Fearsome Dreamer

In a world where the old fights against the new, Rue and White are Talented – and valuable. But both have more power than they know, and their electrical attraction may spell disaster...or change the world.





Surely that was too much blood for anyone to lose.

She never would have thought that people had so much of the stuff inside them. Was it all in the blood, then, and was she seeing this woman’s life draining away before her eyes? Would it stay with her for ever, this moment? Would she tell herself to remember it, to see if she could, years upon years later?

Rue clutched her arms together. The woman before her moaned. It sounded like a cat’s warning.

‘I need you to put your hands here for me, dear,’ said a voice. But Rue stood stiff as a fence board, unwilling to accept what the voice was telling her.

‘Rue, pay attention,’ said the voice. It sounded calm and steady, but Rue thought she could hear a thin, vibrating note of stress and urgency underneath it.

‘Hands, if you please. Now.’

Rue blinked, crumpling to her knees and moving forwards. There’d be hell to pay, her body had evidently reasoned without her, if she ignored the note of threat in that last ‘Now’. She placed her hands where indicated, but the rags under her palms were already dripping onto the floor. Rue reached over to a pile beside her and snatched up clean strips of cloth, laying them on top of the soaked mess. In seconds the material bloomed wet flowers of blood. She pushed her hands against them and felt her throat convulse.

‘Push hard, dear,’ said the voice. ‘Don’t worry about hurting her.’

The groaning was the worst. It was thin and continuous, and she could feel the vibrations of it through the flesh she pushed against. The owner of the voice was out of sight, far away behind the hills of her knees. Rue was alone down this end. What if too much blood was lost? It would be her fault. How could anyone leave her alone when she didn’t know what she was doing? She felt panic flit around the edge of her and tried hard to ignore it.

It seemed to go on for hours, but there was no asking if she could stop or have a rest. Her arms shook occasionally with the effort. The woman’s blood had soaked into the cracks in the palms of her hands. She could hear the soothing up and down cadence of her mistress’s voice at the head of the bed.

‘Fernie?’ she called.

The soothing voice stopped. Fernie’s head appeared over the hillock of rumpled blankets and sweating flesh that made up Rue’s current view.

‘What is it, dear?’

‘Um. My arms are tired.’

‘Not for much longer. Dam Woolmaker’s doing just fine.’

‘When’s the baby coming?’

‘Not too long, Rue. Think you can keep your end up?’

Rue swallowed. ‘Course.’

It was probably a lie, she thought fitfully as Fernie’s head disappeared. Fern was an honest soul – she had once said to Rue that being honest made life a lot more interesting than lying – but when she was trying to calm a woman in labour bleeding out she’d be sneakier than a snake. The widow Woolmaker could die. Would die, maybe, and her baby with her. And maybe it would even take a few more hours. Rue didn’t want to think about that, but thinking was about all she could do right now.

She’d never seen anyone die before.

She thought about praying to Tro to keep the woman alive. Then she thought about praying to Buc to keep him from taking her. In either case it probably wouldn’t do much good, and if Fernie heard her she’d laugh in her face for believing that gods were worth anything more than a good story.

Odd what came into your head at a time like this. Here a woman lay dying, as Rue would eventually do herself. Was it better to be practical about it, as Fernie was, or did it help to believe there were powerful beings who could intervene and extend or take away life? Did that make everything easier?

‘Let’s wrap her up properly, then.’

Rue looked up. Fernie’s hands were on her own, lifting them gently away.

‘Move out of it so’s I can get to her. But mind you keep a watch, for I’ve not taught you this yet.’

‘She’s . . .?’

‘Sleeping, dear. I gave her something to sleep her for the time being.’

'What about the baby?’

'We’ll see. Stubborn little thing, causing such trouble for his mam.’

Rue watched her work, watched her hands flit quickly back and forth the way they did when she was cooking or making up tonics. She was envious of the hands and the skill, but not of the woman. Fernie was gnarled and fat.

‘Is she all right?’ she asked.

‘Bless you, yes. You thought she was going to die?’

‘There was so much blood.’

‘And she’ll need to be making more soon enough, else she’ll be in a bit of trouble. I’ll admit it was touch and go there for a while, and there’ll be more of that before the end. But she’s strong, she’ll pull through.’


‘Yes, dear.’

‘You did something.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’

Rue caught it in Fernie’s voice. Faint, but there.

‘She should be dead,’ said Rue. ‘She should, or her kit. You did something. You should tell me. I’m your prentice. I’ve to learn, haven’t I?’

‘Rue,’ said Fernie, pulling the bandage tight and knotting it off. ‘You’ve filled your head with too much fluff, so you have. There’s no magic in what we do. Just hard work. You’d best to go on home to bed. We’ll be needing you later again.’

‘But what are you going to do?’ Fern sat back on her haunches, her work complete. ‘Stay, course. I’ll keep watch on her, don’t you worry. If I need you I’ll send for you.’

‘But –’

‘Go on now. Off home.’

Rue thought about refusing. She would have with anyone else. Fernie was hard to test, though; somewhere under all that kindness and fat was a will of iron. So she bit her tongue and scrambled up from the floor. A wave of dizziness swamped her and she thought NO furiously, as if her will alone could keep her upright. Miraculously, it seemed to work.

‘Your pardon,’ she managed.

Fernie was looking at her speculatively. ‘No matter. It’s the smell of the blood, I expect. You did fine. You need some fresh air, is all. The walk home’ll set you right.’

Rue took a last lingering look at the woman crouched on the floor, her face creased with exhaustion, and left.

Two miles to home, she thought, as she got outside and sucked in the night breeze. At least it’s warm.


She woke in her room. She had fistfuls of bed sheet gripped in her hands, and her fingers ached from being clenched so tightly.

That one had been fairly bad. She had dreamed of people. So many people it hurt to try and count them all. They were in a grey, listless kind of open space, with nothing much to see. At first she had thought them an everyday crowd; though bizarrely dressed. But they didn’t move like normal people, instead following irregular, senseless paths.

The more she watched them, the more she realised that they were wandering; that was it. Wandering around in slow, looping circles, directionless. When she looked into their faces she saw nothing there. Their eyes were misty, filmed over.

She didn’t like them. They seemed hollow.

Something was going on over her shoulder. She could feel a tingling as the skin on her back crawled in warning. She turned.

It took a moment to work out what was happening, but then someone near her dropped to the ground, as if their legs had been cut. She stared at the crumpled body. Then someone else fell, and lay without moving. She heard a series of thumps. Several more people fell.

Bodies flumped downwards. Their eyes were still open as they lay, curled awkwardly, their arms and legs at angles. The noise become louder and louder as more people crashed to the ground.

Rue stood rooted as the crowd fell, their limbs scattering the floor. Why wasn’t this awful thing happening to her? What was saving her? What was different?

She recoiled at the cloying memory of it. Feeling clammy, she levered herself up from the bed and pulled strings of hair from her eyes. She had sweated the bedclothes through again.

Fernie would scold her. Fernie couldn’t understand Rue’s nightmares. She believed in the practical everyday of life. Dreams were for the academics and city folk, the studiers of mind, and had no place in a hedgewitch’s repertoire. No one cared about dreams out here.

Rue peeled the blanket and damp sheet back, noticing with disgust how her nightdress clung to her in moist folds. She wondered if she had time for a quick bathe in the river before Fernie got back. Doubtless the witch would have spent the night with the mother-to-be, making sure she made it through the long hours in one piece. She hadn’t been called, so Dam Woolmaker couldn’t have given birth yet. Fern would expect the place to be clean though, and some tea ready.

Well. She couldn’t work sweat-soaked. Fernie would smell her and know. Rue dragged the blanket from the bed, dropping it carelessly on the flagstone floor, and stripped off the sheet. She pushed her feet into raggy slippers and took her bathing cloth from behind the door. When she opened the shutters she saw that the sun was up, though it hadn’t been awake for long. She took the dry slither of honey and lemon-rind soap Fernie had made her from the windowsill and pushed open the back door, shivering pleas- antly as the cool air wound around her legs. As she walked, she worked at the nightdress with one hand, peeling it from her, and continued to the river naked. She would wash the thing at the same time as herself.

She looked about as she made her way, wondering if she’d see any sign of life. A shivery rustle in the heather patch to her right sounded like a rabbit. She loved rabbits, but Fernie wouldn’t let her keep one, saying they weren’t practical because they didn’t provide anything of use. Fernie had bees, for honey and wax, and chickens for eggs, and a goat for milk, and the biggest herb garden in the area. Not that she needed them. Her profession never wanted for anything in the country.

Occasionally people offered to pay her, but as she always said, what use was money out here? Most of her payment was in food, clothes and services. Fernie never had to pay for anything at the farms or the village shops – even if the shopkeeper she visited that day had never been treated by her, he knew someday he would be, or a member of his family. So Fernie had what she wanted, and people did things for her as and when. A bit of gardening, or fixing her roof, or giving her a nice plump hen, or cheese and butter freshly churned, or cakes, mead and pickles. As Fernie’s apprentice Rue enjoyed most of the same deal, though some thought they could get away with charging her since she was still learning. Fernie set them to rights if Rue told her about it. After all, one day their children would be in Rue’s care, and if they’d slighted her she’d remember, and perhaps those children wouldn’t be as looked after as others.


It was politeness, anyway, at the end of the day. A hedge- witch would never refuse to treat children, no matter what their parents had done.

Rue reached the river, picking her way down the bank. Her bathing cloth deposited on a rock, she moved to the water’s edge, clutching her nightdress and soap. The icy water tickled at her toes, catching her breath. She knew of old that it wouldn’t do to wait as courage would fail, so she forced herself forwards, pebbles sliding under her feet. Launching herself in, she let out a mangled squeal as her body was enclosed in a freezing liquid case, and trod water furiously. Her skin protested in a bout of vicious tingling, but soon grew numb. She started to relax, ducking her nightdress under the surface with bloodless hands. She let it float before her, one hand thrust through an armhole to stop it rushing away, and scrubbed at herself with the soap.

She liked being here. Here she could pretend she was a river nymph, perhaps, or a goddess of the wild, surveying her kingdom. Out of the river and she was just apprentice witch Vela Rue, not worthy of her third adult name until she’d mastered a craft. She was a fairly good student, she supposed. Fernie would never have taken her on if she wasn’t capable. Rue didn’t want to be fairly good, though. If she wasn’t going to be extraordinary, then what was the point of it? She could not wait her life out here, none but the villagers knowing the importance of her. She knew, knew in the very depths of her that she was destined for something more. Something she could do better than anyone else. Something that would make her shine and people flock to her.

She rinsed her arms, feeling a sudden hunger gripe. She should get back before Fernie did. Turning to wade out of the river, she spied something darting behind a tree and froze.

It was a person, that much she was sure of. Her mind worked. Who would hide? It had to be a boy.

‘Come out,’ she called. ‘I can see you, silly!’

She was aware of her nakedness of a sudden. The water came up to her waist, but she was bare from then on up. Her skin was pimpled and white. She waded out hurriedly, one eye on the tree. Grabbing with one hand, she unravelled her bathing cloth and wrapped herself into its thick depths. The morning air was mild, as it was midsummer, but she’d have to start moving if she wanted to get warmed up. The sodden nightdress in one hand left a spattered trail of water on the stones beside her. As she approached the tree, she realised she could see no shape behind it.

‘Where’ve you gone?’ she muttered, peering around the trunk. Nothing there. Maybe she imagined it. Maybe it had just been an animal.

Or maybe it had been a man, secretly watching her, some sprite man who had the trick of disappearing like that. Maybe he came to visit her at night, watching her while she slept, too. Perhaps she would think about that more later, alone in bed. She started to make her way back to the cottage.

Rue had a vague idea she was regarded as silly and dreamful by some, but she didn’t care. She thought wishing for more a special quality, a quality always possessed by those who made something extraordinary of their lives. No one in the village seemed to think and yearn the way she did. No one seemed to want more than what they got. Stories of gods and fairies fascinated her, creatures of power that were not sway to mortal rules, not bound by normality. Fernie tutted when she brought them up, but if pressed with a glass of mead in the evenings, would tell Rue the stories she had heard in her own youth.

Rue reached the back door to the cottage and opened it, now glad of the chance to put on some clothes, at least for an hour or two. Come lunch it’d be too hot for much except a summer skirt and muslin shirt.

‘That you, Rue?’ called a voice. Rue sighed. Trust Fernie to get back before she did.

‘Yes,’ she responded, stopping to squeeze out her night- dress and hang it outside on the line to dry. She dressed in her room and skittered meekly into the kitchen, noting that Fernie had already made tea.

‘I shall do some food,’ Rue said, trying her best.

‘No need,’ said Fernie. ‘We’re for herbing now, then it’s back to Woolmaker I go.’

‘But . . . but Fern, you’ve not rested all night, I’ll warrant,’ said Rue. ‘You need to lie down and catch some sleep!’

‘She needs my help, dear, and herbs I’ve run out of. So to the woods we go to gather more, and then it’s brew making, and I’ve to get back to her as soon as possible. She’ll fade fast if not.’

Rue shuffled. ‘That’s silly,’ she said at last. ‘You can’t treat someone when you’re exhausted.’

‘This is the craft, Rue,’ said Fernie, massaging her craggy cheeks. ‘It gets real hard sometimes and you just need to get through it. Who else’ll do it? Who else can? You must learn this as soon as you’re able.’

Rue poured herself a tea silently. She was hungry and herbing was dull. She sighed.

‘We’ll take some bread with us, to chew on while we go,’ said Fernie kindly. ‘And if you come across any berries, they’re yours. Pick some to keep if you want, and we’ll make some jam.’

Rue felt a familiar guilt stealing over her. Fernie could be very generous and fair when she had no call to be. It was annoying.

*    *    *

Rue ran her hands through the trailing leaves of a plant, peering at the dusty soil underneath to see if any blood herbs were hiding there. Fernie had said that particular family of herbs usually enjoyed keeping close to aurers, so it was best to scan across the wood floor for the telltale glimmer of golden petals and then have a look at the ground nearby.

Something flashed out of the corner of her gaze. She turned her head to see a squirrel clinging to a tree trunk near where she squatted. Its tiny claws dug into the bark, black eyes gazing at her. Then it was gone, the plump body disappearing upwards into the foliage.

‘If only Tro would turn me into a squirrel,’ Rue murmured as Fernie approached, her feet crackling over dry twigs and leaves.

‘Tro knows you wouldn’t last a day. You’re far too silly  a creature,’ said Fernie, basket stuffed with plant matter.

‘Squirrels ain’t exactly the most sensible either,’ protested Rue, as they made their way along the path. ‘They’re all nervy.’

‘So you’d be if you were a squirrel.’

They tramped in silence for a moment. Bird calls pinwheeled across the dense canopy.


‘Yes, dear.’

‘Have you ever lived outside this village? I mean, gone to other places in Angle Tar, like one of the cities?’

‘Cities are full of idiots with big ideas. Big ideas get you little in return.’

‘They learn things, though. They do them mind studies. It sounds interesting.’

‘Rue, my chicklet. You have to have money to do such idle stuff. Only rich people live in cities and learn. Us folk mind our own business out here, and they mind theirs in the cities, and everyone gets along fine. No good stirring things up, it always leads to trouble. Why you asking me such? Don’t want to be a hedgewitch any more, is it?’

‘No,’ said Rue. ‘I love hedgewitching, you know it. I just wonder about other places sometimes, is all. You know them dreams I get. I just wonder what they’re about. Are there other countries out in the world with weird people and everything’s different?’

‘You’ve no call to be thinking about that,’ said Fernie briskly. ‘Angle Tar’s the only place with a civilised bone in its body. The world out there is nothing more than a load of places with people in ’em. And the people out there are neither more interesting, nor better, nor lower, than us here in Angle Tar. It’s humans, Rue. We’re the same wherever you go, no matter what we surround ourselves with.’

Rue sighed. They always went the same way, these conversations. But she couldn’t quite believe the cynical version of the world that Fernie gave her. Not after the things she’d dreamed of. One day, she had long ago promised herself, she’d see the world with her own eyes.

She would have the truth of it.

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