Many and many years ago, long before the events of which you have heard, Gammer Mags found a man in her garden.
This would have been surprising enough had it been her ordinary garden behind the new house. It would take a soul both oblivious and determined to bypass the front door and find his way to the back, over the sturdy fence fringed with hartstongue and ragged robin to keep out deer and moles as well as two-footed interlopers. But the man was in her other garden -- the one most people didn’t even know existed.
He was strolling along the packed dirt of the path, looking quizzically at her flowerbeds and the trellises of clematis, only just now beginning to bud. Mags froze behind a willow tree at the sight of him, so shocked that for a moment she hardly remembered to breathe.
Only the other Gammers and the Gaffers knew about this garden; to everyone else, it was a bare bit of hill, too rocky to be worth tilling and too far from Ulverscote to be worth walking to for any lesser reason. The Pinhoes had spread stories about it for good measure, tales of ghosts or people who went to sleep there and woke up a hundred years later. Not out of malice: Mags and all the Pinhoe Gammers before her grew herbs there that no one should stumble into accidentally, and those were the least of the garden’s secrets. She didn’t even like the Farleigh and Cleeves Gammers coming to visit, having developed rather proprietary feelings about the place.
Yet somehow this stranger had found it.
Well, she couldn’t leave him roaming about. Mags tightened her grip on the handle of her basket, tugged her kirtle straight, and strode forward. “You! What do you think you’re doing here?”
The man turned without much alarm and bowed as she got closer. “My apologies, goodwife. I was just admiring your flowers. And -- er -- trying to find my way out, which I seem to be rather failing at.”
Because he never should have found his way in. “I’ll show you,” she said.
He responded by sweeping her a courtly bow. “I’m very obliged. I’m also Joseph Bentley. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
Nobody was courtly to Mags. Her Gaffer was downright insulting, because he was more than twice her age and thought that made him more important than her. “Gammer Mags,” she said.
It raised his eyebrows. “Gammer? You wear your years very lightly.”
All twenty-two of them -- but she wasn’t about to explain to this fellow why she was called Gammer when she didn’t even have children yet. She shifted her basket to her forearm and said, “You haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”
“Well, I have, rather. But you’re asking why I came here to begin with, aren’t you? My apologies -- I’m afraid my tutor was a stickler for saying precisely what you mean, and not its roundabout cousin.” Joseph looked around at the garden, frowning a little. He looked like the place puzzled him. How much of it had he seen, failing to get out? “It was an accident, to be perfectly honest. I was on a journey of sorts, and when I came back, I found myself here. You -- er -- you are aware that your garden is very magical, yes?”
Far too much of it was how much he’d seen. “That’s why you shouldn’t be wandering about. It’s dangerous here. Locals know that.”
“But I’m not local,” he said apologetically. “I do beg your pardon. I can see that I’ve upset you. If you’ll make good on your promise to show me the way out, then I’ll cease tramping about where I oughtn’t be.”
She didn’t tell him the trick of it. Only said, “Follow me,” and tried to glide off instead of stomping, because something about his good manners made her want to seem well-mannered in return. In short order they came to the edge of the garden, and Joseph laughed in relief.
“Thank you, Gammer Mags,” he said, sweeping her another bow. “I’ll do my best not to offend you again.”
And that should have been the end of it -- but it wasn’t.
Whatever kind of journey Joseph Bentley had been on, it had left him without carriage or horse, nor much in the way of money. He found a barn loft to stay in that night, and the next day he helped out at the farm in thanks, and somehow a week passed and he was still there. Mags twitched less now that he wasn’t in her garden, and in the absence of her twitching, she found she quite liked him. He respected her, which was an experience she didn’t often get to enjoy as a twenty-two-year-old Gammer. She was more used to people insinuating that the old Gammer would have done things differently.
A week turned into two. The odd jobs he did around Ulverscote seemed to result in quite a lot of rambling about the countryside, not just along the lanes between farms, but sometimes into their fields. The Gaffer muttered darkly about prying outsiders, and finally, to appease him, Mags went to see what Joseph was doing.
“Ley lines!” he said enthusiastically when she asked. “There’s a tremendous lot of them around here, converging in some interesting ways. I suspected that was why I wound up here, but now I’m sure.”
“Ley lines?” Mags echoed. “What are you nattering about?”
“Conduits of energy in the earth. Can you not feel them? There’s one along that ridge there, and another where we’re standing, and -- do you happen to have ink and a large sheet of parchment? No, I suspected not. Well, a tanned hide will do, if there’s an uncut one lying about, and a small paintbrush. I’d like to make a map. You’ll see what I mean, then.”
But Mags didn’t. Everything about the way Joseph talked was different from her way of thinking. He painted lines on the hide, but they were just lines to her. An abstraction, instead of a thing that lived in the earth.
She saw other things, though. She saw the way Joseph’s hair fell over his eyes, the smear of paint he left on his brow when he brushed it back with an impatient hand, the tiny wrinkles at the corners of his eyes when he smiled. Inconvenient things to notice, but now that she had, she couldn’t un-notice them.
“Utter foolishness!” the Gaffer raged when he heard. Not the map; Mags had made sure Joseph told no one about that, because she knew how the Gaffer would react. Much like he was doing now, except worse. “An outsider sniffing around your heels -- not even a Farleigh or a Cleeves --”
“We have to accept outsiders sometimes,” Mags said tartly. “Otherwise we’d be as sickly as a flock of inbred sheep.”
“You must end this.” The Gaffer stabbed one finger down onto the table as if driving in a nail. “Move him along. Send him home. We keep our secrets, here; we can’t have a man like him nosing into them. Who knows what would come next?”
“Change, maybe,” Mags flung back. “No wonder you’re afraid.”
It was defiance of the Gaffer as much as anything that made Mags take Joseph back to the garden.
She suspected by then that he could have gone back any time he wanted. His talk about ley lines had made it clear he knew a bit about magic, even if it wasn’t Mags’ kind of magic. But he was polite, and stayed away.
Mags led him in, and didn’t try to hide anything. They walked far enough for the seasons to change, and then down into the little meadow at the center, with its bubbling little spring and its grey stone arch. She spread a blanket and unpacked the hamper, laying out seed buns and sharp cheese and some fresh, red-cheeked apples.
“It all comes together here,” Joseph said, looking around in wonder. “What an exceptional place. I’ve never seen anywhere like it. Not just the ley lines; there’s something else.”
“Dwimmer.” Mags turned an apple over in her hands. “We call it dwimmer.”
She wasn’t supposed to tell him. She was the Pinhoe Gammer, for pity’s sake. But he was the first man to look at her with respect . . . and a bit more, besides.
Joseph laid his hand over her wrist. “Tell me. If you want, that is.”
She did, and so she did. About dwimmer, and about the garden. He ate three seed buns, probably to stop himself interrupting with questions, and drank a little wine, and all the while Mags talked -- right up until the moment Joseph clutched at his throat and turned purple in the face and fell down dead.
Then she shrieked. The apple fell to the ground; she seized Joseph, and when she realized it was too late she seized a bun instead, tearing it open with claw-like fingers, confirming what some part of her already knew. Joseph loved these buns, but she hated them, and the Gaffer knew it. He could make sure the ones she got from the baker were laced with corn cockle seed, and never fear he was about to kill his family’s Gammer.
He’d only killed the man she’d fallen in love with.
“Ugh,” Joseph said, and sat up.
“Sorry,” Joseph said, as apologetic as she’d been that first day she found him in the garden. “I -- er. I have more than one life. Nine of them, actually. Well, I suppose it’s six now. Good heavens --” His mind finally caught up. “Did you poison me?”
“The Gaffer did,” Mags said, murderously.
“Heavens. Magic poison, too, I suppose, given how swiftly it acted -- or rather, this dwimmer of yours. Oh, I wish he hadn’t done that.” Joseph pressed his fingers to his brow.
So did Mags, but it sounded like he meant something other than the normal resentment one might expect of a man who’d been unexpectedly killed. Dread pooled in her heart as she said, “Why?”
Joseph sighed and lowered his hand. “Because now I’ll have to do something about it. You see, the king has decided that England needs someone to oversee magic, or rather the misuses of same. I’m afraid that someone is me. And what your Gaffer just did is very definitely a misuse.”
“But -- you can’t tell,” Mags said desperately. “I just told you, we dwimmer-folk have to remain secret. It’s our sacred trust.”
“Yes, but . . . Mags, love, I can’t just ignore this. Quite apart from the fact that the man killed me, there’s already attention on this place. I sent off a message about the ley lines, days ago. Not about your garden, but the area in general. The king thinks this would be an ideal place for me to set up in -- and frankly, he’s right. I was going to tell you today. It means I’ll be able to stay nearby. I thought you’d be happy.” There was no happiness in his laugh. “But if we’re here, I mean me and the people working for me . . .” Joseph shrugged helplessly. “I’ll keep it under my hat as much as I can. Dwimmer, that is. But some people will know.”
“They can’t.” It was a dead, drained whisper. Everyone was right. She wasn’t ready to be the Pinhoe Gammer. She’d broken their sacred trust. All their secrets would be out in the open, because she’d put her heart ahead of her duty.
Joseph reached out as if to touch her wrist again, then withdrew. As if he didn’t have the right. “I’m sorry, Mags. I should have told you before you told me about dwimmer, and I -- oh, damnation.” He scrubbed his eyes. “I wish I’d never come here . . . and at the same time, I don’t.”
Because of her. She couldn’t look at the anguish in his expression; instead she looked anywhere else. The stone arch; the bubbling spring. Her garden.
Mags got up. “Wait here.”
She knew where to find what she needed. Some of it was in summer; the berries were in winter. She kept a little pot in the hollow of a tree, because sometimes it helped to brew things right here in the garden. Mags collected it and came back to the meadow, where she filled the pot with water from the spring.
Joseph conjured a small fire for her without being asked. “What is that?”
“Safety,” Mags said. “And sorrow.” She dumped leaves and flower petals into the pot, and used a pebble to mash up the berries while the rest of it steeped. Those went in when the brewing was done.
He watched in silence as she worked. When it was finished, Mags said, “If you drink this, you’ll forget everything I told you. You’ll forget me.”
“To protect your people,” he whispered. “But Mags . . . if I’m here, working to oversee magic, I’ll just find out again.”
“Not if we hide from you. Not if I keep our secrets.” It was her duty as Gammer.
“So we never see each other? Ever again?”
If they went on seeing each other, the Gaffer would kill him. Six more times, if necessary. The old man was ruthless enough for that.
Mags breathed out her feelings into the garden. The place where she’d found Joseph, and lost him. Her place, and maybe the magic it held would do this one thing for her. “Here,” she said. “This garden -- I give it to you. And when you come here, so long as you’re within its bounds, you’ll remember.”
She held out the pot, now cool enough to drink. Joseph looked at it. There wasn’t much liquid inside. “What about you?”
“I have to remember.” So she would remember to stay away from him. Which would be worse: her living with the loss of him every day, or him losing her anew every time he entered the garden?
Joseph set the pot down and leaned forward. Mags almost told him no, that she didn’t want to have this for such a fleeting moment . . . but worst of all would be to never have it to begin with. She kissed him, for the first and last time.
Then she sat back and watched him drink.
He built a wall around the garden. Not a forbidding one; a protective wall, sheltering what lay within. The seasons, and the spring, and the stone arch.
And the memories.
Mags built a family, with a man who wasn’t a Pinhoe or a Farleigh or a Cleeve, but by then there was a new Gaffer, less murderous than the old. Her husband at least looked at her with respect.
A castle went up alongside the garden, because the king felt his Chrestomanci needed a properly impressive place to live and work. Then some newer bits of castle, and some bits that were more like a manor house, as the centuries rolled by. And all the while, Pinhoes kept separate from castle folk, and kept their secrets.
Until they didn’t. But those are events of which you’ve already heard.