Tell me one thing about my main character: a herbalist (studiovlinderdas), likes plants (bluebirdscribbles), gayy (6purplecats), a vegetarian (_anna_banana_h)
Give me an opening sentence: I heard the birds sooner than I saw them (bij.imke.op.de.boekenplank)
Hersten heard the birds sooner than he saw them.
And the sound filled him with dread.
He had just been eating his breakfast, a bowl of ghurt topped with fresh blueberries and greenberries with a little honey drizzled on top, when the first birdcalls spread over the valley of Södersand.
The birds would come at the end of Winter,
or the start of Spring,
whichever way you wanted to look at it.
For many, they meant a great deal of things.
They meant a new chance, an exciting change, a welcome blessing.
For Hersten, they meant trouble.
You see, he had already been blessed by the birds once, and he hadn’t liked it one bit.
He still didn’t like it.
A bird had touched his forehead with its beak, as they do, and from that point forward, Hersten had been able to tell when people were sick and what ailed them.
You’d think this would come in handy. Hersten was the only herbalist in Södersand after all. But being able to see what troubled everyone all the time was exhausting, and depressing too.
For Hersten could also see
when someone was too ill to cure.
That had never gotten any easier.
No, the birds were definitely a bad sign.
Hersten took another spoonful of his ghurt, but it has lost its exquisite taste. All he could think about were the birds, and how they would be flying through Söndersand the entire day.
He got up, put away his breakfast, then opened the kitchen window.
It overlooked the road leading into the heart of Söndersand. From here, he would be able to see the birds arrive and leave.
Only when they were gone would he head into the village.
Not a breath sooner.
Hersten walked through his small, cluttered kitchen, past the empty room he never dared enter, to his study in the back of the house.
It was one of his favorite places in the world. It held his old, battered desk that had belonged to his grandmother, his collection of herbology books that he loved so dearly, and shelves upon shelves filled with herbs. Their earthly aromas mixed with the scent of old, well-loved books made the study feel like home.
And to Hersten, who had been alone for more than ten years, that meant something.
He picked up one of his more recent purchases, a small herbalism book on the healing properties of willow and periwinkle, and settled into a comfortable chair.
This would surely get him through the day.
Around noon, Hersten put down the book to brew himself a warm cup of coffee.
The water was bubbling, but not yet boiling, when there was a knock at his front door.
“Coming!” he called out.
As soon as Hersten opened the door, the sound of birdcalls flew into his house, reminding him once again what day it was.
The reminder annoyed him. He’d almost forgotten, intrigued by his book and soothed by the smell of coffee.
“Please, help me,” the woman said, and only then did Hersten see the small child in her arms, bundled up in cloth. “She’s ill. I don’t know what’s wrong, but she’s burning up.”
That immediately put the birds out of Hersten’s mind.
“How long has she been like this?” he asked, carefully feeling the girl’s forehead. She was indeed hot to the touch.
“Since last night. Oh, please, tell me you can help my Inga.”
Hand still on the girl’s head, Hersten closed his eyes.
Her illness appeared to him as clear as the headline in the morning newspaper. The girl was suffering from a bacterial infection, probably food poisoning.
The knowledge on how to treat such an illness, however, was all his own. It had been taught to him by his grandmother, by her soft voice as she took him into the woods and explained the properties of every plant around him.
“I can,” Hersten told the mother. “Please, take her inside. I’ll get to work right away.”
Relief smoothened out the deepest lines on the mother’s face,
and she quickly carried her child into Hersten’s small and cluttered kitchen.
“Please go through there.” Hersten pointed towards the corridor leading to his living room. “You can put her on my couch.”
When the mother was gone, Hersten immediately went to work.
He needed to make a paste of garlic, ginger, and honey, and feed it to the child. Simple enough. He always stored the honey jar in the left cupboard, the garlic in a burlap sack underneath the sink, and the ginger in a glass jar with a blue cap in… in the…
Where was it?
Hersten opened his left cupboard again, then the middle one, then the one on the right. They were all stacked with jars, but none had a blue cap and held his ginger.
Did he use it all for that pot of tea he’d brewed a fortnight ago?
No, he should have replaced it already.
Hersten felt his body grow cold. No, he hadn’t replaced it yet, because Tuva had gone to the big city of Ullund last week. She had wanted to participate in the big market of Ullund and sell her wares, her green peas and blue peas and ginger.
Hersten had missed her big laugh on the town square all week.
Right. He would have to go into town and buy some now.
Hersten hurried to his living room,
then stopped in his tracks.
He couldn’t go into town.
The birds were there, flying about, singing their songs and touching people’s foreheads with their beaks to curse them with blessings.
“What’s wrong?” the mother asked, watching him from his plush green couch. Her arms were wrapped around her daughter, whose face was red and sweaty.
Because she was ill. Because she needed to be healed. Because she was waiting for Hersten to give her medicine.
“I…” Hersten started, then stopped. He did not want to go into town. He did not want to be blessed by the birds. He did not want the girl to grow sicker. “I’m out of ginger.”
“Oh,” the woman said, her face falling. “Is that bad?”
He couldn’t not go.
“No, not at all,” he said with a forced reassuring smile. “I will fetch some right now.”
And if I don’t make it back, blame it on the blasted birds, he wanted to say,
Things did not go as planned.
Armed with his largest straw hat,
a satchel that he could easily whack birds with,
and his best walking shoes,
Hersten braved the road to Söndersand.
In the distance, he could see the birds flying over town.
Their calls were melodious and magical and utterly deceiving, because receiving a blessing was anything but. It was magical, sure, but the magic had also made certain aspects of life painfully real.
Hersten didn’t need to be constantly reminded of the fragility of people.
When his grandmother had fallen ill, there was nothing he could do. He had sent for the herbalist of Ullund, but they had been too late. By the time the herbalist arrived, his grandmother had already been gone.
Feeling sorry for him, the herbalist had stayed for a few weeks to teach Hersten what they knew. It had been informative and formative and painful.
If only the birds had blessed him sooner.
He might’ve found out about his grandmother’s illness sooner, too.
He wouldn’t have been alone for all those years.
“Stupid birds,” Hersten grumbled to himself, keeping one eye on the sky.
Blessedly, he made it into Söndersand unblessed.
But that was where it got tricky.
Most of the birds were flying above the village, and they were nothing if not vigilant. Their green eyes carefully observed the people below.
A few were perched on the small but intricately decorated houses people had built for them, eating the foods lain out for them. Offerings. Hopeful gifts. Thank-you presents.
Hersten avoided the bird houses especially.
He turned towards the town square, which was round and lined by green apple trees. From a distance, he could see Tuva’s booth. Excited about almost reaching his goal, Hersten forgot to pay attention to the sky.
A big white bird swooped down at him.
With a yelp, Hersten swung his satchel in the air. “No, get away!” he shouted.
The bird avoided his bag and called out with its brilliant voice.
Hersten wanted none of it.
“Begone!” He swung his satchel at the bird again. “I don’t want your blessing!”
Around him, villagers gasped in shock at his behavior. But it had worked. With a final cry, the bird flew away.
Hersten let out a deep sigh. “Nearly got me.”
He righted his straw hat, tightened his hold on his satchel, and continued towards Tuva’s booth. He could already smell the ginger. Subconsciously, he started walking faster. Tuva’s loud voice became clearer and clearer. He could already discern words. He was nearly there.
And that’s when the flock hit him.
blue wings tinged with green,
and green wings tinged with blue;
all around Hersten were birds.
It was beautiful and it was chaos. The birds’ calls were loud, but not unbearingly so. Most of all, their calls were harmonious and hallowed, promising him a brighter future, a better life, a new beginning.
It was overwhelming.
Closing his eyes, Hersten swung his satchel for dear life. “Get away! I do not want it!”
The birds called back that they had something wonderful for him,
something he was going to love with all his heart.
“No!” Hersten shouted. He slapped a hand on his forehead to fend off the bird coming closer. “Begone!”
But there were simply too many birds.
He couldn’t fight them all.
Desperate to escape the flock, Hersten decided to make a run for it.
He charged through the wings and feathers and birdcalls towards Tuva’s booth, who was looking at him with wide eyes.
The birds called out to him as he escaped.
Out of breath, Hersten pointed at the ginger. “Two, please,” he gasped.
“Blimey, are you okay?” Tuva asked.
“Please.” Hersten nervously looked over his shoulder. “Or else the birds will get me.”
“Now I’ve only lived in Söndersand all my life, but isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?”
A little perplexed, Tuva put two gingers into a paper bag, then handed it to him. Hersten dug around in his satchel for coins, but she shook her head.
“No, seems like you need a little good luck today.”
“Thank you,” Hersten wheezed.
He put the gingers in his satchel and quickly ran towards the nearest tree. If he hid beneath the trees that lined the square, he’d be safe. The birds wouldn’t be able to spot him. Probably. And even if they could, they would have a harder time getting to him.
So that’s what Hersten did.
Clinging to the trees, he slowly made his way off the square. He was aware of people looking at him strangely. Aware of their whispered questions, hushed answers, and shaking heads.
But Hersten didn’t care.
All he wanted was to get out of Söndersand with a bag of ginger and without the birds’ blessing.
As soon as his house came into view,
Hersten sighed in relief.
It was situated on a small hill,
and delightfully round and grounded.
From here, you could see the plants he loved so dearly peeking out of the round windows, framed on both sides by white curtains.
A gentle breeze blew past, and the green grass in front of his house swayed calmly in the wind. Hersten held onto his straw hat with one hand as he took the final steps to his house.
As per usual, he checked his roof before he headed inside. Overgrown with moss, it was plush and green, because Hersten wanted it to be plush and green.
Plants had given him a means to support himself,
so it made sense to give them a house with a roof in return.
But something didn’t look right.
Sitting in the sea of moss,
like it was on a beach holiday,
was a white thing with feathers and bright green eyes.
Hersten barely had time to gasp in shock.
Its great wings unfolded, and with a gracious swoop, it flew directly towards him.
The bird’s beak touched his forehead gently, like how his grandmother used to kiss him goodnight.
A bright light burst from the point of contact.
Hersten had to close his eyes against the brilliance, but he could still feel the blessing wash over him. It felt like taking a warm bath after being cold the entire day. His muscles relaxed, his shoulders lowered, and his jaw unclenched.
The sensation was so calming
that Hersten barely heard the beautiful bird call out;
a melodious promise of a better time.
And then it was gone.
Hersten missed the sensation as soon the bird flew away,
like a warm hug that could’ve lasted just a little longer. Then again, maybe that would’ve made it uncomfortable.
A little dazed, Hersten opened his front door. He put the ginger on the kitchen counter, next to the other ingredients, and went to work. His movements felt secure, smooth, but also slow. Like he was still dreaming.
Hersten knew the blessing would take a while to manifest.
Last time, it had taken a few hours,
and then it had taken weeks to hone the new skill that had been imposed on him.
With a dreamy smile, he administered the medicine to the feverish child.
And with a dreamy smile, he bottled the rest and gave it to the teary-eyed, thankful mother.
He would never admit it out loud, but helping the people of Söndersand always felt like the birds’ blessing did.
When the mother and her child were well on their way, Hersten set about to make dinner.
He collected vegetables from the garden behind his house, softly talking to the plants as he filled his wicker basket with their fruits.
Above him, the sky’s bright blue changed into a softer pink.
The birdcalls slowly became less frequent.
When the sun went down, they would be gone again.
The birds would not return until the end of next Winter,
or the beginning of Spring,
whichever way you wanted to look at it.
The house was awfully quiet as Hersten went back inside,
so he started humming to himself to fill the silence.
Pretty soon, the silence was drowned out by the comforting sounds of a bubbling pot of potatoes,
the crackling of fresh onions in the pan,
and the chop chop of his knife as Hersten cut his homegrown vegetables.
He was just about to put them in the pan, when a knock on the door made him pause.
“Coming,” he called out, quickly wiping his hands on his apron.
For the second time that day, he opened the door and was greeted by the sound of birdcall flying into his house.
“Hello,” a warm voice said. “I was told you’re the herbalist of Söndersand?”
Hersten looked at the man standing on his doorstep,
and was momentarily lost for words.
Because of the setting sun, the man’s outline was painted in a soft pink. He seemed to be almost glowing. The man’s features were round but grounded, his mouth was soft and smiling, and his eyes… they were green.
“Hello,” was all Hersten managed to say.
The man was wearing different clothes than the villagers of Söndersand, or even Ullund. He was also carrying a large backpack on his back with a straw hat strapped to it, and—Hersten looked down—wearing sensible walking shoes.
“I’m sorry if I’m at the wrong place,” the man said.
“No, no,” Hersten said quickly. “I am the herbalist. What can I do to help you?”
The man scratched his chin almost sheepishly. “I was told you have a spare room? I’m looking for a place to stay. You see, I traveled all this way to see the birds of Söndersand.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. You just missed them.”
Smiling, the man shook his head. “Actually, they’re the ones who told me to find you.”