Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Honestly, though, I still don’t anticipate much success. Guess I’ll see.
STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT
Her back was breaking over her shovel, but she took the time to glare at the apex of the Great Wheel, cresting above the roofs of the High Elders’ homes. She spat for them while she was at it. They were welcome to their enormous, six room, two-storied houses that surrounded the village circle. Why ever the elite of the elite would want to live next to the village circle, where the lackwits and the mud globbers collected like so much rainwater in a cistern was beyond her. One day, they would all revolt and bring their pitchforks and torches to the village circle and burn the Great Wheel down, and then decide to burn the decadent homes of their oppressors while they were at it. And oh look! There they all were, handily within reach.
Matron Marrow did not get along with the other Elders. Healing in a small town was a practice in contradictions. Broken bones, foaling, and births were all so common and immediate that most families were familiar with them and could handle them adequately on their own. This led to many seeing a Healer as an unnecessary extravagance, a parasite who peddled false wares to the unwary (meaning the poorest) and the vain (meaning the wealthiest). The poorest meanwhile, could not afford the obeisance paid for any service, and pride compelled many to refuse her charity, so the poor shunned her as well. The wealthy, the other Elders, saw Healing as up-jumped chicanery and sneered at her out of the corner of their mouths. Of course, whenever the wealthy had a cough or the gout they came to her all the same, but money and land and goods tended to ward off most such misfortunes. So Matron Marrow was shunned by the poor, the wealthy, and everyone in between.
But they came to her. When a mother broke her leg and no one else knew how to splint it, they came to the Healer. When a penniless wretch had been coughing his lungs out for two months, he came to the Healer. When a wealthy and promising young apprentice found her belly mysteriously swelling after visiting that lowborn shepherd’s boy a few moon’s past, they came to the Healer too. They skulked over in the dark, begged her service and her secrecy, and disappeared into their daily lives, pretending it never happened. But she remembered them all, shun her all they like.
“Shit on them,” she grumbled, then went back to digging. Her back seized up, forcing her to stop again. She hissed, planted the shovel into the dirt mound at a jaunty angle, and leaned against it as she steadied her breath. “Damned shit-bag of guts,” she said to no one. The human body was a tool used to toil one’s purpose in the world, and Matron Marrow often felt that she had been punted into the world ill-equipped. She was well past her sixtieth year now, but in truth her bones had started to fall apart just after thirty. True, most women her age would not even think to be handling a shovel, but then most people were lazy and stupid, so their habits counted for very little.
The small of her back felt like a fiery knife was being held against it by a nervous idiot, throbbing into her spine as the imaginary assailant huffed and stuttered. She wanted to lie down and let her back stretch out, but even in this cold she feared she might fall asleep. And even tonight, she feared that if she fell asleep, she might not wake up.
Matron Marrow hated poets. There was nothing romantic about death. A great warrior had visited Bluefield once, nigh on twenty years ago now. Young and tall, a beautiful man from a great city where men were judged for their beauty and birth rather than their ability to do anything useful. He had been grievously wounded in the gut by a fierce dragon he had slain, to hear him tell it. She knew the knife wound of a tavern brawl when she saw one, but he was young and bold and smiled so evilly at her that she kept her peace and burned the wound and sewed him up. He squealed so pitifully when she fired his cut, she asked him if he had been a pig boy before he was a warrior. He took that curtly, but well. That night, he squealed the same when she was astride him. At first she told him love should hurt if it is to mean anything, but as they lay together she realized his wound had been torn back open during their fun. So there was nothing for it but to fire the wound and sew him up and laugh at his squealing all over again.
The warrior died badly. The wound had festered, despite the fire. Before he went, he was half the size he had been, all his great muscle rotted off, his shining hair limp and sweaty, and his eyes hollow and afraid like a child. Toward the end, he tried to confess that he had been stabbed by a woman he tried to rob in Top Hill, but Marrow hushed him and asked him to tell her of the dragon he had slain. He smiled a sad, slim grin that scarcely recalled the evil smiles of before. He tried to cobble together a clever story, but whatever he was he was not a poet. He breathed his last while trying to find a good metaphor for the dragon’s size. She held his hands in hers as he grew still and changed from a man to an object.
Then, of course, he soiled himself, as all do when they die. Everyone knew this, but everyone tried to forget it. So she burned his clothes, swept his stolen money into her chest, and sold his piecemeal breastplate and piss-poor pauldrons to the smith. Marrow had been a romantic once upon a time, but even at forty she was a practical romantic.
She had lived a cautious life, but of course death would come for her in the end, and she feared it might be coming now. Some said the brightest candles burn the briefest, but a candle that burns long might always catch a moth or a sweet scent. Frankly, just burning longer was all the brightness Marrow needed. But caution was dead now, as dead as her back felt. Longing to stretch out on the ground, she instead hefted up her shovel and dove into the dirt once more.
She stood straight as a rod in an instant, strangling out a yelp of pain as her back burned. Slowly, she twisted her neck to spy over her shoulder. There, standing on a small hill, framed against the great full moon behind him, was Zia, her apprentice.
“I’ve finished crushing all the herbs, Matron,” he said by way of explanation. “What are you doing in the graveyard?”
“Building a latrine; what does it look like I’m doing, boy?” Though quite past manhood by now, Marrow had been called Zia boy for ten years and had no intention of stopping anytime soon.
“It looks like you’re digging up the body of Ulvis Handler.”
Like most Bluefielders, and indeed like most people, Zia was charmingly stupid. Unlike most people, however, there were brief times when he was disarmingly cognizant of what was happening around him. Such moments were rare, but that only made them more difficult to handle when they arose.
“There was an error,” she ventured, “when he was buried. He had a vial of purple dye upon his person, and the Elders feel it ought to be salvaged before he rots.”
“Ohhh… but if the Elders insist, why are you doing it so well after nightfall?”
“Because I am still digging up the dead body of a werewolf, you cabbage-brained hump!” Marrow took a breath. That had been a very loud whisper, but she was reasonably certain it would not draw any curious eyes. “Since you are here, boy, help an old woman out and get digging.”
Zia’s eyes widened, and he ran his fingers through his greasy dark hair. “You… you want me to… to dig up a dead body?”
“Yes, boy. You are going to be a Healer one day, are you not? You should expect to see a dead body every now and again.”
“I hope to avoid seeing dead bodies, Matron.”
“And Ulvis Handler hoped to survive the day, but here we all are, and here we must endure our disappointments as they come. Except Ulvis, of course, he need not endure anything anymore. Except perhaps the embarrassment of disinterment, if that means anything, which I doubt heavily.”
“You were two hours late this morning, and you think you will be forgiven for a few extra hours crushing hogroot? Now take this shovel, you turgid lackwit, and get to work.”
Marrow sighed contentedly as she stood to observe the labor. Her old teacher had always said it was better to work wisely than well. She had stolen the expression from a traveling jeweler, thus demonstrating her own wisdom as she shared it.
Marrow used this spare time to look about the village. The tavern could be heard far on the other side of the Great Wheel, but otherwise all was still. Unless Tilfer Bower stumbled by on one of his drunken wanderings, they were unlikely to be found out. Still, the more quickly this was done, the better. She began to rummage through her fading gray robes. They had been black, once upon a time, to represent the mysteries into which she delved for the good of her people. That was the story, at least. She suspected it was more likely that the better colors had all been claimed by more esteemed elders: green for farming, blue for crafting, red for justice, gold for the Faith of course. There were others, she was sure, but she would not dignify them with her memory. She had more pressing matters.
From her robes, she produced a bronze fob on a pendulum chain, a crow’s feather, a cat’s white paw, and a tiny vial of dark red liquid. She bound the feather and paw together with a piece of twine, then thought of the words she had to speak, running them over thrice in her mind to be sure.
Zia was still not done digging.
Matron Marrow began to tap her feet. “Youth is wasted on the young,” she grumbled, before snapping “Quicken your pace, boy. You want to sleep before daybreak, do you not?”
It was half an hour or so when Zia jerked away and dropped the shovel. “I felt… something.”
Of course. As a condemned heretic, Ulvis would not be buried in a case. Most likely, he was tossed into a sack and buried in what proved to be a thankfully shallow grave. Zia was hesitant to drag the sack from the earth, but some gentle coaxing and hitting convinced him to pull Ulvis’ remains out and set them on level and unmarked ground. With that, Marrow shoved him away and sprinkled the red liquid around the corpse in a circle.
“What are you doing, Matron?”
“Warding off evil spirits. Go to bed.” Not bothering to check if Zia obeyed, Marrow knelt slowly down and placed the cat’s paw and crow feather into Ulvis’ slack mouth, then shut the jaw as best she could. Her knees throbbing already, she took the bronze fob and placed it in her mouth, coating it liberally with saliva. As she pulled it out and dangled it precisely above the dead man’s heart, she admired the shine of it in the moonlight. She then began to stir the pendulum fob in a very subtle circle, widdershins, above the body.
“Fearless Ferion, who rests atop the nest of night, tear back the eternal shrouds and show your servant what she seeks. Let blood fear blood, and precious ore bid life bedew the sky. Fly!” She flung the fob into the air. Up and up it soared, disappearing into the shadowy night. She may have heard a thud sometime later, but was too intent watching the corpse.
As the seconds turned into minutes, she studied Ulvis’ bare chest, his sagging flesh now empty from torment and death. Dead bodies seemed lighter than the living bodies they had been mere minutes ago, Marrow often found. Often, the difference was slight, but Ulvis looked like a sack of hay that had been emptied out and thrown into a rainstorm. He was so covered with dying bruises, scratches, and cuts, it was impossible to tell what pains had been inflicted by the mercy of his inquisitors, and what may have arisen simply from the aches of his life and labors, or even what may have come from other, more secret works.
“Is something supposed to happen, Matron?”
She took in a long breath and let out an even longer sigh. “What is supposed to happen is that you are supposed to go to bed. You’ve got to get up before dawn to pick dragon mushrooms.”
“We haven’t needed dragon mushrooms for three years. We still have a basket in the north corner.”
“They’re too old. You’ve to got go pick new ones.”
“New ones to sit in the corner for three years?”
“Yes. If you’re not going to sleep you might as well go pick them now.”
“I’ve not great desire to be torn apart by wolves, Matron.”
“In that we differ.”
“What is that supposed to – What’s happening?”
Small, faint, dark dots were appearing on Ulvis’ chest, near his heart. They looked black in the gloom of night, but Marrow knew they were red. There seemed to be no pattern in them at first, but slowly more dots joined in, and at length a picture appeared. It was the likeness of a woman’s face, pale-seeming on Ulvis’ dead flesh, her fine features twisted in a wail of anguish.
“Who is that, Matron?”
Marrow creaked and groaned as she hobbled to her feet. “I have no idea. How thoroughly disappointing.” She dusted her hands and turned away. “Put him back in the ground and go to bed.”
“What about the purple dye, Matron?”
“Piss on it.”
“I… Matron? Should I—“
“No, not really. Just put him back in the ground and let’s get some sleep.”
She left him there and crept back toward the edge of northern edge of town. She passed the tavern, and sure enough Tilfer Bower was stumbling about in search of a ditch to pass out in. Luckily, he was stumbling in a northerly direction, unlikely to happen upon the graveyard. If he did, well, she could always let Zia hang and get herself a new apprentice. Perhaps she might even teach the new one how to be a Healer.
Who was this woman? Marrow had risked her life to spy upon that face and gained nothing from it. What else was there to do? She could not simply pick up and leave town without arousing suspicion, and thereby inviting a fate similar to Ulvis Handler’s. Perhaps she could invent an excuse, a need for some rare substance in the great city. Perhaps she could suggest that the evil humors the witches produced were infecting the town, and she required some mystical hobble-dee-bobble to cure it.
Yes. The idea had some merit. Mending bones and cuts, these were common work, but the higher mysteries of plague and even the common cough were unknown to anyone else in Bluefield. The thought of adventure breathed life into her ancient bones, and she felt herself gliding home.
Her eyes burned with weariness, but now that the plan was formulating, her limbs seemed to move with their own purpose. She swept her table clean as soon as she walked through the door, then began to rummage through her chest. Shadow dust would be needed. Some hogroot, of course, perhaps a little graveworm. This was a dangerous game she was concocting, and poisons would likely enter into it. Perhaps she might even brew up some of the evil humors the villagers feared so much. She wondered: could she stop a killer’s blade with a cloud of bloody smoke? So many unknowns, about to be tested.
Marrow pulled her head out of the chest. She stared at the wall.
There were many maps, diagrams, and formulae pasted on the walls of her hut, but the space above the chest was empty. As her absent gaze fell upon it, she felt that brief spark of wanderlust fizzle out. Her newfound energy drained away through a sieve. She was an old woman, not some daring adventurer. She could not even be sure of making it to Top Hill, let alone the great city. This was not a task for her, and there was no one else to undertake it.
She dumped everything back in the chest and closed it. Marrow sat down on her lumpy mattress, still staring at nothing.
Her old teacher had died fairly young, and Marrow became a Healer just before her thirtieth year. She still traveled into the Blue Wood herself in those days, and in the late spring a particularly dangerous wolf was menacing the Southern Edge. Rather than implore anyone for aid, she concocted a terrible poison and laced it with an odor like venison, to draw the beast to it. She crept into the woods late afternoon and set the bowl in a clearing, then shimmied up a tree to watch. She fell asleep waiting.
She awoke to a persistent whimper. Looking down, she saw a small fox whose hind legs had been caught and broken by a large trap, no doubt set to capture the infamous wolf. This little fox, gasping and dying, was dragging itself along the forest floor to reach Marrow’s poison. Panicking, in pain, alone, without any means of helping itself, the poor creature sought out comfort, not knowing the comfort it approached would grant it a gnawing and painful death. Marrow climbed down as fast as she could to scare the fox away, but it had no fear to show. By the time she reached it, the poor beast was already lapping away at her concoction.
As for the wolf, it disappeared one day, and no explanation was ever found.
Marrow felt similarly about her current situation, and by extension about the sum of her life. What had she done here in Bluefield that could not have been done by a husbander or a city dentist? And now, in this dire hour, what could she do but accept that she was a done old woman, with no real power over her world?
Could it be done? No, it was unthinkable. Zia was young and eager to impress, but he could not be trusted with a grocery list as often as not. Still, if he should fail, what was the cost? She was an old woman, after all, like to die soon, and the only thing the village respected less than the Healer was the Healer’s apprentice.
It was there, it could be done. She would have to waste a little time telling him what to do, but it was there. He was not reliable per se, but she could trust him to the grave, as he even now demonstrated. She would trust him in this, even if the grave flew up to greet them.
Matron Marrow sat on her mattress, waiting for Zia to return. She was still sitting when she was awakened by a knocking at her door. Upon opening it, she found her apprentice in the grasp of Alma the prefect. It seemed that Sara, another prefect, was walking off a drunk and happened into the graveyard, where she found the boy meddling with a corpse. Zia was to be tried for grave robbing. Unfortunately, the scene soon drew Alma, who was sober, and able to observe the circle of blood on the ground, and the cat’s paw in the corpse’s mouth.
Zia was to be tried for witchcraft.