There was snow covering the cobbles of the yard that morning, light dustings settled in between the stones like flour brushed off a baker’s hands. The stamping horses filled the air with plumes of breath, white against the bright day, and the sounds of the household, still cleaning up after the Yule celebrations, scattered through the courtyard, bouncing off the stone walls. Kaisa stood, leaning her face against her horse’s neck, idly stroking down her shoulder with a boar-bristle brush. ‘Hush, there, can you smell the smoke still?’ She drew in a deep breath and lifted her face to the sky, feeling the sun pierce through the bright still iciness of the day.
Ash rounded the corner from the kitchens, holding a tray, and stopped to watch. The Huntress in her green cloak and russet breeches, a sharp point against the grey walls and the blue sky. She smiled as Kaisa pressed her face to her horse’s neck, inhaling the sweet smell of barley, oats and hay, and made sure to clink the jug and step as hard against the cobbles as she could to save startling either of them. ‘Good morning,’ Ash said, as she came to the stable doors. Kaisa turned her head towards the yard, and smiled. ‘And to you,’ she nodded, making one last circle with the brush and slipping out of the stable. She reached for Ash’s hand, lifting it to her lips, before taking one of the glasses with her other. ‘You slept well, I hope?’ Kaisa said, ducking her head under the weight of Ash’s look.
‘Yes, thank you,’ Ash said, a smile dancing across her face. ‘There is fresh bread, and honey, for breakfast if you come into the kitchen.’
Kaisa nodded before brushing at the flour on Ash’s apron. ‘I see they have you working for your night’s keep.’
‘I would mind more if the atmosphere were less conducive to a good rise,’ Ash said. ‘The court is comfortable, the marriage is arranged, and the yeast can feel it.’ She brushed her hand against the excess flour, holding it uppermost to the sky, and blew. ‘And now the flour can take the message to the fields.’
Being the King’s Huntress’s love placed Ash in a strange position in the court. She worked in the kitchens, to earn her living, and slept in the Huntress’s chamber. She chivvied and carried with the rest of the court’s servants, and sat next to the Huntress, drinking from gold goblets, and danced the second series of waltzes. She pressed hope and serenity and courage into the dough and stirred pleasure and dreams and resilience into the soup, and ate jugged hare and delicate flaky crescents, smooth compotes with silver spoons and drank rare wine from the Southern Plains on state occasions. Sat, at the second table, on the first night of the New Year celebrations Ash watched Kaisa, laughing with her huntspeople, answering serious questions from concerned landowners, was entranced by her neck, tipped back to capture the last drops of sweet wine from her glass.
‘You know I would never ask you to leave this,’ Ash said, as they danced through the doors of the hall, to the bonfire in the courtyard; a poor imitation of the one in the city square, but lit with thousands of candles, the air shimmering with reflected light from jewelled dresses. ‘I could not ask that of you.’
Kaisa smiled, and swung Ash out with her arm, spinning her around until she came whirling back in, head thrown back with joy. ‘You will never know how much joy those words bring me.’
As midnight struck and the new year was rung in, Kaisa and Ash slipped from the courtyard, through the gates and into the city, skipping over the stones to the bonfire, dancing and whirling. Stopping only as the sun rose to lift their faces to the sky, to give silent thanks for the new day, the new year, the new season and all the glories and bounties it might bring. The sun beams were hitting the stableyard as they crossed it, sleepy on each other’s arm, and they stopped in the middle of the yard, in that moment of peace before the grooms descended to ready the horses for the day’s pleasure rides, across frosty fields and rime covered walls, to bathe in the light. Kaisa turned to Ash, ‘We will make our home here, outside the city walls, within the wood,’ before clasping both of Ash’s arms with her hands and kissing her. ‘That I promise you.’
‘Next year,’ Ash promised the feverfew that was poking its head up by the sunny southern wall. ‘When you, and your companions, can be left untended for some time, and when I am less of a newcomer. Then I will ride southwards.’
The Hunt rode back in on a hot, sleepy, day in July. The Court was empty, everyone who could having departed for the cooler coast, hoping to avoid the oppressive haze of summer. Ash was stood, lazily kneading dough in the kitchen, listening to the idle chatter of the stable boys in the yard and the purr of the turtle doves. She was thinking about the bowls of runner beans, whether the stable boys could be induced to top and tail them, and where to store them, thinking about the promise of fresh strawberries and the need to start laying things down for winter. Her own pantry was on its way to half-stocked, a store cupboard of promises for the winter ahead, a trove of love and comfort and reliability in the midst of snow and ice and weeks spent trapped inside. The clatter of hooves on the cobbles nudged its way into her awareness and Ash gave the dough one final knead before turning it into the wicker basket, just before the door swung open and Kaisa rushed through, clasping Ash around the waist and twirling her around.
‘You’re home!’ Ash exclaimed, forgetting the dough and flour on her hands, and holding Kaisa tightly. ‘Oh, my love, you’re home!’
‘Yes,’ Kaisa beamed, ‘I wrote to you to tell you we were only a few days ride away. Did you not receive it?’
‘We have had no letters in two weeks,’ Ash said as she brushed her hands off over the sink, turning back to clasp Kaisa’s hands in hers. ‘I thought I would not see you before July was over at this rate.’
‘We are here now,’ Kaisa said. ‘We bring news for the Court, promises of friendship, and I bring gifts from my family.’
‘You bring yourself,’ Ash grinned. ‘There is no gift that could equal that.’
There were books piled up by the chairs in front of the fire, all borrowed by Kaisa from the Hunt library, with no return date and a kind smile. The Hunt had taken the responsibility of collecting the greenwitch lore upon itself when it became clear that the philosophers were gaining ground. They relied too heavily on the old ways and knowledge for it to be lost, and the Huntress of the time had known that she would not always be able to rely on kindly greenwitches in outlying villages, and the passing on of tradition. Ash found something sad in the black words on cream paper, that this was becoming a solely printed tradition. That the Hunt had hidden its library, and that the knowledge contained within it was hidden from the people whose knowledge it truly was. Kaisa had lifted her chin with two fingers and looked into her eyes, reminded her that she was learning it, remembering it, and could pass it down any way in which she chose, and that the books were but a step along the path, just as she had the notebooks of the old Huntresses, carefully wrapped in leather parcels and kept safe from heat and damp. She added to them, and she referred to them, but they were not a replacement for a trained nose and ear and sixth sense for where a grouse might be flushed or a bough break and startle a jumpy young gelding.
As the nights drew in, and the frost formed on the windows, Ash curled into the chair, with a book and steaming mugs of tea, kept an ear out for the sound of Kaisa’s steps on the garden path, and immersed herself in these books, this new life, the warmth and comfort of the two of them, in their own small cottage. Pressed hope and fidelity and constancy and happiness into every piece of dough and every sweet pastry, spooned preserved fruit from jars and smiled at the memories of that summer, where she stirred hopes and thoughts for the coming months into the boiling mixtures, and returned every kiss Kaisa gave her with an equal one.