I scowled as I dismounted. I got off the horse to the mounting block without assistance. An easy accomplishment now, one I took pride in. “Why not?” I demanded.
He looked surprised at me. “Well, you know. The scribe came and he’s going to teach us.”
“He’s going to teach me,” I corrected him, not gently.
He lifted his brows at me. “And me. And Lukor, and Ready and Oatil from the stables. And Elm and Lea from the kitchens. Maybe Taffy, though he scoffs and says no one can make him go. And the goose woman’s children, and maybe some of the sheepherder’s children. Holder Tom Badgerlock put the word out that anyone born to help on Withywoods can come and learn. Lots didn’t want to. I didn’t. But my da says that anytime a man can learn a new thing, he should. And that it’s a fine thing to be able to sign your name instead of making a mark, and an even finer thing to know what you’re signing without having to send to the village for a scribe. So. I have to go, at least until I can write my own name. He seems to think that by then I’ll want to keep going. I’m not sure about that.”
I was sure I didn’t want him to go at all. I liked how he knew me here, just as Bee. The thought of Taffy being there chilled me. He hadn’t dared to chase me since that day, but perhaps it was only because I’d never dared to follow and spy on them since then. I imagined Elm and Lea, giggling and mocking me. Then Perseverance would see what a mistake he had made in being my friend. No! I could not allow them to be included. I pressed my lips tightly together. “I will be speaking to my father about this,” I told Perseverance.
He looked disapproving at my chill tone. “I’d be happy if you did. Sitting in a circle getting ink on my fingers isn’t my idea of a good time. My father said it just proved your father was a generous-hearted man, as he’s always said. Not all agree with him. Some say the Holder has a black look to his eyes sometimes, even when he’s fair-spoken. None could name a time when he had mistreated someone or been unfair, but many claimed that was your mother’s influence that made him kind, and they looked for things to go badly for all of us when she died. When he brought that woman here, some said she had a look to be his blood kin, and others said she had the look of a woman come to have an easy life of it with a man handling a lot of money.”
I was frozen, my mouth ajar and my heart cold as I listened to his words. I think he mistook it for ardent interest rather than a heartfelt desire to hear no more. He nodded at me. “It’s so. Some talk like that. There was that night when half the staff was up till dawn because that woman was shrieking about ghosts, and then Revel fell on them all the next morning like an avalanche, full of fury and shame that there had been bugs in your bedding, and your father so angry about it he was out setting fire to it in the night. ‘As if he cares for her at all, the way she runs about dressed in clothes that would better suit a cobbler’s boy.’” He stammered to a halt at my look of outrage. Perhaps he suddenly recalled to whom he was speaking, for he insisted, “That’s what they said, not me!”
I didn’t conceal my fury as I demanded, “Who said those things? Who is ‘they’ who speak such awful lies about my father and make mock of me?”
He was suddenly a servant rather than a friend. He pulled his winter cap from his head and held it before his knees, eyes and head down as he spoke. His ears were scarlet and not from the cold. There was wariness in his voice as he said, “Your pardon, Mistress Bee. I spoke above myself and out of turn, most wrong of me. It was only gossip, not fit for a lady’s ears, and I’ve shamed myself repeating it. I’ll be about my work now.”
And he turned away from me, the only friend I’d ever made for myself, and took Priss’s headstall. He began to lead her away. “Perseverance!” I called in my most regal voice.
“I must take care of your horse, mistress,” he apologized over his shoulder. He was walking fast, head down. Priss seemed surprised to be hurried along. I stood on the mounting block, quarreling with myself. Raise my voice and order him back. Run away and never, ever come back to the stables again. Burst into tears and crumple up in a ball.
I stood, frozen by indecision, and watched him walk away. When he and my horse had disappeared into the stables, I jumped down and ran away. I went to my mother’s grave and sat for a short time on a very cold stone bench nearby. I told myself I wasn’t so stupid as to think my mother was anywhere near. It was just a place to be. I’d never been so hurt, and I couldn’t tell if it was what he had said or how I had reacted to it. Stupid boy. Of course I’d get angry and demand to know who had said such horrid things. Why had he told me about them if he didn’t expect to tell me who had said them? And sharing my lessons with the other children of Withywoods? I would not have minded Perseverance being there, but if Taffy and Elm and Lea were there, their opinion of me would spread like poison. Surely Perseverance would rather be friends with a large boy like Taffy than with someone like me. Elm and Lea sometimes helped at the table now; it was bad enough to glimpse them in passing, and see how quickly they put their heads together, their sharp tongues wagging like blades on a whetstone. They’d mock me. As, apparently, others were already mocking me for my appearance.