The following days had been filled with noise and disorder. A new wave of workmen had arrived at Withywoods. Heavy wagons drawn by immense horses came and went in the drive. Men unloaded timber and stone and carried them through the house. Rot had been discovered in a wall and what had begun as a simple repair would be anything but. Hammering and sawing and the tramping of workers and their shouted conversations to one another seemed to fill every corner of my home. I had promised my father that I would do my best to stay out of their way, and I had. I continued to sleep in my mother’s sitting room. My clothing chests were moved there and refilled with my laundered clothing. There seemed far less of it than there had been. Revel must have decided to burn some of it.
I had also undertaken, on my own, to visit the stables. It was not an area I knew well. My small size had always meant that I had a proportionately greater dread of large animals. Even the shepherd’s dogs seemed large to me, and many of the horses I could have walked under without even dipping my head. Nonetheless, I not only made my way there, but located the mare that my father had so long ago chosen for me. She was, as my father had told me, a dapple-gray with one white hoof. I found a stool and dragged it to her stall, and climbed up and sat on her manger to look at her. There was no shyness in her; she came immediately to snuffle at my shoe, and then to lip at the edge of my tunic. I put out a hand to her, and she began to lick my palm. I sat still and allowed it, for it kept her head still and let me examine her face more thoroughly.
But, “Here, miss, you oughtn’t to let her do that. She’s just after the salt on your skin, you know. And it may teach her to bite.”
“No, it won’t,” I asserted, even though I had no idea if it was true. The boy looking up at me was only a few years older than myself, I suspected, even if he was head and shoulders taller than I was. I rather enjoyed looking down on him. There were bits of straw in his black hair, and the coarse fabric of his shirt had been softened by many washings. His nose and cheeks were red from enduring the bite of wind and rain, and the hands that rested on the stall’s edge were work-roughened. He had a straight, strong nose, and his teeth looked too big for his mouth. His dark eyes had narrowed at my defiance.
I drew my hand back from the mare’s tongue. “She’s my horse,” I said, trying to justify myself and then hated how the words sounded. The boy’s face grew bleaker.
“Yah. I guessed as much. You’re Lady Bee, then.”
It was my turn to narrow my eyes. “I’m Bee,” I said. “That’s all.”
He looked at me guardedly for a moment. “I’m Per. I’m Dapple’s groom and exercise boy.”
“Dapple,” I said. I hadn’t even known the name of my own horse. Why did I feel ashamed?
“Yah. Stupid name, isn’t it?”
I nodded back at him. “It could be the name of any dappled horse. Who named her so badly?”
He shrugged. “No one named her.” He scratched his head, and a bit of the straw fell to his shoulder. He didn’t even notice it. “She came here with no name, and we just called her the dapple, and then it started being Dapple.”
That was probably my fault. I suspected my father had expected me to come here and get to know her and give her a name. I hadn’t. I’d been too afraid of how big horses were. I’d feared to imagine what one might do if he didn’t want me on his back.
“Per’s an odd name, too.”
He gave me a sideways glance. “Perseverance, miss. It’s a bit too long to shout at me, so I’m Per.” He looked at me and suddenly confided, “But someday I’m going to be Tallestman. My grandfather was called Tallman, and when my father grew taller than he was, all the hands started calling him Tallerman. And that’s how he’s known now.” He pulled himself up straight. “I’m a bit short now, but I think I’m going to grow, and when I top my da, I’m going to be Tallestman. Not Perseverance.” He shut his mouth firmly and thought about it for a minute. His disclosure was like a bridge he was waiting for me to cross. It was my turn to say something.
“How long have you taken care of her?”
“Two years now.”
I looked away from him to the mare. “What name would you give her?” I knew something. He had named her.
“I’d call her Priss. Because she’s so fussy about some things. Hates to have her hooves dirty. And her saddle has to be just so, the pad all smooth, not a rumple anywhere. She’s prissy about things like that.”