I took the dirtied cloak out of my jerkin front. I had not forgotten it. But I knew its limitations. It needed time to take on the colors and shadows. I could not fling it about my shoulders and run and hope to be unseen. Except that snow was white. It would not be perfect camouflage, I thought to myself as I spread it out on the snowy ground beside the bushes. I would be more like a white rabbit or a white fox; anyone with half an eye would see my movement, would see my feet and the tracks I would leave. But it would give me a better chance at reaching the stable than I’d had before.
The angry voices from the other side of the house grew louder, the man threatening, the woman unhappy but not pleading. Insistent, I thought to myself. She would have her way. I heard a scream, a man’s scream this time, and I wondered who had been hurt or killed. It was followed by a woman wailing. And wailing. And all the while, the cloak lay on the snow and mutated from the color of the darkness inside my jerkin to the color of the shaded and rumpled snow. I had never before paused to think that truly, all snow was not white. Now I saw that it was gray and dirty pale blue and speckled with bird droppings and bits of fallen leaves.
I crawled under it, not wishing to pull it back under the bushes and risk it taking on the colors of leaves and branches. It was sized for an adult, so there was ample fabric to wrap round me and drape my face. I clutched it at my waist and chin, leaving a small space for my eyes. I looked all around, and saw no one on this side of the manor. I darted from my shelter to the cluster of holly bushes where we had previously sheltered, taking care not to get to close to them. I froze where I was, considering the terrain between me and the stable. Should I crawl slowly across it? Make one fast dash? Earlier, the snow had been a smooth blanket over the low sward. Now I clearly saw the tracks that meant Perseverance had managed to cross it. Suddenly I knew he had waited for them to be distracted, perhaps by the man’s scream. I did not want to look at the captives. Their situation frightened me and made it hard for me to think. But I had to analyze my chances. The woman was still wailing. Was that enough of a distraction? I stood perfectly still and shifted only my eyes to look at the herded prisoners.
The wailing woman was Shun. She was bareheaded and her gown was torn from one shoulder. She stood before the angry man on his horse and wailed like a mourner. No words, no sobbing, just a high-pitched keening. The fog man was not far from her, and the plump woman seemed to be trying to ask her questions. I could not help her in any way. Much as I disliked Shun, I still would have helped her if I could, because she belonged to me, in the same way the black cat did or the goose children did. They were all the folk of Withywoods, and in the absence of my father and Nettle they were my folk. My folk, huddled and bleating in terror.
A moment before, I had been a child fleeing danger. Something changed in me. I would reach the stables, and with Perseverance I would ride for help. I needed to get there quickly, before he needlessly exposed himself by riding a horse back toward the manor where he thought I was hiding. The fear that had been crippling me melted away and became a wolf-fierceness. I crouched and the next time the woman asked Shun a question, I ran, keeping low and following Perseverance’s trail in hopes of leaving less evidence of my passage.
I reached the corner of the stable and whisked around it and crouched, breathing hard. What next, what next? Go to the back door, I decided, where the stable boys trundled out the barrows of dirty straw. That would be where Perseverance would come out with the horses. It was the door farthest from the house.
My path took me past the cote where our messenger birds had been kept. Had been. Feathers and bodies, their necks wrenched and tossed to the ground inside their fly-pen. No time to stare at all those small deaths. It was coming to me that whoever these people were, they were completely ruthless and this attack had been planned. No birds had flown to say we were being attacked. The invaders had killed them first.
When I reached the stable doors, I peered around them. A sickening sight met my eyes. Had the raiders come here first, as they had with the birds? Horses shifted uneasily in their stalls, for the smell of blood reached even my poor nose. I was grateful they had not taken the time to kill the horses. Possibly they had not wanted to risk the sound. Someone sprawled in the passageway between the stalls. He wore Withywoods colors. He was one of ours, facedown and unmoving. One of mine. I tightened my throat against a sob. No time to mourn. If anyone was to survive, Perseverance and I had to ride for help. We were my people’s last hope. I was not sure how many folk there were in little Withy village but there would be messenger birds there and someone would gallop for the King’s Patrol.