Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Black Orchid

Continuing with the posting of the short narratives that I'm wrtiting to front up each of the chapters in the Prelude to Rhapsody book, I've finally completed the piece for Chapter 5 (Healing, Herbs and Alchemy). For some reason, this one proved a little problematic; having set myself a 1000 word limit for each story, this one hit 2000 in its first incarnation, and even now, after heavy editing, is 1100. I wanted to pick a subject that wasn't about the obvious someone hurt gets healed story-line, and this little narrative about herb-lore seemed a good introduction to the way it could be used in a Tefr scenario.

Black Orchid
The forested landscape undulated between clusters of granite topped hills; rocky islands rising from a sea of tree filled valleys. Twice during the morning Saneshi thought she’d found a shaggy cushion of the plant they sought, but Omrahot only shook his head.
‘That one is not good, it will make your companions even more ill,’ he said.
When the shadows had crept beneath their feet, they stopped and ate some flatbreads Omrahot had stuffed with cold woodhen and herbs.
Saneshi had made Yversh and the others as comfortable as she could, before leaving the camp in the first golden slivers of dawn. Only herself and the guide had avoided succumbing to the mystery ailment that had struck the others in short succession, leaving them weak as babes and unable to take more than water without puking.
Though he looked and often behaved like a bear, Yversh had worked at one time in the houses of Atana, and his knowledge of healing and medicinal plants was considerable. He had told Saneshi to search for a herb called peldin’s thesil, that would treat the symptoms, if not cure the sickness, but with her pitiful knowledge of herb lore she had little chance of finding any without Omrahot’s help.
Omrahot himself was an odd one; he’d been surly and uncooperative when he’d learned they were seeking the old Felini citadel, but had become almost indispensable since the others started falling ill. Saneshi herself hadn’t succumbed; she had always considered her solid constitution a side benefit of her gods‘ curse, along with her coating of speckled feathers and golden hawk-like eyes. Though barely an hour after lunch her stomach gave an unexpected lurch and the feathers around her neck turned clammy as a sickly heat flushed her face.
‘Omrahot wait, I have to stop. I think I’m coming down with it.‘
Saneshi sat down on an exposed rock, trying to will the feeling away, then clutched at her midriff as a cramp shuddered through her insides.
Omrahot bit his lip and watched her.
‘What do you want to do,’ he said, ‘should I take you back?’
‘No, I’ll be alright in a minute, you continue looking for the peldin’s thesil, I’ll hea...‘ she had to pause as her guts writhed again, ‘I’ll head back over the hills,’ she said between gasps.
‘Very well, if you have not returned by the morning, I will come and look for you.’
She nodded, keeping her lips pressed together. Omrahot paused, then shouldered his satchel and walked off into the trees. A minute later Saneshi’s stomach clenched, forcing its contents back up to spatter the forest floor. She had rarely been ill before, and the prospect of dying from something so intangible terrified her. She continued retching noisily, rocking backward and forward, until the spasms subsided and she began to recover a little. Perhaps she would have the strength to make it back to the others, perhaps Omrahot would find the peldin’s thesil and by some whim of the Lords of Light it would cure them. Perhaps not.
Taking care not to provoke her delicate stomach, Sanechi hauled herself to her feet, and headed up over the ridge. She assumed it would descend into the valley where the others were camped, but she found herself climbing up towards another hilltop beyond. Leaf framed glimpses of the wooded landscape below offered no recognisable landmarks to guide her, but at least the walking seemed to be helping; though she still felt hot, her strength was returning and her guts had stopped dancing.
The snap of a breaking twig somewhere ahead made her freeze. She had made her way down the far side of the hill and was now nearly at the bottom of the slope. Whatever made the noise was not small. Ducking under an overhanging hornbeam, tawny feathers becoming dappled shade, she waited, ears straining for further sounds.
It was Omrahot.
She must have gone parallel with the ridge and caught up with him as he turned back towards the camp. As a woodsman, he should have known Saneshi was there, but he seemed preoccupied; doubtless still seeking the precious herbs to save the group. Her golden eyes followed him as he stooped to pick something near a fallen tree. He Inspected it briefly before tucking it into his satchel.
A memory came to her, of woodlands near her childhood home where her grandmother had pointed out a green-black orchid.
‘Never pick the black hyoscymus child,’ she had said ‘It may look fair, but Its very sap is a vile poison that’ll make you sick, even kill you.’
And now, here was their guide collecting these flowers instead of the plant they had been sent for.
‘What’s that you’re doing?’ Saneshi said stepping out from her hiding place.
Omrahot turned, eyes wide with surprise.
‘Oh, it’s you.’ he said, then frowned. ‘Are you not ill?’
‘I got better,’ she said. ‘Been picking flowers, have you?’ She pointed to his satchel.
‘I was just...just getting herbs for your healer.’
‘It didn’t look much like peldin’s thesil?’
‘No it’s a local plant, just as good for sickness.’ He took the black orchid out and offered it to her, ‘here it’ll make you feel better. A little of the juice?’
‘Ah yes, a little juice, perhaps that’s how you are so well, while everyone else has been getting ill?’ She took a step forward.
‘Yes, I’m sorry,’ he said, biting his lip, ‘I only had enough for me. But you can have this,’ he held the delicate flower out to her like an offering from an errant lover, ‘have the whole thing.’
‘No, I insist. You are our guide after all, what would we do without you.‘ She took another pace, and Omrahot stepped backwards.
‘No, I don’t need it.’ Another pace, and Omrahot found himself with his back to the fallen tree.
Saneshi’s sword whispered from its scabbard.
‘Eat it,’ she said.
‘No, it’s poison. You were never ill, I have given you all poison. I had to. You would have gone to the Felini citadel and disturbed the old gods of darkness. Lords forgive me, but I had to stop you from bringing their doom onto my village, my people!’ His voice rose to a hysterical shriek.
‘Eat,’ said Saneshi. ‘Is that not the punishment for a poisoner, to be given their own medicine?’ She let the steel tip catch on the thin skin across his windpipe.
He brought the flower up to his mouth and ate.
‘Now, let’s just pray Yversh knows an antidote,’ she said, prodding Omrahot back towards their camp. ‘Perhaps you should pray too.’


  1. I like the new shape of the story. All of the same information is put across, but in far fewer words than the draft I first saw. Word limits can be difficult to work around sometimes and it's always a shame to have cut out details which add to the texture.

    Hope I'm not being presumptuous, but there's a small typo in paragraph 6, line 3. It reads "Sanechi's" instead of "Saneshi's".

  2. Thanks Daniel, I'm glad you think it hasn't lost anything in being trimmed.

    Well spotted on Saneshi's name; that's exactly the sort of invisible typo I was hoping could be caught before it goes into the book.