THE POTION • by Katherine Periam

“I will not marry William!” Elayne stamped her foot, nearly upsetting the basket at her feet. Several of the fat purple plums she and her stepmother had been picking spilled out. Horror-stricken, she looked at her stern-faced stepmother who calmly kept plucking fruit off the branches with quick twists of her wrist. “He is a cripple with that leg of his, and he has red hair! Besides, I don’t want to get married. Not yet, anyway.”

Sybil picked up an empty basket and moved to the next tree. “You will be fifteen in two months, it is about time you were married. Besides, Mistress Hearns has been poorly for a long time; she wants to see her only son married before she dies.” She put the basket down and started picking again. “Your father and I arranged it a while ago and it is a very good match. In time William will inherit The King’s Inn, and you will never lack for anything. You should be grateful, instead of whining like a spoiled child.”

Elayne swallowed her angry retort. Threatening to take the matter up with her father was useless if he had already agreed to the match. Once Symon Harbottle made up his mind, not even her bossy stepmother Sybil could make him change it. She bent down to pick up the fallen plums, racking her brain for a solution. As she dropped the fruit in the basket she suddenly thought of Alys. Old Aunt Alys would know what to do. She had to. Because Elayne knew one thing for sure: she was not going to marry William!

***

“Aunt Alys, you have to give me a potion to make William Hearns hate me.” Elayne was sitting on a log in front of the cottage, tying the rosemary she had picked earlier into neat bundles for drying.

The old woman gave an amused snort. “That seems rather drastic. Why don’t you want to marry him?” She turned to the small cauldron hanging from a tripod over the fire and gave her brew another stir. An acrid smell mingled with the sweet fragrance of the herbs and wafted over the sunny forest clearing.

“I don’t want to spend my life serving ale and meat pies, I don’t like his whiny mother, I don’t want to be married to a cripple and I hate red hair.” Elayne dropped the last bundle of rosemary in the basket and brushed a few leaves off her skirt. “And don’t tell me you don’t know how to make such a potion. Everybody knows King Rudolf sent away his favorite mistress because the queen slipped something into their wine. And the queen’s favorite lady-in-waiting is a friend of yours.”

“Hush, silly girl!” The old woman shot a panicked look around the clearing. “You never know who might be lurking in the woods, listening. It is wiser not to speak of such things.”

Elayne’s eyes glittered slyly. “Well, if I had used such a potion myself, it would of course be most unwise to chat about it. On the other hand, if I hadn’t…” She allowed a suggestive silence to build up.

Aunt Alys heaved a sigh. “I suppose I could give you something that would make William dislike you. Hate is a horrible emotion to live with. Believe me, that is not what you want.” She glanced at the bubbling cauldron. “Keep an eye on this brew and don’t let it burn while I mix your potion.” Her skirts made a swishing sound as she walked off towards the door of her little cottage.

Through slitted eyes Elayne watched the old woman disappear inside. Had that been just a wee bit too easy? Resolutely she pushed the thought away. No time for that. She had to think of a way to make William drink that potion…

***

William Hearns limped tiredly into the kitchen of The King’s Inn and froze when he saw who was sitting at the table with his mother. “Elayne, what are you doing here?”

Elayne managed an insincere smile. “My aunt Alys asked me to bring your mother’s new medicine. Hopefully the lemon balm will lessen her stomach pains.”

William nodded and sank down on the bench at the other side of the table, stretching his stiff leg awkwardly in front of him.

He sits as far away from me as possible. He seemed not at all happy to see her, let alone consider marrying her. Well, that was fine with her.

William’s mother interrupted her thoughts. “Would you mind pouring us some ale, Elayne? William must be thirsty, and I don’t feel well at all.”

This was her chance! Elayne suppressed her excitement. “Of course, Mistress Hearns. With pleasure.” She got up, went to the sideboard and, with her back to the room, poured three mugs of ale. In a flash she had divided the potion she had been carrying in the pocket of her skirt between two of the mugs. She breathed deeply and carried the ale to the table as if nothing had happened.

William muttered his thanks ungraciously and Elayne watched breathlessly as he finished his drink at one gulp. As she lifted her own mug she missed the fleeting glint of triumph in the eyes of William’s mother.

***

It was dark as the hooded woman stepped out into the clearing from the forest path. Only very little light shone out of the rear window of the small cottage and she carefully picked her way along the narrow path through the herb garden. As she reached the back door she knocked softly. Footsteps sounded and the door swung open.

Alys smiled. “Good evening, Sybil.”

“Shush. Not so loud! No one must ever know I was here.” Coins tinkled as Sybil pulled a small pouch from under her cloak and handed it to the old woman. “Anne Hearns asked me to thank you. Her William will wed Elayne in October.” She smiled contentedly. “They can’t wait. Thanks to your love potion.”


Katherine Periam (pen name) works as a freelance translator and lives in the Netherlands.
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