Gwinn didn’t want her father to die.
She cowered in the corner of the hovel, trying to keep out of the way. Her father lay on the low table near the empty fireplace. An arrow pierced his side, just below his ribs. Blood oozed around the shaft. He kept scrabbling at the arrow, yelling curses when he touched it.
His hound sniffed at the air, and whined, pawing at the rough earth floor of the shack. Gwinn worked her fingers into his fur, trying to quiet the dog’s whimpers. Gwinn whispered in his ear, trying to reassure the dog as much as herself. For all of her fourteen years, she felt like a child.
The old woman hunched over the table, slapping her father’s hands away from the arrow. She hummed a melancholy tune and examined the wound. Gwinn could smell the bad blood. Dafys, her father’s best friend and commander, slammed his fist on the table. The impact made her father cry out.
“What are you waiting for, woman? Take it out!” shouted Dafys.
“All in good time,” replied the old woman.
She leaned forward and wrapped her gnarled fingers around the arrow. Gwinn’s father shouted another curse, and his hound howled. Dafys whirled around, his blue eyes blazing.
“Can’t you shut that dog up?”
“I’m trying, sir-”
Gwinn wrapped her hand around the dog’s muzzle and brought his head close to hers. She slung her other arm around his neck, and held him close. He shivered in her arms, his howl dissolving into whimpers. Her father screamed again, and Gwinn buried her face in the dog’s fur.
“One more should do it,” said Dafys.
Gwinn looked up, straining to see through the tears. The old woman gave the arrow a final tug, and it tore free. Black blood spurted from the wound, splattering the old woman’s faded apron. The stench of decay hung heavy in the air.
“There you go, Merryd, it’s out,” said Dafys, leaning over her father.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, sir, but this arrow...” said the old woman. She peered at the jagged head. Gwinn’s stomach rolled at the thought of the metal lump buried inside her father.
“Did it come from a forest dweller, or a bandit?”
“A forest dweller. Lord Tulloch had us chasing poachers ,” replied Dafys.
“I thought so. This ‘ere arrow...it’s been dipped in brax berries.”
Dafys stared at the old woman. Gwinn’s heart dropped through her rib cage, hitting her stomach with a thud. Brax berries. Poison. Her father groaned, writhing on the table.
“Can you do anything to help him?” asked Dafys.
“I can try, sir, but it’s fair advanced now. I’ll do what I can,” said the old woman.
Gwinn tried to stand, but her legs buckled beneath her. She slumped to the floor. Her father’s hound licked at her face. She pushed him away. He whined, looking from Gwinn’s tear-stained face to his moaning master and back.
“Is my father–” she began.
“Not now, girl,” said Dafys.
The old woman bustled around the room, throwing dried herbs and foul-smelling oils into a bowl. She pounded the mixture with a stone pestle. The acrid smell of the paste made Gwinn’s eyes water. The hound backed away and forced himself between Gwinn and the wall.
“Is this legal?” asked Dafys.
“This ‘ere is a ‘erbal remedy, sir. T’ain’t magic, if that’s what yer thinkin’,” replied the old woman. “No one can do magic theirselves.”
Gwinn’s father gasped behind them. He wheezed, fighting to get air into his failing lungs. Gwinn rushed across the room and grabbed a pale, clammy hand. Her father shifted, trying to look at her.
“I’m here, Papa,” said Gwinn.
The old woman slapped the stinking paste onto her father’s wound. His eyes flew open, bulging in agony. He screamed. The paste sizzled and spat where it touched the oozing black blood.
Her father’s body shuddered. Gwinn sobbed and squeezed his hand tighter. She wished that she could somehow will the poison out of his body. The hound sat on his haunches and let out a single banshee howl. Her father shook in one last spasm, and lay still.
Gwinn stared at the body. She told herself that the white, haggard face did not belong to her father. A stranger lay on the table, not Merryd Twildir. The old woman rolled her eyes skywards and muttered something under her breath. Dafys stifled a sob. The hound collapsed in a fit of whimpers in the corner.
Gwinn pressed her lips to her father’s hand, and laid it on his chest. She turned and sat on the bare floor. The strength of the table against her back reassured her. An eerie silence descended on the hovel, broken only by the stamp of horse’s hooves in the cold mud outside. Gwinn looked out of the window. A crow sat on a post just beyond the glass. It gave a single caw, and flew away towards the trees.
Gwinn didn’t hear Dafys’ promise that she would be taken care of. The old woman’s apologies and platitudes fell on deaf ears. All she could think of was how she would break the news to her brother.