“I can do that, sir.” He spoke softly. Was the reproach in his dog’s eyes for me or himself? No time to wonder.
“Thank you, Revel,” I told him and left him with a clap on his shoulder. I moved swiftly down the corridor, already reaching for Nettle with my Skill-magic. The moment our thoughts touched, my daughter’s outrage blasted into my mind. Riddle told me. How dare anyone do this in our home! Is Mother safe?
She is. I’m on my way down. Revel is on watch on her door, but I’d like you or one of the boys to take his place.
Me. I’ll make my excuses and be right up. A heartbeat’s pause, then, fiercely, Find who did this!
I intend to.
I think she took satisfaction in my cold assurance.
I moved swiftly through the corridors of Withywoods, every sense alert. I was not surprised when I rounded a corner and found Riddle waiting for me. “Anything?” I asked him.
“Nettle’s gone up to her mother’s room.” He glanced past me. “You know that you were probably the target in some way.”
“Perhaps. Or the messenger herself, or the message she bore, or someone seeking to do injury to whoever sent the message by delaying or destroying it.”
We were moving swiftly together, trotting side by side like wolves on a trail.
I loved this.
The thought ambushed me and I almost stumbled. I loved this? Hunting someone who had attacked someone else in the sanctity of my own home? Why would I love that?
We always loved the hunt. An ancient echo of the wolf I had been and the wolf who was still with me. The hunt for meat is best, but any hunt is always the hunt, and one is never more alive than during the hunt.
“And I am alive.”
Riddle shot me a questioning glance, but instead of asking a question he gave me information. “Revel himself took the food and tea to the messenger. The two pages who were on the front door recall admitting her. She came on foot, and one says that she seemed to come from behind the stable rather than up the carriageway. No one else saw her, though of course the kitchen staff recall making up a tray for her. I haven’t had a chance to go out to the stables and see what they know there.”
I glanced down at myself. I was scarcely dressed to appear before our guests. “I’ll do that now,” I said. “Alert the boys.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s their home, Riddle. And they are not really boys anymore. They’ve been talking of leaving for the last three months. In spring I think they’ll fly.”
“And you have no one else to trust. Tom, when this is over, we are going to talk again. You need a few house soldiers, a few men who can be brutes when the situation calls for it, but can open a door and serve wine to a guest as well.”
“We’ll talk later,” I agreed, but grudgingly. It wasn’t the first time he had pointed out to me that I should have some sort of house guard for Withywoods. I resisted the idea. I was no longer an assassin, living to guard my King and carry out his quiet work. I was a respectable landholder, a man of grapes and sheep now, a man of plows and shears, not knives and swords. And there was, I had to admit, my conceit that I could always protect my own household against whatever limited threats might find their way to my door.
But I hadn’t tonight.
I left Riddle and trotted through the halls on my way to the stables. There was, I told myself, truly no indication that whatever bloodshed there had been was deadly. Nor did it have to be related to me or to my own. Perhaps the messenger had enemies of her own who had followed her. I reached a servants’ entrance, pushed open the heavy door, and dashed across the snowy courtyard to the stable door. Even in that brief run, I had snow down the back of my neck and in my mouth. I slid back the bar on the stable doors and pushed one open just enough to slip in.
Inside was the warmth of stabled animals, the pleasant smell of horses and soft light from a shielded lantern on a hook. In response to my entrance, Tallman was already hobbling toward me. His son, Tallerman, supervised most of the work of the stables now, but Tallman still considered himself in charge. On days when there was a great deal of coming and going, as there was tonight, he rigorously controlled which animals were stabled where. He had strong feelings about teams left standing all evening in harness. He peered at me through the gloom of the stable and then gave a start as he recognized me. “Holder Tom!” he cried in his cracking voice. “Shouldn’t you be dancing with the fine folk in the Great Hall?”
Like many another oldster, his years had diminished his regard for the differences in our status. Or perhaps it was that he’d seen that I could shovel out a stall with the best of men, and he therefore respected me as an equal. “Soon enough,” I replied. “The dancing will go on till dawn, you know. But I thought I would wander out here and be sure all is well in the stable in such a storm.”