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Trampoline: Stories

A Crowd of Bone
Greer Gilman

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Trampoline: an anthology, edited by Kelly Link.Margaret, do you see the leaves? They flutter, falling. See, they light about you, red and yellow. I am spelling this in leaves. When I had eyes and hands, and hair as red as leaves, I was Thea. My mother fed me to her crows, she burned my bones and scattered them; my braided hair she keeps. I am wind and memory who spells this; Thea who is spelled is stone. My mother got me gazing in her glass. Her raven held it up and told her: what I tell you, you must do. Undo, the sly moon said. And so she did, undid. Annis was herself her glass, and I her shadow, A and O. She saw me in the stony mirror, naked as a branch of thorn. Devouring, she bore me, as the old moon bears the new, itself again. But I am left hand to her right: not waning, but the childing moon. The dark has eaten me; I bear it light. I cloak myself in leaves, I fly. The wind unspells this.

I will spell this in the sliding water on a web. At my birth, the Necklace had its rising, Annis' chain of stones. But they do give it other names above, that Elsewhere it had set. The Skein, they call it in the Cloudish tongue; in Lune, the Misselbough; that cloud of stars we name the Clasp, they call Nine Weaving, or the Clew. So I did write when I had hands and learned to cipher and to spell. When I had eyes, I saw another heavens through her glass, another world. I walk there now and gather lightwebs, plucking them from thorns of night; I spin them in a skein, a clew. The dark is labyrinth, but not the maze I thought I knew. I wander like a moon. See, Margaret, how the heavens dance, they dance between my hands. When I had eyes, I thought my seeing bound the stars; I knew the Cup, the Hallows Tree, the Ship, as if my naming them were law. There is another law. The stars are messengers; their shining comes from far and farther still, from hearths long cold. Walking, I have seen the hearths beyond the stars, like ashes on a dark hill. But the stars that travel, they are dark and bright, like travellers with scarves of light, like beings newly blown of crystal, each a single note, nightblack, and rayed with burning silver. Their moving is their voice; they do not speak, but dance. Ah, now the drops of water slide away. The web is shaken bare.

I tell this in the frost, the rime. I am not for my mother's necklace. Margaret, have you seen it? It is strung with stones, all flawed: some round as waveworn pebbles, others long and sharpedged. They are souls, the souls of witches, cold long since: the eldest of them ash these nine thousand years. Witches turn themselves to stone. Their gaze is glass. But they are isolate, unknotted souls: they dance by one and one. The necklace is an eidolon, a ring that never was. The souls are gathered on one string, as shadows of the starry Chain. That cord is time; the knot is Law. It is a place. I lay there once, a white ground where the blood is spilled, a place of bones and coins. All witches came there, bent on darkness; none had met. They spelled in blood, cast bones; they spoke in tongues of fire. There are witches still in Lune, on Law. Yet none is living that could read the word my ashes spelled; nor find the nine bones that I left.

*

Beyond the circle of Whin's light, the sea moves, sleepless in its heavy gown. She walks beside it slowly, toward, away. And to her, from her, endlessly it shifts the longways of its slow pavane. Within her candle's burr, sparse flakes of snow blink, vanish. There is nothing there to see. Salt rime and shingle. Sea wrack. Stones, a curve of jetty, tumbled in a storm. Sticks and weed. They stir. A wave? They draw breath, harshly. The lantern swings and halts.

In the dark, a white face, staring: a man, all bone and shivering, three-quarters drowned. "Who's there?" he tries to call. Whin sets the lantern down. "A journeyman," she says. "A traveller." He sprawls against the stonework, tangled in an iron ring; the next wave frets at him, the next. His coat is gone, his head and feet are bare. A stranger out of Lune, thinks Whin. Uncloudish. Yet he bids her by her calling. "Ashes?" At his throat he wears a skin bag, smaller than a purse. His hands are white past bleeding, bruised; he signs to her, take this. She fumbles with the knots, she bites at them and tumbles out his hoard: cold rings.

"Will you tell a death?"

They are silver and endless on her hard brown palm. White stones like frost. A knot of blood. "Could yer not sell them?"

"None would take. No ship. They -- "

"Throwed yer over? I see yer to hang."

He shudders. "It is not my passage that I seek."

"A fire," says Whin. "And drink ye. I'd not shift stones for yer grave."

She squats beside him, lugs him further up the strand. Stripping off his icy rags, she laps him in the old coat, black as nightfall, stiff as death. He'd not starve yet. She leaves him hallowed in the lantern's fleet.

There's wood enough, but sodden. Whin flings the heavy, takes the dry stuff, salt with frost. She stacks it, leeward of a quain of rock; strikes, kindles, drives her iron for the can. Waiting for the blaze, she chafes the stranger, lays him naked to her breast: blue hands, bruised feet, his starved and wrinkled cock and balls, his belly, slack against his spine, until the blood runs shining, sheeting on his dazed white face. The fire leaps. A boy, for all his haggard look. His eyes are sunken, shut; his beard is soft. Not twenty. Younger than herself. She lays him, not ungently, on the stones.

"Not sleep," he whispers. "Tell."

"Drink." The ale in the can's hot; she stirs a slurry of meal in, a scrape off her knuckled ginger. Strong. She holds it to his lips.

"Tell."

Whin drinks. "I will then." She turns the cold rings on her hand. They are silver and endless; they are night, moon, mourning. They would weigh her down. Whin sees the pale boat waiting and the soul that bellies in the dark wind, quick with death; the telling is the shroud that stays it, that the soul can journey. Let her go.

It's what I is. Death's midwife.

And she sets the first ring on.

O death. She sees the wheel hurled downward, burning, and the scattered crows. She sees a white wrist circled with a braid of burning hair, a bluenailed hand; it casts, it casts a blackness on the stony ground. Shards of witchglass, ashes of bone.

And she herself is scattered and restrung. She is the crowd of bone, the dead soul's stringing, and her voice.

Whin's hand is beating, beating on the earth. She sings.

It's in an outland tongue at first, a dancing driving lilt, a skirl and keening; then the tongue's her own. There are pools in the river, and the river calls him. All white in whiteness where it rises; swift in running, deepest where the red leaf eddies in the pool. Whorl and headlong, she sings the river's journey: glint and shadow, dint of rain, the running to the downfall and the shivered bow of light.

No more.

Even as she wakes from trance, the ring is ice, is water. Gone.

She sees the fire, sunken into embers; sees the drawn face staring. Far beyond, the sea shifts, turning its sleepless bed. Far gone.

"The child," he whispers.

Ah. The child. Whin presses at her eyes until the red's green as leaves, new leaves. Ashes. Ashes. See, the crows at the furrows wheel and fall, they tear at -- No. Leave off. That were back and elsewhere. A long draught of the caudle, slab with standing. Raking back her hair, salt-fretted with the roke and sweat, Whin slips the small ring on her hand.

And there is nothing. Whiteness. Round she turns, and round; she stumbles, groping for a gossamer, a clew. No thread, there is no thread. A creak of wood. A ship? And then a lalling nowhere, like a woman at her wheel; but small. Arms crossed before her face, Whin blunders at the mist. It reddens and dissolves; it dances. And she's in an empty room. She sees a cradle overset; she sees a tangle of bright silks. In the roar and crackling of thorns, she sees a burning doll, its blind face like a poppyhead, the petals like a cry.

"The child?" His voice is sharp with fear.

"Not dead."

He shuts his eyes. "Ah."

Whin slips the small ring up her finger, rocks it with her thumb. Not dead, she'd swear it. How? Not born?

But where is here? The world is white now, greying like a ghost. Are they now lost in what she'd sung? Whin stares a moment, mutely; then she turns her palm and raises it. It fills with snow. She tastes the water in the hollow of her hand, the salt and sweet.

Bending to the man, she brushes him; she touches eyes, mouth, heart. "Thou sleep."

*

A girl is reading in a garden where no flowers grow. It is formal and mathematical, a maze, an abstract of the heavens done in yew and stone. A garden made for moonlight and for winter, changeless but for sky and snow and drifting leaves: a box of drowned green light. It is autumn now. The fountain's dry; the stone girl weeps no more. Her lap is full of leaves. The lawn is grey as gossamers with rime. The living girl's dishevelled, in a cloud of breath; she's hunched against the cold in woven velvet, wadded silk: old finery, too thin. Leaves light on her. She holds her book aslant to catch the light, and peers through cracked spectacles: ". . . one king's daughter said to another..." Her breakfast's in a napkin: cake, an orange. Costly, alien, aglow. Round she turns it in her cold lap, cradles, sniffs. Straying from her hood, her tangled hair is pale red, light through leaves; her tumbled gown is stormcloud blue. Her slipshod feet are wet. Softly as she's come, she cannot hide her track: her feet, her draggling skirts have torn the hoarfrost, tarnishing. You cannot read her face: an egg, a riddle. What is it lives within a maze, within a wall, within a hedge of thorn? And on an island, not a winter's day in riding round. Yet she's never seen the sea.

A bird cries. Margaret? Startled, she looks up and round. The orange rolls unheeded from her lap. There, back of her, a black bird flutters to the earth, as ragged as an ash. Its cry fades like a cinder, glows and fades. Bearded, it regards her with its black eye; hops and drags a mirror in the wounded frost.

*

Ah, Margaret, it was cold in Cloud, the wandering. I mind a night of frost, a white hag on the hillsides; it was all ways white, whatever way we turned. Kit bore a lantern that he dared not light; my mother's crows have eyes. Round we turned like children in a game; like tops, still giddy, lest we fall.

Here's not yet dark, he said. And none to light our heels. I hear that Will the piper's to the hedgehogs' shearing.

A cup, I said, to drink their health.

A game, said he. Wilt thou have Aprons all untied? I'll show thee. Or Cross my river to Babylon.

Light words. But doubtful mind, I thought: elated, ill at ease. What should he with this bird of paradise? I was no hedgeling to be coaxed and whistled; yet had lighted on him, haggard to his hand. Brave plumes. And trailing jesses of another's leash.

Thy candle's quenched, said I. Will I light thee another?

And willing, said he. Wouldst bear it then?

And go the lighter for't.

Then soberly he said: the bridge is drowned. I know not the way.

We stood. And all the trees beyond us like a crowd of bones. No stars. I'd never gone by night, without to see the stars. And in my mind I saw what I'd undone: my mother's chain of stones, the clasp of winter from my throat. Her chain of witches' souls. I saw them in the mist, the others in the game, caught out, cast out. They stood like stones, but clearer than the coldest night: in each, a dark witch rayed with blood; in each, the wintry stars. In the last, like an altar stone, there lay the image of a woman sleeping, with the hooked moon at her heart. She was the fell they stood upon, her hair unwreathing in a coil of cloud. This cloud. I am braided in her hair, I said, as if my mother lessoned me; and then recalling me, I touched my throat, all bare but for a scarf.

That chain was my knowledge. I put it off with my undoing and I walked unstarry in that mazing whiteness: unwitch, unmaiden and unwise. They say the moon does so. But I was never maid -- ah, Margaret, thou'rt full young to see, but thou must see. Thou know'st my mother got me in her glass. And so I was as left hand to her right. I was her make in all things hidden, and I knew as I was known. Ah, but never with an other, I had never been unknown; nor seen, as through a cloud, the hearth and shadow of another's soul. My love, we got thee all unknowing, out of cloud.

But now your breath clouds the glass: too near, you gaze too near. And so see no one in the mist: a whiteness, waning with your breath. Oh, I am all undone. My mother loosed the knot long since; she laid the chain of me aside. The soul slipped by her. White in whiteness: what I am is white.

*

"So yer run off wi' a witch's daughter?" said Whin. "Were yer mad or what?"

"Dazzled," said the man at last, and softly.

"And t' lass?" A silence, long enough so that Whin thought he slept.

"Ah. No witch. In the end."

*

Kit stood. Whatever way he turned was white, as white as nowhere.

"Thea?"

"Soft," she said. "Catch hold."

Among the standing shapes of stones, a stone put back its hood and turned. He saw her, Thea, looking back at him, her curled hand at her throat. Stumbling in the mist, he caught her and he took her cold true hand. The lantern of her hair was grey. With hag, he saw: it ghosted them. Brocaded both alike: his russet and her raiment stiff and fine with it. Her face was muffled in a scarf, the whitest at her lips. His hair, when he put it from his eyes, was hackled with frost. "Where's this?"

"Cloud," said Thea. "Is there earth?"

"I know not," he said. He looked about, bewildered, at the mist. "How came we here?"

"By ship."

He remembered; or had dreamed the like. They were in her mother's garden, in among the stones like hooded watchers and the labyrinth of yews. 'Twas dusk and shadowless, the maze, the stones configured as the starry sky. They were playing at a game with lanterns? Hide fox, and all after. How the errant star of her shone out, now there, now elsewhere in the dark. Their lamps conjoined. He saw her, still, but as a light is still, still dancing in his eyes. He kissed her -- ah, it drowned him deep, that kiss. In her, his soul translated, like a tree of fire, burning in her bluegreen dusk. Come away with me, he said, now ardent, now amazed, the words like Perseids. To Cloud. And let thy mother --

Nothing. He remembered nothing, like a sleeper waked. Cold moonlight, musty straw. A jangling, as of keys. The dream had troubled him with joy; he wore the stone of it, both bright and heavy, at his heart.

He said, bemused, "My lady sent for you. 'Twas in her closet."

"I had found a door," she said. "The sky has doors."

"And locks?"

"'Tis done. Undone."

He saw a little image, clear as in a dream: a string of stones cast by, like blood spilled on the hoary earth.

"But how -- ?"

"Thy fiddle was the ship."

Dismayed, he halted. "What?"

"'Twas wood of Cloud. It played the wind behind us."

"Ah," said Kit, and rubbed his eyes. Salt wind: it stung. "I gave it thee. And would again, were't all the sinews of my heart." And yet remembered nothing of the gift, the journey. Ship? As in a waking dream, he saw the sail of sky, bluegreen against a darker sky, all riddled with the stars. He saw the lantern at the mast. Their hands together at his lips were salt. "What tune?"

"Light leaves on water."

"Ah, it played that when its leaves were green. Waked wood." Still unsteady, his voice. That shock of severing still white, which at a thought would bleed. And so he laid light words to it, like cobwebs to a wound. He knelt to mend his lantern. "Here's a fret. 'Tis out. And I've left my flint and steel." He grimaced ruefully. "And come to that, thy book, and all. Hadst thou nothing thou wouldst take?"

"There was not time. The door stood open."

Suddenly he stood and said, "We've done it, then?"

"We do," said Thea. "Grammar."

"Ah," said Kit. "How the old crows' beaks will clack. Canst see them at their feast? Here's bones." And hopping on the ground, he cocked an eye at her, with such a glance of balked fury that she laughed aloud.

"The crow and her marrow, they quarrel for the glass." Then gathering up her skirts, "Let's on," she cried.

"What way?"

"Any way. Away."

"All Cloud's to choose."

"I know. To where the fiddles grow."

"And shake the tree? I'll play no windfall, for the green are sharp."

"But we must cross a river by the dawn."

Round they turned like children in a game, and in and out among the stones. They called and bantered, dizzy with unlawful joy. Kit fell. His lantern slid away, it skated from his grasp; then he was up again, bruised and laughing. "Hey!" Then seeing her a-shake with cold, he sobered. "Canst thou make us fire?"

"No," said Thea.

"Nor can I," he said. "I doubt we'll starve then, but we find some cotter's hearth." He cast his coat round her, crazy with the ice. "Or a tinker's camp. And chaffer for his russet coat." A mantle of the starry sky. Her gown was thin, the color of the bloom on sloes, embroidered as the Milky Way: light shaken out, lace dandled. Not for travelling, he thought. A gown for walking in her mother's hall, from glass to glass. And it would snow.

"So this is Cloud," he said. "'Tis like a tale of witches, well enough by the fire. Once afore the moon was round, and on a night in Cloud... Hast kindred here?"

"None," said Thea, "in this world. But hast not thou?"

"In Lune I had." He bent for the lantern. "We'd best on."

The night was uncompassed. Far off, they heard an endless rampage, not a shuttle but a reel of sound, cloud spinning into ice.

"What's that?" she said. "'Tis like the sea unmeasured."

"A river," he said. "Houses?"

So they set out for it, stumbling into brakes of thorn and bogs and pitfalls, snagged and mired. They went blindly, now toward and now astray. The roar grew louder in the dark. The hills re-echoed with the rush of it, behind, before, and everywhere. Above, a nightcrow cawed, once, in its coaly voice. An omen. Thea stilled.

"What is't?" said Kit.

"The clouds have eyes."

"An I had my fiddle, I would play them to sleep."

On the hills, the foxes yowled and yelped, as if their blood ran green. An eerie sound, that keening. Thea shivered.

"The hills have tongues. They wake."

"They wed. I'd light them with a dance." And wheeling backward, sliding -- "Oh!" cried Kit. She caught his jacket as he stepped on nothing, on the brink of tumbling in a foss.

"Now what?" said Kit. "I'm for a glass castle and a bout with goblins. Or a ghost, or what you will. As we've tumbled in a winter's tale." He sat among the lashy thorns and rubbed his shins. "Ah," he said, and fumbled in his pockets. "Here." She felt a handful of nuts. "From thy mother's table, as I passed. We may sit and crack them while the crows take counsel."

"Or match them with a goblin, shell for soul."

"Unless he'd like a gingernut?"

"To cross his river?"

"Aye." Kit rose. "'Twill narrow upstream, far enough."

In the dark beyond the river, there and gone, they saw a fire.

Kit caught at Thea's arm. "A light. A house?"

"A torch," she said. "It moves."

"Thy mother's horsemen?"

"No. They bear no light."

He said, "Belike some lantered shepherd. Or a fiddler from a dance."

Stumbling toward the light, he called out, "Hallows!"

An answer, lost in tumult.

"Hey! Where's this?"

"Crawes Brig," called the voice. "Wait on." They saw the wavering fire and the world made round it, swayed and ruddy. On the farther bank, a roughclad knarry shape held up a torch. It shuddered in the little wind. They saw the wolf-black water, snarling white; they saw the way, from stone to stepping-stone to span, the lighter as they leapt. A clapper bridge, a cromlech. They met on the span. "Here. Gi's that." The stranger took the lantern, thrust the torch in it alight, and latched the door; then hurled the brief end, whirling fire, in the beck.

They stood within a burr of light that brindled in the rushy dark. There was no other where. The stranger stared at them with long dark eyes, quirked mouth. Kit saw the hunch of shoulders bearing up the jangling pack. A traveller, he thought, a tinker or a tain by kindred: breeched and beardless, swart and badgerly of arms. And grey as any brock: with winters or the hag, he knew not. By the small harsh voice, a woman, so he guessed.

"Yer late abroad," said Brock. "Come on."

*

The candle wavers. Ah, thou frown'st, as if my shadow fell across thine elsewhere. I will spell this in the margins of thy book. Mine, once. See, Margaret, here the leaf's turned down where Perseis gave up. Her grave is Law. But I see thou read'st her spring, her journeying. The lady speaks:

But thou art mazed, sweet fool. The wood is dark,`
And I th' moon's daughter in these rags of cloud
Shall bear thee light.

Another world. I dreamed not of greenwood nor of crowns of May; nor thought on bread, sweat, childbed. Only I would not be Thea, and my lady's cipher. So I saw my chance: a bird in hand, a passager; an occultation of the Nine. I took.

Poor Kit. Wood with love of me. He mourned his fiddle; I do rue it now. His soul and livelihood and all. And yet he had of me a greater thing, unwitting. Not my maidenhead. Whatever ballads tell, 'tis nothing, anyone's. An O. That which annihilates all else. No, Margaret: the game is toyish, but the stakes are souls. My love, we ate each other back and belly, and the heartstrings: which are music, which are gut.

Ah, now the candle gutters. I am leaping; I am shroud and smoke.

I snuff.

*

"Here," said the traveller. She stooped and they followed through a thicket of ice. The candle woke in it a flittering of lights; it chimed and rattled as they passed beneath it. "Rimes," said Thea, half aloud to Kit. "Glass castle," he whispered. "Did I not say?" Before them was a tumble of stones: hall fallen into hovel; a sill, and dark within. At the door, the traveller stamped the clods from her boots. She set the lantern down; the fire made room. She turned in the doorway and said, "Walk in, awd Moon."

Kit caught her rime, though not her meaning. "Wi' broom afore, to sweep the ashes from the door," he said, as if they came a-souling at the empty house. He plucked at Thea's sleeve. "Go on, love, 'tis thy piece."

She turned her small moon's face on him. "Will there be oranges?"

"Thy lapful."

"I know not the words."

So Kit chanted, "Cold by the door and my candle burns low, so please let us in, for it's shrewd in the snow." He bent and bustled all around her with his broom of air; so they went in.

"Here's guising," said the traveller. "A sword and a bush."

Kit answered lightly. "So it ever was."

"Then let's to yer bout and have done wi' it. Smick smack, and up flies wren."

Thea lifted her face, bright with mischief. "Ah, but you must hear us out; you've bid us in. You must hear Moon's verses, since she's crossed your door."

The traveller looked them up and down: the tousled lad, all beak and bones; the girl in outlandish clothing, with her hair like braided fire. "Out o' thy turning. If thou's Moon."

"Out of thy sphere, if thou'rt fire."

"Out of my depth," said Kit. "As I am drowned."

They clapped themselves and shivered. Dry within. No straw nor muck; but hay and heather, cut and heaped. Kit turned to and helped the stranger drag some branches to the hearth. It was bare enough, that ruin: a hovel for the lambing shepherds or the lasses binding broom. Kit whispered to Thea, "As for cakes and silver, we may bite old moon."

The traveller lit a fire with a stump of juniper. It burned with a sharp smoke, curling; then was firestruck, its every needle cast in gold, consuming. By its light, they studied her, a little smutchfaced woman, dark and watchful, in a coat of black sheepskins, singed and stained about the hem with ashes and blood. She wore grey breeches and a leathern cap. Her hair was unbound about her shoulders, roughly shorn across her brows; a few strands plaited narrowly with iron charms. She crouched by the fire and stirred it with her knife. "My forge is drowned," she said. The bough had fallen all to flinders, and the berries glowered in the ashes. "Get yer warm," she said, and quirked her chin at them. Then she stood and rummaged in her jangling pack, and went out.

They looked at one another, huddling by the fire. All the spanglings of the ice, their winter finery, had faded. There they sat in draggled clothes, ungarlanded, unwed. Bare strangers. By the wall where the bed had stood, a timeworn carving showed: a woman with a pair of shears, but what she sheared was gone. "I feel like a ghost," said Kit.

"How? Shadowy? Thou'rt blood and breath."

"Uncanny on this ground. And you?"

"No dwelling spirit. They do haunt; they have a bloodknot to this earth. A tale. And mine is all before me, all unmoored."

"An elfin, then."

"A waif. A soul unborn, and calling on the wind. Their tale is nothing: only, they are cold without, and would come in."

"I'd let them in," said Kit, "And warm them." White and shivering, her wisp of spirit. And a glass between their souls. He longed to take her in his arms: so small and cold and straight, so quick of mind. A candle and its light, he thought. And then: the fire was his. To have the daughter of so great a lady run away with him -- 'twas beyond all marvels. And a flawless maid. A dazzlement. A goblin in him danced, exulting; knocked at his breeches. Ranted on his grave. He knelt. "Thea. If thou wouldst -- "

"Hush," said Thea, as they heard the traveller's goatshod step. They sprang apart, a little awkwardly. The fire had flushed them, that was all; the wind had tousled them. The traveller walked softly toward them, and turned to Thea with a cup.

"Here's to thy turning."

"With my heart," said Thea, with answering gravity. She took it in her hands and drank. "Oh," she said, and turned to Kit. "Do they not say in Cloud, hallows wi' thee?"

"And wi' thee," he said, and drank. It was milk, still warm. "Ah," said Kit, bemused. "Your lambs drop early, shepherd."

"Twa and twa," the traveller said. "T'ane black and t'other white." She drank. "And all me ewes give cheeses turn themsels."

"Cup and all?" said Thea.

The traveller smiled at her, small and sharp. "At tree, it were. They'll have left it for Ashes."

"Oh," said Kit. "I see." Though he did not.

But Thea, pinning up a braid, said, "Ashes?"

"Shepherds. They do wake her from her mother dark."

"Ah, Perseis. I know that tale."

"It's what I do," said the traveller. "Walk out and see."

Kit caught at straws. "You're late abroad."

"Been hunting craws. To mek a soulcake on."

"But where are your dogs?" said Thea.

"Whistled home." She unhooked an aleskin from her pack, and teemed it out in a stoup. She pulled her knife from the fire, glowing, and she plunged it in the ale. "Ye'll be starved," she said. "Walking."

"Wanting bread," said Kit. "If you can spare."

"As for that." The traveller undid a rag and a knot and a clump of heather, and held out her scarred brown hand.

Kit saw a handful of stones, black scrawled with white, white scribbled over with a sort of wintry runes, like stars and their ascendants, prophecies of light. "I know this tale," said Kit. "You'll be wanting a bit of salt next. For the soup."

"What thou will," the traveller said. She chose a stone and thirled it with a pin and blew: a whorl of sun, widening, muddled with the ale.

"Eggs," he said, bewildered.

"Aye," said she, and tossed the shell away and broke another and another still, and stirred the pot. She teemed the ewe's milk in.

Kit raked through the embers for the few flawed shales of night. White, like the moon in flinders. Black, with a sleave of stars. Were they owl eggs, then? Or nightingales? "It's eating music," he said ruefully.

"O breve," said Thea. "Do they so in Cloud?"

"With bacon. Do we not in Lune?"

The traveller stirred the caudle round, with a race of ginger, knuckled like a witch's hand, a slurry of coarse sugar and a scrape of nutmeg. A pinch to the fire; it sparkled. "Wha said they'd hatch birds? Wha said they'd sing?"

"In Law," said Thea, "they do not."

So grave? Kit glanced at her, and pulled a fool's face, innocent. "They say the Lunish witches eat owl pies."

"Crack bones and craunch marrow, aye," said Thea. Fire and shadow on her face. "But of late they've grown dainty and will nothing coarse: venture on a junket of maidenheads -- "

"Ah, that slips down," said Kit.

" -- with a boy for a bergamot."

The traveller dipped her finger, tasted. "Aye, but seek as they will, their cupboard's bare. They may beg for't."

"They've sails," said Thea. In the silence, they heard the wind rise from the north and west, from Law.

"I's keeled for them," the traveller said. They looked at her, and at the eggshells, all shivered on the ground but one that whorled about the ale, and sank. "There's all their shallops."

"Will they follow so?" said Thea softly.

"But if their sails are souls, and all their riggins of thy hair."

"'Twas never cut," said Thea.

"Ah," the traveller said. "Reach to." They passed the caudle round and drank in silence. From her pack, the traveller shared out a bannock, spread with curds and new sweet cream. As round as the moon it was, and a little charred beneath. Ah, thought Kit, here's some hob goes supperless, and all the kitchen in a cludder with his sulking on't. He gazed at Thea, silent by the hearth. Her eyes were elsewhere.

Slowly, she unwound her scarf, unclouding heaven. Ah, but she was crescent, she was moonrise, even at the verge of dawn -- O hallows -- even to the rose.

But not for him, this glory. Bending toward the traveller, she held the scarf: a light silk woven of the sky, it seemed. He'd thought of it as grey, but it was shining, warped with silver like an April morning. Rain and bow. She laid it in the outstretched hands. Kit watching saw it fall on them, and thought their earthgrained furrows would spring green.

"For thy spell," she said. "A sail."

The traveller looked slantwise through her rough dark hair, her long black eyes unglittering. "A soul." It shifted in her hands, turned silver and a flowing dark, like cloud before the moon. And cleared then to a moonless dark. The stars ran through it still like rain. "Well, I's a rag on every bush, they say." She wafted it and caught it crumpled, bunched it in her pack all anyhow. "It's cawd without, thou knaws."

Thea said, "It would not keep me warm."

"It's thy petticoats are musty. Do them off."

"For thy breeches," Thea said. Kit looked at her, her bare throat white as thorn, her face alight. Her breasts -- buds in January, whiter than its snow. No lad. She stood and paced, as he had seen her by the whiteskied windows of her mother's tower. Of darkest blue, her eyes, the night in which her fires burned. She turned on the traveller, fierce and cold. "Or thy cap or anything, thy hammer and thy sooty brat, so my mother would not see me in her glass."

"Break t' glass."

"It will not break, the moon. It goes with child unflawed, and of itself. And being full, itself devours, lighter of the dark. It gazes and it gnaws. I want to get back of it."

Kit looked at Thea, like the heavens' cold bright bow; and saw the dark that bent, that held her. There were walls he could not see.

The traveller held her gaze. "There is a door, they say."

"Then I would out of it."

He saw her fury; though her hair was braided close, she blazed as whitely as a falling star. He felt his spirit rise to her. Arrow to her bow. "Love, let me in."

She turned to him. "Crack the glass and I will."

It was his heart that cracked; but like an acorn, that the oak might spring.

He slipped the ring from his finger. "Thea. Love," he said. "With my heart, 'tis what I have." His mother's ring of tawdry silver, black with years. A riddling posy.

Thea turned it round and read. "Lief wode I fall, an light wode spring. Or this way, look: I fall and light: would spring leafwood." Round again: "Anne Lightwode: spring leaf. Would I fall?" She looked to him and smiled; she slipped it on her finger.

O the falling star. 'Twas in his hands.

The traveller, watching as she would a play, took out her bacca and her bit of black pipe. "Key's under bush," she said. "Look well to yer locks."

And still Kit stood amazed.

"As for yer guising." The traveller undid her pack, and pulled from it a heap of leaves; she shook it out and there were sleeves to it, and dangling buttons made of horn. It was a coat in tatters. "Craws weren't having it," she said. "What's ta'en is anyone's."

"Is there a hat to it?" said Kit, recovering.

"And feather," said the traveller. She swung the coat round Thea's shoulders. It hung to her heels.

Kit grinned. "Ah. Wilt thou go for a ranting girl?"

"Aye, and bid them stand," the traveller said.

"Here's purses full," said Kit.

"I'll nothing but thy ring," said Thea, whirling round on him. "Or will it come to swordplay?"

"Wouldst kill me naked?"

"And would die beside thee."

He reeled her in. "And then I rise."

"Oh," said Thea. "'Tis my part. And I am of out it."

"So I am in," said Kit, and caught her by the coattail, laughing. "Turns," he said; so she let him try it on. He flaunted in it, up and down. He looked all mischief, with his leafish face. And in the flaycraw's voice, the fool's, he said, "I'll riddle thee. What leaves and still it stands?"

"A tree," said Thea. "Turns?"

The traveller shrugged. "For either, as it likes you. And if she's a lad, I's shears."

Thea rounded on her. "Where?"

"No," cried Kit, dismayed. "I beg thee. Not thy hair." He'd not yet seen it down, not played with it undone. It would unravel like a fugue. He thought of all the braided strands of it, the bright and somber and the burning strands, the viol and clarion. "And yet..." His token glinting on her hand: he dared. "I'd have a lock of it, sweet witch, for journey's sake."

"In knots, as witches sell the wind?"

"Aye, knotted: for undone 'twould quicken stone."

A parry and no promise: "Thou wouldst thaw my lady's glass?"

"Like April snow. And all thy combs would flower, leafless, from the wood, and make of thy undoing, crowns of May." A tendril, like a wisp of fire, twining by her cheek: he traced it, marvelling. So cold, so bright and cold.

Not fencing now: the blade itself: "Wouldst braid thy gallows? Wear it?"

"Nearer than my breath. I'll knot my soul in it." It burned in him already, bright in every vein: a tree. He took her in his arms. "And being strung upon my bones, 'twill play the same tune still, for sun and moon, and all the starry hey to dance."

Her lips were colder than the moon's, and soft. He felt him falling in a drift of snow, bedazzled, over ears. Her lap, he thought, she lulls them in her lap. Moon and stars. He saw the burning bush. He saw the bird of her, flown up amid her branches -- that he could not take. He shook himself, remembering the traveller's eyes, and shrugged the greatcoat off. "I'll go no more a-guising. 'Tis the fiddler's turn to dance."

"To pipe and drum," the traveller said.

Thea and the traveller took the coat between them, lofting it and laying it upon the springing heather, so it made a bed. They stood at head and foot of it, as in the figure of a dance; the traveller spoke.

"What thou gets here, thou mun leave betimes."

"I must bear it," Thea said.

"And will."

"Undone and done."

The traveller crouched and tweaked a corner of the coat aside, tucked something in, and rose. "What is ta'en here, cracks t' glass. What is tinder s'll be ash. Go lighter of it, intil dark." She flung a pair of shears on the makeshift bed. They lay there open, like a striding stork. She turned and gathered up her pack. "I's off."

They saw her go. They lay together on the coat, of leaves as deep as hallows. After a time, unspeaking, they undid her hair, and went into another night.

*

O the dark. Thou hear'st not, Margaret. I will tell this to the darkness.

I would not be Thea: so I did, undid. The thing of naught. Ablaze and all unhallowed in that night, I cracked the glass. Blasphemed my lady, that was Annis. That was all myself. Of my own will, I overset her holiest of laws; I broke her will of me, her mirror and her chain. Set Cloud for Law, and darkness for her glass. Blood in the stone's place, the place of secrets. Rose for thorn.

*

The traveller came to the stones. They stood looking out on darkness, on the bare white shoulder of the fell. That knowe is Law. The sky was starless; yet they mirrored in their O that constellation called Nine Weaving or the Clasp. The wintry mantle they had pinned was gone. Softly, she went in and out among them with her dying torch. All doors are hers; but these stood open. There was no one where the girl had been. The torch went out. The traveller turned among the empty stones, toward morning, sunwise.

Ah! cried Brock. She saw the falling star, now, nowhere, in the wintry sky. Her seeing sained it. Wheeling round, she dropped the black end of the besom to the earth, ashes on the frost. She snuffed the wind. It was rising, high above the earth. The sky had flawed with stars, with scarves and spanglings of light. Her eyes were good; she told the eight stars in the Nine, and one beside. It danced with them. The ashes told its name.

Beyond her lay the long bare fells, rimewhite, unwhitening. Through patches of the fading snow there pierced a greener white of snowdrops, that do spring in Ashes' wake. Her flowers. Drops of Milk, the country folk do call them, Ashes' Buds. They bring the light with them returning, rising from her mother's dark: all seely innocence. Yet they are death to pluck; and yet they must be gathered, woven for her crown by earthly hands. By Ashes. Not herself, but in her stead: a lass each winter who must wear the burden of her name, her silence, walking in her sleep. That godhead lights on whom she chooses: Ashes for her sake, her shadow, souling in a coat of skin. Her winter's lyke.

As Brock walked on, she passed a windbare thicket leaning all one way, and saw the curled green shoots of bracken, green amid the scrawl of last year's leaves; she saw the tassels of the oak unbraiding. Saw the selving wood. A hare loped by her, giddy with the moon; she slung no stone at it. It danced in a dizzy spiral. At last she came to where the Clew was caught, like sheep's wool, in the branches of a leafless thorn. Nearer to the earth there hung a garland and a tattered coat, cast by. And at its roots, asleep in winter's lap, there lay a greenwhite girl. Brock bent and sained her, touching eyes, mouth, heart with ashes. Until the dawn she watched by the sleeping girl.

Thea slept and she was kindled: all within her side the star became a knot of stars, a congeries, a cloud, a soul. It waked within her turning sky. Her hair unwreathing was the red of dawn.

*

Kit woke to see his new-made lover squatting naked in the ashy coat, her shorn hair flickering about her skull. So white, her goblin face. So young. What have I done? he thought. O dark, what is she doing? On the hearth lay the long sheaf of her sundered hair, not fading like shorn grass, but fiery. Bright as bracken in the rain, as bright as copper molten in a forge, a riverspill of fire on the muddy stones. She was burning it, strand by strand. Crouching, she stirred the embers with the shears.

"No," he said. "Thea."

The child witch turned to him. White as frost, as frail. Blood and ashes on her thighs; the tuft of small fire that a breath would blaze. All naked but the coat of skin. She rose and held a ring to him, white-gemmed, as if she gave away her tears. She spoke in a child's imperious voice. "Go your ways. You have well served me."

Coldstruck, he stared at her. The eyes saw no one. Mad?

She crouched again, to riddle through the ashes with a rusty sieve.

He caught her. Sharp and soft, a thornbush deep in snow. Like branches she recoiled, and all her witchcraft fell away, like snow, like scattered snow. She crouched amid the shards. "Not done," she said. "I was not done."

Kit knelt beside.

"Thea. Love. Wake up." He stroked the hackles of her hair, so cold, so cold. "Thou'rt dreaming."

In his arms, she changed, thawed, cleft. His goblin rose.

And afterward, she slept at last. Lying watching her, the slight moon, turning always from his gaze, he saw a fireglint beyond her: a long strand of her hair, caught shining on a splint of wood. The last. He ran it through and through his hands. He saw the girl in the wintry garden, turning back to call him on; he saw the lantern of her hair. Again and yet again, he played the fugue of its undoing. Heartstrings. Not for burning. With his fiddler's hands he wound it round and round, and tucked it safe beside his heart.

*

"Gone," said Kit.

Whin said nothing; she could see it still, or the ghost of it: a bracelet of bright hair about the bone. Like stolen fire. He'd wear it to his grave. Beyond, she thought. Would string his stars. She shelled another mussel for the broth, another; tossed the leavings on the heap. Clack. Click. Clack. At last: "And wha'd take that and leave rings?"

"Crows. Her mother -- I betrayed her. In the end."

Whin cracked and thumbed another mussel. Knife-edge and morsel. Weed. "Ah. Craws wi' beards."

Kit turned his face. Not yet, thought Whin. And yet he'd tell.

*

Wet underfoot. Burnt moorland or bare stone; bracken, bent or tussock: all were underlaid with squelch. "A world warped with water," Thea said, and wrung her coat skirts. Water curling from the cloud, like raw wool from a carder's combs. White water at a ford, frayed out, like torn lace at a roaring lad's throat. Fine icy water in the air. "At least," said Kit, "it's not raining." He did not say: we cannot lie in this. "There'll be a barn," he said. But now he could not tell if they were climbing, if they'd come this way before. Bright and brighter blazed the rust of bracken in its mockery of fire. The color of her hair, the color of desire, flickering on nothing, on the barren moor. Could water burn?

Her face turning back at him was like the moon from cloud; he leapt to it, it hooked him through the heart, the bone-caged heart.

"Look," said Thea, beckoning. "A walker on the hill." She called out, "Stay, thou shepherd!" And she ran. Kit ran after, calling, "Wait." And there was no one there: a waystone, squatting in the bracken like a hussif at her hearth. Thea touched the stone, her face between dismay and laughter. "See, she looms. 'Tis her weather."

"Hush," said Kit. "I doubt another day she brews." And fumbling beneath his pocket flap, he found a bit of bread, their last, and left it in a hollow of the stone. "There, awd lass. For a skein of sun."

And to Thea, "There'll be houses, wait on. We can barter and lie snug as hobs. Curds and barley straw."

"What way?" said Thea.

When they turned from her, the stone was fogbound, roofed and walled with cloud; they saw no way. "Away," said Kit. "'Tis all one." They heard the clank and rattle of a sheep on stones, a bird's disconsolate cry. And then a tap, a tapping, gathering like rain: a hammer on a forge.

"A fire," said Kit.

And stumbling, sliding down a track, they found a trod, stones driven edgewise for laden hooves; a wall, a fire in the mist. They tumbled from the old girl's lap, as if they'd been shaken from her apron, out of cloud and into rain.

And out of rain and by his fire sat a tinker at his work, his anvil driven in the ground, his lean bitch skulking by his side. A sere man, spare and shaggy, like a twist of tobacco. His dog, the mingled grey of ashes, smoke. He'd a tussy of coney skins hung to his tentflap; a jangle of saucepans and riddles and shears.

"How d'ye do?" said Kit, doffing his drowned hat. "Well, I hope, sir."

"What d'ye lack?" said the tinker.

"A knife," said Kit. "A cookpot. And a flint and steel. That blanket."

Clink! went the hammer on the rounding can. "A good cloak, is that. Awd bitch whelped on yon cloak. What d'ye give?"

Kit unfolded Thea's starry mantle.

The tinker eyed the velvet shrewdly; pinched a fold with black nails. "Molecatcher, ista? Owt else?"

"A glass."

An eyebrow. Then a shrug. "Gi's here." He ran his thumb round the frame of it, tilting his eye at them; considered; spat. "Done."

Kit knelt to bundle the stuff. A good knife indeed, well-hefted, sharp. "Yon road?"

"Goes longways." The velvet cloth had vanished in his pack. "And there's folk and not. Dogs."

"What honest work for strangers?"

A shrewd glance at Thea: draggled silk and drab russet, and a started vixen's brush of hair. "Whoring. Thieving."

Kit flushed. "Not while I've breath."

"Brave words to starve on. There's begging o' course. Any trade in yer hands?"

"I could fiddle -- " Kit began. And turned his palms up ruefully.

"And I could ride pillion, if I'd a horse and a whip."

Thea slipped the rings from her fingers. "Would these not bring us silver? For a crowd and a bow?"

"Aye, and a dance on the gallantry. Wha's to say they's not been thieved?" The bright eyes slid sideways at Kit. "I can see yer not to drown."

"They're not -- " said Kit, and stopped. They were.

But Thea held a ring up, flicked it shining at the heather's roots. "If thou'd not stoop for it, then let it branch and bear silver."

There it lay. He looked at her, and spurned it with his toe. A swift unwreathing, a flicker in the grass and gone. A silver snake. "I'd keep dark yon bits o' tawdry," he said. "There's folk'd cut throats for less. Thy stockings. Or a game or nowt." Thea nodded. "And if thou's a lad, thou doff thy hat, see. More to't than pissing upright." Then he bent to his camp and ferreted, set out a horn cup and a handful of coarse grey salt, a charred bird bound in herbs. "Hovel top o't trod."

"Thanks," said Kit. "My thanks. Hallows with ye."

"Sneck up," said the tinker.

Thea bowed.

As they started off up the trod in the closing rain, he called after. "If it's a fiddle thou's after, thou ask at Jack Daw."

*

"The fiddle. Ah." Kit gazed at the fire, pale in the wintry sun. No more than shaken air. "'Twas my father's. So my mother said. Of Cloud, as he was." He bit his lip. "I tell this badly."

"So yer no one's brat?" said Whin.

"Hers. Lightborn, we do say in Lune. We grow, like missel, in the air." His face was bright; then dark. "She died."

Whin drank, and passed the cup. A white bird tilted on the wind.

"Mine uncle -- I was prenticed clerk. And fiddled at the wakes, and chafed."

"So yer went a-begging of a witch?"

"I was ta'en. By her servant."

"Ah."

"Coming from a dance," said Kit. "On Hare Law."

"And yer went with my lady's huntsman? Mad as a March hare, thou is."

"Drunk," said the fiddler, ruefully. "And thought I was in love."

*

Cold, toward moonrise, and the stars like rosin. Whirling. Not so drunk, he'd thought, but flown with fiddling. Ah, he'd never played so well as with Ned Hill, his serpent coiling in and out, and with Tib Lang's rowdy pipes and reed flute. They'd all the earth and heavens dancing to their tune, and half of Kempy Mag's great barn. Like hedgers laying thorn, they'd worked; and by some passing spell, their hey was quickset, green even as they wove, and flowering. A garland for a queen of May. That lass -- ah, well he minded her, that straightbacked girl in green, triumphal, with a comet's tail of hair. In and out the mazes of the dance, he glimpsed her, arming with this shepherd and that scythesman, but fencing always with his tune, his air her make. As the music ended, she bowed to it: no partner but the air. His air. He lowered his bow and watched her as she coiled her tumbled braid, the bone pins in her soft stern mouth. The swift stabs. His heart. "Wed," said Tib drily. "Next month, to yon lame blacksmith. Get thee drunk."

And he had.

Five sets and six pints later, there was that other lass, at his elbow as he tuned. A brown girl, filching pears and russets; a green chit, all unripe. She'd a brow like a bird's egg, flecked and flawed, and mocking, shrewd grey eyes. "Why d'ye pull those faces, playing?" she'd said. "Toothache?" So he'd had to eat his hunch of Wake-bread, to show her he cared not, and had won a tiny leaden pair of shears, amid the crumbs. A mayfly toy. "They'll serve you for the wars," she'd said. "With a needle for spear." Afterward, he'd found a lady apple in his pocket, flawless, with a leaf.

He'd idled when they'd paid him, talking random, looking sidelong at the door until the girl in green went by. She'd turned at the threshhold, going, with a glance, half mockery and half challenge. Then he'd packed his fiddle up and walked on alone.

Not drunk. Unbounded, that was it: with darkness after fire, sky for rafters, silence for the stamp of boots, the clatter, and the clack of tongues. Light with love. As light as the Hanged Lad, Jack Orion, setting sidelong in his belt of sparks. Toward dawn, it was. As late as that? Well, he defied his master's clock. Kit bowed to the skyclad fiddler, and doffed his hat, calling out, "Measure for measure, lad. Will I outplay thee? "

He walked on over Hare Law, his head a muddle of tunes, bright lasses, bowls of lambswool. Cross my river to Babylon. His nose sunk in froth. A bright and a dark head glancing up at him, then ducking low to laugh. His russet coat, Tom's old one turned, scarce worn. New buttons to it. ("Here's a flaycrow in a field goes bare," the brown girl said.) Ginger and marchpane. A leaden shears. The green girl whirling at his bow's end. Out of sight. Ah, still he played her over in his head.

Had passed the branching in the road long since. By Crowcrag, then, the gainest way. That striding bass. Mall's Maggot. Syllabub and damson cheese. Dull wool bales in the morning -- ah, his head. Sand. Goosequills. Figures on a page, untallied. In and out the hey, and couples for another dance. Nine eight and longways. Silver in his pocket, ninepence, that made seven and a bit, near enough for Askwith's Atomie of Starres. For ribands -- No, a carven glass. With verses round. A comb. New strings, though, call it six and coppers. All the broken cakes. And at the end of Nine Weaving, how the green girl raised her candle to him, like a sword, and blew it out. An apple with a leaf. And again, the tumbled braid, the coiling hands. But they undid; the long skein fell for him alone, unbraiding like a fugue about her moonwhite body.

He was on the high ground now, a puzzle of white stones.

"Lightwood?"

Whirling round in a blaze of stars, Kit saw no one. His coat-skirts settled; he felt the soft bump of his pocket, crammed with cakes, against his thigh.

Stars still dancing.

He'd heard no rider; saw no horse. Yet on the road stood a horseman, spurred and booted: a stranger. Soberclad but richly, like a servant in a great house; yet outlandish. "Master Lightwood. Of Askrigg?"

"Sir?" When he stood the room spun, candlelight and dancers, whin and stars.

"I heard you fiddle at yon hobnailed rout."

"Ah." Had he seen that back amid the dancers? With the brown girl? With the lightfoot grizzled farmwife? Or with the lass in green?

"Small recompense among such folk."

Broken cakes. Lead trinkets. "They've ears."

"And so my lady has. And jewels to hang in them. She sends to bid you play for her. A wedding."

"Have you no fiddlers in far Cloud?" This was not going well.

"None of note."

Kit stood. Some wind, toward the morning, twangled in his fiddle strings.

"Nor time to further send. 'Tis by this next moon. I will bring you." A glint of silver. "Come, a handfast. To wet the child's head."

"Thought you said it was a wedding?"

"All the same."

"Ah," said Kit wisely. "'Twas ever thus. Brought to bed, either way." The stars were fading, paling to the east; he could see the long rise of Hawker Fell. "Little enough dancing for the bride," he said. "And the bairn his own piper."

"Brave company," the stranger said. "Here's one will look for you." He held a bone hairpin in his dark-gloved hand. "By this token, you are bid."

Kit took it in his hand, bemused. "Did she give -- ?"

"Is't yes?"

"Aye, but -- "

Then the horseman sealed his bidding with a cold kiss, full on his mouth. Tongue, teeth, and all. Kit knew no more.

*

The wind is braided in my lady's hair.

Margaret. As thou sleep'st, a storm is rising. Ah, thou hear'st it, even in thy dream of Cloud. But thou art fathomless, thy sleep is ocean. Cowrie'd by thy cheek, thy hand curls inward, closing on the dream that spills away like starry sand. A shutter claps. The hangings of thy bed conceive; the clawed rings inch and jangle. Nearer. On thy coverlid, thy book, left open, stirs. The leaves lift, turning backward in the tale. Unwintering. Again, the dead girl turns and speaks; she plays in greenwood, in the spring of hope.

How cam'st thou by thy book? Dost know? I tell thee, there are rare things in thy bower, which is all thy world. See, that orange by thy pillow. Pith and bittersweet and curving. And when broke, a puzzlebox of sweets. Thy bedgown, of an antick fashion, rich but sadly tarnished with the salt. That rod of shrewd whalebone, that also I felt. Thy comb. And not least, the drowsy wine they gave thee. Aye, the physick and the cup.

All tangled in her seine.

But seldom now.

I have seen my lady with her braid undone, all naked in her glass.

Here's a knot, says Morag with the comb.

Thou do. Undo.

Another.

Seven. And no more.

And with each knot, the wind rose, howling, and now and now the lightning slashed, it winced and slashed, and then the clouts of thunder jarred. By the sixth, it was beyond all noise: one lightning, and a judder in the bones. And when the waves broke -- It was Annis falling. It was burying alive in shards of sky.

I have seen ships cracked like jackstraws.

I have found things, walking by the sea. A coffer, cracked and spilling cinnamon and mace. A virginals. A bacca pipe, unbroke. The Nine of Bones. And sailors: drowned and shattered, drowned and frozen, trodden into sand. And some that Morag finished. I have found an orange lying by a tarry hand.

*

Thea blew her nails and huddled, pinch-faced. Kit rubbed his legs and sighed. So much for begging. Stones for breakfast and a long draught of Cloud ale; stones in shoes; dog's music at the last three farms; and brats at the packbridge with a hail of clods. And now they'd tumbled down a scree. He'd go home if he knew where home was. They were nowhere, halfway down a fell, and sliding from its bony knees. The tops were hid in dour cloud. "Here's kites," said Thea. Higher up, they saw a shepherd, stooping with his burden of a creel of hay. His crouching, prying, flying dogs made bow-knots of a bedlam of sheep. Querulous and unrepentant Maudlins all, a-burst with bastard lambs, and fellowed with their doting Toms, the crazed and kempy wethers and the horn-mad tup. All trundled to fold. "On dirty toes," said Thea. "Same as us."

To the north, they saw the bruised sky blacken, and the bentgrass flinch and shiver in the rising wind. "Coming on bad," said Kit, standing. "We'll lay up." Even as he spoke, the snow came, like a fury of ghosts.

Nowhere.

"Hey!" cried Kit. Stifled. Gloved hands of snow laid hold of him, clapped eyes, mouth, ears. Seen out by February's footmen, to a ditch and crows.

"Hush," said unseen Thea. They could hear the sheep rattle and the shepherd call.

"Way here! Way here, Maddy. Come by, Gyp."

Kit caught hold of Thea's wrist, and scrabbled up the hillside toward the voice. Not far, they'd not get far in this. "How far -- ?" bawled Kit.

A lean ghost, swathed in sacking. "Get by, thou bloody fool! Down dale."

"Where -- ?"

"Dog'll tek thee." Something like a hollybush leapt the wall, already chiding at their heels. The shepherd called after, "Thou ask at Imp Jinny."

Down along an outcrop, rising into drystone wall; crook left, and down a stony track between two walls, out of wind; past the shepherd's pony, like a dejected chimney brush, beside his sledge of hay. The black bitch saw them through the gate.

Trees, low and windbent, lapped and laden with the ghosts of leaves; a lantern at the door, that turned their branching to bright webs.

"Hallows," called Kit, and beat muffled hands against the door.

"Will Shanklin?" called a woman's voice. "Owt wrong?" The door opened. A small-faced strapping woman, knitting furiously. Sharp and brown as a beechnut, with a beech's frazzled foliage, an old tree's knotted hands. Blue as speedwell, her eyes. She looked them up and down. "If it's guising, yer a bit few. And late."

"Have you a barn?" said Kit.

"I's a fire," said Imp Jinny. "Come in and keep wind out. I can see lass is dowly."

They stamped and dripped and stared. A low room, bronzy with peat smoke, heaped with apples. Sweet and poignant with their scent. And not low after all, but racked and raftered, hung with anything to hand. Bunches of potherbs, besoms and birdsnares, shears and riddles and a swift of yarn. Swags of old washing -- smocks and aprons -- kippered in the air, as stiff as stockfish. Lanterns and pruning-hooks, ladles and rushlights. Strings of eggshells. Legs of mutton. Riddlecakes hung out to dry. A ball of thorn twigs, trailing ribands and old holly. Jinny ducked beneath. "Mind urchin," she called. A tiggy drank snuffling at a dish of milk. "Been at wort and gets to singing. Now then, thou rantipole. Mend tongue. Or I'll peg thee out i't apple trees, as a souling for t' birds." She nipped down a sallowed petticoat from under the thack, took a jacket from a kist, and bundled them at Thea. "Get thee doffed." She measured Kit with a glance. "Crouch up to't fire. Y'd look a right mawkin in my petticoats."

"Thanks," said Kit.

"Not at all. Thowt it were foxes at my ewes in lamb. Dropped a stitch, I doubt. Tea. Y've tea i' Lune?" Jinny swung the kettle over the fire; she scrabbled out leaves from a bright tin, painted gaudily with wrens and garlands. "Stockings and all, that's right. Peg 'em up. Lad can tek blanket. Now then, there's cock broth. And a tansy after."

Deep bowls of it, fork-thick with leeks and barley, fowl and carrots; Jinny broke them shards of oatcake for to sop the rich broth.

They ate. The snow pummeled at the windows; their clothes dripped and reeked. Imp Jinny walked to and fro, knitting and muttering and squinting at her heel, in a fury of pins: as thrawn as if her yarn were nettles and all her kindred swans. Born half a sleeve behind and not caught up. You'd think she knit them at the stake. "Purl and plain. Meks three. And -- craws eat it!" She knit badly, Kit saw; the yarn snagged on her roughened hands, the stocking bunched and spiralled.

"Mistress Imp?"

Jinny turned, twanging with laughter. "And thy name's Kit Catgut. Imp's what I do. Graff apples to crabs. Hast etten Nonesuch? That were mine. And Sheepsnose, out o' Seek-No-Further. And I's no Mistress, neither. Langthorn Joan's Jinny. Jane Owlet. Awd keeping pear's what I is. Warden. I'd eat dryly." The old hands crooked and looped and darted. "So yer out Lune? How came yer by Cloud?"

Kit, muffled in her patchwork quilt and downheeled slippers, tried for manly. "Seeking work."

"Can you do owt?"

"Undo," said Thea.

"What I can," said Kit.

Jinny pursed her lips. "Work. Well, there's threshing to Swang Farm. A rough gang for lasses; but there's straw and stirabout, and happen a few coppers. Got a knife?" She hefted it and tried the edge. "Aye, that's good." She gave it back to him. "Ye could try yer hand at binding besoms. Up moor." She was setting the heel now, storklegged with aggravation. "Come March, ye could clap eggs for Ashes. Do ye not i' Lune? No? Well, I'll set yer i't road on it. Craws!" Her ball bounded away; Kit caught it. "Thou keep petticoat."

"Ashes?" said Kit.

"Eh well, there's always Ashes. Or there's never spring. Gangs out wi' guisers." The Horn was rounded of her stocking; she sighed. "And byways, there's a barn up Owlriggs, void and dry. Ye could lig there for a piece. While lambing, anyroad."

"Many thanks," said Kit. "How -- ?"

"Shake snow from me apple trees, I doubt they'll crack. Lilt me yer fiddle tunes. I like a tune. Can't make, but I graff words til 'em."

"Ah. D'ye know this?" Softly, Kit sang through Nine Weaving; then clapped into Jenny Pluck Pears and The Magpie's Bagpipe. No great voice, but a true.

At his knee, by the fire, Thea crouched and set the cradle rocking to the rhythm of the dance. Full of skeins, it was.

"Soft," said Jinny sharply. "Do ye so i' Lune?"

"Do what?" said Thea. "Here's an ark for the urchin."

An odd blue glance; the needles stopped. "Rock empty cradles."

"No," said Kit, dismayed. "Moon turn from it."

Thea said, "I know not what it is. For bread or what?"

"I see," said Jinny. "Out Lune of Lune." She stilled the cradle with her hand. There was a wooden rattle laid in it, a tumbling, turning wren; a doll like a darning egg, a poppyhead unfaced with years; an acorn whirlywhorl. Undone, it spilled a marble in her palm. "That were Het's."

"Your lass?" said Kit softly.

"Imped out," said Jinny. "She were left by ragwell. Anyone's." She whorled the marble; smiled. "I'd've never such a lass. Wick as thistledown."

"Ah," said Thea. "She would braid of her mother then, the moon. I see thine orchard bears the Misselbough."

Jinny turned to Thea, puzzling. Something rueful; something awed. "So thou'rt Ashes still. Poor lass." Almost, she touched the girl's thin cheek; but went to feel her clothes instead, turned smock and stockings by the hearth. "When I were Ashes -- "

*

"Not a lad?" said Whin.

"What?"

"Her bairn that died."

"Drowned," said Kit. "A lass. She said."

"I see. Go on."

*

Jinny peeled a bowl of russets, broadlapped by the dozing fire. They watched the long curls falling from the bright knife, the brown hands; they smelled the sharp juice spring. "When I were Ashes -- forty year ago, and more -- I kept back what I got. Oh, aye, come Kindle Night, they'd rived at me and mocked me, for I'd not had maid nor man. Unploughed. Waste o' darkness, they'd said. Said nowt would spring of it. But what I'd hid weren't brat, nor siller, nor a gallop on another's hobby. Sitha, when I'd put on Ashes coat, I'd turned and wondered at glory o't world. All turning and endless. Stars and seed. They caught me up i't dance, threadneedle. See, it's endless, yet there's first and last. Same as like a spindle falling, thread and whorl. Same as peel." And one long rose-moled spiralling fell flawless from the knife. "And I see'd how things go on by dying. How they're born o' fallow. That I kept."

*

They crossed a watersplash at dawn. The sky had put away its stars, undone the clasp of winter from its throat. It stood, white and shivering, all bare before the sun. No rose: a sudden glittering of frost, a lash of shadows, long and sharp against the fell; and there, where the water sprang, the reddening scratches of the alders. "Withies," said Kit. "I'll cut, an thou bind them."

Clumsy with cold, they set to work with knife and twine. The day clouded up. The water brawled. A field away, a boy went huddling in his outworn jacket, toward the lambs. Kit called to him, "Where's this?" but he ran away. The sheep ran too, all which ways down the moor, their rumpling fleeces heavy with the frost. They slowed from a trotting to a trundling, with their stilted lambs beside them, slowed and stilled and cropped. Kit saw the boy again, up lawside in a scud of stones, his hair as white as hawkweed. He peered from behind a sheepfold. Kit swept him a bow, and he ducked.

"Do you steal children?" Thea said.

"Some run away with me," said Kit.

They sat among the bare wood by the waterside, and ate what they had begged. It was scant enough, cold scrag-end and a lump of pease. A sup of bratted milk. There was twopence in his pocket and his trade in Lune, his fiddle for a ship and wracked, a witch's stolen daughter by his side. My lady's malison on both. He looked at Thea, silvered by the cold fine mist. He'd waked sometimes to see her watching, silent as the moon. He knew her changing face, her dark and bright; he saw and he desired her as he would the reachless moon. Her soul was elsewhere, even as he lay with her, amid the bright leaves burning.

Jumping up, Kit looked about the lashy wood. "It's almost spring," he said. "Here's blackthorn out." It flowered from its bare sticks, white as souls. He gathered twigs of it, the bonniest of all. It twisted, green and sinewy; he'd use no knife. He made a garland of it for her leaf-bright head: a crown too sharp to wear.

*

Cross and cross between the ash pegs driven in her crucks, old great-armed Imp Jinny told out her threads. Nine skeins unwinding, drawn as one, and dancing in their creels; then down and down, from hand to peg and to and fro, until their measured ending. Eight of wool; the ninth of moonlight, turning on its reel of dark. She was making a warp.

The fire was of thorn. It caught the sway and draw and crooking of her arms, and glinted in the scissors at her waist; it cast a creel of her in shadows, cross and cross the room. Our cage is shadows and ourselves.

As Jinny told her warp, she sang, no louder than the rasp of wool, the crackling of the little flame.

"O the broom blooms bonny, the broom blooms fair..."

Cross and cross, nine threads. That's one.

"I have lost a sheath and knife that I'll never see again..."

And loop and nine. That's two.

"And we'll never go down to the broom no more."

*

Kit remembered the kitchen in her mother's hall, stoneflagged and cavernous; the table, scoured saltwhite as a strand to windward, heaped with wrack of bloody game. Ah, piteous, their eyes, and taunting now, with acorns rattling in his gut. Blackcock and moorhen, ruffled and agape. Wet heather on a red hind's flank. The lean and louring hounds rose hackling at him, girning with their grizzled lips. They suffered him to pass; but watched him, crouching on their bones or pacing, silent but for rattling chains. Scoured as it was, the kitchen stank of them, of hair and blood and ashes, dust of pepper and old damp. On the great gaunt dresser, fishwhite pewter dully stared. The fire whirred and reeked. And Morag squatted with a hare to gut, limp and lolling in her bloody apron. Madam? I am sent to bid you to my lady. In her closet, she did say. The log fell in; the shadows jumped. And perhaps Morag twitched at her high shoulder, like a preening crow; or it was shadows, or his smoke-stung eyes. She rose to meet him, knife folded in her apron, capped and barbed. I come. Formal and contemptuous, as always. Sheathed. Ah, but where were all the servants in so great a hall? Who scoured and who swept? And he bethought him, late and suddenly: roe deer? On that stony island? What had come of his wits, not to marvel? Yet venison they had at table. No fish but eel pie, not a herring. Nothing salt. Nor sodden, come to that. He saw again the haunch of meat, the charred and shining spit withdrawn, the rusty cauldron tilted by the hearth. The fur and flesh.

"Love? Who provisioned in thine hall?"

"Morag."

"Strange fish she caught."

"Gulls," said Thea. "Thou and I."

"But venison?"

"Ah. She hunts."

*

The witch rose twirling, turning in the air to raven. Or to ravenwise -- a something quilled and barbelled, clawfoot, but a woman to the fork. Thrice round the broch she flew, in widening gyres, over scar and thornwood, sea and skerry, tethered by my lady's will. At farthest of her swing was landfall, rust and desolate. The bracken stirred. She stooped.

*

Margaret. Do you sleep now?

I will tell this in the moonlight sliding.

In my closet, Morag clasped the necklace round my throat. Cold souls, all witches, dead long since; cold hands, that late had plucked and foraged in the hare's blue meagre flesh. Untwisting it about my breast, she pinched me with her bloody nails. Is't ripe? And then the long robe on my shoulders -- ah, but it was soft as snow, as sleeping in a drift of death. My mother keeps it still. 'Twas woven with the stars at Annis' wake: night sky and moonless, shading through the blue, bluegreen of twilight, seen as through the branches of the thorn. And naked else.

No sun, but at my fork.

The old crow held the glass. My lady waits.

I come.

And in her high unarrased room, from glass to moondark glass, my lady turned and paced. Her iron casket on the table was unlatched. At her throat, she wore the stone it held: no soul, but Annis' self, the true and only shard of night. The seed of Law.

I stood, as I was taught.

She turned and gazed at me. Bare as April.

I had not yet bled.

My lady, said I, to the stone. I knew its touch, ah, cold against the skin, and colder deeper still. Within. I knew her famished eyes.

Her time comes, said my lady to her woman. By this moon. The souls?

Two are kept, said Morag. I have seeled them for the hunt. A mort in milk, a maid in blood.

And the third?

Is come. Seed full. A pretty piece, the huntsman says.

Shall have his fee.

My mother touched my chin. Come, Madam. So she loosed the knot, undid the bright coil of my hair; she bid me to her table.

*

Whin slept. Lying silent by her, Kit woke long and heard the clash of the sea. He saw its pale thrums shine and ravel. Moonset. Darkness then, the wavebeat of his heart. He counted. Nine for a secret. There was something he'd not told.

That first night in the mist there was a third in bed with them. Half waking in the dark, he'd pulled her down on him, had murmured, fledged, had entered -- ah, not Thea's air and fire, but the lap of earth. His grave. The spade bit deep. He saw the wriggling in the new-turned earth; breathed in the scent of earth and ashes, and of heather wet with rain. Still deeper. There, he touched a stirring, soft as moleskin, soft and dusk, and there, the quick and glistening neb. And at the very deep, a something, thrawn and wet: the root of dark, its flowering.

*

The cards. I had forgot them, slid between rough stone and worm-gnawn panelling, behind the kist. You puzzle at them, at this book of scattered leaves. Know thou, they are Cloudish magic. Not my lady's art, but tawdry: a sort of cantrips that their wiling beggars use. Hedge sortilege. I had them of a witch -- a windwife or a sailor's whore, I know not. Cast up. Still living, when I'd hauled her on the sand, a-twitch and broken, like a windwracked gull. She'd signed: Take. Keep. A box, a book of spells? Skin bag and oiled silk. I slipped it warily within my skirts: forbidden hoard. And then came Morag with her stone.

I hid them. From her avid and contemptuous, her pebble eyes, her prying hands: myself I could not hide. And all that winter of my threshold year, I looked not thrice at them. My lady basilisk had work. In the waning of the ashen moon, she called me down, in cold stiff cloth of silver and an iron busk, to look upon the last of three set dishes for my maiden feast. A banket of souls. There were two laid up in store, like picked meats from the cracking of a gilded nutshell bark: a child scarce old enough to call a virgin, the betrothed of an outland king; her nurse. Like cage birds fattening, like haggards, leashed and belled. I'd fed them with my hand. Had toyed: which I repent. A poor mad glowering girl; a woman, silent, spilling milk. I'd tasted of their souls, their essences: green quince and bletted medlar, quiddany and musk. And now the third, but lately come: a hare, caught kicking, from the huntsman's bag. A handful of brambles, green and flowering and all. Leaf and prick. I saw a beardless boy, astonished, ill at ease in country boots. He bowed to me. I took him up.

Thou turn'st the Hanged Lad on the gallantry; the Hare reversed.

I see.

Is't riddles, then? A sort of stars?

Go on. But soft now, I am at thy shoulder.

Ah, now thou hast them spread, in knots and gatherings and changeful congeries, across the nighted boards. Just so. They bear the names of earthly tales turned starry, as the Tower, and the Crowd of Bone, and all the figures of the moon and sky. What Imp Jinny called the wood above. And thou art lost in it. Thou hast no clew to wind thee through the mazes of that dance, unfellied and unfretted night. No windrose nor no wheeling Ship. O Margaret, I have read their painted book, an abstract of the airy world. But thou, thou know'st no tale of them, amazed as if thou mansionless looked up at heaven, saw its stars unstrung and scattering like a box of beads.

I will tell this in the cards.

Here's a black wench with a cap and anvil; see, she hammers at a fiery heart. That card doth signify that errant star which some call Mercury. But they do call her Brock. She's a cutpurse of great bellies, and does lighten them; a picklock of maidenheads; a thief of souls. On Whinnymoor she lurks, and bids the silent traveller stand; takes nothing of him naked, but a coin, a clip. Those waifs that shiver, dance and shiver on the moss, in nothing but their own brief souls, she laps in her rough jacket, earth and bone; she slaps them squalling into breath. She is death's midwife and her go-between, the third in marriage beds. Her clip is kindling. Twice did she sain me, doing and undoing: at the door where thou didst enter, love, and at the jagg'd rift of my going hence.

Here's Burnt Eldins. Burd Alone. She tosses up her golden ball outwith a hedge of bones. Its leaves are hands of children flayed, imploring. She is youngest of the Nine, those stars whose rising into dawn doth mark the stone of winter's death. I had the tale of Imp Jinny, how she winds the clew and finds her sisters locked up in Annis' kist. How she sets them free. That card I never drew.

Nor this: Nine Weaving. Eight are painted, bending to their wintry task. Ah, they blaze in their imprisoning. From their tower spills their endless web, the green world and that other, woven with a mingled skein.

And here's the Rattlebag, turned tail. It shows a lad, whiteheaded as a weed; he claps the crows that flacker from his field of corn, all rooted in a sleeping man, a sheaf whose binding is a belt of stars.

And turn, and he's the Hanged Lad, brave in winter, mid a winnowing of stars.

The Crowd of Bone. That fiddle that the old year plays of Ashes, of her bones. 'Tis strung with shorn red hair. Ah, it burns thy fingers, thou dost let it fall.

And Ashes. Not her smutched and tangled guise, as black as holly-blotch, that waif in tattercoats that walks behind a wren's cold corse: that is not Ashes but her mute. This Ashes dances lightfoot, and at every step a green blade springs. Her hair's like fires that the May lads leap, a-whirl in wind. Far far behind her is an O, a crow's eye or a cracked bright glass. Her end. But for now, she's walked away from Annis' glass, her eye of winter, out of that tale into this.

*

It was windy, with a clouted sky. The farm stood foursquare to the heavens, stonebuilt, with a line of trees to northward bending all one way. They danced. There were catkins on the hazels, taws of light, like whips to set the sun a-spin. Kit sneezed. There was pollen dusted in his hair and on his jacket, nebulas of bloom; he sleeved his face with Pleiades. "No geese," he said. "There's a comfort."

"I'll go this time," said Thea, peering through the hedge with him. They saw a drying yard, windriffled, up against the plainfaced farmhouse. There were two girls playing in the yard. They'd tied a rope to an iron ring in the housewall. One turned, the other skipped and sang. "My mother went to feed her crows, turn round and call them in..." The rope made rainbows in the plashy air; it slapped, slapped, slapped the stones. An unbreeched boy ran shouting with a whirligig. It flackered like a rising bird; it caught the sudden light. He tumbled in the mud. A woman in a cap and clanging pattens came out, a creaking wicker basket at her hip.

Kit and Thea slipped through the hedge. "Hallows with ye," he said, and bowed. His back was urchined out with brooms.

The woman nipped the small clothes up. She was rosy with the wind, and round-armed, with wisps of grey-brown hair straggling from her cap. "Here's a rade o' scoundrels," she said to the peg box. "A-ligging and a-laiking, while us poor folk go to work. Well, I's counted shirts."

". . . one for t' rider and one for t' horse and one for t' boatman, for to row me across..."

The boy was crouching by a puddle, frothing his toy in it.

Fiercely, the woman pegged the washing out: smock, petticoat, shirt, breeches, smock. All dancing in the wind. Kit tweaked the breeches by the strings. "Here's thy chance," he said to them. "Do as I would."

"Huh," said the woman, but her shoulders quirked. "Would yer go to be hanged?

"Not I. And yet die bravely in a dance," he said.

Another woman looked out through the door. "Eh, Bet, what's to do?"

"A tain and his tally come a-begging. Lunish folk. Got besoms."

"Has they pins? We's short." She came out on the doorstep, flapping her apron. She was small and crumpled, with a smear of soap on her brow. Looking at the travellers, up and down, she said, "If it's guising, yer a bit few."

"A sword and a bush," said Kit.

"And late."

"The ways are very muddy," said Kit.

"And our shoes are very thin," said Thea.

"When's Lightfast i' Lune, then? Come May?" The woman with the basket looked at Thea. "Where's crown? Is t' wren in yer pocket, then?"

"Under her apron," said the woman at the door.

"Whisht," said the other. "Ista lad then? Or Ashes?"

"Turns," said Thea. "Whichever comes in next. Burnt Eldins."

"Aye well, if it's Eldins, yer first foot," said the woman at the door, relenting. "Not see'd Arrish lads as yet." Quirking at Kit: "What's he?"

Kit turned and shrank and darkened. The witch looked out through him, and cocked her shrewd black eye. Muck, said her mincing, and grubs, said her peck. Watching, Thea felt a thrill of uneasy laughter. He had Morag to the very nails. "The blood I brew, the bones I crack, I bear the childer on my back." The little girls watched, the rope slack, their faces uncertain. He clawed his hands at them and waggled.

The brown girl's thumb went in her mouth; she clung to her sister's apron. But the little dark one said, "Yer not a witch."

"Who said?" He swung the little dark thing in the air, and clapped her in the empty basket, shrieking delight.

Thea rounded on him, ranting in high style. It was her turn for Burnt Eldins; she had the coat. "Wha comes on stones?"

"Awd Crowdybones."

"What's that ye've got?"

"I's getting eldins for to boil me pot." Lantern and thornbush, like Mall-i'-th'-Moon.

"Wha's give thee leave to cut my wood?"

"Me glass and me riddle, they told me I could."

"All but nine, they may not go:

The alder, the elder, the ash and the sloe,
The witchtree, the whitethorn, the hazel and oak:
Break one of their branches, and down with a stroke."

"That's eight."

Thump, went the basket. Thump. And the girl peeked out, with her hair all tumbled, rough as juniper, her eyes as blue.

Thea whirled on her heel. "Burnt Eldins is youngest of all of the nine, I see by her stockins you've hung on the line."

"I's not been etten yet," said the girl. "It's all right, Tilda. Thou can look."

Kit crouched malefically. "Blood and bones, I'll crack, I'll crack, and fell and hair will patch me back. Eyes to me ravens, and breath to me bread, and fat for a candle to light me to bed."

Thea drew her sword of air.

"Take a broom," said Kit softly. "Plays better."

"Ah. Right then." Thea cleared her throat and struck a penny-plain bold stance. "Wha brings thee down but Hallycrown?" Turn and turn, they rimed.

"My tower's where thou'lt never find."

"They's left me a thread, and I walk and I wind." Round in merrills in the mud, she trod.

"I's ower t'riddles and back o' Cawd Law."

"They's spinned me a clew and I's under thy wall." Thea ducked the clothesline.

"I's snecked t'door, thou shan't come in." All a-twitter.

"Brock turns locks and lifts thy pin."

"What's within but mirk and mist?"

"But I's a sun frae Mally's kist." She upraised a withered apple-john.

"Here comes my ravens to peck out thine eyes."

"And here comes my chopper, for to make 'em mince pies."

Once, twice, thrice they clashed and down fell Morag in the mud. Kit clutched his heart, turned tipple, kicked his heels and croaked. Tilda giggled uncertainly. Thea snatched the child from the basket, and Kit spun it round with his foot. Down went the child in it. Thea spoke.

Now it's a ship and we all sail away,
So give us your hands for to finish our play.
The sail's o' th' siller, the mast's o' th' tree,
The moon's for a keel and the morrow's the sea.

*

Kit whispered to the child, "Hang on." He jumped up beside Thea and they took the handles of the creel. They hoisted it between them and they swung it, one two three, and whirled it round.

Up let her rise, and t' sisters take hands,
So gi' us some siller to bring them to land.
A sadcake, an apple, some eggs and old ale,
To help us poor guisers and weave us a sail.

*

"Now Tilda's turn," said the child when she'd got her breath.

*

"Thou gut yon fish," said Whin. "It's that and slawk."

Kit turned from the bitter bright morning. Salt in candle flame: it sparkled. "Ah?" Carefully, from rock to driftwood, rock to rock, he hobbled back to the fire, took the knife in stiff hands. "What's this, a dolphin?"

"Herring," said Whin. "Filched it. They'll blame cat." She prodded at the pot of seaweed, doubtful. "So, where got yer that guising? Not i' Lune."

"Imp Jinny. Said it might get an egg or two."

"Thin wind for thieving, March. All green and mockery." Whin clapped the lid to. "Wants a whet to it, does slawk. Verjuice or owt." She swiped the ladle with her finger, licked it. "So yer kept them rings."

"And who'd buy them?" Kit's hands were glittering with blood and scales. "Who'd make change? As good sell orchards in the moon."

"Spatchcocked, I think," said Whin. She took the fish. "Salt enough."

"There were two left. For the -- for the child, she said. Her portion. Those you took." He rubbed his fingers dry in sand. "One spent, one tossed away in scorn. Three ta'en by -- ruffians. And one she gave away."

"Did she, then?"

"To a boy. A whitehaired starveling boy. A scarecrow."

"Oh," said Whin, so poignantly that Kit knelt up by her.

"What is't then? At thy heart?"

*

They came by a ploughed field, pricked with the new green corn. A crow lad with his clapper cried, he clacked his sticks and cried, "Ban craws!" The cold wind shook his rags. The crows took up into the air. It was a brash day, bare and windy, with a sky of curds and whey. Thea stood in the furrows, watching; Kit stood by her. A stone's throw away, the birds swirled and settled, like a fall of ashes, calling out. Their voices glowed and faded like the sparks from the anvils of war.

Kit said, "He cries them barley."

"They defy him," said Thea. She was gazing at the sky. The clouds went swiftly. "Crows, that's all."

Cracked pepper, and a salt of smaller birds.

Hoarsely, hauntingly, the boy took up his chant.

Shoo all o't craws away,
Shoo all o't craws:
Out thrae John Barley's ground
Into Tom Tally's ground;
Out o' Tom Tally's ground
Intil Awd Mally's ground;
Out frae Awd Mally's ground
Into Black Annie's ground...

*

Kit took up a stone and flung it in the birds' midst. They shrugged derisively; they hopped a little sidelong, pecked. He ran at them, flackering his coat and crying, "Craws! Ban craws!" He clodded them with earth. Huffed as dowagers, they ruffled in their black; they snapped their well-I-never beaks. "Sod off!" yelled Kit. They rose and scattered in the wide grey sky; went silver and were gone.

Turning back, triumphant, he saw Thea, pinched and shivering among the furrows. He clouded over. They'd had nothing all that day; she could eat nothing when they had, but picked and spewed. Coarse provender, he thought: no stomach for't. And it was cold and muddy in the lanes, her shoes were worn -- ah, not her slippers, cast away in ruin. These were new old shoes, clodhopping country boots, ill-sorted with her rags of Lunish finery. And dearly they had cost her purse: her silver comb. Now he saw how odd her clothing looked, how tattery. Half tinsel and half drab. He'd thought of it as hers. Herself. How strange that started brush of hair, that boys cried Vixen! at. Cried whore.

Seeing him forlorn, she clapped and called to him, "Oh, bravely done."

He grinned and wiped a sword of air and sheathed it. "My turn for the boy," he said. The coat flapped windily.

"I'll be Ashes, then; I'm tired of Eldins."

Kit came and held her. "Ah," he said. "Did I tell thee? I dreamed it hailed moonseed. 'Twas full and it split."

"What sprang of it? Witches?"

"Children," he said. "All naked as the moon, and shining, as they were made of sky. They danced."

 

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