First Chapter of The Errand Rider

The Errand Rider

Chapter One

     Gwynliv Slipwyfe paused, perched on a ladder among tree limbs heavy with apples. She thought she heard the beat of hooves on the road that ran past the orchard. Yes, there it was, the sound of several horses at a trot along Northern Queen’s Road. They were heading towards town. She hurried down the ladder, wondering who it was, how large the party, and if they intended to stop or were just passing through. Handing her basket of apples to the boy helping her in the orchard that day, she gave him permission to leave his work and follow her back to town; she wasn’t the only one who was anxious to hear any news the travelers may have brought. Their town of Cider Spring was very isolated way out here in the back of beyond, in one of the furthest reaches of the realm.
     She ran along the orchard path, cut through a few narrow lanes in town and ended up, with most everyone else who was able to stop what they were doing to catch a bit of news, at the town’s center. Two soldiers and a royal messenger stood alongside their horses, which were being watered at a trough by the town well. They were talking with ­­— Mother, Gwynliv thought.
     Instead of trying to get close to hear what was being said, Gwynliv hurried home to the cottage she shared with her mother, who happened to be Cider Spring’s senior alderwoman. Their cottage stood where Northern Queen’s Road petered out and their little town began. When her mother and the visitors arrived, she was waiting for them next to a table laden with ale, cheese, bread, cold meats, a stew that had been simmering slowly over the hearth since morning and apples.
     “Ah, Gwyn, my love,” her mother smiled. She wore a khaki linen tunic-vest over a white linen top and khaki linen trousers. Her graying black hair was twisted up and out of her way in a bun, and she carried that little bit of extra weight that sometimes graced women of a certain age. With bun and all, she stood just an inch shorter than her daughter. “Just what we needed. And could you pull up a few more chairs? The other alderwomen will be joining us.”
     Gwyn did as her mother asked and made sure there was a chair for herself as well. When all the alderwomen had arrived and everyone was settled around the table, the queen’s messenger began to speak. She and her soldier companions were travel-worn and dusty from the road. The messenger’s strait brown hair was plaited down her back. That of the two soldiers, however, was cropped short – strawberry blonde and mouse-brown, respectively.
     “We bring greetings from the queen,” the messenger said. “She has sent messengers throughout the realm to declare her wish that each village, town and city within the realm be accounted for accurately. To this end she requests a report to be drawn up and submitted to Her Majesty’s court in the city of Landerin. This report shall consist of accountings such as the following: number of residents; crop types and yields; herd types and yields; size, location and quality of grazing pastures; number of residents of fighting-age; types of industry and yields; defensive structures, if any, including moats, walls, watchtowers, etc.; condition of bridges and main roads; distance to nearest garrison; water sources; resources in the surrounding wilds, including timber, ore, game, medicinal herbs and plants, dyestuffs, quarry material, numbers and types of schools, if any, etc. A complete listing of what is to be included in the accounting can be found in this document,” she produced a rolled-up parchment, sealed in red wax with the queen’s seal, tied with an official red and gold binding string, and handed it to Gwynliv’s mother.
     Her mother took the proffered scroll. She broke the seal and unrolled it to its considerable length. Looking it over, she raised her eyebrows, “This is quite a list. Exactly how long do we have to put together our accounting? Do you intend to wait and take it back to Landerin?”
     “No Ma’am,” the messenger said. “You will have until the summer solstice to get your accountings to Her Majesty’s court in Landerin.”
     “Almost ten months, why so long?”
     “To give you time to gather and record your numbers. Also, we do not expect anyone to set out in winter to travel to Landerin. And in your case, Ma’am, whoever you send must also stop at the towns and villages specified at the end of your document. You will find that they are either along the road, or not far from it, as you travel to Landerin. Since your town is furthest north and east in the realm, it falls to you to collect the accountings of those towns and villages close to your route on the way to the queen’s court. You are charged with delivering their accountings and yours safely to Her Majesty.”
     Gwynliv could tell that her mother didn’t like this extra responsibility, but it was useless to argue with a royal messenger. They had very little authority concerning the content of their messages. Their job was simply to deliver them quickly and efficiently. In fact, as soon as the three women had finished with their meal, they thanked Gwynliv and her mother and were off again, bent on whittling several miles off of the distance between Cider Spring and the garrison town of Boomhold, a week’s ride to the south. 

     Gwynliv and her mother turned from bidding the three visitors farewell at their gate and walked back to the cottage. “It looks like you and the other alderwomen have your work cut out for you tonight. I should probably leave you to it and get back to the orchard, unless you need me for anything,” Gwynliv said.
     “No, no, go ahead, but I should think we’ll be talking over how to divide up the accounting work until well into the evening,” her mother said. “Why don’t you take your dinner at The Broken Spindle tonight?”
     Gwyn kissed her mother on the cheek. “Okay, Mum, I’ll see you later tonight.”

     The mid-September sun was warm on Gwyn’s skin as she teetered on one of the orchard ladders, reaching for apple after apple to relieve the bowed branches of their fruit. When evening came at last she was somewhat sticky and dusty and sunburnt and had bits of sticks and a few leaves caught in her hair. She tried to comb the debris out of her shoulder-length, wavy brown hair with sticky fingers. Her stomach rumbled reminding her she had begun to feel quite hungry about an hour ago. And thirsty. She washed her hands in a bucket at the pump, splashed some water on her face and headed for The Broken Spindle for some cool ale and a warm dinner.
     Gwyn entered the door, above which swung a sign bearing the painted picture of a yarn-laden drop-spindle with a snapped shaft, looking as though someone had sat on it. She wasn’t surprised to see a couple of her friends at The Spindle, too. Sarah and Bess were seated at their favorite corner table. She joined them and the serving boy came around with some ale. She took a big swallow, asked for a pork pie (The Spindle was known for its pies, and its hard cider), another tankard of ale, and began to relax.
     “So what do you think is behind this royal request for an accounting?” Sarah asked. Her skin was dark from a summer’s worth of work tending her farm and fields. With that and her black hair and dark eyes she was the perfect contrast to Bess, whose hair sprouted in golden curls around a pale, freckled face set with deep blue eyes. Bess and her mother ran the grain mill on Runnymede Creek on the northwestern edge of town.
     Gwyn sighed. “I don’t know. The messenger didn’t say anything else, and the soldiers didn’t seem to know anything either. The soldiers were probably just squaddies, and didn’t know much anyway. I did notice and interesting thing tucked in with everything else that has to be counted; just kind of thrown in with the rest like it was of no consequence.”
     “And what was that?” Bess asked. She swiped at the bottom of the bowl of stew she’d been eating with a bit of bread, mopping up every last drop, and popped the bread into her mouth.
     “The queen wants to know the number of residents of fighting age in each place,” Gwyn said.
     Sarah whistled. “She just tucked that in there, huh?”
     “Yep,” Gwyn nodded.
     “Should we be worried, do you think?” Sarah asked.
     “I don’t know,” Gwyn shrugged, “There hasn’t been any talk that I’ve heard of that points to anything like a war brewing.” She looked at her friends, “You hear any news of that sort lately?”
     They both shook their heads.
     Bess swallowed her bread. “And who is going to present all of these numbers at court?”
     “I don’t think there’ll be any presenting,” Gwyn said. “I think there will only be delivering and coming back home. Well, picking up everyone else’s accounts between here and Landerin, delivering them all, and then coming home.”
     The serving boy returned, set a pork pie and three half-pint tankards of ale on the table and ran off to serve another table. Gwyn cut into her pork pie and began to eat.
     “Okay,” said Bess, “so who’s gonna to do all that?”
     Gwyn shrugged. She chewed and swallowed. “Whichever poor sop the town alderwomen choose, I ‘spose.” 

     “Me?” Gwyn said in disbelief. “Mum! How in the depth of all the sky did all seven alderwomen come to that conclusion? That I would be the best person to go to Landerin?”
     “We think you are the best candidate to deliver the accountings to Landerin because you can ride, you’re good with a map and you can take care of yourself.”
     “Mum, I’m seventeen.”
     “You will be eighteen before it’s time for you to leave, and as I said, and you know, you are quite capable of taking care of yourself.”
     “And you don’t need me around here,” Gwyn added testily. “It didn’t skip my notice that whoever does this will need to leave just as spring begins along with all of its work.”
     “Gwynliv, don’t talk like that. You know you are vital to this town, but it is just as you say. Your work can be done by others for the time that you are away.”
     Gwyn exhaled and closed her eyes. Her lips were a thin line.
     “Not as well as you, but we have boys to help with your work in the orchard, and Peggy’s daughter Mira can help me with our midwifery and healing and bandaging and remedying, and do a little collecting — you’ve taught her so well, Gwyn my love.” She reached out and placed a hand on Gwyn’s shoulder. “We need you. The town needs you. I need you – to do this thing. Of all the people who would be best able to leave for an extended period at that time of year, you’re the best choice. It’s as simple as that.”
     Gwyn opened her eyes with a sigh. “Oh, Mum, you’re probably right.”
     “Look,” her mother said, “you have several months to get used to the idea and to teach Mira what to do in your place while you’re gone. I’m sure once you’ve had time to think about it, go over the maps, and do a little planning, you’ll be anxious to be on the road come spring.”
     Gwyn mumbled a reluctant, “Okay.”
     Her mother pulled her into a hug. “There now, I knew you’d say yes. You would never let someone else leave their farm or business for so long when you are able to leave without quite the disruption they might experience.”
     Her mother was right. It did make sense that she be the one to go. Oh joy. It’s just that she felt a little superfluous at times. Her mother could do it all, lead the town, birth the babies, soothe a cough, and set a bone. Gwyn knew she had become a fine midwife and herbwife herself, and could find any medicinal herb in the marshes, woodland or fields that they couldn’t grow in their own well-kept physic garden. She could ease a babe into the world, bind a wound, soothe a fever and all the rest. But her mother and Mira, who was starting an apprenticeship with them and was very bright and capable, could easily do without her while she was away on this queen’s errand. And every family in the town was expected to help out in the orchards, but as her mother pointed out, the orchard boys could take up her portion of the work while she was gone. So she would be the one to travel to Landerin. 

     “You?” Sarah and Bess said together a few evenings later when the three friends met up at The Spindle again.
     “Me,” Gwyn replied.
     “When do you leave?” Bess asked.
     “Not for a while,” Gwyn said. “Not ‘till after winter.” She twirled her mug of ale slowly on the table in front of her. “I’ve gone over a few maps and it looks like it’ll take the best part of ten weeks to get to Landerin by the route they want me to take. I need to collect the accountings from the Shy Folk, Northlake, Southlake, Charm and Newlander along the way. I want a cushion of a couple of weeks, so I’ll probably leave in the last week of March.”
     “It’ll still be cold then,” said Sarah. “There may even be snow on the ground.”
     Gwyn shrugged. “Can’t be helped. At least the weather should warm up while I’m on the road. I’ll be riding out of winter, through spring and right into summer. At least on the way there. On the way back I can take a more direct route and should be back by the end of July, or mid-August at the very latest.”
     Bess suddenly sat up with a sunny look, “Hey! We’ll be able to celebrate your birthday before you leave!”
     Gwynliv laughed. “Yeah, but that’s not ‘till the end of February.”
     “Bess has a point,” Sarah said. “In fact I think we should do a bit of early celebrating,” she looked around, “Where is that serving boy?” She caught his eye and waved him over, “Three mugs of hard cider,” she said. He began to run off, “Wait! Make that four. The birthday girl needs two!” Sarah and Bess laughed while Gwyn rolled her eyes.
     “Is it your birfday today Miss Gwynliv, how old are you?” the serving boy asked.
     “No, Tobias,” Gwynliv chuckled, “My friends just need an excuse for a party. I’m still seventeen for the next six months, and more.”
     “Only, Frederick at the bar is sweet on you,” Tobias said. “Has been forever. I would like to have been the one to tell him it’s your birfday, is all.” He grinned shyly and ran off to fill their order.
     Now Bess and Sarah were guffawing. “Lookout Gwynliv, the barlad’s got his eye on you!” Sarah managed to say through her howls of laughter.
     Gwyn rolled her eyes again. “That lad is sweet on everyone. I think I saw him chatting up Alderwoman Burbage last week, and she’s sixty if she’s a day.”
     “And I think I saw him coming out of Alderwoman Burbage’s cottage very early last Saturday morning.” Bess whispered.
     Now all three were howling with laughter, and the cider wasn’t even there yet. 

     Gwyn spent the rest of fall making sure there were enough seeds saved for next spring’s physic garden, and collecting more where needed. She made almost daily trips into the surrounding woodlands, meadows and marshy areas collecting valuable roots, bark, seeds and late-season berries for their medicinal stores. She spent time placing herbs that had been harvested from the garden over summer or collected from the wild and were now dry, into glass storage bottles and sturdy stoneware jars. In November she went traipsing through the woodlands hoping to find new stands of witch hazel trees, which were easy to spot when they put forth their spidery yellow blossoms in the otherwise naked woods of November.
     As winter set in, she and her mother made new batches of salves, oils, tinctures, vinegars, ointments, tea-blends and syrups to re-fill their medicinal supplies. Their cottage would fill with the scent of the particular cure they were working on that day. Some days they were surrounded by the earthy scent of sage, some days with the heady combination of chamomile and lavender, some days with the citrusy scent of lemon balm, and at times the all-encompassing, cozy scent of elecampane and warm honey would fill the air.
     One day in early December found Gwyn out in the orchard making an assessment of the trees before pruning commenced the next month. There had been a light snowfall the evening before and everything bore a dusting of white. As she walked past a row of trees, she spotted a buck. It appeared to be injured and was hiding in a corner made by the back of one of the storage huts and the fence-row. As she studied it, Gwyn saw that the poor thing had a badly broken leg. A bit of white bone showed through the skin down by its right front ankle, and traces of blood speckled the white snow around it.
     Gwyn got as close as she dared to the deer and tossed it a few windfall apples that were still lying about, wondering what would be the best thing to do for the poor beast. She was thinking it may be best to put him out of his misery. She watched him. He struggled to his feet and limped over to the apples. He ate them, and then looked up at her. This close his eyes were dark. She was probably imagining it, but she could almost see in them a strange mixture of desperate pain, wariness, questions, shock, and something more. Something that had to do with her. What Gwyn saw in his eyes was, “Please.”
     That please vexed her. What did it mean? Please what? Please feed me? Please take care of me? Please help me? Or, Please put me out of my misery?
     That please stayed with her after she had tossed him more apples and had gone home. It vexed her all evening, and as she tried to get to sleep that night and through to the next morning as she put together some oats, apples, molasses and corn. It vexed her while she strung her bow and slung it, with a quiver, over her shoulder and walked back out to the orchard carrying these two gifts; one of life and one of death.
     When she got to the shed, he was still there. He struggled to his feet and stood there on three legs. He watched her calmly with those dark eyes that summed everything into a single, vexing word. She and the buck looked at one another for a long moment. Slowly, Gwyn reached for the bow slung on her back and for the quiver of arrows — and leaned them against the side of the shed. The buck took in her motions without so much as a twitch.
     She undid the tie at the neck of the sack that contained the oats, corn, molasses and apples. He watched as she dumped the mixture out onto the snow-covered ground. He kept his gaze on her as she backed away. When she stopped, he gave her a last appraisal with those eyes. Finally, he dipped his head and limped over to the food and began to eat.
     Gwyn decided she would keep the deer a secret. Anyone else would happily add to their venison stores without a second thought if they came upon him. Maybe that’s what she should have done, or even now should do. But she had decided to answer that please in a different way, and now she would see it to the end, whatever that end may be.
     The buck stayed where he was for a full week. Gwyn came to him twice a day with a sack full of food. After that he began a cycle of disappearing for several days at a stretch, and then returning again to stay for a few days. He seemed to be able to get around, even with that terrible injury. Gwyn fairly itched with the desire to set that bone correctly, but the buck would not let her come that close and finally, the last time Gwyn saw her buck was on Yuletide Eve. She went out to him just before the sun began to set on that day, left him some food, murmured encouragements to him and wished him a merry Yuletide, and then left to go join the celebrations in the town. The next day he was gone, and the next, and the days continued after that without a sighting of her buck. 

     She often thought about him. She figured in all probability that wolves had finally found him and put an end to things. But winter had set in, snows fell, the trees in the orchard received their pruning, and Gwyn and her mother were kept busy treating the colds, sore throats, and frost-nipped fingers of the townsfolk. Gwyn spent evenings knitting extra socks to take with her on her upcoming journey, going over maps, and deciding which herbs and medicaments she would carry with her on her journey so that she might be prepared to treat herself or others along the way, should the need arise.
     One frigid night in late January, a knock came at the door of the cottage. Gwyn and her mother were used to knocks on their door at any time of the day or night due to the nature of their work, so they weren’t necessarily surprised, but that changed when they opened the door. There stood Abigail Sterncastle and her two daughters, trying to support a family of five – all strangers – who were dressed in raggedy clothing far too thin for the likes of January and looking like the last good meal they had was in October.
     “Brennalyn, we need your help!” Abigail said as she and her daughters helped the family across the threshold.
     Gwyn began to pull chairs around the hearth fire and help the strangers to them, but the mother and the youngest child, a boy no more than three, collapsed on the rug right in front of the hearth. The father began to weep and pulled the other children, a boy and a girl, to him as he sat on the floor by his wife and son. He spoke in a language that Gwyn hadn’t heard before. She immediately went to the stove and began to heat up some broth and to make hot tea with plenty of honey in it.
     Her mother tried to get to the bottom of exactly what was going on. She began to ask the mother of the family questions, but the mother just shook her head and spoke a few words in a foreign tongue. She finally turned to her friend, “Abigail, who are these poor people,” she asked, “and wherever did you find them?”
     “I don’t know who they are, Brennalyn,” Abigail said. At this point both she and Gwyn’s mother were wrapping shawls and blankets, anything they could find, around each family member. Abigail began to explain, “Sarah Greenlove found them huddled in her barn when she went out to check on one of her mares who’s likely to begin foaling any time now. She thinks they may have come out of the forest to the north, and over her pasturelands. She saw that they were in desperate need of help and managed to get them as far as my cottage and asked if my daughters and I could get them over to you and Gwyn because she’s likely to have her hands full in the barn tonight and couldn’t spare the time to come all this way.”
     “Oh my,” Gwyn’s mother said. “Well, Abigail, you’d best help me check their hands and feet for chilblains and frostbite, and girls,” she said to Abigail’s two young daughters, “can you help Gwynliv with the broth and the tea?”
     Once they had made sure none of the family needed treatment for immediate concerns, they were given broth and tea to help warm them, and Gwynliv prepared a hot meal of fried potatoes, ham, eggs and corn muffins baked earlier in the day.
     “I wish we were able to communicate better than just gesturing and guesses.” Gwyn’s mother said as the raggedy family ate. “Who in town knows some of the outland languages?”
     Gwyn shook her head, “I don’t know.”
     “Oh!” Abigail said “I’ve just had a thought. A traveling merchant came to town today on a cider-buying trip. She’s staying in a room at The Broken Spindle. Sometimes those merchants know a word or two of the outland tongues.”
     Brennalyn looked to her daughter.
     “Right,” Gwyn said, “I’ll go see if she might be able to help us.”
     Gwyn found the woman enjoying an ale and a lively conversation amongst a few of the tables at The Spindle. Gwyn introduced herself and explained why she had come.
     “Well, I know a phrase or two in a couple of the outland languages, mostly having to do with trade,” the woman answered when Gwyn asked if she might be able to help. She introduced herself as Meg Journeylass. Meg was a stout woman of slightly less than average height, with graying brown hair and a sparkle in her hazel eyes. “But I’ll come with you and see what I can do,” she said. She downed her ale, excused herself to go fetch what turned out to be a substantial wool cloak; the kind made from a type of weaving that incorporated whole wooly locks of sheep’s wool in the weft, the better to shed the rain, and keep one warm in the snow. It was perfect for someone who spent their days traveling the roads in all weathers, but gave the wearer the appearance of a shaggy bear.
     The children in the raggedy family shrieked when Meg entered the cottage, but calmed when she shed her cloak and they saw that she was just an ordinary woman and not some kind of beast.
     “Often has that effect on the kiddies,” Meg winked at Gwyn’s mother, whose hand had flown to her heart when the shrieks had filled the cottage. Meg joined the family, now seated around the table, and pulled up a chair. “Now, let’s see if we can figure out who you folks are.”
     Sometime later, Meg had been able to suss out that the family were from Dolgoland, the realm that shared a border with the north-eastern corner of their own realm, Korthis. “I can’t quite tell exactly what they’re saying, but I think the gist of it is that there’s some sort of trouble or upheaval going on in Dolgoland. As far as I can make out, they’re hoping to find safe-haven in Rhodheim. That’s where they’re headed.”
     “Safe haven in Rhodheim?” Brennalyn asked, surprised. “They’re going right through Korthis and seeking haven in Rhodheim? I should think that Korthis could provide safe haven just as well as Rhodheim, why travel all that way?”
     “And what exactly do they need to safe haven from?” added Abigail.
     “My Dolgish really is abysmal, I’m afraid,” Meg apologized, “but I’ll give it another go. She turned and tried to converse with the parents of the family again in her very limited Dolgish. After a while, she shook her head, “All I can understand is that they feel Rhodheim will be safer because it’s further away from Dolgoland.”
     Brennalyn, Abigail and Gwyn looked at one another.
     “Doesn’t sound like good news from Dolgoland, at any rate,” Meg said.

     Gwyn’s mother organized donations of clothing, food and money for the family from Dolgoland, and Meg Journylass volunteered to take them in her wagon with her as she traveled south along Western Queen’s Road as far as the village of Highwater. That would see the family well on their way to their goal of reaching Rhodheim. The excitement and talk that came to town with the visitors died slowly in the days after they left, but the town did eventually settle once again into a familiar routine.
     Soon enough, Gwyn’s birthday arrived on February the twenty-sixth. A big party was held at The Spindle, hosted by her friends. They gave her lots of practical things for her upcoming journey (a sturdy pair of brown breeches that would stand up to a lot of riding; a large tin cup that could double as a small cook pot in a pinch; woolen fingerless gloves and a matching hat; and a supply of red-cycle cloths, cleverly designed by Bess’s mother, which were very comfortable and extremely popular in the town), and some not-so practical things (a keg of hard cider which was mostly finished-off that night, and a very large cake, which was finished off that night).
     Gwyn and her mother had many discussions about the vague news the Dolgish family had brought. They wondered if unspecified troubles in Dolgoland would mean anything for Gwyn’s journey to Landerin. But they didn’t hear anything else concerning Dolgoland and no more strangers passed through Cider Spring, so preparations began in earnest.
     March came and Gwyn’s travel plans were finalized. She had mapped out her route and made a list of everything she would be taking with her. Mira moved into the cottage in preparation for Gwyn’s absence and Gwyn supervised her work as she made sure the physic garden was prepared for the upcoming growing season (which Gwyn would largely miss), and helped in the kitchen garden sowing things that could stand an early planting, like potatoes, carrots and lettuce.
     In the late afternoon on the day before Gwyn was to leave on her journey, Sarah and Bess went looking for her. They found her on the outer edges of the orchard checking the beehives to see how well they had over-wintered.
     “Hey, Gwyn,” Sarah called out as they approached.
     Gwyn looked up and smiled. “Hey, you two.” She secured the lid on the last hive and began removing her protective gloves and netted hat. “I have a feeling you’re here to drag me away.”
     “That is correct,” Sarah said. “Are you ready to call it a day?”
     “Sure, I just need to put some equipment away and wash up, I’m a little sticky.” She offered Sarah and Bess each a piece of raw honeycomb. Sarah took a piece.
     “No thanks,” Bess said, and held up an apple that she had brought and had just taken a bite of.
     Gwyn popped the honeycomb into her own mouth instead. Through the wax and the sticky honey, she managed to say, “Help me carry this stuff to the shed.” She pointed to her netted hat, a smoker can, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow with some rotted manure at the bottom. She had been setting rotted manure around some of the trees as fertilizer before checking on the bees.
     As the three approached the storage shed, talking and laughing, Bess suddenly stopped. “Look!” she said, pointing.
     The others looked in the direction her finger indicated and saw three deer not far off. At first Gwyn wondered if they were damaging the trees by browsing on the bud-laden branches. Her next thought, not really believing it could be possible, was, “I wonder if one of them is my buck?” They all were antlerless, but the males would have lost theirs by now. As she watched them move, she saw that one of them was limping. Her eyes drifted down to its forelegs. The right front leg of the limping deer had a definite bulge. It was her buck! He hadn’t been eaten by wolves. He’d made it through the winter and was here with friends.
     “Give me your apple!” Gwyn said, snatching it out of Bess’s hand.
     “Hey!” Bess protested.
     “Shh,” Gwyn shushed her. “Stay still.”
     She started murmuring to the limping deer just like she had last winter when she would feed him. The other deer sauntered quickly away, their tails swishing nervously, but her buck stood still and watched as she came closer with the apple held before her. She stopped several feet away and tossed it to him. The deer bent his head, sniffed at the apple, and then ate it. He brought his head up, looked around for his companions, regarded her one last time, and then turned and followed the other deer out of the orchard and into the nearby meadow. She had gotten a good look at his leg. The skin had healed shut over the open wound, but the bone had healed as it was, misaligned. It was probably still painful to walk on, but he looked healthy and mobile, despite the disfiguring injury.
     Gwyn turned with a big smile to Sarah and Bess. “That’s my deer!” she said.
     She told them all about the buck, which she now named, Limpy. “Could you two kind of spread the word and ask people not to target any deer with a gimpy leg when they feel like some venison? I just feel it would be a sad thing for him to end up that way when he’s overcome so much.”
     “You can tell them all yourself,” Sarah said. “Everyone is coming to my place tonight to give you a big send-off before you leave tomorrow.”
     Gwyn laughed. “I hope this won’t involve another keg of hard cider. I want to get an early start tomorrow, and that stuff would not be conducive to either an early start or a smooth beginning.”
     There was no hard cider, just the regular kind, and a round of ale for a toast, along with a fine dinner and good company. Gwyn said her goodbyes to everyone that night so she could get an early start the next morning. All too soon, as the other guests trickled out, it was only the three of them, Sarah, Bess and Gwyn. They stood at the door of Sarah’s low-slung wooden farmhouse.
     “Take care of yourself on the road,” Bess said, squeezing Gwyn in a tight hug. “We’ll miss you something awful while you’re gone.”
     “Speak for yourself,” Sarah said, “I’ll be jealous the whole time she’s away.” She grabbed Gwyn when Bess was done, and gave her another fierce hug, “Seriously, take care of yourself. We’ll be waiting to hear all about it when you get back.”

     Early the next morning Gwyn saddled Puzzle, her piebald mare, so named because the black and white patches all over her body looked like puzzle pieces fitted together. The sky flushed with a rosy hue, announcing the sun’s arrival. Once her saddle was secure, she loaded Puzzle up with saddlebags and a bedroll and led her out to the road where her mother was waiting.
     “You’re sure you got enough breakfast?” her mother asked. Her graying black hair was mussed from sleep and escaping the plait that swayed down her back. She had thrown on a pair of fur-lined boots and was clutching her robe close as she stood in the road, attempting to stay warm as she said her goodbyes to Gwyn.
     “Yes, Mum, thanks.” Gwyn said.
     “You haven’t forgotten anything?”
     Gwyn shook her head, “I don’t think so, Mum”
     “And since you’re gathering documents for the queen, you’ll earn an errand-rider’s fee, don’t forget to collect it.”
     “I won’t, mum,”
     “You have your bow and knife and short sword?”
     Gwyn nodded, “Yes, Mum.”
     “Gwynliv, I know you know how to use them. I know you can take care of yourself on the road,” her mother said, reaching up and tenderly tucking a lock of Gwyn’s hair behind an ear. “If I didn’t, I would never have asked you to do this, but you know that I will worry about you.”
     “I know, Mum,” Gwyn said. She pulled her mother into a warm hug. “I’ll be fine.” She kissed her mother on the cheek. “I’ll be careful and keep my eyes and ears open. Take care of yourself, I’ll be home before you know it.”
     Her mother sighed, “Okay, Gwyn.”
     Gwyn mounted Puzzle, “Goodbye, Mum, I’ll see you ‘round about late July, if not sooner.”
     Her mother put a hand up in farewell, “Goodbye, Gwynliv, I love you.”
     Gwyn smiled. “Love you, too, Mum.” She clicked her tongue, urging Puzzle down the road, and made a start to her journey.

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