Authors: Nicole Burr
“What a sight!” Mr. Sturik laughed. Esra sipped at her Mitroot tea, delighting in the warmth spreading through her bones. She felt a twinge of disappointment, remembering that this loving couple could not have children. They did not seem to mind that a family was not fated to them and were quite contented with each other and their shop. And they had adopted and loved many in town like they would a son or daughter.
Esra could remember that even as a child she had been drawn to the serenity of the general store. She had always been very active, constantly looking for new places to explore and new things to do. Being bored and keeping still were not desirable choices. The townspeople knew she had a reputation for being adventurous, and it was not uncommon to see her trying to climb a Tree much beyond her height or venturing into an area of the forest that other children avoided with suspicious fear. If there was one thing that could make Esra sit still, it was a good story about a place or time that she had never been to. Even as an adult her thirst for adventure and knowledge carried her through her studies with Cane. But there was something about the small wooden stools that lined the counter of her friends’ store that allowed her to sit peacefully for an hour at a time, listening to stories of the western city of Delmar where Lara was raised. One of her favorites was the story of how the two had met.
Mr. Sturik, it seemed, had gone to the city to collect an inheritance he had received from an uncle. He was planning to use the money to open a store of his own. The wealthy grain merchant he had apprenticed under had paid him fairly well, but the man had a habit of shorting people on their orders and got fairly angry when Mr. Sturik refused to swindle customers out of their rightful share. Tired of working long hours with a less than honest man, he was grateful to hear that he would now be able to start a business of his own, and run it how he saw fit. Lara had just lost both her parents and was looking for someone to take her towards a small town in the eastern Kingdom to find her only brother. When she had taken a risk and asked this bright young man if he would mind escorting her, she immediately regretted offering to travel alone with a man she hardly knew. But Mr. Sturik laughed and said that he himself had just hired a caravan to transport the goods he had purchased for his new store, and that he would be happy to take her as far as Re Malik. As it turns out, Re Malik seemed to come too soon, and the young man decided that perhaps this fine young woman’s destination was as good a place as any to start his business, and from that moment on they never parted.
“Are ye preparing yet fer the next Trader’s Day?” Esra asked the shop owner. Trader’s Days were festivals that lasted for three days and occurred once every spring and fall. It was an opportunity for traders and merchants from some of the large cities, like Mahesh in the north and Hals Arün to the south, to come exchange wares. The merchants also picked up some spices and other goods native to the region of Sorley for selling abroad.
“Aye, I’ve been saving my coins fer one of those fancy perfumes my wife’s been eyeing.”
Lara blushed at her husband’s disclosure. “I can’t help myself, they just smell so sweet and exotic. It is like being able to travel without leaving home. I can just close my eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine the wonderful places those smells come from.”
“There are many tempting things at Trader’s Day,” Esra agreed. She was familiar with the intoxicating pull on one’s mind as a result of all the strange and wondrous enticements at these festivals. It was usually a day where walking into random objects was even more likely as her daydreaming took her far away from reality. “My grandparents always find at least one bolt of fine cloth and more than enough delicious treats. We must gain a Pig’s weight in the few weeks that follow.”
“I think most people do,” Mr. Sturik laughed. “And I daresay the last few trips there have been an increasing number of merchants wishing to visit our fine blacksmith, Baelin. If he was a man interested in money, he could run most of them home with empty pockets.”
“He is very talented,” Lara murmured in assent. “I have also heard that he will be coming to help your grandparents in exchange for some riding privileges?”
“It’s true,” Esra nodded. “I think it will be a good agreement. Baelin is one of my best friends and I am glad that my grandparents will be able to take it a little easier. Our Horse Fariel is a fine Steed, so it will be nice to see someone ride him properly. I’ve often wondered if he has some royal lineage, as he is obviously no field Horse. He seems to be more fit fer a war.”
“I have surely never come upon such a wondrous Horse elsewhere,” Mr. Sturik pondered, “and I have done a fair amount of traveling throughout LeVara.”
Fariel was at least eighteen hands high, much taller than an average field Horse, with massive grey flanks that Esra could barely straddle. It was awkward to ride him, so she normally preferred the smaller Horse, Breti. But every once in a while she got a flare of courage and took him for a stroll through the woods. He was remarkably agile despite his size and could hurtle over most shrubs and fallen Trees. Had she been a better rider, she would have loved to see what he could really do, but as it was, a short ride left her breathless with her heart pounding in her ears. Not to mention that mounting the tall beast usually required the creative stacking of wooden crates in the barn.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she placed her arm on the counter and pulled up her sleeve to show the rash on her forearms. “I wanted to see if either of ye have seen this before.”
Mr. Sturik gave a look of perplexity to his wife as he gently took Esra’s arm to look at her skin. They were both silent as he turned her wrist this way and that, studying the markings. Suddenly Lara stood up from her stool and went to the stove.
“Nope, never seen anything like it! You, dear?” She implored her husband.
“No,” he shook his head. “I haven’t any idea.”
“Oh, well,” Esra sighed. “I was just wondering. I’ll stop at Muriol’s apothecary shop on the way home and see what she says.”
“Good idea,” Mr. Sturik patted her hand gently.
“More tea, Esra?” Lara asked as she took her empty cup away.
“No, I must be off. But thank ye. It was delicious, as always.” She stood up and walked to the door, covering her arm and giving a wave. “Next time I will bring some beaten bread to share with the tea.”
The door clanged shut behind her and Esra squinted in the bright light filtering through a sky peppered with thin, wispy clouds. Cool tendrils of a fall breeze swirled around her and she shivered involuntarily. Walking down a few buildings, she stopped in briefly at the mill to see if her grandparent’s grain was ready. After promising to stop by the next morning with Breti and a cart to pick it up, Esra strode past a line of shops and crossed the street to Muriol’s. The smell of Herbs and unknown Plants greeted her a good thirty paces before she reached the front steps of the apothecary shop.
The owner, Muriol Menthy, was an elderly widow who smelled about as odd as her many wares. She had sparse white hair and a face so tough and wrinkled that it gave her the appearance of a Roja fruit left in the Sun. Her body was just as shriveled, with creased skin hanging loosely from her petite frame. The one youthful trait she retained were piercing green eyes that danced with excitement when someone came in to seek counsel.
The townsfolk could not remember a time when the woman was married, nor anything about her husband, for it seemed that she had been in the town since its founding. Some of the more gossipy folk swore that no one could remember Muriol’s husband because she killed him off and made him disappear with one of her flesh eating minerals. Although Esra thought the woman was certainly odd, she saw no hint of maliciousness in her temper nor encountered anything wounding in her balms. She did not doubt that the woman was being unjustly judged, considering what some people said about others in the town that lived outside the normal traditions and expectations.
Another reason she had a strong inclination to like this woman was because Meshok seemed to love her. Besides Baelin and Cane, Muriol was the only other townsperson that knew of Esra’s friend. As if on cue, Meshok slunk around the corner and trotted slyly up to Esra just as she was opening the battered wooden door to enter the shop. How she was able to do this undetected, Esra was amazed. Muriol looked up from the book she was squinting at in the darkened room.
“Esra, Meshok, welcome,” she greeted them with a wave of her hand, placing a leaf in the book and closing it.
“Hello, Muriol,” Esra strode past the long rows of jars and bottles, ducking under long strings of Herbs hung from the ceiling to dry. Meshok slunk her way around the counter and appeared next to the Herb woman, who was not in the least bit surprised by such an act and tenderly petted the beast behind her ears. “I am in need of yer advice on a rash that has appeared suddenly. It gives an itchy, burning feeling, and seems to be spreading over my forearms.”
Esra raised her sleeves to show the old woman, whose sat as still as a stone as she gazed at the dark red dots.
“Oh dear,” she breathed. “And it aches, ye say?”
“It feels more like a burning itch. Nothing horrid, but enough to be a constant reminder and a bother.”
“I see,” Muriol nodded. “I can give ye something to ease the discomfort, but unfortunately that is all.”
“What is it? Cane said it might be from Witch Hazel,” Esra asked, curious at such a thing that could stump the town’s very capable apothecary.
“I know no remedy fer such a thing. Here,” she said, taking a small jar down from the shelf. “Place this ointment on yer skin twice a day. And don’t worry, it will not spread beyond yer arms.”
Esra was confused at the woman’s cryptic answer, but relieved at this small victory. At least if Muriol didn’t know what it was, then at least she thought it wouldn’t get worse. She pulled out the small cloth purse that was attached to the inside of her cloak. “Thank ye. How much?”
“Nothing, nothing,” the Herb woman chided, waving them towards the door.
“But I must…”
“No,” Muriol insisted. “Go home and speak of this no more. The ointment will help until later.”
And with that Esra found herself back in the bright light of the street, Meshok panting beside her.
“Well, that was strange,” Esra mumbled to her friend, who had already disappeared from the prying eyes of the town. Tucking the jar into her cloak, she began the journey back home with tired, heavy legs. It had been a very long and thoroughly exhausting day. Esra thought about what her grandmother had said, that one day she may leave this town. She wondered if that road would feel much longer than the one she traveled now.
Her studies with Cane had been slowly taking shape for the last six Moons. She had watched out the open window during their lessons as a mild fall gave way to a dreary winter that seemed to drag on forever. They had finished with history and moved on to royal affairs, studying how the King had come to be, what his responsibilities were, and all the major players in the Kingdom of LeVara. She could tell you who were the head of mercantile and first apothecary, and even the name of the palace cook. Esra had brushed up on her limited pronunciations of the ancient languages and began to practice reading and writing in Tur, which was immensely hard for her.
All this left little time for Esra to worry about Cane’s cryptic warnings about the Kingdom being in danger, and the secret war of the Keepers and Elites. She didn’t think she could possibly handle the stress of that topic with all the stringent new requirements for her lessons. And although she had sensed the presence of the man following her in the forest on multiple occasions, Esra never caught sight of him again.
Today she had arrived breathless and late to see Cane perched upon his armchair in waiting, seemingly lost in thought somewhere far away. She plopped down in the chair across from him as Meshok circled on the rug between them. In typical Cane fashion, he began drumming his hands upon the arm of his chair for the next minute, not saying a word.
Suddenly he looked up at her and blurted, “I now want to focus on the other three races, the Elves, Unni, and Shendari. Instead of just studying the history and culture, we will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each peoples, in battle and in diplomacy. Ye should take care to learn the names and responsibility of their leaders, and what each race desires fer their people.”
“What fer?” Esra asked, then recoiled when she saw the stern look on Cane’s long face. She couldn’t help it. There was nothing besides magick that fascinated her more than the three races. And yesterday he had assured her that from this point forward she would be allowed to ask questions and speak freely, which thrilled her after so much disciplined listening. He continued solemnly, as if she hadn’t interrupted.
“We will start with the Elves, since I believe they are the most commonly known and we have already discussed some of their history.”
She shifted in her chair in anticipation, accidentally kicking Meshok in the side. The Wolf groaned loudly and lifted her head in irritation.
“Contrary to what most people believe, the Elves are not a secretive people.”
“Oh. But then why don’t we see one once in a while?” Esra had always thought them to keep to themselves because they did not like Humans, or perhaps because they were distrustful of outsiders.
“Probably fer the same reason most Humans would never make the extensive journey to the mountains. It’s a long, hard journey. If a traveler does make the dangerous trek through the mountains to visit, the Elves welcome newcomers with curiosity and warmth,” Cane explained. “They are not secretive, just shy. They prefer the shade of the mountains, which provide a startling view of LeVara, fer they have a deep reverence fer the natural world. The Elves are also a people who cherish simplicity and tradition, and enjoy the art of storytelling as much as the written word. As such, they are sometimes quite dedicated to learning about their lineage and history. Their simplicity and respect for tradition, however, does not suggest weak minds or an aversion to original thinking, as they are known to be some of the most intelligent, forward thinking scholars. Most of them speak the languages of all four races and the Ancient Tongues as well.”