I found little left of breakfast, but the dishes hadn’t been cleared, so I wrapped a bit of sausage in a piece of bread and ate it with a cup of lukewarm tea. It was enough and I was happy to slip out of the dining room as unnoticed as I’d entered.
Reluctantly, I made my way to the schoolroom. The other students were there and waiting but FitzVigilant had not yet arrived. Perseverance sidled over to stand beside me. “Pups are settling in, but one has a bad infection where his tail was lopped off. Whoever did it just whacked it off, didn’t even go between the bones. Just whack! with a hatchet, probably. We had to pull bone splinters out of it, and he howled like to split the roof beams. The man who did it deserved what your da did to him, twice over. So Roder says, and he knows most everything about dogs. Why did your father decide he wanted dogs all of a sudden? He hasn’t kept any hounds at all, for years.”
“To keep them alive, I think. Like the donkey.”
“Well, we wondered about that, too. That old donkey, well, we’ll feed him up and see his hooves get fixed, but we wondered what he was for.” He looked at me. “Was what that town boy told us true?”
I moved farther down the corridor, away from the others. “A man was killing a dog in the town center when we were there. To make people want to buy her pups.” Perseverance’s eyes widened as I told him the whole tale. By the time I was finished, his mouth was hanging open.
“I’d heard Badgerlock had a temper, and no tolerance for cruelty. Huh.” He breathed out his astonishment. “That was done well. But what’s he going to do with those bulldogs?”
“What’s usually done with them?”
He raised his brows as if surprised I wouldn’t know such a thing. “Well, some men fight them, dog against dog. Or they do bull-baiting. You know, set them on a bull, to harry him down before slaughter. It makes the meat better, so they say. Same for pig. Hey, maybe we can use them to hunt out some of the wild pigs around here. There’s a couple of big old tuskers that have been making a mess of the root fields for the last couple of years.”
“Maybe,” I replied. An idea touched me. “Maybe I will ask for one, to be mine.”
FitzVigilant was approaching. He looked very fine today, in a blue coat with a white collar and leggings of darker blue. I realized something I hadn’t before, that FitzVigilant dressed like a wealthy merchant while my father’s garb was closer to that of the farmers who came to Oaksbywater to sell their wares. I looked down at myself. Yes. Closer to a farmer’s daughter than to the child of a noble house. Or perhaps even a farmer’s son. My tutor gave me no time to dwell on that. “Well, come along then, come inside and get settled! We’ve lost quite a bit of the morning, so we need to be quick today with our lessons.”
No one seemed inclined to remind him that he had been the last to arrive. Instead we did as we were told, settling quickly. Our teacher seemed distracted and almost irritable, as if we were an annoying task to accomplish and be done with rather than the reason he had been brought to Withywoods. He attempted to teach us all a long rhyme about the various kings of the Six Duchies and what each was remembered for, but instead of teaching it in bits, as my mother had taught me “The Twelve Healing Herbs,” he recited all of it for us, and then went round asking each of us to attempt it. Not a one of us made it past the third King, let alone all twenty-three of them, and he professed his disappointment in detail. He recited it again, very rapidly. Larkspur managed to get through four of the verses, mostly correct. Elm broke down in sobs when FitzVigilant made her stand up and try to recite them. He had fixed his eyes on me, and I felt both determination and dread fill me as I slowly stood to recite.
I was saved by distant angry shouts followed by a booming as if someone was repeatedly slamming a distant door. FitzVigilant looked away from me, scowled, and went to the door of the schoolroom. He gazed in the direction of the noise, still frowning. He was starting to close the door when we all heard a long and chilling scream.
The scribe looked alarmed. “Stay here. I’ll be back shortly.”
And with that he left us, striding at first—and then we all heard his footsteps increase to a run. We exchanged glances. Larkspur fidgeted and then stood up. He took two steps toward the door. “He said to stay here,” Perseverance reminded him. We remained as we were, listening to muffled shouts. Perseverance looked at me and then said, “I’m going to go see what’s going on.”
“Me, too,” I insisted.
“No,” he forbade me, and then as I bared my teeth at him, he added in a more conciliatory tone, “You don’t want the scribe to be angry with you, Lady Bee. I’ll go quickly and come right back.”