Outside in the warm, still evening they walked arm in arm, both carrying panniers, and Elfrida shared what she knew of the stranger with Magnus. He in turn told her what he had learned of Rowena from the priest. It was, she thought, strangely companionable, but she wished they were speaking of less dark, mysterious matters.
“Valerian is a magic plant,” she explained, skirting carefully around a flowering elder bush. “It has many uses. One is as a lure. To seduce.”
“And the hare’s foot?” Magnus nodded to the elder bush as he stalked by, a grudging acknowledgement. “The rosemary I know from you is a guardian against evil spirits, so is that good?”
“Because he protects himself from demons and the like does not mean he is not evil himself.”
“Well spoken! The stranger’s mention of a Holy Mother?”
“The hare protects him from all danger. It is a creature of magic. The mother he reveres may be the Virgin, but he worships her in older ways.”
Magnus raised his black brows in silent inquiry.
“The wreath he leaves in thanks and sacrifice, of valerian and elder blossom, marigold, wild thyme and daisy, is made of flowers pleasing to the older gods. I have seen such posies left at ancient standing stones and statues, at rock carvings of the horned god.”
Her striding companion crossed himself. “Rowena is very pretty, so Father Jerome tells me.”
Elfrida nodded, unsurprised. “And docile, too?”
“Indeed. The priest claims they had no notion she might be in any way unhappy at being mewed up in a nunnery.” He scowled, his fingers tightening on his pannier.
“I have heard she is a kind, easy child, but I do not like it, either,” Elfrida admitted. “Would you be more sanguine if she was ill-favored?”
“Not a bit!” He glowered at her. “Do not think to test me, elfling, not this evening, at least. Even without your plan to go star-clad, I like these matters less and less. Do you know what family the Lady Astrid and Rowena are part of? The Gifford clan! Mighty and proud and wealthy.”
“So why do they ask us for help? Why wait five days to ask?”
“Indeed! The ride from Warren Bruer is less than a day, but with haste they could have raced here in hours.”
“So why not come sooner and then we can begin a search? Laggardly, then,” Elfrida observed. “Contradictory.”
“Snail slow, and I agree, contrary. And for the rest”—Magnus puffed out his cheeks—“to them I am a middling landowner and you, I am sorry to say, are utterly beneath notice, in their eyes. They should have far stronger allies than us to draw on.”
“Unless they fear those allies.”
“Do they seem frightened to you?”
Elfrida pointed to a vigorous thicket of hazel coppice and considered as they closed on the straight and slender hazel poles. “The lady is irked, certainly, but I sense no dread from her, only displeasure.”
“At the interruption onto her well-ordered life.”
Trailing a hand across the bright green leaves of the nearest hazel, Elfrida felt a raw sadness, a sense of unrequited loss. “Rowena seems an agreeable child, yet for all that unmissed. Were any of these girls missed?”
“Perhaps the Giffords do not want her found. Perhaps none of the families—” Magnus stopped and cursed, spitting to the right against ill-luck. “That is foul!”
Placing a palm over his heart, Elfrida found it beating hard with rage, the indignation that was absent from both Lady Astrid and Father Jerome. “The moon is rising. I must make ready.”
He swept her against him in a rib-crushing embrace. “Prepare well. I shall keep watch.”
“I know.” Wishing to offer words of hope and resolution, Elfrida found herself saying, “We should talk to the maids of your latest guests, the maids and their servants and grooms.”
Magnus’s grin blazed in his tanned face. “Maybe they have brought a laundress with them after all.” He released her and stepped back with a bow, turning to face the way they had come.
Keeping watch, as he promised.
Satisfied, keeping a steady grip on her pannier, she wove through the close-growing hazels into the very heart of the stand.
* * * *
His wife’s magic was often secret. Magnus respected it, since only a fool would set out to deliberately anger a witch. Remembering their early, fierce quarrels, he strove to let her be, to work at whatever she must be doing behind that curtain of crisscrossed leaves and branches.
But it was so hard! To let his woman step between the worlds as she did—it was brutal. What spirits and demons might she have to face? All he could do was guard her body and he would do that well, indeed, but to wait, only wait…
I feel useless.
She is the warrior of magic.
So? Forbid her. Now Lady Astrid was whispering in his aching head. Get her with child.
* * * *
Using two leafy hazel twigs as divining rods, Elfrida knelt in the small, bluebell-filled knoll in the middle of the hazels. She was naked, her hair loosened, her feet bare. A slither of a breeze touched her belly like a hot tongue. Distracted, thinking of Magnus waiting just beyond the leafy curtain, imagining his tongue against her skin, she wished the breeze away.
“Help me.” Praying to the Virgin, to the mother, she held the rods over Rowena’s headdress. Her eyes blurred as she stared at the simple hand-stitched daisies on the yellow cloth, willing herself to search.
“Let these rods divine the treasure I seek,” she said aloud, rising to her feet and circling the pinned cloth, moving sun-wise and then widdershins. The twigs dipped and trembled in her numbing fingers but did not cross.
“Show me!” she whispered, thinking of a dainty, pretty dark-haired girl. “I offer blood as payment.”
She had a knife made of flint, an ancient blade, given to her by her mother. Tucking the twigs into her mass of hair, she slashed the sharp stone across her palm, clenching her fist to make the cut bleed fast.
“I offer sweet as payment.” Magnus had brought a flask of mead for them to share and she had begged him for it. Dripping the liquor close to the yellow cloth, she felt a prickling between her shoulders.
No mortal comes, but the wood elves are close.
“I offer a wheat girl as payment.” She tucked the corn dolly, one she had made from her own lands while she was yet a maiden, between the lush grass stems. The tiny golden figure looked to be sleeping in a green bed.
Green and gold, the colors of spring and summer, blended before her eyes, swirling and dancing in a wild spiral. She danced, too, following the spiral, beating the dry grasses with her heels, tossing her hair, lifting her arms.
"A Summer Bewitchment" is available in print and ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookstrand and many other sellers. It is the second novel in the "Knight and His Witch" series, the first novel being "The Snow Bride".