“Then I’ll wager their dresses have higher necks, or their men more subtlety,” Leesha replied.
“High necks,” Marick agreed with a laugh, bowing low. “I could bring you a high-necked Angierian dress,” he whispered, drawing close.
“When would I ever have cause to wear that?” Leesha asked, slipping away before the man could corner her.
“Come to Angiers,” the Messenger offered. “Wear it there.”
Leesha sighed. “I would like that,” she lamented.
“Perhaps you will get the chance,” the Messenger said slyly, bowing and sweeping his arm to indicate that Leesha should enter the hut before him. Leesha smiled and went in, but she felt his eyes on her backside as she did.
Bruna was back in her chair when they entered. Marick went to her and bowed low.
“Young master Marick!” Bruna said brightly. “What a pleasant surprise!”
“I bring you greetings from Mistress Jizell of Angiers,” Marick said. “She begs your aid in a troubling case.” He reached into his bag and produced a roll of paper, tied with stout string.
Bruna motioned for Leesha to take the letter, and sat back, closing her eyes as her apprentice began to read.
“Honored Bruna, Greetings from Fort Angiers in the year 326 AR,” Leesha began.
“Jizell yapped like a dog when she was my apprentice, and she writes the same way,” Bruna cut her off. “I won’t live forever. Skip to the case.”
Leesha scanned the page, flipping it over and looking over the back, as well. She was on to the second sheet before she found what she was looking for.
“A boy,” Leesha said, “ten years old. Brought into the hospit by his mother, complaining of nausea and weakness. No other symptoms or history of illness. Given grimroot, water, and bed rest. Symptoms increased over three days, with the addition of rash on arms, legs, and chest. Grimroot raised to three ounces over the course of several days.
“Symptoms worsened, adding fever and hard, white boils growing out of the rash. Salves had no effect. Vomiting followed. Given heartleaf and poppy for the pain, soft milk for the stomach. No appetite. Does not appear to be contagious.”
Bruna sat a long while, digesting the words. She looked at Marick. “Have you seen the boy?” she asked. The Messenger nodded. “Was he sweating?” Bruna asked.
“He was,” Marick confirmed, “but shivering, too, like he was both hot and cold.”
Bruna grunted. “What color were his fingernails?” she asked.
“Fingernail color,” Marick replied with a grin.
“Get smart with me and you’ll regret it,” Bruna warned.
Marick blanched and nodded. The old woman questioned him for a few minutes more, grunting occasionally at his responses. Messengers were known for their sharp memories and keen observation, and Bruna did not seem to doubt him. Finally, she waved him into silence.
“Anything else of note in the letter?” she asked.
“She wants to send you another apprentice,” Leesha said. Bruna scowled.
“I have an apprentice, Vika, who has almost completed her training,” Leesha read, “as, your letters tell, do you. If you are not willing to accept a novice, please consider an exchange of adepts.” Leesha gasped, and Marick broke into a knowing grin.
“I didn’t tell you to stop reading,” Bruna rasped.
Leesha cleared her throat. “Vika is most promising,” she read, “and well equipped to see to the needs of Cutter’s Hollow, as well as look after and learn from wise Bruna. Surely Leesha, too, could learn much ministering to the sick in my hospit. Please, I beg, let at least one more benefit from wise Bruna before she passes from this world.”
Bruna was quiet a long while. “I will think on this a while before I reply,” she said at last. “Go to your rounds in town, girl. We’ll speak on this when you return.” To Marick, she said, “You’ll have a response tomorrow. Leesha will see to your payment.”
The Messenger bowed and backed out of the house as Bruna sat back and closed her eyes. Leesha could feel her heart racing, but she knew better than to interrupt the crone as she sifted through the many decades of her memory for a way to treat the boy. She collected her basket, and left to make her rounds.
Marick was waiting for her when Leesha came outside.
“You knew what was in that letter all along,” Leesha accused.
“Of course,” Marick agreed. “I was there when she penned it.”
“But you said nothing,” Leesha said.
Marick grinned. “I offered you a high-necked dress,” he said, “and that offer still stands.”
“We’ll see.” Leesha smiled, holding out a pouch of coins. “Your payment,” she said.
“I’d rather you pay me with a kiss,” he said.
“You flatter me, to say my kisses are worth more than gold,” Leesha replied. “I fear to disappoint.”
Marick laughed. “My dear, if I braved the demons of the night all the way from Angiers and back and returned with but a kiss from you, I would be the envy of every Messenger ever to pass through Cutter’s Hollow.”
“Well, in that case,” Leesha said with a laugh, “I think I’ll keep my kisses a little longer, in hopes of a better price.”
“You cut me to the quick,” Marick said, clutching his heart. Leesha tossed him the pouch, and he caught it deftly.
“May I at least have the honor of escorting the Herb Gatherer into town?” he asked with a smile. He made a leg and held out his arm for her to take. Leesha smiled in spite of herself.
“We don’t do things so quickly in the Hollow,” she said, eyeing the arm, “but you may carry my basket.” She hooked it on his outstretched arm and headed toward town, leaving him staring after her.
Smitt’s market was bustling by the time they reached town. Leesha liked to select early, before the best produce was gone, and place her order with Dug the butcher before making her rounds.
“Good morn, Leesha,” said Yon Gray, the oldest man in Cutter’s Hollow. His gray beard, a point of pride, was longer than most women’s hair. Once a burly cutter, Yon had lost most of his bulk in his latter years, and now leaned heavily on his cane.
“Good morn, Yon,” she replied. “How are the joints?”
“Pain me still,” Yon replied. “’Specially the hands. Can barely hold my cane some days.”
“Yet you find it in you to pinch me whenever I turn ’round,” Leesha noted.
Yon cackled. “To an old man like me, girlie, that’s worth any pain.”
Leesha reached into her basket, pulling forth a small jar. “It’s well that I made you more sweetsalve, then,” she said. “You’ve saved me the need to bring it by.”
Yon grinned. “You’re always welcome to come by and help apply,” he said with a wink.
Leesha tried not to laugh, but it was a futile effort. Yon was a lecher, but she liked him well enough. Living with Bruna had taught her that the eccentricities of age were a small price to pay for having a lifetime of experience to draw upon.
“You’ll just have to manage yourself, I’m afraid,” she said.
“Bah!” Yon waved his cane in mock irritation. “Well, you think on it,” he said. He looked to Marick before taking his leave, giving a nod of respect. “Messenger.”
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