Magic Can Be Murder

Chapter 4

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Chapter

What would be a good thing for them to think?

"It's all right, Mother," she said. "They won't beat you. They know it was an accident."

Could they be convinced that her mother was terrified of being beaten for clumsiness – that they had misunderstood what she had said?

"Death," her mother repeated, but not so frantically. Even more encouraging was chat her mother appeared to know her.

"No one means to kill you," Nola said, and opened her mouth to weave a story about a time when an irate chatelaine had threatened –

But her mother destroyed any possibility of excuses by saying, "Death stands by him."

And Kirwyn, of course, picked that same moment to stop haranguing them, so that Nola's mother's words sounded loud and clear, like the clang of a leper's bell. There was no chance of anyone misunderstanding that.

"What?" Kirwyn said. Then, even chough Nola's mother had snaked her arm around Nola and was clearly pointing at Kirwyn's father, he asked, "Who?"

"You think you see Death standing by my side?" Innis asked, in a voice that was remarkably calm for the circumstances.

"Of course not!" Nola's mother snapped. "I don't have second sight, do I?"

"Then what – ," Nola and at least two of the others in the room simultaneously started.

"Abbot Dinsmore has second sight," Nolas mother said, obviously exasperated with all of them. "Abbot Dinsmore started saying the Mass of the Dead. For him." Again her finger shook in Innis's direction.

Nola smacked her mother's hand away, hoping that she gave the appearance of only raising her own hand to reassuringly caress her mother's check. Who in the world is Abbot Dinsmore? she wondered. But even as she wondered she knew. She'd never heard the name before, but she knew. Not a new voice, not now. It was always worst when a new voice started: "They keep pushing and shoving for room," her mother would complain, smacking the side of her head. "Stop shouting in there – I can hear you perfectly well."

Now, still trying to save the situation by covering it over with a babble of words, Nola said innocently, "Abbot Dinsmore? You mean that poor demented pilgrim we met along the way, who mumbled away in Latin half the time, and…" – she partially turned to address Innis – "he thought he was a priest, though I doubt he ever was, and he was saying snatches of novenas and – "

"Nola!" her mother rebuked her. "We never met anyone like that. What gets into you?" And she sounded perfectly rational, except that she pointed to her head and said, "I'm talking about Abbot Dinsmore who lives in here with the rest of them, of course. And he gets glimpses into the future, and as soon as he saw che silversmith over there, he began to say the Mass of the Dead."

And how could anyone cover up a statement like that?

To Innis, Nola's mother said, "I'm so sorry to hear you're going to be dying soon."

"Perhaps," Innis said, only somewhat shakily, "it would be best if you left – both of you."

It was Alan who stood up for them. "She's just an old woman whose wits have begun to wander," he said.

Nola nodded vigorously. "She means no harm."

"I realize that," Innis said. "But practically on the eve of my wedding…" He shook his head. "Ir isn't lucky."

How could she begin to argue with that?

"But they've worked all morning." Now it was Brinna who protested. Brinna, who would once more be on her own to prepare the house for the new bride.

Innis said, "They may eat before they go."

Even Kirwyn, who had whined so of their hire, had a good word, of sorts. "How will Brinna ever manage on her own before Sulis arrives?"

"I have spoken," Innis announced.

And chat was the end of that job.

BESIDES GIVING them lunch, Brinna packed food for them to take. "I know what it is like to be hungry," she told them.

So Nola and her mother once again walked all night-fall, and when they stopped they were in the town of Saint Erim Turi, which was bigger than four or five of Hay market.

Nola liked big towns. People of wealth who were disinclined to hard work often congregated in such places, and it was usually possible to find someone to take them in.

It was also easier, she comforted herself, to lose yourself and not have people notice you.

She began to relax, confident at last that they were far enough away and in a big enough town chat no one would come cracking them down – not Innis, who in any case did not seem apt to, nor the blackberry farmer from Low Beck.

The blackberry farmer from Low Beck.

Standing in the middle of the street as they looked for a good place to spend the night, Nola thought for the first time of the bucket in the silversmith's root cellar, the bucket bespelled with a strand of che blackberry man's hair in it, and everything che blackberry man did acting out in the water there.

Oh no, she thought. Oh no, oh no, oh no.

"What?" her mother asked, for Nola had stopped so suddenly that her mother had to come back to fetch her.

"Nothing," Nola managed to breathe out.

"Oooo," her mother said. "If that's nothing, I'd hate to see your face when somebody walks over your grave."

This was not a settling thought, no matter how you looked at it.

Calm down, Nola urged herself. No need to panic. Nobody was likely to see the bucket set up where it was, or hear the sounds that came from it.

Not overnight, Nola berated herself. Not for a few hours. Not for a day.

But eventually.

Eventually.

How long before someone stumbled across it? The silversmith's new bride, perhaps, exploring every little corner of her new home?

Unlikely, Nola tried to convince herself. Innis's bride was starting a new life. There would be so much else to see, so many other demands on her time.

And time – Nola tried to reassure herself – might as easily be an ally as an enemy. There hadn't been that much water in the bucket. And – in one of those everyday kinds of magic no one could explain – water left out eventually went dry. How long would it take for this particular water to go away, taking the dancing shadowforms with it? A week? Two? Three? Four? The bride – Sulis was her name, Nola remembered – Sulis wouldn't even arrive for almost a week. And surely Brinna and Alan would be coo busy with wedding preparations to notice a bucket with a bit of water in it beneath a rag under the stairs of the root cellar.

You're a fool, Nola told herself, a fool And you deserve whatever happens to you for being such a fool.

But she didn't really believe chat.

She became aware that her mother had put her arms around her. Her mother was rocking Nola, humming the same calming lullaby that she used for the baby in her forefinger. People were watching them with various expressions, the most friendly of which was wryly amused.

"I'm fine," Nola assured her. But of course she was lying.

Chapter Five

TAVERNS WERE LIKELY places to find work. On busy nights a tavern keeper was often happy to trade meals and a bed for help in preparing or serving food and drink, or for cleaning up. Even on slow nights many tavern keepers could be convinced to let someone eat what food was left over and sleep in the stable.

Of course, Nola knew from experience that tavern keepers were more eager to hire serving girls her own age than her mother's. And she told herself she was not in the least bitter that they were most eager of all to hire a serving girl if she had – for example – hair the color of ripening wheat, as Brinna did, rather than hair more the color of dried grass, the way certain other people did. Such a girl was likely to be popular among the men being served. With such a serving girl the men might stay longer and order more drinks, which would make the tavern keeper happy and more inclined to keep the girl on, and perhaps her odd mother, too. And men might give rips to such a girl, which she and her mother might save for leaner days.

But it also meant fighting – without looking as though you were fighting – to keep men's hands off you, and all in all Nola preferred not to put on a glamour of soft golden hair anc a magically enhanced figure. Better to look like her own drab self – though her mother, of course, insisted she wasn't drab. But everyone knows mothers can't see straight when it comes to their daughters.

Nola and her mother stopped at a tavern with the unlikely – and, Nola thought, unlucky – name of the Witch's Stew. Still, it was well situated and appeared to be busy and lively. Almost every stool and bench was taken, and people were continually calling, "Edris, more mutton here," or "Edris, my cup is empty." Edris had to be the large but brisk and efficient woman who seemed to be in charge. The clamor itself was encouraging; even though che woman was handling things well, the pace had to be exhausting.

"Excuse me," Nola said in a moment of relative quiet. "Your name is Edris?" Not a brilliant opening, but adequate. Before the woman had a chance to say more than "Aye," Nola continued. "My mother and I, we've heard good things about your establishment – "

There was an old man she'd already noticed sitting in the corner by the hearth, his gnarled hands clutching a cane as though he was about to stand, though he looked too frail to get far. Now he showed he wasn't nearly as fragile as he looked; he thumped the cane on the floor and corrected her, " My establishment. I built this place with my own two hands when there was nothing here but a road through the forest."

The woman, Edris, rolled her eyes, though Nola couldn't guess why. "My father," Edris said, "Modig."

Whoever had built the place, Edris was obviously in charge now, but before Nola could continue talking to her, the old man went on: "This was after the floods in the south that came in the year of the pestilence, but before the war between the king and his brother, the one who had no sense about women."

Nola didn't know anything about the king, but she certainly thought she would have heard about a war. She wondered if the man was talking about the previous king. Still, she quickly saw she couldn't spend too much time trying to work out every specific thing that the tavern keeper's father said, because then she could never keep up. Already he was saying, "So I said to myself, 'Here I have been in the king's army' – because he had called us up to help in the city, what with the bodies stacking up faster than they could be buried, and the water rising, so of course he sent for Lord Gimm's men, of which I was one because my father had put me in service as he himself had a back that gave him trouble ever since he was a child, harking back to the time the barn door fell on him because his own father had been drinking the day he put the barn up, and – "

"Old man," Edris said calmly though firmly, "they're not interested."

"They asked," the old man protested.

"They did not," Edris told him. To Nola she added, "If you insist on being polite, I assure you smiling every once in a while and nodding is more than enough. Truly. He takes the fact chat you're in the same room as encouragement. And if you leave the room, he'll call out after you to make sure you can hear from wherever it is you've gone."

"That's not true," the old man said. "Well, not all the time."

Edris continued, "The only way to get him to stop is to take his cane away from him and thump it on the floor and shout, 'Enough, old man,'"

Despite the fact that the words could have been harsh, the woman's tone was affectionate, so Nola did not feel at all sorry for the old man as he repeated sullenly, "It's my establishment," but simply recognized it as his determination to have the last word.

"Aye," the daughter agreed, "that it is, but I am the one to whom falis the day-to-day running of the tavern." Once more she gave her full attention to Nola. "What did you want to ask me?"

Just when it appeared chat Nola would finally be able to state their business and learn if they had a place to spend the night, her mother spoke up. She asked Modig, "Was it the king who had no sense with women, or che king's brother who had no sense with women?"

"Ha!" the old man cried. "Either! Why, I remember a time – "

"Father!" Edris said in exasperation. "It makes no difference. They're both dead now, dead and gone."

"Well," Nola's mother said, to Nola's dismay, "of course, there's dead, and then there's dead and gone. And sometimes somebody starts out as one, and ends up the other, or sometimes it's the other way around."

"Exactly," Modig crowed triumphantly. "So there I was, fresh from my service to the king…"

Nola was desperately trying out different excuses she might use, but Edris waved her hand in a dismissive gesture at her father and Nola's mother, and she said to Nola, "It's good of your mother to humor the old man. So many of his friends are dead."

"I know," Nola answered earnestly, "exactly what you mean."

"Are you looking for work?" Edris asked. "Is that what I should take you to have been asking? If so, you're a godsend."

"We are looking for work," Nola said, amazed that twice in a row now she hadn't had to beg, or even to ask. Of course, she hoped this would turn out better than their short stay at the silversmith's house.

"If you can help me in here," Edris said, and then leaned closer to add, "and if your mother can keep my father from, well, from annoying the customers with his long-winded accounts of times past, this could work out well for both of us. You see" – she looked embarrassed to admit this – "I love him dearly. But he can actually drive customers away with his chattering about the old days. And your mother looks to be – well, not his age, but closer to it than most of the people who come in here. My niece and her husband do most that needs doing in the kitchen. If your mother could help out, just a little, just light work, and once in a while – she doesn't even need to listen to the old man – maybe just nod occasionally and say, 'Yes, yes…'" Edris drifted off, looking as though she expected to be rebuffed.

"If nothing else," Nola assured her, "my mother is a very good listener."


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