“Quiet, girl!” Lin the shepherd barked at me. As quickly as he’d picked me up, he dropped me, and his dog came up to block my pursuers as Lin turned on them. They had been close on my heels; if he had not been there, they would have caught me that day, and I still wonder if they would have left me alive.
Lin seized Taffy by the back of his collar and swung him up, one-handed, while delivering such a powerful smack to his bottom with his free hand that Taffy’s whole body arched to the blow. Lin dropped him and spun on the little girls. They had not been as close, and they nearly managed to get away, but Lin caught one by the pigtail and the other by the edge of her skirts. Both crumpled before his wrath, as he demanded of them, “What be you doing, chasing a tiny child, you great bullies? Shall I teach you what it is to have someone larger than you give you a thrashing?”
Both girls began to wail. Taffy’s chin quivered, but he stood up and clenched his fists at his side. I sat flat where Lin had dropped me. It was only when he stooped to help me to my feet that he exclaimed, “Oh, by Eda and El, it’s worse than fools you are! This is the little mistress, sister to Lady Nettle herself! Do you think she’ll forget what you’ve done to her this day? Do you imagine that when you are men and women grown, you’ll work in the kitchens or fields as your parents have done for generations before you? Or your children after you? If Holder Badgerlock or Lady Molly does not send your parents and you packing from their lands this very day, I’ll be shocked!”
“She spied on us!” wailed Lea.
“She follows us about!” Elm accused me.
“She’s witless, a moron, and she stares at us with ghost eyes!” This last from Taffy. It was the first time I knew that he feared me.
Lin only shook his head. “She is the daughter of the house, you ninnies! She can go where she will and do as she wishes. Poor little mite! What else is she to do? She only wants to play.”
“She can’t talk!” Elm objected, and Taffy added, “She’s dumb as a post and simple as a stone. Who can play with an idiot? They should keep her tethered inside, they should, and out from underfoot.” I knew he repeated something overheard from adults.
Lin looked from them to me. After my first shriek, I hadn’t made a sound. His dog came back to me, and I put an arm across her shaggy back. My finger sank deep into her silky coat, and I felt her comfort flow up into me. She sat down beside me, and our heads were on a level. The shepherd looked from his dog back to the children. “Well. Whatever she be, it costs you nothing to be kind to her. Now you’ve put me in a bind here. I should tell the Holder, that I should, but I’ve no desire to see your folks turned out of the places they’ve held for years. I will speak to your parents. You’ve all three of you too much time on your hands if this is what you get up to. Now, little mistress, let’s look at you. Have they hurt you?”
“We didn’t touch her!” they shouted.
“Don’t tell the Holder! I swear, we’ll never chase her again,” Taffy bargained.
Lin had gone down on one knee. He picked a dried leaf and a burr from my tunic, and dared to smooth back my tangle of curls. “Well, she’s not weeping. Maybe not much hurt, then. Maybe? Not hurt, little one?”
I drew myself up straight and met his eyes. I put my hands behind me and tightened them into fists, my nails biting hard into my palms to give me courage. I found my voice. With my newly loosened tongue, I formed each word as if it was a gift. “Thank you kindly, Shepherd Lin. I am not injured.” His eyes grew round. Then I shifted my stare to the gaping children. I fought to keep my new voice steady, speaking each word precisely. “I will not tell my father or my mother. Nor do you need to do so, I think. These children have realized their error.”
They stared. I focused my gaze on Taffy and tried to burn holes in him with my eyes. He glared back at me sullenly. Slowly, very slowly, I cocked my head at him. Hatred met hatred in our gazes, but his was greater than mine. What would he fear, if not my hate? I knew. I had to remember each muscle in my face, but slowly I constructed and then let blossom a fawning smile upon my face. I spoke in a gentle whisper. “Dear Taffy.”
His eyes bulged at my fond gaze. Then Taffy screamed, more shrilly than I had, and turned and fled. The little girls ran after him. I glanced up at Lin. His eyes were measuring me, but I did not see disapproval. He turned to watch the fleeing children. I think he was speaking more to the dog than to me as he said, “They’ll beat you and mistreat you if they think you’re a dumb brute. Doesn’t matter if you’re a mule, or a dog, or a child. And when they find out there’s a mind beneath the flesh they’ve been battering, they fear you. And leave you alone. Sometimes.” He took a deeper breath and turned an appraising eye on me. “You’ll need to watch your back now, mistress. Time ye had a dog, is what I’m thinking. You speak to your da about that. Daisy and I, we could find a good pup for you. A smart pup.”