They called me too late.
The grieving father handed me a burlap bag of onions and cabbage-heads as his wife wept over their daughter’s body. My fingers brushed his, and he jerked them away.
“It’s all we have,” he said, and wiped his nose on the discolored sleeve of his shirt.
The child had been hardly more than a baby, dirty and thin, probably not especially well looked-after at the best of times. Her parents had sent their older son to fetch me early that evening. I hadn’t been able to do more than ease her suffering as she left us, but they’d been grateful for that.
The poorer folk always waited too long. Their pride held them back. If they couldn’t afford to offer a Potioner a decent fee for her services, well, they wouldn’t take charity. Not until things got so bad that even I couldn’t fix them.
Their house reeked of weak cabbage stew and the effects of illness, but beneath that lay the lingering soap smell of the laundry the wife took in, their only source of income through the winter. A pittance, really, and likely abandoned when the child fell ill. Had it been up to me, I’d have told them not to worry about paying. My husband would expect me to bring something home, though. He’d have preferred coin, but I could hardly ask that from these people.
Instead, I expressed my regret over their loss and accepted the sack of vegetables.
Even when they needed me and after all the good I did for them, people in northern Tyrea were superstitious about Potioners, especially one like me. At twenty-two years of age I was too young and inexperienced to be considered trustworthy, but too talented for them to ignore my gifts. At least this man had the good grace to look embarrassed about his nervousness as he showed me to the door.
The wind pulled my breath from me as I stepped into the frigid night and found my way home, holding my lamp in front of me like Pourana, the woman of legend who guided spirits of the dead to paradise.
We saw so much death that winter. A terrible sickness had swept through the province, and though other villages lost far more than we did, the guilt over those who died still weighed heavily on me. Not everyone was as kind as that family, and many blamed me when I couldn’t save someone they loved. But they needed me, and I tried to keep my resentment over their ingratitude and unending demands to myself.
There was no one at home interested in listening anyway, and I wasn’t about to start muttering to myself.
I had been practicing forbearance for several years, silently weathering my husband’s criticisms and demands, shrugging it off when he insulted me, quietly tending to my own wounds when the need arose.
Denn was the son of a local businessman, and accustomed to a certain lifestyle, of which I was an integral part whether I wished it or not. The folk of the village saw him as an upstanding citizen and hard worker, and they looked away from his many indiscretions. If they suspected what went on behind the walls of our little home, they never offered to help. I was an outsider from another town. Denn had charmed me into marrying him, and the consequences of that were mine to deal with. I didn’t need anyone’s help or pity.
A strong gust of wind ushered me into the house, scattering snow across the scratched and dented wood floor. I struggled to close the door and silently cursed Denn once again for building his home facing east, with its back to the town and nothing to protect us from the winter winds.
I crept across the floor and set my black bag on the kitchen table, careful to not let the glass bottles within clatter against each other. I kept meaning to wrap them properly, but the past week had left me barely any time to eat, sleep, bathe, or brew, let alone take care of small chores. My supply shelves covered the smallest wall in the kitchen with rows of glazed pots and glass jars. I refilled my bottles and returned them to the bag. Best to get it done, though my hands shook with exhaustion. Someone would need me again soon, and I had better be ready.
My workbench and equipment gleamed in the dim lamplight, a stark contrast to the filthy dishes in the sink, all of them covered in congealing gravy from the meal I’d been forced to abandon earlier. I turned my back on those and returned my attention to the shelves. My potions called to me, each with a purpose and personality that I loved more than any person I knew. A quick nip from an unlabeled bottle of pale-yellow liquid warmed me like bottled sunshine, though it was nothing more than a fermentation of fieldsun blossoms and torranceroot. Simple, but elegant and perfect in its balance.
The hem of my skirt dripped melted snow over my leg as I lifted it to examine my left thigh, where a purple bruise was fading to green. A pungent ointment from the top shelf eased the stiffness and encouraged bad blood to move on. Air hissed through my teeth as the tingling set in, bringing pain before blessed relief.
The bruise was a gift from Denn, a reminder that the work I did for the town should not interrupt his rest or come before his needs. Meals on the table, money in his hand, a potion to ease the morning-after pain when he’d been drinking. It had been days since he’d hit me, and before that he’d left me alone for weeks.
And that’s what passes for good times, I thought. Not exactly the life I’d dreamed of when I was younger.
I scoured the pots, again keeping my curses to myself. It wouldn’t have killed him to at least rinse the damned things. A lid fell toward the floor, and I snatched it out of the air before the clattering could wake him.
My careful silence was needless. When I peered into the bedroom, it was empty.
I sighed, as much from relief as from frustration at my husband’s continued wanderings. Let him take it out on a more willing body tonight. Arberg was a small town and short on whores, but Denn could charm his way in anywhere he pleased.
I didn’t bother undressing before I collapsed into bed and dozed off.
The door slammed open, then shut, and my stomach clenched. I lay with my eyes closed, listening to Denn muttering as he stumbled about the house, his ox-like body banging into furniture as he went. Something shattered, almost certainly the bottle of bitter-leaf I’d just finished preparing that morning. It would take me a week to do it again, and I was nearly out. Without the medicine I handed out to his conquests, the consequences of his indiscretions could be severe.
Idiot, I thought, but a fearful chill spread through me. My emotions betrayed me when Denn was around, no matter how brave or contemptuous my thoughts when I was alone.
I rolled over and pulled my knees up to my chest, making myself small.
He eventually made his way to the washbasin to splash water on his face, then staggered into the bedroom. The straw mattress crunched under his weight as he sat to remove his boots, and he exhaled the stench of ale as he leaned over to study my face. I shifted slightly, as I might if I were asleep. He grunted and finished undressing.
He rolled toward me, pressing his body against my back. “Why’re you dressed?” he mumbled, and tugged at the buttons on my shirt.
“Just got home. Need sleep.” I crossed my arms over my chest and tucked my hands into my armpits.
He abandoned the buttons and reached for the hem of my skirt. “You get paid?”
“Well enough.” I pushed his hand away and pulled the skirt tight around my legs. “I’ll probably have to go out again soon.”
He pulled harder. “Good thing this won’t take long, then.”
“I mean it, Denn. Stop.” Tight as I gripped the fabric, his hands were stronger than mine. He pried my fingers open and rolled on top of me. “Denn, no.”
He laughed and nipped at my ear. “Who the hell d’you think you are, missus?”
I drew on what energy I had left and tried to bring my knee up between his legs, but he had my skirt pinned on either side of me. He grabbed my wrists in one of his massive hands, fingers circling the scars he gave me mere months after our wedding.
“You think you’re so damned special,” he muttered, words slurred. With his free hand, he pinched the skin on the inside of my upper arm, and the sharp pain made me cry out. “You need to remember who’s in charge here. Town should be grateful to me.”
His face smelled of cheap perfume, and I had no desire to know what other parts of him smelled of.
“I say how and when you use your talents.” He pressed his hips against me and struggled to maintain his balance as he yanked at my skirt. “All of ‘em. You’re nothing without me. Right? Nobody.”
After a moment of fumbling, he growled. “You’re not doing it for me tonight. Go to sleep.”
His body went limp, and he rolled off me. I thought he’d passed out until one massive hand reached up to wrap around my throat. He squeezed, and mumbled some vague threat about what would happen if I ever left. One finger touched the white scar that ran from my left temple over my cheekbone. My potions never managed to completely erase the marks he left on me.
“You’re mine, Nox. Mine.”
Then his hand relaxed, and he began to snore.
For the first time, his drunkenness had worked out to my advantage. But how long would that last? He’d be at me again soon. In the morning he’d be sick, and angry about me accepting cabbage as payment for services. As he so often reminded me, I’d be out on my arse if I couldn’t contribute to our income. Gods only knew how he’d decide to take out that anger after my potions gave him his strength back. If I was lucky, someone would come to call me out again before he woke.
And it will never end, I thought as I gazed into the darkness. If I left, he would find me. A Potioner as talented as I was would stick out in any town, if I could even find a place that would accept me. Unless I kept my gift to myself and watched people die around me, he would find me out and bring me back. So I would stay, and be silent, and do my work, and dread coming home. Forever.
I slipped out of bed and went to the bathing room to wash up in the basin, feeling dirtier than I had any reason to. I ignored the warped mirror on the wall. The changes I saw there only made me feel small and weak. Where once I’d seen reflected a face I thought more beautiful than any in Cressia, perhaps all of Tyrea, I would now find my long, dark hair framing a pale-faced woman with dark circles beneath her eyes, a few scars to mark battles lost, and lifeless blue eyes.
Enough, I told myself. My mother hadn’t raised me to wallow in self-pity. Fix the problem, or bear up under it and go on.
I swallowed back the lump in my throat, and reached for my comfort. Not a potion this time, but a memory. I saved it for my darkest moments and tried to forget it the rest of the time, lest the brilliance of my secret throw the rest of my miserable life into shadow.
My mother’s words. My identity, shared when I told her at age sixteen that I intended to go to the city of Luid to study at the university, to embrace my talents and become more than I could ever be in Cressia.
She’d said no. It was too dangerous. Because of the secret, because of who we were, we could never go back there. And so I’d stayed, and I’d married Denn instead. Still, I never forgot what she told me. I’d long suspected I was different from the people around me, destined for greater things. The fact that I’d been right pleased me. And yet, what good had my mother’s secret done me? I’d allowed life to wear me down. To defeat me. The secret was as useful as a jeweled crown sitting in a dusty box on a closet shelf, never to be worn.
You are better than this.
I gripped the edge of the washbasin hard enough that the metal rim drew blood from my fingers. The secret usually comforted me and brought assurance that I had more value than anyone knew. Tonight it felt different, and brought a feeling I hadn’t experienced in years.
When I looked up, I caught a glimpse of something in the eyes of my reflection. Not hope, or anything so lovely, but even the hate that now warmed my insides was better than the nothing I’d felt for so long. Determination replaced fear, rage overtook apathy.
I’d made the decision before I had a chance to think it over. I covered the distance to the kitchen in long strides and opened the cupboard under my workbench. A tinted glass bottle waited in the back corner, covered with a layer of dust and spiderwebs. The shriveled mushroom inside looked like a decayed mouse, curled in on itself. It had been a remarkable find, plucked from the graveyard on a humid summer night. I hadn’t been sure I’d ever find a use for it.
I removed the mushroom with a set of small tongs, careful not to touch it directly. Its energy still hummed, perceptible only to a Potioner, indicating that its poisonous strength had grown after years in the dark. I ground a portion to dust and dissolved it in liquid. No chance of him spitting it out. Just the touch of it on his tongue would do the job.
I hoped it would burn.