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Dunstan the Wise

My contribution to the deadlinesforwriters short story challenge February 2024. The prompt was “Levels” and the required word count was 2500. Cover photo by Klub Boks on Pexels.

Lillian appreciated the fresh air outside her cottage. It was still morning, but noticeably warmer than in the weeks before. She shut the heavy oaken door behind her and ran a hand across the honey coloured stones around it, as if saying goodbye to a friendly pet.

Instead of walking off into the forest at once, she closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head. She could still hear her housemate’s voice ringing in her ears. Not for the first time she wondered if she had made a wise choice by inviting her into her home.

Lillian turned to look back through the round window. Ada was napping. A month ago, the old healer had died. Lillian was not sure if it had been a last-minute deathbed inspiration or planned long beforehand, but Ada had chosen to stay a little bit longer. Since then, the former teacher had been haunting an antique mirror, which had ended up in Lillian’s cottage. Most of the time, they both got along fine or at least close to some semblance of fine. Today was not one of those peaceful days.

Eventually, Lillian straightened up, brushed her long black hair out of her face, and took off towards the narrow but well-trodden path through the trees behind her cottage. As soon as Lillian had disappeared from view, Ada opened her eyes, stretched, and grinned.

Lillian loved all the seasons for all their respective peculiarities: summer for all the fruit and sunlight, autumn for its colours and the feasting, and winter for the resting and silence. Still, on this spring morning, her soul soaked up the delicate green, the enthusiastic chirping of the birds, and the abundance of blossoms bursting from the mossy ground.

This was no leisure walk, however. Her herb storage was running low, and the time was ideal for collecting fresh yarrow shoots. Also, Lillian was going to check on her favourite bend in the Crickle, the brook that meandered through her forest. Last time she had seen it in the winter, the snow had been a greyish colour. It had been dark and cold, and the snow had piled up so high that she had decided to postpone a closer examination until after the thaw.

While walking, her thoughts kept spinning around in her head. Why could people not be more like the forest? Generous and eternally regenerating instead of making problems out of nothing? Life had so much potential to be simpler and happier than it usually was. When it wasn’t, it was often due to people’s own choices.

Eventually, after the first half-hour among the trees, Lillian felt the muscles in her shoulders soften. She thought about how lately she had not come to the forest nearly often enough. This was where she could just be one with her surroundings. When she died, she was not going to spend her afterlife sandwiched between glass and silver. She was going to melt into the forest floor, resonate with the rotting leaves, and sleep in the bedrock underneath.

Soon, her basket was filled with juicy herbs and other bits and pieces. She could almost sense a low, rumbling purr underneath her feet, as if the forest had just been waiting for her. As if it were happy to see her, so it could present her with all these gifts. They would be useful in treating her patients over the next few months at least.

Her mood changed as soon as she approached the Crickle bend. An unnatural smell filled the air, and at the same time, there was an absence of any sound. Where last summer she had sat in the soft grass, the ground was bare except for a few dead fish close to the edge of the water. At the bottom of the stream, there were dark grey lumps, while on the surface Lillian saw a shimmer of colours. This oily film seemed to be the source of the smell, like a mixture of rubbish and metal and fire. And altogether wrong.

This was worse than she had expected, and it would require more work to remedy. For now, Lillian sat down on the ground, touching it with her fingertips. Usually the forest told her what was wrong and what she could do when she sat in quiet contact like this. Today and in this location, she found it hard to sense anything. She felt the dead fish struggling to decompose, but other than that no animals, no worms in the ground, no ants around her. The bushes that still stood here did not hold any leaves ready to burst forth—no sap, no energy.

Lillian struggled to concentrate, and it took her a while to realise why. In the background of the disturbing silence, there was a faint but rythmic clinking sound. Lillian decided she was going to refer to her books and ask the other healers for advice as well. But before she went home, she would investigate the clinking. It was not yet noon, and the day kept coming up with new and entertaining nuisances.

She soon found that there were voices as well, sounding neither trollish nor little folkish. Lillian was surprised to come across other humans in this part of the forest, so close to the black mountain. She slowed her pace again when she approached a clearing. This turned out to be where the noises came from.

There was a horse tied to a cart, as well as two men. One of them she recognised as Dunstan, the midwife’s son from the village. He wore a simple ochre tunic over dark brown trousers. Currently, he was busy hacking away at the rocky ground with a metal tool. The other man leaned against a tree and studied a parchment roll he held up. Lillian had never seen anyone wearing this much blue coloured clothing outside of an illustration in Ada’s books. Underneath the man’s heavy cloak she also noticed an intricately embroidered waistcoat made from dark red velvet.

Lillian watched Dunstan work his axe into the gritstone, following the stranger’s directions. Quite soon she could not hold back anymore. If she had learned one thing from Ada, it was how to project herself to make an entrance. She cleared her throat and stepped out into the clearing.

“What is going on here?”

Dunstan’s axe just about missed the tip of his left boot and got stuck in the ground. Lillian made an effort not showing how much she enjoyed seeing the colour drain from his face.

The cloaked man turned his face towards her and boomed:

“What’s it to you? Who are you anyway to traipse around in His Majesty’s woods? Poaching maybe? See that you get out of here right this instant, before I will have to arrest you myself!”

Dunstan’s head swivelled around to stare at the stranger. He flapped both his hands.

“My Lord, I wouldn’t speak to a healer like tha-”

“Nonsense! We are here at the king’s command! We will not be questioned by a peasant woman! Keep chopping, lad! I have a feeling we are getting close this time!”

Dunstan shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back a few times. At last, he decided to wrench the axe from where it had been lodged in the dark stone. However, even after successfully liberating it, he just gripped its handle so hard that his hands shook. Dunstan did not keep chopping.

“I still don’t think this is the best idea, Lord Butterworth. Offending a healer can lead to tragic results. Or painful ones. Or both.”

Lillian harrumphed again, louder this time.

“Dunstan, will you tell me what you are doing here? I can’t believe you would be reckless enough to hack around at the mountain. Have you not listened to your elders’ stories? What on Earth could be important enough to disturb the gritstone?”

Dunstan threw a quick glance towards the nobleman and concluded that even a king’s command was not worth neither tragedy nor pain.

“His Majesty heard there was some valuable ore in here. He sent His Lordship, who came to the village and ordered me to come along so we could look for it. So here we are and… Erm.”

Lillian frowned.

“Since when do we have a king around here?”

Dunstan shrugged.

“Apparently we’ve had a king since forever. It’s just that we haven’t been interesting enough to him before.”

“But Dunstan, we don’t disturb the mountain! We never have! It’s been known since… well since forever too. Since even before kings and lords!”

“Balderdash!” Lord Butterworth shouted. “Go back and dig, boy! Or, you know, maybe it is time to wet the rock again. And while you’re at it, you can get rid of that waste over there. We are not going to take it all the way back with us. It doesn’t look like the alchemists are going to find anything interesting in there. They were quite emphatic about not bringing any more sludge.”

At this point, it occurred to Lillian to look around at all the equipment the two men had brought. When she saw a couple of buckets on the cart filled with greyish material, her face went white. She closed the distance between her and Dunstan and shook him.

“Does this have to do with what happened to the Crickle? For how long have you been searching? Have you ever searched for ore anywhere near its spring or emptied your buckets into the water?”

Dunstan did not have to say anything, because his face did all the talking Lillian needed. He nodded at her, wriggled out of her grip, dropped the axe, and hurried off.

“Now look at what you did! You made my worker leave with your superstitious nonsense…”

Lillian covered her eyes with her hands, trying to ignore His Lordship’s droning voice. One argument in one day was bad enough. Unfortunately, Lillian had had her share of fighting before she had entered the forest.

The morning had started with Lillian burning her toast and dropping her mug of tea.

Didn’t get enough sleep last night? No surprise there, the time you came home. And then tossed and turned for ages.”

Mr. Thatcher had trouble with his stomach again.”

Ada had cackled.

Well deserved, if you ask me.”

Lillian had not asked her. Still, Ada had been happy to comment.

When I was alive, I had a patient like him. His poor wife nearly went out of her mind because he never learned. The third time she called me late in the evening, I sent her back with my regards and a handful of hyssop leaves.”

Lillian had folded her arms.

He could have died!”

If some of the villagers don’t want to listen, they will have to learn the hard way.”

Why do you have to talk about them like that? As if we were any different!”

We are, Lillian. And as soon as you accept that, you will finally be able to make peace with them and with yourself. And not to put too fine a point on it, you will be much more agreeable to live with.”

Lillian had balled her fists at that.

I did not ask you to haunt my home.”

Ada had winked back.

You did exactly that when you decided to rescue my mirror from my old cottage before it reverted. When you hung it up this wall.”

So maybe I shouldn’t have listened to you. I shouldn’t have worried about you crumbling away just like the walls around you.”

Maybe you shouldn’t have.”

Lillian had walked back and forth in her living room, throwing up her hands.

That still doesn’t mean I have to be mean to others just because they aren’t healers! I don’t have to be hard and mean because I know how to-”

Ada had rolled her eyes.

Of course not. You aren’t listening. Knowing when not to is part of knowing how to. Then again, sometimes so is knowing when to be who you are and to do what you know how to do.”

Lillian had pointed her finger at the mirror.

Ada, you are not better than. And neither am I. I mean it. Having this kind of power and this kind of knowledge has to come with being extra careful and respectful.”

Ha! I know that you don’t mind how the villagers treat you. Like they worry you might do something to them if they misbehave.”

If they worry, it’s not because of what I ever did to anyone. Other healers did their best to work on our reputation.”

And you benefit either way. Seems to me like you feel better than about not feeling better than. Very convenient that. And on top of that, you still waste your nights on people like Mr. Thatcher. How many decent mugs have you left to break?”

Lillian had looked at the clock next to Ada’s mirror.

You know what? I think it’s time for me to go out and pick some yarrow. Get some fresh air.”

She had not listened to any response Ada had come up with. It had probably not been worth her attention anyway.

“Have you not been listening, woman? When His Majesty hears about this, you will realise the gravity of your mistake! Finding this ore is not just some fancy! It will be invaluable in improving our defenses! It will be a source of energy multiple times better than firewood! The way the alchemists see it, there is almost no limit to its uses! And you decided to scare away Mr. Duncan! I can’t be expected to do the exploration myself, can I?”

Lillian felt her blood bubble and boil underneath her skin. This man might not know better. He might just be at his king’s command. He might be under the impression that this fabulous ore would solve enough problems to warrant a few dead fish and a lifeless forest stream.

And yet.

“People like you are what is wrong with the world today!”

Those were the last words Lillian heard from Lord Butterworth.

When she returned home, Mrs. Thatcher was waiting at the door, wringing her hands.

“I know, I know. I shouldn’t have let him eat pork for breakfast, what with his stomach. But could you come anyway?”

Lillian went inside. Throwing a look at the mirror, she said:

“Not a word, Ada; I am not in the mood!”

Her herb storage was nearly empty, but there was still some dried hyssop left. Lillian returned to Mrs. Thatcher, handed her the jar and said,

“Send my best regards to your husband. I hope he is going to be alright and think about his life choices.”

At the bank of the Crickle, a small frog blinked in the midday sun. The other frogs had never seen one of their kind this shade of bright blue, yet they welcomed it into their midst as an equal.

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