Annie rubbed at her eyes and yawned. The words on the book seemed to swim, and she was too tired to make sense of them. Both day and night Meg kept her at this study. She knew her life and the life of her sisters depended on the words within the books, but she was exhausted. She longed to crawl beneath the feather quilt on Meg’s bed and sleep. The lessons continued for eight days and there was little time to rest. Meg stopped to prepare food for them, or to allow Annie to bathe and wash their soiled clothing. They ventured out only during the daylight hours and then never far from the cottage. It was a struggle to get her sisters to stay close by, and she hated having to frighten them with tales of the sickness.
Roma and her children sought them out. Worried when she had not returned to her cottage, they took the hungry Blackie, and set out in search of the girls. Within minutes of their arrival at Meg’s cottage the gloom seemed to lift. Meg and Roma recognised the power in each other and were soon chatting away like old friends. Once the children were safely out of earshot, Meg told Roma about Annie’s dream and the visit she had received from the Dark One.
“Aye, I felt his power was strong, and I’ve been praying for you, child,” she said to Annie. “But it’ll take some doing to defeat him.”
“Then you feel he’s stronger than before?” Meg asked.
“I’ve never felt his anger and lust for power more intense, and I’ve travelled far and wide.”
“It’s as I thought,” Meg sat wearily into her chair beside the fire. “He’s been gathering strength among the villagers. There are many who will fall under his spell. What hope have we, a young girl and an old woman against such might?”
“I’ll fall in with you. Then, perhaps, together we can defeat him?”
“Let’s hope so,” Meg sighed. “Let’s hope so.”
With that Annie gained an extra teacher. Question after question were thrown at her to confirm she was learning the lessons. Now, when Meg flagged through tiredness or hunger, Roma took over. Her husband had rallied and was back on his feet and in search of work. Annie told Roma of Pat’s offer to shoe the horse.
“We take nothing for nothing,” Roma said. “But my man is strong and will work for your friend and earn the money.”
Unfortunately, Pat had left for the town when Roma’s husband called, and his assistant knew nothing of the offer. He called to the door of Meg’s cottage in search of his wife, and Annie was overawed by the sheer size of the man. He must have stood at almost six feet, and he was big in stature to match. Meg, of course, invited him to join them in their dinner, and with a gentle prompting from his wife, he accepted. He was not used to being inside the homes of settled folk, he told them, and seemed awkward and unsure of himself. This soon passed with the flurry of children streaming through the door. Lily and Paul were delighted to see their father, and Rose and Dora stared up at him in wonder. They had never seen anyone so big in all their lives, but they were soon clambering around him, following the lead of his children. Annie watched him as he played with the children and smiled at his gentleness in handling them. He tickled and teased them, making sure Rose or Dora were not left out of the horseplay.
There was not a scrap of food left over that evening, and Annie vowed she would cook some extra from now on. Roma’s husband, Stefan, was built like a bear and ate as much. It was comforting to have him there. He seemed to fill the small room, and it felt safe. The children were sent into the next room to play as he told the women about his day. How Pat had left for the town, and how his offer to work was turned down by the villagers.
“Some of them spat at me when I passed, and others crossed themselves. There is something amiss there. I’ve known many who despise our kind, but I’ve never seen such hatred as I did in the faces I saw today.”
Roma sat by her husband and laid her hand on his.
“The Dark One is here.”
The look of fear crossing his face was impossible to miss.
“Are you sure?”
“We’ve all felt him.”
“I’ve not got the power,” he spoke to Annie. “But I sense something very strong in you.”
“I don’t know what this power is.”
“It is the power of light over dark,” Meg replied. “You’ve been granted a gift only few have ever known, and it is only given to those he knows will use it well. It’s the light of angels.”
“Am I an angel?”
“Far from it,” Meg smiled, and the others laughed.
They talked for a few more hours. Roma and Stefan told more of their travelling tales and of the wonderful sights they had seen. When it came time for them to take their leave, Annie went to the bedroom to call the children. All four of them were snuggled together in one bed and sound asleep.
“It seems a shame to wake them,” she whispered to Roma. “Leave them here. They’ll be quite safe.”
Roma hesitated for a moment before nodding. When they went back to the kitchen Meg and Stefan had their heads close together, whispering.
“Let us in on the secret,” Annie teased, and the faces that turned towards her were solemn.
“I was just saying to Stefan, they should bring the caravan here. They can park it behind the cottage. The horse is lame but can walk this far, and between all of us we can push the caravan.”
Annie and Roma looked at one another in delight. Meg, Annie, and the girls would have the comfort of having a man about the place, and Roma would have a sanctuary of sort. It was decided Stefan would lead the horse to the cottage at first light, and they would all return with him and help push the caravan. He hesitated, when told of the sleeping children.
“I worry, you know, Miss.”
“We all worry but be assured I’ll guard them with my life.”
“Perhaps, it’s as well,” he looked out into the darkness. The trees in front of the cottage tossed and swayed in a strong wind. “It’s going to be a bad night.”
“Maybe, you should all stay,” Annie felt a strange unquiet. “You could sleep in front of the fire.”
“No, that’s not our way. I’d probably wake screaming,” he laughed. “We’re not used to being caged. We will be back in the morning and weather permitting; I will make a start on the thatch on your roof. I noticed it’s in need of repair.”
“That’s incredibly good of you. I was worried about it and if we get a heavy snowfall it will probably cave in. My father meant to do it,” she stopped and bit her lip.
“Well, we’re glad to have a man around again and that’s for sure,” Meg tried to lighten the mood.
“Oh,” Annie said. “I’ve no way of paying you.”
“Haven’t you fed and watered us,” he laughed. “That’s payment enough for us.”
“We’ll be able to keep you in work for a long while,” Meg assured him. “This young one,” she placed a hand on Annie’s shoulder. “Has fields that need harvesting and the sooner the better or the crops will rot.”
“Till the morning then,” he dipped his head to get out the door, and Roma kissed both women before following him.
“Lock up well,” she warned.
They were soon swallowed up by the darkness, and Annie closed and secured the door with a stout plank of wood. Meg threw some more turf on the fire and went to fetch her books. They would spend the next few hours in study and prayer.
He was standing outside in the darkness; his shoulder-length hair flew around him like a black cloak. He watched the gypsies leave. These people always thwarted his work since the beginning. They were his enemy’s foot soldiers, and while their power was not great, it was somewhat annoying. Now, they were in league with the girl and the old woman. It would not do. He stayed for a few moments longer watching the shadows moving in the flickering light inside the cottage. The girl had grown stronger in the past few days. She had learned much and the more she knew, the more of a threat she became. He would wear her down. Take everyone she loved from her until he was all she had left. He had work to do before morning, but he could not leave without wishing her goodnight. Throwing his head back, he opened his mouth and screamed at the heavens. It was a roar of triumph, for it would not be long until he had the power. His enemy was weak; the people of this place were turning from him. We will meet soon the sound said, but to those who heard it bellowing from the forest, it was the sound of the beast.
“Go back to your book,” Meg warned Annie, who was looking in terror towards the window.
“He’s been there most nights, but you’re safe. He knows it is useless to try and come in. Go back to your learning.”
Annie looked down into the book, but the words swam. She was shaking, her heart pounded against her chest. What sort of man, of thing, was it that could make such a sound? Her fingers shook as she turned the page and she tried to avoid Meg’s eyes; in case she saw how frightened she was.
She looked up from the book.
“The fear you have will leave when you come face to face with him.”
Annie nodded and glanced towards the window again. Meg’s finger tapping on the top of the book made her turn around and continue with her studies.
The sun had been up for hours and there was still no sight of Stefan and Roma. Paul and Lily were delighted to wake up in the bed with Rose and Dora, but they were becoming anxious. Annie searched the forest trail expecting at any moment Stefan would come into view leading the horse. It was past noon when they got tired of waiting and worry sent them in search of the couple. Meg walked slowly, leaning on her stick with one hand and Annie’s arm with the other. The children ran and played in the giant ferns beneath the trees. Hiding and jumping out at one another, their screams of fright and delight grating on Annie’s nerves.
“It’s just over the hill,” Paul called. “Not far now.”
“Paul, come back,” Annie shouted at the boy, who was disappearing over the brow of the hill. “I have to stop him,” she brushed Meg’s hand from her arm and started to run.
He was sliding down the grassy hill into the hollow when she skirted the brow. She half slid, half ran after him, but he was too quick for her.
“No, no, no.”
She ran into the camp and stood panting and looking in amazement at the carnage. Lily came and stood beside her, slipping a small hand into hers.
“Where’s my Ma and Da, Annie?”
“I don’t know.”
Meg reached them and was trying to coax Paul to stand up. The boy had fallen to his knees in fright. The caravan lay on its side; the roof was shattered into splinters. Pots, pans, and multi-coloured bits of clothing littered the site. From a distance the blues, reds and greens must have looked like a carnival, but close up, it was a different matter. The smell of fear hung in the air and there was something else… Annie put Lily in Meg’s care and went in search of whatever it was she sensed. She did not have to look far. The giant Shire horse lay dead among the trees. He, like the caravan, was lying on his side and the marks on his body were unbelievable. Blood matted his hair and black streaks ran down the side visible to Annie. She drew closer, the smell was sickening, but there was a sort of horrific fascination in the marking on the body. What she had thought of as black streaks were in fact great tears in the flesh, as if some beast with enormous talons attacked the animal. The horse’s eyes, now glassy with death, were open wide in terror, its lips drawn back across of teeth in a grimace of agony. Annie did not realise she was crying until she heard Meg call to her. Wiping her eyes with her sleeve, she went back to the campsite. Meg stood before the dead campfire and surrounded by the frightened children.
“What did you see?” Rose asked.
“Nothing, there was nothing to see. Come,” she turned them back towards the hill. “We’ll go back to Meg’s cottage, and I’ll go to the village and find out what’s happened.”
“Are my Ma and Da dead?” Paul sobbed.”
“No, I’m sure they’re not. There was a terrible wind last night. Perhaps that is what happened. It blew the caravan over and scattered the clothing everywhere.”
Annie realised Ivan was probably the horse’s name.
“He must have wondered off or been frightened by the wind. Don’t worry, we’ll find them.”
It was a much more subdued party that made its way back through the forest. The children walked slowly, whispering to one another. Annie told Meg about the horse and its strange wounds.
“And what of Roma and Stefan?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think, child,” she stopped. “Close your eyes and feel it with your heart. Are they still alive?”
Annie closed her eyes and searched for them in her mind. She could feel them.
“Yes,” she almost cried with joy. “Yes, they’re alive.”
“Thank God and his Blessed Mother. They must be close by for you to find them so fast. In the village, perhaps?”
“I’ll have to go and see.”
Meg did not answer. In fact, she said little until they were inside the cottage. The children’s faces and hands needed washing, as they had become streaked with grime from the constant wiping away of tears. Annie prepared something to eat, but no one had much appetite. Meg sat by the fire lost in thought and brushed away the plate offered to her.
“What will you do now, Annie?” Paul asked.
“I’ll go to the village and see if anyone has news of your parents.”
“I’ll go with you. I’m big and I’ll take care of you.”
Her heart ached as she looked into his earnest face.
“Thank you, Paul, but I’d feel much better knowing there was a man here taking care of the women.”
He thought for a moment, before nodding.
Instead of going outside as they usually did, the children opted to go into the bedroom. They were trying to be brave and she heard Paul talking to them, assuring them of his protection. His was the kind of courage only a child can know. Closing the door as quietly as possible, she went back to the kitchen and started to clear away the plates.
“Leave that for a minute, child,” Meg called to her.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Annie went and sat beside the old woman.
“They’re in his power. He’s taken them prisoner.”
“Are you sure, Meg?” Annie had sensed him at the campsite. Among the many smells, the strongest was that of corruption. “What do we do?”
“We’ll wait until nightfall. You are not afraid of the night are you, child. Being alone again in the forest?”
“No, I’m not afraid anymore.” Annie was amazed to hear herself say this, but it was true. Having seen the carnage at the site, the dead horse and the crying children somehow renewed her courage and strengthened her resolve. She would do whatever she could, face whatever foe she had to, to free her friends.
“Then you’ll go to the village under the cloak of darkness and visit Jane O Regan. She will have heard what is going on. It’s a pity Pat’s away.” The old woman mused, and Annie felt her cheeks grow red at the mention of his name.
“Why can’t I go now?”
“It’s the talk, child, the stupid talk that’s been put about of witchcraft. Women like us, with the knowledge of healing have been persecuted for centuries. It does not matter we use this knowledge to help to heal the sick and injured; they still fear and spurn us. I thought we would be safe in a place like this. Your blessed parents thought so too ever since that first day…”
Annie knew what Meg was talking about; she had heard the story enough times. She could have been no more then five or six. They were walking through the woods and Annie heard an animal in pain. It was a rabbit, trapped in a snare. Its leg torn and bleeding from its efforts to get free. Being a child and unwise in the ways of the hunter, her first instinct was to free the rabbit. Meg watched as she edged closer to the frightened creature, soothing it with soft words until it seemed hypnotised and stopped its struggling. Meg helped her untie the snare and watched in fascination as Annie wiped the blood from its torn leg with her apron. Once the cut was clear of blood, she continued to run one finger over the torn tissue until the flesh joined and there was no trace of there ever having been a cut in the first place.
“I healed the rabbit,” she told Meg, as they watched it hop away.
“You healed the rabbit sure enough,” was the way Meg always ended the story.
It was then Meg and her parents realised how gifted Annie was and they were afraid for her. But the years passed by without too much fuss. True, there were those in the village who thought her strange, but they were never a threat.
“If the fear of witchcraft is on them, they might try to take you as well.”
Annie found she was shaking. She was not afraid for herself, but for her sisters.
“What do they do to witches?”
“Hanging mostly, but I’ve heard of worse. Oh, child, I would not frighten you for the world but I am afraid. I am old and my time is almost up, but you have your whole life ahead of you. We must be careful. Trust no one from now on. Be careful of whom you speak to, and we may somehow survive this.”