The Taking of Bee
Sometimes, it is true, a great leader arises who by virtue of charisma persuades others to follow him into a path that leads to greater good. Some would have you believe that to create great and powerful change, one must be that leader.
The truth is that dozens, hundreds, thousands of people have conspired to bring the leader to that moment. The midwife who delivered his grandmother is as essential to that change as is the man who shod his horse so that he might ride forth to rally his followers. The absence of any one of those people can tumble the leader from power as swiftly as an arrow through his chest.
Thus, to effect change does not demand military might nor the ruthlessness of murder. Nor must one be prescient. Gifted with the records of hundreds of prescient Whites, anyone can become a Catalyst. Anyone can precipitate the tiny change that tumbles one man from power and boosts another into his place. This is the change that hundreds of Servants before you have made possible. We are no longer dependent on a single White Prophet to find a better path for the world. It is now within the power of the Servants to smooth the path we all seek to follow.
Snow was falling, white stars cascading down from the black sky. I was on my back, staring up at the night. The cold white flakes melting on my face had woken me. Not from sleep, I thought. Not from rest, but from a peculiar stillness. I sat up slowly, feeling giddy and sick.
I had been hearing the sounds and smelling the smells for some time. In my dazed state, the roasting meat of Winterfest had been enticing, and the crackling sound of the huge logs in the grand hearth in the Great Hall. A minstrel was tuning some sea-pipes, the deepest-voiced of traditional wind instruments.
But now I was awake and I stared in horror. This was no celebration of Winterfest eve. This was the opposite of a gathering to drive darkness from our homes. This was a wallowing in destruction. The stables were burning. The charring meat was dead horses and men. The long, low tones that had seemed to be the slow waking of musical instruments were the confused moaning of the folk of Withywoods.
I rubbed my eyes, wondering what had happened. My hands were heavy and floppy, with no strength. They were stuffed into immense fur mittens. Or were they huge white furry paws? Not mine?
A jolt. Was I me? Was I someone else, thinking my thoughts? I shivered all over. “I’m Bee,” I whispered to myself. “I’m Bee Farseer. Who has attacked my home? And how came I to be here?”
I was bundled warmly against the cold, enthroned like a queen in the bed of an open sleigh I did not recognize. It was a marvelous sleigh. Two white horses in red-and-silver harness waited stoically to pull it. To either side of the driver’s seat, cleverly wrought iron hangers held lanterns with glass sides and worked iron scrolls as decorations. They illuminated the cushioned seat for the driver and a passenger, and the gracefully curved edges of the sleigh’s bed. I reached out, thinking to run my hand over the finely polished wood. I could not. I was rolled and wrapped and weighted with blankets and furs that bound my sleepy body as effectively as knotted ropes. The sleigh was drawn up at the edge of the carriageway that served the once-grand doors of Withywoods. Those doors were caved in now, broken and useless.
I shook my head, trying to clear my mind of cobwebs. I should be doing something! I needed to do something, but my body felt heavy and soft, like bags of wet laundry. I could not remember how I had been returned to Withywoods, let alone dressed in a heavy fur robe and bundled into a sleigh. As if I were backtracking my day, trying to find a lost glove, I set what I could remember in order. I’d been in the schoolroom with the other children. Steward Revel, dying as he warned us to run. I’d hidden the other children in the secret passage in the walls of Withywoods, only to have the door closed to me. Fleeing with Perseverance. He’d been shot. I’d been captured. And I had been so happy to be captured. I recalled no more than that. But somehow I’d been brought back to Withywoods, buttoned into a heavy fur coat, and swaddled into a dozen blankets. And now I was here, in a sleigh, watching my stables burn.
I turned my eyes away from the leaping orange flames of the burning stable and looked toward the manor. People, all the people I had known my whole life, were gathered in front of the tall doors of Withywoods. They weren’t dressed for the snow. They wore the clothes they had donned that morning for the day’s work inside the manor. They huddled together, hugging themselves or clinging to one another for warmth. I saw several shorter figures and finally my blurry vision made out that they were the children I had earlier concealed. Against my stern admonition, they had come out and betrayed themselves. My slow thoughts put together the burning stable and the hidden children. Perhaps they had been wise to come out. Perhaps the raiders would burn the house next.
The raiders. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, fighting for clarity of vision and thought.
This attack made no sense to me. We had no enemies that I knew of. We were far inland in the duchy of Buck, and the Six Duchies were not at war with anyone. Yet these foreigners had come and attacked us. They had battered their way into our halls.
Because they wanted me.
The thought made no sense, and yet it seemed to be true. These attackers had come to steal me. Armed men on horseback had run me down. Run us down. Oh, Perseverance. His own blood leaking between his fingers. Was he dead or hiding? How had I ended here, back at Withywoods? One of the men had seized me and dragged me back. The woman who seemed to be in charge of this raid had rejoiced at finding me, and told me that she was taking me home, to where I belonged. I frowned. I’d felt so happy at those words. So cherished. What had been wrong with me? The fog man had greeted me and welcomed me as his brother.
Even though I was a girl. I had not told them that. I had been so suffused with happiness to see them that I could scarcely speak. I had opened my arms to the fog man, and to the plump, motherly woman who had rescued me from the raider who had been choking me. But after that . . . I remembered a warm whiteness. That was all. The memory made no sense but it still filled me with shame. I’d embraced the woman who had brought these killers to my home.
I turned my head slowly. I felt as if I could not do anything quickly. I could not move quickly or think quickly. I had taken a bad fall, I remembered slowly. From a running horse. Had I struck my head? Was that what was wrong with me?
My unseeing eyes had been focused on the burning stables. Two men approached it now, carrying something. Withywoods men, dressed in our yellow and green, in their best clothes. For a Winterfest eve that had become a winter slaughter. I recognized one as Lin, our shepherd. They were carrying something between them. Something that sagged. A body. Around the burning stables, the snow had melted to slush. They trudged on. Closer and closer. Would they walk right into the flames? But as they drew closer, they halted. “One, two, three!” Lin’s voice cracked on the count as they swung the body and then, on three, they let go. It flew into the red mouth of the burning building. They turned. Like puppets traipsing across a stage, they walked away from the flames.
Was that why the stable was burning? To get rid of the bodies? A good hot bonfire was a very effective way to get rid of a body. I’d learned that from my father. “Papa?” I whispered. Where was he? Would he come to save me? Could he save all our people? No. He’d left me and gone off to Buckkeep Castle, to try to save the blind old beggar. He wasn’t going to save me, or our people. No one was.
“I am cleverer than this.” I whispered the words aloud. I had not known I was going to say them. It seemed as if some part of me strove to wake the dull, deadened creature I had become. I looked around fearfully to see if anyone had heard me speak. They must not hear me speak. Because . . . if they did . . . If they did, they would know. Know what?
“Know they aren’t controlling me anymore.”
My whisper was even softer this time. The parts of me were coming back together. I sat very still in my warm nest, gathering my mind and my strength. I mustn’t betray myself until I could do something. The sleigh had been heaped with furs and woolen blankets from the manor. I was wrapped in a heavy robe of white fur, thick and soft, too big for me. It was not from Withywoods. It was no type of fur that I knew and it smelled foreign. A hat of the same fur covered my head. I moved my mittened hands, shifting my arms free of the heavy blankets. I was loaded up like a stolen treasure. I was what they were taking. Me and very little else. If they had come to plunder, I reasoned, the teams and wagons of Withywoods would be standing full of loot and the riches of my home. I saw none of that, not even our riding horses bunched to steal. I was the only thing they were carrying off. They had killed Revel to steal me.
So what would happen to everyone else?
I lifted my eyes. The huddled folk of Withywoods were limned against smaller fires. They stood like penned cattle in the snowy center. Some were held up by their fellows. Faces were transformed by pain and horror into people I dared not recognize. The fires, built of the fine furniture of Withywoods, were not there to warm them but to light the night so they could not elude their captors. Most of the raiders were mounted on horses. Not our horses, nor our saddles. I’d never seen saddles like those, so high in the back. My numbed mind counted them. Not many, perhaps as few as ten. But they were men of blood and iron. Most of them were fair, with yellow hair and stained pale beards. They were tall and hard and some walked with bared blades in their hands. Those men were the killers, the soldiers that had come to do this task. Those men with fair hair like mine. I saw the man who had chased me down, the one who had dragged me, half-strangled, back to the house. He stood face-to-face with the woman who had shouted at him, the plump woman who had made him drop me. And next to them, there, make my eyes see him, yes, there. He was there. The fog man.
Today was not the first time I had seen him.
He had been in Oaksbywater, at the market. He had been there, fogging the whole town. No one who had passed him had turned to look at him. He’d been in the alley, the one that no one was choosing to walk down. And what had been behind him? The raiders? The soft, kind woman with the voice and words that made me love her as soon as she spoke? I was not sure. I had not seen through his fog, had barely seen the fog man himself. I could scarcely see him now. He stood by the woman.
He was doing something. Something hard. It was so hard for him that he had had to stop fogging me to do it. Knowing that helped me to peel my mind clear of his. With every passing moment, my thoughts were more my own. My body was more my own. I felt now the bruises of the day, and how my head ached. I ran my tongue around inside my mouth and found the place where I had bitten my cheek ragged. I pushed my tongue against it, tasting blood and waking the pain, and suddenly my thoughts were my own and only my own.
Do something. Don’t sit still and warm and let them burn the bodies of your friends while Withywoods folk stand shivering in the snow. They were helpless, I perceived, their minds almost as fogged as mine had been. Perhaps I was only able to find myself because of my years of experience at withstanding the pressure of my father’s mind. There they stood, in distress, as indecisive as sheep in a blizzard and as helpless. They knew something was wrong, and yet there they stood. They moaned, they lowed like penned cattle awaiting slaughter. Save for Lin and his partner. Here they came again, out of the darkness, a body slung between them. They trudged, wooden-faced, men carrying out an assigned task. One they had been told not to think about.
I looked at the fog man. More of a fog boy, I decided. His round face had the unfinished, chinless look of a boy. His body was soft, unused. Not so his mind, I suspected. His brow was wrinkled in concentration. The soldiers, I realized suddenly. He was ignoring the Withywoods folk, trusting that the haze he had left them in would not disperse quickly. He held the soldiers still, keeping them listening to the woman with the trustworthy words. His fog wrapped the old man who sat on a black horse.
The old man held his sword in his hand, and the tip that pointed at the ground dripped blackness. The fog was almost a haze I could see. Then I realized that actually I could not quite see through it. It reflected light, so the old man had an aura of red firelight around him. His was a terrifying face, old and fallen, as if he had melted. The bones were hard and his eyes were pale. He radiated bitterness and hatred of everyone who was not as miserable as he was. I groped within my mind and made a tiny hole in my wall so that I could feel what the fog man told the old soldier. The fog man was wrapping him in triumph and success, was feeding him satisfaction and satiation. The task was done. He would be well rewarded, rewarded far beyond his expectations. People would know what he had done. They would hear of it and remember who he had been. They’d regret how they had treated him. They’d grovel before him and beg for him to be merciful.
But now? Now it was time to turn away from the pillaging and raping, time for him and his men to take what they had come for and begin the journey home. If they delayed here, it could only cause complications. There would be more conflict, more killing . . . no. The fog shifted suddenly. Don’t feed him that prospect. Instead the fog became full of the cold and the darkness and how weary he was. The sword was heavy in his hand; his armor bowed his shoulders. They had what they had come for. The sooner they turned back toward Chalced, the sooner he would be in warmer lands with his well-earned prize. The sooner he would look down from his horse on the folk who would regret how they had scorned him.
“We should burn it all. Kill all of them and burn it all,” one of his men offered. He was mounted on a brown horse. He smiled, showing good teeth. His pale hair was bound back from his face in two long braids. His brow was square and his chin firm. Such a handsome man. He rode the horse into the huddled people and they parted like butter melting before a hot spoon. In the midst of them, he wheeled his mount and looked at his commander. “Commander Ellik! Why should we leave one timber standing here?”
The plump woman spoke clearly into the night. “No. No, Hogen, that would be foolishness. Do not be hasty here. Listen to your commander. Ellik knows what is wise. Burn the stable and the bodies. Allow Vindeliar to take care of all the rest. Let us journey home knowing that no one will remember us or pursue us. We have what we came for. Let us go now. With no pursuit to worry about, we can move swiftly back to the warm lands.”
I struggled out of the wallow of blankets and rugs. My boots, they had pulled my boots off my feet and left only my socks. Find my boots or lose my chance to escape? The long robe of heavy white fur reached past my knees. I hiked it up, crawled to the far side of the wagon, and dropped over the side. My legs crumpled under me and my face plunged briefly into the snow. I struggled to get up by pulling at the edge of the sleigh. I hurt all over, but it wasn’t just that. I felt as if I’d been disconnected from my muscles. I wasted precious moments working my legs until I felt I could walk without falling.
And then I stood up. I could walk. But what good would that do? At that moment, I hated being small more than I had ever hated my stature in my life. Yet even if I had been a tall and mighty warrior on a powerful horse, what could I do against so many armed men?
I felt sick and helpless as I realized the larger truth. Not even an army could undo what had been done. Nothing and no one could bring back Steward Revel or unspill FitzVigilant’s blood from the snow or unburn the stables. It was all broken. I might still be alive but I was just a salvaged piece of a life that had been shattered. Not one of us was whole. There was no going back, not for any of us.
I could not decide what to do. I was already getting cold. I could get back into the wagon, burrow under the blankets, and let happen to me whatever might happen. I could run away into the darkness and try to find Perseverance under the snow and the cloak. I could flee to the captured people, and be once more dragged to the wagon. I wondered if I could steel myself and run into the burning stable deep enough to die there. How badly would it hurt?
Cornered wolves fight. Even the cubs.
That thought seeped into my brain, then was frozen and shattered by a long, shrill scream. It seemed so odd that I could recognize who the scream belonged to. It was Shun. I peeked around the side of the wagon. The man who had defied the plump woman gripped Shun by her hair. “We’ll go,” he agreed affably. “But first I’ll enjoy a prize of my own.” He tugged Shun up on her toes. She squealed, sounding like a piglet. At any other time, it would have been a funny sound. Both her hands were on top of her head as she gripped her own hair, trying to take the pressure off her scalp. Her torn blouse gaped wide. It was as red as blood, that dress, with an overlay of white lace in a snowflake pattern. He shook her, not gently. “This one. This little cat tried to stick a knife in me. She’s still got some fight in her. I haven’t had her yet. And in some things, I am not a hasty man.”
Still gripping Shun by the hair, he dismounted. She tried to pull free of him but he just shifted his grip to the back of her head. He was taller than she was and when he held her at arm’s length her swinging fists could not touch him. The men of Withywoods just stood and watched. Their eyes were dull, their mouths slack. No one moved to help her. FitzVigilant would have tried to protect her. But I’d seen him earlier, sprawled in his blood in the snow. Shun struggled against her captor, as helpless against him as I would be. He laughed, and shouted over her shrieks, “I’ll take special care of this one, and then I’ll catch up with you. Before morning.”
The other mounted soldiers were stirring, suddenly interested, fighting the fog man’s calm. Their eyes fixed on the struggling woman like house dogs watching a man tear the last meat from a bone.
The plump woman shot the fog man, Vindeliar, a desperate look. He pursed his mouth until his lips thrust out like a duck’s beak. Even where I stood, ignored by them, I felt the suffocating drag of what he did. My thoughts softened at the edges like candles too near a flame. I had been about to do something, but it could wait. It would have been too much bother. Too much effort. The day had been long, and I was tired. It was dark here, and cold. It was time to find a quiet, safe place and rest. Rest.
I turned back to the sleigh and reached for the edge of it to climb back over the side. My hands in the immense fur mittens slipped and my forehead jolted hard against the wood.
Wake up! Fight. Or run. But do not fall asleep. Wolf-Father shook my awareness as if shaking the life from a hare. I came back to myself with a shudder. Push it back. Push it away. But softly, softly. Don’t make him aware that you fight him.
It was not easy advice to act on. The fog was like cobwebs; it clung and muffled and dimmed my sight. I lifted my head and stared over the sleigh. Vindeliar had the others under his control. It was not that he was forcing them to do anything. It was that he had put their thoughts into a place where rest and sleep sounded more enticing than anything else. He was affecting even the captives. Some were sinking down where they stood, to fall on their sides in the snow.
Shun had ceased her struggles, but the fog did not seem to be touching her. She looked up at her captor, her teeth bared. Hogen stared at her, shook her, and then slapped her. She regarded him with hatred, but she refused to fight. She had realized it only amused him. He laughed, a cruel and brittle sound. Then he seized her by the throat and threw her violently backward. She lay where she landed. The skirts of her dress floated wide, like rose petals on the snow. The fog man’s efforts rolled past her attacker. The handsome man stepped on Shun’s skirts to pin her down as his hands went to his belt buckle.
His mounted commander looked at him with no interest. He lifted his voice and spoke to his men. It was an old man’s thin shout but that did not matter. He knew he would be obeyed. “Finish here. Put the bodies into the fire when you are done. Then follow. We are leaving now.” He spared a glance for the handsome man. “Do not be long, Hogen.” Then he turned his horse’s head and lifted his hand. His mounted men followed him without a backward glance. Others came from the shadows, some on horses, some on foot. More than I had counted. The plump woman and Vindeliar looked around. That was when I realized they were not alone. The others had been unnoticeable to me, as the fog man had intended.
They were wearing white. Or so I thought. But as they passed the firelight and ranged themselves around the plump woman and Vindeliar, I realized their garments were shades of yellow and ivory. They were all dressed alike, as if their close-tailored coats and quilted trousers were a strange livery. They wore knit hats that covered their ears; flaps at the backs of their necks could be wrapped around their throats. I had never seen such hats. Their faces were as similar as if they were siblings, all pale of skin and hair, round-chinned, and rosy-lipped. I could not tell if they were men or women. They moved as if silenced by exhaustion, their mouths downturned. They walked right past the handsome man struggling with his cold, stiff belt as he stood over Shun. They looked at Shun as they passed, pitying her but with no mercy.
The plump woman spoke as they gathered around her. “I am sorry, luriks. I wish as much as you that this had been avoided. But that once begun cannot be undone, as we all know. It was seen that this might happen, but there was no clear vision of the path that would lead both to this not happening and to us finding the boy. And so today we chose a path that we knew must be bloody but would end in the necessary place. We have found him. And now we must take him home.”
Their youthful faces were stiff with horror. One spoke. “What of these ones? The ones that didn’t die?”
“Have no fear for them.” The plump woman comforted her followers. “The worst is over for them, and Vindeliar will ease their minds. They will remember little of this night. They will invent reasons for their bruises and forget what befell them. Gather yourselves while he works. Kindrel, go for the horses. Take Soula and Reppin with you. Alaria, you will drive the sleigh. I am weary beyond saying and still must tend to Vindeliar when all is done here.”
I saw Shepherd Lin and his fellow leave the circle of huddled folk. They carried another body slung between them. Their faces were unconcerned, as if they carried a sack of grain. I saw the handsome man drop to his knees in the snow. He’d opened the front of his trousers and now he pushed Shun’s beautiful red skirts up to bare her legs.
Had she been waiting for that? She launched a tremendous kick at him, aiming for his face. It struck his chest. She gave a deep-throated, wordless cry of refusal and tried to roll to her side and flee, but he seized her by one leg and jerked her back. He laughed out loud, pleased that she would fight because he knew that she would lose. She grabbed one of his dangling braids and jerked it hard. He slapped her, and for an instant she was still, stunned by the force of that blow.
I did not like Shun. But she was mine. Mine as Revel had been, and never would be again. As FitzVigilant had been. They had died for me, trying to stop these strangers from taking me. Even if they hadn’t known it. And I knew, quite clearly, what the handsome man would do after he had hurt and humiliated Shun. He would kill her, and Shepherd Lin and his helper would throw her into the stable fire.
Just as my father and I had burned the body of the messenger.
I moved. I ran, but I ran as a small person in wet and freezing socks, wearing a long, heavy fur robe. That is, I surged and trudged against a low wall of heavy wet snow. It was like trying to run in a sack. “Stop!” I shouted. “Stop!” And the roaring of the flames and the mutters and groans of the gathered folk of Withywoods and Shun’s desperate wordless cries swallowed my words.
But she heard me, the plump woman. She turned to me, but the fog man was still looking at the huddled people and doing whatever magic he was doing to them. I was closer to the handsome man than I was to the plump woman and her followers. I ran at him, screaming wordlessly in a strange harmony with Shun’s cries. He was dragging at her clothes. He had ripped her embroidered Winterfest blouse to bare her breasts to the cold and falling snow and now he was tugging and tearing at her scarlet skirts, but he was trying to do it with one hand. His other hand was fending off the desperate blows and clawing efforts she was making at his face. I was not moving fast but I did not slow down as I thrust at him with the full force of my braced arms.
He grunted slightly, turned a snarling face toward me, and clouted me with an outflung arm. I do not think he even used his full strength, for most of it was devoted to holding Shun on her back. He did not need his full strength. I flew backward and landed in the deep snow. He had struck the air out of my lungs, but even so I was more humiliated than hurt. Gasping and choking, I rolled and wallowed in the snow, finally managing to get to my hands and knees. I drew a painful breath and shouted words that scarcely made sense to me, the most frightening words I could think of. “I will make myself dead if you hurt her!”
The rapist paid no attention to me, but I heard the outraged cries of the plump woman’s followers. She was shouting something in a language I didn’t know, and the pale-faced people suddenly swept in as a mob. Three seized me and set me on my feet, sweeping snow off me so anxiously that I felt like a carpet that was being beaten. I pushed them away from me and tottered toward Shun. I could not see what was happening to her, save that there was fighting there. I fought free of my rescuers, shouting, “Shun! Help Shun, not me! Shun!”
The knot of struggling people seemed to trample Shun and then the fight moved away. The pale folk were not faring well, except that there were so many of them and only one rapist. Time after time, I heard the solid smack of fist on flesh, and someone would cry out in pain. Then one of the plump woman’s minions would fall back, holding a bleeding nose or bending over and clutching a stomach. By sheer numbers they overcame him, flinging their bodies over him and holding him down in the snow. One cried out suddenly, “He bites! Beware!” prompting a sudden reshuffling of the bodies on top of him.
All this took place as I wallowed forward, fell, rose, and finally burst free of the deep snow onto the trampled ground. I flung myself to my knees beside Shun, sobbing, “Be alive! Please, be alive!”
She wasn’t. I felt nothing from her. Then, as I touched her cheek, her staring eyes blinked. She looked up at me without recognition and began to utter short, sharp shrieks as if she were a hen on a threatened nest. “Shun! Don’t be scared! You are safe now! I’ll protect you.” Even as I made those promises, I heard how ridiculous they were. I tugged at her opened top and the torn lace, getting snow from my mittened hands on her bare chest. She gasped and suddenly gripped the ripped edges of the fabric. She sat up, holding her collar closed. She looked down at the fabric in her hands and then said brokenly, “It was the finest quality. It was.” She bowed her head. Sobs rose from her, terrible shaking sobs without tears.
“It still is,” I assured her. “You still are.” I started to pat her comfortingly, then realized my mittens were still laden with snow. I tried to drag my hands free of them, but they were fastened to the sleeves of my fur robe.
Behind us, the plump woman was talking to the man on the ground. “You cannot have her. You heard the words of the shaysim. He values her life beyond his own. She must not be harmed, lest he do harm to himself.”
I turned my head to look at them. The plump woman was nudging her charges, and they were slowly getting off the man. The rapist responded with curses. I did not need to know the language to understand the depth of his anger. The pale folk were tumbling away from him, falling back and stumbling through the deeper snow as he came to his feet. Two were bleeding from their noses. He spat snow, cursed again, and then strode off into the darkness. I heard him address something angrily, the heavy stomping of a startled horse, and then the sounds of a horse pushed abruptly into a gallop.
I had given up on the mittens. I crouched beside Shun. I wanted to talk to her but had no idea what to say. I would not lie again and tell her that she was safe. None of us was safe. She huddled as deep into herself as she could, pulling her knees up to her chest and bowing her head over them.
“Shaysim.” The plump woman crouched in front of me. I would not look at her. “Shaysim,” she said again and touched me. “She is important to you, this one? Have you seen her? Doing important things? Is she essential?” She put her hand on Shun’s bent neck as if she were a dog, and Shun cowered away from the touch. “Is she one you must keep beside you?”
The words sank into me like FitzVigilant’s blood had sunk into the trampled snow. They made holes in me. The question was significant. It had to be answered and it had to be answered correctly. What did she want me to say? What could I say that would make her keep Shun alive?
I still did not look at her. “Shun is essential,” I said. “She does important things.” I flung an arm wide and shouted angrily, “They are all essential. They all do important things!”
“That’s true.” She spoke gently, as if I were a little child. It came to me that perhaps she thought I was much younger than I was. Could I use that? My mind tumbled strategies frantically as she continued to speak. “Everyone is significant. Everyone does important things. But some people are more significant than others. Some people do things that make changes. Big changes. Or they make tiny changes that can lead to big changes. If someone knows how to use them.” She hunched even lower, then thrust her face below mine and looked up at me. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Shaysim? You’ve seen the paths and the people who are the crossroads. Haven’t you?”
I turned my face away. She reached out and took me by the chin to turn my face back to hers, but I put my gaze on her mouth. She could not force me to meet her eyes. “Shaysim.” She made the name a gentle rebuke. “Look at me now. Is this woman significant? Is she essential?”
I knew what she meant. I’d glimpsed it, when the beggar had touched me in the marketplace. There were people who precipitated changes. All people made changes, but some were rocks in the current, diverting the waters of time into a different channel.
I did not know if I lied or told the truth when I said, “She is essential. She is significant to me.” Or if it was inspiration or deception that prompted me to add, “Without her, I die before I am ten.”
The plump woman gave a small gasp of dismay. “Take her up!” she cried to her followers. “Treat her gently. She must be healed of every hurt, comforted of every wrong she has felt today. Be cautious, luriks. This one must live, at all costs. We must keep her out of Hogen’s hands, for thwarted as he is now, he will want her more than ever. He will be most determined. So we must be even more determined, and we must search the scrolls to know what we must do to hold him at bay. Kardef and Reppin, your task tonight will be to confer with the memorizers and see if they can tease out any wisdom for us. For I fear nothing comes to mind.”
“May I speak, Dwalia?” A youngster in gray bowed deeply and held that posture.
Kardef straightened. “The shaysim has called her Shun. In his language, it is a word that means ‘to avoid’ or ‘to beware a danger.’ There are many dream-scrolls that caution us, over and over, to avoid casting significant things into the flames. If translated into his language, could not the dreams have been telling us not ‘shun the flames,’ but ‘Shun not into the flames’?”
“Kardef, you are reaching. That way lies corruption of the prophecies. Beware and beware again of twisting the ancient words, especially when you do it so blatantly to make yourself look more learned than your partner, Reppin.”
“Lingstra Dwalia, I . . .”
“Do I look as if I have time to stand in the snow and argue with you? We should have been away from here before the night fell. With every moment that we linger, the greater the chance that someone may see the flames from a distance and come to see what has happened here. And then must Vindeliar spread his talents even wider, and his control grows more tenuous with each passing moment. Obey me now. Convey the shaysim and the woman to the sleigh. Mount your horses, and two of you assist Vindeliar to the sleigh as well. He is nearly spent. We must away right now.”
Her orders issued, she turned and looked down at me where I crouched by Shun. “Well, little shaysim, I think you have what you wished. Let’s get you onto the sleigh and be on our way.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“And yet you will. We all know you will, just as clearly as you do. For, from this point in time, only two possible outcomes have been documented. You go with us. Or you die here.” She spoke with calm assurance, as if pointing out that rain could not fall on a cloudless day. I heard her absolute belief in her own words.
Once, my foster-brother Hap had amused me for almost an hour by showing me how, long after he had plucked a string, the wood of his harp still vibrated to its song. I felt it then, how the woman’s words woke a harmony inside me. She was right. I knew it was true, and that was why I had threatened them with my death. Tonight, I would either leave my home with them or die here. All the circumstances that might lead to another outcome from this moment were too remote, too fantastic to hope for. And I knew that. Perhaps I had known it since I woke up this morning. I blinked and a shiver ran down my back. Was this happening now, or was it the remembrance of a dream?
Strong arms were plucking me out of the snow, and voices exclaimed in dismay at the frost coating my wet socks. The one who carried me spoke comforting words I did not understand. I lifted my head and saw that four of them were carrying Shun. It was not that she was heavy, but that she struggled in a disconnected way as if her legs and arms were all different creatures.
The woman they called Dwalia had proceeded to the sleigh. She was already in the back, making a fresh nest in the furs and blankets. I was handed up to her, and she set me between her legs, facing away from her, with my back warmed by her front and her arms around me. I did not like being so close to her, but I was wedged there. Shun they loaded like freight, and then heaped blankets over her. Once they let go of her she ceased struggling and lay like dead meat under the mounded wraps. Part of her skirt had snagged on the edge of the sleigh. The flap of red was like a mocking tongue.
Someone spoke to the horses and they moved off. I was facing backward. I listened to the sounds of their hooves dulled by the falling snow, the squeaking of the wide wooden runners, and the fading crackle of the flames that ate the stable. The folk of Withywoods, my folk, were slowly reentering the house. They did not look at us. We left the light of the burning stables behind and entered the long carriageway that led away from Withywoods. The lanterns swung and a bubble of light danced around us as we flowed down the avenue of arched, snow-laden birches.
I did not even realize the fog man was in the sleigh until he spoke to Dwalia. “It’s done,” he said and heaved a big sigh of satisfaction. Definitely a boy, I realized. He spoke with a boy’s voice as he added, “And now we can go home, away from the cold. And the killing. Lingstra Dwalia, I did not realize there would be so much killing.”
I felt her turn her head to look at him where he sat, up front with the driver. She spoke softly, as if I were asleep. I wasn’t. I didn’t dare try to hide in sleep. “We did not intend for there to be any killing. But we knew that the chances of avoiding all killing were nearly impossible. We had to use the tools we had, and Ellik is a man full of bitterness and hate. The wealth and comfort he expected in his elder years escaped him. He lost his position, his fortune, and all his comforts. He blames the whole world for that. He seeks to rebuild in a few years what it took him a lifetime to acquire. And so he will always be more violent, more greedy, more ruthless than he need be. He is dangerous, Vindeliar. Never forget that. He is especially dangerous to you.”
“I don’t fear him, Lingstra Dwalia.”
“You should.” Her words were both a warning and a rebuke. Her hands moved, pulling more blankets over both of us. I hated the touch of her body against mine but could not find the will to shift. The sleigh lurched forward. I stared at the passing forests of Withywoods. I did not even have the heart to bid it a tearful farewell. I had no hope. My father would not know where I had gone. My own people had given me up, simply standing and going back into Withywoods manor. None had shouted that they would not let me go. No one had tried to take me back from my captors. I faced what my strangeness had done to me: I had never really belonged to them. Losing me was a small price to pay for the invaders to leave with no more bloodshed. They were right. I was glad they had not fought to keep me. I wished there had been a way to save Shun without having her carted off with me.
The corner of my eye caught a movement. The swaying lanterns made the trees at the edge of the drive seem to cast iron bars of blackness on the snow. But this was not a movement born of that light. This motion was standing snow, gripped by a hand black with blood, and above all a pale face with staring eyes. I did not turn my head, or cry out, or catch my breath. I let nothing in me betray to anyone that Perseverance stood in my Elderling cloak and watched us pass him by.