Chapter 3 Anything worth having is worth working for.
Anything you love is worth fighting for. –Jed Willis, turkey farmer * * * Catrin woke, feeling oddly refreshed, happy
to have slept well, and ready to face the day with more optimism than she would have
thought possible. After dressing, she stirred the stew, which hung over the banked coals
of the fire. More flavorful than it was the night before, it made for a good morning meal.
She stoked the fire and hung a pot of water over the flames, warming it for her father,
who said washing with cold water made his bones ache. Benjin wandered in from outside,
looking barely awake but smiling appreciatively as Catrin handed him a mug of stew. While
he ate his breakfast, Catrin ladled a mug for her father, who had begun to stir. She
knew he would be hungry when he emerged. He grunted in acknowledgment as he accepted the
food, and she left them to their meal. Lighting her lantern, Catrin left the warmth
of the cottage and walked into the damp coolness of the early morning air. Millie, a gray and
white tabby cat, greeted her at the door, weaving in and out of her legs. By the time
she reached the feed stall, a mob of cats surrounded her, demanding attention and, more
emphatically, food. Catrin kept a supply of dried meat scrap and grain in an old basin,
and she used a bowl to scoop out enough for all of them.
A parade of scampering felines following in her wake, Catrin put the food outside the
barn. The cats fell on it, each wanting their share and more, and they were soon begging
again. Catrin stopped and looked at the cats trailing her. “Now listen to me. If I feed
you any more, you’ll get fat and lazy and not catch any mice,” she said, shaking her
finger and smiling. The cats looked at her and dispersed to various hay bales and horse
blankets, content to preen or nap for the moment.
Catrin mixed oats and sweet grain into neatly organized buckets. Some horses required special
herb mixtures in their feed, and Catrin took great care to be certain the mixtures went
into the correct buckets. Giving an animal the wrong herbs could have dire consequences,
and it was not a mistake she wished to repeat. A week of cleaning Salty’s stall after giving
him oil of the posetta by mistake had left a lasting impression on her.
Growing impatient, the horses banged their water buckets and pawed the floor to let her
know they wanted their food immediately. Benjin came into the barn and started dumping the
small buckets into the larger buckets that hung in the stalls. He knew the order; this
was a dance they had performed many times. “How much wikkits root did you put in Salty’s
feed, li’l miss?” “Two small spoons of wikkits and a large spoon
of molasses,” Catrin replied, and Benjin chuckled. “You did good; looks like you mixed it in
fine. Never thought I’d see a horse eat around a powder, but he’ll eat the grain and leave
a pile of powder in the bucket. I’m telling ya, he does it just to spite me,” he said,
walking into Salty’s stall. He gave the gelding a light pinch on the belly. Salty squealed
and stomped and grabbed Benjin’s jacket in his teeth, giving it a good shake. Without
missing a beat, Benjin emptied the feed into the bucket and patted Salty on the forehead.
“Nice horsy,” he said, and Catrin had to laugh. “Ah, there is that smile, li’l miss. It’s
good to see it again,” he said with a wink. She made no reply, unsure of what to say,
and returned to her work. As she opened a bale of hay, mold dust clouded the air. They
had lost too much hay to mold this year, and she knew not to feed the horses moldy hay.
There was not much more they could have done to prevent the problem, though. The weather
had turned bad at harvest time, and they had not been able to get the hay fully dry before
bailing it. Forced to store the hay damp, they salted it to reduce moisture, stave off
mold, and help prevent fire. Mold claimed much of the hay nonetheless, but at least
it had not caught fire. Her grandfather had lost a barn to a fire
caused by wet hay. When hay dries, it goes through a process called a sweat, where it
sheds water and produces heat. If packed too tightly, intense heat can build up and cause
spontaneous combustion. The lesson had been passed to her father then down to Catrin.
It was something she planned to teach her own children someday.
The moldy bale of hay she threw to the steer, which could eat just about anything, and she
grabbed another bale for the horses. After giving each horse two slices of hay, she collected
the water buckets, carrying them to the well her father and Benjin had dug long ago. It
was something the men took great pride in, and Catrin was glad to have it. Her father
often said it was not deep enough for his liking, and he feared it would run dry during
droughts, but it had yet to fail them. He once explained to Catrin that they were
at the upper edge of an artesian basin. Water became trapped between layers of rock and
was subjected to immense pressure. If you were to penetrate the rock anywhere along
the basin, water would rise on its own, possibly forming a small fountain. Some places in Harborton
had such wells, which had been allowing water to escape for hundreds of years.
After dumping out the dirty water, she gave the buckets a good scrubbing before refilling
them; then she and Benjin hung them in the stalls. Afterward, they took hay and water
to the horses that were out to pasture. The routine soothed Catrin; the rhythm of life
on the farm was predictable and comforting. The tasks were familiar, and she could perform
them skillfully, which gave her great pride. She liked nothing better than to do something
well; doing a mediocre job was one of her greatest fears.
Finding herself thirsty, she walked over to the well for a drink and was disturbed to
see a shiny black carriage under the trees. A squire tended a fine black mare, and Catrin
was dumbfounded to see Master Edling speaking with her father. He was garbed in formal black
robes, the blue embroidery as bright as a bluebird. He seemed out of place on the farm,
a place of sweat and dirt, far from the pristine halls of the Masterhouse. Her father did not
look happy, but neither did he appear to be angry, at least not with Master Edling.
Frozen in anxious suspense, Catrin stood very still, hoping no one would notice her and
fighting the urge to flee. Benjin came to her side, carrying a spare water bucket.
“Don’t let them get the best of you, li’l miss. They are no better than the rest of
us, no matter how prettily they dress or how clean they keep their fingernails,” he said,
filling the bucket. He pushed her toward her father as he carried the bucket to the squire.
Her father shot her a steely glance and pointed to the cottage, an unspoken command. Catrin
followed the two men into the cottage, cowed. Her father offered Master Edling a seat and
served summerwine and cheese. After a respectful interval, he turned to Catrin.
“Master Edling has come for two reasons. First, he is here to represent the Council of Masters.
They’ve decided, due to the serious nature of the ‘incident,’ it would be best if you
did not attend the public lessons–at least until this has all been sorted out,” he said.
Catrin heard his words, and she understood what the council meant. We don’t think you
should appear in public again–ever, she thought, shrinking in on herself.
“Second, Master Edling has volunteered to act as your tutor. He must still instruct
the public lesson days, but he will come here on the off days to give you lessons. Quite
kind of him, I’d say,” he said with a nod to Master Edling. “I should be getting back
to work, so I’ll leave you to your lesson. If you’ll excuse me, Master Edling.”
“Yes, yes, indeed,” Master Edling said, absently waving him from the room.
Catrin felt trapped, forced into isolation. Master Edling’s visit was just the beginning.
Keeping her away from town would only make her appear guilty of some crime. People would
start to believe the crazy stories about her. She would be shunned for the rest of her life.
Master Edling was not there to tutor her, she thought; he’d come only to see if she
had grown horns or sprouted wings. Her mood dropped from fear into anger then to frustration.
Her rage was building, seeking release, and it took great effort not to lash out. She
had committed no crime. She had only tried to save her friend. As thanks, they would
ruin her life, and it made her want to scream. “Miss Volker?” Master Edling said, interrupting
her mental torment. “I think that will do for today,” he said, giving her one of his
most disgusted looks. “I do not believe you heard a single word I said, did you? I could
give you the same lesson on the morrow, and you would know no difference,” he added in
disgust. Catrin could not argue with him; she had not even realized he had begun his
lecture, but his attitude only fueled her anger.
Master Edling stood and left without another word, his robes billowing around him. Catrin
doubted he would return; he had seen what he had come to see. She was no monster or
evil murderer, just a rude farm girl who had ignored and insulted him. His departure was
bittersweet; while Catrin was not sorry to see him go, his leaving was like the death
knell for her friendships. She wondered if she were destined to live as a hermit because
of one freak incident. Her father came back into the cottage, looking
concerned. “Is your lesson over so quickly?” he asked. “Master Edling barely spoke a word
as he left.” His movements made it clear he was not pleased.
Catrin could not look him in the eye. She stared at the floor, stifling her tears. “I’m
so sorry, Father. I was angry and confused, and I was thinking about everything and what
it all meant and–” Her voice cracked, and she knew she was going to cry.
“Slow down, Cat. Don’t get too upset on me. Let’s just talk about this,” he said gently,
and Catrin did her best to steel herself and try to keep her emotions under control.
“I don’t think Master Edling believes I am a worthy student.”
“Are you?” “No, sir, I don’t think I am,” she replied
sadly. “Now, Cat, you must stop this. Master Edling
came here to help you, and you ignored him. He may never return. I can’t send you back
to the public lessons. Even if I could convince the council, it would be asking for trouble.
Talk in town has grown a bit wild of late. Nat Dersinger has convinced some people that
you are the Herald and that Istra will return to the skies of Godsland soon,” he said then
stopped, fearing he had gone too far and frightened his daughter.
“Now most sane people don’t believe a word of it, Cat. Everyone that knows you loves
you. They know you as the spirited young athlete who competes in the Summer Games and as the
hardworking girl that doesn’t hesitate to help at a barn building. Your friends and
family won’t give up on you just because something unexplainable happened,” he said, pulling
up a chair. “I’m disappointed in you for insulting Master Edling today, but I can understand
your distraction. I’ll have a word with him on your behalf. Your best hope is that he
has it in him to forgive you.” “Yes, sir,” Catrin replied, looking downcast.
“There’s no sense dwelling on it; we’ll just have to see what tomorrow brings. For now,
I want you to look after a few more things around the farm.” * * * In the darkness of the bakery attic, where
the heat was more than most could bear, Trinda watched, just as she always did. Always careful
to remain undetected, she watched and waited, looking for anything that might please the
dark men. It seemed all her life had been lived in fear of the strange men who came
in the night, and here every waking hour was devoted to keeping them pleased. As long as
she gave them what they wanted, they would never hurt her again. The memories still seared
and burned as if they were new. The dark men were coming again; she could feel them getting
closer. When Miss Mariss walked out of the Watering
Hole, Trinda jumped and then chastised herself for her carelessness. Of all the people she
did not want to know about her spying, it was Miss Mariss. The dark men always asked
questions about her; they always wanted to know whom she talked to and what they talked
about. Trinda had only some of the answers they wanted, and it was all she could do to
come up with enough information to satisfy them.
Holding her breath, Trinda froze until Miss Mariss was lost from view. She was, no doubt,
coming to place her order. Without the breads her father baked or the dough she used to
make her famous sausage breads, Miss Mariss would surely suffer. The relationship between
her and Trinda’s father had always been tense and strained, but they were both professionals,
and they did not let personal feelings stand in the way of business.
As Trinda stood, ready to climb down and make an appearance by the ovens, she stopped. Someone
she didn’t recognize was approaching the Watering Hole, and he went neither to the front entrance
nor to the stables; instead he walked into the shade provided by an old maple. It seemed
a strange thing to do, considering there were no doors on that side of the inn. Knowing
her father would scold her for not appearing while Miss Mariss was in the bakery, Trinda
stayed, intrigued by this unknown man’s mysterious behavior.
For what seemed a long time, he stood in the shadows, only the toes of his boots visible
from Trinda’s vantage. Then, when the streets were empty, he squatted down and wiggled a
loose piece of the inn’s wood siding. After sliding what looked like a rolled piece of
parchment into the space behind the siding, he quickly adjusted the wood until it looked
as it had. Then he melted into the shadows and disappeared. * * * “Where is Trinda today?” Miss Mariss asked,
trying to make the question sound entirely casual, as she always did, and Baker Hollis
looked nervous and fidgety, as he always did. “Must know there’s work to be done,” he said.
“Any time there’s somethin’ needin’ done, she turns invisible.”
“Those her age can be like that,” Miss Mariss said, despite not believing any of what he
said. “I’ll be making double the usual amount of sausage breads, and I’ll need triple the
usual baked loaves for the Challenges. That won’t be a problem will it?”
“No problem at all,” Baker Hollis said, and he looked over his shoulder as if expecting
to see Trinda. Miss Mariss was as surprised as he that she had not shown herself. It seemed
whenever Miss Mariss came to the bakery, Trinda would make a point of making herself seen.
“Everyone’s sayin’ this year’ll be better than any before. I suppose we’ll have to rise
to the challenge,” he said. “I’ll send Strom over in the morning for the
daily order,” Miss Mariss said as she turned to leave. Before she reached the door, though,
a small, sweat-soaked head peeked around the corner and briefly met her eyes. Miss Mariss
could read nothing from Trinda’s expression; it was the same bland and sullen look as always.
With a sigh, she left the bakery behind and soon forgot about Trinda as the responsibilities
of running her inn once again consumed the majority of her thoughts and time. * * * Sitting on a bale of hay with his knees pulled
to his chest, Chase kept to the shadows, not wanting to cause any trouble for Strom, who
was busy saddling a pair of horses. So many things had changed in such a short period
of time that Chase could hardly believe it. He no longer felt safe in places where he’d
once felt quite at home. People he had considered friends no longer met his eyes, yet he could
feel the stares that lingered on his back as he walked away.
“Sorry about that,” Strom said once the customers had ridden around the corner.
Chase just handed him the jug of huckles juice they were sharing. “Do you remember when things
used to be normal?” “I remember,” Strom said. “I remember things
were sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it always seemed like things would get better.
Now . . .” “I know what you mean,” Chase said. “I really
made a mess of things.” Strom laughed. “You’re still blaming yourself
for all of this? You sure do think a great deal of yourself. Are you so powerful that
you can control everyone else? I don’t think so. You need to face the fact that you’re
just as helpless as the rest of us. Whatever happens just happens, and there’s not a thing
you can do about it.” “Thanks for the uplifting speech,” Chase said.
“I feel much better now.” “Don’t come to me if you want sunshine and
roses. That’s not how I see the world. You could go talk to Roset. She still lives in
a land of buttercups and faeries; maybe she could make you feel better.”
“She won’t even talk to me,” Chase said, his mood continuing to be dour in the face of
Strom’s humor. “You see? You’re utterly powerless. Therefore
you can’t possibly be at fault. Doesn’t that make you feel better?”
“If I said yes, would you stop talking about it?” Chase asked.
“Probably not.” * * * Catrin spent the next few weeks throwing herself
into every task her father assigned. Master Edling did not return, despite her father’s
many requests. Benjin and her father did what they could to teach her, but what they remembered
of their own lessons was fragmented and disjointed. Catrin learned other things from the extra
time she was spending on the farm. Benjin taught her the basics of shoeing horses along
with other farrier skills. She was an apt student and excelled with little practice.
It interested her because she loved horses, and they had always been part of her daily
life. She had seen it done a hundred times, which helped her to quickly master even the
most difficult techniques. Forge and anvil became outlets for her frustration.
She coerced the hot bars into the desired form, shaping them with her will. The song
of the hammer and anvil soothed her, and she quickly replenished their supply of horseshoes.
Benjin also taught her to make shoeing nails, whose shape was critical. Wide heads prevented
the shoe from slipping over the nails, while the tapered edges prevented injuries by forcing
the nail to turn outward to the edge of the hoof against the taper.
As long as a farrier is careful not to drive one backward, the nail will always poke back
out of the hoof, a finger’s width above the shoe. The farrier would clip most of the tip
of the nail then crimp the remains against the hoof. The technique provided a secure
fit and better protection from sprung shoes. “A horse will always spring a shoe at the
worst possible moment, and it’s good to know how to handle it,” Benjin said. “You seem
to handle the hammer well. Would you like to make a farrier’s kit?” he asked. Catrin
was delighted with the idea. The hours she spent at the forge with Benjin
were the only times she forgot her worries. Using tools to create new tools enthralled
her, and she was immensely proud of her new implements. In a way, they brought her freedom.
There were always coppers to be made shoeing horses and trimming hooves at local farms,
and the knowledge that she could earn her own way was comforting. She would take pride
in whatever work she did with them. Smiling, she tucked them into her saddlebags with care.
The weather was becoming unusually volatile, and intense storms confined Catrin to the
barn or the cottage much of the time. Clear skies could quickly turn dark and foreboding,
and fierce winds drove the rain. One afternoon, the sky was an eerie shade of green, like
nothing she had ever seen before. Hail made her run for cover, each stone growing in size
as she ran, some even larger than her fist. Benjin and her father sprinted into the barn
just behind her. Wind howled so fiercely through the valley
that it lifted a hay wagon into the air and over a fence, depositing it, unharmed, in
a pasture. When the storm passed, they checked for damage. Catrin helped her father and Benjin
repair the roofs on the cottage and barn. The chicken coop had also suffered damage,
but Benjin mended it quickly. Abe Waldac, a local cattleman, drove his wagon
behind a team of mules to the front of the barn. “Anyone hurt?”
“Luck was with us, Abe. We’re fine. Thank you for checking on us, though. It’s much
appreciated,” her father replied. “You’ve always been good neighbors. I’m glad
to see you all well. A funnel cloud ripped through the lowlands; looks like it made a
boiling mess of things. I’m going to see if anyone needs help.”
“We’ll go with you. I’m sure they could use some extra hands down there. Catrin, you stay
here and mind the farm. We’ll be back late. Gunder may come for his mare. She’s in the
second stall,” her father said, and the men rode off in Abe’s wagon, leaving her alone.
She knew someone had to watch the farm, but Catrin could not help feeling ashamed. Her
father did not want to be seen in public with her. * * * Depression drove Nat back into seclusion.
No one wanted to face the truth, even with the proof visible to all. It sickened him.
They would rather die than admit he might have been right all along. In the end, he
gave up trying to convince anyone else of the danger they faced. There seemed no point
in even trying. Miss Mariss, at least, had listened politely, but even she refused to
see the truth. Returning to his normal life seemed almost
surreal at first, but the feeling grew faint over time until he no longer noticed it. After
days of blue skies and good fishing, he had almost been able to forget about his visions
and feelings of impending doom; his life had been almost normal, even tranquil. The storm
changed all that. Sudden winds had forced him north, well beyond the waters he normally
fished, out to where dangerous currents had been known to carry away craft as small as
his boat and pull them into open water. Despite his efforts, he was pushed farther
and farther from shore, and with every passing moment, the chances of his survival diminished.
His only hope lay with a change in the wind. Occasionally he felt a shift in the air, as
if a crosswind fought against the storm, and Nat prayed it would win.
Lightning splayed across the clouds, illuminating them from within and revealing the intricate
structures and formations. Taller than mountains, yet flowing like rivers, the clouds seemed
to reach from the sky and attack the sea itself, and Nat shivered. Though he hated the life
of a fisherman, longing instead for the life of a scholar, the seas were the giver of life,
and he quailed at the sight of waterspouts, which thrashed the waves, tore them asunder,
and tossed them into the sky. As the storm finally passed, the sun began
to set. The failing of the light was like a slow death knell for Nat, who was near despair
when he saw a sight that chilled his soul. Silhouetted against the orange and purple
sky along the edges of the storm was a multimasted warship. Like the image that haunted his dreams,
it came to life and gave him reason to fear. Only the sudden shift in the wind gave him
any hope. * * * Osbourne recovered from his wounds and came
with Chase to visit Catrin on several occasions. The boys seemed to feel it was their duty
to keep her informed of the happenings in town. Much of the news they brought seemed
to have lost all significance in her life. She no longer cared what girls the boys were
fighting over or whose father had been thrown into the lockup for being drunk. There were
other times, though, when she wished she could achieve the same level of detachment.
“Nat Dersinger came back from fishing the northern coast, and he claims to have seen
long ships on the horizon,” Chase said. It was not the first time Nat claimed to have
seen long ships, only to have them disappear before another ship could verify the sighting.
Nat was not the only fisherman to have seen strange ships in the distance, but he was
certainly the most vocal about it. “He said our ancient enemies, the Zjhon, were
planning an attack. Waving his staff over his head while he ranted, he really went overboard.
He said the Herald would destroy the Zjhon, according to some prophecy. He even said the
Zjhon would kill all the inhabitants of the Godfist–just to be sure they kill the Herald.
Most folks pay him no heed, but some fools actually believe him.”
Osbourne said rumors of unusual occurrences were increasing. A shepherd reported losing
half of his flock in a single night without ever hearing a sound, and a western village
claimed the community well had run dry for the first time in recorded history. Fishermen
complained of dangerous shifts in the currents; fishing was poor for the most part, though
some returned with bizarre and unknown fish. They said the strange creatures were caught
in warm water currents, unusual for so close to the Godfist because they normally stayed
much farther out to sea. Unsure if the exotic fish were safe to touch
or eat, most fishermen threw them back into the sea. Some claimed to have been stung by
poisonous fish, and others grew fearful of anything not easily identified. Most simply
cut the lines when they brought up something they did not recognize.
“This year’s Spring Challenges are going to be the grandest ever,” Osbourne said, seemingly
trying to lighten the mood. “You should see the new game fields, Cat, and the rows of
benches for spectators.” Catrin was lost in her own thoughts and barely heard him. Chase
elbowed him in the ribs to make him stop. Catrin had participated in the Challenges
since she was old enough to ride, and most years she qualified for the Summer Games,
but this year would be different. She knew she would not be allowed to compete, and she
had no need to ask because it was understood. The townspeople did not want her. She was
unwelcome. “I was thinking about going on an outing,
maybe a hike into the highlands,” Chase said. “Telling stories around a campfire would be
more fun than the Challenges and a lot less work. Wouldn’t you agree, Osbourne?” Chase
asked, elbowing him again. He had known Catrin her whole life, and he knew how crushed she
must be. “I can’t attend the Challenges, but that doesn’t
mean the rest of you shouldn’t. I know how much both of you like to compete, and I was
looking forward to hearing of your victories,” she said with a slight catch in her voice,
which she had tried to control. They stood, and Chase announced, “I’m going
camping,” crossing his arms and inflating his chest.
“So am I,” Osbourne said, mimicking Chase, though he didn’t look quite as imposing.
“But–” Catrin began. Her words were cut short when Chase tackled her. He and Osbourne coerced
her into submission by means of the dreaded tickle torture. It was the first time Catrin
had truly laughed in a long while, and she felt better for the release.
Despite her acquiescence, she still needed her father’s approval, and she feared he would
deny the request. She found him sitting at the table, working his way through a stack
of parchment. Catrin sat across from him, waiting for him to finish what he was working
on. After a few moments, he looked up from his work and acknowledged her with a strained
smile. “What’s on your mind?” he asked in his usual
straightforward manner. “I don’t think I should compete in the Challenges
this year,” she said, and he nodded in silent agreement. “Chase and Osbourne are boycotting
the Challenges; they want to spend the time with me instead,” she continued, and he raised
an eyebrow but remained silent. “I was wondering if we could camp at the lake those days,”
Catrin asked, finally getting to her point. She was always amazed at how much information
her father could get out of her without ever saying a word.
“I tried to talk them out of boycotting, Father, really I did, but the harder I argued, the
more they argued back,” she said with a smile and actually giggled. “They made me agree
by means of tickle torture.” Her father chuckled and smiled briefly. “Tickle
torture, you say? That does sound serious. I guess I could let you go for a few days.
I wouldn’t camp near the lake at this time of year, though. The mosquitoes will suck
you dry. It’d be better if you climbed past the lake and continued to the highlands. There
is a natural stair near the falls, and a grove of ancient greatoaks is due west of there.
It’s a fine place to camp, and the land is too rocky and dry for mosquitoes to be much
of a problem. It’s half a day of walking and climbing, but it would be well worth the effort,”
he said. Her father had told her stories of the place,
but he had always forbidden her to go that far. The closest she had ever ventured was
to the very end of the lake, where a large set of falls drained from the river above.
There she had climbed the tallest tree and gazed in all directions but was unable to
see the grove. She was genuinely excited about the trip and hugged her father and kissed
him on the forehead. “Thank you,” she said, smiling broadly. He
patted her on the shoulder and told her to run along. She retired to her bed and dreamed
of ancient trees dancing in the light of a campfire. * * * Jensen piled the last of the lumber near old
man Dedrick’s barn and gave a wave as he climbed back into his wagon. With all the deliveries
done, he had enough time to stop at the Watering Hole. A mug of ale might help the world look
better, and Chase always loved it when he brought home some of Miss Mariss’s sausage
breads. This time of day was a busy time at the Watering Hole, and the tie-offs were all
taken. Jensen guided Shama to the back of the inn.
“G’afternoon to ya, Mr. Volker,” Strom said as he walked from the stables, but there was
an odd look of fear in his eyes, and his voice trembled slightly. “We’re just about full
up. You might want to come back another day.” “Just the same,” Jensen said, looking Strom
in the eye. “Mind if I tie Shama off back here.”
“Of course, sir,” Strom said. “Give her a bit of water,” Jensen said while
removing Shama’s bridle. He hooked a lead line to her halter and tied her off to a nearby
post. Strom approached with a bucket of water. “Some
of those inside are looking for a fight,” he whispered without looking at Jensen. “There’s
been a lot of talk about Catrin. I’m sorry, sir. I don’t believe any of it, and I couldn’t
let you walk into trouble not knowin’ it.” “You’re a good man,” Jensen said, but he failed
to keep the anger from his voice, and Strom backed away. “Unhook the wagon and saddle
Shama for me,” he added, handing Strom three coppers. “I may need to leave in a hurry.”
Strom looked as if he would be sick, but at Jensen’s nod, he began unhooking Shama. Jensen
walked to the kitchen door and slowly pulled it open. Miss Mariss, ever in control of her
inn, noticed him immediately and moved in his direction without actually looking at
him. “You ought not be here right now,” she said. “Petram is acting like the fool he is,
and there’s a parade of fools ready to follow ‘im. I won’t have you all settling this in
my common room. You understand me?” “I understand,” Jensen said, but he was undeterred.
When he stepped inside, Miss Mariss threw her hands in the air. “I promise you there
will be no fighting,” he said. “Men,” she said. “Stubborn mules refuse to
listen to anyone else.” Though her irritation was clear, she did not stand in his way.
As he entered the common room from behind the bar, only those at the bar noticed him,
and none of them seemed interested at what Petram Ross was shouting to anyone who’d listen.
Jensen nodded to the men at the bar then slipped into the crowd. Some turned and glared at
him as he pushed his way closer to Petram, but when they saw who it was and the look
on his face, they moved aside without a word. Eventually, Jensen found himself standing
in front of Petram, and everyone else seemed to be taking a step backward. Enthralled by
the sound of his own voice, it took Petram a moment to notice the change in his audience.
At first, he seemed annoyed, but then his eyes landed on Jensen, and he instantly took
a step back, only to find himself trapped by the hearth he’d chosen to use as a backdrop.
Jensen stepped forward but said nothing. Instead, he glared at Petram with a look that conveyed
a host of threats, most of which came from Petram’s imagination, which was just as Jensen
wanted it. He wanted this man to fear him more than death. Again he moved forward, and
Petram looked as if he wanted to climb up the chimney despite the fire burning in the
hearth. “If you even look at my niece the wrong way,”
Jensen said softly, all the while raising his hand, which was held like a claw and moving
toward Petram’s throat. Just a hand’s breadth away, he stopped and slowly closed his fingers.
Petram’s eyes bulged as if he were truly being choked. When Jensen finally lowered his hand
to his side, Petram ran from the room, leaving a stunned silence hanging over the common
room. All eyes were trained on Jensen, and he searched for words, suddenly unprepared.
He thought a moment about the little girl who brightened his life and those of everyone
around her. “She’s a good girl,” was all that he could say through his sudden tears. Those
who had been gathered now lowered their heads and dispersed.
“I guess you might as well eat since you chased off all my customers,” Miss Mariss said as
she brought him a platter of cured meats and cheese. “Fools they may be, but a fool’s gold
is as good as any other.” * * * Crouched in the darkness, Benjin listened.
Only the sounds of frogs and the barking of a distant dog broke the stillness. Creeping
into Wendel’s cottage, he checked on Catrin and Wendel. Both slept soundly and neither
woke. He left as stealthily as he had come. Feeling silly, he walked back to his cottage.
Only moments before, he had been sleeping soundly, but dreams of terror and loss drove
him from his bed, demanding he check on those he loved. Assured of their safety, he returned
to his bed, but the dreams returned. When morning finally came, the harsh sunlight
seemed to mock the warnings of his dreams. Still he could not shake the sense of foreboding
that pressed in on him, suffocating him. With a deep breath, he stood and prepared himself
to face the day.