Since her family was killed by the invading horse lords, Naeri has lived a wild and solitary existence, surviving on what she can scrounge or steal. But when she is caught trying to steal a pig, she is caught back up again in "civilized" life. She falls in love with Gwi, a kindly smith, and rediscovers a long-lost cousin, the minstrel Daui, who senses in Naeri a gift for geomancy. Then she catches the eye of the local warlord, Ricca, who believes she will bring him good fortune and that her earth-magic abilities can help him build a great monument to immortalize himself.
The Sarsen Witch takes place in Bronze Age Britain and centers on the building of Stonehenge and how it affects the horse tribes and the Goddess-worshiping peoples they have conquered. We see these events through the eyes of Naeri, who begins as something of a pawn and develops strength as the novel progresses. It can be frustrating watching her get pushed around, but it's really gratifying when she does grow a backbone. She must strike a difficult balance between duty and emotion, and between her wish to help her own people and her determination to honor the vows she has made.
The theme feels a bit dated now, since at this point there are many novels exploring the possible conflict between patriarchal and matriarchal tribes in prehistory. 1989, though, was a different landscape altogether. And Eileen Kernaghan presents an unusually nuanced view of the subject matter. The story suggests that a "live and let live" peace is at least theoretically possible, if extremely difficult and unlikely. Ricca, who could easily have been a one-dimensional lout, is surprisingly complex as well, especially when considering the brevity of the novel. (The 1989 edition of The Sarsen Witch weighs in at 217 pages.)
I recommend The Sarsen Witch to readers who enjoyed Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon; in fact, it's easy to imagine Naeri and Morgaine inhabiting the same semi-fictional universe, albeit separated by many centuries. Kernaghan brings to life a time about which little is known, and illuminates it with beautiful language:
"It was the Winter Queen who, by custom, led the women of Ricca's camp. Naeri had danced like this as a child in the hills, under the white stars and the hunting moon. The pulse of the drums was in her blood; her body swayed, her feet moved in remembered rhythms. The reed-pipes made a high, sweet music, clear and silvery; moon-music. In her head the mead sang like the pipes; her blood pounded in time to the drum's insistent throbbing. There were two great circles now, spinning in opposite directions. Faces were blurred ovals flashing past her as she whirled and stamped. Winter-bride, moon-dancer, she leaped like the flames on the hill, swayed like a young rowan in the wind."