illustration by Kathryn Weaver

The Herb Wife's Apprentice

Story Boyle

Story Boyle’s “The Herb Wife’s Apprentice” is my kind of love story. At first the protagonist’s love interest seems mysterious and flattering—his interest in her work and his open desire to see her are compelling, and she loses herself for a time in his world. But when the honeymoon period ends, what will she sacrifice to extricate herself?

Even after I dosed the hounds, I wasn’t prepared for his pursuit. Foolish. Drugged dogs won’t stop a force of nature. I’d underestimated his pride, but that still didn’t make me a doll—I was not a toy that he could rip limb from limb and then toss broken among the others.

I crouched in the underbrush by the edge of his realm, willing my ragged breath to slow, trusting the herb wife’s powder to do its work, and at least blunt the noses of his hunting pack. They bayed in the distance while I shivered.

Sundown in the border lands is a dangerous thing. Belonging to neither realm, they aren’t governed by the rules of either. The winds that race through grow teeth enough tear out your throat, and when light is gone from the sky, so is all the warmth. There is nothing to insulate either world here.

And then there are the things that hunt in these lands, who wake at night to rake the earth, yellow gaze and iron claw. If his hounds didn’t tear me apart, the beasts of the margins would.

You would think only an ingénue would walk into this story. The others might have been, but the others met their ending in his trophy room. But I’ve never been the ingénue even when I fit the part, even when my hair had no silver among the brown. Kerria: old woman even as a teenager.

I don’t know what quality initially caught his eye, but I could feel his gaze press on me when I delivered my poem at the reading. It wasn’t one from the collection, but racy playful piece I wrote just for performance among friends. I figured I’d give it a try; they’d laughed and gasped and delighted at everything else I’d read. You don’t get audiences like that for poetry very often.

His was a harsh kind of beauty. A pianist’s long fingers veined in blue, cheek bones as sharp as knives, a nose that came straight down in a bold marble line. He watched me like a leopard watches his prey. I swelled enough in my own pride to watch him the same way.

And after the reading was done, “Is poetry all you write?” he asked, buying a copy of my chapbook.

“No one ever put bread on the table writing poetry. No. Mostly I write magazine articles, I do some editing, and a bit of ghost writing. And I every now and then I sell a few wood carvings. It almost pays the bills. What about you?”

“I . . . rent a few apartments to people.” I think, looking back, he was trying to be as honest as he could. No one here is a prince of kingdoms under hill.

“Shall I sign this?” I asked, poised over the open page of my book. “Who should I make it out to?”

“Your date for Friday night. Coffee at Preston’s?”

I smiled.

I can’t remember the taste of that coffee. I can remember the shape of his lips parting to sip from his cup, instead. I hadn’t wanted to kiss a pair that badly since I was a girl in high school.

“Kerria. That’s a name you don’t hear very often. Like the flower?”

It shouldn’t have delighted me, but it did. And that as how the wolf caught me by the throat—he asked about all the things I loved: good books, gardening, even the fiddly little details of refinishing my antique hand tools. No, I’m not being honest. I’d laid my neck gently between his teeth, a trusting lamb.

We spent the night at my place and we didn’t leave the bed until four in the afternoon the next day.

“When can I see you again?”

I grinned like a well-fed cat. “What are you doing Sunday?”

“Clearly, I’m spending it with you,” he said.

So it was easy to let him play with my calendar like a kitten with string, easy to let him have all the time he wanted. I wanted him to have it. I wanted his attention to arc over all the things I’d made, all the projects that made me myself, carvings in progress, drafts of poems and articles, even my amateur attempts at painting. We sucked down a month like a bucketful of oysters.

But he never left a number or another way to contact him. He showed up for every date, and planned the next before leaving. That troubled me enough to finally ask about it.

He shrugged and smirked—always smiling—“I don’t have a cell.”

“Really? Not even a basic one?”

“It’s a little problematic, where I live. No service.”

“Around here?”

“I’ll show you. Tomorrow? Meet me at the cafe. We’ll go together—then you’ll know what I mean.”

The next day, we left Preston’s as soon as I had my cup. Could I have really done otherwise? His hand was too warm in mine, heat like a furnace, and he tugged me on like an impatient child.

“Hey, slow down. You don’t need to pull my arm off. It’ll still be there even if we walk,” I said, trying not to spill any coffee. But he didn’t slow down, and he dodged down side streets and alleys I’d never noticed before.

I can’t say when it started to look strange, because the whole experience was strange. There was no quick, “here, no, this way,” to find everything suddenly changed. Instead it was a series of small epiphanies: the sun striking from a not-quite-right angle, all the bricks gilded with its light; too-grand windows opening on too-narrow streets; a street sign that wasn’t quite written in English, that I had to squint at before I realized I couldn’t read it.

“It’s still a ways,” he said, pulling harder.

“You’re hurting me!”

“Hurry,” he replied, no apology.

It was hard to keep up, and there was no way to guess how far we’d come. “A ways” told me nothing. The sun tottered above the horizon; I didn’t know then what kind of danger that meant in the margins. I only knew that the air felt thin, shimmery, that the world could tear here as easily as a piece of tissue.

The buildings grew smaller, wider spaced, morphed from brick tenements to old Victorians. This was not my city. Each front garden looked as though it had never known a tenant. They were filled with wild tri-petaled blooms in shades of plum and aubergine, leaves wide as palm fans.

“I’ve never seen that kind of flower before . . .”

“Don’t stop,” he barked, and he dragged me on.

We crossed a stream. There aren’t any streams in my neighborhood. By then the buildings had folded themselves away, brick and stone and gingerbread trim giving way to oak and briar and hickory.

“Where are we?”

“Near home.”

I heard a howling, not at all like a wolf. His grip tightened on my wrist, as if I’d balk after hearing that sound, but it was only a few more steps before we came through a clearing in the trees, and he released me. It was like walking from a cold street into a greenhouse—I finally saw what he meant about where he lived.

It was a kind of castle, grown from the stuff of the forest itself, twisted into tangled shapes, spires shooting off at tight branch angles, roofs of moss, and lit with the bodies of a thousand fireflies.

I asked again, “Where are we?”

I would learn to digest smiles instead of meals or answers—he wore one then to rival the sun. For a moment, I watched him watching me, but I couldn’t look at him for long. There was a castle of wonders to see.

We entered the main hall arm in arm. It was lined in birch statues. Not carved of the naked wood with the grain aglow, but wearing pale papered bark over every curve and corner, as if they’d grown that way naturally. Then I noticed the tiny twig arches close to the ceiling, spilling over with the nests of crows and magpies and jackdaws, their cubbies lined with shine and lost things. And the walls themselves woven with living rose brambles, their flowers perfuming the air—ah, don’t get too close, the thorns are bloodthirsty.

He reached over to the wall, and plucked a rose.

“You ought to be wearing an entire coronet of these or lovelier flowers, but for now, this will have to do,” he said, tucking it behind my ear.

I blushed with a fire I hadn’t known since girlhood.

It was only the beginning. He played tour guide with me through his city in the hedge, an entire town and even a market, stitched into the gaps between the yews. They existed only when you approached from a single direction, under a certain angle of sunlight, during the dark of the moon. We wound our way through ribboned stalls hawking marzipans and magic looking glasses. Craftsmen bellowed about their fine combs that would brush wakefulness from anyone’s hair. We passed an old herb wife who fixed me with a gaze that fell like a blow.

I stopped before her.

“I’d have thought one like you would be more cautious. Be—,” she began, but he whirled me past her as though we moved in a dance, and my eyes found a new partner, a cart filled with birds bound at their ankles with tiny golden chains. They sang “sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.”

That night, he opened room after room of his castle for me. Fountains fed from infant streams, burbling the baby-talk of young rivers and heated for baths by sleek salamanders. A library of living trees, trunks like giant scroll cases, new rings rolled inside like another layer of paper, inscribed by the feet of larks and sparrows.

We didn’t finish that night. We couldn’t have. Too many doors, too many rooms, so in the end, he set the ring of keys in my hand, and closed my fingers around them with a kiss.

“These are my gift to you. My home is yours.”

I gaped. “Every key . . .?”

“ . . . to every room,” he finished. “There is only one I hold as mine alone. I ask that you leave it alone.” He nodded at a tiny dark door, carved all over with the faces of wolves and great cats, which crouched at the far end of the hall.

I nodded.

And that was how it was decided, that I would stay. That was how my old life was washed away.

The next night, he presented me to his court, an assembly of faery forms, warriors and huntsmen and falconers, all horned, hoofed, and fanged. I feasted at his table, and every bite I took, I took from his fingers. He tore rabbit off in chunks, placed wild strawberries on my tongue. Beneath our feet, his hounds squabbled for the bones.

Nothing was too good, too strange, too rarified for my lips: such are the games power plays. His table said, “Look at all the riches on which you will feast.” His hall said, “Look at all the wonders to fill your time.” His fingers said, “Submit.”

We either take our fairytales for granted, or for literal things, but they contain every warning we will ever need. Do not accept food offered by the fairies. Be wary of prohibitions. It’s not magic. Every gift has strings and a rich table is a trap. How many dinners, how many drinks had I turned down from slick suits or brooding artists? How many relationships had I ended when he said, “I don’t like you going out with them”? It was something I already knew in my bones. But as soon as it was dressed up in the petticoats of magic, painted with a myth’s own face . . . I was the rube.

But a rube who had never known such opulence. I submitted, and in return wore gowns of spider silk and birch paper. I submitted, and feasted on candied fruits so sweet and tart that even their rinds yielded no bitterness. I submitted, and rode by his side hunting the White Hind, following a flash of her flank, the liquid sorrow of her eyes, the scraps of velvet she rubbed from her tiny masculine antlers.

I watched his nocked arrow fly true, watched her fall, and his huntsmen butcher her in the underbrush. She issued no curse to him, but her eyes spoke to me: “We are not so different.” Even after her belly was cut, breastbone to vulva, her eyes said, “No amount of love you give him will be enough.” Milk oozed from the cuts around her swollen udder, though she nursed no fawn. It would not stop, spilling onto the thirsty earth. It said, “No amount of love can fill the hole he wants to fill.”

We rode back in high spirits. No. He rode back in high spirits. His troupe of hunters cheered, and I felt the weight of their expectation, a call and response. I cheered as well, apples in my cheeks from fear or the crisp air, my voice loud and bright at the edge of panic.

In the courtyard hedged in hollies, while the huntsmen saw to the hounds, I stroked her face. It was less ghostly now that she lay dead, instead of flickering through the trees. I traced the lines of her bones, around her eyes and over her tiny antlers. One came loose under my fingers, a final gift. I pocketed it away.

We feasted on venison that night, the hall a roar of drink and good spirits. All of us, except me. I sat at his side, small and silent. He tore shreds from the hind’s roast flesh, and held it to my lips. I demurred.

“Too good?” he asked, a little too loud. The way he asked it, I was certain it meant one thing to the rest of the hall, and another to me. All eyes went to us.

In the silence of the moment, he stuffed the gobbet into his own mouth. He chewed with a radiant smile, which I mirrored in a wash of relief.

In the privacy of his chambers (had I ever considered them ours?), the turned on me, his smile gone sharp as a quiver full of arrows.

“I assume you hadn’t meant to embarrass me so,” he said.

“Embarrass you? How?”

“Don’t feign ignorance. Refusing my kill in front of my court? You couldn’t contrive a greater insult. If you want to be my queen, you must learn grace.”

“I didn’t mean . . . She looked so helpless. So sad. I couldn’t . . .”

“And how many other beasts have you supped on at my table? They didn’t look sad when we took them? The rabbits? The pheasants? The rams of the high hills? They didn’t speak to you so?”

It was the word “speak” that caught me, a moth pinned to a collector’s card, wondering how he had known. I feared he would make me turn out my pockets, that he would discover the antler, and accuse me . . . of what?

“Next time you will behave as befits my chosen consort.” It wasn’t a request, or even an order. The threat of it lay draped like the curves of a painter’s model.

But he wasn’t finished. I was numb, though, and didn’t hear as it poured out of him. It was only after he’d left me alone in the room that his words became more than an angry torrent:

“I’d loved you for your mature manner. I didn’t think I’d have to tame and break you like some kind of horse,”


“Perhaps I was wrong about the fair young creatures; they may be tiresome, but they keep better than you,”


“Do you know how hard it is to move me as you have?”

I did what anyone would under those words: I wept, grateful for the solitude.

My wanderings were not so free, afterward. Within the walls, I could go where I pleased, but every walk I wished to take, every moon when the town unfolded and the market came, I left with a guard. One of his huntsmen, and never the same one.

I didn’t dare ask, but I opened my ears as wide as cabinets, as wide as doors, as wide as the ocean. They made the excuses on their own.

“You don’t want to stray too far into the borderlands. We’re on the edge here as it is. At night, when the boundary thins, there are dangerous things about.”

I didn’t have to say anything at all. I cocked my head, and the answer came.

“The beasts of the margin,” he whispered, and if the air didn’t go cold, my face did.

Opening my ears wider, all manner of things fell in.

“Prouder than the last few, this one is,” I heard.

“It bores me. No one sneaks under the yew anymore for market. Not even the scullery maids. That tunnel by the well? Overgrown. No ears to box and no one to bark at,” one said to another, as though I weren’t even there.

“The beasts ha’ gotten bolder—game’s gun’ be scarce fer a while, nearer the margin,” I heard.

“Poor thing came over the margin and through the hedge. Fell dead o’ fright ‘e did, middle o’ the market. How long’s it been? Fifty years since the last? Gave me a start,” I heard.

Since the last? Then they come over on their own. We come over. I could go back.

It wasn’t revenge and it wasn’t curiosity, seeking out the forbidden door. “Curiosity” is too light a word, as if I wanted to know a trifle. This was an oil slick in my stomach. This was something I already knew, and had to pull back the curtain twice to convince myself.

I knew my fairytales. I knew enough not to use the key he gave me. And which key on the ring unlocked the door carved over with teeth and snarls? The one whose head and stem were embellished with claws and fangs.

I am a carver of wood. Bone and antler are not the same, but they still yield under a knife. I was patient in my carving. I took my time, making sure my copy matched in every way but one. Instead of deadly panther paws, the wolf’s pads, the bear’s massive grasp twining up the shank, I carved the shape of the hind herself, her body leaping under my thumb.

With my counterfeit in hand, I tried the fanged door.

I don’t need to say it. You knew what I’d find. I couldn’t even take them down, wrap them in funerary shrouds. I’ll say it was the smell of them that made it impossible to at least close their staring eyes. I can live with myself if that’s the truth. Maybe if I say it enough, it will be.

I closed the door again, and locked it. The dark claw-covered key remained pristine; my own key, white as winter, had become splotched with red. I almost laughed, the sound gathering high and hysterical at the back of my throat, but I choked it back with sobs, all the way back to his room.

He was waiting for me. He took the key ring from my shaking fingers, turned it over, held the teeth of the clawed key up to the light. He frowned.

“I almost expected you to betray my trust.”

I winced.

“I thought you had a curious streak,” he advanced on me.

“C-curiosity has its limits,” I said, backing into the corner, keeping my voice soft.

He was not in a mood for soft things.

When he was finished, my clothes, the only ones that were really mine, the ones I’d worn crossing the margin, lay in tatters on the floor. It was three whole days before he brought me anything at all to wear—he stripped even the sheets from the room—and he sent no servants with food. But he brought it only after I walked naked to the kitchen to beg for bread.

I fretted the better part of a month before I could see the market crossways through the yew hedge. I pushed myself under the brush-choked tunnel near the kitchen well, as abandoned as the guards had said it would be. The wait had given me time to think; I was prepared to trade.

I remembered her from my first time there: the herb wife who had tried to speak with me. She was difficult to find, this time. I hadn’t marked where she kept her cart, but she was not near the gold-chained nightingales with sorrow in their voices this time.

I feared she’d vanished. Daylight tilted drunkenly toward evening and the market’s close, but I still hadn’t found her.

It was only when I’d given up that she appeared, between a stall filled with spell bottles and a twining hawthorn arch hung with faery silks. Her eyes hadn’t changed. Looking straight into them crushed all the air from my lungs.

“So at last she deigns to see us,” said the herb wife. The witch. They’re all witches. Ever and always, back into the beginning.

“I came as soon as I knew,” I whispered like a cloth wrung in a washerwoman’s hand.

She laughed at that, and the pressure on my ribs lifted.

“As soon as you knew, eh? And how long did that take? I’d call you slow, if any of the others had even thought to make it as far as you have with their hides intact.”

“Was it just curiosity on their parts? To go with him? Were they all mortal girls?”

She snorted. “Such questions. Curiosity? Maybe a little. Mostly it seemed to be an emptiness. What those who don’t know any better might call vanity, but looks more like starving to me. Sometimes plain naivety. But mostly ignorance. I think that makes it saddest of all; ignorance is such a curable condition. As to whether they were mortals, well . . .”

I shivered, and she continued, “He picks them on the quality, you know. The naive ingénue, the fresh and clean. Like bonbons. He chews through them. So, yes, they all started as mortals, at least.”

“How would you know this about them? Or him?”

“Darling, I was the first. The only one to live. He grew cannier after me. But I know him the way only a lover can. You’ll get no answer from the others, even if they still had lips to speak.”

I shivered of at the thought of the forbidden room, their bodies dangling.

“How—how do I leave?”

“How does anyone leave? You have two working legs.”

“He’ll follow me.”

She smiled, brittle and papery around the edges. “Yes. He will. Next you’ll be asking me for the trick of it, the ways to cover your tracks and slip away and leave no trace.”

I nodded.

“There isn’t one.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Then you’re more a fool than I thought.”

“You wouldn’t have mentioned it if there weren’t.”

She smirked like thistle leaf, all spines. “His hounds have the best noses of all the creatures on four paws known in this world or yours. But if they couldn’t scent a two week old corpse in front of them, they wouldn’t be much use to their master, now would they?”

“And you know how to do that, then?”

Her laugh rattled the air, clattered against her ribs, dry leaves in a gust of wind. “It will cost you.”

“Doesn’t it always?”

“Oh, you are a sharp one.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why what? Why did I toss you a bone of praise? Psh. I didn’t take you for one of the starving ones. Why will it cost you? You of all people should know that in Faery, everything has a price. It all runs on something. His castle exists because he bought it with his brides. If I am to drug your dogs, the charm can’t be built of thin air.”

“You’re dodging my question,” I said.

“So I am,” she sighed. “All right. You want to know why I’m helping?” She turned away as she said it, her voice dropping low, “You can only watch it happen for so long.”

It cost me my hands. I wish I could say that I hadn’t fainted, but after she produced the cleaver and block, I don’t remember much but sudden pain, and waking in the tangle of the yew hedge, the market vanished. The stumps throbbed, tender but cauterized, and a sachet of powder lay on my chest.

I lost no time. I dusted the hounds’ meat with the herb wife’s mixture, holding the pouch between my stumps and working the drawstring open with my teeth. Then I fled.

I have never run like that, not before or since. I have never felt so naked, or that so much depended on my speed. The margin was a welcome place, beasts or no.

And there, crouched in the emptiness between worlds, my heart beat backward, a trochaic attack, Lear’s repeated “never,” to the sound of my name on his lips. He spoke it so gently. I could almost believe . . .

“Kerria, come back, please. I need you. I’ll forgive you of everything,” and to his hounds, “Heel.”

It almost flushed me from the underbrush like a partridge, but I couldn’t make my muscles move. They knew better than the rest of me, so I held still, my breath hanging in clouds on the cold air.

“Kerria, I don’t want to be angry with you. Don’t make me.”

Ah, and there was the knife!

I watched the dogs’ ears perk at a noise in the undergrowth, some ways behind them. I held my shivering in check as they bounded off after it. He paused, though. His eyes swept over my hiding spot before he turned to follow.

I would have to run. I would have to break cover, become a fox, and hope whatever they’d discovered seemed more quarry-like than me. I’d bolt on three.

I never started counting. The hounds yelped, and I was on my feet. From the bracken, bones snapped—I had never heard a dog scream like that before.

It was nothing next to the sound of his voice—my faerie prince, shrieking as he flung himself on a pair of yellow eyes and iron claws. The beast shrank back.

I faltered there. After all he’d done to me, there was a sliver of self who wanted to go save him. To be his hero. That piece evaporated when his head swung in my direction, when recognition crossed his face. After a moment of hesitation, he sprang after me.

And so I ran, praying the elaborate skirts he gave me to wear wouldn’t catch on brambles. I leapt the stream like a white deer in my birch paper gown.

I was not fast enough, I was not surefooted enough. I couldn’t tell if the hot breath on my neck was his or the beast’s.

When I fell, it was almost a relief. It would be over, I was finished. I waited for my death blow, teeth at my neck or a prince’s hunting knife.

It did not come.

I could not believe I had crossed the margin, that I had jumped far enough. I could not believe it was over, not even when I felt sunlight on my cheeks, not even when the cold became the still-living crispness of a familiar autumn.

I could not believe it was real, even when the police wanted answers from the missing woman, gone for just under a year, even when they demanded to know what had happened to my hands. It was better not to believe, because then my tears and “I don’t know”s had weight. Eventually, they stopped asking, but only after the threatening, the cajoling, the pleading. My hair went from brown with silver streaks to grey through the months of round about.

And then came the after. There’s no “ever” in it. I can type again, a slower hunt and peck endeavor. I can carve again, with the tools properly braced in my prosthetics. They sell better, now. People buy, whispering “poor thing,” under their breath. I am a figurehead, now. An “inspiration.” It makes me feel sick.

What they don’t understand is that it was a bargain, a score, a steal. It was my bargain, that I made. I can write and carve and they are mine because I am not his ingenue, not his queen, not his fair maiden. I am free.

Maybe there is a responsibility in freedom. None of the women in the shelter where I volunteer look at my woodcarvings and whisper “poor thing.” They have their own woes, present troubles, more tangible than pity.

And she was right, in the end. You can only watch it happen for so long.

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