After, when the war had ended and an uneasy peace had settled upon the village, Galina returned to us. Thinner, yes. We all were thinner, of course. But taller, too. And wiser. Certainly wiser.
Without intending to, she became our leader. We needed someone to look up to. She was the best we’d had since Markus had been killed the winter before. Galina could use a bow. Could hunt and trap. Legend was, she’d killed thirteen men.
She divided us into groups without regard to family connections: Those strong in weaponry moved to the east side of the village and began forging axes, spears and lances for the next war that Galina claimed would come at any time.
Strong men and boys brought buckets of water forth from the spring to replenish the wells that had been allowed to run dry.
Gatherers were sent to the fields, to glean what they could from the ruined crops before expanding to the woods in search of mushrooms and berries and the herbs known to grow in darkness.
The rest of the village, the remaining nine of us, were to clean up the ruins that were our homes: broken earthenware, crude utensils and shattered doors. All were to be brought to the center of the village where we would mend what we could in the evenings after the sun had faded from the sky.
Galina herself would hunt for meat.
“Why do we prepare, so, Galina? We are too weak. We can no longer fight.” Willhelm, my betrothed. One of the water-men.
“There are many ways to win a war, Willhelm.” Galina gestured to the eldest gatherer, a basket on her arm. Tatyana, the village witch. Blind and arthritic. Lame in one leg, caused by a trap my brother and I had set directly in her path when we were yet children.
The witch approached slowly, dragging her right leg behind her.
Galina gestured. “Does it ail you badly?”
“It worsens with the years. I will work as long as I am able.”
Galina nodded. “Do you remember where the Herb of Poison grows?”
The witch’s eyes widened. “Yes…”
“Can you get there?”
“What is your purpose?”
“I assure you, my intent is noble. No one in our village will be harmed.”
“The journey there and back will take three days.”
“Can you manage it?”
“Yes. I think so.”
Galina grasped the witch’s hand. “You may well save the entire village if you are successful in your endeavor. Here…” she glanced around at the stragglers and those of us who’d been assigned to cleanup. “You. Odessa.” She snapped her fingers at me. “Come here.”
“You will accompany Tatyana.”
“But…I am injured.” I touched the scar I’d earned in the last battle.
Galina frowned. “You are frightened.”
I stared at the witch, recalling the way she’d howled after the trap closed around her leg.
“Come, child.” The witch reached a gnarled hand out to me.
“I must pack provisions.”
“Tatyana will identify edibles as you journey. Go now. Make haste.”
And so we walked together, the village witch and I. I could hear my brother’s mocking laughter as we passed.
The first few hours, we walked in silence, crossing narrow streams, entering dark passages, going further than I’d ever been in the forest. Here and there, the witch paused for herbs and berries, always handing me half of what she’d gathered.
“You don’t need to be afraid of me,” she finally said.
She laughed. “You believe I am a witch.”
How was I to respond? “It has been said that you have certain powers.”
“We all have certain powers, child. Some of us have yet to embrace them.”
I laughed. “What power could I possibly have?” I was hopeless as a seamstress. Impatient with the village children. Anything I planted refused to sprout.
“Look to the ground, Odessa. Do you see the mushrooms that grow there?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
She handed me her basket, thickly lined with oak leaves. “Gather half of what you see.”
“They are safe?”
“Yes. Safe to eat. Good for healing, too.”
“What sorts of healing?”
“Eye troubles. Skin irritation. Remember that, Odessa.”
I bent and began to pick.
“You can dry these, Odessa. They’ll last for years once they’re dried. Remember.”
“I will,” I said.
It continued in this way the remainder of the day: The witch stopping to identify a plant, its uses and how to preserve it before instructing me to gather no more than half of it, to allow for new growth.
“You have questions,” the witch said that evening, after we’d prepared a small fire to warm us while we rested for the evening.
“How do you know the plants without seeing them?”
She laughed. “I am blind. That does not mean I cannot see.”
She shrugged. “My mother called it the gift.”
“I set that trap you stepped into, my brother and I.”
“I’m sorry.” I stared into the fire.
The witch shook her head. “What’s done is done. Sleep now, child.”
The following morning it was the same, the witch teaching me everything she knew about the forest and always admonishing me to remember. And then, just as the sun reached its highest point in the sky, she stopped and gestured. “The Herb of Poison. Do you see it?”
Yellow leaves tipped with purple. Nineteen leaves per stalk. Hundreds of plants spread out before me. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” I breathed.
“Gather them with care, Odessa. One taste will kill you instantly.” She removed her cloak. “Wrap them in this.”
“The forest cools. When we journey home…”
“I have journeyed home, Odessa.”
“I do not understand.”
“I am at the end of my life, child.”
“But you are a healer.”
She laughed. “I thought you believed me a witch.”
I dropped my eyes.
“Even healers pass to the next life.”
“You knew this would happen, even before we left the village.”
“I knew my body could not withstand three days of travel.”
“You’ve been training me.”
“The village will need a new healer. You will make a fine one.”
“Have I a choice?”
“It is a great honor.”
But…”What must I do?”
“You must agree to take on the wisdom of the ages.”
I nodded. “Everyone can do with more wisdom.”
“But with that wisdom, you must also take on the sorrows and the ailments. Because only in sorrow, only in pain, does one grow in wisdom. You will become lame. Blind. Like me.”
“Healers are tied to no one. Not by blood or marriage.”
“I must live alone?”
“Yes.” The witch flinched. “Take my hand, child. Do it now. I weaken.”
I grasped her hand and I felt her spirit passing into me. The world was filled with color and sound…music and laughter and ancient words I did not understand. And then, the witch…Tatyana… released my hand and the world went dark.
Yet, I could see.
I fashioned a grave of sorts for Tatyana, covering her with the herbs that grew nearby before gathering my basket and the bundle of Herb of Poison. I set off for home, dragging my right leg behind me.
“Odessa returns!” Galina shouted as I came down the path the following evening. The villagers ran to greet me, to lead me to the fire where Galina waited.
“What of the healer?”
“I am she.”
Galina nodded and took the bundle of herbs from my arms. “Sit, Odessa. You are in need of rest.”
The days passed.
The armory kept turning out weapons.
Strong men and boys continued filling the wells.
The gatherers returned triumphant from the fields.
Every morning, Galina brought deer or rabbits or fish, which were butchered and dried in the sun.
Willhelm began courting another and my brother mocked me from afar.
Three weeks later, the village was ready.
The weapons were complete.
The food was stored.
The wells were filled with water.
Galina poured The Herb of Poison into one of the wells. “When the warriors come, they will bring their thirst.” She looked at each of the villagers in turn, her eyes serious. “The Herb of Poison will kill you before you finish swallowing. Do not drink from the wrong well.”
The villagers nodded.
“Drink from each of the wells, save this one.” She pointed.
“And never name the well from which you will not drink.”
This was written for this week’s Master Class, hosted by My Write Side.
The challenge: Use this line “Never name the well from which you will not drink,” as either the first or last line of a piece. The challenge was suggested by Amanda Lynn and came from The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Kelly Garriott Waite on Google+