Extract

crow

At sunset the rooks murder on the hill

Winchester, capital of Anglia: 1838

A burst of air chilled the dampness on My Lady’s face and her sight dimmed as though a great abyss had opened beneath her feet. The feeling lasted but a second and with her grip firm upon the bronze knife she cut into the bark of the holly tree, once, twice, to expose the living wood and make the mark complete. Her heart had not moved.
          She knew her craft and made me well. Stone-dark and ice-wind, she welcomed me, despite the shiver in her flesh, and this is what I found. Love received is the scent of the rose, but spurned, disregarded, mocked, it is the flesher’s knife and within her breast My Lady felt only a semblance of life, for where the life should be the knife had done its work and she was empty, save for desire to be revenged. Her throat ached, cruel as a pinch, and she sniffed and cuffed her dripping nose. Her eyes, at least, were dry now but two salt streaks showed the path of tears.
          And I? I knew her desire for vengeance would pass, leaving me unwanted and orphaned. From my birth I knew life was indifferent to those to whom it gives and those from whom it takes and a just God is but a necessary dream.
          Through My Lady’s eyes, I saw a city suspended in a bowl of hills. Beyond it, the sun dipped to the horizon. Windows glowed, carriage lamps made darting runs, like fireflies, and a ship’s lantern crawled seaward on the navigation. There was shadow pricked by flame, while about My Lady the walls of the ruined chapel and the oak trees blazed in the saffron of the dying sun. Yet in her heart was darkness: she was falling and could not help herself from falling; the physicality of her act, slight as it was, the cutting of runes and blood-marking, lay out of her will. She did not truly desire this moment but drank, knowingly, from the poisoned cup for she could not endure her thirst.
          I heard, through her ears, only the shriek of rooks circling the hill and the tolling of a street crier’s bell. I find the names of things in her thoughts. The city is Winchester; there is the Minster’s spire, the many-towered building is The Tower, there is the Merchant Hall, the Bishop’s Palace, Saint Cross Road, and this hill is St Catherine’s, this ruin St Catherine’s Chapel.
          And her name? Her own name is denied her for she hears it still upon his lips, so I shall call her My Lady of Remorse.
          Those of ordinary means seek to build a wall against their hurt and troubles, but that was not My Lady’s way. As any heart-broken, spurned through another’s act or lack of act, she had resorted to her strongest suit and with My Lady, this was enchantment, gramarye, magick, and she conjured not a wall but a weapon of revenge: Me.
          Yet these thoughts lay behind her deed; they were the storms casting the wave, not the wave itself, and in the moment of its breaking, in the moment of my making, what filled her mind was but one overwhelming impulse:
          ‘I cannot live, I cannot breath – unless by this.’
          The mark she cut is in the shadow cast by the tree and My Lady lit a candle stub to examine her work. Each cut she measured with the back of her knife and compared it to a drawing in her book. As she worked, she did not notice the book’s worn, irregular type, or the machine-sewn binding or the flimsiness of the paper, though she did recall the hooked face of the bookseller from whom she stole it. Then she opened a white silk kerchief. Stained only with her tears, one corner had in blue embroidery two initials interlinked like serpents. In this she gathered the strands of bark cut from the tree and tied them into a bundle.
          The instructions clear in her mind, My Lady reached into her bag, drew out a bottle of dark green glass and removed its stopper. She poured half the contents over the handkerchief and the remainder across the bindrune. Sealed with moonblood, nothing could unbind these runes: cut the tree down, burn it, scatter the ashes, the runes had summoned the curse. She would be the vessel of the curse, the poisoned cup, she would pass it to the one who betrayed her, and in time, he would pass it to his firstborn son. An innocent would suffer but she was blind, thinking only the guilty must suffer for the hurt he caused. A hollow scraped between the roots, My Lady buried the handkerchief with its fragments of bark concealed within.
          The act was irredeemable as murder and perhaps she was aware of this as she gathered the book and the now empty bottle into her bag; by removing her tools from sight she was also one part removed from what they had made, and she would hide it also, hide the mark upon the tree. Working quickly now, she scribed Mann, the holly rune above the bindrune and Beorc, the concealment rune, below, whereupon the marks faded to leave only a dark stain on the trunk. She had chosen the tree with care. Its roots tunnelled into a crack in the rock, drawing strength from the purest form of earth and each green spike of leaf wove power from the wind. She took one of its whip-thin branches in hand and stood at the edge of the cliff, swaying gently. The ground below called to her, its song a lullaby, an enchantment offering perpetual sleep, but she would not give it satisfaction, not yet. Clouds hung grey and violet against the azure of the evening and overhead the first stars disturbed the heavens. The rooks had ceased their chatter and settled for the night and from a square down in the city My Lady heard a band playing marching music: either ‘Napoleon’s Retreat’, or ‘Hussar’s Hurrah’, for the tune came only to her in fragments, and the foolish rhythm and discordant horns made her smile even though her heart wanted silence.
          Later, when the sky had darkened to a violet bruise, and the Minster bell tolled nine and the band returned to their barracks, My Lady’s thoughts turned to leaving. Though she carried me in her breast, a weight had lifted from her as though she had climbed to a great height and from it seen the farther view and thought it sweet. She knew the path home even in the dark, but doubted she would need the knowledge again. She could not see herself returning to this place, not ever, and her back turned upon the dusk, she walked into the darkling wood.


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