Chapter One: The Watchtower
It was a marvel to see the White Queen paint. Marcia watched as the brush drifted across the surface of the paper, leaving no mark: its bristles held only water.
There was a knock at the door.
Marcia looked to the queen, and was answered by an almost imperceptible nod. Stepping neatly over to the door, she opened it.
“Your Majesty,” said the general, bowing deeply as he stepped inside. “We have repelled an attack at Hobnail Pass, but the lines will not hold.”
The White Queen traced the brush across the paper with extreme care. Marcia closed the door, then once again took up her place by the queen’s side, examining the paper with silent interest. There was no hint of her mistress’ work but a faint glistening of water in the light.
The general took no more notice of the queen than she did of him. Marcia observed him in one of the queen’s three grand mirrors as he strode over to a map laid out on a nearby table, cluttered with painted wooden models representing various companies and legions. The general scowled, removing a few dusty pieces and rearranging several more.
The queen dipped her brush in the little cup of water and dragged it back and forth quickly across the top of the paper, catching the little beads of liquid as they formed. She stared out of the window at the garden below, comparing this scene to the one she had formed. With a quick flick of the brush, she made an adjustment.
“It is my opinion that we must give up Wieseberg.” The general proceeded to shove a line of figures into place with a straight edge, then formed them into a swooping curve with a pudgy hand. “The city is of little strategic value, but eliminating this salient would shorten our lines considerably. The surplus troops here could be…”
“Give up the pass,” said the queen, dabbing carelessly at the paper.
“Give up the pass.” The White Queen folded her hands on her lap and turned to the general. “Our foe is determined to have that ground no matter what the cost. We will not be so foolish.”
“Your Majesty…to fall back here, now, would pave a road to the capital itself.” He stared at his little line of figures on the table. When he spoke again, his voice trembled. “This is madness.”
“This is my will,” said the queen, turning back to the window and the paper before her. “It shall be done.”
The general began to speak, but stopped, breathed deeply. “Yes…your Majesty.”
Marcia opened the door and curtseyed. The general took his leave. She closed the door once more.
Sitting before the window, the White Queen at last put paint to brush. Ever so gently, she touched the tip of the brush to the wet paper, and a patch of emerald green issued forth, pigment carried through water. Two or three touches and a fruit tree sprang forth. A light sweep of the bristles, and rose bushes bloomed. In less than a minute, the blank page had become a garden, every bit as vibrant as the one below.
The White Queen set down her brush, and here made her only mistake: it tumbled from the easel. Snapping out a hand, Marcia caught the wayward implement before it could stain her mistress’ gown.
The White Queen turned to her, a faint smile clinging to her lips, a small tear clinging to her lashes. “My only regret,” she said, “is that this is not the way it ended.”
Marcia woke, as always, to sunlight blazing through the gaps between her thin curtains and the wall. She rolled over groggily, away from the light, but forced herself to swing her feet out of the covers and onto the floor in the same motion. It didn’t do to dwell on dreams. Not when there was work to be done. Dressing quickly, she made her way into the kitchen, took a square-ended little key from her belt, and wound the clock.
Seven o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town, stinging Marcia’s eyes as she made her way to the head guardsman’s house. Letting herself in with a key from her belt, she made her way to the kitchen and startled a mouse on the way there. She wound the head guard’s clock, then set a mousetrap beneath the table. She sighed. It was not as glamorous as her work at the palace, but the effort was worthwhile nonetheless. It was, after all, the guardsman’s watch she used to set every other timepiece in town. Marcia paused to brush away the worst of the cobwebs that had built up since she last attended to this house, then gave the floor a quick sweep. Locking up once more, she set off into town.
Eight o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town, beaming down Market Street and picking out every splinter, every crack in the bare, uncovered stalls. These, Marcia had decided, were not her concern. The market stalls were for travelling merchants, not her acquaintances in town. She would have liked to give them a wash of paint, find fabric for awnings, but paint and fabric were in short supply indeed, and there was other work to do. Marcia wound the clocks in all the shops, and helped herself to apples from the overladen tree in the butcher’s garden and ate them sitting on the rough stone wall. The grass was knee-high now. A job for tomorrow, perhaps. Or the day after.
Ten o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town, uncomfortably warm on Marcia’s back as she split logs on the outskirts of the forest. It wasn’t a job for a lady, really, but if she didn’t do it then there would be no fire in the range. She paused occasionally to look at the bluebells, and savour the cold breeze that drifted from the dark hills on the horizon. She paused less frequently to look at those hills themselves. This place was peaceful, if nothing else. That place…that place was not.
Marcia turned her attention to the potter’s hut nearby, where she had taken the liberty of storing the tools she had taken the liberty of borrowing from the woodsman. There were, she had just realised, tiles missing from the roof of the potter’s hut, blown loose no doubt in last week’s heavy weather. Perhaps the library had a book on roof-mending. Perhaps one of the town’s inhabitants had one on their shelf. Marcia gazed out over the rooftops of the town: some, it had to be noted, in significantly better shape than others. It wasn’t strictly proper, but she supposed that it didn’t much matter whether she borrowed her books from the library or from elsewhere.
One o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town, motes of flour dancing in the light cast through the mill window. The waterwheel turned steadily, but the wooden cogs were still. Marcia wasn’t certain how to work the machinery in here—it seemed too powerful and unwieldy to master by trial and error—and in any case there was no need for a millwheel to make flour for one person’s bread. Instead, she worked away with the miller’s ancient quern-stone, grinding by hand the wheat she’d plucked from the farmer’s field: or at least, the little section that she’d managed to cultivate herself.
There was a splash in the mill race, and a general commotion of activity. Marcia stopped grinding and peered through the spokes of the waterwheel just in time to see a pair of squabbling otters dart along the little stone shelf by the waterway. Marcia smiled. She never would have seen that at the palace.
Two o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town, but still Marcia kept a lamp lit as she tended to the tailor’s house: the light was strong in the front of the shop, but the windows of the storeroom at the back were shaded by the building itself. She regretted having left this so long: though she had carefully hung bunches of lavender between the clothes on her last visit, the moths were tearing through the tailor’s stock with alarming gusto. Marcia found herself obliged to dispose of almost every bolt of wool cloth from the storeroom and—to her dismay—several fine jackets.
What clothes were salvageable, Marcia hung out in the sun to drive away the grubs. Then she scrubbed the shelves and cupboards with soap and water. At a certain point, she supposed, it would become impractical to try and keep the tradesmen’s stock—when the butcher and the grocer had been called away, they must have known that their goods would simply perish, and so she had disposed of them with a clear conscience—but for the time being at least she would do what she could. If she had been chosen, if she had been granted a place…she would have felt better knowing that what she left behind wouldn’t simply fall into ruin.
Straightening up after what she just now realised had been quite a long time scrubbing the floor, she looked out through the front window of the tailor’s shop. A deer was tiptoeing along the opposite side of Market Street, methodically nibbling away at the tall tufts of grass and weed that had pushed up through the cobbles. Marcia watched it as it passed, happy to have some company besides the tailor’s ticking clock, and glad to know that this was one less job to tackle on her own. But there were still those brambles in the field, and the butcher’s garden really was becoming very overgrown…
Five o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town as Marcia made her way back home. She left the clothes hanging on the line outside the tailor’s shop, stretched out across the street between the market stalls. There was no danger of obstructing traffic, and the fresh breeze would do them good.
Marcia set a fire in the range, noting happily that she had wood now for the next couple of days, if not longer. She mixed herself a crude dough, and threw in a good handful of herbs to make up for the fact that there was no yeast. There were potatoes, though, and the makings of a salad, and more apples with berries for dessert: those brambles were good for something, at least. It was not the sort of meal she would have had in the palace, but Marcia had begun to take a certain amount of pride in being able to make the most of very little indeed.
Seven o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower as Marcia took up her favourite place in the town’s little library. There were no books on roof-mending, it transpired, but there were two more general manuals on building upkeep and home repair, as well as one on chimneys in particular, and these were surely better than nothing. If all else failed, she was quite certain she could devise a way of preventing wind and water getting in through the gap in the potter’s roof, and so compounding the damage. Marcia was nothing if not resourceful.
Nine o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town as Marcia moved the clothes back into the tailor’s shop and took down the line from between the market stalls. She didn’t strictly need to pack them away so soon—the task could have waited until tomorrow—but the cupboards and shelves were dry now and it didn’t do to leave a job unfinished.
Ten o’clock. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town as Marcia brewed a simple tea of pine needles and prepared for bed. It was a waste of wood to light the range again, she knew, and a waste of effort to prepare the pine when there was so much else to be done, but the tea was a comfort and brought to mind better days. Marcia took a sip of the fiercely hot, unpleasantly medicinal drink and set it down on the table by the window. She flipped open the guardsman’s watch, then looked out at the sun, hovering above the watchtower. Here in the low, peaceful light, with her hot tea, and the cold breeze through the open window, she could almost believe that it would set.
Midnight. The sun hovered just above the watchtower at the edge of town as Marcia slept. Its light shone evenly upon the empty houses of the guardsman, the tailor, the butcher and the potter, streaming through dusty windows and filtering through unkempt leaves.
It shone also upon a lone figure, emerging from the dark hills beyond.
You might recall that I had plans for Camp NaNoWriMo this year. Well, it’s now a little more than halfway through the month and my novella is going well. Since my word count goal is just 18,000 words, the real challenge will be finishing the story itself before May rolls around. This is something I’ve been wanting to write for a long, long time–it was nearly my project for NaNoWriMo in November–so I hope you enjoy. The idea hasn’t really left my mind for several months: it’s great to finally be writing it down!
If you’d like to read more of this story, I’ll be serialising it as part of my newsletter. Sign up now to get a new chapter every month, starting with Chapter Two: The Visitor at the beginning of May. Please tell anyone you think might be interested, as I’m not sure how feasible it’ll be to subscribe to the story once it’s already started. Also, please tell me what you think of this first chapter: though a significant chunk of the novella is already written, I’ll be doing a lot of editing before I start sending it out and any feedback is appreciated.