The Pale Man
Inspired by the milk thistle (Silybum marianum), a herb much used as a hangover cure.
‘There is a road to the north,’ said Tam Ullage, landlord of the Roundhouse Inn. ‘But you can barely make it out. They don’t use it much – or only as far as the bridge, anyway. All overgrown after that. Forest takes it back, see.’
‘All overgrown?’ said the stranger. ‘Sounds about right.’
Tam had a thought. ‘If it’s that Herb… Herbar… the people that sells cures that you’re after, you’re too late, you know. They’ve all gone.’
‘Mmm,’ said the stranger ‘Is that so? No matter.’
Tam’s curiosity was piqued. He looked the fellow up and down; strong-looking, tall – but he seemed an odd sort of milky colour. Weird, and definitely one of the travelling quacks. What was he doing here if not to join that Herbarium thing? Tam was about to ask, but the stranger got there first.
‘I don’t like the look of you,’ he said.
‘Pardon?’ said Tam, taken aback.
‘You’re a very poor colour. Tell me, is your liver doing well, d’ye think?’
Tam hadn’t given much consideration to his liver, and said so.
‘Nobody does,’ said the stranger, shaking his head. ‘Nobody does – not til it causes ’em trouble. I’ve seen it many times. And you, sir, are about to suffer that sort of trouble, if I’m any judge of it. An occupational hazard, I would suppose.’
‘What can I do?’ said Tam, horrified that anyone might look askance at his liver.
‘Ah, well, as to that, I can be of assistance.’ The stranger extracted a small bottle of livid yellow liquid from his bag. ‘This will do the trick, and at a most reasonable price, too.’
Tam knew he was being bamboozled – not for the first time – but felt powerless to prevent it. He took the bottle and began to search for coins.
‘Two bottles is cheaper,’ said the stranger. ‘Discount for bulk purchase, you know.’
‘How much if I take ten bottles?’ asked Tam.
The stranger narrowed his eyes and then smiled. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You are wanting wholesale prices, sir. I think we understand one another.’
True Lover’s Knot
Inspired by the herb paris (Paris quadrifolia), a striking plant of dark woodland places. Also called true lover’s knot.
‘They call it the Herb Paris.’ So says my grandmother, wagging a finger. ‘It is an herb of good balance, you see.’
I nod, though I don’t see.
‘They also call it the True Lover’s Knot.’ She wags her finger again. ‘Seek it out, young May. It grows in the deep shades and dapples. Find it. Gather it. Weave it into your hat, and you shall meet your true love.’
This is too much.
‘Oh, Grandmother! I am not a child. You have taught me many things. But this is what the old wives of the village say. It isn’t a spell worthy of you.’ Or me, I’m thinking.
She shakes her head in impatience. ‘Do you think I don’t know a true herb from a false? Now, do as I say. Seek out the plant.’ She winks her shrivelled eye. ‘Oh, and bring some back for me, too.’
Well, I do as she says. I gather the plant, though I won’t I wear it. I bring a sprig back for her.
‘Small,’ she says, looking at it quizzically. ‘But it will do.’
And she puts it in her hat, and walks off into the coppice. I follow, secretly. What is she doing? She cannot be meeting her true love, I think – she is antique.
But in the clearing she stops. A man, all grey from head to foot glides out to her. She opens her arms to him and they entwine, form a true lover’s knot. ‘I knew you would find me,’ she says, smiling, and they melt away into the trees, arm in arm.
It is a long while before I realise she isn’t coming back. Oh, Grandmother, what have you done? And who is that pale man?
She magicked her husband into a toad and crushed him under her heel. That’s what people used to say of her. She loved another man, who abetted the crime.
Could those stories have been true after all? Was the pale man my real grandfather, come back to claim her at last? If it’s true, he’s taken his time about it. And what happiness can such a pair of old crocks possibly find now? I may never know. It is her final secret.
And what a piece of work she has left for me – The Herbarium. That ragbag of healers. Can I control it? Can I even summon it, as she did? Will it help me or hinder me? I can’t tell. But sometimes I think I hear her say in my ear, ‘You can, you know.’ And I think maybe I can do it all.
May’s First Spell
Inspired by the bindweed (Calystegia sepium) an indefatigable plant that can find its way anywhere.
The spell flew around the village tangling itself in washing lines, bouncing off walls, narrowly missing chimneys. If it went into the thatch it would be lost forever, and it knew it. So it swooped low, beneath the eaves, seeking a place of its own, somewhere it could ambush passers-by without undue expenditure of energy. There must be a space it could own, but it was hard to find, and half an hour later the spell was still pounding itself against wattle and daub like an angry wasp at a window.
And then at last – at last – it found a cranny under a lintel and winkled itself inside, gasping. There could be no rest, though, for a spell on a mission, and it set to work sending out shoots and roots, binding itself into the fabric of the building, twisting and anchoring until it felt secure.
The lintel belonged to the Roundhouse, which was a very good place for an inquisitive spell. It stood just above head height, and was perfect for reaching out thin tendrils to probe people’s ears, slip into their mouths, and read their minds. It would report back to its sender for as long as its strength lasted. All in all, it was a very workmanlike spell for a newly-fledged wise woman.
Thus does nature reclaim her own, all in good time.
Next week – the full story behind The Herbarium, and what I intend to do with it next…