“What herbs are you collecting?” I ask as Maia bobs down for the millionth time in the last few minutes. She hikes all over this place, runs with giant boar, hunts and gathers her own foods. She does the jobs of both man and woman and she is yet to break a sweat. I’m fairly certain she even has weapons strapped to her body. I find myself incredibly curious.
“These ones are just for food, they make a lovely spread for breads or a sauce for fish.”
“Were they in the tea you made for us?”
I’ve been wondering what was in that tea. It seemed to perk everyone up more and more with each sip.
I’ll ask her to mix some for us before we leave, and of course I’ll pay her. I won’t disrespect her the way these ignorant villagers do.
And paying will be nothing. She has no idea who we are, thinking us simple hunters.
I intend to keep her in the dark for now.
“No, the tea was simple tea leaves with a few medicinal herbs and dried berries to help revitalise your men. I assume you have been marching for some time, hence the tea.”
I feel a twinge in the area of my pride. These are my men, it’s my responsibility to see to their welfare, and this woman marched right in and did it for me. I also feel gratitude.
“Thank you for doing that for my men, they certainly needed it. And you’re right, we have been hiking through these woods for several days. We left our horses in a village on the other side of the woods and set off on foot to find the boar.”
“It was no trouble. A few herbs and berries is nothing when you live in a forest. And that was a wise choice. The roots and thick brush would have broken your horses’ ankles and you would have had to walk anyway.”
“We realised that after we entered the forest. How do you find your way so easily?”
We’re back at her home now and for the first time I notice a building set a little farther back from the house. “What’s back there?”
“Hmm, oh, that’s the barn. I found a horse wandering the woods a few years ago so I patched her up and built her a barn. And she was pregnant, so I have her and her foal living there.”
Built her a barn. She built the barn. A woman built a barn.
“You built a barn? How did you know how to build a barn?”
She laughs and I can feel my men behind me, just as shocked as I am.
“Trial and error. You’d be surprised how many barns I built just have them collapse when the wind picked up. That one seems to work. It’s been standing for a few years and has weathered many a storm, so I think I got it right that time.”
Gods. Did any of them collapse on her? How many times did she get hurt doing that? Who is this woman?
“Oh, and I know the forest like the back of my hand because I’ve lived in it my entire life. My adoptive parents died when I was six and none of the villagers even attempted to help me, so I lived in my house and ate whatever I found in the forest. It’s how I figured out what each of the herbs did and what was safe to eat. The boar helped. I ate what they did. If it didn’t hurt them then I assumed it wasn’t going to hurt me.”
I think I heard all of my men’s jaws crack the stone path.
“Wait a second,” says Anders. “You were raised by the boar.”
She puts down one basket and picks up another that’s under a cloth next to the door.
“Huh, I guess I never thought of it that way. I wouldn’t say I was raised by them, but I’ve only ever really had the creatures of the forest, so I suppose, in a way, they are family.”
“What do you want to do? Surely you’ve thought of leaving here at some point.” I ask.
A woman like her wouldn’t want to remain here for the rest of her life. She has a dream, I know it.
She looks into the sky, thinking, a small smile on her face, but she doesn’t answer. We arrive at the barn, which looks pretty good for a barn built by someone who had no idea what they were doing.
“The barn looks good, Miss. Structurally sound, no holes in the roof. You did a good job,” compliments Peter. Maia beams.
“Thank you. And no need to call me Miss, my name is Maia,” she replies.
Peter gives a respectful nod of his head and goes back to his inspection of the barn. He grew up assisting his father, a carpenter, so he knows what to look for and he doesn’t give compliments lightly.
I look around, half expecting to see someone about to attack, but what I see is much more surprising.
Two pure bred war horses. Massive. Perfect coats. One pure white, the other a phenomenal silver grey. They are majestic creatures.
“Do you even know what you have here, Miss. Sorry, Maia,” asks Anders, his eyes round as saucers.
“Um, horses? This is Bow,” she says, gesturing toward the pure white mare. “And this is her foal, Arrow.” She gestures toward the silver stallion.
“These are pure bred war horses. Do you know how much you could sell them for? You’d get enough gold for the stallion, alone, to buy this whole village and have change.”
“I had no idea. I found Bow wandering the woods. She was wearing a saddle and all of the equipment. There was even a bow strapped to the saddle, hence her name. I searched for her rider, but I never found anyone. I never even found a camp she could have wandered away from. She was all alone. And Arrow, well, he was a surprise. Especially when he was born looking like a ball of spun silver, but he took off running from birth and he was so fast. So, I named him Arrow. The villagers haven’t seen them, which is a good thing. If they are worth what you say they are, then I have no doubt that they’d take them from me.”
I have half a mind to offer to buy them here and now, but that would blow my cover and I’m not ready for her to stop talking to me. I decide that I will never make the offer to buy them as I watch the massive battle horses walk over to her and nuzzle her face and neck. They clearly adore her, and she takes care of them extraordinarily well. Their muscle tone is impressive, and they’re so light on their feet. They are incredible animals.
“So, what do you do with them?”
Anders is fascinated by the horses, I imagine he wants to take them and run.
“I ride them. Arrow loves to run, and he’s so fast. I cut a trail through the brush. It’s just a large circle, really, but we ride around and around until he tires himself out. Bow likes a more leisurely stroll. She can really move when she wants to, almost as fast as Arrow, but she’s a lot more relaxed.”
She puts the basket on the ground and the horses lean down to nibble at the vegetables.
“That will hold them over for, oh, about five minutes,” she laughs, running her fingers through the mares’ mane.
“Then we had better go speak to the villagers. Gentlemen, if you could go gather everyone in the town square.”
My men leave, and it’s just us. I take the opportunity to have her answer a question she avoided before.
“So, you never answered my question,” she looks at me, confused. “What do you really want to do in life? What will you do when you leave this place?”
Now it’s my turn to feel confused.
“I have heard of places called oceans. Mountains so tall you could touch the sky. Castles and gardens so full of life and colour. Lakes so large you can’t see the other side and things called canoes that people use to float upon the water,” her smile is beautiful as she talks, her dream setting a sparkle in her eyes. “This forest is beautiful, and the animals are amazing, but the world is large and the lands are great. Or so I hear, anyway. So that’s what I want to do. I want to explore. I want to see.”
“Well, if you ever want t-”
“The townspeople have been gathered,” says Anders, sticking his head in the door and talking to the horses, rather than me.
We leave the barn and walk back toward Maia’s house.
It takes a while to return to the centre of the village, but the reaction is immediate once we walk into the open. The moment the villagers see Maia the murmuring begins. Mothers pull their children toward themselves, husbands step in front of their wives.
Maia stops on the outskirts of the square, sitting on a barrel and crossing one leg over the other like she doesn’t have a care in the world.
A crate a few metres from her makes the perfect stage as I step up to address the small crowd.
“Who among you has been sending requests to the king to have violent giant boar killed in this area?”
Apart from a few men who puff out their chests and try to look tough, the crowd becomes nervous.
“Hmm, then I’ll assume that all of you did. What I really want to know, is why the Kings Hunters were dispatched to hunt something that doesn’t exist.”
An uproar ensues, the men of the crowd becoming rowdy and the women just standing there, staring at Maia with daggers in their eyes.
“They do exist!”
“We’ve all seen them!”
“She’s hidden them from you!”
“She’s bewitched you!”
“Enough!” Shouts Mikael, barely containing his anger. As a small farm boy who was tormented until an unexpected growth spurt that made him a behemoth fit for knighthood, he has a particular dislike of bullies.
Silence falls as my men spread out, forming a semi-circle between the crown and I.
“We have seen the boar, but they are not vicious. They are not dangerous and they have not attacked any of you, not even once. You’ve sent false reports to the King, forcing him to waste resources and labelling yourselves as liars,” my words strike home, fear beginning to show as they realise just how badly they’ve messed up. “Tell me why.”
Silence. All false bravado has evaporated.
“Well, since no one has the courage to confess, which would have made your punishment more lenient, I will simply tell you what I have observed. We have seen here, nothing more than a town full of ignorant men and women who hate an innocent for absolutely no reason, and yet they think they have the right to demand her services for free. And even though she has saved your lives and the lives of your children, even though the lot of you would be dead without her, you have still orchestrated this farce in an attempt to have us, the Kings Men, slaughter that which she holds dear. Did I get anything wrong?”
Another silence, this time filled with animosity aimed squarely at Maia, who looks a bit pissed off herself. Pissed off at me. Why is she mad at me?
“Now, why did you do it?”
I use the most commanding voice I have.
A large, barrel-chested man steps forward. I recognise him as the smith who blew hot coals at Maia.
“To get rid of the witch! If the only thing she loves is gone, then she will leave too!”
He glares at Maia and I get the distinct feeling that he’d happily kill her here and now if there weren’t any witnesses.
“Well, in that case, by the authority I hold as a Hunter of the King, I decree that the boar and all beasts of this forest be protected in the name of the crown. Furthermore, you will no longer steal the services of your healer. Payment will now, and always should have been, required. You will provide her with either gold or supplies as payment for her repeatedly saving your lives.”
I stare at the couple who were on Maia’s doorstep this morning, the child in the mother’s arms, head smeared with the poultice that Maia made for her.
There is an uproar.
“I REFUSE TO PAY A WITCH!”
Blah. Blah. Blah.
I turn to Maia just in time to watch her disappear down an alleyway.
I leave my men to deal with the crowd. They will draft the correct decree, stamp it with my seal and have it mounted in the town square.
I catch up with Maia as she is stepping onto the trail that will lead to her forest cottage.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she says, not even bothering to turn around or stop walking.
“Shouldn’t have done what?” I ask, baffled by the vehemence in her tone.
“You have no idea what you’ve just done,” her voice is cold, holding none of the kindness I’ve come to expect since meeting her this morning. “You have just ensured that their hatred grows. They’ll start trying harder to destroy me and those I care for. I already had a target on my back, I did not need you to make it larger.”
And yet she isn’t scared. Those words from anyone else would have been laced with fear. Those words from her are accompanied by a cold rage.
We walk the rest of the way to her cottage in silence. I don’t really know how to respond, because she’s right. I should have just punished the village for its deception, instead I publicly protected the most feared member of the village.
She is right, I have made things worse for her.
Maia doesn’t pause as she enters her home.
She goes straight to her cabinets and starts removing various herbs and jars.
She works in silence, mixing, packing and glowing – GLOWING!
“What is that?!” I don’t mean to shout it, but I do and Anders and Mikael come barrelling through the door with their swords drawn.
“Put those away. Now!” Growls Maia.
My men obey immediately, which is surprising in and of itself, but Maia’s hands are still lit up with a beautiful green glow.
“Maia, is that magic?” I ask calmly.
“Yes, and it is the true reason that the villagers hate me. If I were a regular healer then they would celebrate me but my magic became apparent when I was a child and they murdered my parents for protecting me when they expressed their desire to drown me in the river. I managed to escape and was protected by the boar until I was old enough and strong enough to return to my cottage at eighteen.”
“We didn’t kn-” I start.
“Of course you didn’t. You’ve known me for a grand total of four hours, it isn’t your place to know,” she pauses, placing all the herbs she’s been mixing into a lined leather satchel and handing it to me. “In there you will find the tea I made for you, enough for the lot of you for at least four days, and a number of healing poultices. There are notes in their explaining what they are for and how they are to be applied.”
We are being dismissed. We crossed her boundaries and now we are being forced to leave.
Not that we don’t deserve it, but it is a shock to my system.
It’s not every day that the Crown Prince of Endolis gets kicked out of someone’s home.
I don’t bother trying to convince her to allow us to stay.
“If you ever find yourself near Endolis, ask a guard to speak to Grayson.”
“And who is Grayson?”
Crap. Where did my manners go today? I didn’t even introduce myself!
“Oh, sorry. I’m Grayson,” I take her hand and kiss it, as is polite of a prince meeting a beautiful woman. “It’s been a pleasure, Maia.”
She says nothing as I turn to my men and tell them that we’re setting out.
She also hasn’t noticed the velvet bag full of gold pieces that I placed on her mantel.