heart-of-fireThe Heart of the Fire

Chapter One

My adversary confronts me with lowered horns and paws the earth. Annie and I stop, clutching hands. If the goat would stay where he was, we could go around him. But we know from past experience that he is unlikely to let us pass without butting us into the ditch. I wish McTavish would keep his goats penned; they are forever foraging and getting into trouble in other people’s gardens. But when Annie asked McTavish once to take his goat out of our path he snorted and growled in his gruff voice that he only wished it was a bull. I can’t tell if he hates me because I am Annie’s friend or hates Annie because she is mine, but his cross red face has never brought anything but trouble for us.

Annie is half a year older and half a head taller than me, but she hangs back behind me.

“Say something to him,” she whispers.

“Like what?” I demand.

“I don’t know,” she says crossly. “Everyone says your grandmother is a Witch. Has she taught you nothing?”

“She’s taught me nothing about goats,” I reply.

“Well, Witches are supposed to be able to talk with the animals,” Annie says, swallowing hard. “Aye, and the trees and the plants too. She must not be a real wise woman if she hasn’t taught you anything of that sort.”

“My Gran is the wisest woman in the whole village,” I retort, stung. “She says I’m too young to be learning yet.”

The goat makes a little half-charge and we cower back a few paces, dropping the herbs we have gathered in the mud.

“We’ll never live to be old at this rate!” Annie is trying to act as tough as she usually does, but her voice quavers.

She picks up a couple of dandelions. It is spring, the earth smells fresh and sweet and there is plenty of fresh greenery all about so the goat cannot blame his cantankerousness upon hunger. She ties the dandelions together and tosses them to the goat.

“Go, goat, and I’ll give you a groat,” she chants hopefully.

The goat nuzzles the dandelions and then stares at us with his baleful eyes, almost as yellow as the fresh flowers of the sun, but with none of their warm promise.

Suddenly I feel a rage rising in me, remembering the last time we came through the village and McTavish’s goat knocked us both into the ditch, leaving us to run home crying with our scraped knees and elbows. He has no right to be so mean like this.

“Go, goat, and I’ll give you a groat,” I growl, “but if you will not go away, then ever after rue this day!”

“Don’t make him angry,” warns Annie.

“You’re almost seven,” I snap. “You shouldn’t be afraid.”

“You’re the one who knows the magic!” she snaps back.

Aye, I think to myself, raising my chin. Would my Gran be afraid of a goat? In a flash I see her prominent cheekbones, frown marks like angry waves across her forehead, black, flashing eyes-no, Gran has never been afraid of anything. She is not very tall for a woman, nor broad, but the strongest men in Glen Lochian bow their heads and acknowledge her when she passes by, and the women curtsey. No, Gran is not afraid of anyone. Everyone in the village owes their loyalty to Lord Lochlan, but even in his presence she is as haughty as a queen. It is my Grandmother, or her best friend Mina, the people come to when they are sick, and it is they who know everything there is to know about plants and how they may help us. And it is John and William, Gran’sfriends who are also in the coven, that everyone comes to if they have a sick animal. Even the Laird respects John’s opinion over anyone else’s where his horses are concerned, and William is the shepherd for the Laird’s great flock.

The coven is secret, but tis a strange secret, that everyone knows about, yet pretends not to. Rose, the oldest woman in the village, near twice as old as my Gran, is in it, and almost half the people in Glen Lochlan are related to her, if not directly, then through marriage, for she had eight living children, all of whom bore children in turn. Gran says I am too little to be trusted with secrets, but often on full moon nights I cannot sleep, and the moon has led me, bare-foot and shivering, to the coven’s gatherings. So I know that it is three grandchildren of Rose’s, Sarah, the midwife, her husband Peter, and Mari, reputed as the best baker in the shire, who complete the circle of wise ones in my Grandmother’s coven. I sometimes feel that I can hardly bear being a child and enduring the long years that stand between me and being as wise as the grandmother I adore.

I stiffen, feeling my Gran’s regal disdain straightening my spine. Stupid McTavish and his stupid goat! They will not hinder me on my path!

Grabbing Annie by the arm, I march past the goat, who for a moment stares with disbelief at our display of fearlessness. But soon I hear fast -moving hoof-beats biting into the earth behind me, and Annie crying, “Fiona, look out!”

I turn, and without thinking my fist shoots out just in time to connect with the goat’s nose. Then I am on my bottom, in the mud. McTavish’s goat sways, takes several steps, first to one side, then to the other, and then topples. I stare with amazement and hold my aching hand. Annie’s mouth drops open, white teeth sparkling in her gypsy dark face, her black eyes enormous.

“Did you see that?” Incredulous laughter comes from the side of the road. I look up and see Mari’s husband, Galen McClinnock. I’ve never seen Galen at a coven meeting, but he and Man are both good friends with my mother, and often at our croft, and I is trust his warm arms and his big laugh. He is leading a jennet mule carrying a cart full of decayed midden to hoe into the communal fields.

“I was just about to help you lasses our of your predicament,” he laughs, “but I see you’ve helped yourselves! Fiona, brawling with a goat? What will your mother say?”

I struggle up cut of the mud, feeling with dismay how my skirt clings soddenly to my legs, thinking in anguish of all the time it will take me pounding it in the stream before my mother deems it wearable again.

Galen calls loudly to the men coming behind him with more loads of midden, and they all stop and laugh and exclaim over the goat, which is just now starting to twitch slightly. To the right of us, the bairns from Jack and John Turner’s crofts pour onto the road, staring at us with amazement.

“I could have done that,” boasts one of the boys our age.

“Could not!” a smaller lad pushes the first.

“I could so! She’s only a girl. I could have done it.”

“Is the goat dead?” a little girl quavers.

“Naw,” says Galen, patting her on the head.

“You’d best clear out of here,” he whispers to us. “McTavish catch you, you’re in trouble.”

We run as quickly as we may through the gloppy March road, through the village, passing the fields where the men are planting barley and flax, peas, oats and wheat. We run past the dozen crofts that lie along or shortly off of this main road. We run past the Bluebell Inn, a large structure of wood five times larger than any croft, past the Smithy without stopping to chat with Ewan, a boy only a little older than us, one of the few boys who doesn’t seem to feel obligated to yank on the girls’ hair and throw mud at them. We run panting past the castle, magnificent with its four round towers and the vineyards, orchards and rose gardens that surround it. Gran, who has traveled, insists that it is not much as castles go but I can scarcely imagine a huger or more elegant building than this, made all of gray stone, with its doors taller than the tallest man in Glen Lochlan. The castle kitchen, big as a whole croft with its huge hearths for baking and roasting, sends clouds of wonderful odors rolling onto the road.

Out of breath and with a stitch in my side I stop and yank at Annie to stop also. Her brown skirt is also muddy from our run, but her mother does not seem to care so much, and Annie is, as usual, dressed in a rag-tag collection of garments, mostly adult clothes which have simply been torn smaller and basted roughly together. They do not fit well and prettily as mine do, but rather bag and sag, one of her little brown shoulders exposed, a ragged cloak so dirty it is hard to say what color it was to start, flapping around her ankles. Lately when Annie has come to our house she has practiced a great deal with her sewing, helping mother teach me and my little sister Eostre, who is four. I hate sitting still and sewing but Annie will often do nothing else, insisting that as soon as she can, she will sew her own clothes and not be ashamed to be so ragged as her mother dresses her.

We look anxiously over our shoulders, but of course there isno goat nor anyone else pursuing us, Annie and I slow our pace to a walk. We come to Annie’s croft, just on the outskirts of Glen

Lochlan, a couple of miles before we get to mine. Her croft is one of the nicer ones, and they have more land than most; her grandfather even has a barn and his own small flock of sheep, as well as

a good-sized garden. Her grandfather has been one of the guards and retainers of the old Laird, Lochlan’s father, so I do not see how it is that they are so poor that Mairead, her mother, must dress her so shabbily.

“I wish I didn’t have to garden and help with the soap making today,” mopes Annie. I almost wish I could stay and garden with Annie; I love working with dirt and the plants. But Mairead is so sharp-tongued that I never feel welcome there. For us to he together, Annie either comes to my croft or we go to play together on the hills or by the sea.

We part sadly, our triumph with the goat forgotten as each of us faces the prospect of a scolding mother.

Annie’s croft is at the end of the little valley where Glen Lochlan nestles. Mina, Gran, Peter and Sarah and my mother all have crofts near each other in the next valley over. I leap down the lightly wooded slope into the small forested valley, really no more than a small trough between two hills. Here my mother’s croft, and Gran’s, and Mina’s, are all within a mile of each other. I would like to go over to Mina and Gran’s and see if they need any help gathering herbs or tying them into bunches to dry, but I know that I must go to my own croft and get the soap frommy mother to wash my skirt.

I open the gate in the rough brushwood fence that keeps the deer from pillaging our garden, and run to the door of the croft.

My mother is holding my littlest sister, Elana, on one hip, while she stirs the stew over the fire. Elana is starting to fuss and search through my mother’s clothes to find the lunch that is more to her liking.

“What did you find?” my mother asks, and then turns to look at me. “Fiona!” she cries in dismay. “Are you a child or a frog?”

I shrug, regretfully, showing her my muddy but otherwise empty hands.

“McTavish’s mean old goat tried to butt us again,” I say. “I hit him in the nose but we lost the potherbs in the mud when I fell down. Annie was scared and dropped hers too.”

Elana starts to cry. Mother gives her a breast and sits on the bench, obviously tired.

“Fiona, go stir the pot-no, wait-go wash your hands. And take off those filthy clothes and put on your other skirt. After lunch you can go wash that one. Leave it outside for now.”

“Can I go see Gran later?” I beg.

“Not today. I’ve had you out long enough and I’m needing your help.” She hands me the baby. “Go change the baby. You can take her naps down to the stream when you take your skirt and get them all clean for me.”

“Ohhh-” my shoulders slump. If there is anything I hate worse than sewing, it is cleaning baby naps. “That is the most disgusting task in the world!” I complain.

“Aye, so it is,” Mother says briskly. “And the one that needs the most doing.”

After lunch, Eostre and I carry a load of dirty nappies down to the river to be washed. Soon my hands are red from the harsh soap and the cold water and my back hurts from carrying the heavy load and pounding it over and over again with heavy rocks to get out the stains. I think longingly of when I will again be able to visit with Gran and Mina, asking them questions and watching the magic work they do that is so much more exciting than the drudgery of cooking and cleaning and sewing that my mother does. “When I grow up, I’m not having babies,” I mutter rebelliously. I think of my mother’s fat belly and how she has told me that soon there will be yet another little one sharing our croft.

“I’m cold,” Eostre complains. She puts her red hands on her thighs and sits there pouting, blue eyes reflecting the sky, blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders.

“Aye, leave it all to me,” I grumble, brushing a strand of crirnson hair out of my face. Four year olds are useless. I sigh with exasperation at how muddy my clean skirt has become while washing the old one.

When I grow up, I think to myself firmly, I will not have children. I will learn everything Gran and Mina know about herbs, everything Sarah knows about helping babies come. And whatever the men in the coven know, yes I’ll learn that too. And when I walk by, people in the village will nod to me and drop their eyes as they do with Gran. And Annie and I will live right close to each other like Mina and Gran do and we shall play together whenever we like without anyone’s aye or nay to decide for us.

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