Annie spent three days nursing Jane and her children. The children recovered quickly. Jane, though still quite weak and depleted by her suffering, was no longer as helpless as she had been, and Annie was desperate to get home. She missed her sisters, and the worry of their absence was more draining than the actual nursing. Jane was sorry to see her go and there were tearful farewells and kisses before she managed to tear herself away.
It felt good to be back in the forest. The air smelt fresh and sweet and the birdsong lulled her as she walked. The soft muted trot of horse hooves upon grass made her turn, and she was surprised to see the Squire ambling towards her.
“Good day, Miss Ryan,” he raised his hat.
“Squire,” she nodded, as way of both greeting and farewell.
“Come now, Miss Ryan,” he rode up beside her, his boots almost flush against her face. “Will you not stop and pass the time of day with me?”
“I’m in a hurry, sir. I’ve been away from home these past four days, and I’m anxious to be reunited with my sisters.”
She reached out and pushed against the mare’s damp hair. The horse was so close she was afraid it would knock her.
“Then, I’ll walk with you,” he slid the foot nearest to her from the stirrup, and was about to dismount, when she managed to get past the horse.
“Don’t bother. I’m really in a hurry,” she was off and running through the ferns bordering the forest. She dreaded the Squire. At the last Harvest festival, she had to smack his face for being too familiar. He vowed revenge on her, but nothing was forthcoming. She told her mother all about the affair, and a look of fear had crossed her face, but this was soon replaced by anger, as she cursed his cheek at touching her child.
Annie was running as fast as the terrain would allow. She picked up her skirts and held the basket above the ferns to stop it snagging and pulling her back. It was slow going, and she was sweating from the effort, but terror spurred her onwards. She was still close enough to hear his parting words and though she did not turn around, she knew he was angry.
“Take care in the forest, Miss Ryan. It’s dark enough to hide the Devil himself.”
It was a relief to be free of the ferns and out among the trees. It was easier to run here, and the many roots and gnarled trees twisted by age, made riding dangerous. He would not dare follow her.
Dora was the first to see her, as she made her way towards Meg’s cottage.
“Annie,” the child hurled herself at her sister’s waist.
“Let me go,” she laughed, pulling free.
“Oh, Annie, I thought you’d gone away forever.”
“You silly goose. It has only been three days. You know I’d never leave you.”
“Swear,” the child looked doubtful.
“I swear. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Oh, no, Annie please do not.”
“Don’t hope to die.”
“Then I won’t,” sudden cold clawed at her skin.
“Annie,” Rose ran from the cottage, and Meg hobbled behind in her wake.
There were the usual questions about the village and the sickness. Annie answered as best she could, and though she was safe and back with her family, Dora’s fear seemed to mar her homecoming. Up to now the child had shown no signs of having the gift. Rose certainly did not have it. Perhaps it was just the worry of being parted from her made Dora so frightened?
After saying goodbye to Meg and promising to return the next day, they set off for home. The children skipped beside her, and Annie carried the newly christened cat, Blackie in her basket. Meg brought him to her cottage aware Annie might be away for days, and he now curled contentedly at the bottom of the basket, not at all bothered by the motion. Her cottage looked good when she spied it through the trees. It was not a palace and its exterior gave no hint of the happiness that had once been within its walls, but it was home. The gate creaked, as she pushed against it. It had grown stiff in the few short days she had been away. She stopped for a moment to take in the garden. Weeds grew wild in the hedgerows and wallflowers and ivy fought for a place on the front walls. The roof did not look too sturdy either. It arched at each gable end and seemed to swoon in the middle. She would have to get help in raising the thatch, before winter set in. The inside smelt familiar when she opened the door. It was the smell of turf, dried herbs, and old clothes. It smelt of her mother’s rosewater and the wooden carvings of her father. For a moment, the loneliness threatened to overwhelm her, as the wound of their loss was still open and very raw.
The children had eaten at Meg’s, so she set about cleaning the rooms. It was surprising how much dust gathered in the few days. When everything was once again in order, she called the children in from the garden. Amid howls of protest and chases around the kitchen, she managed to bath both and get them into clean clothing. Meg allowed them to run wild, and even sleep in their clothes. This would do them no harm for a few days, but it was not Annie’s way. While the children brushed their hair in front of the blazing fire, Annie washed the dirty clothes. She smiled, as they fanned their hair trying to dry it. Rose’s was the same colour as her own and turned gold in the light of the flames. Dora’s was like her mothers, almost white, fine, and easy to dry.
Annie was pegging out the washing when she heard footsteps and voices approaching from the forest. They rarely had visitors, and then only to order wood for the winter, or some piece of furniture from her father. She waited in trepidation. When they finally emerged from the trees, she groaned.
“Good day to you, cousin,” Mary O Brien was panting from the exertion of the walk from the village. She was used to a horse and cart, but that was of no use in the forest. Her son, Hugh was in tow, and she stood resting a hand on his arm and fanning her face with a white lace handkerchief.
“Quite warm, don’t you think,” she gasped. “For the time of year?”
Annie did not think so. In fact, it’d grown even colder in the last few days, and now the air was decidedly frosty.
“Won’t you come in, sit awhile and rest?” Annie asked.
“Thank you, dear,” Mary pushed her son away, in her hurry to get inside.
Annie saw how her eyes took in the front of the cottage and heard the sniff of disapproval. Mary had to bend to get inside, for she was as tall as she was thin.
“Well, now, this is nice,” the elaborate carvings on the chairs and the general tidiness of the cottage pleased her. She sat beside the fire and motioned to her son to sit opposite her.
“Would you like a cool drink?” Annie asked.
“Buttermilk would be fine,” Mary smiled again, and Annie could not help thinking of a wolf.
A few minutes passed in silence as she poured the milk, and her hands shook as she handed a cup to each of them.
“My, that bread smells delicious.”
Mary was referring to the two loaves baking on a griddle.
“Oh, would you like some?”
“Yes, my dear that would be lovely. Wouldn’t it Hugh?”
He shrugged his shoulders. Annie wrapped a cloth around the griddle and carried it to the table. The bread was hot and hard to cut, and the butter melted as soon as it touched it and dripped down the sides. Nevertheless, she handed them both a plate and watched as they bit into the soft dough. Butter trickled down their chins. It was lucky the children had wandered off and were not there to witness the sight. It was funny to see Mary try to hold onto the cup, plate, and dab at her chin at the same time.
“This is really quite delicious,” she beamed at Annie. “You’re such a good cook. Isn’t she Hugh?”
“Doesn’t take much know how to bake bread.”
“He’s spoiled you see, my dear,” she tried to cover up for her son’s bad manners. “I’ve always been known for my cooking.”
Hugh almost choked on the bread, and his mother slapped his back to still his spasm of coughing.
“Dear me, what a to-do,” she thanked Annie for the proffered cup of water.
When the panic was over, and Hugh’s face was returning to a more normal colour, Mary stated her business.
“Bring a chair over here,” she pointed to a spot beside her and Annie had no choice but to do as she was told.
It was strange sitting beside Mary. She always seemed so aloof, so fancy compared to the other women in the village, and Annie felt tongue-tied in her presence.
“I’m not sure if your dear mother ever mentioned this to you but…”
Annie held her breath and waited.
“It was always her wish and mine,” Mary added. “That one day, you and dear Hugh.” She leant across and patted his hand. “Would make a match.”
At this, she sat back contentedly and waited for what she expected as Annie gushing words of thanks, instead…
“I think you must be mistaken, Mrs. O Brien.”
“What did you say?”
“I said you are mistaken. My mother wouldn’t wish for me to marry your son.”
“Not want you to marry my son. Why any woman in her right mind would want to marry my Hugh. Why not may I ask?”
“I don’t love him.”
Annie looked across at Hugh, who seemed not at all put out by her refusal and shuddered. Had she not known of his reputation for cruelty and misuse of women, it would have been easy to read in his long, bovine face. The features were idiot-looking, but it was not this that gave cause for alarm. It was his dark, beady, crow-like eyes and carnivorous mouth. Annie turned back to Mary, who was by now, glaring at her.
“I’m sure you’re mistaken.”
“Why, you wicked, ungrateful, child,” Mary struggled out of the chair and motioned to her son to do the same. “You’ll never have an offer as good as this again.”
“I had no intention of insulting you. But I’ve no wish to marry anyone at this time.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Mary’s push almost knocked her over. “I’ll make you pay for your folly, Miss.”
With this she stormed outside. Hugh stood awkwardly holding onto the cup and plate, and Annie was forced to take them from his outstretched hands.
“I’m sorry, Hugh.”
“Don’t care,” he sneered.
She noticed, he dribbled as he spoke, and she followed him and watched the two retreating figures. Mary worked herself into a terrible temper. She was gesturing back towards the cottage, and Annie drew back into the shadows. Mary was quite red-faced, but Hugh just shrugged his shoulders, and this seemed to enrage his mother even more. Twice she struck out at him before they were lost from view, and Annie knew there would be hell to pay, once he got home.
The encounter left her quite shaken. She knew her mother never harboured such thoughts, and Mary’s only reason for the offer of marriage was to get her hands on the cottage and the adjoining fields. Even the idea of marrying Hugh was disgusting. Imagine, she cringed, having that lump slobbering all over me, ugh. She would try and put it out of her mind. There was little chance of her running into those two in the coming weeks.
“Annie, Annie,” her sisters came crashing through the door. “Look who we found.”
They had two ragged children in tow. The ones from the gypsy camp, in the hollow. They were tiny, no more then three or four years old. Bending down, she asked.
“Are you hungry?”
They nodded in unison, eyeing the bread still sitting on the table.
“Well, sit down and I’ll get you something to eat.”
The smaller one, Lily, could hardly see above the table and Paul the older one, but only by an inch, was the same. To save them embarrassment, Annie suggested they sit by the fire. She placed cold strips of mutton on the fresh bread and handed one to each of the children. Rose and Dora, though not hungry, would not want to be left out. This was all washed down with mugs of milk, and Annie’s heart sang, when she saw the colour coming to the malnourished cheeks and the milky moustaches being wiped away with the backs of their hands. Once fed, Paul was a hive of information. He told them stories about their travels and all the wonderful places they had seen. Of the work his Dadda did shoeing horses and mending pots. These quietly lisped stories were the stuff of imagination, for Annie knew had they been true, these children would be better fed. But he was funny and once he made them laugh, there was no stopping him, even if his language was quite strong at times. Annie knew he didn’t realise what he was saying, and the rather colourful words were overheard around the campfires. She also knew her sisters would go to bed that night dreaming of far-away places and wanting to live in a caravan. It was a welcome relief to have the cottage filled with childish banter and laughter.
There was a loud knocking on the door and Annie hushed them and went to answer it. A woman with a peddler tray strapped to her front and loaded down with herbs and charms stood outside.
“Sorry to trouble you, Miss,” she bowed. “I’ve heard of your loss and I’d not want to disturb you, but I’m out of my mind with worry. My two young ones wondered off and I’ve not seen hide or hair of them for hours.”
“It’s all right,” Annie stepped back and motioned the woman to enter.
She seemed stunned by the suggestion and stood looking at Annie for a moment. Seeming to like what she saw, she walked by her.
“Why you two, bold things,” were her first words when she entered the cottage and caught sight of her children. “You had me worried sick,” she hoisted the heavy tray from her shoulders and dropped it onto a chair. She was crying and laughing, as she kissed the wriggling children.
“God bless you; Miss, for keeping them safe. There’s not many would do the same for our kind.”
“I’m glad I could help. Would you like a cup of buttermilk?”
The woman had the same sunken, pallid cheeks as the children.
“I’d not like to bother you, Miss,” she went to pick up the tray, but Annie noticed her sidelong glance at the second loaf of bread.
“It’s no bother. I’d be glad of the company and the children have already eaten.”
“Well,” she made a great show of indecision. “If you’re really sure you can afford it. I’d be glad of a sup.”
Annie prepared the same meal for the woman as she had for the children but added a slice more. The children, aware the adults were settling down to talk, scampered out the door. She sat opposite the woman and tried not to watch her eat, gazing into the fire instead.
“You’re a fine-looking young woman,” the gypsy spoke. “And kind of heart as well.”
Annie turned towards her, blushing.
“But there’s one that means to cause you great harm.”
Her words made Annie grow cold.
“You’re not the only one with the sight, you know. I have it; my mother and my grandmother had it also,” she shuffled forward in her chair and placed the empty plate at her feet. “Aye, it can be a curse at times.”
“Yes, I know what you mean.”
“Sure, enough you do,” she nodded. “It can be more a hindrance than a help; allowing us to see the darkness within others.”
Annie knew what she was talking about and the urge that made her shy away from what seemed a friendly, kind soul. But, deep inside she saw the blackness, the greed, and the ability to cause harm. It always seemed like a nest of black worms pulsating within the person and made her want to retch.
They sat and talked for hours, while the children played outside. Roma, as the woman was called, told Annie the true stories of their wonderings. Of the cold reception they received in each village. Of being stoned and turned away by many they came across.
“I’d leave this place in a minute,” she whispered. “But the horse cast a shoe and my husband can’t find work to replace it. Now he has gone down with the sickness, and there’s not one who’ll buy from me,” she looked towards her tray of charms.
“It’s the sickness,” Annie assured her. “It’s making people suspicious of newcomers.”
“Aye that may well be, but how am I to feed my family, and how in God’s name are we to get away from here?”
“I know nothing about horseshoes, but there’s plenty of food here.”
With this, Annie started to fill her basket with vegetables and the remains of the loaf of bread. Pouring some flour into a piece of cloth, she placed this in the basket as well. She returned from the cold store with a piece of salted bacon and put it on top of the pile. Picking up a few bundles of the dried herbs, she instructed Roma how to use them.
“If he’s strong, He’ll recover in no time,” she promised.
“Oh, he’s always been strong,” Roma said. “That’s why it’s so unusual for him to be struck down like this.”
“Will you be able to manage all this?” she pointed towards Roma’s tray and the heavy basket.
The woman looked from Annie to the food and back again.
“I can’t pay you for this.”
“Say a prayer for me. That is all the payment I need,” Annie went to the door and called to the children. “Rose will help you part of the way, and it’s not far.”
The children were happy to be of assistance, and soon Rose and Paul were struggling out the door under the weight of the heavy basket.
“I’ll return your basket in the morning,” Roma smiled. “God bless you and keep you safe.” As an afterthought, she took one of the charms from her tray. A bright, green enamel four leaved clover, and pinned it to the front of Annie’s dress.
“It’ll bring you luck and your hearts desires,” Roma winked.
“I could do with the luck. But I’ve no time for a man at the present.”
“That may be, but I see one in your future.”
Annie waved to them until they were out of sight. Roma was amazed at Annie’s kindness. It was not often she met one so beautiful and kind. Had it been any other time, she would have counted herself lucky to have made a friend, but not now? Not when the shadows were lengthening across the land and the Dark One was abroad. She sensed his presence. He was on the prowl, and in search of one such as Annie. Roma was powerful enough to resist his whispered promises and words of endearment, having been taught to do so by her mother, but whom did that young woman have, and who’d steer her in the right direction if he sought her out? She sensed the power was strong in Annie, and what joy he’d have in corrupting such innocence. She would do whatever she could to protect the child and maybe, with enough prayer, he would pass by this place and leave them in peace. But she knew in her heart this would not be the case. Ignorance and suspicion were his appetisers, and he was hungry for a feast. She felt his evil flow over her as strongly as the wind ruffling her hair. He was here; moving closer to this place, and only God himself had the power to stop him. She muttered a prayer of protection for her family, for herself and for Annie.
As Annie predicted her sisters were full of talk of gypsies and caravans, as she tucked them in that night. When they were finally asleep, she washed herself before the fire. Standing in the old wooden tub, she rubbed herself down with a soft cloth. She shivered, remembering Roma’s words of a lover who would soon appear, and then smiled at such nonsense. What time had she for a lover? There was work to be done, and her sisters to care for. She gazed towards the dark window. The winter was drawing in; the nights would soon be longer and colder, and it was a bad time to feel so alone.
Outside the trees and ferns parted before him. The wind tossed and rolled at his feet, but all nature abhorred him. His was the power of centuries past and his search never ending. The need for power was as strong now as the day he had been cast down. His journey would continue long after he left this place and well into the future, but for now, he would be content with what lay within those walls, a power stronger than he felt in years. Given to a young girl too foolish to know its worth, and too pure to desire all it could give. He would take it from her and add it to the other powers he amassed. In time he would be as strong as his enemy, and then there would be Hell to pay. He laughed at his own joke.