"I'm so glad you came!" Withemistress Penden's greeting as she moved toward Liavan and Liavan stood might have been a shade effusive, but it sounded entirely genuine. Today she was wearing a mauve tunic with buttons covered in the same cloth over a purple house dress. "I do hope everything has been going well with you since I saw you." She took Liavan's hand and the two women shook. "Please, sit down again. Mirran is bringing in the tea for us."
"I am far enough out of town to avoid the noisome effects of any trade," replied Liavan, "but having lived in town all my life, there are some things that I hadn't expected."
"You must tell me what they are," said Withemistress Penden, "but here's Mirran with our tea. She turned to her daughter and said, "Please put the tray down here, dear. I'll bring everything back to the kitchen when our visit is finished."
"Yes, Mum." Mirran smiled. "If anyone else comes to the door, I'll get it. There is only so much character writing practice I can do without a break anyway." With that she left them, closing the door behind her.
"So, tell me," said Withemistress Penden as she leaned forward and started pouring the tea from the pot into the tall, straight-sided tea cups, "what didn't you expect about country living?"
"Biting insects," replied Liavan as she waited for her hostess to finish pouring. "Snakes. Giant pigs and bigger deer." She picked up her cup and took a sip. "Thank you. This is very good."
"It is," agreed Withemistress. "My grocer lets me know when it comes in because he can only get hold of it a few times a year. Worth every crown I pay for it too." She sipped her tea. "I've never had much to do with snakes, I'm afraid. One has heard," she said delicately, "that various parts of the creatures can be very useful, but I can't speak from personal experience. The baron is always complaining about wild pigs damaging crops and going after new born stock, but he deals with that through the estate reeves instead of coming to me about it. When you say 'giant' just how big do you mean?"
"A boar that looked like it massed about three times the size of a man, and the stag was taller than most men at its shoulder," replied Liavan. "Apparently they decided not to fight each other this time."
"That was nice of them," commented Withemistress Penden.
"As this was a little before dawn and just outside my garden fence, I thought so," agreed Liavan.
"That does sound unsettling," said her hostess. "Every so often you hear of incidents with farm pigs, but it somehow seems more likely with an animal of that size. Of course, it's not always the pig's fault. There was that innkeeper over near Racklesfield a few years ago who was doing in lone travellers and feeding the bodies to his pigs to hide the evidence. I forget how it was that they caught him, but he was hung for it I do know."
"Wait, was that the place where they tore down the inn and burnt it?" Liavan had been in her early teens at the time and not particularly paying attention to what she thought was distant news.
"It was," confirmed Withemistress Penden. "They were pulling the place apart to find where he'd stashed all his loot, and when they lifted the stones in the cellar, they found out that the inn had been built on older ruins. Not stones carted from ruins, or level the site and start again built on ruins, but use what's left of the walls that are above ground and dig out the underground bit to be a cellar built on ruins."
"That's a little odd," conceded Liavan, "but you wouldn't burn the inn down unless - wait, was it a burial crypt?"
"Yes. Yes, it was. An early Urmagh period temple burial crypt." Withemistress Penden nodded.
Liavan probed carefully. "From before the Church was founded here?"
"Yes." Withemistress Penden drank some more tea. "Dweri Singra, in fact. I always wonder what went wrong when the first Urmagh king imported her worship - she's always been a benevolent and beloved crop goddess in Ramabrachuara. Over here...was an entirely different matter. Of course, no-one within a day's travel of the place wanted an unsecured temple burial crypt that had been primed with the murders of no-one knows how many people left the way it was. The task-priestesses’ bodies were reburied in the cemetery at Loftbridge Cathedral with a full Mass, and blessed by two Bishops, so no-one believes that they'll start walking." She stopped. "Oh, I am sorry I've been rambling." She smiled apologetically at Liavan.
"That's all right." Liavan smiled back. "It was very interesting." She sipped her tea again.
"The Urmagh kings are to the point though." Withemistress Penden tapped an index finger on the rim of her teacup. "You're right up against the royal preserve, aren't you?"
"According to the duke's map it's two miles and three chains from the eastern edge of my plot to the western edge of the preserve," replied Liavan. She added, "In a straight line."
"No distance at all for a deer, or so I'm told," Withemistress Penden nodded. "I remember my grandfather, Withemaster Read, told me once that the royal preserve near your house was never a hunting preserve. He said the Urmagh kings used to put herbivorous animals they'd received as gifts from overseas royalty there. He didn't say why."
"The one I saw didn't look like the pictures of deer or taxidermized deer heads I've seen, so maybe it's the descendant of a gift?" Liavan thought that sounded plausible.
"That's the reasonable explanation," agreed Withemistress Penden. "If, for some reason you come to think that it's not, feel free to come back and talk to me about it. If I can't help you myself, I can probably put you in contact with someone who can. Of course, if it's something that no-one else has seen before, you might wind up being the expert."
"I hope that the reasonable explanation is the right one," commented Liavan.
"Usually it is." Mistress Penden sighed. "Unfortunately, sometimes the reasonable explanation is also the inconvenient one. Murders," she added, "are usually in the family."
"Oh," said Liavan. "Master Curry of the Tanners Guild."
"Yes," confirmed Withemistress Penden. "I was consulted because I know about mushrooms and toadstools - that was how my great-grandmother got her start in our trade. In this case I could tell the baron's sheriff what was done and how it was done, but I have no idea who did it. Frankly, I hope to have no more to do with the matter - I want the culprit to be one of the family members I didn't like but my likes and dislikes aren't any guide in matters like this."
Liavan was casting about to for something consoling to say when she noticed the change of light outside the window. "I have no experience with either," she confessed. "I don't want to seem cold or rude, but the sun seems to be lower in the sky than I thought it was. I think I should be getting home."
"Thank you for dropping in." Withemistress Penden put down her cup. "I'm sure you won't have time to come and see me every time you come into town, but I would like to catch up again before summer. Perhaps the first market day of next month?"
"I would like that," agreed Liavan.
"It's agreed then." Withemistress Penden smiled. "The first market day of next month, unless, of course, either of us needs to consult the other in the meantime."
Withemistress Penden saw Liavan out then and the two of them parted on excellent terms. Liavan made her way to her arrival point and managed to get herself home to within a house length of her front gate. Elvie Penden cleaned up the tea things in her front parlor and went to spend some time with her family. Both women had an excellent evening.
The next morning Liavan drew herself up a calendar in the back of her current notebook and started keeping track of the date so she wouldn't miss a market day or her meeting with Withemistress Penden. Then she started preparations to make her next batches of cough mixtures.
Back in Market Cranebourne, Withemistress Penden received a visit during her stated consultation hours. It wasn't the first visit of the day, the baron’s sheriff had been on her doorstep almost before the downstairs curtains were opened asking for clarification on a point, but these visitors were not anyone that the withemistress had met before. They were a middle-aged couple, with the man following his wife and dressed in a grey tunic over grey trousers. The woman wore a green tunic over her green dress and surmounted the whole thing with a green hat decorated with green-dyed goose feathers. The man was obviously uncomfortable while the woman was just a touch overly apologetic.
"We've come," she said leaning forward and speaking as if she was discussing a state secret, "because our youngest daughter has been going around town telling everyone that she's a withemistress. She claims to have the necessary licenses, but they can't possibly be real, and we hoped that if we came to see you and asked nicely, perhaps when you close her down instead of punishing her, you could bring her home to us." She gave a smile that convinced Elvie Penden that the woman was either acting or lying.
She prodded gently and carefully. "So, your daughter's recently left home?"
"Yes," the woman nodded, "and we've no idea where she's staying. Somewhere that she can brew up those jars of coloured water that she has the hide to sell in the market as cough mixtures, obviously. Beyond that?" The woman gave a dramatic shrug.
Withemistress Penden's gathering suspicions crystallized. She replied brightly, "You must be Withemistress Haucmel's parents: Master Haucmel," she nodded in friendly acknowledgement at the man, "and Mistress -?" She added, "I'm afraid your daughter and I didn't discuss her family when she came to tea yesterday afternoon."
"Mogar Branthwaite," replied the woman. "No doubt she's at pains not to tell people that she's supposed to stay home to look after her father, myself, and my family house."
"Liavan is your heir then?" Elvie Penden raised a neat black eyebrow to emphasise that she was asking a question. "I'm surprised that she didn't set up her workshop in your house then."
"The house will go to our eldest daughter when I pass on," snapped Mistress Branthwaite, "as is proper."
"So," Elvie Penden rested her elbows on her desk and put her fingers together in front of her chin, "what do you expect Liavan to do when you pass on, sometime in the next thirty years or so?"
"If she behaves herself, I'm sure her sister will let her stay on in the house, if she pulls her weight." Mistress Branthwaite's attitude seem to suggest that she intended to have a big say in that decision.
"So, you don't expect your youngest daughter to have her own family, profession, or business to fall back on," surmised Withemistress Penden smoothly, "and you don't intend to reward the years of work and devotion you expect her to put in with anything tangible."
"She's the youngest and unlooked for," snapped Mistress Branthwaite. "She owes me for her existence. All the women in the family agreed that when she was born."
Withemistress Penden gave a thin smile and asked, "Including her great-aunt?"
"My Aunt Anglou was a foolish woman who insisted on hoarding things she didn't need," tossed back Mogar Branthwaite. "She was my mother's sister and difficult her entire life."
"Now, that's not fair," interrupted Master Haucmel. "Your aunt owned half the house but let your mother have control of all of it except her room. If she'd been difficult then everyone living in the house would have been a lot less comfortable. She could even have left her share to a family member other than your mother, and where would you be now if she had?"
"Liavan is too wilful for her own good," his wife returned to the reason for their visit. "Withemistress Penden, you must see that it would be best for everyone if she stops this nonsense and comes home where she belongs."
Withemistress Penden gave her a long, hard look and replied firmly, "At the moment I see nothing of the sort. Withemistress Haucmel has passed all the tests she has been set and followed all the proper protocols before beginning to call herself a withemistress. I've seen her license in the episcopal register and it is quite genuine. The Bishop himself described her mixtures as 'efficacious' and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. We may assume that the duke has allowed her to set herself up somewhere he thinks he'll need her: Farreth Ternwen is not by any measure a foolish man. I suggest that you stop trying to raise a hue and cry about this and adjust to the idea that you can't always direct the course of someone else's life." She smiled and added, "Do try to adjust yourself to the idea that she is likely to marry and provide you with a number of grandchildren."
"Perhaps grandsons," added Master Haucmel with a small smile. "I love our daughters but a few boys in the mix would be nice."
"If she marries," hissed Mistress Branthwaite, "I will not recognise it."
Her husband protested, "Dear!"
In the same moment Withemistress Penden asked, "Is that wise?"
"Neither of you has any sense!" Mistress Branthwaite stood. "I'll be going home now, where I don't have to hear this nonsense." She turned to her husband, "Don't bother coming back until you see sense!" She stalked out of the room without taking her leave of her hostess, and the two of them heard the front door slam.
"Well, your wife has strong feelings in this matter." said Elvie Penden. "Do you have somewhere to go? Assuming she's serious."
"I'll go to work now," Master Haucmel sounded sad. "She's a fine woman, really, but she's never had the same affection for our youngest as she does the other girls. She wasn't happy from the time she found out she was pregnant again to the day Liavan was born and she could hand the baby off to someone else for a few hours. I had hoped this whole “she owes me” attitude was a passing fancy, but it seems not. It's her house and she can lock me out if she wants. Of course, I'm the one who brings in the coin that pays for this and that, so perhaps we'll come to a compromise." He considered matters. "In a few days."
"I'll trust you to know your own business best, Master Haucmel." Withemistress Penden sighed. "However, if any of your other daughters develops reason to believe that they or their children might have talents or interests in this direction, please send them to see me. I have no intention of discouraging or punishing any honest aspirant to my profession."
"Thank you." Master Haucmel stood to take his leave. "There are stories about withemasters and withemistresses who are jealous of their privileges."
"I don't aspire to be the only practicing withemistress within sight of Market Cranebourne," replied his hostess as she stood too. "I will not tolerate being stolen from, and I would advise against breaking canon or secular law, but there is more than enough room for more of us in the world." She saw him out then, and Master Haucmel took himself off down the street, presumably to make his way to his employer's premises.
This is Part 4.
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