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By M. Craig
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from an early draft of the recently released novel, The Narrows (Papercut Press).
Flickering orange light danced through the soot that shaded the front window of Sim’s house. Sir Nogad Nogron had set up a living quarter for his servants on the other side of his woods, so that he wouldn’t have to see his workers’ drab homes and dirty streets. As Sim got older, Nogron got richer and his collection of servants expanded. She’d watched the living quarter grow. Now one building was pushed up against another so that there was barely a breath of air between them. Muffled yells came from the house next to Sim’s. If she wasn’t kept awake at night from her mother’s boorish snores, their neighbors’ reliable bickering always did the trick. There was a lull in the current fight--as if the mother had stepped between the father and son and was urging them in a whisper to be quiet.
Sim took a deep breath and pushed open her door. Her mother didn’t miss a beat.
“Where were you?” she said. She sat in front of the fire, in a fraying cream armchair that Sim had rescued from the garbage heap behind the Nogron Manor. Her mother filled the entire chair. She lounged there with her leg-like arms crossed over her hefty chest. She looked up at Sim with an expression that could only be interpreted as loathing.
“Where’s the firewood?” her mother asked.
Sim slapped her hand up to her forehead. She usually gathered dead branches where the path from the Nogron Manor led out into grassy fields on her way home. “I’m sorry, I--I forgot.”
“Well then how is Alayne supposed to cook dinner? Or any of us sleep through the night? We’ll all have to freeze now because you forgot? I think not. Go back.” She waved her pink-specked hand toward the door. “Go back and get it.”
Sim stared at the floor. The woods weren’t safe at night, and she’d already felt the danger of that deserted place on her walk home that day. Sim’s chest clenched and her breathing turned shallow at the very thought of going back to where that man could still be hiding, waiting for the next lone girl to rob.
“Either you go, or you can sleep outside.”
Sim looked up at her mother, at her greasy hair that was matted down onto her forehead, at her thin, chapped lips that were twisted into a scowl. Her loose-fitting dress caught in her stomach folds and fell over her legs, to just above where her calves turned into her feet. There was not a doubt in Sim’s mind that her mother would indeed kick her out and make her sleep outside in the cold night. It wouldn’t be the first time.
There was a bang on the wall where the fireplace was. Muffled yells followed. The neighbors were at it again. Her mother didn’t seem to notice.
“Ok,” Sim said. “I won’t be long.” She turned to the door.
“Wait,” her mother stopped her. Sim turned back and stared at her outstretched palm. “You got paid today, didn’t you? Give me the magic dust before you go. Rent’s due tomorrow.”
Sim swallowed. Fear that matched the icy feeling she had when that man held a knife to her throat swam in her heart once again.
“Where is it, Simetra?”
“I was robbed,” she mumbled.
“You were what?” Her mother’s hand fell to her lap and her brows drew together in disbelief.
“A man robbed me in the woods.”
“A man robbed you in the woods. Do you think I’m an idiot?” Her mother’s voice got slightly louder. “What did you spend it on? Where are you hiding it? I knew you had to be up to no good, coming home so late.”
“I’m telling the truth. I don’t have it.”
“Your sister will be home any minute with food from Locklawn. I gave her the last of my magic dust. How can you be so selfish, Simetra?”
“I was robbed.”
“Go,” her mother said.
“Go. Get out. If you can’t contribute to this family, then you can’t be a part of it. I don’t know what you spent your wages on, but you go get it back. Give it to me and then you can stay here.”
“Get out. Get out!” Her mother’s voice turned to a screech. Even if the neighbors were still arguing, Sim imagined them pausing and staring in disbelief at the dirty wooden wall that they shared with Sim and her family.
The arms of the chair creaked as her mother grasped them with her chubby fingers and fought to push herself up. Sim took a step back. She reached for the door handle, ripped it toward her, and escaped into the abandoned street. Everyone was home and locked up inside. There was no one she could go to. Her friends from the Nogron Manor had little space as it was, and Sim was sure they’d turn her away. Because she worked as a maid for Nogron’s daughter, she hardly spent time with the other workers. When she did interact with them, it was usually to demand better service for Jaylenik Nogron. Sim was hardly someone they ever looked forward to seeing. Not knowing where to go or what she would do, Sim started to walk back toward the woods.
Now that the sun was down, the air was turning frigid. Sim hugged her arms to herself and tried to ignore the cold. Her eyes were cast toward the ground. She didn’t see the person approaching her until her eyes caught sight of the frayed ends of a long skirt. She stopped and snapped her eyes up.
“Sim. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
It was her sister. Alayne cupped a heavy burlap bag in her arms, leaned backward against its weight. Her dark eyes examined Sim.
“Where are you going?” she asked. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” The memory of the robber crept back into Sim’s mind. She felt like she might throw up. “I was robbed on my way home. I’ve lost all of my wages for the last two weeks.”
“What?” Alyane shook her head and looked at Sim with a mix of pity and accusation. “Why weren’t you more careful?”
There was a pause. Sim filled the moment of silence with a low snort. “I didn’t know he was going to rob me,” she said, slightly angry that her sister was blaming her for it. But at least she believed her.
“Mom’s going to be so mad... You know she needs that magic dust to pay the rent.” Alayne looked down at the bag. “She just gave me the rest of your last pay to get this food. I can’t bring it back. Can’t you ask Sir Nogron for an advance?”
Sim laughed. “Right.”
“Well, that’s selfish. I need to take care of mom; I can’t get a job, can I? Even if I could, rent is due tomorrow.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Alayne. I didn’t ask to get robbed--”
“You’ve already said that.” Alayne pushed her lips together into a frown. “You have to figure it out.”
Sim stared down at her. Alayne was two years younger than she was, and stood a good four inches shorter. She stayed home all day and waited on their mother while Sim slaved away at the Nogron Manor. It was necessary; their mother couldn’t be on her feet for more than ten minutes. Between Sim’s wages and the tithe her father sent every month, they were just able to afford food, rent, and healing potions for their mother. Her absent father, a soldier in the Pulchran army, had never returned home. Sim had been long aware that he would never come back, and that she and Alayne were probably bastard children. She wasn’t even sure that they had the same father.
“I’ll get it back,” Sim said and pushed past Alayne.
“You’re going to go after the thief?”
Sim turned back to her.
“He’ll kill you,” Alayne said. Fear widened her eyes, but she didn’t tell her not to go.
“I’ll be fine. Either I’ll get the magic dust, or I won’t come back.”
“You’re going to run away?”
Sim frowned. She hadn’t thought of it like that. The dirty buildings pressed in on the empty street that led past Locklawn’s dingy shops and apartments and then stretched on to the great city of Terresin. If she could get there, maybe she could find work and a place to stay. She could always try to join a group of questers. If her father really was a warrior, maybe she could be good at fighting. As the idea flashed in her mind, excitement knotted her blood. Her life of cleaning and running errands, of serving Jaylenik Nogron and her own inept mother--she could leave that behind her. She could do something that actually mattered, live a life of adventure. She looked up at Alayne, held her eyes.
“Come with me. If there are two of us, we can find a way to make ends meet.” Sim glanced down at the burlap bag. “We have enough food for a few days. We’ll find a way to get more”
Alayne’s jaw fell open. “You’re serious,” she said. She blinked and shook her head. “I--I can’t, Sim. What will happen to mom if we leave? Where would we go? What would we do?”
“We’ll figure it out. Think about it Alayne, what do we have to stay here for? Why should we suffer a mundane life because our mother can’t take care of herself?”
“You really are selfish.” Alayne set her jaw and looked away. “I’m going home. I’m going to cook dinner. And then I’m going to figure out a way to get magic dust to pay for our rent. You can run away if you want to, but I’m not.”
Sim swallowed. The vision of a new life drifted away, replaced by the cold reality before her. “No, you’re right. I have to get that magic dust back. Maybe Nogron has some night work for me. He’s having this huge gala tomorrow. Maybe I can help with that.”
“Good. Now I have to go face mother’s wrath. Thanks a lot.”
Alayne turned from her and walked quickly down the street toward their house. Little plumes of dust kicked up behind her feet. Sim watched her go for a few moments and then headed back toward the woods. There had to be another way, something else that she could do. But how could she get two weeks worth of magic dust in a single night? Something kept her moving forward, something inside of her whispered that everything would be fine. But nothing felt fine. She’d end up sleeping in the woods, she was sure of it, and then when Nogron’s workers made their morning walk to his mansion, they’d find her frozen body rotting in the budding ferns.
“Where are you headed, girl?”
Sim stopped. An old woman stood between her and a growth of weeping willows that curtained a dilapidated shack just off of the path to the Nogron manor. The woman’s thin, wrinkled arms cupped a bundle of firewood. Sim blinked and sighed with relief. She seemed harmless.
“I don’t know.” Sim hardly thought about the words before she said them. “I need to get my magic dust back.”
The woman’s face scrunched together, “Did you spend it on that lousy fortune -teller?” she asked. She looked as if she’d swallowed something sour. Her wispy white hair blew back in the wind. “Never did like that woman.”
“No, I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Sim said. “I didn’t spend it. Someone stole it, and my mother--”
“Never liked that woman much either,” she interrupted.
“My mother?” Sim had never seen the old woman before. “You know her?”
The woman chuckled and her bright blue eyes widened in amusement. “I’ve been living in that house for longer than you’ve been alive, girl! Of course I know your mother. I know you, too.”
Could Sim have been so indifferent to the woman not to have noticed her, not once in the eighteen years she’d lived there and the fourteen she’d passed the shack on her way to work in the Nogron mansion? The wind blew again, stronger this time, and the woman clutched the branches to her sagging breasts.
“Let me help you,” Sim said, stepping forward.
“No, I’m fine.” The woman snapped from being amused to offended.
There was a pause. Sim didn’t know what to say. She looked to the woods. “I’d better be on my way then--”
“Back into the woods, back to where that man may linger. You have a brave heart, Simetra.”
“I do?” Sim said, growing more uncomfortable. She tried not to wonder at how this stranger knew her name.
“Ok, then,” the woman said, suddenly changing her tone again from guarded and cryptic to happy and light. “You can stay with me. Call me Mildred.”
“Mildred, I said. Pick up some sticks along the way, won’t you dear? I have enough to cook for one, but not for two.”
The home was bigger than any other Sim had seen out side of Locklawn itself. From the path it looked like a tiny shack, but now that she was on the porch, its size became apparent. Sim wondered why she’d never thought to explore it when she was younger. It wasn’t so run-down. The porch planks creaked under her feet but the windows were sturdy, and the siding just needed a coat of paint.
Mildred clicked open the door and looked back at Sim with a grin. “Eyes are deceivers,” she said, her own eyes widening again. “Not to be trusted.”
Sim frowned, but then realized what Mildred was talking about. The inside of her home rivaled Nogron’s in beauty. Gleaming wooden steps led up to a second floor, climbing up over the living room’s stone hearth, where logs burned beneath a black masonry pot. Two wooden chairs faced the fire. Elaborate paintings, the type that held hours of hidden stories, hung on the walls.
“I never realized...” Sim trailed off. She dropped her wood by the fire and slid into the chair next to Mildred.
“Nogron is not the only fool who can wield magic,” she said.
A breath of warm air drifted out of the hearth and toasted Sim’s chilled skin. “Where did you find a charm that would make the outside of your home look so different?” she asked. “How much was it?”
“Charm,” Mildred said with a short laugh. “I’m talking about real magic, girl. Not the kind you can buy in a shop, not the kind that Nogron deals in, the kind that’s ruining the world.”
“Ruining the world?” Sim said.
“You must be starving,” Mildred suddenly changed the subject. She reached a vein-rippled hand out for the pot’s wooden ladle and trailed slow circles through the brown stew. No lamps or candles lit the spacious room. Sim was cocooned by dark corners and shifting shadows, subtle tools that let her forget about the sharp-edged world beyond the firelight. All was silent except for the slight bubbling of the stew and the occasional crack of firewood.
“The fiercest poison in the world entire brews in the tooth of the Mountain Dragon,” Mildred said as she took one of the wooden bowls stacked up by the mantle and slopped into it a helping of chunky stew. “And the most potent antidote buds in the crevices of its lair.” She handed Sim the bowl.
“Thanks,” Sim said, ignoring the crazy talk because she was hungry and she didn’t know what to say to it. Instead, she said, “I’ve never noticed you. And I’ve lived here my whole life.”
“Where better to hide than in the shadow of the beast?” Mildred said quietly. She leaned back in her chair and looked up at the wall. “No one ever sees me. And yet you’re the second to notice me this week. Either I’m loosing my touch or things are finally coming to pass.”
“You mean the shifting of the stars?” It was all the maids would talk about; a prophesy about the end of the world, vaguely dated to occur within the next two years. It was nothing more than the other superstitions they babbled over. But Sim’s curiosity got the best of her, and she asked, “What does that have to do with anything?”
The way Mildred sat so straight in her chair and the sharp look in her blue eyes made her feel like the woman could see to her soul. Sim wondered if she weren’t so crazy after all.
“Your time is approaching,” Mildred said. “And the heavens bless you when it comes.” The fire popped, and she continued with a wave toward the Nogron Manor, “He caused this, you know. He was the channel for it all.”
“Caused what?” Sim blinked slow and long. She’d finished her soup. If it wouldn’t have been incredibly rude, she would have fallen asleep in the chair right there.
“This defecation of magic,” Mildred said lowly, “taking it and spreading it out wherever he pleases. Men should never act as if they are gods. The consequences are always catastrophic. Always. There was a time when you had to study the ways of the universe before you could bend it to your will.” She was angry. Sim could almost feel Mildred’s passion burning in her own stomach.
The woman stared into the fire as she continued, “There are consequences. People slave away at work to buy their pre-charmed trinkets, and for what? So that they can snap their fingers instead of lighting a fire in the fireplace? So that they can zoom around in those damned charmed horseless carriages instead of journeying to where they need to go? We are destroying ourselves without even realizing it, and that monster is puppeteering us along to our final demise. Bad times loom ahead.”
“So we’ll stop him,” Sim said, startled at the clarity of her own voice, and yet the emptiness of her words. “We’ll find a way to stop him.”
Mildred sighed and pressed her hands together in front of her chest as if in a prayer. “Do the same, girl,” she said quietly, without opening her eyes, “this is the least I can do for you.”
Because there was nothing else she could do, Sim listened. The whole thing was incredibly strange. She felt invisible hands pull back her shoulders, guide her posture upward until she was sitting up perfectly straight. Her breathing became slow and heavy, but of its own accord. A pressure pushed in on her temples. Her mind was void of thoughts, there a feeling of floating in space, a feeling of nothingness. And then her temples gave way to the energy building up in her mind like plugs being pulled from a sink. Her consciousness pooled out around her, reached to the ends of the room, to the ends of the universe. For the briefest moment she was both nothing and everything, but as soon as the feeling came it was gone and she was sitting in the room again, with the popping warm fire before her and her eyes closed against the dim, flickering light.
Sim blinked open her lids and found Mildred staring at her.
“It is as I thought,” Mildred said. “You will do extraordinary things, Simetra.” She put up her hand, “Don’t ask me what, for I do not know. I am not a reader of prophesies, nor do I put much faith in them. You ought to be careful to do the same. That’s all for now. Slowly, Simetra. Give it time.”
But a thousand questions ran through Sim’s mind, and she wanted the answers to all of them. They could start with what the hell had just happened. It was something extraordinary, she was sure of it, but it was nothing she could put a name to.
“What--” Sim started, but Mildred put up a hand to stop her.
“Trust yourself. I’ve shown you a different path. Now it’s up to you to figure out if and how you’ll travel it, and where you’ll go from here.”
“Time to sleep. We’ll talk more in the morning.”
Sim blinked, just remembering how tired she’d been. “I couldn’t possibly put you out like that. You’ve been kind enough to feed me and--”
“I can’t let you sleep out in the woods,” Mildred said, her tone slightly offended. “Not in this cold. Not with thieves lurking in the darkness. Stay here tonight. Find the answers to your problems tomorrow, when the sun is in the sky again.”
Sim nodded. She didn’t have the energy to fight. There was a cot in the shadows just beyond where Mildred was sitting, already made up into a bed. She crawled into it as Mildred started to sing. Sim worried about having to go to work the next morning and hoped she’d be able to get up without her mother screaming at her to get ready. Mildred’s song calmed her, helped her to forget everything that came before and everything that lay ahead.