I rounded the last curve in the trail and saw Quinn House ahead of me. My ride by here yesterday showed only one working chimney, which meant that Ash was alone. Yesterday at least. To my relief only one chimney smoked this morning. Smiling, I took the branch leading to Ash's garden, Jewel following along behind me.
As I reined in at the garden gate the kitchen door opened and Ash walked out, a small bundle in her hands. “Good morning,” I said as I slid off my mare.
Ash smiled her own greeting as she opened the garden gate. The smile held welcome and fond meeting but not more. I lead my pair inside and saw two water buckets already set out. I firmly stepped on the urge to interpret that as an invitation to further intimacy, it probably was common courtesy as I had been stopping by regularly. Probably.
“How would you like to learn to jump a Hunter?” I said, turning to Ash.
Ash smiled, opening the bundle to reveal a halved apple, “To make sure I stay on the horses.”
I grinned. “Bribery does help with horses,” and stepped back to give Ash room to further endear herself with Jewel.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she said, “Do you have time for a quick breakfast before you risk my neck?”
I had eaten already, but any excuse to linger must be seized. “Of course I do.” I unhooked the strap on one of my saddlebags and pulled out a wrapped bundle of my own. “I can eat while you change.”
Ash chuckled softly as she accepted the bundle. She was a reserved one, no mistake. Too much time spent living with her dismissive step-family, I bet. She nodded towards the kitchen and I followed her in.
It was a small manor house, but large enough it needed more staff than poor long suffering Ash. Aising. Gentlewoman born, but no longer of gentle station. And yet she pushed through. I respect strength like that.
With the fire going, the kitchen was much warmer than outside. A day which promised to be the first really hot day of the summer. Ash hooked a small oven off the fire and set it down on the stone hearth. When she pulled the lid off it revealed a bread pudding, one portion already eaten. Today's bread was already set out to cool.
Ash quickly served up the remainder on a simple plate. “If you hadn't come that would be lunch,” she said with a smile.
I smiled back. “Good thing I brought us a lunch, then.” And made a point to keep bringing it if it meant I got to spend time here.
Ash slipped into her small bedroom off the kitchen to change and I took a bite. Simple, but filling and tasty. I could imagine her with us on a hunt, doing splendid things with our trail rations. And also to me. No, Kaisa. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Ash had spoken derisively of her step sisters and their single-minded desire for husbands, and yet had not mentioned any interest in the same though she was well past the age when she should. I pinned my hopes on that. Secluded as she was, she didn't have enough exposure to society to figure that out for herself yet.
“I never asked, where did these come from?” said Ash, from her room.
I finished another spoonful. “A few places. The breeches are mine from a few years ago that I mended, and the tunic a cast-off of another apprentice.”
“You have an apprentice?”
“I had two, now only one. She decided she wanted a husband more than the hunt.” Ash would make a good apprentice if she wanted, she had excellent Woodsense.
Ash stepped out of her room clad in the riding clothes I'd given her, gloves clutched in her hands rather than on them. I raised the mostly empty plate. “Thank you for breakfast.”
The nerves all over Ash's face vanished, to be replaced by honest gratitude. “You're very welcome.”
I stood. “Let us ride.”
I slid off my bay as we got to the river bank. Ash slid off her own with improving grace, though I could see the bone deep weariness in her stance as she hit the ground. It had been a good workout, but to someone inexperienced she must be barely on her feet.
I nodded towards Ash's horse. “In your left saddlebag is a blanket. Spread that out in the shade and I'll refill our water-skins.”
Ash did so, and I pulled out the empty skin in my own saddlebags. On my return from the river I delivered the dripping skin to Ash and went to fetch our lunch, a bundle of crumbly cheese, bread, and a few ends of cured meats. I also picked up the wineskin I'd packed, Ash could use the help loosening up sore muscles.
I settled down beside her and laid out our meal. Ash ate in silence, expression curious but content. “You handled Jewel well,” I said, since I wanted more than companionable silence to share. “It looks to me that you've been on horse before.”
Ash smiled and looked down, neither confirming or denying my statement. “Jewel is a good teacher,” she said.
The horses were aware of her in a way that few people ever get without a lot of exposure. Just one more thing I wondered about her. I sliced a bit of meat and held it out for her. “And you a good student,” she took the slice and laid it on a piece of bread. “One of these days I'll maybe bring a more fractious horse. You should do fine.”
“Thank you for teaching me,” she said. “You don't have to do this. Do you get into any trouble?”
I chuckled. “I am the Huntress. Part of my duties include undoing trouble. The only trouble I 'get into' is trouble I intend to fix.”
She smiled, which warmed me. “Am I trouble that needs fixing?”
Possibly a lifetime of it, I thought, though I don't know if it's there yet. I wanted to smooth the hair over her ears, instead I leaned forward ever so slightly. “You're never trouble for me.”
Her smile widened and she looked out across the river, letting silence fill in. I was beginning to understand that Ash was a woman eloquent in her silences, a language I was only starting to understand. She had something on her mind, but did not share it.
We broke out of the Wood by the Quinn House garden, Ash having lead us there unerringly out from the trackless thicket we'd started in. Ash slid off of Jewel and opened the gate to lead the horses in. She started brushing off the worst of the trail debris entwined in Jewel's coat, the horse settled in for it with a whuf of pleasure. Ash patted her on the withers, smiling.
After we gave the horses as good a grooming as we could before I walked them through the Wood again, Ash slipped inside to change back into her servant's dress. It did not suit her, but there was only so much I could do. She handed me back the bound bundle of riding clothes with her thanks and let me out of the garden.
Ash had found her way out of the Wood, and done so without a wrong turning. Few of my fellow Hunters could do that, and none as young as she. She was most definitely not lost when I met her by the river that time, she just wanted my company.
I turned to look at Quinn House, framed by the Wood, and the Ash it contained. I will be there for you, Aisling. Whichever way you chose, I will be there. Just in case. I vowed. I urged my Bay deeper into the Wood.
This was a stalk that would take quite some time. Patience.