The tip of the quill scratches its way across the parchment, a sound that sets my teeth on edge.
One might think I’d be used to it by now. The black marks it leaves in its wake make no sense to me—indeed the entire book makes no sense—then again, I am a mere copyist and mine’s not to question why. Although I do.
Much to my father’s despair.
When he brought me this commission, I turned the tome over and over−a difficult enough task, for the thing is heavy, aged and fragile, the ebon cover tacky to the touch, the pages brittle—and a smell rose from the skin of the thing that was quite unpleasant. The name of the author and the title of the book were utterly obscured, a thick stygian gum had been smeared across them and it was hard to perceive whether this application was intentional or the result of mere carelessness. The inner leaves confirmed intent−no extant title page waited within, merely the remnants of a folio torn from the binding, tiny sad folds of paper with ragged edges.
So, an anonymous book.
“Who is the client?” I asked my father, Adelbert, once Abbot of the monastery of St-Simeon-in-the-Grove, who rolled his eyes and bid me Just do the job.
“But, Father, it is very old, very frail, and the ink is faded−fading as I watch if my eyes don’t deceive me.” I manoeuvred the article in question so he could better see. “Is it the last of its kind? Who is the owner? What does he expect?”
“He expects, like your father, that you do not ask questions, little prying thing. That you take this volume and copy it as quickly as you might!” He took a deep breath and roared, “Else I’ll put you out in the cold, Gytha!”
I harrumphed, and left his study. He will not put me out; he will do no such thing. I am the only child in Fox Hollow House who earns her keep, after all. Aelfrith spends her days draped across the couch, sighing for a husband, and Edda devotes her time to exercising and grooming the six horses in the stables. I alone understood and adopted the scholarly arts Father had tried to teach us; and I alone adopted the trade he learned at the monastery−and at which, he freely admits, was terrible. People come from all around, from as far away as Lodellan, to have me copy their books, their precious, unique, failing books; to have me adorn and enhance them, to add vines and flowers and strange animals in the margins; to change the existing illustrations they cannot bear (modestly clothe a naked Eve, paint out grandmother’s warts on her nose, give uncle a chin that does not slope so straight from lower lip to clavicle). Copy, edit, amend, ameliorate, augment and occasionally, if the pay is right, forge.
I will make a book what they want it to be, either more or less itself.
So many since I was very small−so small that Father had to lift me onto the stool piled with two firm fat cushions that I might be able to sit at the tilted desk and reach the inks and shafts, the paints and tints, the papers and parchments that required my attention.
My fingers are stained from the mixing of hues of slate and blue, flashes of umber and gold, red and green; the same fingers are scarred, fletched with nicks from sharpening my very fine goose feather quills. When I copy, I wear white cotton gloves, each pair washed in the hottest of hot water after use. I have spectacles, thick half-moons of polished glass to magnify the things I must discern and craft; these perch on the end of my nose only when I am mid-copy. Aelfrith says I look like someone’s granny, for all my smooth skin and dark hair.
“No one,” she taunts, “would ever believe you young.”
Edda merely grunts at that and adds that I need to get out more−that both Aelfrith and I need to take in the healthful air, and undertake some exercise as she does. We three have different mothers, so we are more like to be dissimilar than if we shared a maternal imprint. Fathers have so much less influence.
The scratching of the nib, which has almost hypnotised me, now has a rival: the tap-tap-tapping of a bare frozen branch from the wild cherry tree by the side of the house.
With a tiny bed cupboard in one corner, my scriptorium is located on the second floor, in the room with the most windows so I might steal all the light I can. The cherry tree is naked and frosted; it looks dead, as if it will never bloom again. The cold coming from the glass panes may just convince me this is true—this place cannot be too warm, so I may have only the smallest of fires, banked low in the grate, which is why I prefer to not work in winter.
I have spent the day copying this wretched thing, stopping but once to read a couplet aloud, hoping that speech might add some meaning, but it remained nonsense. Looking up I blink hard until my eyes stop watering at the change in focus, and watch the thin branch as the wind pushes it this way and that; any moment now, any moment, it will snap. But no, the thing is hardier than I would have thought. It endures.
I stand, stretch, arching my back until I hear the four distinct cracks that say my spine is aligned once more. I take stiff steps over to the window, where a cushioned seat awaits, draped with shawls, and survey the garden. White as white can be, its purity is broken only by the shadowy things there’s not quite enough fall to cover: the chopping block, the wood pile, the swing we use only in summer and only when we are feeling particularly frivolous. And at the edge of the lawn, a dark mobile thing the size of a small dog or a large cat, is inching its way forward, terribly slowly, shaking the snow off its gentleman’s coat quite determinedly.
A badger; no creature should be left to suffer in this weather.
All stiffness is gone from my limbs and I fly from the room, down the staircase with its carved banister and hideous newel post (the head of a green man, but not as cheerful as it should be), making a great commotion that brings my family from various directions. I don’t even worry about a cloak, but fling open the door and charge out into the white.
For precious moments I’m lost, blinded, then I catch sight once more of the determined lope−almost a waddle, with his limbs so chilled−of the black fur and the hoary streak down his back. I stumble through the cold powder and catch up the poor creature. He is heavy; he smells strongly, oh so strongly; he looks at me with bleary-eyed distrust.
“There, there,” I croon, stroking one hand over his head and face as I trudge towards the front door, where Father and my sisters wait. “You’re safe here, little brock, little badger.”
And the poxy little whoreson bites me.
Not viciously−it was merely a warning nip−and only on the one finger but still he breaks the skin and it wells red and stings. Then he snuggles against me, smugly content.
Edda washes and salves my wound. While she applies a bandage to the two sharp punctures, I glare at the animal, curled snug in a blanket-lined basket by the kitchen fire.
His eyes are closed, his breathing even and he is making a deep throaty noise somewhere between a grunt and a purr. One lid lifts, a brown orb stares at me, then is slowly sheathed again. In a bowl in front of a hastily emptied basket are slices of preserved apple and cherries, tepid milk, porridge and honey. His left hind foot is bandaged; a deep cut slashed its fat pad. The cold had stopped the bleeding, but once inside, the flow started again. He let us bathe the limb with warm water and apply a rosemary ointment to it before Edda swaddled him like a baby. He didn’t bite her.
“He must have gotten lost,” says Aelfrith, admiring his coal coat. He is a young male, not a cub, but not a fully-grown boar. The streak of white from snout to tail is clean as clean can be. All things considered he is a very hygienic badger; well, except for the smell, which is not unpleasant, merely strong and musky.
Edda nods. “Yes, he’s wandered away from his sett.”
“Or perhaps he’s been driven out−old boar and new boar can’t live in peace,” I say, flexing my finger in hope of loosening Edda’s tight wrapping. “Especially as he seems to be a biter.”
“He only bit you, Gytha.”
“I’m sure it was just to say hello,” laughs Aelfrith.
I give my sisters the look they deserve and am about to serve up a retort when Father’s bulk hoves into view. “Still fussing with that confounded animal?”
“O God, how manifold are your works!” I quote.
“In wisdom thou hast made them all,” follows Edda.
Aelfrith chimes in with, “The earth is full of your myriad blessed creatures.”
“Yea, blessed!” we chorus, our mockery taking on the ring of a hymn.
Adelbert regrets (many times daily, I suspect) teaching his daughters scriptures, for we have ended up with firm beliefs, but also varied means of arguing with him on his own terms.
“Gytha, don’t you have work to do? You know the client expects that book by season’s end.”
“And yes, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this, Father. Winter work and no say to me in the deadline! It’s not acceptable.” I frown.
He sees that bluster and bullying will not get him far this day, so he softens his tone. “Gytha, I am sorry, but this is a special job. No more like this, I promise−but with the coin from this one commission, we need not work for two whole years!”
“We don’t work, Father. I work,” I grumble, but turn on my heel and stride from the kitchen.
In the scriptorium, the fire has gone out and I have only a few more hours of usable light left. I poke at the embers and stir them up until flames lick at the twigs I throw on. When it is crackling, I defiantly add a larger log than I normally would and watch it catch with satisfaction.
I rub my hands together until they warm, carefully massage the fingers, then sit down to begin once more. Page ten: a drawing of a young woman, who seems to be sleeping, but for the fact there is a great tear over her heart; words in a language I do not understand, but which make me nervous nonetheless, are written around her corpse.
I manage the rough outline of the body before there is a scratching at the door.
I curse and pull it open. No one is there. Then: a furry weight as Master Brock crosses the threshold and treads over my feet, to sit himself on the rug in front of the fire.
We stare at each other for a moment, until he closes his eyes.
I shrug and return to my desk.
I come down to a scene of high circus the next morning, the badger limping at my heels. I stop in the kitchen doorway and he peeks out from behind my skirts.
“The cheese is gone!” Father shouts.
“The cheese?” I ask.
“All the cheese!” says Edda.
“All our lovely, lovely cheese,” wails Aelfrith.
“The cheese?” I repeat, thinking perhaps I am not awake, but still dreaming. I did not sleep well, and the welt on my finger throbbed throughout the night.
Father looks at me as though I am an imbecile. “The cheese has been eaten. Our entire winter supply. Gone.”
Father is fond of his cheese.
“And no sign of a thief. No doors unlocked, no windows broken,” says Edda knowingly.
“Well, don’t look at me.” I traipse down the narrow stairs to the cellar, which is a surprisingly small room, half the size of the kitchen, and lined with shelves laden with bottles of preserved fruit and vegetables from last summer, wrapped parcels of salted fish and pork, sacks of flour and sugar, small jars of salt and ground pepper, three kegs of Father’s cider, one of his brandy, and a distinct lack of the five large wheels of cheese I set there at the beginning of winter.
I look closely at the walls, the floor, as if I might find a secret passageway heretofore unsuspected, then I shake my head. It’s probably Aelfrith, wandering in her sleep again and now feeding her frustrations by eating. She’d best stop or we’ll be well out of food before the snows end. Turning to go back up, I find myself pinned by a dark gaze in a curious face. I narrow my eyes and wonder at the badger sitting patiently at the top of the stairs. The cheese was on the highest shelf, my head height, and badgers are not known for their climbing ability, nor for their love of dairy. I shake my head once more and return to the kitchen, wondering how to phrase my suspicions of Aelfrith politely.
But this drama, it seems, has passed and another, quieter one has taken its place. Father is nowhere to be seen, and my sisters have moved themselves to the parlour, where they sit expectantly. Aelfrith, in particular, is preening.
“In his study and not to be disturbed,” says Edda.
Aelfrith nods. “He’s with a client—the client.” She takes a deep breath, which she exhales with words riding upon it, “He’s ever so handsome, Gytha!”
Even Edda nods and I’ve not seen her enthused about the appearance of anything but a horse for many a year. Then again, we don’t get too many men passing by, only the occasional monk, old friends of Father’s, random clients, and tinkers. Certainly none from the burnt-out bones of Southarp village.
I make a move towards the door and Edda leaps up, terribly distressed and barring my way. “Oh, no! You mustn’t disturb them—Father said so.”
I narrow my eyes and stomp off to my workroom. Honestly, she doesn’t know me at all. I sit at the window seat and watch, noting the absence of either horse or carriage. It doesn’t take long before I hear the front door open and see a figure step out from beneath the storm porch, firmly settling a tricorne hat upon thick golden hair.
He gets a good head start while I fight with the frozen casement latch and eventually clamber down the stout limbs of the cherry tree. I follow his tracks, deep footprints, and huddle against the shawls I threw hastily around my shoulders. Soon, I’m into the woods; icicles hang where leaves should be, and the patches of sky glimpsed through the bare tangle of branches are grey and unwelcoming. If I do not find him soon I will give up—I’m no fool. He will visit again and I will be waiting; next time I will charge into Father’s study and take the golden-haired man’s measure.
I’m cold and shivering. The moment I turn around, there he is, grinning like a wolf.
I see none of the handsomeness Aelfrith was mooning over, merely appetite and a will to do whatever he wishes. In his hands, a knife, long and thin, a stiletto blade; his knuckles are white around the ivory handle.
“The book,” I blurt and his expression alters. Ah! Here it is, that beautiful mask. But I’ve seen what it covers and I will not be deceived. “I wanted to ask you about your book.”
Smoothly he hides the knife into the sheath at his belt, tucks it out of sight as if it might be easily forgotten. He is richly dressed, his cloak lined with ermine.
“My apologies—I could only hear someone following me and thought to defend myself from footpads. I did not mean to frighten you.” He points and I follow the direction of his kid-gloved finger. “My coach is there.”
And so it is, on the road above where we stand in a hollow. Black and shiny as ebony, with four black steeds, a driver and a footman, both blank faced as they peer down at us. I find myself shaking and will it to stop. I clear my throat.
“The book—I was wondering if you knew its name and author? Only—I’ve been wondering. Professional curiosity,” I say, trying to look scholarly and serious.
He gives me a brilliant smile and shakes his head. “Afraid not, Mistress Gytha—it is Gytha, yes? My copyist? I am—a collector. The book took my fancy; its value is purely ornamental and sentimental. It reminds me of someone very dear. But its ink is fading, the cover is derelict. I require a copy.”
“But I can re-ink the text, clean the cover, fix the bindings.”
“No, no. My memory hinges on the contents, not the container. New is best.” His expression tells me that he does not like old things; he is one of those who prefer possessions to be pristine and unused when they come to his hand. No true collector, he. An old book is not the artefact for him—the knowledge therein is what he wants, but he desires it in a splendid new repository. I notice his clothing—blue breeches, gold and cream waistcoat, white silk shirt, silver-grey frock coat and highly polished boots—not one item seems overly worn. Indeed, there is no sign of anything having been worn before at all; there is no fading of colour, nor weakening of nap, no hint of threadbare at the collar and wrists, and certainly no wrinkles or folds that might come with habitual attire. This man likes his things shiny.
“Where did you find it?”
He smiles again and does not answer, effortlessly striding up the slope to his conveyance. He tips his hat and climbs in. He leans out the window and says, “I shall return in the spring, Mistress Gytha, to claim my book. I trust you’ll not disappoint me.”
I stand shivering for some time after he is gone.
St. Simeon-in-the-Grove is a small monastery, all things considered. A mere twenty monks, aged from twelve (two boys left on the doorstep some years ago) to ninety-five (the librarian).
Edda has let me take our oldest horse, a tall beastie, with feathered feet and a mane like a blanket. Hengroen moves slowly and surely—it’s a bit like being on a very sturdy boat, his gait is almost floating, which makes me feel both safe and seasick after an hour on his broad back. My rear protests as I dismount and groan loudly. The young monk who comes forward to take Hengroen looks astounded as I tip back the hood of my thick travelling cloak—obviously he has been brought up to believe women are crafty creatures, both fragrant and evil, but not given to terrible bodily noises. He should hear Edda after a meal of beans.
“Larcwide will see me,” I say, before he begins the speech about how my kind are not allowed in the monastery. A rule instituted since—in fact because of—my father’s tenure. “I’m bringing a book.”
Of course, I’m assuming he will see me as he has done before—that he will not remember that little fracas a few years back. This young man knows the librarian collects tomes, is consulted on them regularly, is an authority on things that hold words in one place. I’m banking on the very good chance that he has been terrified by at least one of the old man’s tirades, and will be too afraid to refuse me.
“Don’t worry,” I say, and pat his hand. He shivers the way a horse does when a fly lands on its hide. “I’ll take the side entrance so as not to cause a fuss.”
I’m rewarded with a flash of relief and he nods, leading my great mount to the stables for a rest. I dart across the rectangle of snow that in summer is a patch of green, keeping my head down, but I needn’t bother—most of the brothers are at prayer this time of day. At the base of a tall tower—not the one with the bell in it, the one opposite—there is a small slender door, overgrown with winter ivy, which in this season looks deceased, as if the wall is shedding its skin, but a sharp eye will note the grey handle twisted about with dead vines, almost invisible. I get splinters, but the ingress opens with relative ease. Inside there is a set of black stone steps curving around and up. The air is dry and cold, but warmer as I rise. I can smell ink and paper, and old man.
The librarian is shuffling back and forth between cases, twitching folios from the shelves which line the walls, muttering, sliding them back into place or shifting them to another spot. In the centre of the tower is a series of platforms, weighted down with even more tomes, reached by a sort of elevator and pulley system, that creaks above. As I watch a thin monk steps onto the third platform, nimbly balancing an armful of volumes. Larcwide glares upward as dust particles drift down.
“I told you,” he yells, “to clean your shoes! And did you? Did you?”
There is a muffled and indecipherable reply from aloft, and the old man swears softly.
He swings around in surprise and squints at me. He won’t rant about me being a woman, although he may well rant about my incursion. He shared in many of my father’s adventures, but his continued presence at St Simeon is testament to both his inability to produce offspring and to his unassailed position as bibliognost. By virtue of his irreplaceable knowledge, his transgressions could be—and have been—overlooked. Unfortunately for Adalbert’s career, he lacked the librarian’s uniqueness—anyone can be an under-enthused abbot and mediocre copyist.
“Father Larcwide, I need to talk to you,” I say and hold up the satchel hanging at my side. His eyes sparkle and he gestures for me to come closer.
He peers at my face and recognition dawns. “Adalbert’s girl? The clever one.”
I grin and nod. “Gytha. I need you to look at something.”
“Why me?” he grumps, contrary for the sake of it.
“Because there’s none like you.” His ego, duly stroked, allows him to lead me along a maze of shelves to an alcove just big enough for a writing desk and two chairs. He sits and invites me to do the same. I draw the thing out of the bag, and unwrap it from the layers of shawl, then place it on the table between us. Larcwide leans forward to read the now-visible title. I have been working at it, testing out a variety of oils and soft cloths, trying to wear away at the black mess. It was slow toil: if I used too much of the lubricant, too much pressure as I rubbed, the stuff would have simply eaten its way through the cover. It is a capricious mix, with a peculiar personality all of its own, bought from the strange little man who travels in spring and summer and brings me supplies of the things that are hardest to find. I cleaned the surface, one letter at a time. So carefully. So very carefully, until:
Murcianus: Magica: A Book of Craft.
Larcwide’s hands shake as he reaches out but does not touch the tome. His fingers are blue and brittle, stained with age spots. They hover over what I have so painstakingly cleaned.
“Do you know what this is? Of course you don’t,” his voice quivers. Then, “Where did you get this?”
No, I don’t know, although, I have a suspicion, have had since I reached a page I recognised: a drawing of a hand with candles set in the tops of all the fingers and the thumb. A hand of glory. But I choose to act the innocent and answer only his second question. “A client. A commission my father took on.”
He shakes his head. “Oh, Adelbert. Will you never learn?” He closes his eyes, no more than a blink, but he looks exhausted when he opens them again.
“What is it?” I ask.
He nods. “A grimoire. A book of craft. And this one...” He finally picks the thing up and rubs his fingers on the back cover, in the right-hand bottom corner, finding what I already know is there: the subtle relief of an embossment. M. He almost drops the book, so great is his surprise. “Belonged to him!”
I want to poke and prod, extract the information swiftly, but I wait. He looks at me dubiously, then with judgment. I don’t know who he is.
“Murcianus. This is the Bitterwood Bible.”
And I stare blankly at him and Larcwide’s expression rolls into utter despair.
“Murcianus, one of the greatest encyclopaedists ever known. Or rather of the arcane and the eldritch specifically. He wandered the world, recording and compiling every strange ritual, every bizarre being, every spell, curse, myth, legend, enchantment, magical locations...” the monk seems to run out of words. “Everything!”
I remain silent.
“Those books, nowadays, are so rare you barely find one outside a private collection—or with those bloody women at Cwen’s Reach,” he mutters. “They are wonderfully illustrated, most erudite and informative, filled with wisdom and wit and scholarship.” He turns my tome over in his hands. “There are other volumes, Gytha, like this one, written in the language of witches, comprehensible to only a few, but this one is a rarity. Full of knowledge best left unknown, things too dangerous to be writ down. There are places, Gytha, where his works are forbidden; where those who carry them are burned, their ashes scattered.”
His face reddens and he looks away, remembering to whom he speaks; remembering at last our argument when I asked him for information my father refused. The one occasion I managed to extract the name of my mother from Adelbert, he was in his cups. He’d called her Hafwen and told me she had been so briefly beautiful, then burned. She was his final indiscretion, the one that sent him from the monastery, lucky to leave with his life. That is all I was able to establish before he passed out; he woke the next day with a sore head and foul temper, and would tell me nothing more. When I asked Larcwide about it, tried to get an answer, he banned me from coming to see him. I’d hoped the intervening years and his age had dimmed the memory.
“And the book. Where would this have come from?”
He shrugged. “Lost? Left behind? Stolen? Who knows. All I know is this isn’t some harmless thing you’re working on, Gytha.” He pauses, suddenly distrustful. “You haven’t read from it?”
I would like to deny it, but my blush makes a liar of me. Larcwide goes pales and pushes the volume at me, insistent. “What did you read?”
Flicking carefully through the pages I find the relevant one, with the drawings of wheat sheaves and other plants. The old man’s dark eyes skim the words and they seem to make sense to him as he sits back and puffs out a sigh of relief. “Transformation, but it’s just a season spell. Not much harm in it.”
“To work change for a few months only, to make an animal shift its shape.”
“Not a person?” I worry at the bandaged finger, which has not healed these past weeks, but itches still.
“Oh no,” he flicks through the pages and points to a couplet. “Here: this one will work on a person, but only one who is willing. A resistant subject requires far more effort, instruments and ingredients.” He rubs his hands together. Larcwide seems to know rather more about magic than he should, I think, but do not say. “But you have no ability, so I shouldn’t worry about it. Just don’t do it again—some spells are so powerful they need only be spoken, without intent, for them to effect a metamorphosis, unwanted or otherwise. You should know, though, that every bit of magic leaves a trace, Gytha, no matter how small. Even the tiniest skerrick may rub off, leaving the potential for alteration in its wake.”
“Thank you, Father.” I take the book from him and begin to wrap it up once more. He leans across the table, grasps my wrist and says, “What will you do with this?”
“This is a commission, I cannot simply make it disappear.” I lower my voice. “And I fear this client, Father, I fear him greatly. I will not risk my life nor that of my family by refusing to give him what he has demanded.”
“But, child, it’s too dangerous. If you will not listen to sense, I shall have to tell the Abbot.”
“And if you do so, there’s every good chance I will be burned—it won’t matter that this book is not mine, it will simply matter that it is in my possession.” I hold his gaze for a long moment. I do not think he would like to see me as ashes.
“What will you do?” he asks quietly once more, defeated.
I shake my head. “I’ll think of something.”
I wipe my hands on a rag, then wash with hot water and Edda’s whortleberry soap, massaging the cramps and the smell of ink and oil out of them. Passing my desk I survey the work: the replica is almost done. I am exhausted and my eyes ache; I have been copying by the light of the fire and as many lanterns and candles as I could find without leaving my family in darkness. Outside the black mirror of the window, the air smells of spring. The days have grown longer, warmer, but I have spent an eternity inside, slaving over this damnable book. The time is fast approaching and although I have not slept well since the client’s last visit, it is not the sole reason for my sleeplessness.
The doors to the bed cupboard are open, just a little, and inside I can make out blankets and coverlets heaped up, mounded over the form of a slumbering young man with the thickest, blackest hair relieved only by a streak of white down the middle. He snuffles and snores, his hands curled like paws, batting at the pillows as he stirs, then stilling as he settles once again.
I struggle with the buttons of my dress, then drop it to the rug, half-undone. Crawling in beside him, I fit myself into the half-moon of his body and breathe deeply. He smells musky, slightly sweet. I close my eyes, nestling as his arms come around me.
“I want peaches,” he mumbles, breath warm in my ear.
“You ate them all, remember?” That was how I found him, in his night-time shape, late on the evening I returned from St-Simeon-in-the-Grove, crouched on the floor of the cellar, struggling with a bottle of preserved peaches. His hands seemed not to know quite what to do, and he dropped the bottle, which smashed impressively. He merely gave a grunt and neatly picked slices of the preserved fruit from the glass, carefully examining it for shards, then elegantly chewed it in tiny bites.
“It doesn’t stop me wanting them,” he points out, in a reasonable tone.
“Ordinary badgers don’t eat peaches.”
“Well, I’m no ordinary badger, obviously,” he says, and shrugs, a movement that takes his whole body, not just his shoulders.
“You ate plenty this evening. I cannot believe how much food you put away—and Aelfrith insists upon feeding you twice a day. You won’t fit in my bed soon.”
“Get a bigger bed.” As he cuddles comfortably into my back, I take hold of one of his hands, weave our fingers together.
“At least there’s no cheese left.”
“Oh, that cheese! Terrible cheese. Awful constipation.”
“An ordinary badger doesn’t eat cheese. Or indeed, spend his winter in a girl’s bed.”
“An ordinary badger doesn’t get hit by stray magic.” He nuzzles my neck, pauses. “How long will this last, do you think?”
I shake my head, feeling dizzy as if I am dangling over a terrible pit where all the loss in the world resides. “I don’t know.” I squeeze his hands. “What do you think about, in the day? When you’re...”
“Four-legged and furred? Comfortable things: food and warmth, staying safe, about spring and blackberries and wild cherries.” He wiggles against me to suggest the time for talking is done and other activities should be considered.
Here is the problem with raising daughters so far from suitable mates: it makes them prey to roaming, transformed badgers. It makes their hearts easy pickings, like windfall apples.
I keep my eyes downcast, but watch through lowered lashes. Adelbert is trying to hide his surprise at my seeming modesty. He is also trying to hide his look of mistrust. We sit in his study, all three of us on separate over-stuffed armchairs.
The client has my work in his hands. He is appreciating the fine red leather cover I’ve added. It is different to the old one, but I see that I was right: this pleases him, this newness. There is neither title nor author on the front.
“Your workmanship is exquisite, Mistress Gytha. I commend you.” He pulls a heavy bag of coins from his belt, holding it in one hand to delay the moment when he hands it over. Adalbert’s expression turns soft, like a drunk seeing his first ale of the day. “And the original?” “I burned it,” I pipe up and two pairs of eyes turn on me. I hold up a small box and shake it gently. “The ashes. The book—the ink was almost unreadable by the time I finished and I did not think you would care, sir. It was old and not new.”
The man stares at me for long moments, then nods and brings out a tight smile. “Yes, you’re right, Mistress Gytha. Although, such a decision I would have liked to make myself.”
He does not care the original is gone, he merely cares about my high-handedness. I offer the box and manage to sound sincere, “I apologise, sir. Would you like...”
He shakes his head dismissively and I nod. “I am very sorry, sir.”
“But let no deed should go unpunished,” he says and dips into the bag of coins, pulling out a sizeable handful and letting them chink into his own pocket. Adelbert, unprotesting, watches as the man places the book into a leather case he has brought specifically for the purpose. “I shall take my leave.”
Father sees him to the door, then returns to the study. Through the open windows comes the warm air of the first day of spring. I watch, just as I watched him that first occasion, as the client appears around the side of the house, then disappears into the green of the woods. I do not pursue him this time. I watch until the trees swallow him, until I am sure he is nearing his waiting carriage, waiting far from us so no one will know he has been here, has brought something here, so no one will question and perhaps hunt here, or to speculate on whatever he is doing.
“Well done, Gytha,” says my father. His good mood cannot be contained, despite the loss of part of our fee, and it makes me wonder if all this has been about more than mere money. He moves around the room, laughing and joking, pouring us both a glass from the last bottle of the summer-berry wine. He counts out my share of the coin into a smaller purse and gives it to me. I sit opposite and stare at him until he becomes uncomfortable. “What is it?”
“Who is he, Father? How did he come to us?” I ask now because it has occurred to me at last that Adelbert did not tell me how this client found us. It is his usual habit to go into great detail about who they are and what drew them here, who referred them on. That I’ve only just thought of this is a sign of my distraction.
Adelbert gives a kind of half-hearted shrug. “I knew him long ago, in my days at university. Before the seminary, before St Simeon’s.”
“He looks too young,” I point out and he shrugs again.
“Some age better than others. Perhaps his life has been easier.” He scratches at his chin. “As I said, I knew him before.”
“Before Hafwen?” I do not say “my mother” for she has never been that, only ever an absence to whom I was able to put a name a few years ago. He makes a sharp sound and jerks his head to one side before bringing his gaze back to me.
“Yes,” he says.
“Who was she?”
“A girl. Just a girl.”
“Was she a witch?”
I have never seen such grief in my father, such a terrible thing clawing its way up from inside and painting itself across his face. He lowers his head so I cannot see, then slowly raises it once more. Everything is gone but an awful blankness. I will get nothing from him.
“Enjoy the spring, Gytha, while there are no new commissions,” he tells me and looks away, staring resolutely out the window at the garden, but not, I feel, seeing it. His voice halts me at the door. “Gytha, all you need to know is that your work has paid a debt that will plague me no more. Never think me ungrateful, daughter, but never ask me about her again.”
From the blanket box at the foot of my bed, I lift out several coverlets, folded winter dresses and shawls. At the bottom is the original Murcianus grimoire, its text and diagrams re-inked each day before I copied it. Every page has been dusted with a setting powder of my own devising. I run my fingers across the cover and wonder how long it will take me to learn the language of witches, to take the knowledge I need for my purpose. I wonder if Larcwide might be prepared to teach me. I wonder if I have any of my mother’s blood in me to help.
I notice a four-legged absence. I look around for the badger. He is not in his usual spot, the rug by the hearth, but then as the days have grown longer he has been roaming about the house more, seemingly restless. Perhaps he is in the kitchen, begging food from Aelfrith. He will be so fat soon.
My sister is rolling out dough; a dozen apples sit on the bench, waiting to be peeled. Beside them, a bucket of blackberries, lush and dark. But there is no sign of the badger.
“Where is he? Where is Brock?”
Aelfrith looks at me in surprise. “He wanted to go out.”
The kitchen door stands open. From the threshold I survey the green grass and the plants, growing thickly in the house-garden.
No track, no trail, no hint.
I run out, to the stables. Edda has a curry comb and is grooming Hengroen.
“Have you seen him? Have you seen the badger?” I ask, uncaring that my voice is breaking.
She shakes her head, and tuts. “You knew he would go, Gytha. I know you’re fond of him, but he’s a wild creature. It’s not as if he’s a dog or a horse.”
I knew the spell would end. I knew he would change back, but I thought he would stay. I thought he would wait, that he would ignore whatever recalled him to the forest. I thought I could find something in the grimoire, some means to make him transform for good, to keep him with me.
A breeze starts up but the dancing air does nothing to lift my spirits. I did not think his badgerish instincts would lead him away from me so soon. The itching of my punctured finger is all I have left.
It is only three days later that I see the client again.
I thought I would have longer. I had planned to leave when he’d collected his finished product, when I had both book and badger. I had planned to run and find another life, but with my love departed, I had fallen into a funk. I had lost the will to move. I lost any care that the golden-haired man might try one of his new spells and find it did not work. That he would try another and it, too, would not work. And another and another until he realised that I had copied each and every enchantment, each and every curse, incorrectly. Just a tiny detail in each, a line missing, an ingredient changed, a direction left out, an instrument added.
Sitting on the window seat in my room, I see the man breaking out of the woods, his long knife catching the sun, and I finally rediscover the will to move. I bundle the grimoire into a satchel and drape the bag’s strap across my chest. I clatter down the stairs, run into Edda, who protests, until I put a hand over her mouth, the bandage still on the finger that will not heal.
“Sister, if you never listen to me again, listen now. Lock the doors. Do not let anyone in, especially not that man, the handsome man. Don’t let him in, Edda, no matter what. Keep all the doors locked. I am sorry for whatever I may have brought down upon you.”
I flee before she can answer. I tear out the door, creep around the corner of the house, then make sure the client catches sight of me. He gives a sound somewhere between a yell and a scream, but all rage, and pounds after me. It’s the only thing I can do, to draw him away from my family. As I run, I feel myself pulled onward, my direction not as haphazard as I planned. My feet seem to have a plan of their own.
I know these woodlands far better than he. I know the paths both seen and hidden, I dart between trees, under hanging mosses, I hurdle over rocks and stiles and rills, but still he keeps on my trail. I think of the words I’ve practised these past weeks.
Then, all is silence. I stop, wait, turning, turning, turning, trying to see if he is anywhere in sight. From behind a huge oak, he lunges, the knife preceding him and slicing across my left side, not enough to kill, but to wound, to hurt. I swing the heavy satchel up at him and catch him in the face. He goes down like a sack of potatoes. I run.
I keep running, fleeing into the darkest, deepest part of the wood, bleeding, weakening, aching, my lungs burning, my legs shaking. Silently I mouth the spell, the spell on which I pinned my last hopes, try to feel it taking effect but there is nothing. In a green hollow, a spot dotted with mounds and slopes, I trip over a fallen branch and the breath whumps out of me. I hit my chin and bite my tongue and taste iron. Behind me I can hear the crashing, the swearing, the inexorable rampaging of the golden-haired man.
My injured finger tingles, twinges, burns. I hear a chittering, a squeak, a growl close by. Searching, I find the mouth of a hole and in that mouth a creature of black and white, a fine well-fed badger, who calls to me. At last I think Make a noise, make a sound, if it cannot be heard it cannot be made! and I finally I speak aloud the couplet Larcwide pointed out that day at the abbey. With a shaking voice I speak through blood that spatters the ground. I scramble up, try to stand, but my entire body convulses, arcs in on itself. The hand with the injured finger curls beyond my will, as does the other. They turn ebony with fur, the nails elongating, becoming hard horn. I drop on all fours and shudder as the transformation completes.
The boards call changes, the noise more urgent. With the strap of the satchel still around my new shoulders, I scamper up the hillock, and follow my love down the tunnel and into the sett. The book is dragged along behind, getting caught now and then, but the corridors are wide enough for it to get through with a tug or two. We come to a large chamber filled with clean straw; the strap slips from me, the book’s progress halting, pushing up a wave of the dry yellow covering that will eventually settle over it.
I can no longer hear the sounds aboveground of a man thwarted and driven beyond his patience. I cannot hear the raging and the cries of loss. I lie still and my mate snuffles at the wound in my side, licking it clean. He curves around me, our black and white fur a chessboard match. Even as I hope my family will be safe, I begin to forget Fox Hollow House. Ideas about books and inks and pages and covers all subside into a dim memory place. I begin to think of worms and beetles, of windfall apples, blackberries, and wild cherries. I begin to think badgerish thoughts.
(Originally published as “The Badger Bride” in Strange Tales IV.)
Angela Slatter is the author of The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Sourdough and Other Stories, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, Black-Winged Angels and the Tor.com novella Of Sorrow and Such, as well as Midnight and Moonshine and The Female Factory (both with Lisa L. Hannett). She has won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, one Ditmar Award, and five Aurealis Awards. She has an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing, is a graduate of Clarion South and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. Her debut novel, Vigil, will be released by Jo Fletcher Books (2016), and the sequel, Corpselight (2017).
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