Hal summons a witch...
Hal lit a beeswax candle, and watched the flame fatten until it pressed the shadows into the dull, black, velvet lining of the room. He took a piece of chalk hewn from the Wiltshire hills, rolled back the rug, and drew a circle on the bare boards. Around this, he sprinkled a circle of rough salt.
The faint sigh of the wind and the distant beat of surf touched Hal’s ears, but apart from these sounds of nature, all was silent. Should he continue? There was still time to sweep away the salt and chalk, to replace the rug and be gone from here. But no; he had come so far, paid so much, and soon the future would be in his grasp.
Wrinkling his nose in distaste, Hal opened a crock of burned bones. He ground them to a powder with a pestle, moistened them with blood from a pouch, and then, dipping his forefinger repeatedly in the mass, he drew a third circle that enclosed the others.
His hands shook a little as he placed the candlestick on a plinth, where it illuminated a single sheet of vellum.
“I paid dearly for this,” he said, his voice muffled by the velvet hangings. His fingertip felt soiled, so he scrubbed it against the skirt of his robe.
The inscription was simple, but Hal rehearsed it in his mind before he dared to speak it aloud. He was aware of the dangers faced by those who wilfully disturbed the dead.
“By fire do I call thee out of the dark,” he said.
His breath made the candle waver, and shadows fled across the vellum.
“By blood and by bone do I restore thee to this world,” he continued. “By salt do I pay thee, and by ancient chalk do I bind thee to the earth.”
He paused for a moment and then, taking care not to scuff any of the circles of protection, he lit a second candle. This one was of tallow, and when he set it within the circle, it poured forth a stream of black smoke.
The magician swayed back to snatch fresh air into his lungs, fearing to cough and despatch the flame prematurely. His eyes watered, and he dabbed them with a corner of his robe. When his vision cleared, he saw the smoke had thickened into a roiling column, which now began to sculpt itself into a semblance of a woman’s figure.
Hal drew a wand of peeled rowan from his robes, and held it out towards the figure. “Name thyself.”
Dark eyes stared at him from the shroud of smoke. “Aye? And why wouldst I?” The voice held peat and heather, smoke and sheep and a hint of burning leaves.
“I command thee,” said Hal. “By fire have I called thee out of the dark, by blood and by bone have I restored thee to this world. By salt have I paid thee, and by ancient chalk have I bound thee to the earth. Name thyself.”
“Aye, aye,” said the witch. “But ‘tis not thy blood, man, but the blood o’ some slaughtered beast. Dost take me for a cow?”
Hal stepped back, startled by the vigour of her voice.
The witch laughed. “Hedge wizards still ape their betters, I see. Hast thou a bit o’ bread to stay my hunger, man?”
Hal glanced at the vellum. It said nothing of bread. Nor did it suggest the blood must be human. He raised the wand in a commanding manner.
“Rowan, is’t?” The witch stretched forth her hand as if to touch the wand. The smoke-formed sleeve fell back from an oddly graceful wrist and bird-boned fingers. “Such may scare the goodfolk, but not such as me,” she said. “Hast thou ale?”
Hal shook his head.
“A’well, a’well,” mocked the witch. “Thou shouldst beg my name when thou hast nothing to offer?”
“By salt have I paid thee,” reminded Hal.
“Salt is no use without good mutton,” returned the witch. She looked at him with open speculation, and Hal noted that her form had firmed, and that the grey smoke hue was flushing with the colours of life. She sniffed the air. “Faugh, the stink of tallow is no’ so fair. Couldst thou not have fetched me wi’ good beeswax?”
“Thy name?” snapped Hal.
“I was Margaret Murdoch, but folk did call me Maggie o’ the glen, or Red Meg.” The witch waved her hand. “And thou, hedge wizard? How art thou called?”
“Hal.” He took a third candle from the bosom of his robe, impaled it on the wand, and thrust it carefully into the circles. The wicks of tallow and beeswax brushed, and a clear yellow flame rose beside the dull red.
“I do thank thee, Hal,” said Maggie. Bending gracefully, she snuffed the tallow candle, and then gave a lissom stretch. She grinned at Hal, and he saw her clearly for the first time as a young woman clad in green homespun. A raw wool shawl crossed her breast, and her hair was red. A few freckles peppered her cheeks, and her eyes, now tawny hazel, smiled. “Bread?” she reminded him. “Ale?”
“I have none,” said Hal.
“Mutton? A sup o’ milk?” suggested Maggie.
Hal felt in his robe, foolishly, as if a mutton bone might have materialised within the folds. All he found was an apple, stowed there during his journey to this place. He drew it out, and tossed it to the witch, who beamed, polished it on her shawl and ate it with relish.
“I do thank thee for thy kindness,” she said, flipping the core back in his direction. “And now to business, Hal o’ the hedge. What wouldst thou ask o’ Maggie? A kiss?” She leaned forward and pursed her lips, still gleaming with the juice of the apple.
“It is tempting,” said Hal, “but no. It is for my son I am concerned, Maggie. Do good things lie in his future?”
Maggie composed herself. “Should I scry thus for thee the future canna be broken,” she warned. “Nor shall I stand to be blamed.”
“I understand,” said Hal. “You will read the future, but you cannot change it.”
“Then thou understandest more than most rude folk o’ the glens,” said Maggie. “Perhaps thou’rt no’ such a hedge wizard after all?”
“I seek only peace of mind.”
“Then must we hope the future is fair. Hold the candle close, Hal, so I may scry wi’ the flame.”
Inclining his head, Hal lifted the candle from the plinth, and stepped towards the circle.
“Take care,” said Maggie with another grin. “Such a wicked one as I might seek thy soul shouldst thou venture wi’in the circle.” She leaned forward and focused on the flame. “Thy son’s name?” she murmured.
“Connor,” said Hal.
“A goodly name. My man did bear it. Now, hush, good Hal, while I part the veil.”
Silence fell as the witch peered into the candle flame. After a time, she drew back, pulling her shawl about her and wetting her lips. “No more,” she said, and blew out the candle.
“What did – didst thou see?” begged Hal.
“Nothing good, I fear.” Maggie’s mouth drooped. “Wouldst I had better tidings for thee, man, for thou hast treated me fairly.”
“Tell me.” Hal set the smoking candle back on the plinth.
“Thy son, good Hal, shalt be wed to a woman who doth fly by night, and who hath talons of black. In his nose shall she set a ring of silver, and her voice, it shalt sound in his ear no matter the leagues that between them lie.”
Hal drew a long breath.
“Now shalt thou curse the day thy brought Maggie forth fro’ her sleep,” mourned the witch.
“No, Maggie.” Hal smiled. “You have told me just what I needed to hear. All will be well.”
Maggie cocked her head. “Thy words ring right strangely,” she said.
“I daresay,” said Hal. “I shalt send thee back now, sweet Maggie. Sleep well.” He leaned forward, kissed his fingers to the witch and let the puff of breath carry the kiss and the yellow flame into oblivion.
The sudden darkness startled Hal. He stumbled back, bumped into something hard and pitched backwards, banging his head on the floor.
“Darn!” Screwing up his face with discomfort, he groped about until he found the matches. He struck one and made his way over to the light switch, then exclaimed in distaste. On the floor lay a mass of grease and soot, chalk, melted wax, and blood. The plinth had toppled, and now the vellum lay face down in the mess. Only a neatly gnawed apple core had survived the carnage.
“Ugh,” said Hal. He pulled off his robe and wadded it up to sop the worst of the filth from the floor. He estimated that it would take at least an hour of scrubbing before the room was fit to be seen, but the rug would hide any lingering stains, and with luck his wife would never question his urge to set up a darkroom in their holiday house.
His face was rueful as he lifted the ruined vellum. He had gone well above his original bid on E-Bay to win that and now look at it! Belatedly, he remembered the robe had come from the costume hire place a week before. He really shouldn’t have been using it as a floor cloth.
“Blast!” said Hal, rubbing his head. Then he smiled, because it had all been worthwhile. Now he knew Connor would marry his beautiful pilot fiancée after all. Lack of communication would never be a problem so long as they had their mobile phones. As for the silver ring in the nose… a couple of Goths like Connor and Tandy could never be expected to wear gold rings on their fingers just like anybody else.
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