Githa clunked the lid down and stared.

Githa clunked the lid down and stared, as though watching a pot could make it full.

On most evenings, she made their supper by boiling water in the pot that had made their bean and barley dinner of the noon: if she scraped and stirred up the crusted, clinging bits until they dissolved, she could make a seeming soup by adding no more than a handful of new beans.

But this noon Tiddy had longingly held his plate out for a moment longer than usual after the last ladle. Githa had scraped.

Githa had scraped.

Thereafter she could not fail to do the same for Brit and Siggy, and now the pot was already almost bare.

She would have to add some of tomorrow’s beans and barley to their soup tonight, and indeed she had already found herself in this dilemma often enough that their dinner of the day had likely been made with the beans and barley of next week. At this rate they would be eating their Candlemas supper for Christmas. She did not see how they would last the winter.

She picked up the lid again and hoped for a miracle, but she let it clang shut a second time, startled by the banging of the door.

Tiddy wailed “Gith!” as he galloped up the stairs. He pulled up just short of little Siggy and wailed again, “Gith! Graybeard’s comin’!”

'Gith!  Graybeard's comin'!'

“Graybeard!” she gasped.

Githa was seized by a childish panic – she wanted to run, she wanted to hide, she wanted to be protected. Then she remembered: she was no longer a child. She caught her fear by the neck and twisted it around into fury.

“Graybeard!” she repeated, this time in a snarl. “What were you kids doing out to his place when I told you – ”

'We didn't go out to his place!'

“But we didn’t go out to his place!” Tiddy howled.

“We was just playin’ in the yard!” Brit added. “He come up by his own self!”

Githa’s fear reared back its head and struck, and its fangs stuck fast now like hooks. If Graybeard came – if any adult came – for anything other than some supposed trespass of the children…

'Get Siggy and get up in that loft.'

“Get Siggy and get up in that loft,” she snapped as she hustled past them. “Don’t you make a peep!”

“But Gith…” Brit whimpered.


She had hoped to meet the man in the yard and keep him out of the house, but even before she had hopped down the few stairs, Graybeard opened the door without knocking and strode boldly in.

Graybeard opened the door without knocking and strode in.

“What can I do for you?” Githa asked.

She planted her body in front of the stairs and eyed him coldly. She still hoped she could confine him to the drafty entry and keep him out of her home.

She planted her body in front of the stairs and eyed him coldly.

Graybeard looked her up and down as if judging her weight, perhaps deciding whether it would be easier to move her or to walk around.

He lifted his chin and walked around.

He lifted his chin and walked around.

“Now, I’m just checking up on you kids,” he said with an eerie mildness.

Githa scampered after him into the kitchen. Tiddy and Brit had dragged Siggy inside, but they had not had the time to climb up into the loft.

Githa scampered after him into the kitchen.

“Hallo, kids,” the man said. “I’m called Graybeard. What’s your names?”

Tiddy and Brit stared fearfully up at him.

“Don’t you kids got no manners?” he snapped.

“That’s Brit and Tiddy and the little one’s Siggy,” Githa said.

Graybeard chuckled and turned to her. “Your sister does, I see. But you forgot to tell me your name, honey.”

'Your sister does.'

Again his eyes flickered beneath their lids as he looked her over, like a man about to lift a cumbersome burden and wondering how best to hold it.

She croaked, “Githa…”

“What’s that?”

Now it was Githa who stared up at him in silence, hypnotized as Tiddy and Brit had been by a slowly swaying fear.

Now it was Githa who stared up at him in silence.

“Her name’s Githa!” Tiddy shouted. “And what are you doin’ here? You don’t even like kids!”

Graybeard turned back to him, and the coils of terror constricting Githa’s chest eased and let her breathe.

“Who told you that?” he demanded.

Brit huffed, “Everyone says!”

'Everyone says!'

Graybeard laughed and turned a chair around to sit.

Everyone must be all the bad kids!” he proclaimed. “Just ’cause I get mad when kids come out to my farm and raise a ruckus! You think I like kids when they come and play in my wheat and flatten it all down?” he demanded of Tiddy.

Tiddy admitted, “No…”

“You think I like kids when they come and scare my horse?” he asked sharply.

'You think I like kids when they come and scare my horse?'


“You think I like kids when they come and steal my pots and pies?”

“But we never did none of that!” Brit protested.

Graybeard sat back in the chair and folded his arms. “I know. That’s why I like you kids. You’s good and keeps to yourselves up here. Course I guess you better, now…” he said thoughtfully.

He turned his eyes aside and looked Githa over again, watching to see how she would react, or merely looking to be certain she was watching. To Githa it seemed a thinly clouded threat. She wondered how much he knew about their situation.

When no one spoke, he asked Tiddy, “Heard about your Da?”

'Heard about your Da?'

The three elder children jumped. Even Siggy, who had scarcely known their father, looked anxiously between their pale faces. Perhaps he had never heard the syllable pronounced before.

“Wh-​​wh-​​what about him?” Githa stuttered through shivering teeth.

Graybeard leaned down to Tiddy as though ignoring her, but by the way he held his shoulder back from his face she knew that he was keeping one eye on her.

“You know what an execution is, boy?” he asked.

Tiddy shook his head. “No, sir.”

'No, sir.'

He looked so mildly curious that Githa knew he truly had no idea of the meaning of the word. She gripped the edge of the table beside her and watched, fascinated and helpless, as Graybeard peeled yet another sheer layer of little Tiddy’s innocence away.

“You know what a murderer is?” he asked in a grave voice.

Tiddy nodded mutely.

“Well, that’s what your Da was. He killed a man out to Raegiming last week. And when the king’s men catch a murderer, you know what they do?”

'And when the king's men catch a murderer, you know what they do?'

Tiddy shook his head slowly. Already his mournful eyes were filling with tears.

“They execute him!” Graybeard said. “That means they kill him too! And that’s what they did to your Da yesterday morn.”

Brit whimpered, “Gith!” through her quivering lips and began shuffling painfully across the floor. Her feet seemed to be leaden; her arms hung heavily at her sides.

Her feet seemed to be leaden; her arms hung heavily at her sides.

Meanwhile Githa felt herself growing unbearably light. She no longer felt the wood her fingers clasped. She let it go and felt nothing less. Brit heaved her arms up around her neck, and she felt no more. She felt only the clinging, cobwebby caress of her last hope as it floated away.

Brit heaved her arms up around her neck.

She could hear father’s blithe voice in her ear: “If it can’t be solved, it ain’t a problem, Big Girl.” So he had always laughed off their cares, slipping out from beneath every burden until their combined weight had crushed their mother. Githa was her father’s daughter. For a moment she saw how easy it would be to do the same.

Then she heard Tiddy choke back a sob, and she remembered that she was all the mother these children had.

She struggled free of Brit’s clinging arms and barked, “What’s the matter with you? Comin’ in here and tellin’ these kids all that about their Da?”

'What's the matter with you?'

Graybeard’s gray brows lowered ominously for an instant but lifted the moment he looked up at her.

“It ain’t as if I’m lying to ‘em.”

“That don’t mean you got to say a thing, just ’cause it’s true! What good do you think you’re doin’? You’re just comin’ up here wanting to do ill!”

“I’m coming up here to warn you kids!” he protested. “If that’s what I get for being neighborly! Don’t you know what the fee is for killing a freeman?”

'Don't you know what the fee is for killing a freeman?'

Githa hesitated. Already her anger was draining out of her, leaving her defenseless against the numbing gaze of Graybeard’s eyes. They held hers for a moment before sliding slowly down her dress to the hem, and then turned to Tiddy.

“A lot,” he said sternly. “You know what’s going to happen if they find you kids up here? They’re going to take you away and make you work it off, that’s what. They’re going to make you go and work in the quarry or someplace, and your sisters’ll have to go slave in a kitchen or a barn. And the little one – what’s his name again?”

'And the little one--what's his name again?'

Tiddy mumbled, “Siggy.”

“Well – they’ll probably be changin’ it. ‘Cause they’ll take him and give him to some fine lady who wants a baby, and they’ll change his real name so he won’t never find out who he was.”

“I won’t let ‘em!” Tiddy cried. “We won’t let ‘em! Will we, Gith?”

Defiant as was his voice, he looked pleadingly up at Githa for reassurance.

Defiant as was his voice, he looked pleadingly up at Githa for reassurance.

Githa had none to give. She was thinking back to Tuesday afternoon, when she and the children had hidden in the woods and watched the armed men going in and out of the house and through the yard. She had thought they had come to collect all the rents their stepfather had left unpaid, but she ought to have known better: they had not opened any jars or rifled through any boxes, and the only places they had searched had been big enough to fit a person inside.

They had been looking for the children themselves. They had come to take the children away – to punish them, to make them work, to separate them forever.

Graybeard shrugged and sighed and began to rise. “But, if you don’t want my help…”

'What can you do?'

“What can you do?” Githa asked hoarsely.

Graybeard smiled a slight smile that did not show his teeth. “Well, I guess I could try and make sure no one finds out you’re his kids…”

He blinked his eyes slowly, and again Githa felt an implicit menace flicking out at her.

“And I guess I could just say you kids went away with your step-​​da when he left… Anyone been up here since he ran off?” he asked shrewdly.

'Anyone been up here since he ran off?'

“No, sir, we keep to ourselves now!” Tiddy declared.

It was strange to hear him say it with such defiant pride, after so many fits of tears at being told he could no longer go play with his friends down by the road. Githa stared blankly at him, scarcely recognizing him as her little brother.

“What’s for supper?” Graybeard cooed.

Githa yelped, but she moved too late to stop the hand that lifted the lid of her pot.

Graybeard chuckled to himself and closed it gently again, without a sound. “Why, nothing at all!”

'Why, nothing at all!'

“I – I haven’t started it yet,” Githa blurted.

“Well what’re you waiting for?” Graybeard demanded. “These kids must be starving! Look at ‘em! Skin and bones, what!”

Githa looked, despairing. Was it true? She saw them every day; perhaps she would not notice a gradual, wasting change, any more than she had noticed her mother’s slide into a weary death.

Then Graybeard was at her side, so close that he could not bend his head to her ear and could only murmur off over her head.

'Now, if you're having any problems...'

“Now, if you’re having any problems…” he began.

“We don’t got no problems,” Githa hissed. She had nothing that could be solved.

“Just between you and me, honey,” he purred. “I reckon your worthless wretch of a step-​​da didn’t leave you kids anything he could carry, did he?”

Githa’s lip curled back from her teeth, but he stood so close he must only have seen the top of her head: the ragged ends of her scarf, her greasy, uncombed hair, her poverty.

“I got some food down to home you kids could have,” he said softly.

'I got some food down to home you kids could have.'

Githa focused her eyes on the wool of his heavy tunic, just inches from her face. Even his coarse outer garment was finer than anything she had: clean and brushed and unpatched, well-​​dyed, woven with smooth threads that locked neatly together like scales.

“I’m just a lonely old man,” he murmured. “Got no one of my own to help me eat what I have. I’m sure I could spare a bite to your little flock. Eh?”

He turned to Brit and Tiddy, and Githa coughed and choked and only then realized that she had stopped breathing.

“When’s the last time you ever had a chicken for Sunday dinner, eh, boy?”

'When's the last time you ever had a chicken for Sunday dinner?'

Tiddy’s eyes went wide and round as empty plates. “I don’t know! I guess not since Mama died.”

Brit barked, “Tiddy!”

Their mother’s name, like their father’s, had become a forbidden word. Only Siggy still whimpered it sometimes in his half-​​sleep.

“Would you like one?” the man asked gravely. “I got some food down to home, if your sister’ll walk back with me to fetch it.”

Tiddy glanced worriedly between Githa and Graybeard, unable to understand this unlooked-​​for generosity. Or perhaps, having already been shorn of so much of his innocence in his six years, Tiddy was simply unaware that there was such a thing as generosity in the world.

Graybeard grew tired of waiting and clamped his hand down on Githa’s shoulder. “Let’s go down,” he murmured breathily.

'Let's go down.'

Githa yelped.

“I’ll go, sir!” Tiddy cried. “I can walk fast, and I can carry a lot too. I’m a boy!”

Graybeard ignored him and slid his hand down Githa’s side, pulling her shoulder and hip tight against the wool of his tunic. His body swayed with hers through her first reflexive struggling, and he held her close even after her body stiffened with dread.

He held her close even after her body stiffened with dread.

Githa understood in an instant, as though the man had ripped entire sheets and skins of innocence away. She understood to what purpose he had been studying the heft and height of her body. She understood the obscene mildness in his eyes when he looked at her.

She understood too those trickling glances and unlooked-​​for pats her stepfather had begun to deliver in the months she had spent cooking and cleaning and slaving for him, after her mother was no more. She understood why he sometimes stood so closely behind her when she stirred that she could not help but bump against his chest and groin, and she understood why it was always she who had to sit on his lap when there were not chairs enough free, in spite of her size.

Her stepfather had simply run off a little too soon.

'That's a real hungry boy, if I ever saw one.'

“That’s a real hungry boy, if I ever saw one,” Graybeard whispered. “When’s the last time he had some meat? And that baby, when did he have some milk or eggs?”

“Are you meaning to give me all of that?” Githa muttered.

“Of course I am,” he cooed. “I don’t want you kids starving up here, and getting sick from being hungry. Let me take care of you, honey.”

'Let me take care of you, honey.'

He turned her around and began to knead her shoulders with his big hands. His fingers were thin and curved like claws, but they were tipped with fleshy pads, like the clinging mitts of a frog.

Githa felt her bile rising up in the back of her throat, and she whirled about to spit it into his face.

She turned to spit it into his face.

But even as she turned her sight was filled with the blue of Tiddy’s eyes, wide with longing, and Brit’s full of her tears that she hoarded and rarely let fall. Behind them sat Siggy, his glassy stare lowered towards his limp, ungrasping hands. Siggy seldom smiled, seldom cried, and he never laughed at all. Githa had never known a baby who slept so much of the time.

Her mother had begged her to take care of these children. She had not told her how.

Her mother had begged her to take care of these children.

Graybeard slipped his hand around her waist and on to the small of her back. Gradually the caress turned into pressure, until it pulled her hips inexorably towards his.

“I’ll go!” she yelped.

His arm relaxed and slipped away – not because he was surrendering, but because he knew he had won.

At once she began to shiver all over with a childish panic. She fought and struggled to twist it back into anger.

“You kids stay put!” she threatened. “You stay in this house till I get back, and you keep Siggy out of trouble!”

'You kids stay put!'

Tiddy and Brit stared fearfully up at her. Graybeard slipped an arm around her waist and turned towards the door.

“You just let me take care of all your problems, honey,” he murmured soothingly as he led her away. “You just worry about taking care of these here kids. That’s already a lot of work for a little woman like you.”

'You just let me take care of all your problems, honey.'