One Year’s Worth of Woe

by S.J.Hirons
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I

The Maker of Narrow Houses stood and looked at the building for awhile, as though he were a returning visitor lost to fond memory; then he began the gentle ascent of the driveway that turned off the road and wound up to the house where it stood, half-hidden behind a grove of trees, at the crest of the sloping, sere fields. Not much stirred as he followed the pebbly track. The bustle of the town where he had alighted from the stagecoach was far behind him. Above, the sky was watchet blue, free of all but the thinnest clouds. The greying field he walked through, though overgrown, held no allure for passing birds – its rank and rotting crop looked to have been untended for a season or more. When he came to the yard, though, he heard spell-chant within the house and the low padding of drums keeping time. The woman he called upon sometimes saw patients here, he knew, and he was loath to interrupt such a session. Seeing, now that he had made it to the highest ridge of the land, that the northern face of the house would give him a pleasing view of the cliffs and the sea, he did not knock on the door to announce his presence but, instead, stepped into the shade of the veranda and walked to that corner, where there were two wicker chairs. From there he could see both the door to the house and the ocean.

The Maker of Narrow Houses sat down and waited.

II

All over Edgeton the windows and doors of dwellings were slung open. Overnight, it seemed, summer had arrived to draw sweltering heat right out of the earth. To Cressy each house she passed as she walked out of town looked like it was mid-way through a thorough ransacking. People had dragged their chairs and tables outside into whatever shade they could find in their gardens. It was a day when nothing moved without necessity, save swarms of mosquitoes and, far below the cliffs, the sea, lapping at the rock-face. If one could get to it one would find those enticing waters rewardingly cool – but the cliffs did not abate for miles and no safe track or tunnel led to them from town. From Edgeton the only alternatives to the sea were the east-flowing river — where the nets and pots of the fishermen put a stench in the air even on a cold day — or the shrine, where the said-to-be-sacred springs ran and it cost a copper just to sit and breathe the rarefied air within. As she walked to her session with the Mysteress, however, Cressy’s thoughts were not of making the beach, or the river or the cool, underground shrine: if going somewhere was an option she had bigger ambitions.

She thought that if she had to make a map of the world as she knew it she would have to take the biggest piece of parchment she could find in her papa’s study and make an infinitesimally small mark on it to show Edgeton — and leave the remainder of that paper blank to represent her knowledge of anywhere else. She barely even remembered the boat they had sailed to the new world on.

Having first arrived in the great metropolis of New Amstarling on a brig-schooner, Cressy and her father had come south the three hundred wheels to Edgeton by less grand transport. The rickety wagon of a passing-through wonder-worker of weather had deposited the good captain and his daughter right in the square, on a hot and high, bright noon-time. Her father had looked about, dusted himself down, and said aloud the name of the place to his dandling child, his teeth good and strong in his smile.

He was a handsome man, Captain Farien, with his square and shaved chin and glittering gaze. His clothes were well-made, for all the road-dust on them that day, and the sword at his hip was worn with confidence. Around his neck he wore a cream-coloured scarf, tied in a fashionable knot which lay neatly between the lapels of his red velvet coat (that coat had been tailored in the old country, a fact given away by its cutaway front and short stand-up collar, its pleated skirts and slit at the back; the deep turned-back cuffs, pocket flaps and coat front were all elaborately embroidered with gold purl thread and the lining of it was green silk: it would soon be the trend in Edgeton for all moneyed men to wear such a coat). Farien held himself well. His long, brown hair — tied into a tail by a ribbon of black silk — and the shining buckles of his boots all spoke of good upbringing back in the west and, perhaps, military service. A good many who spotted him that morning must have wondered what he wanted with their humble town.

There was a quincunx of springs, the waters of which were believed by many to be a cure for a multiplicity of ills, to be found in the shrine in the centre of the town and, beyond the locks of the river (which flowed east, to the city of Landward), were the parlours of the wonder-workers.

A range of honey-stone hills gave the town naturally steep and sprawling streets, making this district of wonder-workers a veritable warren – as Farien would discover soon enough – though the river itself, only a series of braided streams when it was first discovered, had been manipulated by weirs into a single channel that accessed the fish-rich waters of the ocean.

The town had thrived on the business of water and wonders over the last fifty years. It had a park – Minerval Gardens, which crowned Library Hill and overlooked the town — and a restaurant called “Oliams” on Spring Street: its theatre, The Poppadua, was feted for its Mystery Plays. These were all signs of burgeoning cultural growth.

Around him Captain Farien could see that most of the buildings were hewn from the yellow honey-stone of the quarries they’d passed in the outlying countryside (such stuff, he later told his daughter, the bard Johann Swiftsheaf had described as ‘…those bricks of dusty sunlight’ when he had passed through) and so, all in all, he was satisfied he had not brought his child to a backwater.

And, all in all, he had been certain he would find something here that would cure him of his darkness: Cressy’s papa had read that, because of the confluence of the Five Springs, the geographical area the town sat on had been treated as a holy place by the even the early dwellers of the region – prayers scratched onto metal plates had been recovered from the depths of the most accessible pools to confirm this (a measure Farien would be happy to undertake himself if it would help him be a better father to his girl) — savage as such people must have been. This thought had amused him at the time, so certain was he then that either the waters or the wonder-workers would rid him of his cursed ailments. Seventeen years later he had lost count of the times he had walked through the gloom of the underground shrine with his prayers clanking in his pocket and his mouth full of sorrow and entreaty. Indeed, by the end of their first month in Edgeton, he found he had once again done the things he had sworn to Cressy’s mother — on her deathbed, no less – he would never do again.

Cressy knew nothing of this, of course, so carefully had Captain Farien kept from her his problem over the years. All she knew of her papa was what the rest of the world knew: that he was a brave and respectable man, with a good trade. A spate of robberies occurred on the roads around Edgeton about a week after the Captain and his daughter arrived, and soon Farien’s sword had business because of it. Within two months he had offices, clients and a gang of lads he directed to ride as the security details for the great and the good of the town. Highway robbery was a new phenomenon to the citizens of Edgeton, and this gang, who apparently styled themselves ‘The Slagtown Reavers’, were a bloodier bunch than most, riding masked and cloaked, a crew who did not stint from drawing swords or blood.

Captain Farien’s cool and suave manner, however, always reassured those who came looking to hire him and his lads. And his record spoke for itself – aside from the odd fray, no reaver ever bothered those who rode with Farien, whereas other parties were not so fortunate. He was even approached by the town alders with the offer of a sheriff’s badge. Considering the money that flowed through the town, Farien opined, shaking his head with regret, he was surprised to learn such an occupation had not been needed before. He was regretful, too, that he couldn’t accept such a position — his plate was full, what with all his clients and the new house he had to decorate. In addition, he had a daughter to bring up single-handedly, as the aldermen knew well — but he was proud to recommend to them a fellow on his staff, one he trusted and respected. The aldermen went away, disappointed certainly, but assured that they had a sheriff who would rely on the advice of Captain Farien.

Over the years Farien’s popularity in the town ever increased. To the rich folk he represented reliance. To the poorer folk he represented employment and was more tactful and considerate with them than they expected a man with so brutish a profession to be. He was, in fact, no stranger in their taverns and was known to be generous when it came to buying the house a round — though he himself was never seen drunk. Plus, he was never one for airs and graces – despite being something of a dandy, what with his fine coats and silk scarves — though he certainly must have put to use the fact that he appealed to a great many of the womenfolk about the town, for it was a persistent rumour amongst them that he never removed the scarves from his neck…not even in the bedchamber (the reason for this, if the gossip were true, was never discovered).

Fortunately, Cressy never heard this talk. Even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to illuminate the besotted women for, while it was true he never removed a scarf from his neck in the presence of others, she herself had no idea why her papa kept such a habit.

Farien went about all his affairs discreetly, anyway, whether business or pleasure, and the only woman who entered the family home on a regular basis was old Mrs. Hobb, who cooked, cleaned and, for a time, walked Cressy to the newly-built House of Learning for her schooling.

And so the time passed. Cressy grew almost to womanhood before anything concerning her papa came along and turned her life inside out.

As she walked her way out of Edgeton her mind turned back to the facts of his disappearance, as they always did when she was due a session with the Mysteress.

III

The Maker of Narrow Houses was content to wait. It was good mental exercise, sitting still and letting the world unfurl. Brother Caspian often said as much, when the day’s work was done and the evensong of the young initiates thrummed through the chapterhouse. Caspian often worked with the Maker of Narrow Houses in the wood-shop and the two had become close over the last few months.

The Maker of Narrow Houses liked living with the Brothers of Seleus, and was grateful for their charity. He liked the cypresses that stretched to the window of his cell, and all along the gravel path that wended over the flat lawn down to where the reeds grew tow-headed at the banks of the streams and the water seemed still and clear on summer days and as rich and foamy as ale in the fall. He liked his shutters; and working in the stables; and restoring the furniture that was frequently donated to the brothers for their charitable work amongst the rural poor. He liked the monks themselves, shared their laughter and triumphs, their tears and disasters. He even liked making the narrow houses, though he was glad such business came to him infrequently and, at times, he had reflected long on Caspian’s remark that he was a natural at that task, though no conclusion ever came to him concerning the comment. What he liked most, though, were the visits he received from the lady who had found him and saved him: the Mysteress. It was she who had suggested he was given the task of making the narrow houses in the first place. His long beard and hair had been grown in her honour, and at her urging, too, to match the customs of the Selian brothers he lived amongst (though, above all else, he had wanted to please her: this was a feeling that had tormented and delighted him much over the year he had spent in the care of the brothers, for it was something that sent him veering between blind slavishness and a staggering sense of satisfaction when she was near – though, for the life of him, he was yet to understand why in either instance).

The isolation of the chapterhouse was a good thing for the Maker of Narrow Houses, both the Mysteress and Caspian agreed, as the world surely was still confusing to him, even a year after the attack that had taken his memory away. It was better, too, that the Mysteress generously aided his convalescence at the monastery instead of forcing the Maker of Narrow Houses to endure the long journey through the world to her house outside of Edgeton in case such a journey undid all the work she had put in so far.

When the Maker of Narrow Houses had asked Caspian why the Mysteress so diligently, and freely, gave her own time in such a fashion, the older man had seemed to think for a long time. In the end he had said that since the Mysteress had saved the life of the Maker of Narrow Houses, her life and his own had become entwined. She, perhaps, felt responsible for his ongoing existence. Therefore she had staked something of herself in the outcome of her act. The Maker of Narrow Houses wasn’t sure he followed this, but he said nothing. After a little time considering it, he found he thought that the idea was possible. Since the attack he had constantly felt he was somehow bonded to the woman who had saved him. When she was approaching the monastery he always knew she was coming as his heart seemed to sound a low toll of anticipation — something that both exhausted and enervated him all at once.

He thought back to his first memory: the night, and the long grass. He remembered a sword and falling. Then a woman standing over him, concerned. Though she was dressed well, in an expensive frock, she had a smoking pistol in one hand that belied the look of a demure well-to-do lady. Her long, dark hair was unbound, its tumbles framing her pale face. The moonlight suited her.

“Reavers,” she had said, looking down at him. At the time he hadn’t known what she’d meant by this. Later, it was explained to him that she’d heard a scuffle ahead of her on the road and the clash of swords — something that the sound of her approaching horse had just about ended. She’d come upon a tableaux of three horsemen, one being attacked by two, and fired immediately at the assailants, who’d fled. The victim slid from his own steed as she came closer. She’d knelt down beside him to investigate the great welt on his left temple that even the night couldn’t conceal.

“Where do you ride to, sir?” She’d asked him briskly, and he’d stuttered that he did not know. She had frowned: “You do not look like an itinerant or a vagabond, sir, and I find it puzzling to think a gentleman would ride out at so late an hour to no purpose. What is your name? From where do you hail?”

He’d been unable to answer her, vexing her yet further. From her sleeve she pulled out a silk handkerchief, dampened it on the dewy grass, and dabbed at his wound.

“It seems you have temporarily lost your wits, I’m afraid. It is not unknown. It is fortunate for you I have some skill in the arts of healing, although such work should not be undertaken here. Those dogs may yet return. If you think you can ride then we should make for the House of Seleus. It is close. We are on the North Road that leads to New Amstarling, if that means ought to you.”

It did not. He stood up and looked down at himself. His vestments were black and looked to be both well-made and well-travelled in. She pointed to his fallen sword. When he retrieved it, though, the very touch of such a thing revolted him and turned his stomach. Holding it was like grasping a viper by the tail and he cast it back to the ground, wiping his palm on his leather overcoat. His rescuer looked on, seemingly exasperated and amused all at once.

“You have no such objection to my plan, I hope?”

He bowed his head, ashamed, and asked forgiveness of her; assured her he was hers to command.

“Then follow me.” She’d commanded.

IV

Cressy’s father had been more than ordinarily pre-occupied the week before he vanished. Cressy had presumed he had some new and complicated bit of business on his mind – as he often became curt when this was the case — meaning he had much to organise and would often withdraw to his study to plan routes and work at the maps where he recorded likely points of interception on the roads in and out of Edgeton at such times. His second-in-command, Master Merlow, however, assured her, when she asked, that they had had no more than regular clients, and that her father had not even been scheduled to escort the parties they had timetabled that week. The good master did confirm, however, that he, too, had found the captain to be distant and strange in the days before his disappearance. “Like one who’s had bad news from home,” Merlow said to her.

Cressy had frowned at this: Edgeton was home, as far as she was concerned. Merlow told her, too, that Farien’s horse was gone from the stables.

She came out of her father’s offices and crossed the straw-strewn yard, where the swordsmen milled and the ostlers tended the horses, to walk back along the thoroughfare towards home. Though her mind was drifting along all the possible routes her father had taken out of Edgeton, she noticed she was being observed as she made her way along Spring Street. A black-haired woman had paused, in the middle of the market, to watch Cressy as she passed. The woman wore a purple dress, trimmed with silk as pale as her own skin. Cressy frowned. The woman was vaguely recognisable but, for a moment, Cressy could not place her. Then it came: she was the newest wonder-worker in the town, the one they called the Mysteress. Cressy remembered that she and her father had spotted the woman and her husband arriving in Edgeton some time the week before. They had been alighting from the stagecoach when Farien and his daughter passed. Cressy remembered her father pausing to look. Long experience told Cressy that Farien had recognised a wonder-worker and was taking this opportunity to assess her. She knew of old his long dissatisfactions with the established practitioners in the town and his slavish research of every newly arrived one. She had thought it a peculiar, somehow gossipy and womanish, habit of his and, now the woman was fresh in her mind again, she recalled he had said to her a few days later that the new wonder-worker had bought a house on the outskirts of Edgeton.

“From the old country she’s come,” he’d said, musing this — not even really saying it to Cressy, only to himself — and fingering the knot of his scarf as he looked out of the dining-room window and towards the river.

The woman inclined her head gravely when she saw she had been seen. It was a gesture of equality, Cressy felt, and so she acknowledged it with her own little half-bow and walked on.

When her father remained missing for another day Cressy began to worry. Where was he? Why had he left without leaving any kind of note of explanation? In frustration she had gone into his study — normally forbidden to her — to look at whatever he had been working on. But nothing on the maps or papers there surrendered any kind of clue, and her fears mounted: how was she to live?

There was no bank in the town – anybody who wished that kind of surety had to transport their cash back to New Amstarling (hence the busyness of the road, and the business of her father and the highwaymen, both) — but she had no clue as to where her father kept his money. What was she to do if the bills began to mount?

In his bedchamber nothing seemed outwardly disturbed. The first peculiarity she found there was that his entire wardrobe appeared to still be in place: his riding boots; his velvet coats of red and green; his shirts and all of his creamy neck scarves. All were hung neatly, exactly where they always were when he was not wearing them.

The second oddity came when she found two sets of riding gear, all tailored out of black cloth and leather — a colour her father never wore — at the back of the wardrobe. She had never seen him ever wearing any outfit like this gear.

And still she could not understand what he must have been about, nor what he might have intended she should do if he ever went away for a time, or went somehow missing.

After three days living with her gnawing fears she felt certain despair and destitution were destined to overcome her. She had hardly slept and, nauseous with panic, she had scarcely eaten lest her supplies in the pantry ran out.

That evening the Mysteress called at the house.

She said she had come to speak to the child about grief.

V

The Maker of Narrow Houses closed his eyes, groggy with the afternoon’s sweltering heat and the dragging sound of the spell-chant. Errant and unbidden thoughts buzzed around him as he succumbed to slumber. His head sank, spreading his beard across his chest: amongst the Brothers of Seleus he had become well known for the ease with which he slipped into deep, but clearly disturbed, slumber.

In the year he had lived at the House of Seleus the Maker of Narrow Houses had discovered many things about himself. Not least of these was his facility at making things. At first he had had no duties there. Brother Caspian and the Mysteress were both agreed that the monastery was the best place for him to stay and recover, as best he could, and, later, that manual labour might disturb this recuperation. The Mysteress herself visited him weekly, her sessions soothing his mind after the days when he would question everything about his own identity — his memory, the monks, the river and the sky (nothing came) — but each time it was only with the news that her inquiries had revealed nought about a missing man in the area, most certainly not one with such a distinctive scar across his throat.

Caspian told the Maker of Narrow Houses that the Mysteress must have cast her net wide in that search, as she came some fifty wheels from Edgeton where she lived to tend her charge, and the road she took saw many travellers. Someone would have known if there was a local man missing.

When the drumming began, and her voice slid into its wonder-working chant, the frustrations of the Maker of Narrow Houses melted away and he swooned into the necessary trances with no struggle. It was nevertheless Caspian’s belief that these sessions were what made the nameless man so exhausted and, thus, he did not ask his ward to labour for his keep at first. This arrangement had embarrassed the Maker of Narrow Houses after a time, and so he had persuaded Caspian to let him clean and cook as the brothers did.

One evening he had sat and whittled after supper and, when it was seen he had a talent for woodwork, he was given tasks in the workshops. He excelled at these, a chisel somehow feeling more fitting in his hand than the sword he had dropped before, and he showed clear skill for the restoration of the donated furniture that came in. A month later, at the prompting of the Mysteress, he had been given the task of making his first narrow house: a child in the nearby river-side village had died of foam-fever.

The work felt like a great honour and he approached it somberly and diligently. The end result was a fine-looking little casket, inscribed with the child’s name and decorated with a motif of carven reeds and lilies. Soon he was sought out for his skill at this task and so he became known in the wheels around the House of Seleus for what he was: a Maker of Narrow Houses.

In some way he had hoped that all this labour would tire him into dreamless sleep at the end of a long day but, so far, no rest came to him that was not haunted in some way.

All the time, swords pierced and jabbed in his dreams, rising and falling like the measures in a march.

The sea crashed below on the cliffs and the Maker of Narrow Houses slumbered on.

VI

The Mysteress had told Cressy that she could help her. There was some quality about the woman in the purple dress that compelled the girl to let her in. She had sat in the parlour as the girl hurried about trying to find the makings of tea or coffee for her guest with an air of quiet certitude and, once they were both seated, she spoke without preamble:

“The sheriff tells me your father is missing. If I may be frank, neither of us holds out much hope of his return.” She sipped her weak tea and eyed Cressy carefully.

“Wh-? Why…Why do you say so?”

Setting her cup back on its saucer with a clink the Mysteress leant closer to Cressy:

“Your father was seen riding out north, on the road that passes my house. That was the last anyone saw of him. Reports have come in of fighting on the road that night. Certainly, I believe I heard something of the sort myself that evening. It seems likely that the reavers fell upon your father. The sheriff tells me Captain Farien has long been an enemy of such harriers. He has heard that their leader, Coal-Faced Jack, has put quite a price on his head.”

Cressy nodded, numbly. “But nobody…”

The Mysteress held up a hand. “The reason I sought out the sheriff, I’m afraid to say, only confirms all of this. A horse strayed onto my land last night. At first I could not get close to her, for she was full of skittish fear and looked to have been wandering, starving even, for a day or two. Eventually, however, I persuaded her to calm, and I brought her into town for the sheriff’s inspection. We took her to Master Merlow, and he confirmed the creature was your father’s own. There was blood upon the saddle.”

She reached over and put a hand on Cressy’s trembling forearm. “I am sorry, my dear, but you must begin to imagine your life without your beloved father in it.”

Cressy gave out a low moan. “It is all I feared! How…How am I to live?” She gripped the hand of the Mysteress, who slipped out of her seat and knelt before the girl. Up close Cressy saw that the woman was not really much older than herself, though her eyes were wiser than many a mature maid Cressy had known: grey eyes, they were, like clouds full-bellied with rain.

The Mysteress put a hand on Cressy’s head and drew her down to her shoulder. “Hush, child,” she murmured. “You cry. Let it all out. It will be best.”

Then: “I can help.”

Cressy pressed herself, unseeing, into the other woman’s shoulder. “There is no money! How can I pay you? Oh, what will I eat?”

“Hush, hush,” the Mysteress whispered to her. “All will be well.”

Cressy sobbed, and the Mysteress spoke on. As she did so her voice grew lower in tone and her words entwined amongst themselves.

Cressy slept.

And then the Mysteress drew out her grief.

VII

The next morning, when Cressy woke up, she was filled with an odd sense of purpose and certainty. Without even changing out of her nightgown she rose from her bed and walked through the house. Down she went, all the way to the coal cellar.

The cellar had never been forbidden to her the way Farien’s study had — though Mrs. Hobb would undoubtedly have told her it was unseemly for a young gentlewoman to go exploring such a space — but this was, nevertheless, the first time Cressy had been into it. She expected she would be afraid of the gloomy dark down there, and unnerved by the idea of spiders and the like. She was not. She walked with all the presentiment of a long-time somnambulist directly to the south wall. The bricks at her feet here were black and damp. She knew which ones she should lift, though she did not know how she had come into such intelligence. Slowly, and with care, she removed ninety six black bricks from the floor, stacking them neatly at the head of the pit they revealed. Her hands and her nightgown were filthy by the time she was done. She looked down into the pit at four roughly-made caskets of greenish wood. Inside three of the caskets she found assorted leather purses stuffed with gold, silver and copper coins of the realm. The fourth casket held an array of ladies fans, pins, necklaces and rings.

She knelt in the dark of the cellar for the rest of that morning, somehow convinced that the Mysteress had done something that had saved her life, but not certain what that might have been or what it might mean. Certainly, the money before her meant she need not fear for her immediate future. There was enough there to ensure several years comfortable living or to provide a well-funded flight out of the province and back to the big city, New Amstarling – or even home, all the way, back to the old country and the west.

Cressy did not deceive herself as to what the source of the treasure before her must have been. She had heard plenty of stories concerning Coal-Faced Jack and his reavers from Mrs. Hobb over the years and, in the dim of the cellar, it seemed to Cressy that it was entirely possible that her father must have had two lives. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more the pieces slid into place with a sort of grim inevitability. Her father had brought them over from the old country after Cressy’s mother passed away. In Edgeton he had ensured he would have work by creating that work for himself. She felt certain that amongst his men there were many who had been with him for years, men who showed the kind of loyalty to him that Merlow did: men who would not have baulked at the tasks he had for them when he waltzed into their taverns all those years ago, back when Edgeton was still an innocent idyll.

Cressy felt a strange, private sense of humiliation at this discovery. Humiliation and a kind of rage:

Just who, exactly, had her father been, after all?

VIII

When the letter of request from the Mysteress arrived at the House of Seleus the Maker of Narrow Houses had been down at the streams, filling his creel with snappers for that evening’s supper. A young initiate met him on his return and handed the missive over. Her appeal was a simple one: it had been a year, almost, since she had saved him on the road and, since then, he had not strayed far from the chapterhouse and its workshops. It was time he ventured out into the world, she felt, and so she invited him to travel to her home for his next treatment.

As ever, anything concerning the Mysteress unnerved and excited him. He contemplated trimming his beard in preparation before remembering she was the one who had requested he grow it. Then he dithered about what he might wear and how he would get to her house, until Caspian told him that a stagecoach ran regularly along the North Road and that he looked just fine in the simple clothes he had on.

When the appointed day came the Maker of Narrow Houses tied his hair back in a top knot and did his best to straighten his straggling beard before he shook Caspian’s hand and left the House of Seleus. Caspian had given him a purse with a small amount of money in it; also a slice of bread, some cheese and an apple wrapped up in waxed paper.

Caspian had waved with one confident sweep of his hand when the Maker of Narrow Houses got to the gate and turned to look back.

IX

The Mysteress told Cressy she did not want a single penny for her services. Others in town paid her well enough for her wonder-work, she went on, and she felt a guilt that she had been the bearer of such bad news when first they met. However, Cressy would be obliged to walk out of Edgeton to the house of the Mysteress to have her grief drawn in future: the Mysteress did not come to town much anymore, not now she had a regular set of clients. Her house was a better setting for her wonder-working, anyway, she told the girl — quiet and remote as it was.

Master Merlow visited the girl, ostensibly to inquire after her wellbeing, but she did not fail to notice the way his eyes darted around the drawing room as if he were trying to locate some secret sign of a hidey-hole. She now felt he had known her father better than she had ever had.

Merlow had the gall to leave a little pouch of coins, a “…collection from the lads” he called it, for her to use as she saw fit in her father’s continuing absence, and asked her if she intended leaving Edgeton. She told him she would not – for the present, at least – and silently promised herself she would be cautious when she finally did leave: it would certainly be best if Merlow did not know which road she took.

She told him she had considered selling the house, or even renting out rooms for Edgeton’s many visitors, to make ends meet. He told her that either would be a sensible course and, if she did think of selling it, he would be happy to pay her a fair price and then took his leave, eyeing the paintings in the hallway prospectively as she escorted him along.

Her sessions with the Mysteress continued. Despite their unpleasant aspects they seemed to be having a healing effect. It was akin to being sick, Cressy thought, though it was the heart that was made empty, not the gut. Mostly, though the sessions left her as dazed and docile as a wasp in winter.

Now that she had embarked on a properly mapped journey of recovery, Cressy had become used to the strangeness of her situation. The absence of her father became a sure thing in her mind. He would not return. He was most likely dead in a ditch — the dire end result of a disastrous decision to go out robbing alone. She didn’t even know if she felt bad about this idea anymore.

The months passed and, all the while, Cressy walked out to the house of the Mysteress each week, and the crop in the wonder-worker’s fields failed because there was no man to attend to such a duty, though the Mysteress’s house had surely once felt the presence of a man: there were boots by the door; pipes at the writing desk; a cloak hanging on the banister which never moved from that spot.

Cressy had forgotten that the Mysteress had had a husband with her the first time she and Farien had spotted them in Edgeton.

This omission was forgivable, perhaps: during the healing sessions the insectile buzz of the clay bottle the Mysteress put Cressy’s grief into was quite distracting.

X

“What has your grief been?”

Every session of grief-drawing since the first had begun with this question. The Mysteress had told Cressy she must form a strong and certain image in her mind in order for the magic to be effective. The image would hold her grief into shapes the song-chant could wind around and entrap: then, and only then, could the grief be drawn out.

“You have a deep well of it within you,” the Mysteress had told her quite gravely. “A thick and slippery mass it is, and it won’t want to come out. All the grief I capture in this vessel,” she pointed to a bulbous silver bottle about the width of a banjo pan, stoppered with a thick plug of dark wood that had been placed on the floor beside the little drums of the Mysteress: it looked as though it had been dented from within several times, “is just part of that whole.”

So far Cressy’s grief had been many things: a heavy anchor at the bottom of the sea, encrusted with coral and sharp barnacles; a hummingbird in her belly that plucked at a harp; a hundred hands of white clay clapped over her eyes, holding her down at night; a turgid and cold river, green in hue. Making the images, and then voicing them, was something Cressy had become more fluent in over the year.

Today her grief was a rose in her throat. She told the Mysteress so and lay back on the cot to close her eyes and imagine this stifling flower. From the living room floor where she sat, cross-legged, with her tom-tom drum on her lap and the bottle set out before her, the Mysteress began her song-chant.

“Become one with the rhythm of the drum,” she had advised the girl at first. “Let your heart keep time. Form a good image for me to find.”

At Cressy’s second grief-drawing the Mysteress had explained how this would be a long process:

“The drawing of grief is the slowest of my arts,” the Mysteress said. “And I am bound by many rules. A wonder-worker may not work wonders upon herself, for example. Nor may those of my coven use their skills to cause harm. It is a tangled path I have chosen.”

“Oh, but I am grateful!” Cressy cried. The very first drawing out of her grief had left her feeling elated and determined and had gifted her with the presentiment to find Farien’s hidden plunder and so render her rich, after all.

The Mysteress had smiled demurely: “I daresay I have my recompenses to balance out the drawbacks.”

Privately Cressy agreed: this was a fine house with a splendid view. It could not have been bought cheaply. In addition, the Mysteress had fast established herself as the most-respected amongst all of Edgeton’s numerous wonder-workers over the last year and a half.

Today Cressy went into the trance with ease, the padding drum softening her pained thoughts and the garbled sounds of the song-chant rolling over her like a wave. On the carpeted floor the Mysteress opened the bottle. An unpleasant, insectile sound emanated from within: wings on metal and the susurrations and bombilations of an angry hive, a venomous swarm.

This was grief.

Cressy’s mouth lolled open: a hundred black motes of the stuff flew from her, bound by the song, drawn by the drum. They flew into the bottle and the Mysteress plugged it up.

XI

The sound of the door opening stirred the Maker of Narrow Houses and he looked up. For a moment he didn’t know where he was: there was an ocean before him, blank as a canvas and hazily mixing with the horizon. Then he wiped his eyes and saw he was on the chair, on a veranda.

He looked left and saw a young girl in a summery dress, a girl with honey-coloured hair and a straight-backed walk, walking away from the house of the Mysteress. He stood and walked along the porch to watch her as she made her way down the fields and back to the road that led to Edgeton. She turned back once and saw him. She raised a hand, and he nodded and waved back. Then he went to the door and knocked.

“Come in!”

He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. There were doorways to the left and the right; just ahead, the stairs to the upper floor. On the banister a man’s cloak was casually draped over the pommel of the stair-post. A man’s boots were set beside the door. Dusty, they were, those boots.

“Mysteress?”

“This way.”

Her voice drifted from the doorway to the left and he ducked under the wooden lintel and went through. The Mysteress stood before the unlit fireplace. On the mantel behind her two silver bottles stood at either end of the shelf. Between them rested a long mirror. The Mysteress wore the same dress of lilac and lace she’d been wearing the night she rescued him on the road. He saw himself in the mirror: a thin, drawn face made fuller by the bush of greying beard; two charcoal eyes full of uncertainty: his hair and the top-knot. His suit was not as fancy as some he’d seen in the town, but its cut was honest.

“Please, sit down,” the Mysteress gestured to a long sofa in the middle of the room. The Maker of Narrow Houses crossed over and, smiling tentatively, settled onto the cushions.

“I’m sorry you had to wait. I heard you come up onto the porch a while ago, but I was in the midst of a complex spell that couldn’t be stopped.”

“You were helping the girl.” The Maker of Narrow Houses said. He shrugged. “The wait was no bother to me.”

“Ah — did you see her?”

“Aye, just now.”

“And she saw you?”

He frowned. “Yes,” he said. “She did.”

“Did she speak to you?”

“No, not at all.”

The Mysteress seemed pleased: “Cressy has been sore unwell.” She said, in a tone of confidence. “Heart-sick. I feared she might trouble you – or might even be troubled by you.”

The Maker of Narrow Houses gave a laugh. “I am not so fearsome, am I?”

The Mysteress smiled thinly. “She is not the kind to know what to be afraid of. Not in a man, leastways. I would tell you a story today if you’d hear one?”

He nodded. “I am here at your request,” he said: “If a tale is why I was sent for, then a tale it must be. You must know how grateful I am for all you have done for me — anything you ask of me I will do.”

But the Mysteress did not begin straightaway, as he’d expected she might: she clasped her hands in front of her and looked thoughtfully out of this living-room’s window, towards the road first.

“Let us begin with a man and a woman, in love,” she said at last, and her voice had a tinge to it he had not heard before: “A couple who travel from over the seas to a new world. To a place where wonder-working is said to be strong. They buy land and a house. The man’s father was killed, back in the old country, by bandits, and he inherited an estate there which he sold. He wanted to be a farmer.”

“A good life,” the Maker of Narrow Houses said and the Mysteress inclined her head in acknowledgment.

“One evening,” she went on, “when the young woman was out at her work, a man called upon the house. He, too, was from the old country. He had come seeking the aid of the woman, who worked wonders from time to time. He sat with the young man for a little while and, as they talked they realized they recalled many of the same places back in the west.”

“Excellent,” the Maker of Narrow Houses said.

“Yes. By certain signs they knew they were from the same town…and by certain signs the young man realized he was speaking to the man who had killed his father.”

“Oh.”

“They fought, and the older man overpowered the younger.”

“Ah.”

“When the young woman returned to the house the killer offered her a very terrible choice, of which…” She gave a little sobbing cough. “Of which I shall not speak,” she finished, her voice harsh. Her voice was rough and her eyes glimmered with tears. “The laws of her coven forbade her from doing aught but making the decision she made. She could not take a life, you see.”

“I do not understand…”

The Mysteress waved him to silence with a hand. “I am speaking of choices. The things we do for those we love…I have asked you here today because you must learn that making choices is what defines us. For a year you have lived as a rudderless raft on a temperate stream. Now you must make a decision.” She gestured to the bottles behind her. “I tell you this: one bottle here holds your memories, all you were before we met on the path. The other holds one year’s worth of woe. It is the grief I have drawn from that young woman you saw. You must choose which I give to you. Whatever is in the bottle you choose will be yours: whatever is in the other I will give to that young woman. If you wish your memory returned to you then I will return that young woman’s grief to her. Or you may choose to take upon yourself her grief – and let her have whatever skills and shape your life had before you were lost. In doing so you would spare her the vicious return of all that would undo her. Choose.”

“Mysteress…” he began, in a halting voice.

“Choose,” the Mysteress screamed.

XII

Cressy sold the house to Merlow, furniture and all. She let him give her less for it than it was worth and told him she was leaving Edgeton within the week. She even specified where she planned on going: back to New Amstarling, by coach and, probably overnight. She didn’t care if he thought she was a dupe, one of be easily fleeced. Not anymore.

Plenty of the townsfolk who saw her boarding the coach shook their heads with regret: it was a damned shame for the poor girl, they thought, but they understood how she must have felt. Her father was gone and she had no-one to support her now. The little money she had from selling the house might just set her up in the city. It was probably enough to attract a few suitable bachelors, too.

No-one but the coach-driver saw her alight from the carriage, though, when it was a bare two miles from town. She was the sole passenger on the overnighter leaving Edgeton that day and she paid him handsomely to say nothing of what she’d done.

She walked away from the road and to a nearby farmhouse. She purchased a horse and a day or two of silence from the people there. Then she rode to where she’d buried the loot, bit by bit, over the course of the last year, in a little grove of trees just off the road that led to the house of the Mysteress.

She looked back at Edgeton when she was done. From where she sat on her new horse she could see the bustle in the yard of her father’s old place of business, riders gearing up to go out. How many were going to protect the roads and how many were going to harry and waylay those they encountered she did not care to know – but she was certain Master Merlow would be disappointed if he held up the stagecoach now: every trunk she’d put aboard it was empty. She’d given most of her old things to the poorhouse in town.

As she trotted the horse back down to the road she looked up at the house of the Mysteress. Cressy wished the woman well: she had more than healed her; she had freed her. She hoped the Mysteress and her husband, if that’s who the man on her porch had been, were happy always.

Then she turned the horse and rode towards Landward.

XIII

The Maker of Narrow Houses returned to the House of Seleus in an even quieter mood than ever. When Brother Caspian asked him how his visit with the Mysteress had turned out he shook his head and would not speak. Brother Caspian was wise enough to know that his ward would talk when he was ready, and so he left off his inquiries and forbade any of the young novitiates from asking about it, too.

It wasn’t until they received word of what had happened in Edgeton about a week later that Brother Caspian sought out the Maker of Narrow Houses and, this time, his questions were insistent.

The Maker of Narrow Houses frowned at the news but he was nowhere near as sorrowful or as surprised as Caspian had thought he might be.

“She was strange,” he said, “that last time we met. She played some kind of game with me. I thought I must have failed it because she sent me from the house and was greatly upset.”

“What game?” Brother Caspian demanded: “A wonder-worker of her calibre does not play games. Everything they do, they do with purpose, for they are wise enough to know how all things have consequences.”

The Maker of Narrow Houses would not meet Caspian’s eyes.

“She wanted me to choose between two paths,” he said. “A selfless life or a selfish one, it seemed to me. As you say, she knew about consequences. If I had chosen a path that benefited me then someone would suffer. That I could not do. It is not my nature. I said I would choose the course that would cost me. This seemed to greatly upset her and she ordered me gone from her house.” He shrugged. “I did as I was bid and came back here.”

Bother Caspian shook his head. “It makes no sense to me.”

“Tell me,” The Maker of Narrow Houses said, after that had sat together in silence for quite some time, “tell me again what you have been told they found.”

So the brother repeated all he had heard: that the house of the Mysteress had seemed strangely ablaze with light one evening. Concerned citizens had gone up to investigate. They had found the house full of curious things – roses, anchors, hummingbirds, hands — that only the best of the town’s wonder-workers had been able to make disappear, and then only by pooling their magic. When these eerie portents were gone the Mysteress was found in the living-room, quite dead, with an open, silvery bottle on her lap and her drums at her feet.

“In her basement they found the body of a man,” Caspian finished. “It must have been there a long time. She had treated it with poultices and the like. I suppose it must have been her husband — though nobody really recalls what he looked like. He was rarely seen in the town.”

“It is a mystery,” the Maker of Narrow Houses said. “And I can shed no light on it for you, brother.”

Caspian nodded glumly. “I said you would craft a narrow house for her.”

The Maker of Narrow Houses scratched at the scar beneath his beard. It had begun to itch more and more these days.

“It would be an honour,” he said.

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