Ben Crowder / Writing

Bag Field

Fantasy. Around 20 pages. Published November 23, 2022.

Dear Mum,

Made it here safely. (Which surprised me given how rickety and ancient that train was!)

I’m sitting in the shade with a deviled egg sandwich outside Frederic’s Cafe — the one Peter used to frequent. The sandwich is lovely beyond description, and the air — the air! Clear and rich and wholesome, and there’s a cool breeze that makes me want to weep for joy. Nothing like Rabble’s stale fumes. The book I’m reading is less delightful — Minaroque’s Meditations in a Garden, surprisingly dull, and unless it picks up soon I’m liable to abandon it for another.

From what I’ve seen so far (admittedly just what’s between the train station and here), modernization has Wisbury Fold tight in its grip, but Frederic’s continues to resist. No electricity, so they choose to close an hour or so after sunset. The decor is quaint and homey and the servers are as friendly as my actual friends. My chair and table out front? Hand-carved wood, with unbelievably intricate curlicues and other designs on the back of the chair and the top of the table. I love it.

A curious thing has just happened while I’ve been writing this letter. A man ran up the walk — red-faced, dark hair cleanly cut, stout, close to fifty if I had to guess, wearing a clean white apron (over ordinary gray and black work clothes, I hasten to add).

“Catty l’Estrelle!” he called. “Catty l’Estrelle!”

“I am Caty,” I said, after a moment’s hesitation in which I debated whether to repeat his mispronunciation to keep him from feeling bad for getting it wrong. (In hindsight, I doubt he would have cared one bit. Linguistic accuracy seemed far from the top of his priority list.)

I was of course wondering how he knew my name, since to my knowledge not a soul in Wisbury Fold knew I was coming — and if Peter were here, I wouldn’t be here searching for him, now, would I.

The thought also crossed my mind — too late — that perhaps I should have been more careful revealing my identity so quickly to a complete stranger. But nothing came of that, so don’t worry.

It turns out Bella cabled ahead and wrote me a welcome note, and apparently she begged and bribed the clerk to hand deliver the message once the train came in. He’d been running all over looking for me, with only Bella’s loose description to go off. (“Brunette, mid-twenties, hair probably a mess, face a bit long, lustrous green eyes, fond of wearing gray, bound to be reading a book.” So apparently that’s how my friends see me. I’ll grant the hair, but a long face? Trying not to take it as a bad thing — especially since I inherited it from you and Granddad! But really it says more about Bella, and besides, it doesn’t matter anyway.)

After I check in at the hotel, I’m planning to stop by the smithy to learn what I can about Peter there. He surely must have left some things behind, and the new smith surely must have kept at least some of them.

Time willing, I also want to go to Peter’s old house, and I want to find Emmaline, but that all may have to wait till tomorrow. It’s a bit of a walk out there. If you remember anything else he may have said to you — any places he frequented here, any people he mentioned — that would be enormously helpful.

I’ll write again tomorrow if I have time.

Love,
Caty

Dear Mum,

What a day!

I walked to the edge of town to visit the smithy early in the morning, before breakfast. The building is smaller than I expected — not much more than a shack — and its age is certainly showing, in an endearing yet slightly worrisome way. One hopes it doesn’t fall apart while anyone is inside.

The new smith is Charles, a relatively recent graft all the way from Penneth Woods. He’s very young, very large, and very self-assured (too much so, I think).

He says he knows nothing of Peter, however. Months after Peter disappeared, Charles’s older sister (who lives here) told him that the Wisbury Fold smithy had been abandoned. The village still needed work done, so they established a special, temporary arrangement where Charles uses the smithy even if he’s not technically the owner. If two years from now Peter still hasn’t shown up, ownership of the land and smithy will revert to the village and they’ve agreed to then turn it all over to Charles.

So, while I severely doubt he had anything to do with the disappearance, Charles almost certainly does not want me to find Peter. I think he knows more than he’s telling, too.

I breakfasted at Frederic’s again, hungry for familiarity as well as food. He has this dish called Fredereggs where he cuts strips of fried egg and then plaits them around a skewer with strips of grilled lamb and peppers and onions and drizzles it all with a fresh, spicy sauce. I could eat this every morning for the rest of my life, even with the ghastly dish name.

Satiation complete, I wandered off in search of Emmaline. Emmaline the mysterious, the enigmatic, the invisible. Nobody here has heard of her. I’m beginning to wonder if Peter made her up. (While I don’t want to cast any shade upon your brother, Mum, you have to admit it’s possible. He was lonely, and if there weren’t any real girls to write home about, maybe he invented one.) Don’t you worry, though — for now I’ll proceed as if she were real, blood and flesh and bone and all.

In one of his letters Peter said that she was from Bronyddur. To my knowledge he didn’t ever say how long she had been in Wisbury Fold. Maybe I should ask whether the people here know anyone from Bronyddur, in case Emmaline goes by a different name now. The rest of Peter’s descriptions of her — “sweet as a sunrise,” “hair that reminds me of corn cobs but in a good way,” “deeeeeelightful” — aren’t quite as helpful, unfortunately.

I digress. An early afternoon a-wandering proved fruitless in regard to Emmaline, but I did meet a kind old woman who was out tending her front porch garden when I walked by. Her name is Penny and she’s lived here as long as she can remember — “Fold through and through,” she said.

Her husband died a few years ago (fell off a roof, leg got a vicious infection while he was recuperating). She misses him dearly, that much was clear. Her mother was a widow for the last twenty-two years of her life and poor Penny has been afraid of a similar fate ever since.

We ended up in her front room drinking grape juice and eating bland barley crackers. Her husband used to eat the crackers with black currant jam, so of course she did too after he passed, but eventually she ran out of jam and the shrub died so now she just eats the crackers plain.

I worry about you, Mum. Being lonely like this, if Dad goes first. I know you’re both still young, at least compared to Penny, so hopefully we have many a year before it becomes relevant, but in the event that it happens, what would you think about having one of us move back in with you? Just a thought. (I know you treasure your independence like it’s fine gold.)

One thing Penny told me about has been wriggling around in my brain ever since: there’s a convent up in the northern hills called Bag Field. She made an allusion to something odd or awful that happened there several years ago. Something painful enough that my (subtle) prodding didn’t coax it out of her.

Tomorrow I’m going there to see what I can find. Don’t worry, Mum. I’ll be careful.

Love,
Caty

Dear Mum,

Progress!

After breakfast this morning (assorted fruit finely chopped and served with cream) I walked up the hills to Bag Field.

It’s not visible from the village, though you can see all the hills that surround it. A hidden valley convent! Just like in those Alamara books I used to read when I was young. (I tried reading one a year or two ago. It has not aged well.)

Bag Field was built two hundred years ago by the Clarevent order, which I hadn’t heard of before. They were fleeing some kind of persecution and made a home here in the hills. That’s what a plaque at the door said, anyway.

The convent walls are at least twenty feet tall and perhaps half as thick. Persecuted indeed — these people built themselves a castle, Mum. It’s a sight to see. There are towers with slit windows, there’s a bit of crenellation on one of the walls, and I almost wish I lived here, at least for a short time.

Penny said the place had been abandoned, and the door was unlocked, so I went in. Yes, I know you wouldn’t be happy about that but Mum, I’m a grown woman now. I can make my own choices. Besides, I found something.

Abandoned was accurate. Not a soul in sight. No bedraggled ghosts or even devilishly handsome hermits, either. All the valuables and perishables appear to have been taken when the Clarevent people left (or plundered afterwards). What’s left is the stuff nobody cared about. Or at least that’s my reading of what I saw. I’ll let you make your own.

When you walk through the door (which really is more of a gate, now that I think of it) you immediately see the courtyard. It’s in the center (naturally) and it’s just dirt. Flat, with an odd hint of furrows or treads, and bare.

The only thing in the courtyard other than bugs and dust is a tree. It’s off-center, almost like it was planted in haste. I wish it were centered. The tree itself is also unnerving: ramrod straight, stark gray on both trunk and leaf, solemn beyond belief — like a cranky old schoolmaster. There was no plaque to explain why it was there.

The courtyard is surrounded by brown and gray stone buildings, most only a single story tall. I explored many of them and found the following: a kitchen (with no food, just pans and utensils and such), bedrooms (no linens), what may have been an infirmary, classrooms, and what I think were individual offices.

I also found a couple libraries! With books still in them! Lots of them! I’ve started going through them, to see if there’s anything that might help — records that might mention Peter or Emmaline, for example. It’s laborious, time-consuming work, but I was born for this. The game is afoot.

Love,
Caty

Dear Mum,

Spent nearly the whole day searching the library, book by book, with breaks only for eating (I brought a lunch, don’t worry) and bodily necessities (I won’t go into unnecessary detail).

Nothing so far.

Love,
Caty

Dear Mum,

I found something!

There’s a section of the library devoted to local history. (I wish I’d known about it beforehand so I could have just started there and saved hours of time — and so much sneezing.) In it I found a short manuscript by one of the sisters who lived here, Sister Felicia.

She starts with irrelevant but interesting autobiographical details about her upbringing and what led her to cloister. Her mother and father were second cousins, which didn’t sit well with some of the family, so they were largely ostracized and ended up moving to Thrilch, which as you can imagine wasn’t the best environment for a young girl. She was kidnapped, escaped, kidnapped again by a different group, killed her captors (she doesn’t say how), and decided to leave Thrilch not only to avoid further kidnapping but also to seek absolution for the blood on her hands. The Clarevent migration was passing through Gully La just as she arrived there, and she joined up with them.

Part of me wonders just how much of Sister Felicia’s history is fiction. This casts some doubt on the next part of her record, naturally, but for now it’s the best lead I have.

After Sister Felicia’s admission to the order, the nuns traveled here to Wisbury Fold and came across the hills. The perfect location, they decided. Over the next several months they built Bag Field, which at the time was called Matirransatet (“hill sanctuary”). The northeast tower was where Sister Felicia helped the most, selecting stones and mixing mortar.

All was well and good for several years. Then trouble came to town.

It took the shape of a man called Tlain. And he had nothing to do with the original persecutors of the Clarevent order, if you were wondering. (I was.)

One morning toward the end of an abnormally muggy summer, Tlain showed up in Wisbury Fold, pulling a wobbly cart. In the cart was a gray wool blanket riddled with tears and holes. No other belongings.

He parked his cart in the middle of the town square and began waving his blanket around like a madman. This snagged people’s attention, as you might imagine. A minute or so later, when a decent sized crowd had gathered, he whipped his blanket back and lo, there was a chair. A sleek wooden rocking chair, conjured out of nothing.

Tlain sat himself down in the chair. He ignored the people watching him. He swatted a fly that had landed on his arm, then (apologies for including this next part) picked its corpse up and ate it. The people here were no strangers to hard living, but something about Tlain’s manner came across as particularly feral and bent. Most of the crowd took a step or two back.

Ignoring them all, he waved the blanket around again above his lap. A minute later, a crown appeared. It was crudely fashioned of burnished gold, with clear hammer marks, poorly set jewels, and a severe tilt to the wearer’s left. No artisan work, this. Tlain set the crown upon his head and looked out over the crowd with a cold glint in his eye, as if daring them to defy his assumed authority.

One of the townspeople there, Roderick the cobbler, had a small knife in his hand (for cutting leather, no doubt) and a boiling hatred of suppression.

For most of this account, by the way, I’m just copying in Sister Felicia’s words, with some adjustments and edits. Consider it a seamless collaboration.

Roderick pushed his way to the front and raised his knife and hollered that he would have no king, not in Wisbury Fold, not nowhere. (The irony here is that he already did have a king, Puirtello, but that king was a distant one and Wisbury Fold rarely felt his hand around their neck and thus rarely thought of him.)

Quick as lightning, Tlain whipped his blanket with one hand, a dagger dropped into his other hand, and before anyone had a chance to call out or move to stop him, Tlain hurled the dagger into Roderick’s chest.

Sister Felicia includes a note here saying that she was at Bag Field at the time and did not see it herself, but that she heard all about it from Sister Penniworth, who was in the crowd. So now of course I’m utterly convinced that Sister Penniworth is Penny, the old woman I met. I’m determined to go see her again tomorrow and try to get her to confess. (Though if she doesn’t want to, I suppose it would be wrong to keep pushing.)

Anyway, Roderick fell, the crowd fell still, and Tlain sat imperious and cold on his ridiculous rocking throne.

After that, King Tlain began to rule. Surprisingly, he wasn’t awful, as far as rulers go. Roderick’s was the only execution for a while. Taxes were reasonable. Tlain expanded his kingdom bit by bit over the following years, as kings are wont to do. He married, sired, trained. Notably, he kept using his magic blanket (how silly that sounds), though it doesn’t often say what for.

Sister Felicia’s account ends with some notes about a land squabble on the west side of Wisbury Fold. I don’t know what year.

Oh. Oh indeed. Just now, as I was rereading that last page, the light angled just right and I could see impressions of writing after the end. Someone erased the last few sentences on the page (Sister Felicia?), and upon further inspection I found that someone also cut out three pages at the end, too. Intriguing.

Some parts were tricky, but the erased sentences read: “Today Roderick’s cousin Gil coaxed a sorcerer puppet here, tall, imperious, terrifying. Don’t know its name. It pulled a tree up out of the ground in the courtyard, full of dark magics, and it embedded Tlain deep into its trunk.”

!

I’m too tired to keep writing tonight even though this is groundbreaking. Or interesting, anyway. I don’t know if it’ll help us find Peter at all.

Love,
Caty

Dear Mum,

In the night I was sleepwalking again and stubbed my toe on the foot of the credenza in my room. It was bad enough that the nail has turned black and guess who now walks with a haggard limp. But don’t worry about me, I’ll be just fine.

My dreams: reading the cut-out pages from Sister Felicia’s book, which had somehow come into my possession. Reading them over and over and over again, no less. I don’t remember what they said, though! Not that it would be what they actually said, so it doesn’t matter.

I hobbled over to Penny’s today, to see if she is in fact Sister Penniworth. She sat me down in her sitting room and fed me cupcakes while she hemmed and hawed and kept trying to change the subject, but fortitude is my name and eventually she did confess. I was right! (I feel like I pushed too hard, though, and that has left me with a queasy feeling in my stomach the rest of the day. I’m also wondering if I might be coming down with a cold.)

Penny said yes, Tlain was embedded in the tree in Bag Field, and she didn’t remember the name of the sorcerer puppet either. What mattered far more to them at the time was their frustration that the infernal puppet had put him in the convent instead of somewhere else in Wisbury Fold, and — even more importantly — that a day or two later, nobody could leave the convent.

It was particularly hard to get her to open up about that part of things — very traumatizing, even now — but she did eventually tell me. She tried to go into town to pick up some bowls the potter was making for them, but when she got about six feet past the convent walls, she couldn’t go any farther. Like someone was holding her wrists and ankles back, she said. Others tried to leave, same result. Penny said it made her feel like someone had poured icy sludge into her bones. Not only the lack of freedom, but also the fear of not being able to get supplies, of being cut off and isolated, of being trapped with a monster.

The fielders (as they called themselves) initially thought the barrier was the sorcerer puppet’s doing, trying to keep Tlain in. A year or two later, though, they figured out somehow that it was actually Tlain’s magic. Stuck there in that tree, he was keeping everyone close, probably as some kind of survival mechanism.

He himself was unconscious as near as anyone could tell. The brave ones tried talking to him. He never answered, never opened his eyes. (His face was the only part of him that wasn’t behind the bark.) No movement beyond an uncanny breathing in the part of the trunk where his chest must have been.

That same day they learned something new and awful. A bunch of the fielders went up on the walls and hollered until some folders (people from the village) came over to see what the ruckus was. The fielders explained the situation and begged the folders to get them out. A few folders tried. They didn’t know where the invisible line of no return was, inadvertently crossed it (it was impermeable on only one side), and became fielders.

So of course no folders wanted to get anywhere near it anymore. Some of the fielders put stones around the perimeter so people would know where the real boundary was. That worked out relatively well except that the boundary kept changing, ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning. Most of the time no damage was done, when the line grew smaller, but occasionally it snatched someone who got too close to the stone line.

That led to the folders building the outer wall, waist high, fifty yards out. (This is probably boring you, Mum, isn’t it. Thank you for enduring it for my sake. I can’t tell you how much I love this kind of thing. But I’ll try to get to the point more quickly now.)

A few fundamentals the fielders and folders learned those first couple months: the boundary was a sphere centered on Tlain, so there was no going over the invisible wall or digging under it. No holes in the boundary as far as they could tell, either. And it only stopped people; things could be passed back and forth freely. This, Penny said, was a huge relief in the midst of a terrible time.

Time passed. More sorcerer puppets were brought in to try to undo what they thought the first one had done, but they wouldn’t go near Bag Field — said that it was too dangerous, and that the puppets were too expensive. Eventually, though, they found one willing to do more investigative work, and that’s when they learned that it was Tlain’s magic and not sorcerer puppetry.

And that’s as much as Penny told me, because her back and legs were aching. (Mine too, if I’m honest.) Tomorrow I’ll go back, since clearly Tlain is gone and the boundary is gone, so something must have happened.

Penny did tell me one other thing, at the very end. I asked if she knew anyone named Emmaline, and this time she said yes, she did. The Emmaline she knew — who matched the descriptions Peter gave, though that’s not saying much — was one of the folders who accidentally got too close to the boundary and became a fielder.

!

Penny had to leave right then for “urgent personal business,” so I wasn’t able to ask if she knew about Peter — or what happened to Emmaline after everyone escaped Bag Field. Tomorrow!

This evening I finished reading the Minaroque. The last quarter was ever so slightly less dull than the rest, but I really should have abandoned it for another.

I haven’t sent anything to Bella, by the way, under the unvoiced assumption that you would have her over for dinner and read these letters aloud to her. (If Skillet — that’s her new boyfriend, and apparently it really is his legal name — leaves any openings in her schedule, that is.)

As I’ve been writing this, by the way, I’ve been nibbling on some leftover fried raspberry crepe sticks from a delightful little shop I found this afternoon. I’ll send part of one in the envelope with this letter. It might only be crumbs by the time it gets to you, though!

Love,
Caty

Dear Mum,

I’m coming home.

After breakfast I limped back over to Penny’s to get answers. Guess who wasn’t home. I don’t know if I scared her off or if she just had that urgent business to take care of. I’ll probably never know.

Since I didn’t want to waste the day lolling around at the hotel — my toe still feels like the bone has the flu, by the way — I dragged myself into the heart of town in search of someone who might have known Emmaline. And of breakfast.

I found both at Frederic’s. (There aren’t really any other cafes here, which I meant to mention earlier. Given the size of the town, I’m surprised even Frederic’s can stay in business. I wonder if he has another enterprise out of sight.)

The girl who took my order said it was good I came in when I did, because they’re closing early today. Old Lem saw two sorcerer puppets stilting about at Bag Field early this morning and everyone is spooked. Nobody knows why they’re here. They’re never good news, though, as you well know. (Now that I’m older and have more points of comparison, perhaps you’d be willing to tell me more about what happened when you were a child? I can handle it.)

A bit later I was sitting there finishing off my buttered grits when in walks Old Lem himself. The waitress pointed him over to my table — I’d asked her where I could find him, so that was nice of her — and, with a raised eyebrow, he sat down across from me.

Old Lem: not as old as you’d think. Late forties, maybe. They call him Old because he has an adult son named Little Lem (who begrudges that name now and has been pushing to be called Big Lem since he’s six and a half feet tall and weighs over two hundred pounds). Old Lem and his wife live down the street from Frederic’s. He’s a carpenter.

And yes, he saw two sorcerer puppets going inside Bag Field at dawn today. He didn’t see anyone else nearby, but he also didn’t stick around. (He was scouting the area for a fallen branch for carving. There are lots of trees on the west side of the convent.) He and his wife are spooked and plan to leave today to go stay with her family in Rabble.

When they said the words, such a pang of homesickness hit me! Rabble, my city beautiful! And grimy and loud, but still a thing of beauty in my eyes. I do miss it dearly. Even the fumes. But I digress.

Old Lem was there! At Bag Field, back when Tlain was held captive! Lem was one of the people who tried to help and got stuck. He was there four years, years made shorter when he met and married his wife. And guess who his wife was friends with? Emmaline the enigmatic.

Thia (Lem’s wife, short for Hyacinthia) and Emmaline were around the same age and spent a lot of time together growing up. (Yes, yes, I realize you could probably say that about any two people in Wisbury Fold given how small it is.)

I’m realizing you don’t need all the long anthropological details on this. (Things to tell you about in person when I get home: how they set up beds for everyone, their food and water supply, the internal political system they set up, Tlain’s magical tics, the time people tried to cut down Tlain’s tree, the tunnel, and Sister Felicia’s untimely demise.)

Skipping forward to the meat, then. Old Lem says Emmaline was at Bag Field when the boundary went up. (Which does conflict with what Penny said, but Lem seems to be a more reliable source here.) Emmaline and Thia and several others were attending a little flute performance some of the children were putting on as part of a Clarevent music education program. Uncle Peter wasn’t there, though — he was home visiting you and the rest of the family, trying to borrow a few thousand from Grandad (as you well know, of course). Lucky. Or not, depending on your perspective.

By the time Peter got back to Wisbury Fold, they’d found what happened if a folder crossed the boundary, so he kept his distance and didn’t get pulled in. But he did visit Emmaline several times a day from over the wall. Sweet thing. Emmaline talked Thia’s ear off about every last one of his visits, apparently.

Then one day Peter stopped coming. Emmaline insisted he hadn’t abandoned her, but she wouldn’t say why he’d left either. Lem didn’t think she knew. None of them did. But it seemed pretty clear to Lem that distanced visits weren’t as satisfying as being up close, so he assumed Peter had moved on. There were other girls in Wisbury Fold, after all.

A month or so after that, the unexpected happened. It was late in the afternoon, in the fall. A small army of sorcerer puppets marched into Bag Field, right through the doors, and surrounded Tlain and the tree in the courtyard. All the tree’s leaves had fallen already, giving it a harsh and angry demeanor. Lem watched from up on one of the walls, where he’d been doing guard duty.

He was sure they were going to kill Tlain right there, but no, they linked their tentacles, the tree started shaking, and then Tlain fell out of the trunk and collapsed on the ground. Lem’s ears popped, too. That’s why he’s convinced the boundary collapsed at that moment and not later. (Though we’re in agreement that the exact timing is not in fact relevant.)

Tlain wasn’t lying there more than a few moments when a gigantic cormorant swooped down, snapped him up in its beak, and flew off with him to who knows where. Thia is convinced it ate him, but Lem feels certain the cormorant was Tlain’s and was there to rescue him.

That was the last anyone saw Tlain.

Until this afternoon.

Apologies for the dramatic paragraphing, Mum, but goodness! It took all my willpower to keep from blurting it out at the beginning. Tlain has returned to Wisbury Fold. To Bag Field, more specifically. He has holed up in there and has done some kind of dark magic because now the walls are three times taller than they used to be, and now they look like they’re made out of bones. Nobody has dared get close to find out any more.

I’m tempted to stay to see what happens, but the situation is precarious enough that I’ve decided to follow the path of prudence this time. Hard to believe, I know! I’ll drop this letter off in the post early tomorrow morning and then catch the 10:00 train back home. If you don’t have evening plans, I’d love to have supper with you and Bella (and Skillet, because otherwise Bella won’t come) and everyone else. I can fill you in on everything I wasn’t able to include in these letters, which was a lot.

This leaves Peter’s story unresolved, I know. My hunch? He went off looking for a way to get Emmaline out. I don’t know, maybe he’s the one who found those sorcerer puppets who freed Tlain and brought the boundary down. Or maybe he left Emmaline and made a new life for himself somewhere else with someone else. Oh. I hadn’t thought of that before.

Either way, I hope someday we can find out where he went and what he’s been doing. I hope he and Emmaline are together and happy. Who knows, maybe I have cousins! That would be something, wouldn’t it.

See you tomorrow!

Love,
Caty

That letter is the last we’ve heard from our dear, sweet Caty. Five years now, years long and bitter. You could fill a few bathtubs with my tears alone, not to mention the rest of the family’s.

Wisbury Fold is still there — we’ve been able to see people moving about inside — but we can’t get within a few miles of it and nobody from the inside has come out to where we are. We’ve tried everything we can think of to get our Caty out. And we’ll never stop trying, not as long as I’m alive.