He caught at my sleeve and I had to turn back to him. “Exactly. But until I pointed it out, you hadn’t noticed that. The second time today that she’s been put into danger.”
Shun had a fox’s ears. She was eavesdropping. Behind us, she made a small sound between disgust and amusement and spoke for me to hear. “And he says you are not fit to teach his daughter,” she observed to FitzVigilant snidely. I nearly turned to her but the wolf in my heart leapt to the forefront. Find the cub. Nothing else matters.
Riddle had also heard her. He dropped his grip on my sleeve and started toward the door. I was two steps behind him. All manner of thoughts raced through my mind. Oaksbywater was not a large town, but all sorts of folk would be converging on it for Winterfest. All sorts of people, bent on having a good time. And for some of them, a good time could involve hurting my little girl. I barked my hip on a table’s edge and two men shouted as their beer leapt over the rims of their mugs. Then Shun was stupid enough to seize my sleeve. She had come after me and Lant trailed her. “Riddle can find Bee. Holder Badgerlock, we need to settle this once and for all.”
I ripped my sleeve from her grip so abruptly that she cried out and clutched her hand to her chest. “Did he hurt you?” FitzVigilant exclaimed in horror.
Riddle had reached the door and was waiting for two very large patrons to come in before he could go out. He leaned to look around them. Then, “No! Stop! Put her down!” Riddle roared the words as he slammed through the two men trying to come into the tavern and out the door. I lunged away from Shun and crossed the crowded tavern in a stumbling run. The door stood wide open and I bolted through it. I gazed wildly around the busy commons. Where had Riddle gone, what had he seen? Folk were treading calmly through the snow, a dog sat scratching itself, and the driver of the emptied wagon in front of the inn chirruped to his team. Past the wagon I caught a glimpse of Riddle, running through startled idlers toward a ragged beggar who had lifted my small daughter in his crooked dirty hands and held her tight to his breast. His mouth was by her ear. Trapped against him, she was not struggling. Instead she was very, very still, her feet dangling, her face looking up into his, her lax hands open and held wide as if begging something from the sky.
I passed Riddle and somehow my knife was in my hands. I heard a sound, a roaring like a beast and a roaring in my ears. Then my arm was around the beggar’s throat, pulling his face away from my daughter’s, and as I bent his head back with the crook of my elbow, I plunged my knife into his side, once, twice, three times at least. He screamed as he let go of her, and I dragged him back with me, away from my child in her red-and-gray shawl, fallen like a torn rose in the snow.
Riddle was there in an instant, wise enough to snatch my daughter from the snowy ground and fall back with her. His right arm held her to his heart while his left had his own knife at the ready. He looked all around, seeking some other foe or target. Then he glanced down at her, took two steps back, and shouted, “She’s fine, Tom. A bit stunned but fine. No blood!”
Only then did I become aware of people shouting. Some were fleeing the violence, others converging in a circle around us as eager as crows at a killing. I still held the beggar in my arms. I looked down into the face of the man I had killed. His eyes were open, grayed over and blind. Row of scars lined his face in lovingly inflicted lines. His mouth was crooked. The hand that clutched still at my strangling arm was a bird’s claw of crookedly healed fingers.
“Fitz,” he said quietly. “You’ve killed me. But I understand. I deserve it. I deserved worse.”
His breath was foul and his eyes like dirty windows. But his voice had not changed. The world rocked under my feet. I stumbled back, and sat down hard in the snow, the Fool in my arms. I realized where I was, under the oak, in the bloody snow where the dog had bled. Now the Fool bled. I felt the warm blood from his wounds soaking my thighs. I dropped my knife and pressed my hand to the punctures I had made. “Fool,” I croaked, but I had no breath to make words.
He moved one hand, blindly groping, asking with infinite hope, “Where did he go?”
“I’m right here. Right here. And I’m sorry. Oh, Fool, don’t die. Not in my arms. I could not live with that. Don’t die, Fool, not at my hands!”
“He was here. My son.”
“No, only me. Just me. Beloved. Don’t die. Please don’t die.”
“Did I dream?” Tears spilled slowly from his blind eyes. They were thick and yellow. The breath of his whisper was foul. “Can I die into that dream? Please?”