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By Jonathan Cohen
When Fredegar came into their chambers, Roland smiled up at him and continued knitting.
“Will you come to bed, now?” Fredegar asked in his booming voice, slipping off his tunic – a tunic that Roland had knitted, of royal navy wool.
“Not yet,” Roland replied. He had a light, musical voice. “I have some knitting to do.”
Fredegar pulled back the blanket from the bed – a green and white blanket that Roland had also knitted. Roland saw the smallest pout on Fredegar’s lips and knew that he wished him to come to bed…but also that he was only required to join Fredegar in bed once a week, as per their marriage contract.
“Try to be quieter with those things,” Fredegar said gruffly, slipping between the blanket and the sheets. He gestured at Roland’s bone knitting needles. They could not be any quieter; Roland had practiced and practiced over the months, finding ways to keep the needles from clicking against each other, sliding them over the loops of yarn instead of tapping against each other. If he was careful, they were silent. They had to be.
Fredegar began to snore, and then Roland was alone in their chambers, with a candle and his knitting. He watched Fredegar sleep, wondering when he would be able to leave the room, when it would be safe. But he continued knitting, regardless. He needed to use as much wool as he could.
There was a tapestry on the wall: Fredegar in battle. Roland did not know how to weave, but he had knitted the different areas of color, then stitched them together to form a type of mosaic. Proud, brave, strong, fearless Fredegar. And then the man sleeping beneath it, mouth open, arms spread limp.
It was time. Roland put down the knitting needles and left the chambers, carrying the candle. He went through the hall, then down the tight curved stairs to the basement.
The black door was to his left. He pretended to ignore it, pretended that it was not there. Instead, Roland turned to his right and went over to the one possession he had brought with him from his small village one year ago, when Fredegar had come to demand his hand in marriage.
The spinning wheel had been passed down through his family, from his grandparents to his parents, and now to him. If he kept it oiled regularly with flaxseed oil, it was as silent as his knitting needles.
Roland placed the candle on the floor and sat on the low stool. Thankfully, there was still enough wool to last him for tonight. He would have to ask Fredegar for more wool soon. Fredegar’s estate did not keep sheep, and he would have to trade grain for it, but Roland had told him that this was all he knew how to do, and Fredegar wanted to keep him happy. Or at least, to keep him occupied.
Roland took a piece of spare yarn and tied it to the bobbin. Then he passed the other end through the bobbin’s hole and made sure it spun freely. He gathered the free end of the wool and started to twist it in his nimble fingers until it was as thin as the yarn. Then he tied the wool to the yarn, and he was ready.
He used his feet to push the treadle up and down rhythmically as he narrowed the wool with his fingers. It spun around the wheel and collected as yarn upon the bobbin.
Roland spun and spun, and he waited for it to happen.
Just as the spinning wheel and the skill of spinning had been passed down through his family, so had the ability of second sight. His brother did not have it, but Roland did, for better or for worse. The Talent.
An image formed in the flickering spokes of the wheel. It was Wennie.
Roland smiled: Wennie was his favorite of the other three, though he would never admit to it. She was from a humble background as well. While normally she looked drawn and upset, she was smiling, holding a cooking spoon in her hand. It was still light wherever she was, and the sun illuminated her golden hair. “Roland!” she said happily, and her voice whispered through the spokes like wind through leaves. “I have news!”
“Tell me,” Roland whispered back. But Wennie shook her head. She wanted to wait for the others to arrive. And so he spun and spun, and she stirred and stirred, and they waited.
Miroline was next to arrive. A severe woman with brown skin and long black hair, she sat in the dawning sun with her sorceress’s cloak gathered around her. Of course it was dawn there, he thought. She could never join them at night.
Then there was only one more to await. Christia was late; she was always late. Roland worried that she might not show at all, but finally her image joined that of Wennie and Miroline, and their circle was complete. The circle of the spinning wheel, Roland thought.
Of course, that was inaccurate. They each had The Talent, but they each had their own way of using it. Miroline, who could read books, had told them once what the scholars called their abilities. His was cyclomancy – divination using a wheel that spun. Wennie peered into the boiling water of the pot over her stove and saw them among the bubbles; this was hydromancy. Miroline, as was fitting, used the flames of her hearth-fire to communicate with them: pyromancy. And Christia – Christia the elegant Lady of the Castle used a mirror, of course: captromancy.
Roland had not planned to meet any of them, at first. He had not been searching for them, and he had never had any success at his Talent. Until he had been forced by his village’s chieftain to marry Fredegar, forced to move into Fredegar’s manor, and forced to live by his side. Perhaps…he had wished to meet them? Like attracts like, as Miroline had also told them. And certainly, they all had the same hopes…and the same fears.
Wennie was the first to speak. “It is done,” she said. “It is over!” She shook her head. “The locket – it was only a test.”
Miroline shrugged. “Why would your stepmother give you a locket as a test?”
Wennie leaned forward confidentially. “She wanted to ensure that I was worthy of marrying her nephew – his name is Tyr. If I could hold the locket for a month without opening it, then she would know I could follow instruction, and that her nephew and I would care for her properly.”
Christia sniffed. “From one type of slavery to another. I do not approve.”
“It is not slavery!” Wennie said. “It is marriage.” Roland thought that Wennie had a great deal to learn about marriage, but she went on. “Tyr and I shall be happy together.”
“Did you find out what was in the locket?” Roland asked. “A spell, a charm?”
“At the end of the thirty-days,” Wennie said, “she opened it for me. It was a lock of her hair, nothing more.”
“A spell using that hair would have been enough to choke you in your sleep,” Miroline said, “had you been foolish enough to open the locket.”
He could see that Wennie was not listening. She was relieved – of course, she was relieved. “I suppose I must leave the circle, now,” she said, and smiled yet again.
Roland looked at Christia and Miroline’s flickering images and imagined that they felt what he felt: it was a relief for Wennie to be done with the ordeal, but they would miss her, too. “Good luck,” he offered.
Wennie’s image was fading in the candlelight. “I will think of you,” she said, and then she was gone.
Now they were three. There had been others in the past, always women. Roland thought that there was something about this type of ordeal that seemed to involve women. He was a rare exception.
Miroline’s image straightened in her chair. “Then I shall speak next.” She looked to her left; from earlier gatherings, Roland knew that her bed was on that side of the hearth-fire. “Of late, I can only sleep a few hours,” she said. “I cannot sleep from dusk until dawn.”
“Have you tried the usual potions?” Christia asked. As a lady, such things would no doubt be available to her, Roland thought.
Miroline scoffed. “All the potions you may imagine, and then many more. I can only sleep eight hours – nine at most, if I take a great deal of exercise during the day.” She drew her cloak closer around her. “I hear strange noises while I lie in bed, and I worry that I will open my eyes during the night.”
Just as Wennie had been forbidden to open her stepmother’s locket, Miroline was forbidden to open her eyes between sundown and sunup. Roland looked at the yarn accumulating on the wheel’s bobbin and a thought came to him. “Could you use a scarf?” he asked. “Could you tie one around your head to prevent you from seeing whatever appears in your room at night?”
Miroline lifted her hand and a length of black cloth came into view. “I am already doing this,” she said. “If my eyes were to open beneath this cloth, I am unsure as to whether that would…contravene the spirit of the request.”
The request. It was not a request, not for any of them. They were forbidden. Roland thought of the black door on the other side of the room, the door was cold and slimy to the touch, and he shuddered. Perhaps the word ‘request’ made it easier for Miroline to accept the ordeal. He never thought of Fredegar’s demands as ‘requests.’
She went on. “This is what I cannot abide. Not simply the nature of the request – that is bad enough. Not simply that there is something I am forbidden to witness…but that the rules of this request are so very unclear.”
Miroline said nothing more, brooding and clearly lost within her thoughts. Roland had suggested the scarf, but it was an obvious suggestion, and he had nothing more to say and knew not how to comfort her. Christia did not even try.
“Then it is my turn,” Christia said. She had delicate features and wore a hennin, a tall conical hat. Roland had seen drawings of princesses with hennins before, but he could not imagine why Christia would wear such a thing in her chambers – unless it was to impress Wennie and Miroline and himself.
“The elders came by yet again to warn me not to go into the forest,” she said, and laughed, a short, unpleasant laugh. “I suppose I have the simplest task of the three of us. All I need to do is stay far from that forest.”
She leaned forward until Roland imagined her nose was nearly touching her mirror. “And yet I do not wish to visit the forest! I do not care for the forest! I have never been to a forest, and the idea does not interest me!” She tilted her head down and composed herself. “Perhaps this is a snake which eats its own tail.”
Roland was confused, and he could see that Miroline did not understand as well. Christia put her hands in her lap and looked at them in irritation. “You do not read stories, either of you? I do not wish to go to the forest. But in such a story, I would end up going to the forest regardless…for some reason. This is the snake that eats its tail. To be compelled to do something you do not wish to do.” She sighed. “Or perhaps it will drive me mad… not to know what lies within the forest. Madness does run in our family, much as the Talent does.”
He bent down to look at the wool and make sure there was yet enough left to spin. Roland had tried to use the Talent of the spinning wheel on its own, but it would not conjure up any images without wool to spin.
There was no madness in HIS family, Roland thought. No, the madness lay in Fredegar’s mind, in his words and battles and conquests…and in the cold black door at the end of the room. “How are you faring, Roland?” Christia asked, snapping him out of his reverie.
Roland nodded. “I am glad that Wennie has come to the end of her tale,” he said. “It shows us that not all that is forbidden is necessarily bad.” He let the wool pass over his fingers for a few seconds as he thought. “Perhaps it is only breaking the rule that has been set for us which is bad – not the locket, or the forest, or the night.”
Or the door, he thought. But whatever was behind that door was surely worse than a locket; Roland thought sometimes he could smell blood and sulfur behind it.
“Why do you not simply leave him?” Miroline asked. He admired her mind: it ran in a direct line, like his.
“I cannot,” Roland replied simply. “The village chieftain has entered into a contract with him.” It was a relief not to have to speak Fredegar’s name. “He will not attack the village so long as I remain here. I stay, or I condemn my village…and myself.”
It was Christia’s turn: “Do you believe that he wishes to…hurt you?” she asked, surprisingly circumspect.
“I do not know. Though he speaks terrible words to others, he is warm and loving to me. But who would forbid someone to do something? Without exception, without explanation? Unless there was a terrible secret to be discovered?”
They were all silent a moment. Then Christia turned from her mirror. “Someone is coming up the stairs to my chambers,” she whispered to them. “I must go.”
“Let us all adjourn for tonight,” Miroline added. “Until next week.”
“Until next week,” Roland said, and Christia repeated the words. The images in the spokes of the wheel faded, and Roland took his feet from the treadle.
He cut the end of the yarn with a knife, and tied the bobbin off. And then Roland stood and went over to the black door and contemplated it.
This was not a story of a snake who ate its own tail. It was not a story of a snake at all, he thought.
The door did not matter. Neither did the locket, or the terrors that came at night, or the forest. What mattered what that someone – husband, stepmother, elders, or sorcery council – had placed so important a choice in front of them…when it was not their place or right to do so.
He put his hand on the ice-cold latch of the door, just for a moment. Then Roland turned away. He would not give Fredegar that power.
Opening the door…not opening the door. Anything he would do that involved the door meant giving up some of his own power. There was another direction he could go.
The next morning, as Roland sat at the spinning wheel in the basement, Fredegar came down the stairs, dressed in his battle armor. “Have you opened that door?” he asked, pointing to the black door – as if Roland needed to be reminded of it.
How many times had he asked him if he had opened the door? And how many times had he replied, “No, of course not”?
This time, Roland said nothing. With the faintest of smiles, he let the wool pass through his fingers, narrowing it into yarn. He concentrated on the wheel. If he willed it, there was no door, and there was no Fredegar – only the wheel and the wool and the yarn…spinning and spinning.