“Van Sputten heard the sound of the door unlocking, and he pressed himself to the wall. The girl who opened the door could not see him from her vantage point, and the cook went inside, casting van Sputten a look which clearly said, ‘Wait there.’
“The traveler paced restlessly for what could’ve been ten minutes or could’ve been an hour—his hopes rising with every passing moment. By the time cook opened the door and poked his head into the hallway, van Sputten’s fingers were white for wringing his hands in anticipation.
“‘They says ye can come in,’ the cook said warmly, and pushed the door open with a wide hand. Van Sputten smoothed his hair and cleared his throat. He took a pinch of pulverized tobacco from a leather pouch hanging from his waist, dropped it on the back of his hand, and snorted it. He shook his head, wiped his nose, and walked into the invalids’ chamber.
“There were two windows which spilled sunlight over half the room’s floor, and candles—candles everywhere, hung on the walls, on the desk, on free-standing candelabras—and all a sweet, fragrant beeswax, not the cheap ones made of tallow. There were paintings tacked into the stone on almost every available surface of each wall, and some were affixed to the ceilings of the two canopy bed frames, burgundy velvet curtains spilling over the floor. A large cloth was covering the floor near the windows, an easel with a litany of paints spread out across it. The room smelled of frankincense and beeswax and something else van Sputten could not name. He had smelled death many times on the battlefield, but this was not it—it was more like death’s cousin, a mixture of fatigue, loneliness, and fear which hung heavy in the back of the throat in spite of the other pleasant odors of the room.
“Van Sputten then saw the two young women glowing in the candlelight. One was slightly fairer than the other, and she sat near the easel, haloed by the incoming sun. The other waved a gloved hand from within the burgundy folds of her bed, one finger moving at a time.
“‘Do come in,’ she called from the bed. ‘Don’t be shy.’
“Van Sputten cleared his throat again. ‘Good afternoon, your highnesses,’ he said, adopting his long-forsaken role of servant to nobility. He bowed deeply and touched a closed fist to his chest. ’How fare ye noblewomen this day?’
“‘In truth, I am tired,’ came the gentle voice from the bed, ‘but you are a sight for sore eyes. We have not had a visitor in many months. Genevieve has been saying father has given up on us, that there’s no one left in all the lands who is skilled enough to cure to this disease.’”
“Do you have something you’d like to say, hmm? Any last words?” Inca growled, pulling the charcoal from her pocket menacingly. Abrazek seemed on the precipice of sharing his thoughts when Thaedrus stepped in:
“It is a lot of pressure, isn’t it Abrazek,” he said, nodding at his cohort and widening his eyes meaningfully. “A lot of pressure from the nobility to perform a miracle.” He darted his eyes at Inca several times and raised a finger to his lips. Abrazek nodded back earnestly and beamed at Inca, zippering his fingers over his lips.
“It would take a miracle to get you idiots to behave,” Inca grumbled. “Now, Thaedrus. I’d like to hear van Sputten’s attempt. This had better be good,” she added ominously.
“Yes, m’liege,” Thaedrus replied dutifully. “Van Sputten located a small washbowl, a brick of soap, and a pitcher of water on a small table near the door.
“‘I am no miracle-worker,’ he said slowly, ‘but I have deep relationship with plant medicine. If your highnesses permit, I might cleanse my hands and see at what ails you?’
“‘Please,’ said the haloed princess, and she gestured towards the basin. Van Sputten took care to scrub his hands well before making his way to the bedridden princess who had first greeted him. Even in her delicate state, she was beautiful—she had piercing green eyes and long tawny hair which sprang into curls around her face; freckles painted her sallow skin. She was thin—far too thin—but she smiled at him when he sat beside her.
“‘What afflicts you, lady?’ van Sputten asked gently.
“‘Well, now you’ve never seen strange until you’ve seen this.’ She took a deep breath and began to peel back a long glove, painstakingly gingerly. By the time her glove was turned inside out and every finger free, van Sputten saw a sickly sight: the skin withered from the fingertips and grew brittle and cracked along the extent of her forearm. The flesh of her fingers was a terrible kind of ashen grey, and blue-grey veins spiderwebbed over the surface of her arm. The removed glove was wet with pus and blood and her exposed skin weeped between them. The cook was at her side in a flash with a fresh pair of gloves, and he held out a basket for the sodden pair. The smell of rotting flesh hit the air and van Sputten had his answer.
“‘Is it painful?’ the ex-knight inquired.
“‘There are good days and bad days,’ the princess smiled weakly, ‘but today is a bad day.’
“‘And your feet, too?’
“‘The extremeties, yes,’ she sighed.
“‘And no balms of any kind can stop the cracking?’ he asked.
“‘My sister and I have tried imported salt baths, mud soaks, infused oils of nuts and olives from distant lands, oat and butter balms, and a slew of animal fat rubs, all of which merely made the skin more sensitive, more prone to breaking—we’ve changed our diet a hundred times and tried a hundred ancient healing foods, recommended from medicine men and women across the lands. We’ve lit fires and sweat through our garments until we hallucinated with fatigue, and we’ve left our windows open and taken ice baths until we nearly caught our death—it is an exhaustive list of failed remedies which would pain me greatly to detail in full,’ the haloed princess pronounced smartly. She seemed to be in better health than her sister.
“‘Apologies, Miss,’ van Sputten bowed his head to her, ‘but I must know what you’ve tried so we don’t repeat it.’ He helped the bedridden princess into her fresh pair of gloves as tenderly as he could.
“At length he said, ‘I must go gather supplies from the forest. I will be gone for three days and three nights. In a fortnight is the full moon. That is the day I will administer my medicine—if your highnesses do not object to lodging me so long.’
“‘Our disease gets worse with each passing day,’ the haloed princess said. ‘Any edge you might have on our ailment is worth pursuing. Cookie! Make sure he has everything he needs, will you? This man is our guest.’
“The cook bowed deeply. ‘As m’lady wishes,’ he said, then gestured for van Sputten to follow him out of the chamber.
“‘Rest well, your highnesses,’ the healer said as he pulled the door shut. Once in the hallway, he let out a deep sigh.
“‘Gruesome sigh’, innit?’ the cook whispered loudly. ‘Sir took i’ be’er than th’ las’ doc we scrounged up.’ He slapped van Sputten on the back amicably. ‘Will sir be needin’ a horse?’
“‘Indeed, and please,’ he replied. ‘I aim to leave in an hour. I have much to do.’
“With the help of the kindly cook and the princess’ generosity, van Sputten packed a small rucksack with rations, collection jars and satchels, a bone-handled knife from the kitchen, and several woolen garments. He had traveled with less before, and he sensed the forest would provide for him again. As he strapped his bag to a chestnut-colored steed, his chest throbbed to think of the woman he loved and had left behind. Running his hands through his unruly hair, he thought once, briefly, of the lock he had given her which she had used so benevolently in a lasting protection charm—and wondered how things might be different if she had kept it in a necklace close to her heart instead. He shook his head and mounted the horse and, with one final wave to the friendly cook, our hero was off to gather a crop of medicine to heal the princesses and regain his honor.
“He swept the forest floor with his eyes as he rode, stopping frequently to ask the plants for permission to pluck them, never over-harvesting, constantly on the move. He gathered flowers and moss and plantain. He found serviceberries by a merry little stream which he drank from heartily, bottling some of the pure water to bring to his patients.
“The first night he caught and killed eight large rabbits, which he skinned and roasted over a fire, sparks twinkling up towards the stars as fat hissed into the flames. He scraped the silverskin from their pelts using his knife and salted the hides generously, stretching them out with nails and sticks and posting them close to the fire. The horse munched on wild crabapples and whinnied contentedly as van Sputten tied the collected herbs into bundles to dry. He removed a small flask from the folds of his coat and took a small sip. It was a chilly night, and he needed the warmth.
“‘Drinking on the job?’
“Did his eyes deceive him? The medicine woman whom he had left all those many weeks ago stepped from the darkness and into the circle of light. Her hair was unruly and her cheeks were flushed, as if she had ran from her faraway
cottage to meet him.
“‘Alice?’ he whispered.
“‘Love,’ she replied, her eyes glowing as she strode towards him with open palms. She grasped his hands affectionately and leaned down to kiss him on the forehead. His voice caught in his throat as he smelled the sandalwood oil she massaged into her scalp every morning. ‘You are on your first journey as a healer.’ She smiled at him from beneath lively eyes.
“‘Please,’ van Sputten managed to say. ‘Sit?’ He patted the earth beside him and, when she accepted his offer, he handed her his flask. She accepted this too, and took a deliberate mouthful.
“‘Mm,’ she moaned softly. ‘Royal wine…’ She handed him the flask, but he waved it away.
“‘Keep it,’ he said, and looked into her wild eyes. Desire burned hot within him, and he turned his attention to the dying fire.
“‘I’ve missed you,’ Alice said as she watched him toss a few sticks onto the orange embers. ‘I’ve been thinking of you.’
“‘I know.’ Van Sputten exhaled slowly. ‘I’ve felt it…I’ve felt you.’ He was no virgin, but he blushed.
“‘Good,’ Alice said. ‘That’s where the magic lives.’ Silence fell between the two of them as he prodded the fire and breathed it back to life. The space between them hummed warmly and the night seemed extra dark and extra cold outside of their little circle.
“‘I’m not sure I can do it,’ van Sputten said after a spell. ‘I don’t want to let them down or cause them any more pain.’
“‘Do no harm,’ Alice nodded. ‘An important first step. Tell me what you’ve seen and show me what you’ve gathered.’
“Van Sputten piled a plate with roast rabbit and wild roots and handed it to his mentor, describing the princess’ ailments. When she’d eaten her fill, he showed her all the herbs he’d gathered, and the rabbit skins, and the serviceberries and spring water.
“‘Mm, and the coming full moon!’ she exclaimed, anticipating his process.
“‘Exactly,’ van Sputten said, bowing his head. ‘I imagined how you would do it.’
“‘It is a good plan.’ The woman shook her hair from her shoulders and reached into her curly mane to withdraw a small bundle of a fragrant, silvery plant with velvet leaves.
“‘Burn this,’ she said slowly, holding the bundle before his eyes, ‘twice: once before you craft your cure, and once before you apply it. Open their chamber windows and urge the smell of death out. Change the bedding and their gloves and moccasins. Allow space for fresh, healthful life to take root.’ She kissed the soft leaves and handed them to her apprentice.
“‘Thank you,’ van Sputten said, and tucked the bundle into his rucksack. ‘I will.’
“‘I must leave you now,’ Alice said, drawing a finger under his chin. ‘Don’t forget about me when you are an esteemed knight.’ She gazed at him, and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. ‘You know where to find me,’ she said as she rose to her feet, brushing leaf litter and dirt from the folds of her heavy woolen skirts. Drawing her shawl tighter around her shoulders, she stared into the fire for a few moments, swaying from side to side on both feet. The world seemed to slow to a halt as van Sputten looked at her hungrily, already missing her, already wondering when, if ever, he might see her again.
“‘We are connected, you and I,’ Alice said gently, as if to answer his thoughts. ‘I’m never as far away as you might think.’ She stroked the chestnut-colored horse on the nose and looked over her shoulder at the ex-knight sitting by the fire.
“‘Goodbye, Warlock,’ she said, and stepped into the darkness. She was gone.
“Van Sputten’s mission took the forefront after that. He did not stop collecting medicine until the sun was high in the sky on the third day, at which point he turned his mount towards the royal fortress. They rode hard and covered many miles, and by the time the sun was dipping beneath the horizon, sweaty steed and rider galloped up to the drawbridge.
“‘Hallo, there!’ van Sputten called out, and the sleepy guards tripped over themselves to let man and horse in. The steed was tended to immediately and the cook welcomed van Sputten into the kitchen for an evening meal, though he refused to eat until he had laid out every herb on one of the treated rabbit skins and taken final inventory of his supplies.
“He ate unreservedly, bread and cheese and sauerkraut, and slices of roast chicken with splashes of rosemary olive oil, creamy potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. The cook filled his mug of ale twice and let him eat in silence, for it was clear he was weary and in need of rest and nourishment.
“The ex-knight slept well that night, and labored over his task for eleven days in a modest apothecary above the wine cellar, hardly emerging for meals once a day. He did as Alice had suggested and burned half of the bundle in the small space, a sweet, delicate fragrance filling the room. The scent wrapped itself around van Sputten’s senses and clarified his focus. He thought he smelled a hint of sandalwood in the heady aroma which sent an electric jolt throughout his body and energized him afresh. Cook was delighted to feed his hungry guest and van Sputten tasked his companion with a special errand to bring the medicine to fruition. By the time the full moon came around, the whole fortress was buzzing with anticipation. They had never hosted a healer for so long before the princesses sent them away in failure.
“Van Sputten waited until the moon was high in the sky and twilight was beginning to fall softly around the edges of the trees. At last, he and the steadfast cook made their way up to the royal chambers, rapping on the door with fresh linens, medicine, and candles in hand.
“The princess who had been haloed by the sun on their first meeting opened the door.
“‘Good evening, your highness,’ van Sputten said somberly. ‘We have work to do. If your highness permits it—’
“‘You have permission,’ she said quickly, ‘to do whatever you must. Elizabet and I have talked it over and are willing to try your cure in its entirety.’
“Van Sputten bowed low and set to work pulling sheets, drapes, and the velvet curtains spooled around the princess’ bed frames.
“‘If your highnesses deem it permissible, please remove your garments and step into your cast iron tubs. Cook has filled them with warm water and left a cake of plain milk soap by each.’
“The princesses did as van Sputten suggested, stepping modestly behind two folding screens and slipping into the water. He and the cook pulled every single candle from its housing until the chamber was illuminated solely by a lantern which the two men had brought from the kitchen. The loyal chef bowed out of the chamber with the soiled linens, curtains, gloves, and boots, with one last wink at van Sputten.
“The medicine man opened the windows and lit the last half of the precious herb bundle. After walking the perimeter of the room, he left the smoldering plant upon the cleared table where he’d arranged his supplies.
“‘If it pleases your highnesses, gently clean yourself from toes to fingertip to scalp. Imagine this is the last painful bath you’ll ever take, and hold that thought as true in your mind. Meantime, I will change the bedding and lay out fresh nightclothes for the both of you.’
“He worked diligently and efficiently, wrapping fresh sheets around their feather mattresses and lighting fresh candles in the darkened room.
“‘This is the first bath I’ve ever taken with a strange man in the room,’ Elizabet said coyly from the other side of the room divider.
“‘Make no mistake, lady, this is a first for me too,’ van Sputten shot back amicably, tossing nightgowns over both folding dividers. He lit a small fire in the hearth and, placing a large kettle over the flames, he sat back in a wooden rocking chair and meditated as the girls cleaned their fragile skin. An undertone of sandalwood snaked through the room and van Sputten knew Alice was with them.
“When the girls had both reached for their fresh, cotton shifts and emerged from behind their privacy screens, van Sputten gestured to two wooden chairs near the fireplace with lambskin covers. Wordlessly, both women crossed the intimate space and sat. The kettle hissed pleasantly and van Sputten filled a small teapot which was swimming with forest herbs. An earthy aroma emanated from the spout as moonlight spilled through the window. Van Sputten poured the girls two large mugs, passing the water through a sieve to catch any plant matter before rising to close the open windows.
“‘This tea,’ he said softly, aware of the tender space they had created together, ‘you must drink it every night once the sun goes down and until the next full moon.’
“The two sipped on their tea gingerly while van Sputten fed and tidied the fire. The three of them shared the primal silence, firelight dancing over their faces as the girls sipped, and van Sputten sat back in his chair.
“At length, the princesses finished their tea and, with a soft clink, set their empty mugs by the stone hearth. Van Sputten donned a pair of leather gloves and grasped a large jar of fresh honey in one hand and a poultice he’d pummeled with forest plants in the other. He kneeled in between the two women and looked up at them from his pose of servitude.
“‘If m’ladies permit it,’ he whispered, ‘I’ll apply the medicine.’
Tune in tomorrow for the final chapter!