Monday, February 13, 2012

The Curse Garden (Part 1 of 3)

The healer’s shelves were filled with rows of jars, each stuffed and carefully labeled with the sort of magic they contained. They were mostly simple magics; peony blossoms to sooth the itching pox, cedar twigs to quicken the healing of shallow wounds, red earth clods to strengthen a weak stomach. Kit inspected every one, but there was no magic for sale that would cure her of the sickness nestled inside her.

“What ails you, dear?” The healer asked, appearing at her elbow. She was a handsome woman shortened by age. One dark swath of hair cut through a fall of silver and her eyes were sharp green.

Kit found that she couldn’t reply except to pull her arms more tightly around herself and shake her head. She knew how easily kindness and concern folded into fear. The name of her illness had that power, and she had no desire to have that experience again.

“Ahh.” The healer’s smile became secretive and knowing.“Don’t be ashamed. You certainly aren’t the first young woman to find herself in such a predicament. I have just the thing.”

As the old woman ducked through the heavy blue curtain at the back of the shop, Kit grasped her meaning with horror.

She followed without thinking.  “Lady Healer, you’ve misunderstood me!”

Behind the curtain was a much smaller room, though it was equally filled with labeled jars. These, though, were for more serious ailments: broken bones, boils, and watery lungs. On the walls were maps of the surrounding countryside all annotated with what rare herb or flower grew where and when they were likely to bloom. Drying leaves and berries hung in bundles from the rafters and a ladder reached up between them where Kit could make out a loft.

“Here we are,” the old woman said, producing a jar filled with spiny white leaves. “These’ll do the trick. Boil them for five minutes, then drink the water. Don’t eat the leaves. Bury them and in two days, you’ll be clear as spring air.”

“I’m sorry, but this won’t help me. My problem – well, it isn’t so ordinary,” Kit said, hoping she hadn’t revealed too much. When the healer drew back, clutching the jar with rigid fingers, Kit feared she’d soon be chased from the shop and probably the village, but then the woman nodded.

“I see,” she said, turning her eyes to the little table shoved into one corner and beginning to sort through the many scrolls stacked on top. “Magical afflictions are certainly tricky. You’ll need something much more powerful than anything I have here, and I know of only one place to send you.”

Something like hope stirred in Kit and she watched the woman anxiously. The healer sorted through her scrolls for a moment, finally selecting one and returning to Kit.

“There is a place, not too far from here, where a garden of roses grows on the side of a steep hill. Plucking any of those roses will cure you of whatever it is that afflicts you. It isn’t hard to get to, but the price is a steep one.”

Kit found it impossible to imagine any price would dissuade her of finding this garden and plucking one of its roses.

“I’ll pay whatever you ask for that map,” she said, giddy with relief. “I’ll give you everything I have.”

But the old woman didn’t return her smile. “No price. I will give it to you, but before you take it, you must know that every person who has taken a rose has been cursed.”

“Cursed?” Kit withdrew the hand that was already reaching for the map. “In what way?”

“It’s different for everyone. Some have been so trivial as a change of hair color or a nose that runs every other day. But others have forgotten the names of their children or have become unable to bear even the slightest touch without pain. I can’t say what it will be for you, but I can say this garden is equally full of curses as it is of cures. You cannot have one without the other.”

Anything, thought Kit, would be better than the thing lurking inside her. A runny nose was nothing by comparison. She took the map and thanked the old healer profusely.

Outside the shop, the day was bright and busy. Kit dodged a stream of children chasing a ribbon someone had spelled to race like a snake above their reaching hands, then found a quiet alley behind a row of hawker stalls selling spiced meats and fresh vegetables. When she was sure she’d gone far enough that no one would disturb her, she spread the map out on the hard-packed dirt to study.

It looked simple enough. The path was clearly traced in blue ink, breaking away from the village and the main road immediately to cut through wheat fields, then diving into the Keening Wood. Instead of continuing through, however, the path cut into the thick of the forest and climbed a little unnamed rise. That was where it ended, the garden marked only by a drawing of a small flower.

Kit pressed her finger against the flower and her heart fell just a little. It might take her several days to travel this distance and she only had less than three to spare. She could feel the illness inside her, coiled and trembling, waiting for the moment it would stretch through her entire body and change her forever. Her time was running out. But Kit wasn’t ready to give up. Not now that there was hope.

When she was sure she had the path firmly in her mind, she rolled the map again and  slipped it into the pouch holding her meager belongings. She would need food to make the journey. The sparse collection of coins in her pocket wouldn’t buy much. Maybe a week’s worth of meals if she was prudent.

She made quick work of gathering supplies; bread and dried beef, a few apples and a block of hard cheese, and a small knife in case the rose stems were tough. With each item carefully packed in her pouch, Kit dropped her very last coins in the open hands of a young priest seated in the hot sun, then set out to find the garden of curses.

Thanks for reading! Check back on Wednesday for part 2 by Valerie!

Photo by koalie via Flickr Creative Commons.

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