Molly wasn't thinking of the elves when she first imagined fitting her loom with a driveshaft. In fact, she was looking downstream toward the miller's, watching the great wheel turn. It steadily ground and creaked as it crushed another load of wheat into flour. In one of those moments she sometimes had, the scene changed. She watched the wheel, picturing the shaft and the vast wooden gear, but instead of grinding flour, she pictured her loom: the treadles tamped, the harnesses raised and lowered by the turn of the gear, a mechanism that brought the beater forward and back, beating the threads into place.
Molly blinked and turned back from the dazzling water. As her eyes adjusted, her own cottage came clear, the beautifully complex loom dominating its center, with her sleeping cabinet closed up for the day. Ranks of yarn, all neatly skeined, decked the rafters above. The wall behind the loom held a warp in the process of winding; pegs spaced out along two vertical beams measured the length of fine linen for a bridal trousseau. Next to that, a long panel of slate hung over a window, scratched from top to bottom with notes for more projects. A few notes ran sideways up the edge when she'd run out of room below. Sway-backed shelves held yards and yards of finished cloth--samples for new weave structures, experiments and ideas that failed, the ends of warps and the mound of feverish fabric produced by certain late-night sessions. The fabric showed more colors and patterns than the limners could ever paint. Still, it was not enough--with her two hands, she could weave only so much, even on her most fanatical day.
Molly swayed back and forth, frowning, then let herself start pacing, her feet automatically finding the polished path from the river window to the wide hearth. Each step seemed to bring the vision clearer--the wheel, the rod, the way to link up the beater from above, and the part below that raised and lowered the treadles. Her hands moved, too, first mimicking the rhythm of weaving, then forming the shapes of the metal pieces she would need, carving through the air as if she could feel them. By the time she paused to actually look out the window again, she could feel the metal under her hands, cool and strong, and almost hear the chunk-chunk of the new rhythm. Molly grinned and laughed.
Crimson and gold painted the sky above: evening. Molly frowned again. That meant something, but what, she could not recall--the vision was still too clear. Smoke curled up from Sam the miller's little hut across the way. She spun away from the window and crossed the room again, this time toward the door, sweeping a cloak down from its peg.
Still, she did not think of elves until she tripped over one and splashed into the edge of the river. The chill shot through her ankles and poured over the tops of her felted shoes. She gasped, and lost the vision. "Slubs and thrums!" she shouted, stomping back out. "Snap your warps and drop your shuttle!"
The fellow lying in the path flinched as she spoke, tucking his head further under his arms, dull iron clinking. "Don't curse me so, Goodwife. I pray you." The voice emerged somewhat raspy from the face hidden beneath his arm--as if his armpit spoke, garbling the common tongue with the light, strange accent of the elves.
The voice made her self-conscious, knowing the flat, broad nothing of her own speech. "What're you doing there? What, what?" She almost repeated the word again, but stopped herself with an effort. "Get up, elf."
He got his hands and knees under him. There he swayed for a moment, and Molly bit her lip. Was it possible for an elf to have visions too? To suffer the moods that swallowed her?
"What do you see?" she whispered.
"Dirt," he spat. "And dung." A ragged herringbone of silver hair stuck out from his scalp, and his bent neck showed the alloyed metal collar, and the deep blue swath of skin to either side: ironburn.
"What?" She leaned closer to hear him.
The elf dropped to his elbows, clasping his hands together before him, his forehead touching the earth. "Forgive me, Goodwife."
Molly straightened and blinked a few times, frowning at the sunset. Other people often misunderstood her, but she generally understood them. Of course, with elves, who could tell. "I asked you a question," she muttered, tapping at her ear. "Title!" she said, snapping her fingers. "You forgot my title and added it, right?"
Still as a mouse in the hawk's sight, the elf took a long time replying. He tipped his head to one side, his slanting eye glinting at her, then sharply turning away as he caught her glance. "Yes, Goodwife," he answered, his voice still raspy, but there, like the gleam of silk in a two-ply thread, the beauty of it showed. "To the miller's, Goodwife," he added, then, his voice dropping, "I fell."
Molly blinked a few more times, shrugged her cloak to fall over her left shoulder and grabbed his elbow, pulling him to his feet. He swayed again, lurching a few feet away, shoulders hunched. "Me, too," she said and walked on, her wet boots clinging as the felt responded to the heat of her body, the damp of the river, the agitation of walking. She'd bought this pair off a new felt maker in town, giving up a few precious coins rather than sacrifice the time she'd need to make her own boots. She stopped then, the vision returning. Water, heat, agitation, pressure--the shaft of the wheel turning a vast roller, cut rough, that beat wool into felt.
Someone walked into her, and Molly snarled as the fragile web of vision tore once more.
"Forgive me, Goodwife, I mean no offense. I walk too closely. I'll stop--you go. You have business with the miller."
Molly's irritation dissolved like her vision. "Curfew! That's what sunset means." She shook her head violently, then slowed it to a more normal pace, catching it with one hand to make it stop. "Go on. Only thing worse than a live elf's a dead one, eh?" Of course, a dead elf, punished for missing the curfew, would mean a bit more business for her and her loom--not that she needed more work. Especially since whatever elf they let run errands for the loomery must be one of their best, a trustworthy sort, and one they'd not like to lose. Then she remembered the screams of the last elf they bound down at the smithy, and her ears rang. She pressed her hands over them. "Go on, you. Get going."
The elf passed her, silently, then gave a bow, long lashes closing over almond eyes. They opened again, the slit pupils narrowing like a patches of darkness on the moon-glow of his eyes. "Smooth weaving to you, Goodwife," he said, and moved on, his stride uneven along the narrow path toward the bridge.
She had a few inches on him, as she did on most of their kind, but still, to have him look at her, like that. It made her feel small at first, then when he had spoken, his voice grew clear, as if the iron rubbed less sore. He had blessed her in the weavers' way, and her spirit rose up again, bright as the river. Molly lifted her chin and smiled at his back moving before her. The pink light of evening highlighted the slubs of broken yarn in his clothing, a blocky shirt of a few rectangles, and squared-off pants that ended just below his knees. The clothes showed patches as well, and patches on those. High on his shoulder, he had repaired a long rip with stitches of different colors in a pattern of leaves. They coiled around at the bottom, forming a spiky, slantwise wheel.
Molly lost her breath for a moment, the part suddenly made clear before her. Her fingers danced in the air, tracing its shape as the elf turned the corner, limping across the footbridge, hurrying now. Molly, too, hurried then. She pounded across the wood, catching up and running past, her cloak flapping. "Sam!" she bellowed. "Stick!"
The door popped open as she put out her hand and the miller jumped out of her path.
"Stick! Stick!" she flapped her hands at him desperately, not wanting to close her eyes for fear the vision would fly again.
"Molly, what--" Sam started, but then left off, fetching her a stick from its notch in the wall. "There y'are, girl."
The elf came up to the door, bowing, but Molly turned away from him for the table, covered as ever with a drift of flour. Holding her breath, she started to draw.
"For the loomery? You're late--be lucky if they don't chain you right and proper." Sam stomped around behind her as Molly drew, his voice drifting through her thoughts like the flour, light but stifling.
"He fell," she muttered. "Fell by the river."
"In the sheep dip, by the smell of it," Sam remarked. "Here, two bags, sixty pounds."
"Sixty!" came the elf's sharp voice, quickly bitten off. "Yes, Goodman."
"Don't you be looking at that--her work's none of your business."
"Yes, Goodman. The millet, also, the headman said."
"Ah, the millet." Sam went grumbling past again, coming to a heap of sacks alongside the table where Molly busily sketched in the wheel that she had seen, the spiky one, with slant-wise edges about the angle of the elf's eyes. With a grunt, Sam heaved a sack from the pile. "Hope ye're stronger than ye look." He turned back toward the door and the elf. "Here, now, I said no looking!" A hand moved past her sight, snatched the iron key ring from its peg.
The elf shrieked, something sizzled, and a scent like lightning cut through the flour, lightning, and the slippery scent of elf-blood.
Molly jerked up and turned, her nose itching, her stomach giving a jump. Cowering on the doorstep, the elf nursed his forearm. Sam gave another grunt, wiping the key across his apron, leaving a short trail of bluish blood, then jangling the ring in his hand. "I'm not the master," said Sam, "but ye still listen good, hear me? I tell you no looking, ye don't look."
The elf coughed, his head bobbing. "Yes, Goodman."
He rocked there on the step and the rhythm felt familiar, soothing. Molly began to rock, too, smiling slightly, then stopped herself, swallowing hard, then coughing in the flour. Rock yourself, she thought. It helps. Sam dropped the third sack on top of the other two, sending up a puff of white dust that settled over the elf's ragged hair and shoulders. It outlined the embroidered patch on the right, merging the colors and making them plain to Molly's eye. She grinned and nodded. She'd gotten the shape just so, and it would work.
"So what's all this, Molly girl?" Sam hung up the keys and leaned over beside her when the elf finally stirred to drag the first bag off the pile and heave it onto his shoulder.
"I think I can drive my loom off the river, like you and your grinding wheel, see?" She used the shaved stick to point to the box representing the loom. "A shaft here, some different shapes that lift the treadles up and down to make the shed. Then up here, I connect in the beater bar, it's timed to go back and forth. This shape--" she pointed to the slanted wheel-- "will turn the motion to the side, like that."
Sam screwed up his eyes in his chubby face, his eyebrows wiggling as he traced out the diagram. "I've got no idea what ye mean by all that."
"That's alright. It'll mean I don't have to work so much, I can work faster to meet the demand. The river weaves for me."
"There's that many as still order from you, Molly? I thought, well, the loomery prices being so cheap and all." He lifted one shoulder and let it fall again.
Molly glanced back toward the door where the elf crept his hands up the doorframe, the three big sacks balanced across his back. He nearly fell again as he stepped away into the ruddy light. "There's a lot of folk don't like anything the elves've touched," she said. "They think it's still magic, even if its just cloth."
"All that iron stifling the beasts and folk still fear the magic? Jack knows all the tricks to keep 'em docile, and breeds 'em that way, too." His cheeks flushed, and he said, "Jack's just another customer, Molly--his business can't make the kind of cloth that you can." He scratched his beard and took another look at the drawing. "Think that'll work?"
She, too, studied it. It had none of the subtlety of her mind, but the crude sketch captured some of the strength of this conversion, bringing the river into her loom. She nodded. "Lots faster, Sam, and with no loss of detail in the pattern weaves."
"Ye could take on help, an apprentice, or something," he ventured.
"Me, Sam?" The urge to rock returned, and Molly kept it at bay, sliding her thumb up and down, up and down on the drawing stick. "I'm no good working with others."
Sam only nodded. "Ye need to copy this, 'cause I'm due for supper. . ."
Molly flipped the stick onto the table, tapping her head. "No, no. No. It's all in here now. But I'll need your advice how to get a wheel."
Chuckling, Sam faced her at last. "Ye're a funny one, Molly, but I do admire ye."
The compliment struck her and her eyes widened. She bobbed her head, and scuttled by him, down the steps, ignore the cheery greeting of his wife at the cottage door, back down the river to the bridge. Except, when she reached the bridge, the elf knelt there on the steps, one hand clutching the rail he leaned against, one bag of flour tumbled onto the ground behind him. The other two sacks lifted slightly at the corners, quivering as if he tried to move them with his magic but lacked the strength. His chest heaved with each breath, on the verge of sobbing. The last light of day darkened the fresh wound upon his arm, the raw burn in the shape of a key.
Sunset. Curfew. He'd never make it. He would have to put down the sacks he carried and take up this one, and get them back on again, and run with the load, if he hadn't the power to lighten it. Molly shook her head, tapping her ear. The sound of his breathing clutched at her own chest. She stooped and lifted the sack in both arms, draping it over her shoulder.
"Again, Goodwife," he breathed, "again I've brought you down."
"No, no. Again, I lift you up." The symmetry of it, both the act, and the phrasing, pleased her. She repeated it in her mind as she slid an arm about his narrow waist and helped him to his feet, steadying him on the tread of the bridge. "Go on."
His right arm trembled under the bloody key mark and he shifted it forward along the rail, the elbow nearly giving out, as he moved onto the bridge.
Molly came up behind and lifted the sack from his right shoulder, transferring it to her own. The weight pressed into her, but she could handle that.
The elf jerked as if she'd shoved him from behind. He stared over his shoulder at her, his eyes full and red in the failing light. Sunset warmed his dusky skin, removing the gray pallor, and brightened his lips. He had the narrow face and sharp chin so typical, but the set of his eyes and the particular straightness of his nose made him that much more foreign. She wondered if he were of the local stock, or one of the new elves brought down from the mountains.
"The stitch work," she said. "You do that?"
Still dumb, he nodded.
"I'd like to look at it. Keep walking."
He stared at her a moment longer, an offense which might earn him another burn. "Yes, Goodwife," and turned away, walking more swiftly now, one hand on the rail to support him, his other hand clutched over the sack.
Molly, too, clapped her hands atop the sacks she carried. She'd ache in the morning, no doubt, but she'd not be disturbed all night by the sound of Key's slow death in the smithy filings. They had already passed her house and mounted the road toward the loomery before she realized that she had given him a name.
The next morning, she took a long time getting ready. She'd already woven off the warp on the loom, knotting the ends, and finished the winding of the linen warp on her wall. With a damp cloth, she wiped away one task from her slate. Now that the sun was up, she would have to go. Sooner she spoke to the smith, sooner she would have her parts. Hopefully, she'd meet no one on the path and the smithy stooped just beyond the loomery, black as a waiting vulture. The loomery itself towered three whole stories above, with a sleeping loft at the top for the elves and straps of iron banding its stone like a traveler's trunk about to explode. She passed the side door where she had left Key and his flour last night, nodding a few times to the guards who slumped around the place, bows and axes near to hand, along with clanking chains tipped by bits of iron. The men snickered at her, and one flapped his hands in the air. At first, she thought he was greeting her, and she grinned before she could stop herself. Their answering laughter warned her of the truth, and she hurried on down the slope to the smithy.
Acrid smoke climbed the sky from the forge already growing hot. Two apprentices pumped at the bellows, preparing for the day ahead. Connor the smith, a towering wedge of a man, stretched his bare shoulders and popped his head to one side, then the other, producing the crack of bone on bone. Molly winced, rubbing at her ear, and stopped.
"Morning, Molly. What'll you have?"
"I need to commission some parts, for my loom. I need a few shafts of iron, and some gears--" she started to draw upon the wind, but Connor reached behind him and produced a thin shaft of iron, handing it over with a nod toward the filings.
Like all in his trade who worked around elves, the smith maintained a field of filings to one side, in this case, atop a broad slab of stone by the stream that fed into her own river. Rusty black filings caked the slab, revealing a man-shape in their midst like the impression of a child playing in the snow. Fetters lay at the four extremes, empty now and clean. The man-shape showed wide gyrations, and Molly again recalled the screaming, blinking a few times, then shutting her eyes altogether.
"Sorry, Mol, I'll smooth it over, eh?"
He walked away, returned, and something swished back and forth over the filings, preparing a place for her to draw. She liked the filings; they provided a much crisper edge than flour, and were not subject to the vagaries of breath or gentle breezes. She thought of Key's arm, burned in punishment, and pictured him here, trussed out with filings at his back. If an iron key burned so swiftly, a single bit of filing dust must hurt like the jab of a pin. She imagined a hundred pinpricks, then a thousand, then a million, etching their way through the skin. Her mind calculated the area of the stone, the depth of the filings, the effect of so many on an elf's exposed flesh. Sometimes, to make it quick, they swept up the filings over the chest as well, encapsulating the prisoner. Sometimes, they swept all the filings to the side, then sprinkled them back on, the pinpricks transformed into a delicate tattoo across the prisoner, a treatment that could last for days. Thankfully, the elves at the loomery seemed less inclined to disobedience than those in other places she'd heard of. It had been years since they swept up all the filings.
"Molly? You there?" Connor tapped her shoulder, and Molly jolted free of her thoughts, opening her eyes to face the clean, dark spread on the stone before her. Her shoulders still ached from the night before, but it was nothing to what she'd feel if she had to hear that unearthly screaming. The stick of iron weighed down her hand, and she began to draw. Connor knew better than to interrupt her with questions. Instead, he waited until she had sat back for some minutes, then they talked their way down the diagram, and she explained her measurements, her plans. Finally, he straightened and looked toward the forge. "With the boys I've got now, we should be able to do all this the next few days."
Molly grinned in return. "Yes, excellent. What's your price?"
Connor tipped back his head to rub his neck, then his lips curved. "Yeah, the price. Well, I'm over my year in mourning for Lissabet, as you know. I've an eye on Widow Margot's daughter--you know the one?"
She didn't--or at least, didn't care if she did--so she simply nodded.
"She's young, fancy-like. I'll need a special gift for her to open the courtship. A cloak maybe? Something. . ." he squinted at the sky, as if looking for a notion. "Got to be warm."
"And beautiful. Something extraordinary."
"Right. Something so grand she'd look at an old man like me." He laughed to himself, patting the firm muscles of his stomach over the waist of his apron.
Molly didn't understand him. It didn't matter. She traced with her eyes the drawing she had made, eagerness welling up in her. "I'll do it. A worthy gift for you, Connor."
"I know you will." He turned away. "Boys! We've got a job on!"
While he explained the project to his apprentices, Molly started away, climbing back up the rise to the road that lead into town on the one hand, and over to the loomery on the other. The smithy stream flowed under a flat wagon-bridge to join the broader river below, flowing on past her little house and the miller's, back into the forest's changing hues. Sunlight danced and glittered on the water, an elaborate pattern of diamonds, dark then light, blue to reflect the sky, gold of the river bottom, and a swirl of leaves laid over all, dancing themselves. She pictured a young woman, fresh for marriage, sweeping up the river and swirling it over her shoulders like a cloak made of autumn and all bright and shining things.
Molly clapped her hands together and laughed. The river's surface transformed before her into a structure of threads, an alternating elaborate pattern of blues and golds. Turned this way, sunlight and gold, turned that way, river's depth and shadows, reflecting the sky. Silk threads among the wool, a variety of shades, even a hint of that metal thread she'd bought off a tradesman last winter. But the leaves, the leaves. A few more eddied by on the river below, a bold crimson, a brilliant orange: the colors of sunset.
With a little jump, Molly turned her tracks for the loomery. She was no great hand at embroideries, but she knew of one who was. The guards she'd seen earlier pushed off from their posts by the stone wall, sauntering over. One rested his crossbow in the crook of his arm, freeing a hand, and she feared for a moment he might touch her.
"I need to see Jack." Fear made her voice dull as iron. "To hire a workman."
"Not just to steal our weaving secrets, eh, Mol?"
Molly's hand rose up, she tried to force it down. It tapped at her ear, and she forced it back at last. "To see Jack. Please."
"Come on, then." The other fellow led her up a flight of stone steps to the second floor workshop. "Wait here," he said, but Jack had already spotted them and hopped down from the platform where he supervised the looms.
"What's this? Come to join me? We could use your color sense, not to mention those mad structures you're always inventing." Jack shook the hair back from his face, a thick chestnut mane like a studhorse. He winked down at her.
Molly looked away, catching glimpses of the looms beyond. The steady beat of the weaving soothed her, with its percussion of treadles pressed, shuttles tossed, beater swung to lay the thread in place. Each elf stood at a loom, hands pressed to the wood of the breast beam, staring at the threads. They did not move, but the beater bar swung down, the shuttle flew through the shed, the harnesses rose and fell with unseen feet on the treadles, and the cloth advanced far faster than even she could weave it. Until now. Until her new idea bound up the river itself into her power.
"I need a stitcher to do some fine work, or I will need one in a few days, when I've got the cloth ready."
"What, you can't stitch your own? And you so very talented."
"Yes. I can't. You have an elf here--"
"I have a hundred," he cut in. Down the line, beyond where she could see, something fell hard to the floor, and a soft cry circulated among the weavers. They hesitated a second, some glanced toward Jack, then they returned their eyes to the looms, and the shuttles flew, the beaters tamped down the weave. Jack sighed, tucking his thumbs over his belt. "Ninety-nine."
Molly shifted her gaze to the floor, the round pegs which held the boards forming boxes, lines, marching rows of soldiers as they spread out in her vision. "This elf went for your flour last night, past my house." She patted her forearm. "He's got a burn here from a key. He had some repairs on his clothing, stitch-work of a kind I'd like for this cloth. I'll need four days to weave the cloth. Can I hire his work for a couple of days after that?"
Cocking his head, Jack said, "I don't know as I like that--hiring out one of my best workers, it being the busy time and all. We've got orders for blankets to send up for Winterfair. I'm not sure I can spare anyone."
"One just fell," she murmured. "You spared him."
"Four gold, two silver."
Molly jerked, blinking. "I could go to market and buy my own at that rate!"
"This is a good one, you've noticed yourself. Worth a bit more, and he's trained besides. You go buy your own, you'll have to train it, not to mention figuring how much iron in the collar to keep it civil."
Tapping her ear with a vengeance, Molly swayed on her feet as she considered. She could do the project without, just the fabric and make up the cape. No, Connor's job was worth more than that. He expected her utmost in exchange. "Two gold, one silver."
"Half price? Bah." He made a gesture of dismissal. "That's barely what I'd get for the blankets he won't be weaving while he's working for you."
"Two gold and four."
Jack ruffled his hand through his hair, his boot tapping on the pegged floor. "Three gold, even."
"Three," she agreed. "In four days?"
"Right. Now get on before you disturb my workers."
Molly descended again, glad to burst free into the autumn air. Four days, and she had some weaving to do. Most of the first day and night she spent dyeing the yarns. She foraged for goldenrod and bartered some glass beads for woad to mix the blues, hurrying back to her cottage with each find. On the big hearth outdoors, she boiled the dyestuffs and soon had a line hung with brilliant wools and silks in a range of golds and blues. The miller's wife even offered to buy some, and Molly considered that for later--right now, the eagerness to get yarn on the loom and start the weave was almost irresistible. She stroked the loom as she passed, and set up a sample warp of plain yarns, weaving off a scarf in the new structure--just as she pictured it. She held up the cloth beside the twinkling river, grinning and nodding at how the pattern matched what she saw.
For the next three days, Molly barely left the cottage, except to visit the privy. Her hands flew, her feet dancing on the treadles, the complex structure shimmering in her mind, the pattern repeating, then backwards, then halved, each alteration yielding another riverspan. Cutting and sewing took no time at all, it seemed, and the banging at her door startled her out of the reverie of rhythmic motion so that she pricked a finger and stuck it quickly in her mouth before a drop of blood could stain the fabric. "Slubs and thrums," she muttered, laying the cloak out on her unfolded bed, for want of another surface broad enough to carry it.
"Hurry up, Molly, this lot's heavy!"
Molly yanked open the door. "Good, Connor! Excellent! Yes, very good."
The blacksmith and his apprentices shuffled in, unloading parts from their wagon. Molly recognized the gears and shafts and couplings she had pictured, and tears welled in her eyes as she ran her fingers over them. Shaking herself free of the mood, she snatched her chalk from its place on the windowsill and started sketching again, full-scale this time, marking out where to cut the shaft through to the riverside, where to place the ceiling hook to carry the vertical rod that would swing the beater. Connor's two young men strained under the weight of the upper shaft, but he merely laughed at their struggle, coming over to stand by Molly. "Think this'll work?"
"Yes, of course." She opened her mouth to launch into the explanation of her principles, but caught herself and shut it.
"Jack's sure curious, I tell you that." He nodded to himself and turned to examine the cloak in progress.
"I'd rather he didn't know my business." She balled up her fists, her belly tightening.
"Tush, Mistress. He saw the drawing, is all, and I told him your plan. Naught but that." The blacksmith shrugged his broad shoulders. "He's got plenty of workers to do his weaving, I can't see where he'd be interested in your loom."
"All those elves," she said.
"Aye--he's got a few more breeders to put up at his farm. Loomery must be doing mighty well. Pity they haven't more use for iron, or I'd be kept in clover, eh?" He tipped his head toward the cloak. "That's a beauty, that is. I've never seen a cloth like that."
"There'll be leaves swirling down on it." She moved her hands over the cloth, picturing the river's flow, the leaves tracing its invisible currents. "Here, there--all silk, reds and orange. I've got an elf coming who's good at that."
"An elf? Getting your own at last, are you? I wish the buggers could work iron-I'd have a dozen and just put my feet up the rest of my days." He laughed again, hearty as a crow on a battlefield. "Well, I'll get my boys cutting through the shaft and all. When's your waterwheel coming?"
"Day after tomorrow. Sam's arranged it from a place that burned."
"We'll be ready by the time it's here."
What with the rip of their saws in the wood, and the crash of the metal parts colliding as they were lifted into place, Molly couldn't take the noise. She gathered the cloak in her arms and went off downstream to where a stonewall gave a nice place for her to sit and finish sewing. It lay finished on her lap by the time Connor's whistle told her they'd done for the day. Sunset crept down from the mountains. Her fabric shimmered, and her smile returned.
When she reached her cottage, Connor pointed out a few rods they hadn't done yet, and the length of the shaft from the ceiling, propped up on a block until they moved the loom into place and made the attachment. "Mind you don't trip yourself in here, right? And we'll be back when the wheel gets here to help hitch it all up."
Nodding, she moved past him and gaped at the sudden reality of her vision. She could almost hear the creak of the gears and the whisper of the threads rubbing one another. No doubt there would be improvements to be made once she had a chance to work with it, but the certainty of success filled her up in a way that little else ever had.
"Molly, my love, what's all this?" Jack stepped over the threshold through the open door, and Molly spun.
"Looms," she said, "weaving."
The irons at his belt clinked as he walked in. He pointed to the loops embedded in her roof beams which would carry the new shaft. "Not like any loom I've seen--and I know a thing or two about looms." He moved in, staring at the assembled parts laid out near her diagram. Outside, an elf waited shivering in the chill dusk.
"Come in, then." Molly turned back to Jack as Key took a single step over the threshold. "What's on? Why've you come?"
Jack, running his fingers over a series of couplings, answered, "I'll let you have him half-price overnight. You work nights, don't you?"
"Half-price." Given the expense of the new wheel arriving tomorrow, the savings would be a help. "What about curfew?"
"Just don't let him out of the house after dark, and bring him back up at dawn. We can both get a full day's work."
Molly eyed Key, standing by the door. His own silvery eyes looked down, tracing the floor, studying the loom. "He does sleep, doesn't he?"
Jack moved over to look at the window, then faced her with a shrug. "It's just a couple of days--he'll be fine. Besides, you don't sleep, do you?"
"Some," she said. "What does he eat?"
"He's already eaten."
Jack grunted. "Porridge mostly, bread if you haven't got that."
She gave a single nod. Jack stared back, a smile drifting on and off over his face, like clouds over the river. "Go on, then," she told him.
"Right." In a few strides Jack reached the door, stopping to look down at Key. "He's pretty docile--if he doesn't mind you, just follow the miller's lead." He waved a hand toward the weaving tools hung on pegs by her bed. "You might want to put a few of those on your belt. Anything iron will do."
"Right," she echoed.
Jack slipped out into the darkness, and Molly felt a tightness leave her chest, a weight she had not noticed earlier. Just the strain from the long days, no doubt. Still, she didn't like the way that Jack fingered the new loom parts. She shook herself, and went for the supplies. "He tell you what to do, Key?"
The elf made a funny sound, and she glanced back at him. A crease marked his brow as he returned her gaze, his long fingers cupped protectively over his burned arm.
"That's right. Here, you might want to use the table." She spread out the cloak and gathered a few hanks of silk, so soft she wanted to reach them up to her cheek and stroke them down, gentle, gentle. She smiled. She found a few silver needles as well. Key finally moved away from the door, quiet and graceful as a deer. He still wore the collar of steel, but seemed to be walking straighter tonight. Good, he'd be better for the task if he weren't so exhausted. "You will need sleep, won't you?"
"I'm at your will, Goodwife," he murmured, taking the seat she offered.
"I've only got you two nights." She frowned. "Suppose I could take another, if Jack'd let me."
"I am a fast worker, Goodwife, if that's your worry." His fingers stroked over her cloth, following the structure of the weave, his eyes gleamed.
Molly noticed the flaw in her plan, a flaw she should have known before, and growled, "You won't give him that, will you? My pattern, I mean."
"This?" He glanced up at her, dusky skin slightly glowing. He gave a quick shake of his head. "No, Goodwife, not this." His hand never moved, the stark burn of the key showing, his fingers nestling into the weave.
"Good. Here. You put leaves along the borders. Down the front and around the hem, the hood, too. Not too close at the bottom, or they'll get muddy, and not too straight, but natural, as if they flow on the water." She waved a pathway over the garment, letting her hands show where to stitch.
He nodded, his spiky hair brushing against her hand as she traced the imaginary leaves. A buzz tingled on her skin, and she pulled away. She hadn't thought hard about the magic, either, about what he could do. With the collar on, she knew he couldn't reach beyond himself--he could control only what he touched, and that gave her some comfort. All she need do was not to touch him. She'd never feared elves the way that many did, but you can't be too careful. "Do half, then, and get some sleep if you finish before dawn. The next half tomorrow."
He made no reply, and she peered down at him, catching the slightest turn of his thin lips, and perhaps the crinkle of a smile at his eyes. Absorbed in the cloth, he ran his fingers over the selection of threads, and chose a bright gold. He made a little sound of pleasure, like a cat about to purr.
She almost lost his hushed voice. "It's the most beautiful thing I ever touched, Goodwife."
Molly pulled back, blinking. She stood there a long time, swaying slightly, his words moving through her, before she finally shut the door and returned to her warping wall. She took up the yarns for her next project, and started to wind, tying their ends on at the bottom, drawing the yarns out to one peg and back across to the other. She worked quietly and quickly, with an efficient twist of her hand at the top to turn back the other way, yards of wool passing over her fingers, whispering up from the spools at her feet. A song arose from the dance she performed, a song that tingled inside of her and carried her hand back and forth, the warmth of the wool moving against her skin, the warmth of the song moving across her heart.
She stopped abruptly, and turned, a sharp noise escaping her. Key stopped singing, frozen in his chair, the needle poised above a curling leaf. He darted her a glance, his eyes full and dark, as if the pupil consumed the silver moon of his iris. "Forgive me, Goodwife. I--" his shoulders rose and fell a little. "I sing when I work, but I'll stop."
Molly thought of Jack's words, and the iron tools, the iron rods, the iron pots that hung by her hearth. She tapped at her ear, and Key's voice reached her, as if delayed from a while before. "You said, 'Not this', before--when I asked if you'd tell Jack."
Key slowly set down the needle, his hands falling together in his lap.
"You told him something else, didn't you. Something about me."
"Yes, Goodwife," he whispered.
A chill returned, and she realized they were both shivering. Time to stoke up the coals. But she did not move.
"He knew that we had met at the mill, when you asked to buy my labor." Key's shivering vanished in the sudden hunch of his shoulders and the painful stillness of his back. "He asked how, and what happened there." Key swallowed, the collar shifting slightly. "He wanted to know about your drawing, Goodwife."
"And you told him."
In his lap, his hands moved, and he nodded, just once. "Forgive me, Goodwife."
With the rigidity of his back and body, the movement attracted her eye. Molly reached out and took his arm, the left one, not harshly, but it a way that would not be denied. The inside of his arm bore a ghostly blue form, a shadow in the shape of a pair of scissors. Her grandfather hunted elves, rounding them up for the sales. He told tales of their cowardice, how even the threat of iron brought most of them in line, how it could burn them without even touching. That buzzing sensation moved through Molly's fingers, and she let go of the elf's arm, retreating to the fireplace to jab at the coals with an iron poker. She shoved a few sticks of wood into the hot ashes, then slammed a section of log on the top. Her hand found its way back to the poker, and she stabbed the growing fire. Her eyes felt dried out as old beechnuts. Something was happening to her, something she did not understand, and it made her want to rock herself in the corner or weave through day and night for weeks. She threw down the poker at last, the clatter of it striking the stone made her jump and rub at her ears. Finally, she turned back again. "Sing," she ordered. "Sing if you want to." She stomped across to her warping, jerking the yarns and almost tangling them several times before she found the rhythm again. A long time passed before she heard the song, the soft crooning almost childlike, but carrying an undercurrent as vast as the river.
As dawn's light grew outside her window, Molly stretched her back and arms, and turned away from the warp. One more wrapping, and she'd have enough yarn ends for the dress. Key lay asleep on the sheepskin by her unused bed, curled up, his hands tucked under his head. In repose, the weariness left his face, and his skin took on the sheen of polished walnut. The silvery hair tufting out of his scalp invited her touch, but she refrained, resisting the urges of her fingers. His rough garments left his forearms free, the trailing of leaves wrapping over his shoulder. On the table, the cloak lay partially folded, and Molly gasped. She crept to the other side of him, and studied the embroidered border in the growing light. A tumble of leaves danced over the surface of her weaving, bright and joyous, a festival of the forests. The needle with its crimson thread, nipped into the part of the cloak he had not yet done, but what he had. . . tears brimmed in her eyes. The pattern of her vision rise to glorious life. Molly chuckled to herself as she moved away. She glanced down to find Key looking back at her, head still pillowed on his arms, his silver gaze bright and steady. "Good work," she said, and walked away, the floor creaking with her steps, to get them some breakfast.
That morning, she missed the song as she finished off the warp, and found herself several times crooning in her own rough and tuneless way. When the blacksmith and his men showed up, with the new waterwheel trundling on a wagon behind them, Molly left the men to make their noise and walked out toward the forest. She did not go there often, except when the need for dyestuffs stirred her, but today, she wanted to rest beneath the creaking bows, head pillowed on leaves, her own old cloak draped over her. She rarely dreamed, but this day images of elves flickered among the trees as they must have done for so long before her ancestors arrived to claim both the land and its creatures. By the time her grandfather helped to gather up the last of the elves in the forest, most elves were already born on farms, raised for the loomeries, and whatever other work they could do without much iron. She wondered where Key had learned his song, if it were an elf-song from the days before, or just a working-tune such as sailors used when they plied the sea. She thought of her river fabric rippling out from shore to shore, an ocean of threads, warm and inviting, but no leaves.
When the sun slanted long through the trees, Molly shuffled her way back home. A new sound gurgled up from the river, and she started to run, coming around the corner of her cottage to see the great wheel rising out of the water, a new framework holding it in place. The shaft stuck through her wall, not yet attached, and the miller, carpenters, and blacksmiths clustered around it, muttering and figuring. She ducked back around the corner, hands pressed over her grin. Soon--so soon! She almost danced into her cottage, waving to the men when they reported that they'd be back to finish the next day.
Little had changed inside: the vertical shaft still hovered, propped up with its gear end on a block, but the attachments for the loom itself stood in order, and the loom stood nearer the shaft ends, waiting its final placement. The sound of the new wheel rolling and splashing filled her little cottage. She did not care for it at first, but she would get used to it, especially once the rhythm of weaving imposed itself over all.
A rap called her to the door, and Jack ducked through, Key following after a moment's hesitation. Molly grinned--she couldn't help it, and the elf's eyes widened, his slit-pupils taking her in, then he, too, smiled, just a bit.
"Nice wheel, Molly--what're you milling?" Jack strode past her, iron clanking, and stared out the window. He turned his back to it, hands on hips, and narrowed his eyes at the waiting loom. "A water-driven loom, eh? That's your secret?"
That peculiar tension once again seized her, and she hoped he would go. "Not so secret." She gestured toward the elf, already at his table. "Thanks, Jack. See you in the morning."
"How fast will it weave, do you think?" He prowled around the set up, glowering at the markings on the floor, nudging the couplings with his boot.
"Mind the rod!" she called, jumped forward as he nearly bumped it off its block.
He pointed up. "That controls the beater, does it? And these will control the treadles. You'll still need to warp it yourself, though, that's the slow part. What about the shuttle?"
She glared back at him, then put out her hand, tapping the one piece already in place on the loom. She pulled it back, and it snapped to again, pull, snap, pull snap. "This catches the shuttle and tosses it across. If you've got a clean shed, the shuttle will fly right through." They both looked over at the similar mechanism on the other side.
Jack snorted. "That'll never work--there's too many ways for it to fall off, or get tangled. You'll spend most of your time just maintaining the cursed thing."
"Three or four times," she blurted.
"It should be three or four times faster than myself alone." Her gaze flickered to the pile of cloth she had already woven, imagining how much more she could do, imagining for a moment, the gold it would bring in--and the fibers she might buy with it.
"Three or four. . . It's a lot of trouble to go to, and that wheel can't have been cheap."
The biting sound of his voice caught even her attention, and Molly's hands balled into fists. "That's just the beginning, Jack. This is my first one, my vision. When I've had a chance to work it, I'll see how to improve it. I've already thought of a different sort of wheel, one that could produce even more power, and there's no reason why I have to use just one loom, either. I could have my own room full of them. Yard after yard of the best, not the shoddy stuff you've got them churning out."
Jack's face reddened, but his eyes remained on the loom, and his chin lifted, his voice a slow rise. "I suppose elf-magic could keep the shuttle steady."
Molly shook her head fiercely. "Elves can't use this--there's too much iron. I'm surprised your man can even be in the same room," she began, then broke off. Key looked back at her from the table, cloak in hand, needle poised. It was true, now that she thought of it. He should be more at ease in the loomery than here--even the floor here had iron nails rather than wooden pegs. She thought of the color of his skin, the darker tone she had noticed here that she had not seen in an elf before. Could it be possible that he burned all the time, like sitting too near a fire, and yet he still preferred--? Swaying a little, Molly blinked at the elf, who lowered his eyes back to his work, the needle slipping down. Carefully controlled by unseen hands, the needle dipped and rose, sliding under a few threads, turning, drawing a shimmering line of silk behind.
"What do you mean, elves can't work it? You can't possibly plan to set up a loomery of your own, all by yourself--you and your mill." He stabbed his hand toward the waterwheel, and his face was getting redder.
Her own loomery. She'd not actually thought of that until she wanted to show off to Jack. Her own loomery, but no elves. What would the elves do? They wouldn't be needed anymore. No elves, no collars, no filings, no farms, no--what would Jack do? The tension building in her shoulders reached up her neck, and her head throbbed. "Jack," she began, but Key's voice broke in.
"Goodwife, the thread's tangled."
"What?" said she and Jack at once, then he recovered, and said, "You keep quiet."
Key rested one foot lightly on the base of her loom, his hands lay free upon his lap. His eyes looked very dark indeed, the moon-eyes gone from full glow to absolute darkness. Molly took an involuntary step back, bumping into Jack, rubbing at her ears. The silk thread lay still and straight, although the needle trembled. "Please, Goodwife, if you would look at it." His voice struck a deeper note, as if the iron worked its way into his blood. He tipped his head toward the cloak, but did not take his eyes from them.
Molly's skin tingled. At her back, the tall man felt as hot as a rod of new iron, and Molly lost her breath. Her vision seemed shaky; she thought her loom edged away, sliding over the floor. A buzzing built in her ears.
Jack snarled, and something clattered. She caught sight of a chain in his hand. "You keep working, I said. Would you go to the blacksmith?" Key stiffened, and his foot edged back from the loom. "Then keep working!"
Molly and Key both flinched at that, and Jack's hand steadied her shoulder, though it felt clammy through her chemise. She opened her mouth to tell him to go, that she couldn't take him being there any longer.
The chain snapped through the air and clashed against the iron rod that thrust down from above. Jack's supportive hand suddenly gripped her, throwing her down.
Molly's head struck hard, her cry knocked from her chest by the impact. She floundered to get her hands under her, the floor filling her vision. To one side, the block tipped sidelong.
The rod groaned over her head, and crashed free. A keening overlaid the buzzing in her ears. Something tapped against her head, then stopped abruptly with a long, wild groan of metal. Molly rolled aside, and elf blood spattered her face, pale blue and hot. The keening became a scream.
"Shut up!" Jack shouted, looming over her, but she had made no sound.
Key knelt beside her, screaming, both hands wrapped around the iron rod. It bent slowly upward, farther and farther from her, bluish blood oozing from his palms. Tears streamed down Key's face from his eyes clamped tight.
"Let go--I'm free!" she cried, then Jack was upon her again, this time with a knife, dragging her to her feet.
Molly pictured the diagram of her cottage, their position in it, the placement of every iron bit and cone of yarn, the new hole in her wall, and the metal shaft.
Jack cursed, trying to haul her closer for a killing blow. She flung herself at him, then to the side as the impact shuddered them both. Metal cracked bone and tore flesh, and Molly tumbled away from the suddenly feeble hands, her back to the scene, rocking herself. She gulped for breath, her skull and chest aching. Soggy gasps behind her faded away, and a trickle of liquid seeped through her boots like the river's water, but hot as life. Molly gagged and scrambled up to vomit out the window. She sagged against the sill, trying to spit out the last of the taste from her mouth. Reviewing the diagram of her home, and the position of Jack's body, she thought the blood would flow toward the hearth, away from the fabric and waiting yarns. Something to be thankful for. But her diagram contained one uncertain figure, and she turned, bracing herself against the wall to steady her feet.
Key lay crumpled by the loom, silent now. She ran to his side. The beautiful cloak they made swished to the floor beside him. Ghostly dark circles rose up on his hands and arms--every iron nail making itself known. Molly swept up the cloak and gathered him into it, his slender body curling into itself as if he slept. His seared palms oozed a thick, blue heat. At least he still bled, at least the iron still hurt--at least he was not yet dead. She pushed past her loom and kicked the base of her bed cabinet. It crashed open, and Key trembled in her arms. Molly lay him out on the woolen blankets, and froze. She had no idea what to do.
Sweeping the skeins of silk from the table, Molly wrapped his palms with layers of soft thread, scarlet, orange, gold. She lurched into motion again, rocking as she stood, pressing her ears. Turning away, she searched the room for anything that might help. Iron shears hung by the warping rack. Iron fittings scattered the floor. Iron cook pots hung from iron hooks by the hearth where an iron rod suspended an iron kettle over the fire. Iron nail heads winked from her floor. An iron latch held shut the door.
She started with the pots, snatching them down two at a time and throwing them out the window. The ladles, forks and knives went next, but she crowed with victory to find a copper spoon. Iron sley hooks, shears and fittings followed. From the growing puddle of Jack's blood, she gathered the new iron couplings that formed her vision and tossed them out to tumble down the verge. Something splashed into the river, breaking the sound of the great wheel turning. She fretted a moment over the iron nails, then recalled a hammer on Jack's belt. Facing the corpse at last, Molly tried to ignore the shaft that stuck through his chest, the ugly tilt of his head, and the blood trickling from his slack jaw. She forced herself to inspect his belt, finding the hammer, and beside that, a key ring.
Molly stopped, then grinned, taking the keys from their leather strap. Small and light, they jingled in her palm as she crossed back to the bed. At the back of his neck, she found the lock. It took three tries, but she found the right key, fit it in, and turned. The collar came loose in her hand, and she lifted his cheek to slide it free. Then she flung it out the window as far as she could. Let the river swallow it down and wash it clean. She returned to the problem of the floor. She could not very well tear out every nail--most were too deeply embedded.
Her eyes rose instead to her pile of cloth. Flapping each with a vigorous hand, she opened out yards of table linens, towels, cloaks and curtains. One after another, she lay them out across the floor, working methodically from the hearth back across the room until two or three layers of cloth covered every inch, already soaking up the blood that marked her floor. Another thing she had not thought of. Then she caught sight again of Jack, and knew that the place would never be clean, no matter how hard she worked to remove the stain.
Molly felt the touch of a hand upon her arm, and she whirled, visions of Jack's body spinning in her mind. But the touch suffused her with a curious warmth, and Jack remained as she had left him. Across the room, Key sat up on the bed, the cloak draped about his shoulders, his hands cradled in his lap.
"Thank you, Goodwife," he murmured, and the sound flowed through her in a rush like the river, lights glinting from his smile and glowing from his silver eyes. Tears glistened there as well, and he looked toward the open window.
"It's Molly," she muttered, her voice as coarse as unworked linen.
"Smooth weaving to you, Molly."
"And you," she answered. Her palms tingled, and she slowly crossed the room to stand before him. Gently she stroked his hair, silver as starlit water. He leaned against her, and they rocked together while the river wove into the night.
This story originally appeared in Splinter Universe.