The stairs descended to a small landing with three doors and then led on down to ground level. Leaving the rooms on the landing unexplored for now, Gideon headed down towards the promise of food. The lowest chamber was cavernous. There were signs it had once housed something large and cumbersome, but now it had been turned into a hall, tables and benches—all newly made and glistening with fresh wax finish. A stack of mattresses identical to the one he had slept upon, were pushed up against one wall and a tall double door stood open beyond.
Outside a river flowed lazily past and as he walked through the large doorway and looked back at the building, Gideon realised he was standing by what had once been a watermill and a fulling mill at that. Not much of the original extent remained, just the stump of the mill itself with a couple of rooms above the fulling area and some outbuildings. The wheel and its housing were long gone and the surviving stonework showed signs of recent repair and reroofing.
A young woman sat by the edge of the river, rubbing laundry. Her hair was scooped up under a concealing lappet cap, but it had escaped in places to lie in bright coiling curls on her shoulder. It was the colour of ripe peach flesh, warm as sunshine. She wore a man’s shirt, laced to the collar and a russet wool skirt, which showed clear sign of having started life as a blanket. Instead of a bodice or stay, she had a sleeveless leather jerkin—cinched in by a belt at the waist. The sleeves of her shirt were pulled to her elbows as she worked.
Gideon was so utterly captivated by this unlikely vision, that he did not notice the man at first. It was only when he realised the woman was talking to someone as she worked that he saw the figure under the tree. The man, however, was watching him. He had stepped from a woodcut of the German wars. Well into his middle years, dressed in practical clothes, a dull brown cassaque buttoned as a coat and a battered hat that looked as though it had been around since the United Provinces had first declared independence. His face was foreign, Italian or even Greek perhaps—Gideon was no expert, black hair and the olive complexion of one native to much sunnier climes. Although he was clearly listening to the woman, who was speaking a language Gideon did not know or recognise, his gaze was fixed upon Gideon himself. As Gideon approached, he made a low grunting sound at which the woman turned, rising from her laundry and wiping her wet hands on her skirt. She smiled. Gideon felt his soul rise, divide and then melt.
“Oh—I did not know you were awake,” she said. Her accent seemed to continue the sound of the alien tongue she had just been speaking. It was warm and exotic, like cinnamon. ”Please, take a seat in the hall and I will bring food. The Schiavono said you would be hungry when you woke.”
Reluctant, but compelled from her presence by her command, he went back into the old mill building. Almost no sooner had he taken a seat at one of the new tables, she appeared and placed a loaf of bread, still oven warm, and some cheese before him. Then she was gone again, to return moments after bearing the remains of his hat. He had the impression that someone had rolled on it, stamped on it and thrown it aside and someone else had spent time and effort trying to restore it to pristine appearance.
“I am sorry,” she said, sounding genuinely regretful. “I could not get all the blood out, but it is marked most under the brim at the back so will not notice.”
“I—uh—it’s fine—I mean, thank you Mistress—?”
“My name is Zahara,” she said, shrugging slightly. “Just Zahara—but I am sometimes called Sara.”
“That is an unusual name. You are Italian?”
She shook her head and broke off a piece of the cheese to eat. The man who had been so watchful outside came in, placing a small stool for himself at the end of the table, between them. Gideon helped himself to the food, the first salty taste of the cheese reminding him just how much he needed to eat.
“I was born in Aleppo.”
“Aleppo,” he said, unable to keep the disbelief from his tone. “In Syria?”
She nodded, frowning slightly.
“There is another Aleppo?”
Gideon just shook his head, his mouth full. Between the three of them, with Gideon eating far more than one man’s fair portion, the bread and cheese vanished rapidly. Zahara brushed the last crumbs from the table. She said something to the silent figure at the end of the board and he nodded, rising as he did so. He gave Gideon a look that contained clear warning, before walking outside. Gideon watched him go.
“He does not speak English?”
“Shiraz does not speak at all. His tongue was cut out.”
“Why?” asked Gideon, the question voiced before he thought the better of it. “Who is he?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
She softened the criticism with a small smile. Gideon wondered if anyone before, in the history of the world, had ever had such huge green eyes. And she had skin like an English rose. He found himself answering her smile in kind.
“I am a lawyer—it is what we do.”
“Shiraz is—Shiraz—as that is where we met.” She gave a little shrug. “I do not know who he is or why his tongue was cut out, he has never told me. There was a very bad flood. Many people died. I would have as well, I was only a child, but he rescued me.”
She turned away and it was as if the sun had passed under a cloud. From that first glance by the river she had ensorceled Gideon, making him forget where he was and what he needed to do. At the door, she turned again and looked at him.
“There is soap by my washing should you want to use it. The Schiavono, he said that when you had eaten I was to tell you that your horse is in the stable and that Shiraz will show you to the road if you wish to leave.”
There were probably more surprising and less believable things she could have said—such as that she was born in Aleppo.
“The Schiavono? You mean Lord? The man who brought me here? He said I am free to go?”
“Of course! Why would you not be?” Her face crinkled into genuine puzzlement.
“But—why did he bring me here? What was going on last night? Why—?” He broke off sharply without finishing the final question. He had been about to ask why he had not been murdered along with the rest. The woman stood motionless at the door. She was haloed by the sun, escaped strands of saffron hair catching the rays and blending to amber.
“I can not answer your questions, I am sorry. The Schiavono said he will be back by this evening. If you wish to stay, you can ask him.”
From The Cat’s Head, by E.M. Swift-Hook, a novel of witchcraft and mystery set in the turbulent times of the English Civil War