She was going on the planned hunt. That was that.
Heartha was well aware that food supplies were beginning to run low. Lower than usual this time of year for oh… well as long as she had been in Bancross. All it would take was a long cold spell into what should be spring, and remaining livestock meant to see them through the next year would have to be slaughtered. That way was a slippery slope.
And it wasn’t just the provision of food in the village. She had heard the men grumbling, and heard muttered complaints. Underfed guards could be as awkward as drunk guards. She had seen it before. Oh they were not quite there yet, but she would make sure they didn’t reach that point. Captain Denholm could not stop her.
So she walked from the armoury to the barracks with her usual confident stride to tell him.
There were a few off duty guards playing dice, and one sleeping off the drink in a corner. She nodded to the ones awake. “The Captain is upstairs?”
“Aye, but maybe not in a good mood.” one of the dice players said in return.
The red-haired smith nodded her head in acknowledgement, but to herself she merely shrugged. Although she had a measure of respect for Denholm now, she was not under his command. She would do as she wished.
The door to his office was slightly ajar. She knocked once and, as he obviously was alone, she walked in. He didn’t even look up.
“Wait!” he said, as he finished signing a document.
She knew he was busy. She would wait for a moment or two.
Then he looked up. A little worn, perhaps? She knew he was busy. But so was she!
“Captain Denholm. I have come to tell you I am leaving the village for a short time to go on the boar hunt.”
Watching closely, as was her nature, Heartha was actually surprised to see the captain’s eyes take on a look of anger, of momentary deep frustration.
“Another one on about that damned hunt. Heartha, you are the Master Smith here. You cannot be spared. I am… sending two men with Waelden’s group to hunt for boar. I will be sending the Sergeant out in two weeks to replenish the garrison’s stock. Just leave it be.”
Waelden had been there. Maybe that was why the captain wasn’t in a good mood then? Or maybe it was something else? Heartha knew enough not to push Denholm far at that moment. Some of what she wanted to say (about Criba) could wait.
Captain Denholm sat back in his chair a moment, lacing his fingers together and cracking his knuckles.
“You can go,” he said in a distracted manner.
“Aye. I intend to go on the hunt,” she replied.
“Damn it, woman. I said you are not to go on that hunt.”
“I am a scout of long standing, as well as a smith. There will be other scouts of course, but the village is beginning to despair in a way I have never seen. The people need hope, and they work together now in the Thane’s absence. I will help them. Heard is more than capable of shoeing horses and mending dented armour. If there is a sudden huge battle, why then I will return straight away.”
For a fleeting moment she couldn’t quite fathom the expression in the Captain’s darkening eyes.
“You leave, and I will not have you back here in Bancross,” he said pointedly, tapping the desk top.
“Fine!” she answered, turning to leave.
Well it wasn’t fine, but she knew the Captain would not be able to replace her easily. Heard would be an excellent smith, in three or four years time. Ethel too. But that was in the future. She was in the comfortable position of being almost irreplaceable for now.
And then there was Thilwend. Her cousin would not be at all happy were the Captain to send her away.
A fist came thumping down on the desk. She halted, a small smirk on her lips.
“Very well. Find the boars or whatever you can swiftly. If you are a good scout that should be easy enough. Get back here as quickly as possible. I told Waelden I want a good share of the meat you bring back. See that it is done.”
Turning back to regard the captain again, Heartha gave a half nod of her head. “I will remind your guards, sir. I also remind you that I am in my own employ, and not yours. Good day.”
She couldn’t help feeling that Denholm sighed with relief as she left his office. It was almost amusing, and yet there was something behind his abruptness, something in his eyes she couldn’t quite put a finger on.
Later that day Heartha fell in with her cousin. She told her of the meeting with Captain Denholm, and that she thought he needed an eye kept on him.
“Maybe the pressure of the garrison is too much for him?”
Thilwend snorted. “No. I am still getting to know him, but I don’t think he is that sort. Maybe it’s just you and I who are getting to him, eh?”
“And his brother-in-law it seems.”
It was a further two days when the hunting party rode out. The threatening snow had unleashed its full potential, covering the fields and paths in a deep blanket of silvered white. Not the best of weather for any scout to track in, with footprints or signs of movement swiftly obscured. Neither would they hear the animal's movement in the muffled world, thought that worked both ways.
After speaking with Ethel, and telling her that lessons would continue on the actual hunt, if her parents would permit, Heartha rode her horse, Lyftsped, ahead in the direction Duncadda had suggested. He had already patrolled the area, and noted the presence of a few boar at least.
Duncadda himself followed close behind with the two guards from the garrison, and one of the wagons. They would set up the basic camp.
And then there was the main party. A small but determined group they were. Waelden and Ethel riding to the fore, with Yllfa beside the second wagon, which was already quarter full with camping equipment and supplies, and driven by a complaining Hild.
This was not what Hild was used to, it seemed. Heartha could hear the tavern keep’s voice from some distance away, echoing through the stillness until she was a lot further behind. ‘I hope Yllfa can calm her down’ the smith thought. ‘This may be a silent world but she is so loud, and there are still predators out there. There may even be brigands or Dunlendings in the present situation. Worse of all, Hild could inadvertently drive away the prey we seek.’
Gamferth also had a mostly empty wagon, and his fishing supplies. He was known not to be so keen nor experienced in boar hunting, but would likely provide them with a good catch of fish, if the right camp spot near the river was found. A few others brought up the rear of the small procession. Another wagon, a couple more fishermen, and Wigelm from the northern farms.
It was cold. It was dull. It was not promising. And it was certainly a far cry from the Thane’s usual pageantry. But the need was great for the folk of Bancross. Heartha knew that much was depending on what happened in the next few days.