The Red String
“Move, move! They’re getting away! Are you half-asleep or what? For feck’s sake!”
The cattle were young and wild. They charged past her in a stream of black and white, tails arched, down to the bottom of the field again.
It was impossible for one person with no dog to round up this many cattle. If that lardarse by the gate would help it’d be done in no time, but there was no chance of that happening.
“Oh for feck’s sake,” she said as she picked up her stick and followed the cattle yet again. The stream of invective continued without pause.
“Come on, quisteh, quisteh, pets. Nice fresh grass outside.”
The cattle regarded her with a mild, bovine curiousity. She held the picture of the Hollow’s Field firmly in her mind; plenty of grass, the stream running through it, the red gate at the top of this field leading to it.
Sometimes the nudging worked and sometimes it didn’t. There was no telling with young cattle. But this time they allowed her to round them up and trotted obediently through the gate.
“Took yeh fecking long enough! As if I don’t have enough to be doing! Drive them down to the Hollow’s Field. Get a fecking move on!
Jeb’s jowls shook as he shouted, the veins in his neck standing out. She was careful to be more than an arm’s reach away from him as she went through the gate. Within an arm’s reach could be dangerous. The cattle had paused in the lane to look back at her and she jogged after them.
The milk cows were starting to low softly by the time she got back. Their hayracks were empty and eight big heads poked out over their feed troughs and regarded her hopefully when she opened the door.
The milk cows were older and calmer; staid, middle-aged matrons compared to the young fools in the field just now. As cattle got older they were more inclined to settle into a herd and then it was just a matter of nudging the leader, so much easier.
“Hold yer horses. It’s on its way,” she said as she started to ladle out rolled barley.
She was dirty but there was no particular shame in that; everyone was dirty, it was pointless to try to avoid it. The ring of calluses on her palms and the broken fingernails were the norm. Only Lettie in the dairy had fine, soft, white hands.
“Where the feck is she? Off asleep somewhere as usual.”
She could hear Gert screeching but that trouble, whatever it was would come to her soon enough. No point in going looking for it. If she stayed here long enough Gert might have forgotten her outrage.
“There yeh are! Are yeh deaf? Could yeh not hear me shouting?”
This was a bad sign. Gert never came to the cowsheds. There was no way out. Gert’s mousey brown hair that she was so proud of, had come undone in her rage.
“Yeh stupid little bitch. Thought yeh’d get away with it, didn’t yeh?
Gert’s hand flew out and smacked her across the face. Gert was not a small woman. She was knocked sideways with the force and could feel the left-hand side of her face begin to swell. Then she was being half-carried, half-dragged across the haggard.
“Take it easy there now, Gert.”
“And you keep your nose out of my business, Span Coops or yeh’ll be cap in hand looking elsewhere for a job!
Span was only a hired milker so there was nothing he could do.
“Stupid little bitch! Thirty duck eggs broken! Sly enough to hide them too. Useless little bitch! What yeh’re fed and kept for I don’t know. Idle, useless, good-for-nothing!“
There was no point in trying to get away. When Gert was like this it was best to get it over with. The litany continued. She’d heard it too many times before.
“Unlucky too. Yeh don’t like that do yeh,” with a pause for another shake.
“Truth is truth. Why else would all belonged to yeh be dead? And you left here to torment me. After me taking yeh in out of the goodness of me heart.”
She went to bed that night with a ringing in her ears, blood crusting her nostrils and nothing to eat. The bruises would show up over the next few days.
There was nothing that could have been done. Charl and Bets had broken the eggs in some stupid game and when caught out, blamed her. But there was no way Gert would believe her over her own two children. They were her own flesh and blood, squat and stupid as they were, while she was nothing and nobody.
But she’d get her own back. Gert would go on the red string and then it was always only a matter of time. The red string was a piece of thick red wool, about the length of her arm. It had been dropped when the rugs in the parlour were being woven and quick as thought she had picked it up and hidden it. It was her memory.
She tied a knot in it each time she had a grievance, one that she wanted to settle. Then, each night before she slept she would remind herself of what had been done and by whom. The knots were so she wouldn’t forget. And now there was a fine, thick knot for Gert.
Sometimes it took a long time before she could get her own back. Sometimes it took a long time to plan. But while she had the knots in the string she wouldn’t forget.
Gert’s arm was bandaged and in a sling. Her round, red face was paler than usual and she was subdued. Every time she saw Gert, it gave her a surge of pleasure. But she had to be careful that no one saw her pleasure on her face. She was connected enough with ill luck already.
Gert had slipped and fallen awkwardly on a patch of ice by the back door when she went to collect the food scraps for the pigs. She was fat like a pig herself so of course she fell awkwardly. But no one knew that she herself had spilled the water there the previous night, just where the kitchen scraps were left out. Nor that she had greased the soles of Gert’s shoes with fat.
Gert’s arm wasn’t broken, worse luck, just sprained. But the indoor maid told Lettie in the dairy that it was giving her great pain. Neither of them looked upset either as they discussed it in the appropriate tones of shock and sympathy. They were pleased too but were too spineless to admit it to themselves or each other.
Lettie was giving her hard glances.
“What are you doing in here? Clear off now,” she said. She should never have told Lettie when she was expecting that the fluttering heart that beat inside her would be a girl. Nor should she have mentioned four months later that the child had died.
But that was years ago when she was only a child. She was too young then to realize that the bearer of the news was usually seen as the cause. Lettie had never forgiven her for that lost child. And since then she had learned to keep things to herself.
She moved away, leaving Lettie and the indoor maid to their conversation. Lettie was fearful, no doubt that the milk would turn or that the butter wouldn’t take.
Was Gert’s sprained wrist enough to take the knot out of the red string? She wasn’t sure. She’d think about it and decide later.
They all looked bored; the Old Lord on his high chair, his grown-up sons and daughters below him, his guards scattered throughout the dim hall. It took her a moment or two to spot the wizard. He was a middle-aged man dressed in unfashionable black sitting on a stool near the fire in conversation with a guard standing next to him.
She could see a cluster of people leaving the hall. It was too late, she had missed her chance. How could she not be late when she had walked all the way here, risking taking a short cut across Basclappa Bog when all the others had gone on the roads on pony and cart.
“Is that the last of them, my Lord Wizard?”
“It is, my Lord.”
“As you have seen, this is a humble holding with simple people. Far too simple for a mighty wizard such as you.”
“Great glory can come from humble places, my Lord”.
The Old Lord feared the wizard, that was clear. And well he might. The responsibility for hosting a lord wizard was surely a fearsome one.
It was just like Span had told them all six days ago. He had been the first to know about it.
“They are at the manse. They’ve been there since yesterday around mid day. All unexpected like. An honour guard and the wizard. And the manse thrown into a flurry for them.”
Span’s married daughter was in service at the manse and so Span was the usual source of information about the doings up there.
“With the new king and things a-changin’ in the east, they’ve come out this way.”
His listeners nodded. They did not like change, new king or no. And a wizard was never a good thing. Everybody knew they could bind a man to do their bidding against his own will, inflict pains like fire and nails, make a man’s heart stop beating in his own chest.
“For why? For why? Who knows the why of wizards? But they say they are seeking children who are touched; gifted they call it. To take back to the city. To be trained in the service of the new king. Or so they say. Who knows what the truth of it is?”
Her head lifted at that. To leave here. To fly away. To return when she was grown and powerful. Then, she could make them all pay. And pay they would.
“No matter what you say, Lettie, there are some who would send their child off. And who would want to keep a child which is touched anyway?”
“On next Nineday, all children above five year’s turns are to be brought to the manse. Oh whisht, Nan! Do you think that they haven’t thought of that? The wizard has all the names written down on a list from the Old Lord. Oh yes, Lettie, you’d be the one to deny a wizard to his face, would you?”
They all laughed at that. None of them had ever met or even seen a wizard but they all knew nonetheless that wizards were quick to anger and vengeful in the extreme.
She could see Gert standing by the door, her hands on Charl’s and Bet’s shoulders, chatting and smiling away like an amiable woman. The children were both wearing fine, knitted jumpers and leggings with new boots. Only the best was good enough for a visit to the manse. She had tried to wash in the spigot behind the cowsheds but she had no soap and cold water did not wash away very much of her ground-in dirt.
The wizard stood up from his stool. He shocked her by yawning and stretching like a normal man. There was a restless shifting among the Old Lord’s family and the guards by the walls. He’s leaving, the wizard is leaving. She could see her last chance dwindling before her, the long years of Gert and cattle, muck and cold stretching before her. She did not have the courage to walk to the wizard. She only had enough to walk away from Gert and the farm.
Across the hall to the wizard she went, with the torn sole of her boot flapping, her hands curled closed over her dirty, broken nails, her cut-down trousers held up with string.
“My Lord. my Lord Wizard,” and again more loudly. They all turned to look at her then, the old lord and his family, the wizard and his guard; all in their cleanliness and their finery.
“Well, well, who do we have here? What’s your name, child? Have you come to be tested?”
“Yes, my Lord Wizard, I have. My name is Sceach, my Lord Wizard, Sceach Bo.” It was surely better to be polite to a wizard, though this one did not look too threatening. He was an ordinary looking middle-aged man, dark haired but light eyed and he gazed at her intently with his head cocked on one side.
“Is this bog rat a boy or a girl?” asked the guard at his side. “It’s hard to tell underneath all that dirt.”
“Hush, Marl. And so, Sceach you would like to be tested. If you are gifted, or touched as your people call it, you will be brought to the city to be trained in service for the king.”
The wizard spoke slowly as if she was a half-wit and that angered her. She could understand him well enough though his accent was strange, slurring some sounds and clipping others off only half finished.
“I understand all that, my Lord Wizard.” She had overheard enough conversations to be clear on what could be before her. And the wizard, for all his power, knew nothing if he thought anyplace could be worse than staying here.
“Well, the desire is strong.” The wizard turned his head at a commotion. There was Gert striding across the flagstones towards them, her face set in a rage.
“Beg your pardon, lord wizard. But this girl is a simple-minded good-for-nothing. She should not be here.”
“She does not appear simple to me, Goodwife and if she asks to be tested, then tested she must be.”
“Who is this, child? Your mother? Your aunt?”
“She is nothing to me. My family is dead and she is nothing.” Nothing but a stupid, fat old bitch, with her red face and her piggy eyes. May she die screeching.
“Goodwife, as you are not related to the candidate there is no need for you to attend the test. Unless, of course Sceach here wishes you to do so. Do you want her to attend, Sceach?”
“No, I don’t.” Gert would not forget being rejected and shamed in public like that. That public rejection would earn her more of a beating than anything that had gone before. But it was worth it now for the look of shock on Gert’s face. She felt a swell of triumph. Did power always taste so sweet?
“So it is, so it is,” said the wizard, ignoring Gert as she marched away, her heavy footsteps signaling her anger. “Sit down here now,” he said, indicating a stool by the fire. The tall guard, Marl moved closer too. She did not like him.
“Oh just ignore Marl, he sticks close to me. It’s his job to ensure that I come to no harm.”
“What could harm a wizard, my Lord?
“Not much,” he replied with a smile. “But Marl here deals with the just-in-cases and the other things that I’m not talented at, eh Marl?”
The wizard settled himself on the stool opposite her, leaning his elbows on his knees as he faced her.
“Did you bring some possession of yours with you? Something that you’ve owned for a long time?”
She did. She had known enough to do that. She reached into her pocket, drew out her stone and passed it to him. The stone was round and smooth, just the right size to fit comfortably in the palm of her hand. It was heavier than it looked. At first glance it was just another stone and the fields were full of them. But if you looked at it closely you could see the shape of a shell, the concentric circles. It had been a shell once before it had turned into a stone.
It was lucky and so she kept it well hidden, only taking it out at night, holding it in her hand while she slept. If any of the rest of them saw it they would covet it, if only for the pleasure of taking it from her.
“A stone, well, well. A stone that was once a shell.” The wizard regarded it closely. “Hold it in your hand, just so.”
The wizard moved his arm suddenly and she flinched away from him. He and Marl exchanged a look.
“No need to worry now, no need at all. Hold your stone just so, where I can see it too. A stone that was once a shell.”
The wizard’s voice was soothing, measured, calming. The noises in the great hall faded into the background. “That’s it, just so, just so.”
“So, Sceach, why do you think that you may be gifted?” he asked.
“Touched. It’s touched. There’s no gift to it. Who would be fool enough to accept such a gift as that?” She felt slightly disconnected from her body. A part of her knew that she was in a web of the wizard’s spell and the rest of her did not care.
“Both my parents died when I was young. I am unlucky. Is that not proof enough for you?”
“What else, Sceach, what else?”
“I can turn milk and nudge animals, tell weather, know if a creature will be born dead or alive.”
The wizard was interested in the nudging. He had many questions about that; which animals it was easiest with, if it was possible with wild animals, how it was done, if it was common in these parts. But she had been always able to do it so was able to say nothing about the how or why. The wizard was disappointed by that.
“Alright, clear enough then. Take your stone back, Sceach. Yes, put it away in your pocket. Good, good.”
The noises of the great hall reasserted themselves; sparks flying from the greenwood in the hearth, the Old Lord’s hound scratching himself, the voices.
“So, Marl for all your complaining I was right! A wild one. And in this forsaken place! It was worth the ride through the bog after all.”
Marl just shrugged and grunted at that. He seemed to have little fear of the wizard.
“Sceach Bo, you are hereby invited to join the Guild of Wizards to serve an apprenticeship of twelve years. For the duration of your apprenticeship food, clothing, education and other incidentals will be provided by the Guild.” The wizard paused in his recitation.
“To accept or not accept is the choice of the individual concerned. Do you understand what I’ve just said, Sceach Bo?”
“I do, my Lord Wizard.”
“Do you accept?”
“I do, my Lord Wizard.” And as simply as that she was now bound to the wizards in all their power and thus free of Gert.
The wizard smiled at her and continued in a more normal tone of voice. “So, Sceach, you are talented. Untrained, but talented nonetheless. I will ask Lord Hapsfor to release you. Just a courtesy, mind as he has no real choice in the matter. Do not be afraid, a new world will open up before you. We will be leaving for it tomorrow.”
“My Lord Wizard, I would like to speak to Gert before she leaves.”
She led him over to where Gert was standing. As she and the wizard approached Gert, the other people nearby edged back, leaving Gert, Charl and Bets standing alone in a huddle. Was this what power meant, having people shrink back before you?
“Goodwife Gert, Apprentice Sceach would like to speak to you.”
She had so much that she wanted to say. She wanted to hurl curses in Gert’s face, spit on the ground in front of her, let her know that she remembered every blow, every insult and that one day she would return, terrible in her power and take her payment.
Gert stepped forward. She was frightened, her normally red face was pale. She pushed her children behind her long skirts to try to protect them from the wizard and his apprentice. Though what good would that do when everyone knew a wizard could burn you up with a single word, like a pine cone in a fire.
Gert was standing cringing before her. Sceach held the power now. No matter how she tried to clutch her rage to her, she felt it dwindling away to contempt. This public acceptance by the wizard had somehow untied all the knots in the red string. With no knots, it was just a piece of red string and could be left behind.
“No, I’m sorry, my Lord Wizard, I have nothing to say to her after all.”
She turned and they walked away, out of the Great Hall and into the sunlight beyond.