Once, there was a man who woke one morning, and upon uttering his first word for the day, discovered that the word was stuck in his throat, for the word had turned to stone.
He tried to cough out the stone, but he had uttered the word upon an exhale. He had no breath left to cough. He clutched at this throat, his eyes growing wide when he felt the stone slide down his throat. By instinct, he swallowed, and he felt the heavy lump descend through his chest and drop down into his belly.
With the stone dislodged, he breathed deeply once or twice, frowned, and cast his waking gaze upon the door of his bedchamber.
He cleared his throat. He took a breath. He called for a servant.
Instead of air and sound, a stone emerged from his throat again. This one had rough edges that scraped against the tender tissues inside his neck. This time, he was able to cough out the rock. It tore his throat as he expelled it. The rock lay on his white bedcovers, stained with a streak of blood.
His wits were awake now, awake enough to understand what must be happening.
A curse, he though. But he did not dare to speak the word.
The man sat upon his bed and waited for his servants to enter. Once they bathed and dressed him, his mind would be as refreshed as his body. He would think of what he might do then.
He waited, watching a sunbeam that peeked through the sloppily drawn curtains advance across his bedcovers. But no one came.
At intervals, the man would glance up at his bedchamber door with a frown that would have struck anyone who happened to walk in. But no one did. He had ordered them not to enter without his express summons. But he expected them to wonder at his silence. Wonder, and then investigate.
Surely, at least one among them was capable of such reasoning.
When the knob of the bedchamber door at last begun to turn, the man was so relieved, he forgot to frown at the one who walked in.
The door opened a sliver and stopped. Then it continued to swing open, just enough to admit a thin-looking boy, who kept his head lowered.
The man did not recognize this boy. He was not one of the servants who dressed and bathed the man, or brought him breakfast, or drafted his morning letters.
The boy’s hands were holding, or rather clutching, a cap.
“Sir,” the boy started, his voice all but a whisper. He took a breath. “Sir,” he said again, louder and stronger by far, but still quiet and calm. “You have not summoned your servants this morning. As you have ordered, they will not enter. But they have sent me in their stead to ask if…” The boy’s downcast gaze flicked up for just a blink. “…if something might be the matter.”
The man took a breath to utter a response, then clapped both hands to his mouth.
He beat a fist upon his bed until the boy looked up, and he gestured for the boy to come closer.
The boy had dark eyes. When he drew near, when he passed through that beam of sun, the light flashed in his eyes.
The boy stood beside the man’s bed and waited for instruction.
The man pointed to his throat. The boy’s gaze dropped to the man’s neck.
“Are you ill, sir?” the boy asked.
The man shook his head. He pounded a fist on his bed again, and the boy jerked away, retreating two steps.
The boy’s shoulders twisted away. He looked ready to flee.
The man opened his mouth and tried to speak, to stop the boy from leaving. Two rocks tore from his throat with such force that one of them landed on the floor beyond the foot of the bed.
The rocks were covered in blood.
The man clutched his throat. A third rock had been sucked back, and had lodged at the opening of his throat, the opening through which he took in air.
The man forgot the boy, and his bed, and the morning sun. His chest convulsed and keeled over.
He did not feel the hands that flipped him onto his back, and the strong fists that pounded on his chest until they forced the rock free.
As he gasped for air, reveling in each breath, groaning from the agony in his ragged throat, he did not hear the boy’s desperate begging.
But the boy did not stop. And so, many breaths later, when the man had calmed himself, he realized that someone was speaking.
“Please, sir, you were choking. I only did what I was taught to do for my own folk, but I don’t know how to do it when a lord chokes. Please, sir, don’t put me to death. Take my hand, if you must. I can learn to use the other.”
The man held up his hand to halt the boy. The boy was quick, and he understood. But when he saw the man throw back the covers and rise from his bed, the boy started begging again. The hands clutching that little cap were shaking. The man banged his fist against the bed again to stop the begging. The boy stopped, but he stepped back.
Again, he made as if to flee.
And again, the man forgot himself. His face grew flush and hot. He opened his mouth to speak.
This time something else flew out. Something black and yellow and hotly thrumming.
A wasp darted out of the man’s mouth. And another. And a third.
The man’s eyes went wide. His body shuddered, and he held his breath.
The wasps all landed on his bedcovers and slowly crawled in no particular direction.
The whispered words were loud enough to reach through the man’s terror. Stunned, he looked at the boy, who used his cap to scoop up the wasps and bundle them in securely.
“You can utter no sound, is that so, sir?” the boy asked. He wiped the back of his hand against his forehead.
The man nodded. He stepped toward the boy, who now did not retreat from him.
“If you try, your words become wasps,” the boy said, glancing at the drying drops of blood upon the white bedcovers, “or other things. Is that so, sir?”
The man nodded again. He breathed easier. A new relief was flooding through his chest, unbinding it.
“I know what to do then, sir,” the boy said. “I’ll find help.”
The man threw out a hand, as if to grasp the boy’s arm, but he stopped himself.
The boy attempted a smile, but swallowed it, and offered a nod instead. “Sir, I understand. No one else knows but me. And you must keep it that way.”
The man arched a brow.
“I am very clever with words, sir,” the boy said. “I will draft the letters myself. And I will make up some excuse among the servants about you being ill, and requesting that only I serve you today…so that the illness may not spread and throw the household into disarray. The autumn fair is coming, after all, and we must all be well and hardy enough to prepare for it. Is this not so, sir?”
The man nodded.
“First, I will draw your bath.” The boy took a step back and moved into a deep bow. When he rose again, his eyes flashed in the sunlight.
When the door to the bedchamber closed, the man smiled, satisfied, even pleased. The morning had been a rough one, but soon he would have relief, and then he would hunt down whoever had cursed him. They had surely not counted upon the man’s exemplary talent in the choosing of his servants.
Having nothing to do after breakfast, having nothing he could do, the man had fallen asleep upon his favorite chair, the one that looked out upon his gardens.
So he was already distressed upon being disturbed, when the door to his study opened without a word of permission from him.
The boy came in, sweeping toward the man quickly, while a bespectacled elderly gentlemen trailed slowly behind.
“Sir, I would take no chances with your well-being,” the boy said in a low voice. “I have a wizard coming. But this gentlemen here is a doctor.”
The man stood and shook his head. He glared at the boy, who dropped his gaze and stepped back.
The man shifted his glare to the doctor, who hung back, holding a black satchel in one hand, and a tiny book in the other, which he seemed to be reading.
The boy stepped forward again. “Sir, I will dismiss him if you wish. But I beg you to let him examine you. For the wizard is coming, and it could do no harm to see the doctor. But if perhaps your condition is not so dire as to need a wizard, it would spare you much expense. And much attention. No one would notice the doctor. But the wizard will speak and be spoken of.”
The man frowned and shifted his frown back toward the boy, who ducked his head, but did not, this time, step back.
“The doctor is from a far land,” the boy continued. “He will not speak of this to anyone, for in his native land, doctors are forbidden from speaking of the people they examine and treat. And lords only speak with their voices to their closest kin. They speak to their servants and fellows in gestures. I have told him only that your throat is raw, and must be healed before the autumn fair.”
The man agreed to the examination. Perhaps the boy’s words were convincing. Perhaps the man had simply succumbed to the exhaustion of not speaking for so long, an entire morning, moving into afternoon. Soon it would be time for lunch. He was not hungry. He still felt that stone in his belly. He could fill his stomach with food, and it would all be for naught. For what the man desired more was to fill his throat with sound.
The doctor performed his examination. His fingertips felt along the man’s throat. With implements, he listened to the man’s chest for the beating of a heart and the bellows rhythm of lungs. He peered down into the man’s throat. He examined the rocks and the still-living wasps that the boy had captured. Using some potions from his satchel, he mixed in the man’s spit and the dried blood from a rock, and swirled and waited.
When he was done, he declared that he could not diagnose the condition.
The man was not surprised, but he was much displeased at the ordeal of the examination.
“Perhaps it will heal on its own,” the doctor said. “You are otherwise in fine health. Surely, you can suffer a few days of writing out your desires and instruction to those who care for you.”
The man’s eyes grew wide.
Even if he could have spoken, he would not have known how to respond.
The boy stepped in. “Doctor, you have insulted my lord. But the fault is mine alone. I know you are a stranger to our lands. I should have known you would be a stranger to our ways as well.”
The doctor drew down his gray brows and turned to the boy. “And how have I offended, young man?”
The boy folded his hands behind his back and bowed his head. “Superior folk have no need to know how to read and write. They have others to do it for them.”
The doctor said nothing in response. And he said nothing more at all, but simply took his leave with a bow to the man.
The man went to lie down as the boy saw the doctor out.
Again, the man fell asleep.
Again, he was roused by the arrival of the boy.
This time, the man was pleased when he saw the flame-haired, dark-robed figure gliding behind the boy. The boy had already explained to the wizard that it seemed his lord was cursed and could not speak.
The wizard was from their own land, so he understood their ways.
The wizard’s examination was three times as long as the doctor’s. The wizard did not touch the man, but did wave his fingers close to the man’s head and neck. He too had an array of implements and a kit full of potions in a roll that he carried beneath the wide hood of his robes.
When he was done, the wizard declared a most surprising result.
“There is no curse.”
Even if there had been a curse upon the man, the wizard would have been able to do little to cast it out.
Again, the man found that even if he could have spoken, he would have found himself stunned silent.
Again, the boy stepped in.
“Could you soften the curse?” the boy asked.
The wizard stroked his red beard. “How do you mean?”
“What about transforming the stones and wasps into something else, something harmless like…pipe smoke?”
The wizard shook his head. “It cannot be done.”
The boy saw the wizard out. As they left, the man felt the rumbling emptiness of hunger in his belly, and the cold emptiness of despair in his chest.
When the boy returned right away, the man was still frozen upon his chair by the window. But though the day was bright and sweet, the man was turned away, his gaze fixed upon a dark corner of his dim study.
“Sir, there is one other who might help,” the boy said. “But you have been most tried this day. I would not dare ask more of you, only that I desire to aid you.”
The man looked up at the boy blankly.
“With your permission,” the boy started. But he did not finish, for the man was already nodding his head.
Dark was the evening, and the man had decided to retire early to his bed. The air felt chill, dry and rough, so he kept his robe on. He slipped beneath a set of fresh new sheets, for the boy had ordered the old ones to be removed and replaced while the man was in his study.
The sun still brightened the sky, though it was slowly retreating. But the man had already drawn the curtains, and he had lit the lamps. The boy had told him that he would be gone a while to fetch someone he only called a “healer.”
When the door to his bedchamber opened, the man expected the boy to walk in. But he frowned at the one who followed.
The woman was as gray as the doctor, and a fair bit older. A flowery odor seeped into the chamber as she stepped further in.
Seeing perhaps the crinkling of his nose, the boy ducked his head and explained. “It’s lavender, sir.”
The boy introduced the old woman as his grandmother, a hedge-witch.
The man trembled, and felt the flush upon his face, and the thrumming in his throat.
The woman walked past the boy and straight to the side of the man’s bed.
“I can see what afflicts you, my lord,” she said. And she stood so close that he smelled the scent of honey and apples upon her breath. “I can undo it.”
The man felt the tripping of his heart at her last words. He gasped.
“But there is a price,” the old woman said. “A spell can free you. The price is the life of the spell-caster. Do you agree to this price?”
The man’s vision had gone blurry. He blinked away the gloss of tears that had formed over his eyes. He nodded vigorously.
“I will need nine days to prepare,” the old witch said. “Perhaps more. But not many more.”
For the last time that day, the man forgot himself and tried to speak.
Feathers burst from his mouth before he caught himself. One or two were the blade-like feathers of flying birds, but most were soft and fluffy plumes that fluttered to the ground before the old witch’s feet.
With this, the witch took her leave, as did the boy.
This time, the man could sleep little, for his mind spun and spun with hope and desire for the salvation that was soon to come.
~***~ ~***~ ~***~
“I forbid you to do it!” the boy cried.
He had said nothing while in the chamber of his liege-lord, nothing as he and his grandmother marched through the manor, out upon the path, all the way to the border of the manor grounds. But as soon as they were upon the road leading to his grandmother’s house, their lanterns lit against the evening dark, he could hold back no longer.
“You will not give him your life!”
His grandmother stopped walking and peered at him. “Why not? You have given him yours.”
“No, I have only given him my service,” the boy said. He shook his head. “The doctor said the condition may fade in time.”
“And if not?”
“If only he would learn to read and write, he could easily conduct his own affairs again, give his servants orders, write his own letters.”
“Don’t let him hear you speak such blasphemy, grandson,” his grandmother said. “Superior folk have no need to know how to read and write. They have others to do it for them.”
“Why did you lie, grandmother?” the boy asked. His dark eyes flashed in the lantern light. “It must be a lie. The wizard saw no curse. Outside the bedchamber, he looked troubled. How can you know something a wizard does not know?”
His grandmother did not answer. She gathered their lanterns so that her face and his were bright and clear. And she spoke.
“The cosmos has given you a strange and wonderful gift,” she said. “What will you do with it?”
In fearing for his grandmother, the boy had forgotten for a moment the burden that he’d borne all that day. The other servants, they had all chosen him, thrust him into the cold bedchamber with his cap still clutched in his hand, and his mouth so dry he could hardly speak. His knees knocking together, his heart hammering, he had found himself before the man he never expected to face. He was not a household servant, nor had ever expected to be. He worked the manor grounds.
But the longer his liege-lord remained silent, the easier the boy had found it to speak.
He had been the man’s only servant that day. He had been the man’s only aid.
He had been the man’s voice.
He thought upon his grandmother’s words, as he always did. And they continued on their way.
“If it is a gift, as you say,” the boy said, when at last they stood before his grandmother’s house, “and it is a burden, as I say. The best I can do with it is to share it.”
His grandmother peered at him, but said nothing in response. She patted his cheek and bid him good night.
There were hedge-witches among the servants. They might know why his grandmother had made the bold claim to their liege-lord. They might help him to stop her from wasting her life on a spell—even if that spell worked as it should.
The very next night, he gathered most of the servants in a tavern by the edge of their town. His grandmother was no longer a servant of the liege-lord, but she too had come. All knew that the boy alone had served their liege-lord for the past two days. They were eager to hear his news.
So he told them. He told them of their liege-lord’s condition, of the doctor, and the wizard, and his grandmother. He told them of the rocks, the wasps, and the feathers.
Even before he finished speaking, the boy’s heart began to beat with worry and regret. For he read within the eyes of his fellow servants, the many ways in which his words altered their minds.
The minds of some clamped shut and refused to comprehend. The minds of others gleamed with schemes. The minds of some were cast into fear and doubt. And the minds of a few twinkled with a new understanding.
Voices other than his own began to speak. Some spoke of their duty to aid their lord in any way they could. But most began to argue over whether or not his grandmother could aid their liege-lord. For the other hedge-witches doubted that his grandmother could possibly know how to undo something that even a wizard admitted to not seeing. Yet, they also allowed that his grandmother had gathered great skill and wisdom.
They puzzled over the old hedge-witch’s grand claim, and the dire price, to be paid not by their lord but by the one who aided him.
She need not have made any claims. Or she could have tried something, and when it failed, she need not have feared, for the doctor and the wizard had failed as well.
They called for the old hedge-witch to speak for herself, to explain her words, and they all grew quiet.
The boy watched his grandmother. She had made him carry her bag for her. It was heavy with something that she had not let him see. She now reached into that bag, and signaled for him to pull out a large thick volume bound by a supple cover the color of maple bark. She gestured for him to set it on the largest table in the tavern.
Others cleared the table’s surface, and the boy heaved the tome up and set it gently down.
“What is it, grandmother?” he asked.
But she did not answer.
He stood before the book and touched its cover. “I’ve never seen this book before,” he said, for the others who were gathered there. His grandmother already knew he had never seen the book.
He opened the cover and flipped through, describing what he was seeing to those who were gathered and huddle around him. It appeared at first, to be the history of their liege-lord’s household. Only, it was not a record of the man’s family, but of the families of the servants. More so, it contained stories of their daily lives, hastily jotted notes of their thoughts and musing, and neat records of tricks they devised to do their work.
“I see,” the boy said, glancing over at his grandmother. “The answer to the lord’s ailment is in here, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps it’s happened before, to one of his kin?” someone else wondered.
“Keep searching then, lad,” one of the younger hedge-witches said. “We can surely find some way to fix the lord without paying your grandmother’s life for it.”
~*~*~*~ *~*~*~ *~*~*~
The old witch had watched her grandson speak, and she had watched the others argue, and she had watched a few steal out of the tavern while the attention of most was elsewhere. She could feel it in her bones and in her skin that she would soon be leaving the living world. She did not expect that much favor would fall upon her grandson upon her attempts to help the lord of the manor. The lord had a short memory for such deeds. But the servants, they had a longer memory, so long that the only way to shorten it was to erase it altogether. The story of her efforts to help the lord of the manor, and her claim that it would cost her life, that story would spread among the servants. That story would be written in the book, either the book she kept, or the many others that were kept by other keepers. She had a bit more time yet, and with that time, she would pass her duties on to her grandson, or to one of the others, if he didn’t want the task. There was a young maid who had glanced the old witch’s way when she first presented the book, and that young woman had a curious look in her eye. An eagerness barely tempered. There was mostly silence now as her grandson searched the book’s pages for some way to save his…to save his grandmother.
The old witch sat down and rested upon the sturdy chair that the manor’s carpenter had carved for the tavern-keeper, on which one of the seamstresses had placed a soft pillow when she first noticed that the old witch favored that chair.
The old witch closed her eyes, leaned back in the chair, and propped her feet upon a bench.
And she listened to the sounds of pages turning.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel