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Kestrel in a Chicken Coop
This is not a Cinderella story.
Under other circumstances it might have been; there are similarities, starting with my name, Lucinda Guillierre. But my stepmother was not cruel, and next to Claire, I was the ugly stepsister. Nor did I, a scholar's daughter, have much respect for our frivolous nobility. I would not have been happy with a prince, no matter how charming.
Not that I ever had an opportunity to turn one down. I was brooding over my lack of prospects, marital or otherwise, and our dwindling cash that day in early April when I walked into Father's study and found Mother Janet eyeing the shelves.
She jerked her hands away from the books. "Oh, hello, dear, I was just dusting."
She flushed, and waved a rag. "I ... Oh, all right. I was considering, er ... "
"Don't you dare think about selling them behind my back. I would know which ones are gone."
"I have every right to think about selling them. We need the money, and they're my property, and —"
"They are not. Father left them to me."
"That's what you say, dear, but Mrs Miller talked to her cousin, who talked to his sister-in-law, who talked to the magistrate, who said that was rubbish. A man's property goes to his widow."
A cold, hard lump formed in the pit of my stomach. We had argued over the books many times, but she had never threatened me with the magistrate before. I pulled a law book at random off the shelf and began flipping through it. "That's only if there's no written will. Father wrote a letter saying he was leaving the books to me." His hand had shaken; the letter was illegible. If she called in the law, I could lose everything. "Give me a moment to find the section on wills."
Her hands fluttered, the rag waving surrender. "No, no, I'm sure you know. But we have to do something. Soon."
I lowered the book and frowned at her. "We already agreed that if neither Claire nor I have an offer by my next birthday, I'll go to Rubierre and look for work as a cook or housemaid." The knot in my stomach got harder. No one in Rubierre, not even the richest merchant, had a library a quarter the size of Father's.
"That's too far," she said. "Miles. Strangers. You shouldn't have to ... But we can't ... That is, it's too ..." She backed into a bookcase, leaving lint drifting in mid-air. "The money won't last that long."
"Nonsense," I said. She followed me into the kitchen and watched me fumble in the dark cupboard. "We've got enough to —" My fingers closed on the hidden bag, and I went cold. I yanked it out and upended it. Silver and copper coins spilled out across the table. Not a single gold frank in the lot. Enough for three months, maybe, if we were tight with every farthing. I stared. Swallowed. "Where did it go?"
"Have you forgotten Claire's new shoes?"
I winced. I had tried to. Her leather cast-offs would have been an improvement over my wooden clogs, but my feet wouldn't fit in her dainty slippers.
"And then," Mother Janet said, "She needs new gowns. The blacksmith's wife has gone to visit her sister in Gastòn, and I gave her money to bring back fabric."
"Gowns? More than one? Are you out of your mind? And why Gastòn? We can get perfectly good wool and linen in Rubierre. You're not wasting money on silk, are you?"
I leaned on the table and glowered at my stepmother. She retreated into the hall.
"I know, I know," she said. "I shouldn't have. But it seemed like a good idea at the time."
What did this woman have for a backbone? I had wondered that before, and never come up with a good answer. If I ever had children, be damned if they would push me around.
She said, "Claire needs to look good, you know. One of you girls has to make a good match, or we're doomed. And ... Oh, dear."
My cheeks burned. "Go ahead, say it. I'm an old maid." I groped for coins, stuffing them back in the bag. "Old Mrs Barnes is only too happy to remind me of my character flaws: nosy, truculent, and the never-ending stream of why-this and why-that would drive any man to distraction." Besides, Claire had mesmerised, and then spurned, everyone who had ever come courting me.
"And they're all too scared of you," Mother Janet said.
"Scared. Of me?" I fumbled for the chair and sank into it. "They're my friends. They can't be scared of me."
Her brow puckered. "What do you expect, when you act like a fire witch?" She held up a hand to forestall my protest. "I know you aren't one. It's a shame. But why can't you let someone else win an argument once in a while?"
I dropped in the last shilling and stared down at my hands. The flowers Claire had embroidered on my cuffs were being worn away. The dark red of the roses had long since faded to a dull pink. I picked at a loose thread. "I don't mean to argue. It's just wrong to let somebody get away with spouting rubbish."
She sighed and shook her head, then started talking about the books again. Panic clawed at me, and I listened with only half an ear. Was it true that the young men in the Camptons were afraid of me? Mother Janet was, but she was afraid of her own shadow. I was fit and sturdy, but no match for a farm boy. They couldn't be afraid of me; it made no sense.
She called from Father's study. "I thought we would just sell a couple. You wouldn't miss just two, would you? Edward said these were the most valuable."
I bolted across the hall, yelling, "Not those." I snatched the two volumes out of her hands, dropped the one onto the desk, and opened the other. Shoved the endpaper under her nose and tapped the words written there with my fingernail. "This is mine. It says so right here. If you try to sell this, I'll charge you with theft."
She fled back to the kitchen. I sat down at the desk, clutching the book to my chest, and waited for my heart to stop racing. Once I calmed down I would have to apologise to Mother Janet; my disrespect was appalling, even to my own ears. And she was right, too; these two books were the most valuable objects in the house, but they were indisputably mine, and I would never sell them. I lowered Fire Wizardry in the Ancient World to the desk and read the inscription: For Lucinda, who burns for knowledge, on her 12th birthday. Your proud and loving father, Edward Guillierre.
I wiped my eyes on my apron. I had already read Fire Wizardry once before he gave it to me — it had been in his library for decades, and by then he couldn't afford to buy a pristine first edition. I had reread it, several times. I closed the cover and admired the red leather, the gold leaf. That volume, and its companion, Seventh Century Flame Wars, were the only ones we had by the flame mage, Jean Rehsavvy. I closed my eyes and dreamed about owning another of his works. Roman Warlocks, that would be the one.
Years ago, the pastor had accused Father of cruelty for teaching me to read. I had earned a caning for calling the dear old soul half-a-dozen nasty names, but now I admitted the validity of his charge. If I went to work in Rubierre, I would never read another new book. Nineteen years old, and my life was as good as over.
* * *
Claire had come down the stairs and was in the kitchen, cajoling Mother Janet to sell the house and move to Paris. Even with two walls between us, I could see my stepmother's hands fluttering. I shook my head. Claire might as well wish for the moon. Or a fairy godmother.
"I wish," I muttered, "I wish there was a gate nearby."
Fool. I would have to get out of this suffocating backwater on my own, if at all. I reshelved the two histories and took out pen, paper, and ink. On the first sentence, I broke the pen. I got out another quill, cut a nib, and jabbed holes in the paper. Flung the pen down, and splashed ink across the desk. Got it on my sleeves while cleaning up.
I gave up then, and went back to my chores. For the next four days I cleaned the house, rafters to root cellar, scrubbing imagined stains from gleaming floorboards, and working myself into such a state of exhaustion that I could write my letters without savaging the paper.
The first letter, to the clerk in Rubierre, asked for his help in selling Father's law books. They were the only ones in the house I hadn't read, but I had no Latin, and they were full of it. I had been deluding myself that I could someday make sense of them.
The letter to the Scholar's Guild, begging for a position as a servant at a university or in an educated man's household, lay on the desk unfinished. I had no idea where to send it.
* * *
I trudged through the village on a damp, grey morning, looking for someone to take the completed letter to the Rubierre town clerk. Mrs Wilson, the miller's wife, called to me from the butcher shop, saying she had news. I went in, glad to be out of the cold wind.
She said, "Have you heard? The Fire Warlock opened a gate in Rubierre."
In Rubierre? Almost in my own backyard. I blinked as if in dazzling sunlight.
The butcher said, "Morning, Miss Lucinda. What can I get you?"
His eyebrows rose.
"No, sorry," I stammered. Where had that come from? I hadn't meant to go to the butcher at all. But a new gate, in Rubierre! I could be extravagant. "One link of pork sausage with fennel, please."
While he worked on our orders I plied Mrs Wilson with questions. "Why there? Why now? How long has it been open? Who's gone through?"
She waved me off. "All I know is what I heard from a peddler on my way here. He said Baron D'Armond has been causing trouble. The Warlock sent him an invitation."
The baron deserved a reprimand, but I winced. "Summons, you mean. The nobles call it an invitation only because they don't want to admit how much he scares them."
The butcher snorted. "Maybe the baron will start behaving himself, knowing the Warlock's got an eye on him."
"We can hope," Mrs Wilson said. She chattered on about the baron's misdeeds, but I stopped listening.
"Miss Lucinda, do you want this or not?"
I took the sausage the butcher held out, apologising for my inattention.
Mrs Wilson laughed. "It's my fault, Jack. I started talking about the Fire Warlock when she walked in."
The butcher rolled his eyes. "For Pete's sake, Miss Lucinda, the way you go on about fire witches and wizards all the time you ought to be one. I'm tired of all the stories you tell the youngsters, filling their heads with all kinds of nonsense. They don't need to know the names and life histories of all hundred-and-some-odd Fire Warlocks."
My hackles rose. "Don't call me a witch. And there have only been seventy-three Fire Warlocks, not a hundred."
"Who cares? Why don't you do something useful, missy, instead of reading all them silly books? There're things a girl should know, like how to sew."
"Let her be, Jack," the butcher's wife called from the back room. She walked to the doorway and wiped her hands on her apron. "I'd eat her cooking any day, and she keeps a neat house. If she wants to read her father's books after her work's all done, it's no skin off my back. Besides, she's too old to keep climbing trees and running breakneck through the woods with the boys." She smiled at me. "Promise me that after you get back you'll tell me all about it."
I went rigid. "Get back?"
"You're going to Rubierre to see the new gate, aren't you? I expect a full report on it tomorrow night."
I tried to sound sheepish. "Yes, ma'am."
"That's a long walk just to look at something," her husband said.
"Two hours," I said. "That's not so bad."
"Two hours each way. And what're you going to do when you get there? Spend five minutes looking at the blooming thing, then turn around and come home? Stop wasting your time."
I followed Mrs Wilson out, leaving the butcher still grumbling. I asked, "What's the matter with him? I know he thinks Father spoiled me, but he doesn't usually mind my stories. He's even thanked me a few times for keeping his children out of mischief for a while."
She said, "I expect he's worried that half the young men in the area will walk the challenge path to see the Fire Warlock. The nearest gate had been so far away that nobody thought much about it. But now, with a gate that close, it's more tempting, and with all the stories you've told, it's more on their minds than it would be otherwise. Insisting that no one dies on the Fire Guild's challenge path hasn't helped, either."
"Now, wait. I never said that no one has died on it — accidents can happen anywhere. I just said the stories about men dying right and left are nonsense."
"How do you know — because you've read it in a book? Sorry, dear, but I don't believe you. There are too many stories about boys leaving home and never coming back."
"It's common sense. Why would the Warlock kill his own supplicants? Most of the ones who never came back didn't want to. But it doesn't matter what I say. Even without the risk of dying, the challenges — and having to work for him for a year — make most shy away. I know all the boys within an hour's walk, and I can't name any who'd go — at least, not to the Fire Guild. Within a day's walk there'll only be a few who are brave and ambitious enough, and most of them will be troublemakers and malcontents. That's the way it's been every other place he's opened a new gate."
"I know, and I'm not worried about my son going. But Jack's just heard the news. He'll calm down when he's had time to think about it a bit."
I said, "Even if the rubbish about people dying doesn't scare them off, the thought of facing the Fire Warlock will. Everyone here went out of their way to avoid Gladys, and she only had a sharp tongue."
I never fathomed why even the burliest farmers sidled out of the old fire witch's way. Gladys could light a candle at will, but not much else. When she dropped by to chat with my mother — almost a fire witch herself — I would run to her and tug at her skirts, begging for stories about the Fire Warlock. Hers were even wilder than the ones in Father's books. The Fire Warlock figured in so many tales of magic and derring-do, some real, some nonsense, that he was both more respected and more feared than our sorry excuse for a king.
Even the witch could not answer all my childish questions. Can the Fire Warlock really shoot sparks out of his eyes? How long is his beard? Is his hair all grey or is some of it still red? He was old. They all were, I had known that much. But she had never seen the Warlock. She would say, "He never comes down out of the Fortress, you know, 'cept for when he has to haul the king's arse out of trouble. He stays up there on the mountain, keeping an eye out for danger. Anybody as wants to see him has to go to him, he doesn't come to us."
I said to Mrs Wilson, "With both Gladys and my mother dead for ten years there's no one left with an affinity for the Fire Guild."
"Except for you. Too bad the Fire Office has no use for girls."
She waved goodbye, and I walked down the lane, following the rock wall. If only the Fire Guild was not so one-sided. There were witches as well as wizards in all four magic guilds, and there were women in the top ranks of three. The Air Guild had its enchanters and enchantresses, the Water Guild its sorcerers and sorceresses, and the Earth Guild its mothers and fathers. But the Fire Guild, charged with defending the Kingdom of Frankland, had nothing but warlocks and mages on its guild council, and even in the lowest ranks there were more wizards than witches. There were stories of both girls and boys asking the other Officeholders for aid, but all the stories of supplicants asking for the Fire Warlock's help were about boys and men.
Mrs Wilson was out of sight. I climbed the rock wall and danced along the top, my letters forgotten. The butcher's wife wouldn't have been so sympathetic if she'd known I wasn't planning to come back. So what if no girl had gone before? I would walk the challenge path myself, and take my case to the Fire Warlock.CHAPTER 2
We're Off to See the Warlock
Should I be worried about the challenges ahead? I went through the motions of fixing dinner like an automaton. Each of the magic guilds maintained a challenge path by which a supplicant could gain an audience with the head of the guild. In the case of the Fire Guild, both the folklore and Father's books agreed there were three challenges, although no one seemed to know what they were. I shrugged. I couldn't force myself to fret. There wasn't enough to go on to make any planning worthwhile, and the stories said a clever head and a stout heart were all one needed to get through them. I thought I had both of those, although I would never know for sure if I stayed in Lesser Campton.
If I did pass the challenges, what then? I conjured up an image of a peevish old man asking me the question that made my chest tighten, Why should he help me?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Locksmith"
Copyright © 2017 Barbara Howe.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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