A sharp snap in the bushes and a rustling nearby made her jump. As she turned to see what had caused the noise, she noticed a fawn peeking timidly out of the thicket ahead. She sensed before she heard someone approaching. The fawn tensed as if to spring. Just then a large horse rode into sight, breaking the stillness and sending the frightened deer crashing away in the opposite direction. The horse stopped abruptly and a young man leaned over it's neck to peer at her curiously. He had a friendly face and kind eyes.
"Well, who are you?", he asked, surprised to find a lady alone in the forest.
She could only stare. The young man looked to be a little older than herself and was dressed in the clothes of a peasant. But the charger he was riding looked more like a knight's horse than a farmer's. There was something in his expression that caught her quite off guard. Blushing timidly, she dropped a quick curtsy and stepped out of his way. After a bit of an uncomfortable pause in which she found she couldn't look away from his face, she turned and bolted away from the path into the surrounding trees.
"Blast!", she heard him mutter behind her. And then louder, "Wait! I won't hurt you, I only want to ask you a few questions. Please, come back!" And then more softly, “Blast!”
Gweneth wasn't interested in answering any questions and quickened her gait. She ran a little further and dodged behind a tree. She could hear him trying to guide his horse through the thick brush in her direction. As she pushed ahead, the underbrush suddenly thinned and she found herself in a bit of a clearing. He'd be upon her soon! She looked about for a place to hide. Slowly, without making a sound, she dropped to the ground and crawled under some bushes. She could see him now, drawing closer but moving slowly, searching the forest for her. Holding her breath, she waited until he'd passed by. Then she let out a slow, quiet sigh. He stopped. He couldn't have heard that...could he? His horse began to back up a step at a time, pausing in between to listen.
"Hmmm....I'd bet my breakfast I heard someone sigh, just now, Dynny." The horse tossed it's head and snorted abruptly.
"Ah, you think you heard it, too? Well, lets just take a little rest and make our camp right here. We've nowhere to rush off to and the hunting should be just as good here as further down the trail." The young man dismounted and began to unpack his horse without so much as a pause.
What was she to do now? Trapped under the bush by the man in front and the briers all around, there was no way to escape. Trying to get comfortable without making any noise was a tricky task on the bed of crackling leaves in her hiding place. She planned to wait quietly until the man stepped away or fell asleep and then make a run for it. Ironically, she found herself in a thick patch of blackberry brambles hanging heavy with ripened fruit. Every once in a while the horse would stop grazing on the few clumps of grass in the small clearing and cast a suspicious look in her direction. The young man set about making camp as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. He gathered a little wood for a fire and once it was burning nicely, he stood up and looked thoughtfully around the clearing, carefully avoiding Gweneth's thicket.
After a long while, she grew weary of trying to keep an eye on him as he moved around the camp, seemingly doing nothing but pacing and stopping to think; trying to appear busy, waiting for her to make a move. There was something in his face that tugged at her mind. Some memory too long buried, what was it? Her thoughts made her stop and ponder, drawing her immediate attention away. She fell asleep in the shadow of the bush trying to remember and slowly lost her grip on the berry basket. It rolled out from her hiding place into the man's camp where the horse quickly picked it up and whinnied at it's master.
"Well, well, well...What have we here? Seems we were right about our little runaway being close by."
The commotion woke her too late to do anything but look out at the man as he peered under the branches into her hiding place.
"Why don't you come out here where we can have a look at you, Miss?", he said in a friendly voice that almost made her like him instantly. Almost...
But her guard went right back up as she slid out into the camp and looked up at him apprehensively. She quickly looked down at the ground again and felt the heat rising to her cheeks as she stole another tiny peek. She didn't see many men in this part of the woods now but she'd seen her share when they burned the village and ran off all the others. They were cruel and rough. Uncaring and unfriendly. But there was something about this one. A kindness and manner that melted her reserve and drew her eyes back to his. She knew that there wasn't any hope of hiding anything from this penetrating, but gentle gaze.
Quietly, he spoke again, "Well, hello there! Now, what are you doing out here so far from town? Don't you know that it's dangerous to be out here by yourself?" He smiled with a bit of a condescending air and drew himself up to his full height as if to give weight to his admonition.
The thought of that made her burst out laughing. She'd been living out here on her own for nearly 6 months now with no help from anyone. But he couldn't have known that and she caught herself. He stopped smiling and gazed at her with a glint in his eye. He realized that although she was petite she wasn't as young as he'd originally thought. And even though she had leaves stuck in her hair, she was the fairest maiden he'd seen. He began to smile a genuine smile this time and her breath caught in her throat. There was something about this man that seemed to tug at her heart. He was handsome in his own sort of way but the depth of his eyes was what really drew her to him.
But could she trust him? How could she be sure? She decided not to speak until she knew more.
"Are you going to answer me?", he asked, kindly.
Taking a step backwards she just looked up at him, angry at herself for the awed expression she seemed helpless to change.
"Would you like some breakfast?", he asked, moving to the fire and opening one of his packs.
Perhaps a bit too eagerly, she moved closer to see what he was offering. While she had the means to get flour by trading syrup from her trees and herbs she'd gathered in the forest, she only had meat when she could find game to snare. The few folks who knew she remained in the village respected her desire and kept the secret. Most of them had small farms along the forests edge and didn't have enough meat for their families let alone any to trade or share, although occasionally they brought her a little milk and a few eggs.
The young man brought out an oily packet and unwrapped a few pieces of dried meat and a loaf of bread.
"I'd love to offer you some stew but I'm afraid this dried venison is all I have." He offered a piece to her and she reached out hesitantly to take it but finally snatched it more quickly than she would have liked.
"My name is Philip." the man said, smiling. "I live on the other side of the forest. Are you from the shire?"
When she refused to answer, only returning his gaze without indicating that she'd heard his question, he asked again.
"Do you live around here? What is your name?" After a pause, he began to look discouraged.
"I'm afraid I'm not very good at interrogating young ladies. Please forgive my rustic manners and allow me to begin again." He reached out to take her hand. Still drawn to the depth of his eyes, she raised her hand to his. Taking it lightly, he bowed and brought the hand to his lips. Dropping a slight curtsy in return, she pulled her hand away and hid it behind her back. It had been a long time since anyone had treated her in such a gentlemanly manner. It seemed as if the memory belonged to another lifetime. She looked at the ground and began to rub the toe of her shoe across a bare spot on the forest floor.
"Ah, I can tell that you are a lady and have seen courtly manners before. Now, I wonder where you belong. Would you honor me by telling me your name? May I take you to your home?" he asked anxiously.
Regaining her sense, she shook her head and again, backed away from the young man. Seeing the concern on her face, he too took a few steps backward. As he did so his eyes never left hers and he proceeded to step into the fire, startling himself into tripping over the packs and sprawling across the clearing. His horse whinnied in what sounded suspiciously like a laugh and trotted over to his master. Grabbing him by the collar he dragged him away from the fire. Although not hurt badly, aside from his pride, his hand had slid through the hot coals of the breakfast fire and blisters were already forming. He quickly put the injured member in his mouth to cool the burn and turned to look sheepishly at Gweneth.
Seeing that he was hurt, she rushed to his side and took the hand in her own. The burns weren't severe but painful nonetheless. She knew just what to do.
"Stay here." she told him and quickly disappeared into the bushes toward the path. As he watched her go, a small smile played across his face but quickly disappeared when his horse butted him with his head and whinnied a warning.
As Gweneth quickly retraced her steps toward the little cottage hidden on the outskirts of what had once been a small but thriving village, she thought about the young man. Philip, he'd said his name was...why did that strike a chord in her memory? No time to think about that now. She quickly filled her satchel with bandages, salve and vinegar. Pausing in the small kitchen garden outside the cottage she picked a few sprigs of yarrow. She hurried back down the trail stopping only long enough to harvest some plantain leaves.
When she arrived at the campsite, Philip was sitting by the fire looking rather sheepish, cradling his hand gingerly on his lap. He looked up hopefully and moved back so she could take a closer look. Gravel from the fall was embedded in the wound and the blisters were full and red. She looked at him pitifully because she knew that initially, her treatment would hurt. Being as gentle as possible, she washed the cuts with warm water. Deftly removing the bits of stone, she quickly cleaned most of the grit from the area and rinsed it again. Philip pulled back in pain. She took out the cider vinegar and bathed the burnt area. He winced again but didn't seem to mind that she continued to care for the burns and cuts.
In his embarrassment, he couldn't bring himself to look at her. While his hand was soaking in the vinegar, she bruised the yarrow and put it in a small pot with some hot water to steep. When the infusion had cooled she soaked a bandage in the tea and held it over his hand. The pain seemed to ease a bit and he turned to look at her with appreciation. She made some tea and offered him a cup which he took gratefully. It seemed now that the tables were turned; he was the shy one, unable to look at her without blushing with embarrassment. No words to say and an uncertainty or confusion written all over his face. Was he frightened? She smiled to reassure him but still refused to speak except to give him instructions about caring for his hand.
Once the salve had been applied and his hand wrapped in bandages, she sat back for a minute. He began to look tired and before long had drifted into a fitful sleep. Thinking it best to stay with him for a while, she sat across the fire watching him. Now that she could take a moment to reflect, she began to think about her childhood and the days leading up to her life in the forest. Images that she hadn't thought of in a long time came flooding back. She couldn't put her finger on it but there was something in those memories that was trying to speak to her.
Gradually, she became aware that she was being watched, too. Looking up, she saw that Dynny was looking at her with a curious mixture of suspicion and approval. She met the horses gaze with a puzzled , questioning look. Dynny whinnied and nodded his head.
She moved closer to the steed, examining his saddle and trappings. They were much too nice to be a peasant's horse. Was he stolen? But Dynny and Philip seemed to have a familiar relationship going. Maybe it was his master's horse and Dynny was used to having Philip care for him. But it seemed like more than that. She noticed that there was a sword cleverly concealed along the saddle under the packs. Drawing it from it's sheath, she held it up to admire the craftsmanship. The horse snorted and pressed his head against her shoulder. She quickly returned the sword to it hiding place. He began nuzzling and snuffling around her apron pockets. She remembered a handful of grain that she had saved for the birds when she was grinding a bit of flour one of the farmers had traded her for some herbal salve. Taking the grain from her pocket, she slowly held out her hand to the curious animal. He licked at it gratefully, his warm tongue tickling her small hand. She giggled and pulled it back. The little bit of grain was gone quickly. Looking around, she realized that the horse was probably thirsty. There was a spring nearby so she took the pot from the fire and started off in the direction of the water. Twigs snapped behind her. She turned to see Dynny trying to follow her through the thick undergrowth. Going back, she led him to a spot in the little clearing near the sleeping Philip and tied him to a bush. He followed her longingly with his eyes as she started off toward the spring again.
When she returned with the water, the horse drank it quickly and noisily. She chuckled to herself and patted him on the head. She removed his saddle and rubbed him down. It had been a long time since she had had the opportunity to brush a horse. It was a task she had always enjoyed. The smell of warm hide; the strength of the muscles that twitched beneath her hands as she rubbed across the massive shoulders. Pictures flashed in and out. More memories prodded her mind. She stopped grooming the animal and stood starring thoughtfully into space.
Coming back to the present, she moved around the fire. Taking a blanket from the packs, she spread it over Philip. His sleep seemed more peaceful now. He'd be alright and if he followed her instructions, his hand should be good as new in a few days. When she was sure that he was resting comfortably, she tiptoed off toward the path. As she turned to look back, she saw Dynny looking at her wistfully. She waved and whispered, “He's all yours, now. Take good care of him.” After taking one last look at the huddled figure lying beside the fire, she disappeared into the bushes.
Next morning, she opened the door to let in the warm sunlight and was startled to see a haunch of venison hanging from a tree near the house. Jumping in surprise, she closed the door partway and peeked around the jamb to take another look. There wasn't anyone around but the venison was accompanied by another bouquet of wild flowers. This one tied with a silk ribbon and a note which read, “Thank you for your tender care of my hand after I carelessly fell into the fire. Your attentions were greatly appreciated. Please accept this venison as payment for the services you rendered me and for your care of Dynny. Philip”
She smiled and looked around the forest for a glimpse of her benefactor but found none. Wistfully she held the bouquet close to her face, it's fragrance covering her in a cloud of happiness.
Still smiling, Gweneth took the meat down and went inside to prepare it for storage. She found herself singing as she cut the meat into strips for drying and built up the fire to cook a pot of stew with the tubers she'd dug in the forest, a few wild carrots and some leeks. As the aroma filled the cottage, she pulled out some bread that had been rising in the cupboard and opened the door to the stone oven above the fireplace. After testing the temperature by sticking her hand inside quickly, she thought it warm enough to bake. Placing the loaves inside, she closed the door and began to prepare the pie crust. This would be a meal fit for a king!
In return for the help she'd given her friends, they'd left a bit of honey, a basket of eggs, a small bag of flour, a large piece of suet and a pitcher of milk. My, what she could do with all this bounty! Since some of these things were not easily found, she wanted to preserve them for use in the winter when the snow would limit her foraging and travel.
But in the crisp morning air of this fine autumn day, she felt like celebrating. The forest was full of end of the season berries, and there were a few old apple trees near the other end of the clearing where the village had stood. She could dry them to use later. There were more tubers to dig and wood to gather for the fire so she'd worked up quite an appetite by the time she was ready to eat all the wonderful food that was filling her little cottage with mouth watering smells.
The stew was simmering, the bread was baking and the pie was cooling on the window sill. Fresh water from the spring was steeping in the sun with mint leaves picked along the edge of the woods. She hadn't had this much food in a long time. Feeling rather selfish to have prepared so much for only herself, she longed for company. There was just enough time to stop by the nearest farm to invite the mother and two small children to come for dinner. Knowing the farmer to be away from home for a few days, she started out the door. As she turned the corner, she came face to face with the mama bear and saw the cubs standing on their hind legs trying to reach the pie on the sill. Slowly, she backed away but the bear could smell the delicious food and followed her. Running quickly in the door and closing it behind her with a bang, she let out a sigh of relief. Remembering the pie in the open window, she ran to save it from the marauding bears and closed the shutters. She could see their little faces looking up at her from just below the window. Their expressions were priceless and she couldn't help laughing.
Her laughter was short lived, however. She could hear the mama bear scratching and thumping against the wooden door. The house was old and in need of some repair. She wasn't sure how much of an attack it could withstand. Suddenly she heard shouting and the drumming of horses hooves outside. There weren't any windows on that side of the house and being afraid to open the door, she could only wonder what was happening.
After the growling and scratching had stopped and she heard the whining of the cubs moving away from the house, she moved toward the door again.
A shout from outside stopped her in her tracks. She knew that villainous voice well and began to look for a place to hide. There was a small storage space behind the chimney but it would be hot from baking all day. Still, there wasn't any other choice. As she drew the bottom of her skirt in after her and pulled the small dresser back against the wall from inside her hiding place, the door burst open.
Obviously expecting to find someone at home the intruder stopped quickly to look around the empty room. Talking loudly as if to a companion, he said,
"Well, its obvious that someone lives here. Look at the feast laid out for me! I'll just help myself to some of this venison stew...."
She seethed with anger knowing that he was used to dining like this daily. Her anger only increased her discomfort from the heat.
After gorging himself on her carefully prepared meal, the rogue threw his trencher into the fire and propped his muddy boots up on the table knocking over her bouquet of wild flowers. He said loudly,
"I'll just wait for my host to return so I can thank them for this wonderful meal."
Shortly, he was sound asleep and snoring lustily. Or so she thought.
As she pushed gently on the dresser in hopes of escaping from the house while he slept, she slowly wedged herself between the wall and the dresser. As she stood quietly and moved from her shelter, he opened his eyes and stared at her with a malicious grin.
"Aha! Methinks I've seen the likes of you before. And I like what I see..."
He stood and moved to close the door and bolt it. She stood frozen to the spot. As he began to walk toward her, she snapped out of her reverie and looked around for something to defend herself. Snatching the poker from the fireplace, she brandished it like a sword and stared at him defiantly.
He laughed and continued to move closer. Just then the sound of hooves in the clearing made him spin around in surprise. She made her move and landed a blow on the back of his head sending him crashing to the floor.
Meanwhile, Philip called from outside and hearing the commotion, pounded on the door. When she didn't answer, he called to Dynny.
Even though she was intrigued by the handsome Philip and his gentlemanly ways, she wasn't used to trusting anyone. Returning to her hiding place, she waited.
After hearing Philip mount his steed, she thought he'd go, but alas, he spoke softly to the horse and with a mighty whinny, Dynny reared up and his hooves slammed against the door, shattering the hinges. Now they stood in the doorway, Philip stooping to assess the situation before dismounting.
Still peeking from behind the dresser, she wondered what to do. When he saw the man on the floor, he stepped inside and looked around cautiously for the person who'd knocked him out. Not seeing anyone, he stooped over the man to see if he was dead or merely wounded. As the fellow groaned, Philip drew his sword and waited. The man opened his eyes. Startled at the sight of Philip's sword, he tried to get to his feet but fell down again.
"What is your name, Sir?", Philip asked.
Still groaning and holding his head, the man grumbled a sarcastic remark which Gwyneth couldn't make out
Philip asked again and this time the fellow rolled over quickly and grabbed both of Philip's legs and pulled them out from under him. Then he jumped up and grabbed Philip's sword only to feel the blow of the poker on the back of his head again. Reeling around, he crumpled into a pile while Philip found himself, again, looking rather sheepishly at this mysterious maiden of the forest.