The mist hung low in the valley between the forest and the town. It dangled from tree branches like stockings on a washing line and curled around Grayling’s head as she weeded and hoed and raked, readying the herb garden for its winter rest. When her basket was filled—angelica and agrimony, rosemary and the remains of the dill—she put her shoes on again, for she had been gathering the last of the summer herbs with her feet bare, as was proper. She stood still for a moment, letting mist settle on her shoulders like a damp cloak, and listened to the quiet.
Finally, picking up the basket, she headed home. The steeply roofed cottage of wattle and yellow-tinted daub sat in a bit of a clearing, shaded by an ancient apple tree. Its round-topped door of rowan wood was crisscrossed by iron bands against the evil designs of demons, ghosts, and ill-wishers of all sorts. Brass bells hung from the eaves, a swag of hazel rods and garlic festooned the little window, and smoke poured from the smoke hole in the roof. Grayling smiled to see it, as she always did. Despite her mother’s endless tasks, the cottage meant comfort, safety, seclusion.
The day was mild enough for them to have the window open. Grayling could hear her mother singing while she crushed dried wormwood and nettle for a healing ointment. Her mother, Hannah Strong, wise woman and healer, helped those she could in exchange for a ham or a wool coat or the mending of a pot. How much was magic, how much learning, and how much common sense, Hannah Strong never said, but most people left satisfied.
“I have settled the herb garden,” Grayling said.
“Have you gathered the herbs as I bid you?”
“Yes,” Grayling said, lifting up her basket.
“Did you pull out any bindweed or thistle?”
“By the roots? Nasty things, if you don’t.”
“Come in, then, and stir the marsh-mallow root bubbling in the kettle, and don’t be letting it burn while you laze. Young George Potter suffers from a clenching of the bowels and needs a tonic.”
Grayling nodded and entered the cottage.
“Thomas Middleton will be coming anon with his son Gabe, who suffers from boils. While I lance and clean them, you will watch over Thomas’s youngest, for his mother lies abed with melancholy.”
“Aye, I will.” Grayling clumped her way to the kettle hanging over the fire. “If you say I will, I will,” she muttered. “You know I will. Of course I will. I always do.” When Thomas and his boys arrived, Grayling, as she was accustomed, slipped into the corner, and the little boy dozed on her lap.
Grayling mostly avoided those who came for her mother’s remedies, charms, and tonics. Greeting folks meant speaking up, and Grayling thought her mother spoke enough for both of them. And the girl learned many things by listening when visitors forgot she was there. Margery Atwood wanted a love charm to woo the miller’s son away from Cecily Waterstone. Ralph Farquhar had a rash shaped like a turnip on his bum. Randall Pike’s pig found its way into Wellington Baker’s yard and cooking pot, so Randall Pike perched on Wellington’s doorstep and wouldn’t move until he was paid for the pig. Randall’s wife brought him bread and beer each day at noon, and he voided his bladder in a door-side gooseberry patch.
William Miller had a vision of soldiers marching on the road north of town, and Hannah Strong believed it likely a true sighting, portending conflict, for the land was in turmoil. “Warlords are forming their own armies,” she said with a frown. “The powerful want more power, the wealthy want more wealth, and heaven help those who get in their way.”
“Aye,” said Thomas Middleton. “Them what has, gets, and the rest of us make do with turnips.”
“Leastwise,” said Hannah Strong with a quick slice at a boil on Gabe’s shoulder, “you have turnips, and a home and bed, so you have no need to go to edge dwelling.”
“Aye,” repeated Thomas Middleton. “I seen them, bullies living rough and menacing them passing by. I say tae you, summat wicked be in the kingdom.”
Grayling’s skin prickled with unease. There were some things she would rather not have heard.
Next morning, mist again sheltered the valley. Grayling sat cross-legged on the edge of the pond, humming as she scoured the kettle. She thought about dinner. They still had parsnips and carrots in the ground, and perhaps there were enough apples left for an apple tart. With cream, if only they had cream. She licked her lips.
“Grayling, come. Attend me now!” Her mother’s voice. The calling mingled with the croaking of frogs in the pond and the ting-tang of dewdrops, and it sounded to Grayling like a sort of music.
“Grayling, come at once, or I shall turn you into a toad!” her mother shouted again, much louder. Belike she would if she could, Grayling thought. By borage and bryony, I can do but one thing at a time. Why can she not do whatever it is herself and leave me be? Hidden as she was in the mist in the herb garden, Grayling could think such things, even though she could not imagine saying them.
She clambered to her feet, left the kettle to soak in the pond, and filled a basket with the remaining watercress and mint that grew at the water’s edge. Finally, swinging her basket at her side, she turned for the cottage and her mother.
The mist was clearing elsewhere, but the cottage was still obscured. Grayling drew closer. Everything was the same, yet somehow different. There was the steeply roofed cottage of wattle and yellow-tinted daub. Brass bells still hung from the eaves, and a swag of hazel rods and garlic yet festooned the little window. Smoke poured from the smoke hole in the roof and . . . that was it. Not mist but smoke shrouded the cottage! Too much smoke! Suddenly the roof thatch exploded into flames.
What had happened? Where was Hannah Strong? “Mother!” Grayling screamed. The flames chewed at the little house, but she darted forward. The terrible roaring of the fire hurt her ears, and the heat forced her back. “Madam, my mother!” she screamed again. “Where be you? Answer me!”
“Cease your clamoring, Grayling,” Hannah Strong said. “I be right here.” The voice was low and hoarse, belike from the shouting and the smoke, but her mother’s voice nonetheless. Grayling turned. Her mother stood at the edge of the clearing.
Grayling stumbled over and grabbed her hand. “What has happened? Come, run, before the fire finds the trees and we are