Marc stood as tall as he could manage and stretched to reach the glass bottles on the top shelf without having to fetch the ladder from the opposite side of the room. The tips of his fingers lightly grazed the wider storage jars as he turned them just enough to read the labels. Finding the one he was looking for, he grabbed a shelf halfway up and used it to pull himself to the tips of his toes. Rolling the glass jar on the shelf, he worked it to the edge. When he could see the lip of it hanging over empty space, he placed a finger underneath it and slid it off. With a smooth motion, he caught the falling jar in his other hand, absorbing the impact with his whole body to protect the fragile contents.
“I do wish you’d be more careful,” a voice said from behind him. Marc didn’t need to turn around to know the look his master wore.
“I know, Master Garbas, but does it matter if the contents are still intact?” Marc turned around and presented the glass jar of roots floating in a small pool of water.
The older man shook his head, making the earring dangling from his right ear sway back and forth. He took the jar with both hands and held it between his fingertips. He turned and looked at the ladder. “Next time you could spend five seconds doing it properly.”
Marc only half heard the words. He was staring past his master at the woman who entered the alchemist’s shop. She had black hair, worn long and straight, and was dressed plainly – she wore a simple dress with no ornamentation and had no jewelry – but her beauty shined through in a way that made Marc lose track of everything. Her lure was natural, and not based on the trappings of her status. She was Sabina, the woman with rare herbs for sale. Marc had asked about her, but no one in his village knew much. She showed up every two weeks, sold some herbs to the alchemist, bought some food and occasionally a tool from the blacksmith, and then returned to the nearby woods.
That fact alone made some talk about Sabina in hushed whispers. The woods were rumored to be haunted, and no one from Antionne had gone there for as long as Marc had been alive. They didn’t dare use the trees on the edge for firewood, since a curse was supposed to fall upon the house of any who dared to trespass on the unholy ground.
Garbas noticed his apprentice’s lost stare and grunted as he walked into the front room carrying the jar. He spoke to Sabina, working out the details of their transaction. Marc watched over his shoulder as he walked around the back room, making a minimal effort to appear hard at work.
Sabina looked up as she finished her transaction and caught Marc’s eye. She smiled at him and a slight blush rose in her cheeks; it was small enough that he couldn’t be sure he didn’t imagine it. Then she turned and walked from the shop. Marc stood for several seconds watching the door. It wasn’t until Garbas cleared his throat and thrust a jar into his chest that Marc was shaken from his daydream.
Several hours later, Marc and Garbas had their second unusual guest of the day. Shortly after the train arrived, a large man entered their shop dressed in flowing silks, the likes of which Marc had never seen. He had a presence which drew the attention in the room directly to him. Something in his small, dark eyes sent a shiver down Marc’s spine when he matched the man’s gaze. The stranger walked straight to Marc and managed to look down at the apprentice despite being only a few inches taller.
“Where is your master?” his voice was thick and sounded strange. He rolled his R’s in a way that made his conversation sound like a growl.
“In the back, brewing some potions. Shall I fetch him?”
The stranger said nothing but nodded his head. Marc retreated to the back room to summon Master Garbas. As his master came forward, Marc stood around the corner and leaned as close as he dared to eavesdrop on the two men. He only caught pieces of the conversation.
“…a young woman…sells rare herbs…”
“…Sabina…woods to the east…”
Marc didn’t need to hear any more. He grabbed his jui leather jacket and bolted to the back door of the shop, knocking over a table in his haste. He heard it slam to the ground, followed by the crash of several bottles and jars as they shattered against the floor. He glanced over his shoulder, but no one emerged from the back of the shop. He saw two more strangers standing in front of the shop and holding the bridles of three horses. Marc could only hope they’d be slow enough getting started that he could reach Sabina first.
He moved as fast as his legs would carry him, stopping when his lungs were burning more than he could manage. He caught his breath in the fields between the village and the woods. The closest trees were only a few hundred yards away. Taking several deep breaths, he forced himself to a jog. Up ahead, he could see a path leading into the woods. It was a trail barely large enough for a person to walk, but it had been well traversed and all the low vegetation was flattened. Marc hesitated for a moment at the edge of the woods, glancing uneasily at the forbidding trees. He reached up and pulled his jacket tighter around him.
“Sabina!” he called out into the woods. He waited and listened for a response. “Sabina!” he called out again, and again he was met with silence.