A short story examining the relationship between Halina and Wladek Piech and providing an alternative angle on the events of Ludlin. It’s my entry into the November writing challenge from the /r/fantasywriters subreddit (approx 2,990 words, including the title). The title comes from a Polish idiom meaning ‘the middle of nowhere’ – thanks to Coyote’s Own on the RPG.net forum for this information. The brief for the challenge is ‘Tragedy without Death’.
Where the Devil Says Goodnight
Wherever he was, Michal was not in the light.
Wladek had gone south to try to find him. There were definite impressions she had during one of her séances of a workhouse where he had been imprisoned after falling ill in the streets. He had been robbed – “skinned” as people put it, and probably abandoned there rather than killed. But she could get no indication of what might happen to him, or whether she was allowed to hope for his rescue or escape; not from spirit or the gods, at least. The words where the devil says goodnight lingered on her lips. It was a Salvat idiom referring to desolate places beyond human ken; one might say it of a remote village in the heart of the mountains where there were more wolves than people. The southern province of Brest, Halina thought, was also such a place; the people there with their different habits, their foreign language and this rough, chaotic city that Michal had chosen to live in rather than the stately and solid Imperial capital, Galistow, part of their own province, no less. But the spirits remained neutral, and guided shamans and priests of all nationalities.
The emphasis on the Devil, meanwhile, made even an experienced and well-read shaman like Halina tremble.
Usually serene and with a deeper understanding of human behaviour than many, she knew she was too emotionally attached to this problem to be able to dispense the wisdom with which she dealt with others’ problems. She had spoken with her sister-in-law, Grazina, whose son had been crippled by childhood meningitis; after years of resentment that Halina’s son had survived the same epidemic of the deadly disease unscathed, since Michal’s disappearance they had come closer together.
But that did not bring Michal home.
She was on her way to something forbidden. A shaman should not dabble in fortune-telling, but she could not detach herself enough not to read her own tea leaves under the pretence of draining her cup, or make head or tail of a hand of cards in secret. Her carriage was taking her down from the village of Kruczewo, where the Piech family seat was, into Panczewo, the nearest town. It clattered down a side-street, and stopped outside a shabby stone tenement, its grimy windows etched with the name ANTONIA KOLINSKA.
Beside the door, Halina could just about make out the word for witch. Still in mourning for Michal’s apparent death, she had come dressed plainly, with a black mantilla draped across her bonnet and shoulders for privacy. The lady of the manor did not normally consort with witches. Shamans and priests distanced themselves from active sorcery in the way that some village wisewomen and town practitioners did not. The gods directed magic and dispensed insight, not mortals. Yet some mortals defied this divine order and meddled in the occult.
She had good reason to be angry with the old woman. Kolinska had once frightened her son with a direct fortune about the Devil and Death at the Panczewo fair some years past, while he was still at the Galistow lyceum and had not gone south. Halina had expressed her disappointment in him – in fact, she had given him the slipper for disobeying her edict not to go to fortune tellers – and had tried to get Kolinska banned from the fair. Wladek had intervened to prevent her wrecking someone else’s livelihood because of a spooked pair of young men; Michal had gone with a friend and their fortunes had apparently got mixed up together, the prophecy useless.
And now she was at her mercy.
The house was small and rather dirty. Kolinska evidently made little money from her talents. Halina looked around until her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and rang the bell on the counter, holding the handle lightly as if it was red hot. The old woman entered the front room, and her face turned sour. “You’ve come to me, Madame Piech? To what do I owe the honour?”
Halina shook her head, gravely. “I was wrong, Antonia. Forgive me. He’s not in the light. Spirit tells me he is still alive, but I cannot find him.”
“We both agree your son has a destiny.”
Halina tried to hold back the thought that Kolinska had actually cursed her son; she knew better than many people that fortune-tellers merely told people their future, rather than forced them to undergo a fate of their choosing. “Destiny is a mountain. There are many paths up it. If Michal has gone for a reason, then I need to know it in order to put my mind at rest.”
“And what gives you the right to peace of mind?” Kolinska snapped. “What makes you so special?” She sat down at her old desk and unlocked a drawer in it, withdrawing some battered cards. “Draw one.”
Halina fumbled with her purse. “How much?”
“Your word of honour that you will cease slandering me to others and afford me some of the dignity you keep to yourself. Stop calling me a blasphemer because I do not subscribe to your narrow view of the Goddess’ will.”
“Minerva will determine our fates. She wove them Herself long before we were born, and she is the only one who knows exactly what will happen to Michal.”
“So why do you not take comfort from that?”
Halina swallowed and took a card, her hand trembling, and turned the card over. It was the Devil, an image of the ancient thunder-god Piorun dispensing justice. The interloper god. Everyone had different names for him, but he was the same entity to everyone, just like the four deities – mother, father, brother, sister – making up the holy family.
“Come on! I haven’t got all day! Another three cards.”
Halina turned over the Sorcerer, the Sundering, and the Angel.
“There we go. Fate has spoken. We see a tiny part of the Goddess’ tapestry. As I told your son and his friend when they saw me together, one will die and be reborn, one will die in battle, and one will be king of his own country – or Governor, as you will.” Contempt continued to drip from her voice, and Halina lowered her gaze to the cards. “But the Angel more clearly tells me what will happen to Michal within the space of a year or two. It’s not your place to interfere, but you need to seek out his saviour to truly put your mind at rest.”
“So this is where he becomes…” Halina’s voice cracked in trepidation. This was no clearer than her own séances. “The spirits told me he was ‘where the devil says goodnight’.”
Kolinska looked up at Halina but said nothing. She took her cards back, shuffled them, and replaced them in the drawer. “Your time is up. I can’t answer for spirits; you know I can’t. I hear them only fleetingly, which is why I use the cards to focus. I still can’t tell you whether Michal is the one that rules, or whether he is the one who dies.”
Halina whisked her mantilla over her face, which was already flushed, her throat tight and choking. She turned from Kolinska, taking her smelling salts out of her purse and taking a few deep breaths of hartshorn underneath the veil. She could feel the witch’s stare on the back of her neck. “Don’t come the innocent with me. I think you know the spirits better than that.”
She could feel a dull headache come on, the atmosphere in the room souring like milk on a summer’s day.
Eventually, Kolinska sighed. “I’m sorry for your loss,” the old woman said. Halina turned back round at the sound of a friendlier voice. The fortune-teller held out her hands, and the squire’s wife realised after a few seconds’ pause she was meant to take them. “They’ve put him out of reach of you and Pan Wladyslaw,” she said, seeming to concentrate all her energies. “It’s up to the Angel to make the next move. You can find your son in spirit but he hasn’t left this world. I promise you will see your son again. But for now you must wait for him. Whatever magic your son’s captor wields, it is too strong. He will simply turn it on others. That former wife of his…Madame Caroline, am I right? She is at his mercy.”
The séance seemed to drain the witch, and she sank back into her chair, rubbing her hands and arms, and blinking as if her eyes were sore. Halina knew that sorcerers found the use of magic stressful and often tiring, which she usually took as a sign they were doing things forbidden to mortals. But this afternoon, the old woman had put body and soul into giving her that information. She needed to rest. Halina made sure the old woman was comfortable before she left, and put a twenty-guilder note on the desk, which she believed must amount to a day’s takings.
It was worth every penny to know he would remain alive long enough for them to meet again. But her heart was still heavy.
The heavens opened as they left the Saunders’ mansion, after the party thrown in aid of the workhouse. Indeed, as Kolinska had told Halina, Seymour seemed to have charmed Caroline into obedience, arranging all sorts of things for her to deal with her grief. It seemed a fitting end to an excruciating evening. Pan Wladyslaw Piech – Wladek to his friends and relations – felt humiliated, and part of it was his own wife’s behaviour.
They sat in the carriage that was returning them to the hotel, Halina turned towards one window, Wladek towards the other. The roc feather on the crown of her enormous hat brushed his face, adding a comically unsavoury note to the miserable ride. Anger mixed with distress at being taken for a fool. He was not so poor at languages as they thought; to talk of a “Peak” within his earshot and expect him not to pick that one word out of their doggerel language as a name rather than a normal word was arrogance in the extreme. He believed they knew exactly who they had captive, and no doubt they were gloating over it. Halina had compounded it by asserting that it would be foolhardy to take the carriage to Lowe Road and invade the premises looking for his son. He could have got there and back before Seymour even realised where he was. His mind wandered. He had never seen Lowe Road and he saw himself running through the courtyard, through a dormitory full of bedraggled paupers, all skin and bone, to find someone who did not belong there. Could he really not have found his son amongst them? Was it really too dangerous?
With what Seymour could do with his magic, Halina had claimed, it was easy to imagine what contingency he had made for that scenario, including cold-blooded murder in front of people too intimidated to go to the militia.
But that his wife would not even let them try, nor confront the other two men and enlist their help in retrieving Michal. If they were blameless, then they would surely…
“Don’t fret, Wladek,” she said. “Your mind is polluting the air in here. Remember what Madame Kolinska said about the Angel. I think I know who he is. And Seymour has the devil’s powers in him.”
There was a time when she would not have graced that old witch with such a respectful honorific. She really had ensorcelled her, sapped her of her will to rescue her son.
“We’re almost there,” he grunted, noticing the lights from the hotel lanterns beginning to shine through the rainy night. They had stayed out here in Mereton, the least built-up of the southern districts of Ludlin, because Halina was afraid of going north of the river to the hotel in which Wladek had stayed in the summer. She had almost fainted at Pendlebury station when they arrived; it could have been put down to her having become accustomed to the wide open fields and forested hills and rivers of the Panczewo valley, but she had no problem with Galistow, where they had stayed the night between trains on the way south. “We’ll be out in the fresh air soon – or what passes for it.”
Their valet and lady’s maid had been discharged for the night. Neither of the Piechowie wished to keep their servants standing up late to receive them when they came home late. For a grand couple with servants enough to populate a whole village, it came naturally to neither to mistreat them. In fact, Ela Spiller did meet her mistress at the door and accompanied them to their room, but Wladek had to make do without his valet. It demonstrated how frustrated he was when he made a cold remark to Spiller on the way upstairs that her loyalty was greater than his. It was Halina’s turn to chide her husband for his poor temper when it had been he who had given Jendrek Marekowicz the night off. Spiller admitted that she had found herself still up when her master and mistress were announced by the hotel butler, and felt guilty for simply leaving them to their own devices. Marekowicz was fast asleep in their quarters, and no-one had troubled him.
As soon as they reached their suite, Wladek ripped off his clothes down to his shirtsleeves and then removed his trousers, revealing his long-johns. Halina was offended – he knew full well that he should not be so indecorous in front of a maidservant – but even so, she swallowed his effrontery with a glare and a sharp remark.
Spiller blushed and suggested her mistress go through to the other room in the suite, to give him some time alone. But Halina insisted that she wanted Wladek to calm down and forgive her. “The spirits are taking Michal away from us,” she said. “Even you must understand there are some things that are bigger than we are.”
“If I had my brother’s regiment I would destroy that place,” Wladek snarled, refusing his wife’s imploring hand. “If I were twenty years younger…”
“But you’re not. And you almost got killed when you tried to look for him. They caught you at gunpoint in Michal’s empty house. If you died, or Michal died, we’d put the estate at risk.”
“Like it’s not at risk now!”
Spiller finally managed to take off the ridiculous lilac hat. Having been divested of it, Halina fell to her knees, asking his forgiveness.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Wladek said, sighing. “Get up.”
It was a while before they got to bed. Halina disappeared into the bathroom, and washed. Wladek, used to his wife’s vanity, patiently opened a book in the light from an electric lamp and listened to the rain drenching the city. She joined him, and extinguished the light immediately; he had to be quick to stash his book onto the bedside table, but he was used to this at home, and tonight was no different just because they were six hundred miles south of Dwor Kruczewski. Wladek huddled together with his wife.
“Do you know where he is?” he whispered. “I mean, can you see Lowe Road?”
“Yes,” she said, with a sigh.
Wladek stopped and thought for a moment. In the coach she had not shed a single tear; the melodramatic behaviour was certainly unusual. He had been surprised at her desperation in the spring upon losing Michal, and was almost glad she had buttoned herself up again since then. Despite his frustration at her apparent lack of feeling, her anguish had unnerved him even more.
“I have wandered in my dreams to him,” she went on. “I’ve reassured him on several occasions that I will look after him; he seems to be aware of me but I can’t be sure. I don’t understand why I’m not permitted to rescue him either.”
“Where is he?”
“When you last saw him.”
“In the servants’ quarters,” she said. “I projected in there last night. Seymour is using him as a personal attendant and a manservant for his niece. Once she leaves them he will go back to the general wards.”
“So we couldn’t get into the lodge to get him out without a struggle? Even if we went now?”
Halina squeezed his hand. “We’d come up across an insurmountable obstacle to any rescue,” she said. “There’s a… a guard–dog there, a large, grey presence haunting the site. I’m not too sure what it is, but as far as I can tell it is loyal to Seymour.”
It sounded like a poor excuse. He really would get his younger brother down here with artillery and the elite Krovt palace guard that he commanded. But he didn’t rouse himself, nor did he get dressed again, or fly to the station to return home to make plans. Zbigniew might have done so, but he was a muscular hussar, not a flabby, middle-aged squire. It was worth a thought, however.
He lay on his side, watching his wife fall asleep. Despite her distress, she was evidently tired enough. He himself found it difficult to simply slip into unconsciousness like that; he’d had many sleepless nights since the spring, and doubtless there would be many more to come.
If Michal came home to them, it would be by the gods’ will. They both had to trust that the young man would find his way in the world and come back to them when the time was right, and that the other parts of Kolinska’s prophecy referred to Frank Palmerston, the young Breston man who had accompanied him to the fortune-teller that day. The devil might have said goodnight, but would there really be an angel there to say good morning to them?