Amelia didn’t know which of her many problems was making her more miserable. Her empty stomach was the most immediate one, clenched and aching like a fist in her belly. When she managed to forget her hunger, though, other problems crept back into her mind: the loss of her home, her parents’ constant fear, the cramped and stinking conditions inside the train.
They had been riding in the bowels of a third class train carriage for days. The enormous city they had arrived at the night before would have been thrilling if she’d had the energy or enthusiasm to be excited. Instead she had just stared miserably out of a filthy, tiny window, barely seeing the immense steel-clad walls, glittering towers, and serpentine train lines.
She and her mother had spent a tense few hours while her father had gone into the city to find them a place to stay, meaning they could finally get off this awful train. It worried Amelia to be without him, so she stayed close to her mother’s skirts and willed herself to be invisible. Other children had told her terrible stories about child-snatchers, robbers, and even worse who preyed on refugee families. Part of her knew that her father, a once portly but now rapidly thinning shoemaker, would not be able to defend his family against any capable attacker, but she still felt terribly vulnerable with him away.
Seeing his familiar silhouette shuffling through the shadowy station after many hours away gave Amelia a brief thrill of joy, but the expression of weary despair on his pale face when he drew closer told her everything she needed to know. There was no place for them in this towering metal city; they would have to move on.
Don’t they need shoes here? Amelia wondered. Surely everyone needs shoes, and my papa makes the best shoes.
Amelia’s father gathered his wife and daughter into a dark corner of the train carriage and whispered that he had bought some food for them. Two weeks earlier, she would have turned her nose up at the paltry strips of jerky, the dark brown flatbread, and the hard, yellow cheese, but her shrivelled stomach growled and grumbled like an impatient dog when her father passed her a share.
She tried to do as she was told, to eat slowly and make the most of what would be her only food today, and probably the next, but the humble meal vanished in just moments. She might not have believed it was ever there, except that she could swish her tongue around in her mouth and savour the left-over tang of the jerky and the sharp bite of the aged cheese. After a small sip from her father’s canvas water-bag, she nestled between her parents and watched the crowd, her stomach satisfied for the time being.
The train was moving when she awoke, and through her sleep-crusted eyelids Amelia caught a glimpse of a steel-grey ocean outside the little windows. She realised she had been woken by voices, and as she rubbed eyes and came fully awake, she heard a woman’s voice.
“I know there isn’t a lot of space,” the woman was saying, “but if you don’t mind a bit of temporary inconvenience I am sure it will be worthwhile. This will be a service for followers of the New God, but if you follow other beliefs and feel that you might take some comfort from our rituals, you are welcome to stay.”
The voice was soft and sweet, but it carried an odd sense of authority and strength. It was as if a school teacher had woken up one morning and found that she was a queen. Intrigued, Amelia rose to her feet and peeked around the corner.
She gasped. The woman who had been speaking was the most beautiful that she had ever seen. Even in the meagre grey light from the narrow windows her hair gleamed like gold, falling in gentle arcs around her face and down to her shoulders. Her skin glowed with health, with tinges of pink in her cheeks, and her large, alert eyes were startlingly blue, like a perfectly clear sky.
Amelia’s surprise at seeing an apparent angel come down from God to visit them grew even greater when she realised that the woman was a priest. Her slender throat was ringed by a clerical collar, and she wore symbols of the New God on her clothes.
“Hello little one,” said the priest, and with a shock Amelia realised she was talking to her. “We’re going to hold a mass here in a little while. Would you like to help me to get set up?”
Gobsmacked as she was, Amelia had been brought up to know her manners. She closed her gaping mouth – though her brown eyes stayed as wide as ever – and she ducked into a neat curtsey. “Yes, Mother. I can help.”
The woman smiled and somehow became even more beautiful. “Oh, I’m nobody’s mother,” she said with a chuckle. “Just call me Sister. My name is Sister Hüvje.”
With another curtsey, Amelia recited her introduction as she had been taught. “I am Amelia Hart, madam – uh, I mean Sister. I am the daughter of Rollo Hart the cobbler and Tarla Hart the dressmaker, and I am at your service.” She added one more curtsey for good measure.
Sister Hüvje’s little smile grew into a wide grin. “Well! Rollo and Tarla taught their daughter excellent manners, young Amelia. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.” Instead of curtseying, the priest bowed like a gentleman, and for the first time in what must have been weeks, Amelia giggled.
. . .
Usually Amelia was bored in church and couldn’t wait to leave, but this time she sat in rapt attention, her eyes fixed on Sister Hüvje. The end of the carriage had been made into a makeshift chapel, with trunks and suitcases placed in rows to form simple pews, with Hüvje in front, standing behind two crates covered in a cloak, to serve as an altar. Amelia was perched on her father’s tool-chest in the back row, comfortably squeezed between her parents and feeling warm and safe.
The sermon had been powerful and filled with hope, reassuring the forty or so faithful gathered in this temporary congregation that love and community and faith can weather the worst of storms. Amelia didn’t understand all of it, but the words made her feel good anyway.
Finally, Sister Hüvje had placed a chalice on the altar, a gleaming silver cup with a stem shaped like a twisted serpent biting its own tail. She filled it from a leather waterskin, prayed to the New God, and then walked out among the congregation. “Drink this,” she said, “and be filled with the light and the love of God.”
People were hesitant at first, but soon the chalice was being passed from person to person, with each taking a sip and then passing it on. The golden-haired priest refilled it from her waterskin several times as she worked her way through the crowd, coming closer and closer to where Amelia sat with her parents. Finally, Hüvje stood in front of them, but her kind face was clouded with worry.
“I’m sorry,” she began. “I’m… I’m out of water. I didn’t plan for so many…”
Beside her, Amelia felt her father stir. “Here, take this.” She looked up and saw he was holding out the canvas bag of water that he had bought in the city. He offered it without hesitation, but even young Amelia could see the tension in his face. Safe drinking water was becoming hard to find, and who knew when they might get more.
“You are very generous,” Sister Hüvje said, filling the chalice then handing back the much-lighter water bag. She passed her hand over the gleaming cup and muttered a prayer in a funny language Amelia had never heard before, then passed it to Amelia’s father. “Drink, Rollo Hart. Be filled with the love and light of the New God, and know that there is hope.”
After he had drunk, Hüvje passed it to Amelia’s mother. “And you, Tarla Hart, drink from this and be filled with the love and light of the New God.” She took a swallow from the chalice, and Amelia was slightly alarmed to see tears trickling down her mother’s cheeks. “Don’t cry, Tarla,” Hüvje said kindly. “You will find a safe place for your family.”
Finally, Hüvje leaned down and passed the chalice to Amelia. “Your turn, my polite little helper,” she said. “Drink, and drive away some of the darkness that somebody so young should never have to know.”
The glittering bowl of the chalice grew in Amelia’s vision, and she could have sworn that there were glimmers of golden light reflecting off the water inside, like the yellow sunlight of a summer afternoon glinting off the river near her home. She leaned forward and placed her lips on it, finding it pleasantly cool, and then she swallowed a mouthful of water.
Despite the coolness of the metal, the water felt strangely warm inside her like a spoonful of chicken soup on a cold winter’s day, and her fatigue and worry melted away. It was a funny way to think of it, but it really did feel like there was pure love inside her, and it made her feel wonderful.
Hüvje gave her a playful wink and then moved on to give water to the last few people in the congregation, while Amelia put her small arms around her parents’ backs and hugged them fiercely, letting the love shine inside her.
. . .
After mass was over and the temporary pews had been returned to the luggage racks, Sister Hüvje sat quietly by the window, watching the sea. Amelia was feeling better than she had in weeks, and it made her bold: she walked up to the priest and gave another curtsey.
“Hello Sister,” she began. “Thank you kindly for doing mass for all of us.”
Those dazzling blue eyes turned to Amelia, and the smile did not appear quickly enough to cover up that Hüvje had been thinking about something sad. Amelia knew what that looked like: her mother had that look in her eyes almost all the time now.
“What’s your story, little one?” Hüvje asked softly. “Why are you on this train?”
“Oh, uh…” Amelia wasn’t used to adults asking about her life, and she stammered while she gathered her thoughts. “There were soldiers. They came to Portmouth – that’s the town where I live – and they told my mama and papa that they needed our house, and they needed all the other houses too. Everyone had to leave and the soldiers ate all our food too. We walked to other towns but there was nowhere to stay, so papa bought us tickets for the train so we could try further away, maybe get away from the trouble, but I think there’s trouble everywhere.”
She stopped, feeling suddenly unsure. That was probably the most words she’d said to any adult in her life, apart from her parents, and she felt like she was being disrespectful somehow, and that she might get in trouble.
If the Sister was angry, she didn’t show it – her face showed only sympathy. “That sounds terrible,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. You’re right, though: there is a lot of trouble right now. It’s very hard to get away from, and my friends and I have been trying. We thought maybe it would pass by on its own, but it seems inclined to get comfortable, so now we’ve decided to force the issue.”
Much of what she said passed over Amelia’s head, but she caught enough. “Is that why you’re here, Sister? Are you trying to fix the trouble?”
Hüvje nodded, and a lock of golden hair dropped across her eye. “We’ve been chasing after a very bad lady. She made some horrible magic in our village, and a lot of my friends died.”
Amelia gasped and clutched her hands to her mouth. “A witch?” she gasped.
The priest shrugged. “I don’t know, exactly. Something bad. Anyway, we heard about a man in that big metal city back there who might help us find her. We found him, but… He didn’t want to help, not at first. He had very nasty friends, and they tried to kill me and my friends. They almost succeeded with my friend Alaric, and he is very lucky to still be alive.”
She gestured down the cabin to a young man with an intelligent and gentle face, who was staring out the window is much the same way as Hüvje had been earlier. In the light from the window, Amelia could see a faint spiderweb of scars on his youthful face, almost like silver threads.
“Did they cut his face?” Amelia whispered.
Hüvje nodded. “I think they wanted to steal parts of him, to put into their own bodies.”
“Harvesters!” She didn’t mean to be loud, but Amelia involuntarily shrieked with fright, and several heads turned towards her in annoyance. She covered her mouth with both hands and felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. “I’m sorry Sister Hüvje.”
“No, that was a natural reaction,” Hüvje said with a soothing smile. “They were very scary… well, I was going to say ‘men’ but I don’t know if you can call them that.”
“Hansel told me Harvesters weren’t real, but my best friend Antye said that they are, and she’s the best at reading in our school, so I think she’s right. Hansel is only sixth best.”
Hüvje cocked an eyebrow and sighed. “A lot of things turned out to be real. It wasn’t so long ago I thought there wasn’t any magic, either, or fairies or elves. They’re all real too.”
“Fairies are real?” Amelia hissed.
“Yes,” Hüvje replied, “and they aren’t nice at all.”
“I know!” the little girl responded. “My auntie read me a book that said you must never make promises to fairies because they always make your promise go bad.”
The priest shook her head, and for a moment the smile vanished, replaced with deep grief. “Oh sweet, clever Amelia. I wish the people of Chuton were as wise as you.”
“What’s Chuton? Is that where you’re from? Are you-”
Amelia’s question was interrupted by a large hand dropping gently onto her little shoulder, and a familiar voice spoke from behind her.
“I’m very sorry, Mother. I hope my daughter isn’t bothering you.”
Amelia placed her hands on her hips and frowned at her father. “It’s Sister, papa. Sister Hüvje doesn’t like being called Mother.”
There was a moment of shocked silence, and then Hüvje burst out laughing. After a moment, Amelia’s father joined her, and then Amelia did too, not knowing why they were laughing but simply enjoying it.
Hüvje was still smiling when she said, “Not at all, Rollo Hart. Please, join us.” Amelia’s father looked slightly dazed as he sat on the wooden bench opposite the priest. “I was just talking to your very lovely daughter about the troubles that seem to have sprung up all over.”
“Yes, it’s…” Rollo hesitated. “Oh, I shouldn’t bother you with my worries.”
“Please,” Hüvje said waving a delicate hand in the air. “I’m a priest. Other people’s worries are the heart of the work I do.”
“Oh… very well then…” Amelia could see her father was struggling to gather his thoughts, just like she had earlier. She wondered if Sister Hüvje being so pretty had anything to do with her father having trouble putting his words together. “The army moved us on. They said they needed Portmouth as a staging post, but honestly, I don’t know anything about any war, and nobody can give me any answers. My grandfather built that house. It was supposed to be Amelia’s one day.”
He idly scratched his stubbly cheek with a shaking hand as the words finally started to pour out of him. “I just don’t know what’s going on. I thought it would be just Portmouth, that maybe there was some news of raiders from across the sea, but then we got to Woodborough and it was already packed with refugees, no idea where they all came from, five men to every job. My old papa always told me a cobbler would never want for work, but he never figured on everyone being destitute and leather being hard to come by, nobody even able to afford a repair, let alone a new pair of shoes.”
Rollo’s words tapered off, and Amelia was shocked to see that he was weeping. Before anyone could interrupt, he continued. “Thank you so much for giving us a mass,” he said. “It’s been so long, and it really made a difference. The atmosphere in here is lighter this evening than it’s been since we got on board.”
He looked up at Hüvje with a hopeful expression. “You’ve already done so much, but I wonder… Could you maybe perform the rite of forgiveness for me?”
The effect was sudden and startling. Hüvje’s entire body stiffened and for a fraction of a second it looked like she might leap right out of her chair.
“Oh no!” Rollo said, holding out his hands beseechingly. “If I’ve said the wrong thing, I apologise-”
“No!” Hüvje snapped, and then she blinked and Amelia watched her sort of deflate. “No,” she said again, softer this time. “I apologise to you. I…” She took a deep breath. “The village where I live was attacked by black magic during our forgiveness festival. It was the beginning of the trouble, the night the bells tolled.”
“You heard that too?” Rollo said, his bushy eyebrows raised in surprise.
“I think everyone did. Everywhere I’ve been, they reported the tolling of bells. It’s a bad omen. Very bad indeed.” She leaned forward and touched the cobbler’s hand. “I am sorry for my reaction. I haven’t been asked to conduct a forgiveness ritual since that day, and…”
“I caught you by surprise.”
Hüvje nodded. “Exactly. However, if you feel a need to confess, then it is my divine duty to witness and forgive. Would you like to find somewhere private?”
Rollo glanced around. “Have you seen this place?” he joked. “This is about as private as we’ll get.” He looked down to his daughter. “You can stay if you like.” Amelia just nodded solemnly.
“Okay then,” Hüvje said, and Amelia could see a change in her posture, a slight straightening. It was as if she was becoming more priest-like. “Rollo Hart,” she said softly, but with quiet, undeniable authority. “I draw a sacred circle around this place where we meet. This place is sealed by the bond of confession and forgiveness, blessed by the New God.”
“Thus I witness and thus it is so,” Rollo chanted, repeating the words he had been taught when he was almost as young as Amelia.
“In the light and love of the New God, I bid you confess your sin, give up the weight that burdens your soul, be forgiven and regain your freedom.”
“Oh, uh…” He stammered again. “I confess… that I am a thief. I…” He gulped audibly. “My family was hungry, and I tried to find food for them in Forge. The shopkeep in the market was charging obscene prices, taking advantage of people’s desperation, but… but there’s no excuse. He turned to fetch me some bread and cheese, and… I stole some strips of jerky while his back was turned. I tried to tell myself that I was stealing from a thief, someone exploiting refugees with inflated prices, but… I’ve never stolen anything in my life. Even when I was a boy my friends would steal apricots from the orchard but I refused, and they teased me, said I was a coward, but I knew it was wrong, you see? But after fourty-four years in this life I’ve become a common thief.”
Tears were now streaming down his face and Amelia was gaping at her father’s words, but he pushed on, unheeding. “I’ve lost my entire place in the world. I always thought I was a good man, an honest and just man, but a few weeks with little food and lost hope and I’m swiping food from a street vendor like a damned street urchin. Maybe I was never a good man at all. Maybe I was just never tested, and now that I have been tested I’ve failed, I’ve shown myself to be false and weak, and oh God I’m sorry I failed.”
His words vanished in a flurry of sobs. Softly, Hüvje spoke. “Do you wish to be forgiven?” He nodded, and his wide, desperate eyes were shiny with tears. “Then I forgive.”
Amelia placed her small hand on her father’s trembling knee. “I forgive too, papa.”
He stared down at her dumbly, frozen in a moment of surprise, and then his sobs erupted into laughter. “Oh, come here you darling girl!” he shouted and pulled Amelia into a hug. “You are the loveliest little girl I have ever known,” he said as he held her. “I am such a lucky man to have you as my daughter.”
Amelia didn’t know how long the moment lasted, but eventually her father loosened his bear-like embrace and she slid down onto the bench beside him. She had been so lost in the moment that she had forgotten Hüvje was even there, so she was slightly surprised when she saw her sitting opposite. There was a smile on her lips, but her eyes were sad again.
“Rollo Hart,” she said softly, barely more than a whisper. “As the circle is still drawn, I wonder if you might do me a favour and hear my confession in return.”
Amelia felt her father’s body shake as he choked on his surprise. “Oh, certainly!” he finally managed to say. “Though I can’t imagine you have much to confess…”
Hüvje’s blue eyes had turned toward the sea, now the colour of slate under a bruised silver sky as the last of the daylight began to fade. “I was a chaplain,” she began. “It was the marines, you see. I was bored of the farming life, wanted to see the world, so I joined the navy. I wanted so much to help people, so it was natural to become a chaplain, even though I didn’t really believe in anything back then.”
She sighed, and her gaze turned to the grubby ceiling of the carriage. “Howard. That was his name. Silly young Howard. He thought he was in love with me. I tried my very best to discourage him, to convince him it was just a silly infatuation. I should have tried harder, been firmer with him, been cruel, but… well, I have never been keen on people hating me. I like to be liked. I was used to just getting my own way, I suppose.”
“We were docked at some little fishing village down the coast, a rugged place, the only safe port for miles around because of the cliffs. Howard left me a note, said he had one final thing to say to me, and that would be the end of it. I didn’t know. I had no idea he had that kind of desperate impulsiveness in him. The note said to meet him at the top of the highest cliff above the harbour, and like an idiot I did it. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, must have thought we were really going to put this whole silly business to rest.”
Hüvje’s gaze had returned to the window, though it was now so dark that there was little to see outside. “He’d laid out a picnic for us. Wicker basket, gingham cloth, everything. I think I made him angry when I refused to eat or drink with him, refused to even sit down. He reached into his pocket and I was suddenly sure he had a weapon, but he pulled out a silver pendant on a chain.” She reached into her robes and Amelia heard a faint tinkling and she drew her hand out. “This one.”
The medallion was exquisitely worked, and looked like it was made of pure silver. It showed an intricately detailed ship ploughing through a rough sea, and a woman hovering in the sky above it, with what seemed to be beams of light emanating from her.
“That’s the Sea Saint, isn’t it?” Rollo asked.
Hüvje nodded. “The shining woman who would appear in the sky to guide sailors through storms,” she confirmed. “Howard said I was his Sea Saint, his guiding light, who kept him steady during the storms of his life.” Her gaze had drifted down to the floor. “I picked the wrong moment to be cruel. I snapped at him, said no, I was just a chaplain, and he was just a stupid boy with a crush. I said that I’d tried to be patient, but he’d gone too far, and I would be going to the captain and reporting his behaviour. He would almost certainly be discharged from the navy.”
“I turned to walk away, and suddenly he was on me, grabbing at my clothes and pulling my hair. I thought he was trying to force his affection on me, so I realised almost too late what his real intent was. It wasn’t until he said that we were going to be together forever and yanked me hard toward the cliff edge that his plan became obvious. He meant to kill us both.”
“I struggled and we fell, but he kept dragging me toward that terrible drop, crawling on his knees with one fist clenched in my hair. His insane passion had made him terribly strong, and I was sure I was about to die. I tried to dig my fingers into the ground, trying to find a handhold, and…” She hesitated, and Amelia watched with silent wonder as a single tear traced a slow path down her smooth cheek.
“There was a rock in my hand. I must have picked it up when I was grabbing at the ground, but I honesty have no memory of picking it up. It was my chance. I wheeled around, surprised him, I think, knocked him onto his back, and I only meant to make him let go of me, to shock him into loosening his grip, but suddenly I was furious. How dare he? How dare this little fool try to kill me? Kill me? I brought that rock down on his stupid face again and again and again…” Her fist thumped on her thigh with each repetition of the word.
Hüvje looked down at her clenched fist, her eyes misted with memory, then folded her arms over her chest as if she was feeling cold. “When I returned to my senses, there was nothing that could be done. He was dead. I had killed him. It’s been almost ten years, and I tell myself every day that I was defending myself, that he was trying to kill me, but I know the truth. I didn’t have to kill him but he made me angry, so very angry.”
She breathed a heavy sigh. “But I committed another sin that day, perhaps even worse than the first. I was suddenly afraid of what might happen if anyone knew what I had done, so I made up a story. It was the story I told my superiors when I returned to my ship, and the story I told the inquest when I was returned to base. It was an elegant lie, so close to the truth that it was almost indistinguishable. Howard gave me the pendant, I told them, and then he told me goodbye, turned away, and leapt from the clifftop before I could stop him. The proof was right there on the rocks at the base of the cliff, right where I had pushed him. The damage I had done to his face was easily explained by the fall, and I had this stupid shitting Sea Saint pendant to back me up.”
“I don’t know if they believed me or not, but I was discharged from the navy. The higher-ups had decided I was compromised by my affair – that’s what they called it, an ‘affair’, like it was something I had a part in even though I’d done everything in my power to discourage him – so I was moved on. I headed inland, away from the sea, found work here and there, and eventually ended up the deacon of the church in Chuton.”
She held up the silver pendant and stared at it. “I could never throw this thing away, or sell it. Couldn’t wear it, either – it’s been living in my pocket for nigh on a decade. Symbol of my secret shame, that I have never told a living soul before today.” Her stream of words trickled to a stop, and she sat in silence, staring at the silver disc in her hand.
Amelia’s father cleared his throat, then said softly, “D’y- Um… Do you wish to be forgiven?”
Hüvje’s blue eyes rose and locked onto his, and there was a fierce desperation in them. She nodded wordlessly, and her lips quivered as the tears began to flow freely. “Yes,” she managed to sob. “Yes, I do.”
Rollo placed his hand over hers, hiding the silver pendant from view. “Then I forgive.”
Amelia put her little hand on top of his. “Me too.” She hadn’t understood most of Hüvje’s story, but she was perceptive enough to know that her new friend was feeling a terrible pain in her soul. “I forgive you too.”
Despite her tears, Hüvje found a smile. “Thanks little helper,” she croaked, and her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires. They sat there for a long time, their hands joined. Finally Hüvje extricated her hand and looked again at the pendant. “I almost threw it out the window and into the sea,” she admitted, “but that would be a waste. It is a pretty thing, no matter how I came to have it.”
She opened the clasp on the chain and slipped the pendant off, then held it out to Rollo. “Here,” she said. “To buy food for your family. No, take it. I have no need for it, but you do.” He reluctantly took it from her and closed it inside his callused hand. Hüvje reached into another pocket and drew out a broken pair of spectacles with a brass frame and lenses tinted black. The metal was twisted and one of the dark lenses was cracked, a narrow sliver missing. Hüvje threaded the silver chain through the frame, placed it around her neck, and fastened the clasp.
Rollo stared. “Is that what I think it is?”
She nodded. “Harvesters took exception to our mission in Forge. We survived the encounter. They didn’t.” She absently fiddled with the broken spectacles as she spoke. “It’s been a strange few weeks. Wasn’t so long ago I was a simple village deacon, and now I’m some kind of monster slayer, killing things from scary stories. All to defend this damned village…”
“That’s the place.” The dark lenses glittered in the feeble lantern light as she turned the spectacles over in her hands. “You know… we might be able to help each other. I’ll be honest: Chuton has had its share of troubles recently. Things seem like they might get better, but I sense we’re not through it yet. Still, if you want, there are unoccupied homes there, and gardens and farmland if you want it. There’s cattle, so there’s leather, and we don’t have a cobbler. It might not be completely safe, but… well, it’s something.”
“That is a very kind offer,” Rollo replied. “I am tempted to say yes, but I must consult with my wife first. Can I give you an answer tomorrow?”
“Certainly. Right now, though, I think a certain little priest’s helper needs to sleep.”
Amelia had been fighting to keep her eyes open for a while, but she hadn’t realised Hüvje had seen that she was struggling. Her father’s arms surrounded her once again and lifted her off her feet, and she fell asleep in his warm embrace.
She didn’t see that Hüvje’s gaze had returned to the dark window, but now her look of melancholy had been replaced by thoughtful purpose.