GRISELDA AND THE CLIFF HOUSE
This story is about a woman.
Her name, because her mother had had a rather occult sense of humour, was Griselda: Griselda Collingwood. She was thirty-seven years old today.
She shifted to cross her arms, and the lawn chair she sat in sqeaked in protest. The house remained silent, as it had for the past two hours or so, looming high over her into the watery late autumn sky.
"You're a lovely house, you know," she informed it. "Quite lovely. But I don't quite know how I feel about this mood you have going on. It's so... dark. Gloomy. Foreboding. If you and I are going to get along, I would appreciate a little cheeriness. I understand that you've been a witch's house for a very long time, and that with that comes certain expectations, a dress code if you will, but I think that just means it's high time for a change. Don't you?"
The house stubbornly refused to answer.
Griselda's frown deepened. "Have it your way, then. But don't think I'll just let this go. Oh, no. You and I are going to have a nice long discussion. I'm going to bring a broom and some paint, and I will dust you to within an inch of your life, and by the end of it, I hope you'll have a new outlook on things. Sunnier. More positive. A little more welcoming. That would be nice, don't you think?"
As the sun sank, the house's face fell deeper into shadow, and Griselda suddenly realized she couldn't feel her toes. Galvanized, she picked up her lawn chair and threw it onto one of Candy's crowded backseats.
It would be strange to have room for her things again, she ruminated. She hardly remembered what it was like to have a bathroom, or a proper kitchen, or to not have to wedge blocks of wood under her bedroom so it wouldn't roll her off a cliff in the middle of the night. She and Candy had been itinerant wanderers for what, ten years now? Twelve? Time was such a funny thing, really, she never could quite get the hang of it.
Reaching into the voluminous, tangled depths of Candy's trunk, she pulled out her tattered green overnight bag and slung it over her shoulder. "Well, then, I suppose I had better get on," she said, and marched up to the house's tall black door.
Behind her, a wave crashed against the cliff like thunder. The wind was picking up. She hoped it wouldn't storm tonight. Normally she was all for cliches, they amused her, but if her first night high and north on the Scottish highlands in the ancestral home of a clan of witches turned out to be dark and stormy, that would just be a little too much. Just a little. Pointing her finger at the restless sky, she furrowed her brow and took a deep breath.
"No," she told it firmly. "I won't have it."
The sky grumbled, but calmed a little.
"Thank you," she said. "Now, where did I put that blasted key? Can't have lost it. Enormous." She searched through the numerous pockets of her beloved green trenchcoat, muttering to herself as she pulled out a bundle of garlic cloves, crumpled bits of scribbled-on paper, numerous brightly-coloured candy wrappers, a few twigs, a small dark quartz crystal, and an entire forest of rosy lint. "Blast," she sighed. "I suppose I'll have to find it the old-fashioned way."
Putting her hands together in front of her, palms up as if to catch the first sputters of the indecisive chilly rain, she hummed a few notes, blinked three times, and said something in a language that might have once been English a very, very long time ago. With a sullen pop, an enormous, ornate silver key burst out of nothing and landed in her hands, ice cold from the transfer.
Griselda winced and put a few fingers to her temple, shaking her head to clear the tight ache behind her eyes. Thirty-seven years, and she hadn't gotten one bit better at this.
"Yes, well, I'm sorry, Mum," she said as she fumbled with the key, her frozen hands irritatingly uncooperative. They slipped past the large iron keyhole, and again, and again, before finally catching and turning over with an ominous thunk. "Oorgh, my head. I should have found my tea, but I suppose it's too late now. Shan't go back outside in this miserable weather. Maybe there will be some in the kitchen, though? Too much to hope, perhaps, but I am irrepressible. Stubborn as an old boot, that's me."
The door boomed shut behind her, shutting out the wind and the waves and leaving Griselda standing in the silent, dusty dark.
"Halloo?" she called tentatively, even though she knew the house was supposed to be empty. Could never be too careful these days, what with robbers and squatters and real estate agents and the like. "Halloo?"
Something moved in the dark.
Griselda squeaked and flattened herself against the door, staring wide-eyed into the gloom. "H-hello? Who's there? I know you're there, you know. Are you person, animal, or thing?"
"Thing, I suppose," said a very odd voice. It was dry, and creaky, like the voice she'd always imagined old willow trees would have if they could speak, except more mechanical and flat, like a old robotic willow tree. "I'm not an animal, and I can't really be called a person either, though I wish I could."
Fumbling cautiously along the wall for a light switch, praying that there was one, Griselda narrowed her eyes and peered with all her might down the hallway, where the voice seemed to be coming from. "And are you friend or foe?"
The voice sighed. She couldn't figure out for the life of her whether it belonged to a man or a woman. It was just in the middle, that neutral place where it could be either, a womanly man or a manly woman or even a deep-voiced child. "Were it my place, I would call you friend and be happy forevermore," the voice proclaimed dramatically, "but as it is, I am your humble servant, no more."
"Bloody hell, where is the light switch?" she yelled at last, frustrated by the smooth expanse of polished wooden wall. "Or is this place too ancient and backwards to even have electricity?"
"Electricity?" the voice echoed, puzzled. "Of course not. Why on earth would you need that?"
"Because I'm a terrible witch," Griselda snapped. "Terrible, awful, no-good, useless excuse for a witch. Can't do anything without feeling as if I've stuck my head in an icebucket. Honestly, is there really no electricity? Must I wander about in the dark? I'm clumsy, you know, I'll run into things and break my shins. Just you watch."
"Oh," said the voice, taken aback. "I see. Wait there a moment, then, I'll get the candelabra." It shuffled off toward the back of the house, leaving Griselda alone again.
Pressing her hands to her chest, she took deep breaths like her Zen master had taught her, holding each for several seconds before slowly letting them out. As usual, it calmed her down, though not overmuch. Her heart was still beating like a frightened bird trapped between her ribs.
"I found them!" the voice called triumphantly, dragging itself back down the hall to where she stood. "Now just a moment... I don't have much elemental magic at all, only what they gave me, but it's enough for this."
One by one, a row of five little firelights leaped into existence and flickered merrily atop their candlesticks.
"There, now, does that help?"
Griselda nodded, staring at the wavering form of the thing holding the candelabra and trying not to swallow her tongue.
It was a golem. She'd heard of them, of course, you couldn't grow up with a family like hers and not, but she'd never actually seen one. It wasn't as pretty as she'd expected it to be, or as graceful. It looked like someone had done some yardwork and made something person-shaped out of the leftovers. Its general frame, the bones and such, were made out of sticks and twigs. Its skin, such as it was, was made of mud, but the sticks poked through all over the place, giving it a sloppy, shambling appearance. For hair it had long, dry grasses, and its eyes were dark agate marbles. From the set of its wide, crumbling jaw, she deduced it was meant to be male.
"Er," she said.
"You can call me Pesterwort," he said helpfully. "Welcome home, Miss Griselda."
"I. Er. Ah. Thank you."
"It's quite late," Pesterwort pointed out. "Will you be requiring dinner? The garden has done quite well this year, and I believe I still have a round of Dunlop in the cellar."
Griselda swallowed, took a long, meditative breath, and folded her arms across her chest. "Tea," she said. "Tea first. Please. If you have it."
"Have it?" repeated Pesterwort, sounding highly affronted. "Have it? Madam, I'll have you know that this house contains the finest tea collection north of London, perhaps the finest in all of the United Kingdom! Perhaps the world! Green teas, black teas, red teas, white teas, teas of every shade and flavour, treasures from every corner of the world-- perhaps a nice white cherry blossom, from Japan? Or, if you're cold, a heartier black currant?"
"Earl Grey would be quite all right," she told him with an apologetic smile. "I'm afraid this is all very strange to me, and all I'd really like right now is a taste of something familiar."
Pesterwort bowed low, miraculously losing none of his crumbling face. "But of course, miss. First I shall show you to your room. I will bring your tea and your dinner there, where you can eat in comfort."
Turning, he made a sweeping gesture with his hand for her to follow him.
The cliff house was like a maze. It had many rooms, all of them dark and shrouded in sheets of dust. The hallway ceilings were a little rounded, giving them a tunnel-like feel Griselda found faintly claustrophobic. Dust bunnies gathered in populous warrens at the edges of the floor. It was hard to believe that anyone had lived here as early as last year. It seemed as if it had sat empty for decades, forgotten and forlorn, with only the golem to keep it company. There was an odd sense of watchfulness, however, as if her arrival had woken it up.
Goosebumps rippled up her arms, and she rubbed them down irritably. This was her house. There was no need to be afraid. It was silly. Just silly.
Pesterwort vanished around a corner, and Griselda nearly fell facefirst when she came around it and realized she was in a staircase. She caught herself on the second step, barely, and stumbled upwards on the force of her momentum until she caught her balance on the fifth.
"Are you all right, miss?" Pesterwort asked, pausing to look back on her.
"Yes, quite," Griselda told him briskly, "carry on. Please."
The stairway spiraled upwards for three stories, right to the top. There were landings for the other floors, but Pesterwort ignored them.
The first thing she noticed about the top floor was the light. Unlike the lower floors, which had been steeped in gloom until they were rank with it, this floor was softly illuminated by what seemed to be the last light of the setting sun. Craning her head back to look at the high roof, Griselda saw how it was getting in-- countless skylight windows, of haphazard shapes and placements, all over the roof and-- she found as she peered into the nearest room facing outside-- all down the walls as well. Triangles, circles, pentagons, five-pointed stars-- the only shape she couldn't find was rectangular. Not a one of them had two parallel edges. Many of them were strangely coloured, as well, in pale shades of gold and rose and woodland green.
"Your great-great-aunt Serena enjoyed remodeling," Pesterwort explained with a small, polite cough. "I hope it doesn't bother you."
Griselda shook her head emphatically, a broad, toothy grin spreading over her plain face. "It's brilliant!" she declared happily. "My room is up here? Does it have windows too?"
Pesterwort swept his arms around in a big circle. "You're the only one left, miss, you can have whichever room you like. May I show you something? I think you'll like it."
He led her down a northward hallway, passing several rooms on the way, until he reached the one at the end. The hall bowed out around its doors to make room for them-- they were enormous, a full set of dark, gold-embossed double doors almost as majestic as the house's front doors themselves. They were gracefully carved into patterns of twining vines and furling flowers, with little birds perched high on the great brass hinges. Pesterwort pulled them open, and Griselda walked past him into the room.
She knew immediately where she was-- the north tower, the highest point of the house. The pointed ceiling arched high above her, and all the round walls were full of windows shaped like leaves and flowers and even birds. The ceiling, which could not have windows here because of the tiles supporting the gigantic weathervane, was painted to within an inch of its life with bustling fantasy scenes. Mythical creatures filled the spaces between the trees in great numbers: unicorns, dryads, leprechauns, faeries, dragons, dozens of other things Griselda was quite sure didn't exist. It was strange, though, how detailed they were, as if the artist had had real references to work from.
Against the wall to the right was a vast four-poster bed, very simply carved in contrast to the rest of the room. Heavy red drapes hid most of the bed itself from view, but she caught a glimpse of an ocean of creamy blankets and pillows through a crack in their folds. There was a tall dresser next to it on the left, and a nightstand on the right.
On the other side of the room was a beautiful wide desk, tilted against the near wall so as to catch the most possible light from the windows.
And on the floor between them, round and nearly fifteen paces wide at its diameter, was a most wondrous rug. When Griselda stood in the middle of it and looked down, it was as if she was standing high in a golden-leaved tree, looking down through the maze of branches toward the ground. Seen from any other angle, it appeared more abstract, a swirl of gold and cream and shadow converging in the center, but from this one angle... it was like she was flying.
"Can I really stay here?" she asked, staring down without blinking, mesmerized. "I mean, really? You're not just joking? I half-expect everyone to come leaping out of the closets, laughing and pointing fingers at my presumption. I know they're dead, but it hardly seems as if that would stop them. Nothing else ever did. Until I left."
Pesterwort put a creaking, six-fingered hand on her shoulder and squeezed very gently. "You can stay as long as you like," he said. "You are the last. When you are gone, I will be alone here, so... it is not my place to ask, but I ask anyway: please stay. Keep an old golem company at the end."
Griselda twirled around the room, trailing her fingers through the air, touching everything she could reach. "You keep saying that," she noted. "That I'm the last. What do you mean?"
"You don't know?" Pesterwort asked, astonished. "You really don't know? I mean, I thought it would be obvious from the state of the house. When your mother died-- my condolences, by the way-- last winter, she gave the care of the family record to me. I was to find all the descendants and gather them here. I sent many letters, dozens upon dozens, but none of those I sent them to could receive them. Except for you. You are the last of the Forsyth witches. The only one who still has the gift."
Griselda stopped dead. "You can't mean that," she said with a snort. "I have heaps of cousins and nieces and the like. They must have just moved, or thought the letter was asking for money for the Christmas charities or something."
Pesterwort frowned. "Don't be ridiculous, miss. Don't you remember how you got yours?"
She did, and instantly felt silly for her suggestions. It had come to her in the form of an angular little white bird, which had landed in her palm and promptly turned back into paper. Her mother and aunts had sent her letters like that all the time, she hadn't thought twice about it. "Oh, I see," she said, chagrined. "Letterbirds can't turn back into letters without touching someone who has the gift, so..."
"Quite right. They all returned to me, weary and unopened. Your cousins and nieces have no gifts. The faerie blood has all washed out of their veins. You are the last."
"But I'm useless," she said in a small voice. "I can't do anything without getting a terrible headache. The most I've ever managed was enchanting Candy's wheels so they'd never go flat, and I was unconscious all day after that. How can I call myself a witch of the Forsyth family like this? I can't. I absolutely can't. I'd be ashamed of myself for pretending."
Pulling aside the red velvet curtains, Griselda flumped down on the bed with a sigh. Clouds of dust billowed up around her ears, and she choked.
"I'm terribly sorry, miss!" cried Pesterwort. "Let me take care of that." He did an odd, shuffling dance in the middle of the room for a moment, clapped his hands twice, and the dust suddenly vanished. The furniture shone, and even the windows seemed clearer. "I should have had this done before you arrived, but to be honest, miss, I wasn't sure you were coming. Couldn't bear the thought of cleaning everything up only to sit in it by myself until it fell down around my ears."
Moved, Griselda got up and hugged him. He wasn't very comfortable, having many poky bits sticking off him and actual thorns in one or two places, but her ex-boyfriend had also had poky bits and thorns, and his had been made of metal so she didn't mind this so much. Besides, Pesterwort was much nicer than he had been.
"Oh, oh my, thank you," he blubbered, mud face sliding a bit around the eye sockets like a hill in a rain. "I'm ever so sorry. I seem to have gotten a bit soft in my old age."
"How old are you, anyway?" she asked, curious. "I don't really know how to tell how old golems are. You don't have wrinkles or anything."
Pesterwort was quiet for a minute, counting on his fingers with some system she couldn't follow. "One hundred and seventy-eight," he declared at last. "Your great-great-great-grandmother made me when she got tired of washing the dishes. Fancied herself a pretty thing, and didn't want calluses on her lily-white hands. Didn't do her any good, of course, she still ended up marrying a farmer boy and gardening until her back was stooped like an old tree. She never quite got around to putting me to sleep, though, and I've been here ever since, taking care of her family."
Griselda hopped across the floor, stumbling over her coattails, and pressed her face against a north-facing window. The coast curved away into the foggy horizon, sharp and majestic, towering over the grey rolling surf. A long heath of wild grasses and dead flowers swept back away from the cliffs, until perhaps a mile away a dark little forest rose up to hide the eastern horizon, doubtless one of the scattered remnants of the once-great Caledonian forest. It seemed quite big, however, and she had been quite certain none of the thirty-five remaining fragments had been here near the coast. There was one south and inland up Loch Torridan, but none this far north, as far as she knew. She frowned, and dismissed it. She hadn't spent much time this far north anyway. She was hardly an expert.
Looking down, she smiled to see Candy sitting stoically in the mud, blue-and-purple paint-job a little dreary in the thin light but still the cheeriest thing for miles around.
"Well, thank you for taking such good care of me," she said honestly. "This is fantastic. I hardly even wanted to come, but now I'm ever so glad I did. I think I shall be very happy here."
Pesterwort beamed, and bowed again, even lower this time. "I am very glad to hear that, miss! Very glad indeed! Now if you'll excuse me, I believe you asked for tea. I will return shortly."
With that, he left the room at a stately shambling pace. He lost bits of himself with every step, but as if they were iron filings and he a magnet, they leapt right back up off the floor and stuck back onto him. That explained why the house wasn't full of bits of twig and dried mud. It wouldn't do to have a butler, or maid, or whatever he was that made the house dirtier just by existing. Even so, it was a bit disconcerting to watch him trail his little cloud of dust and detritus and leave nothing behind.
Griselda slung her pack off and dropped it on the pristine bed, wincing a little at how grungy the pack looked in comparison. It had been many places with her, and many of those places had been very dirty. Out of it she produced all two of her changes of clothing, which she ineptly folded and put away in the great dresser. They looked lost within its voluminous drawers, but that couldn't be helped for now.
Witch or not, she was poor as a peasant. Most everything she owned had been gotten secondhand at any number of funny little thrift shops hidden in the backstreets of cities, or given as a gift whenever she stayed in one place long enough to make friends.
Below the clothes were her toiletries. She pulled them out, but realized she had no idea where the washroom was... where any of them were. In a castle this size there had to be several, but she hadn't seen any on her way up, and did not trust herself to find her way back down in the slightest. She had, in her years of traveling, made getting lost into an art form, finding every wonderful place but the one she aimed for, until she lost the ability to find her way to any particular destination at will entirely. She would doubtless take the first wrong turn to present itself, get stuck in a closet somewhere, and Pesterwort wouldn't find her until she began to smell.
"No, no, no," she said, "I'll stay put, right here, and wait for him to come back. That's the smart thing to do."
Her bladder, however, had sleepily awakened at the thought of washrooms and was now insisting that it required more immediate attention. Sitting down on the bed and crossing her legs, Griselda pondered her options. The pressure grew more and more insistent. There was no sound or sign of Pesterwort's return. She hunched over, pulling her legs up to her chest, and bit her lip. "Oh no," she said. "Oh dear. This is no good at all. What do I do? Where do I go? I don't want to go in here, or in a hallway somewhere. Oh, someone help."
But help was not forthcoming, and the situation had now become urgent.
"Oh, heck," she said helplessly, and waddled out the doors into the dim hallway.
The rows of black doors mocked her with their uniformity. There were five of them in this hall alone, and all of them identical except for the one she'd left. None of them particularly looked like bathroom doors. Even so, because she had no better ideas, she tried every handle. Many of them were locked, or at least stuck from long years of disuse. The ones which opened were mostly empty, or sparsely furnished with ancient moldering beds and chairs. None of them, of course, were bathrooms.
Griselda scowled. The end of the hallway met another head-on. "Left or right?" she muttered. "I can't remember, and I don't suppose it matters anyway. I've always liked left better. Let's try that." Steeling herself, she marched off to the left. When that hallway also proved fruitless, she took the next right, and was from that point on irrevocably lost.
The house seemed to cradle her, pulling her deeper into its disorganized innards, almost guiding her, though she couldn't say where exactly it was guiding her to and it wasn't talking. "Oh, well," she said, shrugging, and gave up. She could hardly walk now, managing it by keeping her thighs clamped together and only moving her legs below her knees. It wasn't a very fast way to travel, but it was working for now, and there was no one to see her so it hardly mattered.
"Please," she begged as she hobbled. "Come on, please, I should have run into three washrooms by now, why aren't there any bloody washrooms? Do I have to go outside or something? Is that it? Is there an outhouse? If so, maybe I should live on the first floor after all, I don't fancy trying to find my way down every time I have to go to the loo in the middle of the night. Oorgh."
Abruptly, she stumbled out into a wide open space, facing east toward the woods. The far wall was made entirely of glass-- no funny shapes, no colours, just one enormous window. She caught a glimpse of a sprawling, untidy garden far below, but as this was clearly not a bathroom, she moved on with only a perfunctory pause for appreciation to the right, which she now knew to be southwards. Not that it helped.
At last, when she felt she had been wandering for hours and her bladder was about to burst from her belly like the alien baby in that one sci-fi movie she'd seen way back when, it appeared before her like the grail itself: a washroom. It was tiny and hideous, all pink and porcelain and frilly toilet seat covers, but it was a washroom. She wouldn't have cared if it had smelled like the underbelly of the Beast and had no toilet paper, it was a washroom, it was all she had ever wished for.
As it turned out, after she had done her business with an explosive sigh of relief, there was no toilet paper after all. Unbothered, she rummaged about her coat and eventually unearthed a handful of tatty tissues.
Emerging from the washroom at last, much relieved, she realized she had no idea how to get back to her room, or even where she was. "Pesterwort?" she called hopefully, then louder, "Pesterwort!"
There was no answer. Griselda shriveled into her coat and resisted the urge to cry. It seemed there was nothing for it but to keep wandering and hope, and so she set off wearily back into the maze. Without the candelabra, she could hardly see at all, and banged into the walls many times. She would have a new set of bruises the next morning to complement the fading ones from her last series of accidents. She didn't mind. She couldn't remember the last time she hadn't hurt anywhere.
"Pesterwort," she croaked, suddenly feeling very tired. Griselda remembered then that she had been driving all day, since the light of dawn woke her around seven o'clock, without resting at all. What's more, she hadn't eaten. She hadn't noticed it before through the shock and wonder of all the strange new things, but she was tired now and felt it keenly. Her stomach rumbled, disgruntled. "Oh, dear. I don't think I'll ever find my way back like this. What do I do? House? Are you listening to me? Where do I go?"
The house rudely ignored her.
"Well, I never," Griselda huffed. "Pesterwort? Pesterwort! Where in blazes are you? Did you get lost too?"
At last, through the echoing tunnels of the house, Griselda heard a distant reply. Clapping her hands together with renewed energy, she followed Pesterwort's frantic screeching, until at last she found him standing by the stairwell with his hands cupped around his mouth.
"Enough, enough! I'm here. Thank goodness I found you. I was beginning to think the house was going to eat me up and never let me out."
Pesterwort glared at the nearest wall. "It should have helped you. Perhaps it is petulant because your magic is not very strong, but it shouldn't be-- weak as it is, your gift is the last it will see, so it should be grateful. Anyway. Your tea and dinner are waiting for you in your room. I'm afraid they'll be a bit cold by now, but I'll heat them up for you. Ruins the flavour a bit, but I suppose it can't be helped. Where on earth did you go?"
"To the loo," she said shortly. "Speaking of, are there any a bit... closer? It was a miracle I made it this time, quite honestly, and I'd really rather not have to run a hedge maze like bloody Harry Potter every time I want to wee."
Surprised, Pesterwort pointed to the wall between the windows and the desk, off to the left. "Why, you have a washroom right here, miss. Did you not see it?"
Griselda, stupefied, went over to the wall to inspect it, and realized within the space of one humiliating moment that there was indeed a door there. It was clearly designed to blend in with its surroundings, but not to disappear, and its edges and faceted glass handle were easily visible to anyone with working eyes. Griselda's, apparently, were not.
"Oh," she said. "Er. I see. Thank you."
"I have made certain that it, like the bedroom, is ready for you," Pesterwort told her without meeting her eyes. "I hope it is to your satisfaction."
Griselda shrugged, face burning. "As long as it isn't two miles away through the dark, I couldn't care less. Thank you. That's much-- is that dinner I smell?"
Pesterwort nodded, pointing to the desk this time, upon which sat a lovely silver dinner service surrounding an oval plate. She didn't recognize the dish-- it looked a bit like moussaka, but greener. Steaming off to its right side was a cup of dark tea on a delicate china saucer. There was even a tiny creamer and sugar bowl, complete with a miniscule silver spoon.
Her hands clasped before her bosom, eyes swimming with delight, she spun to catch Pesterwort in her arms and deliver a hearty kiss to his cracked cheek. "Thank you!" she said. "I haven't been this happy in... oh, years, I suppose. Tomorrow, could you show me around a little? I want to know about that room with the big window, and the garden, and the wood, and by the way, is there a town anywhere near here? I could do with a couple of odd things now that I have a house to put them in."
Pesterwort, flustered, waved his big flat hands a little and looked everywhere but at her. "There is," he replied, "but it's a bit... different. You may find what you're looking for there, but you just as well may not. It's just... odd. You'll see."
"Well, aren't you full of mysteries," Griselda joked, smacking him jovially on the shoulder. A good chunk of him fell off, and crawled sullenly back up his leg to reaffix itself, pushing her hand out of the way. "I hope I don't sleep too late. There's so much I want to see. I'm so excited, really. You've been wonderful, thank you, I think I'll just eat dinner now and go to bed early. Thank you. Thank you so much. Really."
Pesterwort bowed, and Griselda got the odd sense that if he had had blood, he might have blushed. "My pleasure, miss. If you need anything in the night, there's a bell on your nightstand. I don't sleep, so ring it anytime, don't worry about a thing. I won't mind. Don't be afraid. I'm at your service."
Ushering him out even as he continue to sputter reassurances, Griselda closed the door behind him, turned back to the room, took a deep breath, and jumped high in the air like a little girl: a little girl just given the doll she wanted for her birthday, the doll she wanted more than anything, but had never allowed herself to hope for, because that would be greedy and greedy little girls get nothing. Only she had. She had only ever wished for a home, somewhere she could stay without making a spectacle of herself, and she thought that in this house she might have found that. Certainly there was no one to watch and frown at her.
After devouring the strange but delicious dinner, she took her time sipping the rich tea and wandering about the room, peering into drawers and looking under the bed, wondering how many secrets the house really hid. It was a witch's house, and very old, so there had to be a lot. The very thought made her almost too excited to sleep.
Even so, after washing up and undressing to her undies, she laid down on the pillowy bed and fell asleep almost instantly. She slept like a stone while the northern night wheeled around her windows, and hardly dreamed at all.
Griselda peered at herself in the mirror, propping her eyes open with her fingers.
"Oorgh," she said. "Don't I look a sight."
Her cell phone, which she had set for ten o'clock every morning just in case she didn't wake up naturally, didn't seem to work here. That didn't surprise her-- electronics tended not to do so well when exposed to magic, let alone a thick permanent field of it like that which saturated the entire house and the surrounding property. The poor thing had probably drowned to death within five minutes.
She had slept a lot, but it seemed as if she had uncovered a yawning chasm of weariness, which she had only thinly paved over and somehow survived on top of for years. She felt as if she could sleep for another couple of days. There were sagging circles under her eyes, her skin was pasty, and her bombastic mop of red-and-purple curls had somehow grown three inches of dark new roots while she hadn't been paying attention. "Who said you could do that, huh?" she muttered, poking at them, wondering if it would be worth the headache to do it with magic rather than driving all the way back down to a decent-sized town for more dye.
From Pesterwort's hints the night before, she had guessed that the village, whatever its name was, was hardly a bustling modern metropolis. She'd count herself lucky if she could find some pretty-smelling soap and decent conditioner.
Heaving a sigh, she put her palms atop her head, started humming, and spun around three times. Then she shut her eyes, stopped, and said a few gibberish-sounding words, and took her hands away.
The red and purple went right up to her scalp, now, and looked quite fine, in her opinion. Bracing herself against the sink, she waited for the pain.
It didn't come.
Cracking an eye open, she furrowed her brow and tilted her head. "Hello?" she tried tentatively. "Er, pain? Hello? Are you planning on showing up any time soon? I haven't got all day, I'd like to get it over with if that's all right. ...Hello?"
After five minutes of waiting, Griselda gave it up and began to accept with cautious delight that no headache was forthcoming. Why, she couldn't say, but it was icing on the most delicious cake she'd ever eaten. She got dressed and fairly skipped down the stairs, only taken ten minutes to find them this time. Pesterwort was bustling about the kitchen, a stained old pink apron hanging awkwardly around his wooden neck. Griselda smelled eggs, and peered over his shoulder to find a skillet briskly frying up several of them along with a few chopped up tomatoes, chives, and a little cheese.
"That," she declared, "looks delicious. I'm sorry I slept so long. I hope you weren't put out waiting for me."
"Not at all!" Pesterwort sang, sounding almost cheerful. "I waited until you stopped talking in your sleep to start cooking, so it wouldn't get cold."
Griselda blushed. "I still do that? Oh, dear. I had hoped that was a habit I'd eventually grow out of, but it seems not, more's the pity. Did I say anything silly?"
Pesterwort dropped the spatula in his haste to wave the question away. "No, no! I didn't listen to the actual words, miss. It just sounded like mumbling from outside the door. Whatever secrets you may have spoken of in your dreams are safe with the house. It'll never tell. Anyway, there's tea on the table for you. If you want to try something new, I'll be happy to make it for you. Very happy to make it for you."
"Oh, no. This is fine. Wonderful."
The sun streamed in from the east-facing windows over the polished kitchen table. Griselda sat down and ran her fingers over its grains and whorls, trying to pick patterns out of it with her eyes while she sipped her tea. Pesterwort eventually dropped her breakfast on the table in front of her, and she ate it with great gusto, staring out the window across the gardens and feeling a deep sense of peace begin to creep up on her.
"Say, Pesterwort," she murmured, wondering perhaps she ought to take another nap. All her muscles were loose and soft on her bones. She felt as if she would simply melt into a puddle of the floor if she tried to stand up. "I tried to do a little magic earlier, just to fix my hair, and it didn't hurt. It always hurts. Why didn't it hurt this time, do you think?"
The golem smiled-- she could see his cheeks stretch and crack from her position behind him. "Well, I would guess that it's because you've come home," he said. "This house is magic, generations upon generations of it. Many of your family also found it easier to work here."
Griselda nodded languidly. "I see. Now, I assume you can't come to the village with me," she said, licking the last of breakfast from her lips with a deep-throated sigh of satisfaction. "Could you at least point me in the right direction? The more specific you can be, the better. You've seen how easily I get lost. It's a downright miracle I made it all the way up here. I don't want to spend the next few weeks wandering the highlands, I'm not terrible at camping but it works better with supplies. Perhape I should bring some. Just in case."
Pesterwort waved his hands, gaping like a fish out of water as he tried to get a word in edgewise. When at last she stopped to take a breath, he jumped in with visible relief. "Miss, why wouldn't I be able to go to the village with you? Don't you realize where you are?"
"Middle of nowhere, north of Melvaig?" Griselda answered weakly, feeling as if she were back in school again with teacher fond of pop quizzes.
"Well, yes," said Pesterwort, wrinkling his brow as best he could, "and, well, no. Not exactly. Didn't you notice?"
Griselda threw her hands up. "Notice what? You're not a witch, you don't to be mysterious and whatnot, you can just give me a straight answer, you know."
Pesterwort bit his lip. "Well, er, I'm afraid I can't. Not really. It's a bit difficult to explain. Perhaps we should just go, and you can see for yourself. Honestly, miss, it's a miracle you can find your head in the morning. How you got here without even noticing all the mad things you must have done to make it is beyond me."
Perplexed, Griselda tilted her head. "Mad? Whatever do you mean? I just drove, and eventually made it here."
"You dear, silly woman," Pesterwort said. "I think perhaps you have more power than you realize. Come on, let's go, I think it's going to rain again this afternoon so we should go before the road gets truly impossible."
"Well, all right," Griselda said with a shrug. "I'll just go get my coat."
Seeing the road in the full light of day, Griselda began to wonder along with Pesterwort how on earth she'd made it here. Candy wallowed through the muddy ruts of the single-track path, groaning and whining all the way. Pesterwort, swaying uncomfortably in the passenger seat, looked very out of place but composed. She wished she'd listened to him and taken one of the rusty old bicycles in the shed. It would have been faster, at least.
The track led east away from the coast and into the woods. Peering through the spattered, cloudy windshield at the trees, she confirmed her guess from the night before-- pines and aspens, mostly, with occasional strings of willows in the lower parts where little rocky streams ran across the road. It was classic Caledonian forest, fifty-odd miles-- maybe more-- north of where it ought to be.
"What's a village doing way out here, anyway?" she asked, feeling rather odd. "I mean, all the roads ended with Melvaig. There's nothing up here. I was mostly joking when I asked last night."
"You are the most clueless witch I have ever met," Pesterwort said wonderingly. "Just wait. You'll see. If you still don't understand when you see the village, I'll be happy to try and answer what questions you have left."
Griselda made a disgruntled noise low in her throat, but said nothing more, turning her attention back to the perilous swampy road.
As it turned out, the band of forest was not very wide where the road ran through it, though it spread out in great wings around the narrow waist in both directions. Griselda's frown deepened, but she was distracted at that moment by the sight of the village.
It was nestled in a hollow in the south slope of a great green knowe, rising ponderous and placid to the north. A small river ran past its foot. The houses were hardly houses at all, more grass than stone, with round hilly roofs all overgrown. The doors were squat, and a little rounded at the edges, made of wood painted in jewelled colours. There were perhaps twenty-five of the long little huts. Just east of the village stood a great millhouse with a peacefully churning wheel. Most notably, no house but the millhouse was any taller than Griselda herself, who stood an unimpressive five feet and three inches. The doors came up to her collarbone.
There were no people in the streets. It was still as a grave.
Leaving Candy parked on the outskirts, Griselda followed Pesterwort down the main thoroughfare, which was too narrow to have accommodated the squat old van anyway. Pesterwort marched purposefully forward, looking neither left nor right, until he reached the millhouse, which was almost normal-sized. There was an enormous black brass doorknocker, which Pesterwort hefted and gave three smart raps.
For a long, fidgety moment, the silence persisted.
Then it was broken by quick, erratic footsteps behind the door, which stopped just short of opening it. Griselda got the odd sense they were being peered at, but there were no holes in the door, and no windows in reach. Eventually it opened with a whoosh, nearly knocking the both of them over, to reveal the inhabitant of the house.
It was a girl. Almost.
"Er," said Griselda. "Hello."
The girl stared at her for a long, awkward moment, then turned to Pesterwort and babbled in Gaelic for a bit. He babbled back, complete with wild gesticulations, for several minutes, until they seemed to reach some sort of accord.
"She doesn't remember how to speak English," Pesterwort explained, exasperated. "I didn't even think of it. Your mother just did a translation spell. She wasn't good at it, but they got the gist of things well enough. You... well, I suppose I'll have to translate. Sorry, miss."
Griselda was still staring at the girl, knowing herself to be very rude but unable to do so much as blink.
"Miss? This is Fraoch," he said, pronouncing it 'frew-och' after spelling it for her. "Fraoch, this is the newest mistress of the cliff house, Miss Griselda Collingwood."
Fraoch said something under her breath, clearly unimpressed, but held her hand out to be shaken. Griselda took it gingerly, half-expecting her skin to be poisonous. Surely skin that shade of green couldn't be natural. Nor could having heather blossoms growing from one's head in place of hair, or long curving horns made of twigs, or thin, pointy ears as long as a hare's.
And then, as if that weren't enough, there were the wings. They were very tall, arching over Fraoch's head, but very thin-- hardly a foot wide at their biggest. At first Griselda had thought they were fake, a silly affectation, but they twitched irritably now and then and were clearly under Fraoch's control. Sweeping out from her sides from her waist were another pair, or perhaps the lower half of the same set-- they were similar to butterfly wings in that regard, then, but were really far too thin to be useful for anything. The iridescent dancing colours were very pretty, but in Griselda's opinion, two miles of overkill and change. At least the dress was all right, a little ragged around the knee-high hem but simply cut and dyed peat brown.
Griselda opened her mouth to tell her so, language barrier or no, but shut it against before she could say a single petty word. Fraoch was looking at her, seeming to almost stare through Griselda with her strange red-brown eyes, and her fashion sense suddenly seemed the least important thing in the world. Though she hardly looked older than sixteen, there was a cold, calm depth to her gaze, a wise and calculating soul behind it. Griselda felt the sudden, startling urge to kneel.
"Good lord, girl, you look as if you've never seen a sith before," Fraoch drawled slowly. Her voice was deceptively deep, a woman's voice, and her accent was strong but not unpleasant.
"I thought you said--"
Fraoch waved a slender, elegant hand. "I am not speaking your language, you twit, if that is what you are thinking. I would rather drink swill."
Pesterwort grabbed her ear and leaned in to whisper in it. "She's done the translation spell for you. No, don't thank her, she's irritated enough."
At a loss for what to do, Griselda swept a low bow. She would have curtsied, but her trenchcoat would have swept the dirt if she had, and she wasn't graceful enough to pull one off anyway. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," she said lamely. "I'm sorry, did you just call yourself--"
"A sith," Fraoch repeated shortly. "Yes. You mean to tell me I really am the first? What have you been doing with your life, girl? Honestly."
Griselda sputtered. She was thirty-bloody-seven, how could this girl-- but then, she wasn't really a girl, was she? The wings should have tipped her off, but she'd grown up wandering from city to city, not hanging out in woods talking to otherworldy things. She'd seen plenty of crazy things, and they were always, always fake.
Fraoch, however, was not a fake. She wasn't dressed up for Hallowe'en, or a convention, or selling anything. She was an honest-to-god faerie.
"Somehow I thought you'd be... smaller."
"I am..." Fraoch paused. "That was a rather offensive thing to say, you know, but clearly you are an ignorant child so I will be merciful. I am very old. My people grow as we age. The adventurous ones, those even your blind fellow humans can spot wandering around forest edges and peeking into barns, are very young. It is no wonder you have come to think of us as a small race, but you have only ever met our children."
"Oh," said Griselda. "I, um, thank you. Sorry for being offensive. I'm really rubbish at this. Sorry."
The faerie heaved a longsuffering sigh. "To be honest, your mother was hardly better, or your grandmother. Your family has been slipping away from our world for a very long time. After you, I doubt they will even be able to see us at all. You did not even realize what I was. Your kind has nearly forgotten us. I cannot say I am unhappy about it, either. In any case, come in. I have prepared your circlet."
"My what?" Griselda asked as she shucked her boots and followed Fraoch into the millhouse.
The interior was brightly lit by many large, clear windows. The furniture was painstakingly handmade of stained wicker and woven willow branches. Hundreds of bundles of herbs and dried vegetables and flowers hung from the roof in dusty, fragrant confusion. The sunlight glimmered where the dust caught it.
Fraoch led them into what amounted to a living room. A circle of chairs, ranging in size from miniscule to nearly taller than Pesterwort, was arranged against the walls. Griselda found one that almost fit and gingerly sat down. It was surprisingly comfortable. Meanwhile, the faerie rummaged about in an enormous pale chest of drawers, muttering to herself under her breath in a manner that reminded Griselda, to her surprise, of herself.
At last she straightened with a muffled 'aha!' and turned around. In her hands rested a small thorny circlet made of dark wood, with sprigs of dead heather entwined all through it. "Here," she said. "You must wear this whenever you come to Heatherdowne without your golem companion. Without it, my people will not recognize you, and you will not see hide nor hair of any of them. Weak as your gift is, you may not even be able to find the village at all. Do not break it. Do not lose it. Do I make myself clear?"
"As mud," Griselda squeaked, taking the crown and bobbing her head a couple of times in an exaggerated show of deference. "Thank you. Really appreciate it. I'm sorry to have inconvenienced you. I suppose we should be going now, right?"
Fraoch nodded slowly and meaningfully, and raised one sharp eyebrow.
"Right," said Griselda briskly, "let's go, then. Good day to you, very good day, thank you, off we go." Half-dragging Pesterwort behind her, she catapulted out the front door into the sunshine, and immediately felt much better. The door closed behind them with a disdainful clunk.
Griselda took a deep breath, let it out, and turned to Pesterwort with a stern expression. "You might have warned me," she scolded him. "It's not every day I meet faerie... whatever-she-wases."
"Lady Fraoch is the spirit of the heather, as I thought would be obvious," Pesterwort said humbly. "Every stalk and blossom is hers, and in a very real way, is her. All the land the heather covers is her purview, but she loves it best here, on the highlands near the sea where she was born."
"You've got to stop assuming I'll automatically know what things are when I see them," Griselda said with a sigh. "I never would have known any of that just looking at her. All I saw was funny hair and skin, and some very impractical wings."
Pesterwort made a face. "They aren't impractical, miss, because they aren't made for flying. They are the source of faerie magic. A faerie who loses her wings becomes mortal and quickly dies. Well, relatively quickly. Some of them live as humans for nearly the span of a normal human life. In any case, can you imagine living in that little house with a bloody great pair of flight-ready wings on your back? You'd constantly be banging them on doors and knocking things over. Even if you lived outside, as many of them do, you'd still have a heck of a time trying to get through any forest worth its salt. It'd be awful. Worse than useless."
Griselda thought back, picturing Fraoch's slim, flexible wings again, and had to admit that Pesterwort had a point. They would hardly be more cumbersome than hair.
"Hello?" she called as they came back into the middle of the miniature village again.
"The circlet," Pesterwort reminded her.
"Oh," she said. "Right." The circlet vindictively pricked her left middle finger as she settled it down on her head, and she yelped and stuck it in her mouth. Blood flowed from the tiny wound for a moment, then stopped. "It bit me!" she protested, hurt.
Pesterwort shook his head with a patient smile. "No, that's part of the ritual. Blood to bind. Look, here they come."
And indeed, they were coming-- filtering out of their little doors in ones and twos, thin shimmering beings no taller than three-year-old human children, but with sharp adult faces and old, old eyes. They arranged themselves in a loose circle around Griselda, who suddenly felt enormous and even more awkward than she usually did, a clumsy giant surrounded by a ring of perfect little dancers.
"Er, hello," she stammered. "I'm Griselda Collingwood. Pleased to make your acquaintances."
The ring of faeries was silent and still, staring unblinking up at her with dozens of unfriendly glittering eyes.
"Pesterwort?" she whispered. "They as if they want to eat me. Are you sure we're all right?"
The golem nodded, winked reassuringly, then knelt at her feet. "This is my mistress, the lady Griselda Collingwood of the line of Forsyth witches, born and true. She is your ally, as were her mother and her mother's mother and all the Forsyth witches before them. We have come to trade, in peace, as before."
All at once, the faeries burst into chatter. Even if she had spoken Gaelic, she was fairly certain she couldn't have made heads or tails of anything they were saying. It was just a solid wall of noise, all their bright little voices layering over each other until no one voice could be distinguished from the mess.
Griselda, startled, clapped her hands over her ears.
Moments later, as quickly as it had begun, the cacophony ceased. The faeries beamed up at her.
"They want to know what you have brought as payment," Pesterwort whispered to her.
"Oh," she said, and pulled her wallet out of her pocket. There wasn't all that much cash in it, but hopefully she wouldn't need to make another trip for a very long time. "Here," she said, handing the nearest a pair of tenners. "That should do it, right?"
The faerie, a pale-haired man with bright purple eyes, stared at the bits of paper and cocked his head in confusion, then chattered up at Pesterwort angrily, waving the money in the air as close to Pesterwort's nose as he could get without flying.
"What are you doing?" asked Pesterwort, astonished, taking the money back and pressing it into her hands.
Griselda knew she'd made another mistake, somehow, but was at a loss to say what. "Paying them?" she offered.
"With this?" Pesterwort said, pointing at the cash. "Coloured paper? What use would they have for that? Come now, you must have something of actual value with you. How could you expect to trade without it?"
She opened her mouth to explain the intricacies of capitalism and the monetary system, but thought better of it and sighed instead. "I told you, this isn't the world I know," she told him, frustrated. "I don't know what faeries want. I'd never met one before today. I'm a city girl, a traveller. I know plenty about humans and human things, but Mother never saw fit to teach me diddly about the world of magic, so I'm afraid you need to treat me like an outsider."
Pesterwort gaped helplessly at her. "I've never met an outsider before," he countered. "How am I to know what they do or don't know? This kind of thing is obvious, and it seems to me it should be obvious to everyone. It only makes sense. They're faeries-- they love things which glitter and shine, pretty things, colourful things. Your mother used to make enchanted clothing for them. Your grandmother brought them paintings of places she'd been. You're a witch, surely you must have something?"
She didn't. Griselda had no earthly talents that she knew of, except for a rare memory for useless trivia. "I... well, er," she said, then "hang on, let me see." She dove into her pockets with both hands, sifting things through her fingers by feel until she came across the little shadowed crystal she'd nearly forgotten was in there. "Aha!" she cried triumphantly, producing it and holding it between her fingers so the sun could shine through it. "Tibetan black quartz! From a very far land, very old, wonderful for focusing protection spells and cleansing ritual spaces. Would this do?"
Enthralled, the faeries' eyes tracked the motion of her hand, reflecting the prismatic flashes of light the sun sent through the crystal.
Pesterwort put a hand on her shoulder and smiled. "Oh, yes," he said. "That'll do just fine. Well done. You had best prepare yourself, I think they're pleased."
Griselda blinked, and the faeries were gone: every one of them, as if they had never been there. They had left no footprints in the dust at all. She blinked again in surprise, and they were back, little arms piled high with ornate stone and glass jars and brightly-coloured cloth bags and bundles of dried plants she only recognized half of. She cradled her arms at her belly, and they enthusiastically piled their gifts into them, until she was genuinely afraid the little mountain of treasure leaning against her chest would topple and spill if she so much as breathed.
"Oh, goodness," she said, taken aback, "oh, my, this is all-- thank you-- so much more than I expected, what even is-- thank you-- all of this stuff? I just needed-- really, thank you so much-- a little soap and conditioner, that's all. For instance, what's in all these little bags?"
A pretty little faerie woman with dark hair and green eyes and china-fair skin beamed and let out a rapid string of lilting Gaelic, all of which went right over Griselda's head. She looked to Pesterwort, who listened for a moment, then said "Spices. This year's crop of herbs and spices, straight from the twilight gardens, best in all the world. Tonight you will dine like a queen."
"Oh, my," Griselda said again, feeling a little overwhelmed. "I see. I think this is-- thank you, please, no more-- quite enough for now. Would they be offended if I went and put these in Candy's trunk before my arms fall off?"
Instead of answering her, Pesterwort spoke earnestly at the ring of faeries, talking more with his hands than his mouth as was his wont. When he finished, he nodded at her. "It's all right, miss, they're glad you like their presents. They are very happy with yours as well, and will welcome you back whenever you wish."
"Brilliant," said Griselda, meaning it. "You know, I must have hundreds of these things. I've been collecting them since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and I've been all sorts of places. Do you think they'd like more of them, when I come back?"
Not even bothering to ask them, Pesterwort nodded, wide-eyed. "Oh, absolutely. They'll love you forever. They are creatures of the earth, but they do not dig deeper than needed to make their barrows. They leave that to other beings with tougher hands, but they are still creatures of the earth, and they see crystals and gems as the tears of the soul of the world, both of sorrow and of joy, and treasure them far beyond you humans do."
Griselda nodded, eyes wide. "I didn't know. I'm glad, though. I'd like to be friends with them, if that's the right word. Friendly, at least."
"Oh, you're well on your way, then. They have long memories. The Forsyth witches have always been their allies, but they have not really tried to be friends. There is far too much history between your kind and theirs. You don't know it, however, and so you can approach them with pure and honest intentions. I think you will do well as long as you maintain that openness. I think they find it... refreshing."
"I... see," said Griselda, though she didn't really. She hadn't heard anything about history between the Forsyths and the faeries, and wasn't sure now that she wanted to know. She would probably end up asking questions anyway. It was just in her nature to seek out and store information like a greedy squirrel. She couldn't bear not knowing the answers to questions she was interested in, and now she was interested in this one.
It was the first time she had really been interested in her heritage. Her family had made her life unpleasant upon finding how useless her gift was, and had been unbearably condescending whenever they decided that she should at least know something. Eventually she had come to resent their sporadic lessons, and resolved to know as little about it all as possible.
They were gone, now, though, dead and moldering in the ground. She was the only one left, and today she had met a faerie queen.
"I want to know," she breathed. "Pesterwort, how many stories do you know?"
The golem smiled, and even in the dim light of the Candy's interior, it was like the sun had shone right in. "As many as there are leaves on all the birches of the old Caledonian forest," he told her, "as many as there are raindrops in a spring thunderstorm. Where should I start?"
Griselda frowned and thought for a moment, then clapped her hands against the leopard-printed steering wheel. "Tell me about the house," she said. "When was it built? Why was it built? Who built it?"
Pesterwort took a deep, rustling breath and began.
In the early fifteenth century, a group of men got together and decided to build Scotland's first university, which they unimaginatively named after another man, Saint Andrew. As it was the fifteenth century, it was of course closed to women, who they believed had no business mucking about with such high things as divinity or science. Very pleased with themselves, they cloistered themselves away within its walls, and brought the best and brightest they could find to come study with them.
Their sisters and wives, though hardly content with their lot, could see no way around it, and lived out their lives in frustrated monotony. Until... ah, yes, until. Don't interrupt, I'm about to tell you. Hush.
As I was about to say: they lived that way until, in 1436, a rather adventurous young woman by the name of Aileen Abernethy decided at the ripe age of twenty-three years old that she had had quite enough. She gathered up her sisters and her daughters and her dearest friends, packed many bags in secret, and in the middle of the night in late spring of that year, they struck out together across the highlands in search of a better life. Their husbands searched for them, but never found them, not even a blessed footprint in the grass. Do you know why? I'm sure you've guessed.
Quite right. Aileen was a witch. Not the first, perhaps, but one of the best ever to live. She spirited away half the womenfolk of an entire town and left not a trace. The men were so embarrassed, they pretended the faeries had stolen them away, and mourned for thirty days and nights as if their wives and sisters had died. Then they promptly remarried as they could, making the best of a rum situation, as it were. The meek and humble women who had stayed behind were treated like queens, for the men now outnumbered them two-to-one, and wives were therefore scarce and precious as jewels.
Their journey was not easy, for it was very far across untrammeled wilderness, and there were many obstacles in their path: storms, wolves, mountains and rivers. Not least of these trials were the faeries. They were not friendly then, and were very suspicious of the people intruding uninvited into their lands. Many times they laid traps for Aileen and her sisters, but Aileen was clever, and strong, and overcame every one of them. The faeries eventually came to a sort of grudging respect for her, and stopped trying to impede her progress.
Months passed on the road. They did not walk in a straight line, for none of them had been taught how to read the stars, but Aileen felt a voice calling her north and west and followed it.
Whose voice? Am I telling the story or not? I'm getting to that, hold your tongue.
Ever she followed the voice north and west, until at last she came upon the sea, which seemed to her to be the edge of the world itself. For a long time she stared over the cliffs at it, as if wondering how she could pass this horizon and find what lay beyond it, ever the adventurer. But the voice called her back, into the woods, to the foot of a great green knoll.
Ah, yes, I see you have realized where this story leads. Let me finish, though. It's been a long time since I have had an opportunity to tell it.
Aileen brought her sisters to the green knoll, and there the mysterious voice who had been calling her was waiting-- a faerie queen, who had been watching her journey all the while. For she was the lady of the heather, ancient and wise, and all the land the heather grew on was hers to see and know. She welcomed Aileen with an embrace and a kiss, and gave Aileen the land between the forest and the cliffs for her own. She taught Aileen about her gift. Aileen turned around and taught her sisters. They were the first coven, the very first, and they built this house out of cliff stones and wood from the forest as a safe place to live together and learn without fear of retribution.
Over time, they garnered somewhat of a reputation, as they had a penchant for kidnapping unwary male travelers and marrying them, only to send them back years later with any sons that had been produced. The daughters they kept, and thus the line was extended down through the years.
Centuries later, the head lady of the house married a man she fancied enough to change her name to his, and from that point on the Abernethy House became the Forsyth House. The line, however, is unbroken. I keep the records myself. The blood of Aileen the Adventurer runs in your veins, though much diluted, of course.
In modern times, a few enterprising witches remodeled a bit, adding washrooms in the advent of the invention of the flush toilet, as well as hot water pipes for baths and central heating. All the systems are self-repairing, and in the event that something does break beyond its own capacities to fix, they made me able to take care of them all. All that is required is the occasional influx of new magic to keep things running smoothly. Fuel in the engine, as it were.
I'm a bit worried now, however, since... well. You've said it yourself. You hardly have enough magic to tie your own shoelaces, let alone enough to refill the tanks. We have perhaps five years before it will need more. I'm not sure what we'll do then, to be honest. You don't need to worry about it for today, at the very least. Today everything is just fine.
When we get home, I will make you lunch, and then I will show you the Sunrise Room and tell you whatever stories you wish to hear. Yes, I promise. Until my limbs fail and my breath stops.
"Which, by the way," Pesterwort noted with a quick, nervous smile, "will also likely happen in about five years' time. The house and I run from the same power source. When that fails... well, I can't know for sure, but it seems reasonable."
"Oh, no," Griselda cried, "that's no good at all! You aren't allowed to die-- go to sleep-- stop working-- whatever it is golems do at the end. I can't cook to save my life, and without you I'd just get lost in the halls and never find my way out again. I can't stay here without you, and I really don't want to go anywhere else. Not anymore. I'm done traveling. Done, I say."
"For now," Pesterwort said softly. "You're more like Aileen than I gave you credit for. Wandering is in your soul. But then, Aileen ended her journey here, so perhaps you will too."
Candy rumbled quietly through the woods as the sun westered ahead of them, the light filtering pale and gentle through the thin rows of trees. There were clouds building over the sea again, but they were going to beat them home easily. The air was clear and sweet and smelled of autumn, of damp and dying things and rot and endings. An easterly wind began to blow, gushing cool and fresh through Candy's open windows. Griselda leaned right to put her face into the steady stream and took a deep breath.
She knew, now, where she was. To be certain, away southwards lay a little coast town named Melvaig, and if she were to drive that way she would find it. The people of Melvaig, however, could wander about the lands north of their town for all their years and never find the cliff house, let alone Heatherdowne. The sith village and the house were in a world of their own, a world apart. In the world without faeries, no roads existed to bring her this far north. She would have never made it even a mile if not for her gift... which was not, she thought, nearly strong enough for that.
But then, the storm had quieted for her, hadn't it? And it's a rare talent, to get lost and find wonderful secret places rather than dingy back alleys and questionable shops with papered windows. She can't make her magic do what she wants, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have it. It must be there, but simply doing as it wishes, with a mind of its own.
The woods broke and opened onto the green before the cliffs. Tall and solemn, the Forsyth House sprawled along the edge, peering over into the crashing depths below like an old hunchbacked giant. On its back glittered all those countless windows, and on its crown atop the north tower sat the weathervane, which was shaped like an eagle in flight. Its regal beak faced steadily westwards, shifting ponderously only when the wind really made an effort of it. It was a patchworked thing, untidy and inelegant, but with its own stately, hoary grace from long years of memory.
Griselda stared at it, and felt a mood quite unlike any she had ever know come over her. "I want the house to live forever," she told Pesterwort, her own voice sounding distant and strange. "I want you to live forever. I want to live forever here, with you, in this house. But I don't want us to be alone. Not that you're bad company, you aren't, you're the very best company I could have asked for, I just... it's so big, Pesterwort. Big enough to hold a little town all of its own. It should be full of people, but it's empty and gathering dust instead, and it just makes me sad. I don't know what to do about it, I'm not sure there's anything I can do, but it makes me sad."
Pesterwort put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed, very gently. "Thank you," he said solemnly. "Thank you for that. I'm not sure either, but if there is, I think you might find it. You may not have much magic, but you have plenty of energy, and maybe that's all you need for this."
"Irrepressible!" Griselda bellowed suddenly, startling him. She turned to wink at him, a brilliant grin spreading across her plain face. "Irrepressible, that's me. You just wait. I'm going to find the witches, and then I'm going to bring them here, and then maybe they'll start calling it the Collingwood House."
"Maybe they will," Pesterwort agreed with an answering smile, so wide nearly half his face fell off before he could catch it. "I hope you're right, miss. I truly do."
Griselda steered Candy into the lane, gathered her presents, and tottered through the door when Pesterwort opened it for her.
"Hello, house! I'm home!" she announced.
The house was silent. Perhaps it was her imagination, though, but it seemed just a bit brighter, its walls just a little less bowed in the middle.
Taking a deep breath, she kicked off her shoes, and set off on her next great adventure.