The Shewstone - Prologue

The boy laughed in Matt's face. "Give me that."

"It's mine."

"No, it's not. You stole it."

So what if this was true? He was not the one Matt had stolen the fish from, and he had no right to take it. She took a step back, clenching the fish to her chest.

The boy was at least four years older than Matt, and a foot taller, with straight black hair, dark brown eyes, and light brown skin. He was scrawny, dressed in rags so tattered you could count three ribs in the gap between his shirt and pants. His face was screwed in a mean, hard sneer. In short, he looked just like all the other street children—just like Matt herself.

Except Matt knew she was that bit hungrier. The last time she had eaten was the morning before, a few mangled cabbage leaves, scavenged from rubbish at the market. Today, she had been watching fishermen unloading their boat when they were distracted by a drunken brawl. It was her chance to snatch a fish and make off. Despite being raw, it was the nearest thing to a decent meal she had seen all month, and Matt was not about to give it up.

The sound of movement stopped Matt before she could take another step, and the boy's sneer got broader. He was not alone. Matt twisted to look back. Two of his friends stood there, posing like grown-up rowdy boys. All three were bigger and stronger than Matt. One-on-one, she would still stand no chance in a fight, but could they outrun her?

The leader was the soft target. Matt could read him easily. He was a blowhard who thought she was going to roll over and give up, a puffed up bully when the numbers were on his side. The friends were too dim to do anything other than follow.

Matt let her shoulders slump, just enough to let him think he had won, then she charged, driving her elbow into his stomach. He curled forward, his mouth a big circle, like he was about to spew. "Ooof."

Matt threw everything she had into a roundhouse kick behind his knees, taking his feet from under him, and then she was off.

At the corner, she stopped to glance back. The friends had helped their leader to his feet and waited until he had enough breath to tell them what to do. Matt had known they would not be able to work it out for themselves. Now the chase was on. The boys wanted the fish, and probably revenge. Matt raced away from the quay.

The road took her up the hill, and then through the alleys and winding stairways of Fortaine. Matt knew every street in the city, but so did the boys, and with their longer legs, they were gaining on her. Matt had to shake them off. She darted aside, heading to the main road up from the docks.

The High Street was its normal hectic rat run of horse-drawn carts. Matt ducked around one, hurdled the tailgate of another, and rolled between the wheels of a third. This was where it went wrong. She got through with no worse than a bruise and a scrapped knee, but she dropped the fish and dared not go back for it.

Matt ran on until she was sure the boys had given up the hunt. Maybe they stopped to pick up her fish. Matt hoped not. She would rather it squished under a wheel than the bastards get it, but either way it was lost, and she would go hungry another day. Matt slumped against a wall, getting her breath back and refusing to cry. Never show you are upset, even when nobody is there to see.

She was in a part of town she did not normally visit. The maze of narrow-ways around the docks was her home. The only times she left were to scavenge in the markets or to try her luck with the mansions high on the cliffs, with their ocean views and more food thrown away than honest folk could put on the table. Trouble was, they also had armed guards who saw street folk as no better than rats. Some children who went to the high cliffs never came back. Vermin control, they called it.

The chase had taken her to the middle ground of quiet streets and comfy, well-guarded homes belonging to merchants and master craftsmen. The buildings were tall and brick built, with heavy wooden doors and bars on the ground floor windows. Walking along, Matt caught the sweet scent of flowers and perfume. Then she caught something else, a smell that hit so hard it made her gasp—fresh baked bread, just like Ma would make.

A rutted track cut between two buildings, leading to the rear of the houses. Some way down, a donkey cart was drawn up at a gate while the deliveryman chatted. The other man looked like a rowdy boy, hired muscle working as a guard. Normally, Matt would have backed off, but he carried no more than a staff, and the bread smelled so good. She sidled closer, reeled in like a fish on a line. The cart held a basket full of bread and wheels of wax covered cheese. Lumpy sacks suggested apples or potatoes. The barrels could be flour or beer. She recognised fish crates from the docks.

Matt's stomach squeezed so tight it hurt. Her mouth watered and she had to swallow. Her eyes were glued to the food. She could not tear them away, and all the while she edged nearer.

"What do you want, kid?"

The harsh voice broke in like a slap. Matt was almost in touching distance. The deliveryman also stopped talking to look at her.

More habit than anything else, Matt stuck her thumbs in her ears and waggled her fingers while poking out her tongue. The guard made a half-hearted attempt to cuff her ear, but Matt ducked out of range.

Both men snorted with contemptuous amusement, then deliberately turned their backs. The deliveryman leaned his elbow on the cart, just to make sure Matt knew who owned it and that he had his eye on the food. She stood no chance of reaching in to grab anything. They would spot her and she could not outrun them, but Matt could not let the food go. She dropped to the ground, just out of their line of sight, rolled under the cart, and clung on.

The deliveryman eventually finished talking and urged the donkey through the gates. The cart stopped in a yard between the house and the garden. Matt remained hanging to the underside of the cart, even after the man's legs vanished into the house.

Matt peered between the wheels. The garden was split into sections, a neat kitchen patch on one side, with rows of vegetables and herb borders, and an overgrown flower garden on the other. At the back were wooden sheds and iron railings. Matt guessed they were dog kennels even before she heard the barking.

The deliveryman returned, along with another pair of stockinged legs. Matt matched them to a woman's voice, most likely the cook. The cart shook as something heavy was pulled off. Matt hesitated. Sneaking inside had been gut instinct. It could get her into big trouble, but was the risk any worse than starving?

The two pairs of legs returned to the house, going through a different door this time. Matt crawled out silently and followed the food down stone steps to a cellar. By candlelight at the far end, the deliveryman dumped his sack in a corner and adjusted its position to the cook's liking.

A row of barrels were lined up inside the entrance, with just enough space for Matt to squeeze behind. By the time the two adults were on their way back, Matt was crouched in a dark corner, wedged between the barrels and the wall.

After ten minutes, all the food was stored and the deliveryman left for the last time. Matt heard a metallic clunk, like a key turning, then cook and candle came back though the cellar and left through an interior door.

Matt was alone with more food than she had dreamed of. The cellar had no windows, but enough light squeezed under the door for Matt to make things out, once her eyes adjusted. Footsteps creaked on the floorboards overhead. There were also muffled voices, but it did not seem as if anyone was coming. She crept from hiding, guided as much by smell as sight.

The crust of the bread was rough in her hands. It broke open, releasing a stronger wave of the wonderful smell that had first snared her. But it was as nothing next to the taste, the flavour of sunlight on farmland, rich with yeast and wheat. The crust crunched between her teeth. The soft dough melted on her tongue. The act of swallowing was a dream. Matt took another mouthful, then clawed off a chunk from a wheel of cheese. The next few minutes were devoted to the glory of filling her stomach. Even if she got caught, she could die happy.

Next, Matt checked the door to the outside, but as she guessed, it was locked. Her only way out was through the house, and that would have to wait until everyone had gone to sleep. Luckily, security was designed to keep thieves out, not in. Matt was sure she could find an upstairs window to drop from. In the meantime, she claimed two crisp apples from an open sack and returned to hiding. With her stomach full for the first time in months, Matt drifted off to sleep.

She was woken twice by people getting supplies, but nobody came near the barrels. The next time Matt woke, the cellar was pitch-black and the house was silent. Working by touch, she stuffed a small loaf of bread, another chunk of cheese, and four apples inside her shirt, then edged open the door to the rest of the house.

A wooden staircase took Matt to the kitchen. The fire was damped down for the night, but still gave enough light to see. Another narrow set of stairs climbed one wall, most likely going to servants' rooms at the back of the house. Matt ignored them. Any window overlooking the garden would not be a good escape route if the dogs were let out at night. Two doors led from the kitchen. A band of light shone under one, so Matt picked the other.

The next room was a dining hall, dark and deserted. The only other exit from here also had light on the opposite side, and when she pressed her ear to it, she heard voices. Matt thought of going back to the cellar for another hour, but now she was moving, she wanted to be gone.

A musician's gallery hung over the end of the room. Matt scrambled onto a table, and the wood panelling provided just enough fingerhold to climb the rest of the way. Up above was so dark she had to run her hands over the wall to find the way out. Matt inched open the door.

A wide balcony ran around three sides of a large hallway. Light from below wobbled across the plaster ceiling and poked through the railing but did not touch the back wall. The voices were clearer now, although still too low to make out the words. Matt edged over and peered down. Three men stood talking in the tiled entrance below, one of them holding a candlestick.

Matt did not know or care who they were or why they were up so late. The street door was what grabbed her attention. Now she knew exactly where she was. The room at the end of the balcony would overlook the main street, and if it was the one of the men's bedroom, her best chance was to get out now.

Matt crept along, keeping to the dark side of the balcony and making as little noise as possible. Just as she reached the door, the tone of the voices changed. Light and shadow jumped across the ceiling. The men were moving, climbing the open staircase to the upper floor, and bringing the candles with them. With a second to spare, Matt slipped into the room before she was spotted.

Moonbeams fell across a large desk rather than a bed. It stood four-square in the centre of the room, covered with papers. Cabinets and bookcases lined one wall. A large casement window jutted over the street to Matt's right. She ignored it and darted across the room to the smaller window opposite, only to discover it was locked, and the voices were getting louder and louder. They would not want to read books this late at night, would they?

Moonlight glinted on a penknife. Matt snatched it up and dug at the catch. Then the doorknob rattled and candlelight flooded the room. A shout came as the catch popped. Matt shoved open the window, ready to dive out, but too late. A hand grabbed her shoulder, hauled her back, and threw her to the floor. She half scrambled up, until a swinging backhand sent her flying again.

"Stop that." A strong voice.

"It's a thief." The man standing over Matt spat out the words. Was he the homeowner or a guard? He was muscled and hard-faced like a rowdy boy, but his shoes were too lightweight to deliver a real kicking, the rowdy boys' favourite way to pass on their employer's messages.

"Yes, but I don't mind thieves."

"Even when they're stealing from you?"

The blow had set Matt's head spinning. She squinted at the first speaker, still standing in the doorway. He was the smallest of the three, but clearly the boss. Everything about him was neat and trim, from his beard to the square set of his shoulders. His clothes were expensive. The light shimmered over his red silk shirt and glinted off gold rings.

He laughed. "If they're good enough to steal from me then they deserve whatever they can get." He waved his hand. "Let the boy up, and we'll see what he's stolen."

"Not a boy," Matt said. She flexed her legs before standing, to make sure they would hold her, but refused to rub the side of her head. Never show you are hurt.

"Ah. Indeed." The boss's smile broadened.

"Bread, apples...cheese!" The shapeless lump fished from Matt's shirt was what remained after her fall.

"Food. Which I'd say she needs more than I do." He paused, tilting his head in thought. "Go down and tell the boys to wait a minute, while I talk to our young thief here."

Once they were alone, the man placed the candlestick on the desk and sat, studying Matt.

"Would you like to introduce yourself?"

"Matt."

"Which is short for?"

"Matilda."

"Pleased to meet you, Mattie. My name is Edmund Flyming."

Matt's mouth was open, ready to correct him. Only Ma called her Mattie. Nobody else was allowed, but the words stuck in her throat. If she had known whose house it was she would never have dared break in. He must like thieves, a third of them in the city worked for him, along with the fences, grifters, footpads, and smugglers. He also ran brothels and gambling dens. Things did not go well for folk who upset him, though street tattle claimed he was a fair boss and a man of his word. He sparked loyalty in his followers, fear in his enemies, and respect from most others.

"Where are your parents?"

"Ma ain't around no more." Matt chewed her lip, wondering how much to say. "Pa would get drunk and hit her. One night was really bad. I hid, and next morning, Ma was gone. Pa said she'd run away."

"Did your father used to hit you as well?"

Matt nodded.

"So you ran away too?"

"Wasn't that. My big sister, Emmy, got pregnant."

"He couldn't hold you responsible."

Matt shrugged awkwardly. "He was the one that did it. After Ma went, Pa started paying attention to Emmy. When she got big, he started looking the same way at me. I wasn't going to end up like Emmy, so I ran."

Something dark, angry, and dangerous flitted across Edmund's face, but not directed at her. "How old are you, Mattie? Nine? Ten?"

"About that, I guess."

Edmund steepled his fingers. "As I'm sure you know, Mattie, I employ thieves, good ones. And you're clearly a good thief. Would you like to come and work for me?"

Matt drew a deep breath, mostly from surprise. The memory of the food in the cellar was enough to sway her, and if she worked for Edmund Flyming, no jumped up bully would dare push her around. Before she could say yes, Edmund went on, as if she might need persuading.

"I know you know sometimes when men say they're being nice to young girls, they're not really being nice, as with your father and your sister. I assure you I've no such interest in children, and no time for anyone who does." He smiled. "You're a good-looking child. So maybe in another ten years I might feel differently, but only if you've managed to turn into a man."

Matt nodded. Edmund Flyming's taste in lovers was also common knowledge in the city. "Yes. Yes, I'd like to work for you."

"Good."

There was a knock at the door and a head appeared. "Are you nearly ready, boss?"

"Yes. And can you wake Pearl? I want her to look after my newest employee." Edmund stood and held out his hand. "Come with me."

Half a dozen men and a couple of women were assembled in the entry hall, large rowdy boys for the most part. The woman casually cleaning her nails with a knife put Matt in mind of whispered rumours about the handymen—handy at putting a blade between their victim's shoulders. But the one who stood out was a man with his hands tied behind his back and a sack over his head.

"That's Will," Edmund said. "He was supposed to be working for me, but he appears to have been doing some freelance work. I want to ask him about it." He crouched down so his head was level with Matt's. "But don't worry. As long as you play fair by me, I'll play fair by you. You can trust me."

Matt stared into Edmund's eyes. She did trust him. In that instant she knew it. She trusted him in a way she had not trusted anyone since Ma went.

A plump, middle-aged woman in bedclothes appeared. She toddled to Edmund's side, showing not the slightest surprise at the bound man.

"This is Pearl. She's going to get you a bath, a place to sleep, and clothes, more food if you want. And sometime you must tell me about your father, his name and where he lives." Edmund reached out and gently brushed the hair from Matt's forehead. "The world is an unfair place. Bad things happen to good people, while it can seem like bad people have all the luck. But sometimes even bad people have accidents."

~~~~~~

None of the adults used the word "money," but they had their code phrases for it. Eawynn had no trouble hearing what was really being said.

"I'd be honoured to show my gratitude to the temple," was her father's code for, I'll give you a lot of money if you take my daughter off my hands.

"Your piety does you credit," which was the priestess's code for, Thank you, and the more the better.

The priestess who talked the most was called Insightful Sister Oracle, sometimes with Most Reverend tacked on the front, to let everyone know she was extra important. The priestess sitting beside her was Assiduous Sister Treasurer. This priestess was also important, although she said nothing and did not smile. However, her eyes lit up every time Eawynn's father mentioned his gratitude.

Two other priestesses were present. One was Stalwart Sister Door-warden, who was clearly not as important as the oracle or treasurer and so did not get to sit down, even though there were spare chairs. She had escorted Eawynn and her father, Thane Alric Wisa Achangrena, to the meeting room. The last priestess was not even worth an introduction and stood ignored at the back. Eawynn also did not get a seat and stood beside her father's chair.

The priestesses all wore shapeless sea-green robes, held in place with a white rope belt. The material was coarse, heavy weave. They all had shaved heads and no makeup or jewellery or anything to make them look nice.

Eawynn did not want to become one of them. She wanted to stay in her father's house, with her own room; her nice clothes; her pony, Smudge; her kitten, Dumpling; her books and toys. She wanted to stay with Hattie in the kitchen to spoil her. She wanted things to stay the way they were. But what she wanted counted for nothing. Eawynn fixed her eyes on the wall and tried not to cry. She was not supposed to cry.

"I've kept the child with me, out of affection for her mother. A reminder of what we shared," her father continued. "But I've always known some day I'd have to make other plans for her future. The position is, you'll understand, delicate."

Delicate. That was another code word, one Eawynn had heard many times. Insightful Sister Oracle nodded, her face blank.

"Her mother and I..." Without looking, Eawynn knew the sad little smile on her father's lips. "We were young and in love. We were sure our families would approve the match. Both were of equal standing, but..." Her father's hand waved in a vague gesture, to convey the cruelness of fate. "My love's family had other plans. They kept the birth a secret. What could I do but go along with their wishes? But I ensured the child had a good upbringing, befitting her bloodline."

Eawynn bit her lip. The story was one she had heard before, and one Hattie claimed was completely untrue. According to Hattie, her mother had been a pretty kitchen maid. In those days, her father's sister had been thane, and her father had been free to live the life of a wealthy rake. A boating accident, two months ago, meant her father, unexpectedly, inherited the title. As Thane Achangrena, he was heir to an ancient and noble lineage, the equal of any on the Island of Pinettale. By comparison, Hattie was a cook, a servant, a nobody. No court of law would take her word against his, but Eawynn knew which one she believed.

From time to time, Eawynn would wonder about her mother, and what she had looked like. Her father had passed his colouring to her. Like him, Eawynn had the burnished red hair and pale white skin of the old Rihtcynn aristocracy. It allowed him to maintain the fiction of the doomed love affair with a noblewoman of good blood. But his heavy, drawn face, with squashed nose and narrow set eyes, was as different from hers as it was possible to get. How much did she take after her mother?

"She has received a suitable education for a girl of gentle birth. I'm assured she is an apt student. Although she turned six not a month ago, she knows her numbers and letters and speaks Cynnreord fluently. She can sing prettily and accompany herself on the lute."

Did they have lutes in the Temple of Anberith?

Again, Insightful Sister Oracle nodded, her face revealing nothing. "Her education will continue in the temple. I'm sure she'll become a most valuable member of our sisterhood."

"Yes...yes, quite." Abruptly, her father ran out of steam. He swivelled to face Eawynn.

She searched his eyes for a trace of the indulgent father she knew. Not that he had played much part in her life. He had always been kind, often generous, showering her with gifts, but mostly he had been absent, abandoning her to the care of servants. He was abandoning her again, but this time it was more serious. It was forever.

Eawynn almost gave in to the urge to plead, to beg him not to leave her in the temple. She was sure, if he gave Hattie a fraction of the money he was giving the sisters, the cook would happily take her in. However, being raised as a servant was not fitting for the daughter of Thane Achangrena, not even an unwanted, bastard daughter like Eawynn.

"You'll stay here and become a priestess of Anberith."

"Yes, Papa."

"It's a noble thing, serving a goddess."

"Yes, Papa."

"If you work hard, you'll do well. The sisters are very pleased you're joining them."

And that you're paying them so much. Eawynn nodded.

Her father stood. "Right. Well. Good day to you, holy sisters. My steward will be in contact."

Stalwart Sister Door-warden escorted him out of the room, and out of Eawynn's life.

"He hopes to fly high." Assiduous Sister Treasurer spoke for the first time.

"Indeed. He's clearly anxious to divest himself of anything that might drag him down." Insightful Sister Oracle's eye flicked in Eawynn's direction. "He might be a useful friend to the temple."

"Certainly if he pulls off the marriage to the Earl Blaedgifa's daughter."

"Yes. And I hear his prospects are very promising in that direction." Insightful Sister Oracle turned to Eawynn. "So, child. You're to join our community. Don't worry. It's a good life, as long as you're a good girl. Are you a good girl?"

"Yes, my lady."

"You should address me as Beloved Sister."

"Yes, Beloved Sister."

"She seems quick enough," Assiduous Sister Treasurer said.

Insightful Sister Oracle nodded. "Tells me your father you knowing of Cynnreord. Are you liking the language for speaking this?"

Eawynn struggled to understand what she meant, and not because the priestess had switched to the actual language. Her accent was appalling. Insightful Sister Oracle managed to make the flowing ancient words sound as harsh and vulgar as common Tradetalk.

Eawynn replied, also using Cynnreord. "Yes, Beloved Sister, it feels so much more poetic and cleaner."

"Well, he told the truth about that much." Insightful Sister Oracle reverted to Tradetalk, which she clearly felt more comfortable speaking. With her shaved head, it was impossible to tell the colour of the priestess's hair, but her skin was as dusky as any common labourer, or Hattie for that matter, although Eawynn loved Hattie and never held her base blood against her.

"Nurturing Sister Mentor will look after you and introduce you to the other girls in training."

The last priestess finally had a name. She came forward and took Eawynn's hand. "Come with me, child. I'll show you the dormitory where you'll sleep."

Eawynn looked down at their interlinked fingers. Nurturing Sister Mentor's skin was several shades darker than her own, yet she was still lighter than either of the more senior priestesses. Did blood and breeding count for nothing in the temple? Before she was taken away, Eawynn could not stop blurting out the question uppermost in her mind.

"Are you going to shave my hair now?"

For the first time, a smile crossed Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle's face. "Not until you finish your training and take your vows as a priestess. And that won't be for another fifteen years."

Jane Fletcher ~~~