They were after Grace and that changed everything. Guin was a favorite of the cook. She took her instruction, learned quickly, worked efficiently, and kept her head down, not rising to the boys’ bait and never playing with the flour. She rewarded him with pats on the head, sometimes a slightly larger portion for her meal, and very rarely a spoon to pick clean of dough. So if she were caught now with a sack of food that wasn’t hers and one of the cook’s best knives tucked into the belting of her boot, the cook would be surprised and disappointed. She hoped she wouldn’t have to use the knife to fight, but she knew that if she had to live in the woods for a while a knife could save him if even she only used it to chisel spears or cut meat. She hoped she’d be able to catch meat for himself. The animals had always been brought into the kitchen killed.
That thought spurred Guin on as she pushed open the kitchen door and crept up into the courtyard, which was dark but not silent even at this hour of the night. Vigils kept watch on the world beyond from the crenellated outer walls and several more guards were crowded by a fire on the opposite side of the yard.
Guin flattened herself against the wall and considered her options. The stable was opposite her. It was possible that the guards’ fire would blind them to movement in the darkness beyond their circle of light, but these were trained vigils who ought to know how to spot a thief in the darkness. Guin didn’t like her chances of passing undetected.
But if she didn’t….
Guin set off across the courtyard, staying as near as she could to the wall and within the shadows as much as was possible. If she was caught, well, she’d deal with the repercussions.
The gods were merciful and she slipped into the stable without being hailed by the guards. Now she had to not wake the stable master and his boys nor disturb the resting animals. The loose hay that littered the stable floor muffled her footsteps. The breathing of the animals, the flicking of their coarse tails, and the shifting of their own feet hid the noises Guin made still more. She made it without incident to Grace’s stall. The mare was resting, one foot cocked, completely unaware of the fate that awaited her in the morning. Guin looked up and down the aisle before slipping the mare’s bridle off of its hook and lifting the latch of the stall door. It squealed as loudly as any rooster it seemed to Guin, so she quickly threw open the door and shut it behind her. She ducked down with her back to the door and waited for the sounds of any of investigation. She waited, her heart pounding, for several minutes down by the hay and the soil, breathing in the heavy smell of horse. Grace had been roused by the noise if no one else had, and the mare startled awake, turned her head and then her body. Her heavy feet crept near Guin, but Guin never feared that the horse would hurt her, not even when she lowered her nose to Guin, who wrapped her arms around the mare’s head and whispered against her forehead, “Shh. Shh, Grace,” while the horse fought to rummage in the kitchen girls’ pockets.
No one seemed to be coming, so Guin finally gave Grace her head and was unsurprised when the mare quickly found the carrot that Guin had stolen for her, that protruded just out of the top of her apron pocket. The brush of the horse’s nose and lips against her made Guin giggle, but the sound was hopefully smothered by the crunch of Grace’s teeth on the vegetable. Guin waited another moment for that to raise an alarm, then she stood. She moved to Guin’s side. “Now, shush,” she reprimanded the mare as she lifted the bridle up so that the bit would slide into her thankfully willing mouth and the crown would go over her ears. “We have to be really quiet. They can’t hear us leaving. Maybe once your buyer leaves we can come back but for now—for now we have to go. But I’ll keep you safe, Grace. I’ll keep you safe and I’ll make sure that they don’t take you away from here.”
The horse batted her head again against Guin’s arm in search of more carrots. “Later,” Guin said. “Now, shush.”
But how would she get the door open without arousing the stable? How would she get the mare out into the courtyard and then out of the gate without arousing the guards? Guin wrapped her arms around the mare’s neck and began to cry, her tears dampening the dappled coat. Grace waited patient and still, without judgment, but her patience only made Guin angry. It was the mare’s patience that had won her the approval of her new master.
Just one last ride she thought, one last ride. If she couldn’t get the mare out of the manor then she could at least enjoy one last hour with her. Maybe the guards wouldn’t be upset if she rode the mare in circles around the yard as she had done before, even if before she had only done so at night. She wouldn’t be stealing the mare if she never took her.
Guin pried the door open again, but this time didn’t wait to see if the squeal would bring investigators. She led Grace into the aisle with confidence, the mare’s shod hooves ringing against the packed earth in a steady beat rather than a shuffle.
She was unsurprised to find her way barred by Braydon, but she explained her intent to the stable boy, and Braydon eyed the tear tracks on her face before taking the mare’s reins from her and leading her out into the yard. Braydon helped to lift her onto Grace’s back, beneath the eyes of the vigils.
And with all of them watching her, Guin rode Grace in circles around the yard and Guin felt a smile tugging at her mouth again as she laid her hand upon the mare’s warm wither.
As she the mare’s nose back toward Braydon, she realized that he wasn’t alone. A tall man stood beside him, wrapped in a robe to fine for any servant. The two of them were deep in conversation, but from here and in the moonlight, Guin could not make out their expressions. Guin paled and she drew Grace to a halt, staring at the man. She recognized him from his paraded arrival. He was the same man who meant the next morning to take Grace for his own daughter.
Guin looked behind her, she began to back Grace away, began to turn her. The gate was barred. The guards had seen her. The visiting noble was watching them. They would never lift the portcullis for Guin now. They would never let her ride out on Grace. The mare would be taken. There was nothing she could do.
Braydon raised a hand and waved Guin towards him.
Guin, still nervous, rode Grace over to where Braydon stood beside the man. She did not dismount. She wanted to be able to flee more quickly than they could follow her.
The man addressed her before Braydon. “You look good upon that mare.”
Guin had no response for him.
“You heard that I purchased her for my daughter.” It wasn’t a question. “She’s six. Perhaps young to start her on horseback, but I have always loved horses. Mine is a small estate compared to this, and I haven’t near Lord Eli’s wealth. I planned to teach my daughter to ride myself. I would have had one of my servants muck the stalls and groom the mare when I and my Mel cannot, but,” he smiled at Guin, “would you care to come with and Grace to do so instead?”
“Come?” Guin repeated. “With you?”
“And Grace. I cannot offer you as comfortable a living, I think, as you have hear, and there will be few children for you to play with when your duties are through but there is my daughter, and I will certainly be sure that you are cared for, warmly dressed, well-fed.”
“I can still ride Grace?”
“For a long while my daughter will not be able to give this mare the exercise that she needs to be kept fit. Someone will have to ride her.”
“Will—will Lord Eli let me go?” Guin wondered.
“Certainly we can ask him if you’d like to.”
“Oh yes! I’d like very much to come and ride Grace, but I— Will you all miss me?” she asked Braydon.
“Of course we will, but you may be able to ride back to us to visit.” The visiting noble nodded. “And you’ll have Grace.”
“I may need you,” the noble added, looking somewhat sheepish, “to help out in my kitchens occasionally too, when,” he clarified, “there are guests or if one of my regular kitchen staff is unable to fulfill her duties.”
“Cook says I’m very good,” Guin told him.
“Then I can ask Lord Eli if you can attend me?”
“I am called Halder.”
“And I will be able to say goodbye to everyone here?”
“We must leave tomorrow, but we can put off our journey till the afternoon if I send a messenger home before us.”
“And if I decide that I cannot go with you?”
“I will not make you.”
Guin thought about this and nodded.
Lord Halder smiled, and said, “Take her around a few more times, Guin. Then we will put you both to bed so that she can be ready for tomorrow’s journey.”
Guin smiled at him too and spurred Grace into a canter that kicked dust from the yard.