Flare read the book of poetry in bursts. One poem would go down easily, then the next would require her eyes to flick over it twice more before it was digested, and then suddenly she was closing her eyes and leaning back and rubbing her temples. Hazel stood by in the meantime, there to keep Flare’s water filled and keep an eye on the proceedings out front.
It was a quarter of the poems before Hazel finally went to the door and threw it wide. Flare could see glimpses of the commotion outside. A festival had sprouted on the lawn, people already chattering together about nothing in particular, food and drinks being shared, a small gaggle of musicians taking it in rounds to play for the assembled townsfolk. It took about a stanza for the entire festival to notice Hazel’s door was open and fall silent.
“Thank you all for coming out,” Hazel said. “The witch is awake, and I’m sure she would appreciate your cooking after her long journey.”
Flare tensed on the couch. She didn’t even know what was in the things these townsfolk cooked, after all. Given that drinking water alone was already a danger, how likely was it she could eat what had been prepared?
“I’m sure you would all like the chance to speak with her, and to sit indoors for a bit instead of standing out on the lawn until the stars go out. So, with that in mind, feel free to come inside and say hello.”
Hazel came back in. Outside, Flare could see townsfolk picking up foodstuffs, making their way towards the door. Hazel said, “I hope you don’t mind. It’s been a while since the last witch passed through.”
Flare didn’t say anything. She could deal with townsfolk. The only issue was dealing with the townsfolk while unable to even read two poems back-to-back.
They drifted indoors in twos and threes, chattering, carrying plates, shifting furniture to place food or take a seat. One person pushed through the crowd to Flare directly, though. A person of indeterminate gender, carrying with them a small black bag. They had a stethoscope around their neck. Flare preempted them.
“No thank you, I already know what’s wrong.”
The doctor’s pleasantly neutral expression grew a touch pleasanter. “Nonsense,” they said, “A second opinion never hurts. Come now, let me have a listen.”
Flare stared at the doctor. The doctor said, “Ah, yes, you’re right, where are my manners. I’m the local physician of Brink. It’s good to meet you. And you are?”
Flare said, “Flare,” as shortly as she could. Then she groaned, and her fingers went to her temples, and the doctor struck. The stethoscope was in their hand, and then it was pressing against Flare’s chest, and Flare hissed in pain and recoiled.
The doctor’s expression grew quizzical as Flare glared at them. In one sharp angry motion, Flare pulled down her shirt to reveal a blotchy mess of bruises all staining her upper body, including right above her heart. The doctor gasped and reached into their bag.
“Here, let me give you some painkillers,” the doctor said.
The doctor looked at her. “I can tell you’re in a lot of pain. You need painkillers.”
Flare stared back. Then she said, “I know the roots you grow here. What your medicine is.”
“I can’t take it.”
“Whyever not? If you’d let me see what was wrong with you, then I could–”
“I know what’s wrong already! I know what I need. Leave me.”
The doctor looked at her, then looked around at the townsfolk, who were starting to stare. “Don’t make a scene,” they chided, “I only want to help.”
“You’re not a witch,” Flare said. “If you really must help, the best you could do is stop talking.”
“You’re obviously in a lot of pain.”
Flare glared at them, then she raised one hand and charm-light began to play off her fingers. Slowly, her hand began to trace the silence charm, but about halfway through she grunted in pain and the light flickered out.
The doctor frowned. “That bad?”
Flare said nothing.
The doctor said, “Well, at least allow me to get you some food.”
Flare grimaced, but the doctor went to gather a plate for Flare anyway. In the meantime, more townsfolk finally began to wander up to Flare, swarming her with questions. How did she get all those bruises? What news did she bring from outside the town? Were there monsters out there? Did monsters do this to her? On and on the questions went, and Flare could hear each one less and less as her concentration waned. She answered none of them, but that didn’t seem to stop the townsfolk.
Flare could have read a poem and a half in the time it took for the doctor to finally return and politely ask everyone to give Flare some space. They carried with them a bowl of some creamy ochre-colored soup which smelled earthy and a little sweet. Flare took it, if only to get the townsfolk to leave her be. The smell was pleasant, and brought herself back to her mind some, but she still felt apprehension.
“What is this?” she asked.
“It’s made from a local squash we grow here.”
“It’s very nutritious,” one of the townsfolk mentioned.
“Good for the soul,” said another.
Flare sniffed at it again. It certainly smelled alright. The only issue was if it would interfere with her current condition more than a little hunger would. It didn’t seem too watery, and the water she drank already had only made her feel marginally worse, so perhaps it would be alright.
“Well? Drink up. It’s good, I promise,” the doctor said.
Flare looked down at the soup. Even if it would make things worse, at the very least it would get the townsfolk out of her hair for five minutes. She still had poetry to read, and resting to do. And perhaps after she slept she would have recovered enough to start hunting down her cure.
She lifted the bowl to her mouth and began to drink.