The Thirteenth Tower
Emelyn awoke, as always, in darkness. She lay still, savoring the quiet solitude. She felt hidden, protected, and, for just a moment, like she existed someplace else entirely. The house above her would fade away, and in that heartbeat she could imagine that she had a family, that she was loved.
But it was only a moment.
Fearing the inevitable rebuke if she was found loitering in bed, Emelyn cast off her blanket and put her feet to the hard earthen floor. Her room had no windows, only a pallet, a table large enough for a candle and cup, and a chest containing her few possessions.
She walked to the chest and pulled out a change of clothes. Her fingers brushed against the fabric of her fine muslin dress that she wore for special occasions. Tonight was the Harvest Festival; she might get to wear it, provided she finished all her chores. Her heart felt heavy at the thought of missing yet another one. Fallow’s yearly festivals were rare occasions where she almost felt happy.
She smiled at the thought of all the dancing and food and people that the festival would bring. Derron would probably be there, too, and she smiled all the more as she pictured his quirky grin—
A cold shiver struck the image from her mind. She drew a long, shaking breath and, suddenly eager to leave the darkened room, Emelyn wriggled out of her nightdress and pulled on a working dress. She slipped on a pair of stockings and reached into the darkness to where she knew her boots to be. She tied an apron around her waist and, using her fingers as a comb, tied her hair back with a ribbon as she walked through the door.
She made her way across the sprawling darkened basement. High on the wall, cracks of light peeked through shuttered windows. Emelyn pulled back the wooden slats, allowing dim morning light to fall into the room.
The Mansell residence was one of the grandest houses in Fallow. Emelyn reminded herself that she ought to feel grateful for living there. She knew of servants who would have been eager to trade positions with her. Such knowledge ought to bring her comfort, but it never did.
She knelt in front of the hearth and scooped out the previous day’s ashes into a metal pail. Restocking the fireplace with wood and kindling from a nearby box, she set it aflame with the help of a tinderbox. She had managed to get the fire burning when a bell near the staircase rang. Emelyn started at the sound. It would be Miss Cook—the master and mistress rang either Miss Cook or Tilly when they needed something. But why would she ring? Wiping her hands on a corner of her apron, Emelyn hurried up the stairs.
Pale light streamed through the leaded windows along the outer wall of the kitchen. Miss Cook stood at a table in the middle of the room, kneading a ball of dough. She was a sturdy woman with a thick oxen-like neck and hands like mallets. Her formidable frame always made the dresses she wore look out of place, bordering on ridiculous.
“You took your time,” Miss Cook said as she worked. She picked up the dough and cast it back onto the floured tabletop.
“Yes, Miss Cook.”
“I need you to run over to Mr. Hibberly’s and fetch some eggs. There were none to be had in the henhouse and the mistress requires onion custard with breakfast.”
“What about the water?” Emelyn had not yet put the morning washing water on to boil.
“Tilly will see to it. Mr. Hibberly won’t have opened shop yet, so be sure to knock loudly and tell him it is a matter of emergency.”
“Yes, Miss Cook.”
“And no dillydallying.” Miss Cook stopped kneading long enough to point a thick, doughy finger at Emelyn. “You head straight there and back again. We’ve a lot of work to do and I’ll not have you idling about.”
Miss Cook needn’t have told her, especially today of all days. “Yes, Miss Cook.” Emelyn fetched a woven hand basket hanging from a shelf, then walked to the door and hung her apron on a peg in the wall. From another peg she took a knitted woolen shawl that she wrapped around her shoulders.
The morning was sharp and dewy, and the chill air bit at Emelyn’s skin like pinpricks. She drew the shawl around her as she hurried down the path leading to the road. They lived on the outskirts of town, and Fallow was about fifteen minutes away by foot.
Emelyn walked by prim clapboard houses and painted fences. Smoke drifted from chimneys, spicing the chill autumn air. She passed farmland and fields, some dotted with newly harvested grain that had been bundled and left to dry. In the distance, the tall shadow of the Magister Tower spiraled out of the surrounding forest like the tail of a great serpent.
Fallow was constructed in a globular fashion, with cobblestone roads that led like spokes in a wheel to the town square, which in this case was distinctly circular. Shops and businesses lined the streets, the most prominent among them found near the center—Mr. Hibberly’s store among them.
Rounding a corner, Emelyn came upon a little girl peeking in the window of Mr. Wainwright’s carpentry shop. The girl had long, dark hair and wore a dress of rough leather with colorful little beads that clicked when she moved. On bare feet, she stretched to her tiptoes as she peered through the glass.
“Hello, there,” Emelyn said.
The girl turned and looked at her but gave no reply. Her eyes were grey like the clouds overhead, much like Emelyn’s own. They looked striking against her dun-colored skin. Emelyn had thought her own skin dark, but now felt fair by comparison. The girl regarded her, unfazed and unblinking. It was… unsettling.
“Are you all right?”
The little girl said nothing. Then she turned and ran down the street, her dark hair trailing behind her like wild shadows.
Emelyn watched her run, listening to the click-clack of the beads as they faded into silence. She lingered a moment, staring at the empty road before she continued walking. The girl must be a traveler here for the festival. Yet Emelyn still worried for the lone child in the cold with no shoes.
She made her way to Mr. Hibberly’s shop and rapped on the door. When no answer came, she rapped again as hard as she dared, her cold hand stinging from the effort. After a few moments, a pale face appeared in a window in the door, distorted by the thick, cloudy glass. The door cracked open and Mrs. Hibberly poked her head out, her long nose and protruding mouth reminding Emelyn of a large rodent venturing out of a hole in a wall.
“Yes? What do you want? We’re closed, you know. Come back later.” Giving Emelyn no time to respond, she shut the door.
Emelyn knocked again. The door reopened to reveal Mrs. Hibberly’s withering, weaselly glare.
Emelyn curtsied in hopes of lightening that scowl. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but Miss Cook sent me over from the Mansell residence. It seems we’re out of eggs, and Mistress Mansell was expecting onion custard this morning. Would you happen to have any on hand?”
Mrs. Hibberly said nothing, peering at Emelyn through the crack in the door with her dark, beady eyes. After a lengthy moment of uncomfortable silence, the door swung open and Mrs. Hibberly motioned for Emelyn to come inside.
The morning light streaming through the front window of the shop was too weak to illuminate the vast room. The pigeonhole shelves that lined the walls disappeared into darkness as they stretched towards the ceiling. Sacks and barrels cluttered the floor in shadowed heaps while a wrought iron ladder clung to the wall like some great skeletal beast. The air was heavy with the aroma of leather and spices, oil and dust. A familiar smell, one that brought Emelyn comfort.
Mrs. Hibberly picked up an oil lamp burning on the counter near the door. She held it to Emelyn’s face, peering at her with narrowed eyes. “You’re the little whelp that got left on Torrence Mansell’s doorstep all those years ago.”
That Emelyn had been abandoned as a baby hurt her more than she ever let on. The notion that she was somehow abnormal, unworthy of the love of her own parents haunted her. It was a thought she struggled to keep buried, but it was always there, deep down. A nagging fear that she was, and always would be, inadequate. Love could never be anything more than an unattainable idea, a fanciful feeling of which the likes of her would never know.
But she kept dreaming. Emelyn still hoped she would one day find her parents. It was a day in which all her questions would be answered; a day in which her heart would feel whole.
“Yes, ma’am.” Emelyn shifted her feet, uncomfortable under Mrs. Hibberly’s critical gaze.
“Raised by Merridan, of all people. Hmph. I knew her before she had a last name. I shouldn’t have thought her capable of raising a child.”
Emelyn blinked. She was unaccustomed to hearing Miss Cook called by her first name.
Mrs. Hibberly pursed her lips together as she continued to peer at Emelyn, looking her up and down. “I suppose you turned out well enough. Though you’re bigger than you ought to be. How old are you, girl? Thirteen?”
“Seventeen, ma’am.” That’s what she figured, anyway. Birthdays were never celebrated at home, at least not among the servants. But Miss Cook had told her she was ten the year she officially started working for the Mansells, and that had been seven years ago.
Mrs. Hibberly grunted. “Haven’t amounted to much, have you?”
Emelyn stiffened her back and set her jaw, grateful when a door at the far end of the room opened.
In walked Mr. Hibberly, holding a candle to light his way. He wore a gold and blue striped vest that stretched at the seams over his rotund body. His long mustaches grew along his jowls and to his ears, giving him a perpetual grey, bushy smile.
“Well now, what have we here?” Mr. Hibberly said as he strolled over to his wife. “Why didn’t you tell me we had company?”
“She’s not company,” Mrs. Hibberly said. “The girl needs eggs for her mistress’ breakfast. Apparently it’s too important to wait until a decent hour.”
“Well! Why didn’t you say so? You’re in luck, my dear girl, as we have eggs aplenty, kept especially for this moment!” He gave a flourish of his hand and bowed slightly at the waist, undoubtedly all that his ample frame would allow.
Emelyn smiled behind her hand, not daring to laugh under the scornful gaze of Mrs. Hibberly.
Mr. Hibberly turned to his wife. “I can take over from here, my darling. You get dressed while I help our young customer and then we can breakfast together before opening shop. It’s going to be a busy day today, I reckon, what with the festival and all. You best rest up while you can. Off you go!” He escorted Mrs. Hibberly to the door leading to their residence while her mouth worked in silent, wordless protests. He swept her through the door.
With the matter of Mrs. Hibberly resolved, Mr. Hibberly turned to Emelyn, boasting a bright, toothy smile broad enough to match the grey, bushy one. “Now then, Miss Emelyn, about those eggs. I’ve about a dozen, will that suffice?”
Mr. Hibberly shuffled behind the counter and rummaged through a crate filled with sawdust. “They should still be nice and fresh. I bought them about a week ago from Mrs. Troller, but they have been kept cool and secure in the sawdust there.” He took Emelyn’s basket and filled it with sawdust. He then added the eggs, arranging them so they wouldn’t break. He handed the basket back to Emelyn.
“Will you be going to the Harvest Festival tonight?” he said.
“Maybe. If I can get my chores done.”
“Well, you best get to it, then. They say this year’s festival is to be the best one yet. Wouldn’t want you to miss it.”
Emelyn quailed inwardly at the news. It would be her kind of luck to miss the biggest and best festival the town had seen. She was even more eager to get home and get on with her chores.
Mr. Hibberly said, “I’ll put the eggs on your bill, as usual.”
Emelyn nodded. “Thank you.”
She left the shop and hurried through town. She had nearly made it home when two men in scarlet robes appeared on the road ahead. Her breath caught. Magisters.
Magi were imposing figures, unmistakable among the common folk of Fallow with their long red robes, embroidered with intricate patterns in gold thread. One had long white hair woven into a single braid; the other was bald with a round pair of spectacles perched upon his nose. Emelyn was tempted to turn around and head back into town, anything to avoid walking by them. But she was pressed for time, and the rumors were surely nothing more than idle chatter, spread about by bored housewives and unscrupulous servants. She didn’t have anything to fear.
Still, Emelyn tensed as the Magi walked by and, when the bald man looked at her, she averted her gaze. She glanced at the distant Tower. What business could the Magi have in the outskirts of Fallow?
She reached the house and followed a pebbled walkway around to the side entrance. Tilly was there, shaking out a carpet from upstairs.
“Emmy,” Tilly said. “Did you see the Magi pass by a little while ago?”
Emelyn nodded. “I walked right by them. One of them looked at me.”
“Really?” Tilly gasped, feigning fear. “Why do you think they’ve come all the way out here?”
“Maybe they’re here to steal children,” Tilly whispered. “Like the old wives say.” She giggled.
Emelyn frowned. She didn’t find such jokes amusing.
“Oh, Emmy! You’re always so serious!”
Emelyn forced a smile. Tilly was her dearest and only friend, but sometimes her antics were tiresome. “We should get back to work.”
Tilly’s merriment faded. She continued shaking out the carpet as Emelyn stepped inside the house.
Once she had left the eggs with Miss Cook, Emelyn set about doing her daily chores. She worked as quickly as she could, determined to get everything done in time for the festival. Luckily, the master and mistress weren’t entertaining that night. They sometimes did on festival days, making a grand event of the occasion. Such events always made it impossible for Emelyn and Tilly to get away.
Emelyn swept and scrubbed, dusted and polished. When mealtimes came around, she took them in the kitchen with Tilly and Miss Cook, as she always did. Mealtimes were generally quiet—Tilly never dared gab when Miss Cook was around. But today they were even more terse than usual. Emelyn was eager to get on with her work and get it done; she suspected Tilly felt the same.
Morning passed into afternoon and then to evening. Emelyn was in the basement, up to her elbows in hot soapy water washing a pile of dishes, when the bell to the kitchen rang. She cringed. The hour was growing late and she still had to finish the dishes, help Miss Cook with supper, clean up afterwards, and anything else that might need doing. She hoped that Miss Cook wouldn’t choose tonight to clean and take inventory of the larder, or mention the pile of clothes that Emelyn still needed to mend.
She wiped her hands on her apron and rolled down her sleeves before heading up to the kitchen.
Miss Cook stood at the table peeling potatoes. “Mr. Witherby has slaughtered a couple of chickens for supper tonight,” she said when Emelyn walked in. “I need you to go out and pluck them.”
Emelyn wrinkled her nose—she hated plucking chickens. “Yes, Miss Cook.”
“Best be quick about it.”
She stepped outside and passed through the hedged garden until she came to the henhouse near Mr. Witherby’s cabin. He was close by, pulling weeds from a flowerbed and casting them into a wheelbarrow.
On a chopping block lay two white chickens, their necks broken. Emelyn picked one up and, crouching to the ground, began plucking out the feathers. She worked quickly, eager to have it done.
Faint music drifted on the air, a sweet melody tinted with a strain of sadness. Emelyn paid it little mind, thinking it was Mr. Witherby whistling. But as the music grew louder, she could hear that it was an instrument and not whistling lips that produced the melody. She stood and looked around. Mr. Witherby was also on his feet, looking around as he scratched his head. Emelyn, straining to listen, heard the distinctive pitch of a fiddle. She smiled. It was probably someone from the festival, playing as they walked along the road. She crouched back down to finish plucking the chickens so that she, too, could attend.
Mr. Witherby passed by, his gaze fixed straight ahead as he wandered out of the garden. Emelyn frowned. It wasn’t like him to shirk his duties, especially for something so frivolous as music. She told herself to keep working, to focus on the work at hand and get it done. Yet she remained still, watching the hedges where Mr. Witherby had disappeared.
Maybe she would take just a quick peek. Emelyn hastened through the garden, following the music as it lilted through the air. She rounded the house and came upon a group of people trailing behind a lone fiddler. Mr. Witherby was there, walking alongside Miss Cook, who was swinging her skirts, gadding about without a care.
Emelyn stopped and gaped. Miss Cook never attended the festivals, nor was she one for carousing of any kind. When Emelyn saw Tilly in the crowd, she ran after them.
“Emmy!” Tilly clasped her hands to Emelyn’s arm a little too firmly. “We’re going to the festival! Won’t it be grand?”
Emelyn frowned, looking at Tilly’s flushed cheeks and glazed eyes. She looked unwell. “I don’t understand, I thought we were to finish our chores first.”
Tilly laughed. “Don’t be silly! We’re all here, even Miss Cook. When we get there, I’m going to buy one of Mr. Cowan’s meat pies and I’m going to dance until I fall!” Tilly twirled around.
Miss Cook, seeing Tilly, also spun around, her skirts flaring outwards as she laughed like a girl half her age.
Emelyn stifled a gasp. She started to back away when Tilly grabbed her arm.
“I bet you Derron will be there,” Tilly said, a playful spark in her eyes. “Everyone knows he’s sweet on you.”
Emelyn scowled as her face burned.
Tilly laughed again. “I bet he’ll ask you to dance. Maybe even kiss you.” Tilly pulled Emelyn close and pressed her fevered lips against Emelyn’s cheek.
Emelyn jerked free, wiping her cheek as Tilly laughed and moved on. She looked at the others. There was Mr. Gatwick, the dairyman, walking arm in arm with their neighbor, Mrs. Bower. Master and Mistress Mansell were parading like peacocks as though they were in the Queen’s entourage. The music trilled, quick and merry like a warbling songbird. But something within the notes made Emelyn want to cry, calling to mind memories best left forgotten.
She walked ahead to look at the fiddler. It was a woman, dressed in a pale, gauzy dress that did nothing to conceal her lithe body. A bone mask in the shape of a deer’s head hid her face, with antlers that twined and branched high above her brow. The fiddle she held at her shoulder was little more than a piece of twisted wood, the green leaves growing from one end hinting that it shouldn’t have been able to produce sound at all.
Emelyn stopped walking as her curiosity congealed into a cold shiver of fear. This was all very wrong. Why didn’t the others see it? Did they even care?
She returned to Tilly. “We need to go.”
Tilly latched back onto her arm. “Don’t be silly! We’ll have so much fun. You’ll see.”
Emelyn swallowed the lump rising in her throat. She wanted to pull away and run. But the fevered blush in her friend’s cheeks gave her pause. Tilly was ill, and oughtn’t be out in the cold. She needed someone to look after her and, like Emelyn, had no one else.
Emelyn let herself be pulled along. Maybe it was nothing; maybe she was overreacting and Tilly was right—they’d have lots of fun. That was what she told herself as they walked down the road. Yet somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to believe it.