Chapter 18 - The Hunt
There was almost an uproar when Helga calmly announced the next day, that she intended for Catherine to accompany her on her medicine route to the forest, just behind the crag of the castle.
The Butler almost had apoplexy. He was sputtering and red-faced in his anger and distrust, but Helga remained firm in her decision. She was the senior servant and in Dillon’s absence, mistress of the house.
In the end, the butler followed them all the way to the forest and through all of Helga’s meanderings to find the herbs and roots she wanted.
At some point, Helga glanced at the butler, and there was something akin to laughter in her eyes. It dawned upon Catherine that the poor man was being led around on a merry chase. Swearing, grumbling and glaring all the way, but not leaving.
Eventually, he sank down on a log with his back turned to them as Helga started to dig for a huge root. He was miffed and not afraid to show it.
It was also not difficult to conclude who he blamed for all this as his eyes glared daggers at Catherine. She wondered if he fully understood that if she chose to leave or kill them both, he would not be able to stop her?
“Go feed. If you find a deer or a pig, bring it with. I am tired to death of chicken soup, chicken stew, and chicken eggs. The huntsman has been ill these last few weeks,” Helga kept her voice quiet and her eyes on the butler. She called him Sam, but no one else dared.
Catherine knew Eduardo would never have employed such a gruff, stocky, opinionated person as a butler, nor tolerated him in his presence. Yet Dillon seemed fond of the old man, and they spent much time speaking.
Catherine had an idea that there was something between Helga and Sam, but they were both too proper and too proud to ever let on.
She left without making a sound, and she returned as quietly. Sam startled and faced them when Catherine dropped a mid-sized antelope on the ground before Helga like an offering.
Helga sat on her knees, still placidly digging as if it were nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
Shock turned Sam’s freckled face an unbecoming reddish, purple. He was up on his feet and sputtering again as if the deer had fallen from the sky.
Nothing on her person revealed that Catherine was out hunting. She was still wearing pants, and it made her stand out, but it was for her convenience. The scandalized looks of her fellow servants would not make her wear a dress, not unless she wanted to and she didn’t.
“You dared let her out of your sight?” Sam bellowed at Helga, who raised one brow and narrowed her eyes.
“She’s back isn’t she?” Helga asked caustically, and his face reddened even more.
“And who do you think is going to carry that, never mind eat it, knowing how it was killed?” He bellowed to cover his embarrassment, but his horror was real. He looked as if he expected the dead deer to jump up and attack him.
“As far as I can tell, the throat was cleanly slit. Since Catherine managed to carry it this far on her own, I guess she can arrange to get it to the castle,” Helga’s habitual calm almost always seemed to leave Sam furious and without words at the end of every argument.
One would think that at some point he would learn not to contradict Helga, but she seemed to enjoy their arguments almost as much as he. Catherine picked the deer up, and Sam’s mouth tightened at the ease with which she carried it.
“I’m having stew tonight if I have to make it myself,” Helga declared coldly as she led the way back to the castle and Catherine followed almost on her heels.
Outside of the gates, Sam made Helga stop. He grabbed her arm, and their eyes met, whatever she saw there made her come to a standstill.
“Not like this Helga, you know them,” Sam warned. Them obviously being the other humans and she nodded, conceding to his point.
He broke off a branch with much heaving and swearing. Catherine made to help, but Helga’s hand on her arm stopped her. The message was clear; a man has his pride, even one getting on in years.
Sam tied the deer to the branch. Sam and Catherine carried it between them. All eyes were on them when they entered the courtyard, and even Helga had to admit, Sam had been wise.
It was better that the rest of the servants, staff, and inhabitants only saw what they needed to see. That was that Catherine was both helpful and harmless. It was better for them to believe that Sam killed the deer.
How the deer came to be dead, though, no one thought to ask. When Helga sat down and ate the stew she made herself, Sam joined her begrudgingly. Everyone else followed suit, oblivious to the truth.
The meat only lasted two days. Dillon had a large household, and many people depended on him. Far more than Catherine would have guessed if she hadn’t seen this place for herself. Dillon was a good caretaker to his people.
* * * *
Two days later Catherine was in the middle of washing the vast floor of the eating hall. She scrubbed mercilessly at the dirt that seemed to have embedded itself into the stone. She was just finishing the fifth massive tile when Sam approached her cautiously but resolutely.
“Come,” he bade with his usual lack of words where Catherine was concerned. She watched him turn on his heel and he obviously expecting her to follow. She put the soap beside the bucket and did as he bade.
Catherine frowned as they left the castle and headed for the forest. She frowned again when Sam settled himself on a convenient log and started whittling intently as if he had nothing better to do...
She stood there confused by his actions until his steel gray eyes found her staring at him with some caution. With just a little wary distrust, he waved at the forest with his whittling knife.
“Do you need an invitation?” Sam asked crustily, and she was just about to move when he frowned.
“Something a little bigger would be helpful. I don’t want to walk this far every other day. My rheumatism doesn’t appreciate the exercise,” he grouched and then continued to ignore her. They were alone and Catherine had no reason to distrust him.
She moved off slowly and only gained speed when she was out of his sight. She noticed his swollen knees and ankles, the stiffness in his gait in the mornings.
Sam was not a young man anymore, and she was not used to illness. It made her feel sorry for him, despite his wariness and distrust of her.
Catherine appreciated how much it took of him to come here alone with her and to trust her. She also knew his choice to come alone was to protect Helga from Catherine, more than anything else.
His order took some doing, and in the end, she settled for two of about the same size of the other. Her choice was wise. Sam was looking distinctly uneasy at her long absence. She regretted the blood she spilled on the ground out of necessity.
Catherine did not need much and also regretted that she could not spend more time in the quiet and freedom of the forest. It was better out here, far from the constant stress of acting human, harmless and subservient, when her nature rebelled against it all with such vehemence.
“Sorry sir, there is remarkably little game for such a densely forested area,” Catherine explained as she helped him fashion a pole.
“There used to be more, but we have trespassers. Eastern huntsmen that kill for the meat and the skins. They sell it in nearby towns. There is more game on the other side of the mountain, where the undergrowth is denser and the going hard.
We can’t guard all of it all of the time,” Sam was both angry and sad. The news startled Catherine. What were Eastern huntsmen doing in forests this far north?
“Lord Dillon will have to take some men to go hunt there when he comes back from the south pastures,” the word Dillon made her heart rock in her chest.
Sam helped her carry the two antelope, but halfway to the castle, they had to stop for him to rest. He was in pain, and she dared not offer to carry the deer alone. His pride would not allow it.
The meat was welcomed this time. Catherine knew Sam spun some yarn of fashioning a trap and the people believed the aging butler because they wanted to. She allowed it because it gave her brief moments of freedom.
The floor was still waiting for her when she returned, and she knew she would be at it most of the night. Not because it was expected of her, but because she chose to.
Catherine liked working at night with no one gaping at her. It allowed for her strength and speed to aid the mindless, monotonous work.
Catherine could not help but feel a little less lonely. Uneasy trust was better than none. A little freedom, the smell and taste of nature and she felt more like herself.
It was pitiful that she was reduced to a leashed hunting dog. She would treasure each moment she did not have to spend inside these walls under the unrelenting scrutiny of its people.
Most of them were just waiting for some excuse to stand against her. She even suspected that if it were not for their respect for Dillon, they could be easily swayed to act against her too.
Crusty old Sam...