Yarrow first met Anthracite as a mistake.
She was still getting used to answering to the name “Yarrow,” which was the first of her problems, because any witch worth her salt never answered to the name she was born with. Names were powerful things, more powerful than nail clippings or strands of hair. Only blood came close. If one of the long-leggedie-beasties of the forest got ahold of your real name, you could say goodbye to sense and wit and freedom.
Anthracite wasn’t just a long-leggedie-beastie, though, and more’s the pity: he was the crow-headed ferryman of the dead.
The second of Yarrow’s problems was connected to her first, and it was this — that she had only been a witch for three weeks. Where other young people in the village her age were taking on apprenticeships as chandlers, carpenters, spinsters, and blacksmiths, Yarrow had taken up an apprenticeship with the forest witch. She was an old woman, her hair pure gray and her face as wrinkled as a walnut, her clever fingers gnarled and spindly-long; and when she had knocked on the door and settled by the fire, Yarrow’s parents had taken the news … reasonably well, all things considered.
“Reasonably well” included such behaviors as turning pale (her mother), turning bright red (her father), making angry comments about how the witch ought to get out of the house before her hide got tanned (her mother), and pleas for the witch to reconsider (her father).
The witch Nettle had been undeterred. And Yarrow, after the initial shock of having someone tell her that she had the knack for magic, had been intrigued. It was the curiosity in her: once you got Yarrow by the curiosity, then she had you, and she’d not let go for love nor money ’til she found the answers to her questions.
(That was her third problem. But we’ll get to that shortly.)
After about two hours’ worth of haggling, Yarrow had packed up her bags and gone off to set up her own small cot in the witch’s cabin. It was a hard hike up the mountain, especially bogged down with a suitcase as she was, but eventually — huffing and puffing all the way, the thin mountain air certainly no help — up they got, the cabin built from rust-red wood and perched scandalously close to a sheer rock face.
Almost immediately Nettle set Yarrow to all sorts of menial tasks. Scrubbing the cabin from top to bottom, gathering plants — and not witchy kinds of plants like hellebore and foxglove and monkshood, but boring everyday plants like thyme and lavender and rosemary — and weeding the patchy little root-veg garden, and milking the goats. About the only witch-like thing that had happened so far was the choosing of her new use-name.
So Yarrow had spent those three weeks busy, to be sure, but the kind of busy that involved the hands and not the brain. When one evening sitting by the fire Yarrow ventured that she might be ready for truly witchy sort of stuff, Nettle had given her a beady-eyed stare. She did not have to open her mouth for Yarrow to take her meaning: a solid, resounding, no.
And so here we have the puzzle pieces: a young witch, just beginning to be taught the foundations — and not only with a raging curiosity, but a raging unsatisfied curiosity; for just that little nibble of knowledge was enough to whet her appetite, and just that unspoken no was enough to add a dash of spite to it.
It was a cloaked, foggy sort of autumn morning, the kind that drops a veil of gray over everything you see. The loamy ground was damp underfoot; the air tasted vaguely of lake-water; damp pearled on her forehead and made her hands clammy, indistinguishable from sweat.
The fact that Yarrow had just spent two hours hacking at the weeds in the garden did not help: in fact, the sweat from exertion combined with the brisk cold and the fog to weigh her thick wool overdress down horribly. The sun (pale yellow in the sky) had been up for three hours, and Yarrow had been up for one hour before then chasing goats that had escaped their fence.
Yarrow finished putting away the tools in the shed, then leaned against it and glared at the little dark patch of ground. This, she thought resentfully, was not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to learn witching.
At that precise moment, she heard an unfamiliar voice from inside the cabin.
She didn’t hear the sense of the words. For all that it was a ramshackle cabin in the woods, its walls were thick. But what she did hear was the tone of the voice: a deep, rasping, croaking sort of voice. Not any sort of thing she had ever heard before; and the prickling on the back of her neck told her it wasn’t any sort of human thing, either.
Before she could think not to, her feet had carried her to the door. Before she could think this is a bad idea, her ear was pressed against that door.
“… not done her any favors,” said the deep, rasping voice.
“I think she should reconsider the meaning of the word,” said Nettle. Her weedy voice was high and irritated. “And I think she should be using a different messenger than you.”
There was a rustle, like cloth — or like feathers. Then a rolling series of clicks.
“Can’t exactly gut her for the impertinence, can I?” said the deep inhuman voice. Yarrow shuddered. “There’s rules about that.”
“Right. Number one being I’d bash you in the head with a frying pan.”
“I invite you to try.”
Yarrow clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle the alarmed sound that tried to escape. But even that small noise must have trickled through the crack in the door, because the eavesdropped conversation fell silent.
The door opened. Before her eyes, Yarrow saw Nettle’s unwanted visitor.
A single bright button-shiny black eye stared back at her. She sucked in a scream; without even looking at Nettle (and she couldn’t dare to look away), she knew that if she did scream, it would horribly offend the creature in front of her. Her eyes darted down to take in the rest of him. A crow’s head, a crow’s glossy black feathers covering him from crown to shoulders, but the rest of him was human-shaped: scarecrow-thin, wiry, his human hands blunt-nailed and his clothes a uniform shabby gray.
At the bottoms of his trouser legs, black-scaled sharp-clawed crow feet poked out.
There was a moment of frozen silence. Then the crow-headed man blinked his mad bird eyes.
“I’m impressed,” he said in his raspy croaking voice. His head turned a fraction to the left; he wasn’t addressing Yarrow. “The last one you tried bringing to the house lost her lunch soon as look at me. How long did it take for the smell to go away properly?”
“Two weeks,” said Nettle. Yarrow darted a glance at her; her arms were tightly folded, and her mouth was pursed in a thin line.
“I’m impressed,” the crow-man repeated. He tipped his head to one side in a little mechanical jerk, the shiny black-button eyes fixed on Yarrow fully now. “What’s your name, new witch?”
“My name is A — o-oh,” she stammered. Her heart pounded in her throat. “I, um — Y-Yarrow. I’m called Yarrow.”
“Yarrow, also called woundwort, the multipurpose healer. That’s a good name,” said the crow-man. “Better than ‘Nettle,’ in any case.” Nettle muttered under her breath, and the crow-man chuffed through his beak in response.
“And a good catch there, too,” he added. He couldn’t smile, not with a face like that, but Yarrow caught a smile in his voice anyway. “You’ve picked a good one, Nettle.”
Nettle glowered. Yarrow wrapped her arms around her middle and tried not to be intimidated. She could feel her shoulders trying to crawl up around her ears.
“Anthracite here was just leaving. Weren’t you?”
“Indeed. The message has been delivered, after all, so the messenger should depart.” There was something dry and ironic in those words, but nothing malicious. The crow-man dipped his head in a nod to Nettle, then winked at Yarrow. Then, with a contortion in the air that made her eyes water, the crow-headed creature transformed into a tattered black bird, bigger than any normal crow had a right to be, and darted off into the fog.
Yarrow tried to scoop her jaw up from the floor.
“Who was that?”
“I think you mean what, not who,” said Nettle. Her arms were still crossed severely in front of her, and her mouth was still caught in a hellacious scowl. “Anthracite’s not his true name, but unlike most critters that go bump in the night, he doesn’t actually need a name.”
What sort of thing doesn’t need a name? Yarrow wanted to ask, but this time she wisely kept her mouth shut.
“Why the psychopomp’s carrying messages for Her Royal Nibs is beyond me, though,” Nettle continued. The bitter edge had returned to her voice. “Should have tried the frying pan first thing.”
“He’s a … what?”
“Psychopomp,” Nettle repeated. She saw the befuddled look on Yarrow’s face and took pity. “A guide for the dead, child. He takes ‘em over to wherever’s next after this life.”
“Wha — what’s he doing here?”
“Nothing good,” the old witch said firmly. “And you’d best be down on your knees thanking Providence that you caught that slip-up when you did, because him knowing your true name would be only the start of your troubles. Now wash up for breakfast, child.”
It was only another one of Nettle’s non-answers, that danced around the question without satisfying the intent behind it.
But it whetted her curiosity … and that was a door not easily closed again.