"Hold it steady, Rose." Joshua said.
Rose did not hear her brother, her attention was consumed by a bird taking a dust bath at the edge of the field.
"Rose." He said warningly.
The bird fluttered around, happily kicking up dust and sand. Saliva flooded Rose's mouth and she clicked her teeth together unconsciously.
"Rose!" Joshua slapped her lightly on the side of her head. Rose started and looked at him, her expression both guilty and accusing.
"Pay attention." He said. "Pop wants the fence repaired today."
Sighing, Rose nodded and held the post tighter.
"What's so interesting over there, anyway?" Joshua asked.
Rose stared at the rough wood of the post under her hands. What had been so interesting? It was just a bird. But it had seemed so fascinating. Half formed thoughts of somehow sneaking up on it echoed through her mind. "Nothing." she mumbled.
"Nothing, huh?" he picked up the sledgehammer. "Well, for nothing it sure had you. Watch out." Rose leaned back, still holding the post steady, as Josh raised the hammer over his head and brought it down on the post. The muscles in his back and arms bulging he lifted it up and hammered down the post until it stood straight on its own.
Stepping back, Joshua looked at their work. "There." he said with a nod and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. We wiped the sweat off his forehead and looked up at the sky, judging the time by the sun, now dipping low in the western sky. Rose looked up at him, black hair, like hers, tied back with a leather thong. His wedding ring still gleamed new on his hand. He looked down at her and smiled.
A bell clanged in the distance and a voice called everyone in. They both looked towards the house. "Just in time." Joshua said, turning to Rose. "Race you back." he said with a grin.
"Aw, Josh, I'm tired." Rose complained.
"Tired, eh?" he looked at the house speculatively, "Corinne says Momma's making pie."
"Pie?" Momma almost never made pie! Would it be peach? Apple? Maybe cherry? Then again, maybe Josh was tricking her. She sped up just in case.
"Yup." he easily matched his stride to hers. "But you know with everyone here today, there might not be any left by the time we get back."
Rose considered his words and broke into a run. "Come on, Josh! We're gonna be late!" she called.
Bounding up the steps, Rose narrowly missed her sister Daisy walking ahead of her with an armload of linens. "Hey!" she cried, "I just got this off the line! If you make me drop it, I'm telling!"
"Sorry!" Rose called behind her, barely slowing down as she turned towards the dining room.
"No running." Her father called as she passed him.
Immediately dropping to a quick walk, Rose hurried to take her place at the table. She watched eagerly as the rest of her family walked and and took their places. Her eldest brother Junior, holding his wife's hand carefully, helped her sit down, before taking his own. Joshua gave Rose's braids a quick tug as he came in, walking around her chair. Rose put a hand over her hair and glared at him as he passed. Daisy and Lily came in next, taking their places next to Rose. Jeffrey, Daisy's twin, walked in slowly, nose buried in his book. Sitting down next to Lily, he did not look up at anyone as he sat down. Rose looked around the table and counted to herself: only nine chairs. Sighing, she looked down at the table, Jason wasn't coming then. He was still arguing with Momma.
"Good bye!" Violet, her eldest sister, called from outside. She walked in as the kitchen door
opened and took her seat as the kitchen door opened and Momma and Corinne walked out carrying trays of food.
Poppa entered last, tapping Jeffrey on the shoulder as he passed him. He sighed and closed the book, tucking it under his chair. Sitting down at the head of the table Poppa looked over the food with interest. Setting down the last dish, Corinne took her place next to Joshua. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Corinne giggled and nudged him with her shoulder. Momma sat down.
"Everything looks so good, what's for supper, Camille dearest?" Poppa asked.
"Roast beef with sauce and vegetables, potatoes, and a berry pie for dessert."
"Pie! Oh I can hardly wait for dessert." He smiled at everyone then turned back to Momma. "Will you give the blessing?"
"When are you due, Rebecca?" Violet asked. Rose listened with half an ear as she swirled her finger through the crumbs on her plate.
"The midwife says early fall. She thinks it's twins."
"Twins! How wonderful! Do you want boys or girls?"
"Oh I'd like boys. He," she pointed at Junior "would like girls." Junior put his hand over hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Violet chuckled. "Maybe you'll have both."
"Rose," Poppa said. "How old are you now?"
Rose sucked the last bit of pie from her finger. "Fourteen. I had my Ceremony last spring."
"Hm. Well, your mother and I have decided that it's time you learned a trade."
A trade? Rose thought about this. Where would I go? Maybe I could go to Mr. Morency's stable in Red Rock and learn to race! That would be so exciting! I could be pounding across the finish line at next summer's fair! I bet everyone would cheer when they handed me the trophy and all the other racers would be so jealous! But stables need cleaning. It's bad enough when it's my turn to shovel. Mr. Morency has lots of horses. Maybe not the stables. Ooh! I bet could work at the bakery. I'd be good at that! I could make cakes and pies. Peach pies, apple pies, even meat pies! People would come from all over and just to beg me for a tiny slice. A sliver! I'd be so good even the Young Empress would come from Silver City just to try one. And when she finished she would say Oh please, Lady Rose, won't you come to the palace and...
"Mistress Eber the Herbalist needs help. We think that will be good for you." Poppa said, cutting off her fantasy.
"An Herbalist? Poppa, that's boring. Can't I do something else? What about the bakery? Can't I work there?"
"The Riley's already have two apprentices." Momma said. "And you will barely set foot into the kitchen unless I tell you to." she added.
Rose scowled, she couldn't argue with that logic. "But what about..."
"No more arguing." her mother interrupted. "It's already decided. Your father will take you on the first of the month." She said with finality.
The first? That was barely two weeks away! "Momma! That's unfair! You didn't ask me!" Rose protested angrily, her voice rising.
"I don't need to ask you."
"That's unfair!" Rose was suddenly aware all other conversation had stopped, and everyone was looking at her. She felt her face getting hot. Daisy snickered quietly somewhere behind her.
"Momma, maybe if..." Violet began.
Her mother held up a hand. "Don't you start Vi. We've made our decision. Rose will start on the first."
"That's unfair! You're so unfair! You're all against me!" Knocking her chair back, Rose ran out of the room.
Rose lay on her back in the hay with Fluff, the largest of the barn cats, purring on her chest. She winced as his claws pricked her chest through her shirt and tunic. Turning her head, she watched the moon's thin sliver rise in the sky through the barn door. Cricket snorted in her stall. The shadows grew longer. No one, parent or sibling, came to the barn. Pushing Fluff off, Rose stood up and walked to the door, looking outside towards the house. Someone, carrying a lantern, came out of the house and sat down on the porch: Violet.
Rose moped up the path and threw herself down on the rug at her feet.
"Hello you." Violet said, looking at Rose over her knitting.
Rose grunted. She picked up the end of the knitting and examined it. "What are you making?" she asked after a moment.
"A scarf for Leo."
"Why? It's summer."
"His birthday is next month."
"Oh." Rose lay down again on her back. She pulled at a loose thread on her shirt.
"Vi?" She asked after a moment.
"Who did you 'prentice with?"
"I was with Mr. Roan the dyer."
"Oh." Now she remembered Violet's stained hands when she came home for the holidays.
"Was it fun?"
"It was interesting. I learned a lot."
"Why did you come home?"
"Grandmother, remember? Auntie Bev was pregnant and couldn't take care of her anymore. Auntie Sue and Uncle Ron were too far away in Crawford. Momma asked me to come home and help."
"You ever think you'll go back?"
"Probably not, Leo and I are moving to Louisville after the wedding. He has a cousin there."
Rose said nothing. Violet shifted her legs and the ball of yarn rolled off her lap. Rose pushed it around with her finger until Violet leaned over and picked it up again. With a heavy sigh she sat up, leaning against her sister's legs. Violet set her knitting aside and smoothed Rose's hair.
"Why don't you want to go to Mistress Eber's?" she asked.
"I don't know." Rose said unhappily.
Untying the ribbons, Violet began to gently loosen Rose's braids. "Are you afraid?" she asked.
"No! I'm not afraid! It's just- I don't know." Pulling a lock of hair down in front of her face, Rose looked at it while she tried to find the right words.
"She's a nice woman."
"I know..." Rose paused, "I don't want to be an Herbalist."
"It's boring. All you do is sit inside and mix up stuff and see people. Sick people."
"People who need help. You like to help people." Pulling a bit of straw from her hair, Violet dangled it in front of her sister's nose. Rose slapped it away.
"I suppose..." Rose tried to think of another reason. "But you're inside all the time."
"Where do you think she gets her herbs from? Does she grow them all inside her house?"
Rose pictured Mistress Eber's little cottage just off the road, near the river. She remembered it had a small garden in front, surrounded by a white fence. Then she thought about all the times she had gone into town with Momma and seen Mistress Eber at the apothecary's. OK, so maybe she wasn't inside all the time.
"Why don't you give it a try? At least until Frost Moon. If you still don't like it by then, you come to me and I'll talk to Poppa." She ran her fingers through Rose's hair one last time.
Rose thought about it, Frost Moon wasn't really so far away. "All right, I suppose." she acquiesced grudgingly.
"Good. Now go inside and help Lily get ready for bed."
Rose looked sideways at her father as they drove up the road to Mistress Eber's cottage on the first morning of the month. Soon, she told herself, any minute now he'll say this was all a mistake and he'll turn around and we'll go home. The front door of the little white cottage opened as Poppa drew close to the house. Mistress Eber walked out and waved from the gate. Soon. Real soon.
"Hello Jonah!" she called out. "How are you?"
"Good, Annie, good." He nudged Rose. Slowly, she began to gather her things. Why wasn't he seeing that this was a mistake? It was all so obvious.
Mistress Eber walked up to Poppa. "Would you like to come in? I'll put a kettle on."
"I'm just dropping off Rose. I've got to see someone in town." He replied.
Rose turned to her father. "Bye, Poppa." She said. Maybe now? Surely now?
"Good bye, dear." he said, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. "I'll come for a visit at the end of the month. Be good for Mistress Eber."
"I will Poppa." Vaguely disappointed, she grabbed her bag and hopped down from the wagon. Walking over to her, Mistress Eber put a companionable arm across her shoulders and walked with her to the gate. With a snap of the reins the wagon started forward and Poppa waved one last time as Old Blue walked down the road. Rose watched the wagon head down the road away from her.
Gently taking her by the shoulders, Mistress Eber turned Rose around to face her. Rose looked back at her. She's shaped like a snowman, was her first thought. Her head seemed to sit directly on top of her shoulders and two gray braids streaked with black were pinned around her head. Shoulders sloped down to a equally round torso where a white apron, the strings lost somewhere underneath her bosom, draped over the front of a dark blue dress. Rose wondered absently if there were feet under her skirt or just a round ball.
"You must be Rose. Oh my goodness, you look so much like your parents! Come in! I'm so glad to have you! Let me show you your room and then we'll have some tea!"
Jars lined the walls, Rose looked at the labels as she passed them. Some seemed familiar but most were not.
"I hope you don't mind sleeping in the attic, all my students have been up there."
"It's fine." Rose said absently, staring at a chart on the wall. It showed a man with lines drawn all over his body. Words written in a strange foreign language walked down the side of the diagram.
"Do you like lemon in your tea?" Mistress Eber called from the kitchen.
Rose nodded, still staring at the chart. Diagrams on it pointed to his head, hands, feet, and, she realized, embarrassed, between his legs.
"The water will be hot in a moment." Mistress Eber said from behind her, "Why don't you put your things away and wash up?"
Rose turned quickly, her cheeks burning. Looking around she spotted the stairs to the attic at the back of the room and quickly headed upstairs. As she opened the door, a smell, not unpleasant, rolled over her. She looked up, bunches of herbs hung drying from the ceiling. A bed sat against the far wall with a clothes chest against the foot. A tiny window was set into the wall to her left. The room was stuffy and Rose stretched up to open it. Setting down her bag, Rose looked around again, and tried to resign herself. So, this was it. Her new home.
Sitting down across the table, Mistress Eber filled Rose's cup then her own. Rose wrapped her hands around the cup and put her nose to it, the tea was fragrant and warm.
"I saw you looking at my chart, do you like it?" She asked.
Rose looked down at the table, "I can't read it. It's in another language." she said shyly.
"It's from Dashales." Mistress Eber replied, taking a sip from her cup and watching Rose carefully.
"Do you know where that is?"
Rose tried to remember her lessons from Temple School. There was Sagar in the south, Asis to the east, and north was...
"It's west. On the other side of the Great Ocean. They have a kind of healing over there that directs energy through the body."
"Have you been there?" Rose asked.
"No. I knew a trader once in Silver City. He gave me the chart as part of his payment after I helped him with his back."
"You've been to Silver City?" Rose looked up, interested. "What's it like? Did you meet the Empress - Emperor?" she corrected herself.
"It's very crowded." she replied. "There are people everywhere and it's very noisy." She smiled briefly, nostalgically, then looked at Rose. "But enough about me. I assume you've had your basic instruction at the Temple School. You can read and write and know your numbers?"
"The Cura said I was one of his best students." Rose said proudly.
"Good. You'll need to be able to read labels. If I ask for three drops of mint, I don't want five drops of cloves. I also expect you to clean your room every day, help me in the garden, and clean the house. I'll give you a list of chores tomorrow and you can come with me on my afternoon visits."
Draining the last of her tea, she stood up. "You're probably tired, I'm sure it's been a long day for you. I'll give you some books and you can go upstairs and get started on your studies."
Rose propped open the front door and walked back to the table, wiping the sweat off her forehead. A breeze blew through the house but it barely stirred the hot, humid, air. Rose sighed, and looked down at Mistress Eber's list on the slate next to her. How many bottles did she need again? The neat handwriting seemed to swirl and fade in front of her eyes, she forced herself to concentrate: 12. Twelve bottles of Rosemary oil all with different concentrations. Rose sighed again and walked over to the shelf. Carefully taking down the large jar of oil, she carried it with both hands to the table and set it down. Walking back across the room, she opened the cupboard where the empty bottles were kept. Hmm, she thought, we're getting low. I'll tell Mistress Eber when she returns. Selecting twelve small bottles, she set them aside then opened a drawer for a dropper. Catching sight of her hands, she paused. My nails are getting long, she thought. She's always telling me to keep my nails short. I should trim them. As she looked at her hand she was struck by a sudden urge to hook her nails around the wood of the cupboard and drag them down. She could almost feel the wood splintering and the sheaths coming loose. Her hand seemed to move almost on its own towards the edge, her fingers curling...
Rose grabbed her wrist. What is wrong with me? It keeps happening. Why do I keep having these thoughts? Grabbing up the bottles and dropper, she hurried back to the table. If I don't think about it, it will go away. She told herself.
Opening the jar of oil, she looked down at the list. "First bottle..." She read out loud to herself, "Five drops concentrate and half cup of oil." With a steady hand she dropped exactly five drops of concentrate into the bottle. She wrinkled her nose at the strong scent rising from the bottle. Pouring out the oil she filled the bottle, stoppered it, and set it aside. "Second bottle: Two drops and three quarters cup of oil." She read.
The tiny drop trembled on the end of the pipe, "Come on..." Rose muttered at it. She did not hear the front gate open. "Come on. Fall. Join the rest. Fall." She applied the slightest bit more pressure to the bulb. The drop increased in size but still refused to let go.
"Hello!" Someone cried out cheerfully behind her.
Rose shrieked and threw up her hands in surprise. "Oh no!" She cried, seeing the dropper falling in front of her. She snatched it from the air and spun around at the same time to face the person behind her. Her leg hit the edge of the table and pain exploded.
"Sorry!" The young woman said, stepping forward. "That was a good catch, though! I could never have done that!" She took Rose's hand and shook it, "How do you do? I'm Emily. I'm a Healer."
"Um, Rose." Rose replied, one hand rubbing the sore spot on her leg. That's going to leave a mark, she thought absently as she stared at Emily. Red curls peeked out from under a scarf tied loosely around her head. Brass framed spectacles sat over a spray of freckles across a button nose. Wide lips smiled, and Rose forced her gaze back up to meet the sky blue eyes behind the lenses. She's beautiful. Rose thought and quickly pushed the thought away.
"Are you the herbalist?" Emily asked, politely. "I was told the Herbalist lived here."
"I- I'm–" Get a hold of yourself! "I'm her apprentice. Mistress Eber will be back later."
"Oh good. I mean, I saw you from the gate and I was told she had gray hair. But I thought maybe my information was wrong. I mean the man in Flora said he'd just seen her a few months ago but a lot can happen in a few months! Anyway, it's nice to meet you. Can I look at your leg?"
"Um, it's nothing. I'll put something on it later..."
"Oh it's no trouble! I should get started seeing patients anyway. I can start with you! It's as good a place as any, right? May I look at your leg?" She looked at Rose expectantly.
The words were barely out of Rose's mouth before Emily dropped to her knees and pushed her hand up and under Rose's skirt. Laying a hand gently over the sore spot, Rose felt a sort of fizzing start under her skin as Emily began to work her magic.
"No breaks! Just a bruise! Your magic is very quiet. I treated this old Magician from Seroi last year. Oh, he fought me all the way! I finally had to ask Master Drake for permission to put him to sleep. It was very frustrating! He was such a nice man the rest of the time!" Rose barely heard her chatter - her hands were so warm! The fizzing faded away and Emily dropped Rose's skirt. Rose slowly rubbed her leg. There was no pain, no soreness, it felt exactly the way it had before she hit the table.
She looked at Emily who was brushing off her skirt. "Thank you." Rose said. Her face was warm, I hope I'm not blushing, are my cheeks red? Gods, she's so pretty!
"You're welcome! Sorry for surprising you, I called from the gate but I guess you didn't hear me."
Rose was about to answer when Mistress Eber walked in the door.
"Hello!" She said warmly, looking at Emily, "I haven't seen you around before, you must be new. Can I help you with something?"
"Oh hello!" Emily said holding out her hand, "You must be Mistress Eber! I'm Emily! I'm a Healer. I've been assigned to this area. It's nice to meet you!"
"Annie Eber." her tone was suddenly cool, "I'm the Herbalist. I've lived here all my life and I've personally trained every herbalist from here to Ingram."
Emily smiled brightly at her, "Oh that's so interesting! You must have many fascinating stories to tell! I would love to stay and listen, but I must be going. Rose, if you have any problems, just let me know. I have a little house in town, on Marigold Lane! Nice to meet you Mistress Eber!" She waved to them both and walked out the door.
Closing the door behind her, Mistress Eber snorted to herself. "A Healer!" She muttered. "What are they thinking? We don't need a Healer in this area! I'm here!" She turned to look at Rose, who was staring at the door. "Rose! Stop mooning! Did you finish the rosemary?"
Rose started, "Almost done. Just working on the last few bottles!" She looked frantically around the worktable for the dropper before remembering it was in her hand.
"Good. I'm going out to weed the garden. Call me when you're done."
Rose lay in her bed and stared at the darkness. Emily! What a pretty name! She said she had a house in town, maybe I could go by there sometime. Would she like me? Rose frowned to herself as a thought occurred to her. Do I like girls now? Or do I like boys? I liked Owen last winter, at least until he decided he liked what's-her-face better. But Emily's so nice, and her hands were warm and she's got pretty eyes... Rose sighed, conflicted and unhappy. She tried to think about her other problem. The urges were getting stronger, the scratching, that mouse the other day... But it goes up and down, she told herself, maybe if I ignore it will go away? Dilemmas swirled in the quagmire of her mind. Maybe I should talk to someone about this, maybe Violet when I see her next time? No that's too long. Maybe Jason? He's in town. If I tell Mistress Eber we need bottles I could go by the brewery on the way and talk to him. Satisfied with her plan, Rose turned over and went to sleep.
As Rose was walking to town the next day, she saw the brewer's wagon outside the inn and stopped beside it.
"Jason! Grab me a barrel of the white ale!" A man's voice bellowed from inside the inn.
"Coming up!" Jason called back walking out the door. Rose watched him hop up on the wagon and pull a barrel free.
"Hey Rose! How are you?" he said as she approached, rolling the barrel to the ramp at the back of the cart.
"Fine." she replied.
"Good! Hang on, I'll be out in a minute."
Rose walked to the bench next to the door and sat down to wait. Jason, true to his word, came out a few minutes later and grabbed her up in a hug.
"How are you? I haven't seen you in so long! How are you doing? Do you like being an Herbalist?"
"Yeah. Yeah I do. It's fun."
"Oh that's good. How's everyone?"
"They're good. Junior's boys just had their first birthday. Corinne's pregnant. You missed Violet's wedding."
Jason sighed and rolled his eyes. "Tell Vi I'm sorry about that. I wanted to go, but Ma would have started lecturing me as soon as I came in the door. I didn't want to start a fight and ruin the whole thing." He sat down on the bench next to her.
"She's moving to Louisville next week."
"Tell her to come by the brewery and I'll give them a gift."
"All right. Oh, um, Jeffrey's going to pledge at the Water Temple next year."
"Good for him. Always knew he would someday."
He watched her carefully. Rose stared at the ground under her feet.
"What's on your mind?" he asked gently.
Rose looked at him, questioningly.
He smiled. "You didn't come down here just to get me caught up on family gossip."
"There's this new girl – well not a girl, she's kind of old – but she's really pretty and she's got blue eyes and nice hands and I just met her. She says she lives on Marigold Lane. She's a healer and that's so neat, but how can I like girls? I like boys don't I? I mean there was Owen and Kerry Riley at the bakery, he's so handsome! But I saw Emily and I just – I don't know!" Rose put her hands over mouth trying to stop the flood of words, and looked up at her brother.
Jason chuckled at her wounded expression. "Let's take this one thing at a time: You met a girl?"
"Her name is Carrie Riley?"
"Emily. You like her?"
"Have you talked to her?"
"Sort of. She came by yesterday. She healed my leg."
"What did you do to your leg?"
"I hit it on the table, accidentally. She put her hands on it and healed it."
"Healed it?" he paused, thinking. "You mean Emily the Healer?"
"She's not old. She's only a year older than me, I think. She just moved in last week. I think they're planning to open a clinic soon. You like her?"
"Yes!" Rose cried, excited.
"But you just met her yesterday."
"I know! But she's so pretty!" Rose wailed.
"So what's your problem?"
"I like boys!"
"How can I like her if I like boys?"
Jason smiled and sat back against the wall. "You know, I thought I liked girls until I met Claude."
"What do you mean?"
"Sometimes the Lady has our heart, and sometimes the Gentleman does, and sometimes they conspire together." Rose looked at him, confused. Jason rolled his eyes. "It means you like both, stupid." He poked her in the chest.
"Oh." It was so obvious! Why hadn't she seen it?
"Jason!" A man shouted from inside.
Jason stood up. "Ah, I hear the faint whispers of my master." he said dryly. Rose giggled. "I've got to go. Don't forget to tell Violet to come by for her present."
"I won't!" They hugged quickly and Jason hurried inside.
Rose picked up her basket and started up the street, lost in thought.
"Oh hold up a minute, please!" Someone called out behind her.
Rose turned and saw a redhead running up behind her, carrying a covered basket.
Emily caught up with her and stopped, panting. "Oh, thank you! I hope I'm not keeping your from anything. You're the first familiar face I've seen all day! Where are you going? Are you going back to Mistress Eder's house?"
"Eber," Rose corrected. "and, um, yeah, I am."
"Is the Bobbins house this way? I thought I knew my way around by now, and I asked the loud shouty man at the inn for directions and he said they live on either Lone Pine Road or Roan Pine Road, but I can't remember which. I got distracted! You know, I'm not usually this scatterbrained and what is a roan pine? But do you know the way? Can you show me?"
"They live on Lone Pine Road, I'll show it to you. It's the last turn before you reach the Imperial Way."
"Oh wonderful! Oh I'm so glad I caught up with you! You're so nice!"
Rose could feel her cheeks growing warm – again! – at the compliment.
"Did you know the shouty man has an apprentice who looks a lot like you?"
"That's my brother, Jason. The man who gave you directions is Master Stanley the brewer."
"Is he always that way?"
"Oh it's not just me then! Oh I'm glad! Did you come into town to see your brother?"
"No, we needed more bottles. Why are you going to the Bobbins farm?" Rose asked suddenly, trying to change the subject away from her.
"It's my first patient! I hope I do all right! Mistress Bobbins came by this morning and said her husband hurt his leg and she doesn't think it's going right. So I said I would look at it. Isn't it exciting? My first time without one of the Masters hanging over me and judging me. Especially Master Jumers. 'Judging Jumers' we used to call him! He'd stand there in the room and stare at you while you worked. His eyes would just dig into your back! But Oh! The worst was when he'd say something. 'Lady Hume.'" She dropped her chin to her chest and looked over her glasses. "'Lady Hume, I do believe you've made a mistake.' Oh! It was terrible!"
"Was this a temple school?" No one she knew had ever stayed in temple school past their Ceremony, unless they were going to be a priest. "A University?" she added after a thought.
Emily laughed brightly, "It's the Healer College! Oh you're funny!" she looked at Rose's expression, "Oh don't worry, it's still kind of new, I'm the second – no, third – class to graduate!"
"So how do you get to the Healer school?" Rose asked, curious.
"You have to be a Healer first, silly! You have the talent and then you learn control and anatomy and diagnosis and there's so much to learn and you think your head is going to explode your first year, but then you memorize everything and it gets easier. Then they let you work on real people, and then you're assigned somewhere and you have your final test and they say someone will check on you and you go!"
Rose paused letting her words gather themselves in her head. "'Someone will check on you?'"
"Oh yes! I have Master Dorothy for mine. She's very nice! She lives in Charleston. She's coming up later this month. You should meet her! I'll let you know when she's here! I'm sure you'll like her!" She paused at the signpost. "Lone Pine Road," she read "You were right! Thank you for walking with me!"
"Can I come with?" Rose asked impulsively, not wanting to let her go so soon. "I mean, can I watch you work? I'll be quiet."
Emily looked thoughtful, "I suppose you could. If Mistress Bobbins doesn't mind."
"She knows me! Kind of. I'm sure she won't mind!"
Emily looked at her a moment, then she shrugged, "All right, I suppose. If Mistress Bobbins doesn't say anything you can watch." They walked down the road until Rose pointed out the Bobbins' farm. Emily walked up and knocked briskly at the door.
Mistress Bobbins opened it quickly. She looked at Emily gratefully and stood aside to let her in. She looked curiously at Rose as she followed Emily. Rose smiled at her and did her best to pretend she was supposed to be there.
"How's your husband, Mistress Bobbins?" Emily asked.
"Oh, Conrad's in back, here." She lead the way to a bedroom in the back of the house. The light inside was dim, only a small lamp providing any light. A man lay on the bed with one heavily bandaged leg propped up on pillows in front of him. He nodded as they came in.
"Hello Mr. Bobbins! How are you today?" Emily greeted him cheerfully. "What's going on with your leg?"
"Oh that stubborn mule o' mine kicked me a couple weeks ago and it's just not healing up right." he said.
Mistress Bobbins set a low stool down by the bedside for Emily. Emily handed Rose her basket and sat down.
"A mule, huh?" she said, laying a hand on his forehead. "You're a little warm. Do you have any pain?"
"In my leg, of course."
"Yes. Let me take a look under those bandages." she reached towards his leg. Rose watched her white hands to unwrap his leg; gentle but sure of what she was doing. He suddenly hissed in pain and Rose glanced down at his leg. The bandages, white at the beginning, were now brown with old blood.
"Rose could you bring the lamp over here?" Emily asked. Rose quickly grabbed it, turning the wick up for more light as she walked back to Emily's side. Holding the lamp high she glanced down at the injury. She winced inwardly, yellow pus seeped from the wound and red streaks reached up to his knee. Rose could see his infection had gone untreated for much too long.
Emily looked at it critically, "A mule you said?"
"I was cleanin' out his stall."
"This is rather bad. Have you have you seen anyone else for this?"
"Eh, It wasn't that bad until a week or so ago. Juney here-" he gestured to his wife who sat down on the other side of him. "-she was away with her sister all week and I had work to do. Figured when Juney got back she could ask Annie Eber for a poultice or something. But the pain got so bad I couldn't hardly walk. Juney took a look at it and said she was gonna get a Healer."
"Stubborn fool." his wife muttered, squeezing his hand with worry.
Emily looked at the leg critically then she stood up and walked to the bowl and pitcher in the corner of the room. She poured out some water and washed her hands, then returned to the bedside. She looked at Mr. Bobbins. Rose noticed she was careful not to touch anything. "I should be able to save your leg but I have to see how far down the infection is. If it's in the bone, I'll have to make several visits and you might still have a limp when I'm done." Mr. Bobbins nodded.
"May I start?" Emily asked.
"Go ahead." He waved towards his leg.
Laying her hands down on his leg, Emily bowed her head took a deep breath and concentrated. There was no noise, but as Rose watched, the swelling went down, the red streaks faded and the skin at the edges of the wound began to pull together. After what seemed like hours, Emily opened her eyes and raised her head, breathing hard.
"Rose." she said quietly, still breathing heavily. "could you..." she took a deep breath and swallowed. "In my basket, there's some sticky bars. Could you hand me a few?"
"You all right Healer?" Mr. Bobbins asked, concerned. Rose opened the basket, it was not filled with healing supplies as she had expected, but with food. She picked up a sticky bar and handed it to Emily.
"I'm fine." Emily said wiping her hands off on a towel. She gave Rose a grateful look as she took the food from her. "That infection was deeper than I thought. It's not in the bone, fortunately, but it is very deep in the muscle. I'll need to come by a few more times before it's fully healed."
Emily pushed herself to her feet, Rose could see her arms shaking. With Mistress Bobbins leading the way, they walked into the kitchen. Rose pulled out a chair for Emily who sat down wearily.
"I'll be right back." Mistress Bobbins said, and walked back to the bedroom.
Rose closed the bedroom door behind her and walked over to Emily. "Will you be all right?" She asked in a low voice.
"I'm fine." Emily waved her off. "I used more energy than I should have. I just need a little time to rest."
Mistress Bobbins came back in and crossed the room to her cold box. Quickly she assembled a plate of food and handed it to Emily. Sitting down across the table from Emily, she stared at her as she ate.
"How is he? How's Conrad?" she asked.
"I got most of the infection out." Emily reassured her between bites. "When I come back, I'll get the rest of it and then I'll work on rebuilding."
June Bobbins shot an angry look at the bedroom. "I don't know how many times I've told him to be careful around that mule. I should just sell it, we could use the money, but..." she trailed off with a sigh. "Damn stubborn old fool." she muttered to herself.
Rose looked back at Emily who was finishing the last of her food. She looked back at Rose with a thoughtful look. "Well keep his leg covered, and change the bandages at least once a day. What else, Rose?"
"What?" Rose asked, surprised.
"Should he have a poultice on his leg?"
"No." she answered slowly, thinking. "If the infection is gone then he doesn't need a poultice, but if you make a solution of red elm and soak the bandages in it, that would help it heal faster. Willow tea will help his pain."
Setting aside the plate, Emily stood up and motioned for her basket. "Good idea, Rose. Mistress Bobbins, I'm sure Rose will be able to get you the elm and willow. I'll be back for another visit on Firesday." She shook her hand and started towards the door. "Don't forget, Firesday! See you soon!" Mistress Bobbins hurried to open the door for her and Emily walked outside. Rose nodded her thanks and hurried to follow.
Blinking in the bright sunlight she paused and looked for Emily who was waiting for her on the road. I wonder how long it's been, she thought. Mistress Annie won't be happy if I've been gone a long time.
They walked in silence until they reached the intersection. "I'll come back with you and explain what happened to Mistress Eber." Emily said.
Rose nodded. I asked to come, she thought to herself, guiltily. Don't question the gift, another part of her said. Rose looked over at Emily who had finished the last of her sticky bars and was peeling a boiled egg. She caught Rose's eye and smiled sheepishly.
"Sorry, I used a lot of energy on him."
"You said that, what did you mean?" Rose asked.
Emily finished her egg and took out a bottle full of water, she took a long drink and offered it to Rose. Rose took a sip as she explained. "Healer magic comes from inside. After I work on someone I have to eat and rest. Well, it depends on how bad it is. I mean, a little bruise isn't going to do more than make me a bit peckish, but a big thing like that back there-" she motioned with a toss of her head the Bobbins' house, "-I can burn myself out if I'm not careful."
"Oh." Rose tried to think about this, but the late afternoon sunlight had caught in Emily's hair and turned it to the bright copper of new pans. She handed the bottle back and Emily's warm fingers brushed her fingers sending a pleasurable little shiver up her arm.
"Do you know what other kinds of magic there are?" Emily asked, looking up the road.
Rose replied without thinking in the singsong of her temple school lessons. "Magicians and Mages, Healers and Weres."
"Do you know any Magicians?" Emily asked.
"If you need a Magician I think Master Bowman will be around in a few months." Rose said, distracted.
"I don't need a Magician. What about Mages? Or Weres? You should know a were."
Emily's words flew through her head without stopping. They had reached the house and stood together in front of the gate. Rose looked down at Emily's long fingers resting lightly on top of the gate, tapping the wood lightly to some internal rhythm. She had a sudden thought of grabbing that hand and holding it tightly. Feeling those warm fingers curling over hers, bringing her other hand up to... She stopped that thought and dragged her eyes up, back to her face. Emily was looking at her – curious? Disappointed? Did I miss something?
Emily looked at the house, "Well, I guess I won't need to apologize for you after all." Rose realized belatedly that no one had come out. "Thank you for your help. I don't think I could have found the road without you."
Suddenly embarrassed, Rose looked down at the dirt. "Glad I could help." she mumbled. "Can you get back to town all right?"
"I know the way now. Nice to see you again."
"Good to see you." Rose opened the gate and walked slowly inside.
Mistress Eber was snoring in her chair, the blanket that had been on her lap was puddled around her feet. Rose set down her basket carefully, trying not to let the bottles clink against each other, and tucked the blanket around her shoulders. Picking the basket up again, she went to put the bottles away.
Itchy. Like insects – ants – are crawling under my skin. Rose shifted her shoulders under her dress, trying to relieve the sensation. It was like this last month too. She wiped her nose at the smell of crushed bayberry rising from the bowl as Mistress Annie worked next to her. She couldn't listen to her chatter. I think it's worse this time. Reaching for the horehound, she nearly upset the jar. Mistress Annie glanced at her out of the corner of her eye, but said nothing as Rose grabbed it and stopped it from rocking.
They worked in silence together. Twice more Rose knocked something over while reaching for something else. She barely heard Mistress Annie's admonition as the bugs continued to crawl under her skin leaving behind trails of goosebumps and ice.
Rose rubbed her arms over her sleeves and reached for the bottle of oil, grabbing it by the top. The cork slipped out, the bottle fell, and oil poured out over the table.
"Rose!" Mistress Annie snapped. "Be careful!"
"Sorry!" Rose cried, she grabbed for a cloth to mop up the mess. Her elbow hit another jar and it went over. Sticky honey poured out, covering the table and pushing the puddle of oil over the edge where it dripped on the floor. Rose reached for another cloth and Mistress Annie put a hand over hers with a sigh.
"Don't bother." She said
Rose looked up at her.
"Why don't you go upstairs? You've been jumpy all day, I think you need to rest."
"I'm sorry." Rose said, contrite. "I'll clean it up."
"I'll get it. I'm going to have to start over with the cough remedies anyway." She gave Rose a gentle smile. "You go up to your room. I'll bring you something to eat later."
Rose gave in and walked to the stairs.
Lying down on her bed, she tried to relax. It didn't help. The ants returned, marching twice as hard as before. Twice as hard, twice as much ice. Rose sat up then she stood up and paced around the small room. She rubbed her shoulders trying to settle the sudden feeling of pins and needles. She was hot, confined. Her clothes were tight. She pulled at the laces of her bodice, still pacing. It didn't help, nothing helped. She took off her bodice and skirt, letting them fall on the floor. Reaching up, she opened the window. The fall breeze felt cool on her face and seemed to provide a slight relief. Rose took off the rest of her clothes, kicking them into the corner, and stood naked in front of the window. The nearly full moon rose over the horizon, something in her seemed to shift and Rose changed.
The room was bigger? It was hers. It smelled like her. But it seemed different. She walked around the room, carefully staying close to the wall. She sniffed at the corner, and then at the pile of cloth. That was her. The wind ruffled her fur and she looked up at the window. Too high to jump. A shadow moved on the floor and she crouched down and watched it, tail flicking.
Heavy footsteps outside and the door opened. The old woman came in. She carried something. It smelled delicious. She looked down at Rose and said something, questioning. She pet her on top of her head. That felt nice. Rose purred. She stood up again. She did not set down the plate. She walked around the room. Rose followed her. Is she going to set that down? The old woman looked up at the window, then at the door, then she looked down at Rose with a sad expression in her eyes. Setting the plate down on the floor, she scratched Rose's ears and watched her eat.
Rose woke, naked and curled into a ball under the blankets. She looked at her hand then ran it through her hair, pushing it away from her face. I feel... normal? Tentatively reaching out, she pulled the quilts away from her face. The room was cold. She looked around, the window was open. Why is it...? Oh. Too high to jump. Right. Wrapping the quilt around her shoulders, she climbed out of bed and walked over to the window. Reaching for the latch, she pulled it closed. How long had it been? she wondered, staring out the window. The low gray skies gave her no idea of the time or day. Turning she sat down on the edge of the bed. Someone had folded her clothes neatly and laid them on top of the trunk. Rose looked at her hands again. It all seemed so strange. Did I have paws? Claws? She stretched her fingers. They looked normal enough: still have that mole, still have that little scar on her middle finger, her fingernails were the neat little half circles they always were – not hooked. She shivered again and pulled the quilt around herself. Her stomach growled. I should go downstairs. Face whatever Mistress Annie has for me. She thought. Pulling her shift from the pile she started to dress. As she reached for her skirt, she heard the front door open.
"...I tried to tell her!" Emily said. "I felt it the first day I met her! I tried to tell her then, but she just looked at me. Whenever I tried again, she'd always go all loopy and it just seemed rude to keep on talking. Master Thorn always said we should be patient, polite and kind and I don't like to be rude."
"Yes I heard you. But did you ever tell her she had magic?" Mistress Annie answered impatiently.
"Well, I thought she knew! How can you go so long without knowing?! I mean, I was 12 when that cart ran over my mother's foot! My friend Missy – Melissa – at the College said she knew when she was 13..." her voice trailed off. Rose tied the laces on her bodice.
"You young people, you always think about yourself." There was a slight pause. Rose pulled on her stockings. "No, don't interrupt, you just come in, take over, and you never stop to think about the consequences." Rose could hear Mistress Annie moving around. She pulled on her shoes and quickly braided her hair. It sounded like it was getting serious.
She came down the stairs with more noise than was necessary. They both turned to look at her.
"Oh Rose, you're awake!" Emily said coming over to her. Laying an arm around her shoulders, she lead her to the table and gently pushed her down into a chair.
"Why didn't you tell me you're a were?" Mistress Annie asked, pushing her way in front of Emily and setting a bowl of hot cereal on the table in front of Rose.
"A were?" Rose asked stupidly. Oh. Of course.
"Yes! Didn't you know? I tried to tell you, but you never said anything and I didn't want to press it and..." Mistress Annie gave her a dirty look. Emily subsided but looked worriedly at Rose.
"Yes dear, you're a were. When I went up to your room to bring you dinner the other night you weren't there. There was only a cat."
Rose remembered the old woman who smelled like green bringing her food and, later, setting down a shallow pan of dirt in the corner.
Emily seemed to mistake her silence for shock. "You're going to change when the moon is full. Before and after, too." she added. "I learned about this in school. I can tell you about it." Rose saw Mistress Annie roll her eyes behind her.
"I didn't bring you here to lecture her." she interrupted. "Just tell me if she's healthy."
"Oh! Of course!" Emily cried. She kneeled in front of Rose and took her hands. Rose felt a brief fizz under her skin and Emily stood up. "Perfectly fine! You're very healthy." She said to Rose. "Not even a sniffle. I wish all my patients were as healthy as you. But then I wouldn't have any patients would I? I guess I should be glad for some sickness or I'd just be a waste. A waste, a burden! A burden on the town!"
Rose smiled at her joke.
"Hm." Mistress Annie grunted. "But can she continue her work?"
Emily looked at Rose. "I don't know. Rose do you want to continue with Mistress Eber?"
Leave? Unthinkable! She still had so much to learn! Mistress Annie had promised to show her how to make her special balm next week! "I don't want to go." she said quietly.
"Well there you go! She wants to stay, so she can stay!" She turned to Rose. "Rose if you have any questions come see me in town. I'll be around all week. Come by any time, I don't care when. I'll make time for you!"
"All right. She needs to eat and we have work to do. Thank you for coming. I'll come by with your fee later." Mistress Annie handed Emily her cloak and almost pushed her out the door. Rose ate her cereal and saw her stand at the window by the door, watching Emily leave.
Finally she turned away and walked back to join Rose at the table.
"Why don't you like her?" Rose asked.
"She's a perfectly fine girl. I have nothing against her."
"You're always so mean to her when she comes by."
"I am not mean. She's just young, thinks she knows everything. In my day a Healer apprenticed for at least ten years, sometimes longer. Now they have that school, like they're a Temple. It's not right. For that matter, why do we even need a Healer? I'm here. There are plenty of people in the area: Stella in Flora, Dale in Albion - he was one of my first students, you know." she added proudly. Cocking her head, she looked across the table at Rose. "You're doing well, Rose. I think in a year or so you could take over for me." Rose felt a slight misgiving at that statement.
Mistress Annie tapped the edge of the bowl. "Eat up." she said. "I was going to show you how to make burn balm, wasn't I? Finish your cereal and grab the big pot." Standing up she walked over to the shelf and began selecting jars.
Rose took a bite and chewed slowly, thinking. A were. All right. She wondered if she should feel something other than relief. "How long was I a cat?" She asked suddenly.
"Three days. Tomorrow is Rest day."
News travels fast, Rose told herself as she walked into town a few weeks later. Didn't everyone know about Lady Dee's baby last year even before she announced it? A woman walked by and twitched her skirt away from Rose, although she was not close to her and the road was clear. Rose glanced sideways at her as she passed. But does it always have have to be so fast? Two carters lounged on the bench in front of the inn. Mugs in hand, they were clearly enjoying the first warm day of spring. Rose ducked her head and walked faster.
"Here kitty kitty kitty..." one sang out as Rose passed.
Rose stared at the street and said nothing.
"Bet she's a real animal in bed, if y'know what I mean." The other one said. They both laughed.
Rose felt her face getting hot. She hurried down the street and towards the store. "Hello Mr. Porter!" She called out as the bell over the door jingled. She paused to warm her hands by the stove as Mr. Porter walked out from the back. He said nothing.
"How are you?" Rose asked, pulling the list out of her basket and not waiting for an answer, "We need..." she looked down at the list "Two yards of linen, Three and a half yards of that fine wool you have, a..." A hand appeared in front of her face and Rose looked up, confused. Mr. Porter gestured for Rose to give him the list.
"Um. All right." Rose said, confused. The bell rang behind her and two girls came in. Rose recognized Bonnie Fortenberry, Mr. Porter's niece from Flora, and Lucy Barnes, her best friend. Lucy had been in Temple School with Rose, but she had never known her outside of that. They were never friends. Both girls looked at Rose then moved to the opposite corner of the room behind her. Mr. Porter walked over to a bolt of wool and started to measure out a length.
Lucy whispered something to Bonnie behind Rose. Rose tried to ignore them. Why was Mr. Porter acting this way? He was usually so nice, telling jokes, giving pieces of honey candy to the little ones – Rose remembered when she was just a little girl helping Momma, how he'd pretended to pull a shiny cooper from behind her ear.
"Did you hear about what happened in Boulder Hill?" Bonnie said to Lucy, a little too loud.
"Why no! What happened?" Lucy replied.
"Well, my cousin's friend's father, he said there was a were that lived there a few years ago who turned into a bear and ate his entire family!"
"Oh my!" Lucy feigned concern, badly.
Rose gritted her teeth and tried to ignore them.
"And you know what happened next?" Bonnie asked, excited.
"What?" Lucy replied, on cue.
"He started eating other people! They had to call in the Imperial Guard, but by the time they got there, almost the whole village was gone!"
Mr. Porter's eyes flicked towards them, but he said nothing. He set the last thing down on the counter.
"Oh no!" Lucy said, "I hope that doesn't happen here!"
"I hope so too. You know you just can't be too careful with some people."
Rose could feel them both looking at her. "I'm only a cat." she muttered.
"Tell your Mistress I'll put it on account, but she should pay it next time she's in town." Mr. Porter said.
"Mistress Annie broke her leg last winter, she doesn't get around very well anymore." Rose said, "But I have money, I can pay." she started to reach for her purse.
"I don't need your money." Mr. Porter said.
"It's not a problem, how much do..."
"I don't want your money." He interrupted, "And you don't need to come back here."
"What?" Rose asked, confused. He didn't mean...? Bonnie walked around the counter to stand with her uncle.
"Are you stupid or something? Uncle means don't come back." she said coldly. "Go home!"
Rose fought back tears as Mr. Porter handed her her purchases. "I'm just a cat." she said. "I'm not going to hurt anyone." She could feel hot tears starting down her cheeks. She looked at their faces, looked at Lucy. Lucy looked away.
"You can leave now." Mr. Porter said coldly. "Next time you want something, send your Mistress for it."
Tears streaming down her face, Rose pulled open the door and stormed out.
The carters were still in front of the inn. "Hey Kitty! Here Kitty!" the first one called.
Rose stopped faced them. "I wish I was a tiger so I could kill you!" she cried.
"Oooh Kitty's got claws!" The other one called out, drawing back in mock horror. "Kitty gonna scratch?" Raucous laughter followed her down the street.
Rose turned on her heel and walked away as fast as she could, tears of humiliation and shame streaming down her face.
Rose heard the clatter and looked up from her letter. Annie's cane had fallen on the floor and she was bending over, trying to pick it up.
"Annie?" Rose asked, setting down her pen. "Did you need something?"
"It's nothing, dear. I just wanted a snack."
"I'll get you something." Rose said, setting her pen aside. Standing, she walked to the kitchen and sliced cheese and bread for the both of them. Walking back to the front room, she handed Annie her plate.
"Oh thank you, Rose." Annie said, settling back in her chair. Rose picked up the cane and leaned it against the chair so it was close at hand.
"How are you feeling?" Rose asked.
"Oh, I'm good dear, you don't need to worry." Rose sat down at the table to finish her letter.
"Rose, I forgot to tell you, your sister came by while you were out."
"Did she?" Rose signed her name. Was it Daisy? She wondered? Did Daisy even have time to run errands? She was apprenticing at the bakery now. The last time Rose had stopped by she had dark circles under eyes from getting up early.
"She left a note for you. I put it over there." Annie pointed to her desk.
Rose walked over to the desk and looked down at the many recipes, crushed leaves, and other things scattered on top. I should really clean this, she thought. She recognized the handwriting of the one on top and picked it up.
"Rose," it read. "Momma wants you to come home soon. Love, Lily."
Lily! Rose remembered seeing her at Year Change, all legs and gawky. She was already almost as tall as Momma. How old was she now? Ten? Eleven? Rose stared into space a moment thinking about her baby sister. She read the note again. Momma wants me home? I wonder why?
"Rose." Annie called.
Rose turned around, "Are you finished Annie?"
Groping for her cane, Annie pushed herself heavily out of her chair. "It's time I told you something, Rose." she said, walking over. Rose hoped it wasn't what she was expecting. "Rose you've come so far since the day your father dropped you off." She paused. Rose twisted her fingers in her skirt and waited.
"This isn't easy for me to say." Annie continued. "I've spent forty-two years being The Herbalist of Clay, my students have all gone on to be successful on their own. But lately, with my leg and my hip - well, I just can't get around like I used to. I need someone to take over. Rose, you've learned so much, you're one of my best students..." She took Rose's hand in hers, "Rose, instead of journeying, I want you to take over for me. You can be the Herbalist of Clay."
No. Rose thought. "I..." she said, hesitating.
"I'll let you live here and when I'm gone you'll have the house and the whole garden. Won't that be nice?"
"I..." The words stuck. Rose closed her mouth. Why did she have to ask me now? I need more time. "I need to think about it." she said after a short pause.
"Of course, dear. Take all the time you need." She said, nodding. "Oh, by the way, what was it that your sister wanted?"
"My mother wants me to come home. It probably won't be more than a few days."
Annie patted her hand. "I understand, dear. You take care of your family and when you come back we'll make arrangements for you."
Lily opened the door. "Hello Rose." she said.
Rose gave her a big smile, "Lilybean! How are you?" She reached out and pulled her sister into a hug.
Lily hugged her back, stiffly. "Momma says you can have the boys room or Vi's room, but not mine."
Rose picked up her small bag and walked inside. "I'll sleep in Vi's room like I always do. How are you Lilybean? How's Temple School? Do you have a lot of friends? You have your ceremony next year, don't you?"
"School's fine." Lily replied. She seemed about to say more when the other door opened and Momma walked in.
"Rose." She said. "How are you?"
"I'm good Momma. How's Poppa?"
"He's in bed, taking a nap. When he wakes up, I'll tell him you've arrived." She picked up Rose's bag. "Is this all you have? It can't be. I'll send for the rest of your things later. Which room did you want?"
Brushing her hair smooth, Rose divided it into three sections. Lily sat on the edge of the bed behind her and watched silently.
"So how is everyone?" Rose asked, braiding her hair. "How's Rebecca and the twins?"
"They're good. They always chase the chickens around when they come. Momma says I should watch them better because they won't lay for days after they visit."
"Who?" Rose asked, "The chickens or the boys?"
Lily giggled, "The chickens." Rose smiled at the image of the twins brooding in a nest box.
"Corinne's pregnant again," Lily continued. "She says she's tired and wants this to be the last one." I should talk to her, Rose thought, maybe I could make her a Preventative until Master Bowman comes back.
"Violet says Leo wants to move to Two Rivers. I heard her tell Momma that she wasn't sure about that. She likes Louisville."
"How's Daisy and Jeffrey?" Rose tied the end of her braid and looked at herself in the mirror. I guess I'll never be tall, she thought to herself. Momma's hair, Poppa's eyes... At least I have Grandmother's figure. She smoothed her dress down over her hips.
"Jeffrey's going to Logan to be in the Novice Cloisters. Daisy's still at the bakery."
"And what about you?" Rose asked, looking at her sister in the mirror.
Lily shrugged. "I don't know. I like the farm. Momma says maybe I should think about that at my Ceremony."
Rose walked over and sat down next to her sister. "You want to know what I thought about at my Ceremony?"
"Joshua hid all my petticoats that morning, so I had to borrow some from Violet. They were so big on me we had to pin them up. I was sure something would slip or break and I'd end up there in front of everybody with my skirts all around my feet. My prayers to the Gods weren't 'Guide me and help me in my choices.' but 'Please don't let the pins break.'"
The luscious scents of Momma's cooking drifted into the room and Rose stood up. "I think supper is almost ready. Let's go see if Momma wants help."
Rose looked around the room as she took her seat. Had it really so long since she'd come home to visit? The last time the big table had been crowded with family, spouses and babies. Now it seemed so empty. The far door opened and Poppa walked in, slowly making his way to his chair. Rose stared, what had happened? She remembered when she was a little girl and teasing him that his hair matched the brown dirt. Now the gray had taken over his hair and face. He smiled at her and his green eyes still shone bright, but the lines around them had deepened and multiplied. How could I have missed this? Rose thought with a sudden stab of guilt. Why didn't anyone tell me?
"Rose, my girl, how have you been?" Her father asked. His voice had a slight quaver that she was sure hadn't been there before.
"I'm fine, Poppa. Mistress Eber says I can start on my own soon."
"Good, good. You see, Camille? I always said our little Rosie would be a good herbalist."
"You did, dearest." Momma said, handing a full plate to Rose. Rose passed it to her father. She looked back at her mother, she also seemed to have lost something. Gray streaked her black hair and deep lines outlined her mouth. "You were right to set that up for Rose. It's too bad she can't continue." Her mother handed a full plate to Rose.
"What do you mean Momma?" Rose asked suspiciously, taking her plate.
"Your father and I have discussed this. If Annie Eber says you have learned everything, we think you should move back home."
"Move back?!" Rose repeated, shocked.
"Lily I think I left a pie in the oven, would you get it please?" Lily ran into the kitchen. Momma turned back to Rose. "Yes."
Taking a deep breath, Rose tried to calm down. "Why do you want me to move home Momma?" She asked, clenching her hands into fists under the table.
"Your father needs care. Lily and I are running the farm as best we can but we need another hand. If you're done with your studies, you're moving back here."
Rose looked up at her father with a pleading look on her face.
"I'm sorry, Rosie, but I really do need some help," He replied. "I can barely get out of bed in the morning."
Trapped. Rose thought. She picked up a fork and stabbed at the food on her plate. Damn.
"I'll send Lily for your things in the morning."
"No." she said quickly. "I'll go back myself. I need to... finish some things. I'll be back."
"Lily will come with you."
"Fine." Rose replied, jabbing at another bite. "I'll stay for now."
Lily sat silently beside Rose in the wagon while they drove to Mistress Eber's house the next day. Why does she do this? Rose thought. She never asks. It's just Rose come home. You don't have a husband, stay home. Rose give up everything you've done for the last four years and stay home. Gods! No wonder Violet moved to Louisville! Lily made a noise beside her and Rose looked up, realizing they had reached Annie's house. Sighing, she reined in Old Blue in front of the garden gate. The front door opened and Annie walked out.
Rose turned to Lily, "My clothes are all in the trunk in the attic, the stairs are in the back. I need to talk to Annie." Lily nodded and ran inside, pausing only to greet Mistress Eber as she passed her at the gate.
"Oh Rose, your mother told me all about it! I'm so sorry!" Annie cried, walking up and pulling her into a hug.
Releasing her she stepped back and held Rose out by her shoulders "I'm sorry I won't be able to give you the house. But maybe I could train someone else."
Train someone else? Rose thought, she was talking about stopping just a few weeks ago! But Momma wants me to stay home! And what about Poppa? Rose couldn't say anything, her mind whirled with a dozen conflicting thoughts. Lily walked out the front door, her arms full of Rose's belongings.
"Anyway, you don't need to worry about little old me," Annie continued, not noticing Rose's distress. "I'll get by." She paused a moment, watching Lily climb into the wagon. "Oh! I am so forgetful! I have a few things for you." Reaching into her apron pocket, she handed Rose a small package and a letter. "That," She pointed at the package, "is a little gift from me. The letter arrived for you yesterday."
Rose looked at the letter, a reply? Already? She had not expected something so soon. She shoved it in her pocket to read later, and opened the package. Inside was a small bundle of seeds.
Annie beamed at her. "Just a little something. You'll probably want to start your own garden eventually."
Rose looked down at the seeds: rosemary, bay... yes, everything she'd need.
Old Blue snorted loudly behind them. Rose looked behind her at the cart, Lily looked back at her impatiently. She turned back to Annie. "I'll come visit. Soon. I promise." She leaned down and gave her a hug.
"I'll be here, don't worry dear." Annie patted her back as Rose released her.
Climbing into the wagon, Rose grabbed the reins. She forced herself to look at the road ahead and not at the the little cottage fading into the distance behind her.
"Momma! I'm going out to feed the animals!" Rose called out as she pulled on her cloak.
"Be back for supper!" Her mother called back from the kitchen.
Rose closed the door behind her and started across the yard to the barn. The cold air was bracing and her breath came out in white puffs. She fingered the newest letter in her pocket. "Maybe." Dale had replied. Well, it was better than the "No" she had gotten from Stella. You just have to wait, Rose lectured herself, he said he'd know more by winter. If he can't do it, you can write to Marcus in Logan. Throwing another forkful of hay into the trough, she watched Old Blue and Cricket bury their noses eagerly. She patted their heads and watched them eat. A cat wound around her ankles and she looked down. An orange cat, one of Fluff's many descendants, looked up at her and meowed.
Rose looked down at it speculatively. It's been almost a week... Could I? She looked up at the gray afternoon sky, the moon hidden behind clouds and counted the days to herself. Maybe? Walking back in the barn, she closed the door behind her.
"Just a little experiment," she said to the audience of barn cats that had gathered around her. She swept clear a spot on the floor. "If this works, I'll leave town and seek my fame and fortune around the Empire." she said grandly. "If it doesn't..." she paused and thought, "I'll seek fame and fortune in Clay." Kicking the last few straws away, Rose took a deep breath and shifted.
She was trapped! Tangled! Her back arched in fear as she tried to back out of the smothering layers of cloth. Her back legs encountered open air and she turned and ran. She shifted again.
Rose sat down hard on the floor, the cold stone assuaging the sting of her butt. She looked at the pile of her clothes on the floor. "Well." she said to herself. "I guess I learned something today." She looked around, the cats had all gone. Picking up her clothes, she started to dress. "Two things." she corrected herself after a moment.
"Here Poppa." Rose held the cup up out for him.
His hand shook slightly as he took it from her. "What is it?" he asked.
"Flaxseed, snakeroot, a few other things."
"This will help?"
"Yes." Rose picked up one of the pillows at his feet, fluffed it, and put it carefully back under his ankles. They were looking swollen again. I better make some dandelion tea for him later. Do I have any in the pantry? I should go out and look for more flowers before cold weather starts.
"Ugh! Foul!" He set the cup aside.
Rose picked up the cup, it was still half full. She handed it back to him. "Drink it all, please." she said.
He frowned at her but drained the cup. There was a knock at the front door. Rose ignored it; Lily could get it.
"Thank you, Mistress." Poppa said sarcastically, handing her back the cup.
"Rose! Visitor!" Lily called from the other room.
"I'll be back later, Poppa. Call if you need anything."
Lily's head came around the door. "Rose! Someone's here for you!"
"I heard you." Rose said, closing the door behind her as she left the room. She held the cup out to Lily. "Wash this for me."
Lily pushed it away. "Wash it yourself."
"Who's at the door?"
Lily shrugged. "I dunno. She's in the parlor."
Rose quietly opened the parlor door and peeked inside. She gasped and pulled back, closing the door.
"Who is it?" Lily asked.
"Lucy Barnes." Rose said. What is she doing here? She thought.
Rose looked down at Lily. "Never mind. Take care of this." She handed Lily the cup. "Put it in the wash bucket."
Lily gave her a long look, clearly trying to decide whether to argue or not. Finally, she took the cup and walked away.
Shaking out the wrinkles in her apron and smoothing her hair back, Rose walked into the parlor, her head held high. "Lucy." she said.
Lucy sat in one of the chairs, staring at the floor and twisting her hands together. She jumped up as Rose entered, smiled and held out a hand. "Rose! How are you! I heard your father's sick! How is he?"
Rose did not take the offered hand. "He's fine."
Dropping her hand awkwardly, Lucy continued, "And your mother? How is she? Was that your sister who let me in? I thought she was working at the bakery?"
"Daisy's at the bakery. Lily let you in."
"It must be nice to have such a big family. I only have one brother."
"Why are you here Lucy?" Rose asked, tired.
Lucy's smile faltered and faded, she looked down at the floor. "I'm seeing Caleb Dell."
"He's Bonnie's cousin's friend. And, um... a couple months ago she told her mother we were going to the festival in Flora. Only Bonnie went to her friend's instead. So, um, you know, Caleb and I could be alone for a while. Together."
"I usually have one of Bowman's charms with me. But I think I might have accidentally dropped it somewhere." She sat down again, slowly.
Rose waited. Lucy stared down at the floor, then continued. "I didn't have any red days last month." She said quietly. "Not this month, either."
Rose looked at Lucy, watching her cheeks turn red. The final pin clicked into place. "Oh." she said. Pennyroyal? She thought. No, too many complications. Rue, maybe, or vervain.
"I can't tell my parents." she continued desperation in her voice, "They don't like Caleb! If I tell them what happened, they'll send me away!"
This is Lucy Barnes. Another part of Rose's mind said. Have you forgotten already?
"Why don't you go to Annie Eber?" Rose asked. "She can help you."
"I would but she talks. Even if she gave me something, Pa would still find out."
Lucy looked up at her. "I said, I don't want my Pa to find out." she repeated.
"No. What about Annie?"
"She talks. Didn't you know? That's how Bonnie found out about you. Bonnie's aunt was in the store when Mistress Eber came in town to get the Healer. The Healer was still in Flora, but Bonnie's uncle sometimes takes messages for her. That's when she told him what happened to you. He told Bonnie's aunt, Bonnie's aunt told her, and Bonnie told me."
Rose stared at her: Annie had told them...?
"Can you help me?" Lucy asked after a minute.
Viciously pushing away her feelings of betrayal, Rose forced her mind back on topic. "What about the Healer?"
Lucy sat down on the chair. "I can't afford her. Anyway aren't Healers dedicated to preserving life or something?"
"I don't think so." Rose said. She sighed, trapped again. Well this corner was easy enough to escape. She looked at Lucy. Lucy looked back at her, her eyes full of despair.
Mother give me strength. "I'll need to get some supplies. Come back on Watersday."
Lucy looked at her for a long moment as Rose's statement worked through her head. "You mean you'll help me?"
"Yes I'll help you. But only this time, all right? I don't care how many charms you have to buy after this. Sew them into your shift, use them to tie your knees together, I don't care. But I'm only doing this once."
Lucy leaped up and hugged Rose. "Oh thank you! I didn't know who to go to! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"
Rose gently pushed Lucy away. "Let me show you out."
Sitting at the window, cocooned in quilts, Rose stared at the snow covered yard. The door slammed and, as Rose watched, Lily walked down the path to the barn. Pans clanked in the kitchen, the familiar noises of Momma starting breakfast. Rose smiled to herself enjoying the feeling of not being wanted. A cart stopped on the road in front of the house. A heavily cloaked figure leaned over and asked something of the driver. The driver nodded and pointed to the house. The figure jumped down and the cart and waved to the driver as he drove on. Rose squinted at the figure, it seemed familiar... Shucking off the quilts, she thrust her feet into boots and hurried to the door.
Emily looked up, surprised, one hand raised, as Rose opened the door. She smiled, "Hello Rose! How are you? I thought I'd come by for a visit!"
"Hello, Emily!" She paused, unsure how to continue.
The cold breeze pushed in under their skirts and around their ankles. They both shivered.
Momma looked out of the kitchen, "Lily, close the... oh, hello."
Rose stepped back as Emily walked in, pushing her hood back with one hand. "Hello! I'm Emily, the Healer. I hope you don't mind me stopping by unannounced like this but Tom was the only one going out this way today and I wanted to see Rose. I haven't seen her in – oh it seems like years but I think it was just last fall, really. I heard she was living at home now, so you must be Rose's mother?"
Rose smiled to herself as her mother paused, looking inward as she replayed Emily's words in her head.
"Yes. It's nice to meet you. I'm Camille, Rose's mother." She held out her hand and Emily shook it.
Poppa walked slowly into the room, "Camille, was there someone at the…?" He paused, seeing Emily. "Oh hello." Rose saw Emily watching him intently.
"Father, this is Emily, Rose's friend." Momma said.
Emily walked over to him. "How do you do?" She said, holding out her hand. "I'm Emily, I'm the Healer." Poppa shook her hand politely.
"Jonah," he said. "Would you like to stay for breakfast?"
"Thank you, I would." She replied with a bright smile.
Rose rinsed a plate and handed it to Emily who slowly wiped it dry. "How long has your father been sick?" She asked.
"Umm... About a year or so. I've been doing my best but he's not getting any better. No worse, thank the Gods, but no better."
"Hmm." Emily said thoughtfully, still wiping the same dish. Rose looked at the pile of clean but wet dishes next to her, and picked up a cloth.
"What's wrong with him? Do you know?"
"It's his heart." Rose said with a sigh.
"I think I can help him."
"Can you get him back to where he was? So he can run the farm again? So they don't need me anymore?" She could almost taste the bitterness in her voice. It surprised her.
Emily set the plate down and looked at her.
"I'm sorry." Rose looked down at the floor.
"Rose, what's wrong?"
"I don't like to go into town anymore. When I walk down the street, all I hear is 'Here kitty' and then they laugh because everyone thinks they are the first one to ever think of that joke. Then they make more stupid jokes and laugh at me more. When they're not telling jokes they stare. And they make comments. It's 'Oh did you hear what happened in Sycamore?' or Derby or Pella. They say 'It's only a matter of time...' as if I'm going to just attack them one day out of the blue. Then I go inside and they all say 'Get out! We don't want your kind in here!' But then the next day – the next day! – they come to the door and beg and say 'Please Rose, give me some pennyroyal. I forgot my charms and my husband is suspicious.' or it's 'Please give me that tonic Rose, it hurts when I piss.' I charge them twice as much as Mistress Eber ever did, and everyone knows I won't open my mouth and tell their secrets. So they must all be grateful, right? Then the next day, the next week, I go into town and they say the same thing: Go away, we don't want you here. So I stay here. All day. Every day I care for Poppa, I care for the animals. I tend the garden. And I. Am. Trapped! I want to leave, Emily! I want to see Sterling! Crescent! I want to go to Silver City! I don't care that I'm a were! I just want to leave!"
Rose stopped, taking a deep breath. Tears overflowed her eyes and she angrily wiped them away. Emily put a hand over hers. Looking at it, Rose chuckled softly to herself. Not so long ago she would have nearly fainted at the contact, but time had moved on and Emily had never shown any attraction stronger than friendship. Rose sniffed.
"Can I help?" Emily asked quietly.
"How? You're a Healer. They like you but they're all afraid of you. Also you charge too much."
"I charge just as much as every other Healer in the Empire." Emily said loftily. "I have to eat. But I think I can help your father. He won't be completely better but I can help his weakness. Don't you have a brother in town?"
"Why doesn't he come out to help you?"
"He doesn't get along with Momma. It's a long story." She added.
"Why don't you talk to him? Even if he won't come here, maybe he can help you in some other way."
"All right." she said. Privately she doubted Jason would ever agree.
"Oh! All this and I nearly forgot!" Bending over, Emily started digging around in her skirts. "Ah ha!" she cried, reaching into a pocket. She produced a letter and handed it triumphantly to Rose. "I said I'd give this to you."
Rose opened the letter and read it. "Oh." she said. "Oh my."
"What is it? Good news? Bad news? Indifferent news? Some of both? All three?"
"It's from Dale, the Herbalist in Albion." She read it again, not believing the words.
"What does he say? Is it good news? I hope it's good news!"
Rose swallowed, and read it out loud "'...I apologize for keeping you waiting, but I did not want to volunteer Bernard until I had a chance to speak to him. Once I explained the need he happily agreed to move to Clay. He has said to expect him in Seed Moon, but he will send you word himself once his plans are finalized.' Oh Gods, Emily!"
"What is it? Who's Bernard?"
"He's Dale's student. Emily, this means I've finally got someone to take over for Annie!"
"Rose that's wonderful!" Emily grabbed and hugged her.
Momma walked in, "Emily would you like..." She stopped, seeing her arms around Rose, then continued, "Would you like to sit in the parlor?"
Emily's smile dissolved Momma's disapproval like the sun breaking through the clouds. "No, but do you mind if I speak with Jonah? I would like to take a look at him. Maybe I could help."
"Where have you been?" Momma asked when Rose came in the door.
"I was in town, talking to Claude."
"Oh? What about?"
Aren't you going to ask about Jason? Rose thought bitterly. "About Poppa." she said.
"You were out too late, your father needs you."
"Did Emily come by today?"
"He's helping Lily feed the animals."
"Then he's fine. He doesn't need me."
Momma's eyebrows came down, a storm gathering. "What do you mean?"
"Momma look at him! He's up! Walking! Helping Lily! A few months ago he could barely make it to the kitchen to eat! He doesn't need me today, Momma!"
"He's your father. He needs you. Besides your friend can't come by every day."
"She knows that Momma, that's why I'm only paying her to come by every other week."
"You're paying her? With what?"
"Momma," Rose struggled to keep her voice even, "All those people who come to the door for me. Do you think they are just here to talk to me? Because they enjoy my company? I'm helping them Momma. I'm their herbalist."
"I'll tell Lily to send them away next time. I need you here."
"I won't always be here Momma."
Momma's eyes snapped to hers. "What do you mean?"
"I'm leaving Momma. As soon as the new herbalist gets here."
"You can't. Father needs you."
Rose gritted her teeth. "Bernard is the new herbalist. He's coming in a few weeks. When he comes I'm leaving." She turned on her heel and walked out the door.
It was the first sunny day after weeks of rain and gray, Rose leapt over a large puddle and opened the inn door. The innkeeper looked up at her, but didn't say anything. She knew from experience that he preferred to ignore her rather than throw her out. Pulling out the letter from Bernard, she read it again: "...expect to be there by the last day of Seed Moon if the weather allows." She looked up at the room, just a few people sat at the table, and none of them matched his description. I'm early, she told herself, and sat down at a table to wait.
I wonder what Claude said to Jason? I didn't think anything could convince him to come to the farm, even if it is only every other rest day. He's still tense around Momma, though. Maybe that's why all he talks about is the weather and Poppa.
"Is this seat taken?"
Rose looked up, a young man stood over the empty chair next to her, one hand on top of it, the other held a mug. She glanced around the room, it had filled up since she had arrived but there were still a few tables available. Claude will be starting soon. He must be new in town, she decided. "Go ahead." she said waving at the chair.
"Thank you." he said, sitting down. "My name's Armin." He set his mug down on the table and held out his hand.
Rose shook it. Definitely new in town, she thought, but not bad looking. "I'm Rose." she said, looking at him closer. Brown hair was brushed back away his forehead, light brown eyes looked at her, interested.
"Do you want something to eat, Rose?" he asked.
"Oh, that's all right. I'm just waiting for someone. Are you new in town?"
"Sort of, I'm a Trader. I was headed south to Charleston, but the road was washed out. I met a crew out there and they said they're making repairs, but it's going to be a while. I'm stuck here until then." He took a sip from his mug. "I thought I could get an early start this year, but I guess the Father had other plans." He took another drink. "Who are you waiting for?"
"I'm here to greet the new herbalist, he just came down from Albion."
Armin thought a minute. "Hmm... is he a short, round, guy? Bald on top? Named Bernard?" Rose nodded. "I was talking to him earlier. His mule lost a shoe outside of town and he had to walk in. He said he going to bathe and rest a while. You sure you don't want anything?"
"No, I'm fine."
"I'll get you something." He raised a hand to wave for the innkeeper.
"No! Please, don't." Rose pulled his arm down. "He'll throw me out if I draw attention to myself. I said I'd meet Bernard here. Don't make him throw me out."
"The innkeeper? Why would he throw you out? You seem pretty nice."
Rose looked down at the scarred wood of the table. "I'm a were." she said quietly.
Rose looked up at him.
"I've been all over the Empire and I've met lots of weres," he continued. "The Priestess of the Lady's Temple in Pella is a were. They're all decent people. Well, except for Sandra, the priestess, she cheats at cards. But, you know, don't challenge her to a game of Pump It Five and you'll be all right."
Rose looked at Armin, he smiled at her. Rose smiled back.
"You have a nice smile." he said.
Rose was suddenly glad for the dark room. "Thank you." She mumbled. "So do you."
He nodded at a figure coming down the stairs. "I think that's your friend." The short, round, bald man took a seat, waved for the innkeeper and looked around the room expectantly.
"Oh, I guess so." Rose said. "I should go."
"Why don't you come by tomorrow? I'll be here."
"Oh not tomorrow!" His face fell, "I can't tomorrow. I have too much to do. Will you be here the day after?"
He smiled again, "I'm not going anywhere until they fix the roads."
"Oh, of course, well, I'll come by again. I promise."
Armin took her hand gently, "I'll be here." he said and kissed it.
She didn't want him to let go, but he did. Rubbing the hot spot on her hand, Rose hurried to greet Bernard.
Rose looked at her herb pots in the window and the new leaves shining bright green in the afternoon sunlight. I wish I could take them, she thought, but they'd never survive the trip. Maybe I could give them to someone? Would Bernard like them? She smiled to herself, I don't think he needs my little pots when Annie's practically stripped her garden for him. Oh well, she likes him and that's good. Maybe I could give them to Lily? I'll ask her tomorrow. Armin said the roads won't be passable at least until the end of the week. She looked at her clothes laid out on the bed, trying to decide which to take and which to leave. There was a knock at the door. "Come in." she called.
Momma walked in closing the door behind her. "So. You're leaving."
Rose sighed but did not turn around. "I told you I was going to, Momma."
"Leaving your family. Your sister. Me. Your father."
Rose frowned but said nothing.
"You're just going to abandon your family and all that I – your father and I – have worked for."
"I'm not abandoning you Momma." Rose replied tightly, not turning around.
Momma continued as if she hadn't heard. "We worked hard to provide for you, we found you something to do, and now you're leaving."
Rose clenched her fists and tried to keep hold of her temper.
"Now that your father is sick you're just going to walk off without a word to anyone and desert us."
"I am not walking off, Momma!" she shouted spinning to face her. "Poppa is doing better! He's up! He's helping Lily! He was feeding the chickens! What more do you want from me!?"
"What do I want?" Momma shouted back at her. "I want you here! You're my daughter! You should stay home! Your brothers left home! Your sisters left home! You need to stay!"
"Stay? You trapped me here! I can't go anywhere!"
"Because I need you here!"
Rose threw up her hands. "You don't need me here! You just want me! And I won't stay! I'm leaving Momma and you can't stop me!"
"All right, then!" she cried. "If that's the way you want it. You can leave! Now!"
"What?" Rose asked, surprised by this sudden turn.
"Leave! Today! Go with that trader, go to that friend of yours, I don't care! You're not coming back here!"
"I'm done arguing, Rose! If you are so determined to leave your family then you can go now." Opening the door, she walked out of the room.
Rose watched the door close behind her. "Fine! I will!" she shouted at it.
Shifting the strap on her shoulder to a slightly more comfortable position, Rose knocked on Emily's door. She chewed her lip as she hoped, desperately that she was in. Footsteps approached the door from the inside and a man opened it. Rose looked at him, surprised.
"Hello." He said.
"Um... Is Emily in, um, available?" This was her house, wasn't it? Did she have the wrong house? This was Marigold Lane.
"Certainly. Are you a patient?" He asked, letting her in.
"Um, no..." Emily walked out of a back room before she could finish.
"Rose! What a surprise! I don't think you've ever come by my house! I'm so glad to see you! Let me show you around! Do you want anything? Sit down, I'll bring you some tea. Would you like some tea? What brings you here?"
"Um, my mother threw me out." The words were no easier spoken.
The man came in from another room carrying a tray. He set it down and quietly poured tea from a pot into three cups.
"Oh! Are you sure?"
Rose looked down at the floor, fighting the stinging tears in her eyes. "Yes." she said.
"Oh no! I am so sorry! Do you want some tea?"
Rose accepted the cup given to her but did not drink.
"Do you need someplace to stay?" The man asked quietly.
Emily looked up, as if noticing for the first time that he was there. "Oh! You're right. Rose I'm so sorry, you can stay here if you want! I never introduced you, did I? Rose, this is Liam, my intended."
Liam smiled at Rose.
"I won't be a bother. I-I won't stay long." Rose said. She sniffed.
"Oh, it's not a problem! I have space! We'll make a bed for you."
Rose swallowed, trying to force the tears back again. "Thank you." She said quietly.
"Oh Rose! I'm so sorry!" Reaching forward, Emily gently pulled her into a hug. The dam burst and Rose cried into her shoulder.
Rose looked up at the thin sliver of the moon hanging in the blue sky as she walked along the road. What will I do when it's full? She thought. She shifted her grip on the straps of her pack. I guess I'll find a good inn and just lock the door for a few days. Maybe if I slept in the stable? And what? Hunt rats for the innkeeper? Have some dignity. She turned around, still walking, and looked back at the town. Lily and Jason had both come to see her yesterday:
"You're ruining it for me, you know." Jason had said, smiling. "I'm supposed to be the outcast, not you."
"Sorry." Rose responded, returning his smile. "Next time we'll flip a coin."
"Where are you going?" Lily asked.
"I don't know. North for now, I think. Up to Ingram. After that, I don't know."
"Poppa says he'll talk to Momma. She'll change her mind." Lily looked up at her hopefully.
Rose exchanged a glance with Jason and sighed. "It's complicated Lilybean."
"Well, I wish you didn't have to leave."
Turning around again, Rose looked up the road. The signpost at the crossroads was rocking strangely and a trader wagon in front of it blocked her view. A big bay gelding grazed at the front of the wagon. He flicked his ears at her as she approached. Someone behind the wagon cursed and the signpost shook again. Curious, she walked around to look.
Armin set his back to the post and leaned against it. His heels dug into the soft ground. "Come on..." he muttered. The post moved slightly but fell back as soon as he shifted his weight.
"Do you need help?" Rose asked.
He stopped what he was doing and stood up straight. "Oh! Hello, Rose! How are you?" He tried to brush off the front of his tunic.
"I'm fine. I thought you were headed south, to, um, Charleston." She walked up and brushed some dirt from his shoulder.
"Eh," he shrugged, "the road is still washed out. I think the Father wants me to go north this year."
"Oh. Do you want help with that?" She motioned at the sign.
"Sure! Put your pack up on the seat so it doesn't get muddy."
With the two of them pushing it, the post was quickly straightened. Armin gathered some large rocks and they both piled them around the base.
Patting his horse, Armin climbed up into the seat and sat down, he looked down and fiddled with the horse's reins. "Which way are you going?" He asked after a moment.
"I was going to Ingram."
"Oh." he glanced at her, then took a sudden interest in the back of his horse. "I'm headed towards Sterling. Would you like to come with me?" He looked sidelong at her. "I mean I could stop in Ingram or..." He trailed off, at a loss for words.
Rose smiled at him. "I would. Um, I mean, like to come with you." She added.
Armin grinned and held out a hand, "Great! Hop up!"
Taking his hand, Rose eagerly climbed into the seat next to him. She suspected meeting him here on the road had not been coincidental, and she didn't care.