The Herbalist, Chapter 2: The Hound and the Basket

Innis went on with her day as she usually did. She finished potting her lungwort, then set it by the back step to soak in the morning sun. She fed her eight chickens from some stale bread she hadn’t finished the night before. They got what they needed from foraging most of the time, but the tan and red little birds always liked a treat when they got one. Deorwyn watched her feed them with longing, and Inis laughed when she noticed him.

“You little beggar, acting like I don’t feed you at all!” She laughed and tossed him the heel of the bread. He caught it in the air and swallowed it whole with a wag of his curled tail. She smiled and gave him a rub behind the ears before going back inside. Deorwyn followed close behind.

Innis had gotten Deorwyn just a few weeks after her father’s passing. She had refused to leave the cottage she and her father had shared for so many years, and so she stayed there alone. She did nothing. Sitting in silence in the front room, watching the day grow dark. It was as if her mind was in a state of limbo, not comprehending the passing of her father, and refusing to move forward or backward. Every once in awhile, her gaze would slowly drift to other parts of the room: the kitchen table, where she and her father ground herbs. The hearth, where they would sit on the floor and eat together sometimes, rather than sit at the table. The peg on the front wall, where her father hung his coat after a day’s work, and Inis would greet him with a hug before he could close the door. Everywhere she looked, her memory produced her father’s ghost before her eyes, and she watched him do his normal tasks with broken-hearted detachment.

Winter’s icy grip was still firm across the countryside, and the herbs in the back garden were covered in an insulating layer of dead leaves and frost. The cold seeped into the stone walls of Innis’s cottage. That, coupled with the profound silence of mourning, sapped all of the color from the world around her. Innis couldn’t even find the drive to get up and light a fire. She got cold, and tired.

Then she was aware of people in the room with her. A blanket was put around her shoulders, and a fire was lit and built up until it was bracingly warm in the room. She heard arguing.

“We can’t leave her like this! She has to go!” A female voice shouted,

“Go where? A young lass like that?” A male voice countered. “She’ll get back-breaking work as a scullery maid in a keep somewhere. There’s no’ much else for her.”

“She’ll just sit here and die if we don’t do something.”

“If we take her away from this place she’ll only die quicker.”

“I’m not leaving,” Inis whispered to no one in particular. The two voices were quiet for a moment. Inis could feel their gazes on her.

“Innis. Innis,” Innis felt hands on her shoulders. She tried to focus her eyes on the person’s face. It was a middle-aged woman with wispy blonde hair. “Listen, Aldus and I… Aldus and I won’t take you away from here. But we can’t take much care of you either. Crop’s been poor, we barely have enough to feed our own.” Innis thought she heard Aldus’s knuckles crack as he balled his fists in helplessness. “But we won’t let you just sit here and waste away. I know you miss your da. He was a good man. But you can’t stay like this. You have to be stronger now.” Innis wilted visibly under the woman’s hands.

“I know.” Innis choked out.

“Agnes and I can’t do much,” Aldus said from behind Agnes, “But our hound just had pups. Might be a good idea to have a hound up here to keep you safe at night.”

“Aldus, she won’t be able to feed a pup, she can barely feed herself,” Agnes said to her husband.

“I can feed myself just fine,” Innis said with a ghost of determination in her voice. “I learned to trap. There’s lots of game in the forest, and I’ve got root vegetables in the cellar.” Aldus nodded.

“Good, then I’ll go get ‘im then.” Agnes had a shocked expression.

“You brought one with you?”
“Aye, I did,” Aldus said as he stepped out. He came back moments later with a little bundle of grey fur in his arms. “ ‘He’s cold from bein’ out in the cart.” Without another word, he placed the little scrap in Innis’s lap. Inis looked at it dispassionately. The pup squealed and tried to wedge itself further into the folds of her dress. She touched it cautiously; it was shivering.

“ ‘Twas the last of it’s litter. A bit smallish. Was havin’ trouble eating; thought you might be able to help the poor mite.” Innis wrapped her hands around the little creature to warm it. She could feel his ribs beneath her fingertips. It was quite a small pup; a runt, unable to keep up with its brothers and sisters, no doubt. She felt hands on her again. Agnes had her by the shoulders once more.

“Promise us you’ll take care of yourself.” Innis nodded at her. “Good. Aldus or I will be back when we can to see how you’re getting on.”  Agnus tidied up the front room a bit more, then Aldus and Agnes took their leave.

“It’s no’ fair what happened to you and yours, lass,” Aldus said before he left. “But we have to keep on. Things will get better.” Then the two got in their cart and were gone.

Innis tended to the pup until it was stronger. It grew at a rate that alarmed her. By the end of the third week of caring for him, he was as big as a fawn and galloping around the house like one. His legs looked too big for his body, and they tangled themselves up constantly. Innis found herself laughing for the first time in a very long time.

They had been together ever since. Sometimes Deorwyn would go off by himself to hunt, but Innis didn’t mind that. He’d never be gone more than a few hours. He would watch her grind decoctions and ready poultices until he dozed off in front of the fire. When Innis went into the forest to gather wild herbs, he would sometimes find them himself by picking up their scent and leading her to them.

Now, Deorwyn contented himself to lie down in his customary place near the hearth and watch Inis grind herbs at the kitchen table. She was readying some orders to take to Gleannfald, the village nestled in the valley below the forest edge. It was a cozy little town that consisted mostly of houses, a blacksmith’s workshop, an inn, a mill, and a couple of vegetable vendors. There was the Gleannfald stables as well, but it was built further out  of the way of the village. The stablemaster bred, broke, and sold horses there. Inis was held in a place of general mistrust by some of the villagers, but her skill with a mortar and pestle were known, so some overcame their suspicions and bought remedies from her.

She spooned her last decoction into a small bag. It was a remedy for Felda, the innkeeper’s wife. She was an older woman with a stern face that didn’t match her soft heart. In exchange for a few coppers, Inis made her remedies for the aches in her joints every week. The aches had worsened over Felda’s years of scrubbing pots and washing sheets at the inn, and she now swore by Innis’s remedies.

“Can barely feel the aches after I drink your herbal brews,” Felda would tell her. “The herbs’ effects seep right into my bones.” Innis had also noticed Felda squinting as she worked; her eyes had weakened as she grew older. Now, Inis added eyebright in Felda’s remedy, to improve her eyesight.

Lochlan, the stablemaster, bought decoctions from Inis every spring. The pollen in the air reddened his face and stuffed up his nose. Innis made him a mixture of peppermint, ginger, and chamomile to open up his airways. With disappointment she realized that with this dose of Lochlan’s decoction she had run out of ginger. She made a mental note to buy some more next time the travelling merchants came through.

Innis put all of the remedies she had prepared for the following day in the satchel she had hanging on a peg by the front door. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds, making the dusk darker. She shooed Deorwyn out of the way to light a fire, and put some cut vegetables on to cook, adding salt, rosemary, and a bay laurel leaf in the water to season it. When it was simmering nicely, she added a small amount of flour to thicken it up, and when it was done, she took it off of the hook over the fire and took it to the table, where she ladled it into two bowls. She took them both back over to the hearth where Deorwyn had recaptured his place in front of the fire.

“Sorry Deorwyn,” Inis said. “No meat tonight.” She set one of the bowls down in front of Deorwyn, and he tucked into the food happily. Innis sat down next to him on the floor and chewed thoughtfully on a chunk of carrot. She needed to set her rabbit traps back up in the morning and get to town before Lochlan took some of his horses to a neighboring village for selling. Deorwyn brought her out of her thoughts by placing a paw on her leg and looking at her with his big grey eyes. The wiry fur around his eyes gave him the appearance of having a mournful set of eyebrows.

“Yes, you can have some more,” Innis told him.

When they were done eating, Innis washed up and readied for bed. With a jolt, she remembered something. Opening the back door, she found the small basket she knew would be there. Two days ago, it held a honeycomb dripping with honey. The day before, it was filled with kindling. Now there were four silver fish there. Inis was delighted. She took them inside and put them in a bowl of cool water. She’d cook them tomorrow morning while they were still fresh.

While her father was still living, the basket had appeared one day at her back step, seemingly out of nowhere. Innis asked her father about it, but all he would do was smile and say, “It’s from a friend. A spirit from the woods.” Deorwyn never seemed to pick up on any presence in the backyard. Or if he did, he didn’t see it as a threat and payed no attention to it.

After setting the basket back outside and saying a quiet “thank you” to the ancient treeline beyond her backyard,  she got into bed. Deorwyn stretched his long legs, yawned, and settled at the base of Innis’s bed. Innis fell soundly into sleep, and Deorwyn slumbered lightly, one ear pricked to hear the night sounds.

 

 

Copyright(©) Noctis Vox, 2017.

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