‘What the hell are you playing at?’ Vulpy, the owner of the boots, sounded out of breath as well as furious. Brenan lifted his head to answer and choked instead.
They pounded the water out of him, stripped off his clothes and gave him a blanket. Brenan sat beside their fire and accepted a cup of firewater without thanks. Vulpy sat down beside him, too close, and said,
‘Listen, you! I promised to deliver you alive but nobody said anything about treating you soft. Any more trouble and I’ll knock you out. We can carry you the rest of the way.’
Brenan sipped his drink, which tasted of rotten turnips but stopped his teeth from chattering. He glanced at the other kidnapper, Cronk, who looked sour enough for the threat to be a real one.
‘Tell me who wants me,’ Brenan said. ‘Then maybe I’ll come quietly.’
‘Or we can buy a donkey,’ Vulpy said. ‘Wrap you in a sack and put you on a donkey’s back. We wouldn’t have to hit you more than three times a day, if we do it right.’
‘Donkeys are hard work,’ Cronk said. ‘We might as well tell him.’
Vulpy grunted his impatience.
‘Sirith of Astrolabe House. She says she’s your sister.’
‘You’re taking me back to Michindrum?’ Brenan had half expected that answer but even so he felt the shock under his river-bruised skin. ‘Why now, after so many years?’
‘We don’t ask for reasons,’ Vulpy said.
‘How much is she paying you?’
‘More than you can afford.’ Vulpy stood up. No use arguing about the money, Brenan thought. After seven years of wandering, he had plenty of experience in talking himself out of trouble as well as into it but not much else to offer. If they had made any inquiries about him, they would know that. But he was not ready to give in yet.
‘How often have you been to Michindrum?’ he asked.
The kidnappers looked at one another.
‘Never,’ Cronk said. ‘Our agent arranged the matter.’
‘But you’ve heard about the town? You’ve taken precautions, no doubt.’
They had heard a little, like everyone else in the land, and were not sure how much to believe. The pause before they answered told him as much. Vulpy rose to his feet and circled round the fire.
‘What are you talking about?’
Brenan took another gulp of the horrible drink.
‘Michindrum’s a dangerous place for strangers.’
Cronk said, ‘I’ve met men from your town, here and there. Just like folk from anywhere else, they were.’
‘Oh, it’s not the men you need to worry about. Or even the women.’
‘Then what?’ Cronk did his best to sound scornful. Brenan smiled at him.
‘You’ll see handsome buildings in Michindrum: houses more delightful than anywhere else in the world; a town hall a King would be proud to live in, taverns, schools and theatres…. Just be very careful before you walk through their doors, especially if a place seems empty.’
‘You’re wasting our time.’ Vulpy kicked at the stones round the fire. ‘Put your clothes back on. You can dry off as we go.’
Brenan did not move.
‘Of course it’s not a bad life, being the pet of a Michindrum house. You can’t leave and you’ll be lonely when everyone else goes out, especially in one of the grand buildings, unless the indweller takes more than one pet. In which case, you are stuck with one another and that can be tricky. Loneliness might be easier.’
‘Stop this gibberish,’ Vulpy said but Cronk asked,
‘What’s an indweller?’
‘The presence that inhabit a truehouse.’ Brenan tossed the rest of his drink on the fire and stood up. The wind cut at his skin as soon as he moved and he dragged on his damp clothes as fast as he could. But he kept talking. ‘Each one is different but nobody has ever got away from one after it has taken a fancy to them.’
‘Are you saying that all the houses are haunted in your town?’ Vulpy spoke with contempt.
‘If they were, you might have a hope of getting rid of the ghosts. In Michindrum, the buildings themselves come alive.’ Brenan pushed his sore feet into his boots and grunted at the pain. ‘I’m ready,’ he said.
Cronk stood up to put out the fire.
‘But they can’t touch us if we stay out of doors, right?’
‘Right. Although Michindrum hospitality can be hard to refuse.’ Brenan let Vulpy prod him towards the road and then paused. ‘Maybe you should ask for danger money. We could stop in the next village while you send a message.’
Cronk lifted his head like a fox scenting prey. But Vulpy gave Brenan another push.
‘Save your breath,’ he growled.
Even after seven years, Brenan recognised the Old Oak Inn before Michindrum town came into view in the valley below. He stopped in the middle of the road. He was stiff and the chill of the river water had settled into his bones. His throat was hoarse from the stories he had told about the truehouses. They had made Cronk nervous but Vulpy had merely threatened to gag Brenan, though he had not carried out the threat so far.
‘You don’t want to enter Michindrum after dark,’ Brenan said. If he could gain more time, he might still find a way of escaping. ‘Why not stop the night here and go on in the morning?’
If he had not been so tired, he might have dodged Vulpy’s blow. As it was, he felt the swing of the saddlebag through the air just in time to turn and see it crash towards him. It hit the side of his head and he blacked out.
Before he was properly awake, Brenan struggled to stand upright, with his eyes closed. The pain in his head and the bile in his throat forced him back onto the bed. He put his head in his hands and swallowed hard. He did not need to look to know where he was. The inside of a truehouse felt different from anywhere he had visited on his travels. Despite his nausea, the air stroked his skin and steadied his breathing, as though to the tune of inaudible music. Each house had its own rhythm and this was one Brenan remembered. He began to curse aloud, in a whisper since he was not strong enough to shout. A mug bumped against his hands and his sister’s voice said,
‘Drink this. I’ll wait for you in the other room.’
The bitter tea tasted of herbs Brenan did not recognise but it helped. Sirith had provided a pitcher of hot water for washing, as well as clean clothes for him to change into. He did not hurry. He scrubbed his nails and dragged a comb through his hair, though the tug on his sore head nearly made him sick again. Eventually he was as ready as he would ever be and opened the door to the next room.
He caught Sirith in an acrobat’s pose, her head and hands bent back to touch the floor. She came smoothly upright as he walked in, unflustered by his arrival. Maybe she could hear the music of the house with her ears as well as her body, though Brenan was not sure of that. She was smaller than he remembered and more graceful.
‘You look well, he said. ‘Being a house pet suits you.’
‘And you look dreadful.’ The tilt of her head and the sharpness in her glance were more familiar.
‘Your thugs saw to that,’ Brenan said.
‘You shouldn’t have scared them.’ Sirith went to sit at a table by the window and beckoned Brenan to a chair opposite her. ‘They were supposed to bring you here on your own feet, instead of sending me a message to collect you from the inn.’
‘I didn’t want to come here at all.’ Brenan accepted another mug of the bitter tea but shook his head at a plate of bread and cheese. ‘What gave you the right to drag me home like a runaway horse?’
‘We need you here,’ Sirith said. ‘You won’t answer letters or speak to our messengers. What else could I do?’
‘Need me for what?’
‘You know.’ Sirith’s voice was calm but her eyes narrowed. She paused but when Brenan did not speak, she said, ‘Thorncandle House.’
‘No!’ Brenan pushed the mug away. ‘I will not.’
‘The house has waited for you all these years.’
‘Why do you think I ran away?’
‘To avoid watching while Mother died,’ Sirith said. ‘I might have come with you if I could.’
Brenan had fought with their mother since he was small, which had not made it any easier to be with her while her strength faded. Their father had died in a hunting accident years before. And there had been other people to sustain Sirith in her vigil, her husband and plenty of cousins.
‘You were already caught. I wasn’t. But Uncle Fabian was older than Mother. I left before he began to fail too.’
‘You loved Thorncandle.’ Sirith frowned at him. ‘It was your favourite place to visit when we were small.’
‘I didn’t understand then.’
‘You weren’t that small. You must have felt the liking at Thorncandle.’
The truehouses did not always pick their pets from the same families but often they did. Children were encouraged to visit, to give the houses as wide a choice as possible. Brenan had felt a welcome at his uncle’s house unlike anywhere else and had grown up with the knowledge of what that meant. Some day, maybe before his uncle died, maybe later, Thorncandle would claim him for its own. He had relished the prospect until he had had a fight with his cousin, Diggory.
‘Who wants to be tied to this place anyhow?’ Diggory had said. ‘I’ll cross the mountains and sail the seas and have lovers in fifty different towns, if I choose.’
‘Only if you pay them,’ Brenan had answered and Diggory had knocked him down. Brenan had tried to put Diggory’s words out of his mind. For most people in Michindrum, the honour of being adopted by a truehouse was more than compensation for the drawbacks. Although you could not go outside the grounds, the marvel of the house would flourish and you with it, in a partnership that happened nowhere else. But Brenan found himself longing for a chance to roam the world before he settled down. And once he had run away, he had never wanted to come back.
He shook his head at Sirith.
‘There’s plenty of others. Let the cousins have their turn.’
‘Thorncandle isn’t interested.’ Sirith’s face did not show her feelings the way it used to but her voice darkened as she turned away from Brenan to stare out of the window.
‘Invite in the rest of the town. Michindrum’s full of folk who would fight over a chance at Thorncandle.’
‘We did.’ Sirith opened and shut her hands along the table top, like a cat flexing its claws. ‘When you didn’t answer our messages, everyone in the family without a bond of their own went for a try-out. The house didn’t take to any of them, not even the little children.’ Sirith scowled at Brenan. ‘By that time, Thorncandle was the sight of the neighbourhood, black and sour from the chimneypots down. So we couldn’t argue when the Council told us to throw open the doors.’
‘What went wrong?’
Sirith shook her head.
‘Plenty of people came. Thorncandle rejected them all.’
‘Try again.’ Brenan felt sick.
‘We haven’t stopped trying. The house has been open to anyone who dares to enter for three years now.’
‘Dares to enter?’
‘You remember Piers, the Bridgemaster’s son? He lost an eye to a splinter of wood in Thorncandle when a table blew itself apart in his face. These days nobody can go inside without getting hurt and people grow afraid even to walk past. That’s why the Council decided we had to fetch you back.’
‘The Council paid to kidnap me?’ Brenan did not believe it, even before Sirith’s grimace answered him. ‘No,’ he said, ‘they blackmailed the family. Did they threaten to stop Tharso’s invitation to the New Year Feasts?’
Tharso, Sirith’s husband came into the room to stand behind her chair.
‘To exclude the family from both our Council seats,’ he said. ‘And to ban the children from school.’
Hard to take care of trade without a seat on the Council; hard for the children to grow up in isolation. Brenan could not have stood up against such pressure.
‘I might have been dead. Couldn’t you have told them I was dead?’
‘I gave orders to find the body and dig it up if it came to that,’ Sirith said. ‘At least we could have shown the house what had happened to you.’
‘But this is better,’ Tharso said. Other men entered the room as he spoke, men with familiar faces, some heavier than he remembered, greyer or leaner. He could not be sure which cousin was which but he did not care.
Sirith said, ‘Thorncandle wants you. You’ll have a better life there than if you keep on rattling round the world.’
‘How would you know?’
‘We’ll drag you there if we have to,’ Tharso said. He too had changed while Brenan had been away. Plump and round-faced, with a mouth turned up at the corners, he no longer looked like a boy. His eyes were sombre and his shoulders stiff with determination. It hardly mattered: Brenan could not hope to fight all the cousins. He felt a sudden, sharp regret for all his thrashing around to escape from the kidnappers. If he had not wasted so much effort then, he might have been strong enough to make a break for it now. As it was, he was too ill and exhausted to try.
‘At least give me some breakfast first,’ he said.
Outside the walls of Thorncandle House, Brenan came to a halt, despite the grip on his arms. Once he stepped through, his choices would be at an end. He opened his mouth to try one last argument and then was distracted by the sight through the front gate. Dead roses filled the front garden, bare, black stems with a few shrivelled leaves and fewer blooms, blighted and grey. Between the roses, the earth was speckled with fungus and a greenish lichen spread over the path to the front door.
‘You could have cleaned up the garden,’ Brenan said.
‘We tried,’ Tharso answered. ‘The blight returns faster than we can work.’
He should have expected this from what Sirith had told him but he had not paid enough attention. Bitter as he was at being dragged here, the house was worse, grimmer and angrier than his darkest moods. Nobody could expect him to face this. He looked round at the cousins and saw that they were as frightened as he was. But their hands tightened on his shoulders until he walked through the gate. They kept close beside him until he reached the front door, which opened at a push. He turned to look at them and the others further back.
‘I’m here now,’ he said. ‘You can all go and meddle in someone else’s troubles.’
The cousins turned to go. But Tharso said,
‘You might need help. I promised Sirith I’d look after you.’
Inside was cold and stormy. Brenan felt as though he had plunged into another river as winds slammed into him from all sides. They cut his ears and stung his eyes. But this time his hands were free. He could not see much but he remembered the layout of the hall. He pulled his jacket up to shield his head and pushed his way to the underhang of the stair, Tharso at his shoulder. Brenan crouched down, with his back against the wall. He felt shudders in the wooden panels behind him and heard the grinding of stone against stone, deep in the bones of the house.
‘I’m here,’ he called aloud. ‘I’ve come back.’
The wind snatched the words from his mouth and swallowed them. He remembered the presence of the indweller in this house, huge and interested in him. It had never spoken to him exactly but it had let him feel its amusement and pleasure in his company. He could not feel it now.
He crawled back into the middle of the hall and shouted again.
‘Remember me? Brenan, Fabian’s sister’s son.’
The winds slackened briefly and then funnelled down to knock him flat. He heard Tharso grunt beside him. Brenan stretched out at full length and put his ear to the floor. There were red tiles here, stamped with designs of trees and candles. They were hidden now under a thick, clotted grime, which stank of fish bones, manure and blood. The wind snarled in the corners and hurled broken pots and coils of rubbish at Brenan’s head.
If Thorncandle’s indweller would not acknowledge him, maybe he could get away after all. The cousins might not be easy to convince but if he could fight his way to the back gate, he could slip out before anyone realised he was gone.
‘Stay here,’ he said to Tharso.
He set off at a stooping run, put his shoulder to the nearest wall and found the passage that led to the kitchen. In the narrower space, the winds eased, though their whine hurt Brenan’s ears. He reached the kitchen, where jars and pots flew at his face and half a shelf banged into his elbow but he kept going.
The back garden was full of thorns, vicious black tangles of a bush Brenan had never seen before. By the time he reached the gate, his clothes were torn and blood ran from his face and hands. More thorns grew over the gate. Brenan wished for the dagger the kidnappers had taken from him, although it might not have helped much against the tough stems. He ripped up the rags of his shirt sleeves to bandage his hands and began to climb.
He expected to be tossed back inside the garden or dragged into the midst of the thorns. Instead, he found his footing, one step above another, until he stood balanced across the top of the gate. He paused to catch his breath. There was no wind out here. When he looked back, the house was no more than a dark shadow in the midst of a dense, yellow fog. It might have been a mile away. Even now, Brenan could feel no touch of the indweller’s presence.
He had watched his sister test the limits of her reach in the garden of Astrolabe House, years ago. She had run to the end of the garden and giant hands had risen up to hold onto her ankles. She had tried to climb the garden wall and the stones had thrown her down. It had been a game for Sirith, who was content to stay where she was, and Astrolabe had taken care not to hurt her. But Brenan had known ever since that any truehouse could hold him prisoner within its boundaries. If Thorncandle still wanted him, he would not have reached this far.
If he ran away now, Sirith would never forgive him. As for Thorncandle, nobody else would dare enter. The place would be desolate, a dark hole in the middle of Michindrum’s prosperity. And he would be free to wander but never to come home. What would he do that would be more worthwhile than the chance he had thrown away here? He remembered the presence he had once known within this house. He had enjoyed his encounters with the indweller, with its intelligence and strangeness, with the Thorncandleness of it. If they were left empty for long, truehouses were said to be a danger to themselves, liable to catch fire or blow themselves apart.
Brenan might have remained on his perch for another seven years, unwilling to stay, reluctant to leave, if a branch of thorns had not swung up towards him, to knock him out into the street. Before he knew what he meant to do, he ducked underneath and jumped back inside the garden.
‘Brenan, where are you?’ it was Tharso’s voice.
‘Coming.’ The thorns were fiercer in this direction but Brenan shielded his face with his arm and struggled on. ‘Help me back inside.’
Tharso grabbed his shoulder, with anger as well as determination.
‘Why were you out there?’
‘I went to investigate,’ Brenan said, which was true in its way. He fell through the kitchen door and stopped. Tharso said something else but Brenan did not listen. He could sense the indweller’s presence now and the weight of it pushed him to his knees.
The desolation was worse than any he had known, a cold misery that crashed over him in wave after wave. At first he expected to drown and welcomed the chance of an end to the pain. But he endured. He tried to reach out to the indweller to show that he understood, that he was sorry for what he had done. But the only response was a twitch of impatience and withdrawal.
‘All right,’ Brenan said aloud. ‘All right, I shouldn’t have gone. But I’ve learned a lot in the places I visited. I know where to send for the finest carpets for your floors. And mirrors for the walls, carved with bees and swallows. You’d like those.’
This time the response was anger and a touch of contempt. But the indweller craved more words, Brenan felt that too. It had missed the movement of people in the house, clumsy or graceful, but it had missed their talk even more.
‘Remember the first time I came here,’ Brenan said. ‘I was three years old and I climbed onto the canopy of one of the four poster beds to hide while everyone searched for me. The women were furious but Uncle Fabian knew I was safe with you. Remember the cushion dances at New Year parties when the prettiest girls chose me for their partners. I always wondered if that was your doing.’
He talked until he was hoarse. His throat dried out and his lips ached but slowly he felt the indweller settle into an uneasy calm. When Brenan became conscious of himself for the first time in hours, he was hunched down on the floor. His arms were wrapped round his head and his eyes were shut. He drew one silent breath and then another, before he sat up and looked around.
The winds had gone. The house was quiet and cool. Smashed dishes lay on the kitchen floor, in a muddle of straw and broken wood, in front of a table tipped up on its side. But everything was almost clean and smelled of cinnamon.
Tharso sat against the opposite wall, wild-eyed and pale.
‘Have you finished?’ he whispered.
‘Just begun.’ Brenan could hardly shape the words. ‘Leave me alone to make my peace with the house.’
©August 2015 Sandra Unerman
Sandra Unerman has written fantasy for many years and has recently had stories published in Frostfire Worlds and in Worms, an anthology by Knightwatch Press. She lives in London and is a member of the Clockhouse Writers’ Group.