I emerged from the haze and into a cacophony of impressions: the sharp scent of sea water, gulls crying as they soared on the wind, the rumble of carts and tapping of wooden clogs on cobbled paths, the voices of market vendors hawking their wares, the slap of waves against the quay, creaking ropes, and a high, clear bell ringing out the hour. Then the contours emerged: solid stone walls rising high on either side of a narrow alley, a glimpse of market stalls where the alley spilled out into a square, and the aroma of freshly baked bread and roasting chestnuts. My heart quickened as a strong sense of familiarity coursed through me. At last, at last, after so long a time, I was back.
I remembered the way. From Weaver’s Alley I passed through the market square with its granite waycross and fountain. Then the steep climb up Market Hill, past the bakery, the butcher’s shop, the fishmonger, the apothecary, and the cloth merchant. After that, a right turn onto Artisan Row, past the narrow houses where tailors, smiths, seamstresses, midwives, scribes, doll makers, painters, musicians lived and worked.
Across the street, tucked between the drum maker’s workshop and a herb vendor, the narrow stone stairway of Guild Close rose high behind the houses. It would have been less taxing to take the gentle serpentines of Highgate and Linnet Rise, but Guild Close had always been my path of choice.
One-hundred-and-six, one-hundred-and-seven, one-hundred-and-eight. At the top of the stairway, I turned left along a narrow footpath at the base of an ivy-clad wall. An undisturbed carpet of brilliant red, rime-edged leaves told me the path was rarely used. A few yards on, the path took a gentle curve to the right, and then I found myself standing once again in front of a weathered oaken door with a wrought-iron handle. I gripped the metal and pushed down.
The garden was exactly as I remembered it. One one side, neatly ordered beds in which gardeners grew vegetables for the guild kitchens. On the other, a stone-arched entrance to the terraced gardens with their secluded arbours, pergolas, and pavillions, in which artists might find seclusion. And straight ahead, just a few steps away, the doorway that opened into the cloistered courtyard.
“Welcome home, Alba.”
The Guildmistress stepped out from beneath the garden arch.
She smiled. “I see old habits die hard, oh mistress of the back doors and hidden stairways.”
For a moment, I felt eight years old again.
We fell into step along the path toward the courtyard door.
“Is the turret room free?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, “but, you will not need it.”
She stopped to examine the leaves on a holly bush. Aftera while, she turned and gave me one of her “mistress” looks.
“Alba, I wish you to set off on your journey tonight.”
Her words puzzled me. I had just arrived. I was looking forward to making the acquaintance of other travellers and to working in one of the ateliers. I felt ill-prepared and unready, and I said so.
She paused before answering. “Tonight is auspicious, Alba, and you are as ready as you need be. I have acquired some insight that makes it essential you travel forth tonight.”
For a fleeting moment, my pleasure at returning to the Guild became tinged with sadness. But the fact was, everyone connected with the Guild knew the Guildmistress was privy to all manners of knowledge, which she acquired in manners both mysterious and mundane. Within the Guild walls, and, I suspected, far beyond, she was the authority. I knew, her words to me, however softly spoken, were an imperative and that nothing remained for me save graceful acquiescence.
* * *
With only hours in which to prepare, and much I still wished to do in that time, I fell into a flurry of activity. I spread my belongings across the bed in the turret room and set about stowing them in my travelling trunk. They seemed so few and so unfinished: the map, half-drawn, the journals only barely made… But at least my doll was ready — my anchor. As a child I had witnessed so many Going Forth ceremonies, and I knew a little of what the doll meant and how important she would be as I travelled. Through her, the Guildmistress and the Mistress of Treasures would know where I was and receive knowledge of the stations of my journey. I laid her — the other Alba — carefully beside my trunk, and went in search of the Robe Mistress, who would help me choose my travelling clothes.