She lifted her voice and spoke to the captives. Her accent was odd but I understood what she said. “A boy was brought here, recently. Possibly within the last five years but more likely within the last few months. His skin will be as pale as snow, his hair as white. Give him to us, and we are gone. He might be as young as a child, or a man grown to middle years. We will know him when we see him. He isn’t here, but you must know who we are talking about.” She paused, waiting for a reply, then added reassuringly, “He isn’t one of yours; he has always belonged to us, and we only want to take him home. No harm will come to him, and if you but tell us, no more harm will befall you.”
Her words were measured and calm, almost kind. I saw my house people exchanging glances. Tavia shrugged free of Cook’s arm and lifted her voice. “There is no one here like that. The only newcomer here was the man you killed, the scribe. Everyone else has worked here for years, or was born to us, in the village. You already seen the minstrels; they’re the only strangers here!” Her words tumbled into a sob. The minstrels, already terrified, huddled closer together.
“You are lying!” the shouting man accused her. Her face crumpled with fear and she lifted her hands to cover her ears, as if his words were a threat by themselves.
The unexpected son. I knew it with a sudden certainty. These were the trackers the pale messenger had warned us about. They had followed her here, and for some reason they thought to find the boy here. Perhaps they thought my father had already found him and brought him here for shelter.
“She’s not lying!” Cook yelled at him, and a few others were brave enough to shout, “It’s true!” “There’s no one here that wasn’t born here!” and similar outbursts.
“Can you stay here by yourself and hide?” Perseverance whispered next to my ear. “I need to get to the stables and find Da. If he’s not there … I’m getting a horse and riding down to Withy for help.”
“Take me with you,” I begged.
“No. I have to cross all that open space to get to the stables. If they see us …” He shook his head. “You have to stay here, Bee. Hide.” He bit his lower lip and then said, “If my da … if I can’t find him, I’ll come back for you. We’ll go for help together.”
I knew that was a foolish plan, for him. If he got to the stables, he should just ride like the wind for Withy. But I was terrified. I gave a sharp nod. He pushed me down lower. “Stay here,” he hissed, as if I could forget to do so.
He moved to the edge of the holly bushes and waited. The round woman seemed to be arguing with the man on horseback. She pointed angrily at the bodies and gesticulated wildly. Plainly she did not like how he was conducting his search. He was gesturing with his sword and shouting. Then, out of the house came the fog man. I recognized him from my trip to town. There he had been a gleaming light in the alley that people avoided. Today he was a pearlescent mist and, in the center of it, a plump man pale as a ghost. He turned his head slowly from side to side as he walked, and either my eyes deceived me or his eyes were the color of fog. A strange chill went through me and I shrank as small as I could, pulling my awareness back into myself. Putting up my walls, my father would have called it. I felt blind but if that was the price of invisibility I was willing to pay it.
“Bee?” Perseverance whispered, but I shook my head and kept my face turned in toward my belly. I do not know what he sensed but abruptly he took my wrist in a grip like ice. “Come with me. Come on. We’re going now. Together.”
But he did not take me toward the stables. Rather, we crept back the way we had come, remaining behind and under the bushes that landscaped that wing of Withywoods. I did not look up but merely followed where he dragged me. “Here,” he panted at last. “Stay right here. I’ll go to the stables. If I can’t find my da, I’ll bring the horses here. I’ll be moving fast and you’ll have to run out and jump for Priss’s back. Can you do that?”
I didn’t know. “Yes,” I lied.
“Stay here,” he told me again, and then he was gone.
I remained where I was, behind rhododendrons whose drooping green leaves were encased in ice and snow. After a long time, I lifted my eyes and peered about. Nothing moved. I could no longer hear the huddled captives, but the angry voices still teased at the edges of my hearing.
Revel was dead. My father was gone. Riddle was not here. FitzVigilant was dead. At any moment Perseverance could be dead.
And at that thought, I could not sit still. I was terrified of being killed, but even more terrified that my only ally might be dead and I would not even know it. How long would I sit here under a bush while his life was leaking out somewhere? I started panting, trying to get enough air to keep the blackness at bay. I was cold and thirsty and alone. I tried to think, to not do something stupid simply because I wanted to do something.