Devora frowned and tapped her stub of a pencil against the kitchen table.
Outside the cottage's low window, the red-smeared fingers of dawn streaked the sky. Birds called to each other from the few gnarled trees that clung to the bare cliffs and, if she listened carefully, it was almost quiet enough to hear water slapping the hulls of the boats moored at the lakeside.
Devora had been up for almost two hours. She'd set the fire, drawn the water, hung the kettle to heat over the flames, swept the floor, made the bread dough, left it to prove… found weevils in the rest of the flour, and cursed the name of that shystering miller who'd sold it to her.
Upstairs, the old man was still snoring. She barely heard it anymore. The great, grinding, bubbling rushes of noise seemed to mix in with the normal local sounds of creaking timber and lapping water; just part of the background hum. The whole village had a rhythm to it, and it was one Devora hadn't truly listened to in years.
Tap tap tap.
The pencil beat a staccato drill against the scarred wooden surface. A scrap of paper lay in front of Devora, carefully smoothed out and intimidatingly bare. It glared up at her, the colour of scalded cream. She frowned, and poked her tongue from the corner of her mouth, concentrating as she shaped the first word.
Her writing was round, neat… precise. As a child, Devora had always paid close attention to learning her letters and numbers. Every Sunday, she'd been there at the lessons Mother Hannah held in the chantry, sitting in the front row and staring up at the woman, wide eyes waiting to drink in knowledge.
Mother Hannah said an education was important. Mother Hannah said you could do anything with an education… although Devora wasn't entirely sure what that meant.
She pursed her lips, pencil moving slowly over the paper.
Yes. She wasn't buying from that damned miller again. Much more preferable to pay old man Tarritt's exorbitant prices for the pre-packaged stuff at the general store, than find the bag heaving with beasties after barely two days.
Devora glanced around the room, looking for what—if the task in hand had been less mundane—she might have called inspiration.
The fire crackled low in the brick hearth, and she thought briefly of a time when there had been more noise echoing off these crooked old walls. She'd wished for silence then, of course, stifled by the constant closeness and chaos of it all, and wanted nothing more than to be left alone.
Her family had been here for generations, eking a living off the water. If you treated it right, Lake Calenhad looked after you, or so they said.
It was there all the time, true enough; the backdrop and the backbone to everything in these parts. The lake brought water for washing, cooking, and cleaning, fish for eating—always fish, even on Sundays—and, when the time came, it took the souls of the dead across the silvered horizon to the Fade, and the Maker's side. Or so they said. Set adrift in little boats, with the flames cradling them like gentle veils.
Just like Ma and Pa. Best kind of end you could have, after a life on the water, they said. Giving back to the lake all you owed, one last time.
They said a lot of things. The old men and women, the priests and the Chanters who ran the boards and the tallies, and mediated most of the villagers' disputes and appeals: they moulded everything with words.
The Chantry stood between the village and the castle on most things. Oh, there was Murdock, the mayor, of course… but he wasn't exactly the diplomatic sort. As good a man as they could hope to have when it came to keeping order and ensuring the market traders were fair and honest—because who wouldn't be, with Murdock glaring at them over his great, black moustache?—but not one of nature's go-betweens.
No, Arl Eamon—Maker bless him—was a very busy man, most likely, and probably didn't want bothering with minor things. Not surprising, really.
Devora had seen him a few times, on the high days and holidays when the nobs from the castle came down to pass out alms and take services at the chantry. He was a tall man, with a great grey beard and a face like a knitted quilt, all patched together with seriousness and frown lines.
What did the arl care, say, about old Geraint Perkins, who kept letting his pig run free, grubbing up people's gardens? He must have important matters to deal with; matters that affected more than a few gnawed turnips.
Devora shouldn't think things like that, she supposed. Arl Eamon was a great man, and the arlessa a fine lady… even if she was foreign.
In any case, people in these parts were protective of their lord, and his castle. They were part of the local identity, the very bones of the place, and there was a hard, stubborn kind of pride attached to that.
They said only three men had ever successfully besieged Redcliffe, and the last to do it was King Calenhad himself. People round here liked to think something of the Silver Knight clung on in the earth, and in the water, as if the connection they'd had to that shining thread of history still gleamed as bright today as it had four hundred years ago.
Even the Orlesians hadn't knocked that out of them.
History had made the people of Redcliffe tough… and capable, too. Certainly, Devora was always being called 'a capable girl'. It was the one thing people reliably described her as.
She supposed there was no harm in that. And she did know how to deal with most things herself… like old man Perkins' bloody pig. Devora swore, if he let that damn thing out one more time, she'd butcher it herself, and there'd be roast pork instead of more sodding fish for dinner.
And that was a thought, wasn't it? Her gaze settled on the rack of knives that hung on the far wall, the sharpening stone dangling from a string beside them.
Yes! She knew she'd remember.
She gripped her pencil tightly once more and brought it back to the paper.
There was only so much you could sharpen a blade before it got thin and bendy and wouldn't hold an edge. Mother Hannah said she ought to be grateful for Master Otho giving her a job as a gutter on the quay but, all the same, Devora wished the old skinflint didn't expect the girls to supply their own knives.
Still, it wasn't bad work. She only needed to be there when the boats came in and, once you got used to the rhythm of sorting and gutting the catch, it all slipped by easy enough.
Everything except the smell, anyway.
Upstairs, the old man turned over, the creak and thunk of his elderly horsehair mattress a distinctive symphony, broken by a long, equally distinctive, and almost tuneful fart.
A small frown creased the centre of Devora's forehead as the pencil made another, longer journey.
ginger (for grandpa's flatulence)
Tarritt got the candied stuff in special, all the way from Denerim. It was expensive, but worth it. The old man could go a good fifteen minutes on a single piece. He'd sit there in his chair, sucking and chomping away on it like a babe with a rusk. No more than two teeth in his head now, bless him.
Outside, the birds were still singing, but other, familiar noises cut through the morning. Footsteps crunched on the grit, and Devora heard the whistling and cheerful calls of men heading down to the jetties. They would be walking to their boats, ropes and nets spooled and hauled over their shoulders, laughing and joking before the day's work began.
Devora set down her pencil and listened. When she was a child, she and William used to follow Pa down to the shore some mornings, running after him and giggling, then waiting to wave him off as his boat peeled away into the glittering water.
Of course, Pa was gone now. Sailed away for the last time long ago, he had, and William off to join the army these past three months…. No more running down the hill these days, laughing so hard her eyes streamed, while the wind tied her hair in knots.
The sounds of the fishermen passed, the footfalls thinning out and eventually giving way to the splashes of water on hulls and the thump of rope, coiled and tossed to the keel.
Devora picked up her pencil, and bit her lip.
She must write to William again. He'd sounded a little homesick in his last letter—not that he'd ever have admitted it. On the whole, army life suited her brother, Devora suspected. Predictable routines, people to tell him what to do and when to do it, and no bother about which clothes to put on in the morning.
William had never been a terribly bright boy. A big lad, good with his hands and eager enough to work, but… just not all that smart. She still didn't know how he'd got the damn fool idea to join up into his head in the first place. Why couldn't he have gone onto the water, like all the other men in their family? What in Andraste's name was wrong with fish?
Upstairs, the old man farted again, his snores growing louder and more jagged, the way they did when he drew close to waking.
Devora glanced at the fire, wondering whether to stoke it a little higher before she took him his tea. The kitchen was already warm, and the heat would rise. The days weren't cold enough yet for him to really feel it; the last gasps of summer still clinging on, as if the world remembered what it was to be young and to run, laughing, through the dappled sunlight.
cod liver oil
Devora nodded to herself. Tarritt stocked the stuff in big, dark glass bottles. Couldn't do without it, really, especially not once winter grew closer. A spoonful here for constipation, one there to loosen joints…. It seemed like the whole process of growing older was taken up with tweaking, lubricating and tightening, like trying to nurse along some temperamental piece of machinery.
Not that the old bugger was ever grateful.
Devora furrowed her brow. Did she want peas? No, she'd get those fresh from the market on Tuesday. Anyway, she suspected Taritt made the dried ones up to weight with floor sweepings, judging by the last bag she'd had. It had made Grandpa's affliction even worse than usual.
She should probably mention it to someone, she supposed. Old Murdock came down like an eel trap on dishonest trade, though she didn't want to cause trouble.
Maybe she should get something for Sunday, though, to bulk out the stew. Might do the old man some good… might be a nice change. But what? Salted meat? Hm. Perhaps not. Not with his digestion.
The pencil scratched across the paper.
A treat, Devora decided. And she liked them. Mother used to take her and William mushroom picking in the autumn, when they were little. There were more trees around then. They'd go all the way out past the cliff path, right to the top, where you could look over the whole of Redcliffe and see everything from the square to the docks, and right out onto the water. On a clear day, you might even make out the distant shape of the Circle Tower, a shimmering shadow at the back of the horizon.
Devora often wondered what they did up there. She'd never met a mage, though rumour had it that Goodie Askells' daughter might have magic. The child was only seven, but she had an uncommon way about her. Things always seemed to happen around the girl… like the time at the barn dance, when she'd been told she had to go home and go to bed instead of staying up with the revellers, and a strut had mysteriously collapsed in the hayloft, sending a bale right down on her mother's head.
Devora smiled at the memory. Oh, what she'd have given to have crowned Goodie Askells with a hay bale! It could have been coincidence, of course, but wouldn't that be a thing? Being able to do things like that….
They'd take the kid away, mind, if she did turn out to be that way. Sad, really, Devora supposed, but then they were probably happier like that, weren't they? Away from normal people and all safe, tucked up with their own kind, where they didn't need to worry about causing harm.
She tapped her pencil on the tabletop again.
Tap tap tap.
There probably wasn't anything else they needed. Devora skimmed the list, lips moving silently as she read. No, that should do it. Biddy Pearsall had given her some wool and a yard or two of good cloth in return for going in last week, when the old woman had been ill, and taking care of the cooking and cleaning. That was useful, because Devora needed to remember to knit another three pairs of socks to send to William. He said you could never have enough socks in the army.
She wasn't sure what to do with the cloth yet. New dress, maybe. Something with one of those pulled in bodices, like the ladies were wearing in Denerim these days.
Devora smiled shyly to herself. She'd seen a merchant's wife wearing one last time a trade caravan came through. Very daring. Didn't leave much to the imagination at all… and she had the waist to wear it, she thought, if it wasn't pride to think so.
Yes. A new dress. And she might try something different with her hair.
She reached up absently, fingers grazing the mousey locks that she habitually pinned into a loose bun at the back of her neck. Millie Clearwater, one of the other girls who worked on the quay, curled her hair with hot tongs, or so she'd told them. Millie said the trick was getting the tongs hot but not too hot, else you burned your hair.
It did look nice, though. And he might like it, mightn't he?
Devora's shy smile fluttered into a small sigh, but only because there was no one else there.
His name was Tomas.
He wasn't devastatingly handsome, but then she knew she wasn't particularly pretty… and she smelled of fish guts a lot of the time.
No, she could do worse than Tomas. Much worse. He was clean, polite, and ever so nice. Once, he'd helped her carry a whole basket of fish heads up from the jetty, and he hadn't complained about the smell, even though it was midsummer.
And he'd called her 'Miss Devora', and smiled at her. Miss Devora. That was something, wasn't it? He had a slightly sweaty, nervous way about him, which she supposed was a peculiar thing to find attractive, but she liked it nonetheless.
Devora stared out of the window for a moment, deep in thought. The sun was properly up now, gilding the sky with full, rich light, and burning the dew off the scrubby grass.
The trouble with a man like Tomas was in the catching.
Slippery, like fish. You needed bait on the hook, so to speak, and Devora was uncomfortably aware that she was somewhat lacking in that department. Oh, she was good to have around the house, and no mistake. A solid worker, just like Master Otho said, and strong and practical and good in a crisis and… capable. And all those other things that she didn't really want to be.
Totally useless when it came to more delicate matters, of course.
Not that it was her fault, she thought. Men didn't care if you could gut twenty pikeheads in a minute, or carry a sack of flour under each arm. They always chased after the pretty girls, moonstruck and drooling at the mere sight of a pair of big eyes or… whatnot. Girls with no sticking power, like that tart, Bella, up at Lloyd's tavern.
Tap tap-tap-tap tap.
The pencil's tattoo grew frenzied. Everybody knew her hair wasn't that colour naturally. She washed it in pokeroot and potato peelings, and she used lipstick and rouge.
Devora's mother would have disapproved. Powder and paint weren't for respectable girls, she used to say. No need to go doodling all over the Maker's handiwork.
Still… sometimes even the stoutest walls needed their plaster patched.
Devora narrowed her eyes and, with great concentration, inscribed an unfamiliar pair of words onto the page.
Mother wouldn't have approved, but then Mother wasn't here. She looked with satisfaction at the brackets around the second word. Yes. That fancy imported stuff, like all the great ladies had in Val Royeaux. They knew about dressing up and looking good there, didn't they?
They probably didn't smell of fish guts, either.
Devora pushed that thought from her head. Well, she didn't have time to sit here all day. She had to get on. There was the old man's tea to take up, then she'd have to help him wash and dress before she could go to the store, then get the bread baked and the vegetables cut for the stew… and, with luck, be down on the quayside by the time the boats were due. Master Otho didn't like any of the girls to be late.
She read through the list one more time, brow pinched and lip caught between her teeth. What else? It was a funny old collection of things, she had to admit. Strange, what people needed to keep life ticking over.
What would someone make of it, if they ever read this list? Just a series of unconnected words, with no meaning for anyone except the person who wrote it.
Devora smiled dryly. This was the result of too much time sitting still and thinking, that's what this was. No, what was real was real, and there was no point having expectations beyond that. Not in somewhere like Redcliffe, where nothing ever happened, and nothing ever changed. Day in, day out, the same old rhythms and patterns. Boats out, boats in. Knife in, guts out, and another fish on the heap.
She cleared her throat, and the sound seemed loud over the low crackle of the fire.
Now, was there anything else? She couldn't think of anything, but then it would be just typical that she'd get down to the store and old man Taritt would start on talking… and then she'd get home again, only to find something vital was missing from her basket.
Talking…. Ah. Yes, talking of talking, what was it Devora needed to ask him?
She glanced at the fireplace. Candles! That was it.
Tongue poking from the corner of her mouth once more, she wrote a careful note to herself across the bottom of the paper, in her very best hand.
Also remember to ask if more beeswax will be available soon.
Tallow was cheaper, but it stunk, and it made Grandpa cough. Besides, beeswax burned cleaner and, if she bought a little bit extra, maybe she could get hold of some alkanna root. If she dried that, ground it up and mixed it with the beeswax, it'd be a very serviceable substitute for lipstick.
You never knew your luck, after all.
Maybe, even in Redcliffe, there was room for a little bit of change.