The Cracked Altar
Twigs snapped under Hinkle's bare feet as she hurried deeper into the woods. She felt uneasy, like someone was following her, and she looked again over her shoulder to be sure the baronet's men weren't closing in behind her; sunlight pierced the forest with golden rays, tree trunks creaked softly in the coastal breeze—no one was following her.
It was absurd to think they would follow her so far into the wild; but then her paranoia was not without cause—dark bruises still coloured her back and arms from the last time she snuck out of the village.
“It's for your own good!” the constable had said as she yelped under the crack of his cane. He had caught her himself as she tried to sneak back through the gate, and had little choice but to drag her by the arm to the baronet's manor. The baronet couldn't have been more pleased. He had her brought into his dining hall so he could eat while he watched the constable and two of his men give her the caning of her life.
If they caught her again they'd do worse to her than that.
Since the spring, rumours had circulated the kingdom of funny things going on in the woods— primarily in the northeast, but more recent stories told of encounters further west. For safety, the Baronet of Sweetwater had forbidden anyone to leave the village palisade without an armed escort. Dead villeins didn't pay taxes after all. Hinkle, however, was an exception to this rule—not that she wasn't prohibited from leaving; but unlike the traders, berry pickers, trappers, hunters and the woodcutters at the lumber mill, no militia were spared to go with her into the forest.
It was because of her grandmother.
Long ago, her grandmother and the baronet had made a deal. She didn't have to pay taxes and was allowed to live in the village; in return, she would only use her craft for peaceful means, would not meddle in the baronet's affairs, and, most importantly, would never do him harm. However, while their arrangement kept them from strangling each other in the streets, it did not dispel their mutual disdain for one another. Her grandmother never spoke of the reason for their feud, but she and the baronet hated each other. Unfortunately for Hinkle, it meant he hated her too.
Despite this, Hinkle managed well enough brewing potions with her grandmother, who took them to sell at the big market in Amarell and other towns and villages along the way. However, in order to get the ingredients for the potions, she had to gather herbs in the forest. But since the baronet was vengeful as well as superstitious, and didn't, as he had porkishly droned with his mouth full of pudding, “consider the collection of plants and herbs of magical properties to be an apposite use of the Sweetwater Militia,” Hinkle had no choice but to sneak out of the village or she and her grandmother would starve.
Today her grandmother had asked only for a rowan stick and a basketful of mugwort. She had been requesting mugwort more and more frequently in the last couple years, and Hinkle had even needed to replant it so as not to exhaust the source. Recently, it was about the only thing her grandmother asked her to bring back. She used it for lucid dreaming—drying it out and crushing it up with poppy seed pods in a mortar and pestle and smoking it in her long whalebone pipe. Then she'd go up and sit on her bedroom windowsill and stare down towards the harbour as she floated off into some other dimension, often absorbed in that trance-like-state for days, or even weeks. And if Hinkle got a caning or got clapped in the stocks for a day or two—well that was her own fault for being stupid enough to let them catch her.
Hinkle slumped to her knees in the damp foliage, plucked up the mugwort and stuffed into the basket. That done, she needed to find a rowan stick.
There was a big rowan tree reaching over the road half a mile south. When she got there she set down the basket as she tried to decide the best way to climb up and how long it might take to whittle off one of the more suitable branches with her knife. Then she heard the clip-clop of a horse trotting.
She ducked behind the tree. It was likely just a trader driving a cart into town. If they weren't from Sweetwater they might not think anything of her alone out in the woods, but if it was a returning merchant then they would know her by face and name and would be well aware of the baronet's rules. She thought again of the constable's cane, and what more severe penalty the baronet might devise for her for not learning her lesson the first time. He might have the constable take off one of her fingers or an ear.
The horse came nearer and she thought they might pass on by, but to her dismay, she heard a deep-voiced man call out with the refinement of nobility, “Ho! Be someone there?”
Her cheeks grew hot as she remembered that she had left the basket. Oh, she wished he'd just continue on his way.
The horse whinnied and she heard a thud and the sound of clinking metal as the rider dismounted. “Fear not,” said the noble voice, “I mean you no harm. Be you boy or maiden?”
Hinkle cursed under her breath. He knew she was there, and he was no village peon. Not just anyone rode around on a horse. It was possible he was a knight riding to a new post, or some other lord or nobleman. Ignoring a man of such stature was dangerous, and she cringed as she pulled a strand of her sun-bleached hair out of her face and stepped out from behind the tree. She saw at once he was not one to trifle with.
First, she saw the huge horse draped in a black caparison embroidered with white lions. It was a chestnut destrier, a gallant warhorse bred to thunder fearlessly into battle and trample lesser men to death beneath powerful iron-shod hooves. Only a man of great consequence could dream to afford such a valuable ally and companion.
A quartered black and white surcoat flowed down to the man's knees over a coat of mail. In one hand he carried a spear and a shining helm crowned with a black and white braid. In the other, he held a tall black shield emblazoned with three white lions and a white chevron. His posture alone spoke of his high birth and breeding. He was a knight of chivalrous order, a feudal lord who managed his own estate and led a small private army.