The Lost Steersman, Chapter One


The paper was wrinkled, and torn down one side; the ink was smudged, and the lines weren’t exactly steady. There was something that looked sort of like a street, but it looked like this street only if you already knew that it was. The little square blocks on both sides were buildings, but there was only one of them labeled at all…

Steffie watched sidelong while Gwen, her arms all full of dirty dishes, looked from the paper up to the face of the steerswoman. “It’s a map,” Gwen answered to the question she’d just been asked.

“I can see that.” The steerswoman said. “But what I cannot see, is what it is for.”

“Mira carried it,” Steffie put in. He went back to sweeping, bringing up a cloud of dust off the old rag rug. “All the time. She said it helped her find her way.”

“To where?”

“To the tavern.”

The steerswoman blinked at him. “The tavern,” she said, “is around the corner.”

“Well, yes.” He grinned and kicked up the carpet’s edge. “I guess she mostly used it to get back from the tavern, of an evening. When she’d had a few, see? She used to make a big show of pulling it out, and say, ‘When you can’t tell where you’re going, get a Steerswomen’s map.’ And that since she was a steerswoman herself, and she made that map, she could always trust it to get her home.”

That got him a blank stare. And then the steerswoman shook her head and sighed through her nose. “Well.” She looked at the map again. “I suppose Mira must have been a steerswoman –” and then she looked up and around at the room, “– but I can’t help myself doubting it.”

Too damn right, Steffie thought — except, the other way around.

Gwen traded a glance with Steffie, like she was thinking just what he was thinking, and then carried off her dishes. The steerswoman gave up on the map, and went back to sifting through the piles of loose papers on the table. And Steffie just kept on sweeping.

When the news had gotten around town that there was a steerswoman at the Annex again, everyone was glad enough. What with old Mira gone, it had been like there was a big hole, right in the middle of Alemeth. And even though the new steerswoman said she could only stay for a little while, people pretty much expected things to go back to normal.

But the last thing Gwen and Steffie expected was to be put to work.

Steffie stopped at the edge of the rug, wondering if it would be enough to just sweep away the dirt that showed on top; but with a whole day of the new steerswoman’s company behind him, he figured Better Not, put the broom aside, and set to rolling the thing up. Gwen clattered the last load of dishes into the tin bathtub and said, not being quiet about it: “If you find any more than these, I won’t wash them!”

The steerswoman didn’t even look up from the worktable. “If we find any more,” she said, in exactly the same kind of voice, “throw them away!”

Gwen snatched up a bucket and went to the front door, growling to Steffie as she passed him: “If I’d wanted to wash dishes, I’d have stayed at home.”

Steffie watched her go, then tried to shift the rolled rug to the back door by kicking it along the floor. No good: it was too heavy. He gave up, and hefted the thing over one shoulder, and carried it out, coughing from the dust in his face, and trailing bits of dirt behind, some of which were big enough to rattle when they hit.

Just before he reached the door, he heard the steerswoman mutter: “It’s just as well Mira and I never met. I’m sure we wouldn’t approve of each other.”

That was for sure, Steffie thought.

Outside, the yard was the same old tangle of weeds, cast-off furniture, and broken crockery. The only clear area was the muddy path to the outhouse. It crossed through three different permanent puddles; whenever she used the path, Mira had always put on a pair of huge, old boots that she kept on the back stairs just for that.

The boots were still there, crusted with dry mud. Steffie sat down beside them.

Crazy old woman, he thought. He missed her.

Steffie had been just a tyke when he’d first heard about how a steerswoman always has to answer whatever question you ask, no matter what. Seemed funny, so he decided to test it out, just to see. So he walked right up to old Mira, in the middle of the street, and started asking her every personal question he could think of — all the nasty and rude things that make a little boy snicker, but no grown-up in her right mind would ever answer.

But Mira had just looked him straight in the eye and answered each and every one — some of them at length and with lots of details — while her friends stood by laughing, and making saucy remarks, which Mira didn’t mind one bit, either. Pretty soon it was little Steffie who was squirming, going red as a petunia, and finally, fleeing.

Except, he came back. And he kept coming back. He followed her just like a shadow.

The next thing he knew, here he was, all grown up to twenty-one years, still spending most every day at the Annex. And what kept him coming back was Mira.

No one else was like Mira. No one was as honest, nor as unafraid. She did not care at all what people thought about her. She kept her house a mess; and she ate and drank what she liked, carried on, and talked about things no decent old woman would think of. She used to say that she had spent most of her life being decent and working hard, and she was tired of it. She figured she had earned the right to have some fun.

Sometimes someone would get Mira to talk of her times on the road, and Steffie had to admit that the way Mira told it, it didn’t sound very nice: being cold and often hungry, usually alone, and always with work to do, never any real rest. And often in the middle of talking, her voice would trail off, and she’d look off into the distance or down at the ground, sort of sad and far away —

Then she’d suddenly jump up — they were usually in the tavern — grab someone, like old Brewer, and haul him out to the floor. Then skinny Belinda would pull out her fiddle; Brewer’s fat son would start clapping a rhythm; Janus, so usually quiet and courtly, would start making up the most scurrilous lyrics — and the two old people would set to dancing, stamping their rickety bones around the floor, always off-beat, and everyone laughing, Mira the loudest of all…

For as long as Steffie had been alive, it was Mira who lived in the Annex, and it was Mira and Mira’s ways that meant “steerswoman.”

He couldn’t figure out this Rowan person at all.

The rug was still slung on his shoulder. He heaved it off into the yard, and it thumped to the ground in a cloud of dust. Out in the light of day, he could see it was hopeless. It would be a job of a year to get it clean. He gave it up.

When he came back into the room, he felt at first that it was altogether empty, like a snail shell found down on the beach, its little dweller dead and gone. It was proper for it to be empty.

But there was that Rowan, sitting at the worktable as Mira never did, poring over those books, as Mira never had done. It felt wrong; it felt like an insult.

She did have the right to be there. This was the Annex, and she was a steerswoman: so she said, and she wore the little gold chain and the twisty silver ring, like they all did. But she did not look like a steerswoman to Steffie, not at all; she looked dangerous.

She sat at the old table, where the sun slanted down, dusty, through the high front windows. There was a pile of loose papers on the table, and three stacks of books, each book looking exactly like the others, all bound in red leather.

Her right hand was on top of the papers, holding them down, and that hand was splotched with ink-stains, new ones and old ones both together. Her left hand, the one with the silver ring, was holding the book open; that hand looked like it had been through a little war all by itself, because it had small scars criss-crossed all over it, maybe a dozen of them.

Her short hair looked like it had been trimmed with a knife, and it was a dry harsh yellow on top, darker under. Her skin was sunburned and weather-rough, and at first Steffie had thought her much older than himself, from the lines about her eyes. But close up, you could see that the wrinkles weren’t real — just pale lines on darker skin, as if she had spent a long time squinting into long distances against bright sunlight. She looked like a woman from a land with no shadows.

And there was something about the way she sat, too, forward from the back of her chair, and both her feet on the ground. It was like she figured she might need to move somewhere else quick, and she thought she should stay ready. Except, not really thinking about it, because her mind was all on her work, you could see that from her face. So it was like her body had a mind all its own, and by itself it made her sit that way, all ready to go, just in case.

And that sword — seemed like her body really wanted to keep that sword nearby. One time Rowan was reading at the table, and got up with the book still in her hand, went to the sword where it leaned against the hearth, brought it back and laid it right down on the table in front of her — and never stopped reading once all that time. It was spooky.

It was like some kind of instinct. It was like she had taught her body to take over and protect her whenever her mind was busy someplace else.

It made Steffie queasy to watch her. It made him remember that there were places out in the world where life was not safe.

But he did watch her — he just couldn’t help it, it was all so odd — so now, when the front door opened with a bang and the steerswoman looked up, Steffie saw that her hand went right to the hilt of her sword, slung on the back of her chair. He couldn’t help wondering what trouble it was that her body, if not her head, expected.

But it was only Gwen, lugging the bucket she’d filled from the well out in the square, and trailing a half-dozen children of all different ages, each of them toting a jar or pot. “I found help,” Gwen said, gruffly, and she led her helpers in like a stream of ducklings, up to the hearth, where each one added to the cauldron.

The steerswoman had a way of smiling that happened in two steps, almost too quick to separate: first her eyes, then her mouth. It was when her mouth smiled that her hand left the sword, and Steffie was surprised to see a big grin.

She liked the children, you could tell. “Thank you so much,” she said to them, like they were each special. “That’s very helpful.”

They shuffled their feet, made shy smiles, then lined up in front of her, waiting.

Rowan glanced at Gwen. “They’re expecting a reward,” Gwen told her.

“I see…”One girl spoke up. “Mira used to give us sweets.”

Rowan winced. “Are there any on hand?”

“None,” Steffie said.

“Or beer.”

“Beer!” She leaned back in her chair. “Are the people of Alemeth in the habit of giving their children beer?”

“Yes,” Gwen answered straight off, and Steffie nodded along. And there was plenty on hand, since Brewer had taken to sending over Mira’s usual daily ration, which Rowan hardly touched.

But you have to be honest with a steerswoman. “Well,” Steffie said, “I guess really, it depends on the parents… some do and some don’t…”

Rowan nodded, and turned back to the children. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you beer unless I know that your parents approve. But here –” She shuffled the papers before her, found one that was blank, and began to fold it. It grew smaller and smaller in her scarred and stained hands, until at last she held a little triangle.

“Like this.” She moved her hand: a sharp downward flick. The thing let out a sudden, loud pop, and everyone jumped. The children shrieked and giggled, and nothing else would do but that Rowan make one for each child. Then the whole bunch of them boiled out into the street, snapping and popping like chestnuts in the hearth.

Rowan watched them go, smiling a little, like she was thinking of something similar but from long ago, or maybe very far away. “Well.” She turned back and looked down at her work, and her mouth twisted. “I’m getting nowhere with this.” She pulled the pages together, stacked the books, and stood up. “I think I have time to see about organizing that second shelf. Gwen, please let me know when the water is ready. I can’t have you scrubbing all those dishes by yourself; you’ve done far too much already. I hardly know how to thank you.” She turned away, and took a half-dozen steps toward the aisles of dusty bookshelves that filled the rest of the room, then stopped. She looked like she thought something might be lurking in the murk back there, and frankly, Steffie didn’t blame her.

He took the chance to say: “I think we should give up on that rug. Just chuck it out.”

“It’s just as well,” the steerswoman replied, sort of far-off. “Unfortunately, we can’t chuck out the entire house.”

Steffie jumped at a clang from the bath-tub. Gwen had kicked it. “Mira liked things just the way they are!” she declared.

In the space of that clang, Rowan had come back to her chair, putting her right next to her sword again. “I’m sure she did,” she said to Gwen, seeming not to notice where she was or how she got there, “but I don’t, and no good steerswoman would. However much you may have liked Mira, the truth is that she simply wasn’t doing her job.”

She waved one hand at the shelves behind her. “Taking care of the Annex is an honor and a trust,” she said. “All of these books are careful copies of books in the Steerswomen’s Archives. If something should ever happen to the Archives, these books may become the only place where this information is held. The steerswomen have worked hard to gather all this.” She was angry now. “There are facts in these books — there are lives in these books,” she told Gwen, “years — centuries of individual human lives. Look –” She stormed over to one shelf in the first rank, and came back with a book that she had put by earlier. She opened it toward the middle, and held it up for Gwen to see. “There. That’s me, at the age of twenty-two. My first year as a steerswoman; and everything I learned or discovered in that year is right here.” Gwen gave the book a blank stare. She couldn’t read.

“The original is in the Archives,” Rowan went on. “There’s a copy here, and another in the Annex in the western mountains. And that is all.” Then she riffled the pages at Gwen. From the middle of the book, all the way to the back, the pages were moldy, and bored through with worm-holes. “That’s what Mira thought of my life.”

She put the book down, and rested one hand on it, the hand that had the scars. “Most of the books are in that condition, or worse,” she said, still looking down, like she was talking to the book. “They’re moldering in dust; they’re fused shut with damp. There are entire cratefulls still in the boxes they arrived in. They’re not cleaned, they’re not shelved, and nothing’s been cataloged for what looks like thirty years.”

She looked up at Gwen. “And in return for this service, Mira received a home, a stipend — and apparently a position of some respect in this town. Had Mira not been a steerswoman, I would care not at all how she lived her life. But apparently her work, and her sisters’, meant nothing to her.”

But trust Gwen to give no ground. She tossed her head. “Paper and ink and books aren’t lives. Mira’s life was her own, and she was alive and living it, and that’s more important than dusting and organizing. It’s mostly dead people’s lives in those books, isn’t it? Dead and gone, and who cares what they did?”

The words seemed to surprise Rowan, and she stood with her brows knit, thinking hard. After a while, she said: “Mira was a steerswoman, correct? And if you ask any steerswoman a question, she must answer, isn’t that true?”

Gwen crossed her arms. “She always did.”

“That’s the rule,” Steffie put in. He couldn’t see what Rowan was driving at.

The steerswoman drew in and let out a long breath. “I,” she said, “have questions. I have a great many questions. And unfortunately, the people I would most like to ask them of,” and here she threw out her arms suddenly, “happen to be dead!” She snatched up one of the other books on the table, held it tight in her two hands. “The steerswoman who wrote this book traveled more in one year, and saw more, than either of you will in your entire lifetimes. Somewhere in here — or there” and she turned back toward the shelves, angry, “someone might have an answer for me, or part of an answer, or a clue, or even a rumor…They’d tell me if they could.”

Dead people, talking; the idea sent a chill up Steffie and down again.

“If the catalog and indexes had been kept up,” Rowan went on, “I might have a chance of finding likely subjects quickly… proper abstracts would give me some idea of where at least to begin looking… even shelving the books in chronological order would help. Instead” — and she set the book down with a little slam — “I’ll have to look at every book that comes to hand, one by one, and set them in order myself. A proper search would take years. I’ll be doing Mira’s job at the same time I’m doing my own.”

Dead steerswomen, still answering questions. Like ghost sailors still sailing, ghost blacksmiths still pounding away, invisible. But think of that: imagine liking something so much that you’d keep right on doing it, even after you were dead. “Does Mira have a book in there?”

“Possibly.” The steerswoman did not sound much interested. “Very likely, I suppose. Something from her early career, perhaps. I certainly haven’t found her current logbook about anywhere.”

“Waste of time, if you ask me. Mira had other things to do,” Gwen said. “I never saw her bothering about writing in some old book!” Then she snatched up the kindling carrier from the hearth, and stomped straight out the back door.

“And I am not in the least bit surprised!” Rowan snapped back; then she stormed off herself, not down the bookshelves but upstairs. Steffie heard her feet crossing Mira’s room overhead, and then some bangs as she shifted something or other, and more footsteps, and creaks, and then nothing.

Leaving Steffie standing alone in the middle of the empty room.

“Right,” he said to no one in particular. Two women arguing; leave it alone. He’d learned that one early on, house full of sisters and all.

That sword had gone upstairs with Rowan, somehow. He didn’t see it happen, but it was gone now. Figured.

He went back to sweeping.

After a while, Gwen came back in with the carrier jammed full of kindling — which they didn’t really need, because there was plenty by the hearth. And she bumped right into Steffie on the way, too, and shoved him aside with her shoulder, even though there was plenty of room to go around him.

Which naturally sent his mind off in a whole other direction, knowing her like he did. As signals go, that one usually worked pretty well, and he started laying out a few plans in his head. Gwen peaceful was nice enough, but Gwen angry could be really interesting, if you came at it right.

Of course, Rowan was up in the bedroom. Still, she had to leave it sometime…

So Steffie played innocent while Gwen clattered with the kindling, grumbling and sounding like she was making a mess of it, which she never did for real. He let it go on for a while, sort of building up to a nice boiling point, and just when she got to sounding really frustrated, he set his broom aside and made to go over and help her —

Overhead, Rowan started moving again, toward the bedroom door. Good timing, Steffie thought —

But then it came to him that while Mira never minded when he and Gwen slipped upstairs, Rowan might be a whole other matter…

Better Not, he decided. So he just stayed put. Which wasn’t easy, now that he’d got his mind set on things, so to speak, but there you are.

Then Rowan came down the stairs, slow, carrying something, and using both hands to do it, even though it was small enough to carry in just one.

“Gwen,” she said, when she got to the work-table, “I’m sorry we argued.” She sounded a bit stiff, but she went on. “It was entirely my fault. Mira’s choice of habit had nothing to do with you. The fact that it makes my own work difficult isn’t your fault or your concern.” She put the thing in her hands down on the table, but carefully, like there was a spider inside. It turned out to be a little, dusty box.

The sword was slung over her arm by its belt; she put it back on the chair. “The Annex seems to be a second home to you, to both of you, and I hope you’ll continue to consider it so. I’m sorry you lost Mira; I hope she was as good a friend to you as you are to her. It was very kind of you to give so much help to an elderly woman.”

It was a pretty speech, but Steffie still wished Rowan was someplace else; out of the house altogether, in fact.

Gwen straightened up from the hearth and eyed her. “Mira was a steerswoman. You’re supposed to help a steerswoman.” Her head tilted, one eyebrow up, and she looked Rowan up and down. “Any steerswoman.”

Steffie could see something go thump inside of Rowan, and right then he wondered if maybe it was him who should leave the house. Out the back. Fast.

“Yes,” Rowan said, even stiffer than before; and “Well.” Then — moving so small and careful that Steffie just knew she really wanted to do something big and wild — she turned the box around so it faced Gwen, and lifted up the lid. “A steerswoman,” she said, “cannot do that,” and she pointed inside, “and remain a steerswoman.”

Then, like something inside of her let go, she was moving quick, snatching something up off the table — a wrapped package — and then she grabbed her sword, and was gone, straight out the front door.

Leaving a lot of silence behind. Which went on for a while.

Then Gwen walked wide around him to get to the table, so wide he couldn’t have touched her even if he reached out. “What’s this, then?” she said.

“A box,” Steffie said stupidly, feeling all off-balance; but the mood was gone, now, he knew that. He looked again. “A trinket box?”

A cheap-looking one, at that; and little and dusty, though not as dusty as most things in the house. Remembering how Rowan had acted with it, he stayed far back, and had to lean way over to look inside…

What had Rowan just said? “Does it mean that?” he asked out loud, “if you take them off? That you’re not a steerswoman?”

“Make sense,” Gwen told him, and picked up the box and dumped it out, exactly the way he hadn’t.

There on the table-top: puddle of gold, twist of silver. A steerswoman’s chain and ring. “Mira took them off,” he said.

“Never. We buried them with her, like we’re supposed. I should know, I helped lay her out.” Gwen picked up the ring, looked at it closer, and made a noise. “Not Mira’s, any fool could tell. It’s too big.” And with a flick she tossed it up in the air toward Steffie.

“Whoa, hup!” He snatched at it, missed it with his right hand, caught it with his left.

But when his hand closed around the ring, it didn’t feel big at all. He opened his hand and looked, and it seemed normal-sized, lying on his palm.

Which was funny; so, sort of to prove it to himself, he slipped it on. And sure enough, it looked just right on his own big hand —

Then he slipped it off again quick, feeling spooked, like it might be haunted.

Thing was, though, it fit. “Well, that’s a man’s size,” Steffie said. Had to be. Big for almost any woman’s hand; not big for his own.

Gwen laughed out loud. “A man steerswoman?”

“Well. Guess not.” But too big for Mira, that was sure.

Then the water was hot, and Gwen rolled up her sleeves and set to work, ignoring Steffie just like he wasn’t there at all. Which put an end to those plans he’d been laying, no doubt about that.

So Steffie gave up, heaved a sigh and went back to work himself. But first he put that ring and chain back in their box, wiped the dust off the box with his sleeve so he wouldn’t be told to do it later, and put it up on the mantelpiece.

And he forgot about all about it, until much later.

Copyright 2003, Rosemary Kirstein