Isla lived her life pretending it was not strange, no matter how many people disagreed. She preferred to think of herself as usual, despite having no memory of her life before she crawled out of the dirt. While the people of Meathe whispered about her, she dusted the shelves of her shop and sold potions. She paid them no mind, no matter how many illustrious stories they created about her. She’d grown fond of the myth they’d created. It earned her more coin than she ever expected. People from neighboring kingdoms would visit her to get a taste of her magic.
They never left her shop disappointed.
With a small fortune, she spent her mornings working and her afternoons were for herself. She would visit the docks and the markets, bartering for a good deal. Despite the whispers, she was fearfully admired. It used to bother her, the tinge of apprehension everyone approached her with until she remembered that they had seen her emerge that fateful morning, smeared in mud, and wearing a ragged chemise in the market…. The Buried Woman. No one called her that to her face yet, she’d heard it whispered. When she first heard it, she smiled and agreed it fit her quite well. She was, indeed, the woman born from the earth.
One particular evening, on an unextraordinary day of buying potato soup and fire-roasted bread, there were several knocks upon her shop’s door. She was not known to be short-tempered unless unnecessarily disturbed after hours. Inhaling deeply, she set her spoon in the bowl, dabbed her mouth with a napkin, and went to the door. Straightening her dress and apron, she stiffened her back and opened the door.
“May I ask why I am disturbed at such an hour?” she asked, smiling tightly. The smile loosened when she noticed it was three men wearing the Queen’s sigil on their tunics. “Is there a reason why the Queen’s men have come to visit me… when my shop is closed?”
“You have been requested by The Queen to come to the palace,” the man in the center stated, leveling his blue eyes at her.
Isla scoffed, dropping a hand to her hip. “At this hour? I am to be in bed soon.”
The second man, with dark brown hair and a thick mustache, said in a more pleasant tone than the first, “It is an urgent matter, milady.”
She looked over her shoulder, into her shop, and up the stairs leading to her apartment. “Who will watch over my things while I am gone? These people have been known to try and steal a thing or two.”
“While you speak to the queen, one of us will stay and ensure nothing is stolen, milady,” the first man assured her. “Which of us would you like to remain here?”
The third man shuffled back, eyeing her herbs, organs, bones, and animal blood lining the wall behind the counter. She smirked and pointed to him. “He seems the most afraid… thus the most unlikely to touch my things.”
With the decision made, she grabbed her soup and bread. They hailed a carriage from down the road. As it approached, she blew on her soup and eyed the two guards beside her. She supposed it wasn’t odd that the Queen would call her upon her. She was a powerful witch with powerful myths tied to her, thanks to the people of Meathe.
“Couldn’t this have waited until the morning?” she asked the guards when the black carriage, wheels lined with golden flowers, halted before them. She rolled her eyes thinking of the money funded into the carriage. In her eyes, anything not used for the people was a waste by the Queen.
Silently, they opened the carriage door and she frowned, disappointed in their obedience to the Queen. She wondered what gave them such unwavering devotion to a tyrant…. They extended their hands to her, offering her assistance. She stared at both of their hands and shook her head. Isla clutched her bowl in one hand, hoisted her skirts with the other, and then hopped inside. If they did not speak to her, she would not permit them a moment to belittle her strength.
The carriage bumped along the cobblestone road slowly but, still jostled her about. She tapped the edge of her bowl and willed the soup to obey her. Seeing it bubble and then simmer into a smooth surface, unmoveable by the path, she happily dipped her spoon. Outside of the window, she saw the market pass by. The vendors were closing their shops, packing away their products or produce, while last-minute stragglers jogged to them.
“Have either of you been to the market?” she asked between bites.
After a beat of silence, she realized these two men, were stiff-lipped and unwilling to answer a single question. Was there an oath they had taken…or did she frighten them? Scrapping the back of her spoon on the edge of her bowl, she smirked. “If neither of you speaks, I will make you speak or wish you into permanent silence. Or do you not remember who I am?”
The men exchanged looks before spewing forth their excuses for not speaking to her. The queen forbade us to speak with you beyond what is necessary. It is a part of our oaths to follow her commands to the final punctuation. Please do not curse me, Madame Isla. I have a baby at home. I need to be able to speak to her!
She waved her hand in the air, cutting them off. “Why does the queen not wish you to speak to me?” she asked, using her bread to scoop the remaining soup from the bottom of her bowl.
“She said if we were to speak to you, you could curse us into obeying you.”
Isla tipped her head back and laughed. “Then, why bring me to the castle? Isn’t she at risk of the same thing?”
The blue-eyed man shrugged. “The Queen has a wizard of her own to protect her.”
Ah, she thought, she will have wards in place then. Smiling, she placed her bowl beside her and crossed her legs. Wards are tricky things. Half of the business of wards is knowing one will hinder you. Isla reached into her pocket and pulled out her handy vial of blood then, pulled up her left sleeve. Taking the handle of her spoon, she dipped it into the vial and drew a protective sigil on the clean skin of her forearm.
“Neither one of you will remember this,” she commanded. They nodded, eyes glazing, and she inspected the sigil in the dimming light. Perfect.
The time continued in silence, the two men confused about what transpired, while she watched the palace draw nearer. She wanted a silent night within her shop before escaping to bed. Why must her peace be disturbed? Sighing, she eyed her soup as they approached the gate. The gate creaked, opening slowly. For the first time since her emergence, an overwhelming sense of dread filled her chest.