The Herbalist, Chapter 1: A Visit

Nestled just inside the treeline of an immense forest stood a cottage. Honeyed sunlight streamed through breaks in the trees and poured itself onto the stones of the cottage’s exterior. The birds were wide awake in the branches of the ancient trees, and they sang for anyone or anything that would listen. The dew shone like bits of glass on the various plants that grew in the clearing around the cottage, and vapor clung briefly to the air as the dew evaporated in the morning sun. A small stone path wound its way through the plants and stopped at the back doorstep of the cottage. There was humming emanating from inside the cottage, a young voice that fluctuated from humming to singing as concentration demanded.

“Chamomile is a calming creature 
With cheerful white and yellow features,
Dry her up and serve her warm
To sleep more soundly in the storm.

Peppermint is crisp and bold
With breaths that shiver in the cold–
Once she’s boiled and drunk hot
She’ll soothe a cough and scratchy throat…”

The voice belonged to a young girl no older than sixteen. She sang the little rhyme her father had taught her when she was a child, teaching her the basics of herbal teas. She was standing at a workbench by the back door, one that sat in front of a window facing east. Light spilled over the time-worn wood of the workbench, dousing all that was on the bench in a cheerful light.

There was a trowel in the girl’s hand. She used it to pick up small amounts of dirt and transfer it to a medium-sized pot. Inside the pot was a small plant, one with dark leaves speckled with lighter green flecks. When she had enough dirt in the pot, she put down the trowel and packed the dirt down gently with her hands, still humming to herself. when she scratched her cheek absentmindedly, a sprinkling of dirt was left on her face, a face that was dappled with a light dusting of freckles. Her hair was pinned back loosely and fell to the small of her back in red curls, and the strands that met the sunlight shined like copper.

The girl had just finished watering the plant from an earthenware pitcher when she heard the rumble of a cart from outside. There was a low bark from near the front door. The girl wiped her hands on the apron wrapped around her dark green dress and went outside, patting the head of the dog whose bark she had heard moments before.
“It’s only Aldus’s cart, Deorwyn,” The girl reassured the dog. It has a horse of an animal, his head coming up nearly to her shoulder and dark wiry hair covered his face and body. He wagged his curled tail at the girl’s touch and fell silent as they both watched the cart’s approach.

When the cart’s passengers were within shouting distance, one raised a hand in greeting. The girl raised a hand back and stepped forward to meet the cart as it came to a stop. An older man stepped down from the cart, followed by a boy.
“Mornin’ Innis,” The older man said with a smile that stretched his short greying beard and crinkled the corners of his eyes.
“Morning Aldus, Bastion,” Innis said, nodding at the two of them.
“Agnes had some winter vegetables to share with you, as part of our payment,” Aldus told her as he grabbed two baskets from the back of the cart. Inside the baskets were a bushel of turnips, a bushel and a half of carrots, and three heads of lettuce. “It’s the last of the crop. Agnes has her onions and rhubarb sprouting up now. Spring came early this year,” He remarked with a chuckle, “caught her off-guard.”
“Me as well,” Innis returned. “I’ve started potting some new Lungwort already. Usually have to wait a few more weeks, but it’s warm enough already.”
“Bastion, help me with these baskets and we’ll take them inside for the lass,” Aldus said to his son. Bastion was a wiry young man around the same age as Innis, with a shock of blonde hair and skin browned from working in the sun. He looked less like his dark-haired father and more like his fair-haired mother, Agnes. He nodded to his father and picked up one of the baskets as Innis led them inside.
“That’s a lot of vegetables as payment for just one dose,” Innis remarked as she brought Aldus a small bag containing an herbal mixture.
“Agnus doesn’t want you to go hungry and neither do I,” said Aldus as he took the bag, “we both know you don’t make much as an herbalist, even though you’re skilled. But there is something else I need besides. Colum’s had an earache for a week. Thought it would go away on its own, but it’s still botherin’ ‘im.” Innis nodded in understanding.
“Is it just an ache?”
“No, says it itches as well. Ear’s red as a tomato too, and hot to the touch.” Without another word, Innis went to her supply room at the far end of the cottage. A wall of small drawers lined the back wall, a trundle table that sat next to the far wall had jars of dried plants crowding its surface, and the wall was covered in various bundles of dried herbs. Some of the jars’ and drawers’ contents were labeled, but some weren’t. This, however, didn’t bother Innis. She had memorized their contents a long time ago.

Innis came back to the front room where Aldus and Bastion were waiting. She had handfuls of various dried herbs held carefully in her hands. The mortar and pestle that sat idly at Innis’s kitchen table were put to use, crushing up a mixture of ginger, yellowroot, and willow bark. Bastion craned his neck to watch her. When she was done, she added a spoonful of coarse sugar from her small supply she kept tucked away in a cupboard. yellowroot was bitter, and Colum was her favorite. The sugar would make the decoction easier to drink.

“Here,” Innis said when she had spooned the decoction into a small leather pouch. “Boil water and soak a spoonful of this in a cup-full. It should clear up in a few days. Don’t let him scratch his ear,” she warned Aldus. “That’ll make it worse.” Aldus smiled through his short salt-and-pepper beard.
“Many thanks, lass,” Aldus said gratefully as he took the pouch. “Bastion and Colum will come by in a week or so to help you with your plowing,” he added. Innis kept a small vegetable garden, but with all of the herbs she had to keep up with as well, it was hard to do everything on her own. Her father used to do the plowing, but things were different now. He was gone.
“Thank you, Aldus,” Innis said earnestly. “I don’t know what I’d do without your kindness.” Aldus’s face glowed in response to her words.
“Tis not much I can give you, but what I can give, I’ll give graciously. I owe you and your da a boon, and I’ve a mind to fulfill it. Come on, Bastion. We should be off to market.” Aldus and Bastion stepped outside, and Deorwyn watched them leave with thoughtful grey eyes. Innis trailed them out the door to see them off, and Bastion slowed his pace to talk.
“You slipped sugar in that tea, didn’t you?” Bastion asked in a low voice.
“I did not.”
“I saw you, don’t lie,” Bastion chuckled and Innis shrugged her shoulders.
“So what if I did?” She countered.
“You’re spoiling him. Soon he’ll be just as much a troublemaker as Turly is.” Bastion said, mentioning his youngest brother.
“Never in a million seasons will he cause as much trouble as Turlough does.” Innis argued. Bastion simply chuckled again as he got in the cart next to his father.
“Until next time,” Aldus said.
“Next time,” Innis returned with a smile and a nod. Aldus gave his horses a whistle, and they walked on. Innis watched them go, and when they were out of sight, she went back inside to finish potting her lungwort. She tried to dispel it, but the ache of solitude she felt Whenever Bastion and Aldus drove off spiked as she closed her front door. But stronger than that was the warm glow of familiarity the cottage exuded, and the memories lingering in its walls from her younger days. She existed in a state of shaky contentment, one that she didn’t know would come crashing down in the coming months.

 

 

Copyright (©) Noctis Vox, 2017.

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