The next morning, in the golden minutes of dawn, Deorwyn barked. Innis jumped at the sound. She was in her storeroom, restoring a bit of order to the drawers of herbs that were stacked high and wide across one wall before she left for Gleannfald. She had left a mess after preparing her orders yesterday. Deorwyn was sitting at the doorway, watching her. Something from outside had caught his attention, and he sounded another low bark. Someone is coming, is what Deorwyn was trying to say. Innis put down the dried dragon’s eye she was holding and went into the front room to look out of the window. There was a thin copse of trees that separated Innis’s front yard from the grassy valley below, and a path of bent grass from Aldus’s cart was settled to the left side of the trees. Innis could just make out a figure through the break in the trees that the path made, and she stepped outside to get a better look.
There was no doubt. It was Bastion’s youngest brother, Turlough. Innis could tell from his reckless gait and his sandy brown hair, tousled from the wind.
“Inniiiiiis!” Turlough yelled through the wind. Innis waved at him from where she was at the edge of the treeline. When he had finally approached her, he put his hands on his knees and bent over to catch his breath. It didn’t take him long; after capturing a few lungfulls of air he threw his head back up and smiled at Innis with shining blue eyes.
“They sent me to get you. The merchants are in the village!” Innis’s heart jumped with excitement. She wasn’t expecting the merchants for another week or two; they were early this season. She could restock her ginger supply and a few other things, since they always brought hard-to-find and exotic herbs with them.
“Alright, let me get my satchel and I’ll go back with you!” Innis called out to him as she hurried back inside.
Deorwyn watched Innis bustle around the house like a bothered hen, giving her hair a quick comb and pulling it back loosely, then frowning in annoyance when little orange flyaways gathered around her face. She didn’t like them, always tickling her cheeks when she worked. But she didn’t have time to try and smooth them back anymore. She retrieved a small coin purse from her room, a green leather-bound book from the kitchen table, and then grabbed her shawl and her satchel from the peg by the front door. She nearly caught Deorwyn’s paws in the door in her hurry to shut it.
“Sorry,” Innis told him apologetically. Deorwyn simply huffed as he smelled the scents on the breeze.
Innis, Deorwyn and Turlough quickly made their way to Aldus’s farm. Their cottage was a solid building made of white stones and had straw thatch for a roof. The two cows in the pen close to the cottage mooed at their approach, and Turlough gave a burst of speed as he approached his family’s chickens. They clucked in indignation and surprise while hurriedly flapping to get out of the way of his footfalls. Deorwyn greeted an old female hound with a touch of the nose and an affectionate sniff. The other hound, his mother, did the same. In the distance, Innis could see the outline of a man behind a workhorse and a plow, turning the earth of a patch of farmland. It was Aldus, getting ready to plant his wheat crop.
“Bastion! Colum! She’s here, let’s go already!” Turlough called into the house. The door was propped open with a piece of firewood to let the fresh air in, and after a moment a blonde-haired woman emerged with a child perched on her hip.
“That’ll be enough of that yelling, Turlough,” she told him severely. “Don’t make me take back your da’s letting you off your chores today.” She looked to Innis, and a smile appeared on her face. The expression erased her frown lines and replaced them with happier creases. “Innis, good to see you, my girl.”
“Good morning, Agnes,” Innis returned with a smile. “Aldus told me this spring has surprised you, coming so early like this.” Agnes raised her eyebrows toward heaven.
“So it has! I had to scramble and plant my spring vegetables before it gets too warm. Those vegetables I sent you are good eating, I hope.”
“I had some last night; they’re very good.”
“Good,” Agnes said. Innis turned her gaze to the little girl on Agnes’s hip.
“And how are you, Gwyn?” The little girl–Gwyndolyn–blushed and buried her curly-haired head in her mother’s arm. She was a small girl of three, and she spoke few words. Innis laughed softly at her bashfulness. Agnes chuckled along with her.
“Come now, Gwyn. It’s only Innis.” Gwyndolyn simply dug her face deeper into her mother’s sleeve with a muffled giggle.
“Her decoction’s still working alright?” Innis asked Agnes. Agnes nodded.
“We give it to her at night; the chill in the air always makes it worse, so she drinks it right before she sets down to sleep.” Innis nodded in satisfaction. She had had to adjust a few ingredients in Gwyndolyn’s decoction to help with her cough. It always worsened in the winter and spring, because of the cold and the blooming flowers.
Suddenly, Bastion and Colum appeared from inside the cottage. Bastion smiled and greeted Innis with a warm, “Mornin’!” Innis grinned. Aldus’s accent he got from the hill country of his youth rubbed off on his son. Colum stood a pace behind Bastion, and he raised a hand and waved at Innis in greeting. He was two years older than his younger brother Turlough, who had just turned seven the past winter.
“Good morning, Colum. How’s your ear?” Colum approached her, brushed his dark curly hair away from the side of his face, and presented his ear for inspection.
“Still itchy,” he said in his soft voice, “but it’s not warm and red anymore. Getting better, I think.”
“That’s wonderful,” Innis said with a smile as she finished her inspection.
“I kind of like the medicine you made. It’s bitter at first, but then it gets sweet. Makes me want to have earaches more often,” he said with a laugh. Innis laughed with him, and caught Bastion’s smirk out of the corner of her eye. Innis knew he was thinking about the sugar she’d put in Colum’s decoction. She turned away from Colum and rolled her eyes at Bastion.
“Merchants are here early this season, aren’t they?” Bastion remarked to his mother.
“Aye, they got in at dusk yesterday and bedded down near Felda’s inn. Their stands may very well be set up already.”
“Then let’s go already,” Turlough said with an impatient shuffle of feet. “Less talking more running!”
“Colum and Turlough set off at a run, and Bastion and Innis followed briskly behind them. Agnes shouted to them in a stern tone.
“Colum, Turlough, listen to your older brother! He’s in charge!” Colum turned and yelled a quick “Yes, ma!” and Turlough just kept running. Innis heard a soft farewell from behind her, and she turned back at the sound.
“Bye, Inny,” Gwyndolyn had called after her in her thin voice. She had raised her head from her mother’s sleeve, and she was waving a small hand after Innis. Her dark curly hair fluttered frantically in the wind and framed Gwyndolyn’s round cheeks, flushed from the crisp air. Innis smiled warmly and waved back to her in farewell.
The thick green grass of the valley they walked in gleamed in the young rays of morning sunlight, and Innis basked in its gentle warmth as she walked. Deorwyn had run ahead of her with the boys, Colum and Turlough. Bastion had told them not to run off without he or Innis, so they played a game of tag with each other while they waited for the older ones to catch up. Though Colum was the older of the two, Turlough was light on his feet, and he dodged his brothers attempts at tagging him with ease. When he was finally tagged, he chased Colum down and leapt on him, dragging both himself and Colum down into the dew-showered grass. They both laughed as they wrestled for a moment. Bastion forgot his age, sprinted toward them, and grappled with both of them in the grass. When Innis caught up with them, Bastion had both of his little brothers’ heads tucked under his arms, and he had an expression of smug triumph on his face. Innis laughed, but she kept walking.
“Let us go!” Turlough bellowed as he struggled under his older brother’s grip. “Innis is going to beat all of us to the village!” Bastion wavered as Turlough kicked and squirmed savagely, but his grip held.
“I didn’t hear a ‘please’,” Bastion said.
“Pleeease,” Colum and Turlough shouted in unison. Bastion let them go and they were up in a heartbeat, pelting toward Innis and the village with clothes damp from the grass.
The valley leveled out beneath their feet, and the village was before them; a small collection of modest buildings with thatched roofs clustered cozily together. Though usually quiet, the village was bustling with people and noise, and Innis could see merchant vendors on the outskirts of town with their tents pitched and their stalls set up. Colum had slowed to a walk, but Turlough barreled past all of them into the commotion, looking for people to talk to and sweet treats to buy with a worn copper coin. Innis stepped into the crowd with excitement.