[Poitou was an area of France under the rule of King Henry II of England in 1167. This scene is based on a comment made by the old nurse, Sybil, to Heléne on page 31 of Loyalty’s Web: “I taught you what you know of healing, milady, but sometimes you are careless in your preparations. It is not wise to forget the ancient ways, to disdain the spells and chants…” and by then eighteen-year-old Heléne to the Earl of Gunthar on page 147: “Well for you that one is required to recognize the noxious so as not to mistake it for the benevolent.” Here we see young Heléne as a child, beginning her learning of the healing arts under the tutelage of her old nurse, Sybil.]
Poitou — Spring 1167
“I swear, I’ve never seen so much hair on a woman-child’s head. Your mother’ll be using my own switch on me, if I let you return to the keep like this.”
Nine-year-old Heléne, entranced with the delightful vision of this reversal of the switch’s role, tried to dodge the gnarled old hand that reached for her, but a sharp snap of the aforementioned switch across the back of her legs froze her into place. The pain stung through the skirts her long linen gown. She stood reluctantly as Sybil, her ancient nurse and companion, tugged roughly at her flaxen locks. Heléne never remembered a time when Sybil hadn’t appeared a hundred years old. The aged servant’s features looked as though they’d been blasted by eons of winds and storms, leaving behind juttings and cracks vaguely resembling a human face locked in cold brown stone.
Heléne tried not to look at the filthy, talonlike nails at the ends of Sybil’s knotted fingers. They yanked more than plucked out the leaves and twigs that had gathered in Heléne’s hair during her mad dash through the fresh air of the castle’s herb garden. Her older sister, Clothilde, had languished in their bed with a case of the sniffles for the past sennight, and whenever Clothilde was ill, their mother confined Heléne to their chamber as well. Heléne might be all arms and legs and thin as a rail, but her health was as robust as Clothilde’s more curvaceous twelve-year-old frame was frail. Nevertheless, she’d frequently overheard their mother remark to their father that one could not be too careful with children’s health, and besides, a few days locked in the bedchamber with Clothilde might help to tame their younger daughter’s froward spirits.
Heléne was not quite sure what “froward” meant, except that her mother’s voice always dripped with disapproval as she said it just before she locked Heléne up or had Sybil turn the switch on her. Usually whenever she said something that her mother called “pert”, or when she did something “unladylike”, such as when she snuck back from fishing with her brother and their neighbor’s son with a grass-soiled gown and tangled, twig-snarled hair…rather like today’s impulsive romp through the garden.
But after so many days shut up with her sister, Heléne had not been able to resist spinning around with her arms flung out, face turned upward to the bright spring sky, even if it had caused her hair to fly out like a silky web to snag the leaves and petals off a nearby fennel bush.
“Hold still,” Sybil scolded, as she jerked free another fragrant petal. “I do not know why your mother does not cut your hair. It catches on everything.”
Heléne flinched, her eyes watering from the force of the pull. Sybil would never have been so rough with her delicate sister. She watched with a blurry sideways gaze as the old nurse dropped the petal into a leather pouch tied about her stout waist, along with the others she had already pulled free.
“Father Dominic will be furious if he finds any more of those petals stuffed into the castle’s keyholes,” Heléne said.
She gasped as another sharp whack from the switch landed across the back of her calves.
“Don’t you be pert with me, you young minx,” Sybil said in a voice that bit almost as keenly as the switch. “These petals are what keep us all safe from the malicious spirits that roam the nights. Your father’s chaplain should know that it takes more than aves and paternosters to keep evil at bay.”
“What sort of evil?” Heléne queried, as Sybil left off de-petaling her hair, and began to divide the long, thick tresses into three strands.
“The sort that turns some children into uppity little hoydens, and tries to rob others of their frail innocence with mortal illness.”
“Clothilde didn’t have a mortal illness. She didn’t even have a cough or fever. She just had a tickly nose that sneezed and sneezed and sneezed.”
“Exactly. Father Dominic ordered all the keyholes cleaned, and immediately your sister’s nose began to twitch. His foolishness left her defenseless for the evil spirits that wanted to steal her pure, sweet soul.”
“It wasn’t immediately. Clothilde didn’t start sneezing until nearly a fortnight after the servants dug all the fennel leaves out of the keyholes.”
Heléne half-expected another smack of the switch for her “pertness”, but instead, Sybil jerked the three strands of her hair into a braid so tight that Heléne felt her eyes pull into painful slits.
“This is my last warning,” Sybil said as she worked. “If you do not want me to send you back to your mother and tell her you are completely unfit for…”
“No, please,” Heléne begged. “I do want to learn from you, I do.” She spoke with complete honesty, but also with the knowledge that failure to heed Sybli’s lessons would result in worse than a few smart strikes across her calves.
“Very well, then.”
Heléne could not see what Sybil tied her braid off with, but she suspected it was one of the soil-stained ribbons she kept in her leather bag.
“Now leave it so,” Sybil said sternly. “I have more important things to do than pick leaves and petals and who knows what else out of your hair all day.”
The old nurse let go of the braid and shuffled over to a plant with long, oval shaped leaves of a dark green shade. The stalks shot up a good three feet. Heléne half expected to hear the pale white, bell-like flowers tinkle in the breeze, but the entire plant only rustled softly, like the others in the garden.
Sybil snipped off one of the bells between the talons of her thumb and forefinger, and turned to face Heléne.
“Tell me what you know of this,” she demanded.
“Comfrey,” Heléne said promptly. “In nature cold, dry and earthy. The roots are the most useful part. When their juice is boiled in water or wine, it makes a draught that heals all inward hurts.”
“And when applied outwardly?”
“It is very good for staunching blood.”
Heléne hesitated. She knew the answer that Sybil wanted. She thought of the switch, and hoped her reluctance did not sound in her reply. “Yes…but only if a thread of scarlet is tied around the neck with nine knots before the comfrey is applied.”
Heléne had used the remedy successfully on herself without any scarlet thread at all, but the smug smile on Sybil’s face suggested a triumph won.
The nurse next bent down to a plant that spread thick across the garden ground, like a mat. Tiny yellow flowers peeked through the leaves, but it was a leaf this time that Sybil plucked. The wedge-shaped leaf was thick and fat, green on the top, but purple underneath.
“And this one?” she asked, holding the leaf out towards Heléne.
“Purslane,” Heléne said. “Excellent for treating hot complaints.”
“The juice mixed with rose oil is most effective for treating burns.” She saw the eyebrows rise in Sybil’s withered face and added, barely concealing a small sigh, “After applying the mixture, one must blow on the burn three times, then say—”
She hesitated while Sybil waited. The words were always difficult to remember, because though some of them bore some resemblance to the French she spoke, most of the words twisted her tongue in unfamiliar sounds and shapes, as if they belonged to another language completely. During her brother’s last visit home from their uncle’s, where their father had sent him to train for his future knighthood, Heléne had stuttered out the words to him and asked if he knew their meaning. After multiple repetitions to her puzzled brother, Therri had at last pronounced that they sounded like some corrupted version of the Latin he was learning, mingled with some equally wayward form of French. At length, he deciphered the phrase as possibly meaning: “Three angels sitting on a stone, named Fire, Wind and Frost. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
His interpretation made as little sense to her as the mangled sounds, but she stammered them out now to Sybil, who once again looked satisfied.
Sybil shuffled over to another low growing plant, this time one with thick, fat, shiny dark green leaves. Small nicks along the sides ending in a point lent it a rough appearance. Though no blossoms adorned it now, Heléne knew that in winter it sprouted pure white five-petaled flowers around a large, pale yellow center, winning it the holy nickname, Christmas rose. But there was nothing holy about this plant. Its deceptive purity hid the numberless black strings that formed the root and gave it its ominous true name: black hellebore. And black its nature was indeed.
Instead of gathering the leaves to hold out to Heléne, this time Sybil merely prodded the plant with her switch. Heléne did not understand why Sybil insisted on keeping this herb in the garden. It was a dreadful plant, useful, perhaps, as a purgative, but piliolerial and hyssop also helped with stomach complaints, with far less risk to the sufferer. She remembered one of their scullery boys, groaning of a stomachache, who ate a fistful of leaves as a remedy. Soon afterwards, he fell into horrible convulsions which ended in his death. Father Dominic said he’d eaten too many of the leaves, but Sybil had insisted….
Heléne started, her hair pricking up on her arms as Sybil spoke the unlucky boy’s name now. Was the old crone the witch she looked, that she could read Heléne’s thoughts?
“Wat from the kitchens,” Sybil said, in her surly way. “What mistake did he make with this plant that cost him his life?”
He did not realize that we kept such an evil plant in our gardens and unwittingly poisoned himself. Heléne dared not repeat Father Dominic’s opinion aloud, at least not to Sybil’s face. Not when that switch could whip so quickly from tapping the leaves to smacking searing welts across her calves. And from the glint in Sybil’s tiny eyes, she knew the next blow would do exactly that, if she did not answer as Sybil expected.
“Stupidly,” Sybil muttered.
“…carelessly,” Heléne repeated with a small surge of stubbornness, “cut it with his knife, when the herb is only safe when plucked with the right hand. Then under cover of one’s robe, one must pass it secretly to the left hand. For one must wear a white robe when harvesting black hellebore to offset its dangerous effects.”
Not that Heléne had any intention of touching the stuff with either hand, if she could avoid it. Father Dominic frowned on what he called Sybil’s “pagan credulity” and declared the plant safe enough if used in moderation, but memory of Wat the scullery boy still haunted her. Black hellebore would ever be an evil thing in her sight.
“Why must we keep it?” Heléne protested, in spite of her fear of the switch. “Why can we not just dig the horrible thing up, and use hyssop or piliolerial instead?”
“Because, milady, it is not enough to understand only the benevolent. One must be acquainted with the noxious, as well, that one might avoid and protect as well as heal. And that,” Sybil said, stabbing her switch almost viciously into the center of the plant, “is why this hellebore will remain in this garden.”