown head. Liam says he saw a men dressed all in green with a red cap and carrying a bow." She paused, "Why, dear?"

Meara had gone rather pale. "I think I may have met him."

Gwyneth was taken aback. "Oh my," she breathed.

"That is why we have come," put in Twyla. Meara quickly explained what she had seen in the meadow of mayweed with the well and the strange man. When she had finished, Gwyneth looked very thoughtful.

"I have long suspected something of your origins," she said slowly. Meara looked puzzled, and she continued, "Liam has always assumed that your father was a shepherd or outlaw, or even a Rom, for we never knew the truth from your mother. But I always had my doubts, especially with the way Liam described his vision of your mother and her Lord." She stopped, as if unsure, then continued haltingly, "Meara, dear… I think your father… may be the Greenman himself." Meara looked stunned. First to hear of this odd figure, then to be told that he was her father! "I don't have any proof, of course," Gwyneth continued quickly, "but I think it may very well be possible."

Meara said nothing, only leaned back in her chair as if blown back by a strong wind, and looked shocked.

"Meara," Twyla suggested carefully, "Perhaps it would be best if you went outside to think for a while, whilst Gwyneth and I talk some more."

"I think that is a good idea," Meara replied rather faintly, and slowly and carefully walked back outside.

The sunlight cleared her head a bit, and she walked through the calm forest to the byre, where she clucked to the handsome dappled grey horse, who ambled over to be petted and scratched. Meara stroked his nose and neck and scratched behind his ears, which he liked immensely, stretching out his neck and showing his big yellow teeth. She laughed at his antics, glad for something to take her mind off all the news. He whuffed at her laughter, shook his head, and wandered off to chomp on the sweet meadow grasses. Meara smiled still and watched him move from clump to clump, quickly discovering that his favorite were thistle flowers, which he like to delicately bite from their prickly stems.

"Picky, isn't he?" a voice said behind her. She gasped and whirled to find herself facing a tall young man. He was rather tan, but had a shock of rich red hair that fell in his eyes, and an impish smile.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"I might ask the same of you, fair maiden," he replied flippantly. "But since you asked so nicely, I'll answer: I've been called a great many things, but you may call me Thane."

"Oh! You're Gwyneth's son!" Meara exclaimed, glad to know something, at least.

"It's been a while since that was the sole way I was recognized, but yes, I am the son of Gwyneth and Liam," he smiled again, then changed the subject, "I see you've met my horse."

"Oh yes," she said. "He's something of a hog for affection, isn't he?"

"That he is," Thane replied amiably. "Though he usually isn't so friendly with strangers. He must've taken a liking to you." He raised an eyebrow and Meara blushed. After a small pause, Thane continued, "Well fair maid, you know who I am, but I don't think I've been properly introduced to you."

Meara smiled and simply said, "Marion. Though friends call me Meara."

"If I may be so bold," Thane commented, "I think I shall call you Meara. Unless you have any objections, of course?"

"None whatsoever," Meara replied smartly.

"Good," smiled Thane, and they lapsed into a comfortable silence.

After a few moments' peace, Meara spoke up, "What's his name?"

"Whose?" Thane asked in reply.

"Your horse, what's his name?" she repeated.

Thane grinned, "Ahearn."

Meara looked thoughtfully at Ahearn. "Why that name?" she queried.

"It means, 'lord of the horses'," he replied, still grinning.

"So is he?" Meara asked, puzzled.

"Oh no, not at all," Thane replied merrily. Meara was still confused. "Then why call him one?"

"He's not lord of the horses," he grinned, "he just acts like one."

She suppressed a smile, "I see."

"Allow me to demonstrate," Thane said, "and you most certainly will see." He let out two piercing whistles and out in the meadow, Ahearn's head flew up, as did his tail, and he pranced regally over. Meara giggled. "I see what you mean." Ahearn went right up to Thane and butted him in the chest, nearly knocking him over. Thane gave an easy laugh and stroked Ahearn's neck and under his chin. "He likes to have his ears…" Thane looked up to see Meara scratching behind Ahearn's ears.

"I know," Meara smiled. "We've met before, remember?" Ahearn turned his face to hers and whuffed at her nose. Meara shook her head and laughed. "See? We're well acquainted!"

"That you most certainly are," Thane gazed thoughtfully at her.

Then, a voice rang out in the clearing, "Meara!" startling her.

"That'll be Mother," Thane said wryly. "Voice of an angel and the lungs of a horse, that one." Meara burst out laughing at this and they trotted back to the cottage door.

"Come inside, dear ones," Gwyneth said warmly and gestured for them to sit. Meara sat on one side of the table, Thane directly opposite, and Twyla to her left. Gwyneth poured them all new cups of tea, then sat herself, next to Thane. "Meara, dear," she began. "Under the circumstances of your visit, Twyla and I have decided that it would be best if you came to live with us." Meara was shocked and Thane looked just as surprised as she.

"But who will help Twyla?" she protested.

"I can manage perfectly fine on my own, thank you kindly," Twyla retorted. "Besides, it'll be good for you to get away from that stuffy, self-righteous village and be with some young people."

"But what of my things?" Meara queried. "And the garden, who will care for the garden?"

"Pomona and I will just have to manage," Twyla said firmly. Pomona yowled from her perch on a windowsill. "See?" smiled Twyla. "She agrees with me!"

"And I can have Baxt, Parno, and Khamor escort Twyla back to town and pick up your things," Gwyneth put in.

"I could accompany them, Mother," Thane suggested.

"I think it's best you stayed out here, dear son," Gwyneth looked slightly worried and gave him a looked filled with meaning. Thane merely sighed, resigned to his mother's wishes.

"But…" Meara continued, not quite ready to accept such a decision being made for her.

"No buts," Gwyneth cut her off. "I insist that you stay. You could learn much here in the forest."

"Like what?" Meara asked skeptically.

"Can you read?" asked Thane.

"What?" Meara replied.

"Can you read?" he patiently repeated.

"No," she answered, puzzled, "Why would I?"

Gwyneth sighed and said under her breath, "Why indeed?"

"You mean to say that Father Gideon has neglected to teach you?" Thane demanded.

"No," replied Meara impertinently, "He hasn't neglected, he doesn't teach girls."

"At all?" Thane was astonished. Then he muttered fiercely, "That bastard!"

"Thane!" his mother reprimanded sharply. "You are not out in the woods with the Rrom!"

"Apologies, Mother," Thane replied, a bit embarrassed. "I just can't stand the fool who calls himself a man of God."

"I know dearling," Gwyneth sympathized wryly, "Few can."

Thane turned again to Meara, "You must learn to read, Meara. There are whole worlds you cannot know about without reading. Father will teach you."

"Your father is busy, Thane m'dear," Gwyneth replied.

"I'll teacher her then," he answered, then saw that that was exactly what his mother had wanted. He gave her a wry smile and said to Meara, "We'll start tomorrow, if you stay."

Meara cocked her head and gave him a look, then looked to Twyla and Gwyneth. "I'll stay," she finally decided.

"Good," said Gwyneth firmly. "I can teach you as well. Twyla is an excellent healer, but there are some things that cannot be learned away from the forest."

"You'll teach me healing?" Meara asked eagerly.

"Indeed she will," Twyla smiled. "And she knows a good deal more than I do, too."

"Bah," Gwyneth deflected the compliment. "You're a better gardener, anyway."

"Careful, now," Thane impertinently butted in. "Any more flattery between the two of you and I'll be forced to start some insults!" He let out a small squawk and ducked as both a spoon and a rag flew at his head. The three women laughed at his consternation.

"Fine," he said, falsely huffy. "I'll just leave!" and he put on such a show of stalking out, that the women fell into laughing again, especially when Pomona stalked out after him.

"Be back before we leave!" Twyla called after her. A curve of the tail was all the reply she received.

"Well," Gwyneth said with a smile, "Now that they're out of the way, let's get you settled, hmm girl?"