‘And here’s a blueberry cake, and, oh, I almost forgot the tea!’
Sampson, who was a well-built, sturdy old horse, (in the sense that you pat a horse on the neck and say ‘good old Sampson’, not in actual years, that is) yet wonderfully stoic and patient, stomped his hoof on the soft mould, while Pepper packed cake after cake after tea after even more provisions into the bags of his saddle. Not that he’d mind, alas, strong, good-looking horse of noble brown that he was.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to take another coat with you, Will?’
‘But what if it’s cold in the city? Azalea always says it’s a cold, cold world, and I really wouldn’t want you to freeze…’
‘Don’t worry. I won’t.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh.’ Pepper nodded, making a very sensible face. It did not, however, last long, for soon another idea flashed up in her mind and mirrored on her pretty face, and milliseconds afterwards she stood on tiptoes and inspected the saddlebags.
‘I am sure there’s everything necessary in it’ said the Hunter, who had never travelled with more luggage than the clothes he wore, a knife, maybe the gun, and an old piece of bread.
He sighed inwardly as Pepper gave him an anxious look.
‘Oh, Will, it’s such a long way to the city!’
Wilhelm nodded. It was.
‘Are you sure I can leave you alone with the house?’ the Hunter asked, preparing to mount the horse. Sampson stood chewing a bunch of grass contently and waited. Some time or other, they would depart. He didn’t care when that was.
‘Why, yes, yes, of course you can!’ Pepper nodded eagerly, her face beaming. ‘I’ll take care of everything!’
The Hunter was much too polite a person to reply aloud that this was exactly what was bothering him. Since her arrival, Pepper had turned his household upside down. Not that he didn’t appreciate clean socks every now and then, or minded the delicious pies at all. He just wasn’t used to such bustling and utter vividness. Sometimes, she was just too fast for him, and that tended to tangle up his brain. He also wasn’t used to finding his shirts folded in the cupboard instead of thrown over some chair where he left them. Or an empty sink and clean dishes. Worst were the animals. There were birds on the windowsills every time she began to sing, which was quite often, and rabbits stretching eagerly sniffing into the air in front of the door, and an occasional deer in the backyard.
That was one thing. The other one was that Pepper probably would open the door to every stranger with a bright smile and invite them for tea, and everybody knows what happens when you open the door to an old, wrinkled, poor gammer selling apples.
Will got on the horseback with momentum, a little worried. Sampson raised his head and pricked his ears, not stopping the chewing unless there was a plausible cause for doing so. He’d gotten to know Pepper as well.
‘Right, then’ the Hunter said. He didn’t like to leave her all alone like that, not after what had happened to her family, but the cottage was a mess, and you couldn’t fix a broken window with a handkerchief. Or a destroyed roof with fern leaves, whatever Pepper might think.
He needed to organize things.
‘What are you not going to do?’ he asked., in a dunning voice he’d never imagined he’d have.
‘Open the door to strangers’ she answered obediently. ‘But, Will, what if…’
‘No. No opening of doors, Pepper!’ Wilhelm burst out with an unusual flashing of impatience. ‘Understood?’
The girl nodded. ‘Yes, Will.’
He nodded with relief. ‘Right. You may send them to Azalea, if that makes you feel any better.’
Her face brightened and he could picture a long queue of apple sellers in front of Azalea’s door. Now she’d certainly be grateful for that. Alas.
The Hunter prodded Sampson’s sides and the horse set himself in motion. Slowly. There was no need to hurry.
‘Goodbye, Will! Have a nice journey!’ Pepper bellowed, her voice trembling with excitement. That Will was to head for the wide world, for the dangerous city! Oh, he was so courageous, so brave. How very lucky she was to call him a friend- how thankful she should be for that. Oh, she’d take care of his house in turn, she’d plant some lovely flowers in the garden and-
‘Yes’ Will replied. Only a hopeless dreamer like Pepper could wish him a ‘nice’ journey, as if it was all going to be a great adventure. It was the Crystal City, after all. ‘Take care.’
With that, Sampson turned and departed.
The Hunter cast a look over his shoulder, where Pepper was waving goodbye, smiling brightly. She even stood on her tiptoes, and there were little rabbits appearing out of the grass, thinking themselves save upon his departure. Small blue birds settled down on the branches of nearby trees, and there was the obligatory deer lurking out of a bush.
The Hunter sighed, but couldn’t help but smile. What an extraordinary girl she was. She was still waving, and she’d wave and wave, even minutes after he got out of sight.