Chapter Twelve: The Witch Wives
Year 16, Quinta Six
As promised, Nina's pre-rite son took Sasha and Alyia to the market the following day and introduced them to Garol – a rather large, stern looking man – who was initially sceptical about having yet more witch wives in his market.
"Ma says they're genuine," the boy told him. "Knew she was born in Thirty-Two and everything."
Garol grunted. "Well, you're fortunate that I have one spare stall here. Nothing as grand as those tents they have in Four or the cities, but it's in a good enough spot. Genuine or not, you'll have serious competition here and most of it far more established than you two little girls. I suggest you get yourself some sort of ploy." He looked harder at Alyia. "Say this one's a changeling or something. She certainly looks the part." Sasha exchanged a nervous glance with Alyia. "The first day's free. I'll come back later and see if you've made any money and we can then decide if you're up to continuing tomorrow. I'll be wanting rent at the end of the week so, if you don't make much, you'll be giving most of it to me."
Alyia wasn't at all happy about revealing herself to be a changeling but Sasha thought it an excellent idea.
"Garol's right that we need to get their attention and those here in the north support the old ways and honour the Spirits. Most won't believe it anyway and, Alyia, that language you used to speak, is that to do with being a changeling too?"
"I believe so. I think the beings who talk to me in my dreams communicate that way."
"Beings? Not the little orange Spirits?"
"No, my dreams aren't really conversations. Not like you've described your communications with your fairies. It's more vague – blurred faces, echoing speech – little of it seems clear when I'm there, but somehow makes perfect sense when I wake."
Sasha laughed. "The exact opposite to my conversations with the Spirits. I can remember every gesture and word nowadays, but none of it makes much sense during or after the dream."
"Follow and Lead?" Alyia quoted with a laugh.
"That was one of my favourites. 'Half soon' was another."
"The problem is, I hear them speaking this language during my dreams and seem to understand what they mean," Alyia continued, "but, when I wake up, I know what they said but I … I can't really remember the language. I suppose … I think I can sort of guess it? Say a bunch of words even though they probably won't make sense. What did you have in mind?"
"I thought that, if you were to read the Gem in a quiet meek way, interspersed with some of those changeling words, I could translate it for you."
"I can read you a bit or ... stand over your shoulder and read the Gem at the same time? Let's ask Nina if we can practice on another member of her family. Her daughter would be easier as she's an adult." She nodded. "Now tell me more about how you worked out where Nina's Gem was from."
"It's those lay lines again and that's also how I know which direction we need to travel in; I'm being pulled down them in the same way as the Gems pull towards their home."
"Really? You're being pulled south?"
"Yes, although there was some urgency whilst I was at Sixty-Six. Now the pull as eased a bit, as if my guides are happy for me to stay here for a while."
"I haven't been pestered by my little friend for a while either," Sasha noted. "Isn't it interesting how we both have these gifts and guides, but they're subtly different?"
Alyia nodded. "I suppose your plan of me being the main Gem reader makes sense then. If you can't sense the orange lines then it's unlikely you'll be able to read the directions as precisely as I can, but you do have a far greater medical and herb law, even if I did have a few basic lessons from Mother."
"Yes, she taught me how to brew the pain killing potion, and the one that calmed me after those visions?"
"Ah, I never knew that, but then such consultations are private, of course. Still, it's good that we can both do a little of each other's work."
"Two heads are better than one?" Alyia suggested.
"Exactly. Shall we go downstairs and talk to Nina about getting some practice in?"
In fact the whole family were delighted by the idea and each took it in turns to help the girls practice whilst getting the dining area ready for the guests and locals to come in and eat. The pair sat on chairs next to each other in a dark alcove – a scarf hiding Alyia's ears for the moment – whilst their subjects sat on the opposite side for the reading. In this way they could both attempt to read the Gem at the same time and try a few different ways of allowing Alyia's amazing natural ability to be 'translated' by Sasha's experience of acting the part. They started with Nina – already knowing much of her history and simply practising their act – before moving onto her husband, who was also from out of town and then to their daughter who had been born locally.
Their son watched quietly at first, apparently above such displays of superstition, before starting to move a little closer during his sister's reading.
"Is it true that it's impossible to read a child's Gem?" he asked.
"Not at all," Sasha replied. "Reading your birth place, residence and family is possible with even the youngest babies."
"But not the future?"
"Again, that's a bit of a myth too. Reading the future is a skill that very few are capable of anyway and, although it's true that reading past a child's Rite is difficult, it is possible in certain situations. Would you like us to try yours?"
He nodded shyly.
"May I?" Alyia asked, "as I haven't read a pre-rite's before."
And so the two worked on their act further, with Alyia doing most of the actual reading and Sasha suggesting ways of phrasing it to make it sound more dramatic.
By now, the doors of the Inn had been opened and a few of the regulars came over to see what was going on. When Nina explained that the pair were going to open their own stall the following day and were getting a little practice in, they were soon inundated with offers of more readings – many even offering to pay – whilst Nina began loudly asking everyone to tell their friends and family about the talented new witch wives in town.
Early the next morning, the girls made their way to their stall to find the market already bustling with the other holders setting up, and nervously began organising their space. The stall was a small box shaped room with the front dropping down to form a counter and the pair decided that Sasha would sell herbs, potions and other remedies she had brought with her from the front, whilst Alyia would be sitting at a table behind the curtain in order to give private Gem readings.
Soon the market place was full of holders announcing their wares and so Sasha took a deep breath and joined in.
"We come from the far north, near the great northern forest," she announced dramatically. "Step over and we can offer you cures for your ailments and Gem readings that will astonish you. Do not be fooled by our young age as you will be amazed at what you discover here. Do you dare find out your true future? Do you dare have your Gem read by one who Walks with the Spirits?
It was a carefully chosen phrase. Most up here would understand that to mean a changeling, but Sasha was trying to pull off a double bluff and make her pitch sound so over-the-top that their customers would assume it was a ruse. She was amazed at how many quires began queuing up to see them that morning, but it appeared that news of their readings at the Inn last night had spread fast. Her supply of pain killing potion quickly disappeared and it was soon obvious that she would need to make time to shop herself at some point in order to stock up on supplies.
Of course, most of their customers wanted to see the Gem reader and, on entering the rear of the stall, came face to face with Alyia, her hair now tied back to reveal amazing ears, with candlelight flickering in her eyes to make the colour appear fully orange. Her wings were staying carefully hidden however, and Sasha knew that most of the adults thought it all an act, even though the children were convinced that they were meeting an exotic, magical creature rather than a quire.
Regardless of how they felt about the changeling herself, everyone was very impressed by the accuracy of the readings and, by lunch time, the pair had already made more money than they had ever seen in their lives and Sasha's small supply of herbs had disappeared completely. So, the pair decided to close up the stall for a while and spent most of the afternoon touring the market and buying supplies with their earnings, including colourful cloth, ribbons, candles, and other props which would make their stall look the part.
They returned near the end of the afternoon and opened up briefly for a few more customers before Garol arrived to see how they had got on. Sasha was about to explain that they had made very much more money than they had on them at the moment, but quickly changed her mind. They had made enough for Garol to feel they could earn their way, and their apparent modest earnings allowed Sasha to negotiate a smaller rent for the first week whilst they settled in. Alyia was shocked by her friend's tactics.
"If today was anything to go by, I'm sure we could afford what he was suggesting," she said. "That lady we spoke to earlier said it was the going rate."
"Of course we could afford it," Sasha replied with a cheeky grin. "But where would be the fun in that?"
On their first Rest day the two girls walked to the centre of town to attend Temple and were amazed at the size of the building and the number of quires crammed into the central room. Sasha could hear the buzzing even more loudly here and turned to Alyia with a questioning look. Her friend nodded in return, but she had to wait until after the service to ask her about it.
"It's the Spirits' echoes," Alyia explained. "Surely you knew that, seeing they communicate with you so often?"
"I'd guessed it was them but ... what do you mean by echoes?"
"The old Spirits died at the Millennium, of course, but the stories say they experience time differently to quires meaning their echoes can still be heard."
"Really? You mean my Spirits are talking to me from the past?"
"Or the future." Alyia shrugged. "I read this book about it but, to be honest, that one really confused me."
"I'm not surprised but, whether or not they're really here, I'm mostly surprised at how much louder that buzzing sounds."
"We're closer to the major centres of power, that's all," Alyia explained. "You'd feel it even more if we went to Quinta One and I suspect it's stronger still at Prima."
"This is to do with these lines again?"
"I think so, although I'm really only making educated guesses here myself. All I know is that there's a second, less powerful line which cuts across the first at this point."
"I don't understand."
"It seems that the major Lay Lines follow the actual roads within the Quincunx but there are other numerous smaller ones, helping to create a vast web of light. The smaller one here goes straight to Tertia."
The Temple was mostly empty now and so Alyia walked with Sasha to the very centre of the hall where faint lines were etched on the floor; a map of sorts, imitating the direction of the roads. Once she was standing at its centre, Alyia closed her eyes and turned slowly and reached out her senses.
"Let me show you." She stopped turning and pointed, her eyes still closed. "The road we've travelled down, heading towards Sixty-Six, is that way." Sasha glanced down at the etched map to confirm her friend was pointing towards their old home. Then Alyia turned again exactly 180 degrees. "Now I'm pointing in the other direction and Quinta One is that way."
"Is that where you're being pulled?"
"No, I'm being pulled down a more minor road … this way." And she turned another forty five degrees to her left. "Towards Quinta Four." She opened her eyes and grinned as she looked down at her feet and confirmed her guess. "I'm so glad we got that map, but it's now obvious that I should have paid more attention to your father's geography lessons at school."
"You are a walking, talking compass," Sasha said with a laugh. "How useful! So, this is the same minor line you mentioned before? The one on the direct road from here to Tertia?"
"Yes, travelling through a number of towns and villages on the way. I want to check our map again when I get home and then I'll try to show you how the lay lines fit onto it."
"So, are you saying we have to leave already?" Sasha knew she hadn't been able to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
"I don't think so. When I had to leave the pull was very strong. Now I can sense that is the way I have to go but there's no urgent call. I believe we can stay here a little longer."
Sasha was surprised at how disappointed she had felt when she thought they might have to leave this town already, and hadn't missed the fact that Alyia had referred to their room at the Inn as 'home'. Sasha missed her family and friends back in Sixty-Six desperately, but she was loving this new life and spending more time with Alyia finally, her friend now seeming far happier and healthier than she could ever remember.
Nina often looked concerned when she saw such a thin girl with such an enormous appetite but, whether she thought Alyia was ill or had been mistreated before coming here, the changeling's bowl was always quickly filled with seconds or thirds and the lady refused to take any extra money from the pair, despite how much they were earning.
"You have been good for our business too," she explained with a smile, and it was true that the Inn did seem busier than during that first evening. "You are both becoming famous at the market, my dears, and I like to take some of the credit for your early success even if you are both so naturally talented. Everyone now knows this is where the witch sisters are staying and I'm gaining far more customers as a result."
Alyia frowned. "Witch sisters?"
"Most find it hard to call you wives at your age and I've heard a few say how strange it is to address you as Mother, Alyia when they are often twice your age."
"True, but I used to find it strange calling my grandmother that when I was younger," said Sasha. "But it is the correct form of address."
Nina laughed brightly. "Of course. Anyway, my dears, you are welcome to stay here for the standard rent and if I give you a little extra food or drink you can repay me by looking after my family's health whilst you are here. I doubt it will be too long before you'll be moving onto Four."
The pair looked up at her shocked.
"Yes, we were planning on going south eventually," said Sasha. "But how did you know which direction we were heading? I'm sure we didn't say."
Nina looked equally surprised. "You didn't, I just assumed that you would want to try your luck at the most famous market in the Quint. It's notoriously difficult to earn a stall there but, after your performances here and with references from Garol, I can't imagine you two would have any problems."
The girls exchanged a look. Was it a coincidence that Alyia's internal compass was telling them to go to the very town Nina assumed they would travel to for their new found career?
The two friends spend many happy and profitable months in Quinta Six, but a dream visit from Sasha's Spirit friend soon confirmed it was time for them to move on.
"You followed!" The little creature seemed delighted.
"So I did."
He nodded. "Now it is time to lead."
"Lead where?" She was beginning to get the hang of this now.
"You must travel the same road as the Gift." Then again, perhaps not.
"Who or what is the gift?"
"The Spirits' Gift. Your paths will cross now and later."
"Well, I have no idea what any of that means, but Alyia says we should go south to Four." The creature shrugged. "I suppose geography is different for you as well as time, yes?"
He shrugged. "You need to lead now."
"As in right now?"
"I think it's time to go," Alyia said the moment Sasha woke up. "I had one of those dreams urging me onwards and that pull has started to become much stronger again."
"Yes," Sasha said with a sigh. "I got a visit too."
"Did he tell you to go south?"
"No, I got told to lead and then to follow the same path as the gift."
Sasha grinned. "As I said before, the words are clear but the message rarely is. Still he was telling me to move and your internal compass is telling you which direction to go in, so I suppose that will have to be good enough for now."