Story art by Kat Otis.
From the author: The river Thames collects the rubbish and sewage of London's residents. Mudlarks are poor children who survive by scavenging for that rubbish in the mud at the river's edge. They work in crews, each with its own territory, each with its own leader.
The river Thames collects the rubbish and sewage of London's residents. Mudlarks are poor children who survive by scavenging for that rubbish in the mud at the river's edge. They work in crews, each with its own territory, each with its own leader.
Jennet trotted down the Temple Stairs and wondered if she had mistimed her arrival. The Thames was retreating towards the sea so most of the stone steps lay exposed to the afternoon sun, but she couldn't see any of the riverbed beyond the end of the stairs. One of the waterman – a gruff, heavy-handed man named Edward Averell – sat in his boat at the bottom of the stairs, so the river couldn't be too shallow yet.
When she reached the last of the exposed steps, she carefully slipped her right foot into the water and greeted the river. The Thames answered her, telling her everything she needed to know for her crew to safely scavenge on its riverbed. The tide would turn in two hours; at the moment the Thames ran knee-high over its riverbed for almost a rod's length from the river wall, before becoming much deeper; the current was stronger than usual today because of storms further inland.
Jennet pulled her foot back out of the water, severing her link with the river. She waved to her second-in-command, who waited with the rest of her crew at the top of the Temple Stairs. "Reade!"
Reade waved back before he began shepherding the crew down to the river. One of the younger girls – Bess – came careening down the steps at a speed which made Jennet wince. If Bess slipped and broke something, she could end up crippled. But Bess made it all the way down without trouble and stopped at the edge of the water, barely reining in her eagerness.
"No more than a rod away from the wall," Jennet said. "Remember that today!"
"I will," Bess promised, like she always did, then leapt into the water and began splashing around.
While Bess played, Reade set the rest of the crew to work on the other side of the stairs, scouring the riverbed for anything of value. The new girl – Jennet had dubbed her Kensal because she was new-come to London from Kensal Green – hesitated for a long time at the bottom of the stairs. Reade finally had to push Kensal off the stones and he rolled his eyes at Jennet before he followed Kensal out onto the riverbed.
Jennet shared some of Reade's impatience. After a fortnight, Kensal really ought to be over her fear of the river. It wasn't as if the girl hadn't understood Jennet's rules when she joined the crew – those who wanted to be fed had to work whenever the river was shallow. Only the two youngest boys were allowed to stay on the stairs; they were far too little to go into the water, so they were in charge of guarding the others' finds.
Jennet shifted to the side of the stairs, taking up a position where she was out of the way of the watermen's customers but could still keep an eye on everything. Bess's antics had already began to attract attention from passers-by. Mudlarks scouring the riverbed were one thing, but a child playing in the river was quite another. A few people stopped and leaned over the top of the river wall to watch her. Bess called out to them for money and one actually tossed down a coin – as far from her as they could.
Bess made an abortive dive for coin and flopped into the water on her belly, prompting laughter from the growing party at the top of the river wall. She made a game of searching for the coin, though to all appearances she was increasingly frantic. Even Master Averell laughed at her when she came up with a face-full of mud. Only Jennet knew that Bess could have brought up that coin at any moment – finding things in the mud was Bess's special talent, the way speaking with the river was Jennet's.
Eventually Bess went down into the water and didn't come up for several long breaths. The laughter from her audience began to die down – more because the entertainment was over than because they actually cared whether or not yet another mudlark drowned – and a dark-haired man in black robes started to leave. Then Bess popped up out of the water again, clutching the coin in one hand and thrusting it up into the air in a gesture of victory.
That brought a smattering of applause from the audience. Even Jennet clapped her hands a few times, though for the coin not the performance. When Bess waded over to the bottom of the stairs to hand over the coin, Jennet saw that it was a penny and exchanged a grin with the younger girl. That a large enough bribe to appease Master Averell for a full sennight.
"Do it again, lass!"
Jennet glanced up to see a Scotsman lean over the wall and fling something as hard as it could. Her eyes tracked the silver coin as it spun through the air and then finally fell into the river, well away from the wall. The younger girl was after it in a heartbeat and Jennet's heart leapt up into her throat. "Bess, stop!"
Bess did stop, but much further out than Jennet wanted. Jennet shook her head. Sometimes that girl didn't even have the sense the Lord God gave to sheep! She'd warned Bess time and time again not to stray too far into the river – the ever-shifting sandbars and strong currents were as treacherous as a priest faking miracles with his talent – but one flash of silver and all thought flew straight out of the girl's head.
The crowd made disappointed sounds, but Jennet tried to ignore them. Instead, she stepped down onto one of the still submerged steps so that the river could speak to her again. It warned her that coin had fallen right where the current began to grow dangerously strong, which meant the coin wasn't quite out of reach. Not for her.
Jennet drew in a deep breath and flung herself out into the water, curling up so that she hit the water like a lead cannonball, sinking straight to the riverbed. The instant her feet touched mud, her hands were out and searching for the coin; she didn't have much time. Her hand closed on something flat and round and she immediately pushed herself up and towards the shore, pumping her arms and legs almost before she broke the surface of the river. She could feel the greedy current tugging at her, but she'd been too strong and too fast. This time.
The crowd cheered for her as she clambered back up onto the stairs, and some of the men cat-called as her dripping wet clothing revealed she had the beginning of womanly curves, but Jennet forgot all about them as soon as she saw the coin in her hand. A shilling. A whole shilling. The Scotsman must have been drunk. She made the coin vanish into her clothing before Master Averell could notice and try to steal it from her. She was definitely going to feed her crew well tomorrow; she could even get them red meat instead of fish.
Bess continued her games until the tide had retreated enough to fully expose a good part of the riverbed. Then Jennet set her to searching through the mud on her side of the stairs. Bess's talent made her as effective as all the rest of the crew, combined. If only there had been a way to bottle Bess's talent and share it, they'd be richer than any other crew on the Thames. Maybe a Cunning Man would know how to do such a thing – no one knew more about talents than the Cunning Men – but not even a fistful of shillings would be enough to convince one to help a mudlark. He'd probably denounce Bess as a witch, just for spite.
While her crew worked, Jennet studied the watermen plying their trade and their customers being ferried up and down the river, looking for potential customers of her own. Most of the men who came to the Temple Stairs were visiting the Worshipful Company of Cunning Men, in the Middle Temple, and there was always the occasional visitor who hoped to find something diabolical instead of mere men with special talents. As if the good King James would have really granted a royal license to a company full of Devil-worshippers! But those same men were easy marks and would buy rubbish if she hawked it properly. One old apothecary came time and time again – and was always sent away with a flea in his ear, near as Jennet could tell; he would pay outrageous prices, especially for the odd things that Bess sometimes found.
Eventually the Thames reached its lowest ebb. Then the current reversed as the tide changed and water from the sea poured back into the river. When the sun began to slip below the horizon, Jennet called her crew off the riverbed; they couldn't afford to be caught out past the curfew which started at eight of the clock. She collected their last finds and most of her crew scattered, headed back to their families. Only a handful of orphans lived with her in a little bolthole near St. Bride's Church. Jennet ran through their names in her mind out of habit, checking to make sure they'd all come off the river: Reade, the twins, Bess and Kensal....
That was when she realized Kensal was missing.
Jennet left Reade in charge of the twins, with orders to search the surrounding alleys and get back to St. Bride's before curfew. Then she went back down the Temple Stairs with Bess in tow, fearing the worst. The Thames seemed a little less welcoming than it had only hours earlier and Jennet went into the water with Bess, afraid the smaller girl would drown if she went in alone.
Jennet kept a firm grip on Bess's arm as she stood there, waist-deep in water. The river was uncooperative, speaking only of the great merchantmen and ships-of-the-line moored on the other side of London Bridge. It steadfastly refused to tell her anything about Kensal and left her to guess where its current would have deposited Kensal's body – assuming Kensal hadn't been swept straight out to sea.
Bess might still have better luck. The larger the object, the further away it could be and Bess would still find it. She ought to be able to sense a body – even one small girl's body – all the way to London Bridge. The current swirling against the bridge's arches washed a lot of salvage up onto the shore at the adjacent Old Swan Stairs. That was their best hope for finding Kensal.
Bess finally shook her head and Jennet's heart sank. "I can't find her."
"We should check again at the Blackfriars Stairs." It was near enough to St. Bride's that there ought to be time to reach it before dark, but far enough away that it would give Bess a bit more of the riverbed to search.
"If... if the Thames really took her, I don't think we're going to find her," Bess said.
"She's part of my crew, we keep looking," Jennet said, firmly enough to end the discussion. She hadn't lost anyone to the Thames in four years; it frightened her that Kensal could vanish into the river without any of the other mudlarks even noticing. A little part of her wondered if this wasn't the Lord God's way of reminding her that arrogance was a sin, that she'd taken the gift He gave her for granted. But divine intervention was for kings and saints, not for mudlarks. She should have kept a closer eye on the new girl instead of giving all her attention to the Cunning Men's customers. It was as plain and simple as that.
They ran through the cobbled streets, weaving their way through the crowds, and found themselves at the Blackfriars Stairs just as church bells began to toll quarter 'til eight. Jennet kept her hands on Bess's shoulders the whole time they were on the submerged steps, to keep her from slipping off into the rising river.
After a long silence, Bess shook her head. "Nothing."
Jennet had half-expected the answer, but that didn't make it any easier to hear. Wordlessly, she tugged the other girl out of the water and they headed back up the stairs.
"She might be upriver," Bess said, hesitantly. "The tide was rising when we came out."
"We don't have time to go that way," Jennet said. She'd done all that she could – she really had, even if she couldn't quite make herself believe it. Already they were cutting it far closer to curfew than she liked. Respectable citizens of the city might be allowed out after dark, but if the watch caught her it'd be the gaol for sure and maybe even a hanging if they decided she'd stolen the shilling; any theft over a sixpence in value was a hanging offense.
When they reached the top of the stairs, they began to run again. The crowd on the street was thinning out, which helped some, and they only just made it to the churchyard before the bells of St. Bride's announced eight of the clock and the beginning of curfew. They hurried through the crowded warren of back alleys and tenements to their bolthole – a little triangular nook formed by two buildings meeting at a sharp angle, with a rickety staircase running above them. Jennet had seen a few even odder spaces over in Cheapside, but not many.
Reade had already settled the twins down, but both their heads popped up when Jennet shifted the loose board that served as their door and slipped into the crowded space. She shook her head and – for the twins – that was that. But Reade hovered by her side, waiting until Bess lay down for the night and they could pretend to speak without anyone listening.
"We didn't find anything, but she had to have come up off the river," Reade said. "I was watching out for her, I swear."
Jennet's spirits lifted a little but she battered them back down and forced herself to be practical. "You probably mistook someone else for her." Kensal had an extremely ordinary face, the kind that always made a body think she was someone else, which was how she had wormed her way into the crew – no one had realized that the little girl wasn't one of them until the first time she balked at the edge of the water. Jennet wondered if ordinariness was somehow Kensal's talent, but the girl hadn't been willing to confess to having one. A boy with talent was a potential apprentice for the Cunning Men; a girl ran the risk of being branded a witch, as if a pact with the devil was the only way she could have a talent.
"I'm almost certain she was the first one out," Reade said.
That would be just like Kensal. And if she'd been out well before any of the others, alone at the top of the Temple Stairs.... "You think someone took her?" Jennet didn't think anyone would really want Kensal, but she wasn't so innocent that she couldn't imagine why someone might snatch a young girl off the streets.
"I don't think she just went off by herself."
Jennet considered that for a moment, then shook her head. There was nothing that could be done now, no matter what had happened. But the morning was a different matter. "You should go visit the cobs tomorrow." There were no greater gossips than the men who carried spring water from the Great Conduit in Cheapside to various tradesmen and merchants' houses. They knew almost everything that happened in London.
"But what about low tide?"
"This is important," Jennet said. "It's a different kind of work. Besides, it's my crew, my rules. Anyone doesn't like it can find another crew." As if any of them would do that. Other crews lost mudlarks to the river. Hers didn't. Not even Kensal, if Reade was to be believed, though Jennet refused to let herself get too hopeful.
Reade chewed that over for a moment, then nodded. "I'll go at first light."
The crew noticed Reade's absence, but nobody complained which was probably for the best. Jennet hadn't realized she'd been half-hoping Kensal would just turn up in the morning, none the worse for wear, until it didn't happen. Then she was angry at herself for being such a fool. It left her in such a foul mood that Master Averell had cuffed her for disrespect and banished her down onto the riverbed, away from the stairs. Even the Thames, swirling gently around her bare feet as if in apology for the night before, wasn't enough to soothe her.
Reade showed up about the same time the sun finally cleared the horizon, full of news but none of it useful. She couldn't care less if the widow who ran the Sun Tavern was having an affair with a Cunning Man, or if yet another apothecary was meddling with alchemy. If Kensal had gotten caught up in something like that then the moon was made of green cheese. Jennet was so angry she kicked the river wall. Afterwards, the pain in her foot kept her distracted, and she wondered if she'd broken a toe or something else similarly foolish. But by the time the Thames had refilled its bed, the pain had receded and Jennet managed to walk up the stairs without limping.
Normally Jennet wouldn't let anyone help her sell the crew's finds, but today she couldn't get Kensal off her mind and she knew that she wasn't up to bargaining. So she gave the driftwood to the twins, to run back home, and left Reade with everything else, save only a shell that seemed to have a crucifix imprinted on it. Then she sent her crew off to fend for themselves for a few hours. Everyone would meet at the Cheapside Cross at one of the clock, when the tide would be at its highest; that gave them plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely meal at her expense before they returned to the riverside for the evening's low tide.
Jennet was tempted to take Bess towards Westminster, to see if the younger girl sensed anything in the mud up there, but she knew they'd never make it up the river and back again in time to meet up with the rest of the crew. And Reade swore that Kensal had come up out of the river. So instead she decided to search through the alleys, lanes and yards of the Temple, in hopes of finding some clue Reade had missed. Bess insisted on coming with her, but thankfully no one ever noticed children – even slightly wet ones – so long as they trotted along and looked like they were running errands for a master.
When the bells of the Temple Church pealed half past noon, Jennet finally admitted to herself that she wasn't finding any more useful information than Reade had. She was about to give up and head towards Cheapside when she rounded a corner and nearly ran headlong into a pair of men having a quiet, but heated, argument.
The men turned their glares on her and Jennet skipped backwards a step, ready to run. Then she recognized the older man – Master Rawlins, her favorite mark from the Temple Stairs. She didn't know his black-haired companion, but she could guess why they were so upset. They must have been coming away from yet another fruitless visit to the Cunning Men.
"Good sir!" Jennet hurried to produce the shell Bess had found earlier. "Would you be interested in a wonder? Look at the mark of our Savior on this humble shell, meant to remind us of His suffering on the Cross and how He died to redeem us-"
At first Master Rawlins just frowned down his nose at her, but then he blinked and must have finally recognized her because he interrupted, "How much?"
The black-haired man scowled, then turned and stalked away. That was fine by Jennet – she didn't want anything to foul up her sale. And even though Master Rawlins was grumbling under his breath, he was also digging into his purse.
Master Rawlins pulled out a sixpence and gave it to her without even attempting to bargain. She handed over the shell and quickly made the sixpence disappear into her clothing, but he was too busy studying the shell to pay any attention to her. His eyes were all-but glued to it as he turned and began to walk toward Temple Stairs.
Jennet grinned down at Bess, determined to properly appreciate their windfall. "Red meat for sure today, and not rat or horse."
Bess didn't return the smile. "I don't like him."
"He pays good money, doesn't he?"
"But the way he looks at us-"
Jennet snorted. "How do you expect someone to look at us? Come on – race you to the Cross. You beat me there, I'll buy you a ribbon from Widow Larkin's stall."
Bess looked at her for a long moment more, then took off towards Cheapside.
Jennet beat the younger girl, but only just barely, so she bought Bess a pretty green ribbon anyway. It broke up her shilling, leaving her with enough small coins that she could buy dinner and still give a ha'penny to every member of her crew that had a family. That would make them happy – she always divided up the profits from their finds once a week, but they rarely got more than a farthing to take home to their parents.
The rest of her crew showed up even before the bells tolled one and teased Bess about her ribbon while Jennet handed out the ha'pennies. Then they ate a better meal than Jennet remembered having in a very long time. They were all full and cheerful as they made their way back down to the riverside. The Thames would still be too high for them to scavenge, but quite a few people were on the river and there was sometimes a farthing to be made from helping ladies in and out of the watermen's boats. Jennet set the older boys to work on the Temple Stairs, while everyone else wandered the bankside streets trying to entertain the passers-by in hopes of earning a farthing of their own.
Jennet was just about to go check on the river when she heard a shout and a splash. She rushed to the river wall and looked down to see what was happening. Reade was in the water – fool! Was he trying to get himself killed? – and up to his neck, struggling to pull something in to the bottom of the stairs. Master Averell was nearby, in his boat; he reached out with an oar and used it to help Reade, no doubt so he could lay claim to the find if it was something good.
Only when Reade had scrambled up onto the stone steps with his burden did Jennet realize she was seeing a body. A very small body.
She raced down the stairs, taking the steps at a breakneck speed that even Bess couldn't match. Reade was arguing with Master Averell over something, but Jennet ignored them both and threw herself down on her knees beside the body.
Kensal was breathing. It was a labored gurgling in and out, like she had water in her lungs, but she was still alive. Jennet knew a moment of complete and utter relief. This was just like a miracle from the Gospels! The Lord watched over mudlarks, after all.
Reade had turned Kensal onto her side, and Jennet was just about to pound her chest – to see if she could get the girl to cough out more of the water – when she realized some of the liquid soaking Kensal's clothing wasn't from the Thames. She stared at the red bloodstain slowly spreading across Kensal's shoulder and for a moment she was so angry she couldn't even breathe. What sort of miracle was this – to return Kensal alive but dying?
Then she remembered the sixpence Master Rawlins had given her earlier that day and leapt to her feet. "Bess!" Despite having short legs, the younger girl was the fastest member of the crew, save only Jennet herself. Bess was at her side in moments and Jennet pressed the coin into the Bess's hand. "Find a barber-surgeon. Or a bonesetter. Or anyone who will come. Run!"
Jennet turned back to Reade and Master Averell – she'd need help to get Kensal up the steps. It took her a moment to understand what she was hearing, but finally she realized that Master Averell wanted Kensal's clothes. Only he kept calling them "the body's rags."
"She's not dead, yet!" Jennet said, and both stopped to stare at her. To Master Averell she added, "I'll repay you for your aid, my word on it." She grabbed Reade's arm and pulled him back towards Kensal. "Now help me get her off the stairs and out of the way of Master Averell's customers."
They moved her carefully, trying not to jar her as they went up the steps. A few people noticed when they reached the top and laid her out on the cobblestones, but they only glanced at Kensal, wrinkled their noses in distaste, and moved on. Nobody stopped, not even the Cunning Men, who were all required to learn at least a little bit about wounds. Of course they didn't offer to help. Who cared about a mudlark? Jennet just prayed that sixpence was enough to pay a barber-surgeon; she'd never tried to hire one before.
The rest of her crew crowded around her, anxious and upset, and Jennet finally had to send them away to start scavenging. Reade pulled back Kensal's shirt to reveal bruises and a nasty knife wound. Jennet swallowed hard – someone had done that on purpose and then dumped her into the Thames to die. Why would anyone do that? If Kensal had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, why hadn't they just killed her then? Why take her and wait almost a day before stabbing her? Jennet's mind started running through all kinds of horrible scenarios, but a quick search of Kensal's body found no other wounds.
"Move aside, move aside!" Someone roughly pushed Jennet out of the way and she scrambled to her feet, fists clenched to defend herself. Then she recognized Bess and realized the stranger now kneeling beside Kensal must be a barber-surgeon. Or, given his youth, maybe a barber-surgeon's journeyman. Good enough. More than good enough.
Bess took hold of Jennet's arm, pulling her back away from the stranger. "He wants a sixpence more, but he says we can pay in a sennight." Only seven days. Jennet winced and Bess looked anxious, "We can do that, can't we?"
If he saved Kensal, then going hungry would be worth it. But Jennet wasn't sure how she'd explain to the crew that they were working to pay off a debt if the barber-surgeon hadn't done any good. She'd find a way. Somehow. "We'll do it."
When Jennet returned to stand beside Reade, the barber-surgeon was stitching up Kensal's skin. The sight of that needle, going in and out of flesh, made her feel a little sick to her stomach. "Well?"
The man shrugged and kept stitching. "The wound was full of river water. I cleaned it out with wine and herbs, but that's not always enough."
Jennet had seen wounds go bad before; that was what had killed her father, when she was little. She swallowed hard. "But there's a chance-"
"She was healthy enough to start with." The man tied off the last of his stitches and finally looked up at her. There was no pity in his gaze, which Jennet took to be a good sign. Either that or he just didn't care whether Kensal survived or not, so long as he was paid. "There's a chance."
A chance was all Jennet could ask for at this point. She moved on to worrying over payment, so she wouldn't have to worry over Kensal. "Another sixpence? Within a sennight? Where will I find you?"
"At the sign of the bleeding arm on Fleet Street. But wait." He pulled something out of his bag – some sort of grayish plant – and showed it to her. "This is called Old Man's Beard. An apothecary should be able to give you more. She can eat it, or put it directly on the wound; either way, it will help if she takes a fever."
As if they could afford an apothecary's fees, too. But Jennet thanked him anyway. Now that she was looking for it, she could see that he'd used some of the plant on Kensal's wound before sewing it back up. Maybe it would make a difference. Maybe not. She supposed it couldn't hurt.
Kensal still hadn't woken up, so Jennet went to the river wall and shouted for the twins. They'd be able to sling Kensal between themselves and keep their steps together so that they didn't knock her around too much.
She waited until the twins were well out of earshot, then turned to Reade. "Go back to the cobs. See if you can barter a pitcher of water out of them. In case she does take a fever."
Reade was no fool. "And if I happen to find anything out...."
"Then you bring it back to me," she said. Kensal was part of her crew. If she ever found out who had hurt the girl, she would make them pay. Her. Not Reade, not the priests – assuming they'd care about anything more than fleecing the man out of his money for pardoning his sins. And she certainly wasn't going to wait for the Lord God to get around to righting any wrongs this side of the grave.
Reade nodded his agreement and took off. Jennet watched him go, then made her way back down the stairs to check on the rest of her crew. They were busy scavenging, and Jennet hoped they'd find something to take care of their debt to Master Averell. She wasn't sure if they really owed him anything, but no mudlark wanted to risk making enemies of the watermen. And he had helped Reade pull Kensal out of the Thames; without him, the current might have swept both of them past the stairs and into the center of the river. A swift, sure death.
Instead of watching her crew from the stairs, Jennet stepped into the shallows. The river swirled around her ankles, and she silently thanked the Thames – or God, or maybe both – for not swallowing Kensal whole. The river could just as easily have sent Kensal out to sea as let her fetch up against one of the watermen's stairs. Much less the Temple Stairs.
From her post, Jennet watched her crew with extra care, calling Bess back a few times when the girl ventured too far into the water. She watched the watermen and their customers almost as carefully; any one of them could be the person who'd stabbed Kensal. Or it could be no one she'd ever seen before or would see again – some sturdy beggar passing through, always wary of being caught and sent to a workhouse. If only Bess could find things on land as well as in the water. But no, her talent was as tied to the river as Jennet's.
As soon as the riverbed began to vanish under the waters, Jennet called her crew out of the Thames and sent them on their way with stern warnings to be extra wary of strangers and friends alike. Then she and Bess headed straight home, arriving just after the bells tolled seven of the clock. The twins had bundled Kensal up to keep her from becoming chilled, but when Jennet touched her hand to the girl's forehead she felt what she feared was the beginning of an unnatural warmth.
"Bess," Jennet said, "did you find anything good this evening?" She didn't know how much more Old Man's Beard would cost, coming from an apothecary, but she had an hour before curfew to find out.
"A bunch of rags, a few pieces of wood, and some rotten meat on a bit of bone. The best was a length of rope, but I gave that to Master Averell," Bess said. She hesitated, then touched the green ribbon woven into her hair. "Would this help?"
It was worth a farthing in coin, maybe a ha'penny in barter, and they all knew it. Jennet glanced over at the twins, whose faces were a study in misery, then took Bess's hand. "Let's find out."
The first apothecary they found claimed to be out of Old Man's Beard and for all Jennet knew he really was. The second man shut the door in their faces without even asking what they wanted. Church bells were ringing half past seven when they found a third apothecary, who had Old Man's Beard but laughed at their offer to barter and threw them out when Jennet asked for credit. Jennet was nearly in tears – of rage or helplessness, she wasn't sure which – by the time they found the fourth apothecary's shop.
A string of little bells hanging from the door announced their entrance and a man called, crankily, "Coming, coming!" His voice grew louder, "What in God's name do you need, so close to curfew?" Then a dark-haired man in black robes came through a door and into the shop. He stopped to stare at them, and Jennet realized he was the man that Master Rawlins had been arguing with outside the Middle Temple. She had the strangest feeling that he'd recognized them, too. It made her stomach flutter a little; no one paid that much attention to mudlarks.
Bess inched in a little closer to Jennet's side, clinging to her arm, and that reminded Jennet that curfew was fast approaching. She drew in a deep breath and tried to blurt out her entire request before he stopped her. "Please, sir, we're looking for Old Man's Beard, we need some for our friend, and I know we don't have any coin, but we'd give you this ribbon if it's worth enough, or if you'd be willing to let us have credit we'll pay you back right away, within a fortnight for sure!"
He looked at them for a moment longer, then smiled. "But of course we can come to some sort of an arrangement. I have plenty of Old Man's Beard." He vanished into the other room again then returned with a handful of grayish strands – Jennet hoped it was the right plant, but couldn't tell for sure – and a knife. "I assume you want it cut up, for a poultice?"
"I – yes, please," Jennet said, a little dazed now. It couldn't be that easy, could it? And he hadn't said what the price was. But at this point, she'd probably do just about anything so did it really matter? Besides, if he thought they wouldn't be able to pay, he wouldn't be offering it to them.
He cut up the Old Man's Beard, twisted it into a bit of paper, then held it out towards her. Jennet shook Bess off her arm so she could step forward. The apothecary pressed the twist of paper into her hand, but seized her wrist when she started to step back. Jennet swallowed hard and eyed the knife he had left on the table at his right hand. "How much do we owe you, sir?"
"Just the girl," the apothecary said, and Jennet instinctively tried to jerk her hand free. He was much stronger than her; she barely made his own arm move. "Come now, she's not your sister – any man can see that. I'll treat her well enough, and in return you can have all the medicines you could ever want or need."
"Bess isn't for sale, sir," Jennet said, dropping the paper back to the table. "I'm sorry if we wasted your time."
He ignored the paper and Jennet glanced at the knife again, wondering if she could beat him to it. He followed her gaze and picked the knife up in his free hand. His voice remained perfectly pleasant and even, but she couldn't help but notice the way he held the knife, ready to strike. "I don't think you understand me. I have need of Bess's special talent."
"Bess doesn't have any special talent," Jennet said, hoping her voice didn't betray her. How had he found out? At least he didn't sound like he was going to denounce Bess as a witch, not yet anyway. "Except maybe getting into mischief."
"And finding things," he said.
Jennet's heart leapt up into her throat and she tried once again to pull free. "You mistake her, sir-"
"Don't try to play me for a fool," he said, his voice hardening and his grip on her wrist tightening painfully. "Bess, she's the one who finds all those curiosities you sell to that old blockhead Rawlins. I'd thought it was the other one – they look so much alike – but she was useless."
"You." Jennet stared at him for a moment, frozen. He was the one who had taken Kensal. The one who had stabbed her. The one who had thrown her into the Thames to die after Jennet sold Master Rawlins the shell and proved that he hadn't taken the right mudlark....
Jennet flung herself at him, clawing at his face with her free hand. Bess screamed and he swore as Jennet knocked him to the floor. They grappled with one another, Jennet trying to gouge out his eyes or smash in his nose, him trying to push her away. Then suddenly he rolled and she found herself under him, his knife at her throat. She still wanted to kill him, but she could hardly avenge Kensal with a slit throat so she went limp.
"That," he panted, "was foolish." Then he glanced sideways and his voice hardened, "Drop it or I'll slit her throat."
Bess. Jennet heard a thunk of something hitting the floor, and winced. Please, Bess, just run! But of course the younger girl would never leave her.
Jennet drew in a deep breath, feeling the edge of the knife press deeper into her skin, and tried to figure out a way to get Bess to safety. "It only works in the river. I don't know what you want to find, but-"
"What I want is in the Thames," he said, triumph flashing across his face. He thought he'd won. But Jennet knew better – the river was the only place where she had any hope of gaining the advantage. "Alkahest. You sold Rawlins some six months ago. There must be more."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jennet said, with complete honesty. She couldn't remember half the things she'd convinced Master Rawlins to buy.
He frowned at her. "It purifies base metals. It... never mind. You don't need to know."
"But I do." Jennet met his eyes; that always convinced her marks that she was telling them the truth. "I'm the one who finds the things we sell to Master Rawlins."
"I've watched her do it." The apothecary pressed the knife deeper into her throat and Jennet could feel blood begin to drip down the side of her neck. Bess began weeping and Jennet knew she had to talk fast, before he worked himself up to killing her and just taking Bess.
"In the shallows, yes, but that's not where the good stuff is!" Jennet lied. "And how could a little girl swim the Thames without getting caught in the current and drowning? I'm the one who does that, not Bess." He let up the pressure on her neck, just a bit, and she breathed a little more easily. "Please, sir." The flattering title of respect tried to stick in her throat but she forced it out anyway. "Let Bess take the medicine back to Kensal and I'll do anything. I'll stay, I'll help you find your... um...."
"Alkahest," he said. He was silent for several breaths and Jennet prayed he was seriously considering her offer. Outside she could hear the bells begin to toll eight of the clock. He turned towards Bess, "Come here, girl."
Bess came without hesitation. In one swift motion, the apothecary rose to his feet, grabbed her, and put his knife to her throat.
Jennet bit back a scream. That was not what she had intended! If Bess had struggled, or acted frightened, Jennet wasn't sure what she would have done. But Bess looked more defiant than anything else, despite the tears streaking her face; she'd clearly known exactly what she was doing when she obeyed the apothecary's command.
If they survived this, Jennet was going to tan her hide.
After a moment, Jennet slowly sat up, afraid of startling him if she moved any faster. Blood trickled down her neck and she wiped at it with the back of her hand. That wasn't enough to stop the bleeding, so she spat on her palm and rubbed it over the scratch. Better. "Is there anything more you can tell me about this-" She still couldn't remember the name. "This thing you're looking for? Sir?"
"Alkahest," he repeated. "It is a reddish stone. The piece you brought Rawlins was about the size of my palm."
"I remember it now, sir – it was further out into the Thames than most of what I bring up." Jennet hesitated, trying to gauge his response, but he didn't seem suspicious of her lies so she added, "We might need a boat to get there, even at low tide."
"I can get a boat," he said.
Jennet thought he must be growing excited; his knife had slipped down to rest more against Bess's collarbone than her throat. If he got careless – if he let go entirely – Jennet promised herself she would grab Bess and run. Revenge could wait. At least until she got Bess somewhere safe....
The apothecary lifted the knife up higher again, pressing it into Bess's skin. Jennet's heart sank as he glared at her – her face must have betrayed her thoughts again. "Try to run and I'll raise the hue and cry," he warned her.
Jennet shivered and hugged her knees to her chest, all thoughts of running forgotten. If he raised the hue and cry, everyone within earshot would come to his call to bear witness and help catch them. Their word was worthless compared to his; he could easily convince the watch that she and Bess had tried to rob him – why else would they be out after curfew? If they were lucky, they'd each lose a hand. More likely, they would both hang – the herbs and books in the apothecary's shop had to be worth far more than a sixpence.
He stared at her for a long moment, then nodded to himself. "Don't move," he ordered. Then he dragged Bess into his back room.
Jennet nearly panicked – what was he doing to Bess? – but he wasn't gone for long; he returned just as the bells rang quarter past. He still held the knife to Bess's throat, but Bess now had a lit lantern in one hand and an empty sack in the other.
"We're going now?" Jennet asked, scrambling to her feet. "But...." The apothecary pulled the lantern out of Bess's hand and held it out towards Jennet. She took it, uncertainly.
He dragged Bess out into the night. Jennet didn't have any real choice but to follow.
Jennet couldn't remember ever being out this long after curfew. There were a surprising number of people in the streets, all bearing lanterns to let the watch know they were of good repute and on legitimate errands. Her ragged clothing made her stand out from the others and several of the watchmen started towards her before they realized she was with the apothecary. He was her safe-conduct – a respectable tradesman and Guild member.
She wondered if any of them realized he had a knife, half-hidden by his body, pressed up against Bess's back.
When they reached the riverside, the apothecary pounded on the door of run-down tenement. A young waterman – Jennet vaguely recognized him, but didn't know his name – answered the door. For a moment Jennet hoped he would refuse them; there was a shilling fine for ferrying customers after curfew. Then the apothecary pressed five gold angels into his hand. Jennet had never seen that much money before in her life. Neither had the waterman – he readily agreed that the apothecary could take his boat, no questions asked, and that he had never seen anything.
The tide had turned again and the Thames stood just past its high water mark when they reached the waterman's boat. Under any other circumstances Jennet would have just stood at the river wall and stared into its inky-black depths; the Thames was beautiful at night. But now she hurried down the Savoy Stairs after Bess and the apothecary, and climbed into the boat with them.
He made her row, so he could hold the knife to Bess's throat again. Even though the oars were short, Jennet had a hard time managing the boat – she kept getting caught up by unexpected sandbars and snags. Her arms and shoulders began to ache before they were even halfway to the stretch of the river which ran past Temple Stairs. But she kept pulling at the oars until she was sure they were well away from the shore. Then she laid down the oars.
"We're here?" The apothecary asked, eagerly.
"What's so special about a river rock, anyway," Jennet stalled, as she leaned over the edge of the boat and trailed her hand in the water. After a few moments, the Thames spoke to her. The river was a good three stories deep here; its current was running fast and strong, straight out to sea. Anyone who fell into the river here would drown for sure. Her heart began to race faster, as if it would become one with the current.
"I told you before – it purifies base metals." When she stared at him blankly, he added, "Turns them into gold. And according to legend, enough of it will make a man immortal."
"Oh." How terrible was it to be afraid of death? Especially when not even the priests could agree on what would take a man to heaven and what would send him straight to hell? A man, or a little girl, she reminded herself, focusing on the knife at Bess's throat. "Why did you throw Kensal into the river?"
"The Lord's will be done," he said. "I am no murderer."
"But you stabbed her first!"
He didn't answer.
"You could have just asked us, just paid us to find it for you! Why take her in the first place?"
The apothecary pinned her in place with a gaze that was suddenly as cold as the water beneath their boat. "Exodus 22:18. You shall not suffer a witch to live."
He was going to kill them. Even if she helped him. Jennet couldn't quite wrap her mind around it. He had tracked them down because he needed exactly what they could do, and afterwards he was going to quote the Bible while he murdered her and Bess? He'd probably find Kensal again and finish what he had started. And Reade? The twins? The rest of her crew?
She couldn't let him do that. She had to stop him. By whatever means necessary.
Jennet met Bess's eyes, praying that the younger girl would understand.
Bess nodded, just a little.
Jennet drew in a deep breath then flung herself against the side of the boat.
The boat rocked and the apothecary fell over sideways, catching himself instinctively with both hands. Bess ducked away from him as the boat tipped back the other direction. Jennet tumbled across to the low side of the boat and Bess joined her, adding her own slight weight to Jennet's own.
For a moment, Jennet was terrified that it wasn't going to be enough, but then the boat tipped over sideways, spilling its passengers into the river.
The current snatched them.
Even though Jennet had planned this, she still panicked when she realized she didn't know up from down anymore. She began flailing her arms and legs about, not sure which way she was trying to go, only certain that she had to go somewhere. Her chest began to hurt, her lungs crying out for air, which only made her thrash about more wildly.
Then her head broke through the surface of the river. Jennet gasped and blinked her eyes, trying to clear them. "Bess!" She slipped under again, but this time she knew which way was up. Kicking as hard as she could, she managed to fight her way back to the surface. "Bess!"
Hands caught hold of her leg and Jennet only had time enough to realize it was the apothecary before they both sank. She pried at his hands and he let go so he could grab her around the waist. He seemed more intent on dragging himself upward than on pulling her down, but either way he was going to kill her. Jennet squirmed around within his grip and managed to get a leg between her body and his. She planted her foot on his stomach and kicked with all her might.
He gasped out a stream of air bubbles and loosened his hold just enough for her to tear herself free. Then he went very still and began sinking even deeper into the current. Dying. Dead.
As Jennet stared at the apothecary, shocked, she finally realized that the river was speaking to her – it must had been trying to get her to listen ever since the moment she fell in – warning her that the current had dragged her down too far. She was already halfway to the riverbed and still firmly caught in its grip. There was no hope of fighting her way back to the surface; she was going to die just like the apothecary.
What about Bess? Jennet begged the river. She wasn't sure if she minded dying or not, but Bess was another matter entirely. Please, not Bess. Save Bess!
Nothing. This was far worse than when the river had refused to speak to her about Kensal. Now the Thames didn't even respond – not a yes, or a no, just a long, drawn out silence that told her absolutely nothing. It was as if she were completely alone, even though she was surrounded by its cold, dark waters.
Jennet didn't understand what she'd done wrong and she couldn't concentrate enough to figure it out. Her lungs burned and she could feel herself swallowing again and again, instinctively trying to gulp down air, though she managed to keep her mouth shut. Her limbs refused to cooperate, to move at all, and the current kept dragging her deeper and deeper. She was dead, her body just didn't know it yet.
So she did the only thing left to her – she opened herself up to the river, with no reservations, surrendering completely.
Your will be done. Take me – I am yours.
Drowning really hurt.
Jennet clung to that truth because it was the only thing that made sense in the madness that followed.
The current around her went completely still. If Jennet had possessed the strength to move, she might have been able to fight her way back to the surface, but it was far too late for that.
A wall of water crashed into her, as hard as any wall of stone. Jennet gasped, swallowed water, and choked.
Then she was flying – or maybe falling, because water seemed to be raining down all around her. Jennet hit mud, face-first, but had no time to wonder about it. She was too busy throwing up what felt like half of the Thames to wonder about much of anything.
Eventually she began to notice other things, besides the pain. Water lapped up around her legs. The mud beneath her was cold and she had started shivering. Then Jennet heard bare feet slapping against stone. Someone was weeping. Warm hands grabbed hold of her arm, tugging at her, dragging her away from the river that had nearly killed her and then saved her instead.
Jennet opened her eyes and saw Bess. Her body was clumsy and uncooperative, but she still managed to throw her arms around the younger girl and hugged her as tightly as she could. "You're alive!"
"Of course I'm alive," Bess said. "I held on to the boat!"
Jennet couldn't help laughing, which set off another round of spewing up river water. Bess held her and rubbed her back until she was finished.
Then Jennet tried to get to her feet and nearly fell over before Bess could catch her. "Thank you."
Bess slung her arm around Jennet's waist, propping her upright. "You take care of us, we take care of you. That's how a crew works."
Kensal! "The medicine-"
"We can go back to the shop," Bess said. "I figured it out – the watch doesn't pay any attention to what goes on away from the main streets, not unless someone makes a fuss."
Something in Jennet relaxed then, as she realized the danger was finally over. Well and truly over. Deep down inside, she knew that even Kensal would be all right. Because not even a sparrow fell without the Lord willing it to be so, much less a mudlark.
And besides that, she saw absolutely nothing wrong with looting the shop of a man who'd nearly killed her. She'd have no trouble paying off her debt to the barber-surgeon, and there would be enough left over for her entire crew to feast like kings.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.