The Whisper of Silenced Voices – C.J. Archer

Three days was long enough for Doctor Ashmole to settle in to Mull. It was time I visited him to pass on the medical records of our patients, as well as to inform him that I was available for midwifery cases. The problem was, I didn’t want to. Giving him the records would be like handing over the last piece of my father’s legacy. A legacy he’d built over decades and nurtured as tenderly as he’d nurtured me. I couldn’t face drawing a line under his career, his life, and the role he’d played in the Mull community. Handing over the records felt like giving away part of myself. Yet I had to do it, for the sakes of the patients. Although some wanted me to continue to tend to their aches and pains, they knew I could not. They would have to be satisfied with merely buying medicines from me and put their trust in the new doctor. According to gossip at the market, Doctor Ashmole had moved into a run-down cottage on the edge of the village with his wife. He was a recent graduate of the medical college at Logios, which didn’t inspire confidence in the villagers exchanging the gossip. I did my best to reassure them, reminding them that my father had been a fresh graduate once too. I had gathered up the patient records and was stacking them in a small handcart when Doctor and Mistress Ashmole arrived on my doorstep. “This is fortuitous,” I said after introductions.

“I was on my way to see you.” I indicated the cart. “These are the patient records.” Doctor Ashmole’s dark, serious eyes didn’t spare a glance at the cart but scoured the hall, taking in the kitchen entrance behind me, and the closed door that led to my father’s workshop. He was a slender man with a shiny pink scalp showing through thinning blonde hair. His face was pink too, contrasting starkly with his black clothing. I smiled. “Do come in. Would you like tea?” Doctor Ashmole took a step across the threshold, but his wife grabbed his arm and jerked him back in line with her. “We cannot stay,” she said.

“There’s much to be done.” “I’m sure there is.” I tried to maintain my smile, but it was almost impossible when faced with two unfriendly expressions. Mistress Ashmole resembled her husband in many ways. She was also slender with dark eyes that hardly spared a glance for me or the cart, preferring to inspect her surroundings, including the street. Her hair was drawn back with such severity that her eyes pinched at the outer corners. Her broad-brimmed hat protected her face from the summer sun and probably accounted for her lack of freckles. Her sharp cheekbones bore the small circular scars of a childhood pox. There’d been an outbreak in Tilting twenty years ago but only sporadic cases since. “We ought to go through the records together,” I said to Doctor Ashmole.

He looked down his thin nose at me. “That won’t be necessary, Mistress Cully. I’m capable of reading them.” So that was how he wanted to play. Or, rather, not play. I would have gladly shut the door in his dour face, but the only ones to suffer from such pettiness would be the patients. “There are some things you should be aware of. For instance, Owen Fish came here four days ago with chest pains. Has he been to see you yet?” “I cannot divulge confidential patient information.” Doctor Ashmole reached for the cart handle, but I stepped in his way.

Both he and Mistress Ashmole bristled. “Then you should seek him out,” I went on. “Without asking him questions, I couldn’t diagnose the severity of his pains, but I sent him away with a bottle of catspaw tonic.” “You can’t do that!” Doctor Ashmole snapped. “I can. I’m an apothecary.” “Qualified medical advice is required before dispensing medicines.” I pushed down my rising anger. It would serve no purpose. “It’s not against the law to dispense medicine when there is no doctor available to give a diagnosis.

Owen Fish came to me four days ago. You arrived in Mull three days ago.” Doctor Ashmole’s nostrils flared. His wife’s eyes narrowed to slits. “There is a doctor at the palace, is there not?” he asked. “Doctor Clegg, an employee of the finance minister,” I said. “He doesn’t like to come to the village or tend to anyone who is lower than a knight.” His lips flattened. “Don’t let it happen again.” “It won’t, now that Mull has a doctor.

” I was pleased that my voice didn’t give away the frustration plucking my nerves. Years of dealing with difficult patients had trained me well. “May I say how happy we all are that you’ve finally arrived. I was beginning to despair that my letters to the college had been thrown away. I’m thrilled they’ve sent a new graduate to replace my father. I’m sure you’ll find much variety to cut your medical teeth on here in Mull. You might find us a little too provincial after Logios and Tilting, although that’s changing.” I bit my tongue to stop myself blabbing. It wasn’t the best time for my nervousness to reveal itself. “How do you know we’re from Tilting?” Mistress Ashmole asked.

“Your—” I cut myself off from pointing out her pox scars, and grasped at the first alternative that came to mind. “Your dress is the latest fashion. I imagine the capital is a very, er, fashionable place.” “Nonsense,” Mistress Ashmole said, her spine stiffening even more. “Fashion is for the weak-minded and ungodly. I have more important things to do than concern myself with vacuous endeavors.” If I hadn’t been so rattled, I would have taken more care in my choice of words. She was quite clearly not a lover of fine and fashionable things. Her dress was black and plain, the collar as white as snow but lacking lace or other embellishment. It sat high at her throat, and the sleeves reached her wrists.

Most young women wore shorter sleeves in the summer. It also didn’t fit her very well, being loose at the chest and through the waist. “What I meant to say was, it’s very well made.” She scowled. “The records, Mistress Cully,” she said with a nod at the cart. “We’ll be on our way.” “Of course.” I didn’t move aside. This was too important a moment for such a brief discussion. “I’ll be continuing my duties as midwife,” I added.

“You are within your rights to do so,” Doctor Ashmole said. I hadn’t been asking for his permission but smiled anyway. Mistress Ashmole looked me up and down as if seeing me for the first time. “I expect it must unnerve the expectant mothers to have a midwife who hasn’t gone through childbirth herself. Unless I’m mistaken.” “You aren’t.” “You’re unmarried.” Once again Mistress Ashmole cast a meticulous eye up and down my length. Her thoughts were written in the upturn of her nose, the lift of her top lip. With my blue dress, complete with short sleeves, she must think me quite weak-minded and ungodly.

“I believe you are all alone.” “Your source of information is mistaken,” I said. “I have many friends in Mull. Who is it, by the way?” “Who is what?” “Your source of information?” It must be someone who disliked me to call me friendless. Ivor Morgrain sprang to mind, with his jealousy surfacing after his failed attempt to court me. Aside from Ivor, there were no villagers who’d say such a cruel thing about me. Unless it was the Deerhorns. Lady Deerhorn in particular would say that and more to anyone who listened. I’d first come to her notice when I attended a party at the palace that I should not have. Her sights had focused even more tightly on me after I refused to help her son spy on the Duke of Gladstow.

A breeze swept through the street, whipping up dust and rattling the sign of Hailia’s cupped hands hanging above the front door. Doctor and Mistress Ashmole both looked at it then shared a glance. “Good day, Mistress Cully,” Doctor Ashmole said with a nod for me. They turned to go. “Wait,” I said. “The patient records. Don’t you want them?” “Of course.” I tugged the cart to the front door and he took it from me. “There’s one other thing,” I ventured. “My father and I created a potion that eases pain.

It’s very effective. I’ll sell it to you at a discounted price.” “That won’t be necessary,” Mistress Ashmole said. I ignored her and addressed her husband. “Surgeries are much easier when the patient is pain-free and calm. It’s expensive to make and the ingredients are rare—” “It’s the work of the devil,” Mistress Ashmole cut in. I blinked at her. “Pardon?” “If Hailia and Merdu wanted us to live without pain, they would have made it so.” “You cannot be serious.” Her lips thinned.

“Your concoction is for the weak, those who do not allow the god and goddess into their heart.” She spun around and marched off. Doctor Ashmole pulled on the cart handle and followed her. I glanced up at the sign of Hailia’s hands above the door. “You wouldn’t be so cruel,” I told the goddess. I was about to return inside when Meg emerged from her cottage and signaled for me to join her. “Who were they?” she asked, staring along the street in the direction in which the Ashmoles had gone. “The new doctor and his wife.” “He looks more like an undertaker and she the chief mourner. What are they like?” “He could be the finest doctor to come out of the college in recent years, but I suspect his bedside manner will be on the curt side.

And Hailia help anyone in pain.” “Why?” “Never mind.” “My family will continue to come to you anyway, Josie. My mother is suspicious of anyone new to the village.” “Everyone is,” I said on a sigh. “But you can’t keep coming to me.” Like many of Mull’s locals, Meg’s family had continued to ask me for medical advice after my father’s death. I had to turn them away or risk being fined for practicing medicine when I wasn’t qualified to do so. “We can if we don’t pay you for your services. That reminds me.

There’s a bowl of stew for you. It’s a little watery and flavorless but it’s fine with bread.” Mistress Diver had taken to getting around the law by paying me with food. She argued she was simply providing for a neighbor in need. I doubted her reasoning would hold up under close scrutiny, but it was unlikely to come to that. Sheriff Neerim was too busy keeping the peace, and stopping Mullians like Ivor Morgrain from rioting, than worrying about me practicing medicine. “Thank you for the offer, but your family hasn’t needed me for several weeks. You don’t have to keep feeding me.” She dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “Are you free to go to the market with me?” “Again? You went yesterday.

” “I forgot onions.” “No, you didn’t. I saw one in your basket.” “I need another.” I pressed my lips together to suppress my smile before Meg saw it. If she suspected me of teasing her, she’d change her mind and not go. I didn’t want that. Not when I knew she was lying about the onion so she could see Max. The sergeant of the palace guards had been leading a small cohort through the village as a show of strength ever since a riot had almost broken out three weeks ago. Ivor Morgrain and his friends had followed their leader, Ned Perkin, in causing dissention in the village.

Upset over the newcomers to Mull taking their jobs and driving up the prices of rent and food, they’d demanded something be done about it. The problem was, very little could be done. Only the king or village council could create more employment by funding capital works in the area. So far, the village had funded the new custom’s building and the dredging of the harbor to deepen it. Private enterprise was building more warehouses and offices at the dock. The king had washed his hands of further funding, including providing charity to the poorest residents, despite Dane, Theodore and Balthazar attempting to reason with him. His Majesty was far more interested in finding himself a wife while he kept his mistress busy by throwing parties for the nobles who had been there the entire summer. I collected my purse and basket from the kitchen and rejoined Meg. We walked arm in arm to the village green, our hats angled so they protected our faces from the sun. At least in my case, that was why my hat was at an angle.

In Meg’s, I suspected she was preparing to meet Max by hiding the wine colored birthmark on her neck and jaw as best she could. “Lyle is angry with me,” she said when we rounded the corner. “I defended Sheriff Neerim’s employment of the Vytillians, and he got cross.” I hadn’t thought Meg’s brother would be against employing outsiders. When I had explained to him that Vytillians needed work just as much as Glancians, he’d seemed to understand my point. He’d also nodded agreement when I told him a Vytill presence in our law enforcement ranks might dissuade the disreputable Vytillians from causing trouble. It seemed he said one thing to me and another to his sister. “Will you speak to him, Josie? Make him see that not all foreigners are bad? You’re good at that.” “I think you’re mistaken,” I said on a sigh. “I’m not nearly convincing enough.

” We passed a pair of guards on horseback. I greeted them by name and they smiled back, but Meg didn’t notice, with her arm obscuring her view and her birthmark as she held onto her hat brim. In their crimson palace uniforms, the men looked very dashing. The two young women walking on the other side of the road, giggling into their hands and tossing coquettish looks at the guards, seemed to agree. “The sheriff’s new recruits will be ready to start soon,” I said to Meg. “And the guards can return to their regular duties at the palace. The captain will be pleased to have a full roster at his disposal again.” She nudged my arm. “It’s a shame he won’t be in the village as much. I know you like coming to the market more often in the hope he’ll be on duty.

” “I hardly see him at all anyway.” I nudged her back. “Max is the one who’ll be here less.” “Ouch. Stop elbowing my ribs.” I spotted Erik sitting on his horse beneath the shade of a tree and waved at him. He rode out to join us, moving his mount deftly through the crowd at the edge of the market. The big Marginer guard grinned as he hailed us. “Josie! It is good to see you.” He leaned down and drew Meg’s hand away from her hat.

“Greetings, Meg. I tell you last time, do not hide. I wish to see you.” He leaned down even further and lowered his voice to a seductive level. “All of you. You are pretty.” Meg blushed fiercely and stared down at the ground, but at least she didn’t try to cover her face again. “Oh look, there’s Max,” I said, waving at the sergeant. “No more flirting, Erik. Max won’t like it.

” “He knows I cannot help if women find me handsome.” He puffed out his chest. I rolled my eyes and was about to tell him that wasn’t what I meant when Max joined us. “Good morning, Josie, Meg. Fine day for it,” he said. “For what?” Erik asked. “For, er, going to the market.” Max shifted in the saddle. “Weren’t you two here just yesterday?” I waited for Meg to say something, but she continued to stare down at the ground. It was the same every time we came to the village and saw Max, which was indeed every day, lately.

She wanted to see him yet she didn’t speak to him. The birthmark made her insidiously shy. Her shyness didn’t seem to bother Max too much, though. He simply spoke to her as if she’d spoken to him first and often held a one-way conversation for several minutes without so much as a pause. “If you’re after apples, don’t go to that stall,” he said, pointing to Selwyn Grigg’s cart. “The freshest produce is gone. Try further into the market.” “Thank you,” I said and nudged Meg again. “Thank you,” she repeated. “I’m after onions.

” “In that case, you’ll want the grocer at the back.” Max then went into a long explanation as to why those onions were superior to any others he’d seen in the market. “I think you’ve been here too long,” I said, laughing. “The relief duty will be here soon,” he said. “Will one of them be the captain?” “No, but if you want to see him, just come to the palace. He’ll have some time off later in the day, before the king’s early evening walk.” I thanked him but declined the invitation. For one thing, I wouldn’t impose on Dane when he hadn’t invited me. For another, I’d vowed to keep my distance. He’d made it clear there couldn’t be anything between us.

For all he knew, he had a wife or lover somewhere, and his honor forbade him from being with me when he could have made a commitment to another. Until his memory returned, we could not explore the feelings blooming between us. I admired him and his convictions too much to make it harder for him. “You are welcome at the palace any time, Josie,” Erik said. “Hammer would like to see you, but he lies and says he does not.” “Erik,” Max warned. “I do not understand him. Josie is pretty, yes? She is nice, yes? He likes her, yes?” “Shut up,” Max growled. “You talk too much.” Erik rested a hand on his hip.

“And you are idiot too. Meg is—” “You have work to do,” Max barked. “I suggest you get back to patrolling.” Erik laughed. “Aye, sir.” He wheeled his horse around only to wheel it back to face us again. “I almost forget, Josie. The lump on my little friend is gone. The maids are rejoicing all over the palace. Thank you for the medicine.

” “Little friend?” Meg asked. “Don’t!” both Max and I cried. Erik tossed the matted blond coils of his hair over his shoulder and laughed as he rode off. Meg blushed again and a pink tinge colored Max’s cheeks. “If he’s anything to go by, the Margin folk are mad,” he said. “He’s right, though, Josie. Come to the palace any time, and not because of Hammer. Quentin misses you. He doesn’t stop talking about you and your medical skills.” “Tell him to come to my cottage for tea and cake if he has the time.

” “If I tell him that, he’ll make the time.” “You too, Max. Join us for tea when you’re free.” I hoped he understood I was referring to Meg when I said ‘us’. His blush didn’t fade, so perhaps he did. He thanked me and headed off in the same direction as Erik. Meg and I finished our marketing, buying the grand total of one onion. Neither of us was in a hurry to return home, so we stopped to talk to friends. I wasn’t sure if Meg was avoiding going home because she knew she’d have to help her mother with the housework or if she was hoping to see Max again. In my case, going home meant walking into an empty house with very little to occupy my time.

With so few pregnant women in the village, and the larder stocked with as much medicine as I could afford to make, I was at a loose end. There wasn’t even housework to do, since I’d cleaned from top to bottom last week to keep idleness at bay. By the time the midday sun hung high in the sky, the stall holders had packed up and shoppers drifted away. I tried tempting Meg with a dip in the shallows at Half Moon Cove, but she couldn’t afford to stay away from home for the entire afternoon as well as the morning. “My mother will call me lazy,” she said as we ambled toward our street. “You do too much, Meg.” “I’m sorry. Another time.” “Don’t apologize. I’m not sure I could face the walk to the cove in this heat anyway.

” We entered our street and both stopped. A gentleman on horseback waited outside my house. He sat somewhat awkwardly, as if he were afraid of falling off. It wasn’t until he turned that I realized why. The gentleman held the reins in his left hand. His right arm lay across his lap, limp. Lord Barborough. “He looks important,” Meg said in a hushed whisper. “It’s his high forehead. It gives him an arrogant air.

” “You are right on both counts,” I said. “He’s important and arrogant. I’d better see what he wants.” “You won’t invite him in, will you?”


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