The Herbalist, Chapter 4: Mortar and Pestle

Noise surrounded Innis like an ocean. Brightly clothed merchants with dark hair and loud voices bartered with shrewd farmers and their wives. There was the clink of coin, the rustle of exotic beads, the trill of pipes and flutes, and the beat of drums. People swore by the quality of their wares, argued for better prices, and clapped their hands to the drums and the pipes. Innis reveled in it. She was rarely surrounded by so much noise.

Colum and Turlough had found the vendor they were looking for; they were staring hungrily at the honey and cinnamon pastries one man was setting out. The glaze covering the pastries looked sticky and sweet. Turlough’s copper coin was soon spent, but Colum resisted his urge to buy a pastry, holding onto his copper in one tightly balled fist. Bastion followed the boys wherever they went, showing extreme patience with them as they wandered to and fro at a fast pace. Innis reluctantly left them, promising to come back in a while; she had deliveries to make.

The first stop that Innis made was Lochlan’s stables. It was quiet today, apart from the nickers and whinnies of horses. Lochlan was nowhere to be seen, but his son Willam was in the front paddock filling a water trough. Innis asked the young man where his father was, and Willam replied with a mumbled, “In town, he left me to tend the horses.” He appeared to be sulking because he couldn’t take part in the festivities. Innis thanked him and left.

Back in the bustle, she bumped into Felda, who payed and took her order hurriedly. She was impatient to barter for a small set of pewter dishes she had her eyes on. Soon after that, she found Lochlan playing his set of pipes with the drummers and flute players.    After taking his order with a breathless word of thanks, Innis delivered what was left of her orders to a few of the other people that bought things from her.

While searching for Bastion and the boys, she swept her gaze over the wares in each stall. Bolts of boldly-dyed cloth, beaded necklaces of blue, green, red, and yellow, and tightly woven baskets–of a curious red-brown color–in various shapes and sizes met her vision. She kept walking, still not seeing the stall she was most interested in. The trill of the pipes in her ears and the age-old word-dances between stall owners and townsfolk whirled in her ears Just then, she caught a glimpse of Bastion’s blonde hair through a break in the crowd. She made her way to where he was standing. Judging by his expression, something was wrong.

“I lost sight of ‘em,” he said tiredly. “They move like lightning, those two.” Innis said nothing and took a look around.

“I see one,” she told him, pointing. It was Colum, standing in front of a stall with a small canopy overhanging its wares. With delight, Innis recognised the stall; it was the one she had been looking for. She and Bastion approached the stall and overheard the stallkeeper and Colum arguing.

“I’ve told you a thousand times boy, I’m not selling it to you for a single copper.”

“But that’s all I have! Can I give you more money when you come back in autumn?”

“I can’t do that–not a good business practice, anyway. Sorry, but you can’t have it for that little.” The stallkeeper was a small, withered woman with ice chips for eyes. Innis was surprised to see her; the woman had stopped manning the stall a few winters ago. She hadn’t seen her since, until now.


When the old woman noticed Innis and Bastion standing behind Colum, she smiled at them and the prospect of customers that could actually buy something. “Welcome, young ones! See anything you like?” Colum turned and looked at them, then whirled back around quickly. He had something in his hands, but Innis couldn’t tell what it was.

“What d’you have, Colum?” Bastion asked him sternly. “Hope you weren’t planning on running off with it when you can’t pay for it.”

“I’d never do that!” Colum said with a violent shake of his head. The stallkeeper huffed at him impatiently.

“Then put it down and be on your way,” she said briskly.

“Maybe we can help you pay for it,” Innis offered. Colum said nothing. “What is it, anyway?” Innis pressed. Still nothing. She finally had to approach him and look over his shoulder to see what it was.


Clutched rather tightly to his chest was a small wooden mortar and pestle. The wood was a light, sandy brown with knots of darker grain threaded throughout.

“A mortar and pestle,” Innis announced. She saw a rosy blush bloom on Colum’s face as he stared intensely at the ground.

“What in the world do you want that for?” Bastion asked Colum.

“It’s a present,” Colum mumbled.

“A present? For who? Innis?” Colum glanced at Innis for a split second, then looked away again. Innis was taken aback. A present for her? Without realizing it, her hand went up to her chest as feelings washed over her; gratitude, fondness, and amusement.

“You don’t have to get that for me; I already have one.”

“I know,” Colum murmured. “Just thought it would be nice.” Innis smiled, stooped a little, and ruffled Colum’s dark hair.

“I have an idea,” she told him. “If I helped you buy this, as payment you have to come and help me with my decoctions and making deliveries. As long as Aldus doesn’t need you for chores or field work, that is.” Colum’s head shot up and his eye stretched wide.

“R-really?” Innis nodded. A smile grew wide across Colum’s face and he looked as though he was ready to scream and jump for joy, but he caught himself and looked back down at the ground again. Innis turned to the stallkeeper.

“How much?”

“Ten coppers.”

Ten coppers? Outrageous. It’s not even made of stone.”

“It’s made of ash. Good tough wood, can withstand a lot of grinding.”

“I give this stall a lot of business when it’s here. Can’t you give me a better deal?” The stallkeeper looked at her closely, then her eyes widened a bit in recognition.

“Ah, you’re the herbalist’s daughter. I remember now.” Innis nodded. “I haven’t come with the caravan in a few seasons; had a cough that I couldn’t shake, so I had my daughter take care of the stall. But I recall your face now, and that fiery mop.” Innis didn’t know if she liked her hair being referred to as a mop, but she held her tongue. “Where’s your father?” the stallkeeper asked.

“He died, two winters ago,” she replied softly. The stallkeeper blinked.

“Ah, I see. I’m sorry, young one.” After a pause, she continued. “I suppose I can drop the price to six coppers, as long as you buy a few herbs from me as well.” Innis smiled.

“Of course. Thank you.”


With the mortar and pestle paid for, Innis looked through the stallkeeper’s inventory of herbs and spices with a keen eye and a sharp nose. The stallkeeper raved about her stock all the while.

“This thyme is of excellent quality, got it from the coast…Just take in the smell of this ginger, full and robust…Horehound, that is. Excellent for a sore throat.”


Innis took in their smells, felt of their textures and shapes, and noted their colors. In her mind, she took mental images of the ingredients she had had in her own personal inventory before, those she knew were of good quality. She remembered their smells, composition, and hues and compared them to what was in front of her. The stallkeeper was right. These herbs were of good stock.

“I’ll take three ginger roots, a small sack of valerian, and a bundle of feverfew.” When her purchase was made, Innis thanked the old woman.

“I expect you’ll be back when autumn is upon us.”

“Not so, I’m afraid.” Innis was surprised.

“But isn’t this the route you take back to your home country?” she asked her curiously.

“The main route, yes,” the woman replied. “But something strange is happening. The pass between the mountains is closing up with trees. A strange thing, indeed. A lot of us were spooked by it.”

“Closing up?” Innis asked with confusion.

“Yes. We camped in the pass and the trees seemed closer than usual. When we woke in the morning, they were almost upon us. Those of us who are more superstitious than most see it as a bad omen–something sinister, it felt like.” The woman’s ice-chip eyes grew distant and unsettled. “No, we won’t be coming back this way. Not until we know what’s going on in those trees.”

(©)Copyright Noctis Vox, 2017.


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