Passing the Torch

The seven-year-old was ushered quickly through the monastery corridors by an aged member of the order. Although she had lived at the monastery all her life, this was the first time, she thought, that she’d ever been taken down this particular hallway; she wondered where the monk was leading her, but when she opened her mouth to ask, the monk curtly shook his head.

They rounded a corner and came to a halt in front of a great wooden door. Suddenly, the seven-year-old knew where this was: this was Grandmother’s room. Perhaps she had been down the hallway before, because she had certainly been here before. But why was she visiting Grandmother now? Again, she opened her mouth and again, the monk curtly shook his head.

He rapped his knuckles against the door. Although the seven-year-old heard no response, the monk clearly did, for he pushed the door open and gestured that she should go in. Feeling faintly apprehensive, she did as she was bidden.

Inside, the room was warm after the coolness of the corridor. A large fire burned brightly in the grate, providing flickering illumination by which the seven-year-old studied the room. In one corner sat a bed, piled thick with blankets. In another corner stood a big, wide bookcase, overloaded with books and manuscripts. The third corner was taken up by a dressing table, complete with ewer and mirror, while the fourth corner held the doorway. The room’s only other occupant was seated in a chair that had been drawn up close to the fire.

“Come, child,” Grandmother called. “We must talk.”

Puzzled, the seven-year-old stepped forward. “Grandmother?”

A dry, wheezing chuckle sounded. “Child, I shall not hurt you.” A wizened hand pointed to the footstool beside the chair. “Come, take a seat, for I have much to tell you.”

Meekly, the seven-year-old sat.

“Do you know what I am?” Grandmother asked. Silently, the seven-year-old shook her head. “I am a Healer.” The seven-year-old just stared, blankly. “I have the power in me to make sick people well once more…and I am dying.”

The seven-year-old’s jaw slackened. She knew what dying meant. “But you can’t!” she objected.

Grandmother chuckled again. “I am old, child,” she said gently. “It is my time.”

Tears pricked at the seven-year-old’s eyelids. “You can’t!” she whispered stubbornly.

“Life is about change,” Grandmother responded sternly. “No-one can live forever, and nor should they.”

The seven-year-old sniffed and said nothing.

“But that is not why I called you here,” Grandmother continued, her voice softening again. “I have something important to do. It is my last act as Healer.” She shifted a little in her seat, turning until she was facing the seven-year-old. “Healing is a talent that not everyone shares. It cannot be learned. It is something you are born with, or not. Do you understand me, child?”

The seven-year-old nodded.

“My son—your father—was born without it. Your mother does not have it either. But you do.”

“Me?” The seven-year-old stared at Grandmother, incredulous.

Grandmother simply nodded. “The monks here will teach you how to use your talent—and how to guard it.”

“Guard it?”

“It is a powerful talent. Here, within the walls of this abbey, you will be safe, and free to use it for all who seek a cure. But beyond these walls, there are those who would keep you for themselves. Kings. Nobles. Warlords. You must learn to guard your talent, and guard yourself.”

The seven-year-old swallowed nervously. “It sounds scary. I don’t want it if it’s scary.”

Grandmother chuckled. “And I said much the same when I was your age. A thing unknown is always frightening, but the monks will show you the right path for your feet. Trust in them, as you have always done.”

Though still nervous, the seven-year-old nodded. “I will. I promise.”

“Good.” Grandmother leaned forward in her chair. “Now, give me your hand, child.”

The seven-year-old matched Grandmother’s pose, noticing, for the first time, the tracery of green vines that twisted and turned about Grandmother’s wrists. Not living plants, but marks on her skin, so detailed they almost seemed real. The seven-year-old stared in fascination.

Grandmother chuckled. “They are the mark of a Healer. Each Healer’s mark is different. My mother’s was a tangle of briar rose. The annals here report others with wreaths of flowers, grasses, blackthorn; even such things as strawberry runners and bean plants.”

At that, the seven-year-old giggled. “That sounds silly.”

Grandmother smiled. “Perhaps, but is the only outward sign of being a Healer. Trust not anyone who claims the talent when no mark can be seen.”

“Will I have one?”

“Oh yes,” said Grandmother. “And very soon.”


“Give me your hand, child.”

This time, the seven-year-old heeded the command and placed her tiny hand within Grandmother’s wizened mitts. Grandmother murmured a few words that the seven-year-old didn’t understand, but felt deep within her bones. Then there was a rush of warmth: comforting and familiar somehow, it felt a little like when she climbed down into one of the abbey’s heated pools; but it was also different because she knew this warmth came from within, not without, and it was a warmth that didn’t fade. Instead it circled around and around, tickling and trickling into every corner it could find. The seven-year-old giggled with pure delight, even as Grandmother released her hands and sat back.

“There,” the old woman murmured. “See: your Healer mark appears. Tell me, child, what does it show?”

The seven-year-old regarded her wrists where, sure enough, marks were beginning to show themselves on her skin. It took a moment or two before it became clear, and then the seven-year-old felt a drop of disappointment. “Thorns,” she said. “Boring brambles.”

Grandmother chuckled again. “Ah, but brambles are far from boring, child. They hold hedgerows together; provide shelter and protection for small creatures and birds. And, do not forget, at the end of summer, brambles provide the last fruit of the year: blackberries, ripe and juicy.” She coughed into her handkerchief; a harsh sound that brought with it specks of something dark to stain the white linen. “One last thing, child.”

Again, Grandmother leaned forward. From beneath her smock, she pulled a small pouch. This, the seven-year-old recognised. It was something she’d seen before, hanging from its leather thong around Grandmother’s neck. She lifted it off, over her head and settled it down over the seven-year-old’s.

“My final gift,” she said. “My healer’s herbs. Not all illness need be cured by your talent. Sometimes the right herbs are as good—or even better. The monks will—” Her words trailed off as she coughed again, harder this time. The fit took several painful minutes to pass, and once it did, it seemed as if Grandmother had shrunk somehow, the last of her strength fading. “The monks will teach you,” she whispered. “And now, it is time for you to go. Your studies begin, and my time of rest…”

Grandmother’s eyes drifted shut and for a moment, the seven-year-old thought her already dead, but there was still a shallow rise and fall to the old woman’s chest. The seven-year-old waited patiently.

Grandmother smiled. “I see your father, waiting for me,” she murmured. “I will give him your greetings, Nina-cub.”

That was when the tears came for the seven-year-old, hearing the pet name her father had used for her. Through those tears, she saw the last of Grandmother’s life drain away: saw her chest rise and fall once, and then no more.

The old monk who’d brought her here stepped forward—had he been in the room this whole time? “Come, Lady Katharina,” he said gently, his voice warmer and friendlier than she’d ever heard it. “It is time to leave.”

The seven-year-old sniffled. “Must I?”

The monk smiled. “Death is both an end and a beginning. For your grandmother, it is her end: the conclusion of a life well-lived, and she is now at peace and restored again to your grandfather and father. For you, it is a beginning: the start of your journey and learning.”

The seven-year-old sniffled again and recalled her promise. She would trust the monks. She stood on legs that seemed far stiffer than they should have been and offered up just the faintest ghost of a smile. “All right,” she said bravely. “What must I do?”