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Del Robertson

Chapter One



My bottom has never ached so much in my life.

Not even during her sixth summer, when it seemed every time Gwendolyn turned around, she was in trouble for some reason or another. More often than not it was for, as her mother called it, shirking her chores. Whether it was washing clothes in the river, minding the stew that continuously warmed in the kettle over the hearth, or tending to her younger siblings, it was all women’s work and that held no interest for Gwen.

Gwen was constantly dodging her mother in favor of tagging along behind her father. Hunting wild hare in the woods, mending the thatching on the cottage roof, and taking their pigs to market held so much more appeal to her than darning socks and stonewashing breechcloths. She was smart enough to know that helping her papa was chores, too, but they were fun chores.

The day she helped her papa wrangle two of their largest sows was seared into her memory. The local tavern had contracted their farm to deliver the pigs for the Midsummer Eve’s festivities. Herding the obese swine from their sty to the village had seemed like the grandest adventure. That is, until Gwen grew bored waiting for her father to finish haggling with the tavern keeper. Boredom soon gave way to curiosity and she followed her nose and the smell of something delicious straight into the tavern’s kitchen.

That’s where her father had caught her with her mouth stuffed full of meat pastries and even more pushed down inside her blouse. Never mind that old maid Mavis had told him she’d baked far more than needed and it was better to feed a starving waif than a hungry hound. Her papa turned red in the face, grabbed her by the upper arm, and marched her straight out of there.

He dragged her halfway home without uttering a single word or even sparing a sideways glance at Gwen. When they reached the river, he finally released her. The only reason he’d turned her loose then was because he needed both hands to pull up one of the cattail reeds growing along the bank.

He took her across his lap to dole out her punishment. Gwen screamed and kicked and hit at him with her closed fists, to no avail. The heated flush on her face soon matched the stinging welts on her upturned bottom. 

When he finished, he pushed her off his knee and uttered the only words he would speak to her for nearly a fortnight.

“No child of mine will be raised a thief, nor to accept charity. I only wish that whooping I gave you hurt you half as much as the pain you’ve caused me.”

Gwen often wondered if her papa ever knew that it was the disappointment in his voice and the look in his eyes that hurt far worse than any spanking she’d ever had. 

Not that the reed switch didn’t hurt. It hurt so badly, I thought I might never sit again.

That spanking had been sharp, quick, and then over with. It in no way compared to the constant ache she was suffering now. 

Gwen’s grip on the reins tightened. She braced her feet, pressed down firmly on the stirrups, and raised her backside from the leather saddle. Immediately, the sensation of stinging nettles lanced through her thighs and calves.

I should have stopped candlemarks ago. I’d gladly stop now, if I could find shelter.

The sun was at its zenith, but ominous storm clouds were gathering, threatening to break, and promising to soak anything hapless enough to be caught beneath them. Right now, that included Gwen.

She couldn’t remember the number of days gone by since she’d packed her saddlebags full and set out from her village. Nor was she certain how far she’d traveled since the last town. It seemed as though it’d been forever ago since she’d started out on this path. What had begun as a nice wide, flat road had gradually lessened in width and steadily increased its incline. Worse, there were now enough twists and turns that she thought perhaps a cow had been set loose to randomly map out the trail.

Poor cow and its owner probably died before they found their way to a village.

Gwen was, by her best guess, in the middle of nowhere. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but rock-strewn, verdant hills all about. Not a thatched roof, a well, or even a lone sheep dotted the horizon. The only sign of civilization was the wagon wheel-rutted trail she was on.

She gingerly lowered herself down, wincing slightly as her tender backside connected with the hard leather. She’d been in the saddle far too long and wondered how she would ever steady herself enough to walk when she finally did dismount.

It’s not that she’d never ridden a horse before. She had. Farmer Horace down the road from them used to have an old, swaybacked plow horse. When Gwen was little, he would lift her up and let her ride perched on the horse’s bare back while he was sowing the rows of grain. As she grew older and bigger and the horse grew older and more swaybacked, the rides had ceased. It would be many more seasons before Gwen would have the chance to ride again.

Her growth spurt from child to maid continued, her body’s changes becoming more pronounced. The straight, stick-like figure gave way to the flare of curved hips. Flatness developed into fully ripe breasts that strained at the thin fabric of her elder sister’s hand-me-down blouses. The village lads, as well as many of the older men, had taken notice. On days that she went to market, she found no shortage of escorts willing to accompany her on the long road home.

It had been her sister, Cathryn, who had advised her not all those offers of rides actually came with horses. Not that Gwen had any intention of accepting any offers for a ride, nor for anything else. She’d seen firsthand what happened when a maiden gave up her virginity for a quick tumble in the hay. She didn’t want to be her sister—a harlot scorned by the virtuous women of the village. Nor did she desire any of their men—their decent, upstanding men that propositioned the likes of Cathryn the instant their wives’ backs were turned.

No, thank you.

Gwen got quite good at saying that. No, thank you. Those three words worked for any suggestion whether it was an innocent ride home or something more direct. No matter the offer, No, thank you was Gwen’s standard rule.

Gerald had been the exception. Not because he was any more adept at hiding his desires than the other lads. He wasn’t. What Gerald was, though, was exasperatingly persistent. He followed her like a puppy, always there whenever she turned around. He presented her with bouquets of blooming weeds he’d picked and bundled himself, his nose and eyes watering so much it pained her to look at him. He gave her honeycomb straight from the hive, the sticky sweetness still dripping onto his bee-stung swollen fingers and hand.

No, Gerald was far from skilled at hiding his intentions. He was painfully obvious, hopelessly awkward and, in Gwen’s opinion, also completely harmless.

Perhaps that was why on one unbearably hot summer day, she finally accepted his offer of a ride. Chasteness was an admirable quality, but virtue alone wouldn’t protect her from the heat. The only things walking had gained her so far were a set of well-defined calves and a severe case of chafing. 

Besides, as the magistrate’s son, Gerald did have his own horse. It was a beautiful, blonde-maned mare with a sweet disposition. At first, Gerald had wanted her to sit on Dusty behind him, her arms wrapped tight about his barebones, skinny waist. It didn’t take her long to convince him to allow her to take the reins and ride alone.

Gwen felt a momentary pang of guilt for what she could now see might have been her taking advantage of him. She may have been a simple country maiden, but she was far from naïve. She’d known all along what Gerald wanted from her. Just as she also knew she never had any intention of letting him have so much as a kiss. Even a peck on the cheek would have been more than she was willing to give.

It was wrong of me to ever allow him to believe otherwise.

The horse’s bulk abruptly shifted beneath her and Gwen let out a squawk of surprise minced with pain.

The incline had crested and they were now coming down the other side. It was a steep descent, made all the more terrifying by the added height of horse and saddle. Gwen reflexively tightened her grip on the reins. The mare whinnied, shaking her head in protest.

“Easy, Dusty.”

Gwen forced herself to release her white-knuckle grip on the reins so she could reassuringly stroke her fingers through the horse’s blonde mane.

“Good, girl.” She kept her voice low, hoping her tone was calming. She relinquished her control and allowed Dusty to set the pace, trusting the mare to guide them safely down the slope.

Far below, she could see where the ground leveled out again. The base of the trail was surrounded on all sides by sharp rocks and boulders. The height and steepness were dizzying and Gwen felt a knot tighten in her stomach. She averted her gaze, trying to look anywhere except straight down.

She focused on the landscape beyond. The worn road stretched out far into the distance, twisting and turning, gradually descending and disappearing into a mist-shrouded valley. Rocks were scattered on the road and boulders were strewn about lush hillocks. It reminded Gwen of the area surrounding the ogre’s lair.

That, in turn, brought back memories of Gerald.

Poor, sweet, bumbling Gerald. He didn’t fully understand what he was doing. He thought he was trying to save me. Perhaps if I’d only ever shown him the tiniest bit of affection—

Gwen’s distracting self-reflection was interrupted by the sound of a frightened whinny. She blinked and looked down, eyes widening at the sight of the soft earth giving way beneath the horse’s weight. Hooves slid, leaving deep impressions in the ground. Dirt and grime flew up, getting in Gwen’s eyes, and obscuring her view of the path.

Dusty lost her footing.

Gwen screamed, clenched both reins and mane in a tight grip, and hung on for dear life. She felt the horse seemingly going one direction as the saddle, and her along with it, went the opposite way. Then, Dusty was stumbling and Gwen was sent flying.

Her body sped toward the uneven ground. Eyes widened and she reflexively flung out both arms. She landed hard, the loose dirt not quite soft enough to cushion her fall. Her arms gave way and she collapsed, her temple striking against a stone.



A tiny cry for help echoed in Gwen’s ears, urging her toward consciousness. One eye cracked open, the pupil rolling, her brow furrowing as first the distant sky and then the much nearer ground came into focus. Her other eye refused to open and she felt a surge of panic before realizing it was because she was lying facedown. The road felt rough beneath her, tiny pebbles scratching at her cheek, their pointed edges pricking at the sensitive flesh of her breasts, stomach, and thighs through her clothing.

Gwen planted her hands palms down, feeling pebbles and loose dirt sifting between her fingers, and pushed up. Pain lanced through her body, beginning in both wrists. There was a throbbing in her temple and a blinding ache when she tried to hold her left eye open. 

Spirits, everything hurts. Gwen realized that the cry for help she thought she’d heard must have been hers.

She struggled into an upright position, her legs curled beneath her as she sat in the middle of the road. Gwen glanced from side to side, as if worried she might be ran over by a cart if she stayed there too long. Gwen’s eyes locked on a red pattern spattered on a stone. The throbbing in her head echoed louder. She placed a hand to her temple, jerking her head back as her fingertips made contact. She looked down, numbly staring at her blood-coated fingers. Then, her muddled mind recalled exactly where she was, the desolate path she’d been traveling on, and precisely how she’d come to be sprawled out on the ground.

“Dusty? Dusty?” Panic rang in Gwen’s voice. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Her breath was coming too fast.

A faint whinny was her answer.

Gwen felt a wave of calmness wash over her. She released a deep sigh and looked around. Gwen fully expected to see Dusty right side up, with all four hooves on the ground and grazing on a clump of grass the proper way a horse should be. 

She was in no way prepared to see the mare on her side, pitifully making attempt after attempt, but failing in her efforts to get up. Her front leg was bent at an impossible angle, broken bone protruding from the flesh.

“Spirits, Dusty.”

The mare lifted her head, looking in Gwen’s direction. She held the position for only a scant heartbeat before her head lolled back again. 

Gwen rolled onto her side, gritting her teeth against the pain, and pushed herself up. A grunt escaped her lips as she made her way to her feet.

On shaky legs, she staggered a drunkard’s path to the fallen horse. Gwen more collapsed, than knelt, beside Dusty. She pressed her palm against the horse’s coat, her fingers stroking through the blonde mane.

Dusty struggled, her front legs flailing, as she tried to rise. She collapsed almost immediately, her chest heaving, lather forming about the edges of her mouth.

“Shhh, Dusty. Be still, girl.” Gwen tried to keep her tone low and steady, even as she stared wide-eyed at the grisly scene of bone sticking through mangled flesh.

“Let’s get some of this weight off of you.”

Her fingers felt as if they were far too uncoordinated to accomplish the simple task of undoing the fastenings about the saddle and saddlebags. At last, she managed to unlace all of them, leaving them dangling. She knew she lacked the strength to pull the cumbersome saddle free, but thought loosening the bindings might allow the horse to breathe somewhat easier. 

She dragged the saddlebags and her gear off Dusty, letting everything fall in a heap on the ground beside them. Stiff fingers worked to untie the hemp knotted about the brown bundle of cloth that served as her cloak. Gwen spread the material out on the ground, unfolding the edges of the fabric. Nestled inside the drab brown cloth were a bow and a leather quiver containing half a dozen arrows.

Gwen took a deep breath and stood up. Her head was pounding. Her vision was blurred. She broke out in a clammy sweat. Knuckles clenched white about the grip of her bow as she fought down waves of nausea.

The sensation passed. Experienced fingers fixed the flax bowstring onto the horn nocks at each end of the bow. Gwen drew two arrows from the quiver.

Slow, determined steps had her standing in front of the downed animal. Gwen’s eyes swept over the blood-soaked coat, the gaping wound, and the bone jutting from ruined flesh. Her gaze traveled past flaring nostrils and met big, brown eyes looking back at her.

“I know, girl. I know.”

Gwen swallowed against the lump in her throat. She thrust the tip of one arrow into the ground, within easy reach. Fingertips smoothed the fletching of the other arrow as she fit the groove into place, nocking it on the bowstring. She raised the bow, her thumb touching her chin as she drew back, the goose-feathered fletching brushing against her cheek as she found her anchor position near her ear. 

She watched the ragged rise and fall of Dusty’s chest. Gwen swallowed hard. It would do no good to aim there. A horse’s chest had too much flesh, muscle, and sinew. The arrow might not pierce deep enough to reach the heart. The last thing she wanted was to cause Dusty a slow, painful death. 

Gwen blinked against her blurring vision. Lining up her sight, she stared down the birch shaft at the iron arrowhead. With the tip of the arrow and the horse in her view, she drew an imaginary line from one eye to the opposite ear and centered her aim at the midpoint.

Her arm shook. She shifted her foot on the grass to locate the arrow she’d thrust into the ground. Her buttercup leather boot brushed against the wood shaft. Gwen marked the position. If she missed, she needed to quickly grab the second arrow, string it, and fire again so as not to prolong Dusty’s suffering.

Gwen drew in a shuddering breath and released the arrow.



Thunder rumbled and lengthening shadows fell across the ground. A cool breeze swept Gwen’s hair about her face. Dirt-coated fingers brushed the errant strands away from her eyes and mouth.

She turned and looked down at the mound of stones. Spirits knew she wished she could have done more for Dusty. She was a good horse and deserved a proper burial. She certainly deserved better than Gwen was able to provide.

Unable to budge any of the large boulders, Gwen gathered as many of the smaller stones as she could from the surrounding area. She placed them around and over the fallen horse as best she could. Even as she placed stone after stone, she knew she’d never be able to completely cover Dusty’s entire bulk. When she lacked the strength to tote a single stone more, she sat down on the ground, cradled her head in both hands, and cried.

Tears all cried out, Gwen looked up. Red-rimmed eyes scanned the sky for scavenger birds. She thought she saw the darker wingspan of one against the backdrop of the heavy storm clouds that blotted out the sun. 

Even if it wasn’t, they’ll be here soon enough. Carrion eaters can smell death miles away. Most likely, they’re waiting for me to leave…or die also. 

Gwen turned her head, her gaze traveling the length of the slope, following the treacherous path they’d taken. Midway up the trail, she could see the deep furrows where Dusty had dug her hooves in, then the place where she had lost her footing completely, and had finally fallen.

We could have both been killed. Instead, only Dusty had died while Gwen hadn’t suffered a single broken bone. She swallowed against the excess saliva pooling in her mouth. What was I thinking coming out here? Believing I could do this?

Gwen looked at the trail leading the opposite direction. From the top of the slope, she had seen numerous twists and turns on a desolate road that stretched out as far as the eye could see. She looked again at the slope behind her. Teeth chewed her bottom lip.

Spirits, help me.

Gwen looked toward the heavens. The first fat drop of rain fell, hitting her squarely between the eyes. She shook her head and blinked against the moisture. Her gaze fell on Dusty’s makeshift grave.

I never should have taken her from Gerald. Poor Gerald. Gwen took a shuddering breath. No. Despite any false hope he might have garnered from me…or outright encouragement he may have gotten from Bodhi…no one forced him to do anything he didn’t wish to. Gerald chose his path. 

Just as you chose yours, Gwendolyn.

The rain was falling in earnest now. Gwen tied the worn leather straps of her quiver bag about the belt at her waist. The saddlebags, she slung over one shoulder. She donned her cloak, tucking her bow beneath the folds of material. 

Besides, he’ll heal. He’s back at home, with his family about him.

Gwen thought back to the last time she’d seen the chubby-cheeked youth. He was sleeping, the edge of a quilt pulled all the way up to the light brown wisps of hair jutting from his chin. On the table beside his bed was an empty tankard that smelled of apple wine and six gold coins she’d left as payment for his horse. She left the way she’d come in, through the open window, without disturbing him.

Gwen lifted the hood of her cloak into place. She hunched her shoulders and ducked her head, focusing on each step on the trail.

I may not know what’s on the path ahead, but I know there’s no shelter on the trail behind me. Unlike Gerald, I can never go home again.

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