Juno Books

An Excerpt From The Sarsen Witch

By Eileen Kernaghan

[ Information on The Sarsen Witch ]

1: Naeri

She had had a name once, and a place in the world--preordained, unquestioned. Naeri, they had called her, the brown lily. A flower-name, because she had been a pretty child, smooth-skinned and delicately made. In time, when she grew into full womanhood and wisdom, she should have had another, secret name: a name of power.

Remembering those years, she saw circles within circles, like ramparts of banked earth, with herself--warm, loved, secure--inhabiting the center. Tribe, clan, hearth-family--the strong high walls of kinship had sheltered and surrounded her. With time, faces had grown remote and shadowy, like figures out of Legend. But at night, sometimes still, she woke with a hand clutching her heart.

She pushed back the ragged ends of her hair as she knelt beside her supper fire. No flower-name would suit her now, she thought with irony. She saw herself in her mind's eye--chapped lips, windburned face, lean, hard-muscled body. A creature spare and strong and hardy as the gorse. In one terrible hour the horsemen had stripped her of everything--tribe, name, mother, hearth-place--leaving her only her sharp wits and a certain quiescent, unschooled power. And yet they had left her better armed than they knew.

She set a pot of barleymeal and water over the hot coals, and stirred in a duck egg from the morning's forage. While the porridge thickened, she cracked and ate a handful of hazelnuts.

The round, shallow eyes of the Mother-figure watched her--benignly, or so it seemed. Some long-departed miner had carved that little squat, swollen-bellied chalk woman, hoping no doubt that her fecundity would by example call forth a greater yield of flint. In this dark chamber the Mother-figure's presence was a comfort. She seemed to say, "Here beneath the earth, in the womb of the hill, is my hearth-place. I will share it with you, who have no name and no place of your own."

The mine entrance, three-quarters jammed with rubble and chalk blocks, was further concealed by a tangle of furze and juniper scrub. It was more like a cave than a mine shaft, running for a few feet into the slope of the chalk cliff, then angling sharply downward. As a rule these worked-out shafts were filled with chalk rubble, as though to repair the damage done to the earth. This one, for whatever reason, had been left open.

Perhaps a dozen handspans below the entrance passage, a lateral gallery opened off the main shaft. It had an air hole to the outside and was large enough to sleep and cook and move about in. Once it must have served as an underground workroom; the floor was littered with flint chips and odd bits of tools.

It was a good place, sheltered from wind and rain, well hidden from men's eyes, hidden too from the wolves that howled at night in these upland pastures. And she knew that she could not be trapped here, as too often many earth-dwelling creatures were trapped in their burrows. Below her living gallery was a network of passages leading off from the main shaft at many levels and in many directions, connecting it with dozens of other exits to the surface.

She had been frightened at first to sleep above those black subterranean tunnels. Some nights, thinking she heard ghosts wandering there, she would build a fire between her bed and the shaft mouth, and huddle trembling against the farthest wall. In time she realized that the sounds she heard were the patterings and rustlings of small animals, or the noise of the wind finding its way along a passage.

As she grew braver, she climbed down the shaft and explored the maze of tunnels, so that now she carried their twistings and turnings like a map in her head. Sometimes she came across a skull, or scattered bones, but she was no longer frightened. Though men had worked and more than likely died here, they did not seem to have left their spirits behind.

For the first months she had lived by foraging for birds' eggs, snaring hares, fishing for trout and salmon in the streams. Like a squirrel, she laid by what she could for winter--nuts, roots, rose hips, seeds.

When the cold came, she grew bolder. She traveled by night, swiftly and silently as the red deer, down into the valley towns, up to the gates of the cattle farms on the hills. She shared no kinship with these people. If they caught her they would kill her, or make her a hearth-slave, according to their whim. But they had barley plots, vegetable patches, midden heaps. She lived like the fera, those little wild folks half out of Legend, stealing what she could in the night and hiding her booty in the hollow hill.

Thus she had come to possess a fine store of chipped crockery, two leather water jugs; an incense cup with no incense; and a badly dented copper bowl. All these were arranged on a chalk ledge over her bed of bracken and skins. In a lower gallery, where it was cool and dry, she kept her winter stores, eked out by emmer and barley from unguarded fields.

Whatever she found on her forays that might one day prove useful, she kept--bits of rope, scraps of woven cloth, a wicker basket, discarded tools. Among these things were treasures--a belt-fastener and one button of glossy jet, an amber bead. These last were wrapped carefully in a piece of doeskin and stuffed for safekeeping under her bed.

Accustomed from childhood to warmth, safety, a measure of comfort, she had set out to make her dwelling place secure and pleasant: covering the floor with bracken, and lining the chalk walls with the skins of small animals, pegged into place with sharpened sticks.

The daughters of the witchfolk leaned early those skills they needed to survive. More than once, as a child, she had gone with her sisters to hunt the fallow deer. Now, thanks to the flint miners, she was well supplied with spear heads. What she yearned to find, or steal, was a good straight unbroken shaft. With luck and a hunter's weapon, she could supply herself those things like lamp fat, needles, sinew, that were hardest to steal and most difficult to do without.

She finished her meal and heaped chalk rubble on the embers of her fire. By now, she judged, it must be full dark. She put her dagger into her belt, laced up her sandals. Then, quick as a cat, she scaled the notched tree trunk that led to the outside world.

The high chalk pastures rolled away into distance, dipping and swelling like black water before the wind. On a high point to the west, two black stones leaned against the horizon, marking the ridge track. To the southeast, at the escarpment's edge, bare wind-wracked thorns held up their branches. It was almost midnight, a clear moonless night, the air cold enough to sting her cheeks. Stars, glittering and sharp as ice, were beginning to appear among tag ends of clouds. She could feel the crunch of frost on the short turf underfoot. She liked this weather, welcomed the rush of nervous energy it brought after the long melancholy weeks of rain. All the same, a wet night would have served her purpose better; sound carried too well in this sharp air.

She came to the edge of the chalk, where steep woods plunged down to the bottomlands. A long way below, between the trees, she could see the gleam of black water with light reflected in it. Sheltered by beech and ancient yews, she started down the hill path.

2: Gwi

Gwi held the copper bracelet up to the lamp for a final inspection. Satisfied, he polished it with a scrap of doeskin to bring up the shine. It was a simple piece, but elegantly wrought, and could have come from no other hand but his own. Assuming she had the sense to know fine work from shoddy, the chief's wife should be pleased with it.

He set the bracelet aside, along with the belt-rings. They had no work for him here that challenged his skills or his imagination, but still, he had paid for his supper and lodging. He picked up the flat-tanged ceremonial dagger, testing its grip. Not that it mattered--it was copper, not bronze, meant only for show. The village was a small one, off the main track. Here, flint knives were still in ordinary use; copper reserved for ritual; bronze and gold beyond even the headman's reach. All the same, this chief had his copper worked to order, as the great horse-chiefs did. That in itself showed a large measure of pride--or ambition--when most village folk were content to buy cheap foreign-made goods from wandering merchants.

Remembering the great workrooms of the horse-chiefs, Gwi was restless to move on. He thought of gold inlay, jet studs, faience, amber; axes of good bronze and golden ceremonial breastplates. His hand itched for his tools.

Then he started and looked up, hearing a faint noise like the snap of a twig, behind the hut where he had set up his makeshift forge.

Soft-shod, he moved in darkness along the side of the hut, with his hand on his dagger pommel.

The intruder was crouched over the smithy fire. His back was turned, and he appeared to be poking with a stick through the dead coals. Gwi caught him by surprise. He set his foot in the small of the man's back and sent him sprawling, face first, into the still-warm ashes. Then, while the thief was coughing and rubbing soot out of his mouth, Gwi seized both his wrists and dragged them sharply behind his back.

Gwi was surprised at the strength in those narrow shoulders--it was all that he could do to hold on. Finally, at dagger point, he turned the fellow round--and found, to his mild astonishment, that his captive was a woman.

She was a tall girl, with a spare angular grace about her. Her dark brown hair was cropped to shoulder length, pulled back from her brow and tied with a thong. She had a rather long, somber face--straight-nosed, stern-jawed, with high prominent cheekbones burnished by the cold. Her body was as taut as a strung bow, her gray eyes wide and startled.

"Well," said Gwi, examining her with interest. "You may thank the Mother it was me who found you. The villagers would have killed you on the spot."

Her gaze was cool, defiant. Not a thief's boldness, he thought, but the look of a warrior, almost.

"And you?" she asked. "What will you do with me, instead?"

Gwi shook his head. "Girl, you misjudge me. That was not in my mind either. But like any other man, I value my possessions. If I catch a prowler behind my house, I have a right to ask what she is after."

She spread her hands out before her. "Nothing. As you see, I have taken nothing."

He glanced at the pouch hanging from her belt. She shrugged, opened it, spilled the contents at his feet. He saw pieces of flint, tinder scraps, something--probably food--wrapped up in linen. A broken amber bead. A painted potsherd. Nothing of his. Nothing, except for the flint and the food, of the slightest value.

"I take what is thrown out. Or sometimes what is spared easily--a handful of grain. I saw your forge place, and I thought I might find a bit of sky-stone, or maybe pyrite, for my tinder pouch."

"So, not a thief, then. Only a harmless scavenger."

She shrugged again, but he saw that his words had brought a darker rush to her cheeks. He could sense the fierce pride in her and was suddenly ashamed of his mockery.

"I do what I must to live. I only take what I need."

And then, looking down at the broken bead and the potsherd, she surprised him with a rueful look, the ghost of a grin. "And those--well, those are pretty," she said.

He laughed. "Are you hungry? I have stew on the fire."

She nodded, somewhat dubious. He sat her down at his table before she could change her mind, and ladled stew into a bowl.

He was a man of lively curiosity. He wanted to keep this strange wild bird in his hand a little longer.

"Where do you live?" he asked, while she ate.

She gestured vaguely. "Up there," she said. "On the chalk." Her look was evasive.


She nodded.

"An odd choice for a young woman."

"Not so odd," she replied. "You live alone, do you not?"

"Aye. But wandering the roads as I do, I never lack for society. You, I think, are not often in the company of other folk."

Once again, that noncommittal lift of the shoulders. She made no reply, only went on with her meal.

Finally she looked up and said dryly, "I did not expect to be in your company, either. After all, it is the middle of the night."

"I was working," Gwi said. "Sometimes I lose sense of the time."

He saw that she had a streak of soot across her temple. He picked up a polishing cloth and went to wipe it away. She looked warily at him, but stood quiet under his hand.

He could hear the faint pop and crackle of the fire, dying down to embers. Somewhere nearby a baby was crying. Before long dogs would bark and cattle would begin shuffling and lowing in their byres. Soon, too, the village women would crawl out of their warm beds to light the hearth-fires.

"Well," he said to the girl, "I will not keep you longer. Go while it is safe still."

A thought struck him. Where was that buckle he had set aside? He hesitated, thinking, this is not a woman to be given baubles. A good bronze knife is what she needs, if I had one not spoken for. Still, he thought, sometimes you should obey your first impulse, if it is a harmless one.

She was half out the door when he said, "Wait. This is for you. Put it away in your pouch."

Her eyes widened. "It is of no value," Gwi said. "See, there is a flaw here, where I was careless with the hammer. It will serve you well enough to fasten your belt, but I can't sell it." He smiled at her. "That is what you look for, is it not--things that other folk would throw away?"

She held out her hand for a moment, turning and examining it. She looked at him with faint puzzlement. Then, she opened her pouch and dropped the buckle inside. In the blink of an eye she was gone.


The Lord Ricca stamped his feet hard and blew on his hands. Though the morning was half-gone, the roofs glistened with frost; the mud in the courtyard was frozen in ridges, stone-stiff. Ricca had put on his great sheepskin surcoat over his jerkin, and his woolen cloak over that. Still the cold bit at him. Never, he thought, watching his breath smoke, could he remember such a queer winter as this. For weeks it had been warm and wet as springtime. Now, all at once, as new life was beginning to stir in the ground, this hard, bitter weather gripped them.

All the same, he felt uncommonly cheerful. The promise of a winter sun glimmered behind thin clouds. His head, thick and sore from last night's feasting, was starting to clear in the sharp bright air. He thought that he might ride out to hunt, later.

"My Lord Ricca. Your pardon, my lord." A young stammering voice, just at his elbow.

From his great height, Ricca glowered down at the slave. The boy was plainly terrified--obligated to deliver his message, but convinced nonetheless that he would be thrashed for daring to speak.

"What do they call you?"

"Harn, lord."

Ricca scratched his beard and spat. He remembered this slave--a thin stick of a lad, at eighteen beardless as a girl, good for nothing but kitchen work. Still, the boy had been born in the camp, and had cost him nothing.

He waited, watching the boy cringe under his cold eyes. Each day, as for the first time, Ricca savored the sweetness of power. It was his, now, until his dying-time.

Harn had found his tongue. "Lord Ricca, they have sent me to say that the smith has come."

Abruptly, thoughts of the hunt vanished. "Have those fools of women fed him yet? Has the furnace been lit?"

"He has eaten, lord. He says he would rather see to the fire himself."

Ricca grunted. It was Gwi himself then, not the whey-faced easterner who had come last spring.

"Go," he said, in so mild a voice that the boy looked up, astonished. "Tell the smith I am coming."

* * *

Gwi had his broad back turned to the door. He was stroking the great stone charcoal pit, the sorcerer's fire that blasted the skin like the sun's heat. He turned and straightened at Ricca's approach, his face glistening with sweat.

"My Lord Ricca," said Gwi--but he did not bow his head, or bend his knees. It was true that Ricca was Great Chief; but a master-smith, like an archmage, was any man's equal.

"You have risen in the world since I was last here," Gwi said. "You do your father honor."

Graciously, as befitted his new station. Lord Ricca inclined his chin. Gwi's greeting pleased him. In truth, it was a great thing that he had done. He had feared, in secret, that the vote might favor his cousin Cian, who was subtle and clever, as Ricca was not. But it was the War-Council, in the end, that carried the vote--men who had the good sense to prize strength and valor and great deeds above all else.

"There is plenty of work for you," Ricca told the smith. "The funeral games near emptied my treasury, and soon now there is the Planting Feast."

"Good," said Gwi. "I am weary of traveling these winter roads."

"You will stay until spring, then?"

"Aye--longer, if you can keep me busy. I will see that the Spring Feast does you honor."

Ricca watched Gwi curiously as he laid out his tools, wondering what there was about this mild-tempered quiet man that so commanded his respect. Gwi was, by repute, the finest artisan in all the west country, or come to that, as far as the Narrow Sea. Yet he did not speak of his skill, as a warrior might; his fame came only from the mouths of other folk. He was paid well for his work, yet he dressed like a farmer, in rough-woven tunic and mended cloak. He said that it was for fear of robbers on the road; but he came as plainly garbed to Ricca's feast-table, his only ornament a single narrow bracelet of coiled bronze, when he might have worn all the gold of the west in perfect safety.

For the rest, he was of ordinary height, neither fair nor dark; thickset of build, with no spare flesh on his bones; like all smiths well-muscled in the arms and shoulders, but without the great thews and massive neck that marked a warrior.

He was gentle-mannered, soft-spoken; talking no more than he needed to, but smiling often. No man would mistake him for a warrior; he might have been a priest, or a bard. In Ricca's eyes he was as great a sorcerer as old Magha the priest. In Gwi's magic fire the green dull rock was transformed into bright metal, red-gold and shining as the evening sun. Under his clever hands, rough lumps of gold or bronze swelled flowerlike into thin, lovely shapes.

"Come with me," Ricca said. "You will be pleased when I show you what is in my storeroom." He was impatient to reveal his treasures--ingots of copper and gold, tin for bronze-making, black, glossy jet, huge warm lumps of amber . . .

"Time enough for that later," said Gwi. "First bring me your broken weapons, whatever you want recast. This oven is as nervous as a colt--I must first give it something easy to chew on to gentle it down."

Ricca opened his mouth to protest, but remembered that would get him nowhere at all with the smith. Like a child, he swallowed his disappointment.

"Well," he conceded, "there is plenty of cracked bronze, after last week's raid."

"Ah," said Gwi. "I heard about that. Brega's tribe, was it not? And did you win the day?"

"Aye," said Ricca, surprised. How could it have been otherwise? Brega was an old man, who had put off too long his dying. His war-band fought among itself, with too little thought for other foes.

"Two hundred head of cattle we took that day," said Ricca, "and forty horses."

"In truth," said Gwi, "your time was not wasted." He smiled as he said it. Gwi appeared to see jests, sometimes, that were not plain to other men.

"I will send the armsmaster to you," Ricca said. "But tomorrow you must promise to look at the gold, for I have in mind such a shield as no other chief in this country possesses. And," said Ricca, "since we spoke of feasts . . . tonight you shall sit in the war-circle, on my left hand, and tell me news from the east."

* * *

Neither the two great hearth-fires nor all the bearskins on the wall could keep the cold out of Ricca's feast-hall that night. The wind's icy fingers reached around the door hangings, crept beneath the hides at the window and through every chink in the timbers. Men came into the feast-circles with furs and cloaks over their fine clothes, while hearth-slaves scurried among them with beakers of hot barley-beer and mead.

"Eat," Ricca told Gwi. He tossed a gnawed joint to his hounds, his arm clanking with its weight of gold and copper bracelets. He could see out of the corner of his eye that the smith, in his drab cloak, ate sparingly, with eastern manners.

"Fill your belly while you can," Ricca said. "If this weather takes hold, we may all starve by spring."

Ricca's brother Finga looked at the great platter of venison and beef that a slave had just set in front of him, and he guffawed.

"That is a good joke, Ricca," he said. "The cribs are half-full still, and the cattle shelters are jammed with cattle. Your woods are full of pigs and deer. If spring does not come at all this year, none of us will go hungry."

"You are a fool, little brother," Ricca said. "Look around you, see how many mouths I must feed. The grass does not grow when the ground is frozen. The granaries do not fill up by themselves."

For answer, Finga belched. "Well then," he said amiably, "if we have not enough, we will steal from our neighbors."

All around the war-circle, men bellowed with laughter and thumped their beakers on the tables.

After a time, a lazy contentment stole over Ricca. The air was warmer now, shimmering with woodsmoke and pungent with the smell of sizzling pork. The hot mead and the beer had thawed his bones; his belly was full of good red meat.

The women, too, had been into the beer vats. Some of them danced, rather lewdly, showing generous glimpses of breasts and buttock, while the men grinned and beat time with their beakers. Two of Ricca's wives were among the dancers. Watching them, he felt the mead-warmth gathering in his loins. Idly he wondered which one he would summon to his bed tonight. Both, maybe.

Then abruptly the room fell silent, for the minstrel had come in with his string-box. He took his place in the center of the war-circle, and for a moment bent his dark head over his instrument. In a hush broken only by the crackle of the fires and the low moaning of the wind, the first notes rose on the smoky air.

"Terrible to see in battle
is the face of the Lord Ricca.
Terrible and mighty is his ax
as the thunder-ax of the heavens,
gold-glittering and round his shield
as the face of the Sky-Lord.
The tall spears of his war-band
are as numerous as the barley.
All the bright gold of the Westland
he has gathered into his storehouse.
Chief among chiefs, Lord Ricca,
we conceal not your praise.
Tall are you among chiefs
as the great oak that looks down
on all the trees of the forest."
This bard had appeared one day out of nowhere, footsore and ragged, begging a chunk of barley-bread for a song. His own folk had been slaughtered, he said--the chief and all the warriors dead, the camp burned, the people killed or carried off as slaves. Too proud to sing the praises of the conqueror, the bard had fled into the countryside with only the clothes on his back and his string-box.

Ricca glanced up. There was some kind of commotion outside. Heads turned, and hands went to daggers. Presently the cattlemaster burst in, followed by two slaves dragging between them a thin youth, who in spite of his bound hands and feet was struggling furiously.

The cattlemaster had to shout to make himself heard over the din.

"Lord, we were riding out after a stray steer, and we found this thief in your oak woods stealing a pig."

"Bring him here," Ricca bellowed. By now, like most of the war-circle, he was quite drunk.

They hauled the pig thief across the room, still twisting and writhing and trying to reach his captors' hands with his teeth. His ragged cloak had been pulled off, and his tunic was ripped. Ricca took a closer look and blinked in surprise. This pig thief was not a lad at all, but a skinny, crop-haired girl. This indeed was a fine joke, Ricca thought. Had it been a boy, he would have ordered his throat cut on the spot. But now he saw the chance of a livelier entertainment.

"Bind her mouth so she will not bite," Ricca said to the women. Giggling, one of them brought a strip of linen. Meanwhile, Ricca pulled the torn tunic down to the girl's waist. Though skinny, she was well made, he noticed.

"Fetch the knucklebones," he said. "We will cast lots to see who goes first."

Hearing that, the women screeched with excitement and crowded close for fear of missing something.

Afterward, Ricca thought, I may still cut her throat, if there is any point in it. He objected to having his pig stolen.

"Wait," said a quiet voice in his ear. "A moment, Ricca."

Ricca grinned at Gwi and elbowed him in the ribs. "What, smith, do you fancy her for yourself, then?"

"I might at that," Gwi said. "Listen, I will make you that gold shield for nothing, if you let me have her."

Ricca roared with laughter, while the warriors grumbled among themselves like dogs robbed of a bone.

"Smith, she is yours, and by the Sky-Lord, I wish you pleasure with her."

All the while the minstrel, who had set down his string-box, was watching intently. When Ricca took the girl by her bare, bruised shoulders and pushed her into Gwi's arms, the minstrel's puzzled eyes followed her.

* * *

"Well, girl," said Gwi, when he had her safely back to the smithy, with the door barred. "We did well to bring you alive out of that."

She hunched herself against the wall of his bed-place, her knees drawn up tight against her chest. Her eyes were wide and blank with shock; she was shuddering, as though chilled to the bone.

Gwi felt in his pack for a pin, and drawing up the torn flaps of her tunic, he fastened them on her shoulder. Her cloak was still on the floor of the feast-hall; in his haste he had forgotten to pick it up. He took off his own and wrapped it around her.

Mildly he said, "You are growing overbold, my lass. It seems they were not through with that pig just yet."

She chose to take his small joke seriously. Through chattering teeth she replied, "I was hungry for meat. Who was to know whose pigs they were?"

"Never mind," he said. "You're safe enough here. Lie down now. Sleep. I've had a long day on the road--and it's growing longer by the minute." A thought struck him. "Are you hungry? I have some hardcake in my pack."

She shook her head.

"Well, drink this, at least," he said, holding out his waterskin. "Though mulled ale would do you more good."

She tipped back her head and drank thirstily. Then, still shivering, she lay down on her back on the far side of the bed, log-stiff and with her eyes wide open, waiting.

"Pull those skins over you," Gwi said gently.

She turned her great gray eyes on him.

"Lass," he said, "go to sleep. For that is all I mean to do myself."

Now, hot-faced, she was looking up into the rafters. "I thought . . ."

"Yes, well," said Gwi. "And so did Ricca think--for which you may praise the Mother. One must talk to the Great Chief in words which make sense to him. Suppose I had told him I spoke for you only out of friendship?"

She gave him a puzzled look.

"Well, did you not eat of my bread, lass? And are you not wearing my hearth-gift? In my country we treat our hearth-guests with courtesy. I will not take from you anything you do not wish to give."

He lay down in his clothes and pulled the sheepskins over both of them. He put one arm around her shoulders, and when he drew her closer to him she did not resist. After a while he heard her teeth stop chattering and her breath grow quiet and even.

Weary as he was, it was a long time before sleep came for Gwi. In the deep night he woke again, and feeling her close and warm beside him, his loins stirred. He turned over, leaving a little space between them, and did not wake again till dawn.

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Copyright © 2008, Eileen Kernaghan. All Rights Reserved.

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