The pious folk call it Satan’s Well. The old tales name it The Ear. My nana used to tell us the Earth heard any whisper you spoke up there on the high moor. Some of the old women from the village still come to speak their troubles to the Ear. They share their aches and pains with the spirit of the world. The smallest problems, and the largest, spoken to the air and lost in the depths.
Heroes and old women come here. Nana told us Artur, King of Abalon, came to The Ear when he lost heart, when his quest laid upon him too heavy. He spoke and the Earth listened. Maybe the Earth listens to widow Gwent too when she tells of her gout. I don’t know.
The one point on which all agree, followers of the White Christ and the Green Man alike, is that Satan’s Well has no bottom. A thousand rivers could never fill it. The pit runs to the abyss itself. If it lay but a little lower, the oceans would run dry.
I didn’t come to tell my woes to the Earth. I came chasing old memories. I followed ghosts up to the high moor. Ghosts of happier days, ghosts of chances, phantoms of loves lost. I walked through the purple heather, my path blazed with pollen like trail-dust behind a wagon-train. The sun fell on me with the promise of warmth, snatched away by the north wind.
I came to The Ear at noon. I saw the rim first. It seemed that the rocks had erupted from moor’s desolation, like the bones of the earth, frozen in place. The climb took my breath and I paused at the crest, looking down into the yawing blackness of The Ear. It looked more like a mouth. I sat and watched the darkness. I watched the sun try to fathom it. And fail,
and fall from the sky, westward.
I didn’t come to tell The Ear anything, but as the shadows lengthened I began to
speak of Ellie.
“I knew a girl called Ellie.” I felt foolish at first, speaking to the evening shadows, but each word that fell from me left me lighter. “She’s gone now. Like her life was a stone thrown in a pond, and the ripples fading. It’s not right, she was more than that -” I found myself raising my voice and bit off the words.
It’s not right. For a moment I sneered at myself, then I thought of Artur. The king stood here and spoke of the grail. I stood and faced The Ear, sure now.
“I’ve come to speak of Ellie Winter, that she should not pass unmarked.”
For the longest time I never spoke to Ellie. She was fat, she was plain, she was
shy. We grew in neighbouring villages in the shadow of the high moor. Close enough for the children of Longton to know of those from Shern. Far enough for our impressions to be fleeting, for our meetings to be mere punctuation on the line from child to adult. I knew Ellie as the daughter of the old smith. Her da lost his forge to Miker Chase, he got old and the grey-waste took the strength from his arms. He lost his wife, Ellie’s mother, to a tinker from Norton, when Ellie was seven. Ellie always hoped her mother would come back. She clung to that. Modest hopes defined Ellie. Small hopes that, even so, would never happen.
That her mother would come back was her one outrageous aspiration. So audacious she confided it only to her closest friend, her only friend, and then in a whisper so low I hardly heard it. As if she were afraid speaking it out loud would shatter her chances.
“She missed her mother.” I told The Ear and my words were taken without
judgement. “No mother should leave her child.”
On the step from the plains to the high moor there are slopes of slate alternating with chalks. The layers stack like a lord’s cake, and every colour is there. Iron taints the chalk red, copper bleeds green, tin leaves a blue you see in winter sky. If you hunt long enough, every colour is there. And the slate offers a canvas acres wide. For a thousand years children have drawn there. Maybe ten thousand years. We’d steal from our chores, or run there on the seventh day, and scrawl. I drew palaces there, knights, battles. I grew older and sketched out fantasy women for Peter and Gem.
“Make them bigger!” Peter would shout, and Gem would snigger into his hands,
face twisting with delight.
The other children had me draw for them. I had a knack for it. I could capture a
face in a line. A useless skill, and the rain cleaned every picture away within days.
Peter and Gem were with me when I found the dragon. Picked out in the most vivid
of reds. Just crimson and white, across thirty feet of grey slate. The thing lived! You could see the energy in every line. I forgot to breathe.
“Jesu! Will you look at that!” Even Gem had the grace to be amazed.
Nothing lasts of course.
Peter hefted a rock. “Bet I could hit the eye from here!”
“You throw that and I’ll break your nose, Peter Jint.” I didn’t take my eyes
from the dragon.
We would have come to blows, but for the rain.
“Keep your silly dragon, Jule,” Peter shouted, and they ran for the Longton
Thunder rumbled over the harsh words I had for him. I stood there as the heavens
fell, and watched that dragon flow away in red waves.
It took a week of hiding and watching in every spare hour before I caught Ellie.
She came back to the same spot a seven-day later, clutching chunk of scarlet chalk the size of a fist.
I’ll tell you now, it was a shock. A shock and a disappointment. I’d crouched
for since first light behind a boulder for this fat sack of a girl? I stood suddenly, stiff in the legs and unaccountably cross with her. She shrieked and dropped her chalk, and I felt even crosser. Her face crumpled and she turned to run.
“Don’t,” I called. “Wait.”
She stopped. Not, I think, because she wanted to, but because I’d told her to.
“I liked your dragon,” I said. “I couldn’t draw that in a million years.”
She looked like a rabbit before the fox, casting her eyes this way and that for
an escape. I tried to remember her name. I couldn’t. I knew her though. A year earlier, I’d been with my brother Dain, making a delivery in Shern. I’d seen her then. The Durham twins were tormenting her. Tall girls with hair like flax, and tight bodies. I’d watched the hunters not the prey.
“Teach me,” I said.
Her eyes went wide. It didn’t do anything for her.
“Yes,” she said. “Alright.”
And that’s how I met Ellie.
So Ellie taught me to draw. And though she did it as if she were just reminding me of what I already knew, and though she always thought her methods wrong or trivial, I recognized from the very start that she had a talent I could never hope for, and perhaps somewhere deep inside I hated her for it.
We spent hours up on the slate-beds, week after week on the seven-day, and sometimes a stolen afternoon when the days were long. At first she kept quiet, speaking only of shades, colours, lines for folds in cloth. She listened to my thoughts, my opinions, my plans to be a soldier, to sail the seas, to seek out the dragons at the corners of the maps.
Gem and Peter found us one seven-day, on a high ledge where the chalks were only
white and shades of pale but the slates lay widest and flattest of all the Step. I’d drawn a rose. Ellie showed me how to capture it.
“Jule! You missed the Shadow-Play,” Peter shouted.
I threw my coat over the rose, scuffing the sharp lines. Ellie looked at me as
though I’d slapped her.
They ran up the cliff path, scattering stones over the fall.
“Where were you? We had us a proper puppeteer from Hightown.” Gem got the words out in bunches and heaved a lung-full of air between each.
“King Artur fought this demon!” Peter scrunched up his face and held out clawed
hands to show its ferocity.
“Come on,” Gem said. “We’re going to the top.” He reached for my arm.
Ellie might have been a rock for all the notice they took of her.
I spared her a guilty look and let them take me, as if I had no choice.
There’s always a choice.
I spent less time with Ellie as the summer waned. And still less the year that followed. I’d thought she might cling. I’d thought she might depend on my company with that cloying gratitude the lonely often have. Ellie surprised me. She had an inner strength.
Sometimes we climbed past the slates, Ellie and I, and sat in the heather on the
high moor to watch the world.
“We could draw each other next seven-day,” Ellie said.
I looked away. “My da wants me to apprentice in Kne-town.”
“When do you have to go?” Quiet resignation, no reproach.
“Six weeks. But he wants me around the workshop all the time now. Says he can’t send me up to the masters in Kne-town half taught. Wants me to know a saw from a sander.” I gave a weak laugh at that.
“You’ll be the best carpenter in the kingdom, Jule.”
She let me go without guilt. So I did. I took what I needed from her and left her as she was before I found her, friendless and alone.
I didn’t spend my last weeks in Da’s workshop. I put my time and my talent to different use. Before the harvest came in I all but had my tight-bodied twin from Longton. Shella or Sharra, both were within reach. They both loved to be sketched, charcoal on board, ink-stone on birch-bark, any medium so long as they were the subject.
The day before the Harvest Dance was the last I saw Ellie before I went with the
coal-wagon to Kne-town. I met her on the road to Storton, bent double under a wool-bale. She used to weave at night after her chores and sell the cloth to make a little coin. She spent it all on meat for her da, though the grey-waste ate him and the meat both. Everyone knew he’d die that winter. Everyone but Ellie.
I took the bale off her. “Hey now, I’ll carry that for you.”
She smiled at that and wiped her face, straightening. Smiles lit Ellie up.
“You’ll be off to apprentice soon enough?” she said.
We walked awhile. The silence felt comfortable, but I broke it anyhow.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” I said. I hadn’t, I’d been thinking about talking one of the twins into the hay after Harvest Dance, but it seemed good to say.
“I thought about you too,” she said. “I wanted-”
I spoke over her. “You should put that drawing away and make things. Things
“What kind of things, Jule?” Ellie always took me seriously, as if I put
consideration behind each word.
“Oh. I don’t know. Pretty things.”
Shella saved me from having to be more specific. She came up the road behind us.
“Jule! What’re you doing out here all alone? I need . . . I need you to fix the
gate. Then you can take me to the dance.”
She had a white dress on, plain linen but cinched about the waist. Her hair
swung in a long white plait and she had a hedge-rose behind one ear.
“I . . .”
“If you’re too busy I could ask Gem.” She smiled so prettily, her teeth very
I put the wool-bundle down. I looked at Ellie. I felt cross with her, I don’t know why. It’s not my fault, the voice inside me whined, it’s not like there’s a choice.
I chose Shella. Gem and Peter were jealous as all hell. And I talked her into
My apprenticeship lasted two years. Shella came to join me after six months when her belly grew too big to hide. I left the master’s shop when I had my papers, and started a carpentry on the west side of Kne-town, up by the Green-ridge Pass. I drew from time to time. Pen and ink now, on parchment. Shella didn’t nag about that cost. She still liked to see her herself drawn. Time passed, and though the years lay lightly on her, I couldn’t please her with my art. Her shrillness infected every line, the petty moaning made a tight pucker of her mouth when I drew it, her shallowness made my pictures flat whenever I tried to capture her on the paper.
I heard of Ellie from Gem, though I had to ask.
“The spinster of Longton?” He wiped his mouth and set his ale down. “She does alright for herself. I don’t know how though. She makes things out of iron. Got herself a little forge in the wood. Mudbrick and charcoal. You know, the sort of thing they used in the old days. She makes stupid bits and pieces. No-one with half a brain would buy them, but she gets a coin or two off a trader who takes them up river. There’s folks in the capital with more money than sense who’ll buy anything.”
Two months later a wool-man stopped by our house. “You’ll be Jule Woodman? I gots a package for you. All the way from Longton t’is, and that’s a thirsty mile.”
I stood the wool-man an ale in the kitchen and he set the package on the table. Small enough, wrapped with cloth and string. Shella came down from her bed as the wool-man left. I had the string half undone. I pulled the cloth away. Inside was a vase made from twisted strips of iron chased around with the finest silver wire. Each coil scrolled to the next, not quite repeating but variations on a theme. It hadn’t much weight to it, more air than iron. If the wool-man hadn’t told me who sent it, I wouldn’t have had to ask.
“What is it?” Shella crossed over from the stairs, still bleary with sleep.
“Ellie sent it. You remember Ellie,” I said.
“Fat girl, sick father?” Shella sniffed. “What’s it good for? It’s full of holes. What’s the use of a pot that can’t hold anything?” She laughed at her own joke.
I kept my eyes on the vase. “It can hold magic.”
My daughter was nine, and the image of her mother, when I saw Ellie again. I had business in Longmere. The lord wanted a new feast table and he’d heard of my work. I took the red mare for the ride, and my sheepskin cloak for it had been a fierce winter and the cold wasn’t ready to let go.
I’d ridden maybe three miles, to the ford at Oxstream. Ice crusted both shores. Treacherous footing for a horse, so I dismounted to walk her across. I heard a ragged cough. What I’d taken for a rock now shifted, and showed itself to be a person, wrapped in a torn coat the colour of earth.
“Hey now.” I went across to them. “It’s too cold to be sitting down here.”
Ellie turned and I met her eyes. All of a sudden I couldn’t see for tears. The grey-waste had eaten the flesh off her. All I recognize were her eyes.
“Oh Jule. Do you . . . do you have something I could eat?”
I built her a house at the end of our long field where it reaches up toward the
Ellie left nothing in Longton. When the grey-waste took her no-one came to see her wares, and her soon she lacked the strength for any other work. They let her starve, let her take to the road to die on the way to somewhere else. Out of sight.
Shella raged in silence. I told her how it would be and I made it clear there were only two choices. She had the sense to believe me.
For half a year Ellie lived in the house I made her, cedar and pine, scrollwork around the windows, good shingle on the roof. I brought her bits and pieces to keep her hands busy, gold wire and the like, that needed no forge to shape. I had the money. She’d been right about one thing; I was the best carpenter in the land, and rich men paid me well.
On a hot mid-summer night I rode to Hightown for the doctor. I rode beyond prudence, as if somehow speed would save Ellie. I blew the red mare and she’s been no good since. Doctor Reen wasn’t pleased to see me at his door in the small hours. In fact, when I insisted that he come with me, he sent his servant for the constable.
“Best go with him, Doctor Reen, sir.” The constable watched me with knowing eyes. He ran a hand over his white beard. You don’t get to be an old constable without developing an instinct. He knew how close to the edge I stood, and he knew if I fell I’d take more than one man with me.
Memories. I’d told Ellie’s tale and been lost in it. Now I shook them from me and found myself at the very edge of The Ear where the ground fell away in a single step to eternity. I couldn’t recall the steps that brought me there.
“He knew how close to the edge I was, Ellie.” I spoke to the darkness. “The doctor couldn’t save you though.” I felt the tears slide down my face. “I hope he eased your pain. You said he did.” More tears spilled out. “I buried you by the oak. The one you drew for me that spring. It was a good spot, but it didn’t feel right, putting the cold earth on you.
“I draw you often. I set your face in black on a white page. You’re always so beautiful. My pen always finds you smiling. I can see you but I can’t speak to you.”
I looked at the fall below me, fathomed by starlight.
There’s always a choice.
“We had a messenger last month, from the king no less! Your vases found their
way to court. His majesty wanted to commission some special work.
“Shella and little Seera are well. I don’t see them often now they’re in Longton, but they’ll never go poor, I send them all I earn.
“But I’m just making small talk.”
A wind came up, swirling grit around me, and I teetered on the edge of the void.
I came to The Ear for a reason. I came to an endless drop. To a place where every word spoken reaches the deepest of depths and the highest vault of heaven.
The only place fitting.
“Thank you for giving me the chance to make the right choices, after so many
A long silence, underwritten by the wind.
“I love you, Ellie.”
Eulogy complete. Choices made. I turned and picked my way back through the night.