Ffraid reckoned they had ridden a long way to her lonely gate.

The men made of dismounting a monumental undertaking that had little to do with the simple act of getting down from the back of a horse. There were hands to be rubbed together, boots to be stomped, balls to be shifted, backs to be stretched. There were girths to tighten, packs to open and close, and flasks to be shaken upside down for last drops.

Ffraid reckoned they had ridden a long way to her lonely gate. Perhaps for hours.

Aelfgyth cowered behind her, too frightened to lift her head and look, though in the darkness of their house they could not have been seen from the outdoors.

Aelfgyth cowered behind her.

“Who is it, Ffraid?” she begged. “Is it elves?”

Ffraid said grimly, “Looks like the law.”

Aelfgyth squeaked, “The law! Godamercy!”


The men were speaking to each other in the short, broken phrases men woofed at one another when they got down to business. She could see it in the sharp puffs of their cloudy breath.

“What are we gonner do?” Aelfgyth whimpered. “The law!”


The straw mattress rustled in the darkened room to her left, and Kraaia’s pale head lifted itself off the pillow.

Kraaia's pale head lifted itself off the pillow.

“Is it Osh?” she asked hoarsely.

Aelfgyth’s terror melted in sympathy for her. “No, sweetie,” she cooed. “T’ain’t Osh yet, but he’ll be coming soon – ”

“Take this baby!” Ffraid hissed.

The men had made up their minds with a last snort of steamy breath and turned as one to make their way up to the house.

“Oh, Ffraid, what are we gonner do now?” Aelfgyth gibbered. “Should I take ‘em up to Ram’s?”

“You’re going to stay right here!” Ffraid ordered in a whisper. “If you run they’ll chase you for sure!”

“Oh, Ffraid – ”

“And don’t any of you gabies say a single blessed word, no matter what they say to you! You let me do the talking!”

“Oh, Ffraid – ”

“Now get back in the back and shut up! Move!”

Ffraid ducked beneath the window and carefully lifted the handle of the door from below. The plodding feet came close enough for her to hear the creaking of the snow, and then they stopped. Someone banged on the door, and she waited just until they shouted, “Open, in the name of – ”

She leapt, and she slid her shoulder up the door as she unfurled, knocking it against a stationary object that obligingly leapt out of its way. She felt the thunk of a boot toe and perhaps the back of an arm, but not the satisfying crunch of a nose or crack of a forehead. The man outside had not been peering through the window but holding his head high.

“What do you want?” she snarled.

'What do you want?'

The two in uniform had the startled, sheepish faces of men trying to make themselves look like innocent bystanders. The man who had pounded on the door was the third: a tall, broad-​​shouldered, narrow-​​waisted gentleman with a beard so fastidiously groomed that a cat would have balked at its upkeep.

He was the least importantly-​​dressed of the three, with a dark cloak that was simply of quality, and Ffraid knew this for an ominous sign.

He was the least importantly-dressed of the three.

He chose to ignore her attack on his boot toe, and indeed had settled into a look of unflappable gravity by the time Ffraid determined he was the one she would be tangling with.

He merely asked, “Are you the Widow Ffraid?”

'Maybe I am.'

“Maybe I am.”

He snorted lightly over his mustache. “And do you maybe have in your care at this moment a young, blonde-​​headed girl by the name of Kraaia?”

“Maybe I do.”

“I need to see her.”


He folded his arms.

He folded his arms.

“Not in my house you ain’t.”

The armed men behind him fidgeted in the snow with their feet and looked anxiously up at him, but he was ominously still. Only his hair moved, lifted and ruffled by the wind. In its fluttering lightness it seemed not to belong to him, like a silk wig dropped onto the stony head of an idol.

Ffraid met him stare for stare, but he bested her with the ease of his stance – the languorously folded arms, the cocked head, the tilted hip, and the weight that balanced on one straight leg while the other stretched lazily out to the side, its boot toe aimed at the door. Ffraid’s small body was taut and trembling as a strand of yarn on a falling spindle.

Ffraid met him stare for stare.

Without looking away from his eyes, she reckoned the distances between herself and the men with a prey animal’s sense of predator bodies. Her enemy was the closest of the three, but his arms were crossed over his chest. She thought she had a half-second’s chance.

She grabbed the door handle and threw her weight back into the house, but his arms unfolded like the coils of a striking snake, and he caught the edge of the door.

Ffraid’s hand slipped off the handle and she stumbled and fell back painfully onto her other wrist and her behind. For a moment she was helpless and humiliated before him, her head bowed, her knees spread wide beneath her skirts and her ankles splayed wider.

He released the door and stretched out a hand to help her rise, but she only saw him stepping closer, his broad shoulders filling the doorway of her house, his boot toes falling one before the other on a path aimed directly between her legs.

Ffraid got her hands beneath her and sprang at him, snarling, to push him back outside.

“Not in my house!” she shrieked.

'Not in my house!'

“Good woman – ”

“No men in my house! We’re just widows and maidens in here! I got a reputation to protect! Not to mention these girls!”

“Good woman, we are here on the King’s business – ”

“And I don’t know your King, and I don’t care a damn about his business, and the lot of you can ride back the way you came or rot on the doorstep if you prefer! But my house is closed! Good day!”

She grabbed the handle again, but he planted his hand high on the edge of the door and leaned. The door swung outward and pulled their bodies with it until their foreheads almost smacked together.

“Good woman,” he growled, “I am the King’s Reeve, and I am preparing a charge of murder – ”

Ffraid ducked her head and shoved the door so hard that it yanked itself free of both of their hands.

“She didn’t have nothing to do with that murder!”

'She didn't have nothing to do with that murder!'

“She may be the only witness I have who is old enough to talk!”

“Then you can talk when she’s better enough to go home! She’s too sick to talk to you!”

He caught the door again before her hand even closed around the handle – almost before she knew she was about to reach for it.

“I must see her as soon as possible!”


He thundered, “That was not a question!”

'That was not a question!'

Ffraid dropped the handle and took a step back into the sturdy frame of the doorway, instinctively seeking something stable to stop her shaking.

The pointed toe of the reeve’s boot slid through the slush of the yard, almost imperceptibly following her. His short breaths scarcely made a fog in the bitter air.

“Good woman,” he said in a cold, quiet voice, “I have a warrant signed by the King’s hand. There is not a house in this kingdom I may not enter. There is not a door I may not open – there is not a chest or sack or jar I may not look inside. Now, I shall enter into this house, and I shall speak to that girl, but if you make this difficult, I shall be inclined to make it worth my pains by seeing what other charges I may investigate while I am here. Do you understand me?”

'Do you understand me?'

She hated him. Everything she had ever hated had crystallized in the glittering, reptilian eyes of that man. With her own stare she concentrated all the accumulated fury of twenty-​​three years of shared and solitary suffering on the point of his perfect beard. She wanted to see it burn.

She wanted to see it burn.

“Now,” he murmured, “may we come in?”

“Don’t you dare talk to that little girl the way you just talked to me,” Ffraid warned him. The hoarse, throaty voice of her hatred was manlier than his. “Or the murder you’ll be looking into will be your own, by God’s name I swear.”

The reeve shrugged a shoulder and brushed his hair back out of his eyes, in the first gesture that suggested it might truly have been his.

The reeve shrugged a shoulder.

“She’s bad hurt,” Ffraid muttered. “Bad, bad – and she’s suffered and despaired in ways you never could have known, or you’d never dare look another mortal in the eyes the way you’ve looked at me. Do you understand me?

His brows lowered, and he looked at her strangely, as though he had only just noticed what manner of animal she truly was. His lips parted slightly, and his breath blew out of them in serpentine curls of pale fog, but he did not speak.

His brows lowered, and he looked at her strangely.

“Now, won’t you come in?” she growled. “You keep to your duties and leave my family out of this. And you better be gentle with that poor girl. She’s the scaredest little girl I ever saw.”

“I give you my word, goodwife,” the man said with a slight, stiff bow. “Naturally I defer to your experience in the matter of scared little girls.”

'I give you my word, goodwife.'