An Excerpt from Tea and Empathy

Elwyn Howell was certain she didn’t have long to live, which meant she needed to find a good place to die. Her ability to keep walking was likely to give out long before she breathed her last, and while she still had the strength to walk she felt she should use it to find a proper place to spend her final moments. If she kept going until she fell, she might find herself in a spot that was entirely unsuitable.

Not here, she thought, surveying her present surroundings. The trees were spindly, so she’d be left exposed to the sun and sky. She wanted to be able to see the sky as she died, but she didn’t want to feel she was wilting under the sun. So, she kept walking.

Not here, either. This spot was too shadowy. She wouldn’t be able to tell when the darkness closed in. There was no point in feeling like she was dead before she actually was.

Definitely not here. The masses of tree roots and stones would make for an uncomfortable place to lie. She didn’t want to spend her final moments in misery.

This spot might do. It was shaded, but the sky was visible through the leaves, and the ground was nice and mossy. But it was on the side of the road, where anyone traveling by could see her. Her body would surely be robbed before it was even cold. They’d discover the silk shift—her one last bit of luxury from her old life—and assume that meant there would be other treasures on her, and then there was no telling what indignities her body would suffer as the robbers searched for something that didn’t exist. Not that she’d be there to experience any indignities, but she didn’t have to abandon her standards merely because she was dead.

That meant anywhere along the main road was simply unacceptable. She’d turn on the next byway she came across. Then she might find a private spot where she could die in comfort and remain unmolested except by the creatures of the forest. She wasn’t sure why, but there seemed to be less indignity in being returned to nature by natural forces than in being pawed at by people looking to take her few remaining possessions.

She wasn’t sure how much longer it took before the road crossed a lane, but she was still on her feet and moving, so it couldn’t have been too long. This looked like exactly what she needed. There was no sign indicating where the lane went, and the forest was closing in on it, so it didn’t appear as though anyone was bothering to keep it open. She turned and soon felt like she was being absorbed into the womb of the forest. Yes, this was more like it. She was surrounded by trees, with hardly any sign other than the track she followed that any human had ever passed this way. Birds sang, and the leaves rustled gently overhead in the breeze. It was lovely enough to make her wish she could stay longer.

She came to a low stone bridge over a brook and paused at its crest. The spot just past the bridge was exactly what she was looking for—a good mix of trees and sun, a cushion of moss, and the gentle babbling of the brook. She could stop there and allow herself to drift away.

There was just one problem: She didn’t actually want to die. She had simply run out of the resources she needed to continue to live. She’d used the last of her money and had sold anything of value other than the silk shift and a necklace she didn’t dare sell because it would reveal her identity and whereabouts, if she wasn’t accused of being a thief merely for having it. She hadn’t slept indoors for more than a month, as she prioritized buying food over having shelter. Now she could afford neither. She hadn’t eaten in two days, and her body couldn’t continue to function much longer. The sort of food she could forage at this time of year wouldn’t do much to sustain her, and she didn’t have the skills or strength to do odd jobs that might earn a crust of bread or piece of cheese.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. She did have skills, valuable ones that had not only earned her bread, but also a suite of rooms in a palace and luxurious furnishings. At the very least, she could earn meals and shelter, but she didn’t dare use those skills. She didn’t trust them anymore, and even if she tried, they might draw attention that could lead to her being arrested for murder, and she still wasn’t certain that she wasn’t guilty. Not that it mattered, since the people who would rule on her fate had already decided.

So, should she stop and give up at this perfect spot or keep going and risk falling in an entirely unsuitable place—or perhaps find a way to survive? A bridge like this meant there must be some sort of civilization ahead, and maybe she could stoop to begging. She hadn’t sunk that low yet. It might buy her more time, but would that merely be prolonging the inevitable? Without actually consciously deciding, she resumed walking down the lane.

When she rounded a curve in the lane, she emerged from the tunnel of trees and gasped at the sight that unfolded ahead of her. Hills formed a cup-like valley, and in that valley nestled a village. Cottages built from honey-colored stone lined the sides of the lane, the late-afternoon sun casting the whole scene with a golden glow. It drew her in; even without realizing, she walked more briskly, eager to reach the village.

The first cottage she passed, on the very edge of the woods, took her back to her youth, where she’d begun her training. It was a two-story cottage of golden stone with mullioned front windows and a tall thatched roof with dormer windows emerging from it. It stood just far enough back from the road to have a front garden that was a wild riot of plants, completely untamed. The cottage itself appeared to be sound, but she couldn’t imagine anyone would live there and leave the garden that untended. They’d have to fight their way through the overgrown shrubbery down the front walk to reach the door. Every fiber of her being called out to her to tend to that garden, but she forced herself to keep going.

The next row of cottages she passed after crossing a bridge snuggled together, and soon she was in the village proper, with unbroken lines of cottages lining both sides of the lane. She didn’t see another person. Was the village abandoned—or worse? Vines ran amok, almost entirely covering some of the buildings. Some of the windows were broken, if they still had glass, and some looked like open wounds. Shutters sagged on hinges, with peeling paint. Where there were plants and flowers, they were overgrown, coming out into the lane. She was beginning to think that the village had been abandoned for years when she saw lights in a window ahead, the warm glow and flicker of fire and candlelight speaking of home and comfort. The sight tugged at her heart, filling her with a longing so strong it made her want to weep.

The lane led to a triangular market area in the heart of the village, with the lane veering toward the right and a smaller lane peeling off to the left. She assumed that lane wound its way up the hill toward the castle that loomed over the village. She could see a couple of turrets and chimneypots peeking above the trees at the top of the hill. She was still the only person out and about, which felt eerie. She shivered and wrapped her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

A building that looked like an inn stood across the market from her, but no lights shone in its windows. Not that she had the money for a room or a meal. There was a bakery, but its windows were shuttered. Its sign was freshly painted, so it appeared to be in operation, but no light came from the window above it, so she couldn’t knock and ask for any day-old bread. She walked around a little more, trying to work up the nerve to knock on the door at one of the homes with light showing through the windows and beg for food.

A glimpse of herself in a dark window changed her mind. She looked utterly terrifying. She’d slam the door in her own face, so she couldn’t blame anyone else for doing so. She was filthy and ragged. Perhaps if she could find a place to rest and wash up, in the morning she could approach the townspeople.

That cottage, she thought. If it was truly abandoned, she could rest there, out of the elements. It stood on the shore of the brook, so she’d be able to get water to wash, and there might be something edible in that overgrown garden. She turned and headed back the way she’d come.

When she reached the cottage, the front door stood ajar. It hadn’t been open when she’d passed earlier, had it? Or had she merely not noticed the door behind the wild garden? Curious, she opened the gate and made her way down the front walk, pushing aside the overgrown plants. They weren’t fully leafed out yet, but they hadn’t been cut back the previous winter, so it was mostly a tangle of dead stalks and vines, with small bits of green peeking from underneath.

At the door, she knocked and called out. The door swung fully open at her knock, but there was no response to her call. The front room was empty. She stepped inside and saw a counter at the far left corner with shelves behind it. This must have been a shop of some kind. A small table with two wooden chairs by it sat in front of the window near the counter. The tops of the walls had been painted with a border of vines and flowers, with the occasional heart. Although the room appeared abandoned, it was immaculate, without a speck of dust. The windowpanes were crystal clear and there wasn’t a cobweb in sight. Perhaps the business was no longer in operation but someone still lived in the cottage.

Which meant she shouldn’t intrude. She was turning to leave when she saw that the door at the rear of the front room also stood ajar, which she could have sworn wasn’t the case when she first entered. She must not have noticed. She knocked on the door and called out again. Again, there was no response. Her knock pushed the door open into a hallway. A doorway on one side of the hallway revealed a room that must have served as a parlor or sitting room, though it held only a chair and a small table that were situated in front of the cold fireplace. Bookcases lined the walls of the room, but they held only a couple of books. There were lace curtains at the window, and more of that decorative painting circled the tops of the walls. More hearts and flowers had been painted on the ceiling, and the rug in front of the chair was in shades of rose and pink, matching the painted hearts and flowers.

On the other side of the hall was a kitchen that took her straight back to her childhood. It was exactly like Mother Alis’s kitchen in her cottage, with a great hearth, a bread oven set into the wall beside it, and a heavy table in the middle of the room. The only difference was the pump at the sink—a real luxury. She could almost smell the bread baking and the herbal preparations brewing as she traveled back in her memory. Perhaps none of her woes would have occurred if she’d been satisfied with that simple life, if she’d never left the cottage in the woods.

But no, Mother Alis had been the one to send her away, saying there was far more good she could do with her talents elsewhere. Leaving hadn’t been her decision. But she had later chosen a different kind of life than a humble cottage.

The aroma of something cooking wasn’t entirely in her memory, she realized. It wasn’t bread she smelled. It was something stewing in the pot hanging on the hook over the fire. Someone was here, after all. She turned and hurried toward the front door, hoping she could get away before the cottage’s residents noticed her presence. It was hard to leave that cozy kitchen and cooking food, but explaining her trespass would be even worse.

The door to the front room slammed shut before she could reach it. Elwyn understood then, and panic rose within her. This cottage didn’t just remind her of her youth. It was another of the same kind. That meant this was the last place Elwyn wanted to be. This was worse than being caught by the residents.

She raced down the hall to the back door, but she couldn’t get it to open. “Let me out of here!” she demanded as she pulled on the doorknob. “I’m not what you think I am. I can’t be. I don’t belong here.”

The scent of the stew came wafting out of the kitchen toward her, making her stomach growl.

“That’s not fair,” she said, sagging wearily against the door. The truth was, she didn’t have it in her to go anywhere else, even if she could get out of the cottage. There was food here, and she was clearly wanted, if not a prisoner. “Very well,” she said with a sigh. “One night.” A meal and a night’s sleep under a roof, and then she could see about finding someplace more suitable or moving on. She couldn’t stay, since a cottage like this came with obligations she couldn’t fulfill.

Resigned, she returned to the kitchen and set her bag down. She went to check the stew, but the spoon moved away from her. “Very well,” she said. “I’ll leave it to you. I’ll explore.” Mother Alis had had such a helper, and it was equally territorial about cooking.

She went back out to the hallway and found the door to the staircase. The stairs were steep and narrow, but there was a window at the top of the stairs that lit the way with the glow of the setting sun. There were two spacious rooms on the upper floor. One held a jumble of furniture and other objects, but the other held a bed dressed with what appeared to be fresh linens. She could smell a hint of lavender. Lace curtains hung at the windows, and still more floral designs had been painted on the walls. No clothes hung on the hooks on the wall and the chest at the foot of the bed held only a few linens. If anyone lived in this house, they had fewer possessions than she had, aside from the house itself and the furniture. The house’s helper must have been in desperate need of company. No wonder it didn’t want to let her go.

When she got back downstairs, she went to the back door and said, “I’m not fleeing. I give you my word. I just want to look at the garden. I might be able to bring in some herbs or greens.” She gestured toward her bag in the kitchen, “I’m leaving everything I own. I won’t go anywhere without my belongings.” After a long pause, the door opened, and she stepped out to find the garden of her dreams. Like the front garden, it had been badly neglected, with parts of it dead and other parts overgrown. If the helper was like the one at Mother Alis’s cottage, its powers were limited to the house itself. The brook ran alongside one side of the garden. There was a well, a large shed, and a privy behind it. A small orchard filled the back of the garden.

She availed herself of the privy, where she was fully convinced that no one had lived in this house in a very long time, as there was no odor at all. The shed turned out to be a workroom. Bundles of dried herbs hung from the rafters, and there were plenty of empty bottles and jars. Without the helper to keep things tidy, the shed was dusty and filled with cobwebs. Elwyn took some dried thyme and rosemary from the hanging bunches to help season the stew, and she found some parsley and a few young leaves of greens on her way back to the cottage that she thought would make a nice salad.

Back in the cottage, she left her bounty on the kitchen table, but before she could move to prepare a salad, a brisk wind rose to nudge her out of the kitchen and across the hall. There she found that the fire in the sitting room had been lit and a tub sat in front of the fire, steam rising from it. A few dried flower petals floated on top of the water. She got the hint that she needed to wash before dinner. She had to agree. She was filthy from the road and probably smelled terrible. She peeled off her clothes, stepped into the tub, and sank under the water, letting it cover her hair. When she couldn’t hold her breath any longer, she emerged, leaving only her head above the water.

She scrubbed her hair and body with the soap that had been left by the tub. It was an old, dry bar, but it smelled of lavender. The former resident of this house must have made it. She wondered again what had happened to that person—to this village. It didn’t look like there had been any sort of natural disaster. The buildings were all intact, if somewhat neglected. A plague, perhaps? But the lack of belongings in the house suggested that someone had moved out and taken everything that could be easily moved. If the resident had died and her belongings had been looted, the house would probably look different, unless the helper had tidied up in the aftermath. But she doubted the helper would have abided the looting.

When her skin began to shrivel, she reluctantly emerged from the bath and dried herself on the soft towel that had been left beside the tub. Then she discovered that her clothes had been cleaned and laid out on the chair. Her prized silk shift was white once more, and it was sheer heaven to slide it over her newly cleaned body. Her woolen dress smelled fresh.

She took the wooden comb from her pack and combed the snarls out of her wet hair, leaving it loose to dry. Instead of putting on her stockings and boots, she took the pair of cloth slippers from her pack and put them on.

Feeling like a new woman, she left the sitting room and crossed the hall to the kitchen, where the table had been set as though for an honored guest. A cloth had been laid, and candles on tall stands burned in the middle of the table. Places had been set at either end of the table, with bowls, plates, cutlery, and cups, though only one of the bowls had been filled with stew. A sprig of parsley garnished the stew, and a salad had been arranged on a plate. “This looks wonderful,” she said to the invisible helper as the chair in front of the bowl scooted out for her. She took a seat and wondered if she should wait. The helper had apparently set a place for itself, even if it wasn’t going to actually eat. When the spoon at the other setting rose, she took that as her cue.

It took all her self-control not to wolf down the stew like a starving animal, although that’s what she was. Not only did she not want to appear rude, but she knew that her empty stomach would rebel if she filled it too full or too quickly. She took careful spoonfuls, forcing herself to chew thoroughly. The lentils must have been old because they were chewier than they should have been, but she knew the helper had done as well as it could with what was available in the house. “Mmm, delicious,” she said. The cup across the table rose, as if in a toast. She raised her own in response.

Maybe by providing an evening of companionship, she could persuade the helper to let her leave. Then again, it wouldn’t be so bad to rest awhile before resuming her journey. If she did, she’d need to find more food, but she had no means for buying more food. With a sigh, she realized that she might have a night or two of comfort here, but her problems hadn’t been solved. She wasn’t going to die immediately, but she still didn’t know how she was going to live.