“Coryl, dearer than daughter,” the bedridden old woman wheezed, “have I told you how I won the Battle of Presswolde?”
“No, mistress Verna,” Coryl lied, dipping the cloth in mint-water again. It was a good tale, and the old witch’s deathwatch was nearly at its end. She dabbed the pale forehead, heard the others milling around beyond the door. Birds sang in the meadow outside. Afternoon sunshine shone through the window, casting the braids Coryl had woven into Verna’s silver hair in a warm and golden light.
“Caraskander the Elder was king then, and accounted wise.” Verna grinned her knowing, crooked smile that was also a frown. “But I knew his caution was both a strength and a weakness.”
“Oh?” Coryl smoothed the wisps at Verna’s temples. So soft, the skin of the old.
“His caution was well-founded. Gregor the Black had the backing of sixteen warlords. Lesser chieftains, perhaps. But sixteen!”
Coryl smiled and dipped the cloth again.
“He wanted signs.” Verna’s voice slid into wet coughs, and Coryl held her hand, fragile like a baby bird. The spasm passed. “Omens,” Verna gasped. “Confounded things. You’ll want to manage them, Coryl. Signs that do not help you, hurt you.”
Coryl nodded. “Yes, mistress.”
“I had Caraskander send his bravest scout on a perilous mission – I needed something Gregor had touched, or better, some piece of him: hair, toenail, a turd. Whatever.”
“Who was sent?” Coryl ran the cloth over her mistress’s feeble arms, as she would later, before she wrapped Verna in her funeral shroud.
“Trevrah, the hill woman, eldest of the Cunning Folk in those days, and lover to my master, in the old days, as we thought them then. Now, that was a woman. Tall, fierce, and fearless. Gregor’s encampment sprawled across the western valley like a plague. But she went, Trevrah did, without hesitation.”
“But mistress,” Coryl said as she soothed Verna’s cheeks with the cloth, “isn’t the Presswolde a mountain?” She knew her mistress’s favorite points in all her stories.
“Ah,” Verna smiled, her cloudy gray eyes sliding closed. “Indeed. But … the Battle of Presswolde would not … not be decided there. No, I knew …” Verna’s head sagged, and a chilling fear ran through Coryl. Verna’s mouth went slack, but her eyes fluttered open again. “… I knew … wherever the battle happened, it would be won or lost long before, not in the lands of any realm, but in the hearts of people.”
“Did Trevrah succeed?”
Verna’s thin fingers patted Coryl’s, weightless and soft, like the soft strokes of a starling’s wings. “Of course. The Cunning Folk do not fail.” Her eyes slid up to Coryl’s. For the last time? “Remember that when I am gone.”
Coryl nodded and lowered her lips to her mistress’s palsied hands. She kissed them, remembering their steady strength over the years. “I will.”
“With nothing but a waterskin and a shirt that showed much cleavage, Trevrah walked right into the fiercest invading army this land has ever known. She watered Gregor’s men, slit three throats in the night, and brought back Gregor’s comb a day later. Ah, what a woman. The balls of her!” Verna’s eyes rounded and her voice fell to a whisper. “If you would rule this coven, girl, you must learn to see the steel beneath the skin, as I did. You will need to find your Trevrah.”
Coryl nodded wanly and dampened the cloth once more. “What good did the comb do?”
Verna smiled and closed her eyes. “That pissant Caraskander was tighter than a tick, so I set into him. Kicked his ass out of his own great hall for a day and a night! I sent his servants to fetch me twine and pins from virgins. I sent his soldiers to gather water in the helms of fallen men by moonlight in every river within twenty miles, and gather it in a trough I made them drag into the hall. I made the smiths grind bones of long-dead knights and pour the dust into their forges, and strike every piece of armor and every weapon in Caraskander’s army. What a racket they made!” Verna’s giggle tumbled into a coughing fit that left her lips blue.
Coryl dabbed the spittle from her mistress’s chin. “And the comb?”
“When Caraskander returned, he found the web I wove with the twine and pins across the floor of his hall, in patterns that echoed the stars. From the comb, I drew seven silver hairs and laid them across the threads of the web, carefully, so they did not touch the ground.”
Verna blinked, her smile fading. “I told him the hairs showed that Gregor was doomed. The seven gray hairs matched Gregor’s seven rivals: two sons, two cousins, two uncles, and one brother. They revealed that Gregor was fearful. His hair was falling out from worry: worry that his hold of the warlords was slipping, worry that his children, cousins, and uncles would move against him. But more than anything, he feared facing Caraskander’s army in the open if he did not have advantage.”
Verna panted quietly, her collarbone seeming to stick out as she worked for her breath. Coryl missed the passion Verna used to have for the climax of her cleverness, but drawing breath was as clever as Verna could muster.
“Caraskander,” Verna said, eyes clenched, thin fists balling in the sheet, “led his army out and around the enemy, stormed … stormed Gregor’s encampment. Dead of night … from the west, at the foot of the Presswolde as Gregor approached. His great victory.” Verna shifted as her spirit sped. Her fists settled against the bed.
“No, mistress,” Coryl whispered. The first tear, hot and swift, sped down her cheek. She rose and smoothed Verna’s hair, caressed the tension from Verna’s brow. Gently, Coryl opened Verna’s fists and laid them across her mistress’s chest. “Your victory.”
She faced the door. “Come.”
Calling on her mistress’s wisdom, Coryl watched as her coven-sisters came in, one by one. Sweet Skellia came first, sniffling, her eyes red and swollen, followed by hard-hearted Gruina, who would challenge Coryl to the death and win, if Coryl did not manage this moment well. The sisters Haleth and Junis filed in, hands clasped as always. And finally Kabraella, bold and impatient as ever, strode into the room and stood over Verna, her strong hands futilely eager for something worth doing.
Gruina cleared her throat, swept her dark eyes from Verna’s repose Coryl’s downcast face. “Tomorrow, we-” she began.
“Silence, sister,” Kabraella spat. “What signs, Coryl? What omens did you see?”
Coryl set her jaw askew and shook her head, even as Vendra often had in anxious moments. “She told a tale of omens, sisters.”
“Did she finish?” Gruina asked, fists on her hips.
“She didn’t die mid-sentence, did she?” gasped Skellia. As one, all the sisters’ fingers made signs of warding.
Coryl shook her head. “No ill-omens today. She finished her tale with her final breath.”
They sighed with relief.
Coryl looked at each of them in turn as she chose her words. “The signs are clear that we must summon the omen we would read.” She faced the two sisters. “You two, fetch me the quilt Verna made for me, and draw from it five lengths of thread. Skellia, dear, stop crying. Run to the village, find me ten pins that have never been used – and do not touch them! Gruina, go into the woods and search for a tree that stands apart, as Verna did, in the open where the moonlight reaches the ground. You must be patient and stand vigilant tonight and see that no ill omens appear there. We will meet there at dawn, tomorrow.”
Coryl knit her brow into a knot. No one was moving. “Go! Now!”
Skellia bolted out the door, her tears already coming on again. The sisters bowed their heads and left. Gruina frowned at Coryl, pursed her lips, then stalked from the room.
“And me?” Kabraella.
Coryl reached beneath Verna’s pillow, drew out the ancient dagger with its black handle and curved blade. “This once belonged to Trevrah, eldest of the Cunning Folk. What a woman! Fearless, strong, and wise. Verna wanted you to have this and to be our Trevrah, now.”
Eyes rounded with awe, Kabraella took the weapon.
“The signs are clear: the coven must be one,” Coryl said. She gripped Kabraella by the shoulders, felt the steel beneath the skin. Coryl leaned close and kissed Kabraella’s cheek, slipped her lips to her coven-sister’s ear, and whispered. “You will either end my life, or you will follow Gruina and end hers. One of us must be cut from the coven. Only you have the strength, Trevrah.”
Coryl turned away, held her breath, and closed her eyes.
A long and silent moment passed. Kabraella closed the door when she left.
Coryl sighed and closed the window.