"The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you." -Markus Zusak, The Book Thief *** An owl came to the kitchen window and shrieked twice, and Branwen knew she'd have two visitors tonight.
So she put the kettle on the fire, lit candles in every window, and waited to see what trouble this way came. Her cottage was far away from the river but just barely close enough to the village that someone could walk through the pathless woods to her front door. Not many people did come; not many people liked to acknowledge that Branwen even existed. Life was easier—and safer—without thinking about such things. But there were always a few desperate enough to ask to her for help sooner or later.
However long they put it off, they always came. It wasn't long tonight before she spotted a lantern through the trees, and behind it a young man.
He was tall, broad, dark, and his clothes were simple but good. He'd never been here before, but Branwen recognized him anyway.
She knew everybody. She'd been here for a long time, much longer than anyone really knew. The boy had been walking for a good a long time in the pathless woods with only a small lantern to keep him out of the brush and mire, but he seemed little worse the wear. Only now that he was almost at the threshold of her property and the narrow course of ruined planks that served her for a fence did he hesitate.
She saw him lean away almost imperceptibly, as if invisible hands pulled him back. If he turned around now she might lose him entirely… Branwen raised her candle higher to make sure that he saw her. As soon as he knew he'd been spotted he felt obligated to continue on and pushed himself the rest of the way to the door, leaving the dark, leaning tree trunks and shallow bogs behind.
"Come in, Marshal," Branwen said, stepping aside. She could tell that the cottage was not what he expected: Nothing sinister or hellish, no fiendish creatures or bones of previous guests in the corners. Just a simple space, large enough to suit a simple woman, with a kettle over the fire instead of a cauldron. Branwen was probably not what he expected either: not a hag or a monster or even a temptress. Just a woman, albeit one who regarded him with a look of peculiar familiarity.
"You know my name?" he said, taking off his coat but declining to hang it, hugging it to his chest instead. "I know everybody," Branwen said. "Warm up by the fire." She paused to sweep out the dirt he'd tracked in. "Then you can tell me what you've come for." But the boy didn't say anything as he moved to the hearth, and he didn't take his eyes off of her. He had dull blue eyes, the color of bad seas, and a smooth face, soft like a child's, though she knew him to be at least 20.
It was a quiet night, and you could hear the creak of every timber in the cottage and the rustle of every branch outside. When she was done with the broom Branwen sat in her favorite chair and picked up her embroidery hoop. "Are you scared?" she said, testing the point of a needle with her thumb. The boy swallowed. "Yes. But not for my life." "What then?" "For my soul.
They say it's a mortal sin to come here." "They're right," said Branwen. "You'll roast an extra ten years in purgatory just for talking to me. But it's too late to do anything about that now, so you may as well tell me what you want." The boy started and Branwen laughed. Then he jumped when the kettle screamed on the fire behind him, and Branwen took it off. "What else do they say about me?" she said.
"That I sold my soul? That I can turn men into horses or goats or hogs and ride them to the Sabbat, where I dance naked in the woods for my Master? Well, it's all true." She was pouring the water from the kettle into a bowl on the sideboard. "But you knew all that before you came here and you came here anyway. So you must have come for something awfully important.
Are you in love?" "Do you know my thoughts?" "I don't have to. That's what men your age always come for." She might have added: It's what your father came to me for when he was your own age… Leaves were steeping in the hot water in the bowl, and Branwen gave them a good stir and then straightened her apron and smiled at him. "I can read it in your palm, if you prefer something a little more exciting," she said.
He went stiff as a dead cat when she took his hand and traced the lines with one fingertip. He had strong hands, calloused from work. She really could tell a lot from a man's hands: Marshal was a carpenter by craft, a good hand at repairing roofs, rails, and fences. She could tell that he was practical and shy, and although he tried to act brave his racing pulse gave him away. But instead of that she said, "You've a long love line." "Do I?" "No.
But that's that kind of thing young men want to hear.
Your future isn't in your hand, Marshal, it's in your brains and your mouth. Tell me who the girl is." He swelled up as he said: "Eimhear Devlin." Oh of course, thought Branwen. "I know she wouldn't listen to suit from a man like me…" he continued. "Why not?" Marshal blinked. "Well, she's rich. Or her father is rich, anyway." "And you'd be rich if you married her." "I don't care about that! I love Eimhear because…" He tripped over his words for a second. "She's wise.
And beautiful, and chaste—" "Yes, yes, I know who she is," Branwen said. She was mixing the tea in the bowl again. "She was born with the Six Gifts of Womanhood." The boy blinked again at this, but she didn't explain. "So it's a love potion you're wanting?" "Can you really make one?" "What do you think I've been doing this whole time?
Hand me that bottle from off the mantle. No, the one with the green stopper. There we are. You've brought money, I suppose?" The boy shifted on his feet. Up on the roof of the cottage some animal from out of the forest was running to and fro, and the noise made the boy look cautiously at the shadows in the corners of the room. "I…don't have much." "It'll be enough," Branwen said.
She didn't bother to look when he put coins on the mantle. With a careful eye she poured some of the steaming brew into the little bottle, measuring it precisely. Marshal watched with shuffling feet. Men like him got anxious whenever work was being done that wasn't their own.
Branwen closed the phial and sealed it with wax and string, but she didn't give it to Marshal right away. Instead she went back to her favorite chair, a silhouette against the fireplace, and clucked her tongue like a mother. "This potion will do what you ask, but before I give it to you you've got to be sure you really want it." "Of course I do," Marshal said. "I came all this way." "You're young. You think you love this girl, but come next spring or the spring after someone else may catch your eye and you'll be back here." He looked offended again, but kept his temper.
"There's no woman on earth better than Eimhear," he said. That may be true, but it's not what I asked, thought Branwen. Oh well. She'd tried to warn him and that was all she was obligated to do. As a good businesswoman, she always made sure her customers really knew what they were buying, though her Master didn't care whether the people who visited her knew what they were getting into or not.
She put the phial into the boy's hand and wrapped his fingers around it. "Add a drop of your own sweat from a hard day's work—just one drop—and once she drinks this you'll be all she thinks about." Marshal looked at the bottle as if he didn't trust it. "How do I get her to drink it?" "How the hell should I know?
You'll manage something. People always do. Now if there's nothing else, you'll need be back before you're missed." He paused at the door, but before he could even open his mouth she put a finger to his lips. "Don't thank me," she said. "No thanks needed for a job bought and paid for. Just be sure you don't tell anyone where you've been. A witch needs her privacy." He would tell anyway, of course.
And a good thing, too: A witch needs her customers. No sooner was the door shut behind him than the owl at the window shrieked again. "I know, I know," Branwen said, closing the curtains on the old bird. She eyeballed the concoction in the bowl, judged that she had indeed made enough for two, then resumed her vigil at the doorstep, candle in hand. There was more work yet to do tonight. Love potions were one of Branwen's least favorite chores, but they were always in demand.
Silly boys and silly girls thought they could enchant each other into being happy. As if there'd ever been a good marriage that was about nothing but being happy.
She sighed. The second young man arrived. He was younger than the first by a year or two, with fair hair and a fair complexion that had never seen a day's work in the field or village market.
He looked as out of place traipsing from the woods as a donkey at church. She'd been expecting a visit from this one for some time, and was a little surprised that he'd taken this long. But all things happen in their own time, she supposed. "Hello, Finnian," Branwen said, stepping aside and letting him in.
His expensive clothes were dirty from the forest, but he didn't seem to mind. He could afford to have them cleaned, after all. He strode into her cottage and examined every corner with wide eyes and a smile that suggested delirium. "You know who I am," he said, throwing himself down on her favorite chair, his pale blue eyes (the color of cut ice) gleaming. "Father said you would. He says you always know who's coming to see you and what they want." "Your father says a lot of things," Branwen said, sweeping the dirt out again and then laying the broomstick aside.
"I may know what you want from me, but supposing I want to hear you tell me what it is anyway? Just so that I know if I'm right." He grinned wider.
"A love potion. Your best one. Whatever it costs." "There are no good ones or bad ones," Branwen said, already measuring out the bottom portion of the bowl into another phial.
"Only good and bad marriages, but that's none of my business. And everybody pays me exactly the same." Always in a hurry this one, she thought. His ruddy, perfumed hands testified to his soft life, but he did bear the telltale callous of a riding crop. The mark of a perpetual horseman, but one who rode too hard and too fast and winded the beast early.
He'd do the same to a wife, she was sure, but that was none of Branwen's business either. "Did your father really tell you to come here then?" she continued. "Oh no. He told me all about you so that I'd stay away.
Stupid, isn't it?" Finnian said, and Branwen agreed.
"Why should I be afraid? The devil is a cheap landlord, and he owes my father money. That's a joke he's told all my life, and I half believe it's true. I guess you would know?" "I guess I would. So what girl do you have your eyes on?" she asked. "Eimhear Devlin of course." Branwen dropped the bottle.
"She's perfect," Finnian went on, not noticing. "Beautiful, and eloquent, and soft-spoken—" "She has the Six Gifts of Womanhood, yes," Branwen said, retrieving the phial (which luckily had not broken). "What do you need witching for? Why not just sweep her off her feet yourself?" "She won't listen to a suit from a man like me," Finnian said.
"Her family hates mine. Or her father does, at least. But you can help with that, can't you?" "I can't stop him hating you, but I can fix it so that you're the only thing she thinks about." Or maybe one of two things, Branwen thought.
The wind picked up outside and the roof of the cottage groaned. Inside, Branwen groaned too. Finnian snatched the potion out of her hand almost before she was done sealing the bottle. "You need one more ingredient," she said. "A drop of your own sweat—just one drop—from after a hard ride on a good mare." "And then I suppose I've got to think of some way to get her to drink it? Easy enough. Just so you know, if this works you'll have fortune with the richest family in the county.
I don't forget those who do me favors." "It's not a favor," said Branwen, shooing him toward the door. "Just a job well done and well paid for. Now along with you, and mind that you don't tell anybody where you got that from." Finnian grinned. "Are you mad? If this works, I'll tell everybody." And he was off. Branwen closed the door, put the bar over it, and blew out every candle except for one. Then she stood staring at the dregs of the brew in the bottom of the bowl.
"Well hell," she said. The owl flew in and settled on her mantle, watching her with penetrating eyes. "I know, I know, you don't have to say it," she said, settling back into her favorite chair to think. Two love potions for one girl, both brewed on the same night, in draughts measured less than an hour apart. They'd both work, of course. Branwen's love potions always worked.
But what good would that do either young man? The girl'd not be able to choose between them. Of course, that wasn't Branwen's problem. She gave both boys exactly what they wanted, and whatever happened after that was their own concern. But unhappy customers always meant trouble sooner or later.
And there was the young woman to consider: Take a cloth, pull it equally in two different directions, and it was liable to tear. That could happen to hearts sometimes. For reasons of her own, Branwen felt some concern for this girl in particular.
"So what do we do about it?" she asked the owl. Again it only stared. But Branwen understood anyway, and nodded. The plan was already forming in her mind. *** Was Eimhear dreaming?
She couldn't be certain, but she hoped not. She'd finally glimpsed that hellish cottage in the woods, and the strange owl that had led her here alighting on its roof. She didn't want to be here; in fact, right now she wanted to be almost anywhere else. But still she pressed on. Hours ago Eimhear had been in bed, but not resting.
Every night for the last two weeks, as soon as she closed her eyes the dreams had come, hot and fitful visions that left her panting and ashamed.
Even lying there awake, her thoughts had a habit of drifting toward sultry and unseemly thoughts. It wasn't a particularly hot night, but she sweated under her sheets anyway… She turned over to stare at the moonlight on the veranda outside her window. The rest of the house was quiet as death, her father and all the servants asleep hours ago. Eimhear had always thought of the moon as a cold, chaste thing, but now she saw how wrong that was.
The moon was a secret lantern that guided lovers to each other's beds… She buried her face in her pillow. Something evil must be inside of her, giving her these thoughts. A hundred times a day she was distracted by thoughts of not one but two men, both taking her in their arms and squeezing her between their hard, strong, naked bodies— Eimhear opened her eyes again.
None of that, she chastised herself. She got up and paced instead. Was she in love? Having nothing to compare these feelings with she couldn't be sure, but they felt wrong in a way that she couldn't quite place.
Too strange; too sudden. Maybe she should pray? It hadn't helped before, but what else was there to do? Where else could she turn? Who could she even dare confess— She paused and listened. At first she wasn't sure that the noise was real. But when she listened more closely it became distinct: From somewhere below her window a bridle rang, and then a voice called her name: "Eimhear…Eimhear…wake up." Am I dreaming after all, Eimhear thought?
Her nightgown trailed after her, long and white in the moonlight, as she unfastened the doors and stepped out onto her balcony, a warm wind blowing her garments aside. But no one was there when she looked, and the whispering of her name faded away as soon as she became sure that it was real. All she found outside was a bedraggled old owl with inquisitive eyes and a monstrous wingspan, perched on her railing and seemingly peering into her bedroom.
"Now where did you come from?" she said, and without thinking about it she reached out to pet the bird. It submitted to her touch. She realized she'd actually expected it to reply. Late at night, chasing the tails of dreams, it was hard to know what to expect anymore. But then, blinking, she began to think that somehow the owl actually HAD answered.
Not out loud, but even so she couldn't shake the idea all of a sudden that she knew exactly where the bird came from. And what it wanted her to do… She turned back inside. It was a terrible idea, of course, an awful plan, almost as bad as her problem. And yet, once she'd thought of it she knew she had almost no choice but to follow through. After all, everyone knew that when you had a problem that couldn't be helped no matter what you did there was always one person you could turn to, even you just had the courage to go and see her… Eimhear dressed and climbed down the trellis beside her window, just like she'd done when she was a little girl, sneaking out late at night to dance the maypole with the poor children.
Next she walked for hours. She'd never been this far from the village on her own before, but the bird showed her the way. Now she stood at the far side of the forest, hugging her cloak around her shoulders and staring at the light in the little cottage windows. The door was open. Eimhear picked her way toward it, heart racing. This is the devil's house, she thought.
She held her breath for fear that even a single noise would tell whatever was waiting inside that she was here. She imagined a hundred horrible things on the other side of that threshold, but none of them would have shocked her more than what was actually there.
It was only three people in conversation, but as she came closer she realized she recognized one voice: "…if you really knew what was good for her.
And for you!" Eimhear slapped a hand over her mouth to keep from crying out.
That was Finnian. And she was twice as shocked at the next voice: "Is that a threat?" Marshal! What in the hell were they doing here? Both at the same time? It seemed they were arguing. When she heard her name in their mouths she nearly cried out again. Instead she crouched under an open window to listen. "I love Eimhear, yes," Marshal continued. "But I don't see why that should be a problem for you." "She's too good for you.
Just look at you," said Finnian. "You're a stableman's son, a handyman. What kind of expectations can your family offer?" "And I suppose your family is any better? We all know the stories: Your father's drinking, and your mother." "Don't say a thing about my mother!" Eimhear dared a peek inside: The cottage was small, dark, cozy, lit by a roaring orange fire.
Finnian stood on tiptoe to be the same height as Marshal. Marshal was big enough to swat the other man to the floor with ease.
She wondered if they were going to start fighting despite the mismatch, but suddenly Finnian backed down. "All right, all right, let's be reasonable," he said.
"So you're for Eimhear too? Well we're hardly the only ones. But if you really care, you'll see that I can provide for her better than you or anyone else.
If you want what's best, you should step aside." Marshal bristled. "I don't think you really can love her the way I do," he said, his voice rising.
"I don't think—" Then there was a woman's voice: "Boys, boys, boys. Are you going to argue all night? Or are you going to listen to me tell you how to solve your problem?" Both of them turned to the woman in the corner. "How?" they said at the same time. Finnian added: "You owe us.
Me, particularly." Eimhear heard footsteps on the cottage's old floorboards—coming toward the window! She ducked again, even pulling up the hood on her cloak, but the owl flew down and shrieked, giving her away. Traitor bird! The woman appeared in the doorway. She looked strange, but in a way that was hard to place: She wasn't old, but she wasn't young. She wasn't pretty, but she wasn't ugly. She just was. She saw Eimhear right away and Eimhear froze, waiting for some horrible thing to happen.
But all that the woman did was smile like a favorite aunt and put a hand out to invite her inside. The boys stood up straight as she entered. Marshal seemed nearly to panic; Finnian appeared almost angry. The woman (the witch, Eimhear reminded herself) hung Eimhear's cloak on the wall and led her further into the room. "What we really need," the witch said. "Is a woman's opinion." Marshal was the first to speak up.
"I…this isn't how it looks," he said. "I'm not sure how it looks at all…" said Eimhear, glancing from one man to another. She felt afraid and confused. The first inklings of anger stirred in her too.
Principally, though, she felt unaccounted and unwanted desire, and it was all she could do not to let it propel her toward both of them. For a fortnight, every time she'd closed her eyes in bed she'd seen both of these men's faces, heard both of their voices, imagined both of their bodies. And now here they both were, as if by some sinful miracle.
They both began talking: apologies, protestations, cringing explanations of things she didn't understand, and every sixth word a jab at one another. Eimhear took a step back and looked at the witch.
The other woman simply rolled her eyes in an indulgent way and then, so quick that almost no one could see her do it, she dipped one hand into a bowl full of a steaming substance on the sideboard and, without warning, flicked it into the faces of both men, first one and then the other.
Marshal blinked, surprised, and then suddenly he shut his mouth and stared in a glazed way. Finnian sputtered and his brow knit in a look of utter contempt, but then, in a blink, all expression melted away, leaving his face a mask.
Both boys were now silent and seemingly unaware of what was happening. When the witch took them both by the hand and sat them by the fire, they complied without remark. Eimhear watched with a mingling of horror and fascination. "Now that's better," Branwen said. "What did you do them?" "Nothing much, I was just tired of their commotion. I've been keeping them occupied all night while we waited for you. They didn't know you were coming, of course.
I just told them that a solution to their problem was on the way." "And what is their problem?" "That's a much bigger question than you probably meant to ask.
But for now, don't you have matters you want to attend to?" Eimhear edged away. "What do you mean?" she said, although the truth was that she was very much afraid she already knew. Branwen brought her to the fireside, where Marshal and Finnian sat opposite each other on top of a thick, soft, animal hide laid out in front of the hearth. "They're both yours now," the witch whispered.
"Do whatever you want. They can't say no—and even if they could, they wouldn't." The unnatural feelings that had haunted Eimhear all week now turned over and purred inside of her, and her knees weakened.
She forced herself upright anyway. "That's awful," she said (trying her best to muster all of the force and sincerity she could). "I can't…that is, I just couldn't." "You want to." "Yes, but—" "No one's around. These two won't remember a thing. Nobody would ever have to know but us." "Why should I trust you?" Eimhear said. "I don't even know you." "You wouldn't have come all this way if you didn't trust me." "I came here for help." "And here it is." Eimhear let Branwen push her to her knees with both men.
They looked at her with completely naïve, helpful, unpresupposing expressions. Eimhear let feelings she'd been trying to tamp down all this time bubble up, and when they finally bubbled over she reached out and, after a moment's consideration, pulled Marshal in for a kiss first. She tasted his lips, soft and easy, and when she pressed harder he responded exactly the same, but stopped the instant she did.
Curious, she drew him out with long, slow, sweet kisses, and then harder, hotter, faster ones, with tongues stabbing and probing. They both came up sweating and a bit breathless.
The fire in the hearth seemed to burn a bit hotter. More curious still, she took off her riding boots and put his hand on her bare ankle. His hard fingers caressed her as softly as they were able. She led his hand higher, up the smooth back of her calf, as high as the knee, her skirts sliding away underneath his palm. With a little urging, he squeezed harder. "Very interesting…" Eimhear said. All the while, Finnian watched on without comment.
She looked at him out the corner of her eye but didn't approach, instead directing Marshal: "Kiss me here," she said, pointing to the side of her neck. She felt the touch of his lips and the tickling tip of his tongue against those sinews and sighed. "Here," she said, pointing lower, and his warm mouth slid down. "Here…" she said again, pulling her dress down and giving one bare shoulder to him.
"Oh…oh my…" She ran her fingers through his hair and pushed him into her some more. Eimhear sighed and then wilted. She grabbed one of his hands and thrust it to her breasts. "Now here," she said, whispering into a hot, open-mouthed kiss. "Harder." The fabric of her dress bunched beneath his fingers as his big hands fondled her. A tight, warm feeling crept between her legs and she half-sprawled on the rug, pulling him down. He was a big man; for a moment she felt trapped by his body, but then remembered he could do nothing if not for her.
She remembered Finnian, still sitting nearby and watching, passive. She grabbed one of his hands and pushed it down her dress. "You too," she said. "Touch me. All over." She threw herself on the floor and let both men grope and fondle, falling out of her dress and then kicking it down and off of her.
Their pressing fingers slid beneath her underclothes, bare hands seeking bare flesh. Eimhear blushed all over—not from embarrassment but from excitement.
It felt so good to be touched. She wanted more. She sat up and pulled Finnian in, kissing him with a thrusting tongue and comparing it to kissing Marshal. His face and lips were smaller and finer but somehow not so soft. It took a minute of getting used to, but she soon found she liked it. She tugged at the laces of his shirt.
"Off," she murmured, then added: "Now." Eimhear had seen men with their shirts off when working, but never like this. Finnian's bare chest was pale and beautiful, turned a golden color by the glow of the fire.
She kissed his body and found it not at all like she'd expected: smoother, easier, less potent than it had been in her mind. But before long the tingling, salty taste of perspiration danced across her tongue. She laid him out on the floor, trapping him between her thighs as she perched over him while Marshal obediently embraced her from behind with both hands clasped to her bare breasts.
Oh yes, she thought, just like that… In a few minutes she stripped both of them down nothing. She spent a long time fondling Marshal's hard, strong body with petite fondness. He was musky and pungent compared to Finnian's boyish, perfumed body. She bit one of his purpled nipples with her small white teeth and tugged, but although he winced and writhed he didn't object.
"More," he said, the word directed at no one and referencing nothing in particular. Eimhear pulled both men alongside her so that she could be surrounded and embraced from both sides. Their long, hard pricks pressed against her, front and back, back and front, and she wriggled her hips, comparing the feel of one to the other. She supposed that all men must be a little bit different down there. She took one in each hand, testing them, rubbing her fingers around the shining bulge at the head and tracing a line all the way back along the underside of each, to where the hot, hairy, beastly testicles hung underneath.
These she touched too, fondling them as much out of curiosity as desire, again finding everything not at all like she'd expected, but sometimes better. She spread her thighs, took one of the boys in hand, and brought him right up against her. He looked at her adoringly and dutifully as she rubbed against him, testing the entire feeling of his prick from one end to the other with the warm, sensitive lips at the middle of her legs. Which one first?
She found she was now actually only dimly aware of the difference between the two. Both had blurred together into a kind of medley of feelings, one giant, loyal beast of naked flesh. At her command, the first entered her very slowly, slipping in and easing her all the way down him. She gaped and buried her face against his bare shoulder, raising her legs into the air and rocking up into him. The soft pelt of the rug caressed her bare back as she rocked against the man's body, instructing him how to do it and how hard and how fast with by pushing and twisting her own hips upward again and again.
Eimhear's eyes rolled back in her head and, blindly, she reached out for the second boy, rolling over a bit so that her fingers could wander across him.
She saw him and recognized him but had forgotten his name and everything about him except that he was here and he would do anything she wanted, and what she wanted. "You too," she said. "Here. From behind." They pressed her between them and her eyes went wide with shock for a moment, but then melted again, going soft and hot all over, running at the edges, precisely as she'd dreamed night in and night out for weeks. The room, the fire, the men, and even her own body boiled down and mixed together into a red hot crucible of want, feeling, and gratification.
When one of them came inside of her she wasn't expecting it. The sudden, hot spurt gave her tingles, even as she was mildly put off by the wet, dribbling feeling between her thighs. Finishing with a grunt, that one pulled away, but she grabbed him and pulled him right back.
"Not yet," she said. "More." The boy paused. Now here was a dilemma: The spirit had no choice but to be living, but the flesh always had its limits. Eimhear would have none of it. She grabbed him below and squeezed, stroking his cock while looking into his eyes and whispering, softly but firmly, that she wanted him to do it again. Gradually, a bit at a time, he came back, and once he was standing firm she pressed herself between both bodies once more, making them push and thrust and drive into her, the panting and groaning of all three punctuated now and again by the hard, sharp, throttled cry of another orgasm, after which things would abate only long enough for Eimhear to set them going again.
Eventually they all fell asleep, exhausted, before the embers of the fire, Eimhear tucked between the pair. Branwen stood over the three sleeping figures, shaking her head. "Well this is a pretty picture, isn't it?" She straightened the room up a bit. Young people always had to throw themselves about like that. Then, with the help of a fine-haired brush, she took a drop of sweat from Eimhear's naked breast—just one drop—and added it to a brew she had stowed in a phial.
She tipped the sleeping girl's head back and poured its contents onto her lips. Eimhear snapped awake almost at once. Disentangling herself from her two lovers' embraces, she wrapped her own arms around her body and looked at Branwen with something like alarm. "They tried to bewitch me," she said after a moment. "Both of them." The realization came to her all at once, as wakefulness banished the waking dream she'd wandered in for weeks.
"And you helped," she added. "But I helped you too," Branwen said. "And I'll help you even more now. What do you think we ought to do with the pair of them?" Eimhear looked at the sleeping men.
"…well, what CAN we do?" "I could leave them like this if you want. They could both be yours, to do with as you please. Or do you really fancy one over the other? Say the word and I'll put that one in your power forever and send the other off to never bother you again." The girl studied each man's sleeping face in turn and let her eyes roam over their bodies, considering. The owl sat on the mantle, watching her just as closely, sizing her up as she did the same to the boys.
Then, speaking each word very thoughtfully, she said: "To be honest, I'm not sure I really like either of them." Branwen put a hand on her shoulder. "You know, Eimhear, you remind me of myself at your age." "Do I?" "Yes.
Men used to tell me that I was born with gifts. Have you ever heard of the Six Gifts of Womanhood?" Eimhear shook her head. "You know the sorts of things they like: good looks, a sweet voice, a chaste demeanor, pretty words that flatter a man's ear, being good with a needle, and good sense. But one day I decided that I'd be willing to give that all up if it meant I could have a new gift. One that I chose for myself.
"It's a gift I'll give you, if you're willing. You'll have to meet my Master, and make him your Master too. But once you pledge yourself he becomes the servant in all things, and chains himself to duty while you walk free. "It's a strange life, but you'll find that no one will have power over you ever again, except for what you want to give him." Eimhear petted the owl while still looking at the sleeping boys.
The only answer she gave was a small nod, but it was enough. "Then it seems we have a journey to make," said Branwen. "But we'll have help. You two! Up!" Marshal and Finnian clamored to their feet, although they still didn't seem aware of what was happening.
They stumbled out of the cottage like sleepwalkers, and there, in the open field under the stars, Branwen whispered something into each man's ear. Then she flicked a few drops of her brew into each man's eyes again, and something happened so strange that Eimhear couldn't be sure what she was seeing until it was already over. In a few seconds both boys were gone, and in their places stood a pair of beautiful young colts, whinnying and pawing the ground under the moonlight, one brown and one white, each with big blue eyes deeper and more knowing than those of any natural horse.
"What a pair of beauties you turned out to be," Branwen said, stroking their flanks. "Now don't look at me like that," she added. "I had half a mind to make you both jackasses. Come on, girl. We have a ride ahead of us to the Sabbat." Eimhear ran her hands over the smooth, beautiful hide of one of the beasts and then clamored naked onto its back, knotting her fingers into its mane and pressing her bare legs against its sides, where its animal sweat mingled with her own.
They'd only ridden a few steps before a thought occurred to her. "We're not going to leave them like this, are we?" "Not unless you want to," said Branwen, smiling in the dark. And then they were riding so hard and so fast that saying anything more was impossible. But Eimhear already knew the answer to every question she might have asked anyway: She could do as she liked. So she did.