The village of Myrrh was unusually busy, as it was the second of the three-day long Market that always culminated in the glowing beauty of the full moon. Many of her neighbours were up early, preparing for another Market day. Front doors were bolted shut, the wagons loaded, and children hastily ushered into caravans to head south, over the Everglade Bridge and into the Market clearing to find the best space to set up their stalls. Lila kindly greeted Holly, the klutzy seer who always managed to find something or someone to bump into; she was hailed by Rosa, the wizened leader and matriarch of the village and Lila responded respectfully. She turned left towards the northern expanse of Myrrh.
Simeon's family home was large and sturdy-looking and was built with long pine beams from the surrounding forest. Behind the house stood two tall posts that were roughly 10 meters apart, between which hung a slack rope that was tied securely to each post – the Flightfoots’ training rope. To the left of the training rope was a clearing that was used as a sparring area.
She turned straight past the solid old house's intricately carved front door which depicted an array of birds flying towards the sun in the top-right corner, its rays stretching across the door, and tried to remember when last she had actually used it. She walked to the back of the house, as she usually did, where she was sure to find the Flightfoots training.
‘Hello? Uncle Dom?’ Lila called, because she did not want to surprise them. She heard voices from behind the house and pushed open the gate. No-one answered so she assumed they were in the midst of training – they almost always were.
‘Ah, too slow, old man!’ cried Dimitri, Simeon’s older brother.
‘Watch who you call old, son. I’ll best you yet,’ said Dominic.
Dimitri pulled off his tunic and ran his fingers through his long black hair. Lila crouched beside a large water-filled barrel that stood behind a dense rosebush, her eyes transfixed on Dimitri. She watched in awe at his brawny, toned body and at how his muscles rippled and flexed with every movement he made. Maybe she could hide here - just for a while.
Ever since Lila could remember, she had loved Dimitri Flightfoot. They had grown up together, he was the big brother she always wished she had, but somewhere along the line her feelings towards him changed from sisterly affection to something more. To her he was witty, strong and fearless and was a fine tightrope walker – and she could hardly even speak to him anymore.
She watched Dimitri spar with his father and winced and cowered every time Dominic’s sword came close to striking Dimitri – his long dark hair gleaming in the sun and his bronze skin shining from sweat. Lila watched Dimitri leap from bales of hay that marked the perimeter of the sparring ring. He spun, parried and side-stepped as he evaded his father’s well-placed blows; he looked like a warrior – a soldier in the King’s army.
Just as Lila thought Dimitri had outfought his father, Dom struck Dimitri with a well-placed blow to the thigh. Lila made an involuntary gasp and clasped her hands over her mouth, cursing herself for making a noise.
‘Hello?’ Dimitri called, ‘Is anyone there?’ He shrugged his shoulders and walked with his father to the other side of the house.
Lila shut her eyes, thanking the heavens that Dimitri didn’t see her crouched behind a barrel gawking at him. Then, just as she was getting up, she heard a twig snap behind her and spun around to see who it was.
‘Simeon, it’s you!’ said Lila, her face the colour of a ripe tomato.
‘What are you doing there?’ he asked. ‘It looks as though you’re skulking.’
‘Skulking? No! I-’ Lila surveyed her surroundings, hoping to find an explanation for her questionable position. ‘Oh, I was just…’ Her eyes fell upon a plant with small white petals and feathery leaves. ‘I saw this bride’s button here and crouched to pick some to give to you – for your faerie bump.’ She explained, scratching her head - her nervous tic.
‘I see.’ Simeon smiled, apparently fooled by Lila’s connivery, and extended his hand, helping her to her feet. Lila bent over and dusted her knees, feeling relieved at her ability to … well, lie.
‘So, how is your head?’ Lila asked, inspecting Simeon’s forehead. The lump the faerie had left was large but less bulbous, and had now turned a sickening tinge of green. ‘Oh, Simeon, that does not look good!’ Lila exclaimed and carefully touched it.
Simeon winced and pulled her hands away from his face, his ears turning red.‘Leave it, please,’ he moaned.
‘I don’t like the look of it.’
‘Neither do we,’ said Dimitri, as he descended the steps leading down from the kitchen. She felt a tingle run down her spine at the sound of his voice. ‘Come to watch my father and me fight, have you?’ he asked, touching her shoulder. He bent forward and plucked a yellow rose from a bush growing beside him. ‘For you,’ he snapped off the thorns and tucked the rose behind Lila’s ear.
Lila felt her knees tremble and said in a meek voice, ‘Th-, thank you.’ She tried very hard not to blush, but felt the heat flaring from her neck and face. ‘I’m here to see Uncle Dom. Simeon said that he had something for me?’
‘Humph. Best get back to our training then. Tomorrow’s our big day. Simeon - Danté. We still need to practice that new manoeuvre a few times.’ Dimitri strode off with his brothers trailing behind.
‘Hello, Lila! Nice to see you again.’ called Danté, the youngest Flightfoot son as he walked past.
Lila nodded. It had been a while since she’d visited. She’d wanted to give the family time to grieve.
Simeon walked past her and gave a little wave, looking strangely disappointed. Lila shrugged and turned her attention back to Dimitri.
‘And, Lila,’ said Dimitri as he turned back to face her.
‘Yes?’ she asked hopingly, foolishly believing he would declare his undying love.
‘My father’s in the kitchen, if you wanted him.’
Lila nodded, feeling silly, and walked up the steps and into the kitchen. The tall figure of Dominic was pouring four glasses of honey mead. ‘Oh, good,’ said Dom, ‘I thought I heard your voice out there.’ He was tall and had strong, broad shoulders, long dark hair and an unusually pointy goatee. ‘Best get another glass for you then,’ he said reaching for another glass. ‘I have always thought a sip of mead could put the marrow back in your bones.’
‘Oh, no thank you,’ said Lila, shaking her head. She added under her breath, ‘I don’t think I need it.’ She took the rose from her hair and twirled it between her fingers.
‘Very well. You must be curious as to why I called you, am I right?’ asked Dom. Lila nodded. ‘I wanted to give you something.’ Dom walked to an old carved chest that stood next to a window overlooking the sparring area. Lila noticed a small table devoted to a shrine for Isabellain the corner of the room. On it stood a vase of fresh wildflowers surrounded by fat, squat candles and a few pieces of her jewellery: golden bangles and a string of black beads on a crimson ribbon.
Dominic noticed the direction of her gaze and noted, 'We were doing the rituals, tidying her things, lighting some candles. It still feels like yesterday…'
He opened the chest and retrieved a beautifully embroidered bag. ‘This,’ he said, placing the bag in Lila’s arms, ‘once belonged to Isabella. It was one of her most cherished possessions.’
Lila ran her fingers over the bag; it was raspberry red in colour and was embroidered with tiny flowers of blue, purple and orange. ‘I cannot accept such a gift, uncle Dom.’ Lila handed the bag back to Dominic.
‘Please, Lila. I insist. The best way for me to let Isabella’s memory live on is not to hide all her belongings in a dusty old chest, but to see remnants of her life living on, through others.’
Dom’s eleven-year-old son, Danté was standing in the doorway, his face beaded with sweat. ‘I just-’ he began. He looked from the bag to Lila and then at his father. His eyes began to fill with tears and he dashed upstairs to his room.
‘Danté !’ he called. They heard a door slam shut. ‘Dear, boy. He still misses his mother. He often cries at night. He has nightmares – terrible and vivid.’ Dom ran his long fingers over his face.The dark shadows under his eyes madeLila wonder whether he was talking about Danté or himself. ‘I don’t know what to do, Lila. The boys need their mother, I need my wife.’
‘I wish there was something I could do,’ she said.
‘Then, please. Take Isabella’s bag. You were like a daughter to her, to us. She would have wanted you to have it.’ Lila nodded and took the bag once more from Dominic.
‘Thank you, butenough sadness for one day, eh?Now, would you like to see what is in store for you at our performance tomorrow?’
'Will Simeon be able to perform? The bump ...'
‘Dimitri already went to Marietta’s. She gave him a concoction that he has to rub on it every few hours. She said it wasn’t going to be permanent and that it should be gone by morning.’
‘Oh, good, in that case I’d love to come and look… Marietta!’ yelled Lila, grabbing her head with both hands.
‘Where is she?’ asked Dom, confused.
‘NO, I mean . . . I should have been at Marietta’s, not here. She’s going to skin me alive!’
‘Oh, now we wouldn’t want that,’ said Dom, laughing. ‘Then run. Be gone!’
Lila waved at Dominic and ran outside to where Simeon and Dimitri were balancing on the tightrope. She waved at them as well, nearly tripping over a rock from staring at Dimitri, and made her way to Marietta’s barn. How could she have forgotten? Marietta had made such a fuss about her lessons not being postponed simply because of the Market; the lessons were supposed to start early, much earlier than this.
Lila ran through the village as though the very hounds of hell were at her heels, as she knew she would be in trouble for being late. Marietta might have been only a few years her senior, but she had an air of authority and power about her that Lila didn’t dare to test. Marietta was a gifted herbalist and potion-maker, renowned for her skills by many in far-off towns. People would bring their sick loved-ones from far and wide, hoping that she might be able to cure them. She lived on her father, Antony’s farm, in the old barn that stood beside a branch of the Everglade River.
When Lila finally reached the farm, she had to stop at the rusty front gate to catch her breath. She saw Antony emptying a pail of slop into the pigs’ trough. He raised his grimy hand and waved at Lila who returned the gesture. ‘A bit late, aren’t we?’
‘I know, I know! Is she-’ she said, pointing in the direction of the barn.
‘Has been all morning.’ Antony put the bail on his hip and grinned.
Lila smiled feebly and took a deep breath hoping that with it she might gain the courage she needed to face Marietta. She jogged to the barn’s front door, but before she could knock, the door swung open. Marietta was standing in the middle of the kitchen, her arms crossed in front of her. She walked across the room to a small circular table that stood next to a floral armchair and picked up a thick book Lila knew as 1001 Magical Herbs and Uses. Marietta placed the book in front of Lila on the kitchen table along with a quill, an inkwell and several blank pieces of parchment.
‘As punishment for your tardiness you will copy everything from absinthe to marigold, is that clear?’ asked Marietta, her grey eyes flashing.
‘But- but that’s half the book! What about all the-’
‘Illustrations? Oh, yes. How else will you be able to recognize them?’ She picked up an empty bucket and walked out of the barn leaving Lila alone.
Marietta bobbed in and out of the barn several times over the course of the afternoon. She was doing her chores: washing, cooking, and for the most part, gardening, casting a watchful glance over Lila’s shoulder every now and again. Lila’s hand was aching as she had been copying the pages for almost three hours. Each entry contained the herb with its different names, a description of the plant, its uses as well as an illustration.
‘Marietta, please! I’m sorry I was late. It will never happen again, I promise. Can I please stop? I can’t feel my fingers anymore!’
‘Oh, all right. You may stop, but have you learnt your lesson?’ she asked, placing her hands on her hips, rather reminiscent of Willow.
‘Yes, oh, yes!’ Lila jumped up and seized Marietta’s hands. ‘Thank you.’ Lila jogged to the barn door where Isabella’s red linen bag lay and swung it over her shoulder, ready to leave.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ shouted Marietta. Lila turned back, reluctantly. ‘I have a bit of homework for you. First, I would like you to finish copying that book, as it will assist in your study of herbalism. Second, I want you to practice controlling your breathing, as we will be starting with spellcasting during our next lesson. Oh, and make sure you eat a hearty breakfast before you come here.’
Lila’s emerald eyes widened at the thought of doing magic. Although Willow had taught her a few basic spells, her knowledge of spellcasting was limited. ‘I can’t wait,’ said Lila, her curiosity piqued. ‘And don’t worry I won’t be late again.’
‘I should hope not.’ Marietta waved; Lila curtseyed playfully and skipped towards the stone cottage into the ruddy glow of the sun’s last beams of day.