Melgrin filled the brass pot with water from the outside well and hoisted it onto her hip.
“Come on, Elswyth.”
The younger woman, a new worker, followed behind as Melgrin led the way.
“Why does he need water from the outside?” Elswyth asked.
Melgrin groaned and laughed with little humor. “Outside wells can be fairy blessed. That’s all ‘ee’s wantin’. And, girl!” she stopped to point her finger in Elswyth’s face. “’ee doesn’t like to be stared at. ‘Ee doesn’t like to ‘ear any extra sniffin’, either.’Ee used to smell so nice, it troubles ‘im to think of anyone taking a second sniff at the stench.”
Elswyth swallowed hard and nodded her head.
“Farzin’ waysiders,” Melgrin muttered. “We’re goin’ to be late. ‘Ee ‘ates to be waked after the sunrise. Says the sun’s first light brings the fairy magic with it.”
“Aye, the sun,” Melgrin chuckled. “He says the sun was a fairy. I’m not one to openly criticize ‘im, but that’s the most ridiculous fairy tale I ever ‘eard.” She heaved a sigh. “But, ‘ee’ll believe anythin’ that gives ‘im comfort.”
“Don’t we all?” Elswyth whispered.
Melgrin chuckled. “Ye sound all pretty and understandin’, but you’ll feel differently by and by.”
Entering the room, the sloppy snores and stench alone greeted the women as they prepared to wake Papa Egrit. Melgrin set the water pot on the floor, and Elswyth placed a towel on the table beside the bed.
“Your Majesty,” Melgrin called.
His pink eyelids fluttered and opened as he gasped through his mouth, awakening.
“We’re ‘ere for your bath, Your Majesty,” Melgrin said loudly.
“’Course,” he gurgled, trying to push his massive form into a sitting position. Elswyth took the liberty of helping him, and nearly gagged at the odors his movement stirred up.
She turned from him, greeted by a twinkling sassy eye in Melgrin’s head.
Melgrin mouthed the words, “Don’t sniff.”
Stepping in closer, Melgrin said, “This is Elswyth. She’s new, Your Majesty.” Melgrin lifted Papa Egrit’s shirt over his head, revealing a terrible, raw, putrid mass on his back.
Melgrin sucked the air through her teeth and said, “It’ll be a ‘ard scrubbin’ today.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Papa Egrit mumbled. “Get it over with.”
Melgrin looked about her momentarily, then slapped her head and sighed. “I’ve forgotten the salve. Elswyth, scrub the nubs.”
“Silly girl. This!” She gestured to the tender area on Papa Egrit’s back. “Ye take this brush, dip it in the water, and scrub the nubs, hard as ye can.”
Elswyth pleaded with her eyes, begging not to be left alone with this task.
“Scrub the nubs,” Melgrin mouthed, her eyes flashing a warning which Elswyth understood very well. Elswyth took the brush and dipped it in the water as Melgrin turned and left the room. She closed her eyes and placed the brush on the tender spots and scrubbed.
The sound of the scrubbing and Papa Egrit’s noisy breathing made Elswyth sick to her stomach. She turned to refresh the brush, and hopefully her air supply, and was shocked to find so much skin and blood rinsing into the bucket. She took a deep breath and returned to the rubbing.
“Do you enjoy your work here?” Papa Egrit asked.
She cleared her throat. “It is work I am thankful for.”
Papa Egrit chuckled. “Thankful, eh?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Wish it were that I had aught to be thankful for in my line of work.”
“Is it not a good work to be king?” Elswyth asked.
“A good work!” he said, raising his voice. “It’s an excellent work! ‘Tis my health I am troubled by. This cancer,” he gestured to his back, “it eats me like stew.”
“It’s a cancer?” she asked. “Is it good for it to be scrubbed then?”
“Good for it? It matters not. It simply must not come back.”
“My wings, woman, my wings! I cut them off.”
Elswyth stopped scrubbing and started thinking. Perhaps the king was insane.
She continued scrubbing. “Ah, the wings, of course.”
“Do you believe in fairies?” he asked.
The door opened and Elswyth breathed easier when no-nonsense Melgrin charged into the room with a jar of salve. She set the salve on a table beside the bed and pushed Elswyth out of the way to inspect Papa Egrit’s back. To Elswyth’s horror, Melgrin drew her hand to her mouth and gasped.
“What did you use?” Melgrin asked, sharp as a dagger.
“The brush,” Elswyth murmured, holding the nasty thing out.
Melgrin whipped the brush out of Elswyth’s hand and examined it with a grunt.
“What? What is it?” Papa Egrit asked, trying to feel his back.
“Sire,” Melgrin began, “Elswyth has, in a very short time, wittled thy nubs down to nary nothin’. Never seen that afore.”
Papa Egrit turned his eyes to Elswyth, looking her over. “Do you have fairy blood, girl?”
“Fairy? No, Your Majesty.”
He turned to Melgrin and whispered, “Fairy blood.” He nodded.
“Why d’ye think so, Sire?”
“I spoke in the fairy tone. Humans can only hear it when permitted. You had permission, she did not, but she picked it up. Therefore, fairy.”
“Can’t argue with that. Sire.”
“Fairy Blood,” he said, “I have a job for you. You, girl, will be the cure of me…”
-Sarah Joy Green-Hart