The tale of Ash came from a couple of sources: I was reading a book by Alision Weir, Isabella: She-Wolf of France, in which Weir talks about a fire in one of the royal palaces that left the Queen (or Dowager Queen as she was then) burned and scarred. The historical record of this is basically an old copy of a doctor’s bill. Around the same time I was looking at pictures of the Tower of London, and the Traitors’ Gate in particular, and I had an image of a woman wrapped tightly in a cloak, sitting in a boat, floating in under such a water gate.
My characters turned up in timely fashion: Blodwen, who traded a child for eldritch knowledge and in the process lost everything; and Gwenllian, who traded her own freedom for a life of luxury, and her own child for a restoration of her beauty. This story links to “The Navigator” as Gwenllian is the woman loved by Windeyer, the woman he chased after when she agreed to go away with the Archbishop. The eagle-eyed reader will note the mention of Bitsy at the end, who appears in two more Sourdough tales later on.
This is a short short story, so I’ve posted it in full.
The water flowing beside this small, remote castle runs as cold as a serpent’s blood. The mist curls up from the surface of the river, reaching into my lungs, and drawing out deep, damp coughs. I shiver, a tremor that goes through every part of me. The autumn night gives a hint of what winter will bring. I pull the shabby fabric of my old cloak close around me.
The first time I came here I had nothing to fear, no crimes to regret, no sins to repent. I was an invited guest, honoured and, most of all, needed. But even a short span has wrought changes I could not foresee.
Eyes no longer linger on me; they slide away. Scars mar my skin, pulling tight like unevenly placed stitches. They itch and ache, remind me constantly of their presence.
Three years ago, I was still young. Three years ago, I had a face that made men pause. The last time I floated in under this stone arch, the boat rocking as we moored, the man-at-arms with brown hair and worried eyes stared a long time at the pale moon of my face, troubled by what his mistress might want with the likes of me. Then he wrapped me tightly against prying gazes and tugged the hood of the fine grey cloak I then wore far down over my features so no one would see me and later know me.
That day led to this one. I go before the same woman, by the same secret ways, under the same witch’s moon. I do not think I will walk out alive. My bones will sleep under dirt and stones somewhere within these stout walls. No one will look for me; no one will care. Some bargains, once made, should not be revisited.
Stairs are hard for me. My bones were never properly set. I ache. I might forget, sometimes, that my hair has faded, and my face is other than it was – that no man will share my bed willingly – but the pain reminds me. It is merciless. I tell myself I do not care about the loss; that it makes no mind to me, what is there and what is not. When I am alone, I can oft-times believe it. No one has been there to gainsay my lies. Until now.
The room has not changed, really – a little richer, more luxurious. Her lover, Archbishop Bigod, is generous, perhaps to make up for his long absences. He does not often leave his cathedral city and she is left to while away her time far from him. I wonder how her days pass; a loom waits silently in a corner and the walls are hung with tapestries. Perhaps my question is answered thus. How many days, how many wall hangings to measure a life? How much time in front of the tall silver mirror, watching her features change, her beauty slowly lessen?
Gwenllian occupies a comfortable chair near a wide window, and the moonlight angles in upon her. She, too, has aged, though less dramatically than I. She is older than me but looks younger. Her existence has been cushioned by wealth. There are lines on her face but her make-up cunningly disguises them. There are no flecks of silver in her dark hair. The sleeves of her dress are slashed (not so fashionably, but I know why she wears them thus) and I can see the skin there. Her face, neck and forearms are pink, youthful, expensively bought. My best work.
She surveys the cross-hatching of my face, the uneven line of my shoulders. Does she wonder why I have not healed myself? Does she think I could not? That I have lost my gift?
‘It has been a long time, Blodwen.’ The voice lilts, a flower on the breeze. I merely nod. This is less courteous than she is used to and it makes her frown. Here in her castle, with her servants, she is queen and law. Perhaps her isolation has made her think herself God as well. ‘You have been ill?’
‘My lady is observant.’ My voice, previously sweet, is no longer so. There was a time when I could bewitch with my tone alone. Now I sound like a crow in human form.
‘Your tongue is still sharp.’
‘It’s all I have left.’
We stare at each other for a moment, the Lady Gwenllian and I. There are no attendants – just like before. No witnesses to our bargain. Her eyes drop to stare at her arms, then she raises her hands to touch her cheeks and the smooth curve of her throat. When last I came here, they were still weeping from the burns she’d suffered, the flesh red and raw like a side of half-burnt beef, and the stench septic.
The Archbishop was here three years ago, just before Gwenllian’s accident. He has sent word that a tour of the surrounding countryside and the abbeys and convents nearby will bring him this way. He wishes to see their daughter, who should be six. This much I have from my surly escorts, the men who sought me out in the cesspit of a village where I have lived these last broken years. This much and no more.
‘Your face …’ she begins.
‘I was dragged behind a wagon. My legs were broken, too. Not everyone is kind to my sort.’ I sit, without invitation, on a chair opposite her. She says nothing; she knows that this little comfort is the very least she owes me. There is the low sound of my joints cracking as I bend.
‘You did not …’ she gestures, once again not finishing her question. ‘You could not?’
I am silent, thinking of the pain of those days and months. Of the strange weight of loss – how is it that in having something taken away from us, we suddenly feel heavier? Now there is merely the lightness of ceasing to care.
‘What I do carries a price – I would not pay it,’ I say. ‘I am not you. My blood is still warmed by conscience.’
Guilt shimmers across her face then dissolves in a cloud of rage. She starts violently from her seat, looms over me, but I am a tired woman. Anything she does to me will be a lifting, a relief. I think she sees in my face that I will welcome any end.
With an effort she speaks quietly. ‘What you did for me,’ she lifts her arms (as if I do not know her skin as well as my own). ‘What you did for me was a miracle and I judged the price fair.’
‘But I need what I gave you. I need her back.’
I laugh so loudly it hurts my ears; the stretching of my mouth makes my jaw ache. My stomach convulses with bitter mirth. It takes me a long time to calm myself and by then her fury is palpable, uncontained. This is why she had me found, hunted like a fox and brought here. I have not strictly hidden, but I have not lived in plain sight.
‘I want the child. I need the child,’ she hisses.
The daughter she gave me as the price of her healing. Three years ago she was eager to sacrifice the little girl if only she herself could be smooth and whole and pink again.
‘I no longer have her,’ I say. ‘She is not mine to return.’
‘Her father comes and he will wish to see her.’
‘Tell him what you did.’
‘Show him another,’ I say.
‘No other has her birthmark,’ she spits the words out. I remember the small red crown on the child’s shoulder. Her father saw her when she was born; he will know if his mistress tries to substitute another.
‘Tell him she died – he will forgive that.’
‘He will not! She was my price.’ She gestures around us, to the room, to the comfort of her surroundings. ‘He warned me to keep her safe.’
‘You should have thought of that when you were giving her to me.’
Her fingers are at my throat, strong and warm and tight.
‘Where is she? Tell me and I will send my men to collect her. I will keep you in my household for the rest of your life. You will be safe and warm.’ Her soft words belie her hard hands. If I had a child I would not give it to this woman.
‘I will not tell you.’
She presses against my windpipe. The edge of my vision blackens. She lets go, quickly. That would be too easy a release for me, and she still has hope she can pry information from me.
‘You would not have given her away. The child was the price you asked. Life is too important to you – or you would not have been able to do this.’ She throws back at me every lie I once told her as she points at her face, her neck as triumphant proof. She does not know me as well as she would like to think.
‘I will not tell.’
She snarls, and her teeth are sharp and yellow.
‘If you do not give me the child, you will burn. You’re a witch, it’s only fitting. You have until daylight.’
She sweeps from the room and the door is bolted behind her. I lean back against the soft padding of the chair and try to swallow the ache. I think of the little girl, fat and laughing, those chubby arms and the sweet smell of warm child. And gone so quickly.
In truth, I do not tell the mother what happened to her daughter, for I do not wish her to know how alike we are, Gwenllian and I. How my contempt for Gwenllian is so firmly rooted in my contempt for myself.
The child I demanded for my services I paid to another in turn. I made a deal with an old man who taught me every scrap of magic I knew. I lived in his house for two years learning everything I could, but I did not warm his bed. When first I asked him to teach me, he refused my offer of the usual favours; told me he would have his recompense but that he would name it later. Would I be prepared to not know what it would be?
Blinded by the desire for knowledge, I said yes.
When at last he said it was time for me to clear my account and sent me to Gwenllian’s lonely bower, who was I to argue? He told me what to ask for as payment. I returned to the cathedral city, in love with my own power, floating on the cloud that healing Gwenllian brought, feeling as if nothing was beyond me. The child was on my hip and my heart felt full. I wondered why he did not go to take the child himself, but who was I to question his long game? Who was I to gainsay such a powerful man?
She’d be a princess, I told myself. She’d have the best life. I handed her over with barely a qualm. And I woke the next day to find myself sleeping in the street and the house not merely empty, not merely stripped of all the familiar things I’d come to expect, but simply gone. The place I’d called home all gone in the night.
It was a big city, but I could have found them. I could have sought him out and asked Why? He’d gone to such trouble, though, to hide – it would be stupid to make him angry by following him. I did not think myself stupid. The child was not mine. She would have a good life, little Jessamyn. The best I could do was to leave her there. I was not her mother, after all.
But I know, too, that when I gave the child away, all my luck turned bad.
Now I would not ruin her life by telling her dam where to find her.
The first ray of light brings Gwenllian back to my prison. She sees my expression and does not ask again. My answer is plain, even among the scars. Denied what she wants, she will destroy me instead.
Out in the courtyard a pyre is waiting. They tie me to the stake and throw pitch over me and the wood, so we will burn faster. I think of the girl, how Jessamyn cannot be worse off. How even death would be preferable to life with this woman who gave birth to her with no more thought than an apple tree puts forth fruit.
A small crowd of servants have gathered. There is a little girl with the whitest of hair and dreaming blue eyes. She holds a doll that’s almost as big as she is. We smile at each other, but a woman, who might be her mother, hurries her away. ‘Bitsy, don’t look, her kind will curse you.’
The Lady Gwenllian does not come down, but I know she watches from the high tower. As the smoke reaches my lungs, I cough, this time a dry hack that gasps for air. I feel the flames nip at my toes, catch my dress, and I tell myself that I am being warmed by an inn fire. I can almost believe it until the pain licks through me. My last comfort comes with Gwenllian’s screams.
My magic lives only as long as I do. In that high room, her arms and neck and lovely face are prickling and peeling and burning, a smell of pork filling the air. When I am gone she will not forget me, nor her broken bargain.