Authors: D.K. Holmberg
The Broken Jar
By D.K. Holmberg
Copyright © 2013 by D.K. Holmberg
Published by ASH Publishing
Cover art copyright © 2013 Shutterstock.com
Book and cover design copyright © 2013 ASH Publishing
Disclaimer: The book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
The Broken Jar
I stared at the dusty shelves, sweet arren spice and bitterroot mingling from unstopped bottles nearby leaving my mouth dry, and carefully rummaged as I waited for the apothecary. The jar of raglan berries was left carelessly open and I set the cap atop firmly, else they rot too fast. Other jars and bottles were left just as sloppy. Restless energy kept me moving, fixing as I went, unable to help myself as I tapped my feet on the wooden floor, my heavy satchel clutched on my arm.
I dared not leave Ana for long, not in this land, not with these people – once, my people – but had no other way to earn the coin needed for us to get away.
The shop seemed otherwise empty. Shuttered windows lined the upper walls and the dirty light filtering in shifted slowly, casting an irregular line into the store. Soft murmuring drifted toward me from the back room, but I could hear nothing of the conversation.
Where was Baldon?
Finally he fluttered past the curtain dividing this room from his sleeping quarters. In the moment he pressed through the curtain, I saw a naked whore lurching to her feet, flabby arms bruised and eye blackened darker than the rest of the paint on her face. As she clutched a hand to her cheek, our eyes connected for a split second. Then the curtain closed.
Baldon straightened his tunic, appearing not to notice. His eyes moved to my satchel as he stopped behind a tall olivewood counter. He splayed his hands across the smooth surface, stretching fingers knotted with arthritis.
“Early visit this morn, Carter,” he said. His voice was nasally and he sniffed as he spoke from too many years around ground cocal. An effective hemostatic agent, but addictive too.
“Morning, Baldon,” I said, turning from the curtains to his gaunt face. Dark patches marred his cheeks and thin hair receded from a long face as if chased by the chemicals he inhaled. “Can you use supplies?” I asked.
I opened the satchel, pulling the flap back with delicate care, mindful not to inhale the fumes that wafted suddenly free. Baldon leaned forward, not nearly as wary. Eager eyes scanned the contents and he sniffed again, directly over the bag.
Sliding the satchel sideways, I removed my collection. The elanand stems could not be crushed – not and still be useful for stomach pains or nausea – but I doubted that Baldon cared much. Crushed elanand had a different purpose, more sinister, and I suspected there were a few who sought it for that reason. Other herbs I packed carefully in paper handmade by Ana, my notes quickly scratched atop as I collected. Berries I stuffed into the handful of jars I owned, paper wrapped protectively around them as well. A few of the long noley grasses I simply rolled together and stuffed alongside the rest.
“Always so well preserved,” he commented. Practiced fingers slid across the collection, unwrapping the packets of herbs as he glanced into each. At least in this, his experience showed. He looked at me as if waiting for an explanation.
I said nothing. None in Nys knew of Ana. None would understand, seeing her as only a barbarian. We needed money to leave, travel to Telahn or Ecor, anywhere but Ashon. “Any you need?”
Baldon set the cocal aside, a tight smile on his face as he did. Then he sniffed again and I wondered how much of the inside of his nostrils remained. He tottered around the counter toward the shelves. I noted that the arthritis in his joints seemed worse and I considered suggesting a few herbs that might help but knew that would only inflame him. In spite of evidence to the contrary, Baldon thought highly of his knowledge.
He glanced along the shelves, occasionally turning and looking at me with an amused expression as he realized the arranging I had done, before returning to the counter.
“Not as much as I once would have,” he said. “Not as much demand since the fighting with the barbarians eased,” he explained.
Barbarians? I bit back the first thought that leaped to mind with the image of the injured whore stuck in my thoughts. Baiting Baldon would do no good. He spoke from age and old beliefs. He had not been there, not battled in Pells like I had. He had not seen the brutality the soldiers from Ashon had inflicted.
I had inflicted.
“The war is over. Fighting has been done for months,” I reminded, pushing away the memories. I knew I would never fully succeed. “Men still get sick from things other than spears and arrows.”
Baldon simply nodded. “You are just so efficient, Carter. You keep me better supplied than I would be even in Tellis!”
Tellis. The damn capital. Were he there, he might have more coin. But there Ana would not be safe.
you use?” I asked.
My words were more clipped than I preferred but that could not be helped. I needed the money. Ana needed me to get the money. Enough to leave Nys, get away from the memories, away from the insults. She deserved better.
Baldon tapped his fingers on the counter as he considered, then tapped at a few packets. Fewer than I had hoped. “I am sorry, Carter. This is probably even more than I can use.” He grabbed a handful of coins – silvers, not golds – and slid them across the counter as he picked the herbs he wanted, leaving me better stocked than I had hoped. “Try up in Arda,” Baldon said. “Or better yet, Tellis. You’ll sell all you can collect there. Especially with this quality.”
Tellis was three day’s ride at best. So many more by foot. And Arda not much closer. Ana could not be alone that long and I certainly did not dare bring her along. Not to the capital city, not when such sentiment regarding the people of Pells existed, anger still so fresh. No, Ana would likely not even survive the ride.
I told none of this to Baldon as I repacked the satchel, only nodded and pocketed the coin. Barely enough to register in the jar, slowly accumulating our coins. Even as recently as two weeks ago, the apothecary bought everything I collected.
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps I was too efficient.
But now that I was no longer a soldier, what else did I have to sell?
I did not know what I would tell Ana when I returned. I could imagine her reaction, the way her exotic Pells eyes would hold me as she told me that it didn’t matter. She would pull me into an embrace that I did not deserve, not until we reached a place where she no longer had to hide. If only I had the coin to get us there.
The last few months had been difficult for both of us, hiding in plain sight near the border, danger ever present for both of us. For her, because of her heritage. For me, because of what I had done. When the war shifted north, Pells pulled back, leaving Ana too far across the wrong side of the border, though neither side was really safe. Together, we used our knowledge of herb lore to collect what we could, saving slowly for a ship ride to anywhere else.
Now we were close. Soon Ashon would be a memory. Ana would be safe.
As much as I hated to admit it, Baldon was right; I could sell at higher prices nearer the capital, where the herbs that grew freely along the border were rare. Probably enough to finally purchase transport away from Ashon. To Telahn
I considered how I could reach Tellis, thinking of some way to borrow a horse, when I heard the thunder of hooves. Few in Nys owned a horse; most had been procured for the war.
The sound made my insides cringe, bringing memories of a time I struggled daily to forget racing back.
I glanced up, frozen in place, my eyes turned to the gate in the massive stone wall that surrounded the village. Such fortifications were necessary during the war with Pells, especially in towns as near to the border as Nys. The huge oaken doors were thrown open, a sight that would never have been seen even a couple months ago. The well-worn road of packed dirt that stretched away from Nys and into Pells had once carried the Ashon army into battle. Then, the village of Nys had been an important staging ground, changed from a sleepy border town into a strategic location. With the war over and the army shifting its defensive focus to the north, Nys reverted to little more than another village.
The injured soldier fell from the saddle just inside the wall. Blood streaked his metal plate, running down his right flank in a stream. The sides of the horses heaved as it breathed and I wondered briefly just how far they had ridden. Four other soldiers remained atop their horses, swords sheathed at their sides. A black plume on the helm of one of the men marked him a minor lord. The armor on the other men was dented, corroded lines etched into the metal. Something about the markings almost triggered a memory.
I hurried toward the fallen man, my satchel coming off my shoulder and unbuckled before I even realized it.
“What happened?” I asked, running my fingers along the seams in the plate. Practiced hands removed what I could of the chest plate and I saw the puncture wound in his side. Sticky blood spurted from it and I marveled at the fact that he still lived.
“You the apothecary?” the lord asked. His voice had the lilting arrogant inflection of one born in Tellis.
I glanced up at him briefly. His eyes narrowed as he looked at me, and the air of superiority written upon his face mixed with something else. Anxiety? Fear?
“No,” I answered, ignoring him as I turned back to the injured man.
He thrashed on the ground, legs jerking wildly. The shape of the wound was likely made by a Pells’ blade. Probably tainted with poison as well. I suspected too much blood loss but the bleeding had likely prevented the poison from spreading. Either way the man would likely die.
“Can you help him?”
“Quiet!” I told the lord, spreading the contents of my satchel on the ground.
The man smelled rank, the poison already working through his system and out his pores.
There was little I could do, but I tried regardless. Too many had already died in this damn war, too many by my own hand. If I could use my skills to heal rather than harm, I would.
“Water!” I demanded and, to my surprise, one of the soldiers jumped from the saddle with a flask of water.
I poured it into the wound, flushing as best as I could. I suddenly wished for the cocal Baldon had quickly purchased. Without it, I was not certain I could fully staunch the bleeding. Then I grabbed a handful of milkthorn and trackel leaves and crushed them between my palms, rubbing it quickly into a powder. Had I more time, a mortar and pestle would have done a more uniform job mixing the two, but I did not dare unpack those from the satchel.
I cursed the crude work as I rubbed it into the wound; the man’s blood smearing across my hands and spurting up my arm. I prayed that it would work. The warriors of Pells used many poisons on their blades, but precious few could be found in this area.
Motioning to the soldier that had brought the water, I made him hold pressure while I prepared a needle and then quickly stitched the wound. As I pulled the edges of flesh together, careful not to pucker the skin too tight, the bleeding finally slowed.
“Bandages,” I said.
The soldier kneeling next to me shook his head. “We have no supplies.”
“None?” What kind of soldier carries nothing with him? Especially men clearly coming from Pells?
“No. We were just coming from—“
I didn’t let him finish. “Then get me a tunic or a blanket. Anything.”
The soldier started to stand when the lord spoke. “Use yours,” he said.
I looked up at him, suddenly remembering the brusque way I had spoken. No different than any soldier, but I was not a soldier. At least, not to him. Instead of arguing, I pulled my tunic up over my head and tore off one of the sleeves. After rinsing this with water, I pressed the makeshift bandage onto the man’s side.
“He’ll need rest. Water. He still may not survive.”
“What did you put into his wound?” the lord asked.
I stood, motioning to the soldier standing next to me to continue the pressure. “That wound was from a Pells’ blade,” I said.
The lord watched me for a moment before nodding. His dark plume bobbed with the motion.