“He’s very young,” Granny said, clutching Colin’s handkerchief with both hands.
“No younger than I was the first year I was chosen.”
Anvil picked an apple from Granny’s fruit bowl and took a large bite.
“Yes, but you’d been working at the forge for two years by then. You had muscle and bone twice his size. Granny Blackwell never had a moment’s concern about you. She said you could lose two armfuls of blood and never notice.”
Anvil chuckled. “She did, did she, the old bat.” Then his face softened. “She lost sight of some things in her later years, did Granny. It’s not about how much you lose, but what you see that matters.”
Granny let the handkerchief slip onto the table in a crumpled heap.
“What did you see, then, Greg?”
“I never told no-one, not even Granny. She didn’t like not knowing. Nearly cost me Anvil when she told Blake I wasn’t fit to lead, but he must have seen something in me when he took me as apprentice.”
“I’m sorry,” Granny got up to clear away the dinner plates. “I shouldn’t pry into what isn’t my business.”
“Oh, but it is, Amy. What I saw was the Crone, the Calliech herself. She was wearing a pure white woollen cloak, her face almost hidden by the deep hood. There was so much snow up by the chapel that winter she was completely camouflaged.
“I didn’t notice her until after I made my offering. The wind blew one of the ivy tendrils away from the chapel wall and suddenly I could see her. I swear I was so terrified, I could hardly raise my eyes to look on her.
“She said nothing, but her smile… Oh her smile warmed me more than any day spent at my forge. I knew then, whatever happened, it would be as they willed. I knew it would all come right – the circle, the village. She gave me hope again.”
Granny stood very still, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “What has that to do with me?”
“She wore your face.”
Granny almost dropped the plates on the table and sank down on a chair. “She wore my face?”
“Not as you were then. It was just before you became Madron. Henry was about six months old. She looked as you look, well not quite now, maybe twenty years from now, but I knew it was you.”
“So you knew I would be Crone.”
“Yes. I didn’t dare tell you in case the telling would undo the truth. Now I can.”
“Thank you.” Granny leaned over and dropped a soft kiss on his cheek. “And now the whelp goes to seek the Holly King. “
“Let’s hope the Crone is as kind to him as she was to me.”
“He can’t be chosen, he just can’t!” Jack bellowed, his arms gripped firmly by Zeb and Andy as he attempted to launch himself at Anvil in the small kitchen of the village hall.
“It’s not my decision, Jack.”
“You’re our Anvil. You can change things. Let Peter go, you saw the holly prick him. There was blood on his finger.”
“He wasn’t the first, Jack. You know the lore. It has to be first blood. Colin’s handkerchief was covered this morning. You saw it the same time as I did. If that weren’t enough, he went to the King Holly by instinct and the King chose him.
“If we didn’t believe it, he’s bled three times this afternoon just from attaching the leaves to the wreaths he’s been working on. Madron’s confirmed it as well as Granny. He has to go.”
Jack sagged against the two other men. “He’s not ready. He’s not even made his knife yet. He doesn’t like cutting things. I’ve seen him faint at the sight of blood.”
“So why hasn’t he fainted today?” Zeb asked quietly. “He’s not worried. You heard him; he’s been singing to himself and whistling all afternoon as if he hasn’t a care in the world. I’ve never seen him so happy other than when he’s planting saplings in the wood. You have to let him go.”
“It’s not as if he’ll do it today. There’s time until snow falls. You never know, maybe we won’t have snow this year.” Andy tried to reassure the anxious father but Anvil shook his head.
“Snow’s coming soon. I’ve seen it. It’ll be deep too. “
“What about Andrea? If it snows along Borough’s Pike she might not be able to get to the hospital in time. Do you think we should send her to stay with Zeb’s Emily in town?”
“You worry worse than my husband, Uncle Andrew.” The young woman in question eased herself onto a stool next to the sink. “We’ve got it all planned. Simon’s offered to stockpile supplies at the Manor for the entire village and there’ll be plenty of milk from his herd. If it snows that badly, the milk tanker won’t be able to get through, so we can have it. No point in wasting anything.”
“But what if you go into labour? I heard Granny say you’ll likely be on time. What do we do then? Call the helicopter? “
“I hope it doesn’t come to that, Uncle Andrew, really I don’t. Emily will be here for the solstice anyway and I’m sure she’ll look after me if anything does happen. How many babies has she delivered now, Zeb?”
Zeb smiled, he was very proud of his elder daughter who managed one of the delivery suites in the local hospital. “Three hundred and sixty it was, last time she told me; that’s not including her two.”
“Well then,“ Andrea beamed at them all. “I’m sure I couldn’t be in safer hands, so stop worrying!”