Seven days going, and seven days back: It'll have to be during the rains, Quentin had said grimly, if we want to make it out there this year, because there was just always so much to do the rest of the year: the traps, and the perpetual disaster of the roof, and the garden; and Arielle'd always been a fine magician with her fingers to the dirt, but it still took six hands, honestly, to keep the four of them fed and the mosaic moving without the cottage tumbling down around their ears. We really need to talk to her, honey, he'd sighed, big-eyed, scratching at his jaw, this can't possibly be the way we're supposed to do it. And here, at least, was one thing everyone they'd talked to agreed upon: if there was anyone who could help them untangle a puzzle resistant to magic, it'd be the Sage of the Shattered Crag, so Arielle had agreed: Then you'd better go, I think, during the rains. Eliot, head down, hadn't said anything. So on the fourth day that it had come down as rain instead of sleet, washing away the very last traces of white at the feet of the snowdrops and the earliest just-sprouting daffodils, Eliot and Quentin had donned their cloaks and their packs and kissed Teddy on the forehead and Arielle on the cheek, and then they had left.
Outside the cottage, the rains come down, just as they ought. All to the good. All to the good. When Arielle'd first started visiting the cottage, it'd been in half-curiosity, half-fear: while everyone in Applevale whispered and hummed, Arielle—Arielle had wanted—Arielle had just wanted to meet them. The first autumn, the pears and the apples had come in heavier and fatter than ever before: with two Children of Earth at the cottage beside the mosaic—untrustworthy, surely, that, from men who might be kings—and then that winter's rains had come in odd stuttering fits and starts, instead of their usual downpour, so that the fields sprung up lush and emerald-green while the villagers were still half expecting it to be winter and the roses had started blooming in April: and that, too, was surely the Earth magicians' work on the mosaic. All that summer long the Orchard'd spilled over with riches, grapes as big as a gold piece, white peaches so fragrant that holding them in her hands Arielle'd felt like a goddess, as though by their virtue she was transformed into some radiant, ripening, transcendent thing; and the villagers had gossiped and hummed, gossiped and hummed; made hand-workings against ill luck when the littler one came in to trade work for milk and eggs; then turned around to their overflowing bushel-baskets, and made more jam. That unspooling thread of suspicion running through their gratitude for the bounty; but Arielle had—and Arielle had thought—: and then that winter the grapefruits had grown as big as her head, the limes as big as her fists; and in the woods outside the Orchard, where the winter fell as snow instead of rain, carrying her baskets Arielle had bloomed with them, hadn't she? Hadn't she, she thinks, alone with Teddy in the cottage, in the rain.
By the eighth day of it, Arielle's so bored she's got into the mending, even though she's never had the patience for sewing, and she reckons half her seams will split again well before the end of summer. Better, as her men say, than nothing. Teddy was reconciled to their leaving with the promise of two new books, but that promise won't do anything for him now, will it: in the close damp fug of air filling up the cottage, he whines and stamps his feet and won't sit to play Stormala or lie down for a nap or just fucking be quiet for half an hour together, so she could think; and with the promise of new books on the horizon, naturally he can't be bothered with any of the ones he already has: his little shelf of nine volumes, all but two of them the hand-stitched over-height booklets that'd been painstakingly scribed by Eliot and illustrated by Quentin. Another pang. A pedagogical exercise, Eliot had told Arielle airily, I'll teach him to draw yet: sitting crossways on the bench beside Quentin so he could look over Quentin's hunching shoulder, biting into an apple before leaning in to murmur to him, barely breathing, that he was overanalyzing the idea of a castle again; as though she doesn't know what that means.
As though all three of them don't know what that means.
"But Mama," Teddy tells her, "I don't want to read that story. I already read that story."
"Teddy," she says, weary, "please."
"I want to go out," he whines, squirming so hard he kicks his wooden pig off the edge of the little bed: and Arielle has to bite back telling him: 'Go out?' I want to go out, I want to go out and be on the road, through the woods to the Orchard alone, by myself, for two weeks together; Papa wants to go out into the city, drink wine from golden goblets and deign to flirt with guardsmen, pretending he's a king again; Daddy wants to go out and fuck Papa until neither of them can see straight—we all want to go out, you little beast.
Instead, Arielle says, "We'll go for a walk after lunchtime," and doesn't add, if you can be good until then, because that's the sort of idiotic thing that Quentin sometimes forgets himself enough to do, while Eliot and Arielle exchange exasperated looks over his shoulder because then all four of them will wind up trapped in the cottage for another night and another day, because if there's one thing Arielle learned from four little sisters and brothers it's never to pin your own freedom on the ability of a three-year-old to behave. So Teddy whines and Arielle does her best to ignore him and bit by bit puts a jagged, lackadaisical mend of a tear in the hem of her own best red skirt, imagining—
—Gods, what doesn't she imagine? Quentin's hand low on her back, saying, in his queer Earth way, God, no, you can't—look, that's totally messed up at the edges, laughing. All those sentences with all their quick sharp edges: Give it to me, he'd said, and, um—my pins, if you can find them, you really are a Nature kid, aren't you? Leaning up to give her a quick, distracted kiss before bending over the tear in her winter jacket while Eliot bent over the fire stirring their supper with his mouth half-curled, half-hiding: one of those impossible, impossible smiles that he saves just for Quentin. Arielle jabs her needle—Quentin's needle—into the edge of the rend and sews it up with her clumsy irregular stitches: Teddy's finally given over whining at her and has taken to sullenly whacking his wooden pig against the leg of the little bed, singing to himself something about antlers: a clumsy, repetitive line of melody that gets in under her hair and bores straight into her brain. The night before they'd left, Eliot had put his arms around her and called her Ari, kissed her hair, whispering: when we get back, you should go visit Maritha: her girlhood friend, now a journeywoman smith in a village a full two days' walk away, in the cold early spring sunshine and the quiet—Gods, what Arielle wouldn't give, to go see Maritha: days and days and days away from all of them. Arielle pulls the thread through and ties it off trying not to think, trying not to know, trying not to imagine Eliot and Quentin on the road, their knuckles brushing as they walk and every night in the tent rolled up next to each other knee to knee: whatever turns of creativity they'll inevitably bring to bear on the problem—frantic, delirious—every part of them as close as the magic will let them be. She hasn't any illusions that they won't, has she? She would, in their place. Has done. Will again: with three adults and a child in a one-room cottage barely big enough to walk around the beds when they sleep inside during the winter, they have to be quick, or they have to be quiet, or they have to fuck outdoors or just not care what Teddy might see: if it were Arielle out there on the road with him, alone in a tent—! The night before they'd left, Arielle, desperate, had waited just until she was more or less certain that Teddy was more or less asleep in his little cot before the fire and then she'd shoved Quentin's head down between her thighs and turned her head to watch Eliot's eyes on hers in the flickering firelight, dreaming of him gasping—gasping out: —Ari—
"When will Papa and Daddy be back?" Teddy asks, and Arielle jumps. Heart pounding. Slickening under her skirts, and nothing she can do about it, can she? She jabs the needle into Quentin's pincushion, hands trembling, and then sets her work aside.
"At least six more days," she says, "or a week—let's go dig in the garden," standing up.
Teddy, predictably, is all for getting very wet and very muddy for about eleven minutes, then goes back to whining, dragging after her in his little oiled-cloth raincoat and the booties he's nearly outgrown, holding his little bucket, half-full of waterlogged weeds: "But I don't want to be outside," he wails: and Arielle jabs her spade into the dirt and scoops him up, carrying him back inside: dragging the big tin washtub out into the center of the cottage with a sharp, impatient spell, then setting it to fill with a trickle of her well-worn river-diverter, and to warm with the charm that Eliot'd left her, because she'd failed Thermogenesis at school and on her own she'd never manage to get it hot enough for a bath. All the while, Teddy whines. He whines with injured dignity when she tries to undress him, then whines with hot frustration when he struggles to do it himself: he whines over the way his wet shirt sticks and the wraps on his muddy booties won't come untied and then he sits naked on the floor and whines over the feel of the mud on his face, on his hands, in his hair; so she wipes it off before boosting him up into the tub, and he whines about that, too. Then he complains that the water is too cold, then too hot, then too cold again, even though she's not changing a thing; that the soap is too gritty, that her hands in his hair pull and it hurts and baths make his hands feel itchy—itchy, honestly: there's no reason why—and Arielle grinds her teeth together saying nothing but wishing herself anywhere, anywhere else. If she were to make herself a quest—! If she were to be upon the road—! If she were to don a cloak and a pack and go to seek the Sage of the Shattered Crag—but if she were to seek the Sage of the Shattered Crag, what should she even say? While she dries her son's skin, his hair, his little screwed-up unhappy face, she is grasped by a sudden surge of painful, disorienting feeling: that—that terrifying longing for him, for another child, for—for that fleeting born-in-the-blood sensation of wholeness; and exhaustion, braided together like her hair down her back. Teddy is yawning at last, worn out with the rain and the mud and the boredom and the bath after the digging, and heart fluttering in her breast Arielle tugs Teddy's little nightshirt over him with something like eagerness, tucking him into his cot before the fire; and sits beside him stroking his forehead in trembling, savage near-stillness until he is at last asleep. Then she drains the bucket with a too-hasty spell that trails a line of water across the hard-packed floor and then goes back out into the rain to take up her spade again: the downpour. The dirt. Silence except for the beat of the water: Gods, what bliss. She is thinking of the Sage of the Shattered Crag: a pilgrimage that wouldn't bear her undertaking. How could it? Because her question, the great question of her married life, is the one she will always be too much a coward to ever ask: Great Wise One, if we were again unwed, what would he do?
What would I do?
And what might we—
She ducks her face against the rain, eyes burning, and drives her spade into the dirt: turning up the heavy, clotted soil, sodden with the still-falling rain: they'll plant squashes this year, and tomatoes and melons, and in four weeks at the spring festival, just as the world is turning glossy and green, Arielle will wear sweet peas and lily of the valley in her hair and dance with all young mothers and in the evening she will renew her spells so she'll not catch another child and then Quentin will look her in the eye and fuck her while they both think of Eliot. This is the bargain that they made. The Southern Orchard had flowered for four full years of heavy, ecstatic over-fruiting while Arielle was standing breathless and silent with her head dropped back against the bark of a pomegranate while a hundred yards away in the grass not-even-hidden unnoticing Eliot had slid down Quentin's moaning-arching body; and she'd heard it, that sound he'd made, when Eliot at last took him into his mouth. Then the spring after Quentin'd married her it'd sputtered back down into its usual, good-natured but unexceptional bounty, and Arielle and Quentin had settled into an ordinary, good-natured but unexceptional married life: coincidence, possibly, but there are moments, still, when Arielle still feels it like a knife in her stomach. What would it have mattered, if she had done what Eliot couldn't bear to ask for, and refused him? What would it have mattered, if she'd said: no, don't marry me—just take me in? What would it have mattered, that the villagers shunned them; that they mistrusted their magic even as they were having to send away to spend what they were earning on the Orchard's over-bounteous fruiting; what would it have mattered, if Arielle lived a half a century in the cottage beside the mosaic, that she knew she'd never be certain of them? But that wasn't what she chose, was it? Was it. And now she is alone in the cottage with their two beds and Teddy's cot and barely room to walk between them: seven days going, and seven days back, while the rain beats down on her garden outside.
She shoves her spade into the dirt. Into the dirt into the dirt into the dirt. Into the dirt, and the tip clanks and stops against—not a stone, she thinks. It doesn't feel right. Panting, Arielle wipes sheets of water from her face, crouching down until the hem of her skirts dip down into the mud: scraping globs of soil and pebbles away from—from—it isn't a stone. It's a tile, a mosaic tile, a missing mosaic tile, not earthenware but metal, this one: gleaming, in places, under all its dirt.
—Arielle looks up, all around her, at her waterlogged, half-dug-up garden; at the mosaic frame, empty with all the tiles stacked and ready under pinned-down canvas at its edges; at their damp and bedraggled little home. She rubs her thumb along the tile—bumped and pitted; and cold, from the wet—
—and then, after a moment, she goes back into the cottage for the closest thing she can manage, in their tiny washtub, to a bath. Hanging all her skirts near the fire, hoping they'll dry enough for her to beat the dirt off by morning; sitting up on the big bed with one of Teddy's books in her lap, reading about elves, and dwarves, and something called a hobbit: Then, scrawled out, in Eliot's over-elaborate for-best penmanship, they all went and beat up some orcs: and on the facing page, Quentin has drawn some sort of beast, not unlike a small troll, only not as handsome; while the tile rests, waiting, within her apron pocket, hung up on her hook on the back of the door. She feels—almost as though it is watching her: as though it might—
Arielle snaps the book shut, and waves out the light.
For four more days, it rains. Four more days during which Teddy is by turns fretful and sullen and Arielle finds herself cross and prickly against her will, snapping even when she knows she oughtn't. She'd known, hadn't she? The rains come every year, at least a solid fortnight's soaking to soften the ground for the spring; and she'd known what it'd be like, trapped in the cottage in the rain without Quentin there to relieve her: to distract Teddy with new stories, just pulled—pulled straight out of his head; to kiss her forehead and offer her some flimsy excuse to leave for scant handful of hours, just to get her out of their four walls and out, breath steaming, into the rain; without Eliot to scratch at her back, shivery; or stroke her hair off her neck with his arm around her and Teddy between them on the big bed while, beside the fire, Quentin read to them from this year's edition of The Farmer's Companion and Evening Entertainments, which Eliot insists on referring to, for some reason, as The Bucolic Brothel Book. Seven days going, and seven days back—Gods, what'd she been thinking? But it was what they'd needed, they'd thought. She'd thought. Seven days going and seven days back—perhaps only six, if they hurry, which they won't—which means another day at least before they'll be back to her and the cottage—perhaps as long as four, if they stayed somewhere along the way; a night in Ramshorn for the books, perhaps; or at the Pass if the way was still snowy: and now—! And now a tile, a missing tile, tucked into her apron pocket and hanging on the door while Arielle pushes her frizzing hair off her face and plays Stormala on the big bed with a querulous Teddy, pebbles and acorn-caps; and then, on the fifth day, when her men have been gone a day short of a fortnight: the weather breaks at last, and Arielle stumbles out into the first glinting crack of gold in the garden, Teddy's hand in hers.
Turning their faces up to the sun.
After lunch, Arielle walks Teddy down the sodden path into the woods, all the way to the lookout rock's high view of the vast, swollen river: "No, love," Arielle says, arm tightening around him gently, "it's not a good day to go fishing." It ought to be easier, after: more room for Teddy to run, and the garden more hospitable to working; and it is easier—it is—but then another evening comes of watery soup and her underproved bread and another night trying to play Stormala with Teddy beside the fire, and Arielle—Arielle could scream, couldn't she? She could just—stumble out into the cold sharp dimming evening and just—howl. Howl. Couldn't she.
Breathing in, deep. Her apron pulled up to her mouth to muffle herself, under the first few brightening stars. The tile's fallen out of her pocket. She bends, to pick it up.
For a time—for a time. For a time she'd thought she'd won Quentin from Eliot, a hot fierce shameful kind of pride. Small of her, but after having been humiliated so publicly: Lunk following her in stolid silence ever since they were children, bringing her flowers and apples and ribbons for her hair; so that her mother and the aunts and every village matron had spoken of them with a warm and casual satisfaction, as though he were a task, already accomplished: a good husband, her mother'd told her, was one who didn't talk too much. And then after Lunk'd screwed Sarah in her father's henhouse and the whole of the Orchard had known about it by supper-time, Arielle'd thought she could rather do with a little bit more talking, if the alternative was someone who never told you anything but didn't stop kissing you, and then went out and got himself handfasted over a barrel to the most simpering, milk-wet girl in the village. When Quentin had asked her to marry him, she'd known she was signing up for more or less the exact opposite of what her mother'd recommended: not just Quentin, and his tendency to go off on long, rambling tangents about things that no other person could possibly care about, except if they cared about him; but Eliot, too: and if Quentin talked at one, a lot of the time, Eliot—talked to her, didn't he? He talked to the both of them, and listened, with his lovely laughing eyes, and his mouth curling up: his way of listening to you with all his attention fixed on your face—half the problem, really, that. Eliot was just so very easy to love. And so when Quentin—widely regarded by the younger and more impractical girls in the village as something of a matrimonial prize—had asked her to marry him—oh, well. There, she'd wanted to say, to Lunk and Sarah; There, she'd wanted to say, to Lilia Booker and Verona Pease, to every gossipy village maiden and matron who'd giggled over her humiliation, while Arielle smiled, jaw tight, at Lunk and Sarah, newly married, twining their hands with ribbons at the fair; There, she had wanted to say, he has chosen me, forever, ahead even of Eliot—and Arielle wasn't impractical: she'd never minded work, and she had no ambition to a crown, but she—she liked Quentin. She liked the—the littleness of him, the small ordinarinesses of his personality, the small unassuming threads of the tiny practical spells that came most easily to his hands and his intent, meandering way of telling her pointless stories, the way he smiled at her, and could make such everyday things feel like a game; the bright little blooms of his affection, so casually given. She liked him before she ever slid off her dress for him in the woods and, more surprisingly, she'd still liked him after; she'd liked him, and then he'd chosen her—but she hadn't won him, had she. The opposite. She'd only ensured that whenever after Quentin bent his mouth to hers with his eyes closed, it would never again be because it was his choice.
But this is a choice, isn't it.
The first, she is thinking, that they have had, in four and a half years.
The sky is fading, from a velvety greyish blue into black: all the stars coming alive above them, spread out everywhere. What would they choose? They won't stay, she knows that: Quentin told her that well before they ever married, his head bowed, her hands clasped in his hands. Never love a traveler, her mother'd told her, years and years ago, nor a quester, neither: and Arielle had rolled her eyes. And now Eliot and Quentin, at least, will both be leaving—and Arielle—Arielle could go with them. She could follow them through the door into the future, their war, their life at Whitespire, with a child on her hip and her knack for growing things, and not much else; she could become the wife of a king and see Earth and lose magic, for a time; or—
—or she could stay behind.
There is a sudden, sharp-white blaze of feeling inside her: she could stay behind. She could stay behind, she could—stay in the cottage a widow, of a sort, wed to a man not born for another century at least: surely the magic wouldn't survive that. All to the good. All to the good. She would miss them, of course, but she would be free, they would all be free: back home in the future Quentin could pin Eliot down to whatever fixed surface he could find and take him as savagely as he pleased; Eliot could go back to wearing capes and embroidered waistcoats and discussing art and magic instead of vegetable preservation and chicken coops; they could save their world and restore all of magic and Arielle could stay behind and tend their abandoned garden, gather berries and Orchard-fruits, pay men to fix the roof with—with jam, or—or sexual favors, and go into the village if it pleased her, or not if it didn't—and hot on its heels comes another thought that is blacker, twisted into itself, coiling up at its heart: and what of Teddy? it asks her. And what—but a small, bristling part of herself is already suggesting the solution: they could take Teddy with them—
—and leave her behind.
Arielle sucks in a deep, slow breath. She feels, just for an instant, a wave of relief so profound that it leaves her shaking and weak, followed by a grief so crushing and crashing that Arielle can barely breathe: oh, how could she, how could she even think it, she'd never bear it, could she? Her child, their son, the little person that they'd made with their hearts and their bodies, with Quentin's dimples and her own fine hair, his little songs and his temper tantrums and the diligent, determined way he sets himself to digging beside her in the garden and sounding out his letters and to persuading them, all of them, any of them, when they are in the village, to buy him sweet buns at three-for-a-penny—it would rip her into pieces, if they took him; and anchored deep down inside of her another brutal, buffeting wave: she knows that if Eliot tucked Teddy up on one hip and kissed his forehead and walked with him through a hole in the world without her, Teddy would cry, and cry, and cry. She couldn't. She couldn't bear it. She couldn't stand it—
—but, a small, insidious part of her is whispering, could they?
Arielle. Hands trembling. Turning the tile over in her hands. One night, in the first hard months after Teddy'd been born, Quentin had had the blackness in him so deep he was shaking, and he'd tried to make Eliot promise to marry her, if—if—if. Of course I'd look after her, baby, Eliot'd said, but nothing's going to happen, I won't let it, okay? and then, brushing a kiss to Arielle's temple, he had whispered, I need to help him adjust his meds. That'd been the first time they'd left her. Not alone, at least: Eliot'd called Widow Tinker and her mother to her, before they left, and then he'd taken Quentin—she didn't even know where, did she? She didn't know where they went. It was hard for Quentin to talk about it. An inn, in a town or a city, she knew that much: somewhere where Eliot had hired a stranger to help them; somewhere where Quentin didn't feel it pressing in on him with quite such fury, that terror of hurting himself, her, the baby: all tied up, for a while, with the knots in his head. They'd come back in nine days, and Quentin had been quiet and pale, but he'd clutched Arielle and Teddy to him and kissed their foreheads, their cheeks, curled towards them possessively in a limp, exhausted sleep on top of the quilt on Eliot's bed while Eliot'd paid the Widow Tinker and then lined up three new bottles on their top kitchen shelf: desiccated fern flies, red-ear moss powder, saffron. Arielle had never wanted to be a widow. Arielle had always thought, with a sort of creeping, ill-formed dread, that if either of them left her, it'd be Quentin, and he wouldn't be able to help it. But if both of them left. If both of them left her, now, like this, it'd be freedom for them, and a prison sentence for her, left behind: trapped alone in a cottage with a child forever, not for nine days while her mother clucked over her and Eliot tried to keep Quentin alive in some anonymous inn; not seven days going, and seven days back.
In the black of the evening. Starlight and moonlight both, bright enough to see by, beneath their broad clear night sky: Arielle takes her spade from the garden to the smooth flat undisturbed ground beside the mosaic, and begins to dig.