Sharp, harsh scents of medicinal herbs permeated the air. Inside a small hut, salves and ointments of various colors cluttered and crowded the dimly lit room. Smoke wafted from the pots and pans of all shapes and sizes slowly boiled, and, if one were to look closely, seemed to change in sheen. Bright, glassy mixtures would slowly dim into a thick, dull, powder.
The herb woman sat on a small footstool, humming as she applied a cast on Sera, who still laid asleep. The cat was still there, sleeping next to the girl as she lay prone on the grass mat.
In a forest on the edge of the Kingdom, was the herb women's realm. Living quietly along the outskirts, never settling in any town or city, were the herb women. They traveled alone, suddenly, setting up shop, unannounced, in the square for what could be days, weeks, sometimes, rarely, months. Poorer townspeople and slum residents would visit such women, for the remedies they provided were sold at much cheaper rates than the rates the resident scholar doctors, educated ones, charged.
A deep rumbling sound seeming to emanate from her side woke Sera. Trying to locate the source of the sound, Sera tries to raise her head, and winced.
"I wouldn't get up just yet, if I were you..." Above her, a low voice says. There, an elderly woman, cheeks plump and with soft gentle laugh lines around her mouth and eyes looks at her sternly.
"Is this Thornmere?" Sera asks her. Her head falls back on the mat, losing strength from tilting just her neck to look up at the herb woman.
"Yes, we're in the forest just outside the Keep. Now please, keep your head down, I don't want you to strain your neck too." putting a meaty hand on Sera's forehead to keep her laying flat, she replies.
(I'm so close..to think that I can see Lucien and our baby soon..I need to see them!) Sera thought.
"Please, let me get up, I have to go to the Keep!" she struggles to get up, wincing as the pain keeps lancing at her side. The hand is still on her forehead, and no matter how much Sera wiggles, the weight of the hand keeps her unable to sit up. After a minute of struggling, she gives up, taking short breaths from the exercise.
The hand on her finally lets up, checking to make sure the poultice on her rib hadn't been dislodged.
"With bruises like those, and a cracked rib, how did you plan on getting to the castle like that miss? If I hadn't found you in the forest then, who knows what animal or ruffian could have attacked you? In the recent years we haven't dealt with as many attacks, but you never know for sure."
The stern voice cuts in, and the girl on the bed becomes apologetic.
"I'm sorry, that was rude of me....It's that, I have someone waiting for me there, and they've waited for so long--But still, that's no reason for me to act that way. Thank you for saving me in the forest, I'm really thankful that you've brought me here and even taking care of me like this."
"That's quite all right, now you just stay there while I do my work, and we'll be all right" The herb woman's heavy patchwork skirt swirls around her as she turns to check on the closet pot, sniffing the smoke and stirring the concoction that bubbled in it.
Sera stares at the ceiling, unable to move, and soon the low humming of the herb woman as she worked lulls her to sleep.
3 days pass by as Sera lays there, in the messy room, as the woman, Lois, continued with her work. On the 3rd day, she can finally move around normally, she does her best to help Lois, preparing old clothes by ripping and boiling them to make bandages for Lois' stock.
The nostalgic work makes Sera smile, remembering the other nurses and her servant, Bea, working in one of the medic tents, and the time spent together sharing stories about each others' lives.
She feels a tap on her shoulder, and turning around, Lois, holding up a small tin of crackers, says
"Let's take a break, shall we?"
Grabbing a large jar, Lois takes a handful of dried herbs and divides them evenly into 2 cups. Sera goes to get a pot of hot water she sees on one of the stoves. Soon, the tea is steeped and ready, and the two women, one old and one young, sip their tea.
Sera finally brings up a question that had been weighing on her. "Lois, how long has it been since the Great War ended?"
One year after the end of the Great War, Sera had given birth to Lucien's child, and left. Even though the place, Thornmere, was right, she wasn't sure if the time was right. She could have arrived to a time before Lucien even existed, or after he had long gone.
Twiddling her darkly stained fingers, Lois counts, and Sera watches her with baited breath.
"The Great War? That ended 6 years ago! Now where did you come from, to not know something like that?
"And the King? Is he still alive?"
"You must have traveled from someplace far away if you don't know any of this. He's doing well, he's even getting married next month!"
A strong iron flavor fills Sera's mouth, the taste of soothing herbal tea harshly cut off with the strong brassiness. She'd bit her cheek. It was nothing compared to the pain in her heart. It hurt. A sharp grip squeezed around her heart. Sera had known there was a possibility of something like this happening. After all, she left him. He had every right to marry someone else.
Trying to keep in the dark sadness that unfurled deep in her gut, she asked,"Who-Who's the bride?"
Lois leans over, eyes gleaming as she acts as though she was sharing a juicy piece of gossip.
"No one knows. The King said to start the preparations. From what I know, it might even be a princess from the Azarks, the ones we fought so hard against in the Great War. We herb women have heard rumors that the nobles are wanting the King to marry her to keep the peace. Tis a tragedy, if he does marry her. None of us commonfolk will agree. I think that's why they're keeping this thing so hush-hush."
"..........I see. What about the prince?"
"King Lucien's son? We don't know if he's even alive. No one's seen or heard of the young prince since after the former Queen disappeared." said Lois, as she shrugged her shoulders.
She could feel the blood drain away from her face. Sera moved to sit on her hands, to keep her nails from digging in as she tightly clenched her fist in her lap.
Lucien was getting married, and her baby was missing. Sera felt her heart crack a little.
(He really just moved on...I can't be upset. He knew just as well as I did that when I returned I won't be able to come back. It's better this way)
"If you like, I can take you to the castle. I'm the closest herb woman, so they're always calling me to drop off lots of medicines for wounds. That King still goes out to settle every little skirmish that happens on the border with the Azarks himself, and they keep running out with all the wounds he comes back with every battle." Lois gestures to her window, where a small cart sits outside. On it, bottles and jars with different heights and widths sit in a wooden box.
Pushing the pain back down to its usual place, deep in her heart, Sera decides on her new goal. To see Lucien happy with her own eyes, and find her baby.