After building up so much tension, the 'I can't ride' wasn't really enough to shock Katherine. She just nodded. "Oh, so that's it."
This simple reply, on the other hand, made Hazel's stunned. She'd been so anxious that the lady would be disappointed over her lack of ability, but Katherine didn't seem to be disturbed at all. "But milady, aren't you sad that I can't go with you?"
Irritated, Katherine knitted her brows. "Why shouldn't you come with us? Isn't it just riding? I can ride, those two can ride. As long as you don't fear horses, you can get on."
"M-milady!" Hazel's eyes filled with tears again, but joyous ones this time.
With a chuckle, Katherine rolled her eyes at her. "Stop crying, silly, and get on!"
She led Bell to Hazel's side and reached out her hands. The both of them were wearing trousers underneath their dresses today, as Katherine knew sitting sideways on a horse like real ladies was just too troublesome.
It took three tries to get Hazel on the horse without outside help, but luckily Bell was patient, and didn't move much in the process. Finally, Hazel sat behind Katherine. Putting the other girl's hands on her waist, Katherine said: "Hold on tight."
At first, Hazel felt it was wrong to do so, but when Bell started walking, she hastily followed her lady's advice.
On the mansion's ground they rode in a slow trot, but after exiting through the iron-forged gate, Katherine accelerated the pace, until they reached a fast gallop. While Hazel's arms clenched so hard that they nearly made bruises, joyful laughter bubbled out of Katherine's mouth. Finally, she felt free again!
The village was half a day away in the direction of the mountain Katherine had seen from her chamber's window. When they reached there, it was already lunch time. Katherine had expected for Hazel to start whining over bruises on her behind halfway through their journey, but surprisingly the maid had kept quiet. It left Katherine wondering whether it was out of consideration, stubbornness, or if her fear for her life made her forget the pain. Anyways, no complaining was a good thing.
Bordering the forest between the Renat-kingdom and the Icelands, merchants frequented this village as a place to rest before or after entering the dark trees spanning several days walk into the distance. Because of that, there was a big inn in the middle of the town. Several small stores, mostly selling daily necessaries, surrounded it.
Katherine settled the horses in the inn and booked a room. After coming out of it, she looked completely different. Her dress was less valuable, her hair combed up and hidden by a mob cap. Several shiny but cheaper trinkets completed the image of a merchant daughter.
"Your turn", she told the guards, whose uniforms could be recognized by the common folks of the town.
Jack readily complied, while Pete preferred complaining. "Do we really need to change? What is all the secrecy for?"
"Didn't you say you would help me?", Katherine retorted. "It's to keep my identity a secret to be free to use my ability."
Uncomfortable, Pete could do nothing but sigh. "Well, okay."
They changed into the clothes of the common people. As a maid, Hazel didn't need to change much. She wouldn't get much attention in her usual attire. Still, Katherine gave her another mob cap to hide her striking red hair and let her change some things on her outfit so it didn't scream 'maid' anymore.
As a merchant daughter with her entourage, they left the inn. Firstly, Katherine bought everything she might need if the earl threw her out. The priority there was food and clothing. She couldn't wander in town with her normal clothes of she didn't have the guards to protect her. That would be asking to be robbed.
While shopping, she inquired if there had been any animal attacks on either the town or a merchant group. The possibility was high, as wild boars, wolfs, and bears lived in the forest.
In the third shop, she got lucky. The assistant had heard about a caravan called 'Golden Cauldron', which reached town just recently. The once twenty-five men strong group got reduced to eighteen by what they claimed to be a bandit attack.
The local folks didn't want to believe them. To Katherine, it seemed that it was out of anxiety. There hadn't been any bandits in the forest for two years, but the people still remembered the decades they had lived under the bandit king 'Burka' before the new earl claimed the territory. They told her quite a few horror stories about that.
As for the remaining merchants of the 'Golden Cauldron', they managed to flee only barely, losing nearly all their wealth in the process. That was why they camped outside the village instead of staying in the inn.
Thanking the assistant, Katherine collected her goods into a bag and handed it to Pete. For this shopping trip, Pete played her personal carrier.
When they were outside, Pete asked: " Do you want to go there?"
With a silent smile, Katherine nodded. The merchants were a good beginning.
"But didn't he say they are nearly robbed blank?", Jack wondered.
"So what? For now, their thankfulness will be enough. And of course, their willingness to spread the news that a new healer is in town. Besides, do you really think eighteen people didn't manage to save anything? I know merchants who would prefer to die before letting their goods be stolen."
"My lady doesn't care about gold.", Hazel chimed in proudly. Her selective hearing seemed to have censored Katherine's last two sentences. "She just wants to help the people!"
Helplessly Katherine peeked at her maid. Here we go again. Hopefully this naive girl wouldn't found a cult around her by sprouting her ridiculous views.
"Yes, yes!", Jack encouraged Hazel playfully. "She's the best lady there is!"
As Katherine threw him an annoyed look, he blinked innocently.
"I can see you grinning mischievously in your head.", Katherine commented, half helpless, half amused. That made the guard break out in roaring laughter.
The 'Golden Cauldron' caravan had set tent on the fields outside of the town. The fact that they still had tents to set up alone, told Katherine that her conclusion about their wealth was on point. Robbed, but not completely, and maybe prepared to use pity to increase their income.
Naturally, not all of it was fake. The two mercenaries patrolling around the camp didn't wear bloody bandages for fun.
"Halt!", one of them shouted as they neared the camp, and came forward to meet them. "This is the camp of the Golden Cauldron merchants. Please don't trespass."
Confidently, Katherine straitened her posture. "I'm a healer. I wanted to offer my service. Our caravan wanted to leave town for the forest today, but as I heard about your accident, I persuaded them to wait for a bit and let me inquire about the circ.u.mstances. And, of course, offer any help we can muster."
The face of the mercenary brightened. "Well then, I best show you the way to our leader."
The leader of the merchant group was so fat that Katherine wondered how he managed to flee with so much weight to slow him down.
"A healer!", he exclaimed while looking her up and down with a joyous yet calculating gaze. "Of course, we are very willing to accept voluntary help! Sadly, our status quo doesn't allow us to give much compensation."
As if she didn't care, Katherine just smiled. "We can talk about compensation after you saw my skill. I assure you; it is far better than the regular doctors."
"If you say so.", the merchant shrugged, disregarding her words as arrogance. However, since she was prepared to offer her help to them, he wouldn't tell it to her face.
Wobbling out of his chair, he said: "My dear second daughter was wounded the worst. Let me show you to her tent."