The Witch of Cheyne Heath
Book 2 of 4
Inadequate training, arcane rules, and your mother in the guest bedroom criticizing your every spell and potion. There must be easier ways to save the world!
Gosha Armitage will never be the witch her mother wants her to be, but that won’t stop her from getting the job done. When a strange new drug hits the streets of Cheyne Heath causing madness and death, the newly-minted witch must challenge the centuries-long traditions of witchcraft and the devious machinations of the sorcerous elite to foil an occult power struggle playing out across the neighborhood she calls home. Will Gosha find her own path through the twisting politics of witchcraft and sorcery to save Cheyne Heath from being consumed by the forces of Shadow?
Craftwork is the second installment in The Witch of Cheyne Heath supernatural mystery series from author W. V. Fitz-Simon. If you like 80s New Wave synthpop, treacherous dreamscapes, and outspoken witches with strong opinions, you’ll love this arch and cozy spellpunk adventure. Order Craftwork and step into the glamorous, enigmatic, dangerous world of Cheyne Heath today!
PRAISE FOR THE SERIES
READ AN EXCERPT
Małgorzata Mierzejewska Armitage stood at the top of Morel Road Market, baffled by the rickety two-wheeled barrow she must have passed four times a week for the last seven years without ever once noticing. The barrow was shoddier and older than any of the other stalls around it by several hundred years, if the lichen eating through its decrepit wooden boards was any mark of truth. The trader, a stooped eighty-year-old woman in a threadbare overcoat with bird droppings spattered across her shoulders, had stacked the barrow high with filigreed iron cages filled with a chittering assortment of birds, reptiles, and rodents that towered above her.
Gosha planted her feet wide on the cobblestones against the jostling of shoppers brushing past, as oblivious to her as they were to the stench of manure from the mess of droppings beneath the cart that wafted over her and stung her nostrils. She glanced up and down the market, triangulating her bearings with familiar buildings and stalls. There was Mrs. Harty and her fish cart, and there was Craig Wooley with his cheeses, the fabric shop behind them, the Tesco’s next to it. Everything where it should be. She’d simply been blind to this most peculiar barrow like everyone else around her until that day last September when she took the Betrayal and became a witch. And now a dozen similar barrows, manned by eccentric stallholders who only spoke in incomprehensible gibberish, dotted the market, stretching all the way from Bath Lane to Bagshot Row. On one September afternoon, Cheyne Heath, her home for twenty years, had been transformed into a queer landscape straight out of one of her sons’ books.
“Małgorzata, focus!” Her mother snapped her fingers in front of Gosha’s face. “This is serious. I won’t be there to help you. Whatever bargain you strike you will have to fulfill yourself. It’s time for you to stand on your own. Honestly, girl. It’s no wonder you’re in such a sorry state. You’ve no awareness.”
A frond of her mother’s white hair dislodged in the spring breeze and fell across her face, a wisp of softness across the sharp arch of her eyebrows and the harsh creases etched into the corners of her eyes from a lifetime of scowling. Agnieszka tugged the frond back and tucked it into place. It helped to think of her mother as Agnieszka. Gosha grasped at any detail to open the meager distance between them now that they lived under each other’s skirts. As a child, she’d always wondered what it would be like to have a mother who would protect and nurture her, to guide her and teach her. Now she knew. It was scarcely better than when they’d been estranged and living on opposite sides of the heath. At least now, Agnieszka didn’t use spells to force Gosha to do her bidding, only a sharp tongue and emotional manipulation.
“What,” snapped Agnieszka. “What are you looking at? Such a gaze. Like a judging angel. What goes through your head when you drift away?”
Gosha sighed and pulled herself together, steeling herself for the next of the many tests Agnieszka had lined up. Though so much of her life had changed in the past months, it had been too much to hope all her mother’s points and edges might have softened once Gosha, after years of resistance, did what her mother wanted and became a witch. As usual, Gosha would have to find the love and support she craved elsewhere.
“Are you ready?” said Agnieszka.
“Any last-minute tips?” said Gosha, distracted by the animal seller scooping up a mound of droppings off a cage with her finger and wiping it on her skirt.
“Must I go over this all again? Learn to stand up for yourself. You can’t slide around on the hem of my skirts. Oh, my aching fingers. Thanks to me, your nursery grows with an abundance of seeds blown into your garden by favorable winds. The list of chores in your kitchen grows longer and longer with every week. I’m not your housekeeper. You can’t just send me off to the shops like you did Elsie. A hard-working woman’s housework is her own to do.”
She’s speaking in Cant, thought Gosha.
Though she would have loved to snap back and tell her mother to speak plainly, she pushed down the impulse. It would only start a fight, and they’d had enough of those in the past few months.
After years of frustration with her mother’s peculiar turns of phrase, at last she understood. Her mother was using Witches’ Cant, a secret language witches used to speak frankly about their affairs out in the open without fear of persecution. Agnieszka’s reference to her aching fingers was a sign that she was shifting to Cant. The talk of seeds and garden referred to the increasing number of people coming to the house seeking the help only a witch could provide, drawn by the invisible witch marks her mother had inscribed on her front door. Kitchen chores signified the work of Craft she had to perform to fulfill her visitor’s needs, and housework meant the rules of conduct that witches observed toward each other.
“The sun is too strong this morning,” said Gosha, the complaint about the weather telling her mother she was speaking plainly and not in Cant. “All I want is to do a good job. I want to make you proud.”
The sun wasn’t too strong. It was lovely. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes as she let it out, turning her face so the spring daylight glowed through her eyelids. She doubted she could ever make Agnieszka proud of her, but her mother responded better to meek subservience than contrariness.
Agnieszka grunted, unimpressed, and walked on. A woman wheeling a pram slid into the gap between them, forcing Gosha to skip around the clattering wheels to catch up.
“Why must I speak that way if only we can see her stall?” said Gosha to the hand-knit shawl wrapped around her mother’s shoulders. Agnieszka didn’t slow down.
“Excuse me?” said Agnieszka, halting to turn and raise an eyebrow, its well-plucked point jabbing toward the heavens.
“My ankle aches,” said Gosha with a sigh, indicating she was shifting to Cant. It did ache, her foot having landed awkwardly on the cobbled street as she stopped herself from barreling into her mother. It took a moment to formulate what she wanted to say, frustration gripping at her tongue like it had when she was a child and they first arrived in Britain. “Why must we talk about scrubbing and cleaning when any hard-working woman will know what she’s looking at?”
“Iron Jenny likes to clean a house the old-fashioned way.” Agnieszka strode away at a brisk clip. “And a woman with a job to do should know where her washing powder comes from. Can’t clean a house from rafters to foundations without knowing that.” Iron Jenny, the witch Gosha would have to bargain with, was a traditionalist, and would insist on using Witches’ Cant, part of the shared heritage of all witches.
Agnieszka took her by the arm and steered her to a gap between two barrows on the side of the street. She clasped the sleeve of Gosha’s sweater, bunching the fabric up in her hand. It wasn’t a sign of affection. The physical contact would include her in whatever spell her mother was about to cast.
“Pezhvatek,” said Agnieszka, a spell word in the secret language of Craft her mother had brought with her from Poland.
The morning light faded as if a cloud had covered the sun, the din of commerce around them softening to a murmur. It was a spell of concealment, making everyone around them forget they had ever been there. They could speak plainly now, with no one seeing or hearing them.
“Tell her that the ride into town was arduous,” said Agnieszka. “Make it seem you came from a great distance.”
“The house is a seven-minute walk from here.”
Her mother’s eyebrow twitched. Had Gosha still been a girl, Agnieszka would have swatted her across the back of the head.
“It tells her you are new and still finding your way,” her mother said instead. “It’s a plea to be forgiving.” She snorted. “Must you always have an answer to everything? You’re far too sure of yourself. Look where it’s got you. You would think losing your husband would’ve taught you to hold your tongue.”
Gosha hadn’t lost her husband. George had become a murderer and a sorcerer, and she didn’t know which was worse. She’d banished him from Cheyne Heath and set wards around the neighborhood so he could never threaten her or her children again. Her home had become her refuge. She didn’t dare pass the boundary of the wards for fear of what he might do. Her refuge was vast, the entire borough, but it still felt like a prison, her mother a jailer constantly reminding her of her failings, even as Gosha did her best to be the witch her mother wanted her to be.
“Do you have your list of what you need?” said Agnieszka.
Gosha nodded and pulled it out of her pocket.
“And what did I tell you to say?”
She looked down at the notes she’d scrawled in her jumbled handwriting next to her mother’s precise cursive.
“For the ingredients of balms and salves I need to talk about cooking, and knitting for the cures for smoking and nail-biting.”
Agnieszka nodded. “The two after that are tricky, subtler. Mrs. Garfield’s scoliosis is too extreme for simple Craft, and the scars from Andrew Johnson’s shingles are deep. Frame these things as if they were for a dress you’re making. This will inform Iron Jenny you are looking for ingredients that are more refined. Be wary of numbers, dates, seasons, anything to do with the calendar or the passage of time. If she uses them, the negotiations will have begun. When she asks you if you’ve heard of something someone has made, it means she is happy with what you’ve agreed on. To accept the terms, you tell her you have heard of it and how much you like it. Say something negative about it if you don’t. When you leave, say you have lots of housework to do. She will say something similar. It means you are pledging to honor the conventions that bind all witches. Come straight back and tell me exactly what she said, to the letter. I will tell you what you’ve agreed to. Make sure you get a good price, or it will reflect poorly on me.”
Gosha felt her stomach twist into a rock that pressed into her diaphragm, making it hard to breathe. It was all so confusing.
“Why is she called Iron Jenny?”
“Because she’s impossible to haggle with. Off you go. Pay attention to everything. Everything is meaningful. You’ll make a mess of it, I’m sure.”
Agnieszka released Gosha’s sleeve, and the spell broke. The commotion of Morel Market rushed back at them, but the street remained a listless gray. The morning sun had gone in behind the clouds.
Iron Jenny’s barrow was larger and better kept than the animal peddler’s. Cheerful red wheels and wooden posts supported the green flatbed, everything held together with iron buffed to a sheen. Glass mason jars containing her wares lined the display of stained and polished wood several shelves high in a tiered phalanx. A varied assortment of objects and substances from haberdashery to powdered dyes of vivid color made the stall look like the secret hoard of an ambitious magpie. Gosha could have browsed for hours, picking up each jar and wondering how its contents could be used in Craft, but if the conventional barrows in the market were only interested in a brisk business with little time for chat, she doubted the special ones would be any different.
Iron Jenny squatted on a low wooden stool by the side of her barrow, unwrapping packages of old newspaper bound in twine she pulled from a crate, and adding the contents of each package to a trayful of jars at her feet. She was a handsome woman, perhaps in her seventies, though Agnieszka’s friend, Eleanor, looked younger than Gosha and was at least a hundred years old. Gosha took very little at face value anymore.
“Morning,” said Iron Jenny without looking up as Gosha stopped before the barrow. She’d brushed her wiry salt-and-pepper hair in a severe parting. A hard line of pale scalp that glowed in the morning light divided her head in two, her short locks held in place by brass and lacquer barrettes. On the lapel of her tweed jacket she wore a butterfly brooch that brought out the blue of her eyes.
“Morning,” said Gosha. “I could never sit like that. My knees ache too much.” The greatest challenge Gosha had with Witches’ Cant was making the arcane code sound like normal conversation. Whenever she practiced with her mother, she sounded like a spy in a fifties movie talking to her handler.
Iron Jenny grunted. “You get used to it. It’s my fingers that give me trouble.”
She looked up at Gosha from beneath eyebrows reinforced by dark pencil applied with a heavy hand. Tiny flecks of powder had caked in the grooved wrinkles of her face, a pattern Gosha recognized from her mother’s scowl lines.
“There’s a storm coming,” said Iron Jenny. Gosha’s chest gripped in panic. Talk of the weather was supposed to signal an ending to Cant. “Pricking in my thumbs tells me so.”
Okay, she thought. A complaint about the body. Back on track.
“It’s out there gathering strength,” said Iron Jenny as she squinted up at the cloudless sky. “Can’t see it now, but it’s out there. The sea’s a big place, and it’s coming from a long way away. Might take a while to hit, decades maybe, but it’s coming.”
Gosha had no idea what she meant. Agnieszka had said something about weather and water referring to Influence and the Spheres, but she couldn’t remember any details. Better to keep the conversation on the limited track her mother had laid out for her.
“It took forever for me to get here,” she said.
“Oh, yes?” The slight burr in Iron Jenny’s speech told Gosha she came from the West Country, an accent that Gosha had always found comforting. Not so here.
Iron Jenny did nothing to keep the conversation going.
“I… I was up all night,” said Gosha. “First, the car broke down and I had to walk. Then, I caught a bus, and that took me the wrong way. And then there was a delay on the trains. And I broke a heel.” She held her breath before she could say anything else. She was blathering.
“Well, you’re here now,” said Iron Jenny, a fresh package in hand.
Gosha didn’t need to be fluent in Witches’ Cant to know she was being told to get on with it.
“I have a list,” she said, pulling the crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket. “I’m making soup and I need spices. Nutmeg, poppy seed, tamarind, saffron, and peppermint.”
Though “making soup” meant she was Crafting balms for health and wellbeing, she was asking for those spices. Many of the ingredients of the Craft recipes her mother was teaching her were items you might find in an ordinary pantry, but prepared in ways Gosha couldn’t imagine to bring out the effect they had on Influence, the magical force generated by the human psyche that fueled Craft and sustained the supernatural Lords and Ladies of the Spheres, the mystical beings who granted magical power to the mortals that pledged allegiance to them with an oath of fealty. Except no one referred to it as ‘magic,’ a word centuries of persecution had rendered taboo to those who wielded it.
Iron Jenny grunted again and pulled herself up off her stool by a spoke of one of the barrow’s wheels.
“How much?” she asked.
“Two heaping tablespoons of each.”
The old witch took down an armful of jars, spooned out their contents into small brown paper bags, twisted the corners to seal the bags, and lined them up at the edge of the barrow. The smell of tamarind and peppermint filled Gosha’s nostrils.
“What else,” said Iron Jenny.
“I’m knitting two scarves.” Knitting meant she was making charms to alter human behavior. “And I need yarn and notions. Ash gray and forest green yarn, and stitch markers made of nickel and copper.”
These would be actual yarn and actual stitch markers, the color of yarn and the material of the markers affecting what they could make happen.
“A yard of each color and five of each stitch marker.”
Iron Jenny had devoted one tier of her display to color: yarn, thread, and swatches of fabric gleamed within their glossy containers.
“Do you need bobbins and needles?”
Bobbins referred to a foundation for the charm, something to bind the elements together, and needles were a way to deliver the charm to its intended target.
“No, thank you.”
Iron Jenny raised an eyebrow in surprise. Gosha checked her notes again even though she could have recited them backward. They weren’t on her mother’s list.
“And… And I’m making an outfit,” said Gosha. “I need… I need swatches of pink gingham for the skirt and green felt for the jacket. I’ll also need thread: red, white, orange, and yellow, the smallest spindles you have. And three sewing needles.”
Much of a witch’s Craft, according to her mother, was based on tried-and-true recipes using a cornucopia of ingredients consistent throughout the world. Consistency was the great mystery of Craft. In the time before recorded history, ambitious and resourceful sorcerers devised ways of taming the chaos of raw, unbridled Influence, creating dozens of arcane realms across the globe, territories of Influence where the Lords and Ladies of the Spheres emerged from the miasma of the human psyche to grant power to their saints and acolytes, power stolen by witches to fuel their Craft. Though a witch in Kuala Lumpur and a witch in Kingston upon Thames might use different spices, different fabrics, different yarns and notions, the recipes were the same. Even though they might speak different languages, they each had a secret tongue with which to cast their spells. The talisman of one might be a jade figurine handed from mother to daughter across the generations, and that of another a tube of oxblood lipstick purchased at a long-closed boutique on Kensington High Street, both women gained their power from the same ritual of the Betrayal. The traditions of a witch’s Craft stretched back thousands of years and spanned thousands and thousands of miles, no matter how hard others tried to stamp it out. Wherever a woman was told no, there were witches and Craft. Wherever a man decided he knew better, there were witches and Craft. Wherever there was need, there were witches and Craft.
She pulled herself back from her reverie. She needed to focus.
“What else,” said Iron Jenny, twisting the corners to seal the final paper bag.
Iron Jenny went down the line of paper bags, tapping each one once with her index finger, and looked Gosha squarely in the eye, but said nothing. Gosha froze, confused for a moment before realizing what Iron Jenny was trying to tell her. Gosha was to signal her satisfaction with the goods being offered.
“I love your brooch,” she said, pointing at the sparkling butterfly.
Iron Jenny grunted. “I’m making myself a dress. Has to be Easter.”
Easter. The negotiation was beginning. That she referred to dressmaking meant Iron Jenny would want something complex in return.
“Haven’t found the buttons I want.”
Buttons. The potential uses of a button in a recipe were vast. In her nervousness, Gosha couldn’t remember any of the lore about buttons her mother had drilled into her. But Agnieszka had given her a simple rule of thumb: the more valuable the substance, the more powerful the effect, and the harder it was to produce.
“I love buttons. I have a big collection at home.”
“The ones I want are fabric, silk, blue. I need two score.”
Fabric should be easy, she thought. Her mother had said only to accept items as mundane as possible. No precious metals, no stones, no spices she couldn’t buy at a Safeway or Tesco’s. She had tons of fabric at home in her studio that she used as backdrops for photo shoots, but forty buttons seemed like a lot. The prospect of haggling made her toes curl into fists in her Doc Martens boots. Being forced to ask for what she wanted and risk offending the other person made her want to pay the sticker price and run. But she had to do a good job, or her mother would nag at her for hours. What would be a decent counter-offer, she thought? Half? A quarter? She had nothing to go by.
“Forty’s a lot to come by in one place.”
“Yet that’s the number I need for the dress I have in mind.”
Gosha had hoped Iron Jenny would have dropped her price without Gosha pushing, but no such luck. Her mind raced, trying to assess a proper counter-offer. Half. Half seemed good.
“Could you perhaps use twent—” Gosha’s throat closed up in an involuntary gulp as she tried to get the number out and swallowed the word instead.
“Twenty. I have twenty at home if you want them.”
Iron Jenny grunted. “That’s a pretty top you’re wearing.”
“Thank you.” She wore her favorite sweater: slouchy loose-knit mohair in irregular blocks of bright color with one black sleeve she’d bought on the King’s Road, a memory of a happier time when her oldest son, Edmund, had just been born. Before the trip to Liverpool with George that had ruined their marriage and set her husband on the path to becoming a monster.
Gosha brushed the memories away. Iron Jenny had accepted. Now to determine how much time she would give Gosha to make her buttons.
“Easter’s late this year,” said Iron Jenny. “I was hoping to wear my new dress to early mass.”
Easter was this week. Today was Tuesday. Gosha didn’t know what time of day she meant by early mass, but supposed it would be before noon. Would five days be enough? Even if it were, the general principle of haggling was to turn down any first offer.
“My family’s coming over for Easter weekend. Lots of housework,” said Gosha. Housework in Cant signified witch’s work. It was brazen of her to claim it as a bargaining tool, but she had nothing to lose. “Won’t have time to breathe until next Tuesday.”
Iron Jenny squinted at her and nodded. “Never ends. Maisie Williams made a dress, did you see? Lacey summer thing.”
Satisfied with the bargain, Iron Jenny was willing to close the deal.
“I did. It’s very pretty. She looks lovely in it.”
The old witch scooped up the paper bags and handed them over.
“Kitchen to clean and linens to air?” she said.
“There’s no one else in the house who will,” said Gosha, completing the transaction.
Gosha took the bags with a smile and clutched them to her. Needle tips poked through the paper bags into her skin, but she didn’t notice, so elated was she to have passed the test.
She found Agnieszka at a mundane barrow, haranguing the stallholder over the quality of his dishcloths.
“I did it,” said Gosha, breathless with excitement.
“Show me.” Agnieszka snatched the bags from her and rummaged through them. “What did she say? Tell me exactly.”
“I need to make her twenty blue silk buttons by next Tuesday morning.”
“Silk buttons? Twenty?” Agnieszka rolled her eyes. “Stupid girl. You did a terrible job.”
“But you said the simpler the material, the better.”
Agnieszka threw the bags back at her and stormed off, forcing Gosha to chase after her.
“Buttons, girl, buttons!” She stopped and rounded on Gosha in the middle of the flow of shoppers. Shuffling people brushed past them, pressing them closer together. “You don’t listen, and you don’t think! Buttons are the hardest thing to get right and fabric are the worst of all. So small and fiddly. I could fashion twenty by next Tuesday without a problem, but you always make such a mess of things. It will take you a month. And I told you I won’t help you.”
She turned to storm off, but a cluster of slow-moving shoppers got in her way. With a muttered hex, a spreading wave of commotion spread outward from her as the people slipped and stumbled on cobblestones, leaving her a clear path.