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Thirsty for Thursday – Shaman of Stonewylde

Fans of our Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page will know all about our #ThirstyforThursdays in which we tell you all about a book or series we are Thirsty for. This week, it’s the final installment of Kit Berry‘s amazing Stonewylde series. In SHAMAN OF STONEWYLDE (out today where all good books are sold),  the enchanting tale of Stonewylde draws to its end, and Sylvie finally realises why she was brought here…

Read the first chapter below and check back on the Gollancz Dark Fantasy Page for a giveaway later today!

The golden sliver of waning moon, almost in its dark phase, rose and set quickly. On the roof of the mediaeval tower stood a figure, alone and silent. She breathed deeply of the pure elixir that blew in from the sea and away to the hills beyond. The morning star dimmed further in the clear sky and Leveret closed her eyes, deep in reverie. The sounds of the Hall awakening, the cows lowing in the distance, the birds leaving their roosts to herald the dawn – all noise started to recede. In her mind’s eye she saw a cleft between rocks, an entrance to another realm, and she stooped to enter.

Inside it was dark and dry and Leveret felt entombed. She reached out to touch the walls but the cave ballooned from the narrow entrance and she grasped only air. She could see nothing at all in the blackness, yet she was overwhelmed with a terrible sadness, sadness so powerful and so deep that everything else was stifled. A tiny light flickered up ahead, and shadows began to dance as the sound of sobbing filled the air. Suddenly she felt trapped, buried alive, and she turned to escape the ancient stone chamber . . .

She was out, back on the roof again with the night dissolving around her and the birds singing their welcome to the Stonewylde dawn. Leveret wrapped her cloak tighter in the chill of the March half light. She made her way back down the stone steps winding around the tower and, at ground level, slipped into the room that had been her sanctuary for the past seven weeks, since the disgrace at Imbolc. Today was Leveret’s last day of seclusion; at the Spring Equinox tomorrow, this cocoon must split open and she must emerge and face the world again.

ONE

The taxi pulled up at the great wrought iron gates and she sat for a moment in the car, craning her neck to squint up at their height. Ornate and impenetrable, they guarded the prize that was Stonewylde, tucked safely inside away from prying eyes and those who would loot and desecrate her.

She saw the camera up above swivel around and knew she was being watched by the Gatehouse. With a chuckle she paid off the driver and, slamming the car door, hauled a bright woven bag onto her shoulder. As the car pulled away in a puff of diesel fumes, she hoped that her invitation was still good or else she’d be stuck here in Dorset, in the middle of nowhere, with no means of getting back to the station.

A little later, entrance through the massive gates having been successfully negotiated, she paused on the long and winding track leading down from the Gatehouse. She’d refused the offer of transport even though the walk would take ages. She wanted to approach the Hall gradually, on her own two feet, and really savour the moment when the outcrop of chimneys finally came into view. Having dreamed of the place for so long, that first glimpse must be taken slowly, in her own time. So she’d declined a car and set off alone, her bag slung over her shoulder. Her vivid skirts swirled around her calves in the breeze and the sun glittered with morning gold.

After striding along for some distance she stepped off the tarmac and into an open field. The lush grass was spangled with early wildflowers, and with a cry of joy she kicked off her shoes to wriggle her bare toes in the warm softness. It was a perfect spring day with blue, blue skies and tiny clouds. A buzzard soared high overhead, his mewing and keening cries mingling with the shrill lark song. She heard the refrain of Stonewylde all around, the sacred music of nature that thrummed with the vigour and vital ity of spring, the hum of growing, the rush of the wind.

In the field beyond, she saw several brown shapes moving around rapidly and before she knew it they’d passed through the hedge and were heading her way. The hares came into closer view, their long, white-tipped ears laid back and their huge hind legs bunched for speed as they raced through the grass. Then one caught up with another and they tumbled together in a fast and furious fight, rearing onto their back legs to stand upright, their front paws lashing out at each other, punching and batting. She smiled at the sight of the boxing hares as the female, having fended off the unwanted attention of the male, sped away into the distance with the other hares in close pursuit.

Her sea blue eyes scanned the landscape rolling and undulating before her in a never ending panorama of curves and hollows. The acres and acres of woodland were still light brown in their winter guise, the buds not yet begun to swell. Green velvet pasture stretched away into the far distance, dotted with white bobbles of sheep and lambs. Ploughed fields like square patches of dark brown corduroy were hemmed neatly with hedges. She took all this in, absorbing the shapes and the colours, the textures and the tones.

And the air! She breathed hugely, lungful after lungful of clean, fragrant air that seeped into her bloodstream and raced around her body, bringing that special energy to every part of her being. She tossed back her mane of wild tawny blonde hair and laughed again. The chuckle turned to a whoop of pure joy as it truly hit her – she was actually here, right now, in Stonewylde! She’d done it; breached the Boundary Walls. She’d wriggled past those who’d stop her and every one of her kind, and finally made it back into the stronghold. Tomorrow was the Spring Equinox, the festival of the goddess of fertility and her sacred hares, and here she was with her feet on Stonewylde soil and her lungs full of heady Dorset air.

Gazing around at the bright beauty that was Stonewylde in the spring, Rainbow slipped her feet back into their shoes and set off again down the track. She stopped almost immediately to rummage around in the depths of her bag. Pulling out her phone she peered at it, a grin spreading across her lovely face once more.

‘Still no signal!’ she said happily, switching off the device and tossing it back in. Stepping forward, she entered a tunnel of starry blackthorn and began to sing with sheer delight. The exile was finally over and she was back in the place she’d always loved best in the world.

‘You really do something with hares I’ve never seen afore,’ said Merewen, eyes narrowed as she gazed at Magpie’s finished creation. The great Stone Circle was alive with the creatures. After his wonderful idea at Imbolc, when he’d substituted a hare for the traditional arrow that flew from the bow of the crescent moon, Merewen had asked him to design the main pattern this Equinox. She’d expected to modify and improve whatever he came up with, but Magpie had created a design of leaping hares that took her breath away. He’d then drawn the template and every painter had copied the design onto each stone until the entire circle danced with his joyful hares.

Magpie was unable to answer but beamed his delight at her praise. His turquoise eyes sparkled, so very beautiful in their innocence and pleasure, and Merewen wondered again how such artistic talent had remained hidden for so many years. She’d even had the boy in a class up at the Hall School only last year – how had she missed it? But this was a different person from the filthy, dead-eyed creature who’d sat at the back of the Art Room sniffing and stinking in his own private hell. Magpie was a good-looking young man now, his rich golden hair glowing in the March sunlight and his strong, artist’s hand now stained only with paint. He was still a child, despite his man’s body and looks, but a happy and creative one who, unless Merewen was mistaken, had a truly tremendous gift.

‘I’m very proud of you, boy,’ she said gruffly, clapping him on the back. ‘Your hares are so good that I’d like you to come down to the Pottery soon and work on a new design with me – something for this year’s crockery. What do you think, David?’

The art teacher smiled, delighted that he’d been right to push Magpie forward. It was gratifying to know that his protégé found favour with Merewen, who was renowned for her blunt outspokenness and never gave praise lightly.

‘I think that’s an excellent idea,’ he replied. ‘Maybe after the Equinox is over? And of course, Rainbow will be here too. She’s arriving today, I believe.’

‘Ah yes, Rainbow!’ exclaimed Merewen. ‘Can’t wait to see the girl again! There was a time when ’twere she who was my most promising pupil. I was sad to see her go with all the other Hallfolk. The only one I was sad about, mind you.’

‘It’s wonderful that she’s been allowed back,’ said David. ‘I felt a little responsible and I was worried that—’

‘Aye, I heard ’twas you as started the egg rolling,’ said Merewen.

‘It was actually thanks to Rainbow that I heard of Stonewylde,’ said David. ‘I met her at an exhibition and greatly admired her work. She represented nature in a way I’d never seen done before. She told me a little about Stonewylde, where she’d grown up, and I was intrigued. I got in touch, hoping to visit. I was really lucky that Miranda had just decided to recruit another art teacher – one of those wonderful instances of serendipity.’

‘Aye, Rainbow’ll be pleased to see you here, I reckon. Mind you, I’m not sure what sort of a welcome she’ll get. Many folk are against her coming back to visit.’

David’s face clouded.

‘I really don’t understand why. I’ve heard something of the awful business with the previous magus, but it was long ago and Rainbow must’ve been so young at the time. How can people resent her returning? None of it was her fault, surely?’

Merewen bent stiffly to pick up some paint pots lying by a standing stone.

‘As an Outsider you’d never understand,’ she said briskly. ‘Feelings still run deep – she were Hallfolk and we were Villagers and many can’t put that aside, even today. But still – I for one am looking forward to seeing the maid. I’ve heard great things of her work.’

‘Oh yes, she’s so talented! At least Dawn will be pleased to see her, I’m sure. This was really all thanks to her persuading the Council of Elders.’ He turned to Magpie. ‘I want to pop down to the Village School and have a word with Dawn. When Merewen’s finished with you, can you go back to Marigold alone?’

Magpie nodded happily, staying by Merewen’s side as they did a final circuit of the huge arena, checking that every detail painted on the stones was right. The bright March sunshine poured into the ancient circle, quickening the hares and spring flowers that adorned every stone, and gilding the great goddess Eostre painted on the largest stone behind the Altar. The other painters were clearing up their pots and brushes, and Greenbough’s men had finished the bonfire building and now swept all the stray twigs from the beaten earth floor.

At last the Stone Circle was clear and everyone had departed down the Long Walk, a good afternoon’s work done. Magpie loitered behind, free for once of David’s solicitous care. He crouched down with his back to one of the stones and simply gazed around. His wandering eyes took in everything: the stones, the bright paintings, the oak forest beyond, the blue sky and the shadows that moved across the arena as the small clouds raced in the breeze. He stared around in wonder, as a child might.

Leveret slipped between two massive stones into the Circle, coming up through the leafless oaks that fell away in a shallow descent on one side. Immediately she saw Magpie tucked into the base of a stone and her face lit up with a brilliant smile.

‘Magpie!’

She raced over and dropped down next to him, taking his paint stained hand in hers and rubbing it against her cheek. He grinned back and leaned into her, nearly toppling her over. Their friendship was undiminished, although they’d seen little of each other in the past few weeks despite both living up at the Hall.

‘I know these are your hares, Maggie,’ she said happily. ‘I recognise your style. They’re the best that’ve ever been painted in the Circle. You’re so clever!’

He squeezed her hand and they sat together in silence for a while, the sweet song of a robin filling the air. Then Leveret saw, in her mind’s eye, a rainbow. It was richly hued, spanning the hills of Stonewylde, and she felt Magpie’s confusion.

‘A rainbow? Oh, Rainbow! Yes, she’s a girl – woman now I suppose – who used to live here back in the old Magus’ days. She was banished along with all the other Hallfolk but they say she’s coming back soon for a stay. She’s a famous artist in the Outside World so I guess she’ll be interesting, and I’m sure she’ll love your work, Maggie. Anyway, have you been well lately? Is everything alright?’

He continued to hold her hand and Leveret sensed a succession of images: Magpie eating at the table in Marigold and Cherry’s cottage by the Hall, holding cutlery and using a napkin; Magpie lying in his own bed in the tiny bedroom with his clothes folded neatly in the drawers and his pictures pinned on every wall; Magpie digging manure into the trenched soil in the walled Kitchen Gardens; finally, Swift’s secretive face peering into the Art Room as Magpie stood painting a huge canvas. He squeezed Leveret’s hand then and she nodded.

‘I know – I’m still not sure about Swift. I’d try to steer clear of him if you can, Magpie. And remember what I told you – never, ever eat anything that he or Jay or my brothers give you. It might be poisonous and you’d be very ill. You understand?’

He nodded emphatically and she sighed, releasing his hand and getting to her feet.

‘I’d better go back now. Today’s my last day of solitude – I’ll be at the sunrise ceremony tomorrow and I’ll have to face the community again. I’ll look out for you, Magpie. And soon we must go to Mother Heggy’s cottage together – will you help me clear it up? Clip’s getting me a special new book and I’d love you to draw all the different plants for me. Would you do that?’

He nodded with a smile and Leveret thought for the hundredth time that whatever else had happened, the one good thing to come out of all the horrible events since Samhain was Magpie’s new life.

Bluebell and Celandine skipped along by their mother’s side as they left the Nursery in the centre of the Village, making their way across the cobbled area towards one of the lanes radiating out.

‘If Granny Maizie isn’t in, we’ll see if she’s up at the Hall,’ said Sylvie, nodding to people as they passed by.

‘Oh, I hope she has some honey biscuits in the pantry!’ shouted Bluebell, the iron tips in the heels of her little leather boots clattering on the stones. Her white
blonde curls cascaded out from beneath the bright blue felt hat and her cheeks glowed. ‘I love Granny Maizie’s honey biscuits. And her oatjacks! And her rosehip drink! And—’

‘We get the idea, Blue,’ said Celandine evenly. ‘The whole Village doesn’t need to know. Mum, why are we visiting Granny now? What’s happened?’

Sylvie glanced down at her elder daughter, nearly seven years old and as perceptive as ever. The child’s deep grey eyes, exactly like her father’s, bored into her and forbade any platitudes.

‘I’m going to ask if we can stay with her for a bit,’ she answered quietly. ‘We can keep her company now she’s all alone in the cottage.’

‘I thought Auntie Leveret was just living with Grandfather Clip for a little while until she was well again,’ said Celandine. ‘Isn’t she going back to her cottage in the Village?’

‘Is Auntie Leveret still poorly?’ asked Bluebell, her hair tangling as she pulled off the hat.

‘No, I think she’s fine now,’ said Sylvie, ‘but she wants to stay in the tower. So, Granny—’

‘So poor Grandfather Clip won’t be lonely!’ cried Bluebell. ‘That’s good. He always looks so sad and his face is all grey and patterned. Auntie Leveret will cheer him up. I wish she could live with us though!’

‘But Granny Maizie will still be alone so we’ll keep her company?’ asked Celandine. ‘Is that it?’

‘Exactly,’ said Sylvie thankfully.

‘But what about Father?’ Bluebell said. ‘Then he’ll be all on his alone!’

‘He’ll have Harold,’ said Celandine drily. ‘Oh Mum, I do hope Granny Maizie says yes. I’d really love to live in the Village with all my friends!’

‘Yes, I always wanted to live in the Village too,’ said Sylvie wistfully. ‘It’s fifteen years since I came to Stonewylde, almost to the very day – it was just before the Spring Equinox when I arrived – and I wanted to be a Villager then. So if Granny Maizie says yes, this will be perfect.’

Maizie was at home, but took some persuading to agree to them moving in with her, even temporarily. She gave the little girls a drink and biscuits, then shooed them out of the cottage and down into the long garden to see the chickens.

‘I still think—’

‘Please, Mother Maizie. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.’

Maizie shook her greying head and frowned at her daughter-in-law. Sylvie looked pale and drawn.

‘What does Yul say?’

‘I haven’t told him yet,’ Sylvie admitted. ‘But Maizie, please – I can’t spend another day in those apartments. It’s not just that I need a break from Yul – it’s the place too. I’ve never wanted to live in those rooms and the memories of Magus . . .’

‘Aye, but why now? You’ve lived there since you were hand-fasted – what . . . eight years ago?’

‘And I never wanted to live there! I said so from the start but you know how Yul always gets his own way! Honestly, I don’t want to sound disloyal but he’s awful at the moment. I simply can’t take it any longer!’

Her face crumpled and she started to cry silently, haunted by the memories of Yul’s increased drinking and aggression, and his regular insistence on her fulfilling her wifely duties. Maizie leaned over and hugged her, gazing sadly over her head at the white-washed wall that had once sported a nail and a dark, coiled whip. Her poor son – surely he deserved happiness? But she also knew that nobody loved Yul more than Sylvie and she wouldn’t be asking this lightly.

‘Right enough, you and the girls can come here for a while,’ she said. ‘But you must promise me it’s just for a stay, not forever. You and Yul . . .’

She stopped as sudden tears choked her throat too.

‘I know, I know,’ sobbed Sylvie, trying to pull herself together in case the girls burst back in. ‘Believe me, I want things to be right between us. But it’s been bad for a while now . . . right back since Samhain I think. He’s not my Yul any more. He’s a different man – cold and cruel – and I can’t bear to be with him when he’s like that.’

‘Dry your eyes,’ said Maizie gently, stroking Sylvie’s shoulder and feeling quite horrified at its angularity. ‘’Twill all work out in the end, that I do know. You and Yul were destined to be together – ’tis unthinkable for you to be apart for long. Nothing in this life runs smooth all the time and everything goes through darkness as well as brightness. By Beltane we’ll have it all better again between the two o’ you.’

‘I do hope so,’ Sylvie gulped, blowing her nose and brushing the tears from her eyes. ‘I can’t stand this – I just want my old Yul back again. And thank you, Mother Maizie. The girls will be so pleased – it’s been difficult for them too.’

That evening in the Dining Hall, all talk was of the newcomer to Stonewylde. Most of the youngsters had little or no recollection of Rainbow or any other Hallfolk; amongst the adults, feelings were divided about her return. Hardly anyone had actually seen her arrive. Alerted by the Gatehouse, Martin had been waiting and had shown her straight to the bedroom he’d allocated her. Hazel had then taken her down to the Village to Dawn’s cottage, next to the School House, and David had joined them for dinner. They were all still there, hence the excited speculation now in the Dining Hall.

‘I met her,’ said Swift quietly to some of the youngsters on his table.

‘So what was she like? What did she say?’

The girls in particular were agog for details. Swift flicked back his long straight fringe and shrugged.

‘She was okay, but not what I’d imagined. She just stared around her as if she couldn’t believe it all.’

‘What was she wearing?’

‘Was she really beautiful?’

‘Had she brought loads of paintings with her?’

The questions came thick and fast and Swift smiled, enjoying his moment of importance.

‘She’s pretty hot. She’s got wild blonde hair all over the place. She was wearing a long bright skirt and she had bare legs and arms and loads of jewellery. And she can’t have brought any paintings because she only had one bag. She can’t have many clothes, in fact, if that’s all she brought for three months.’

‘Is that how long she’s here for?’

Swift nodded.

‘How come you know so much?’

He smiled again and tapped the side of his nose.

Upstairs in their apartments, Yul and Sylvie glared at each other across the dinner table. The girls were in bed, finally asleep. They’d spent the evening in great excitement packing their knitted animals and rag dolls into a big wicker hamper, along with their books, pencils and paper.

‘You can’t do this.’

‘Yes I can. We’re going tomorrow morning after the ceremony.’

‘I won’t let you. I’ll speak to Mother.’

‘It’s too late – she’s agreed. We’ll be company for her now she’s all alone without Leveret.’

‘Nobody’s even asked me about Leveret.’

‘Why should they? It’s not up to you. Clip and Maizie have agreed between themselves that the best place for Leveret is with him, in the tower. She’ll be out of harm’s way there and he’s going to keep her really busy with her studies. Maizie’s happy not to have the worry of her and Clip’s happy to have a protégée. There’s no need for you to be involved, is there, Yul?’

He frowned and Sylvie resisted the urge to lean across the table and stroke the lines from his forehead. His face was lean and angular, his hair long and rather unkempt. He looked desperate, and so vulnerable. She steeled herself; this had happened before and she’d regret it when he turned off the vulnerability and bit her hand with a snarl.

‘Are you leaving me because of Rainbow?’

His voice had a different edge and Sylvie sighed and closed her eyes, shaking her head.

‘That’s it, isn’t it, Sylvie?’ His accusation sounded almost triumphant. ‘You’re annoyed because for once you’re not getting your own way and—’

For once? Yul, I never get my own way!’

‘So because Rainbow’s coming to stay for a few weeks to do some painting, you’re leaving me and taking the children away from their home.’

‘Oh for goodness’ sake! I’m not exactly leaving you and it’s certainly nothing to do with Rainbow.’

Yul stood up abruptly, making Sylvie jump. He abandoned the dinner table and took his glass and wine bottle over to the sofa. Sylvie loaded the dishes into the dumb waiter, realising with a jolt of pleasure that this would be the last time she’d do this for ages.

‘Why are you so against her coming back? What is it about Rainbow that bothers you?’

‘I don’t want to discuss it, Yul,’ she said wearily, closing the panel and pressing the button for the tray to descend. ‘We’ve talked about it too much already and I’m sick of the subject. You know I hated the idea of her coming back. Yet you deliberately went against my wishes in public at the Elders’ Meeting and humiliated me. Nothing we say now will make any difference.’

‘And this is your revenge – moving out and taking my girls away from me.’

‘No, it’s—’

‘It’s your way of humiliating me in return! What’s everyone going to say? The magus can’t even keep his own wife by his side? What sort of a husband is he that she has to go running off to his mother? How do you think it’ll make me feel?’

She looked down at him as he slumped in the sofa, glass in hand and his face mottled now with anger and self-pity.

‘I don’t know and to be honest, Yul, I don’t really care. You haven’t thought about my feelings much in the past few months and I need a break from you. I’m going to have a bath now and an early night. Don’t drink too much – remember it’s the sunrise ceremony tomorrow and you need to be on better form than you were at Imbolc and the Winter Solstice.’

‘Yeah, stick the knife in, why don’t you?’ he muttered to her retreating back, pouring himself another drink. He glared at the ruby liquid, tormenting himself with the image of Sylvie undressing and slipping into the foaming water. He sighed and tossed back the wine. If this was to be their last night together for a while, he’d better make the most of it.

Clip stared into the flames burning in the hearth. He should really be up at the Dolmen now, spending the night in vigil ready to greet the sunrise at the Equinox. He’d half planned to go up earlier this evening but in the end decided against it. He stretched his thin frame, curling his bony toes in their felt slippers and making all his joints crack. Clip was really feeling his years now and looked older than he should. His wispy silver hair, now straggling down his back, added to the illusion of an old wizard but in fact he was only in his fifties.

He sighed heavily and, pulling on his reading glasses, once again picked up the wad of papers recently arrived from his lawyer prior to their intended meeting later in spring. It was all so complicated and made his head ache. He scanned the pages of closely typed legal jargon and yawned. It was important to get the handover of the estate right. His gaze wandered easily from the paper as his thoughts drifted back to Sylvie’s visit earlier on. She’d seemed jittery, but that was normal nowadays; even he could see that she was thinner and looking careworn. When she’d explained that she’d just seen Maizie and would be moving into the Village with the girls the next day, Clip had felt a strange sense of relief. He couldn’t understand why, but knowing she’d be out of the Hall had made him glad. He didn’t press her for an explanation although her stumbling excuse about wanting to keep Maizie company rang false to both of them.

‘Is Leveret really happy living here with you?’ she’d asked.

‘She is – and so am I,’ he’d replied. ‘The situation after Imbolc was impossible and I couldn’t let the poor child suffer any more. None of it was her fault, you know.’

She’d nodded at this and bowed her head.

‘There are things going on . . . I feel Leveret’s got caught up in it all through no fault of her own. It’s so good to know you’re caring for her, Clip. She’s a strange girl and I’ve never managed to get close to her, but . . .’

‘You should try!’ said Clip. ‘Really, Sylvie, she has a true heart beneath that difficult exterior.’

‘I realised that when Celandine and Bluebell took to her,’ said Sylvie. ‘But she’s never let me in. I did try just after Imbolc, when Yul was ranting and raving and Maizie was so upset and angry. I tried to tell her that I was on her side but she wouldn’t open up to me.’

‘I know,’ he said sadly. ‘She was in a bad way after what happened and she didn’t know whom she could trust. I’m just glad that Maizie agreed to let her stay here with me. If Yul had had his way . . .’

‘Don’t!’ she said with a shudder. ‘Thank Goddess you intervened and took her under your wing. And I’m so pleased you’ve decided to keep her here. Originally it was only to be until the Equinox, wasn’t it?’

‘To be honest, I’d always hoped to keep her with me until I leave this autumn,’ he replied. ‘But I didn’t say so at the time because I thought Maizie might baulk at that. She’s so ambiva
lent towards the girl – she obviously loves her very much but she won’t recognise Leveret’s innocence in all this business.’

‘I know Maizie’s been very hurt by what she sees as Leveret betraying her trust,’ said Sylvie. ‘But at least this way she knows Leveret’s being well cared for and she doesn’t have to worry for her welfare. We must try to reunite them at some point – the whole situation’s ridiculous.’

‘It’ll be good for Maizie to have you and the little ones living with her,’ said Clip. ‘It’s a splendid idea. Will Yul be staying in the cottage too?’

Sylvie’s face clouded. Her beautiful silver-grey eyes, darker ringed around the irises, met his.

‘No, Clip – not for the foreseeable future. I think you know that things aren’t good between us. I need to get away from here and think about it all.’

He’d nodded, not wishing to pry. And now, scanning the papers in his hand, he wondered about Sylvie and Yul’s future together. They’d always seemed destined for each other, such a perfect pair. But something had changed. Yul was driven nowadays, brusque and aggressive. He reminded Clip more and more of his late brother Sol, which must be hard for poor Sylvie to cope with. She bore the brunt of her husband’s mood-swings and ill-temper. Clip couldn’t begin to imagine how it must feel to be married and forced to put up with another person’s behaviour; in his opinion being single and celibate was one of the joys of being a shaman. He recalled the conversation he’d had about this very subject only recently.

‘Can I really never be married or have children?’ Leveret had asked as they warmed up a pot of soup over the fire in the Dolmen. Living with her made Clip pay more attention to the need for food, which he guessed was probably a good thing. Stomach pains were still the bane of his life.

‘It’s not so much that you can’t, as that you’ll be a better shaman if you don’t,’ he’d replied. ‘Having a partner and children takes an enormous amount of your time and energy, as well as your focus. You could of course have those things and go on to be a successful healer and seer – but I don’t think you’d ever really achieve your full potential as Wise Woman or Shaman. But don’t worry about it now, Leveret. You’re only just fifteen and those decisions needn’t be made yet.’

‘No, but if I’m to be single and childless for the whole of my life, I think I should get used to the idea now, before the normal expectations really take hold,’ she’d replied. And, as ever, Clip was struck by her wisdom.

Knowing that she was asleep downstairs in her room on the ground floor filled him with satisfaction. Clip relished the role of mentor and guide, especially as she was such a brilliant pupil. Hes thought of the workload he’d piled on her these last seven weeks since Imbolc. So many books, so much study, yet she’d kept up with it, reading and learning and – judging by her responses during their discussions – understanding and retaining everything she read.

Tomorrow, thought Clip, that must start to change as she had to reintegrate into Stonewylde society. He’d have a chat with Miranda, as headteacher, and arrange for Leveret’s classes to be cut significantly in areas where they wasn’t vital. Miranda must understand the importance of what the girl was learning here in the tower and how this would benefit the whole community one day. And now the days would be getting appreciably longer and the weather warming up, Leveret must go out daily to learn more of the Goddess and her ever-changing robes. She must become a herbalist – a cunning woman – and begin to brew her remedies and treat minor ailments. Clip thought of Hazel – he must arrange for Leveret to spend time with her as well.

He gazed once more into the flames as they licked lovingly at the wood. Yes, he should be up in the Dolmen now, but more important was to be here in the tower whilst Leveret slept. Ever since Imbolc he’d been vigilant, fearing for her safety after she’d been fed poison by those who wished her harm. Clip knew there were evil forces at work in Stonewylde and until he fully understood them, he must guard his young ward as best he could. There were challenging times ahead but eventually all would be worth it. This was the year when he’d gain his freedom; the year when he’d finally escape the clutches of this place. Stonewylde had always clung to him like an unwanted and demanding wife; it was a marriage he’d never sought nor agreed to, but somehow he’d become firmly shackled. And now, at long last, he could hand over all the responsibility – the stewardship to Sylvie and the role of Shaman to Leveret. As for Yul . . . hopefully he’d come to his senses and help share his wife’s and his sister’s burdens. This time next year, Clip thought gleefully, he’d be free, roaming the world wherever his spirit took him.