Part One: In The Herbal Shop

Anna slammed the stone pestle into the mortar, her eyes blinded by tears. The afternoon sun beamed through the open servery hatch and lay in patches of light across the counter and work benches. Outside, the woman standing at the shop counter shifted the weight of the listless toddler in her arms and sighed. Behind her ramshackle shops and adobe houses squatted in a jumbled heap on the ridge across the empty street.

Dipping her head, Anna swiped the unshed tears from her eyes and continued to ground the dried bitterroot into a fine powder. Why was she the one to be sent away and not Nerra? Her pretty older sister was far more interested in boys and pretty furbelows than she was in the family’s herbal business. However nimble Nerra’s fingers were with the needle and the loom, it was Anna who, even at sixteen, could recognise the different plants almost as well as Ma and knew how to prepare and mix them.  She should be the one to stay. Anna tipped the fine powder into a copper bowl. She added in powdered meadowsweet and avocado oil and whisked. Once blended, she poured the potion into a small bottle of green glass and pasted on a handwritten label.

‘Ma says to give this to little Bennik four times a day. Come back tomorrow if his fever doesn’t break.’

The woman tucked a tendril of walnut coloured hair behind her ear and nodded. A smile lit up her weathered face.

‘The Maker bless your Ma, she is a kind woman.’ She cradled the precious bottle to her chest. ‘I’ll get my eldest to bring the cheeses over once he’s got the yarmas penned for the night.’ With a dip of her head, she turned and walked away.

Anna picked up a cloth and wiped down the bench. The cheeses would be welcome. Yet so many of their regular customers were too poor to pay in metal, it made it hard to clothe and feed seven mouths and Ma was pregnant again. Da joked that his rapidly receding hairline came from worrying about where he could find dowries for his five daughters. And Ma was right, it wasn’t often that a position at the palace like this opened up. But it should be Nerra who went or maybe Deedri. At thirteen, Deedri was surely capable enough. Of all the sisters, wasn’t it Anna who had the most skill and love for herb lore? Her throat tightened. She would be leaving for the Palace on the crest of the hill in the morning.

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Continued in Part Two: The Palace

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