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by Madison Rohn

          The dirt called to me. It claimed me as its own, beckoning me to return to it and die.

          And maybe I should, I thought as I sat on the roadside coughing up blood. It would make things a lot easier.

          It had been two days since the village, even my stepfather, drove me out. I could still hear their shouts. “Plague! Cursed girl! She’ll kill us all!”

          None of them dared to ask where I got my sickness or notice that Stepfather was coughing first. All they saw was the blood, and that was all that mattered.

          And now, I spent my days leaning against the village signpost, hoping for any bit of kindness. But those who passed by ignored my pleas. My chest burned with every breath, and I drank from the murky puddles in the road.

          I knew to expect nothing by the third day of my banishment. I didn’t bother to look any travelers in the eye nor hide the bloodstains on my dress. By midday, footsteps strode down the road once again while I drew shapes in the dirt.

          “What’s your name?” I looked up and saw a young man not much older than me.

          I leaned back on my signpost and sputtered out between coughs, “Get … away from me … or you’ll be s … sick too.”

          He knelt in the dirt beside me. “I’m not worried about that. Here.” He removed a violet shawl from his shoulders and gently wrapped it around mine. I was too shocked to say anything. He then reached out and brushed my dark hair out of my face. “My name’s Elijah.”

          I coughed again with his face close to mine, and he didn’t even flinch. “I’m ... Anna,” I whispered.

          “Anna, I know you want to get better. I can heal you. You just have to trust me.”

          “I’m sorry, but I don’t know you.”

          The sun hit his auburn hair as he said, “Maybe not, but know that I am the one who sees you and wants to help you.”

          “Why? No one wants to help me.”

          He looked hurt at my words, but he continued. “Because I know that this is not what you’re meant to be.” He gestured to the dirt. “You are more than this. You are a diamond meant to be treasured. I’m sorry no one has treated you like that before.”

          A diamond? I almost wanted to laugh. But he was sincere, more sincere than anyone else who passed by. So I said, “Thank you.”

         He pulled out of his satchel a vial full of a clear liquid. “One sip of this will cure you.”

         He passed the glass vial into my hands. “What is it?”

         “Water from the Spring of Verity. It’s known to cure any ailment if the drinker is willing.”

         What else do I have to lose? No one else has given me anything. And if there’s any chance of getting better … And so I drank, and as the sweet water soothed my chest, I stared into Elijah’s golden-brown eyes. In them I found peace.

         I handed him back the vial. “You healed me!”

         “That’s what I came here to do.” Then he took out a small loaf of bread. “You must be starving.”

         My stomach ached, but I hesitated despite my craving. “I can’t take your food too.”

         “Then we’ll share it.” He broke the bread and gave me half, and it was the best food I’ve ever tasted. He waited for me to finish before he took my hand and brought us both to our feet. “Now, Anna, I’m heading to the village. Would you like to join me?”

         I’m healed. Everyone should take me back, right? “Yes, please.”

         He gave me his arm while we walked. I felt like a lady, despite my dirty hair and dress. And I felt the safest I ever felt, even on the arm of a man I barely knew. But I still had questions.

         “Who are you really?” I asked. “All I know is your name and that you care about me. And all you know about me is my name and that I was sick.”

         “What do you want to know?”

         I thought for a second. “What do you do?”

         “I’m a wheat farmer, when I’m not healing people. And you?”

         “I take care of the house for my stepfather. He’s a merchant of sorts.”

         “Mmhmm. Do you miss him?”

         “My stepfather? … Not exactly.”

         “Do you have a place to go home to?”

         “Yes … I think. I’ll be fine.”

         When we reached the village, I expected everyone’s eyes to be on us. A newcomer and a banished woman were bound to draw attention. But of the few people out, none of them gave us more than a glance. Something’s wrong.

            “Hold on.” Elijah walked up to the baker’s wife who was rushing across the road. “Excuse me, do you -”

            “Get away!” she yelled while holding a cloth over her mouth. “Leave while you can!”

            “What’s happening? Are you sick?”

            She saw me and gasped. “You! It’s all your fault!”

            Elijah stood in front of me. “She’s healed now. And if you need help, I can heal you too.”

            “No one can help us.” She hurried off past boarded-up shop windows.

            This can’t be happening … I started running to my house.

            “Anna, wait!” Elijah called behind me, but I didn’t stop, not until I reached the familiar cottage door.

            It swung wide open. “Stepfather?” The daylight struggled to trickle into the house. “It’s me. I’m healed now. Are you feeling well?”

            A cough echoed from the kitchen, and I found him standing over the wash basin. “Why are you here?” His voice was dry and emotionless.

            “I came to see you.” I walked cautiously towards him. “You have it too, don’t you?”

            He glared at me with red eyes and wiped blood off his chin. “What do you think?”

            “I-I can fix it. The man who healed me - I can bring him here to help you!”

            “A man healed you?” Laughing, he pointed to my shawl. “Did he give you that too? Nice fabric. What did he want?”

            “Nothing. He was being kind to me.”

            “I’m sure he was. …” He coughed into his hands.

            “I’ll get Elijah here to help you, and then you’ll see.”

            I turned towards the door, but he grabbed me by the wrist with his bloodied hand. “If you wish to stay under this roof, then you will not leave this house unless I say so. Understand?” I nodded to make him release me. “Good. You’re my only child left, Anna. Don’t make me put you back on the -”

            A knock pounded on the door. “Hello? Anna?”

            “That’s him,” I told Stepfather before I went and opened the door.

            Elijah’s smile brought back some calm in me. “There you are. I was afraid I lost you.”

            “You came at the right time. My stepfather has it too.” I brought him inside, and he took out the vial again.

            “Get out!” Stepfather snarled at him. “I will not have any strangers in my house!”

            But my healer was steady. “My name is Elijah. I’m acquainted with your stepdaughter. I saw her suffering on the road, and I healed her illness. And if you are willing, I can heal you as well. All it takes is a sip from this water, and -”

            “Out! Get out of my house! I don’t want your potions!”

            “Stepfather, please listen!” I begged. “He’s trying to help!”

            And that’s when I felt it. Pain stung my cheek. I stumbled backwards into Elijah’s arms.

            My stepfather stood before me with his hand still raised. Strands of his gray hair fell over his face, and through clenched teeth he yelled, “Get! Out! Both of you!”

            I began to tremble, but Elijah helped me up and held me beside him. “Come on, let’s go,” he whispered to me. Once we reached the door, he turned and said in a firm voice, “I wish I could help you, sir. You better hope for mercy for what will come.”

            I didn’t look at Stepfather’s response. I kept my eyes only on Elijah until we were away.

            We walked for a couple minutes in silence, and he held on to me. “Does it hurt?”

            “Not as much now. He’s given me worse.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            “Where are we going?”

            “To the inn. It’s getting dark. Unless, do you have anyone else to stay with?”

            “No. He was the only family I had left.”

            “Then you can stay with me, if you’d like.”

            I couldn’t hide my relief. After all of this, I didn’t want to leave his side.

            But at the inn, we were met with locked doors. “Go away!” the old innkeeper yelled at us.

            “What do we do now?” I asked Elijah.

            So, we wandered the streets until Elijah pointed out an empty corner, and he pulled out a couple blankets from his satchel. “I know it’s not much …”

            “It’ll be fine. I slept on the road last night, remember?” We each laid on a blanket and stared at the stars. “Elijah? Why did you come here, if I may ask?”

            “I came because I heard there were people in trouble. I heard about the sickness, and I knew I could help.”

            “That’s very noble of you.”

            “Thank you.” A light breeze made us shiver. “Tomorrow, I want to go to every door and try to heal those who are sick. It might be difficult, though. Will you come with me?”

            “Yes.” I clung to the shawl while I slept, but when I awoke in the morning, Elijah’s blanket was covering me as well, and he was gone. He left me. After all of that, he left me. I should’ve known. Why would anyone want to stay with me, especially -

            “Oh, you’re awake.” Elijah approached and gave me a handful of berries. “I tried to find us some breakfast. I hope I didn’t worry you. I wanted to return before you awoke. I also got you this.” He unfolded a blue fabric from his satchel and handed it to me. “Fortunately, the dressmaker let me pay through the boards on her window.”

            I ran my fingers over the clean blue fabric. “It’s beautiful! You shouldn’t have.”

            “I wanted to. And I think, after all you’ve been through, you should have something nice.”

            Where did this man come from? I thought while I changed into my new dress, which I noticed matched my eyes. He even kept watch for villagers and held a blanket up for me while I changed. But worry ate at me. What did he really want from me? Does he know there’s no way I can repay him for all this?

            No longer looking like the plague, I joined Elijah to heal people. We spent that whole day going house to house offering the cure to the plague. But we were only met with opposition. Whenever Elijah tried to explain the water in the vial and that he wanted to help, the villagers yelled at him to go away, that they didn’t trust newcomers, or worse, some accused him of witchcraft. Still, some claimed while coughing that they weren’t even sick.

            I tried to help him by telling the villagers that he healed me, but that made things worse.

            “Why would I trust you?” The blacksmith spat at me. “You spread this plague!”

            At the miller’s house, we had a little hope. He let us inside and listened to Elijah’s words. He said he had been sick for two days, but when Elijah gave him a sip of the spring water, he spit it out. “It tastes disgusting!”

            “Really?” I sniffed the vial, and it still smelled sweet.

            “You’re trying to poison me! Get out!”

            We circled back to our corner at the end of the day. “I don’t understand,” I sighed. “Why won’t anyone listen to us?”

            Lines formed across Elijah’s forehead as he held the vial. “What is true is true. Yet, everyone reacts to truth differently. The truth is that this will cure you, but some people don’t want to admit they’re sick. Some take comfort in their suffering and won’t believe there’s a way out. And some say they want the cure but are disappointed that it isn’t what they expected.”

            “Like the miller?”

            “Yes. But fortunately, there was one who realized they were sick and wanted to be cured. Fortunately, there’s you. You made my whole trip worth it, Anna.”

            “What will we do tomorrow?”

            “What we meant to do. We’ll talk to everyone again. As time passes, they’ll start to see how serious their situation is.”

            “But what if they get angrier? Some of them said witchcraft. That’s a serious claim. They could arrest you!”

            He rested his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be alright. We haven’t done anything wrong.”

            Our eyes met, and I felt warmth in my chest. I have to tell him. “Elijah? You have been nothing but kind to me since we met, and I can’t thank you enough. But, if there’s something you want from me, please tell me now, so I can start repaying you. I don’t have a lot, but I can get you money if I work -”

            “Stop,” he said tenderly. “Who told you that you owed me anything?”

            “I suppose I just thought …”

            “The only thing I want from you is your heart. And I’m not forcing you to give it to me. I don’t want you to give it out of obligation. I love you, Anna. And I hope one day, you will choose to love me too.”

            All words failed me. “I love you.” I hadn’t heard that in ages. And now it came from him. This man who saw me at my lowest and didn’t turn away. He loves me. But did I love him?

            “You don’t have to say anything right now,” he added.

            “Just one thing: wait for me tomorrow morning when you wake up.”

            He smiled at me and lied down. “I can do that.”

            We were able to buy breakfast from a market stand in the morning. Those who claimed they weren’t sick and those desperate enough for money opened their businesses like normal.

            “I suppose this is a good sign,” I observed as we walked past the market stalls.

            But Elijah looked weary. “Good for the village, perhaps. But those hardest to reach are those who refuse to believe they are sick.” The florist coughed on a bouquet after he said that, and no one screamed at her like they did with me.

            We turned down the street to head to the cottages, but I spotted a group of men led by my stepfather approaching us. “Elijah.” I gripped his hand. “We should go.”

            “Go where? We’ll face them. Stay strong and hold onto this.” He handed me his satchel.

            “There!” My stepfather shouted. “That’s him!” We were quickly met by my stepfather, the village guard, and two other men. “That’s the man who stole my daughter!”

            My knuckles whitened. “He didn’t steal me. I went with him after you kicked me out!”

            Elijah put himself in front of me. “Your daughter made her own decision. She decided to join me, and she can decide to leave, if she desires.”

            “Silence!” yelled the village guard. “You must come with us.”

            “For what reason?”

            “You, newcomer, are accused of kidnapping, witchcraft, poisoning, and spreading the plague. To avoid any further punishment, you must come with us, and we will hold a hearing to decide your fate.”

            “But none of it’s true!” I cried. “You can’t do this!”

            Elijah turned to me and whispered, “Do not fear. Wait for me, my love.” The last thing he did before the guard grabbed him was kiss my cheek.

            They led him to the village guard’s house, where all the confidential hearings were held. The guard wouldn’t let me in with them. “You’ll see him soon enough,” he sneered before slamming the door on me.

            I waited outside with my ear pressed to the window. I heard lots of shouts, mostly from my stepfather. My stomach turned with each minute. The last hearing was a girl accused of witchcraft, and when they brought her out of the house, she was led straight to the stake. This is all my fault. If he wasn’t with me …

            There was a thud, and the men started hollering, but I didn’t hear Elijah. All I could do was wait and listen to their loud movements in the room. About an hour later, the door flung open. “Elijah!” I shrieked. “What did you do to him?” Two men each gripped one of Elijah’s arms and dragged him out of the house. His body was bloodied, his clothes were torn, and both his eyes were swollen shut. But the worst part was I couldn’t tell if he was unconscious or dead. I tried to run to him, but Stepfather restrained me.

            “No!” I screamed. “Let him go! Please! Let him go!”

            “Take him outside the village for the vultures,” the guard ordered as villagers stared.

            My stepfather, unaffected by my sobs, yanked me back inside his house while Elijah was dragged away. “From now on, you will stay inside unless I bring you out. Understand?”

            I ignored him and walked to the window. “Did you kill him?” I asked with a voice that sounded distant and stiff.

            “Not us. The dogs’ll finish him off.” His hot breath stung the back of my neck. “He was a dangerous man, Annie. We saved you from his thrall.”

            “You didn’t save me from anything.” I whirled around to face him. “Where were you when I was banished? When I was coughing up blood? He was there, and he saved me! He’s more of a family to me than you’ll ever be! I’d rather die with him than spend another hour with you!”

His hands balled into fists, and I saw Elijah’s blood on his knuckles. “So be it,” he hissed.

            None of the pain I felt that night could compare to the heartache that came from Elijah’s fate. The dogs howled outside my window, and I thought of him bleeding at their mercy. The wind whistled, and I thought of him trembling in the cold. And when the rooster heralded the morning, I thought of the vultures circling above him. I wept the whole night, and that’s how I knew with a bitter pain that I loved him. What a fool I am! He’s gone, and then I realize it. And what have I done to help him? He could still be alive out there.

            Stepfather put on his cloak the next morning and said, “The village is busy once again. People have come to their senses and realized this sickness isn’t as bad as your man said.”

            “But you said it was bad when I had it.”

            “Eh, it’s just a cough. Now, I better not catch you outside, Anna. Clean the dishes.”

            Once he left, I grabbed Elijah’s satchel and took my chance. I snuck around the shops until I made it to the village entrance. About five minutes after leaving town, I found a spot on the road stained with a dried puddle of blood. But there was no body and no one else on the road. Elijah. Either an animal dragged him off, or he walked away. But with the way he looked yesterday, how could he have the strength to stand? I collapsed on the road and wept again.

            I don’t know how long I spent on that road. In a trance of grief, I eventually found myself stumbling back in the village. But I wasn’t the only one suffering. A crowd gathered around the bakery, and I found myself among them. The physician was examining the baker, who laid on the floor behind the counter. His wife wailed beside his body.

            “He’s dead,” the physician announced. “It must’ve been from overworking.”

            But I knew better. “Wait, there’s blood on his sleeve. He died from the plague!” I said.

            “Quiet! Get out of here, girl. You know nothing.”

            I was about to protest, but a hand gripped my shoulder. “What did I tell you?” Stepfather’s voice boomed, and he slapped me right in front of everyone. There was no Elijah to stand up for me. Half the village stood there and said nothing. They let him take me.

            “You have to listen!” I shouted while he dragged me away. “The plague is killing people!”

            “You are on the last straw, girl!” His grip felt strong enough to snap my wrist. He threw me back into the house and bolted the door.

            “What are you going to do? Imprison me here?”

            “Don’t give me ideas.”

            When he left for the market again, he put locks and chains on the doors, trapping me inside. But I had nowhere to go anyway. With Elijah gone and the plague taking its toll, I was surrounded by death. I kept Elijah’s things close to me and tried to rest.

            That day and the next, Stepfather came home with news of more deaths. First the baker, then the miller, the florist, and the innkeeper’s wife. All dead from “overworking” the physician claimed. From my window view, any fear people felt was hidden. But Stepfather seemed to weaken. He’d break into coughing fits and have to sit down until they were over.

            Three days after Elijah was dragged away, I had grown sick of my prison. Even though Stepfather was weak, he wouldn’t lessen my punishment.

            “Please let me go to the market and get us some bread. I promise I’ll come right back.”

            “Nice try,” he chuckled. “You need to learn your lesson.”

            Then a knock shook the door.

            “No visitors!” Stepfather shouted. The knocking continued. He got up and trudged to the door. “I said no visitor-” He looked out the window and stumbled backwards.

            “What happened? Who is it?”

            A voice on the other side answered, “The one who sees you and wants to help you.”

            It was the last voice I expected to hear. “Elijah?!”

            Stepfather leaned against the table to stand. “It’s not possible!”

            I heard rattling on the door, and the locks and chains fell one by one. Then, finally, the door swung open. There stood my Elijah with not a scratch on him. He ran to me and embraced me. “Anna! I missed you!”

            “I thought you were dead! What happened? Where did you go?”

            He eyed Stepfather, who had collapsed again, and said, “They left me on the road for dead. But I managed to make it back to my farm. I drank from the spring, and it healed me fully. Then I prepared my farm before I came back.”

            “Prepared your farm? Why?”

            “I told you to wait for me because I wanted to prepare a place for you. For us. When you’re ready. So that you don’t have to stay here anymore. Because I love you, and I -”



            “I love you too. With all my heart!”

            He knelt down and took my hand. “Then, Anna, will you marry me?”

            “Yes!” We kissed, and his lips were even sweeter than the spring water.

            Stepfather groaned behind us. “You can’t leave. You belong to me.” He broke into another coughing fit.

            I looked him in his red-tinted eyes. “Not anymore.”

            “Wait,” my betrothed picked up the vial again and walked to the man who tried to kill him. “Do you want to be cured? This could be your last chance.” His voice was sincere.

            Between coughs, the old man muttered, “Leave … me.”

            Elijah sighed and took my hand. “Let’s go.”

            “Goodbye, Stepfather,” I told him.

            We left, and I looked back on my village one last time with bittersweetness. “What will happen to them?”

            “This plague is different. Some people it kills instantly, but for most, it doesn’t fully hurt them until years later. We will return here later to try to offer the cure again. But for now, let’s go home, my love.”

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