Home From the Sea
An Elemental Masters Novel
New in the extraordinary series hailed as “a true frolic into fantasy” (Fantasy Bookspot) by a “Master Magician.” (Midwest Book Review)
In Edwardian Britain, magic is real. And Masters of the Elements control Fire, Water, Air, and Earth...
Mari Prothero has lived all her life with her father, Daffyd, in a tiny fishing village on the coast of Wales. Though Daffyd takes his boat out on the sea regardless of weather, Mari has learned not to fear for his safety, for her father is a Water mage, and always comes home safely with a large catch. Mari knows that in her family, children are expected to marry at eighteen, to an appropriate stranger. However, Mari is a fledgling Water Master with a rebellious nature. She has no intention of agreeing to any arranged marriage. But Mari has yet to learn the truth of the magical heritage that must be protected by these very marriages. For the Protheros are descended from Selkies—magical beings who are able to change from seals to humans—and to continue her line, she must marry a full-blooded Selkie...
Between the howling of the wind, the pounding of the rain on the roof, and the tumult of the ocean, Mari Prothero knew there was no point in listening for anything else. The damp, chill wind found a hundred little cracks and chinks to whistle through, and only near the fire was it at all warm. At least the wind wasn’t sending the smoke down the chimney instead of up.
This was the sort of day that the wives and daughters of fishermen dreaded. It had begun with a red sky, always a bad sign, but by the time the sun was up to give the warning of rough weather to come, Mari’s father Daffyd Prothero was already gone fishing. And not out in his little river coracle for salmon, no. Out in his bigger boat—still a coracle—out on the wide ocean, for herring. Coracles, whether meant for the river or the ocean were still unchancy boats, being little more than a great round dish made of wood and hide or canvas. Granted, the ocean coracles had sails but still! You had to be a mad sailor as well as a fine sailor to take one on the ocean in the teeth of a storm.
Oh, thought Mari Prothero, her heart full of anxiety, And my Da is both…
She bent over the fire and stirred the coals, adding a little more sea-coal and a little more driftwood on top. Flames sprang up, blue and gold and green, colored by the salts in the wood and the coals.
By midmorning the threatening sky had made good on its promises, and there was a full-throated storm churning the ocean. The wind howled about the cottage walls on the hill above the beach, and wailed about the chimney.
And had Daffyd Prothero come scudding in ahead of the storm? Of course not. Because he’s mad.
Mari’d had to latch the shutters tight on the sea-ward side, and even so, wind-driven driblets of rain crept over the sills whenever the rain drove hard against the windows. The drafty air inside smelled of the ocean and the storm, and not the lovely hot pie and bread she had baking.
She sat down again and picked up her work. She had her shawl wrapped tight about her, her flannel skirt and petticoat tucked in around her legs, so she was warm enough. Tucked into her chair at the hearth, if her Da hadn’t been at sea, she’d have been content enough. Such a storm! The fire burned bright, and the lantern was near, and even so it was hard to see to mend the net in her hands. Not that her hands didn’t already know the work so well she probably could do it in the dark. She could knit in the dark, and had most of the winter, for there were always socks to knit as well as nets to mend. But net-mending required concentration and knitting didn’t, and she was trying not to think about her Da off on the unforgiving sea.
By now, oh surely, even the salmon fishers were in off the river. But not her Da, no, she knew him. He’d be out in the storm, stubborn as any donkey, pulling in fish where no other man could. And even when he had as much as the boat could carry, he still wouldn’t come home. First he’d be off to Criccieth to sell half of it, and on a day like today, he’d get the best prices, there being no one else fool enough to be on the water. Only then would he come home, to sell in Clogwyn, perhaps trade a few for a salmon, or maybe a treat from the baker. Everyone wanted Daffyd Prothero’s herring, they were always the fattest, the tastiest.
A gust hammered the shutters and she flinched. A lash of rain battered it, sending a fine mist of droplets through tiny cracks in the wood. Oh, how she hated days like this one. It never mattered that he always came home, unscathed, with herring or salmon or trout in his bucket, with whatever else he fancied they needed in a bag over his shoulder. It never mattered at all, because every time one of these storms blew up, someone generally did not come home, and Mari always dreaded the day it would not be her Da.
Tears stung her eyes; she gulped them down past the lump in her throat. She sniffed, wiped her cold nose on her handkerchief, and ordered the tears to go away, telling herself that he was probably in Clogwyn by now. At that moment her nose told her to check on the pie in the oven. The Prothero cottage was very much a touch above most—for they had an oven, built into the side of the fireplace, unlike most of the Clogwyn cottagers, who had to make do with hearth-cooking or buying bread from the baker. That was not the only way in which the Prothero cottage differed; most made do with a pounded and limed earthen floor, but the Prothero cottage boasted wood, and today she was mortal glad of it, for an earthen floor would have been mud by now. She put down the net and string, wrapped rags around her hands and carefully pulled down the cast-iron handle of the little door at the side of the fireplace. The rabbit pie was not quite done yet; the rabbit was a trade from yesterday, and its skin was drying over a rafter in the loft. The bread was done, though, and she fetched it out with a bit of plank. It smelled divine. She hoped her Da would be here in time to eat it warm.
Outside, this cottage looked like all the others down in Clogwyn; weathered stone, tiny windows, slate-shingled roof. Thatch was for inland; it wouldn’t last, here, so close to the ocean. Inside, that was where you saw it differed from all the neighbors, with an ancient wooden floor made of ship’s planks gone black with age instead of pounded earth and lime, glazing in the windows as well as the shutters, ships’-timber beams and the oven built into the hearth. Only the houses of prosperous farmers, and the baker and shopkeeper, were as fine as this. There were not one, but two handsome dressers on either side of the door, one displaying copper pots, the other the bits of pretty china that Prothero women had gotten over the generations. Off to the side of the fireplace, was the larder, with all the shelves full of preserves in glass and pottery jars, and little casks and bags. Floor to ceiling, those shelves went, on two sides of the larder. On the third, the window side, was the counter and the sink. Opposite the fireplace there was a loft with a mattress where Mari slept; her Da took up the bed in the bedroom beneath it. She preferred the loft, except when storms raged. It was a bit unnerving to listen to the howling right above you. But it was always warmer than the bedroom beneath it, and in summer, you could open the little window and let the cool wind off the sea come right in, and gentle sound of the waves would sing you to sleep.
She put the bread on the table and covered it with a towel. No use going to the landward window to look for her father either; with the rain lashing outside, she wouldn’t see him when he came—
—if he came—
No. She wouldn’t think that way. He always came home. He swore he always would. She had to believe him.
“He’ll be home,” whispered a giggly little voice. "It’ll ne’er be water that kills Daffyd Prothero.”
Mari shivered and did not look in the direction of the voice. She knew what she would see if she did. A small woman, translucent, with seaweed hair and knowing eyes and not a stitch on her but seaweed, sitting on the edge of the water-barrel.
For the thousandth time, she wondered; was it a touch of the Sight that made her see such things, or a touch of madness? Mari had seen her before, many times, and others like her, and heard her, too. Always, always around or about water.
She had seen such little creatures all of her life. And there had been the great black horse that came up out of the river, looked startled, bowed to her and went back down again. And the golden-haired beauties she had seen beneath the moon, walking or dancing together on the surface of the water as if it was a floor, and the great herd of red-spotted, white cattle that she had seen one night, going down into the waters of the lake as though they were merely going down into a valley.
She knew what all these things were supposed to be, of course. When she was too little to bide in the cottage by herself, and her Da thought she needed a caretaker, she’d gone to dame-school in the village. That was where the old woman who pretended to teach the village children letters and numbers had told them all tales between her naps. The black horse was the water-horse, of course, the cattle were Gwartheg Y Llyn, the Fairy cattle, the beautiful women Gwragedd Annwn, the water-elves. The black horse Ceffyl Dwr, who carried people off to drown, or just to frighten them, was the oddest, because he’d not offered to harm so much as a hair of her head. She wasn’t sure who the little women were, they never figured in the old woman’s stories. Mari had been seeing creatures supposed to be Tylwyth Teg, for as long as she could remember.
But the problem was, those were just stories. Nobody believed them but children and old women. Half the time Mari was afraid she was going mad; the other half, she was afraid she really was seeing them, even though they had never harmed her.
Quite the contrary. Even though she tried to pretend she saw nothing, heard nothing, they helped her. They showed her where to find sea-coal and driftwood washed up after storms, where the best shellfish were, and a spring with the sweetest water. Once, one had led her to a gigantic lump of greasy gray stuff with a strangely sweet smell. She brought it home and her Da had taken it to Criccieth and come back with silver coins he put with the others he kept under the hearth-stone. “Ambergris,” he’d said it was, and that the men in towns that made perfumes would pay dearly for it. She hadn’t told her Da she’d been led to it. She’d only tried that once, when she was still in leading-strings. Something about his face when she’d babbled about her “friends” made her shut up about them and not say another word since.
But that hadn’t stopped her thinking. The more she was alone, the more she thought about it.
Was she mad? Was that what had happened to her mother? Not that her mother had died, but that she had run mad? Had it not been a rogue wave that had taken her, but her running into the waves?
Or was this something devilish? The creatures had never offered her anything that wasn’t wholesome but…but…when she sat in the church of a Sunday morning and listened to the preacher, she had to wonder. When her Da sat all hunched over and silent and looking as if he had ell, wasn’t that dangerous too? Those tales were also of those with the Sight, who had eventually Seen things they shouldn’t, and been blinded, or carried off, or cursed for what they had Seen. Though that seemed the least likely of the three…still…in no interpretation was there likely to be a good end.
The shutters shuddered, and she flinched. Oh, how she hated these spring storms!
And just as she thought that, she heard the thumping of her father’s boot on the door, which meant he had his arms full, and she ran to open it and let him and a gust of wind and water into the warm, safe house. Her heart filled with happiness again.
He had a welcome bag of sea-coal, and herrings strung on a bit of cord. She relieved him of all of these things, and he stripped off his old oilskin and went and sat at the fire, shivering, while she got out the pie and cut him paper-thin slices of warm bread spread with butter and jam to go with it, and a bottle of beer. That was one luxury he allowed himself, a bottle of beer with his supper. Instead of luxuries, there were carefully hoarded silver coins under the hearthstone. She knew why; he worried that he might be sick or hurt and not be able to fish. “For a rainy day,” he would say, with every coin that joined the rest.
“Bad out on the water, Da?” she asked, bringing him his plate and his bottle, and settling herself in her seat on the other side of the fire with her own dinner. He was a handsome man, still, was Daffyd Prothero, and women still looked at him, though he hadn’t eyes for any of them. Welsh to the core, as she was, dark of hair and eye, and lean and hungry, fine-featured and with the look about him of melancholy that women seemed to find irresistible.
“Only in the coming into port,” he said. “That was when the black waves hunched up their backs like so many angry bulls, and foamed at me.” He was warming now, and he gave her his lopsided grin. “But, you know your Da. I never ran from bull nor wave, and never shall.” Then he told her of his day, and she listened, loving the music of his voice. She knew folk who said that the Welsh were either mad poets, or poetically mad, and she reckoned whoever had said such a thing was mostly right.
“Then I got into Criccieth, and I was the only one who’d got out on the water,” he said, after telling her of the shaft of light that had broken through the clouds “like God’s own finger,” and the great shoal of herring it had pointed out to him. He chuckled. “Ah, if it weren’t for the difficulty of it, I’d wish every day was a storm day. I think every woman in our little village was waiting for me on the docks. Oh, and they filled my ears full of the news.” He took a sip of his beer as he finished the last of his bit of pie. “Such a fluttering and cackling and crowing in the henhouse as you never heard in your life. There’s to be a constable stationed here.”
She blinked at him. “A—what?” she asked, incredulously. “And for why, Da? Clogwyn’s never had a constable before!”
“Now, what d’ye think?” he countered, his expression darkening. “The strikes, of course. Up at the mines.” He smiled a bit bitterly. “Our English overlords have never heard of the word of God not to bind the mouths of the kine that tread out the corn. Begrudge a man a fair day’s wage for dirty and dangerous work, and wonder why the men won’t take it anymore. I would reckon there’s being constables placed in every village bigger than two houses, just in case someone might be offering aid and comfort to miners who want a decent wage for their work, and a bit less chance of dying under the earth.” He handed her the empty bottle and his plate; she took both, and while he stretched out to warm himself, she did the tidying up.
“You really think that’s it, Da?” she asked, tilting hot water into the stone sink, and starting in on the plates.
“What else would it be, I’m asking?” he replied with a derisive sniff. “Worst thing we’ve ever had happen in Clogwyn was when Mrs. Bevan’s dog stole them sausages—well, there’s the usual dust-up at the pub every now and again, but I wouldn’t call that enough for to station a constable here.”
“Well then, where will they be putting him? Violet Cottage?” Violet Cottage had been the home to Mrs. Ithell the elder before she’d got pneumonia and died in the winter. Now it was empty. It was one of the smallest cottages in the village, and one of the meanest. Mrs. Ithell had been a penny-pincher, and had not put a shilling into the repair of her place that she didn’t absolutely have to, and never mind improvements. Like many of the cottages in the village, it wasn’t freehold, it was rented, and belonged to the Manor. Nevertheless, with the rent being so cheap, the cottage had been hotly contested over. Now perhaps the mystery of why there had been no tenant found was solved.
“Likely,” Daffyd replied, and sniggered. “Short of finding someone willing to rent him a room, or having him stay up at Criccieth or thereabouts, it’s the only choice he’ll have. And bad luck to him already. Roof’s leaking, I hear tell, and chimney needs cleaning so bad the fireplace sends most of the smoke into the room, and if there’s one mouse in there, there’s likely to be a hundred. If he’s some city man, used to laid-on gas and piped-in water, he’ll be wishing he was back at home before he’s there an hour.”
Probably less than that, Mari thought. She considered the villagers. Would there be anyone there willing to help him? Fix his leaks, clean his chimney, tell him who had the best rat-catching ferrets?
Well…yes. Some would. For the money, if naught else. And some to prove that they were in no way in sympathy with the striking miners. But this was likely to divide the village soon enough, unless the fellow somehow managed to alienate everyone.
Which was possible, if he came in demanding things, and acting as if he suspected everyone. Then everyone would be up in arms, and giving him no welcome at all. He’d have to hire everything done from Criccieth.
Or if he’s helpful and pleasant, they might all decide he’s a good sort and warm up to him… “Da, there’s no telling. He might be a good enough fellow,” she ventured. “This might be a good thing.”
Once again her father sniffed. “And I might be able to fly if I jump off the roof. One’s as likely as the other.”
She just didn’t have a response for that. “Well…tomorrow’s market day. I’ll be finding all about it then. And twice as much that’s made up of whole cloth.” She put the dishes in their places, covered the pie and the bread, and made all straight, then returned to the fire. “Was there anything you’d be wanting?”
He shook his head. The windows were rapidly darkening, the only way that you could tell the sun was going down in this storm. “Nothing worth spending money on.”
He picked up the net she’d been mending, and took up where she’d left off. She took up her knitting; he always needed socks. They busied themselves, talking of commonplaces, until the fire grew too low to see by. Then they took themselves to bed; she climbing up the ladder to the loft, and he to the bedroom. She stripped to her slift, and climbed under the blankets and nestled into the featherbed. The bed soon warmed to her body, and she relaxed. She listened drowsily to the wind slowly die away, and tried not to listen to the other voices she heard…and finally slept.
Morning dawned clear and bright, and they both breakfasted heartily on the rest of the pie and toasted bread and tea. He hurried down to his boat, while she put things to rights, then took the path to Clogwyn.
Their little cottage stood far off by itself, within technical sight of the village (or at least of the church steeple), but it was a good brisk half hour walk to the village itself. The cottage was an oddity, the only other dwellings that stood this far away from a village or town were those that belonged to great landowners, for the use of their tenants, or farmhouses. But the Prothero cottage, which had been in the family forever, had no land to speak of, just enough of a garden to supply most of what she and her Da needed, and a henhouse that was empty now. No use trying to keep chickens without a dog, foxes and stoats would have them in no time, and until they found a dog that fancied fish instead of meat, a dog would just be another mouth to feed. It was easier to just trade for eggs. They had a cat, so to speak. It was an aloof beast, kept to itself, slunk in and hunted the cottage and slunk back out again. The only time it stayed inside was in the worst of weather, hiding under a chair or in the corner of the hearth, and running off as soon as the door was opened. It would come if she offered it fish, but ate with one suspicious eye on her, bolting the food as fast as it could. She wondered what had made it so wary, because neither she nor her father had ever so much as shied a stone at it. It was as if they were some terrible predators, and the cat was waiting for them to pounce on it and eat it.
The morning was as bright and beautiful and mild as if the sea had never dreamed of throwing a tantrum yesterday, and her way was clear enough, with the village visible along the curve of the coast, on their hill up ahead. The church tower rose up above the other gray-slate roofs like a hen above her brood, beneath a cloudless sky. The air was lovely, almost intoxicating.
And as for the sea, it was so calm that the little wavelets washing the shore barely made a sound. Only the debris of the storm told the whole truth; she’d be harvesting all those mounds of seaweed this afternoon and for several to come, for drying and burning for the ash, and for turning into the garden soil. There was wood too, and there might be sea-coal, the coal that washed out of the cliff rocks and got tumbled in to shore after such storms. Sometimes there were wrecks close to this part of the shore; the Lifeboat Service down the coast at Criccieth was there for a good reason. But tragic though a wreck might be, sometimes salvage came out of it. There’d been a wreck when her Da was a lad that the village still talked about, when so many yards of red flannel came in to shore that every woman in the village had a half dozen red petticoats made of it.
The path to the village was just off the shingle, beaten into the grass. There was a road proper to the village, further inland, but she saw no sense in traipsing across fields and over hedges and stiles just to get to it when there was a perfectly good path right here. The sheep to her right looked none the worse for the storm, with their lambs bumbling about and occasionally breaking into the incomprehensible skips and friskings that lambs were prone to do. On a winter morning, the trek was misery, and she was generally frozen clear through by the time she reached the village, but on a morning like today, she almost wished it took longer.
She swung her basket and sang as she walked, feeling a little like frisking herself. Was there anything better than a spring morning, with the air washed clean, and the sea just lapping at the shore?
She had most of the string of herring with her, and the household money under the napkin in her basket, which would go for things she could not get with barter. Clogwyn hadn’t anything more than three places you could get things—a little bit of a store that also held the post-office, the pub, and the village baker. So the weekly market was important to everyone hereabouts. A few enterprising souls even sent a clerk with a cart of goods over from Criccieth once a month to add to the stalls in the market—and now that it was spring, there were traveling peddlers known to turn up unexpectedly, and tinkers and even gypsies. The thought made her move a little faster. Not that she’d buy anything, but oh, how she loved to look!
But once she reached the marketplace, she sensed the change in peoples’ moods in the tone of the talk; from a distance, the village sounded like a disturbed hive. The closer she got, the more apparent it became that there was one topic of conversation uppermost, and no one was happy about it.
In fact, as soon as she put herself close enough to talk to, she was drawn into it. The entire village was abuzz with gossip over the coming of this constable. That wasn’t entirely surprising, considering it was the biggest bit of news to actually affect the whole village in a long while, but she was a little taken aback by the amount of resentment most people were showing. It was as if they and her Da were all of the same mind about it.
“And what have need do we of a constable, I’m asking you?” complained stout Mrs. Awbrey in her milk-and-egg stall, as she examined herring to trade for a dozen eggs. “Treating us like we was criminals! Shame to them as thinks we can’t take care of our own!”
“I don’t understand it either,” Mari agreed. “I mean, except when it was tramping people, nobody’s ever stole a thing. Well, leave aside apples and maybe a pie…”
“Yes, and I caught that young limb of Satan Aled Hulme red-handed, and believe me, he’d have wished I was a constable before I was done with him,” Mrs. Awbrey said heatedly, and took as long over the tale of how she had chased the lad and given him a right tanning as she had in choosing her fish. Mari had heard it all before, of course, since Mrs. Awbrey was likely to bring it up at least once a month or so—but this time the round-faced farming wife ended it differently. “But what if there’d been a constable here?” she demanded. “The boy could have been locked up—or worse! I’ve heard of boys transported to Australia for taking a handkerchief, let alone for stealing an apple pie!”
“That was a long time ago, Mrs. Awbrey,” Mari reminded her. “They don’t do that now.” But as she moved on to her next purchase, she wondered what the penalty would have been.
“Pa says he’ll be here to spy on us,” whispered Braith Wyn, the village beauty, as the two girls both looked over every bit of frippery on a ribbon-dealer’s little cart, and Braith, predictably, selected red ribbons and a bunch of artificial cherries for a new hat. Braith was always making new hats. “Pa says the landlords don’t trust any of us, and think we’re all anarchists.” Braith might have been so pretty that every boy in the village and more married men than admitted it cast longing looks after her when she passed, but she had not let that go to her head except in the matter of a little vanity. She loved hats. She had even learned how to braid straw so she could make more. And she was so pretty that no one was likely to tell her how silly and overdone they were because she always looked so happy when she wore one.
Since that echoed what Mari’s Da had said, she nodded. “Well…” she replied. “They never have. But that’s ridiculous.”
“Of course it is!” Braith agreed, with a sniff. “Who’d want to be an anarchist? Anarchists have no money.” Braith was a practical girl, who wanted hat money; penniless anarchists might be romantic, but romance bought no ribbons.
“I don’t think the landlords care…” Mari replied, doubtfully. “I don’t believe they even think about it, they just say ‘The Welsh are all together,’ and have done. Honestly, I don’t know where they think we’d have time to be anarchists. Who’d do the milking and the fishing if everyone was running about being anarchists?” She really wasn’t at all sure what an anarchist was. The few times she had seen a newspaper and they had printed anything about anarchists, they all seemed to be bearded and throwing bombs. There were plenty of fellows with beards about here, but she hadn’t the faintest idea where any of them would find a bomb.
Braith agreed, and they returned to the choosing of ribbons. Well, Mari advised; Braith was the one that did the buying.
Acquiring a quart of lamp-oil at the tiny store brought yet another complaint about the new constable. “Getting Violet Cottage, and rent free!” sniffed the Postmaster, Andres Bythell, holding forth not just to Mari, but to a willing audience here to buy or pick up mail. “Well, they’ll not be getting free labor for the fixing of it, I can tell you that. And he’ll not be putting a gaol cell in my Post Office! I’ve barely enough room here to move as it is!”
Which last was true enough; Bythell’s little store was crammed full of the sorts of things that people might need in a little village, when they couldn’t make the journey downcoast to the town, and it was only one small room. The rest of the building was the house where he and his family lived.
“And I wouldn’t be having someone who had to be locked up anywhere next or nigh the girls, either!” the Postmaster continued, indignantly, his chest puffing out at the mere thought. “I won’t have a drunk keeping us up at night, I won’t have a gypsy getting look at what he can steal, and I won’t have some wandering laborer putting his eyes all over my wife and daughters. He can put a cell in Violet Cottage, that’s what he can do, and that damned landlord up the hill can complain about the alterations to whoever had the daft notion of sending him here.”
One thing was certain. This man was not going to find a warm welcome in Clogwyn.
By the time she finished her purchases and bartering, it looked to Mari as if there wasn’t a single person in the entire village that wanted the man there. A great deal of this was the enormous resentment people had that he was going to get the vacant cottage rent-free. This was no small thing; there were no free cottages in the village proper, which meant if a young couple got married, they’d have to move in with one or the other set of parents, see if there was a cottage farther away that was empty, or somehow come up with the enormous amount of money it would take to build a new home themselves. There were at least three such courting couples that she knew of, who had been looking forward—with guilt, perhaps, but looking forward anyway—to the day when Violet Cottage would be empty. To have it snatched out from under them—for free!—was enough to engender plenty of anger. And not just in the couples themselves, but in their parents, and in their friends.
She wondered, as she picked her way along the trace of a path in the grass just above the shore, how badly the Protheros were going to stand out from the rest of the village. Unlike most people hereabouts—or at least the ones who were not actually landholding farmers—she and her Da owned their cottage rather than renting it from the owners of Clogwyn Manor.
She had never actually seen the family nor the Manor; having no reason to pay rent, there was never any reason to go there. They were always referred to as the “English landlords,” although as far as Mari knew, the family had been there for at least five or six generations. Still, the divide between cottagers and landlord was enormous, and not getting any narrower. I wonder if that’s who is behind bringing the constable, she thought. It was logical. The monied folk at the Manor were also the targets of village resentment, for raising the rents, for not doing repairs. Were they taking a alarm from the mine-owners and reading resentment as the prelude to rebellion?
The Prothero cottage had been in the family…well, forever. Yet it wasn’t a farm. And it was set far apart from the village. They were different. The village was used to the Protheros being different, but they’d been different for generations. Would the constable see that as suspicious? Would he think, because their house was set apart, that they were holding anarchist meetings there? Would he start enquiring about how they got their money, why they were so prosperous, and think they were thieves or worse?
“And what are you all a-pother about, Mari Prothero?” a voice called to her from just behind her on the path.
Mari didn’t freeze, quite—but she didn’t turn to look at the speaker, either. The female voice was melodious, too melodious, really. Just like the little she-thing yesterday.
She hadn’t seen anyone until the voice spoke to her. And it was coming from the verge of a little pond beside the path.
This wasn’t one of the villagers, nor one of the farmer’s daughters, nor anyone human at all. It was one of those creatures. And she didn’t want to turn to see what kind, though she had a guess it was one of the Gwragedd Annwn. Two uncanny things in two days! It had been months since the last vision, but now two in two days! If I ignore it, it will go away, she told herself fiercely. I am not going mad. I am not going mad!
Behind her, she heard a peal of laughter.
“Pretending I’m not here won’t make me go away,” the voice called after her. “Just wait. You’ll be learning the truth soon. Soon enough.”
She shivered and hurried her steps, fixing her gaze on the cottage and its promise of safety; the beautiful, bright, sunny day no longer seemed so welcoming. Had that been a promise?
Or a threat?
It was a beautiful spring afternoon in London, with enough of a breeze to carry away the stink of the city and the warring smells of the harbor. The ferry from France had docked, and it had been a crowded passage. A great many, it seemed, had taken advantage of the weather to make shopping trips to France. The dock was full of people coming to welcome those just off it, complicated by porters, and passengers disembarking.
Two young ladies coming down the gangplank were just enough different from the crush of similar young ladies before them that more than one eye fastened on them. It was not that they were pretty—although they were, or rather, the smaller of the two was definitely pretty in the conventional sense, though the taller was what might be described as “handsome.” It might have been their outfits; both wore gowns of brown and gray that were rugged, travel-worthy “Rational Dress” rather than the constricting, colorful, and rather impractical gowns of the girls who had clearly traveled across the Channel in the luxurious salons. Both had sensible little hats rather than Ascot-worthy confections. But it was probably their laughter that attracted the eye once the ear had been caught; It rang out above the babble of the crowd, honest, clear, and happy. Not stifled little titters, gasping giggles, or wheezy little sounds that had a hint of sadness about them. People turned at the sound, looked, and smiled involuntarily. Both of them beamed answering smiles as if they considered anyone and everyone a potential friend.
Both of them cradled hatboxes, which was also unusual. Not that it was entirely unheard of for a young lady to be unwilling to entrust her precious new Parisian confection to the hands of a porter—but neither of these two looked at all likely to have purchased such a thing, and even if they had, they did not look likely to have it in such high esteem that they’d hold to it with both arms and such good-natured determination. Most young ladies dangled their boxes by the strings—for after all, a hat doesn’t weigh very much, and such a pose was often part of the illustrations in the fashionable journals. No, these two held their hatboxes as if something inside them was made of glass, and the hatboxes themselves were not festively decorated cardboard, but the same sturdy, boiled and riveted leather as luggage that was expected to go around the world.
As they made their way down the plank, they scanned the waiting crowd, and quickly spotted the woman waving a handkerchief at them. The taller freed a hand long enough to wave back, then resumed her grip on her hatbox.
The taller of the two, who might or might not have been a year or two older, was a dark brunette; the smaller had hair of a golden brown, blue eyes, and the sort of face that might have been made into a “Professional Beauty.” However, both had healthy, tanned complexions at odds with the fashionably pale faces around them. And as the gangplank cleared in front of them, they hastened their steps toward the one who had signaled to them in a way that suggested they were used to a great deal of walking, and none of it in cities.
Which, in fact, they were—having walked over a great deal of Africa in the last year or so.
The woman who had clearly come to meet them continued to wave her handkerchief. She was not a beauty either, but like them, she caught the attention of more than one man. There was something about her that signaled a great deal of experience without bitterness—in fact, it was clear that it was not just the joy of seeing her companions that made her glow with happiness. One fellow in common laborer’s clothing, but who had uncommonly fine hands, even stopped dead to stare at her.
“By heaven!” he said to his companion, who also stopped for a moment to admire. “There’s someone who’s had a life! I’d give my eye to paint her!”
“Ask, and you’ll likely get a black eye,” his friend said with a laugh, and pulled him on.
“Memsa’b!” cried the smaller young woman in a happy voice, as the two neared their goal, oblivious of the attention they were all getting. “I’m so glad to see you at last!”
All three of them finally converged, and the small one looked a little confused for a moment, as if she wasn’t certain what to do next—it was clearly impossible to give a proper embrace to the woman she’d addressed, what with her arms full of hatbox, but she looked equally reluctant to put it down.
The woman addressed as Memsa’b laughed, and put an end to her confusion. “Come along, you two. Sahib is seeing to your things; he brought the cart from the warehouse. Lord A lent me his carriage to get you. We can have a proper hug and greetings when you can put the rascals down.”
One of the boxes uttered an indignant quork; the other whistled, as if to say “We’re no rascals!” All three women laughed, and the two young ones followed in the capable footsteps of the elder. Even though the dock was crowded, people seemed to clear away from their path with willingness rather than resentment—perhaps because of the repeated smiles and thanks the three graced everyone with.
There was, in fact, a fine city carriage of the old sort, deep black with brass trim, waiting for them, pulled up alongside a few hansoms and more of the automotive cabs. It boasted a dignified coachman and a crest on the doors. The discerning and knowledgeable would have identified it as that of Lord Alderscroft, Member of the House of Lords, and reputably a confidant of the Prime Minister on certain mysterious affairs.
The coachman hopped down promptly, there being no footman, and handed in Memsa’b first. He then took the taller girl’s hatbox with great care.
“’Allo Neville,” he said to the box. “’Ow are you, old son? Africar agree with you?”
“Qoark!” the box said with enthusiasm. Then, in a jovial and exceptionally human voice, “I’m hooooooome!”
The coachman laughed with delight. “Blimey! Neville, you’re talkin’ at last!”
“I can talk, can you fly?” said the other box, in a higher, female voice. Both boxes gave credible imitations of the young ladies’ laughs.
“He started chattering away as soon as we reached Sarah’s parents’ station,” said the taller girl, after seating herself, taking her talking hatbox from the coachman. “It was as if he’d been saving it up until then. I don’t know why it took him so long.”
“If ‘e’s anything like my youngest, Miss Nan,” the coachman replied, taking the second box and helping the shorter girl up into the carriage, “It’s ‘cause he was able to make hisself understood to you just fine without chatterin’, but couldn’t t’anyone else. That was fine when you was at the school, but Africar is when ‘e needed other folks t’understand ‘im. So that’s when ‘e started talkin’.”
“Clever Sam!” said the second box, eliciting more laughter. The box went to its owner, as Sam grinned his approval.
The coachman closed the door, making sure no hems were hanging out inside, and hopped back up on the box. He chirruped to the horses, and they were off.
Once inside the plush interior of the coach, the lids came off the boxes, and out popped a handsome raven and an equally handsome Grey Parrot. Both jumped to the knees of their respective owners and shook their feathers out vigorously, as the boxes went down to the floorboards. The raven cocked a bright black eye at Memsa’b.
“Give us a kiss,” he demanded.
“You outrageous flirt, Neville,” Memsa’b replied with a chuckle. “I believe I shall.” She held out her arm, fearlessly. The raven hopped up onto it; she kissed the top of his head, then began scratching the back of his neck. He closed his eyes in bliss and laid his chin along her shoulder, the better to enjoy the caresses.
“Cold,” complained the Grey parrot, and Sarah obligingly held her coat open for the bird, who dove inside and wiggled around so her head was sticking out. Nan just grinned as hard as she could, watching Memsa’b renew her acquaintance with the raven.
“Well, obviously the trip was a success, no one was eaten by lions, and I’m sure you have many more stories than you were able to write,” Memsa’b said. “I expect to hear them all. But what I am most concerned about is Sarah’s parents—things do not seem to be altogether well in Africa. The London papers have been full of some most alarming affairs.”
“If you mean that there seem to be a lot of justified uprisings, Memsa’b, you’re right,” Nan replied bluntly. “That was what we didn’t want to write about. You never know who is going to open your letters between here and there, and we didn’t want some officious oaf to come looking for us as insurrectionists. But Sarah’s Mum and Papa are just fine, quite safe and…well…amazing.” She shook her head. “Really, the relationship between them and the natives is remarkable.”
“Beloved, is how I would put it,” Sarah said, petting Grey. “Of course, you know they have never preached; no matter what the well-meaning people who sent them think they are doing, they’ve never paid the least bit of attention to anything but medicine. They have always worked with the tribes and their ways and there is mutual respect for what both sides know. They still may be the only ‘missionaries’ I know of who’ve been adopted by village chiefs.”
“That’s all very well,” Memsa’b said doubtfully, “But…”
“I know. One village can’t keep them safe if they are not prepared.” Sarah nodded. “They are prepared. I’ve been assured by everyone in the village where the medical station is, and especially by shaman M’dela, that if bad things happen, they’ll hide my parents and they have worked several escape routes out in advance. M’dela asked Grey to follow sick elephants while we were there, and the tribe harvested the tusks from the ones that died, so they have a stock of ivory to pay to the Arab traders to get Papa and Mum out. They have disguises, even. Papa knows Arabic and makes a credible Arab trader, and with Mum wreathed in veils there’s no way to tell what she is under all fabric. They found her the sort of burqua where you can’t even see her eyes.”
“And lest you think the traders would betray them—well, Sarah and I investigated them quite thoroughly, and they’re as safe as may be,” Nan added. “Mind, if Sarah’s mum was the pretty little thing that came to Africa years ago, I would not trust Abdullah Haj’ Aleph any further than I could pick him up and throw him, but he considers the lady to be in the same category as withered old hags, so she’s safe from being carried off to his harem.”
Memsa’b sighed with open relief. “That takes a great deal of worry off my mind. But Nan—you said justifiable—“
“And so they are,” Nan replied stoutly. “Terrible things have been done in the name of ‘civilization’ to good, decent, honorable people, and now they have decided they shan’t stand for it anymore, and good for them, I say. Which I would not say around Lord A, so rest your mind on that subject. The bad part is that it’s come to such a pass that some of them want their pound of flesh and an eye or three as well. But that’s what happens when you back people into a corner and send them into a frenzy.”
“Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind,” Memsa’b said, and nodded. “A great deal of injustice has been done in the name of Empire.” She paused. “I am saddened, but I am glad in a way that your eyes are open and you can see it for what it is. So many terrible things have been done in the name of God and profit…mostly profit.”
They spent the rest of the journey with the girls relating more of their adventures—the ones they hadn’t been able to write to their mentor about. Most of those had not taken place in Africa, but in Egypt, where they had been forced to wait for transport, as there had been a rush of Europeans fleeing the dangers of some of those “justified uprisings.”
“And I don’t know what we would have done if those archeologists hadn’t come to our rescue,” Sarah said, after describing the difficulty of finding any room at all, and the dangers of the rather dubious hotel they’d been forced into. It was funny now, the story of how Nan had fended a off man who’d tried to come in their window, using a basin as a shield and her big knife as a sword. But it had been hair-raising at the time, and moreso when they’d found the cloth soaked in chloroform and realized he’d intended to make off with them both. Fortunately he’d been a coward and fled at the first sign of trouble.
“I do,” Nan said bluntly. “After Yadakpa showed me how to use that big knife, I’d have sat up at night, every night, and God help anyone who’d put a finger inside our room.” She looked fierce at the moment, and Memsa’b had no doubt she meant every word she’d said.
“Bite!” Neville agreed, and clacked his beak to show he would have been prepared to fight as well.
“Well I’m glad it didn’t come to that,” said Sarah. She turned back to Memsa’b. “We were having tea at Shepheard’s when this amazing woman with a parasol marched right up to us and introduced herself. Neville and Grey were in the trees, and they immediately came down to examine her and she refused to allow the waiters to shoo them off. In fact, she ordered water and biscuits for Grey and water and goat-cheese for Neville.”
Neville made a sound like lips smacking. “Hurrrrr tasty!” he said.
“Amazing woman,” Nan repeated. “She said she’d noticed our Rational Dress and approved. Next thing I knew, she had coaxed our story out of us, and lo and behold, she invites us to come and stay with her, her husband, and their little son, and what turned out to be a menagerie not unlike our school, Memsa’b. They lived on a boat, and must have had half a tribe of Arabs with them who treated them like chiefs rather than masters. I confess, I was relieved. We were very comfortable, Neville managed to not kill their cat, the cat managed to leave Grey alone, and we even got to help a little with an excavation. All the natives treat her with great respect, and call her Sitt Hakim, which I think means something like Memsa’b, so we were quite at home. And I want a parasol like hers, when I can afford it. She showed it to me, how it worked. The ferrule is as stout as a sword, the tip is plenty sharp, it has a cunning little kit of useful stuff in the handle. It’s as good for defending yourself as a big knife, and causes less stir if a lady is carrying it about.”
Memsa’b managed not to choke at that statement.
“I believe I would like to correspond with this lady,” Memsa’b said, instead. “She sounds worth knowing, and I would like to give her my thanks.”
Isabelle Harton—Memsa’b to the many Indian servants of mixed races and creeds that tended to the Harton School for Expatriate Children—was very happy to have two of her best (former) pupils back, but also a little worried. Happy, because the Harton School was a very special place indeed. Firstly, it was not merely a school for the children of those who were serving the Empire abroad—it was also a school for those who had psychical gifts to be trained in the use of them. As such, it had a powerful reputation among a select circle of those who were more concerned that their offspring learn ethical use of the abilities—and not go mad—than they were that the children make the “right” friends from the “right” set. Isabelle would never have to worry that the school turn a profit, for ever since shortly after Nan and Sarah had joined them, the School had gotten a formidable protector and patron in the form of Lord Alderscroft, who was probably the most powerful Elemental Master and Magician in all of England, if not all of the Empire. He was certainly the most powerful in and around the City, and was often spoken of, not by name, but as “The Wizard of London.”
Sarah was a skilled and fearless medium; Nan was something in between a psychic and a magician. She could, and did, channel another aspect of herself—or perhaps a former incarnation—that was a Celtic fighter, and a psychical warrior, but that warrior was armed with magical weapons, and one of those weapons was Neville. She also—at least as a child—had interacted with magical beings, Elemental Spirits, even the Elders, like Robin Goodfellow. The children had been instrumental in freeing Lord Alderscroft from a malignant creature of Air that had nearly destroyed him; he was profoundly grateful, and that gratitude had translated into the Harton School having his particular patronage and being installed in a stately home he had purchased just outside London for their express use. So Memsa’b was happy to have her girls back; it had felt as if family members had gone when, after graduation, they had gone to spend some time with Sarah’s parents in Africa.
But on the other hand, she was worried, because she hadn’t the least idea what to do with them. And they would need something to do, they were not the sort to want to go to parties and hunt for husbands, marry, and settle into a complacent and narrow life. Of course it was possible that they would turn out to be good teachers, in which case they could easily join the School in that capacity. But she was very much afraid that, no matter how well-intentioned they were, teaching was not something they were suited for.
So as she saw them settled back in their old suite of two rooms, a bedroom and a parlor, which still had feeding perches for Neville and Grey beside the fireplace, and sleeping perches for them over the heads of the beds, she was very conscious of those mixed feelings.
“Oh,” Sarah sighed, as she set down her portmanteau at the foot of her bed. “It’s good to be back. Africa might be home to Mum and Papa, but…I’ve been away too long. I don’t like the insects or the snakes. Grey didn’t either, really. She liked the heat, and the lovely damp air, but she didn’t much care for the rest of it. The spiders! Ugh! They are as big as cricket balls! And the snakes!”
Grey and Neville flew to their perches and examined the water cups with critical, beady eyes to make sure that the water in them wasn’t stale. Grey bobbed her head, agreeing with Sarah, Neville made a comforting mutter.
“Lord A is coming to dinner, if that is all right with you,” Memsa’b said, “If you are not horribly exhausted after—“
“Great Harry’s Ghost, Memsa’b,” Nan interrupted. “After traipsing around excavation sites in the heat from dawn to dusk, the trip back was restful! I just hope we’ve got a gown somewhere in our kit that won’t totally revolt his Lordship’s sense of aesthetics.”
“I was hoping we’d be able to see him soon,” Sarah added, happily. “I was looking forward to it.”
Memsa’b relaxed. Alderscroft had asked after the girls regularly while they were gone, and had specifically requested he be invited to dine as soon as they were back. She was hoping that perhaps he had some notion of something they could do.
“I’ll leave you two to settle back in and tidy up then,” she said with a smile. “It’s so good to have you back!”
“Not as good as it is to be back, Memsa’b,” Nan replied for all of them, as Sarah and the birds nodded. “Not by half!”
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: