Witchery: A Tale of the Carbon Wars
Written for the Discovered in Thirty Years Time challenge on the discoveredinalj livejournal community
The three of them came down the footpath from the ridge just before dusk: the limping old one, ginger and cunning as a fox, the big dark warrior and the green-eyed bard with the broken face.
It's funny, how quickly we've gone back to the old archetypes. Wouldn't have believed it, back in the days when this was called Cool Britannia and people ate more curry than fish and chips. Back then, if you'd asked anyone, the old days were gone and good riddance; the newest in everything, from mobiles to clothes to banking, was coming from us. We were the future. No time for the beliefs of our ancestors, or even the language.
Of course, that was before the water rose. And the carbon wars.
Today, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Robin Goodfellow in the glen and fairies at the bottom of the garden.
And speaking of...
I opened the cottage door as they came up the path, the two younger ones slowing for the old man, though they didn't quite have the nerve to offer him a supporting arm. As they got closer, I could see the signs of fighting on all of them, and bone deep weariness as well.
"Good evening, madam," the old man said in a strongly accented voice, Scots if I remembered rightly. It'd been a long time since I'd heard any voice that didn't come from within a day's walk. "My name is George Cowley. These are my men, Bodie and Doyle. We're with the Young Lieutenant's forces, and got separated during a skirmish."
"Greetings, George Cowley." I didn't tell him my name; to those who believe it, names have power, and since I didn't know him I wasn't ready to hand over any of mine. He didn't smell of the old ways, but then, I've never claimed to be a true witch either. Nevertheless, hospitality has its obligations, even in these times. "Enter in peace, be welcome in spirit."
I took the rowan branch that hangs by the door and passed it over each of them as they entered. I didn't feel anything--as I said, I've never claimed to be a witch--but they didn't know that. More than one person's given themselves away at just the sight of it.
I got them settled at the kitchen table and pumped some water up from the well. Fresh running water into three silver cups, a sprinkle of salt, just a few grains in each before I handed them over.
Doyle, the green-eyed one, lifted his cup, touched it to his breast and forehead. "Well-met to those within these walls," he said, and drank. Cowley and Bodie hesitated, then did so as well. I could tell the old man didn't believe, but would do what was expedient, and Bodie, well, he'd do what he had to not to look a yob in front of his commander. No matter. Sometimes it's not the thought that counts.
With ritual out of the way, I stoked the fire, put the kettle on and got some food from the larder. As I cut rabbit and leek pie and sliced bread and cheese, I watched them, and didn't try to be subtle about it either.
Doyle leaned over Cowley, asking him something quietly, and the old man nodded and waved him off impatiently. "I'm alright, lad. Nothing a year of rest and a drop of malt wouldn't cure, and there's neither to be had. See to Bodie."
Bodie was already stripping out of his jacket, showing a torn shirt tacky with blood on the right side. No wonder he looked grim as death. That had to hurt, but he'd never made a sound.
Without being asked, I poured some of the warming water from the kettle into two bowls and fetched clean cloths and my herbal bag.
"Here." I opened my bag, and began to search for what I needed. As I reached over the second bowl, Doyle's arm shot out, his hand intercepting the sprinkle of powder.
"Your pardon, wise lady." His voice was polite, but his eyes hard. I had to smile inside.
"The fault is mine," I said just as graciously. "I'm a stranger to you." Carefully, I brought out my herb pouches and laid them on the table. "This is willow bark, for fever and pain. This is boneset, for quick healing, and rosebay willowherb, which will soothe and comfort." When Doyle nodded, I added a spoonful of each to the water.
"Wash him carefully with plain water, then soak a cloth in the herbs to make a warm compress. Once that's had a chance to work, I'll put on some antiseptic cream and strap him up."
"You believe in antiseptic?" Bodie's voice was light with scorn.
"I believe in what works." I smiled at him with a great many teeth. "Be thankful I don't believe you need a good strong dose of salts."
"You've a doctor in this area?" Cowley asked, interested.
I shook my head. "The chemist in the village and I are the closest thing to medicine there is around here. Luckily, we get on very well." I didn't mention that Murphy'd been courting me for the last two years, and that I'd been more and more hard pressed to find reasons to say no.
Doyle tended to Bodie's wound while I made tea. It's not what used to be called tea, of course: I'm willing to bet true Thea sinensis plants are scarce as hen's teeth anywhere these days. The Second Carbon War went chemical and biological pretty quickly, and from what the wireflush managed to bring back before everything went off the air, most of Southeast Asia was scoured bare within days.
I've heard, though I can't say for sure, that in London a pound of real tea will sell for its weight in sewing needles, or a visit to a real dentist with proper equipment, or a whole day on a working computer. The rest of us drink peppermint or horehound and like it.
London. I put my hand to the water pump with a little more force than necessary. I knew that what I remembered of London, half Camelot and half EuroDisney, had to be a child's fantasy, piled on with years of nostalgia. Even back then, I knew large parts of the place were a rat hole. But still--
I was just a kid when my parents left London and moved down here. 2014, that was, the year of the First Carbon War, between the Yanks and China. I hated it here, of course: out in the country, miles from anywhere, no electricity except what dad got from the windmill, no television or phone or computer. Not even a car: we rode our bikes into the village, or caught the bus down on the B road if we needed to go further. Dad explained that the carbon war meant things were getting very bad with the environment, and we had to be prepared to fend for ourselves.
"If we wait until it all goes to hell like everybody else is," I remember him saying, "we'll get caught up in the panic and we won't make it."
He was right, but try telling that to a ten-year-old girl who was used to texting her friends a hundred times a day, and watching holodef television downloads on her iSight.
We had no idea how right.
A hand suddenly covered mine on the pump handle. Pulled out of the past, I jerked a little, and almost lost my hold on the bucket.
"Why not let me do that?" Doyle said, easily grasping the bucket as well. "Least I can do for your hospitality."
I watched him a moment as he pumped. Not handsome, not with that round face; he might have been pretty once, before the smashed-in cheekbone. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten, that could have been fixed, I thought bleakly, and for a moment all my herbs and knowledge seemed like nothing but superstition and moonshine.
Then he swung up the bucket and smiled at me, and suddenly he didn't need to be handsome at all.
While the men ate, we exchanged news.
There had been, to my surprise, a sixth carbon war, this one in South America.
"I didn't even know there'd been a fifth," I said, counting back on my fingers.
"Yeah, fifth was in Nigeria," Bodie said, shoveling in cold pie. "I did some merc work there. Got paid a packet, too. Only problem was--"
"I didn't have a tanker to bring it back in!" Doyle finished in chorus with him. Cowley rolled his eyes, obviously at a joke he'd heard far too often, but Doyle cackled out loud and Bodie beamed with satisfaction.
"Well, that should pretty well finish it, shouldn't it? There can't be too many places left in the world that have oil."
England didn't get hit until the Third Carbon War, and by then the fight was about keeping the oil in the ground, rather than trying to get hold of it and use it. The Norwegians were smart; they shut down their platforms and stopped pumping as soon as the water started to rise. We, stubborn to the end, kept on trying to fit the square peg of carbon accumulation into the round hole of survival until the rest of the EU chopped it into kindling for us.
Cowley also told me that it looked as if the water had finally stopped rising in London.
"Yeah, you could scuba dive in the Houses of Parliament if you were so inclined," Doyle said.
"Now there's an idea, mate!" Bodie said triumphantly. "A job once we muster out. Historical underwater adventure tours. Visit Buck House, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery. Luncheon included, gratuities extra."
Cowley shook his head. "The Young Lieutenant would not be pleased if your retirement plans include tours of his ancestral home." His voice was chiding but there was fondness in his eyes as he looked at them.
More to both of them than met the eye then, I decided, if someone like Cowley was willing to put up with their nonsense.
The Young Lieutenant was the only member of the royal family still in England, as far as anyone knew. The Old Queen had stayed as well, not that that was a surprise: the poor old cow never turned her back on a duty in her life. Even when all she could do was watch as the water rose, and make speeches urging people to stay calm and behave responsibly, she did it, right to the end.
It was the Young Lieutenant who rallied what was left of the police and the army into a protection force. It was a constant struggle--the men sitting battered and worn at my kitchen table were proof of that--but in large areas of the country people could feel at least marginally safe from looters and gangsters. Of course, the fact that his men hung looters and gangsters on the spot didn't hurt either; sooner or later, we were bound to run out of them.
"How's the lieutenant doing?" I asked, wondering what an old fox like Cowley would make of being commanded by an aristolad in his twenties.
Cowley considered the question as seriously as if it had come from a cabinet minister (I think I remember what those were from the old days). "He's the kind whose mettle doesn't show until the fire tempers it," he said at last.
"Some fall to the occasion, and some rise to it," I said, and decided that next full moon, I'd pull out all the stops on a decent warding sign for the boy.
The news I had to share sounded more trivial, but I noticed Cowley writing down every word in a small notebook.
Such as: Going by the records I had, back from when the old farmer still lived in this place, the growing season was now thirteen days longer than it used to be.
"In the last five years, we've had three without any killing frost at all. If there's still anybody left who deals with those sorts of things, somebody needs to start watching out for hoof-and-mouth and anthrax. Not to mention rusts, blights, moulds, and heaven only knows what else. My neighbours are seeing some strange things in their fields. It's hard to tell whether some of these diseases have just spread up from southern regions, or if they're mutations on what we already had here."
"How are people coping?" Doyle asked as he poured more tea. "Food supplies holding out okay round here?"
I nodded. "We're pretty well all back to being what my dad called subsistence farmers, but we manage. There's a market down in Oakdean, and we trade as best we can. And you'd be surprised what skills people can come up with when they need to. We've even got an old gaffer who actually apprenticed as a blacksmith when he was young, and he's got a couple of lads in training."
"Anything the government could do for you?" Cowley had his pencil at the ready.
I laughed. "Stay as far away as possible. The last thing we need is some oddjob coming down here to take taxes we can't afford for promises they can't keep."
"What about protection?" Cowley demanded.
"I never have any trouble," I replied blandly, and looked pointedly across at my rowan branch.
Cowley nodded, and put away the notebook with a snap. He suddenly looked very tired, and I rose to clear away the table, and set the kettle on again.
"Given your view on the government, I suppose you'll have no use for an official reimbursement chit?"
It was right there, the difference between the old ways and the older ways, though he couldn't see it, of course. By his reasoning, he'd done the honourable thing by offering to pay for what he and his men had received. By my reasoning, it was an insult to trade silver for my food and fire.
Which was why I didn't keep my fool mouth shut.
"No," I said, when I was sure my voice would stay steady, "your city paper's no good here. But if you're willing to offer payment, then I claim this: your man Doyle in my bed tonight."
Cowley turned bright red, and shook his head. "I'll nay order him to that."
Bodie had leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head, a broad smirk on his face. "Lucky Raymond. Under fifty, warm and comes across--"
"Shut it, Bodie!" Doyle snarled.
The smirk on Bodie's face grew even broader, but there was something in the way his eyes skimmed over me that spoke of anger, pain, loss.
So that's the way the wind blows, is it? I thought. Well, we'll see.
"Wise lady," Doyle said with a rueful smile, "you're not getting the best of the bargain. This," he flicked a finger over his broken cheek, "isn't the only thing that's bent on me. And good or bad, I'll be gone in the morning."
"Did I say otherwise?" I retorted. "That wasn't a marriage proposal, you know. Tonight, and tonight only. You're clean, you're decent and I've seen smaller scars worn with less grace."
"Then in thanks for our shelter, and you tending Bodie," oh, yes, the wind is definitely blowing! "it will be my honour." He stood up and made an awkward little bow.
Bodie snorted, and I made a silent resolve to find something strong and emetic for his morning tea.
I put out mats and blankets for Cowley and Bodie by the fire. Before I led Doyle up the stairs, I went back to the kitchen and poured two small glasses of elderflower wine. Into Doyle's, I put a leaf of heart's-ease and some angelica flower. In my own--oh, what do you think I gave myself? A pinch of mandrake root, and a drop of the green distillate of womb-flower that I brew in season. I've never claimed to be a witch, but I needed all the help I could get.
We sipped the wine while I helped him undress. He was lithe and wiry, not that most of us have any choice these days, what with food rationing in the towns and those of us in the country relying on ourselves as best we can. Still, he had beautiful arms and shoulders, lean and all muscle. I thought I knew what he'd meant earlier when his shirt came off, and I saw the terrible mass of scars on his chest and back.
Took some bullets in an ambush, he said almost indifferently when I asked. Lucky they were home-loaded and underpowered or he'd have been dead.
I reminded myself to pack some boneset salve for him in the morning. Too late to do anything about the scars, but it would soften the underlying keloids and make it easier for him to bear the cold and damp.
He was a good lover. Gentle and considerate, a bit playful as well, and that's something I'd had little enough of. Most of the men I'd had treated me either like their dowager auntie or as if I'd grow teeth in the wrong place if they weren't careful.
Having him inside me was a pleasure, but even at the height of it, I knew there was a part of him that was somewhere else, and I had a damn good idea where, too. If I'd been younger, I might have started to cry and pushed him away, but I swallowed it down. I'd asked for nothing but this; more fool me if I valued myself higher.
Coming was a relief for both of us, but I felt his grief, and on the heels of it, something else in me that was both heartache and joy.
Ah, well, that's what mandrake does for you.
He pushed himself up and looked down at me blindly.
I used a voice that was not my own to say, "Right here, angelfish," and he dropped down on top of me like a sack of potatoes.
I held him then, and rocked him very gently, and he talked about Bodie in disjointed little snatches, sometimes only murmured words. How brave, how beautiful, how lucky to have such a good friend and companion, what a fool he was to want more.
Eventually, he fell asleep, and I lay there holding him while the moonlight moved from one side of the bed to the other and then died away to the darkness before dawn. In those hours, I finally made up my mind. The next time Murphy came courting, I would say yes, and if our first child was a green-eyed, bard-touched boy, well, Murphy knew me well enough to have no illusions.
When the first of the dawn chorus trilled at the window, I eased myself out of bed and tiptoed down the stairs. Cowley was still asleep, but Bodie's eyes followed me as I made my way through to the kitchen. I didn't even try to tell myself that I'd come down those stairs naked through forgetfulness.
I stood out on the grass, shivering from the dew on my feet, looking out over the garden, with its neat little patches of herbs and vegetables, fruit bushes and trees, the chicken coop and rabbit hutch down by the compost bin. A rich place, these days, when wealth was measured by whether or not you had enough food and fuel to see you through the winter. If I'd chosen to, I could have done better than Murphy the chemist.
But not Doyle. Rich this place might be, and peaceful, but not for him. He'd wither here, a crop abandoned on the branch instead of allowed to ripen to its full potential.
Not for me.
Feeling a bit ashamed, I went back into the cottage through the front entrance to avoid any further looks, and got dressed.
I was stoking the stove and pulling out bacon to slice when Bodie went through the kitchen without a look in my direction, heading for the privy. On a sudden impulse, I grabbed up my rowan branch and went after him.
I waited until he was coming back, and stepped in front of him so quickly he couldn't avoid me. Fast and deadly, reflexes trained in battle to a razor's edge, but I had the advantage of surprise and used it. I touched the rowan to his forehead, his lips, and his heart.
"See what is true, feel what is true, say what is true!" I commanded, and held the rowan out between us.
He froze, stock still, and oh, those blue eyes burned at me! If looks could kill, I'd have been dead in the dew.
His mouth worked, but he made no sound. I was impressed: not many have the sheer strength of character to resist a speaking challenge.
"Tell me about Doyle!" I put some snap into that, the way I might with a kid who wouldn't take a worming dose.
He tried to hold it back, but in the end it burst out of him.
He lowered his head, shook it back and forth miserably.
I gentled my tone. "Bodie, why?"
"I love him!"
"Well, then." I dusted my hands. "Truth spoken, truth heard. Life's easier when you don't lie to yourself, you know."
I don't take what I can do for granted, but if I've a fault, it's that I'm used to having my knowledge respected. Power and carelessness do not mix well. I was too confident too quickly, and to my shock Bodie suddenly lurched forward and grabbed the rowan out of my hand. He flung it behind him, and I heard a sharp crack of breaking wood. Suddenly I was nothing but a woman, with an angry man's hand around her throat.
"What have you done to us?" he snarled.
"Nothing," I said, trying desperately to keep my voice level. "Nothing but open your eyes."
"Did not need opening." I managed to squirm one hand free and rested it on his chest. His heart was beating as fast as a bird's, and I could see that he was as much frightened as angry. "I've taken nothing from either of you, and made nothing that wasn't there already."
"So what was last night about?" he asked.
Lies are never a good idea. They tend to rebound when you least expect them to, and synchronicity seems to ensure it's always in the worst possible way for the liar. Still, I thought a small obfuscation would do no harm.
"You're injured. Another night, I might have chosen you, or even Cowley."
"Luck of the draw," he said, and there was both relief and revulsion in his voice.
Don't like my morals, Bodie? I thought. Too damn bad.
He shook his head again. "What do I do?" He sounded suddenly like a lost little boy.
Feeling braver, now that I apparently wasn't going to get my neck broken, I took a step back, straightened my shirt and folded my arms.
"Do you need me to tell you that?"
He straightened, all dark control again. "No." He hesitated. "If you're wrong--"
I hadn't survived this long by being faint-hearted. "I'm not."
He brushed by me without another word and slammed into the kitchen. I waited until my knees stopped shaking, then walked over to the wall and picked up the pieces of my rowan. If this were a story, it would be lying there covered in blossoms, or I would pick up the pieces and meld them back together, new-forged and stronger than ever. Instead, I took up the splintered pieces of what was now just a stick and tossed them on the kindling pile.
It's a good thing I paused a moment before I went back through the kitchen door myself. Doyle had Bodie pinned against the pantry door and was kissing him like a man starved. They were grabbing and groping each other hard enough to leave bruises, I was sure, and I hoped that they were at least being quiet enough not to bring Cowley out in a rage before breakfast.
I went down to the chicken coop and gathered some eggs, and when I came back, I made sure to sing at the top of my voice as I approached the kitchen.
After breakfast, I bandaged Bodie's side again, handed over a packet of various salves and powders, and sent them on their way.
"Follow the footpath down to the Westphale crossroad, and from there take the fork to Oakdean. There's a little pub there, the Spade and Becket. The owner brews what I'm told is a decent beer. If the Young Lieutenant's waiting anywhere, it'll be there."
Bodie and Doyle said goodbye, and thanked me, and then hustled off down the footpath, shoving and laughing like two escaped schoolboys.
Cowley looked after them, and then back at me. "How much of this is your doing?" he asked in a faintly accusing tone.
"I created nothing," I said serenely. "If they finally chose to open their eyes, I'm not to blame."
After all, I'm not a witch.
These days news travels slowly through the villages and dales. It was only three days later that I heard that, yes, the Young Lieutenant and his people had stopped at the Spade and Becket, and left when three of their own had come back to them.
The next day, I was digging in the herb garden when the gate creaked and long footsteps came up the path.
For the first time, there was true lightness in my heart to see him, true warmth in my welcome as I rose to greet him.
"Well met, Charlie Murphy. Well met and welcome!"
The smile on his face was all I could have wished to see.
"Well met!" said my future husband. "Well met, Anne Holly."
-- THE END --