Of course Dietmar von Speyer was terrible at gardening. He was a wizard, a conjurer of spells, but the laws of wizardry forbade him to enchant that which was dead.
He lived in the Western German countryside, at the foot of a Count’s castle. The winter was approaching soon, shedding the maples and firs and showering his little thatch hut in needles, decorating the straw with brown leaves. The grass was dead, his herb garden dying, and the last light of the day was petering out. And so, it came to him as a surprise when a living, black-haired woman crashed through his garden.
“Aidez-mei,” she gasped into the angelica bush.
Dietmar was perplexed. This was not a language of his country. “Aidez-mei?”
He brought her to her feet, what little was left from her journey.
“Aidez-mei, sire, seigneur,” she continued in this alien tongue. “Quez-ja numen dois veut tu… Jo apellant Jehanne.”
Dietmar placed his gardening shears on the ground, and gave a sigh. His gray eyes, so full of magic, surveyed this ordinary woman. She was not old, but was not young, either, and by her pallid skin in the cold autumn light, she was greatly distressed, grasping in proxy at her dark green dress. What remained was the mystery of her words.
He made a sweeping motion toward the home, back and forth. “Come with me.”
Leading her into his home, he sat the strange woman at his dinner table.
“Hemma, come here!” he called to fill the home. The strange woman clasped at her seat when a great noise of movement barreled through the halls.
A stout, rosy woman marched into the kitchen, trailing laundry in her hand. “Come here, come here!” she parroted playfully. “Why aren’t you tending the garden?”
The laundry fell to Hemma’s feet, her round shoulders slacking as her eyes met the strange woman’s. She turned to her husband.
Dietmar threw his hands up. “She fell through the angelica bush.”
“Among other things, looks like.”
“Do you perchance speak French, love?”
The strange woman’s hazel eyes followed as the wizard’s wife circled in thought. “Tielo, I have house chores to do, as do you! We have no time for Frenchwomen.”
“Well, then… The garden is beyond my capability. We’ll clean tomorrow, if it pleases you.”
The proud woman pressed her lips together. “As you say.”
Dietmar kissed his wife’s cheek. “Then we have time for Frenchwomen. As neither of us speaks her language, perhaps I’ll do something for her.”
“Ah! Do nothing until I’ve filled her stomach, and cleaned her face,” Hemma begged. Little could Dietmar resist her imploring youth.
Within minutes, their best blanket was over the Frenchwoman’s shoulders, and she was tearing into a loaf of bread. Glad tears streamed down her lean jaw.
“Ainsi, vous sont Alemants?” she said, slurping her chicken broth with a smile.
“Eat slower, please. We won’t have you choke,” Dietmar said. He slowly mimed lifting food to his mouth.
He was obeyed, but not long after, she fell into a coughing fit, unlike choking. Hemma brushed the woman’s long hair from her shoulders.
“I said the bread was too hard,” Hemma muttered, mostly to herself.
“Jo suis bien…” the Frenchwoman claimed.
“Shh…” Dietmar whispered to no one in particular, shaking out his blue sleeves like a wet bird’s wings. “North, east, south, and west. Converge to change her tongue to ours.”
The last of the light left the sky, and a cold, wet wind roared. A small puff of smoke came from the Frenchwoman’s mouth; she spat it out. “You are a devil! By my soul!”
She slapped her hand over her mouth, shocked to hear her own voice. She stood to run, but fell over a chair. She beat on Hemma’s arm as she was yet again helped up.
“Woman, if you still want hands, you will stop hitting me!” Hemma huffed. It took some doing to calm herself down. “Please, you are with friends.”
The Frenchwoman furrowed her brow. “What are you, if not devils? Hobgoblins? Elves?”
Dietmar laughed. “We are as human as you. I am Dietmar, called Tielo, Wizard to Count Hugo of Speyer. This is my wife, Hemma, healer renowned.”
The Frenchwoman blinked hard, trying to process the information. “A wizard… I knew magicians were still abound, but… I thought your sort died out in King Arthur’s day, or perhaps in the last Crusade, for all I know.”
“I am alive, though not immortal. And I’m certainly not Merlin.”
Silence befell them all. Hemma folded some shirts, and the Frenchwoman stared nervously out the dark windows of the house. The fire crackled and seemed to dim more when Dietmar bent to stoke it.
The Frenchwoman turned to her hosts. “I understand, Sir Wizard. Now that I know so much of you, I should tell you my name. I am Jehanne, widow of Giraud, a blacksmith. If I can be of any help, I’d be glad of it, if only for a night’s rest. May it be I shoe your mule, or mend your knives?”
Hemma chewed on a barley stem. “We don’t need any help here! We will help you for free.”
The woman named Jehanne sat back at the table, despondent and lost for words. “How could you ever help me?” she said. “I and my land are cursed.”
She felt the German couple assess her. Their wide, lively faces were caught in snatchings of thought. The air was full of static, the winds rising, and Jehanne for a moment feared she spoke out of turn. She quailed.
“You believe in curses, but not wizards?” Dietmar at last cried.
“You believe in magic, but not curses?” Jehanne countered.
“Well, magic is right here in my grasp, and curses are wrought by legends. In my life, or my teacher’s, there had never been a curse.”
“Be still, woman.”
“Be still, Wizard! If you have seen what I have, you would believe it, as well. The curse is… It begins by hearing an informant’s sort of whisper, but its words are unclear and evil. Then, your lungs constrict and heave, the voice never ceasing. Then, your heart skips a beat, then two. This goes on for two months until your heart stops. It happened to my husband, and many of my townspeople. All said the same. And now I have heard it.”
Hemma shook her head. “Maybe it’s all from hearing another’s story, and dying of fright?”
Tears began anew in Jehanne’s hazel eyes.
Hemma cleared her throat, piling the folded laundry at her feet. “Please, no more talk of troubles tonight. We mustn’t attract the evil eye, and this all soon may pass.”
“Of course. God be willing, I’m here now, all are alive, and my illness may yet end.”
“There’s a girl!” Dietmar said, tipping his beer to her.
“The air here is very refreshing, too,” Jehanne went on, unconvincingly bright. “Your orchards are fair and well-kept. Is this a prosperous town?”
The sturdy healer put her hands on her hips. “Speyer is not a town, but a city. We live among dukes and lower princes.”
“So it is prosperous?” Jehanne said with mischievous expectancy.
“Yes,” Hemma answered with equal mischief.
This Frenchwoman was growing on the spouses, and they on her. Hemma’s confidence gave root to hers, and Dietmar was someone she rather liked, despite being a ludicrous legend. Fearing them no longer, she felt her strength drain from her. A week of no food and little sleep had left her ragged, not counting her illness. The fire was comforting, and the vinegary wool blanket on her shoulders felt like a long-forgotten hug. The sound of farmers’ scythes chopping at wheat fields rhythmically drummed her mind to sleep.
“It’s dusk,” Dietmar addressed to her. “Are you tired?”
Hemma stepped from the room, gone for a long while. She returned from the shadows of the house with a small clay vial, filled with something brown.
“Drink three gulps of this,” she commanded, handing it to Jehanne. “Only three. It’s extract of poppy, and it’ll help you sleep through the night.”
Jehanne gave a small laugh. “You couldn’t have mixed it in wine?”
“I insist,” the healer said with more gentleness.
Jehanne sniffed the bottle slowly. It smelled like incense and grass.
“And will I wake still speaking German?”
Dietmar spoke up. “When you hear French again, you will speak French. You are here, with friendly folk, and that is all that will matter.”
The taste of the poppy extract was just as bearable as the smell, and was almost too bitter to keep down. But soon, she fell into a black, dreamless sleep.
Hemma slung the thin Frenchwoman over her shoulder, and they laid her in a corner of the room, covered in three blankets, tucked tightly in, and lined with high bunches of hay. She looked ridiculous, but it was the best the couple could do in a home with only one bed. Her face was serenely childlike in sleep, smoothed of crow’s feet or frown lines. Hemma twisted the other woman’s hair back on her head, making sure all was smooth.
Dietmar raised a candle to light his wife’s face. She was twenty-nine, and he thirty-four; constant demands of the world and the occasional sorrows had aged him past what’s decent, but he still saw the virginal spirit in her eye, and she had kept her beauty. She in turn still enjoyed his dark, aristocratic features.
She blushed when she saw his stare. “What?”
“You are like a mother,” Dietmar noted.
Hemma shoved his graying head. “I am a healer. It is in my nature to care, as it is in yours to stick your hands into others’ business. You must fix everything.”
“As long as I am able to tell you not to,” she answered with a smile.