The town was only just starting to wake up. Cafe owners had arranged their tables and chairs and were busy putting up awnings to protect customers from the sun which would be hot later in the day. Shopkeepers were placing their wares outside on the pavements. One shop offered Koggelhopfs, a specialist bread of the region, in various flavours, the smell of baking made Mel feel hungry. This was the time of day that she loved best. Morning sunlight on her shoulders, not many tourists about and a new town to explore, heaven!
The buildings were all decorated with window boxes full of spring flowers on each of their three floors. They were all steeply roofed, timber framed houses, the plaster inside the frames painted with bright colours. Scanning them as she passed, she looked for hidden gems to point out to Dan later. She glanced into courtyard restaurants, revealed through ancient archways, tables all set out ready to receive lunchtime customers. At the top of the hill the road led through a tower whose walls were painted the colour of ripe grapefruit. Just before the tower was a restaurant with a medieval scene on its deep peach wall. Underneath green awnings people were enjoying their coffee, the aroma of which wafted over towards Mel. From an upstairs window an old man watched the street with no hint of curiosity on his face. In between the restaurant and the tower lay a smaller building, only two storeys tall, its white paint fading on the cracked plaster.
Etched into the wall of this shop was a five pointed star set within a circle. An effigy of a witch had been placed by the door. It conformed to the popular view of witches, ugly face, and long crooked nose. From under its scraggy hair black glass-like eyes followed her. Walking into the shop from the bright sunlit street was like entering a catacomb and Mel paused, letting her eyes adjust while her sense of smell was assailed by the scent of many herbs that hung from the ceiling. Tracks from Clannad's Anam album were playing in the background. On the shelves were smaller versions of the effigy she had just passed, all their glittering little eyes on her. Just inside the shop was a woman dressed in black, lips painted a violent red, sitting by a till. As Mel passed her she looked up quickly and pressed a small bell push under the counter. An older looking woman with a pale, severe face and grey hair tied tightly into a bun, entered the shop from a door marked private.
'Bonjour Madame,' she said to Mel. 'Y at-il queque chose de special que je peux faire pour vous aujourd'hui?'
'Oui Madame, I'm writing an article for my magazine on modern day witchcraft. Is there anyone here who speaks English? I would really appreciate it if they could spare me a few minutes,' Mel said.
'I can speak English if that is what Madame prefers. If Madame would like to follow me upstairs I will be happy to tell her about the people who are adept in the craft today. Maybe Madame would like to amuse herself first by taking our little test.'
She led Mel over to a small wooden table which had colourful earthenware pots set out with coloured sand in them. 'If Madame would like to read the words on this,' she said, handing Mel a card, 'at the same time making this gesture with her right hand over any of the pots.' The woman demonstrated the gesture she wished Mel to copy.
Feeling more than a little foolish Mel muttered the words and attempted to replicate the required movement with her hand.
'Once more please Madame, this time with more conviction. I assure you; you will come to no harm.'
Mel had another attempt, this time staring at a pot which had pale gold grains in it. The grains immediately changed colour to a dull grey giving off a pungent smell. Mel stared at her handiwork wondering how the trick had been executed. 'How did that happen?' Mel asked, wishing she hadn't entered the shop.
'It is magic of course,' the woman smiled, 'shall we go upstairs now?'
Mel didn't believe there was such a thing as magic, and the article she planned would be an exposé of how gullible women could be taken advantage of. Finding someone who would be willing to let her have an interview this early in her research was beyond her expectations. They went back through the door marked private and up the stairs beyond. As they reached the top of the stairs, a cat jumped out in front of Mel. It arched its back and gave a loud threatening hiss, its claws extended, gripping the carpet, causing her to step back and hold the banister rail tightly. The cat stalked off down the narrow corridor and disappeared round a corner.
'Is Madame afraid of cats?' the woman asked.
'Not usually,' replied Mel, 'but that one startled me. Does it welcome all your guests this way?'
'Not often,' the woman said, before opening a door into a room and ushering Mel inside. Sunlight shining through the curtains gave the room a reddish tinge. The warmth of the room was enhanced by the wooden ceiling from which hung great bunches of aromatic herbs. A huge brown leather settee with cracks showing its age was placed in front of an oak table surrounded by six chairs. On the table were a small brass teapot, fluid lines that looked like Arabic script etched into its surface and four delicate white china cups. 'Which magazine do you work for?' asked the woman as she began pouring the tea into two cups.
'I'm a freelance journalist' said Mel, ' I sell my work to any of the top magazines.'
Passing Mel a cup she said 'My name is Gabrielle, please sit down and ask me any question you like. I will try to give you as complete a picture as I can.'
'I'm pleased to meet you Gabrielle, my name is Mel. I suppose my first question is, are you a witch?' Mel said sipping at the sweet tea which tasted of honey and herbs.
'Some people would call me and my friends witches.' said Gabrielle, 'some of us follow the old religion and do not consider ourselves to be witches. Wise women, witches, sorcerers, we have been called many things.' Gabrielle refilled Mel's cup. 'Women who practice the craft of magic, or the wisecraft as it is sometimes called, have been around since humans first grouped together in prehistoric times.'
'We have been highly respected and revered in the past when a word from one of us would end a fight between two men or a war between two tribes,' she paused, looking deep into Mel's eyes. 'Unfortunately, we have been reviled and persecuted in more modern times. Today we are regarded as cranks, followers of the devil and we are subject to derision. We endeavour to learn, to know ourselves and to apply our knowledge wisely. All strive to attune with the cycles of the Earth and the creatures that live on it, we celebrate life in all its forms.'
As she listened Mel began to feel a little drowsy.
'What is in this tea?' she said, 'its very nice.' Gabrielle didn't answer immediately, instead took a chain from around her neck from which a small cross was hanging. The top half of the cross was shaped like a teardrop.
'The tea will help you relax,' she said placing the chain around Mel's neck.
As soon as the cross touched Mel's skin she felt warmth spreading through her body and became aware of a great web of women both near and far.
'Welcome sister, we have been waiting. Your coming has been foretold. You are thrice welcome.'
Mel would have panicked if she had not had the drink. She sat still, taking in all the sensations. At first she thought she was having an hallucination but this situation was more real than anything she had ever experienced.
Playing for time to come to terms with what was happening, Mel asked 'What do you want from me?'
'We wish to teach you all we can about magic and to prepare you for your road ahead.' The voice sounded clearly in Mel's mind.
'From today, you are one of us, you are ours.'