It was nearing midday as Alfyn and his travelling companions finally reach the main road of a small village surrounded by dense forests and bushland. They had been travelling for a couple of days now, camping out on secluded paths, taking the time to ensure that their maps were up to date.
Camping out under the stars with a campfire and good company was honestly pretty good. It was peaceful. Still, ain’t nothing like a soft bed and some cold mead to end the day with.
“We’ll likely stay in this village for a day or two in order to prepare for the next leg of our journey,” Cyrus said as they paused in the surprisingly quiet main street of the village. “Everyone in agreement?”
“Agreed,” Olberic was the first to speak but the others soon followed with their own words of agreement.
Therion snorted lightly, almost inaudibly, and folded his arms under his poncho. “Not like we have much of a choice.”
“That’s the spirit.,” Alfyn said cheerfully as he slipped an arm around Therion’s neck and tugged him toward him. “Can’t have you wandering off without me.”
Therion snorted again but didn’t attempt to pull away from him. Good! He was starting to learn. Nah, must kidding. But it was nice that Therion didn’t immediately pull away from him like he used to when they first met.
“Oh, excuse me.” A feminine voice Alfyn didn’t recognise suddenly spoke up. “You are an apothecary, are you not?”
Alfyn immediately dropped his arm from around Therion’s shoulders and turned to look behind him, mildly aware that the others had done the same out of instinct and habit. There stood a woman, most likely in her late thirties, dressed in a long black dress with a white apron. Her hair was a light brown, done in a bun, though wavy strands framed her face.
Alfyn gave her a friendly smile and nodded his head. “That’s right.”
The woman returned the smile with a surprisingly excited one of her own. “Goodness, your satchel is so similar to my husbands!” she said cheerfully as she clapped her hands in front of her. “You even stand the same. My, we don’t get many apothecaries here, but it is so delightful to see that you may have more than your love of healing in common.”
Oh, so there was another apothecary in the village. Neat! Maybe he can get some more tips and hints for his own research.
“Shucks, I’m sure your husband is a lot more handsome than me!” Alfyn replied.
The woman laughed. “Oh, you are just delightful. My name is Beatrice, by the way. It’s a great pleasure to meet such an adorable apothecary.”
Well, he didn’t know what to say about that adorable part, so he just smiled and nodded his head. “And the name’s Alfyn. Nice to meetcha.”
Beatrice smiled again before the cheerfulness suddenly faded into a mildly curious look. One that also held a sense of pleading. “Could...could I possibly ask something of you?”
Alfyn subconsciously straightened his posture and nodded his head. Rarely anything good would follow such a sentence. Especially one uttered by someone he did not know. “Of course.”
“Thank you,” Beatrice said and seemed to exhale a sigh of relief. “You see, my husband and I run the orphanage here in this lovely little village. However, lately, our beloved children have been besieged with a terrible fever that no medicine seems to cure. And not just the children, but those young and old all over this village.”
As Beatrice motioned to the area around them, Alfyn lifted his gaze to have a gander himself, and realised that there didn’t seem to be anyone outside. At all. Just them.
“My poor husband...he’s working so hard,” Beatrice continued and Alfyn turned to her in time to see a crushingly concerned look on her face. “I’m afraid he’ll…”
“I understand,” Alfyn said softly before he gave her a hopefully reassuring smile. “I’ll be more than happy to offer my services.”
Beatrice seemed to clutch her chest in relief. “Oh, you truly are wonderful. You’re...like a gift from the heavens.”
“Aw, shucks, you’re going to make me blush!” Alfyn said as he scratched the back of his head, his cheeks no doubt taking on a rosy glow.
“Please, come this way!” Beatrice said as she reached out to snare Alfyn by the elbow. But before she could touch him, she glanced behind him and jumped slightly. She then appeared flustered as she toyed with the hem of her apron. “Oh, dear me, how rude of me, you are with companions?”
Alfyn didn’t need to look behind him to know that the others had witnessed the entire thing. “Yup, these are my friends.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Cyrus was the first to speak, being the eternal chatterbox that he was, before he directed his attention toward Alfyn with an understanding look on his face. “Perhaps we should meet at the inn later?”
Before Alfyn could respond, Beatrice beat him to it. “Nonsense, please come. If I am right in my assessment, you are a scholar as well, yes?”
Cyrus gave a charming smile and nodded his head. “Same as you, it seems my dear.”
Beatrice looked positively thrilled. “Oh my, what luck! So, please, all of you are welcome. Perhaps your presence will cheer the children? They adore making new friends.”
This time Beatrice did manage to snare Alfyn’s elbow and proceeded to all but drag him deeper into the village. She took him down several small stone paved roads before finally a structure that was slightly isolated from the rest of the village came into view. It was a tall building, structured much like that of a church. Though reformed into that of an orphanage instead.
Beatrice finally released a hold on his arm only so she could rush forward and practicality throw the doors open with a flourish. “Dear! I found a lovely Apothecary who wishes gift us his aid!”
Well after that introduction, there was no way Alfyn could back out now! Not that he would have anyway, but it was rather nice to have such an intro, right?
Before Alfyn stepped inside though he turned to look over his shoulder to see who else of the group had tagged along. He had a feeling Therion would have, just to supposedly keep an eye on him. That was always his excuse anyway. Cyrus was likely to tag along, since Beatrice seemed to be a scholar as well, and with him Ophilia. The others were likely to want to do their own thing.
So, he was surprised to see that everyone had decided to tag along. Perhaps they were curious about the illness that Beatrice said the children were suffering from?
“Oh? Another apothecary, you say?”
Turning his attention back to the orphanage front doors, a man in his late thirties to early forties appeared. At his side was a bag similar to the one that Alfyn had, just like Beatrice had mention. The other man however was taller than him. Perhaps around Olberic height. Pretty impressive.
“Hey there, the name’s Alfyn,” he greeted good naturedly as Beatrice ushered the man in his direction. “Hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes here.”
The man, however, seemed to hasten his steps and before Alfyn knew it, he had taken one of his hands in his and was practically squeezing the blood out of it in a handshake!
“Not at all, my dear boy! I’m...truly relieved that there is a fresh set of eyes and hands to help me. I’m slowly reaching my wit’s end here.”
Alfyn hid a wince from the tight handshake by smiling reassuringly. “Well then, I’ll be happy to help in any way I can.”
The relief he saw on the man’s face and in his eyes was quite telling. And a little concerning, honestly. He couldn’t help but wonder and worry about what kind of illness he was dealing with.
… … … … …
Therion couldn’t stop a frown from forming on his lips as the middle-aged apothecary and his wife eagerly usher Alfyn into the orphanage, that apparently held the sick children. The two were cheerful enough, which was why Therion didn’t particularly like either of them. He wasn’t the best judge of character, but he was incredibly observant. Something just made him bristle with protectiveness when both that woman and her unnamed husband grabbed at Alfyn and started tugging him around.
It was almost like they couldn’t wait to get their grubby little hands on him.
“They seem truly enchanted with Alfyn, don’t they?” Primrose commented with a lightly amused tone.
Next to her, Ophilia smiled. “Yes, it’s no surprise.”
“It’s suspicious,” Therion muttered before he could stop himself.
Primrose immediately turned to look at him, arching an eyebrow that was annoyingly both sceptical and amused. “Oh?”
Knowing the she wouldn’t let him rest until she got her answer, Therion heaved a disgruntled sigh. “The way she approached him out of the blue like that and began fawning over him? And for what? His bag?”
“I’m sure it wasn’t meant to seem that way.” Of course, Ophilia would be the one to think otherwise. “She was simply relieved to see an apothecary to help her husband and children.”
Therion stubbornly shook his head. “It was almost as if she had waited for him.”
Primrose’s smile dimmed for a moment, as if considering his words. But she smiled a moment later and even had the audacity to nudge him in the ribs. “Now, it almost sounds as if you’re jealous.”
Therion immediately bristled. “Jealous of what?”
Primrose didn’t say anything, only smiled that obnoxious knowing smile of hers. Even Ophilia had a giggle at his expense. Typical. He may as well just head inside the place himself. Anything was better than having Primrose smirking at him from the corner of his eye.
Beatrice suddenly hurried from the building and over to Cyrus. “Professor, if you’re not too busy, would you like to inspect the library I have accumulated for the children?”
“I would be delighted!” Cyrus responded, all too eagerly, allowing for Beatrice to beam brightly and tug him inside also.
Ugh, just great. With the two of them stuck inside, they were going to be here for hours.
“They seemed enchanted with both Alfyn and Cyrus. I certainly don’t need to teach those boys how to be alluring, do I?” Primrose commented, once again with mirth in her voice. And eliciting another amused giggle from Ophilia.
Therion still didn’t like it one little bit. Something just felt too...convenient.
“It seems that Alfyn and Cyrus have their undivided attention,” Olberic said, gaining everyone’s attention. “Perhaps the rest of us should make ourselves useful by making reservations at the inn and then inspecting our new environment?”
“I agree with that,” Tressa was the first to pipe up, somehow having had stayed quiet until this point. “These poor kids would too sick to play. I’ll just get in Alfyn’s way if I stick around.”
“And you want to go shopping,” Therion pointed out.
Tressa planted her hands on her hips. “Obviously.”
Ophilia smiled before her eyes drifted over to the doors of the orphanage and her smiled faded slightly. “I wish to stay for a little while longer, if that is alright?”
The amused expression Primrose had worn previously was replaced with sisterly protectiveness. “Hm, I’ll stay too.” She then glanced over at Therion, arching that annoying questioning eyebrow of hers.
The answer was pretty bloody obvious. She just wanted to hear him say it.
“...Fine,” Therion said as the others also turned their attention in his direction. “Someone needs to keep those two out of trouble.”
Olberic almost appeared relieved by that; nodding his head with a slight smile. “Very well. H’annit, Tressa, and I will search for an inn and rent us the rooms necessary.”
As they always did when they entered a new town or village. It was just habit to speak of such things now.
With that sorted, they parted ways; three heading back the way they had come while Therion entered the orphanage with Primrose and Ophilia close behind.
What Therion saw inside the orphanage wasn’t what he had expected. And from the soft gasp from Ophilia and the slight noise of discomfort from Primrose, they hadn’t expected it either. There were two rows of cots in the dining room. A child in each bed. There were muffled sounds of coughing and sniffling. They weren’t very old, the children. From the ages of two to six, probably. And there had to be at least ten kids in total.
Unusual to have so many orphaned young children in a village. Although, he couldn’t rule out that they were dropped here by nearby villages. Or maybe even abandoned.
In the middle of the room, between all the beds was a table, covered with books, dried herbs, and even alchemist equipment. Alfyn stood beside the table with that other guy. Still didn’t know his name. They were talking, the man motioning to the table and the children seemingly sporadically, but Alfyn was nodding his head, making the occasion comment. But mostly he appeared to be listening.
And from the look on his face and the tension in his shoulders and back, he wasn’t liking what he was hearing. Telling, too, was the smile he wore. It was tight. Polite in order to mask his concerns.
“These poor kids,” Primrose murmured behind him.
Therion left Primrose and Ophilia to talk to each other and approached Alfyn. To get a better understanding of the situation. As he drew near, he felt himself pause out of sheer habit as Beatrice, along with Cyrus, appeared from a door located at the very end of the room.
It was obvious by the expression on Cyrus’ face that he was perplexed by the situation. Beatrice likely would have prattled to him what she knew and what had been going on as well.
“Henry, Sir, you are exhausted,” Alfyn suddenly said as he reached out to grab the man’s shoulder, seemingly to steady him. “Why don’t you rest for a while?”
The guy who was apparently called Henry shook his head stubbornly. “These children...”
“They’ll be in my care now,” Alfyn interrupted, his hand tightening lightly around his shoulder. “As a fellow apothecary, I promise that I will take the greatest of care for them. You can’t help anyone when you’re exhausted.”
Henry glanced at him for a long, silent moment before he sighed. His shoulders sagged so much that it almost appeared as if he would drop to the floor in a dead sleep. “You’re right, my boy. My apologies.”
“Not at all!” Alfyn said cheerfully, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, of which were filled to the brim with concern. “It’s obvious that you adore these kids. So, leave everything to me.”
Beatrice pressed a hand against Henry’s back while the other reached out to take his hand. “Come, dear.”
“Yes, alright,” Henry murmured tiredly and spared Alfyn a look. Therion wasn’t entirely sure what kind of look it was, but it was something he didn’t quite like. “You have my gratitude.”
“Think nothing of it,” Alfyn immediately replied gently, as he always did with all of his patients.
As Beatrice helped Henry from the room, Therion ventured toward where Alfyn stood. Cyrus also moved to stand by the table. Alfyn continued to watch until Henry and Beatrice could no longer be seen. He then sighed softly, almost inaudibly before he turned his gaze to the beds with children all around them.
His jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed before he abruptly turned back to the table and leaned against with his hands. No doubt studying the books and other miscellaneous items found there.
While Therion felt suspicious of both Beatrice and her husband, he kept that to himself. He did feel the urge to remind Alfyn to be careful as he had been burnt helping others so unconditionally before. But the kids were in genuine need for help. So Therion stayed quiet. He wouldn’t burden him with his own thoughts.
He’d just…have to keep a close eye on him.
“What do you think, Alfyn?” Cyrus asked as he stood on the other side of the table.
“A fever that can’t be lowered. A strange grey rash. Patient unable to move. It’s similar to that plague I was struck with when I was a kid, but it’s also different.” He shook his head, almost as if in disbelief. “It’s also like...they’re turning to stone. Outside in. Unless I know the origin of this illness, I can’t properly create a cure for it. But…I can make them more comfortable though.”
Whether or not he had already formulated the salve in his head was irrelevant it seemed. He was determined to help these kids, come what may.
…It was going to be a long day. And night, probably.
“Beatrice showed me a rather unique collection of books in her library,” Cyrus said as he held his chin, his usual stance for when he was thinking way too deep and hard. “One caught my eye as the most unusual. A book on the ancient plagues and diseases. Would it benefit you if I search through those books?”
Alfyn lifted his head and gave Cyrus a grateful smile. “Honestly, anything at this point would be a great help.”
Therion was about to point out that it was likely that Henry and Beatrice had already raided those books for clues, but kept his mouth shut. Cyrus may indeed find something that was overlooked. Besides, it gave him something to do. He was likely feeling a little useless in this situation. And he could also tell how concerned Alfyn appeared to be.
It was definitely going to be a long day.
Movement from the corner of his eye caused Therion to turn his attention away from Alfyn. He tried to hide a twitch, but was likely not all that successful, when Beatrice appeared and headed straight over to Alfyn. He felt his eyebrow twitch on its own accord when Beatrice brazenly leaned over the table to take one of Alfyn’s hands in hers.
Alfyn blinked and found himself being pulled over the table toward her. He didn’t struggle, though. Mixed between being mindful of the woman and simply stunned by how…touchy she was. She was a married woman, for gods’ sake.
“You have such lovely hands,” Beatrice unexpectedly compliment.
“Ah, oh?” Alfyn simply murmured awkwardly.
“Yes, they look like healing hands,” Beatrice continued.
“Shucks, thanks so much,” Alfyn immediately replied. Even though it appeared obvious he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.
Ugh, all those over the top compliments were starting to get on his nerves. He was sure Alfyn was starting to become unnerved as well. He was never good at receiving them, he knew that himself. So that was going to be more than just a little awkward for him.
Finally, mercifully before Therion had to interfere, Alfyn tugged his hand back and even took a step back as he clumsily scratched the back of his neck. “Ah, so, how’s your husband? He’s a tireless worker, he is.”
Seemingly oblivious to Alfyn’s discomfort, Beatrice smiled brightly. “He certainly is,” she said pridefully before her smile faded and her expression turned to intrigued. “I do hope I’m not being overbearing, but have you...learnt anything? Anything at all?”
Gods, woman, it’s been all of ten to fifteen minutes.
“Well...I can’t necessary cure them of their ills yet,” Alfyn replied good-naturedly. Of course, he would. He was used to this nonsense.
…Gods, Therion really didn’t like being here. He was more paranoid and short-tempered than usual. Even by his standards.
“But I can make them comfortable,” Alfyn continued before he folded an arm across his chest and held his chin in a similar thinking manner that Cyrus did. “Thing is, I require a certain flower. Pink and white. About the size of my hand. Seen anything like it?”
Beatrice tapped her cheek in thought as her eye rolled up to look at the ceiling. “Let me think...” She was silent for a few drawn out seconds before she perked up and clapped her hands in front of her joyfully. “Ah, I do believe such a flower exists here in this very village! In the garden of an abandoned manor on the outskirts of town.”
An abandoned manor? Here?
“No! Don’t go to the Garden of Unease! You won’t return!”
Therion jumped, but not as high as Alfyn did let it be noted, when a high-pitched voice all but shrieked from one of the beds closest to them. The three of them spun around to see a young girl sat up in her bed, clutching a ratty looking teddy bear against her chest. Her hair was in pigtails and her face was a rather unhealthy red.
As Beatrice hurried to the bedside of the young girl, Alfyn frowned. “Huh? Garden of Unease?”
“Oh dear.” Beatrice sighed as she tried to coax the child back into lying down. But the little girl refused to budge and Beatrice uttered another sigh as she sat down on the edge of the child’s bed.
“You see, the flower that you seek is believed to grow in the garden of an abandoned manor that is located on the outskirts of the village,” Beatrice explained. “It has been abandoned for as long as anyone can remember. The garden...it’s quite unsettling. Many say that any who enters are to be never seen again. Some people even claim that perfectly healthy people are besieged with suicidal thoughts when they pass over the garden’s threshold.”
“…Is that so?” Alfyn murmured, more of a comment than an actual question.
A look of determination flickered over Alfyn’s face before he smiled his usual friendly smile. He quickly made his way to the other side of the bed, and crouched down to be eyelevel with the girl.
And Therion was pretty sure he knew what Alfyn was going to say next.
“Don’t worry. I promise I’ll be back. And with the flower. So, sit tight and wait for me, ok?”
Yup. Nearly word for word.
The girl clutched her stuffed animal tight to her chest. She sniffled and seemingly snorted for a few seconds before she nodded her head. “Ok.”
“Do be careful,” Beatrice cautioned as Alfyn rose to his feet.
“Hey, I’m always careful,” Alfyn returned (with an outright lie, let’s face it) and ruffled the kid’s hair. “Not to worry!”
As Alfyn moved away from the bed and toward the front doors, Therion swiftly followed. And he couldn’t stop himself from commenting. “An abandoned manor, huh? Sounds suspicious.”
Alfyn nodded his head, silent for a few seconds before he turned to look over at Therion. “You going to be tagging along, Therion?”
…That should have been obvious. Tch, guess he wanted to hear him say it, too.
“Naturally,” Therion said quickly, hopefully nonchalantly. “Someone needs to keep you from over doing it.”
“Aw, shucks,” Alfyn said, smiling brightly as he flung an arm around Therion’s neck and shoulders, and tugged him against his side. “Glad to know you have my back!”
He honestly did sound relieved. He must be more worried or unnerved than Therion previously thought.
With his arm still around Therion’s neck, Alfyn paused briefly to speak with the girls, who of which were comforting a small boy, probably about two in age. Primrose had the child on her lap, the kid fascinated with the cold jewellery that she wore on her wrists and around her neck.
“Philly, Prim, Therion and I are stepping out for a bit.”
Primrose glanced up from the child and nodded her head. She flashed a smirk in Therion’s direction, of course, but soon smiled prettily at Alfyn again. “Oh? Have you found a cure?”
“Not necessarily,” Alfyn said with obvious regret. “But I can make them more comfortable. Professor’s hitting the books already.”
The corner of Primrose’s twitched into a smirk. “Ahh. He may not even realise that you’re gone.”
Alfyn laughed and nodded his head. “That’s fine. We won’t be long. Take care of the kids for me!”