The Talisman Plant
By Bronwyn Venter
“What are you looking for?”
Vasi raised his head at the voice behind him but stayed on all fours. He had heard the question before.
When his tunic had been less ragged and his sandals intact, it would be asked with a helpful inflection. Here knelt a young man, the questioner might have surmised, who had perhaps lost his purse by the side of the road.
That was months ago. Now, the question tended to hold an edge which had noticeably sharpened with every such interaction. His jacket had lost its rich indigo to the rain and sun. The sandals were more twisted string than fine leather. A passer-by could reasonably assume that any purse he might be seeking would not be his own.
So Vasi raised his head and deployed his only defence, an impish grin on a youthful countenance. Last summer, he would have used it to dodge a scolding from his tutor or wheedle an end of sweet pastry from the cook. Now it served a more essential purpose, that of avoiding the attention of the bailiffs on whose land he might trespass in search of his goal.
The woman who had addressed him was no gamekeeper. She was plainly dressed and wore a wide-brimmed hat that bespoke time spent in the sun. Her voice was not coarse, however, like a serf’s might be, and her tone was more curious than accusing.
“Lost something? Like your tongue?” Apparently unaffected by his dimples, she gave him no opportunity to wriggle out of a conversation that could lead to an unpleasant interview with a guardsman. Vasi’s mind began to swim with panic.
Strictly speaking he was still on the King’s land, having not gone past the hedgerow. But he knew from bitter experience that the letter of the law often mattered little to the men tasked with its enforcement. So Vasi straightened up and assumed a respectful stance, hands clasped before him. Had he still owned a cap, he would most certainly have removed it.
“No, madam. My tongue is where it should be.”
She was standing a sensible distance from him, but close enough for him to assess her station in life. A goodwife, he decided, near to middle age. With an empty basket over one arm, she had the air of someone on an errand that was not particularly pressing.
“I’m glad to hear it. I suppose you aren’t going to tell me what you’re doing in my lord’s meadow, then.”
“But of course, mistress. I had noticed these lovely flowers,” he gestured awkwardly to the clump of weeds to his left, “and wished to take a breath of their scent.”
“Those are puff-wort.” She responded equably. “A face full of that would only give you itchy eyes, I fear.”
“My thanks to you.” Vasi shifted on his feet. If the woman meant him no harm, he wished she would go away. He was in a hurry to continue searching for the creature, whose burrow was supposed be nearby.
Supposed to be. The farmhands who had pointed him to this particular spot might have sent him on a fool’s errand, for he had been searching fruitlessly amongst the bushes for the best part of an hour. No doubt they thought it a great joke to play on a boy from foreign parts who wanted to catch a hedgehog.
But Vasi was not a fool. Back when his coat was still blue and his belly regularly full, he had leafed through a book filled with drawings of fabulous beasts with his dear tutor. He had listened dreamily as Antoni described their habits and uses, lost in the colourful gilded plates. The hedgehog was rather special, even more so than its coat of spines and delightful snout would suggest. According to Antoni, it was also one of the few animals that could recognise the very herb Vasi was now desperately seeking. Raskovnik.
He had travelled roughly a thousand miles to this chilly grey-green island in search of the legendary talisman plant. Antoni had whispered tales from his own homeland of a tiny weed with vast power, almost impossible for a human to find. The merest touch of a leaf would open any lock, no matter the mechanism or sorcery that kept it closed. Most of those who sought it were looking for riches, tempted by strongboxes and treasuries. Vasi had a different reason.
It was a reason that had taken him far from home. Ghadames was a jewel in the desert, sheltered from the sun by enormous trees, with roots penetrating deep in the rock, drinking silent waters no human could reach. To the south, the rock walls of the canyons provided stone for the villas and storehouses. And, of course, the prisons.
The woman standing in the road knew none of this of course, and Vasi was not about to reveal his real purpose. In his early enthusiasm he had trusted strangers far too readily, to the detriment of his pocket and person. Now he stood warily in the grass, ready to walk away, or to run.
She cocked her head to one side and smiled.
“Are you hungry?”
Vasi was always hungry. But unsolicited offers of help were often open invitations to trouble. He shook his head.
“You look starved, child. Come with me and I’ll get you some food.” She persisted, shifting the empty basket from one arm to the other.
“I wouldn’t wish to trespass on your time.”
She eyed him quizzically.
“You’re a strange one. Coat like a beggar, mouth like a lord.” She shook her head quickly as Vasi drew himself up, offended. “No, no. Don’t get upset. You’re frightened, I see that. If you head across this field about half a mile, you’ll come to a little wood. It looks wild, but it used to be an orchard before they all went mad for barley. There’ll be some fruit there.”
Vasi opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. Not all the strangers he had met were rascals. Some had kindly turned a blind eye to a boy sleeping in the haystack. Others shared a crust of their midday meal, taken in the field. Still, none had gone out of their way to help him. This woman was different. She seemed pleased to do him a service, even eager, he thought. The impression was fleeting though, as the prospect of an orchard laden with apples perhaps, or fragrant pears, blotted all other thoughts from his mind.
He finally found his voice and thanked her hoarsely. Unsure of how else to take his leave, he gave a short bow. This made her giggle, a surprisingly girlish sound in a grown woman.
“Good luck, young sir. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
The light was fading when Vasi made his way into the village. The fields that stretched either side of the road had deepened to a hazy purple and tiny moths danced above his head. The abandoned trees had indeed been heavy with apples, golden and sweet, and he was feeling much more cheerful. He had recovered from the disappointment of the last failed search. Either the rustics had fooled him, or they were less knowledgeable about the local wildlife than they made out.
A hedgehog was the surest way to find the raskovnik. Said to recognise the herb, it could be tricked into bringing a stem if the seeker blocked up its burrow while it was out foraging. The wise little hedgehog would snuffle off and find the plant that opens any barrier, and if a man was quick about it, he could have it for himself.
Quatrefoil. Four-leaf-clover. Raskovnik. The charmed plant. The solution to his father’s predicament. And thanks to a tip from a local farmer, he was closing in on another hedgehog.
When Antoni had described the small, spiky creature, Vasi had assumed his tutor had actually seen one. Now he knew better. The creatures were small devils, it seemed, and he was surprised the locals seemed to hold them in such gentle esteem. So far, his encounters with them had borne more pain than profit.
By dawn, Vasi was peering into the gloomy thicket whence he had been directed by the latest helpful yokel. Hedgehog burrows were small and hard to see, sometimes little more than cracks in the earth. He knelt down next to a large boulder and felt along its bottom edge, where it met the boggy soil. Just as he had eased his fingers into the largest of the gaps, there was a noise behind him.
He turned to see the woman from the road, scraping his knuckles on the granite as he reared back in shock. The sudden sting brought him to his senses and he crouched facing her, the burrow forgotten behind him.
“Oh! I’m sorry if I scared you.” She wore the same arch smile that she had the last time they met.
“Where did you come from?” he asked, his voice shrill with alarm.
“I saw you from the field. I thought you might need some more help.” Her tone was level and sensible, with the air of one explaining something to an unreasonable child.
“You followed me?” he made an effort to bring his voice down from a squeak.
“Yes, I live nearby. I was out gathering.” She indicated her basket, still empty.
He nodded, slowly. They were not so far from the village.
“How goes your search?” she asked, tucking her skirt beneath her and settling on a rock.
“It’s coming along.” He answered stiffly, not wanting to point out that both times she had arrived to interrupt the very search she was enquiring about.
“I have had more luck than you, it seems.” She smiled again and pointed to a patch of reedy-looking plants near his feet. He looked down, baffled.
“Not just any reeds. Calamos. She made such beautiful music.” The woman looked wistful for a moment, as though recalling a long-forgotten friend, before resuming her practical tone. “The roots are valuable to the apothecary. Dig some up now, you can sell them.”
Vasi blinked. Despite his confusion, the woman’s words nudged something in him. He was destitute, his last few groats had been handed over to a scoundrel on the road. A memory of the sweet apples floated across his mind. Without much more thought, he reached out and grasped the rushes.
“That’s right,” The woman nodded approvingly. “Find a stout stick, that will help you get them out.”
After half an hour’s digging and pulling, Vasi felt a small flush of achievement at the pile of slender bulbs. He sat down and wiped his sweaty face before turning to the woman.
She was gone. He vaguely recalled her encouraging him during his labours, but he couldn’t remember when he had last heard her voice. He briefly entertained the idea of continuing his search for the hedgehog’s lair, but he was tired and hungry, and the promise of money was too great a lure.
The apothecary peered at Vasi, his hands turning over the fragrant roots that lay on the bench before him. It had taken several days to reach a town of enough size to boast an apothecary, and Vasi was swaying on his feet with exhaustion and incipient starvation.
“Where did you get these, my son?” the old man had a gentle voice, and he continued to watch Vasi with concern.
“A bog,” he responded, lacking the energy to lie. “A lady showed me.”
The apothecary’s white brows lifted in quiet interest.
“A lady.” he repeated, as if to himself. He fiddled with the roots for another few moments, lifting one to his nose. “Very fresh.”
All Vasi could smell was the tantalising scent of liquorice and cinnamon, and he began to wonder what the old man would do if he fainted on the floor. He was in no state to haggle and would have willingly let the man have the lot for a heel of bread or a cheese rind.
But the apothecary was neither a crook nor a fool, and after he offered a round fifteen crowns for the pile, he offered Vasi a seat and a meal.
“You aren’t from here, are you?” The old man, whose name was Bertram, had waited until Vasi had cleaned his bowl before asking questions.
“No, sir. I’m from the East.”
“Alone, and far from home. You can’t be more than, what, thirteen?” Bertram’s forehead crinkled in benign scepticism.
“Oh, a grown man, indeed. Forgive me, greybeard!” Bertram chuckled at his own wit, and Vasi sniffed in indignation. He had crossed oceans and continents, been further than this old fool would ever dream of—
“I meant no harm,” Bertram’s face grew earnest once more. “Around here, boys your age might be out in the field, or in the seminary. But no father would let his son roam so far as you have. Perhaps it’s different where you’re from?”
Vasi swallowed. He dropped his gaze to the table, and his voice followed it.
“My father doesn’t know.”
“A runaway? A sorry state you’ve found yourself in. Did he beat you?”
“No! I didn’t run away from – from him.” The words scalded his tongue, and Vasi closed his eyes. “He’s in prison, if you must know.”
“Oh, I am sorry. That’s a hard thing for a son to accept.”
“I don’t accept it! My father is an honourable man, Companion to the Prince, or he was. Everybody respected him!”
Ugo was an honourable man, and an affectionate father. He had sat at his Prince’s right hand for a decade, a trusted confidant. Then Fate, perhaps jealous of Ugo’s dignity, thrust in a hand. Where the whispers had begun, nobody could tell. But they hit the veins of the court like a drug, and within weeks Ugo’s position had become precarious.
He tumbled from the Prince’s favour with dizzying speed to become first a pariah, and then a criminal. Soon enough the doors rang with the blows of the Prince’s guard. The disgrace had knocked the breath from the whole family, Vasi’s mother and sisters were prostrated. The house had echoed to the sound of their weeping,
Vasi might have joined them in their lamentation, were it not so unmanly. Instead, he bent his mind to finding a solution.
He had stolen into Antoni’s room late at night, and kissed his old tutor on his sleeping brow. Not pausing to take leave of his relatives, who were sure to do their feminine best to foil his plan, he headed west with the caravan, not a doubt in his heart.
The story, once begun, gushed out of Vasi onto Bertram’s table. The old man regarded it with solemn consideration, much as he had done with the calamos roots. Eventually, he broke the silence.
“I wouldn’t have bought them, you know, if I thought they were stolen,” he remarked. “But you look honest. And you spoke of the lady, of course. Did you get her name, by chance?”
Vasi was slightly bewildered at the abrupt change of subject, but as he looked up, he saw compassion in the old man’s eyes.
“No, sir, I did not.” He frowned, remembering more recent events. The woman had never introduced herself, yet he felt he knew her better than any other person in this sodden land. It had simply not occurred to him before now. Bertram looked thoughtful.
“I’ve heard tales like this before.” He said, giving the impression of one choosing his words carefully, “I’ve not personally had any trade with the fae, of course.”
Vasi was too tired to pursue this cryptic statement. Instead, he asked about the calamos root.
“A very useful drug. Helps with gripes, sleeplessness. Other things, too.” He said this with a sudden puckish smile that was at odds with his grey beard. Vasi remembered the coins in his pouch and grinned back.
Within a day he had shoes, and a coat. The wool was scratchy and unfamiliar, which made him pine for the smooth linens of home, but it was warm. The sun never seemed to bestow much favour in these parts, and her feeble season was coming to an end. Cold like Vasi had never felt before crept up from the ground beneath his feet.
He stamped them, equally horrified and amazed by the small clouds his breath made in the afternoon light. He was waiting near the outskirts of the town for the threshers, whose universal habit was to trudge straight from the fields for a mug of sour beer in the comforting fug of the taproom.
Despite the cold, he was reluctant to enter the inn. One of his earliest experiences on the road had been a short, brutal lesson about the perils of drinking alone. He reached up to touch a still-tender spot on the back of his skull. It was the gift of a thieving rascal who had kicked the legs out from under him as he was discovering the urgent effects of ripe ale. But farmers wouldn’t stand outside in the frigid air when there was a snug tavern just steps away. He puffed out his cheeks with determination and ducked under the low lintel.
Vasi left the inn an hour later and some considerable coins lighter, deep in thought. The threshers could indeed point him towards a hedgehog. They had laughed predictably at his quest, but their intelligence had come with some sobering news.
“You want to be quick about it, the critters sleep the winter long.”
“Sleep? In their holes?”
“Ay, in their burrows, under the snow.”
Vasi had been struck silent for a moment. Snow. Frozen rain, lying in great drifts on the ground, which itself was turned to stone by the cold. Antoni had told him about it and he had revelled in the idea, wondering what it would be like to feel the crunch of ice under his feet.
Now, with the winds turning bitter and the nights creeping up ever more swiftly, the prospect of snow was losing its romance. The first traces of defeat began to settle in his heart.
Vasi was making his way back to the small nook he had found behind the smith’s forge, where he hoped the worst of the frost would not find him. Lost in his troubles, he paid scant attention to the night around him.
Feet padding softly but unmistakeably behind him brought the darkness a horrifying new quality. Vasi widened his eyes in vain and he broke into a trot, cold air knifing deep into his chest. It was too late to run, he could feel the man’s presence behind him, his rasping breath and stale sweat. He hunted frantically amid the murk for a corner to dive into, but the buildings had all turned their backs on him. With a desperate sob he turned just as the man raised his weapon.
It did not fall. A golden sound sang out like that of a plucked string, out of place but oddly recognisable. The man behind him grunted in surprise, and there was a taut moment of silence before Vasi heard footfalls retreating into the darkness.
He had dropped to his hands and knees, partly in self-defence, but mostly from the shock of the last few moments. He raised his head towards the sound and looked up into the now-familiar face of the woman whose name he did not know. Limbs still wobbling in terror, he realised dimly that he was not very surprised to see her.
“Are you a witch?” he whispered.
To his surprise, she giggled. Her empty basket bumped on her elbow.
“A witch? Not me. Although you’re not the first one to come to that conclusion,” she looked thoughtful for a moment, before smiling broadly once again. “I am so pleased for you to see me.”
Despite his befuddlement, Vasi noticed that he could see her. Clearly.
The night was a dark one, the narrow moon barely showing the largest of obstacles. Vasi’s erstwhile attacker had been a smudge of black, his weapon could have been a blade or a bludgeon. The woman held no lantern nor light, every detail of her face and dress vividly distinct.
Her expression was as kind as he had remembered, but something else lurked in her smile. A satisfied gleam, as of a secret, newly revealed.
“The Fae.” Vasi breathlessly repeated Bertram’s unfamiliar word. The woman’s smile broadened even more.
“Well done, child! I am an old one, indeed.”
“But what does that mean?” Vasi was frightened, tired and confused, and the words came out as a wail.
The woman finally took pity on his bewilderment.
“My name is Seamair. I’m a fairy,” she said. “A djinn, a pixie... did you not realise?”
“Er, no.” Vasi was caught between feeling foolish and indignant. The woman didn’t look at all like a djinn, and certainly didn’t conform to his notions about female ones.
“Come here,” she held out her hand. Vasi hesitated before reaching out to take it. He was still kneeling, which seemed suddenly appropriate. As his fingers sank into her grasp, he saw everything clearly.
The raskovnik, the talisman plant. He had found it. It glowed in his mind, four delicate leaves balanced on a slender stem. A vision of his own hands brushing through the weeds at the side of the road, grasping blindly for the burrow of a hedgehog. He hadn’t even needed the blasted creature! One touch of the lucky leaf was enough. She had answered his call, a friend in his need.
Vasi opened his eyes slowly, reluctant to leave the comforting embrace of the fairy’s influence. She was still smiling. Vasi smiled back.
“You helped me.”
“You deserved it, my child. Few seek me with a pure purpose, the hearts of men are greedy little things. But your folly was borne out of love.”
“My folly?” They were still holding hands, Vasi felt himself recoil slightly from her, but they stayed linked. Seamair plucked at his thoughts as though they were cobwebs in his hair.
“Your father’s prison is not merely a matter of walls, Vasi. You must realise that the Prince will not simply allow him to escape.”
“I know that,” Vasi protested. “We will have to flee, I understand—”
“Do you? What about your sisters? Your mother? Do they?” For the first time, Seamair’s tone lost some of its gentleness. “Right now, they are safe.”
Vasi’s gaze fell. He swallowed compulsively as the agony that throbbed in his chest threatened to rise up and choke him. Seamair was right, of course. Antoni had been right, too. Even his mother… Vasi stopped himself abruptly. Thoughts of mother would bring him undone like a child.
Seamair had not moved, and gradually his misery lessened. He opened his eyes and stared into the darkness around them.
“I just wanted everything to be alright.”
He looked up into the fairy’s eyes. Her kindly expression did not waver, as she drew him close and wrapped him in an embrace of warmth and light. They stood silently for a while, and Vasi listened to the sound of his heart beating.
“It’s time to return to your family, child.”
He drew back and nodded.
“Will you be there?”
“I cannot leave my home. And you do not need me.” Silver trails glowed on her cheeks.
The comforting light receded slightly and Vasi bit his lip. At home, he could do nothing but weep and rage.
“Those are not worthless activities,” Seamair answered his thoughts. “And when you are done with them, you will do the next thing.’
Vasi sniffled and wiped his own face with the back of his hand.
“What is the next thing?”
“You’ll know it, child. When you find it.”
About the Author:
Bronwyn Venter grew up in Gippsland, Victoria where she read books about faraway places and fell out of many trees. Rather unexpectedly, she grew up to become a secondary school teacher.
When not in the classroom she can often be found walking around Melbourne, pointing out interesting rocks to her daughters.