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Drowned Country
Author: Emily Tesh

 

I: The Demon of Rothling Abbey


THORNGROVES SHROUDED GREENHOLLOW HALL. Blackthorn and hawthorn, holly and briar, carpets of stinging nettles in case anyone missed the point. Adders moved in that dark tangle. Crawling, stinging things skittered along branches. Silver had a good line in alarming spiders going.

Thin branches pressed up against the library windows, tapping and tapping as if asking permission to come in. No sunbeam had managed to penetrate in months.

On a Tuesday afternoon in April, a shudder of recognition went through the whole mess. Silver was lying on the dusty floor of the mediaeval great hall, staring at the vaulted ceiling, contemplating making it sprout. Everything sprouted if he wanted it to. There was a healthy crab apple demolishing its way through the ceiling and floor of what had once been a whitewashed ground-floor bedroom in the east wing. Crooked branches laden with white blossom and sour fruit together thrust from broken windowpanes. The tree had been in both blossom and fruit for months and it was not happy. Silver was not happy either. Sometimes he went and sat in there and felt sorry for himself.

Other places Silver felt sorry for himself: his study, which as all the servants had left months ago was a mess; his library, which was hardly better; his bedroom, where mistletoe hung from the bedposts like midwinter baubles; and of course the floor of the great hall, where the cold of the ancient stones seeped into his back and the moss was spreading lusciously along the cracks between them. He sat up when he felt the shuddering demand go through the Wood. His outline remained on the stones where he had lain sketched in yellow-white lichen. There were several similar man-shapes scattered around the empty room.

“Behold my ghosts,” said Silver out loud. He was in the habit of talking to himself now. He had tried maintaining a dignified silence for a while, and discovered that dignity counted for very little without an audience. These days he chattered, muttered, sang, read aloud when he bothered to read. He read much less than he used to.

The tangle of Greenhollow shuddered again. Silver imagined himself a spider in the web, feeling the threads tremble. “What,” he said crossly, “what is it?”

Nothing.

“What?”

Something moved in the corner of his vision. He turned his head and glared at the shadows. The thorn-dryad Bramble gathered herself out of the nothingness and stepped into the room.

She hadn’t been able to do that until the roof started crumbling. The fact that she could do it now was the one thing that might make Silver consider attempting to repair the roof.

“Get out,” he said.

She fixed her sungold gaze on him. Silver refused to feel embarrassed about the fact that he was wearing the ragged remains of what had been one of his better shirts, and no socks or shoes. He had once prided himself on being well turned out. He wriggled his toes against the flagstones. A man shouldn’t have to wear shoes in his own house if he didn’t want to.

“But this is not a house,” said the dryad, so he’d said that aloud.

“Get out.”

Instead the dryad paced closer. She walked in long springing steps that cracked the stones beneath her feet. Little gasping patches of holly sprang up where her toes pressed down into the dust of the ancient flags, two or three leaves and a spray of berries each time. It looked as though the bodies lined in lichen had started bleeding. Silver did not flinch away from her. She was a powerful and dangerous and strange creature, one of the mysteries of the Hallow Wood, unique even among her tree-sisters, but she did not frighten him. Nothing very much frightened him. Was he not the Lord of the Wood, nearer demigod than mortal man, master of time and seasons, beasts and birds, earth and sky?

“Your mother is here,” said Bramble.

Silver froze.

After a long silence he managed, “Make her go away.”

Bramble folded her arms. The human gesture did not suit her stiff shape, yet it struck Silver with a startling, painful familiarity. He knew just where she had learned that pose, and that frown, and that air of patient, half-amused disapproval. She showed no sign whatsoever of being in a rush to remove Adela Silver from the premises.

Silver scowled at her. He reached out to the wood himself, but the threads of its power slipped away from him. Rather than additional curtains of thorns springing up around the boundaries of Greenhollow Hall, the ones that were already there started to recede. The dryad was extraordinarily strong, and her relationship with the wood was peculiar; even a man with more than a couple of years’ half-hearted experience making use of the power of the Hallow Wood might have struggled to match her. Silver gave up quickly. As the wall of thorn bushes gave way before the interloper, he felt a light tread in the soil, the swish of a severe skirt in the dew.

This was embarrassing. Silver was the lord of his own wood. He was the owner of his own house. And he was a grown man of twenty-five years. There was no reason his own mother should strike him with as much terror as if he were a naughty schoolboy caught scrumping.

“Oh, very well,” he said, trying to pretend it had been his own idea all along. “Good of you to let me know, Bramble. Run along now.”

The dryad stared at him a moment longer. She tipped her head very slightly to one side.

A wave of rot-scent rolled across the great hall as toadstools erupted through the flagstones and shelves of fungus spread themselves across the walls. The lichen-men vanished under the onslaught. Overhead the vaults of the ceiling erupted into greenery, and shafts of light pierced through as the roof finally, decisively, collapsed.

Silver put his hands over his head. It took a while for the rumbling echoes of falling masonry to die away.

Bramble smirked at him, showing pointed brown teeth, and disappeared.

Silver groaned.

“I paid a substantial sum of money for this place, I’ll have you know!” he called out. He very much doubted the dryad even knew what money was, and it wasn’t as if he could sell Greenhollow anyway. But still. He looked around in some despair. He was twenty-five years old, he still had some good clothes somewhere, probably, and he was the native demigod of an ancient forest kingdom; but just then he felt altogether defeated by rubble, by toadstools, and by the fact that Mrs Silver was certain to do no more than sniff faintly at the whole.

Moisture dripped from the walls and highlighted the subtle brown striations of the shelf fungus.

Silver contemplated reaching out to the Hallow Wood and attempting to turn his shattered home into a slightly more aesthetically pleasing ruin, or at any rate something he could pretend he had done on purpose, but he had never been able to lie to his mother anyway. Let her sniff. At least this way she could not invite herself to stay.

* * *

Silver met his mother on the steps of the Hall. He had run to his bedroom and thrown on a less horrific shirt, a countryman’s tweed jacket which did not fit him because it was not his, and some socks and shoes.

“Mother!” he said in his most charming tone of voice as she approached. “What a delightful surprise! I . . .” He had to stop and swallow hard as he got a good look at her. “I hope the journey was not too uncomfortable . . . ?” he managed.

Mrs Silver paused. She looked him up and down. “Henry,” she said.

No one used Silver’s given name. He tried to stand up straighter in the shapeless tweed jacket, and to give her the same treatment in return. She was wearing her second-best dark grey dress, which she often wore for travelling. She had retrimmed the wrists with a new lavender ribbon. Her black-caped lady’s coat was adorned at her shoulder with a heavy silver brooch. Her hat was dove-grey with lavender trim. The effect was sombre in the extreme. Silver had never dared to ask her if she was really still mourning his father or if she just found the sober attire of the widow convenient for her purposes. Hunting monsters could be a messy business. Bloodstains hardly showed on black.

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