Noga bent over her stitching, neck aching in fear of Gul Maes’ heavy cane coming down on her.
Seven days until Mistress Kelly was married off to Gul Maes’ brute of a son.
Noga kept her head down. Wasn’t safe to challenge someone like Gul Maes.
But with the prayers and dreams of the rest of the keep Noga might be able to stitch together hope that would save them all from Gul Maes’ watching eyes.
Stitched Lines, Watching Eyes
By Meyari McFarland
Noga bent over her stitching. The curve of her neck ached with tension, fear, the surety that a hand or a knife or that heavy cane was going to crash down on her exposed skin any second. She pressed her lips together, fussing with fine red fabric, delicate embroidered lace made of silk and gold, so that she wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t whimper, wouldn’t give anything away that could get her killed.
Her pincushion, bit of felted fabric old when Noga had gotten it, shaped it into a bracelet, felt as heavy as lead. So did the delicate little scissors resting against her thigh. Even the scarlet silk draped over her lap was as heavy as the whole world. Might as well be carrying Mistress Kelly’s whole weight there, plus her husband to be and that vicious mother of his, too.
Gul Maes. Old when her precious son was born, nearly fifty. She’d raised that boy to be ruler of everything he saw just like she was. Only one that told him no was Mama Gul Maes. No one dared tell her no, not for anything.
Marrying her boy off to a girl of fourteen when he was twenty-eight, nearly twenty-nine? Why, anyone who complained was just hateful and sinful to boot. Noga froze for a precious instant as Gul Maes shifted, slowly walked around Mistress Kelly’s trembling body so that she could look at every inch of the expensive lace being attached to the hem.
Heavy tread, each heel hit the floor like a drumbeat from Death’s barge captain. Noga kept her head down, carefully pinning the lace so that it would settle perfectly smoothly, flare out just the way Gul Maes wanted as Mistress Kelly walked up the aisle to marry Gul Maes’ beloved boy next week.
Next week. Poor thing.
Just fourteen and required to marry a man twice her age, one who couldn’t keep his eyes off other people, nor his hands. Noga’d had to deal with him twice now, had to slip away with protests about tasks for Gul Maes that couldn’t wait. Little Oluchi hadn’t been so lucky. She’d been dragged off to a store room, forced to her knees and made to service the man. Her mouth was still swollen, bruised.
Gul Maes stopped directly behind Noga. Her skirt whispered, still, stiff fabric billowing the cloying scent of lavender. It curdled on the back of Noga’s throat, gagging her as surely as that son of hers would have had he gotten her to her knees.
There was a tap as Gul Maes lifted her cane, set it back down again with a hollow thump that made sweat bead up on Noga’s top lip. Hands were getting too wet to handle silk but Noga did her best to be calm, controlled as she set the length of hem on her lap, carefully measured a bit of scarlet thread and knotted one end just as Gul Maes had directed them to.
Not as secure, not as big a knot to hold such heavy lace but Noga was sure that Gul Maes wanted the stitching weaker so that she could tear the lace off and use it again later. Also so that she could punish someone for failing to do their job right when it failed. Hopefully not in the wedding but Noga wouldn’t be surprised if it happened while Mistress Kelly walked up that aisle of silent watching people with sad eyes and lips pressed tight on the protests they didn’t dare speak.
“Be careful, girl,” Gul Maes warned. Tip of her cane pressed against the exposed flesh of Noga’s neck. “That lace is worth more than your life.”
“Yes ma’am,” Noga said and couldn’t believe her voice didn’t shake. Hands shook. So did her shoulders but her voice came out steady as the earth itself, steady as the stars cartwheeling slowly in the night sky. “I know ma’am. It’s lovely, ma’am.”
Gul Maes snorted, pressed harder, hard enough for pain to bloom, for Noga to bend closer to the fabric, her back straining, thighs screaming at the awkward position. Then she let go and Noga stayed right there for a long, long moment. So long that her knees went numb and she had to actually start stitching, thread pulled awkwardly out to the side or she’d poke her own eye out with the needle.
Finally, Gul Maes snorted and walked on around Mistress Kelly. She nodded, turned and slowly strode from the room. Noga could almost hear the others counting the hammering heartbeats, the slow thump of Gul Maes’ cane. Took near a hundred before Mistress Kelly turned her head and looked down at Noga.
“Oh, do straighten up, Noga dear,” Mistress Kelly said, breathless and tearful. “That looks so uncomfortable.”
“It is,” Noga agreed. She straightened a bit, not all the way, but enough so that she could sew proper. “That’s what she wanted. Doesn’t really care that the lace is properly stitched, Mistress Kelly. Would have us do it different if she did.”
“I hate this,” Mistress Kelly whispered, scarlet silk shuddering along with her. “I wish Father hadn’t given in. I wish they’d die or leave or something.”
“Does no good to wish such things, Mistress Kelly,” Noga said while the others murmured agreement, nodded, sighed, drooped a little at their tasks. “Wishes like that never do anybody any good.”
“Wishes don’t do any good,” Mistress Kelly sighed, just as defeated.
“Now, I didn’t say that,” Noga replied. “They most certainly do. Just have to be the right wishes, done the right way, in the right time.”
No surprise, all the girls, Mistress Kelly included stared at her. Noga kept on stitching. She felt the weight of their curiosity, their hope, their fears. Good. Nothing like that for making a wish-spell work. Not that Noga would tell them that it was magic they’d be crafting together. Oh no, that’d be stupid when Gul Maes might come back at any second.
“What’s the right way?” Mistress Kelly whispered.
She shifted nervously, bare feet shuffling on the stool she’d been perched on. Ridiculous that she’d be made to wear shoes with six inch platforms built into them just so the age difference wouldn’t be so obvious. Girl wasn’t even mature enough to have a bust yet, not that her mama had ever had one, even after birthing Mistress Kelly.
If she’d lived past the birth of Mistress Kelly’s baby brother, still born and blue as deep lake ice in winter, she’d have shown both Gul Maes and her predator of a son the door. Their Lord wouldn’t have bent no matter what.
Neither here nor there, though. They had what they had and that’s what Noga had to work with.
“Right way is prayers, Mistress Kelly,” Noga replied. She chuckled at the way everyone switched to glaring. Oluchi huffed and rubbed her mouth before returning to her portion of the stitching. “Oh, not that Gul Maes’ so-called god. The old Goddesses. Hayden and Yaroslava, twins of life and death, goddesses of dawn and dusk. The old ways had some right lovely prayers that when done properly with all your heart had nicely powerful results. They were wishes, requests to the Twin Goddesses. That’d work quite well.”
“I never learned any of those,” Mistress Kelly said and the reply was sad, pouting and as hopeful as a puppy under the kitchen table while meat was being cut.
“I should hope not,” Noga huffed, wagging one finger at her. “Nice young girl like you. Not proper for a girl so young to be learning such things. That’s for older women, grown women, you know. No, for you the prayer would be to the Mother Goddess, Lei. You’d ask her that she strike that man’s gems every time he looks at another woman, make his knob go limp whenever he touches someone he shouldn’t or when he touches you with harm in mind.”
“His…?” Mistress Kelly squeaked and then started giggling as she realized what ‘gems’ and ‘knob’ meant. “Noga, that’s mean!”
“Right and proper that he keep his eyes, heart and hands where they belong,” Noga said so sternly that every single one of them stilled. Even Mistress Kelly’s giggles faded. “Even more proper that he treat his bride with respect and honor. Man has no honor the way he’s been behaving but then with a mother like that…”
She let the sentence go and got nods from everyone. Myeong looked around Mistress Kelly’s legs for the first time. Cut on her cheek from Gul Maes’ beating the week before had healed, mostly. She still had a bit of a bruise but not too bad. Didn’t look like she’d scar, either.
“So how do you say those prayers?” Myeong asked. Looked towards the door as if afraid that Gul Maes would burst back in but hey, she asked. First time she’d asked anything since the beating.
“I can teach you lot,” Noga said. She snorted at their eager nods. “But they’re something to be done during the wedding, you know. Gotta ask the right time, in the right place. We’ll be having the wedding on holy ground, holy to Gul Maes’ god but also to the old Goddesses, too. So you can teach others if you want but the prayers have to be said at the wedding, quiet-like, under your breath. Doesn’t do to shout ’em. That’s like making demands of divinity and well. That’s just not right.”
Mistress Kelly clasped her hands in front of her lips, looking pleading down at Noga. Oluchi licked her lips and bowed over her stitching with eyes that begged. Even Myeong put one hand on the floor so she could awkwardly bow towards Noga.
“All right then,” Noga said. “You repeat after me and keep on stitching. Repeat it over and over in your heads as you sew. Best way to remember anything is to memorize it and we got plenty of time while we sew. Gotta practice believing the prayer as strong as you possibly can to make sure you do it right when the time comes.”
Noga thought of making up ‘magic’ words but that was just silly. Wish-magic like this needed to make sense so she just tried to make it prayerful enough that they’d believe it, that they’d work hard as they could to master the ‘old’ prayer.
“Mother of the World,” Noga murmured, looking over her shoulder just like Oluchi and Myeong did, “give us peace, love and faithfulness. Let my,” she paused and pointed to Kelly who nodded, then at Oluchi and Myeong who bit their lips, “her husband respect, love and honor her. Give us all a home full of your blessings.”
The others repeated Noga’s words, whispered low over and over as they stitched the lace onto Mistress Kelly’s skirt. No surprise, Mistress Kelly had the most fervor as she said the wish-spell. Girl damn near glowed to Noga’s eyes which made it all the easier for Noga to carefully wrap her wish into the thread, into the stitching, into the very fabric of the scarlet wedding dress and it’s heavy gold lace.
Took them two hours to finish attaching all the lace. By the time they were done the wish-spell had settled into the threads as though it had always been there. Noga smiled as she creakily stood, knees aching.
“Out of that now, Mistress Kelly,” Noga ordered. “You keep on practicing that prayer, all three of you. Might help if you think of working it into whatever you touch, like adding dye to cloth or carving it into a table. Won’t show but it can’t hurt.”
They carefully lifted the heavy dress over Mistress Kelly’s head, setting her free to pull on her normal green shift and brown skirt. Noga shooed the others away before gently hanging the dress from the temporary dress form they’d padded out of a hanger, a log and a lot of carefully sculpted wool.
“Done?” Gul Maes asked from the doorway.
“Yes ma’am,” Noga replied. “All done. It’ll be beautiful.”
She turned and bowed properly, straightened and didn’t respond to the narrow look in Gul Maes’ eyes. Noga didn’t allow herself so much as a flinch as Gul Maes came over, tread heavy and cane thumping against the floor like a war mallet ready to crush a skull. Knees surely shook as Gul Maes leaned close, studying the stitching that held the lace to the hem, especially when her lip curled as if she’d seen the wish-spell curling quietly inside of the fabric.
“Witch!” Gul Maes hissed at her.
“Why ma’am,” Noga replied, low and confident despite the threat in Gul Maes’ snarl. “Do you see something? How odd. Just looks like even stitching to me.”
Gul Maes’ head reared back and her nostrils flared. Lips went thin enough to disappear for a moment before she pursed her mouth and slowly strode over to loom over Noga. She was taller, a good head taller, but Noga was broader of shoulder, hip and bust. Kind of like a stork threatening a big fat sheep, honestly.
“Well, if you do see something,” Noga said, smiled nice and easy, “I’d be glad to show it to the priests. Can’t be too careful with a wedding. Who knows what might happen leading up to it? Someone might try and make bad things happen to Mistress Kelly or your son. I’m sure the priests would be right interested to know that you saw something that I can’t in that dress.”
“You dare?” Gul Maes gasped. One hand raised as if to slap but Noga just raised an eyebrow. “Get out. You are not allowed near the dress again!”
“That’s fine, ma’am,” Noga said. “Good to know someone’s looking out for it. Hate to think that we’d have to spend all that money all over again if something happened. I’ll just let his Lordship know it’s done.”
She walked out, leaving the door open so that she could hear Gul Maes’ infuriated huff. Woman could walk a lot faster than Noga would have thought because she followed right on Noga’s heels. Maybe that cane actually was just for beating people.
Either way, they found his Lordship in the kitchen with Mistress Kelly who paled at seeing Gul Maes arrive behind Noga. He smiled at Noga, frowned at Gul Maes and hugged Mistress Kelly to his side.
“Dress is done, my Lord,” Noga said. “It’s quite pretty. Bit heavy but well, fashion. What can you do?”
“Thank you, Noga,” his Lordship said. His smile went sad, lost, lonely. “I appreciate your working on it.”
“An honor, my Lord,” Noga replied. “I’ll just be off to my duties. Got a lot of cleaning to do.”
Gul Maes watched her leave, eyes dark and puzzled when Noga glanced back. She didn’t follow. That was good. Gave Noga the chance to teach the chambermaids the wish-spell while they emptied the chamber pots, scrubbed them clean.
Next day Noga taught it to the cooks and the house boys at lunch, helping them work the wish-spell into their daily activities, the walking, carrying, putting things together in the kitchen. Wish-spells worked better when anchored to physical objects like the dress. Food that would be eaten didn’t hold the spells past the point they were torn apart. And wish-spells not anchored to anything floated until they found something to settle on. Still better than not teaching them at all.
Taught it some more when the butler came to ask how he could make the wedding feast better day after that. The butler found out that he could draw a little symbol with his finger into the side of the glass while whispering the wish-spell. He asked Noga to teach the rest of the upper staff who were more than happy to add it to making the beds, dusting the rooms, putting books away and even opening and closing doors for the quality.
Two days before the wedding Noga found herself teaching it to the quality, too, not as a spell or a prayer, but as an old-fashioned thing her mother’s mother had taught her everyone was supposed to do. Way Noga told it, everyone at the wedding was supposed to pray for the bride and groom so that they’d have the best life together possible. Which lulled even the one lower, younger, priest who happened to walk in on Noga teaching his Lordship the words of the prayer.
By the time she climbed into her bed in the attic, Noga had taught every single person other than Gul Maes and her brute of a son the wish-spell. She was pretty sure her wish-spell had spilled out to the town outside because the town seemed to glow in the evening light instead of lying dark and dispirited about the wedding to come.
By the morning of the wedding the building buzzed with the energy of people wishing with all their might for better things for everyone there.
Noga turned away from her special breakfast and bowed to Gul Maes. Rather than attempt to finish the piece of bread and bit of cheese she’d been given, Noga passed it over to Myeong who had yet to get her breakfast.
“Yes, ma’am?” Noga asked respectful and polite.
“I have need of you,” Gul Maes said. “Come with me.”
The room all but shimmered with people wish-spelling good things Noga’s way. Noga didn’t allow a single one of those wishes to land on her. She pushed them off, settled them on the food, the clothes, the stove where the fire guttered for a moment and then crackled peacefully. Out in the hallway more wishes flew her way. Noga pushed them onto the walls, the big tapestry Mistress Kelly’s mother had sewn with her mother years and years ago. One settled onto the hem of Gul Maes’ skirt.
Her skirt crackled for a second, rejecting the wishes. Or maybe the wishes rejected Gul Maes. Hard to tell.
Especially as they came out into the grand hall, really just a big room with benches along the wall and a dais on the far end where his Lordship sat judgment once a month on the petty little cases that came up from town. Whole damn room was full of people. His Lordship sat on his chair, hands clenched around the arms. His face was white and eyes wide. Most of the big men, rich and powerful ones that had always followed him, clustered close to him. Rest of the big men, the ones that bowed to Gul Maes and her brute of a son, they clustered at the other end of the room.
Where Mistress Kelly’s scarlet wedding dress hung pretty as you could please from the dressing dummy.
Three old priests that bowed to Gul Maes’ god and no other gods, not ever oh no, stood clustered around Mistress Kelly’s wedding dress, frowning and fussing over it as if they could see the wish-spells adorning the thing’s hemline. They all looked at the neckline so no, not a bit of power in those old eyes.
“There’s a problem with the dress,” Gul Maes said.
“Ma’am,” Noga said respectful but doubtful, “there’s not much I can do to fill Mistress Kelly’s bust out. She’s not likely to ever have much more than she’s got. Her mother was flat as a board, no disrespect intended to her departed soul.”
Several people spluttered laughs, on both sides. His Lordship grinned, quick, then went still as stone at Gul Maes’ glare. All of them shut up right quick when Gul Maes thumped her cane into the floor. Noga just looked at her, hands folded over her thighs, patient for whatever Gul Maes might explain.
“It’s been spelled,” Gul Maes said and yeah, there was an edge to her voice that could have cut to the bone.
“Odd,” Noga said, blinking as the priests waved their hands and muttered prayers to their god that did absolutely nothing. “How can you tell? Looks like a pretty dress to me. Do think the lace is a bit heavy for that fabric but she won’t wear it long or walk too far. Should be fine, I’d think.”
“Cursed!” Gul Maes snapped. “It has been cursed!”
“Okay?” Noga asked, waving at the dress again with aimless gestures and a wide-eyed look that probably didn’t look confused enough. Didn’t seem to matter as everyone looked at Gul Maes, not Noga. “How? How’d you know? I’m sorry, ma’am, but I just see a dress.”
The air around them crackled. Noga stared at Gul Maes, stared and stared and waited patiently as the wish-spells around them swirled and gathered. She didn’t push them off this time, couldn’t, not with the threat of the priests and the rest of Gul Maes’ people. Someone in that bunch by the door had to be a proper mage, had to see magic just like Noga did. Had to see that Gul Maes could see it, too, manipulate it and shape people to do what she wanted.
“You did it,” Gul Maes hissed as the crackling around her increased.
“Did what?” Noga asked.
The crackling got louder, stronger. Gul Maes had to have spells to protect herself, had to have some sort of shield that kept people from seeing what she did. Noga would have, normally, especially with someone so hostile in front of her. It was only common sense to hide your power if you’d been born with magic. Too many people expected bad of those with magic. Wasn’t safe to be open about it.
But the wish-spells whirled around the room, spiraling down to wrap Noga in a blanket of shimmering gold wish-spells twice as beautiful as the gold lace on Mistress Kelly’s dress. Must have gathered to the point that people could see it because the crowds on both ends of the great room murmured and shifted.
“You cursed the dress!” Gul Maes shouted. “Magic swirls around you right now. You are a witch out to destroy the wedding!”
“Ma’am, it’s just a dress,” Noga repeated with as much bewilderment as she could. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Gul Maes lifted her cane and swung it at Noga hard and fast enough to crack skulls, break necks.
There was always a price to wish-spells. They gathered and gathered, grew and grew, but to truly make them take flight they needed blood. Noga gasped, let her hands come up but not fast enough to block Gul Maes’ blow.
Stars exploded behind Noga’s eyes. She didn’t feel the pain in the first instant, just the shock and the floor coming up to hit her hard. Then the pain was there, oh yes, so much pain and blood flowing down her face from the blow to her temple.
Noga moaned, scrabbled against the floor and deliberately didn’t wish for anything at all.
“She’s a witch!” Gul Maes shouted at the man whose hand glowed, whose magic wrapped around Gul Maes’ upraised cane with the bloody tip.
“There is a witch here,” the man said, thick eyebrows drawn together as he glared at Gul Maes. “But this woman has done no magic at all.”
“The spells are visible, wrapped around her!” Gul Maes protested. She tried again to free her cane but the man’s magic was too strong.
He came over, tread silent despite his heavy boots. When he pulled the cane from Gul Maes’ hand she hissed and moved to kick Noga in the stomach. That earned her a backhanded blow to the face that sent her to the ground yards away from Noga.
“She cast no magic at all,” the man said. “This is wish-magic. Every person here wished that she would be healthy, strong, happy, well. Every person thought so well of her, loved her so much, that their wishes caught the Gods’ magic and became spells. This is love, pure and simple, not witchcraft.”
Noga pushed herself up on her elbows, put one hand over the bleeding cut on her forehead. It was bad, really bad. So painful that she collapsed back to the floor again. The wish-magic around her swirled and grew, bloomed like a winter crocus pushing through the snow to bring life back to a dead world. The wish-magic surged from the scarlet wedding dress, from Noga, from every object and person in the room who’d prayed so hard for good things to happen.
It struck Gul Maes in the chest, hitting like lightning splitting a tree.
She jerked on the floor, mouth opened for a scream that never came. Instead golden light poured from her mouth, her eyes, her ears. Then her hands began to glow and her feet, the bend of her knees pushing up against her heavy skirt. The entire room thrummed with the wish-magic’s power, with the town’s determination for things to be better. It shook Gul Maes like a rat caught in the terrier’s mouth.
“Mother!” Gul Maes’ son shouted as he ran to her side.
The instant he touched her he was consumed, too, seized and shaken and torn apart into shimmering bits of arm, leg, torso that burned as if they were coals in a fire about to burn out. Throughout, the man stared at Gul Maes and her now-dead son, one hand loose and relaxed, the other clenched into a fist.
Finally, the light faded. Two piles of shimmering golden dust lay where Gul Maes and her son had been. The only sound Noga heard was her own panting against the pain in her head.
“Well.” The man shook his head, turned back to Noga and then knelt to press the loose hand to her forehead. “Let’s see if I can fix this. No reason for you to suffer if you don’t have to.”
“I didn’t…” Noga started to say only to stop when the man smiled and nodded.
“I know,” the man said. His eyes said that he knew very well exactly what Noga had done, what she had risked to save them all from Gul Maes and her evil. “She was a witch, a very well hidden witch. It’s good that you’re so loved. They saved you.”
“No,” Noga said as Mistress Kelly started to sob and people started babbling their relief around them. “They saved themselves, sir. All I did was teach people some old, old prayers my mother’s mother taught me a long time ago.”
The pain faded. Noga sat up, gingerly touched her forehead. Still bruised but not too bad. Her old, old felt pincushion rested light on her wrist. The exhausted weight in her arms and legs felt good, like she’d planted an entire kitchen garden or woven a good long length of cloth with no slubs or wobbly tension at all.
She smiled, let the man help her up.
“Thank you, sir,” Noga said to him.
“You’re welcome,” the man replied, eyes amused, lips tight against either worry or laughter. Hard to tell when he shielded himself so tightly. “Might want to wash your face.”
“Suppose I should,” Noga said. She looked around at the crowd of laughing, dancing, cheering people. “Doesn’t look like there’ll be a wedding today but hey, one celebration is as good as another, isn’t it? Plenty of good food to be had today. I’m sure his Lordship will be happy to host you.”
The amusement in the man’s eyes faded into a sort of puzzlement. Good. Noga bowed, shaky and off balance badly enough that he had to catch her and laugh gently. Then she made her slow way, stopped for hugs and questions and other people’s joy, out of the great room. She didn’t let the tension show, didn’t hunch her shoulders or even thin her lips more than could be explained by a fist-sized bruise on her temple. Wouldn’t do to give herself away, not when they finally had peace, freedom from Gul Maes and her son.
After all, freedom was a relative thing, now wasn’t it? Normal folk didn’t have to fuss about giving things away but well. Noga knew perfectly well that the knife was always at her throat, the whip poised to strike her back. Peace, love and faithfulness was for people other than Noga. Not for her.
But that was all right. At least she didn’t have to worry about being beaten or having to service that man anymore. That was peace enough for Noga to smile as she walked up the hallway towards the kitchen. Peace enough indeed.
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