Jewels in Time
“The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and when obeyed.”
Brianna picked up the stick of charcoal that she had sharpened to a point at one end, and scratched the words of the magic spell on a scrap of birch bark. She lit a new candle and burned the writing, allowing the ashes to fall. Gone but not gone. Using her right hand, she swept the ashes off the table into her left, following the instructions of the spell to the letter. Now she could eat. The ritual had required her to fast for twelve hours, sundown to sun-up. And she had not slept. That was another requirement. To stay awake and open oneself to the night.
A bird chirped once in a nearby tree, and a faint glow appeared in the eastern sky. Dawn was not far away. She had nearly completed the magic spell, the spell her mother had taught her to use to ask for help. Brianna stood and stretched, wrapped her arms around her body and bent from side to side to stretch her stiff muscles. The ritual was over, and the next phase of her life was about to begin. She added kindling to the embers in the hearth and stood watching as the flames caught, blazed up, and steadied. She felt tired but strong. She knew she needed to sleep, but not yet. It was the first time she had completed a spell her mother Marged had taught her, in one of the rare moments when she had provided serious instruction in magic to her daughter. Mostly they had played with magic, and Brianna did some of that herself. When she was too lazy to sweep the floor, for example, she used a simple cleaning spell to do the work. Now her mother was gone, and Brianna needed help, if she was not to suffer the fate of many women suspected of witchcraft.
The young girl wiped the tears off her cheeks, the tears that welled up so often these days. She understood the danger, and why her mother had gone. She was the daughter of a witch, although she had never been accused of witchcraft herself. Still it hurt that Marged had gone without telling her, or even saying goodbye. Once morning when Brianna rose from her bed, she found she was alone.
She dished out a small bowl of porridge from the pot hanging in the hearth. The heat of the embers had kept it warm through the night. She added a little honey for taste and energy and sat at the wooden table, where she had eaten simple meals with her mother for so many years. When she finished, Brianna washed her face in the basin of water she had brought in the night before, brushed her teeth with a twig, and pulled her curly light brown hair back from her face with a leather band. She stepped out the door of the cottage, eager for the gifts of the day, and gazed out at the village where she had been born and spent the thirteen years of her life. Smoke curled from a few chimneys. She walked the length of the village’s only street at a deliberate pace, turned around at the far edge of the village and strode back again, slower this time. She saw no one, only a couple of dogs. Something must be wrong. This was the first time she had worked a serious spell on her own, and it was easy to make errors with no one to guide her. Not for the first time, she wished for her mother’s help. Brianna was sure she had followed the instructions from her mother’s book of spells to the letter. She came out at first light and walked. The first person she saw was supposed to be the one who would help her, but there was no one. Did the spell not work? Had she made a mistake? Should she walk through the village again?
As she stood in the dawn light wondering what to do next, a sound made her turn back toward the open door of her cottage. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the interior, she saw a woman sitting at her kitchen table. The shape of her face and tilt of her head reminded Brianna of her mother, but the woman’s hair was red, streaked with gray. She wore it loose, hanging just below her shoulders, and secured off her forehead with a black velvet band. The simplicity of the band contrasted sharply with the rest of the woman’s clothing. She wore a full skirt that reached to the floor. The skirt was of a gauzy material with an elaborate floral design in rose and blue that looked like it was based on a design from the East, such as those brought back by the Crusaders. The fabric sparkled as if studded with gems, blue, red, and blazing white that forced Brianna to shield her eyes from the brightness. The bodice appeared to be soft as lamb’s wool, and colored a pale blue gray, or was it green? Brianna blinked and the garment was pink. It was magic, or the early morning light was playing tricks with her eyes. The woman was knitting a bright, bold design that clashed with the vivid colors of her skirt; the finished portion fell down across her lap and brushed the floor. She looked up, and her emerald green eyes met Brianna’s blue ones, but she said nothing. Her expression was calm, and a slight smile played around her lips. Her fingers continued to move, forming the stitches from memory, the pattern residing in her fingers more than her mind.
Brianna spoke. “You’re not my mother.”
The woman’s fingers slowed ever so slightly. “No, I’m not. Your mother disappeared as you know. You will never see her again in this world. My name is Andera. I was told you needed help, and so I came.” She stopped knitting and set her work on the table. A large orange cat that Brianna had not noticed before raised his head from where he dozed on the other end of the rough wooden table. He gazed at the pile of vibrantly-hued yarn, but seemed to decide that playing with it was not worth the effort, as he lowered his head once more to rest on his paws, large like the rest of him.
“It is not a coincidence that we resemble each other, Brianna. I am your mother’s sister.” She looked around as if searching for something, and then returned her gaze to her niece, who still stood silhouetted in the doorway. Andera picked up her knitting again. “Come join me. I know you must be exhausted after being up all night. Yes, of course I know that you were up all night creating magic,” she added at Brianna’s surprised look.
Dropping the shawl that she had worn to ward off the early morning chill, Brianna sat on the chair across from Andera and automatically reached out her hand to stroke the sleeping cat. He raised his head and looked at her before going back to sleep. Andera smiled. “Did your mother tell you she had a sister?”
“Yes, but she didn’t like to talk about her family. She said that if she had her way, I would never meet you.” Brianna’s face reddened as she said the last words. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No offense.” Andera frowned at her stitches, stopped to count before her fingers began to move again. “Your mother had her reasons for what she did. But I am here now to guide you on the next part of your journey. Let’s have a brief talk about your troubles, and then I think you need to sleep. While you are resting, I will prepare something for you to eat later. Do you want something to drink now?” Andera looked around the kitchen, and was satisfied that cooking supplies were ready and available.
“No.” Brianna yawned. “You are right. I need to sleep.” She looked down at the table, away from the direct gaze of the green eyes that challenged her to speak about why she had summoned help. “I thought it would be someone in the village who would help me,” she said at last, still studying the surface of the table, her fingertips tracing the grain of the wood.
“Help rarely comes from where we expect it.” Andera held up the length of knitting, nodded as if satisfied with her progress, and continued with the stitches. “You should know that.”
The girl smiled. “Yes. I do know that. I’ve been in this narrow village world too long. That’s why I asked for help.”
“You want to leave the village?”
“Not necessarily. There are many things about the village that I love.” Brianna looked up now, meeting the green eyes fearlessly. “I love the sea. I love the fens. I love the quiet and the calls of the birds. I love the early morning. I love when people treat me with friendship, but that doesn’t often happen now.” She lowered her eyes and twisted the edge of her sleeve with her fingers.
“Because the villagers don’t trust me.” Brianna looked down at the table, and reached out again to the cat who had raised his head to look at her.
Andera watched the girl. “By the way, the cat’s name is Orangino. He is your cat.”
“My cat?” Brianna withdrew her hand in surprise, but then renewed her rubbing of Orangino’s head. He bent his neck in appreciation of her gentle touch.
“Yes. You need him. He will be your friend in your loneliness. And he will be your protection.” Andera set her knitting aside, taking care to tuck the loose strands of yarn away out of Orangino’s reach. “You say you aren’t trusted by the villagers, although you are one of the villagers yourself. You have lived here all your life. But you are right. I sense danger here.”
Brianna covered her face with her hands. Her fingers were long and slender and her skin soft, in spite of the cold and the work she performed daily. She was meticulous about massaging lotion into her skin several times a day. Andera touched the younger woman’s hand. Her hands, too, were smooth and soft, the skin supple. She resembled Brianna’s mother in that sense, too, but Marged rarely sat so still and in such serenity as Andera did. “I need to go soon, Brianna.” Her voice was soft, like lamb’s wool against her cheek. “But I will return. And you will receive other helpers along the way.”
“But what can I do? You said I am in danger.” Brianna raised her head. Her eyes brimmed with tears, changing the blue to silver. She was just beginning to trust this woman, and now she said she was leaving.
Andera’s gaze swept around the small cottage. She knew it well. Her magical sight had allowed her to watch her niece before her appearance in the cottage that morning. The home that Brianna and her mother Marged had shared consisted of one main room, where the occupants cooked, ate their meals, and did their daily work. One corner held a sleeping mat; that was where Brianna’s mother had slept, and Brianna with her until she had grown too big to share a sleeping space with her mother. A ladder led to a small loft room, which had become Brianna’s own. She continued to sleep there after her mother disappeared. The girl often sat in her loft to look out over her village. She had no glass in her window, of course. Only the very wealthy could afford glass, but she opened the small window space as often as she could. “Your house is protected. I saw to that before you returned from your walk. As long as you remain in the house nothing can happen.”
“But I have to leave sometime. I will need to buy food – and people will think it strange that I don’t go out. They already suspect me of being a witch. What will they think when I close myself up in my house?” Her voice had escalated in a shrill crescendo that caused Orangino to curl his front paw over his ear.
“Brianna.” Andera spoke barely above a whisper to quiet Brianna’s fear. “You have just shown me your weakness. It is not that you have made a mistake in your dealings with the villagers. It is not that you are afraid. Your weakness is that you doubt your own abilities. You must not be afraid to be strong.
“You know as well as I do the source of your strength. You have no more magic within you than anyone else in this village. The difference is that you believe in your magic. If you allow yourself to doubt, you will succumb to the danger.” Andera touched the tender flesh of Brianna’s inner wrist with one slender forefinger, and a tiny eight-pointed star appeared. “This will remind you to remain firm.”
Brianna rubbed her forefinger over the small tattoo. The spot stung, just like the tattoo on her shoulder that had been applied with a needle. Her mother had given her that one when she turned thirteen. The small triangle symbolized strength, her mother said, just like her name.
“And remember to rest.” Andera was stowing her knitting away in a canvas bag, preparing to leave. “That is one thing that Orangino is very good at teaching. Cats know how to rest. They know how restorative sleep is.” The older woman stood, removed a heavy gray cloak from the back of the chair and wrapped it around her shoulders. With her brightly colored, ever-changing costume covered, she looked just like any village woman. “Find value in the quiet times – early in the morning and late at night. Remain in your house for one day. This time tomorrow, you may go out among the villagers and complete your errands. That will allow time for your magic to build. Leave before that time and you put yourself at risk.” She caressed Orangino’s head and smiled. “Orangino will take care of you. He knows the rules.”
Brianna was about to say, What rules? when Andera turned and walked briskly out the door. Brianna thought of calling to her, for she left the door wide open, but the woman was walking with long strides to the street and down the road into the village. Three men were walking toward her on their way to the fields, laughing among themselves. They did not so much as glance at Andera. Brianna realized that they couldn’t see her. She was cloaked in invisibility.