Rescue Remedy by T.O. Munro (Part One)
Elise tore the leaves from the unkempt hedge, scoring and crushing them in a fury too fierce for patience. Sharp-nailed fingers scratched the waxy surfaces until the air was filled with the sickly-sweet scent of mother’s bane, but still she plucked with ruinous abandon, scarce half her harvest left fit for the brew she had in mind.
Each crushed leaf served as proxy for the priest’s sanctimonious face. What business had he to judge her? To withhold a simple blessing, even when she had the money to pay? “Perhaps, Mistress Elise, the discomfort is a sign from the Goddess, an urging to attend mass every week. If you did, her grace might spare you not only the pain of your … condition but also the expense of a benediction?”
Outrage flared afresh at the memory and another leaf crumpled within her crippled hands. An agony of cramp shot suddenly up her arm, rheumatic knuckles seizing in protest at the vigour of her intemperate gardening. “Jocasta’s flaming tits,” she muttered, holding herself perfectly still until the pain had passed through its full spectrum from bright piercing violet to dull, bearable red.
In the enforced pause, anger and drive ebbed away. A familiar dark futility filled their place, casting shadows into every crevice of her thoughts. Elise sat on the stone bench, glad of the privacy the cathedral maze afforded. Its herbaceous walls grew higher than a man could reach, while the sharp angles of its paths meant a hundred or more people could pass the afternoon within its confines and never catch sight of each other.
Bright sunlight angled almost to the grassy floor of the dog-legged dead end where Elise sat, filling the space with unseasonal warmth, but today was not a good day. Elise did not want it to become the kind of bad day that stretched out for months, though, and so she forced herself to separate out the ruined leaves from the serviceable, counting out just enough to make the ointment. If the church would not ease her suffering, then she – the herbalist – would heal herself. The relief provided by a salve of mother’s bane was neither as deep nor enduring as that given by the grace of the Goddess, but she would rather that than pander to servants of a deity who had so often and so deeply failed her.
A hearty laugh carried to Elise’s ear, followed by a lighter woman’s voice. The approaching couple sounded easy and amused in each other’s company, too cheerful for Elise’s taste. She flung her hood over her ragged white hair and bowed her head, hoping that if they chanced to see her they would move on without comment. There were other discreet corners for whatever purpose had brought them here while decent people were still at work. The bishop had often threatened to close the maze, condemning it as too encouraging a venue for all forms of immorality. Only the rich variety of free herbs infiltrating the ordered rows of juniper and yew kept Elise from numbering herself amongst his supporters.
The pair stopped out of sight, their voices filtering through the single width of hedgerow that lay between them and Elise’s refuge. She sat still and silent – a skill learned as a child and which the disease had not robbed her of. Her path out of the maze would have carried her in plain sight of the couple so she chose to wait, hoping to ignore the cheerful sounds of their conversation.
She hoped in vain, for the woman’s voice – confident, superior, mocking – seized her attention as acutely as fingernails drawn down a chalkboard.
“Hold yourself in check.” Her voice held a harder edge, of authority rather than fear, before – with a laugh – she added, “Or maybe just hold yourself.”
“Yes, my dear.” The whimper became a plaintive whine. “But you drive me to such distraction.”
“It is your own fault, my lord. It is your lack of… control, that has left me this little problem to attend to.”
The hedgerow trembled slightly, betraying another would-be gardener’s work on the other side. The mother’s bane sprouted only in this portion of the maze, its flat leaves spreading to suffocate the shrubbery beneath. The plant’s common name had nothing to do with its value in an external salve to sooth rheumatic joints. Generations of women had found that chewing its leaves, or drinking a distillation of its juices, could bring an unwanted pregnancy to an early end.
In the five years Elise had been running her shop, a handful of fretful girls and worried wives had come to her, dropping dark hints about needing a “solution to a problem.” Elise was not unsympathetic, but mother’s bane was toxic when ingested, a safe dose hard to calculate, and its use to induce a miscarriage prohibited by state and church. She dared not risk the close attention from constables or priests by dabbling in such services. The best succour she could offer those occasional clients was the name of a sympathetic deaconess.
“I have heard this mother’s bane is dangerous.”
“One just has to be careful, my lord. I have used it before.”
“And in the meantime? Must I really sleep alone?”
“A few days’ abstinence will not harm you, my lord. Indeed, it may stiffen your resolve for the prize I have planned for you.”
“Not just my resolve, my dear,” the man spluttered.
“Why, Lord Tybert, such a filthy little mind you have. I’m sure your poor dear mother would be shocked to hear of the paths your thoughts take.”
“And I would assure her it was the Lady Maia who led me down them, my dear. You have taught me so much.”
“No, my lord. I have taught you everything. Well, nearly everything.”
Elise felt heat flush her face, an uneven blush that would only throw the pock-marked ravages of her complexion into sharp relief. She knew nothing of Lady Maia, but Lord Tybert was second son to the ruling prince of Oostsalve – a man of far too great a status to be pleased at having his indiscretions overheard by a back-street herbalist. She sat even stiller. The bush rustled behind her, heavy breaths filtering through the foliage ending in a sudden gasp.
“Think of that as a promise of things to come, my lord,” Maia’s voice dripped, sultry smooth.
Tybert muttered an indistinct reply from which Elise could only discern the word, “Already.”
To Elise’s relief, if not Tybert’s, that seemed to conclude the couple’s business in the maze, for Maia’s next laugh was further away and after that Elise heard nothing more. Still, she waited to be sure the lovers were not just out of the maze, but hopefully halfway across Focal Park before she made her own exit. She spent the time massaging a little freedom of movement back into stiffened joints before taking up her collection of leaves and her stick.
Elise pushed the shop’s shutters open for the first time in three days. A black cloud had followed her home from the park, descending lower and darker until it chased her into bed without even the motivation to prepare the mother’s bane salve. She had stayed there for all but the most basic necessities until that morning, when her mood had lightened just enough to pull on a semblance of humanity, a pretence of contentment, over the hollowness inside her.
Being on the sunless side of the narrow alley left the shop cold, the hanging herbs shrivelled. Wood piled in the grate formed the makings of an unlit fire. Elise rubbed some warmth into her fingers and then stretched and twisted them in a torturous invocation. The summoned flames flared dangerously uneven, catching a pile of spare kindling on the hearth as well as the logs she had been targeting. “Blazing bushels,” Elise swore as she stamped out the unwanted fire, head shaking at her own foolishness.
Her limited mastery of direction, if not power, had always been a liability, even when Malchus had first shared his craft with her. The intervening years had sapped her dexterity as the disease’s legacy wrought further ruin on joints and ligaments. It made her a woefully inaccurate practitioner of the forbidden arts. If she tried that trick too many times she was likely to immolate herself and spare the justices the trouble of exiling her for witchcraft. There had been times she had considered choosing that fate, invoking a fiery end to a sad ember of a life, but the thought usually passed with the realisation that she just couldn’t be bothered.
The morning passed quietly with a steady trickle of clients. Elise’s palliatives cost less than priests’ cures, both in coin and embarrassment. An ointment for one man’s arse-grapes, an excoriant for a child’s rash, analgesics for an ostler’s strained back, a concentrated extract of green leaves for a woman laid listless by her moons. It was not much, but enough to cover her expenses for a few days and tempt her to put up the shutters and just return to bed. However, customers valued reliability and she knew that, for all the quality of her products and the generosity of her prices, many of her best clients had gone elsewhere to traders who always opened when they should.
So she sat at her counter beyond noon, staring at the leaves of mother’s bane dried into uselessness by neglect.
She had just resolved to shut when the door creaked open. The woman was young, but finely dressed, blond hair sculpted into an elaborate tower above a pale face, lips painted red, eyes lightly shadowed in a precise augmentation of a considerable natural beauty. As she turned in the doorway, shards of light cut through the thin fabric of her dress, silhouetting a perfection of form while she peered into the gloom where Elise sat.
“Can I help you, my lady?” Elise asked, for she was certainly dressed like a lady – the kind that rarely strayed into the poorer quarter of Oostport.
The woman flashed a smile brilliant with the confidence of youth and beauty. “I certainly hope so, mistress.”
The gloom of the shop’s interior masked Elise’s gape of surprise as she recognised the lightly mocking voice of her new customer. By the time Lady Maia had crossed to the counter, the herbalist had composed her features into a mask of business-like attentiveness. All the same, Maia hesitated, fine forehead wrinkling in a frown as she took in Elise’s dry and cracked white hair and pitted complexion. “I understood you dealt in salves and remedies for all kinds of ailments, mistress, but…”
Elise let the silence hang for only a second. “I was afflicted by a disease as a child, long before I learnt my trade, my lady. My appearance owes nothing to any error or omission in my herbalism.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Maia said with evident relief and not a scrap of sympathy. “I have need of a service of quality.”
“I’ll help if I can, my lady.”
“I have terrible trouble sleeping,” Maia gushed. “My nights are most disturbed, tossing and turning and never able to get any rest. The days are just a fatigue of headaches, and you would not believe how much care I have to take to conceal the bags beneath my eyes.”
Elise pursed her lips, careful to hide her disbelief. Whatever care Maia was taking over her appearance, it was certainly working. The herbalist had not seen such a vision of rude good health in the dozen years she had spent living in and around Oostport.
“You want something to help you sleep, my lady?” Doubt coloured her voice, but Maia did not seem to notice.
“Exactly so, mistress. I am a dreadfully light sleeper. I need something that will render me comatose until the dawn, invulnerable to all disturbance bar an earthquake.”
“I have something that may serve,” Elise admitted. A sale was, after all, a sale, and she was not inclined to give Maia her usual generous price – nor did she think the lady would notice. The myrr-root was on the high shelf. Mixed with a little laudnis, the combination should meet Maia’s needs. As she reached for the steps, Elise was thinking how to prepare individual doses. It was not a treatment that could safely be taken to excess.
The door creaked again. “There you are!” a girl’s voice exclaimed triumphantly.
A flash of anger suffused Maia’s face for so short an instant Elise thought she had imagined it. A second later the woman was all smooth charm as she turned to the newcomer. “I told you to wait for me on the high street.”
“And mama told me I should stay with you always. She said Oostport was a dangerous place, that sisters must stick together.”
Maia beamed a smile at Elise, inviting a fellowship of understanding that the herbalist did not feel. “Country ways, eh, mistress? It’s been four years since I left Hatcham to try my fortunes here and despite my evident prosperity, my mother is convinced I must be enduring a daily threat to life and virtue.” She spread her arms as if trying to give some scale to the absurdity of the idea. “It has taken her this long to allow Nimetu to come and visit her big sister in the big city.”
The girl was shorter than Maia, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old with darker hair than her sister. Her dress was a simpler cut of cloth, though her face was expertly made up to accentuate the symmetry and youthful charm of her features.
“I had a sister once.” The admission was out before Elise could stop it.
Maia frowned at the uninvited confidence, but Nimetu cocked her head on one side. “Had?”
“She died, twelve years ago now.”
“She would have been twenty-one this week.”
“Maia is twenty-one.” Nimetu’s smile at the coincidence quickly faded, a hand flying towards her mouth. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
Elise’s murmured reassurance was overwhelmed by Maia’s chiding. “Hush, Nimetu. Never mention a woman’s age in company.”
Elise had thought Maia carried herself with too much assurance for one quite so young, but looking closer she could believe the smooth skin and elegant lines were a gift of youth rather than cosmetics. It was only the woman’s eyes that looked older, hardened with experience beyond her years. Twenty-one? What would Rancine have looked like?
Nimetu was gazing at Elise – a stare that was half again as long as could be considered polite. Elise was used to the looks that her ruined face and ragged hair drew, but there was no malice in the girl, so she returned the scrutiny with a smile. “I was ill,” she said. “That’s what marked my skin.”
“If your sister would have been twenty-one, mistress, then…”
Despite Maia’s rebuke, Elise still answered the question Nimetu hadn’t finished. “I’m twenty-four.” For a moment she enjoyed the cruel triumph of flinging back their assumptions about her age, but then their open mouths stole that pleasure and she repeated gruffly, “As I said, I was ill. We both were. Rancine didn’t survive.”
“That’s terrible,” Nimetu mouthed.
“Sisters.” Maia drew Nimetu towards her. “So precious, and this one is a real prize.” Then she swept the moment of empathy aside in a return to business. “Nimetu and I have some dresses to buy. I can hardly present her to my friends in such unfashionable clothes, so if you could be as quick as you can with our business, mistress.”
“The draught to help you—”
“Exactly,” Maia snapped a little shrilly. “If you could get it now.” The smile was fixed and icy. She patted her sister on the arm while fixing Elise with her gaze. “Go back to the high street, Nimetu. Praxis has some fine cloths. I will catch up with you there.”
The girl slid obediently away. Once the door closed, Maia said stiffly, “As you can see, I have some entertaining to do and could not bear another night of exhausting insomnia.”
Elise held herself still, filled with a sense of wrongness that she had not felt since she found Malchus and her mother dead. This woman was lying; she had no need of a sleeping draught, not one of the potency she had described. “It will take a little time to prepare, my lady,” Elise stalled.
“I need it tonight!” The veneer of manners cracked with a shrill demand. “I have promised… I need it for tonight.”
“By tomorrow, my lady. I will have it ready by then.”
“I could go elsewhere for my needs.”
Aye, that was the point. If Elise refused her service, there were others who would oblige. “Of course, my lady.”
“Though I was told you were very good.”
Elise dipped her head in a moue of appreciation. “I can guarantee the draught by tomorrow. I will deliver it myself.”
Maia nodded with sudden decision. “Tomorrow, then, mistress. I will just have to … endure another night.”
The details of address and payment were briskly delivered, and then Elise was alone in her shop again, alone apart from the sense of defilement that hung in the air more powerfully than Maia’s perfume. She closed up early, shooing away one of her regulars whose fungal foot infection had recurred. She had bought herself time without having any idea what she would do with it, so she sat for over an hour by the embers of the fire letting her joints seize up and the darkness gnaw at her core. It was hard to credit the existence of a merciful deity when a creature like Maia could abuse the years poor Rancine should have had.
The wrongness hung around Maia as thickly as it had clung to Malchus, but Elise could confide in no one. Such family as she had ever known were all dead. Her neighbours, friendly enough in the early days, had been scared away by her despair. Sympathy had turned to dismay when the platitudes about “cheering up” or “getting out more” sank without trace in the oblivion of her black days. They didn’t ask anymore, offering only a curt nod of greeting and a quick walk on by, fearful the scars she carried within might somehow infect their own good humour.
She pushed herself painfully upright. Whatever was to be done, it would have to be done by her and her alone.
Reaching Malchus’s grimoire from its hiding place in the attic challenged her infirmity. The cellar would have been an easier place to store it, but for the pervasive moisture. The aura of magic might scare gnawing rodents away, but it held no power over so mundane a threat as rising damp.
She thumbed the pages, refreshing her memory of key invocations, mouthing the words and practicing the gestures with hesitant hands. The wizard may have taught her much, but he had extracted a high enough price at the time, while her creaking body seemed increasingly incapable of using his gift. Still, it would have to do.
END OF PART ONE