Chapter 75: Scent of a Witch
The carriage rocked gently along the road, and before Ivy knew it, they were once more descending through the dark tunnel towards the capital. She should have felt relieved to be free of that terrifying place, but instead, she felt hollow and guilty for leaving Maura behind—alone.
Percy remained seated stiffly in silence. He hadn’t smiled nor spoken once since they’d left Rose Palace. Then again, he had been oddly absent while Ivy had helped Maura move to her new rooms. More than once, her gaze shifted to the odd red stain on the Earl’s collar as her dreams wilted into disappointed bitterness.
Ivy waited until they reached the other side of the gate tunnel before she broke the awkward silence. “So—Lady Maura tells me you’re engaged?”
“I am not!”
Ivy’s heart nearly jumped up the back of her throat as she flinched against her seat. The Earl hadn’t moved, but the tone and weight of his voice had been murderous.
“I’m sorry.” Percy hastily apologized. “It’s just—” he gestured at the air in frustration. “There are others who wish to see me engaged to Lady Evelynn, but I have no intentions of caving to their demands.”
“I see,” Ivy murmured as she pressed a hand against her fluttering heart. She took a breath, cleared her throat, and folded her hands nervously against her lap. Despite his surprising outburst, she was relieved to hear him adamantly deny it, but also wary of speaking further on the matter.
“Perhaps I should have clarified this rumor with Lady Maura before leaving,” Percy muttered as he crossed his arms, and let out a frustrated sigh.
“Lady Maura is clever enough to work it out,” Ivy replied encouragingly. “And perhaps, in my first letter to her, I might hint at your position regarding Lady Evelynn.”
Percy raised his gaze and offered a crooked smile. “I am grateful for your support, Miss Ivy.”
Ivy nodded, content to be of help, and reassured once more in Percy’s affection for her mistress. It was nice to have something positive to focus on while her own future seemed uncertain. Imagining Maura as the next Countess of Hawthorne was as good a dream as any.
The capital rattled lazily past her window as she contemplated seeking a position as Maura’s attendant—or perhaps as governess to Maura’s future children. Ivy had always been fond of children. Even now, her memories of the young, intelligent, but cautious Maura remained as bright and vibrant as ever.
The loneliness Ivy had tried to bury resurfaced as she leaned closer to the window and spotted a familiar shop sign up ahead. ‘Bartimaeus’s Miracle Herb Shop.’
“Wait!” She sat up. “Could we stop here, please!”
Percy knocked his signet ring against the glass window above his head, and the carriage pulled to a halt. The young Earl leaned forward to examine the modest herbal shop that had caught Ivy’s eye with uncertainty.
“They sell medicinal herbs here,” Ivy explained as she rummaged through her cloth purse for the coins Maura had given her. “I thought perhaps they might have something to help Gus.”
“Physician Hayes has already provided more than enough medicine to—” Percy broke off at her hopeful stare and sighed. “Of course, we’re already here. What could be the harm in looking?” He opened the door, stepped down, and offered her his hand. “See if they have what you need. I’ll pay for it.”
Ivy’s heart fluttered as she looked from his gentle winter-grey eyes to his open hand. ‘He’s only a kind noble who is being nice to a slave because of her mistress,’ she admonished herself quickly as she placed the tips of her fingers against his open palm.
“You don’t have to pay, I have money,” Ivy protested as she stepped down. She pulled her hand away, but Percy caught it and wrapped her arm around his.
“Humor me and don’t worry about the cost, Miss Ivy,” Percy repeated as he led her towards the stalls outside the shop.
The closeness of his voice and the warmth of his arm sent a blush to Ivy’s cheeks as she dropped her gaze. More than a few commoners passed by them with admiring looks and whispers, which only added to Ivy’s shame.
She attempted to hide the unsightly cloth purse beneath her ruffled sleeves, embarrassed by the way its poor linen quality clashed against the expensive dress she wore. ‘Why am I so foolish? I know I am not worthy of this dress—or him.’
“Evening my Lord and Lady!” greeted the elderly bearded shopkeeper, seated beside the herb stalls with his pipe. “Bartimaeus is the name. Provider of Miracles and Cures. What might such lovely fine youngsters require today? A cure for headaches, stomachaches, toothaches?” He inhaled on his knotted smoke pipe and blew out a long rope of bitter red vapor. “Perhaps a remedy to help the Master last longer in bed? Or—” his lewd gaze sized up Ivy with a sinister smile “—a potion to help the Lady remove an unwanted bastard?”
“W-what?!” Ivy choked out as she clutched her handbag tightly.
Bartimaeus squinted. His chair squeaked as he leaned forward to examine her face. “Seems to me, you might even be a repeat customer, Miss.”
“Y-you are mistaken!”
“To be sure, the girl I remember was younger, a slave serving as a maid as I recall,” Bartimaeus continued with a musing tone. “Shabby dress, shabby shoes, but good coin.” He eyed her up and down again as he tapped his pipe against the corner of his sinister smirk. “You know, I never forget a face.”
‘This—was a mistake,’ Ivy realized even as she pulled away from Percy’s arm and stepped back.
Bartimaeus eyed her movements with a calculative gleam in his dark-brown eyes and slid the end of the pipe back between his stained black teeth.
“It would appear the Church has been neglectful in its duties,” Percy observed in a casual tone, as he remained unmoving by the herb stalls. “Not only do you claim to sell miracles, but the remedies you offer sound dangerously close to witchcraft.”
Bartimaeus choked on his smoke and scrambled to his feet. “Now see here—” he coughed, “—just herbs, no magic at all. Don’t be getting me in trouble with lies like that!”
“Herbs or magic, surely you are aware that The Holy Church and Royal Edict hold the killing of an unborn child as a criminal offense!” Percy reminded him grimly.
“It ain’t murder if it ain’t breathing.” The disgruntled shopkeeper snarled and spat at Percy’s feet. “Now, are you here to buy something or just be a nuisance?”
“Perhaps we should leave,” Ivy whispered, keenly aware of the gathering crowd of eyes around them.
“I think you’re right,” Percy muttered with a disgusted glance at his soiled boot. He turned and wrapped Ivy’s arm gently around his as he led her back towards the carriage.
“Bah! Go ahead and run off then.” Bartimaeus barked after them. “See if you can find another remedy for your little whore’s problem.”
Percy’s grip on Ivy’s arm slipped away. She barely registered its absence before she heard a thud followed by a loud bang from behind her. Ivy turned and gasped as the shop table of herbs caved beneath the shopkeeper’s weight and crashed to the ground.
Percy straightened and unclenched his fist. The shop door swung open as a middle-aged woman raced outside. She glanced between Percy and the groaning shopkeeper then rushed to Bartimaeus, who rolled onto his side with a groan as blood dripped from his nose onto the herbs below.
“Dad? Dad! What’s he done to you?” the woman cried.
“Noble wanker—broke my nose!” Bartimaeus spat as he sat up and fumbled with his bleeding red snout. The shopkeeper’s daughter handed him a handkerchief, which Bartimaeus pressed tenderly to his injury as he turned slowly around to assess the damage to his store. “And look—look at what he’s done to my shop!”
A crowd of onlookers doubled in size as the shopkeeper staggered to his feet.
“It’s a wonder you get any business at all with that foul mouth of yours,” Percy remarked as he wiped his hand and flung his own dirtied handkerchief on the road. “Consider this payment for insulting the lady.”
“Payment?” Bartimaeus leaned heavily on his daughter’s arm as he stumbled towards Percy with a threatening finger. “Oh, you will pay up, my Lord.” His greedy gaze quickly sized up Percy’s garments and the carriage behind him. “And you’ll pay handsomely if you don’t want this matter taken before the Capital Knights and the Prime Minister!”
Percy scoffed and hid a smile. Ivy eyed the crowd of commoners who grumbled and gestured at the Earl with evident disapproval. “Lord Percy—” She stepped towards him hesitantly.
“You really ought to learn the name of a noble before you threaten him in public,” called out a voice from the crowd.
They turned as a priest in charcoal-gray robes walked through the suddenly silent crowd towards them. The holy man’s solemn but benevolent gaze swept over the shopkeeper and his daughter with a pitying look. “Forgive them, Earl Hawthorne, they know not whom they offend.”
“H-Haw-thorne?” Bartimaeus strained to form the name as his daughter grabbed his arm and dragged him down to his knees beside her.
“A-Apologies, my Lord,” the woman shouted before pressing her forehead to the road. “We beg your mercy!”
Ivy glanced from the trembling father and daughter to the Earl, who seemed to have forgotten both as he narrowed his eyes at the priest.
“What is a priest of Zarus doing in Lafeara?” Percy asked coldly.
“Forgive my boldness, but I am Father Alden,” the priest replied with a formal bow. “And regrettably, I’ve been sent to Lafeara to hunt down a witch.” The priest’s gaze flickered towards Ivy, who shrank behind Percy.
“My servant is no witch,” Percy growled.
“Oh! Pardon me, my Lord!” Father Alden raised his hands with an amused chuckle. “Of course, I would never accuse you or your servant of such a thing. I leave the sniffing out of witches to my hound since his instincts are keener than my own.”
The priest gestured behind them, and Percy spun around, nearly knocking Ivy off balance as they came face to face with the man in red robes and armor who stood casually beside Percy’s carriage.
The witch hunter’s shrewd electric-blue eyes ran over Percy, then Ivy, and returned to Percy. “So, you’re the Earl of Hawthorne?” The cynicism of his tone matched the man’s smile as he stalked towards them and inhaled deeply. “That’s a pretty maid you have there, my Lord.”
Ivy clutched Percy’s arm, and the Earl stepped swiftly in front of her as he stared down the stranger before them. The air seemed to tighten as the crowd scampered to safety, and a flock of crows descended ominously on the rooftops about the street.
“Lord Percy, this is my witch hunter, Sir Nero,” Alden said offhandedly as he walked past the quivering shopkeepers towards the broken stalls. “Hmm.” Alden knelt to examine the scattered herbs. “Witch Bark, Toadstools, and—ah!” He held up a twisted black vine, “Devil’s Root. Most commonly used to terminate early pregnancies.”
“I—that—has other uses as well,” said Bartimaeus quickly. “Such as—ahem—clearing infections from the lung and—ah—liver.”
“Well, I’m no physician, that’s for sure,” Alden observed wryly. “But I’m sure the Capital Knight’s would be interested to hear about the services you tried to offer the Earl and his servant just now.”
“No, no!” Bartimaeus laughed nervously, “It was just banter! Harmless fun, nothing serious.”
Alden snorted and turned to Percy. “Would you be willing to support my report, Lord Percy?”
Percy, whose gaze remained focused on the witch hunter, shook his head. “I have better things to do with my time.”
“Shame,” Alden said with a sigh as he tossed the Devil Root at the shopkeeper. “Ready to go, Nero?”
“Not just yet,” Nero asserted, his eerie gaze still focused on Ivy. “This one—” he gestured towards the trembling maid, and Percy smacked his hand aside.
“Restrain your hound, or I’ll put him in his place,” Percy snarled.
“Easy, Lord Percy,” Alden cautioned as he narrowed his eyes at the Earl. “I’m sure Nero is merely curious. Unless—” he glanced at the witch hunter “—you think she is a witch?”
The priest’s tone, though indifferent, sapped the strength from Ivy’s legs. She clung to Percy’s arm for support as the blood ran from her head.
Nero’s electric-blue eyes shifted from Ivy to Percy, then to the carriage beside them. He shook his head. “No, she’s no witch.”
Ivy whimpered with relief.
“Then stop frightening the poor girl,” Alden scolded, followed by an exasperated sigh. “Apologies, Lord Percy, sometimes he gets overzealous. We’ve been after a witch that’s proven rather difficult to track down.”
“What a shame,” Percy muttered with the hint of a sneer. “Well, then I won’t delay you from your search any further.” He pushed Ivy firmly towards the carriage and opened the door.
“Ah, before you go, Lord Percy!” the priest called after them. “Might you be familiar with a noble Lafearian family that carries the surname Turnbell? Specifically, one that might have had a son who went by the name Lincoln Turnbell?”
Ivy stumbled on the carriage step as Percy all but shoved her through the door. She caught herself against the seat as the Earl turned to face the priest and his witch hunter.
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Percy said coldly. “Good day to you, Father Alden.”