“Drossel,” she said, taking the biscuits. She sniffed them, and the hot waft of air made the inside of her mouth water. “Smells good,” she said.
“Drossel, eh? North of here. I’m born and raised in Bernoth, me’self. These are a tradition in Bernoth.” She indicated the biscuits with a nod. “Hot Bernoth knobs. Best dainty in all these hereabout lands.” She smiled wryly. “And don’t give me no lip about baker’s knobs. It’s a joke everyone thinks is funny once, and I heard that joke a lot more than once. They’re called Bernoth knobs, and that’s the end of it. No jibes meant.”
She wasn’t sure how to take that. With a slightly embarrassed smile she said, “Thank you,” and stepped away. “It’s nice to hear a friendly voice here. It’s all so strange.”
“Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it dearie? Here, I did have a question for you though.”
“You did?” said Caewen through a crumbly mouthful of hot biscuit. It was sweet and salty, and had an undercurrent of a spice she’d never tasted before. Looking around, she realised that there was no one else in line behind her. She and the baker-woman were alone.
“Yes, Caewen of Drossel, I did. Now, what I wanted to know, dearie, is why did you turn down the offer of the Deathly One? It was quite the big lump of power to reject, and quite an honour to snub.”
The crumbs turned dry in her mouth. She swallowed what she had been chewing, and tried to gather her thoughts. The woman raised an eyebrow and started to tap time with her fingers on the table.
“Well? Are you mute all at once?”
“May I know your name, before I answer? Seeing as you seem to know mine.”
“Does it matter?”
“I think it may, yes.”
“Hmmm. And maybe it would.” She shrugged, dusted some flour over the table, and started kneading out a lump of dough. There is Herself of the Deathly, who you have met. And there is Herself of the Quickening, who brings about newness and life. And there is Herself of the Everlasting. That latter one, she is concerned with the preserving, the flourishing, the growing of things, the nourishing of things.” She thumped the dough down. “She likes them that nurture and grow. How is that biscuit, by-the-bye?”
“Very good,” said Caewen. It was. “What is the flavour? I’ve never had the like.”
“Tawny cinnum. It’s ground out of a nut that grows in hot jungles a long way from these cold climes. It is very expensive. But old lady Baint, who runs this little bakery-tent, she knows that sometimes good things take time, and expense, and genuine sacrifice. Even little cakes. If they are to be worth eating.”
“It is very nice. I will have to thank missus Baint when she is back in her own head, I think. I haven’t ever eaten anything that tastes quite like this.”
“Well, old Baint knows her work. Makes a good dough. Bakes a good biscuit. She is one of my people.” There was a flicker in her eyes, then, like light passing over a dark pool at the bottom of a glen. “Now, enough of the chit and the chat. I have been polite. You haven’t, I dear say. Need I remind you that I put a question to you?”
“Yes. That is true. You did. But everyone seems to be putting questions to me. I have a hard time keeping track of it all.” She took another bite of a biscuit as she considered her answer. She was not actually very sure what to say. It simply hadn’t seemed like a good bargain. To take power, but end up like the old man in the woods, mad, possessed, owned by some other, more elder voice. Finally, she shrugged and said, “My gut told me not to take it. It just didn’t seem that it’d turn out well for me. And besides, I don’t want power, not like that, not if it means always looking over my shoulder, or having to work awful bloody murder at the whim of some…” she waved a hand, “Spirit, goddess, whatever she is.” Then she added. “Whatever you are.”
“Hmmm. So and so, then. So and so. Well, I was curious. I will visit you more properly, in time. In a form that is more bodily my own. I may have more questions, even. For now, this will do. I imagine my other sister will wish to speak with you too. We were both quite curious about what our Bleak Sister saw in you, after all.” She fixed Caewen with a narrow, hard glance. “I don’t know if I see it myself, but I suppose there might be something there.” Then, the subtle light in her eyes fluttered away, like moths receding into shadow, and the baker-woman was left behind, blinking, a muddle of confusion lining her face. “What? Oh my. I seem to have had a turn.” She leaned against the table.
“Are you alright?” said Caewen.
“Oh, yes. Yes, luv, thank you.” She looked at the hot biscuits in Caewen’s hands, and then down at the collection of coins that she had on the table in front of her. “Now, how’s that for forgetful? I don’t even remember taking your coins, or dolling out your bready knobs. I am getting old. How are thems, the biscuits?” She brushed the coins into a purse, and shook her head.
“Very good,” said Caewen. “Thank you. I like the spice.”
“Well, I do put effort into the baking. As my mother used to say. If it falls to you to bake bready knobs for a living, you might as well bake the best darned bready knobs that there are.” She smiled. “I’ll be here throughout the moot. You want Bernoth knobs, you know where to find me.”
“I do. I will. Thank you, again.” Caewen walked away. She was still hungry, and greedily chewed her way through the rest of the biscuits. The sugar and the buttery, bread-yeast flavour calmed her angry complaining gut. Chewing and swallowing, picking out another of the small breads, she subsumed herself into the bodily experience of it, a distraction from her other dance of worries. For a few moments she had some peace in her head. Only when she was done, licking crumbs and slick grease from her fingertips did she think her way back to the strange goings on, the goddesses, apparitions, or whatever they were, that were haunting her. She rattled a hum around in her throat as she walked, wondering.
Strange spirits. Strange omens. Strange magicians. Rumours and more rumours. She looked about, at the stalls, the glowing lights, the weird market fair. Strange place.
So what did it all mean? One spirit in the woods. Another one here, possessing an elderly baker? The local divinities of the tor were clearly taking an interest in her, but why? Maybe they took an interest in everyone? Maybe they appeared often? She needed to ask around. Find out. Her shoulders rose and fell as she breathed deeply, taking in air, trying to push the thoughts out of her mind. In every yarn she had ever heard spun, spirits and gods were dangerous things. Capricious. Faithless. Often cruel. Her own experience seemed to confirm this. She wanted nothing to do with any such powers, but, she worried that she might not have much choice in this.
She was nearly half-way back to the russet and white tent where she had left Keru and Dapple with their host, when she noticed a familiar, nearly bald, round head bobbing along in the crowd. He was facing away from her. She was able to fix the back of his head with a stare, without needing to feel self-conscious about it. It was the old magician Fafmuir. He was walking along in his waddling, friendly little gait, hands clasped behind his back. Even across the distance, with people moving between them, she could hear him whistling in his beautiful, rounded and crisp whistle. He sounded so much like a songbird it was unsettling.
Caewen watched him amble. She wondered if she was imagining it, but it did seem as if he was going somewhere, quickly. It certainly looked as if he had a hidden purpose in his ramble. As she watched, she grew more certain of it. He was definitely going somewhere, cutting through the crowd. She felt a strong twinge of attentive interest. Where was he going in such a hurry? She rubbed the back of her hand across her lips, scraping away fine crumbs and the last grease of butter. With narrowed eyes, she moved after him, following.