Chapter OneA Chapter by Catherine
Noah searches the streets of the capital for the healing house mentioned in his letter.
Just a little detour, Noah Starborn kept telling himself, riding his old stallion Shadow further into the bustling capital. Just a little detour.
He was meant to head north, in order to retrieve something for his cult leader, who wouldn’t be thrilled were he to learn Noah was in the city of Veicira wasting time.
Nervously, he fiddled with the piece of parchment folded in his coat pocket. A healing house, the letter said.
Merchants with their wagon carts and private guards crowded the paved street. Nobles in fancy coats trimmed in fox or ermine rode horses with gold or silver saddles at a leisurely pace, and lacquered carriages swayed through the mass, as Noah pushed Shadow along.
On either side hawkers and shopkeepers shouted their wares, their voices attempting to rise above the hum of the crowd and the clopping of horses’ hooves on cobbles. The open shops displayed goods bought from nearby villages’ farmers or the more expensive, exotic stuff from travelling merchants, smells of unfamiliar spices wafting from their stalls.
The castle loomed above it all, its massive keep jutting over the fortified stone wall. Painted on the keep’s facade was the blue seven-tipped star, emblem of the country of Fellera, seeming to shine softly in the late afternoon sunlight.
Noah was forced to rein Shadow in as he realized the road was blocked. Prancing in their outfits of silk, velvet and fur, nobles huddled in front of a merchant selling rare treats that came to the country by Nimisian ships; coffee and chocolate.
With his worn black coat over dark green breeches, tucked in knee-high leather boots that had seen better days, Noah drew a few odd looks from the well-off folk, otherwise busy brandishing their silver and gold. Not that he cared.
“Pardon me,” he said to a plump lady who eyed him and his horse suspiciously, pulling her silk scarves tighter about herself. “Do you know where I can find the healing house on Castle Road? Victor Starborn’s establishment?”
She pointed to a side street, equally busy, full of people negotiating with merchants.
“That way. You’re not from around here, are you? I heard the healer was taken ill. Caught something nasty, I heard. Whatever your problem is,” she said, “I don’t think he can help you now.”
Her attention swerved as a well-dressed man with a hat and a cane touched her arm and pointed to a merchant’s cart nearby, selling jewelry. The lady’s eyes lit up and they both melted into the crowd.
The wind rose, and Noah shivered, his stomach in knots. He guided Shadow to the side street.
Am I too late?
He began to notice poor folk mingling with the rich, who would be wise to watch their purses and fancy jewels. There were pickpockets, and also kids who started fights to make a distraction while their friend stole bread or cake from a baker’s stand.
Noah would have grinned at the kids if he wasn’t so damn nervous.
He pulled at the reins. Before them stretched Castle Road. Buildings of detailed stonework, with terraces and gardens of young trees baring orange and red leaves lined a clean, wide road that led to the barbican some half a mile away. High on its motte, the castle’s curtain wall dominated the landscape. The barbican, with its sturdy towers and gate nestled in between, was only the first protection, giving way to a narrow stone bridge flying over the moat.
Noah eyed the buildings, searching for anything resembling a healer’s shop, passing a tavern from which the patrons’ loud voices spilled out. His mount tilted his head and whickered softly.
He felt a twinge of guilt. For all his years and greying coat, Shadow was as strong and resilient as a young stallion. But Noah had ridden him hard the past two days. The tavern had its own stable yard; even the smells of good ale and roasted meat couldn’t hide the scent of horses and haystacks completely. Shadow wanted to stop and rest.
Noah patted him gently. “Soon, soon…”
Most of the buildings had the blue star of Fellera atop their doorway, matching the giant one on the castle’s keep, he noted, before halting in front of what appeared to be a temple. The square white building with its black marble columns was much the same, but no statues of the gods surrounded the entrance. And the words Place of Worship had been replaced with Place of Healing on the sign.
“That would be it,” Noah muttered.
Heart hammering, he dismounted, tied Shadow’s reins to a tree and strode to the door. Taking a deep breath, he rapped his knuckles against it. When no one answered, he gently pushed it open.
The wide space where the seats used to be had been converted into curtained stalls with beds for patients. But the dais remained on the far side, and one statue had been kept. A tall, delicately worked bronze statue of Melea, Goddess of Fertility.
Fading sunlight streamed in from mullioned windows framed in pure white. Perhaps a dozen people slept on the beds, that he could see, and the place was very quiet. Noah stopped next to a small desk, turning as he heard footsteps coming his way, and the ruffle of skirts.
“How may I help you?” a young woman asked him, moving to place some jars of herbs on neat shelves behind the desk.
From the weary paleness of her face and the lingering red rimming her blue eyes Noah guessed she’d been crying. She wore a modest grey and black dress. As plain as it was, it still flattered her lithe frame.
“I already told you people,” she said. “I wish I could buy some supplies, but my budget is very tight at the moment.” She straightened some parchment sheets on the desk, and the ink pot and quills, like she needed to keep her hands busy.
She thinks I’m a Laethi merchant. He did have the dark hair and tan skin typical of Fellera’s eastern neighbors.
“Don’t worry, I won’t try to sell you anything. My name is Noah. I was hoping to find master Victor Starborn.”
Her hands went still. She had stained one of her pale fingers with the ink, but she didn’t seem to notice. She spoke carefully. “Pleased to meet you, Noah. I’m Ambry. But, I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “He couldn’t fight off the fever. He passed away last night.”
Last night. He’d had that letter for more than a week now. I should have come sooner.
~ You couldn’t have known. ~
“He was taken to Blackhill cemetery this morning.” Ambry glanced towards the back of the room, where the statue of Melea stood. “If you want, there’s a little shrine, over there. It isn’t much, but…”
Noah gave her a faint nod, grateful to have something to do with himself. Striding up the aisle, passing the sick and wounded resting on the beds, he caught sight of wheeled trays crowding the space between the stalls, some holding pitchers of water and clean cloths, others with tools like needles, probes, serrated knives and catgut, along with herbal concoctions and tea. The mingled smells made him uneasy.
Feverfew, sage, thyme, sleeper’s fix… The smells themselves weren’t bad, just the memories that came with them"the orphanage staff, forcing concoctions down his throat while he thrashed and begged them not to.
Noah climbed up the steps to the dais and paused after the statue of the goddess, finding a simple wooden stand with a painting of a middle-aged man and a golden plate with flowers and candles. Noah glanced over his shoulder. No one paid attention to him. Ambry was busy lighting some oil lamps. Noah thought he heard a patient complaining that he was hungry, another asking for more sleeper’s fix.
Turning back to the shrine, Noah examined the painting, throat catching. It was nicely done, but that wasn’t the reason for Noah’s staring.
He had seen this man before, when he was twelve, running away from the orphanage.
Tumbling down the familiar streets of Quickrivers, feverish and clumsy, striving to get away from town and hide in the woods, this man had stopped him.
“Hey, kid, wait!”
A man in his early thirties, affable, tall, with thick chestnut hair and blue eyes, he wore a velvet coat and had a large leather pouch bag slung over his shoulder.
And Noah waited, though he couldn’t fathom why.
The man seemed troubled. “Is your mother’s name, by any chance, Alexa?”
Noah’s reply came fast.
“I don’t have a mother.”
And he ran, faster than before.
He never saw that man again. Never thought much of it really. Until now. Gods be damned… He felt an odd need to laugh.
Noah hurried down the stairs and strode to the door, ignoring Ambry when she asked if he was all right.
Before leaving, he drew up short, holding the door halfway open. He stared at Ambry over his shoulder, and she stared back, holding a wicker candle in her hand, her blonde hair shining like gold in its light.
“Was he your father?” Noah asked.
She shook her head. “He took me in as an apprentice. He didn’t have any children, or a wife.” She shrugged, and tempted a smile. “Married to the job.”
“Right. It was nice meeting you, Ambry.”
“Please, wait. I’m curious. How did you know my master?” she asked.
Noah let the door close behind him before she could word another question.
A chilly wind welcomed him, sending yellow leaves scurrying across paved stones. He untethered Shadow and led him towards the tavern.
© 2017 Catherine
The Spider and the Snake
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