When it is very cold, breath snakes out of your nostrils like smoke, hanging in the air and then dissipating against the star sprinkled inky blackness. In the dead of winter, we are all dragons.
The muddy grass crunched loudly with each step, and Ursula froze, almost literally, ears working overtime, listening for any clues that Mrs Morgan might be awake. Mrs Morgan was the creepy old woman (she steadfastly avoided thinking the word "witch") who lived next door, and in whose neglected garden she was trespassing.
The scrubby postage-stamp-sized garden took almost no time at all to cross, and then she saw it again - the soft light flickering in the undergrowth. Thorns terrorised her pyjamas, and then there was something slippery underfoot and her backside landed painfully on a hard patch of ice, which cracked under her bottom.
But it wasn't just a patch of ice. It was a pond. Hidden away down here at the end of the old woman's garden. That’s where the light was coming from – from the murky bed at the bottom of the freezing water.
Easy to see, now, exactly what is emitting this hypnotic gleam: a sword, cradled in bony hands.
A horrified shriek - hers - shatters the stillness, piercing enough to wake the dead.
There’s a skeleton down there!
Tatters of material still cling to the body. This, and a suggestion of long hair, or possibly some kind of weed, gives the overall impression of a woman. Gowned and wealthy, now drowned and filthy, the shining blade weaving a connection between the two ways of being.
There’s no sense in asking why. Sometimes you just do things, and sometimes, some moments, there is only one thing you can do. The rock felt heavy, which was good, because the ice was thick. She aimed for the slight crack she'd already made. When it broke, the edges were jagged and sharp, gouging her skin. Disturbed silt roiled, obscuring the body, the blade, and the weird glow. Making a guess, a stab in the dark, if you like, exactly where the blade ended and the hilt began... A gamble where the stakes were intact fingers.
At last, her arm clad in mud, blood and slime, she drew her prize to the surface. The girl heaved to her feet and froze, neck prickling furiously. Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, chest heaving. The slick sword hilt grasped in her skinny pink hand, exactly like a deadly weapon. It was heavy, its tip threatening the frosted grass, its blade flashing in the bright moonlight. Her knuckles whitened.
She's behind me isn't she?
The old woman (not a witch, not a witch, not a witch) took a leisurely sip from her mug. How long had she been standing there?
"I thought it might be you."
Her accent was thick and Welsh, her voice almost gentle, as if she were speaking to a deer in the forest.
Why was I afraid of her? She's just an old lady after all.
The woman nodded towards the blade.
"It speaks to you."
The girl nodded slowly, tongue clumsy and dull-witted in her mouth, remembering the un-ignorable pull that brought her here.
The woman looked suddenly old and tired.
"It's been too long. I was ready such a long time ago, I've forgotten what it even feels like..."
Her gaze went right through the girl to some long distant memory, and then she turned abruptly towards the little house and beckoned with a lumpy finger for the girl to follow.
Inside was dim and grimy with old dust, but the little corner with the kettle and mugs was spotlessly clean. It was as if she lived on a diet of tea and cocoa, depending on the hour. Perpetually "putting the kettle on while we wait" and barely visiting the rest of the house.
It smelt funny.
The girl perched on the threadbare sofa, naked weapon balanced across her knees, while the woman made two mugs of milky cocoa.
The girl felt as though she were brimming over with questions. Starting with, Why do you have a sword at the bottom of a pond in your garden? all the way up to, Am I the rightful king of England now?
"You might be, at that."
The girl started, not just because the woman moved so softly into the room, but because she had answered an unspoken thought.
"I can't read minds, girl. But I do have the Sight, not that you'll know what that is. What are they teaching children these days..." Her voice trailed off into fractious muttering.
The girl peered at the woman's face. The eyes were milky looking with a generous framing of deep wrinkles, and she doubted silently that they had any sight at all.
The crone set the tray down on the table between them.
"They think they're in charge, you know. They always have. Well. Not always. But for so long it might as well be."
She seated herself gracefully, like a queen, in a chair that was obviously favoured for the purpose, and cradled her mug deliberately in two hands. One moment she was just an elderly person, grumbling about Young People, and the next, with a gesture (or a glamour) she was a high-born lady of wealth and power, speaking on matters of state - and her faded bathrobe and gummy mouth bedamned.
The girl placed one hand on the sword to keep it steady, enjoying the glinting smoothness, and reached with the other for her mug, brain cells scrambling to keep up. There was some kind of scummy residue on the surface of it.
"Who?" she asked.
"Men." They shared a beat of satisfied, feminist silence, followed by an incongruous, "Women have forgotten their place."
The old woman smiled at the obvious bristling her comment provoked. "Our place behind the throne, girl. The invisible power behind the power. The rudder under the water. These days simpering ninnies are wasting their time pleading for equality-" She spat the word as if it offended her, took a few breaths to dissipate her obvious impatience, and gestured imperiously to the sword with her mug. "They never owned it. Not really. We kept it. They wielded it. We let them. For justice and protection. That was the bargain."
The girl put a hand on the flat of the blade, admiring it's smooth glint, oddly unrusted for all time it had spent in the murky water, cradled in skeletal hands. The question spilled out at last.
"Who are you?"
A knobby finger reached out and tapped the worn script near the hilt.
"My aunt Vivianne kept it. I protected it, with spells I learned in the convent. My brother wielded it."
Spells. I knew it!
"Sorry," said the girl bluntly, becoming impatient with the riddles and changes of direction, "but I still don't know why you are telling me this. I'm not even sure who you are."
"Because I don't know who you are." The opaque eyes searched her face. "Are you the keeper? the protector? Or.... Something else?"
The girl frowned, trying to understand what on earth the crazy old lady was on about.
"Well, I'm a girl, obviously... So I can't weld it can I? Or wield it, or whatever."
Good. That means I can't be king. Which sounds like a lot of responsibility. Mum won't even let me have a dog.
"Times have changed." Crinkled hands smoothed flannel pyjamas calmly as if they were the finest gown.
"I don't know any spells."
The old woman ignored that.
"Perhaps you are here take it. Or to replace me. Perhaps you are here to replace her." Another gesture with her mug, this time towards the scrubby garden and the secret at the bottom of it. "You wouldn't be the first either," she added.
The girl's eyes widened in shock and fear, that odd smell suddenly more insistent in her nostrils. She recoiled from the apparently innocuous mug in her hand.
A soft cackle creased those pearly, knowing eyes.
"Oh, I didn't poison it. I thought about it. But I told you, I am long past being ready. I think... maybe.... you get to choose. Isn't that what all young women want? To choose?"
The sword glinted softly.