Morwen sat on the blanket in the silence of the tumbledown hut and fed twigs into the tiny fire ringed with stones. Every now and then she looked over to where the forbidden book was buried in the ashes of the old firepit. Nearly everything else could be passed as supplies for the herbwoman but the book would damn her. Even if it stayed hidden she was still risking everything. If she got caught casting a spell it was an even chance whether she'd be stoned out of the village or her father would strangle her. He had the right.
Every sensible thought should have told her that this was insanity of the worst kind, but she still couldn't stop, and every girl she did a casting for added to the risk.
A scrape above her head made her jump back and she made a sound that was half scream, half whimper. She cursed under her breath as a yellow finch perched on the edge of the missing roof and looked in at her. It chirped once and flew away again, leaving her to deal with her suddenly watery limbs.
She looked once again at the firepit and told herself that she could stop any time she liked.
'Wenna.' A voice whispered from outside the ruin and Emer's familiar rosy face peeked around the crumbling daub of the wall. 'I brought it.'
Morwen beckoned her in and Emer ducked into the hut, looking up at the forest canopy that towered over them. Cool dappled light turned her ruddy features pale. 'Are we safe here?'
'As anywhere, unless the birds are telling tales now. Give me the bowl.'
Emer kneeled on the blanket and handed over the stone bowl she carried.
Morwen balanced it on the stones around the fire and threw a handful of pine needles into the flames. The tiny fire leapt and roared underneath the bowl. She filled the bowl with water from the flask next to her and took a handful of herbs from the basket on the floor, shredding them into the bowl to float on the surface of the water and slowly sink. A handful of flower petals followed, then some hawthorn berries and a pinch of dirt from the floor of the hut. Finally she dropped in a shard of bone from the pouch at her belt and waited for the water to warm.
When the air above the bowl started to shimmer with heat, she pulled a burning twig from the edge of the fire and dropped it in. It hissed as the flame hit the surface of the water.
Morwen leaned forward and blew across the surface of the water, watching the petals spin in lazy circles on top of the water. 'Ready?' she said, looking up at Emer.
Emer nodded and tugged a blonde hair from her head with a small yelp. She dropped it into the water. 'Is that enough?'
'Should be.' Morwen stirred the water with a stick, making the petals on top circle and spin, and focused her mind on their whirling dance, concentrating until her vision flickered at the edges with tiny spots.
As soon as it did she pulled a square of linen from her pouch and dropped it on the surface of the water. It rested there for a moment before sinking down, taking the petals with it.
Morwen fished it out again with a piece of stick and passed it to Emer. 'It's all yours. Careful, it's hot. Put it under your pillow tonight and see what happens.'
'Are you sure it will work?'
Morwen shrugged. 'It might. Lara says she saw Billy the night she slept with hers, and he asked her father for her a month later. Of course, she spent that month with the top button of her bodice undone and fluttering her eyelashes at him the whole time, so who knows. I hope you see someone but I make no promises.'
'I want to see a warrior. A real man, with his tattoos already. Can you do that for me? Make sure I get the right husband?'
Morwen held her hands up. 'I just help you see him. I can't influence who asks.'
Emer pouted. 'It's all right for you. Someone good is bound to ask for you.'
'Well look at you. Are you telling me your da's had no offers for you?'
'We're not here for me. I don't cast for myself. Now, if we're done…' Morwen picked up the bowl using the brown wool of her skirts and doused the fire with the contents before picking out the bone and kicking dirt over the rest.
'No, wait,' Emer said. 'How could you not be interested? Don't you want to know who you're going to marry?'
'But Tarin brought you a flower from the thorn wall last month. Wouldn't you like it to be him?'
'Tarin's all right.' Not even to Emer would Morwen tell of Tarin's stolen kisses and fumblings, and the whispered promises to ask her father for her once he was a full warrior and had his tattoos. Emer could be trusted with the secret of the castings, she was sure of that, but her friend would never be able to keep a secret about a boy. Not when that boy was Tarin, warrior-to-be and the object of cow eyes from half the girls in the village.
'All right? Any girl in the village would give her front teeth to have Tarin climb the wall for a flower for them. You know he's going to join the warband when he's old enough?'
'But once they've lost their teeth, Tarin wouldn't be interested in them and that would be the end of that.'
Emer scowled. 'Don't tease.'
'Then let it go. My da will accept who he wants to accept, same as yours will, and my da will get what he can for me. That's just the way it is.'
'So maybe you'll marry a rich man from another village. You might even have servants. Don't you want to know?' Emer's open, florid face shone at the prospect. 'I think we should do one for you too. At least if you know your da is going to give you to a toothless pig farmer you'll have a chance to run away.'
'Of course. So I can live on berries in the forest until the wolves put me out of my misery.'
Emer was insistent. 'Come on, it will be fun. I can tell you in the morning who I saw and you can tell me. You still have lots of stuff to do another spell.'
'Em, I don't even know if this really works. It's just a game.'
'So play it yourself too. I want to know who you're going to marry.'
Morwen sighed. 'All right. But I need to wash the bowl in the river first. You start the fire again.'
The running water of the river scoured away all traces of the previous spell to leave the bowl ready to use again.
Morwen tried hard to ignore the curiosity growing inside her now she'd agreed. She had no idea if she could even cast for herself, but what was the worst that could happen? She'd probably see nothing at all.
Emer had a new fire burning when she got back and Morwen poured more water into the bowl and balanced it on the stones once again. She dropped in more leaves, more petals and berries, the bone and the pinch of earth, another burning twig, then leaned down to blow over the water.
But this time it was for herself, and nerves made her clumsy. As she brought her face down, her braid fell over her shoulder and dropped into the bowl. Long strands trailed in the water like dark red fingers of water weed.
'Damn.' She jerked back and flipped the braid over her shoulder to trail warm water down her neck and soak her dress.
'All right, stop,' she said to herself. 'Breathe.'
Morwen started at Emer's voice. She'd forgotten she was even there.
'Wenna, are you all right?'
'I'm fine. Just clumsy.' Morwen pulled a few strands of hair from the sodden braid and dropped them into the water before using the stick to set the petals swirling.
She tried to ignore the chill of the sodden dress and concentrate, waiting for the familiar spots and flickers. When they came the damp dress on her back suddenly felt warm instead of cold, and she thought she saw the shadowy shape of a bear in the darkness of the leaves deep in the water. But that was a trick of the shapes in the bowl and the light through the trees. If it worked it would come in a dream.
She reached for the square of linen and realised that she didn't have one.
'Idiot,' she muttered.
Emer jumped. 'What?'
'I don't have any more linen.'
'Can't you use a strip off your dress?'
'And have my da take a strip off my back to match? I don't think so. It was a stupid idea anyway. I don't know what I was thinking.'
Emer looked hurt, and Morwen sighed. 'Oh Em, I didn't mean you were stupid, I mean me trying to cast for myself. Look at me, I'm all thumbs with the nerves. Let's just go home. You start back and I'll follow you.'
Morwen emptied out the bowl and kicked dirt over the fire again, then threw the last of the leaves and flower petals out into the bushes that surrounded the ruined hut. The book could stay where it was, buried safely out of sight in its oilcloth wrapping. She headed to the river to wash the bowl again.
When she was nearly there, hoofbeats rumbled from the direction of the river, upstream where the bridge crossed it. At the same time a flock of birds rose from the forest in a clatter of black and white wings. Morwen threw the bowl into a clump of thick bushes and ran.
She raced through the forest, heedless of the danger of the terrain, jumping roots and ducking around trees. When she reached the road she picked up the pace again until she was sprinting for the village at a flat run.
She was halfway home when a single set of hoofbeats came up behind her. She looked over her shoulder and caught sight of an unfamiliar rider approaching on a large bay horse.
She ran faster and ducked to the right, heading for the trees again, but she didn't make it. The rider leaned out to the side as he passed her and swept her up and over the front of his saddle, laughing as he did it.
Morwen twisted and thrashed, desperate to get free and slide to the ground.
A hard hand pressed her down against the saddle until she struggled for breath and her vision went dark at the edges. 'Keep still,' the unknown rider's voice said. 'I won't hurt you.'
The smell of hot horse filled her nose as she burned with the humiliation of being carried like a sack of grain over a stranger's saddle. She watched iron-shod hooves strike the ground below her and wished her talent was good for more than dreams showing future husbands. She was willing to bet that nobody had ever dared kidnap the White Witch and throw her over the front of a saddle.
What felt like a lifetime later, the horse's canter slowed to a trot that knocked the breath out of her and made her want to be sick, and then to a walk.
'Botha!' her captor shouted. 'Look what I found on the path!' He pulled her up by her still-damp dress and lifted her up on the saddle in front of him, pulling her around effortlessly as though she was a doll. 'Pretty, huh? I like the red.' He grabbed the braid that fell down her back and waved it at the warband gathered in front of her.
As she recovered her wits she counted seven men. Not enough to be an invasion but enough to be a threat.
An enormous man with a grizzled beard and hair to match left the group and rode his horse over. A shaggy black with hooves that shook the ground, it was the biggest horse she'd ever seen and it still looked barely able to support its rider. His bearded face split into a grin as he reached them. 'Ah, Simeon, you always bring me the best presents. Where are you from, sweet?'
Morwen just stared at him, trying not to shake.
He laughed. 'Be like that then. You can still decorate my saddle as we ride in.' He swung his horse around beside them and leaned down.
Her captor passed her up to him and he settled her side-saddle in front of him before leading his men out in a column. They trotted along the road leading to her village in a jingle of tack and weapons.
'So,' Botha said as they rode, 'I assume you're from Southwold. It's the only village near enough for someone on foot.'
She ignored him and focused her attention on the horse's ears in front of her.
Botha tugged on her braid, not hard enough to hurt. 'Silence. I like that in a woman.'
Morwen suppressed a shudder and kept quiet.
They rode in through the gates in a clatter of hooves. Morwen heard shouts as men ran to the lodge for the Chief. The rest of the village clustered round. Emer was in the crowd, pale as she looked back at Morwen. She looked for Tarin as well but didn't see him.
'It's the Bear,' someone in the crowd said.
'What's he doing with Wenna?' a woman asked.
'Smile, Wenna,' Botha murmured with another tug of her braid.
'Put me down,' she said.
'Ah, now what fun would that be?'
'Haven't you had enough fun at my expense?'
He snorted. 'You're lucky I'm a gentleman or you'd get a different answer to that question. Relax, I'll let you go shortly.'
They reached the lodge and the Chief stepped out, face grim and arms folded, warband behind him. Her father stood to the side looking equally grim.
'Let the girl down,' the Chief said, not taking his eyes off Morwen.
Botha grinned. 'Of course. You know, I'd have visited before if I'd known you were sending welcoming committees like this.' Botha took Morwen's hand and made a show of kissing it before lowering her to the ground, letting her drop the last few inches on her own.
The Chief gestured with his head for her to go to her father.
She obeyed, making herself walk slowly and holding her head up. She was well aware that she'd been used as a show of strength by Botha and the last thing she was going to do was give him the satisfaction of watching her scuttle away from him.
'Get in the house,' her father said when she reached him. 'We'll talk later.' He turned away from her and followed the Chief, Botha and their men into the lodge.
Emer caught up with her at her door. 'Oh Gods, are you all right? When you didn't come home I was so scared. Did they hurt you? Did they… do anything to you?'
'I'm fine. Just shaky.'
'That man was huge.'
Emer looked around. 'Your mam's coming. You have to tell me everything later.' She ran into the maze of houses and disappeared.
Her mother bustled up and wrapped Morwen in a hug. 'Are you all right?' she said over her shoulder.
'I'm fine, honestly.'
Her mother leaned back, eyes sharp in her round face. 'So what were you doing out on the road to get picked up by the Bear's warband?'
'I was picking herbs for Grandma Wilden. I lost them when I ran.'
Her mother looked at her hard. 'Sure about that?'
Morwen schooled her face to innocence. 'Of course.'
'Well, let's hope that's an end to it. You were lucky, I hope you know that. There are people out there other than trading partners. Take more care if you want to help Grandma. Now, bath. You're a mess and you smell of horse.'
Morwen was bathed and combing the tangles from her hair in front of the fire when she heard her parents' voices on the other side of the wall.
'Gorren wants me to bring her to the lodge,' her father said.
'No, I won't have it,' her mother said in a low voice. 'Bad enough what happened today already.'
'We've no choice. Apparently Botha wants to apologise to her in person, and Gorren needs his goodwill. She has to go.'
'I don't trust him.'
'It doesn't matter. He's too powerful to offend. Just get her dressed in her best, and quickly.'
Her mother muttered something under her breath and came round. 'No nightgown, Wenna, you're needed at the lodge.'
'You. I'm surprised too. Now, stand up. You'll wear your blue dress.' Her mother pulled a dress out of the chest against the wall and pulled it over her head before lacing it tightly at her back.
'But my hair's still wet.'
'Leave it, there's no time. Just keep your head down and don't speak unless you're spoken to. Your father will take you there.'
'Can't you come?'
'I've no place in the lodge. Nor should you, which is why you'll keep quiet and be on your best behaviour. Now, shoes.'
Morwen stepped into her shoes and her mother walked around her once. 'You'll do. Now be careful. These are powerful men. Botha says he wants to apologise for abducting you on the road. Just accept it and do what you're told.'
Morwen nodded and followed her out to where her father waited.
Her father looked her over. 'That's fine. Let's go.'
The lodge was a roar of light and noise after the quiet of the house. The air was heavy with smoke from the fire and the lights, making Morwen's eyes water. She followed her father to the top table where the Chief sat with Botha, surrounded by the two warbands.
Botha grinned and put his wine cup down as they approached. 'Here she is, my welcoming committee. Come here, sweet. Sit by me and have a drink.'
Morwen looked up at her father apprehensively.
He nodded and they walked over to him.
'And this is your father?' Botha asked. 'Wonderful. Come sit down too. Simeon, clear a space for Morwen.'
The man that had grabbed her earlier moved his chair along, forcing the men on the other side to move up too. One of the Chief's servants brought a chair for her next to Botha. Another placed a chair further down the table for her father. He moved away reluctantly and sat down.
'Have a drink,' Botha said, and a wine cup was placed in front of her.
She took a sip and coughed.
'What, you've never had wine before?' he asked.
She shook her head.
'Strange customs you people have. You'll get used to it. Drink some more.'
She caught her father's eye down the table and he nodded. Neither he nor the Chief took their eyes away from her and Botha. The table was quiet in the roar of the hall.
She took a larger sip, grimacing at the sharp taste.
Botha nodded with approval. 'Now, I need to apologise to you, Miss Morwen. It was rude of me to snatch you up on the road and bring you back on my horse the way I did. Will you accept my honest apology?' He watched her like a wolf waiting for a lamb to wander away from its mother.
'Apology accepted,' she said.
He grinned and took a large swig of wine from his cup. 'Good, that's all sorted then.' He turned to the Chief. 'Gorren, I've considered your offer and I'm in a generous mood. You can have all the horses for fifty gold.'
Gorren smiled, but stopped as Botha raised his hand. 'With one proviso.' Botha deliberately took another drink while Gorren waited to hear it. When he'd finished he smacked his lips. 'Good wine. Now, where was I? Oh yes, one proviso. My wife died last year and I find myself lonely in my old age. You have your horses if you give me this young lady as my new wife. She's of age, yes?'
The table was still. Morwen's head spun with wine and shock as Gorren turned to her father.
'She is of age, but barely,' her father said carefully. 'Sixteen. And she's my only child. It would hurt her mother greatly to see her go so far away. As you can see too, she is fair. I was already considering other offers.'
Nobody had told her that there had already been offers. Morwen wanted to be sick. She didn't even know who in the village she might be given to. Anything would be better than being taken far away by this old bully.
Gorren's look could have drilled a hole through her father as he looked to get something out of the deal for himself.
Botha growled under his breath. 'All right. Another three horses for her father.'
Morwen stared at her father, pleading with her eyes for him to say no, that he was too old, that it was too far away, that she should be with someone her own age.
He didn't look back at her, staring into his wine cup instead. 'Yes,' he said finally.
Botha beamed. 'Then we have a deal. I'll take her with me in the morning and send you your horses as soon as we get home.'
He stood, spat in his hand and shook with Gorren and her father before lifting Morwen out of her chair and planting a kiss on her mouth that tasted of wine and red meat. His thick grey beard rasped her cheeks, the bear in the bowl come to claim her. There was no need to wait for a dream tonight. Her future husband was here and it was a nightmare.