Laura and Mrs Leak had, with time, come to an understanding about the garden, whereby Laura had got a few beds for her own projects—but they often crossed the boundaries, in order to discuss questions of cabbage moths, or the proper time to harvest elderblossom.
Laura was on her knees, trying to keep the imperialistic springtime ambitions of the mint patch at bay by pulling up its runners, when she heard a voice say, 'No, of course I won't pet you, if you don't want me to.'
'Pardon me?' said Laura, leaning back on her haunches.
'Oh—I was addressing Vinegar, not you.' The speaker was a short woman, difficult to place in age, with pale gold hair that ran long and straight down her back. Laura had never seen her before.
'No, I would not recommend petting him; he has his dignity.'
'Yes, I can see that.'
'I suppose you are a witch?' asked Laura conversationally. She had got better at spotting her fellow witches over the years, and this woman, addressing her familiar so directly, and yet so respectfully, must surely be one.
The woman tilted her head thoughtfully. 'What is a witch?'
Laura was taken aback, and gave a more candid answer than she might otherwise have. 'A witch is a woman who has given her soul to Satan, and thus obtained her freedom.'
'Oh. I've heard the word before, but people don't always mean the same thing by it.' She added apologetically, 'You see, I've never been here before, and I only came down now because my horse thought the clover on the field looked so tasty. I always like to indulge him.'
Laura's impression that she was a witch had not lessened, but it was now tempered by the suspicion that there was something more to be understood about her.
'Tell me: your Satan, does he wear a night-blue cloak, a wide-brimmed hat, and have only one eye?' asked the woman.
'No doubt he can appear that way, to some,' replied Laura, 'but I met him as a gamekeeper, and then a man employed by the Council to trim bushes.'
'But he did give you your freedom?' the woman asked searchingly.
'Oh, yes! Freedom from expectation, from being thought dull—which is something that can make you dull, with time—and from the endless round of days, during which nothing happens that is real. But now—' she gestured towards the mint patch, and the door to her own rooms, 'I have something real, of my own. I am rooted in it.'
'Oh, how interesting!' said the other woman. 'My freedom looked very different.'
'You see, I'd been brought up by dragons, and even when I was no longer with them, I had inherited...something of their grasping ways. I might have stayed there, hoarding treasure, held down by it, if he hadn't come.'
Laura wondered whether she meant literal dragons, or not—she could imagine that 'grasping dragon' would be a very apt description of some people. But it hardly mattered. 'And then?'
She smiled, and spread her hands. 'I could travel light.'
Yes, Laura could see that. 'You can't have been saddled with any husband, then.'
'No, I've never wanted that.'
'Me, neither.' They smiled at each other in perfect understanding.
'Well, my horse will be eager to fly on,' said the woman, with a glance down the lane at the meadow. Fly? Laura was suddenly curious to see the horse. 'I'm Halla, by the way—what's your name?'
'I'm Laura.' Impulsively she added, 'Come by some time, if you want, and we can have tea together—autumn is best, I'll have apples to make pie from, and all sorts of harvest from the garden and the fields. But you're welcome any time.'
'Thank you, I will!' And she was off down the lane, with a light step.