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Weaving the Bones

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I

It took Juniper a while to realise what was wrong, after she returned to Castle Dore. Her parents, their hair now streaked with grey, welcomed her with great joy, filling her arms with furs, jewellery, and well-woven clothes. Her brother, now a youth of twelve instead of the round-faced six-year-old she’d left, begged her for stories of all the lands and people she’d seen, and peppered her with questions about everything from the wolves in the northern forests to the tides along the Irish coast.

They held a feast for her, two nights after her arrival, with roast meats, fragrant spiced fruit dipped in honey, and rich wine brought in by traders from the warm lands to the south and east of Brittany. There was music on the harp and hand-drum, and Erlain even played several songs, her voice clear and ethereal over the hush of the hall. Juniper sat still and quiet next to her father, looking out at the sea of faces — people she had known all her life, people who had watched her grow up — as they flickered in the light of the brands hanging from the walls, and tried to understand what it was she was feeling.

She was given a little suite of rooms, tucked up against the eastern ramparts of the castle, filled with books, musical instruments, herbs, flowers, and the other tools of her craft as a doran. To this Juniper added the gifts she had gathered during her wandering: intricately decorated metal cups and bowls, little animals carved out of wood, a bronze mirror, feathers, and river-smoothed stones. The rooms were warm, bright, and inviting, and they were soon filled with people seeking out Juniper’s doran skills or counsel, wanting medicines brewed for them, advice about their husbands’ sudden wealth or their daughters’ distracted listlessness, or a reminder of a particular moment in history recorded in one of Juniper’s books. She tried to find joy in this work, but although her heart was warmed by the stream of people passing through her rooms, it was a fleeting thing, and she felt alone and diminished every time she closed the door in farewell to another grateful petitioner.

Every so often, when the emptiness of her rooms became stifling, and the walls seemed to press in, shrinking and enclosing her, Juniper would escape to the castle walls, walking a brisk, repetitive track from east to west, taking in the smoke rising from the smithy and bakers’ ovens, her brother training with a wooden sword against the other castle boys, and the great, grey-green sweep of the land outside. She would lean into the wind as it whipped her hair and skirts about, letting the rain fall on her face, and breathe in the slight hint of the sea in the air until she felt calm again. On one such excursion, Erlain found her.

Her mother said nothing, but simply put her arm around Juniper’s shoulders, gazing down at the hive of activity below. Juniper thought of all the things she could not articulate, all those six years of journeying, Trewyn at her side as they roamed around Cornwall, Britain, Ireland, Brittany, and the lands of the English, gathering stories, and paying for bed and food with a spell sung here, medicine for a sick child there, and nothing certain beyond the road beneath their feet. She remembered all the nights they’d slept in hedgerows, or curled up under their cloaks in the heather at the foot of hills, and bargaining with Breton merchants for passage across the sea in return for favourable winds and calm waters, and the little girl in the far north of Ireland who had pressed a seashell into her hands and whispered a story about horses that disappeared into lakes and rivers. The words and memories felt locked inside her.

‘I can’t stay here,’ Juniper said to her mother. ‘It is beautiful, and you have made a welcoming space for me, and it warms my heart to be back with my parents and brother, surrounded by your love, but after all those years walking the world, I cannot be still, here. Castle Dore will always be my home, but its walls are not wide enough.’

Erlain turned to look at her daughter.

‘I understand,’ she said. ‘I have been waiting for you to say something like this for the six months since you came back. You are always welcome here, and I hope that you will come back often, but your road lies elsewhere. Telling Mark will be the difficult thing, but I think in his heart he already expects it.’

Juniper felt a profound sense of gratitude and relief at her perceptive mother. She looked out across the expanse of rolling hills, and felt the world opening up to her again.

II

After her restlessness in Castle Dore, it was no wonder that Juniper spent the next few months roaming. She headed north, hugging the Cornish coast, uncertain as to where her feet would take her, spending no longer than a night in any one place. It had been late summer when she left, and as she felt the temperatures cooling, the autumnal days becoming shorter, and the subtle changes in the earth, crops and trees, her wandering took on an added sense of urgency. She knew she was going to have to stop moving at some point, and to find a place to stay for the winter. She drifted inland, almost into the border country along the kingdoms of the English, journeying from hearth to hearth, picking up farmers’ gossip, reading the land as she travelled through it. On the belt at her waist she had a little pouch, which she filled with herbs clipped from hedgerows, dug up from woodland, or pressed into her hands by hosts who knew what she was and respected that. Alongside this growing collection of dried herbs, without really knowing why she was doing it, she began to gather seeds.

The weather had seriously turned, and there was a hint of ice in the air on the evening that Juniper arrived in the valley. She had had a hard day’s walking over tough, boggy terrain. Her skirts and boots were covered with mud, and a light, misty rain plastered her hair against her head. But as she rounded a hill dotted with gorse and heather, the moon rose, and its light shone down, illuminating a cluster of houses, grouped around the base of the hill. There were fields, lying fallow, raked over in preparation for winter. Through the windows she could see fires burning, and hear the faint hum of conversation. A river ran through the valley, weaving around the houses. And as she descended in that strange light — a mixture of mist and moonlight — she saw the house, dilapidated, empty, and on the opposite bank of the river, set back a little in the slope of the valley. All at once Juniper was powerfully aware of her surroundings: the earth beneath her feet, the slow advance of tree roots, pigs and cattle shifting in their stalls, the people warm in their houses, the sweep of the sky above her. She stood on the riverbank, preparing to make the crossing. Without quite understanding why, she knew she was home.

III

The house in the valley had clearly been standing empty for some time. Trees had sprouted in its thatched roof, which had collapsed under their weight in one section. The hearth was cold, and apart from two rickety wooden stools, there was no furniture. When Juniper went the next morning to make herself known to the other inhabitants of the valley, even the oldest among them could not remember the last time the house had been occupied.

They were inquisitive about her, that handful of families who lived in the curve of the river, but they kept a polite distance, holding back from asking intrusive questions. It was clear that they recognised, or at least suspected from her air of restless independence, Juniper’s doran status, but in the early days of her time in the valley, they put their curiosity aside in order to help with the task of making her house inhabitable before the onset of winter. One family donated a solid oak table, another a set of blankets, woven from the curly sheep’s wool of their own flock. They gave her grain from their own stores, and shared their cooking equipment each evening. One of the older women, Linet, was a potter, and she taught Juniper to shape the cold white clay of that region into bowls, cups, and vases, so that soon Juniper’s house was covered with vessels, each filled with autumn leaves, drying herbs, and smooth, bright stones from the riverbed. In exchange, Juniper brewed a drink for Linet, a complex, spiced tisane, to guard against the icy winter nights.

In those early days, Juniper had to make many exchanges like this, and the people — her new neighbours — were happy to help. The winter was cold, and the people of the valley had little, but they could see that Juniper had even less, and that if they wanted her to live beside them, they would need to share what they could with her. For one season, it seemed, she lived in and out of other people’s houses, sharing soup or stew with a different family every night, and making use of other women’s spinning wheels and weaving looms. Whenever people offered her payment for healing or other doran arts, Juniper asked for seeds, bulbs and saplings. She had plans for her garden, in the spring.

And the Earth turned, the days grew longer, and the sun warmed the ground, and Juniper’s plants stirred imperceptibly beneath her feet, and one bright morning, Angharad and Trewyn appeared in the valley.

IV

That was the beginning of the good years, the growing years, the years when Juniper put down roots. Angharad brought wools and dyes, and even a worn old loom, which Juniper stood in the corner of the smaller room in the house. It became a common sight to see the three doran women weaving in the late afternoon sunlight, and the people of the valley would bring their questions and problems to them. Now that that harsh winter had passed, Juniper had no pressing need for sustenance, and so she asked to be paid in stories, adding the tales of the valley — of otherworldly doorways and giant, supernatural animals, and women transformed into swans — to her vast, treasure trove of the imagination.

Juniper did not ask how the two women had known where she was, or when to visit. They — like all people of their kind — had a sense for where they were needed.

Trewyn had spent some time attached to the household of an Irish king, right in the green, rain-drenched centre of that island. She had followed this ruler and his entourage into battle, as they fought interminable tiny wars for what seemed to Trewyn to be tiny patches of land — single hillsides, individual bends of a river, or the approaches to low-lying valleys.

‘I grew tired of patching their wounds,’ she said to Juniper, as the two women washed their clothes in the river, their conversations punctuated by the slap of wet cloth against stone. ‘So then I walked west, and caught the first ship across, and landed back on the western coast of this island. My feet carried me back to Angharad, and I have been with her for a few months.’

‘And will you stay with her for longer?’ Juniper asked. The other unspoken question — will you stay with me, if she leaves? — hung heavy in the air.

Trewyn put her soap-stained hand on Juniper’s.

‘I will stay with you for one turn of the seasons. I want to see your garden grow. After that, we’ll see.’

*

Angharad left at the end of spring, just as the herbs and vegetables in Juniper’s garden were beginning to be cut. She took some with her on her journey west, and left behind two baby girls, whom she’d helped deliver, who had been given her name.

Juniper and Linet taught Trewyn to make pottery. They were patient with her as her flimsy vessels rose and collapsed on the wheel, and as she complained that it was more difficult than when Angharad had taught her to weave.

‘You need to feel the life in the clay,’ said Linet. ‘Feel with your hands, and you will get a sense for the earth it once was, and where the water has run through it, and where the pockets of air lie.’

‘There’s a certain stillness that’s required,’ said Juniper. ‘Like when you’re sitting out alone in the land, and you can feel the path of the sun and stars across the sky. Nothing must move but your hands, and you must feel everything.’

The jug Trewyn was shaping rose shakily on the wheel, and by the end of that day it joined Linet’s creations to be fired in the kiln. As Trewyn’s hand became steady and sure on the pottery wheel, she produced many pots and bowls, but none were so dear to Juniper as that first jug, which she stood in her kitchen and filled with an ever-changing display of flowers, leafy branches, and fragrant herbs.

*

Euny came for the first time in the early autumn, arriving soaked and unannounced as a storm rolled in from the hills. She brought nothing except the cloak on her back, the stick which had helped speed her walking, and a handful of seeds — dangerous, difficult plants such as henbane and nightshade, which had their place in a doran’s garden, but which needed to be treated with care and caution.

Juniper took her mentor’s cloak and set it to dry before the fire. Trewyn fetched her a bowl of the sharp, spicy soup they had been eating, and the three women settled into a comfortable silence, as the shadows of the herbs hung to dry in the kitchen flickered and swayed against the light of the flames.

The next morning, Euny woke at first light and walked the bounds of the valley, stopping at the river, at the pottery wheel, and back at Juniper’s garden, before returning to the house. She nodded at Juniper, who was brewing the morning’s herbal drink.

‘You chose correctly. This is the right place for you, for this time.’

Juniper couldn’t help but feel as if she had passed some kind of test.

Euny stayed for a week: long enough to help Juniper separate out a section of the garden, where she planted the seeds of Euny’s gift. One of Juniper’s neighbours, Deri, had felled a massive tree, and she was able to trade him some barley beer she’d brewed in the spring for some of the wood, and with it she built a fence to keep the poisonous plants safe from wandering sheep, goats or chickens.

After Euny’s visit, Juniper’s winter preparations began in earnest. Her garden had yielded a good harvest, and she was careful to set as much as possible aside to dry. She still had no animals of her own, but was able to trade pottery and woven cloth for salt meat, and medicines for cheese and butter. Her larder was stocked with enough grain to last the winter, and she and Trewyn had spent most of the spring and summer brewing all kinds of beers to keep them warm in the colder months. They made candles and collected kindling and built a shelter for their firewood. As autumn turned to winter, they joined their neighbours as they lit a fire on the hill above the valley, leading animals around it, roasting nuts and apples on the flames, and chanting songs against the cold and dark. The two doran women tried to weave as much protection as they could into their words.

V

Trewyn left with the melting snow, and Juniper found she minded less than she’d imagined. She had put down roots in that place, and she could feel the valley settling into her, allowing her to belong. The seasons came and went, sometimes bringing Euny, who would sweep in and out like a crow, never staying longer than a week, and sometimes heralding the arrival of Trewyn, who had always come from some king’s court, some prince’s household, or some distant, sun-drenched land. She would teach Juniper new languages and stories, help bring the harvest in, throw a few pots with Linet, and drift out again.

One year Juniper even made the journey back to Cornwall, and her family. They didn’t try to keep her, but simply listened to her describe the valley, her home, and her neighbours, and let her stay in Castle Dore until she grew restless for her garden and her little cottage by the river.

*

They came in Juniper’s seventh summer in the valley, on a day when the rains rolled in from the west, swelling the river and soaking the gardens. Because they entered the valley from her side of the river, where Juniper’s house stood alone, nobody saw them before they were at her doorstep: a man and a woman somewhat younger than her, stumbling, barely able to walk any further. They fell against her door, and Juniper took it all in: the woman half-carrying her companion, the unnatural whiteness of his face, the blood on his clothing.

‘It’s his leg,’ said the woman. ‘It’s crushed and broken, and we have fled on foot for two days. We hid in the hollow of a great oak tree last night, and didn’t dare sleep. We lost the people who drove us out, but we can go no further.’

Juniper did not ask who was pursuing them, or why. She cleared the kitchen table, and laid down fresh cloths, and she and woman lifted the man onto the table. He had lost consciousness.

‘Can you help him?’ asked the woman, and it was as if the terror and grief she had been holding back for the two days of her flight could no longer be prevented, and she began to cry in great, gulping sobs.

‘I will try,’ said Juniper, ‘but it will take time.’

She gave the woman a cup of the light beer she had brewed that spring, and a wedge of bread spread with creamy butter, and a bowl of warm water in which to wash her bruised and dirt-stained hands, and then sent her to sleep in Juniper’s own bed. Once she stood alone in the kitchen with the man, Juniper took a deep breath, studied the wound until she understood its extent, and mentally composed a list of what she would need to treat it. For a brief moment, Juniper contemplated those plants she had been given by Euny, dangerous and cordoned off in their own separate section of the garden, and wondered if they would be necessary. They were a last resort, and she was reassured to have them within reach, but she felt she could manage without them. It was the most complicated healing she had attempted for many years.

The next few days seemed to exist out of time. Juniper brewed herbs, cut the man’s clothing back, and cleaned his wound, all the time speaking to him in a soft, soothing voice, reassuring him of his safety. Hours passed, and her awareness shrunk to her patient, and that one room. She poured water into his mouth, and he swallowed it, and this was a good sign. Her hands were steady above his injured leg, and she reached deep into that space within herself — the place where her healing abilities came from, beneath conscious thought — and drew awareness of her patient, his bones and blood and the steady beat of his heart, into herself until her fingers seemed to hum. She was never able to describe what it was that she did next, but it was as if she were weaving, only it was living flesh and bones, not the warp and weft of wool. It might have been the work of minutes, or of several days — Juniper tended to her patient unobserved, and her actions seemed suspended out of time. But at the end, the man’s leg was healed, with a deep scar the only record of the pain he’d felt. His breathing softened, and as the woman — Gytha, she had named herself to Juniper, and the man, her husband, was called Edwin — held his hand, he opened his eyes.

Gytha fell to the floor, thanking Juniper, crying and shaking and clutching her face, as if she couldn’t work out what to do with her hands. Juniper placed her hand on Edwin’s shoulder, moving slowly and deliberately so as not to frighten him.

‘You are in a place of safety,’ she said. ‘Rest here, as long as you want and need.’

Juniper went to alert her neighbours of the presence of her guests, striding from house to house, slowly returning to the reality of the valley, checking with those who lived on the outskirts of the settlement whether Gytha was correct in thinking they had not been pursued. It was with relief that Juniper was able to return to her house and announce to Edwin and Gytha that none had followed them, and no other people had been seen travelling along the tracks and roads that were visible from the surrounding hilltops.

The scene that greeted Juniper in her kitchen made her smile. Gytha had set the kettle to brew, and was stirring the embers in the fireplace, trying to coax them back into flames that would spread to the batch of kindling she had loaded on. Edwin was sitting up in one of Juniper’s rickety chairs, leaning against the wall and chewing on a piece of fresh bread. The bloodied cloths and herbs she’d used in her healing had been cleared away, and the table was laid in readiness for the midday meal. Edwin and Gytha seemed calm and rested. It was as if they belonged there.

Juniper felt something catch at her heart. She stumbled out of the room, and dropped to her knees in the wet earth of the garden. She could sense changes in the air, as if the land had shifted ownership. Had she spent all those years creating warmth and colour and life in that house, building up its stores of food, planting seeds in its earth, only to prepare it for other people? Her breathing was jagged and fast, and she leaned back against the rough bark of the apple tree that grew, twisted and ungainly next to the house. She tried to calm her mind, and reached out for the life inside the tree, the slow interplay of water and soil and sunlight, the roots stretching down into the ground, the seeds that had fallen further down the slope, and felt herself becoming steadier. She closed her eyes and reached further, to the river and the grass and the sweep of the land, and the curve of the road leading away into the hills, and the horizon. She thought of all the places she had been, and all the paths she had yet to travel, and she saw it, there in the landscape of her imagination: an island, far to the north and west, storm-tossed and salt-lashed, and a house set against a cliff, filled with books and other precious, beautiful things, and cats to keep her company, and life, and learning.

She understood. Her cottage in the valley had been her home for those seven years, and it had held her well, but she had only been keeping it for others. She would put down roots again, but for now, the road was calling her, and her gift to that place that had been her home was to make it safe and ready for others. To plant the seeds and leave the stories, so they could grow in her absence.

She rose from her position at the foot of the apple tree, and went inside to tell Gytha and Edwin of her decision.