A Somewhat Sure Thing

I make no apology for this, save that it was about time I got around to posting a bit of my work here, so that folk can get an idea of how I write. Unfortunately, Megan pointed out that this is rather unlike anything I've written before. This is merely a stand- alone one-shot, a post-Adamantine piece with hopefully few spoilers and plenty of incentive to read the actual story when its time comes to be published. I've set it in my beloved downlands, a landscape in which my novel The Shadow Things is also set, though each story takes place in different worlds. Now, without further ado...

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From the crest of the hill one was afforded a fine view of the surrounding countryside. Our down country is good for views, if you take a liking to views; it is good for other things: sheep, mostly, and cows, and plenty of wheat and corn, and the barley used to make small beer, which is a staple among working folk like myself. From the crest of the hill you could see clear down to the Silver—a thick, winding band of iron-grey to the south—and the low farms between the upland masses shrouded in eerie mists, their boundaries marked out by the dark furring of wood that made a patchwork of the landscape.

A fine view, but I didn’t have time nor luxury to turn about and see it. I swung up the hill with the accustomed hillman’s stride, a squared-off hunk of rock nestled in the grip of my arms. They used horses and carts for this sort of work, most days, but Quince had gone lame in the hoof and Cobweb had unaccountably got a foal, and after a quarter-hour’s listening to the grumbling of the work masters this morning I’d stepped forward with my two big arms and volunteered to put the work forward at least a little by lugging stone myself.

‘Twas the earthworks we were building to terrace the downs. Downland soil is mostly chalksome, but you can grow good beech-woods and the land makes for excellent pasturage. So we were terracing some of the hills, keeping the hill back from sliding into the farmland below and levelling the turf out above.

I was headed for the earthworks, the last load until after the dinner hour in my arms, and I was eager to finish. My belly was plastered flat against my backbone, and gurgled every step or so to remind me that it was empty. I’m usually a peaceable soul, now, so long as I’m left to myself and no one takes it into his head to make trouble for me, but when I’m hungry I get a little temperamental. So when I came up to the crest of the hill where one could see the earthworks round the bend of the track and westward, and found a fairy standing stock in my path with his back to me, I flared. The rock was heavy and I was hungry.

“ ‘Moutta the way!” I barked. “Dun stand there gaupin’! I’ve work to do!”

There was a momentary pause. I wondered if the fairy had even heard me; mayhap he was deaf. But no, after a short space of time he turned unhurriedly around toward me. He had the hood of his slicker cast up, for it was a mucky, mizzling day with cold gusty winds blowing the soft rain all across the hillsides; as he turned, one such gust caught the hollow of his hood and blew it back from his face.

I felt the blood turn to ice in my veins.

I’m sure a boy has had nighttime dreams about meeting someone who turned out to have a hideous face, or no face at all. Such was the sensation which rushed giddily through my brain at that moment, though I’m full man-grown and counted something steady in the brain-pan, all told, when I came face to face with that little fairy. I’d never seen him before in my life, but I didn’t have to. I knew enough to be sensible of my own grave error.

The Duke’s face weren’t hideous. Far from it, despite his little size he was possessed of a fine face, a gentleman’s face, as if some artisan had carved it out custom-made for him. He regarded me with a mild expression, almost as if he were bemused, with a touch of absentminded bitterness about the mouth, though in the eyes he narrowed against the mizzle I thought I caught something like white laughter.

“I beg your pardon, my good fairy,” he said in perfectly cultured tones. “I fear I am in your way.” He nodded and took an equally unhurried step back.

I weren’t conscious until that moment of standing absolutely still, like a rabbit which sees the fox. I was so mithered that I couldn’t even begin to think to apologize, a fact which rears itself up in my memory time and again to make me blush with shame. But I don’t honestly know what I could have said to that mild, bemused, mocking face.

I was saved—if I can call it saved—from a stammering conversation by a hailing behind me. The Duke glanced aside and I swung round to see a big bronze-and-brown Catti striding bold as you please up the hill toward us. You can’t go long without spotting one of those figures, wearing their fine eerie elegance about them like kings, the lot of ‘em, though any one of them may be merely freed from labour at trenches, and the son of a pig-drover before that. Nevertheless they are formidable folk, the Catti, and I’d keep my peace about them in the best of times.

The Catti came up to us, shook his arm loose of his wadmal cloak, and held up his paw, pads outward. “Lurld Duke,” he said thickly.

“Lefe-Rogn,” said the Duke, still in that mild tone of voice, raising his own hand in a returning gesture.

Lefe-Rogn the Catti dropped his arm, pulled the cloak shut as a gust of wind boomed round us, and began at once in his own thick, unintelligible language to tell the Duke something which I took was of some importance. Halfway through his discourse he removed a packet of lettering from his cloak and passed it over to the little fairy, who took it with a brief shadow clutching at the space between his brows. Never did his eyes leave Lefe-Rogn’s face. He interjected now and then, and ‘twas startling to hear the brogue come suddenly into his smooth tones as he returned language for language. Standing a little apart from the two, looking on—I’d forgot all about the rock in my arms and the emptiness in my belly—I was minded again of someone telling me, “It’s like speakin’ with gravel an’ plums in yer mouth, that Cattee garble.” Sure, an’ maybe it was, but watching the Catti speak I saw that same curious elegance, and hearing the Duke I thought he gave to that tongue of gravel and plums a kind of wild gentleness, as if the whole language were a sort of speaking chant.

I was watching his face, too, as the Catti spoke. That white mocking laughter had vanished from the eyes almost upon the instant, and the shadow which his puckered brows made gave his nose a fierce aspect, hooked as an eagle’s; it seemed for a moment he had given his profile back to the artistic stoneworker, for it was fixed and rigid, very sharp. Then—

You mind how a ray of light flushes on the yard of a spring morning, the first spring morning, and you see there’s been crocuses blooming overnight? That’s how it was as the Catti Lefe-Rogn began to end his talk. Something in the Duke’s face unwound, and something relaxed, and there was only the way he bent his head and looked up ‘neath his brows to cast a shadow on his countenance. Lefe-Rogn finished, and the Duke’s gaze wandered a little between the two of us, fixed upon some point in the mizzling, misty middle distance. I could not read his face; Lefe-Rogn remained silent. But I know I felt a kind of thrill when the white mocking laughter flamed in the fairy’s eyes once more.

Fro gunen linn,” he murmured, half to himself. Then, still more in that speaking chant,

Tirasbornsikka shobrou ninë.

And Lefe-Rogn grunted appreciatively.

The Duke seemed to wake from whatever far-off dream his thoughts had taken him and he shook himself, scattering beads of water everywhere. With a definite motion he flung the hood back over his head, obscuring the silvery-blue of his hair, and he stepped forward with a little including gesture toward the Catti, indicating that they walk back down the road together.

But as he passed me, he stopped, and I knew then that he had never forgot I was standing there. His gaze met mine, lifted a little for I’m a big fairy, narrowed against the blowing rain. There was that laughter, flaming white, laughing at me out of his eyes. “I wish you well at your work, sir,” he said, and with a nod that was all. He was gone off with the Catti Lefe-Rogn back down the hillside, and I stood for long watching them rather dazed and moonstruck-like, listening to his words in my ears and hating myself for not being able to reply.

But I’d have time to do him a good turn soon and, though I’m sure he never saw it so that there was any score between us to settle, I think the balance is laid to rights.

‘Twas the first I’d met him, but not the last I’d see of him that day. I finished my work, still a bit dazed, and made my way back to the work camp at the foot of the down. The mizzle had turned to real rain by then, and I had the full weight of it back of me as I descended the hillside and wound my familiar way toward the mess booth from which wafted the scents of supper. Small beer, like as not: hot porridgy stuff which stuck to your ribs, maybe some mutton if I was lucky, potatoes and carrots pan-seared and peppered. As I drew closer, I could hear Emer the mason whistling fair through the broken place in his teeth and, though I was hungry, I was suddenly aware that I didn’t much care for company. I hesitated outside the booth until the scents and my own hunger drove me inside.

I could see Emer in the gloom—you can pick his saffron gash of wings out in a sea fog—cheerily whistling and breaking off the whistling now and then to put away a mouthful of potatoes; round him thronged the rest, familiar folk, downlanders mostly, all doing the work ‘cause it’s their own ditch and den, this country. I knew them by name, and the names I didn’t know, I knew their faces. Yet they seemed to well out at me, press at me, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Marshlight fancies, I reckon—the mist had got between my ears. But something about the Duke, how detached and serene he had been, was more downlandish to me at that moment than the joyful crowding company of the farming fairies before me. I wanted naught to do with them just then, and I wanted to be with my own thoughts to sort them out. Funny odd thing, how a chap can know there’s something in the wind, maybe before that wind has even blown.

Somehow I got myself some food, small beer and carrots, and beef—there weren’t any mutton and the potatoes had all been took. No one paid me any mind as I made my way back outside the booth into the rushing face of the rain. I found a sheltered place under the lipped eave of the wagon-shed and perched there by my lonesome on an upturned barrow, straddle-legged with the platter of food between my knees. The rain came between me and the camp scene of times, gusting wildly in silver sheets back and forth, and all the while the lonesome wind creaking in the boughs of the wayfaring tree which grew nearby. Lights peeped back at me out of the mists from the farmsteading down the way and from the horn panes of the mess booth windows. They make a chap lonely, looking back out of the mists at little lights like that; but at that moment, I didn’t mind the lonesomeness. Mayhap he didn’t mind, either, the Duke. I had never got it in my head before that a fairy of such wealth and high standing could want a bit of lonesomeness for himself, but just then I thought I understood. Sometimes rainsome downland is just the sort of companion a soul needs.

I ate my carrots and beef after they were cold, and my porridgy mess as it was going cold too. I had neglected to bring any drink with me; the small beer was a trifle too thick for that. I sighed and got to my feet, but just as I did so I heard the light swift tramp of boots on the turf and out of curiosity I looked up to see a very young fairy coming through the mists, looking this way and that as if for something in particular. He was in his shirtsleeves, as I was, with a fine blue plaid vest, not as I was, and new galoshes with fresh mud-spatters on them. I waited patiently while the lad picked his way among the waiting stacks of stone and tools, trekking through several of the worst puddles a’purpose. He caught sight of me at last, as I’d always suspected he would, and he came at once toward me, smiling in a friendly way. His cap obscured his hair, but he sported a rain-streaked pair of blue wings, so that I was not very surprised when he came up to me and thrust out his hand, saying,

“Salutations, sir. My father bids me...convey to you how much he would appreciate your presence at Godolfin Stead. For tea,” he added, smiling through his freckles and the rain on his cheeks.

I took the lad’s little hand—little, but rough already—and shook it, pleased to discover he had a splendid shake back. “I’ll come ‘long now with you,” I said.

We walked back together through the gusting rain, through the working camp to the gap in the intake and the road beyond. There was no verge to walk, for the road was bordered on either side thickly by gorse-shrub, the yellow flowers winking through the rain at us as the far-off lights of Godolfin Stead winked yellow in the mists. There was no verge, so by the time the two of us had come down the road to the gate of the steading our boots were covered in mud. The lad seemed not to be minding, and ordinarily I would not be minding much myself, but I felt in this instance I could not simply strike off my boots at the door and walk in with only my stockings on.

‘Twas the first time I had been within Godolfin Stead. I’ve seen it from the hillside, a great rambling place, recently reclaimed from dereliction by the Duke himself. The two of us went in by way of the cobbled yard, round by way of the horses’ stables and through the short picket-fenced garden to the long low jut of room which was still a bit raw with newness. It was dim inside, and smelt of damp and a little of moss. The lad thrust both feet in a trough which ran along one side of the room and yanked away at a faucet until the water spurted and gushed over his leathers, washing the mud away. I followed suit while he wordlessly manned the faucet for me, and so I was saved from having to walk in to tea in only my stockings.

It hadn’t struck me until then that it was tea I was going to have. I hadn’t thought for a moment that those mocking eyes meant to give me a lashing for my insolent tongue, but tea... That was something altogether different. In my grimed work clothes and rough Kartuscan brogue I felt out of place, no matter that my boots were shiny. What could he want with me? Surely it would not merely be tea.

The boy stood at the inner doorway, his hand on the latch while the light from within spilled out round him golden and inviting. He had his head up and turned a little, faintly and, I think, unconsciously supercilious. I struck the most of the water off my boots and joined him at the doorway.

“After you, young moster,” I said.

He led the way into the farmhouse kitchen. I didn’t mind being brought in by the servants’ wing. If it had been anyone else, I think I might have, for I’m a free-born fairy, native to the countryside, even if I don’t have a piece of land to my name. Nah, but I didn’t mind for that fairy, who was asking me to tea and understood the companionable lonesomeness of our Kartuscan downs.

“Aie!” said one of the maids, scoldingly, as we walked through. She dusted her hands off fiercely on her apron and began striding toward us round the end of the great middle table. “Take iff that cap,” she demanded. “And see you dry it iff at the stove.” But she was a fine girl, and didn’t strike in that most annoying way maids can have at the young master’s clothing in an attempt to tidy him. She watched with eyes snapping in her freckled, flushed face as the boy slung off his hat, revealing a head of bright blue hair, and hitched it up over a hook by the stove.

“There,” he said, turning back on the maid as the Duke had turned back on me. “Is it pleasing to you now, Lark?”

“You’re as saucy as your father. Mind the hat in the future. Children these days!” she sighed, exasperated-like, as she whirled round to the counter. “An’ him in gov’ment!”

The mocking white laughter which I was coming to know was in the boy’s eyes as he beckoned me to follow once more. We left the kitchen and went down a narrow passage to the long, massive, ancient centre of the old steading which had in days agone been kitchen, greeting room, mess hall, and bedroom before any of the other wings had been built on as the farm had prospered. It was well furnished now, reclaimed in comfort though its rafters still sported the blackness of fires over generations; down the middle of the room was a raised hearth after the old fashion, its ends balanced with one desk and one piano. The desk was a massive piece of work, complete wood and scrolled all over with designs I’d have to get down on my knees to observe. I’m not much a fairy inclined to think highly of music, but I thought well of that piano. There was a maiden like a candle’s flame perched on its bench with a bit of sewing in her lap. She could not have been over twelve, not old enough yet to ‘come out,’ as those social folk say, but she gave me back such a frank and welcoming look from ‘neath her unbraided ginger hair that for a moment I thought I was looking at the mother.

But I weren’t looking at the mother, and the boy was saying, “Here he is, sir,” and I had to turn back to the desk.

The Duke looked up at once from whatever he was writing, a surpriseless geniality in his face. With a deft hand he turned the paper over and folded it with the side of his thumb—a firm, sharp edge—though it mattered naught ‘cause I can’t read. “Thank you, Roman,” he told the boy. He got up and held out a hand to me.

I dragged my own cap off my head and stepped forward to take his handshake. The hand he held out to me was long and fine, unlike my blunt workman’s paw: but I noticed he had a firm grip and, what’s more, the light caught his wrist and showed up the fierce silver gash of a scar. “ ‘M Ironside,” I said, finding my tongue at last. “Ghyll Ironside.”

Recognition glinted in his eyes. “The Ironside ghyll—were you born near the place?” His tone was one of friendly interest.

I released his hand, taking the step back with my cap crushed in my fist. I couldn’t remember anyone recognizing the place, as ‘twas only a little gash of wooded land round the corner of nowhere and up a long scrubby walk of forsaken countryside. Them as did know were kind enough to let it pass; them as didn’t made jesting remark on the uniqueness of my name, and that would be all. But the Duke unexpectedly and uncomfortably knew the place. “Aye, sir... S’matter of fact, I was born right there, sir. Named after it.”

I saw the shadow of understanding dart across his face. But almost on the instant it was gone again, and the Duke was gesturing toward a half circle of couches set up alongside the hearth. I took the gesture and made for them, hoping my backside weren’t as grimy as my front side. I noted that the Duke walked with a bit of a limp. I couldn’t recall hearing of him being in any war, though I’d heard snatches of him being on the frontier when the Black Catti tribe had erupted against the garrisons. But that was...nah, I hadn’t been paying attention, and I don’t know how long ago that was. Some thirteen year or more. Mayhap he’d had a riding accident.

I eased myself with care onto the horsehair couch while the Duke, seating himself and crossing one leg over the other, turned to the boy and said, “Would you make sure Lark knows to bring the tea in? I’m sure she’s busy with supper.”

The girl at the piano put aside her sewing, rising. “I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you, my pet,” said the Duke.

The girl went off, and the boy Roman sat down on the kerb of the hearth to listen to us talk. “I heard the two horses had been compromised,” the Duke began. “Hopefully the one will recover soon, and I’m sure it will be little trouble to procure another to take the mare’s place. Still, it puts the work back a bit. Do you think we will be done by autumn ploughing?”

I hadn’t expected him to ask my opinion. Figures and speculations have never been my strong point, neither. I took a moment to think. “I reckon so, sir. It’s not work we’re unused to, and we’ve all got a mind to work at it. I think we could do it even without the horses, though they make it easier. A gelding would be best,” I ventured to add.

“Mm, yes.” The Duke nodded thoughtfully, gazing aside into the fire with a pensive expression. “I think I know a fellow who can lend us a beast. I may have you pick him up on your way back.”

I blinked, surprised. “My way back—sir?”

The gaze darted up to me from under the brows, the firelight still caught in the blue, and the white of mockery flickering ‘neath it. “I have a job for you, Mr Ironside, if you are interested in it.”

I think a fairy might be suspicious, hearing a proposition started such a way. I might have said, “See here, I know you’re in gov’ment. What’s this all about, and is it honourable?” But I didn’t. Looking back into that mocking, friendly face, I reckoned then without thinking about it much that I’d do anything and more for that fellow. He’s that sort of fairy.

“If you reckon me a fit fairy for the job, sir,” I replied, “I’ll do aught you want me to.”

I could see he was remembering my ungracious words on the hillside that late morning, and he was laughing at me now. But he didn’t say a word about that. All he said was, shifting a little in his seat, “Ah, here comes Aventine with the tea,” and the maid who reminded me of a candle’s flame came in on silent feet, bearing a tea-tray in her arms. Roman, whom I took to be her brother, didn’t stir a finger to help her, but looked on with that little condescending smile of his, though he couldn’t abeen more than nine at the most, while she placed the tray between us, arranged her skirts, and began to serve us. I weren’t accustomed to being served, but I let her do it, wishing all the while the teacups weren’t so tender and small. I feared I might break ‘em.

“Do you take cream, sir?” she inquired of me.

By the uncanny rowan, she had long lashes. “Aye, but nay sugar.”

She put in a great dollop of wholesome cream, whisked it round, and passed it up to me. Her father took his tea black. When she had finished, she rose and retired to her bench again.

The Duke leaned back in his sofa, cradling the teacup in his hands while the steam danced writhing and doubling over between his face and me. “The game’s afoot,” he said gallantly. “We may be on the brink of an unprecedented peace with the Black Catti if what was agreed to a week ago,” he gestured toward his desk and the packet of paper I could see still folded there, “holds true at this hour. But the Catti are a volatile people, the Black especially, and it may be long and long before the stitches we have put in this wound are strong enough to bear any sort of strain without bursting apart and bleeding again. So we must play this quietly and let no word of this slip out until it is a somewhat sure thing.”

I was puzzled. He paused to take a sip of his tea and I stared at him, bemused-like, my own teacup held in my hands as if I held a new-hatched chick—a very warm new-hatched chick. Once more he seemed gone away into his own thoughts. The room was full of the tinselly rustle of the fire and the dusky rush of rain overhead. I prompted presently, “An’ how can I be of help to you, sir?”

He surfaced slowly from his musing. Gesturing toward me with his teacup, he explained. “It is very simple. I have a friend who spent much of his soldiering years on the frontier working to make this peace come about, and now that he is retired I think he would appreciate being one of the first to catch the wind of what we are making.”

I cut my gaze aside toward the desk. “An’ that paper—you want that I should take it to him?”

The white laughter glittered at me. “Not as easy as that. I want you to recall the words I have told you here, now, and tell them to him.”

I suppose I hadn’t understood the gravity of the situation until he put it that way. I still didn’t, to be honest. But a message too important to be passed by paper, that I could understand. I suddenly hadn’t much stomach for the tea. A peace, a peace with the Black Catti... We’d had a tenuous trade relationship with the Dunr Catti for as long as I’ve been alive, a sort of uneasy, hackled dance, but never had we any peace with the Black Catti, no peace in any shape or form. If they should be spooked, God alone knew how many years of work would be in an instant destroyed, and we might very well be at war. I realized then that in a single morning’s work, in what had appeared to be a chance and unfortunate encounter, I had been swept up into very grave events.

“Is there aught else I can do for it—for you—sir?” I asked.

For the first time, he smiled. I always thought he had been smiling before ‘cause I could see it in his eyes. He smiled kind and full now. “Only to fetch the gelding for the work here, Mr Ironside. We must move forward with the work here on the home front as well.”

“Of course, sir.”

He put down his empty teacup and rose, returning to his desk. I hastily drank my tea, which was still warm and didn’t taste half bad, much as I didn’t want it, and got up too, trailing after him with the boy Roman trailing after me. It weren’t far into the afternoon but the room was drenched in a deep gloom, with the orange glow of the fire lying in the centre of it as though it were a firedrake asleep in its darksome lair. It struck me that ‘twas a fine place, and that the Duke had done well reclaiming it from dereliction.

“I am sure,” said the Duke as he bent to scribble something on a paper, “that Hob can spare you a week or a fortnight.” He glanced up under his brows, a way that he had which I was coming to know. “Do you know the rose hill?”

“Aye, sir.” I gave my cap a little shake. “I know the place. Ain’t been there, but I know it.”

“Excellent.” He resumed his scribbling. I watched the fine black scrawl flash wildly across the page. I couldn’t read it anyhow, as I’d never been taught my letters, but I wondered that a fairy could read his writing even with a full alphabet in his head, he wrote so fast. But it was the only hurried thing he did. He seemed otherwise to have what I suppose folk in these parts call the wiggan gentleness, mostly ‘cause of the old wise woman that has lived since the beginning of time down in the wood where the three rowans grow. Don’t reckon myself there is anything wiggan about it. He finished writing and dusted the two sheets, folded them, sealed them, and handed them over to me. I took them with some trepidation. “This,” he said of the first, “is for the foreman Hob, and this is for the fairy at Blodugwall. Mind you pass by on your way back from the rose hill to fetch the horse.”

I slipped the two letters inside my grimy corduroy vest where they would be safe from the rain. “I’ll mind, sir... Hob won’t know why I’ve gone?”

The Duke shook his head. “I’ve given you leave to fetch a horse for the work, and that is true. That is all the truth Hob needs to know.” A shadow passed across his face once more and he looked thoughtfully down at his son. “It’s a curious weight and business, Mr Ironside, having to carry more truth than one can tell.”

“Aye, sir.”

I minded those words often on my road since then.

The door to the common room clicked open, and the figure of Lefe-Rogn slipped silently in. ‘Twas uncanny, how so big a body could be so quiet. The atmosphere which the Duke’s pensiveness had brought on the room vanished almost at once as the fairy said, “Is it that time already? Mind you are not late for supper.”

“He’ll be back in time for supper,” said Lefe-Rogn, striding forward and catching hold of Roman’s shoulder in a firm, shaking grip. I was surprised at how precisely he spoke our language. “He can smell that cooking clear across Kartusca.”

“Mm,” mused his father. “I reckon that he can.”

Quiet as a mouse, Aventine had joined us, stealing up with her sewing clutched behind her back. Those beguiling lashes of hers flickered upward as she gazed at her father. “Please, might I go too?”

The Duke frowned good-naturedly. “Yes, you may go. If it isn’t a mither to Lefe-Rogn and if you promise not to lose your hat to a hedgerow again.”

The lashes flared round the eyes with embarrassment and the maid shot a glance my way. I made sure I was suddenly busy fiddling with my cap.

“Nay,” rumbled the Catti. “I’ll just go round by the garden shed and fetch a hammer and a few nails. The wind won’t snatch her hat off.”

The Duke nodded. “Yes, and nail Master Roman’s coattails to his pony’s saddle while you are about it, please. I can’t afford losing him to a hedgerow too.”

Lefe-Rogn bundled the two children off with remarkable dignity to fetch their galoshes and slickers for an afternoon ride in the rain, and the Duke and I followed slowly. Funny odd thing how it is: I walked into his house feeling an uncomfortable stranger, and I was walking out again feeling like an unassuming equal. He’s that sort of fairy.

We followed the Catti and the two children to the outer doorway of the damp mudroom and watched them off, the horse and two ponies jogging through the rain, which had slackened a little, and rolling mists, which had thickened. When the jinkeh-jink of bridle-bit had faded off into the hush of the rain, I turned to take my leave of the Duke as well.

Was he always going away? I wondered. For he had again, gazing off across the shrouded garden and stable yard. He had touched the runnel of rainwater which was coursing down the stone casement of the doorway, and he was rubbing his fingers absentmindedly together. What did he see? I suddenly wondered if there was something to the wiggan gentleness, and I shivered. They said the king’s particular friends were all a bit strange, standing a bit uneasily on the normal turf of the world as if they didn’t quite belong there. And the Duke was one of the king’s particular friends. I half wished to break his silence, but I didn’t know what to say.

“If this becomes a somewhat sure thing,” he said, a little to me, a little to himself, and perhaps a little to the mists beyond. Then he cocked his head, sliding his gaze upward to me, and he was that genial, mocking fairy again. “I plan to move my family back to Faerie at the end of the month. It is my understanding that you are not a landowner... Would you find it in your heart to see to Godolfin for me through the summer months?”

I stared at him. I knew I was gauping myself, but I couldn’t quite help it. I’m not sure how much time passed between his words and mine. I stammered out at last, “ ‘M not fit for a task like that, sir! I can’t read nor write, and you can forget sums n’ all unless it’s by my fingers. Why—” I cast a bewildered glance at what little of the steading yard I could see in the gloom. “I shouldn’t know where to begin.”

“Nonsense,” said the Duke, gently, firmly. “You are downland-bred, a Kartuscan fairy. You know the land and the land knows you. That gets a fairy far, I find, letters and sums aside.” And the mockery, I saw, had gone out of his eyes as he spoke. He has a way of putting things, that fairy does, and looking at you like he’s looking clean through you to your hidden inside. Somehow I held that gaze, though ‘twas the hardest thing in the world I reckon I’ve ever done. “Hold her for me. It is as important a thing to us Kartuscan folk as holding together the peace with the Black Catti is for our government.”

He has a way of putting things.

‘Twas I who offered the hand this time and he took it, smiling that faintly bitter smile of his. “Until next time, Mr Ironside.”

“Gawd keep ye,” I returned and, taking back my hand, struck out into the blowy face of the downland rain to find old Hob the foreman and be on my way.

Aye, by heaven and the uncanny rowan, ’tis a funny odd thing how a fellow’s life can turn so unfamiliar at the bend of an old familiar track. But a lark struck up its wet tune in the hedge as I went along, an’ it’s in my mind that it conjured up that thrill in me again so that I found myself looking forward, as I’d never looked forward to a thing before, to the life the Duke of Kartusca had placed into my hands.

3 ripostes:

  1. Whee! Squee! You know how much I loved this story! (especially the accents)

  2. "he said, a little to me, a little to himself, and perhaps a little to the mists beyond." That line hurt. It was so sad. I don't really know why.

  3. Nay, but I know what you mean. It isn't the sort of thing that can be put into words, but I know what you mean.