I knew when my father reached the dog butcher. I heard a loud crack, as if bone had hit bone, and then the crowd roared a different note. Riddle shouldered his way to the edge of an open space where my father held a man up. One of my father’s hands clutched the man’s throat. His other hand was drawn back and I saw it shoot forward like an arrow leaving a bow. His fist hit the man’s face and ruined it with a single blow. Then he flung the man aside, threw him into the crowd with a snap like a wolf breaking a rabbit’s neck. I had never guessed my father’s strength.
Riddle tried to hold my face against his shoulder but I twisted free to stare. The bitch still hung from the bull’s nose, but her entrails dangled in streamers of gray and white and red that steamed in the winter air. My father had his knife in his hand. He put an arm around her and tenderly sliced her throat. As her heart pumped the last of her life and her jaws let go, he eased her body to the ground. He didn’t speak, but I heard him as he promised her that her pups would know a kinder life than she had. Not my pups, she told him. Then, I never knew there were masters like you, she told him, amazed beyond wonder that such a man could exist.
Then she was gone. There was only the dead bull’s head hanging from the oak, a monstrous ornament to Winterfest, and the dog butcher rolling on the bloodied ground, clutching at his face and snorting blood and cursing. The bloodied thing in my father’s arms wasn’t a dog anymore. My father let the body fall and stood up slowly. When he did, the circle of men widened. Men stepped back from my father and the black look in his eyes. He walked up to the man on the ground, lifted his foot, and set it on the man’s chest, pinning him to the ground. The dog butcher ceased his mewling and grew still. He looked up at my father as if he looked at Death himself.
My father said nothing. When the silence had lasted long, the man on the ground lifted his hands from his smashed nose. “You had no right,” he began.
My father thrust his hands into his purse. He dropped a single coin on the man’s chest. It was a large one, an uncut silver. His voice was like the sound of a sword being drawn. “For the pups.” He looked at them, and then at the poor bony creature hitched to the cart. “And the cart and donkey.” The circle of watchers had grown still. He looked slowly around at them, and then he pointed at a youngster almost a man tall. “You. Jeruby. You drive the cart with those pups out to Withywoods. Take them to the stables and give them to a man named Hunter. Then go to my house steward, Revel, and tell him he’s to give you two silver pieces.”
There was a small intake of breath at that. Two silver pieces for an afternoon’s work?
He turned and pointed next at an oldster. “Rube? A silver if you get that bloody bull’s head out of here, and shovel clean snow over this mess. It’s not a fit part of Winterfest. Are we Chalcedeans here? Do we long to have a King’s circle brought back to Oaksbywater?”
Perhaps some of them did, but in the face of my father’s condemnation they would not admit it. The hooting, cheering crowd had been reminded they were men and capable of better. The spectators were already starting to disperse when the man on the ground complained hoarsely, “You’re cheating me! Those pups are worth a lot more than what you flung down here!” He clutched the single coin my father had dumped on him and held it up in both hands.
My father rounded on him. “She didn’t whelp those pups! She was too old. She couldn’t last out a fight anymore. All she had left was the strength in her jaws. And her heart. You just thought to get money out of her death.”
The man on the ground gaped at him. Then, “You can’t prove that!” he cried out in a voice that proclaimed him a liar.
My father had already forgotten him. He had suddenly realized that Riddle was standing there and that I was staring at him. The old bitch’s blood had drenched his cloak. He saw me staring at it, and without a word he undid the clasp and let it fall to the ground, the heavy gray wool given up without a thought save that he did not want to bloody me as he came to take me into his arms. But Riddle did not give me up. I looked at my father wordlessly. He lifted his gaze to meet Riddle’s.
“I thought you would take her away from here.”
“And I thought you might have a mob turn on you, and might need someone at your back.”
“And bring my daughter into the middle of it?”
“From the time you decided to interfere, all my choices were bad ones. Sorry if you don’t like the one I chose.”
I had never heard Riddle’s voice so cold, nor seen him and my father staring at each other like angry strangers. I had to do something, say something. “I’m cold,” I said to the air. “And I’m hungry.”