Good Hunting by Dorothy A. Winsor

The boy was arrogant.

Myla had known he would be even before he arrived that morning to foster along with her at Green Valley Manor. Now she sat quietly sewing with Lady Isadia, while Kaven soaked up everyone's attention at the other end of the Hall. The stable master was once again telling the tale of whatever Kaven had done with a difficult pony when he arrived, and the stable master's little boy leaned on the bench next to Kaven, looking at him with worshipful eyes.
Good Hunting
Good Hunting by Dorothy A. Winsor
Myla stabbed her needle through the cloth and tugged until the thread straightened with a twang. Let the fool preen all he liked. She knew some things he didn't. Several of them, in fact. "Don't pull thread so tight, Myla." Lady Isadia leaned toward Myla. Myla frowned at the seam she was sewing, which had puckered into little ridges. Her mother had died when she was born, and while the women of her father's household all sewed, no one had ever tried to teach Myla. She'd been happier running loose in the woods anyway, and there were days she longed to be back there. Still the invitation to live with Isadia had been an unexpected honor, and when the widow of the last chieftain offered to teach you to run a household, you didn't say no. Isadia sat upright again. "I'm told you took some of your remedies to my estate manager this morning. How is he?" "I gave him something for his aches and pains," Myla said, "but I didn't see any way to help him. He's not sick, just old. I'm sorry," she added, watching Isadia's face for any sign of anger. "The Forest bless him." Isadia sighed but looked unsurprised. "You've the greenest hand with herbs I've ever seen. If you can't help him, no one can." Myla caught herself smiling down at her stitches. A shout of laugher came from the other side of the busy Hall, and Myla turned to see Kaven with the little boy in a wrestling hold. The boy was squealing "No! No!" but his face was alight with glee. The stable master had gone, probably to do his nightly check on his animals. It was Kaven who'd laughed. He did it again now. Judging by his stiff silence at dinner, Myla wouldn't have guessed he could make that joyful sound. He still wore the frayed shirt and bright blue trousers he'd had on then. His fostering contract like hers required Isadia to clothe him, but when Isadia asked him if the clothes she'd provided fit, he'd drawn a deep breath and politely said he preferred to wear his own. Myla plucked at the narrow skirt of her gown, thinking longingly of the trousers folded in the chest in her room. "Kaven," Lady Isadia called, "would you come here?" Instantly serious, he released the boy, pushed the hair off his forehead, and wove his way between the other household members to reach them, the boy trotting in his wake like a puppy eager for another game. Kaven's gaze flicked over Myla before settling on Isadia. "Yes, lady?" His voice was deep and softer than Myla had expected, given his tall, broad-shouldered body. "Do you know anything about gray rot disease?" Isadia asked. "Yes, lady. We had it at Sweet Stream two years ago. My grandfather said the only thing to do was cut the trees down and burn them. It was a sorrow, but it couldn't be helped." "I need you to look at some maples on Green Valley's south edge. Last year, my manager found rot there. I want to be sure we caught it all, and he's not well enough to do it." "I'm happy to look." Kaven glanced at Myla, one eyebrow raised as if wanting to be sure she'd heard and was impressed. Her brother looked exactly like that when their father praised him. She deliberately looked away. Just as she'd thought--arrogant. The little boy dissolved in a spasm of dry coughs, making everyone swing toward him. Shuddering, he braced himself against Kaven, who murmured, "Easy." Myla leaped up and hovered near him until his breath settled into wheezing, then bent so her face was even with the boy's. "Have you coughed like that before?" She caressed his head, taking the chance to feel for a fever. The boy nodded. Isadia put a cup of hot tea to the boy's mouth. "He's been like that all spring," she said. "I've found nothing that helped. Can you do anything?" Myla licked her lips. The boy probably had breathstop. In adults, it was a nuisance, but in a child, it could be serious, possibly even fatal. She was almost but not quite sure she'd seen a mention of it in one of her books. She looked up to find that everyone had turned toward her. Don't be stupid, Myla, her father's voice whispered. Kaven, who knew all about gray rot, watched her appraisingly. "Of course," she said. "It will take time to make the remedy though." "Excellent!" The tension in Isadia's shoulders eased. "Myla, you are a treasure." "Come on, Kaven." The page grabbed Kaven's hand and dragged him away, Kaven looking back over his shoulder until their eyes met and he jerked his gaze away. She sat and picked up her sewing. One of her books would have something. She could do this. Stupid, Da said. # "Have him drink that three times a day." Myla paused in handing the jar of cough syrup to the stable master. "Wait." She unstopped the jar and sniffed at its contents. Frowning she replaced the stopper and handed the jar over. "I thought I smelled something odd, something musky. Do you smell it?" "Sorry, no." He was already moving toward the door, holding the jar like a treasure. "The Forest bless you, Myla." Myla closed her eyes and listened until his steps faded. Rot it. Maybe the syrup would help, but it was probably no different than what Isadia had already given the boy. Stupid, stupid Myla. She sank onto the stool and stared at the book open on the table. Just as she'd remembered, there was a remedy for breathstop there. But what she hadn't remembered was that it used what it called night ripple, a plant she not only didn't have but had never seen. The picture showed a ruffled blue flower growing low under a curve of green. She'd told Isadia she could help the boy. More than that, by announcing it in the Hall, she'd told the whole household. They'd all know she'd lied, that she was a failure. And the little boy would continue to cough his lungs out. That was more important and she knew it, but her heart still clutched with shame. What had possessed her to brag like that? At last, she shoved the book in her carry bag and set off through the manor gate and into the woods. She had little hope a search would lead her to the one scarce plant she needed, but she had to try. The green curve in the picture suggested a hollow in a hillside or, given the plant's watery name, maybe under the bank of a pond or stream. The stable master had said that a pond lay about a mile west of the house, so she headed that way first. When she found the pond, though, it yielded no plant she didn't already have in abundance. She wandered among the maples and oaks, and despite her worry, her spirits lifted at the rustle of their spring leaves and the smell of damp earth oddly mixed with the musky smell she'd inhaled in the herb room. She'd spent more time indoors since coming to Green Valley, and it had worn on her more than she'd realized. She was crouching to gather catnip for the barn cats when she heard the clip-clop of an approaching horse and Kaven rode into sight. He reined in when he saw her, hesitated, and then slid to the ground. "Fair day," he said. She nodded stiffly and rose. Of all the people to meet in what was, after all, a big forest. Ignoring her silence, he said, "I've been checking for gray rot." Like he had to remind her of what he could do. She still kept quiet, but this pushy boy just would not believe he wasn't wanted. "Gathering plants?" he said. "Can I help you find something?" She opened her mouth to say no, then heard again the sound of the little boy's throat tearing cough. She blew out her breath. "Have you seen this?" She pulled out her book and tilted the picture of the night ripple toward him. As he approached, she caught a whiff of mingled leather and clean sweat that struck her as embarrassingly intimate. She leaned away as far as she could while still holding the book for him. "Light riddle?" he misread. "Night ripple." His mistake didn't surprise her. For reasons she didn't understand, she was the only one who could read the ancient herbals she'd found in the attic at home. Kaven studied the picture for a moment before shaking his head. "Sorry. Do you want me to look with you?" She stowed the book away. "No, thank you. I'm sure you have things to do. Important things." He blinked. "Have I done something to offend you?" "Of course not." She took a step back. "I won't keep you." Looking off into the trees, he ran his hand through his hair. Then he remounted and rode away. She watched him go. Not light riddle. Night ripple. The name was suggestive. She'd slip out of the house tonight and search again. It was likely useless, but what else was she to do? # Myla flung one leg over her windowsill, set her toe carefully between the cabbages, and dropped down into the vegetable garden. The moon rode high, so she'd have hours to search. She slipped toward the postern gate, amazed at every step by how freely her legs moved in trousers. She'd debated whether to wear them tonight and finally decided they were much more practical for crawling through undergrowth searching for plants. No one was going to see her anyway. At least she hoped not. She'd made herself look fool enough already. Besides, if Kaven could choose his own clothes, so could she. She went out the gate, closing it behind her. She set off east this time, where she'd been told the stream at the back of the orchard ran hard between higher banks. The night air slid cool and damp across her skin. It occurred to her that she was bolder in Isadia's house. Green Valley was so different from home, with the household organized around Isadia rather than Da. Myla could see now that Da was always angry, even when nothing had happened to upset him. Half the time she didn't believe he noticed she was there, but in his presence she always sensed some unnamed, unpredictable danger. Isadia wasn't like that at all. She ran a thriving manor, so it wasn't as if she had no cares, and she plainly missed her husband. But she seemed content with her life. Myla hadn't known a manor holder could be so serene. The sound of running water came from ahead, and she emerged from the trees to find herself atop a steep bank. Moonlight broke into slivers on the stream. When she leaned over, she could see that as she had hoped, the water had undercut the bank in places. She sat on the damp grass to strip off her boots and stockings, then rolled her trouser legs up as far as she could. Looping the strap of her carry bag around her neck, she took a single step before she felt the itch between her shoulder blades. For a long moment, she held still, waiting for whatever animal watched her to wander away. Slowly, she turned, searching the undergrowth and finding nothing. Perhaps she'd been mistaken. She slid down the bank, unable to suppress a yip of shock as the icy water rose halfway up her shins, lapping around the rolled up folds of trouser legs. Ah well. She and her clothes would both dry with no harm. She sloshed along, enjoying the squish of mud between her toes and scanning the hollow spaces under the banks but not finding what she needed. Her hope began to fail. Help me, Silvit, she prayed to the wildcat god that embodied all life in the forest. Give me insight and strength. The moon had slid halfway down the sky when she realized she'd come a fair distance from where she'd left her boots. Reluctantly, she started back, finally spotting the ruts in the mud where she'd slid down. She struggled up the bank, arriving wet and muddy to the knee. With some dismay, she thought of the washing she'd have to do. She couldn't just toss these trousers in the laundry for someone else to clean because they weren't what Isadia had given her to wear. She was rubbing her bare feet in the grass, trying to clean them before she had to put her stockings on, when something quivered on the night air, and the crickets and tree frogs fell silent. She straightened, searching the darkness a second time. This time a pair of yellow eyes gleamed back at her. Knees trembling, she backed slowly away, never taking her gaze from the eyes. A low growl rasped through the night. Movement flickered on the edge of her vision. She recognized Kaven in time to choke back a scream. He had his bow in hand, an arrow on the string. "Get up in that tree," he said with seeming calm. "Move slowly." She glanced at the tree, and her heart sped up so she felt like she was choking. "I can't," she managed. "See the low branch?" He moved closer, nudging her in the right direction. "I'm afraid of heights," she managed. Terror took up most of her mind, but there was a tiny space where she was horrified that she was humiliating herself in front of this boy. He gave a choked laugh. "That's a wildcat which is, for some reason, ticked off." He crowded closer. "Go!" The yellow eyes moved as if the cat were tilting its head from side to side. "This way," she forced out and leaped off the bank into the water. A moment later, Kaven splashed in behind her, holding his bow high to keep it dry. She waded to one side and slid into the hollow under the bank. Kaven crouched and squeezed in beside her, close enough that he could probably hear her heart pounding. "This is better," she babbled. "Cats can climb." He twisted his bow in his oversized hands. "True." He shifted and wound up pressed even more tightly against her. To her annoyance, she had to admit his solid warmth was reassuring. She strained her ears, but heard nothing overhead. "Maybe it's gone," she whispered. They both ducked out of the hollow and stretched to peek over the top of the bank. The cat stood looking around, at least two yards long and all muscle. Its golden eyes met hers. For a moment, her fear gave way to awe at this wild creature. She heard Kaven's breath catch. "You have to admit it's beautiful," he said. The cat lowered its head to sniff at the grass until it found Myla's boots. It picked one up, flopped down, and began chewing at the leather. The cat glanced at them, and they both dropped down to sit in the mud under the bank again. Kaven let out a shaky breath, so maybe he wasn't as calm as he pretended. As she listened to the sound of her boot being shredded, she tried to make sense of the last few moments. "How did you come to be here anyway?" Her earlier feeling of being watched came back to her. She stiffened and turned to glare at him. "Were you following me?" Even in the dark, she saw his face flush. "Sort of." "What does that mean?" "I couldn't sleep--" "Feeling guilty for spying on me?" His hand opened and closed around the bow. "I went for a walk--" "With your bow?" "I saw you leave, so I went after you to be sure you were all right. The forest isn't completely safe at night." He waved his hand toward where the sound of enthusiastic chewing filled the air. "No, it's not," she snapped. "All kinds of animals sneak up on you." He set his jaw. "Luckily, as it happens." "Well, true." She rose to peek at the cat, who looked at her with her bootlace dangling from its teeth. She caught a whiff of the feral, musky scent. "Is it the cat that smells like that?" Kaven surprised her by asking. "That makes no sense. I've smelled that all day." "Me, too." They exchanged a look. "Maybe it's one of Silvit's creatures," he murmured. "It would make sense for the cat to bless Isadia's manor. She treats her land well." Myla heard the slight emphasis on she and wondered what lay behind it. She fingered the strap of her carry bag. "Silvit's creature or not," she said slowly, "it's still a cat. Maybe it wants a treat." "Something other than your boot?" She dug in her bag and pulled out the catnip. She wadded it into a ball, then made to slip out of hiding, but Kaven said, "Let me." She frowned at him. "I'm taller," he said. She surrendered the herb to him, and he rose. She leaned out to watch him hurl the ball onto the bank before he ducked back down. They sat, pressed together, and she smelled again his scent of leather and fresh sweat. Something inside her twinged. The sound of chewing stopped. Even over the noise of the stream, she heard the cat sniffing, followed by rustling and a cat moan. With difficulty she forced herself to wait until the noise stopped. Finally, cautiously, they peered over the bank. The herb was scattered across the clearing along with bits of her boot. The cat was gone. "Let's go." Kaven climbed up, and as he drew her up after him, she stumbled against him. "Sorry," they said as one and jumped apart. She wiped her feet on the grass and pulled on one stocking and her remaining boot, tucking the other stocking in her bag. Better to go barefoot than rip it to shreds. She unrolled her trouser legs. Kaven was wet too but he seemed unworried. "I suppose we'd better get back," Myla said. "I don't want Isadia to throw me out." "Me either." Kaven smiled a little uncertainly, and Myla surprised herself by smiling back. "But we should take a little detour. I found that plant you were looking for today." "What?" She whirled to face him. "Why didn't you tell me?" "I just saw it after supper. I went out to take one more look, and when I got back to the house, you'd already gone to your room." At the thought that he'd gone looking for the plant because she wanted it, she felt an unexpected softening in her chest. "It was kind of you to do that. I owe you." He frowned down at his feet. "No. You don't." He turned and started toward home, leading her limping back the way she'd come. At the moment he veered off, she felt an odd, pulling sensation, like someone was reeling her in on a string. Then she and Kaven emerged from the dark into a clearing, and she stumbled to a halt. A house-sized mound of earth rose before her. Even in the moonlight, the moss covering it glowed, and she recognized a Forest burial mound. "Green Valley's?" she asked. "Yes. We're not far from Isadia's front gate. The plant is by the tomb door." She followed him to the tomb's north side where a stone door stood with an image of Silvit carved at the top of the frame. The door was closed, of course. Tombs were supposed to open only to those bearing the blood of the manor they belonged to, and not always then. There'd been so much intermarriage between manors that most families had lost the ability to enter even their own tomb. "There." Kaven pointed and Myla crouched to see night ripple. A delicate, blue scent rose in a cloud around it. She wasted no time harvesting a fist full. "Thank the Forest," she said as she rose, "and also you." His mouth quirked in a half smile. "You're welcome." He studied the door. "Have you ever been inside a tomb?" "No," she said carefully. "Me either." After a moment, he murmured, "That would certainly solve some problems though." She waited to see if he'd say more, flexing her fingers around the strap of her carry bag and feeling again the way that other tomb door had trembled under her palms before it slid open. Should she tell him? He shook himself and gestured to the far side of the tomb. "The lane is that way." She'd keep her secret, she decided, for now anyway. Side by side but not touching, they walked into the dark.

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