From my Flash Fiction collection
I was sent to the Valley in my fourteenth year. I was given a little attic room and assigned as apprentice to the Herbalist beyond the Green.
She set me to work in the Storeroom, where I organised the shelves, made labels and lists. She was impressed with my lettering. Gradually I started to learn Herb-Craft: where to gather the freshest ingredients, what to plant and when to harvest, recipes for teas and tinctures, poultices and potions.
A year later, following the midsummer feast, she put me to work on the Book. I copied out new recipes, made illustrations, noted where and when certain plants could be found. I began to assist in the Dispensing Room. She was pleased with me and with my work.
I learned that certain things displeased her. If she found me chatting too long whilst I was dispensing remedies, she would stand at the door, arms folded, tapping her foot. My friends soon took the hint. Or if she saw me spending time at a particular market stall, she would take me firmly by the elbow telling me to ‘come, leave that now’.
I worked with my pen and brush in the Storeroom at a little desk among the wooden shelves on which the flasks and jars were kept neatly in rows. Even on the hottest of days the Storeroom doors remained shut. No prying eyes were tolerated; the work was secret. I was sworn to keep those secrets.
One afternoon, I’d made myself a cup of herbal tea using leftovers from a poultice. She came in and sniffed my teacup. “What is this?” she asked. I explained. “Is it in the Book?” “No, it but was only a handful of leaves.” Her eyes flashed, “There must be no omissions from the Book.” She stabbed at the cover with fingers clenched and walked out.
Two years passed. My knowledge grew. I followed her rules; made sure she had no cause to admonish me. She taught me a little rudimentary Spell-Craft and the Storeroom prospered as never before.
One morning in late summer, when the dew was still fresh on the ground, I took my basket up to the head of the Valley to the source of a little stream I knew. There I found newly growing belladonna and wolfsbane. I picked a sprig of each and hurried to back to the Storeroom.
Later that afternoon, I settled down at the little desk with my brush and pen and my new specimens. I opened the Book and turned to the poison plants section. But it was missing. I checked again, carefully, page by page, but it was as if the pages had never existed.
I hurried over to her little house and called her. She followed me slowly and sat down at the desk. I showed her where the missing pages should have been; how they seemed to have disappeared into thin air. I thought she’d be cross and give me that look, so I prepared myself. But she looked up at me and said “Never mind now.” She laid her wrinkled hand on my arm: “Go home; I’ll see you in the morning.”
The Storeroom was unusually busy the next day and my morning was spent making up and dispensing remedies. It was only in the afternoon that I took the Book down. The moment I opened it, I could see something was wrong. Strange symbols had been written in the margins and there were untidy blots and crossings out. I didn’t understand.
I heard the Storeroom door open. She appeared in the doorway and came over to the desk. “Something’s happened to the Book,”’ I said, showing her.
“Only you use the Book. No one else has touched it.” She brought her face close to mine and I saw pure hatred on her face. “Why have you done this?”
“I haven’t done anything.” I felt myself starting to shake. I knew I hadn’t done anything. I stared up at her. “It wasn’t like this yesterday.” My stomach churned under her gaze. “We looked at it together, remember? The missing pages?”
“I know you did it.” Her voice was like gravel.
I stood up, facing her across the little desk. I held her stare; not this time, I thought. There was a burning smell. I looked down. Smoke was rising from the edges of the Book. The paper began to curl and suddenly the pages ignited. She slammed the Book shut.
“Go!” She pointed to the door. “Just go!”
I grabbed my basket and cloak and fled towards the Green. I looked back just once. There she stood, framed by the doorway. She glared back at me for a moment; then she slammed the Storeroom door shut.
I never went back. I avoided that part of the village and only went to the market during dispensing hours when I knew she’d be occupied. I could never rid myself of the memory of the expression of loathing on her face, or the power I’d felt that moment when the Book had ignited. I had been changed forever.
©2018 Chris Hall