Maggie tugged the harness tight on the sturdy little pony she’d borrowed from one of the dairymen she’d done work for and, with a gentle slap against its flank and a cluck of her tongue he started plugging forward, the wagon creaking along behind him. “Atta-boy, Danny,” she hooked the reins on a peg and gave an experimental whistle, Danny responded easily and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Herding sheep alone was no easy task, herding sheep and trying to guide a stubborn pony was even harder, if not impossible. The going would be a little easier than she’d expected, at least. She started hooking and prodding the sheep forward, they were all skittish and stubborn, some even looked like they might be catching fever, which only angered her further.
She had found the signs Underby had left, of course, and vowed that the slight wouldn’t go unpunished. He knew better. She had wondered if he remembered, as he gouged the symbols into the earth, her own slim hands doing the same under his orders. Then it had been a sweet afternoon, sun-soaked and untouched by his usual cruel temper, a game to play for the day. Troubling other people’s flocks.
Now the wind was blowing down cold from the north, and Maggie could taste snow on the wind already. The air had been bitterly cold the previous evening as she threaded her way through the city to the Gangplank to deliver a slim, green, glass bottle to Miss Macbain…
“I’ve brought ya a cure,” Maggie had explained, “but yer gunner have ter stop bein’ so useless, so ya must answer a question fer me if’n ya want it.”
“What’s it cure?” Star had asked warily.
“Cures seeps,” Maggie had said, “That wot’s makin’ yer pain. Now, will ya answer it?”
“What’s the question, then?”
“How do I free Pocket?”
Star’s face had fallen and she had started to stammer, “He-he can’t be freed, you know that. He agreed: one year for every kiss! Even I don’t kno-”
Maggie interrupted, “There’s a way, think, fer once! Wot good’s all these books? Eh? An’ all yer learnin’ an’ all , if’n yer never thinkin’?”
Star had seemed like she was going to protest more, but instead she paused and, gazing into the fireplace said hesitantly, “If I knew the terms, sometimes there are loopholes. You know, a trick, maybe.”
“Canna ask him, can we? Think harder.”
She shook her head, “I’m sorry Maggie, I just don’t think….I mean he’s a serva-“ She had broken off mid-sentence and stared into the fire, “Feudal law.”
“If I defeat a Lord or King all that Lord or King’s properties become mine, servants are property.”
Maggie grinned and tossed the green bottle to Star, who caught it in her shaky hands, “Drink tha’ as th’ full moon rises, aye? Not afore and not after.”
“W-will it hurt?” She had asked.
“O’course,” Maggie had said matter of factly, “But while yer a’waitin’ th’ moon and after yer seeps is cured, ya can think on how yer gonner master tha’ husband o’ yers.”
“I can’t possibly! It’s an impossible task!”
“Nawer,” Maggie had laughed, turning to walk away, “It jus smacks o’ impossibility.”
Perhaps it was an impossible task, Maggie thought, perhaps it would be better for her to leave the whole problem alone. Pocket’s broom, which she had been keeping close by her as she slept, had sent her a dream of him. The sight of him had filled her with a wild joy but, when she had woken, she had felt as if everything inside of her had been scooped out and as if she were suddenly brittle. The feeling was miserable and, fearing another dream, she had tucked the broom away on a shelf inside the wagon, vowing not to touch it.
She realized now that she feared his waking.
She paused at the crest of a hill, looking back on the dwindling city. She had told Tenk she would stay until Friday, but now was departing nearly two days early in the cold hours of the morning and, like a sneak-thief, she’d not even bothered to send him a note.
“It’s fer th’ better,” She muttered, turning her back on the city and ushering her sheep forward, “I needs ter see ter me flock and take care o’ me own.”