Riddle looked over at me. A tight, hard moment passed. The world breathed again. “I’m starving,” he said quietly.
My father looked at his feet. “So am I,” he muttered. He stooped suddenly, scooped up clean snow, and used it to wipe blood from his hands. Riddle watched him.
“On your left cheek, too,” he said, and there was no anger left in his voice. Only a strange weariness. My father nodded, still not looking at anyone. He walked a few paces to where clean snow still clung to the top of a bush. He gathered two handfuls and washed his face with snow. When he was finished, I wriggled out of Riddle’s arms. I took my father’s cold wet hand. I didn’t say anything. I just looked up at him. I wanted to tell him that what I had seen hadn’t hurt me. Well, it had, but not the things he had done.
“Let’s get some hot food,” he said to me.
We walked to a tavern, past the man in the alley who still gleamed with a light that made it hard to see. Farther down the street, sitting on a corner, there was a gray beggar. I turned to look at him as we passed. He stared at me, not seeing me, for his eyes were as blank and gray as the ragged cloak he wore. He had no begging bowl, just his hand held up on top of his knee. It was empty. He wasn’t begging me for money. I knew that. I could see him and he couldn’t see me. That was not how it was supposed to be. I turned sharply, hugging my face to my father’s arm as he pushed open the door.
Inside the tavern, all was noise and warmth and smells. When my father walked in, the talk died suddenly. He stood, looking around the room as if he were Wolf-Father thinking about a trap. Slowly the voices took up their talk again, and we followed Riddle to a table. We were scarcely seated before a boy appeared with a tray and three heavy mugs of warmed spiced cider. He set them down, thud, thud, thud, and then smiled at my father. “On the house,” he told him, and sketched him a bow.
My father leaned back on the bench and the landlord, who was standing by the fire with several other men, lifted his own mug to him. My father nodded back gravely. He looked at the serving boy. “What is that savory smell?”
“It’s a beef shoulder, simmered until the meat fell off the bones with three yellow onions and half a bushel of carrots, and two full measures of this year’s barley. If you order the soup here, sir, you will not get a bowl of brown water with a potato bit at the bottom! And the bread has just come from the oven, and we have summer butter, kept in the cold cellar and yellow as a daisy’s heart. But if you prefer mutton, there are mutton pies likewise stuffed with barley and carrot and onion, in brown crusts so flaky that we must put a plate under them, for they are so tender that otherwise you may end up wearing one! We have sliced pumpkin baked with apples and butter and cream, and …”
“Stop, stop,” my father begged him, “or my belly will burst just listening to you. What shall we have?” He turned to Riddle and me with the question. Somehow my father was smiling and I thanked the jolly serving boy with all my heart.
I chose the beef soup and bread and butter, as did Riddle and my father. No one spoke while we waited but it was not an awkward quiet. Rather it was a careful one. It was better to leave the space empty of words than to choose the wrong ones. When the food came, it was every bit as good as the boy had said it would be. We ate, and somehow, not talking made things better between Riddle and my father. The fire on the big hearth sparked and spit when someone added a big log. The door opened and closed as people came and went, and the conversations reminded me of bees buzzing in a hive. I had not known that a chill day and buying things and watching my father save a dog’s death could make me so hungry. When I could almost see the bottom of my bowl, I found the words I needed.
“Thank you, Papa. For doing what you did. It was right.”
He looked at me and spoke carefully. “It is what fathers are supposed to do. We are supposed to get our children what they need. Boots and scarves, yes, but bracelets and chestnuts, too, when we can.”
He didn’t want to recall what he had done in the town square. But I had to make him understand that I understood. “Yes. Fathers do that. And some go right into the middle of a mob and save a poor dog from a slow death. And send puppies and a donkey to a safe place.” I turned to look at Riddle. It was hard. I’d never looked directly into his face. I put my eyes on his and kept them there. “Remind my sister that our father is a very brave man, when you see her. Tell her I am learning to be brave, too.”
Riddle was meeting my gaze. I tried, but I could not do it for long. I looked down at my bowl and took up my spoon as if I were still very hungry. I knew that my father and Riddle looked at each other over my bowed head, but I kept my eyes on my food.