When Alicia married the Earl of the West March, people expected her to abandon her studies in magery. She had been an assiduous student, though never brilliant, but now she would surely be too busy with other duties. She had her husband to manage and her household, an heir to produce and court politics to negotiate, enough for anyone. Alicia herself was in two minds about the matter, until she received a morning visit from Gossamine. Lady Whitehawk.
At first Alicia felt sorry for her. Gossamine looked so unlike her usual elegant self, her face haggard, her walk unsteady. She did not even pretend to admire the new frescos in Alicia’s chamber but sat with her lips pressed too tight for a smile and her hands clenched at her sides.
‘How dare you do this to me?’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’ Alicia never backed away from a quarrel but she was not used to being taken by surprise.
‘You won’t get away with this, however well you’ve hidden your magery to fool your husband.’
‘My studies have never been a secret.’ Alicia sat back in her chair. ‘Dear Gossamine, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Gossamine made a sort of snarling noise.
‘Hector would never have married you if he’d realised you would hurt me like this.’
‘Would he not?’ Alicia spoke in her gentlest voice. ‘The Earl my husband has never mentioned you to me.’
‘Someone else must have told you how often he comes to me.’ Gossamine turned her head away from Alicia’s gaze. ‘He married you but I’m still the woman he loves.’
Nobody had told Alicia that Gossamine was Hector’s mistress. Before the wedding, she would have taken the news as a threat but six months later, she had already realised she would never have all his attention. She felt a bitter rush of anger just the same but she had room for curiosity as well. And a determination to hide her feelings from Gossamine. She considered for a moment and then said,
‘I have never worked any enchantment against you. I’ll swear that, if you want me to, by my name and powers.’
Gossamine understood enough about magery to appreciate how serious that offer must be. She sagged in her chair.
‘Who else could have done this?’
‘Tell me what the trouble is?’
‘Why should you care?’
Alicia’s fingers curled in her lap but she kept her voice steady and cool.
‘If you suspect me, so may others. I should not like Hector to suppose that I am jealous.’
‘Someone is stealing my dreams. Every night, they are snatched away from me?’
‘Are you sure?’ Alicia had never heard of an enchantment that would do that. ‘Maybe you just forget them.’
‘Would I weep until my pillow is wet every morning over forgotten dreams?’ Gossamine snapped her mouth shut as though she did not want to say any more. But she could not stop herself. ‘Would I lose the strength to eat and dance and even to dress myself? I begin to dream just as always, I feast with the King, maybe, or dance in a hall paved with gold. Then a giant shadow appears with a black bag in its hand. It sucks the feast or the hall, or whatever else, away from me and into the bag. I’m left in a cold, dingy cloud of nothing.’
‘Why would any mage would do that to you? If someone wanted to hurt you, there are easier ways.’
‘Ordinary nightmares are not like this.’ Gossamine lowered her head and stared at her lap. ‘I’ve tried sleeping potions and other nonsense. Nothing helps.’
Other nonsense probably meant the sort of spell meant to let women dream of future husbands or encourage children to go to sleep.
‘When did the trouble begin?’
‘Seven nights ago.’
‘If you’d walked into a spell by mistake, I’d be able to tell.’ Certainly Gossamine was suffering. Now she had lost belief in her accusation, she wilted like a parched dandelion. But mage work was not the only possibility. ‘Have you offended one of the Others, the powers outside the mortal world?’
‘What kind of woman do you take me for?’
‘One who walks into danger unprepared,’ Alicia said in her driest voice. ‘Did you meet any strangers, before it happened? Go anywhere or do anything out of your usual habit?’
Gossamine went very still and raised her right hand to her left shoulder. She winced and stood up. She had been pale before but now her face was so bloodless, she looked a thousand years old, her face creased with lines as sharp as paper cuts.
‘This is nothing to do with you,’ she said. ‘I should never have told you anything.’
She was out of the door before Alicia could say anything else.
Three days later, Gossamine was dead. She was found on her bed, a cup of poison fallen from her hand. Court gossip puzzled over the tattoo of a black rose on her left shoulder.
Alicia said nothing to Hector. She could sometimes charm him out of a melancholy but she could not keep him at her side when a wild fit was upon him or provoke him into admissions he did not want to make. She saw little of him for over a week and then he came to her bedroom at dawn one morning and woke her from an uneasy sleep. She sat up and saw him leaning in the doorway as though he could not hold himself upright.
‘Prosper is dead.’ His voice was harsh from shock.
Alicia had met Sir Prosper Rattle, one of Hector’s drinking companions but did not know him well.
‘What happened to him.’
‘He hanged himself.’ Hector sat on the end of the bed, his head bent over his knees. He stank of wine and misery. ‘We drove him to it.’
‘We never meant him any harm. We teased him, that was all.’ Hector stared at his hands. ‘He was so sorry for himself because his dreams had been stolen. We meant -.’
‘His dreams?’ Alicia twitched out of bed and went to sit beside Hector. A chill from the open door settled over her but she did not care. ‘What exactly did he say?’
‘That a thief came into his dreams with a black bag and dragged them away. We told him to eat green cheese for supper and then he’d be pleased to get rid of the nightmares. We never realised he was serious.’
‘Did he have a tattoo on his arm? A black rose on his shoulder like Gossamine?’
‘Gossamine?’ Hector’s head jerked up and he winced.
‘Her dreams were stolen too.’ Alicia looked into Hector’s bloodshot eyes and spoke with care. ‘She came to me in her trouble but I was unable to help her.’
‘She never told me,’ Hector muttered. He looked sick.
‘Did you see Sir Prosper’s body? Was there a tattoo?’
‘The black rose is the Gardener’s emblem. But he couldn’t have anything to do with this.’
‘Who is the Gardener?’
‘He runs a gambling house. You have to be in the know to go there.’
There must be dozens of places to gamble in the city but only a few exclusive enough to be in fashion at court.
‘And how does anyone come to be marked with his tattoo?’
‘From a lost wager. You don’t pay in cash if you lose at the Garden House. Your opponent chooses a forfeit, the wilder the better. And once in a while, the Gardener plays himself. That’s the best game, to get the chance to choose a forfeit for him.’
‘How often does he lose?’
Hector breathed hard. ‘I can’t remember. But he doesn’t hurt people. The tattoos wear off after a few weeks.’
‘Will you take me there?’
‘You? It’s not a place to take your wife.’
‘Gossamine went there.’ That meant Alicia could be seen there without too much scandal. ‘Don’t you want to find out what happened to her? And your friend?’
‘The Gardener looks after people. I’ve seen them cheer up when he talks to them… But maybe you should tell the King’s Mage about the dream thief.’
Alicia had taken out her student notebooks in the days since Gossamine’s visit. She had found out little to help her to an explanation but the search had given her a satisfaction she had not felt for weeks. And the King’s Mage never listened to his students but especially not to the women.
‘Maybe when I’ve found out a bit more,’ she said.
If Alicia had not been ready to visit the Garden House on her own, Earl Hector would never have agreed to be her escort. He could have forbidden her to go, of course, but he must have guessed that would not stop her and he wanted to protect her more than to quarrel with her.
When they arrived, early on a summer evening, he kept a tight grip on Alicia’s arm. She was irritated but willing to wait for her opportunity.
The place was not what she had expected, a wide, walled courtyard with stone benches and barrels of wine in the corners.
‘Not much of a garden,’ she said.
‘You have to be invited through the arch.’ One of the Earl’s friends grinned at her. ‘Not that anyone can remember the last time that happened. But if the Gardener takes a fancy to you, you never know.’
‘Where is the Gardener?’
Bets were called out on all sides but nobody seemed to be in charge. The crowd helped themselves to drink and clustered together, here to play cards, there to watch a wrestling bout or a man on a tight rope.
‘A newcomer,’ said a voice. ‘Let’s have a look at you.’
He looked like a heron, the Gardener, not tall but reed thin, with a long neck and a sharp, narrow face. He held his head sideways and did not move, not even to blink.
Hector’s introduction was as smooth as if he had been pleased to bring Alicia with him.
‘You’re a mage, my lady,’ the Gardener said. Hector had not mentioned that. ‘You must not use any spells here.’ His voice did not match his appearance, deep and friendly, with a smile that did not show on his face.
‘I don’t play games,’ Alicia said. She had never cared for cards and she was a poor chess player. She was too interested in her opponent to study the board.
‘You can enjoy a wager without playing games.’
‘I’ve come to watch. A mage needs to cultivate her powers of observation in as many places as she can.’ Learn to see what’s there before you try to change it. That was one of the earliest maxims students were taught and Alicia placed more value on it than most of her fellow students.
By now a small crowd had gathered. The Gardener glanced round at them.
‘Why not put your powers of observation to the test?’ His smile crept into his eyes. ‘You’ll find your wits sharper than ever if you stand to lose even a trifle if they let you down?’
‘What kind of a trifle?’
‘A song,’ the Gardener said. The crowd relaxed into mild disappointment but they did not go away. ‘Make a bet with me, my lady, the loser to sing for the winner. With your permission, my lord?’
Alicia could feel the stiffness in Hector’s arm but he nodded. The Gardener took a pair of gloves from his belt.
‘Someone here embroidered these for me. Can you find her out?’
The gloves were black leather, with silk panels across the back, stitched in zigzag waves of grey. The embroidery was delicate but the panels had been attached to the leather with rows of bold, even coarse, cross stitch. Alicia looked round at the company. Some stared back, some avoided her glance. She recognised most of the women, although none were close friends. Only one had bare hands.
‘Dame Sonia,’ Alicia said. ‘May I see your gloves?’
She took them out of her pocket, crimson velvet, with the same mixture of coarse and fine work. She must have done the embroidery herself, Alicia thought, but left it to her maid to sew in the panels. Or the other way round. Alicia nodded at her and the Gardener smiled openly for the first time.
His singing voice was the darkest of basses, as though his throat was coated in fur. His song was a nonsense ditty from the May masque at court.
‘But I know that one,’ Alicia said. ‘Everybody’s been singing it for weeks.’
The crowd drew back but if the Gardener was offended, he did not show it. He looked at Alicia with more interest than ever.
‘Another wager, then,’ he said. ‘Each of us to sing a song the other has never heard before. I’ll take first turn, if you wish. But this time the forfeit must be a touch more substantial.’
A sensible woman would have been frightened. Alicia felt an exhilaration that made her almost forget Hector brooding by her side. But she did not want to seem too eager.
‘What do you mean?’ She frowned. ‘I’m no good at embroidery.’
‘Don’t worry. If I win, you must wear my emblem for a while. If I lose, would you like a brooch to show your triumph, a rose of black and gold?’
‘I’d rather have a tour of your garden.’
‘No, wait!’ Hector said. ‘I don’t like this.’
Alicia turned to him.
‘But this is my one evening to be foolish, my lord,’ she said, as sweetly as she could. ‘You have so many of them.’
His face tightened. He wanted to roar and drag her home, she could tell, but he was afraid of what she might say next. She wondered how many of the crowd knew about his liaison with Gossamine.
‘Indulge us, my lord,’ the Gardener said. ‘You shall watch everything that happens.’
The time the Gardener’s song was like nothing Alicia had ever heard, a thin, insistent tune that almost repeated itself but not quite and words that struck cold on the heart without making sense. Afterwards Alicia could not remember them properly.
She had not made up her mind whether she wanted to win the bet. Under her exhilaration, something in her was terrified of the loss she had seen Gossamine suffer. She might even learn more from a tour of the Garden. In any case, she did not want the Gardener to realise her suspicions, so she chose the most unexpected song she could, one she had learned in her childhood and never heard since she came to the city. Halfway through, the Gardener nodded and joined in. The words he knew were slightly different but it was the same song.
‘You win,’ Alicia said and the crowd cheered.
Hector stood by, his face hard and cold, while the Gardener marked Alicia’s arm. She almost wanted him to interrupt but she would not back down herself and Hector said nothing. The Gardener’s touch was gentle and Alicia smelled no magic, either while he worked or afterwards. If the Gardener was a mage, he was powerful enough to hide his spells but she thought he was something stranger than that.
She and Hector went home in a coach. Both of them preferred to walk but the coach was more suited to their dignity. As soon as they were shut up together, Hector said,
‘How much of a mage are you?’
‘I’ll find out tonight.’ Alicia would not look at him.
‘Let me send for the King’s Mage to watch over you.’
‘I won’t sleep if you do.’ Alicia’s stomach clenched at the prospect. ‘He can’t enter my dreams anyhow.’
‘I never expected this when I married you.’
‘Then we have both had some surprises.’
Hector said nothing more and Alicia could not tell what he was thinking. But that night he came to lie beside her in bed.
‘Wake me if you need me,’ he said. Alicia was charmed by the gesture, futile though it was. She kissed him before she turned away and closed her eyes.
She thought for a while that she would not be able to fall asleep, what with Hector’s restlessness and her own fears. But she recited nursery rhymes in her head and waited.
The dream was a familiar one. She stood upright in a small boat and juggled a round of curiosities: glass stars, jewelled daggers, golden apples and small owls, without dropping anything. But then the boat lurched and the juggles blew out of her hands, towards a giant whose features were too big to make out. The giant’s hands held open the mouth of a black bag, just as Lady Gossamine had described. Alicia felt the boat, the water and the bright air all dragged away from her towards the bag. Her dream self was empty of spells and found no hold from which to resist the drag. So she did the only thing she could think of. She leaped up and threw herself into the mouth of the bag.
She landed in a dream that was not her own. When she looked down at her dream body, it shone black and fiery, with edges that flared in and out. She could never have done that to herself: it was a vision from someone else’s mind. Her surroundings were even less like an imagination of her own. She sat on a mound of mushrooms as elaborate as flowers, trumpet shaped, frilled or layered in spikes and cones. Their colours were delicate, peacock blue, aquamarine and amethyst, like underwater weeds. Trees grew round about, each one different, a birch with scarlet leaves, an oak whose trunk was crusted with golden crabs, an ash with purple berries. Under all their branches were dark mouths which sang as small crimson birds pecked at them.
‘How did you get in here?’
If the voice had not been the same, Alicia would not have recognised the Gardener. He was larger here and heavier, dressed in a gown covered with mouths like those in the trees, only with human lips. She felt squashed by his strength, though he stood at arms’ length.
‘This is the garden you don’t show people,’ she said. ‘You’re stealing dreams to feed your garden.’
‘Humans are so wasteful. So much colour and passion, spilled out in nonsense dreams to be forgotten the next day, if nobody harvests them.’
‘What about the people you take them from?’ Alicia felt the edges of her dream body sharpen as if the Gardener expected her to attack.
‘They are all gamblers,’ he said. ‘Too foolish to live long or they would not let me near.’
The birds flitted round the mouths on his gown, which broke into song. Alicia tried not to listen. So far her mind was her own but if she let the song in, she might lose herself in the Gardener’s dream and never wake, more helpless even than his other victims. She had never heard of a mage who faced a creature like this. Human he was not but she could not put a name to what he might be. Not one of the Lords of the Hills, who care nothing for human dreams, nor a hobgoblin or barguest, who feed off human terror. She needed to know more about him. She tried to see through the dream to the real place from which the Gardener had made it. But the dream was all there was, except for a smell of sweat and blood from the singing mouths. And the Gardener himself smelled of rot, pungent enough to catch in her throat. Beetles crawled over his skin and up his nose. His eyes were too small for his face, sharp chips of coal under lashless lids.
It wasn’t enough. She had been mad to come here without help from the King’s Mage or any of the Masters who had irritated her so much when she studied with them. Furious with herself, she said,
‘What about your dreams?’ and the Gardener flinched.
‘I have no dreams.’
‘How can you be sure? Have you searched for them?’
‘I want your dreams.’ He stepped towards her and black roses sprouted all over her body. Their petals blew off one by one and flew towards the Gardener. Alicia felt her soul go with them, piece by piece. But she remembered the Gardener’s first vision of her in this place and called it back into her mind. The roses turned to flames and drove the Gardener back. Alicia jumped at him and tore the singing mouths from his coat. The voices wailed as she pushed the mouths into his face. He recoiled and her body grew whole and strong, while his shrank. The flames vanished.
He believed she was a powerful mage, she realised and maybe that meant she could do more here in his dream than in the flesh. She drew back to think what to try next. Before she could make up her mind, he swirled his gown towards her and all the crimson birds swooped down to stab at her.
She spoke one of the first incantations she had ever learned, the one which turns a spell back upon its maker.
The Gardener cried out and wrapped his arms round his head. The birds flew back at him and changed as they flew, into ravens with sharp beaks and sharper talons. He flailed at them but they settled on his body and tore off flaps of skin. Green blood and guts spilled out of him. He curled into a tight ball and dropped into a hole in the centre of the mushroom circle, where the earth gaped open to receive him. The mushrooms and the trees all burst apart into a cloud of dust.
Alicia woke with her head thumping against her pillow and Hector’s hands on her shoulders.
‘I’ll kill him. I’ll throw his guts to the pigs in the street.’
‘Too late.’ Alicia took hold of Hector’s wrists and he let her go.
‘You’re awake.’ He pulled her into his arms. ‘Are you in your right mind?’
Alicia twisted round to look at her arm. The black rose had vanished and her skin was unblemished.
‘Come with me to the Garden House and we’ll find out,’ she said.
Sandra Unerman is a retired Government lawyer, who lives in London, UK. She has written fantasy for many years and is a member of the London Clockhouse Writers’ Group. She is a member of the Folklore Society and the Historical Novels Society. Recent stories have appeared in Midnight Circus and in Detectives of the Fantastic, vol. IV.