Either the whispers were just in my head or the river was calling to me again. I wasn’t sure which option was more troubling.
“Hurry up, Dilly,” I said, stepping briskly along the waterside path, careful of my best academic gown, slung over my arm. On another day, I might have stopped to admire the first hints of gold in the hornbeam trees, the white autumn lady’s tresses blooming across the road. The quicker we reached the university, the sooner I would be free of the river’s nagging. If it was the river. As if the river knew anything. “You do not want to be late.”
Oblivious to my anxiety, Dilly glided forward at her usual stately pace. She looked like a fashion plate from the Delineator in her sage green princess gown with bolero jacket. Beneath her wide-brimmed hat, her gold hair, styled high and full, glinted in the autumn sunshine. Unmoved by my exhortations, she looked down at me with her usual serenity and grace. She certainly looked more like the daughter of a countess than I did. No one would ever take her for a clanless girl from the Silt.
Sometimes, I confess, her utter perfection could be annoying. At this moment, however, I was simply glad that she seemed unaware of my nerves. But I still wished she would hurry. At least, with her long legs, she covered more ground with each step than I did.
“We will not be late.” She smiled brightly, causing a young druid across the street to trip over his feet. “I know you are excited, Mora. You have told me often enough what an important milestone matriculation is. And I have seen for myself how our friends have prepared for this moment.”
“Yes,” I said, forcing myself to slow down just a bit, “it’s a very big day.” Bigger than she knew. Today was the first time I would attend the ceremony as a faculty member . . . and perform magic in public. It would be the first time most of the attendees saw magic performed by a woman. If I could just get through the day without bringing shame on my college, my family, my coven . . .
Dilly’s words reminded me, however, that today was not about me. It was a day of celebration for our friends who were matriculating as senior students at Boudicca. And the river would just have to be patient.
Having graduated from Boudicca myself, I understood just what today meant to our friends. Plenty of students at university—male and female—finished the first ten years of druidical studies with no intention of pursuing the tattoo. And many who hoped to continue failed the qualifying exams. So to officially matriculate and enter the senior years of study was an important rite of passage, and even more important for these girls, who faced a much harder task than any male student in completing their degree and in facing the world as a druid.
I had tutored all these girls to prepare them for this moment, and I had also taught two of them the craft I learned from my own grandmother.
They deserved better than my self-involved worries over my own performance. Or over concerns too nebulous to name.
The river called out one last time, a little huffy this time, as we turned aside toward the university. “Oh, be quiet,” I muttered. Wasn’t there someone else she could call on?
“What did you say?” Dilly asked.
“Hmm? Nothing, really. Wait, did you hear something?” I asked. “No, I mean it,” I said, halting my forward rush, when she gave me a look of disgust. “Do you hear anything?”
Dilly knew me too well. She looked from me to the river and back to me again. “No, but I never do, not from the river.”
Something in her wording gave me pause. “Not from the river. But from something else?”
Dilly avoided my gaze for a moment before she confessed. “The trees. Sometimes. Very faintly.”
Bells from the Law Faculty Tower rang the hour. Ahead, I could see its spire floating above the grove that encircled the campus
“We will talk about this later,” Dilly said, taking my arm as we entered through the western campus gate, along familiar paths, past the statue of Queen Boudicca, and into the college. Here, among the old stone walls of my second home, I could relax, at least for a while. Making our way through crowds of visitors and students in the outer courtyard, we headed up a winding back staircase to the rooms of our friends and coven mates, Claire and Fiona.
Claire’s voice, tense and irritated, greeted us before we even reached the open door.
“There’s no need to fuss, Mother. I can fix this,” she said.
“Of course, you can, dear. I just think—”
We halted at the open door and looked at each other, suddenly hesitant to interrupt.
“Fi,” she said, turning to another friend of ours and fellow student, “please tell my mother than I can fix a ripped flounce.”
She wasn’t talking about sewing it back on.
Before Fiona could answer, a woman with Claire’s beautiful dark eyes looked up from where she had been examining the torn gown and sighed. “My dear, I don’t doubt your magical ability. I’m only saying that you’re distracted and anxious, which is hardly the ideal condition in which to cast spells. And I’ve seen the sort of slapdash repairs one makes on the run with spellwork. You don’t want the flounce ripping off later in the evening or as soon as you stop concentrating on it. Magic is not always the answer.”
But it was a lot more fun than close needlework. As, I suspected from hints Claire had dropped, Lady Rivers knew from personal experience.
“Then what am I to do? I still don’t have my hair done.” Claire was usually unflappable, but she appeared to have found her limits today. I heard echoes of my own matriculation anxiety in her voice. Was it really more than ten years now?
I knocked on the door and peeked inside. “Do you have room for two more?”
Claire turned to me, looking equally hopeful and frazzled. “Morgaine! Help.”
I stepped aside for Dilly to enter, holding up her sewing kit.
“She made me run back to get it,” Dilly said, nodding toward me.
“Of course, she did,” Fiona said softly from her seat on a hard-backed chair where an older woman was helping her put her hair up in the corner of the study she shared with Claire. The men’s colleges were large enough to provide private studies for their senior students, but Boudicca did not have the endowments for the expansion that would allow them to offer such accommodations to all. Not that my friends were complaining. After years in the juniors’ dormitories or, in Fiona’s case, cheap lodgings in the Silt, these new college rooms represented more space and privacy than they had ever known.
“Dilly! You’re a savior.” Claire said, fortunately cutting off further comment from Fiona about my instincts. She hugged us both and then remembered her manners. “Oh, Mama, may I introduce my friends, Drui Lady Morgaine O’Neill and Miss Cordelia NiCora.”
We made our curtseys to Lady Rivers and then greeted Fiona, who introduced us to her new mother.
Mrs. Farnham set down the hairpins she was using to secure Fiona’s hair and greeted us warmly. An older woman, she was quiet and reserved with an innate dignity, rather like the two siblings she had adopted. The Farnhams were not wealthy, but came from an old family. They enjoyed high status within their clan, a benefit that meant a great deal to Fiona. For one thing, it meant that she was now eligible to attend college.
“Oh, of course, I’m so pleased to meet you at last. I’ve heard so much of you from Fiona and her brother,” Mrs. Farnham said.
Until recently, I had worked with Dilly and Fiona’s brother, Rory, in Admissions, where he was now dean. Dilly still worked there as Rory’s senior clerk.
“And I from Claire,” Lady Rivers added, now plying a brush through her daughter’s dark tresses.
“Ouch, Mama,” Claire said, bringing her mother’s attention back to the job at hand.
I recognized the ladies, of course, having seen before the family pictures both girls had placed on the mantel above the fireplace, not yet lit. Already the girls had made their mark on the room, dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, living plants in the windowsills. The sight of their altar, in another corner but not disguised at all, made me smile. Only a few months ago, all of us would have hidden any sign that hinted at our witchcraft.
“Claire’s got the widow’s curse,” Fiona said, noting our reaction to her friend’s uncharacteristic testiness, “which is clearly the most important part of the recitation. Or at least the most interesting bit. I’ve only got the college mistresses of the late 17th century. By the time my turn comes, I expect everyone will have dozed off.”
Her eyes twinkling, Mrs. Farnham agreed. “If the bit I’ve heard is representative of the whole, they may well be snoring long before that. Of course, I’ve heard it four times myself already.”
“Only four?” I said, shaking my head at her offer of half a footstool—the only available seat in the crowded room. “I’m sure I forced my parents to endure my recital at least six times. And I had the first mistress’s tale.”
Dilly looked up from her position at Claire’s feet, her eyes confused.
“I should have warned you,” I told her. “The students recite the history of the college from its original founding to the present.”
“Fascinating, I am sure. And the curse?” she asked while diligently attending to the torn flounce.
“I’ll spare you the bad verse for now,” Claire said, “but it has to do with the founding of Boudicca. You know that the buildings date from the time of the great High King Alfred.”
“Legend has it that a wealthy knight who wanted to advance himself at court bankrupted himself trying to impress the king, who was famous for his support of education. Hardly had the buildings been finished, when the knight’s fortunes failed and he took his own life, leaving behind a destitute widow, who some say was a witch. She is supposed to have cursed the college that ruined him, declaring that no man should profit from the cause of her ruin.” She uttered the final sentence with a dramatic and lugubrious tone.
“They tried to establish another men’s college here,” I said, handing hairpins to Mrs. Farnham. “A number of times. Each one failed, miserably. Finally, a few women druids took it over in the 16thcentury, and Boudicca College has flourished ever since.”
“Much to the dismay of the male administration of the university,” Claire muttered.
“So that is how we came to have a women’s college here at Sarum,” I said, giving Claire a warning look. She was right, of course. There were plenty of administrators who would have been glad to see Boudicca fail—or give them reason to shut us down. As it was, they made it as hard as possible for the women to complete their studies. But pointing out such injustice was only likely to make it worse.
She needed to remember that some of us prevailed in spite of it all. I had.
“I’m not so sure that will be the most exciting part of the ceremony, though,” Claire added, with a return to her usual good humor. “Drui Berganza has been hinting at a surprise.”
“I don’t suppose you’d ken anything about that, Morgaine,” Fiona said. Her time at Boudicca—or perhaps her new clan status—seemed to have made her bolder.
Dilly turned and gave me a sharp glance. Maybe she had noticed my nerves after all.
“As far as I know, Drui Berganza is not introducing any new elements to the ceremony,” I answered, picking my words carefully. “The only thing that changes year to year is the part of the history that covers the last year.”
My friends exchanged glances. A lot had happened in the last year, indeed, in just the last few months. A murderer on campus caught, and by women, by us, students and witches.
“Pity,” Mrs. Farnham commented. “I remember Rory’s matriculation across campus at Alfred. Not merely boring, but pretentious. A little excitement would be welcome.”
“Well, I think we can at least avoid much of the pretentiousness,” I said.
“There you are, Claire,” Dilly said, putting aside her needle and thread. Lady Rivers could feel secure. No one would now be able to tell that the dress had ever been damaged. Mind you, I wasn’t entirely sure that no magic had been involved. Dilly’s skill with the needle had always seemed fantastic to me.
“And your hair’s done,” Lady Rivers said, stepping back to look her daughter over. I thought I saw a glint of tears in her eyes. Putting her hair up was the moment that marked a girl’s transition to womanhood. For the students at Boudicca, it was a moment long delayed. “Let’s look at you both.”
Fiona and Claire stood side-by-side, the one petite and fair with reddish hair, the other tall and dark. They had followed such different routes to get here, but they also had much in common. They were both witches and my students in the craft, and that bound them together.
“I am so proud of you,” I told them, tears pricking at my own eyes.
“You’ve got to hurry,” Fiona said in her quiet Caledonian burr. “You’ve got to join the faculty procession.”
“Oh my, yes, I’d better go,” I said.
“We’re proud of you, too,” Claire whispered in my ear, as she gave me a valedictory hug.
I stopped a moment at the door, glancing at Dilly. Despite her serene facade, she felt very much the outsider within the college walls, I knew. Growing up clanless, she’d never had a formal education. Of course, neither had Fiona, as I reminded her often enough.
“Miss Cordelia, will you sit with us?” Mrs. Farnham asked. “Rory will be joining us, so you won’t be entirely surrounded by strangers.”
“Yes, do,” Lady Rivers added.
“Be warned,” Claire said. “My brothers will all be there, and I make no guarantee for their behavior.”
“Claire,” her mother protested.
“It is all right,” Dilly said, looking more relaxed. “I have brothers, too.”
My heart warmed at the ladies’ kindness. We should have known that we’d find no snobbery here. With a final wave, I set off to join the faculty.
From my place at the rear of the procession (I was, after all, the most junior of the faculty), I had a few minutes to scan the audience of family and friends before I entered. The auditorium was full, which I took to be a good sign. It was a large class, too, at least by Boudicca standards. That so many had been able to pass their qualifying exams was encouraging, but that their parents had allowed them to continue their studies was no less so, especially after the turmoil on campus this past summer, with bodies found in the fields behind us and a murder found in the neighboring college.
The sight of the faculty and parents made my mouth go dry. Silly, I know. The parents only had eyes for their own daughters—the rest of us could flub our presentations disastrously, and they would not notice. As for the rest of the faculty, they were probably counting the minutes until they were free again and could resume their usual pursuits. Or at least indulge in the best the college cellars had to offer at the reception.
While I took my seat, and a few deep breaths, Drui Berganza, mistress of the college, began her welcoming address.
From my place on the platform, I was careful to look interested in the endless speeches. Like the recitation, these were as familiar as a favorite lullaby. In fact, I suspected that some of these speeches had not been changed since long before my own matriculation.
The parents might not be able to see me, short as I was, in the back, but the rest of the faculty would be taking notes on my behavior. I was careful to stay alert through Fiona’s and Claire’s parts of the recitation, which I knew well, but the stuffiness of the room from the crowd and the heat from the torches began to take their toll. Early ninth-century architecture tended toward a lack of natural light, which didn’t help my concentration.
The transition was so gradual, I hardly noticed that I had slipped into that other plane, the place of dreams and visions. And magic.