(My depthless gratitude goes to Peter for bringing these two chuckleheads to life. They are perfect in every way.)
(Additional gratitude, also depthless, goes to Nick Whelan, Mike Kennedy, Isaak and many others, who helped me tremendously in actually getting this thing to use the good words)
The world is green, out here in the hill country.
There are groves here that have never known the bite of an axe. Rocks that remember the coming and going of the Ice. Hills and ridges and ripples in the earth that are the bones of mountains that were once a sea. Folk-stones raised by peoples unnamed stand sun-dappled vigils in their mossy cloaks. The rusting carapaces of the last few war machines of the Bull's dread army are reclaimed by root and rain. The shining blue-brown ribbon of the Mora winds patiently towards its eventual marriage with the Pono and the distant coast.
To the north...
The Dayrmonts. Beyond them, the North Country. Tin Jacobstown. Wend. Urukhá. The lands of the Wudu-Wasa and the Dhorch'maeh. The Whale-Road. The domain of Orca. The Uttermost North where the sea is ever-frozen.
To the south...
The folds of the land flatten out, sloping away into the forests and plains and swamps and city-states of the Low Country. Far away, on a bleak and poisoned stretch of coast, the dark mills of Dis vomit smoke into the sky without ceasing.
To the east...
Rivershead. The Tower Unto Heaven. The idaltu ruins. The uppermost fingers of the Arivienne. The Attercanths. Lilu-Yoya. Onwards to the plains of the Eostremont.
To the west...
The Mora meets the Pona at Bensael, and flows on towards Redgate and the sea.
It is a cool summer evening in Olen. The sun sinks slow in the west, and the gibbous moon is already risen - a silver near-circle in a field of blue, decks in rusty splatter and dusky mare. The shadows take forms more true to themselves, long and sharp and dark against the honeyed light
Olen is not much different from the other riverside towns. A touch bigger than most of the others, perhaps. There’s a mine, dug out with aid from the mouldywarps. Terraced farmland and windmills on the hillside. A post office. An abbey of the Sisters of the Sable Maid and a church of the gods of man. The clock on town hall is two minutes fast and has been for as long as anyone can remember. The train comes in four times a day - twice from Bensael to Rivershead, and twice the other way.
On Riverfront Street there's a shop named Willow and Wick Books. The sign in the window reads "USED AND RARE BOOKS: BUY SELL TRADE", and in smaller print below: "Ask about Mr. Wick's Bag of Books!"
The place had been a house before it was a bookstore, meaning that it is a narrow labyrinth of shelves packed between walls and angles that weren’t necessarily built to hold them. This makes it seem far bigger than it actually is, as if one could wander off, turn a corner and just keep going forever into the maze of hidden nooks and impossible aisles.
It is a little island of peace, where the air smells of old books and all is well.
Deep in the back, between the shelves for witchcraft and earth science, there is a little cupboard on the wall, and a little altar on the table below it, wreathed with flowers and paper talismans. This is the shrine of Mr. Wick, the shop’s resident brownie and one half of its namesake. The other half comes from the enormous willow tree out front. Folk are certain that a dryad lives in it, and though no one can ever recall seeing her they tied a braided rope around the trunk and bow when they pass by, just in case she’s there.
(The Bag of Books is just a little gimmick of the shop's - share what you're interested in, and Mr. Wick will pick out a paper bag of books for you. He's a very keen curator, you're unlikely to go away disappointed.)
It's 7 o’clock. Closing time at Willow and Wick. The new arrivals are sorted, the account book balanced, the cash box locked away. Pot Luck the fat grey tomcat is still sleeping in his sun beam on the front desk. The shrine keeper scratches him behind the ears before vanishing back into the stacks for her final task.
The evening visit to Mr. Wick’s cupboard always feels like it is far longer than the few rooms it was in reality. Time was stretched out, sounds soaked up, thoughts and distractions carefully brushed aside until there was only the now, and the here.
She crosses the threshold. There is no noise or flash light or any other outward sign of the crossing, save the feeling of presence within a sacred space.
She wets her hands with the vial of water and dries them on the hand towel. She takes the saucer from its shelf and places it on top of the altar, then pours in a bit of milk, a dollop of honey, a shot of whiskey. She takes a step back, presses her palms together, bows slowly
“I return this house to your hands, good spirit. Please accept this offering, and keep all beneath your roof safe till morning. I ask this invoking our ancient compact, as it was made between our Mother and your Folk. May it be sustained to the end of our time.”
To this she adds, after a short pause: “Tam’s coming back home today, and I think something’s wrong. Keep an eye out for her, please.”From somewhere on the shelves, there is a voice like a little breeze rustling at an open page.
“Of course. Have a good night, Pen.”
“Good night, Mr. Wick.”
She bows again, passes back over the threshold, emerges from the labyrinth, picks up her bag from the desk.
Pot Luck, knowing that it is time to leave, stretches, yawns, and trundles behind her.
Penepolo Babilinagi locks the front door and tucks the key into her coat pocket. She steps off the porch, gives a bow and a tip of her hat to the Willow, and is off across town to the train station on Old Abbey Road.
(A portrait of the bookseller: a short, plump, friendly-faced woman with
skin the color of ash-flecked charcoal and short, curly hair like white
gold. She lives in the apartment above Willow and Wick, and measures out her peaceful life in cups of tea and smell of old books. She was not born in a bookstore, but most people would believe it if she had.)
Pot Luck, for his part, curls up on the sun-warmed porch and resumes his nap.
While Pen often takes a walk around town in the evening to stretch her legs, tonight she has business to attend to. A crow had arrived early that morning as she was doing her exercises on the back balcony, bearing a message through the Murder. All it had said was:
Meet me at train station 7:10 PM -Tam
It was the first message from Tam, by crow or by mail, in over two months, and it had been troubling Pen for most of the day. Not for the delay itself - Tam said often enough how busy her job kept her and so a pause in correspondence was nothing unusual. A message so blunt and brief, without so much as a hello, was. Something was wrong, she felt it sure and certain in her heart, and the unknowns bred questions and the shapeless and shadowy answers that flitted through the empty spaces never quite went away.
She had done what she could to keep her hands busy and mind occupied - thankfully, summer brought with it both extra foot traffic and travelers from out of town, and the day passed without additional omen. When darker thoughts did come to the fore, they were met with a chorus of "She'll tell me when she gets here."
But the store is swept out now, the account book is balanced and there's nothing between her and 7:10 at the train station but a sliver of time and a short walk. She hurries on her way.
Tamisin Menadore is already waiting there at the station, leaning up against the brick wall in a beam of sunlight and staring down at her shoes. She doesn't notice when Pen turns the corner onto Old Abbey Road. Pen breaks out into a run. Tam looks up at the approaching sound of sandals slapping against cobblestones and there's just enough time for her to stand up straight before Pen rushes in and sweeps her off her feet and hoists her up off the sidewalk and the air is filled with the peals of her laughter.
Pen isn't tall enough to get her more than a few inches off the ground, but that's never mattered.
(A portrait of the civil servant: usually, but not always the tallest person in any given room. Thin in the way that's mostly arms and legs and straight lines and gangly angles. Deep brown skin, dark hair done up in box braids. A gap between her front teeth, through which she could whistle like an angry kettle.)
Pen sets her first and best friend back down. Her heart leaps and cries out and overflows and in that moment all is well, and all is as it should be...
"Ah! Ha. Missed you too."
...and it comes down to land lower than it had been.
The morning's fears return now with confirmation.
The brightness is gone from Tam's eyes, as is the energy from her voice. There is a hollowness to her face, a tired slouch to her stance. She's lost weight since they've last spoken face-to-face, and she’s never had particularly much to spare in the first place. She looks exhausted simply by effort of standing there and smiling.
That frightens Pen more than any of the fanciful worries that had dogged the back of her mind earlier in the day. Those had been vague and unformed, easier to dismiss - this is concrete. The woman Pen had always known as so full of life that it was hard to keep up is standing here as drained and empty as an old cicada shell.
Questions bubble up - are you okay? what happened? do you need help? - but all that comes out is
"Have you eaten yet?"
Tam rubs at her temple and smiles weakly.
“Not since lunch. Sorry, ah, about the short notice. I lost track of time this morning and was halfway out the door before I remembered to send a crow."
Pen could ask about that later. Food, at least, is a solvable problem.
“Come on then. I’ll fix you dinner." Pen grabbed her friend's briefcase. "Let's get you home and fed and you can tell me all about what you've been up to in the big city."
The two walk back to Willow and Wick, and Pen dutifully recites all the news and gossip of the last few months. Tam is content just to listen.
Their old classmate Billy Dunn (who was the sort
of person that uncharitable folk would call “slow”) had gotten
married to a woman from Orlei and was taking over for his
father at the woodshop.
Sr. Emma had a stroke just past matins and the doctor wasn’t able to make it in time to help.
A lilu circus had passed through town just last week, raising money for the Unified Worker’s Democratic Party in the upcoming elections in Lilu-Voya.
Gen had gone through the last stage of their transition at the temple of Quisest and announced at the party that they were going to head across the Mare and travel in the west for a while.
Waterseeker celebrated his 109th birthday, which coincided with the announcement of his eighth great-grandchild, to which he said [OH NO NOT ANOTHER ONE].
Just earlier that day a pair of vacationers from the NSR had stopped in at the shop. They were hiking all the way up past Rivershead to the Tower, to go see the ruins there. They had a skeleton carrying their luggage, and it stood out on the porch the entire time and it nearly gave old Mr. Chennekaw a heart attack when he saw it.
"Hey! Oi, Waterseeker! Look who's back!" Pen waves and cries out to the old bull. The elephant turns towards them and lifts his trunk from the water, twisting it to and fro in a series of signs.
[OH NO NOT AGAIN]
"Aw, don't be like that!"
[DO NOT THINK I HAVE FORGOTTEN THE CHILD CRIMES OF TAM-I-SIN]
"I don't even remember what I did!" Tam exclaims.
[I DO | PE-NE-PO-LO IS INNOCENT IN THE MATTER | DRAGGED INTO IT]
"Yeah? Well as soon as I figure out what I did I'll do it again!"
[BY THE HERD OF HERDS AND THE EARTHSONG I SHALL MEET YOU WITH TUSK AND TRUMPET TAM-I-SIN | WE SHALL SETTLE MATTERS]
"Good to see you too, you old bastard."
[IT GLADDENS ME THAT YOU ARE WELL TAM-I-SIN | I SHALL SEE YOU AGAIN ERE YOU LEAVE NO DOUBT]
"Oh, I just remembered," Pen says "There won't be any children's storytime next Tuesday, I'll be at the dentist."
[SO IT SHALL BE | GOOD EVENING TO YOU BOTH]
They leave the elephant to his washing, and Pen's fears are allayed somewhat - Tam is still there, dimmed but not extinguished under whatever ails her. They reach Willow and Wick, and climb up the outside stairs to the apartment above.
Pot Luck, rudely awakened yet again, follows.
*VII*Minced garlic and onions sizzle in a pan of oil. Tam sits by the open window that looks out over the street, watching the breeze rustle the Willow's leaves and the swallows swoop over the river. Pen stands at the counter, her knife rhythmically chopping peppers. Pot Luck is sleeping on the couch.
A recipe for shakshuka: Coat pan in olive oil, cook onions and garlic until soft. Chop peppers, add to pan, cook for a while. Chop tomatoes, mix into pan with spices (salt, pepper, cumin, etc). Cook until most liquid is gone. Make divots in the mix with a spoon, crack an egg into each. Cover dish, cook until yolks are firm. Serve over toast.
The reality of the situation is sinking in and settling down. Whatever change was wrought on her friend, Pen is certain now that it's not the kind that a few good meals and a bit of rest can undo. But, it's all that she can do for now. And it's still nice to have her back home.
Time slips by, without making much notice of itself.
Peppers in the pan, give it a stir, on to chopping tomatoes.
"I've missed being up here," Tam says as the tomatoes go in.
She hasn't, Pen recalls, visited Olen since Mother's Day last spring. Over a year, now.
"I'm glad you were able to make it. I know work has been keeping you busy."
"Yeah." Tam's focus drifts back out to the river and another moment passes by. "There have been dolphins in the city recently, down by the waterfront. There's this one, he'll just pop his head out of the water at people walking by and go e!e!e!e!e!e!e!e! gimme a kiss, leggie!"
"That's pretty tame for a dolphin."
"It's just the opener, he's got a whole routine. But I bring it up because the one time I happened to see him, the guy he was harassing at the time just stops, takes off his shoe, and beans him right in the snout with it. And then just keeps walking like nothing happened."
"No one I recognize, if he is. Haven't been able to go to a game in ages."
"We can find some time to go, I'm sure."
"That'd be nice."
Off into quiet again.
The tomatoes cook, and then the eggs.
They eat in silence. Tam stops halfway through her second slice of toast and puts it down.
"Hey..uh..." She flexes her fingers, her eyes dart down to her plate. "I, uh, just got out of the hospital. This morning."
Pen feels her stomach drop as if watching a crack split open in a dam.
"There was an accident in the storage vaults - wasn't anyone's fault, just an artifact that didn't work the way we thought it did. It broke open one of the vaults, and that set off more of them, which damaged a second vault and..."
She trails off, taps her finger on the tabletop, breathes in deep.
Up until recently, Tamisin Menadore wore the badge of the Bensael Civil Service, Wizarding Affairs Department, Archival Division. (City colors of navy, white and gold, with a silver pentagram). She told plenty of stories to Pen about working in the archives
and vaults, down where all the wizards' flotsam is stored away, but they were, of course, curated. Details left out, good times emphasized
over bad, secrets scrubbed away, descriptions purposefully vague. The wizards in the Old City were not to be treated
casually. There is much she's seen that she's
never told a living soul, and might never be able to.
"I was down there when it happened, and...I was going to die."
She says it with the certainty of a stone. 'Was going to", not "almost did". Pen reaches across the table and grasps her hand.
"I don't really remember what happened," she keeps going, voice low and soft. "There was a hiss, and then a snap, and I could smell something burning. There was a flashing light and then...all like a dream. I was just watching my body moving on its own from the inside and everything else is just sounds and shapes and colors, everything just flowing past except knowing that I was going to die. Like a dream where you're falling, and the
ground rushes up towards you and you know its the end, but I couldn't wake up. Then I was sitting on the grass outside the building, and someone gave me a cup of water and..." she sighs, shoulders slumping. "And then I spent six weeks in residential at Northside."
"Oh, Tam..." The strain from telling this much of the story has her friend in clear agony. "I'm here for you, okay? I'm here."
Tam nods, wordlessly.
"I'll make us some tea, how does that sound?"
"Good, yeah. That's good. Thank you." A weight is lifted, just a bit. Enough for a moment of relief.
Pen goes and puts the kettle on, and washes out the pan she used for dinner while the water boils.
They sip at their tea. Quiet returns once more to the little apartment. Tam nibbles at the remains of her dinner, gradually reducing it to crumbs.The world past the window slips into the deep blue of dusk.
"It's getting late," Pen says when the last dregs in their mugs are gone. "Do you have a place to stay for the night? Have you talked to your parents?"
"No, they...I don't talk to them much, anymore."
Pen wants to shove the words back in her mouth. She was at Goro's funeral, she saw first hand that not all was well.
"It's okay. You couldn't have known." Tam's face hardens, as if forcing bile back down into her stomach. "I was the only fucking one, you know? The only fucking person in my entire fucking family who stood up for him. Everyone else cared more about my mom's fucking family pride more than they ever cared about him."
Goro was the second-youngest of the nine, and the black sheep besides. No doubt that's part of why he and Tam had been close. His death two years ago had been sudden, and his will had instructed that his ashes be interred in his husband's family plot. Fenan Menadore took that as a personal slight, and with Goro safely beyond the reach of her spite, its brunt came to bear on Tam.
"We don't have to talk about it."
"Yeah, yeah...best not to."
"How's Bo been, through all this? Is he helping?"
A wave of shame(?) washes over Tam's face.
"Bo and I aren't...together anymore."
"What?" Pen had liked Bo, the few times they had met. He didn't seem the kind of man to do this... "Did he-"
"No, no, not like that, it was before the accident it was just...we decided that it wasn't going to work out."
Tam draws in a long, shaking breath.
"I'm not going back. Gave them my letter and my badge while I was on leave. Gave the apartment back to Housing. I can't stay there. Can't keep looking at those fucking towers and dealing with those fucking wizards..." Her voice cracks. "I can't fucking do it anymore."
Her eyes are filled with a desperation and a grief and a terror too great to name.
Pen's heart issues a command: There is nothing more important in all the world at that moment than to hold her close, to hold her and not let go. She rises from her seat, arms outstretched, and Tam goes to her, clings to her as if drowning.
The crack in the dam groans, buckles, breaks, and all contained within pours forth in shuddering sobs and streams of tears. The ancient agony which no words can express is met by soft and gentle murmurs for which no words are needed.
And Lu said to them: "Forgive me, my children. I have brought you into this world, but I cannot take away its pains. Forgive me, I beg you. I did not wish that it would hurt so much to be human."
All the rest of the world falls away.
Ragged breaths calm, drumming heart subsides, tears slow their coursing.
"I'll be here. Whatever happens, I'll be here for you. No matter what. You can stay here as long as you need to, okay?" Pen says at last. "Pot Luck can learn to share the couch. We can solve the rest tomorrow."
Tam sniffles, wipes her nose, blinks the tears out of her eyes.
Later, they sit on the back balcony for a while and talk of small, precious things of no great importance to anyone else in the world. Pen plucks at her banjo, the night insects sing along. The stars have joined the moon in the ink-dark sky above. The conversation fades, then the music. Tam reaches out and takes Pen's hand, and they sit there in quiet together.
This is, of course, not the end. There are more adventures to be had: the mysterious Book of Blank Pages, the cross-continent trip to the Hollowhorn, the time they get tangled up with Molly Ironshanks and her hunt for the Man With Cuttlefish Eyes, the great question and its answer. But those parts of the story are only hazy shapes on the distant horizon, obscured by distance.
All I can say with certainty is that there is a happy ending, as happy an ending as it is reasonable to have, and there are a great many happy middles and beginnings before we get there.
This story, short as it is, took eight years to write.
It's gone through at least eight drafts, nearly all of them painfully granular revisions of this sequence - written, rewritten, edited, trashed - the same thing over and over in the hope that this time (this time) the words would come out right. Up until maybe the last week, it felt like it would never actually happen. That art up top was commissioned almost a year ago.
Eight years and so many iterations leaves behind a great deal of details on the cutting room floor, even when very little has actually changed ("Pen, who works in a bookshop, gets a surprise visit from her friend Tam" has been there since the beginning). Much of those are because they are bad, and many are irrelevant, but some of them are actually relevant background that just didn't have a spot to be relevant here.
- Pen's morning exercises are the in-universe equivalent to tai chi (river stances, pending a better replacement name)
- Mr. Wick is just about eight inches tall, has an immense beard, and uses a pencil for a walking stick.
- There is indeed a dryad in the Willow. She only appears on very special occasions.
- Current children's story time: notorious trickster Tally Rabbit (not to be confused with B'rer Rabbit, who is not fictional and liable to show up when invoked) stealing a magical glass eye from a giant and escaping without being eaten. Pen does silly voices for it.
- Waterseeker is the only elephant in Olen. He serves as weather forecaster, grumpy old man everyone knows, and helps the other grandparents with the care of the town's young children. he is often seen leading a herd of them around for activities.
- "Waterseeker" is actually a title, more or less the equivalent of calling someone "doc".
- Full messages via the Murder are formatted like telegrams - end sentences with STOP, etc.
- The temple of Quisest is the primary provider of transition services in the Hespermont.
- Pen arrived in Bensael when she was six months old, along with hundreds of other children displaced by the Pelaian civil war. With no parents, known relatives, or documentation (and no real hope of finding any), she was placed in an adoptive home. (Her biological father is still alive, and through a series of small miracles will eventually, some time after this sequence, will find her.)
- Bensael is split into Bensael proper and the Old City, which is a walled enclave where the wizards and nobles of the pre-plague years live. They generate a lot of often very dangerous and usually useless magical cruft, which the WAD recovers, stores, and destroys as needed. They're less SCP Foundation and more municipal trash services, honestly.
- Immediately after scene 10, Tam stumbles over to the couch and is out like a light for a full 16 hours.
- There is an associated soundtrack for this story - The instrumental versions for parts 2 and 4 of Luv (Sic), and "The Dice Maker" from Disco Elysium.
So yeah. Here, finally, is the story of Pen and Tam. It is a small and precious thing of no great importance to anyone else in the world, but I'm happy with how it turned out.