“All’s well here. This barn was built sturdy two decades ago, and it’ll stand for a dozen more, I reckon.”
I nodded. “Steward Revel tells me that you had visitors here tonight, ones that made you uneasy.”
His querying look changed to a scowl. “Yes. If you act like a horse thief, I’ll speak to you like you’re a horse thief. Don’t come prying and peeking around my stables and then tell me you’re a minstrel. They were no more minstrels than Copper there is a pony. They didn’t smell right to me, and I took them right up to the door.” He peered at me. “That Revel fellow was supposed to warn you. You didn’t let them in, did you?”
Hard to admit it. I nodded once. “It’s Winterfest. I let everyone in.” I cleared my throat at his lowering stare. “Before that. Did you notice anyone else here at the stables, anyone odd?”
“You mean that foreign girl?”
“Only her. She came in here like she thought it was the house. ‘I need to speak to the master,’ she told one of the hands, so he brought her to me, thinking she wanted me. But she looked at me and said, ‘No, the master with the crooked nose and the badger’s hair.’ So, begging your pardon, we knew she meant you and sent her up to the house.”
I dropped my hand from where I’d touched the bridge of my nose and the old break there. This was just getting odder and odder. A vanished messenger who had come seeking me with only a description rather than my name. “That’s all?” I asked.
He frowned thoughtfully. “Yes. Unless you want to hear about Merchant Cottleby trying to get me to stable his horses here when both have signs of mange. Poor creatures. I put them under shelter in the woodshed, but they’re not getting anywhere near our stock. And if his driver wants to complain, I’ll tell him what I think of his horsemanship.” He looked at me fiercely, as if I might challenge his wisdom.
I smiled at him. “A small kindness, Tallman, for the horses’ sake. Pack them up some of the liniment you make.”
He stared at me a moment, then gave a short nod. “Could do that. Not the beasts’ fault they’re ill cared for.”
I started to leave, then turned back. “Tallman. How long between the time the girl arrived and the three you took for horse thieves?”
He lifted his gaunt shoulders and then let them fall. “She came before Caul Toely arrived. Then came that tailor fellow, and the Willow sisters on those matched ponies of theirs. Those ladies never ride in a carriage, do they? Then the Cooper boys and their mother, and …”
I dared to interrupt him. “Tallman. Do you think they were following her?”
He stopped. I waited impatiently as he weighed what he knew. Then he nodded, his mouth tight. “I should have puzzled that out for myself. Same sort of boots, and they came right to the barn and were trying to peek in. Not looking for horses to steal, but following that girl.” His eyes met mine angrily. “They hurt her?”
“I don’t know, Tallman. She’s gone. I’m going to go see if those three are still here.”
“You do that. If they aren’t there, they can’t be far, in this weather. You want I should send a lad to Stocker’s Holding, ask to borrow their tracking dogs?” He shook his head and added sourly, “I’ve said many a time, it wouldn’t hurt us to have our own hunting pack.”
“Thank you, Tallman, but no dogs. The way the snow is coming down, I doubt there’s any trail to follow.”
“You change your mind, Tom, you let me know. I can have my son go fetch those hounds in a heartbeat. And”—and now he was calling after me as I beat a retreat—“if you come to your senses about keeping our own dogs, you let me know! I know a great bitch, will have her pups by spring! You just let me know!”
“Later, Tallman!” I shouted the words back to him, and got a mouthful of snow for my trouble. The snow was still coming down, and the wind was rising. I suddenly felt certain that those I sought were still within Withywoods. No one would be desperate enough to try to flee during this storm. I reached for Nettle. Is all still well with your mother?
I left her sleeping, with Hearth sitting in a chair by her fire. I told him to latch the door behind me, and I heard him do it. I’m with Riddle and Just, and our guests. We have discovered nothing out of the ordinary. There is no sign of the messenger.
Dead? Fled? Hiding within Withywoods? It had to be one of the three. There were three minstrels who came late. Two men and a woman. Web seemed unsettled by them. Are they still among our guests? I pictured them for her in my mind.