Sharp as a Tack
In the distant years before the plague had come to Bree and before Arnor had broken all apart, the Lowaters had lived just east of a little fortification on the Greenway. It had not been the Greenway in those days and the fortification had had a name but that was neither here nor there. It had been a long time ago and the Lowaters had settled the area along with the fortification.
When the fortification had been abandoned the Lowaters had held onto their farm for a while. It was a good farm and spread around a stream that dried up whenever there hadn’t been a rain. For most of the year the stream bed was hard and dry and lifeless but as soon as a hard rain started to fall it sprang to life, and the trees and grasses all around it whipped around in the torrent. It was a good sort of stream, as far as streams that were also metaphors went.
Eventually the Lowaters had left and gone to Bree because there wasn’t any sense in living outside the ruins of a fort when your whole trade had been predicated on selling food to that same fort. At some point, after the move, they had become Walters because it was easier to say than Lowater and there wasn’t any low water around where they were living. Sadie had some theories on the subject of her maiden name but the truth of it was quite boring. A clerk had missed the ‘o’ and another clerk had assumed they’d misplaced the ‘l’ and after running around trying to correct the issue for two weeks Owini Lowater had given up and declared himself Owini Walter and that was the end of it.
Owini Walter, presumably, hadn’t had much rain to him. As our narration progresses, however, it will become apparent that some of his descendants did.
At the first light of day Sedania Ashten reached the South Gate of Bree. Her long red hair all tousled and clumped and pulled back into a messy bun that barely clung to life and her trousers and blouse half-covered in now-dried wolf’s blood. She held a handful of grey flowers in her hand and waited patiently for the tired gatekeeper to pull open the gate for the day.
He looked her over in the way one might look over a two-headed calf or some other travelling oddity. He took in the sturdy boots and the bloody trousers and the flowers and the dagger at her hip.
“Uh, good morning Missus Ashten,” the watcher said slowly.
“Morning, Little Roddy,” she replied, putting her hand on her hip.
Rodbertus Whitewillow’s cheeks turned red.
“S’Bert now, s’been Bert since I joined the Watch,” he muttered, still embarrassed by the adolescent nickname that had plagued him since that unfortunate swimming venture some twelve years earlier. It wasn’t really his fault, it had been too early in the year to be swimming, really.
“Aye, and it isn’t Missus Ashten either anymore,” she said to him as she started through the gate.
“What d’ya mean?”
“Dunno yet!” She called over her shoulder.
She knocked smartly on the Ashtens’ door, standing there in her messy trousers while she heard her mother-in-law bustle around behind the door. She could hear Izzy’s eager paws on the wood floor too and she was grinning when Missus Ashten opened the door.
Sadie crouched down straight away to rub Izzy’s face. “Did you have a good time with Mister and Missus Ashten? Did you?” She asked happily, completely ignoring Missus Ashten’s look of silent horror at her appearance. Izzy didn’t seem to mind how she looked, he jumped up so all four paws were off the ground and then tried to scale her knee to lick her face.
“S-Selly, are you alright?” Missus Ashten finally asked, her prim face a mask of horror.
“My name’s Sadie. Only you call me Selly. It’s a terrible nickname. My name’s Sadie. You can call me Sedania if you don’t like that.”
“What happened to you?”
“Huh? Oh, nothing, just a good wedding. Caught the bouquet and everything,” she said as she stood, indicating the handful of slightly wilted, grey flowers she had carried from the forest the day before. Under her arm, Izzy panted happily, his pink tongue sticking out of his brown-furred face.
“What in the…” Missus Ashten looked about ready to faint.
“Hullo Mister Ashten! Izzy didn’t give you any trouble did he?” She called around her mother-in-law to the old man sitting at the breakfast table.
“Nah, he’s harmless,” said Mister Ashten. Sadie had long been of the assumption that he was either going blind or didn’t care about much more than his various wood projects and his children and grandchildren. Selective blindness, then. “Good pup, just needs a bit more training. Do an old man a favor?”
“Sure!” She slipped right in past Missus Ashten, who was still silently working her mouth in horror in the doorway.
“Run down the apothecary, physician says I’m t’start takin’ something for that cough.”
“Told ya you’d have to. He give you a note?”
Mister Ashten stood and bustled over for a little prescription note and a few coins which he closed in her hand as she jostled flowers and pup. “And get yerself a ribbon or something while you’re down there. There’s a good lass.”
She laughed and kissed his cheek, tucking the note away in her pocket. “Just have a few errands, I’ll run it up with some lunch, huh? It’s too hot to cook in here. I’ll get us some pork pies.”
“Selly, is that blood?” Missus Ashten finally choked out.
“It’s Sadie, Missus Ashten,” she corrected and breezed her way out.
“Well normally for this sort of thing we’d really need, you know, someone to sign with you,” the notary said uneasily. She had changed her clothes, her pink dress felt strangely cloying after running about in trousers all day and night. Maybe she would buy another pair. Nothing wrong with owning a few pairs of spite trousers if they were comfortable. “A father or… a husband or something.”
“You know I don’t have either of those, been signing my own forms for years, Hitch, what’s this about?” she asked seriously.
“Look I ran into Bert earlier-”
Despite himself Hitch snorted. “How’d that rhyme go? Little Roddy’s got too cold…”
“Won’t warm back up til he’s too old.”
“Heard he cracked your cousin one for singing that round the Old Plow a while back.”
“And again last week.”
They shared a laugh and Hitch looked at her with sudden suspicion. “Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing; lulling me into a false sense of security, you are. I talked to Bert, he says you’ve been wandering past the hedge at all hours, turned up this morning looking like you’d murdered a fellow.”
“And you’ve got to be in your right mind to sign a document. That’s the rule.”
“Alright, I’ll give you that. It’s a fair observation,” Sadie agreed and put her hands on her hips. A motion that at once showed off a fine, slim waist and the dagger at her side. “So let’s suppose I’ve gone mad,” she began slowly, her grey eyes focused on him. “I suppose this goes one of two ways. You could just let me pay the fee and change my name right here and pretend you didn’t notice anything about me being mad and I walk away with my name changed and maybe I drop a couple extra coins on the table for my fee. And I’m mad, y’know, I can’t count very good.” She dropped a few pennies on the desk to demonstrate and then leaned forward.
Her hands flat on the desk she gazed over it even as Hitch Cottonwood leaned back in his seat. Her pink dress hung heavy in the hot summer air of the townhall and her hair hung like an old curtain around her face. “Or, maybe you don’t let me sign it. And I’m hysterical you see, I don’t know what I’m doing. But I remember you never got that latch repaired on your garden window, Hitch Cottonwood.”
“Are you threatening me?” He squeaked and Sadie leaned forward a little further.
“Dunno. Are you about to try to tell the Watch you’re scared of a little old widow?”
Sedania Lowater met her dog outside the Town Hall, a piece of paper in hand that said she was, indeed, Miss Sedania Lowater. She hadn’t been a Miss since since was 17 and it felt funny to think of herself as such. She walked slowly so Izzy could follow along, as long as they were moving he stayed right by her leg. She’d never be second-best for Izzy. Izzy loved her more than anything in the world and he sat by the door of the Archive like a perfect guard when she ducked inside.
It was cool inside and nearly empty save for one man at a table hunched over an old map. She nodded to him politely and found an out-of-the-way corner to carry Petro Windgrass’s only legacy in the world, a dense tome titled Herbology of the Old Forest and Its Greater Surroundings. The binding was long cracked and the pages were loose inside. Each carefully annotated sample of a leaf looking just about ready to fall out. She took her new addition, a page decorated with a carefully attached grey flower that would hopefully be crushed and dried within the tome just like all the others.
She slipped it in and shut the book, her eyes falling on Petro Windgrass again.
In the shadows he looked more solid, she’d hardly know he was a dead man. He got fuzzier in the sunlight though. She supposed that was the difference.
“Good? You remember our deal right? See you peeking in my window again it’s not going to be such a happy ending,” she whispered.
The ghost nodded, seeming to wander through a bookshelf and Sadie looked down fondly at the book for a second before sliding it away to be forgotten again.
Outside a few drops of rain had begun to fall from the heavy sky and Izzy had given up his watch at the door to chase after them. “C’mon boy! We’ve gotta run to the apothecary yet! Let’s go!” He rushed after her, shaking his whole body whenever a drop of rain caught him.
“Come on Izzy! Hurry up!” She coaxed and picked up her skirt to sprint down the street, her boots clicking on the stones.