I stared at the dusty shelves, sweet arren spice and bitterroot mingling from unstopped bottles nearby leaving my mouth dry, and carefully rummaged as I waited for the apothecary. The jar of raglan berries was left carelessly open and I set the cap atop firmly, else they rot too fast. Other jars and bottles were left just as sloppy. Restless energy kept me moving, fixing as I went, unable to help myself as I tapped my feet on the wooden floor, my heavy satchel clutched on my arm.
I dared not leave Ana for long, not in this land, not with these people once, my people but had no other way to earn the coin needed for us to get away.
The shop seemed otherwise empty. Shuttered windows lined the upper walls and the dirty light filtering in shifted slowly, casting an irregular line into the store. Soft murmuring drifted toward me from the back room, but I could hear nothing of the conversation.
Where was Baldon?
Finally, he fluttered past the curtain dividing this room from his sleeping quarters. In the moment he pressed through the curtain, I saw a naked whore lurching to her feet, flabby arms bruised and eye blackened darker than the rest of the paint on her face. As she clutched a hand to her cheek, our eyes connected for a split second. Then the curtain closed.
Baldon straightened his tunic, appearing not to notice. His eyes moved to my satchel as he stopped behind a tall olivewood counter. He splayed his hands across the smooth surface, stretching fingers knotted with arthritis.
Early visit this morn, Carter, he said. His voice was nasally and he sniffed as he spoke from too many years around ground cocal. An effective hemostatic agent, but addictive too.
Morning, Baldon, I said, turning from the curtains to his gaunt face. Dark patches marred his cheeks and thin hair receded from a long face as if chased by the chemicals he inhaled. Can you use supplies? I asked.
I opened the satchel, pulling the flap back with delicate care, mindful not to inhale the fumes that wafted suddenly free. Baldon leaned forward, not nearly as wary. Eager eyes scanned the contents and he sniffed again, directly over the bag.
Sliding the satchel sideways, I removed my collection. The elanand stems could not be crushednot and still be useful for stomach pains or nauseabut I doubted that Baldon cared much. Crushed elanand had a different purpose, more sinister, and I suspected there were a few who sought it for that reason. Other herbs I packed carefully in paper handmade by Ana, my notes quickly scratched atop as I collected. Berries I stuffed into the handful of jars I owned, paper wrapped protectively around them as well. A few of the long noley grasses I simply rolled together and stuffed alongside the rest.
Always so well preserved, he commented. Practiced fingers slid across the collection, unwrapping the packets of herbs as he glanced into each. At least in this, his experience showed. He looked at me as if waiting for an explanation.
I said nothing. None in Nys knew of Ana. None would understand, seeing her as only a barbarian. We needed money to leave, travel to Telahn or Ecor, anywhere but Ashon. Any you need?
Baldon set the cocal aside, a tight smile on his face as he did. Then he sniffed again and I wondered how much of the inside of his nostrils remained. He tottered around the counter toward the shelves. I noted that the arthritis in his joints seemed worse and I considered suggesting a few herbs that might help but knew that would only inflame him. In spite of evidence to the contrary, Baldon thought highly of his knowledge.
He glanced along the shelves, occasionally turning and looking at me with an amused expression as he realized the arranging I had done, before returning to the counter.
Not as much as I once would have, he said. Not as much demand since the fighting with the barbarians eased, he explained.
Barbarians? I bit back the first thought that leaped to mind with the image of the injured whore stuck in my thoughts. Baiting Baldon would do no good. He spoke from age and old beliefs. He had not been there, not battled in Pells like I had. He had not seen the brutality the soldiers from Ashon had inflicted.
I had inflicted.
The war is over. Fighting has been done for months, I reminded, pushing away the memories. I knew I would never fully succeed. Men still get sick from things other than spears and arrows.
Baldon simply nodded. You are just so efficient, Carter. You keep me better supplied than I would be even in Tellis!
Tellis. The damn capital. Were he there, he might have more coin. But there Ana would not be safe.
What can you use? I asked.
My words were more clipped than I preferred but that could not be helped. I needed the money. Ana needed me to get the money. Enough to leave Nys, get away from the memories, away from the insults. She deserved better.
Baldon tapped his fingers on the counter as he considered, then tapped at a few packets. Fewer than I had hoped. I am sorry, Carter. This is probably even more than I can use. He grabbed a handful of coinssilvers, not goldsand slid them across the counter as he picked the herbs he wanted, leaving me better stocked than I had hoped. Try up in Arda, Baldon said. Or better yet, Tellis. Youll sell all you can collect there. Especially with this quality.
Tellis was three days ride at best. So many more by foot. And Arda not much closer. Ana could not be alone that long and I certainly did not dare bring her along. Not to the capital city, not when such sentiment regarding the people of Pells existed, anger still so fresh. No, Ana would likely not even survive the ride.
I told none of this to Baldon as I repacked the satchel, only nodded and pocketed the coin. Barely enough to register in the jar, slowly accumulating our coins. Even as recently as two weeks ago, the apothecary bought everything I collected.
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps I was too efficient.
But now that I was no longer a soldier, what else did I have to sell?
I did not know what I would tell Ana when I returned. I could imagine her reaction, the way her exotic Pells eyes would hold me as she told me that it didnt matter. She would pull me into an embrace that I did not deserve, not until we reached a place where she no longer had to hide. If only I had the coin to get us there.
The last few months had been difficult for both of us, hiding in plain sight near the border, danger ever present for both of us. For her, because of her heritage. For me, because of what I had done. When the war shifted north, Pells pulled back, leaving Ana too far across the wrong side of the border, though neither side was really safe. Together, we used our knowledge of herb lore to collect what we could, saving slowly for a ship ride to anywhere else.
Now we were close. Soon Ashon would be a memory. Ana would be safe.
As much as I hated to admit it, Baldon was right; I could sell at higher prices nearer the capital, where the herbs that grew freely along the border were rare. Probably enough to finally purchase transport away from Ashon. To Telahn
I considered how I could reach Tellis, thinking of some way to borrow a horse, when I heard the thunder of hooves. Few in Nys owned a horse; most had been procured for the war.
The sound made my insides cringe, bringing memories of a time I struggled daily to forget racing back.
I glanced up, frozen in place, my eyes turned to the gate in the massive stone wall that surrounded the village. Such fortifications were necessary during the war with Pells, especially in towns as near to the border as Nys. The huge oaken doors were thrown open, a sight that would never have been seen even a couple months ago. The well-worn road of packed dirt that stretched away from Nys and into Pells had once carried the Ashon army into battle. Then, the village of Nys had been an important staging ground, changed from a sleepy border town into a strategic location. With the war over and the army shifting its defensive focus to the north, Nys reverted to little more than another village.
The injured soldier fell from the saddle just inside the wall. Blood streaked his metal plate, running down his right flank in a stream. The sides of the horses heaved as it breathed and I wondered briefly just how far they had ridden. Four other soldiers remained atop their horses, swords sheathed at their sides. A black plume on the helm of one of the men marked him a minor lord. The armor on the other men was dented, corroded lines etched into the metal. Something about the markings almost triggered a memory.
I hurried toward the fallen man, my satchel coming off my shoulder and unbuckled before I even realized it.
What happened? I asked, running my fingers along the seams in the plate. Practiced hands removed what I could of the chest plate and I saw the puncture wound in his side. Sticky blood spurted from it and I marveled at the fact that he still lived.
You the apothecary? the lord asked. His voice had the lilting arrogant inflection of one born in Tellis.
I glanced up at him briefly. His eyes narrowed as he looked at me, and the air of superiority written upon his face mixed with something else. Anxiety? Fear?
No, I answered, ignoring him as I turned back to the injured man.
He thrashed on the ground, legs jerking wildly. The shape of the wound was likely made by a Pells blade. Probably tainted with poison as well. I suspected too much blood loss but the bleeding had likely prevented the poison from spreading. Either way the man would likely die.
Can you help him?
Quiet! I told the lord, spreading the contents of my satchel on the ground.
The man smelled rank, the poison already working through his system and out his pores.
There was little I could do, but I tried regardless. Too many had already died in this damn war, too many by my own hand. If I could use my skills to heal rather than harm, I would.
Water! I demanded and, to my surprise, one of the soldiers jumped from the saddle with a flask of water.
I poured it into the wound, flushing as best as I could. I suddenly wished for the cocal Baldon had quickly purchased. Without it, I was not certain I could fully staunch the bleeding. Then I grabbed a handful of milkthorn and trackel leaves and crushed them between my palms, rubbing it quickly into a powder. Had I more time, a mortar and pestle would have done a more uniform job mixing the two, but I did not dare unpack those from the satchel.
I cursed the crude work as I rubbed it into the wound; the mans blood smearing across my hands and spurting up my arm. I prayed that it would work. The warriors of Pells used many poisons on their blades, but precious few could be found in this area.
Motioning to the soldier that had brought the water, I made him hold pressure while I prepared a needle and then quickly stitched the wound. As I pulled the edges of flesh together, careful not to pucker the skin too tight, the bleeding finally slowed.
Bandages, I said.
The soldier kneeling next to me shook his head. We have no supplies.
None? What kind of soldier carries nothing with him? Especially men clearly coming from Pells?
No. We were just coming from
I didnt let him finish. Then get me a tunic or a blanket. Anything.
The soldier started to stand when the lord spoke. Use yours, he said.
I looked up at him, suddenly remembering the brusque way I had spoken. No different than any soldier, but I was not a soldier. At least, not to him. Instead of arguing, I pulled my tunic up over my head and tore off one of the sleeves. After rinsing this with water, I pressed the makeshift bandage onto the mans side.
Hell need rest. Water. He still may not survive.
What did you put into his wound? the lord asked.
I stood, motioning to the soldier standing next to me to continue the pressure. That wound was from a Pells blade, I said.
The lord watched me for a moment before nodding. His dark plume bobbed with the motion.
They dip all their blades in poison. Needed to counteract it or he would have surely died.
The lord glanced up the street. A few people had come from their homes and stood watching but none dared near, especially not when soldiers were involved. Most shrunk back into their homes at his attention. Youre not the apothecary?
Soldier then, he said, watching my face with hard eyes. Medic. He said the word with a hint of derision.
Of a sort, I answered. I did not bother to tell him that without this medic,his soldier would surely have died. Baldon would have been useless.
He turned away from me in a clear dismissal. Gather Nerim, he commanded the remaining soldiers. Well stay here for the night. We ride for Tellis in the morning.
I considered telling him that the man needed more than just one night of rest but knew it would not matter. Not to a lord like this. I had seen his kind before, always pressing the attack, never thinking about the implications. Arrogance and indifference made him blind, thinking only of the wealth to be gained overtaking Pells. Men like this and me had been the reason so many had died.
Be sure he drinks. Water, not ale or wine, I told the soldier still holding pressure on the wound. Needs to flush the poison.
The man nodded and soon the other soldiers lifted the man and rested him across his saddle. They rode off without another word, never offering thanks.
Only then did I notice that they had ridden over my satchel. I glanced inside but everything was damaged or otherwise completely destroyed. Only my mortar and pestle, Pells made and sturdy, remained unbroken. Even if I could reach Tellis, I had nothing of value.
The walk home took longer than expected. The road out of Nys opened onto wide grassland, tall stretches of simple field grass mixed with noley and rye. Occasional clumps of trees, olive and ash, dotted the countryside. I stopped at each, ignoring the growing heat of the day and not minding the missing tunic, as I carefully searched for value.
Ana had the better eye. Always had. Though that had nearly as much to do with her Pells training than anything else. I knew I should simply go home first, but wanted to gather as much as I could near Nys before I did.
I knew she would not be disappointed. Not that she would tell me, at least. Ever since I saw her within her village, the children running and playing, women cooking and sewing, the men watching over it all, I had loved her. Perhaps the carefree smile. Perhaps the graceful way she stepped. Perhaps her laugh. All of it swept away rational thought.
They had welcomed me. An outsider sent to scout, to survey and learn the land. To kill. In spite of the war, they had welcomed me.
I never learned why.
When the troops swept down on her village, it was all I could do to ferry her away. They were not my troops. Not my men. My men would never have attacked as those soldiers did. My men would not have turned a quiet full moon night into a slaughter of innocents.
Those are the lies I tell even to myself.
I will never forget the screams of the women, the helpless crying of the children, or the chilling way both were silenced. Ashon soldiers, all of them. One wearing a plumed helm so much like the lord in Nys leading the charge.
Ana and I escaped. We never learned what happened to the rest of her people, though neither of us were naï enough to look for survivors.
I took care of the soldiers.
Afterward, I promised never to use thatknowledge again.
Since then, we tried to start our lives anew. Shaking the memories of the war proved difficult, nearly impossible. At least while we still lived here.
Eventually I reached the small stone house. Set far off the road in a copse of ash and alder, we had found it abandoned. Whether because it was too close to the border or because of rumors of Pells raiders, we did not care. We made it our home.
The privacy of the trees provided protection as well. More than once early on we had hurried deeper into the woods when we thought we heard soldiers advancing nearby. Nearly two months had passed since that had been necessary. We began to believe that the war really was over.
Today even the birds were quiet. A sense of stillness hung over the clearing. Smoke drifted from the chimney, hanging in a fog over the clearing. I smelled something burning as I approached. There was something more, something I could not quite place. Only later would I fully understand what it was that I sensed.
I walked past the stretched hides and the small screen Ana set out for her papermaking. With the heat of the day, I was surprised Ana was not outside working, waiting for me. I dreaded telling her of my failure, the herbs destroyed, but at least I had a few more coins to add to our jar.
I circled around to the door and walked inside. Burnt bread roasted in the fire and the small table I had made was overturned. Herbs Ana collected that morning scattered across the floor, a collection I instantly realized was more valuable than what I had managed on my walk back home. The clay jar where we stored our coins, watching it grow until we were convinced we could afford transport, lay shattered on the ground.
I remembered the care Ana put into crafting it, carefully painting the jar with pictures of our imagined future. Now all the coins were gone. Our future was gone.
I looked quickly through the small house but still did not find Ana. A growing sense of worry knotted my stomach and mixed with the burning bread to make bile rise in my throat.
Ana! I yelled.
Somehow, I already knew I would not get a response.
As I walked from the house, I first wondered where she had gone. I stood at her filters, looking at the pages of drying paper, thinking of what might have made her run off. One thing came to mind.
I turned slowly, looking around the clearing. Only then did I see the end of a slippered foot lying near the trees.
Ana lay bent, face down on the ground, the golden linen dress she had made torn, exposing her thighs and buttocks. I kneeled in front of her, rolling her so that I could see her face.
I repeated the question but need not have.
I did not need to check to see if her heart still beat.
I barely heard the sounds I made. A soft moan followed my cry.
Crystal blue eyes stared blankly at me. Her dark hair was matted but I stroked it anyway, pushing it from her face one last time. Blood soaked the front of her dress between her legs and I wailed again.
A short-handled knife dropped from her grip. Blood stained the blade. A Pells blade.
I fell to the ground in agony.
Dusk fell by the time I finished burying my Ana. I marked the grave with the remnants of the clay jar, the painted dreams mocking me.
A small fire crackled, more for light than for heat. I sat staring into the night. Dark thoughts filled my head, angry and unyielding.
In spite of all that I had done, I still had not managed to save her.
I glanced at the broken jar sitting atop the mound of dirt, our dreams gone with it, stolen from us as Ana was stolen from me.
And all for what? For a war now over? It had changed nothing, other than our lives.
She deserved better than this.
I do not remember collecting the herbs from the floor of the house and refilling my satchel. I do not remember the walk back to town or my preparations along the water.
All I remember is the rage I felt knowing Ana would never smile at me again.
The woods west of Nys swallowed the road. Large branches swung overhead, threatening to block out the sun. A few birds chirped weakly, but I knew that soon even they would fall silent. Their sacrifice could not be helped.
I walked slowly along the road, knowing I would not miss them. They would be near the water, the small pond perfect for drinking. The poison spilled into the water last night unseen and untasted. Not far from where the hard-packed road curved and bent around the waters edge, I smelled them.
A mixture of shit and vomit coated the air. The stench barely registered.
Two were already dead when I reached them, crushed by horses that still twitched and kicked as they drew their last breaths. One was the soldier I had tried to heal, the poison spread throughout his body. The other was the man who had helped me, handing me the water and holding pressure on the wound.
I did not mourn their deaths.
I stalked past, ignoring the dying twitches of the horses, feeling a moment of remorse.
The lord lay motionless on the road, muscles paralyzed. His eyes still moved, though, and he saw me approach. Part of me wondered what he thought.
A pile of chunky vomit lay near his head, his tanned face resting half in it. The dark plume stained with filth as it rested upon the ground.
I tilted his head so that he didnt drown.
I ignored him for a moment and reached into his saddlebags, searching for a moment before I found what I was looking for. There, a small pouch clinked as I removed it. I found another, nearly as heavy. Both went into my satchel.
The two other soldiers lay near the lord. Apparently unharmed and lucky; their horses had thrown them first. I slashed Anas knife across their throats.
Blood spurted out, taking their life silently, the poison from the pond stealing their capacity to fight.
Returning to the lord, I removed his helm and chest plate. He watched me, eyes flickering with each movement. I said nothing until he was completely undressed. Then I crouched in front of him, putting my face in view of his eyes.
I was never a medic, I said. A scout. An assassin. I spat the last. But the war was over. It was over. And you did this. I shook my head, rage taking hold of my words. It would have been better had you hid her body. Instead, I had to see how you ravaged her first.
The lord blinked. The poison was wearing off. That was good.
H-how? he croaked.
His voice came out weak but I heard the question anyway.
I sat him up so he could see and pointed to the pond. The water. Always the water. All men need to drink.
It was the same way Id killed those responsible for Anas village. The poison worked quickly and needed such a small amount to work, poisoning the nerves but letting a man still breathe. The body tried to reject it causing the vomiting and diarrhea, but never fast enough.
I saw his fingers begin to twitch as he flexed them. His back suddenly tensed against me so I let him go. His head slapped into his own vomit.
We just wanted to get away. Thats all. Away from the brutality.
Now I would have to start anew without Ana. With the coins weighing heavy in my satchel, now more than I would have needed for us to leave Ashon, somehow, I would have to make it right, stop the killing. Make right by Ana.
Bar the man started to say.
I leaned forward.
Barbarian, he finished.
I thought of Anas exquisite face, her wide smile, and her grace. All gone, taken from me.
Then I nodded. Yes. I am.
I took Anas knife and sliced deeply across his belly.