The air chilled their faces as they stepped out of the castle and into a walled courtyard.
In front of them was an overgrown rose garden with a weed-choked cobbled pathway around it. Most of the snow had melted here but some lingered in off-white patches. A few of the rose bushes still boasted one or two hardy blooms which had clung on since last summer, faded and papery now.
The king shuffled forward breathlessly, supported on either side by Poppy and Ivy. He raised his head and took in the scene before him, eyes lighting up with a childlike glee.
‘I haven’t been out of the castle in weeks! The doctors wouldn’t allow it. Ah!’ He took a deep breath which set him off coughing again. ‘This was Katerina’s favourite garden, you know,’ his face was animated now as he cast his mind back to happier times. ‘She cultivated the roses herself. They were her pride and joy. She’d cut the most beautiful blooms and arrange them in bowls in the Banqueting Hall – all different colours, reds, yellows, oranges, pinks. Quite magnificent, they were.’
Their constitutional had taken them to the far side of the rose garden now where a lawn stretched out as far as the courtyard wall, the grass overgrown and ice-rimed. A dilapidated shed leant against the wall, its door hanging off the hinges, missing panels revealing its dark interior.
‘Look, there’s the archery shed where we used to keep our bows and arrows and our targets.’ The king smiled as if meeting a long lost friend. His words infused with the warmth of fond memories. ‘We’d spend the long summer days out here, Katerina tending her roses, pruning them and whatnot, and me teaching Larnick archery on the lawn here. We’d set the target up by the wall and shoot from back here. From the time he was big enough to hold a bow, Larnick was a crack shot. Even from back here he could hit a bullseye easily. Put me to shame, he did. Beat me every time . . .’
He broke off and Poppy saw tears glistening in his rheumy eyes. His voice, when it came, was cracked with emotion. ‘My boy . . . My sweet boy.’ Poppy recognized this effect of the remedy. It acted on the patient’s deepest griefs, undoing the knots that had held it in so long and allowing it to be released and flow out of the body. She remembered how weepy she and Annifer had been when they took it, the slightest thing setting them off – an unexpected kind word or a purring cat rubbing against their legs, how they’d giggled about the number of handkerchiefs they were getting through between them. She handed the king a lacy handkerchief and they continued down the other side of the rose garden, towards the castle again, the king sniffing and dabbing his eyes.
‘Forgive me, Princess. I don’t know what came over me.’
‘No need to apologise, Your Majesty. Grief must out, as they say. At least, that’s what they say in Frailing.’
Ivy rubbed the king’s upper arm sympathetically; Poppy saw white sparkles flicker around her hand where it touched the king’s arm and smiled knowingly to herself. King Fenwick inhaled deeply and let it out with a sigh. He turned to Poppy, red-rimmed eyes crinkling into a smile.
He looks like a man who’s just had a heavy weight lifted from his shoulders, she thought.
‘You’d better take me back to my room now,’ the King patted Poppy’s arm. ‘So you can get ready for the hunting party, Princess Annifer. They’ll be leaving in half an hour.’
The hunting party! Poppy thought. Her obsession with making the remedy for the king had driven it out of her mind.