A history-inspired fantasy saga with lots of magic…
Johanna is the daughter of a rich merchant in Saardam. As only child and without a mother, she has grown up with notions, such as that she wants to take over her father’s river trade business in her own name. Courtesy of her eastern mother, she has an unusual ability. She sees things in willow wood: whenever she touches wood, it shows her what has happened around the tree or wooden object. Any kind of magic is not common in Saardam, and the Church of the Triune, which rapidly gains influence in the city, forbids it.
While she goes to church, Johanna also maintains a loose network of magic-enabled people. One of those people is Loesie, a farmer’s daughter from out of town.
One day, Loesie comes to town after having been struck mute by magic. She carries a basket made from willow twigs that tells Johanna that a group of bandits with demons is about to attack the city.
But there is no non-magical proof, so she can’t tell anyone or she’d be branded a witch. The time of witch-burnings was not that long ago.
Never mind that the army is still approaching, and there are increasing signs that Saardam’s embattled royal family might have done something that has angered magical forces in the east. Add to this that the royal family seems to have fallen out with the city’s nobility, and that the recent death of the crown princess has left the family with only one heir: the mysterious prince whom no one has seen for years and who has suddenly returned home.
At the annual ball, Johanna’s father has brokered a dance for her with the prince. Johanna just wants to warn people of the impending attack.
Read a sample below.
JOHANNA SASHAYED down the church aisle towards the open doors that beckoned her to freedom. Her clogs clonked on the wooden floor, clop-clop-clop. With each sway of her hips, her skirts swished around her ankles, and her plait swung over her back, free of the bonnet.
Poor girl, needs a mother. Look at her clothes. As if her father can’t afford anything better. He’s giving her far too much freedom.
She knew the whispers of the merchants’ wives, the not-quite-nobles and other hangers-on of the Saardam gentry, and all the others in the pews. She knew the rules of the church about women, that they should dress modestly and not show any exuberance or draw attention to themselves.
There would be hell to pay for this later, but today, she didn’t care.
On second thoughts, coming to church wearing her clogs instead of her proper shoes was probably not her smartest idea ever. But she didn’t want to get her best shoes dirty. Of course she had a second-best pair of shoes, but even her second best pair of shoes was too good for the markets, where farmers cast their scraps on the ground and their pigs and cows and chickens left their business, and where the cobbles were always covered in slimy mud.
Indeed, the daughter of a merchant who hoped to attain noble status wasn’t supposed to go to the markets. One had servants for the purpose.
Not that she cared about that either. Because, for once, the weather gods smiled on Saardam, bringing out the colours, the paint on the merchants’ houses, the red of the roofs, the blue water in the canals, the brilliant green of the leaves on the trees, the yellow of the cheeses on the market stalls, the blue and white shirts of the cheese sellers. Had she ever noticed how many weeds grew between the pavers in the street and how brightly yellow the dandelions bloomed? Did she remember how blue the sky was and how white the clouds?
She stopped at the church door, drinking it in.
She called it freedom, now that the boring part of the day was done.
The sunlight was kind even to Nellie, with wisps of flaxen hair peeking out from under her oh-so-proper bonnet. Her eyes were clear and blue and her skin was like the velvet bottom of the neighbour’s baby, so much prettier than Johanna’s. Those cheeks now flushed with red as she caught up with Johanna at the church doors, bowing and apologising to all those who had nothing better to do than complain.
She whispered, “Mistress Johanna, you aren’t wearing your proper shoes.”
“Aren’t I?” Johanna lifted up the hem of her skirt, letting the sunlight fall on her clogs. Pretty ones, these were, too, with painted patterns and made from willow wood that sang its stories to her whenever she wore them. Happy stories, of fat cows, green pastures, and peace.
“Your shoes were in your room. I put them there this morning.”
“Oh. I must have missed them.”
She clonked down the church steps, clop-clop-clop on the wood. Clop-clop-clop down the new stairs of the new entrance porch with its Lurezian woodwork and stained glass windows. Clop-clop-clop onto the cobbled street.
See me? I’m wearing my clogs to church. If there is any such thing as the Triune—which I doubt—He will love me or hate me with my clogs just as much as with my shoes.
“Come, let’s go!”
Nellie sighed and rolled her eyes. She did that a lot lately.
Frivolous, they called Johanna, and said she needed a man. But have you ever noticed how marriage takes the life out of a woman’s eyes?
She slid into the crowds of the markets, the servants, shopkeepers and common people buying their daily needs: bread, butter and cheese; potatoes, fish and—shudder—cabbage.
“Good day Mistress Johanna, good day, Nellie,” said Leo Mustermans, standing behind his stall. He wore his Market Day best, a hose that was grey and less patched than what he usually wore when lugging cheeses from the sloops in the harbour. He did well enough; under his golden hair he had a round face, now sweaty and squinting into the sunlight.
“Beautiful day today,” Johanna said. “The cheese will be good this summer.”
“That, it will be, Mistress Johanna. Though the cheese will get sweaty if the breeze doesn’t pick up.”
She laughed. She wanted to say, Just like you but Leo would laugh, because he was that kind of man, and others would know what she’d said and next thing that would be added to her list of recent sins.
“It’s good quality cheese, the kind the Estlanders like.” He looked like he wanted to add something about Johanna’s father buying his cheese and selling it to Estland, but he didn’t. She was a frivolous girl after all and one couldn’t possibly discuss business with a girl. Fancy that.
Then he asked, “You’re all excited for the king’s ball?”
Johanna laughed but her good mood fled the instant he mentioned the word “ball”. Why did they always have to ask about that? As if it were the only thing that mattered for a young woman in Saardam: to be invited to the royal ball. She said through clenched teeth, “Our family is not important enough to go to the ball.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be, because I don’t want to go.”
“But you should be invited, Mistress Johanna. You’d be pretty enough to turn all the noble boys’ heads, and brainy enough to outsmart them all.”
She laughed, the sound again hollow. “Thanks for the flattery, Leo, but no thanks. I’m glad I don’t have to go.” It was not like the noble boys wanted brainy girls.
“It’s a pity. The rumour goes that the king will announce a surprise for the citizens of Saardam.”
Johanna had heard that, too, whispered to her by the wood of the pews in the church. She stifled a wave of suspicion and dread. Last year, the king’s surprise had been his donation of the statue of the Triune to the church. The thing was so big that it had come on a river sloop pulled by two full teams of sea cows all the way from Lurezia. The blocks of the statue had to be dismantled even further before they fitted through the church door.
She hoped the surprise would be nowhere as extravagant as that. And that it would be something that people could use. She heard the Burovian king had paid for a new concert hall, and that Lurezia now had a building dedicated to the study of the skies. Why couldn’t King Nicholaos give something like that? “I’m sure we’ll hear about it soon enough.”
“That is true. We will, Mistress Johanna.” He nodded. “Have a nice day.”
“A nice day to you, too.”
She walked away from the stall, running her fingers over the wooden planks of the trestles groaning under the weight of his cheeses, big, fat yellow ones. The willow wood brought images of grazing cows and green fields to her mind—buttercups and dandelions, and stacks of drying hay.
“He is right, you know,” Nellie said in a soft voice once they were in the next aisle.
“What?” Johanna frowned at her, still thinking of green meadows and fat cows.
“You should be invited to the ball. Your father is important enough. He’s certainly wealthy enough.”
“Oh, pfaw, Nellie. He’s a merchant. Haven’t you noticed how much the nobles get out of their way to put us in our place? I’m glad I don’t have to go and that’s the truth of it. Do you see me dancing and twirling in frilly dresses? Do you see me walking up the steps to the palace with half of Saardam gawking at me and gossiping about what I’m wearing? I can just about hear their voices already: ‘She is very coarse, isn’t she?’ and ‘Goodness me, who did her hair?’ or ‘What is she wearing?’ ”
“They are doing that already.” Nellie glared pointedly at Johanna’s clogs.
Yes, she got the point.
Clearly scenting blood, Nellie stuck her nose in the air. “It would be a good opportunity to show that you’re a real lady. It’s not too late for you to find a good husband—”
“Nellie, have you noticed that as soon as a woman gets married, she dresses ‘proper’ and suddenly loses her youth and her sense of fun? Well, I have no intention of becoming like that.”
“You can still be a fun person when you’re married.”
“Show me a woman who managed that, and I will believe it.”
She glared at Nellie and Nellie glared back.
In her eyes Johanna saw the frustration of years of waiting, the embarrassment of watching her mistress do things that made her cringe. Johanna’s father employed Nellie as a personal maid and companion, but she wanted to be the maid of a household, a servant to the man Johanna was yet to marry, and a governess to the children Johanna didn’t have.
You’re twenty-four, mistress. It is beyond time that you were married.
Why did discussions always come back to that old subject?
It was getting very tiresome.
She continued from stall to stall, across the cobbled pavement, sliding her hands over the wood and hearing in the wood’s essence the conversations of men who had put out the trestles early this morning, the voices of the merchants as they arrived, the gossip, the people who were always late paying, the liars and cheats, who married whom, who cheated with whom, that sort of thing. She listened to the talk of merchants, about accounts, about imports, the sort of news she would relay to her father.
Then Johanna came around a corner and found a stall with stacks of baskets of the type that were woven from willow twigs. Her heart leapt. Loesie was here.
Johanna hadn’t seen Loesie since the pale beginning of spring. She lived with her grandmother on the flood plains of the Saar River that looped around Saarland to form the northern border with the kingdom of Estland and the eastern border with the barony of Gelre.
Nellie had seen Loesie, too, because she touched Johanna’s arm. “Please, Mistress Johanna, it’s time to—”
“I need a basket for my embroidery things.”
“But you hardly ever do embroidery, Mistress Johanna.”
“That’s why I need a basket—to keep it out of my way.”
“But you have a room full of baskets. A basket for your wool, a basket for your laundry, a basket for your winter blankets . . .” She counted on her fingers. “I could scarce find room for another one.”
“I am sure you can find one that is broken.”
Johanna progressed to the stall, Nellie hobbling behind her, protesting that Johanna never broke any baskets. She felt sorry for Nellie; only sometimes, though. On second thoughts, Nellie was a nice girl, but she really needed to stand up for herself more, even against her mistress. Especially against her mistress, because she took advantage of it.
Having felt Johanna approach, as Johanna knew Loesie would, Loesie rose from behind a pile of baskets.
And there the day turned not-so-very-good at all.
The young woman in the stall was no longer the one Johanna knew as her friend, no longer the vivid, laughing, large-eyed creature that people in town called a witch when they thought Johanna wasn’t listening. No longer the figure that inspired fear in the ship’s boys who sneaked around trying to steal from the stalls, and in Nellie.
This pale shell of her friend was like a ghost. Her mist-grey eyes were wide, her skin so pale it was almost translucent. A black dress hung off bony shoulders, and a black scarf covered her limp, grey-brown hair.
As Loesie recognised Johanna, her face split into a grin, but it was more like a grimace. Her cheeks were death-pale.
Johanna ran to her, simultaneously horrified and revolted. “Loesie! What happened to you?”
Her arms closed around Loesie’s shoulders, and at the same time, a shudder of cold went through her. There was no meat on Loesie’s bones at all. “A sickness? Death in the family?”
Loesie only looked at Johanna.
“What happened, Loesie? Where is your grandmother?” But it was clear that she had come alone. There were not as many baskets as usual and the stall was rather messy.
Loesie’s lips opened, but her mouth made only a kind of ghghghgh noise from the back of her throat. She lifted her hand up to her neck. It sounded like she had a turnip stuck down there.
“You can’t speak?”
“You have a disease?”
She shook her head. Her eyes bore a glazed expression, as one—Johanna shivered—one touched by magic.
Of course the Shepherd in church said there was no magic, and that’s what the people wanted to believe. The church had no control over magic, because magic flows where magic goes, in the wood of the willow trees, in the wind and in the water. Magic didn’t happen for everyone, and certainly didn’t answer to priests and their prayers.
So magic or no, Johanna knew not what else to call it, but it hovered in Loesie’s eyes sure as she could hear willow wood speak.
Johanna dug under her apron, trying not to notice how thin Loesie was and how ill her grandmother’s dress fitted her, and how her skin had paled until it looked like she was a corpse that had floated in the water for days. She took a bag of biscuits out of her pocket and slipped it into Loesie’s hands. She scrunched open the paper.
“Go on then, eat them. They’re good. Koby made them.”
With her bone-thin fingers, Loesie broke a piece off a biscuit and popped in her mouth. She closed her eyes as she chewed, then she smiled. Johanna put her hand on Loesie’s shoulder. “Tonight you should sleep in Father’s sea-cow barn. You’ll be warm there. I’ll bring you some food, right?”
From the corner of her eye, Johanna could see Nellie fidgeting.
Yes, yes, I know I came here to buy a basket. Let’s choose a basket, then.
She ran her fingers over the rim of a coarsely-woven laundry basket. The stripped willow twigs made her skin tingle. She heard laughter, sloshing of water around a boat, the voices of a young man and a young woman. She pulled away and reached for another basket. Those twigs gave her no more than the soft lowing of cows. The next thing, a footstool made from willow twigs, contained a male voice, which said, “You know, one day in spring a flood will come and all this land will be under water.”
A boy responded, “Can’t we stop it?”
“No, son, it needs to happen. It’s part of life.”
Johanna withdrew her fingers. She’d heard all these voices before. They came from twigs cut from willows around town.
Loesie rummaged under her table and pulled out a few more baskets, none of which were in the shape of anything that Johanna could remotely use for storing embroidery.
She glanced over her shoulder at Nellie, who scrunched her hands up before her, white-knuckled, and who was studiously avoiding gazes from genteel citizens, glances that said, You should tell your mistress not to involve herself with such questionable people. Poor Nellie.
Then Loesie pulled a square basket that had been at the bottom of the pile and held it out to Johanna, uttering more ghghghgh sounds.
She nodded, her eyes vivid.
The moment Johanna touched the woven twigs, she heard the most bloodcurdling scream she had ever heard in her life. A woman. It was night and the pale moonlight wasn’t strong enough to show what was happening. There were men’s voices, too, rough and . . . foreign. The sound of galloping hooves, and a low, guttural, demonic roar. Some kind of creature bounded through tall grass. All Johanna saw was a silhouette, pushing aside tall grass and leaves that occasionally reflected the moonlight like silver. The creature ran flat-footed, was long-haired, and had small, rounded ears and a long snout, like a hunting dog, except it was much bigger than that.
She dropped the basket, goose bumps crawling over her arms. “Where . . .” She gulped for air. “Where did this wood come from?”
Loesie thudded her hand on her chest.
“You cut it?”
If she cut it, it must come from somewhere close to her grandmother’s farm. Johanna bent to pick up the basket, and used her apron to touch the wood. The messages in the wood faded the more people touched it.
Did that poor screaming woman survive? What was that dreadful roar? What was that creature? Willow tales were always true. If that’s what the tree had seen, then that was how it had happened.
“Loesie—was this at your grandmother’s farm?”
She nodded and mimicked fighting.
“They’re bandits? Coming into Saarland?”
She nodded again and then formed her hands into claws and mimicked a roar.
Loesie nodded again.
Except the kingdom of Saarland had been at peace for many years. There had not been any marauding bands of invaders for a long time. Certainly not magical ones.
Johanna wanted to set the basket down, but Loesie gestured for her to keep it and pointed across the marketplace.
“You want me to leave?”
“Ghghghghgh!” She shook her head and pointed more strenuously.
Nellie reminded Johanna, “We should be on our way, Mistress Johanna. We have to be back for midday—”
“Cowpats, Nellie, we have plenty of time.”
Nellie’s cheeks darkened. “Mistress Johanna. You shouldn’t say such . . . things. And in the marketplace, too, where everyone can hear it, mind you. What is your father going to say when he hears—”
“Stop it, Nellie, before I say any worse words. My friend needs help. That’s much more important than what people think of me.”
Then, spotting the crest of Saardam above the entrance to the council chambers, she realised what Loesie had been trying to say. “You want me to tell someone, like the mayor?”
She nodded, her eyes wide, while she gripped Johanna’s arm. “Ghghghgh!”
“Yes, I will.” Though what she would tell a mayor who went to church every day and didn’t believe in magic she didn’t know. She could just about see the man’s face, over his hideous ruffled collar. The wood told you there are bands of rogues about? “If I’m to make a convincing story, I need to know who these men are and where they are now.”
Loesie made a sweeping motion with her hand.
Johanna looked at the peaceful market scenes, the cheese merchants, the fabric sellers, the turnip farmers, all people she knew reasonably well. No one she didn’t.
Loesie made a sound of frustration. “Ghghghghgh!”
“In the city?”
Loesie pulled her arm again, placing her hand flat on her chest. Then she pointed at Johanna.
“Yes, I promise I’ll tell someone.”