When she woke that morning, she named herself Hawthorn.
She said it into the mirror, three times, just as she’d been instructed: “I am Hawthorn. I am Hawthorn. I am Hawthorn.”
Then she dressed herself for the trial ahead: warm woolen trousers, crisp white shirt, stout leather boots. The cloth sling she looped over her head, draping it from shoulder to opposite hip; there was very little weight in it yet, only a few items she’d need, but she planned to return home with it heavily laden. She twisted her hair up into a careful top-knot held by an intricately tied red cord.
She tried not to look at the reflection of the bed behind her, the sleeping form beneath the sheets curled in tight on itself.
Out on the landing, Sorcha was already waiting, pacing the two short steps between Hawthorn’s door and her own. She looked up the moment Hawthorn stepped into the hall but didn’t speak until the door-latch clicked shut.
“You’re ready for this,” she said. It wasn’t a question, and it wasn’t a statement either; it wavered somewhere between the two, uncertain.
“I’m as ready as I can be,” Hawthorn said. She couldn’t quite bring herself to let go of the doorknob, not just yet. “You’ll look in on her, when you get home? Make sure she’s out of bed?”
Sorcha clucked her tongue, chiding. “You know very well that I will. I’ll bring something warm from the baker’s.”
“Alright,” Hawthorn said. When Sorcha led the way down the stairs, there was nothing she could do but follow.
The street outside was already bustling with traffic, despite the early hour: carts clattered their way toward the market, children darted about on little errands, people filled the footpaths as if it was just another day.
“You’ve named yourself?” Sorcha asked, as they stood on the street, a stillness at the edge of all that movement.
“Yes,” Hawthorn said. “I’ll be fine, Sorcha.”
“Tell me the rules,” Sorcha said, clutching Hawthorn’s hand.
“Never accept hospitality,” Hawthorn recited, dutifully. “Never say ‘thank you.’ Don’t follow the music. Take no food, drink, or gifts. Be polite.”
Sorcha chewed on her lip, but let go of Hawthorn’s hand. “I’ll expect you back by sunset.”
“I’ll be fine,” Hawthorn repeated, which wasn’t a promise, but it was the best she could do.
She stepped into the stream of people and let it sweep her away.
Hawthorn had never been across the Bough Bridge. Most of the people in the city hadn’t; it led to only one place.
She stepped onto the weathered planks anyway.
The bridge itself was a poor-looking thing, nothing but weathered wood, held together with pegs and joins where the city’s other bridges used trusses and rivets of iron. There was no railing along the edges to keep unwary travelers from tumbling into the dark waters below.
When she looked back, she could see the people of the city still streaming past, but now a few of them stuttered to a stop, obviously catching sight of her. A couple of children slipped out of the crowd and shimmied up the tall wooden posts that marked the near end of the span, watching her progress with keen attention.
She put one foot in front of the other, let the tread of her boots ring out against the wood, and kept walking.
She was halfway across when something began to make an answering noise against the underside of the bridge, right beneath her feet. It wasn’t the echo of a footfall so much as a scraping, but it matched her step for step, a clawed scrabbling that mirrored her movements precisely.
She could tell that it was toying with her, so she kept her head up and kept going, as if she had heard nothing. When it finally grew tired of its game, forty paces later, there was a sound that could be followed to the edge of the bridge. A head appeared, and a knobbly jointed body, and the whole of the creature skittered sideways out from under the bridge and into her path.
Its skin had the mottled appearance of stone, its limbs were altogether too long and slender to be anything but unnervingly inhuman, and its bright yellow eyes glowed like lanterns. When Hawthorn was a child, the adults had all told stories of this very creature, to keep children from venturing onto the Bough Bridge. She could feel that same terror thrumming in her heart now as the thing crouched before her, staring, as if sizing up her fitness as food.
She very intently did not flinch at the sight of it, and said, “Hello. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
The troll grunted and rotated its head most of the way toward upside-down, in the strangely boneless gesture of a bird. It opened its mouth, and the teeth inside looked like sharpened chips of flint.
“Toll,” it said, with a voice like a dying gasp. “Toll.”
Hawthorn reached into the sling at her hip and withdrew a small, bitter yellow apple, the sort humans only used for the brewing of cider. There was still a length of silvery branch attached to it and a pair of delicate pink flowers blooming just above the apple’s stem.
“I am happy to pay the toll you are due as guardian of this bridge,” she said, formally, as she held out the branch. “With the expectation of safety during my return passage.”
The troll blinked its lantern eyes, light-dark-light like a signal fire, then reached out one bony-fingered hand and delicately gripped the apple. It brought the branch to its lips and plucked the flowers off with its teeth, daintily, swallowing them down.
“So bargained,” it said, and skittered sideways again, right over the edge of the bridge and out of view. For a moment she could still hear it beneath her, moving about, until the noise gave way to sudden silence as if it had settled back into a spider-web somewhere.
Hawthorn began to walk again, and she did not pause until she reached the other side, stepping off the worn planks and back onto solid ground.
From the side of the city where Hawthorn lived, most of the Underhill district was invisible, shrouded in a river fog that never quite lifted. Only the eroding pinnacles of the watchtowers, from which the king’s wardens had once kept their vigilant eyes upon the populace, still rose above the mist.
Those who ventured into Underhill—the ones who came back at least—called it a wasted, corrupted, half-cursed place, with the fair folk left utterly broken after the king had finished grinding them beneath his boot. They called it a blight, seething with cut-throats and kidnappers, teeming with dark and twisted magic.
From this side of the bridge, with the perpetual fog parting like a curtain drawn back, Underhill gleamed.
The city crawled up the sloping side of the hill, seeming to burrow into it as well. Laneways disappeared around corners without rising, windows appeared at odd intervals as if cut into the hillside itself, and lights radiated from within, giving the impression of a city stacked upon a city. The buildings were made of beautifully cut brick and stone, in warm and inviting tones. The windows were intricately latticed in precious metals, and every window-box spilled over with flowers that should not have been blooming yet, with a bitter-cold bite still in the air.
There were crowds here, just as there had been on the other side of the bridge, but these were altogether a different sort. The people formed a flowing river of bright silks, luxurious wools, elaborate embroideries, and feathered cloaks. Some adorned their metallic-sheened hair with glinting jewels, while others wore eye-catching hats and headdresses. Their movements were marked by an uncanny grace, and the sound of the crowd was almost musical, like the ringing of many bells. The folk were as beautiful and otherworldly as every old story—the before-the-war stories—had made them out to be.
Next to all that splendor, Hawthorn’s best clothes seemed no better than rags. There were a few others like her scurrying along the edges of the crowd, human tradesmen going about their business with their heads ducked. She felt that same weight on her own shoulders; that same instinct to bow her head and shrink as a few passing ladies sent her disdainful looks.
She was already familiar with the exact sensation; the mingling of embarrassment and shame. She had worked for some very rich people on her own side of the city: she’d carved the full figure in life size of the Fifth High Adjudicator and sculpted busts of seven of the Prelate’s daughters. She knew what it was to stand in a grand house in the grandest part of her city and be unceasingly aware that she did not belong there.
In Underhill, the feeling was worse, because it wasn’t only her station that marked her as obviously out of place. Here, it was her species that felt inadequate and unwelcome, her humanness hanging on her like a stench.
Against the weight of her task, it didn’t matter. She had much to accomplish and only a single day in which to do it; there was no time for hesitation or doubt. She squared her shoulders and stepped into the crowd as if she knew precisely where she was going.
She didn’t, of course, but even in Underhill the tradesmen set their sigils above their doors, so it didn’t take long for her to find the green-goodsman. The shop had crates of exotic fruit standing outside the door, and the windows were full of odd vegetables alongside familiar ones.
The moment she stepped inside, a sharp voice said, “Deliveries at the side door, you fool.”
There was a narrow-faced woman standing behind the counter, scowling at Hawthorn as if she’d just trailed manure inside. Even this greener was finely dressed, though her hair was pulled back into a somewhat utilitarian braid, and she wore an apron as a concession to her trade.
“I’m not here with a delivery,” Hawthorn said, tipping up her chin, trying to fake a confidence she didn’t feel. “I’d like to buy a chamber-fruit.”
The greener blinked at her, mystified, as if the statement had somehow knocked her world out of alignment. “I believe I may have a few on hand,” she said, finally. She rounded the counter and plucked up a little fruit from one of the nearest crates, holding out for Hawthorn’s inspection. Its surface was yellow-gold, and it nearly shone. “Can I tempt you with anything else? Have you ever tasted a bauble? They’re sweet as any candy. Try one.”
Hawthorn smiled tightly but didn’t take the offered food. “No,” she said, and resisted the urge to add a thank you. “Only the chamber-fruit.”
The greener scowled and put the bauble back where it belonged, then rounded the next display and picked up something else.
It was an unattractive, indistinct lump of a thing, pale like uncooked chicken meat, with shades of brighter pink streaked through it.
“Yes, this is it,” Hawthorn said. “But I’ll be needing a much smaller one.”
“Ah,” the greener said, her expression softening with what might have been understanding. She took the fruit back and leaned over to inspect her display once again, this time much more carefully. Finally, she held up a much smaller fruit, flawless and unbruised; when she passed it into Hawthorn’s hand, it was with infinite care.
“It’s perfectly ripe,” she said, and all the manipulative charm had gone out of her voice. “Just the thing. You will need to pay for it, you understand.”
“Of course,” Hawthorn agreed. She reached into her sling and pulled out the first of her payments, planned well in advance for the trip.
The tuber was small, not even long enough to span her palm, but when she jostled it, the ends of its wispy fibrous roots began wavering, as if tasting the air. The long taproot squirmed against her palm, seeking an opening.
“It’s been grown from seed and watered with my own blood. It’s a fair payment.” She still had no idea where Sorcha had gotten the seed for her; she’d been afraid to ask.
The greener accepted the squirming snakeroot, holding it with practiced ease. “So bargained,” she said, with a brisk and business-like nod, then went to serve her next customer.
Hawthorn examined the soft, fleshy chamber-fruit resting in her palm. It seemed impossible that such a small thing should be so heavy, or that anything so important could be so fragile. She wrapped it carefully in a delicate scarf she’d brought along just for that purpose, tucked it into her sling and took a deep, fortifying breath before stepping back out into the street.
The wood-grower was much harder to find; the search took her into the truly under-hill part of the city, where the light took on a perpetual-twilight glow, and the lanterns were already burning though it was still the middle of the day. It hardly seemed a place for growing trees, but when she rounded a corner she found herself at the very end of the lane, confronted with the glassed-in wall of a massive greenhouse.
Back home, in what seemed now like another world, greenhouses were hot. They soaked in sunlight and trapped it, keeping their contents in a comfortably temperate state year-round. In this greenhouse, it was gently snowing, flakes drifting down from a haze of clouds gathered against the glass roof.
The place was filled to bursting with trees, but none of them had leaves. Every branch was winter-bare, though the world outside was warming into spring, and the trees grew in odd, twisting ways, with gnarled joints, strange sproutings, and clusters of twigs where none should have grown.
“Good day,” said a soft voice behind her.
The man looked young, with a clear, pale face, but the silky hair brushing his shoulders was white, and there was something in his posture that looked like he should have been old and stooped. His clothing, too, looked like the attire of an older man and more worn than the fashions that others had been wearing in the streets. His black apron was purely utilitarian, contrasted by a glimmer of bright polished silver at the pockets, where the filigree handles of tools waited to be put to use.
Unlike the greener, his smile seemed almost welcoming, if still a little calculated. “How can I help you today?” he asked, and seemed to truly want to know.
Hawthorn took the chamber-fruit carefully from her sling, unwrapped it, and held it up for the wood-grower’s scrutiny. “I need its complement.”
He moved closer and grasped her wrist with cold fingers, to turn the chamber-fruit around without touching it himself.
“I believe I can accommodate you,” he said, picking up a shining silver tray, and led the way deeper into his indoor forest.
He began with the smallest of the trees, a neat row of miniature saplings in little white-glazed pots. Each branch received careful scrutiny, until finally the wood-grower dipped his hand into his apron and emerged grasping a pair of scissors with a dainty little cutting end and big, flamboyant handles in the shape of a leaf.
Carefully and deliberately, he began to trim pieces from his trees, placing each cut-off on the silver tray, then moving on to the next plant. Hawthorn could detect no particular rhyme or reason to his selections; why he chose to prune this tree or that rather than reaching for the nearly identical one beside it, but he moved with purpose.
He worked his way to the older and larger trees, trading in his delicate little scissors for a heavier tool. The wood crunched beneath the pressure of his ornate clippers like cracking bones, but he hummed a quiet little tune to himself and seemed almost cheerful about the methodical dismemberment.
When he was finished, he laid the silver tray, piled with strange wood, on top of his work table, presenting it to Hawthorn with a flourish.
“This, I believe, is what you require,” he said, and stood back politely as Hawthorn examined each piece, turning them over and mentally rearranging them, trying to determine whether everything she needed was there.
“It will do,” she finally said. In truth, she could not know whether every last piece that she needed was accounted for, not without spending a great amount of time examining and arranging each little length of wood. Time that she did not have.
The wood-grower nodded graciously and picked up a folded cloth from his work bench, tipping the sheared wood into the center of it. He tied up the corners to form a neat little bundle and passed it to her, watching with sharp eyes as she stowed it carefully in her sling.
“Now, I believe payment is owed,” the wood-grower said.
She looked down at her hands, her fingers scarred from rough stone and slipped knives, clay still clinging beneath her fingernails from her work the day before.
“The smallest one,” she said, holding up a fist with just the little finger of her right hand extended.
He squinted at her, then drew that same set of silver pruning shears from his apron. “So bargained,” he said, and with a kind of terrible gentleness, just as he’d cut each delicate branch and twig from his own trees, he snipped her finger off at the joint.
It may have been the pain that made her sway on her feet, or it may have been the rush of jubilation. He must have known exactly what she needed his goods for, but he hadn’t pushed for a better price and hadn’t demanded more of her blood and bone. She would have given it, and gladly. A finger was nearly nothing to pay for that precious little pile of wood.
He was kind enough to wrap the wound for her too, before he turned away to bury her severed finger in one of his little pots.
Her next stop was by far the most difficult to find. She let her feet guide her at first, but her path seemed to wind in strange directions and loop back upon itself until she worried not only that she would never find the place she sought but that she might never find her way out of Underhill again. If the laneways she’d wandered before had seemed to be cast into perpetual twilight, here in the hill’s shadow the world descended into permanent night. There were lamps burning, but their blue-tinged flames reminded her of fool’s fire, the twinkling sprites that infested the forest outside the safety of the city walls and led travelers away from the path.
She stopped in the middle of a close, turning to find her bearings, and the shop she’d been looking for was suddenly there behind her, sitting innocently along the street where she’d just come from, as if it had slunk in cat-like while her back was turned.
The darkness made the toy shop’s windows appear that much brighter, with warm lights glowing from within and brightly colored displays arrayed invitingly with children’s toys of every size, style, and description. It was an eerie sight in the silence and the gloom; she’d been in Underhill for what was nearly the entire day but had yet to see a single child.
She pushed open the door, a little bell jangling cheerfully at her entrance, and stepped inside.
“Hello, hello!” called the proprietor cheerfully. He dusted his hands together, as if he’d been interrupted from some invisible task, and met her just inside the door. “I bid you welcome to my humble shop. Is there anything particular that I might help you to find? I have many wonderful toys, from this world and others beyond it—under hill, over hill, the wriggling space between them. Oh! I have just the thing for you, I’m sure of it.”
He bustled away again, searching a set of shelves behind the counter, which were crammed full of toys of every description. The whole place was filled with other shelves just like them, listing slightly under the weight of their contents. The place should have been cheerful, filled as it was with toys, but it had only given that impression from outside the window; inside, it was dim and cluttered, not so much a child’s playground as a collector’s hoard.
“Ah, here,” the shopkeep said, turning around with an object in his hands, which he unveiled with a flourish.
It was a little dragonfly, made of tiny clockwork pieces, with wings of metal filigree so fine it was a marvel they didn’t bend just from the shopkeep breathing on them. He raised it up near his face, turned some mechanism at the toy’s tail end, and it whirred gently to life, wings fluttering seemingly of their own accord.
“Marvelous!” the shopkeep said, apparently riveted by his own wares. “Is it not marvelous, my lady? An appropriate gift for any child, but especially wondrous, I should think, for a little human across the river, who has never seen a toy such as this. It’s wonderful of you, to journey to Underhill just for a special gift.”
His dark eyes glittered like edged flint in the lantern light.
“It is a beautiful thing,” Hawthorn conceded, and it was; though the shopkeep hadn’t so much as re-wound it, it was just barely hovering now over his palm. “But I’m afraid I’m after something different.”
She could already picture how the dragonfly worked, how it really worked, not the mechanism of it but the intention. It would flutter, and fly, and absolutely dazzle, until eventually it led an enraptured child right across the Bough Bridge and into Underhill.
She’d seen no children, but there were plenty who went missing every year; every parent had a whole collection of cautionary tales, though they weren’t always heeded. No child had ever returned, not even the ones who had traveled in the company of their parents, and the tradesmen had learned not to bring any young assistant with them when they delivered their goods to Underhill.
Hawthorn suppressed a shiver and said, “I need fine marbles.”
“Oh, of course, of course, I won’t be but a moment,” the shopkeep said, spinning around on his heel to put the dragonfly back and examine his shelves all over again. He placed a couple of boxes onto the counter, then disappeared deeper into the store, muttering to himself.
Hawthorn was only just holding in the shiver that wanted to rattle its way out of her body; whether it was the shop that made her dizzy or the loss of blood and lack of food, it hardly mattered.
“Here we are,” the shopkeep said, rounding the counter again and placing another half-dozen boxes on the surface. He removed the lids from each one, revealing a dazzling variety of marbles in all shapes and sizes, a few of them full matching sets—she put these aside immediately—and others a mismatched hodge-podge of smooth little stones.
“If I might look through them myself?” she said, hoping to escape his steady stare and search in peace for exactly what she needed.
He only said, “Of course,” and took a single step back, his eyes never leaving her, apparently with no intention of letting her alone.
She tried to ignore him as she sifted one-handed through the boxes. Some of the marbles were plain, like the ones any child from across the river would play with. Others were compelling, as if they were urging her to hold them in her hand, and those she had to nudge away, though she found her eyes straying to them time and again. There were marbles that looked like an array of stars trapped in glass, marbles with objects at their centers—clockworks, little balls of silver filigree, a tiny delicate skull—and one that shone softly with its own light.
Finally, her fingers touched a smooth white stone marble, its surface translucent; inside, where the light caught it, shifting shades of blue seemed to move as she turned it in her hand. It was moonstone, she knew that much, and not a terribly expensive one. She could feel that it was right, and she also knew that she could afford it.
She tucked it into her palm and kept sifting through the box until she found its twin. Then she set the two of them very carefully on the counter-top and said, “These two.”
The shopkeep’s smile widened into something nearly leering, looking at the pair of them.
“And for your payment, my lady?” he asked.
She pulled a carving from her sling and held it out over the counter, balanced on her palm. It was the likeness of a horse, long enough to span her hand from heel of palm to fingertips. Its neck was proudly arched, chin drawn to its chest, powerful haunches rippling and hooves arrested in mid-motion. Its surface was stained a deep red, finely oiled to a glistening sheen as if its exertions had left it slicked with sweat. Its eyes were little black beads of onyx, set with masterful care into delicately crafted sockets. It looked almost as if it could come to life and step down from her palm. Every line of it was designed as a prayer for strength, but Hawthorn had learned in the making of it that prayers were worthless.
This was the last of her bargaining goods. It would have to be enough.
She said, “It is carved by my own hand, and blessed with my own blood.”
“Well, I don’t know,” the shopkeep said, squinting at it. “It’s a bit of a plain thing, isn’t it? Please, don’t misunderstand me! It is a lovely little object, for what it is, and clearly crafted by a skilled hand, but do you think it a match for these?” He waved his hand at the two fine moonstone marbles, their surfaces shimmering.
Hawthorn blew out a breath. “It is a gift never given, and steeped in thwarted love. It is richer than you give it credit for. And I know very well that moonstone is not so precious as this.” She stretched her hand out to him, a clear offer for him to take the object, and he delicately lifted it from her palm, turning it this way and that in his slender hands, his fingertips brushing over each carefully carved line. She’d carved it for a loved one, and it pained her to see it in the hands of a stranger, but her quest in Underhill was as much about letting go of the past as it was about creating a new future. The things had had been precious to her mattered little next to that.
“The craftsmanship is magnificent,” the shopkeep conceded, his perfectly manicured fingernail tapping hollowly against one of the stone eyes. “I commend you, my lady, for your skill. But I think... no.”
He held the horse back out to her, smiling a sharp, cunning smile.
She was tempted not to take it back, to insist on its worth, but in Underhill such an action would be considered unforgivably rude, and that wasn’t something she could afford. She took the horse back with hands that felt half-numb and put it back mechanically, fumblingly, into her sling. She’d kept her right hand in her pocket before, but now she exposed it, like a fool, the bandage still bloody.
“Oh, come now, my lady,” the shopkeep said, in a gentle voice that rang utterly false, with that parody of a smile still fixed on his face and his eyes latching immediately onto her wounded hand. He leaned over, elbows on the counter, trying to create a sense of intimacy that she certainly didn’t feel. “Please don’t fret. I’m quite happy to make a bargain with you. I only require some other form of payment. As you can see here, my shelves overflow with toys like yours. To trade trinket for trinket would hardly benefit me, would it?”
He knew exactly what she needed those moonstones for. And he had to know how desperate she was to have them. Unless she was willing to return another day, to try to find another toy shop like this one, to acquire another chamber-fruit after the one in her bag inevitably rotted—
No. She needed a bargain today. It was the only option she had.
“What price would you ask, then?”
He leaned a little closer, tongue wetting his lips, expression turning flirtatious. “Only your name, my lady. I wish to hear it fall from your sweet lips.”
She swayed, growing dizzier and more disoriented by the moment. She had to strike the bargain and get out; she felt she was beginning to suffocate in the musty air.
“My name is Hawthorn,” she said.
The shopkeep frowned. “I mean your true name,” he said, with a little affected pout. His voice deepened, and his smile seemed to soften, losing its sharp edges. “I only wish to know you, my lady, as women so beautiful do not enter my shop every day. I am enchanted by you. Will you save me from my misery?”
“My name is Hawthorn,” she repeated, even as the shop seemed to waver before her eyes. The lights had been brighter, she was certain, only a moment ago. She looked down and found fresh blood seeping from beneath her bandage.
“Well,” the shopkeep said, and rocked back a little, as if to give her space, gentleman-like. “I understand your reluctance, of course. You must have many suitors pining away for you, on your side of the river. Very well, then. I insist that you take these marbles as a gift, to remember me by, and perhaps one day you’ll be tempted to return and consider me. I am only a humble shopkeep, of course, but I would offer you every treasure I possess.”
“You flatter me,” she said, but his was the sort of hollow praise that was deployed for manipulation, with no sincerity whatsoever. “But I would never take advantage of your hopes. I’m already married, I’m afraid. I insist on offering you a proper price.”
His game ruined, the shopkeep sighed and rocked back further, bracing his hands against the counter, the charming façade dropping away. The air in the shop seemed cleaner when it entered her lungs, the lights glowed a little brighter, the slow and dizzying spinning in her head settled.
“Well,” he said, “how disappointing. I suppose we can settle on a suitable price. Perhaps a favor, to be redeemed in the future?”
“A dance, then. There will be a procession and a fête tonight, in the square. If you would do me the honor—”
“I cannot,” Hawthorn said.
Hawthorn shook her head: no.
The shopkeep tapped his long fingers against the counter-top and regarded her as if he could stare into her soul. Perhaps he could.
“A man recently visited this shop,” he said at last. “This man selected a very special toy for his first-born son and offered me his seventh-born daughter in payment.”
Hawthorn tried not to gape, but she wasn’t entirely successful. “That’s reprehensible,” she said.
“It is,” the shopkeep agreed. “I accepted the bargain, of course. A child deserves better than such a father, don’t you agree?”
“I suppose it depends on what ‘better’ entails,” she said, cautiously. “What exactly becomes of a child bargained away to the fair folk?”
“We cherish them,” he said, with a soft little smile that seemed almost genuine. “Though we may come by them through somewhat unconventional means. I think that you of all people may understand that.”
“I do,” she conceded. “But why have you told me all this?”
He sighed, leaning back against the shelf behind him. “It is merely to say that I understand you,” he said. He grinned again, that same disarming, lopsided grin that had probably turned many a customer’s legs to jelly. “And that I admire your stalwart negotiation skills. You have worn me down with your considerable charms. Give me the damned horse.”
She traded for her prize and kept her head up until she’d exited the shop. Then she staggered sideways into the wall outside, letting the cold stone prop her up just for one long, weak moment. The pair of marbles glinted in the palm of her good hand. She was a little stunned to be holding her prize at all; she stared at them as if somewhere in their milky depths the secrets of the universe might reside. Perhaps it was merely the dizzying pain, but she felt almost as if they stared back.
By the time Hawthorn made it back to the main square, the half-light had begun to give way to true darkness. In the gathering dusk, everything she had seen in the square only that morning was so much duller, the shine rubbed off. Whether she was becoming immune to it or the fair folk were simply tiring after a long day of projecting an image of flawlessness, she could not say.
She had no time to dwell on it, regardless. She had one last errand, before she could finally return to her own little piece of the world and let her real work begin.
She approached the bridge but didn’t step onto it, turning instead to descend along its side, following the pilings down toward the river. In the shadow of the bridge, the dark water churned in strange, unsettling ways; eddies formed where there should have been none, hints of some unseen obstruction beneath the water. She searched the bridge’s underside, scanning among the cross-beams, but there was no sign of the troll.
She stepped off the worn-smooth collection of stones that formed the high-water mark and onto the wet bank. Now that she was nearer to them, she could see other people already toiling in the same way that she intended. Whether they were human or fair folk, she could not say; the half-dozen of them were naked and covered head to toe in streaked mud; only their steady movements showed them to be living things and not statues. They looked up as one and stared at her until she found just the right spot, a few yards up the riverbank, and dropped to her own finely dressed knees in the mud. She unbuttoned her cuffs and rolled her sleeves up to her elbows.
All of the others went back to their work, apparently satisfied that she was one of them, and ignored her entirely.
The ground along both sides of the bank was a strange milk-white, with the faintest blue cast. As working clay, it also required no processing at all: no sieving, no drying and crushing, no reconstituting; it came from the ground somehow miraculously ready to use. When she pinched a bit of it up and rolled it between her palms, it was the perfect mixture of silky-smooth and elastic. On the opposite side of the river, she could see the human clay-cutters working, their massive spades cutting the bank in ready-made blocks that they’d sell on to other artists—ones much richer than Hawthorn. That bank was badly eroding, receding as the clay-cutters chopped it away bit by bit, but she doubted they’d ever start venturing across the bridge to take their cuts from the Underhill side. They aggressively defended their own stake to the riverbank, but they also performed warding-off hand gestures each time they so much as looked across at the far side of the water.
At home, it would take a month’s savings to purchase a single block. In Underhill, the only cost was the artist’s own labor in cutting it free. For her masterwork, the most important piece she’d ever sculpt in her life, no other clay would do.
From her sling, she removed a hand spade—one of her wife’s, normally used to tend their little window box full of vegetables—and began to cut into the wet earth.
She was sweating by the time she was done, gasping with exertion, and her now-filthy bandaged hand was singing with a whole new level of pain, but she had a block of clay, just the right size and utterly flawless. Pale mud streaked up her arms to the elbow, stark white like chalk against the darker tones of her skin, and it felt almost like a mark of honor, the result of hard and honest work.
She carefully packed the clay in with the rest of her bargains and re-tied the sling carefully across her front, where she could wrap her arms around her precious cargo to prevent anything from being broken.
Then she stood on wavering legs, pain roaring through her hand, hunger twisting her stomach, and walked back up to the bridge to make her way home. She could put Underhill behind her at last. The day was nearly done, but night was only just beginning, and her most difficult task lay ahead of her still.
Sorcha wasn’t on the landing this time, but the door to her rooms was standing open, waiting, so Hawthorn let herself inside. She was crouched on a little stool, mending a shirt by candlelight, but she looked up as Hawthorn came in.
“Name yourself,” she said, wary.
“My name is Josina,” Hawthorn replied, and felt the false name drop away from her like a cloak discarded. She put down her bundle, too, very carefully, and felt a far greater weight than that of the clay lift from her shoulders.
Sorcha stood, crossed the room in three swift strides, and threw herself into Josina’s arms, heedless of the mess. “You’re late,” she said, her voice choked with almost-tears.
“You should have seen the way people looked at me, muddied and wild-eyed. I’ve never seen anyone in this city make way so quickly.”
Sorcha choked out a laugh against her throat, then stood back, grasping Josina by the shoulders. “You’re hungry,” she said. “You sit down, and I’ll bring you food. I’ve laid out a tarpaulin, and your tools.”
Josina waved her away, moving instead to the space Sorcha had set aside and the cluster of lanterns lighting it. She laid her burdens down and began to draw out her prizes. The bundle of twigs cast strange shadows on the wall, and within the marbles something seemed almost to move.
“I’ll eat when it’s done,” she said, settling in cross-legged.
She began with the wood, laying it out in careful, painstaking order. She’d studied the shape she needed to make for weeks in a book stolen from a client’s library. Now that she was confronted with the task, she found that it came easier than it should have: twig to branch, little jointed pieces fitting easily into their places. She secured them with carefully shaped little pads of clay, and when she was finished, it all held together somehow. The last piece had hung from its tree like a hollowed gourd, but it was undeniably skull-shaped. A separate piece, utterly symmetrical and perfectly formed, fit into place as a hinged jaw. There were two empty eye sockets like beetle-bored holes; she dropped one marble into each, and it seemed as if the skull was staring back at her, waiting.
The true fever of it took her then. In clay she formed flawless organs, one at a time, perfectly veined, and laid them in their places within the wooden skeleton: lungs packed up beneath the ribs, then liver and spleen, roped intestines, every part that she knew by name and by instinct. The heart she left for the last of the organs, gingerly unwrapping the chamber-fruit and sliding it into its place beneath the breastbone. She rolled out what felt like ten thousand ropes of clay of every size to be veins and arteries, and she began to connect each one to the next.
“Roots,” she said, after a time, not even looking up. “I need roots. The plants from Calla’s window box. Can you bring them here?”
She heard Sorcha leave, then voices across the hall, heavy steps back as Sorcha returned with the entire window box and dropped it with a thump against the floor. Moments later, an answering thump-thump-thump came from Madame Henrique’s rooms below, and Josina paused her work, remembering the scratching tread of the troll beneath the bridge.
It was Calla’s voice that snapped her back to the present, her wife, and Josina looked up as she entered. Calla was already in her nightgown—or perhaps had never gotten out of it—and she drifted into the room like some sort of vision, sharp-eyed and present in a way she hadn’t been for some time.
“What on earth is this?” Calla asked, stopping short to survey the absolute mess that Josina had somehow managed to limit mostly to the tarpaulin. Now there was soil spilling across the floor from the planter box; Josina couldn’t bring herself to care.
“The roots, Sorcha, the roots,” she said, her hands already rolling out slabs, knife cutting the careful shapes of muscles. “Knock the dirt off and rinse them.”
She didn’t look up to wait for a nod; just heard Sorcha move to do as she’d been told.
“What are you doing, Josina?” Calla asked again, coming closer, peered down at the work on the tarpaulin, the delicate skeleton made of wood. “Is that...”
The words trailed into silence. Josina could feel the moment that Calla realized exactly what the piece was becoming.
Josina finally stopped. She looked up at her beautiful wife, the light of all her days. She felt as tender and raw as the day she’d proposed. Just as it had been then, Calla’s face had gone pale, her hands covered her mouth, her eyes were overflowing with tears. It had been happiness that time; now, Josina could not say exactly what Calla might be feeling.
“It’ll be a strange child,” Josina said, gently. She braced her hands against her knees; the maimed one felt as if it was on fire, the wound soiled by grit and clay, but she didn’t allow herself to favor it. She couldn’t have Calla fussing over her, not now. “It won’t be like us. It won’t be the precious one that we lost. But it will be ours.”
She didn’t move to begin her work again, even though Sorcha was returning with whole plants, wet white roots dangling from clenched fists. Josina had been too frightened of giving her wife false hope, but now even with the child lying half-formed before her, she would stop, if Calla told her to.
Calla stared at the little clay-packed skeleton on the floor, wiped her eyes, sniffled, and leaned down to kiss Josina.
She said, “How can I help?”
The roots were laid as nerves, a single long taproot sliding down the knobby hollowed branch of the spine, the thin slabs of muscle arranged carefully in their places, then there was more clay smoothed on top of that, until the sculpture on the floor was the flawless image of a baby. It was the most intricate, delicate work that Josina had ever done.
“Is it finished?” Calla whispered, as if the stillness of the room was something sanctified.
“Nearly,” Sorcha said, gently, and held out the fine little silver scissors from her birthing kit, the one she used to cut umbilical cords when babies were ready to be untethered.
Josina took them and unwound the bandage from her hand, supposing that the wound could probably not be made worse. She wiped the area clean with a wet rag that Sorcha offered, then prodded it with the closed tip of the scissors until fresh blood welled up. She held her hand over the clay baby’s mouth and let the blood drip inside.
Calla’s voice cracked on a sob when she said, “Oh, Josina,” staring down at the place where Josina’s finger used to be. She took the scissors when they were offered, though, and cut a little slit in her own finger, letting her blood fall just as Josina had done.
“That’s all,” Josina said, letting herself slump against Calla’s side, both of them huddled together on the floor. She felt as if the room was spinning, very slowly; she supposed she ought to clean up and lie down, but they were nearly done. She looked to Sorcha again. “You said you knew the way to finish it.”
Sorcha nodded. “A craftsman of the fair folk could do it,” she said, “but so can I. I’m a midwife, I’ve breathed life into many a child before. This won’t even be the first one made out of clay, though it is the finest. I could perhaps refer some of my childless clients to you.” She dropped to her knees, but she hesitated. “You’re certain? Both of you?”
Calla nodded, eager now, and Josina said, “If you would. Please.”
Sorcha leaned over and pressed a long breath between the little sculpted lips. There was an odd sound, like a bellows sucking in air, as if the force of Sorcha’s breath had blown the solid clay lungs hollow, and the baby’s chest rose.
Sorcha sat back, her normally stoic expression cracking with a smile.
The baby took another hitching breath on his own, and another, and his pale blue-tinged flesh flushed pink. Then he opened his little mouth wider and wailed with a voice bigger than his body.
Calla let out a sob, leaning immediately forward to snatch the baby up, holding him against her chest, crying and rocking and shushing him all at once.
Josina wrapped her arms around them both, weeping into Calla’s shoulder, releasing finally all of the apprehension and fear of the day in an overwhelming rush.
Perhaps one day, their son would hear the faerie music, cross the Bough Bridge to the place of his origin, and never be seen again. But now, today, he was theirs to keep.