The old woman had always been protective of her deck of tarot cards. “Don’t you be touching they. They’m no good to the likes of you.”
Later, as the growth in her belly began to claim her life, she came to rely on Ruth, and they became more than teacher and pupil. Even so, it was a surprise when the old one pressed a cloth wrapped package into her hands one day.
“Don’t open they until I’m gone. They only knows one master. But you should be able to get one use out on them before they dies with me.”
Ruth put the cards in her pocket and got on with life. She was busy enough with caring for the dying wise woman and dealing with the calls on her skills as a herbalist not to think about the future at all, leave alone a one-use deck of tarot cards.
When she closed her mentor’s eyes for the last time and placed a kiss on each wrinkled eyelid, Ruth sat back on her heels and rubbed a weary forearm over her brow. Things, she thought, were about to get difficult.
She wasn’t wrong. Her troubles started almost immediately with the arrival of the young man who now owned the cottage in which she lived. He was one Donal Thatcher, nephew to the woman whose corpse was barely cold. At first Ruth thought he wanted her out, but he was lazier and cleverer than that. He would, he said, allow her to stay in her home if she became his second wife. It was not precisely an appealing prospect, but she knew the village looked to her to accept his offer and remain as their healer and herbalist. If she was to be burnt at both ends by a lazy demanding family and a hard physical job, why nobody cared about that. It was her place to be useful. Even her own father made it clear there was no place for her in the family home.
“You chose to be ‘prenticed to a witch now you be payin’ the price,” he said before shutting the door in her face.
It was hard not to feel vengeful as she retraced her steps towards the now overcrowded cottage. Her father might say that it was her own choice, but it was he who had made it impossible to live as his daughter. He who had made her life miserable and had crowned his petty cruelties by refusing to consent to her marrying the boy her heart hankered for. She sighed and mentally shouldered her burdens. What to do?
There was, on the edge of the forest, an old oak tree where she had held hands with her love in the carefree spring of her life. As if knowing her need for a connection with past happiness, her feet took her to that very tree, while her mind grappled with the problems of here and now. Impelled by who knew what impulse Ruth put her hands against the rough trunk and rested her cheek on the sun-warmed bark.
“Where are you, my love?” She expected no answer, but it comforted her just to think of his strong, brown face.
“I’m coming, Ruth. I’m coming.”
She turned in half a panic, not daring to believe her ears.
“Where. Where are you?”
“Meet me at midnight.” Then she heard the joyful note of his laughter before he was gone from her mind.
Was that real? she wondered. But no. It couldn’t be. It was just her heart playing tricks with her. Then again, what if it was a real sending? She walked into the cottage still lost in thought to be greeted by the shrill scolding of Donal’s fat wife.
“Where have you been, you lazy slut.”
Ruth didn’t trouble herself to answer, and a bout of slapping and hair-pulling might have ensued had not a long, angular shadow fallen over the chaos of what had once been a serenely pretty sitting room. Donal’s wife took one look at who stood in the doorway and dropped to the floor in a deep curtsy. It was the moneylender, the only man of any wealth within half a day’s ride, and a man who even her mentor had feared for his affinity with the dark. Ruth looked into the narrow, whiteness of his face and knew what he had come for.
“Mistress Ruth,” the voice was deep and smoothly cold, and it jangled against her nerve endings. “Mistress Ruth. I come to offer you the protection of my name and my hearth.”
“Oh no, sir. She cannot do that sir,” Mistress Donal babbled. “Her is already promised to us.”
“Is that the truth?”
“No. I am promised to nobody.”
The bony man looked severely at both women.
“My offer is on the table. I shall call at noon tomorrow for Mistress Ruth’s answer.”
He turned on his heel and all but collided with Donal, who had been hovering behind him. The three cottagers watched as the moneylender mounted his tall horse and rode away without a backward glance. Donal grabbed his wife by the wrist.
“You don’t lie to that one, stupid slut.” Then he turned a fulminating eye on Ruth. “And you. You now have until noon tomorrow to make up your mind. It’s him or us. And he’s killed three wives already.”
Ruth nodded. “Aye, I know. It looks as if you win. But for now can I have some peace and quiet please.” She was about at the end of her tether and surely even Donal could see she should be pushed no further lest she break altogether.
He looked at her for a moment then laughed a harsh laugh. “I suppose we can give you that much. One last night alone before you come to our bed.”
His wife licked her lips and it was all Ruth could do not to allow her revulsion to show in her face. She managed to keep a calm exterior, though, and went quietly into the room that served her both as bedroom and the workshop where she prepared her potions and simples. Shutting the door quietly behind her, she sat down on the narrow whiteness of the bed and shuddered.
Where had her options gone? The same place as her carefree youth she thought. For a moment she felt the claws of despair, but she straightened her spine. It was no good repining, a decision must be made. She could become Dermot’s second wife, or she could accept the offer of the moneylender, a man who she believed to be deeply involved in the darker arts. Neither choice promised much of a chance at happiness. Once she admitted that it strengthened her resolve. She would take neither, instead, the minute it grew full dark she would leave. Of course Dermot wouldn’t let go of her that easily and neither would the moneylender. Somehow none of that seemed to matter, she would just go.
The window was big enough to climb out of if she took only a small bundle of things, and the world away from what she knew could hardly be less friendly than what she was facing in the familiarity of the place where she was born. Maybe, she thought with a warming of the area around her heart, she would even go back to the oak tree and wait there until midnight.
She carefully gathered together a small pile of things, not too much because she would need to carry everything she took. She was hunting for her warm cloak when her hand fell on a small cloth-wrapped bundle. The tarot deck.
Even through the cotton wrapping Ruth could feel the cards growing warm in her hand as if they would speak to her. She bowed her head in respect before opening the pack and allowing the tarot to tell her what it would.
Whilst she laid the cards out her conscious mind registered that the pattern on the table was unfamiliar, but her hands and the cards seemed to know what they were doing. As she finished, her right hand went to a card and a voice in her head said ‘moneylender’. She was unsurprised to see the hanged man, symbolic of death and disgrace. ‘Donal’ showed the Devil’s leering face. ‘Remain’ her hand turned over the symbol of chaos and misery that was the tower. ‘Leave now’ she felt the warmth of hope even as she turned over that very card.
“And lastly, Ruth,” this time she whispered aloud, her voice a thread of sound in the orange light of sunset. Without hesitation she turned the card. It was the queen of swords. The last piece in the puzzle adjuring her to have courage and purpose.
Ruth bowed her head in acknowledgment and a single tear ran down her cheek, but it was cathartic rather than sad.
I will rest a while, she thought. Then I make my own life away from this place. She rested, quiet in her mind for the first time since the old witch fell ill.
When the moon rose she was ready, slipping away like a wraith in the night.
Whether it was her new found courage, or whether the spirits of the tarot were watching over her she knew not, but for whatever reason her escape ran flawlessly and she soon found herself in the woodland being drawn ever westward as though by an invisible string from her heart. Around her the sounds of the nighttime wood were somehow comforting and she trod bravely with her feet making little noise on the thick loam beneath the trees. Once in the fitful moonlight she saw a badger snuffling about his business, and once a stag raised his horned head to gaze limpidly at her passing.
She supposed it must be midnight when she reached the mighty oak. Reaching out her hand she smoothed his bark and felt the ageless incurious spirit that inhabited the heart of the tree. As she communed with the forest giant her ears caught a breath of sound, and her heart leapt into a blaze of joy. By the time the sound resolved itself into the wheels of a wagon and the hooves of a horse she was standing at the side of the track with her bundle on her shoulder. He didn’t even need to stop the wagon, merely reaching down a strong arm and lifting her onto the seat at his side. They kissed briefly then both set their faces to the east and the miles that must be covered before sunrise.
The moneylender was at the cottage early next morning, banging on the door and waking the inhabitants with cold curses.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
Donal didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “In her room. She begged the favour of one night alone. She hasn’t come out.”
“Fool.” The dark wizard felled the lazy thatcher with a blow of his staff. “Fool. She has flown. I awoke this morning to the sure knowledge she was gone.”
“She has nowhere to go.”
“It seems as if nowhere is preferable to either of us.”
Without awaiting invitation he shouldered his way into the cottage and up the narrow staircase. He kicked wide the door of the stillroom to see an open casement and an empty room. Cursing under his breath he was at the table where the tarot deck still lay in two strides. As he reached out his hand to dash the cards to the floor they seemed to crumple before him like leaves in the autumn wind. Only the card at the centre of the unfamiliar pattern remained intact.
The Queen of Swords stared at the dark wizard from a pair of calm green eyes…