I wanted to live out my existence in peace. Yet the spirits must have had other plans for me, for they guided my path not across silent plains but right into the heart of the troubles that stalked the village from the day of my mother’s death.
I was the youngest of seven. I had four older brothers, all gone to fight or farm or travel elsewhere, and three older sisters, all of whom had married and moved to the villages of their respective spouses. So it was that Mother and I came to live alone in our small cottage on the edge of the village.
It was only a small place, one room down below with a sturdy ladder leading to a loft above, strewn with fresh sweet grass and hay every morning, where we rolled out our rush mats and sacking to sleep every night. It was much more spacious with all of my siblings gone. Downstairs was the living space, where Mother cooked and sewed and mixed her remedies.
She was the medicine woman of the village, and everybody turned to her when animals or children were taken by the illnesses that frequently passed through with travellers. She was very wise, knowing exactly which herbs and plants to mix into concoctions that would right any sickness within a day or two. She was quite an old woman, and had hoped to educate her children in the ways of medicine. However they had all flown away, and I, the youngest child, was the only one who learned her trade. By the age of fourteen I was almost as knowledgeable as Mother when it came to picking and locating and formulating for her remedies. She stored them in precious little glass bottles on an old oak table that took up quite a lot of space in the downstairs room. The herbs and flowers she collected all were strung from the ceiling like fanciful decorations, and always kept our home smelling pleasant with spices and floral fragrances.
Mother had known for a while that she was ill. There had been a spate of illness broken out in the village, a ‘scarlet fever’ which left the host coughing their own blood into whatever cloth was to hand. Mother and I had been busy that week, but within four days the number of cases had dropped and people began to recover, but not before several deaths. Mother could not save all. However, as aforementioned, she was a frail woman and this illness was too much for her aging body to bear. She passed after two weeks of glassy-eyed fever, her wasted cheeks bright under sunken eyes and hands withered and skeletal. I cried for her passing and attended her funeral myself, burying her beside the vegetable patch next to our cottage where she had grown and tended our food and the herbs that were not so easy to come by naturally.
I had thought her service would be highly attended, for the great favours she had done for the village, yet it was I alone who shovelled the dirt over her withered form and spoke the words of blessing. For in the village, a black storm had stirred, like flies buzzing over a carcass. Pestilence stalked the village; as the autumn faded into frigid winter much too quickly, crops failed and livestock dropped, butter would not churn and the milk was sour no matter how fresh it was purchased. With Mother gone, there was only one other person the villagers could turn to - and not for help. They needed a scapegoat, someone to blame for their frequent problems, and who other than the daughter of the medicine woman? She who knew the trade of potions and spells, the one who attended her mother in the time of plagues.