Dec 12 2013 12:00pm
Check out the newest installment in Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series, He Drank and Saw the Spider, available January 14, 2014 from Tor Books!
After he fails to save a stranger from being mauled to death by a bear, a young mercenary is saddled with the baby girl the man died to protect. He leaves her with a kindly shepherd family and goes on with his violent life.
Now, sixteen years later, that young mercenary has grown up to become cynical sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. When his vacation travels bring him back to that same part of the world, he can’t resist trying to discover what has become of the mysterious infant.
He finds that the child, now a lovely young teenager named Isadora, is at the center of complicated web of intrigue involving two feuding kings, a smitten prince, a powerful sorceress, an inhuman monster, and long-buried secrets too shocking to imagine. And once again she needs his help.
The battles had been hard, the gold had been scarce, and the company—other mercenaries like me, most of them older, all of them unsophisticated as bricks—had gotten on my nerves. So I deserted. Or, as we called it in the trade, “chose to pursue other opportunities.” That was the whole point of hiring out your sword arm instead of actually joining an army, wasn’t it?
I was a young man that summer: long-haired, beardless, and still hiding behind a mercenary’s blade from the truth about myself and my past. There wasn’t a tavern wench I hadn’t known, a farm girl I hadn’t tried to know, or a noble lady I hadn’t considered getting to know. I drank often, ate whatever came my way, and took what I needed when no one was looking. I was Eddie LaCrosse, no longer Edward, the heir to the LaCrosse barony in Arentia, and I went where the wars were. Unless, of course, the war turned out to be boring.
And that’s how I ended up in an Alturan forest just below the mountain foothills, minding my own business and pissing on a tree, when a man entered the clearing screaming and running for his life. A moment later he exited, pursued by a bear.
I fastened my pants and took off after him on foot, knowing my horse was useless in the undergrowth. Over the past sixteen years, I’ve often wondered why I did that. I was all business in those days, and business meant gold. I wanted to sign up with the Alturan army, then about to go to war with its neighbor Mahnoma and its paranoid king, Gerald. But instead of sticking to my plan, I ran to help a stranger without even a second thought. I suppose I believed there might be a reward for rescuing him. Yeah, that must’ve been it.
The man’s screams and the bear’s roars made them easy to find, but by the time I reached the top of a ridge and looked down into the little gully, it was too late: the bear had him. He lay beneath the beast, curled into a ball facedown on the ground, screaming as the great claws sliced into his unprotected back. The animal bellowed and snapped, trying to get a clean bite on the man’s head.
No thought went into my next decision, either. I drew my sword, held it like a dagger, and jumped down onto the bear’s back. I put all my weight and momentum behind the weapon, which struck the animal’s shoulder blade, slid off the bone, and buried itself to the hilt in the furry body.
The bear was a monster, easily six hundred pounds and, when it reared up in response to my stab, twice as tall as me. It smelled of musk, mud, and bear shit, and its hair was slick and oily. I clamped my heels against its sides and clung on to the sword hilt with all the strength my terror suddenly gave me. The great claws swiped the air overheard, splattering me with blood and bits of the man’s flesh.
“Run!” I yelled to the man on the ground, but he remained curled up, protecting his belly at the expense of his flayedopen back.
The bear stumbled backwards, still upright, and slammed me into the nearest tree. Six hundred pounds in motion can do some serious slamming, and my lungs emptied under the pressure. Little flashes sparkled at the edge of my vision. My legs slipped free and flailed in the air. I knew if I lost my grip on my sword, I was done for, so I held on despite everything, twisting the hilt and wrenching the blade as much as possible in search of some vital organ.
“Run, will you?” I yelled again.
Finally I hit something essential, because with a combination roar and wheeze the bear fell forward and hit the ground. The impact tossed me over its shoulders into the leaves beside its victim. I lay there and waited for my lungs to refill. The bear did not move, which was good, because I was out of juice.
At last I could breathe, and got to my knees. “Dude, you need to—”
The man I’d failed to save was still alive, his eyes wide and staring, but the bubble of blood between his lips told me he wasn’t good for long. I said, “Don’t move. You’re really hurt.”
He rolled himself over onto his ragged back. I winced at how much of his insides fell out through wide gaps as he did so. I wasn’t squeamish—I’d gutted my share of people—but there was something grotesque about it, and it made my stomach knot.
Faster than I would’ve thought possible in his condition, he grabbed my tunic and slapped the edge of a dagger against my neck. “Take… her… ,” he said.
I looked down at the bundle now resting on his chest: the bundle that he’d given his liver and big loops of his intestines to protect. A bundle that was moving.
A tiny pink fist emerged.
From inside the bundle came an annoyed, wailing cry. The man’s eyes met mine as he finished. “...somewhere safe!”
I knew I should at least pick up the child from his bloody chest, but I hesitated. Man-killing bears were one thing, but a baby was something far outside my experience. I had no brothers or sisters, and my friends back in Arentia were all about my own age. If they had infant siblings, we never had to deal with them. “Uhm, look, pal—,” I started.
“Take her,” he said, half-spoken and half-gurgled. He dropped the knife and tried to hand her to me, but he lacked the strength.
“Let’s just get you patched up, okay?” I said quickly, knowing it was futile.
He shook his head. Now he was bleeding from his nostrils. Overhead, an opportunistic crow announced the man’s imminent death to its murder-mates. “Please, save her, she’s—” He sucked in a deep breath and his whole body went rigid from the waves of pain hitting all at once.
There was no escaping it, so I took the bundle with all the grace of a man fondling his worst enemy’s testicles. I pulled back one corner of the blood-spattered blanket, revealing tiny pink feet. Then I reversed the bundle, opened that end, and saw the baby’s small, rubbery features.
The man slapped another bundle into my hand. This one was smaller, with the distinctive metallic sound of coins. Then he gestured me close.
“Her name… is Isidore. Please save her.”
“I will,” I said; what else could I say?
“Take this,” he said, and fumbled in the bloody folds of his clothes. “It proves… who she…”
He produced a small glass ball that glowed icy blue from inside. I’d never seen anything like it or, at that point in my life, anything I would accept as real, genuine magic. Because I was so startled, I didn’t reach for it, and then the man’s whole body spasmed with pain. The ball fell from his hand to the forest floor, where it burst like a soap bubble and turned into a fine, grayish powder that disappeared into the ground.
“Shit!” the man hissed between his teeth, blood spraying forth.
“Don’t worry,” I said quickly. “Your daughter will be safe.”
“Not my… not mine… she belongs to…” Then he died. I sat there beside him for a long time holding the tiny girl, who seemed quite content for the moment. She had wispy blond hair, big blue eyes, and fat cheeks. When I tickled her under her chin, she laughed, but I knew she’d need something to eat soon, and I was no wet nurse. How had her guardian managed? I checked and found a small ale-skin bag on his belt, and when I sniffed it had the distinctive odor of milk.
I hated to leave him to the mercy of the forest scavengers, but I was sure he’d understand. The living took precedence over the dead, and the flies were already thick in the air. “There’s a good girl, Isidore. Let’s go get my horse, and then find you a home.”
She cooed. And damn it, I fell in love a little.
She suckled eagerly at the ale-skin, which had a makeshift nipple affixed to the cap. Her little hands pushed on the sides, which told me she was used to being fed this way. There wasn’t much left, though, and I didn’t know how long I had before it went sour. I climbed onto my horse—not easy to do holding a baby—and headed for the road I’d crossed earlier. A road, after all, must lead to a town, and there I could dispose of my unwanted bundle of joy, even if I just left her on the doorstep of a moon priestess chapter house.
Her little face scrunched up in annoyance at the uneven ride, and my horse tossed his head angrily when I kept him from going very fast. “So, Isidore,” I said to her as we moved along, “I take it you’re from this area. What does a young lady do for fun around here?”
She looked at me seriously and farted.
I laughed. “Sometimes I do that, too, just to see what will happen.”
She giggled and kicked her feet as if she understood.
The road was narrow, with barely room for a wagon to pass without scraping the tree trunks on either side. It told me there wasn’t much regular traffic, probably only one-way travelers going and coming based on the farming cycles.
Finally we emerged into the clear area of the mountain foothills, and the road began a meandering climb. Here we were out in the open, and the fighter in me cringed at the vulnerability. Ahead I saw a small village nestled between two hills, and on the slopes shepherds drove herds toward the town. Like most people who spent time around horses, I had an instinctive aversion to mutton on the hoof. But since I had an absolute hatred for horses, I actually ended up not minding the sheep. So to speak.
“You belong to any of these people?” I asked Isidore. She refused to reply, being far more interested in chewing one blood-free corner of her blanket.
I heard music as I got closer to the village. Multiple pipers trilled in a cacophony of tunes, and Isidore began to cry at the noise. I awkwardly put her on my shoulder, stuck my reins in my teeth, and patted her on the back the way I’d seen nurses do when I was a child in Arentia. A moment too late I also remembered what I’d often seen as the result, as she threw up milk down my back.
I sighed. “You’re not the first girl to puke on me, Isidore. But let’s not make it a habit, okay?” I wiped her chin with my sleeve.
A circular stone wall surrounded the town. Eight feet high, it was a remnant from the days when the village needed protection from rampaging hordes very much like the one I’d just deserted. I say “remnant,” because in places it had crumbled with age and never been repaired, meaning that largescale violence was no longer an immediate danger. The wall sported four gates, one at each cardinal point, that could be closed, I assumed, but looked like they never were: the wood was old, rotted, and overgrown with the same vines that laced the stonework.
The town announced its name on a faded sign by the southern gate: Mummerset. The second m was arrowed in from above after the u. If this was the central town for a bunch of shepherds, I knew it would consist of mostly the various services needed by the mutton industry. People wouldn’t live here; they’d have small farms out in the hills. I’d find a farrier, maybe a couple of weavers, a trading post for sundries, and most important of all, a tavern. If I was lucky, there’d also be a moon priestess chapter house, where those mysterious women who’ve taken a vow to answer need would take Isidore off my hands.
When I passed through the gate, I saw a considerable crowd ahead of me, jammed into the town’s central courtyard.
Of course, I thought. It was close to the spring equinox, and therefore time for their festival. This was a standard celebration to mark the return of warm weather, the birth of babies, both human and animal, conceived during the long winter months, and to encourage the fertility of the land over the coming growing season with pageants, games, sacrifices, and other activities.
I smiled. “Other activities” to encourage fertility could mean a lot of fun for someone like me. If I could ditch my current minuscule girlfriend, of course.
I stopped at the first hitching post I found, outside a small building that displayed elaborate wool tapestries. Dismounting while holding a baby was more difficult than I expected, and I nearly dropped her. She began to cry, and an old lady in the shop shook her head at my ineptitude.
“She’s not mine,” I said defensively.
“That’s what men always say.”
Isidore was still fussing as I walked toward the town center. The crowd had gathered for a mass shearing competition, and the snip of cutters as they removed the wool was loud enough to compete with the pipers.
One man threw up his arms and shouted, “Sheared!” A cheer erupted. He was shirtless, soaked with sweat, and white bits of wool stuck to his torso so that he looked like some sort of were-sheep. The denuded animal before him was pulled aside, and another fully wooled one took its place. He bent to his task.
I stayed at the back of crowd, bouncing Isidore on my shoulder and taking in the scene. In addition to the musicians and competitors, there were many young ladies dressed in loose clothes, with ribbons in their hair and bells on their wrists and ankles. Some were also a little tipsy from whatever home brew they drank here. Now, that’s more like it, I thought, as one saw me, smiled, and winked. Things were looking up.
Then Isidore cut loose with some truly epic cries. “Green isn’t your color, short stuff,” I said to her. I found a leaning spot out of the sun, took out the milk, and tried to feed her, but she wouldn’t take it. I jostled her, none too gently, but that didn’t help, either. I began to get annoyed.
Then a girl with bright red lips and blue smears over her eyelids stopped and said, a bit woozily, “You need to change her.”
She was lovely, in a farm-stock sort of way, and one of her shoulder straps would not stay in place. “Into what?” I said.
She giggled. “Her diaper, silly. Don’t you smell that?”
“I don’t smell anything but sheep.”
“Well, if you undo that blanket, I’ll bet you find she’s left you a gift.”
I felt the same instinctive revulsion all men feel at the thought of handling dirty nappies. “Really?”
“Really. Don’t you know how to change a diaper?”
“She’s not actually mine.”
“Oh, silly man, just accept it. A child is a miracle.”
Before I could ask for actual help, she swirled off in a cloud of drunken lace and jingles. I looked down at Isidore, still crying, her face scrunched up like an angry red monkey. “All right, goddammit,” I sighed. “Just give me time to find some help, will you?”
No one at the festival seemed the least bit interested in a strange blood-spattered man toting a fussy baby, a sight that I’m sure would’ve raised at least a few eyebrows any other day. I wandered through the crowd and tried to ignore the many young women while I sought an older one who might have some practical advice about my dilemma.
At last I spotted a tavern called the Head Boar. A middleaged woman stood behind the bar wiping glasses, although there were no other patrons at the moment. I cleared my throat. “Excuse me.”
She winced at a particularly loud squeal from Isidore. “That baby ain’t happy.”
“That makes two of us,” I said.
“Where’s her mama?”
“I have no idea. She’s not mine.”
“Denial is a coward’s way out, son.”
“No, seriously. I found her in the woods. There was a man with her, but a bear killed him. He died protecting her. This is the closest town, so I figured she was from here.”
She looked me over. “Is that where the blood came from?”
“Yeah. I killed the bear.”
Her skepticism returned. She looked me up and down. Even back then, I wasn’t automatically intimidating. “You killed the bear?”
“No, I used both hands.” Isidore shrieked again.
She thought it over. “Well, good on you, sir. Bears eat sheep, and sheep feed us, so we’re always glad for fewer bears. My name’s Audrey.”
“Eddie. Pleasure to meet you.”
She nodded at the baby. “Are you planning to just let her keep squalling?”
“A girl out there said she needs a diaper change.”
I held Isidore out to the woman and said, only half-joking, “Help?”
She laughed. “Give her here, then. Six kids and ten grandkids out of me, I should know how to do this. Come here and I’ll show you.”
“No, I meant, you take her. Keep her yourself, or find her a home, I don’t care.”
“Oh, I’m too old to raise another baby,” she said as she gathered Isidore into her arms. And damned if I didn’t feel a jolt of mixed jealousy and possessiveness at the sight. She put the baby on the counter and began unwrapping the blanket.
“Where is everyone?” I asked, gesturing at the empty room.
“Outside, where the drinks are free. When the complementary stuff runs out about nightfall, they’ll come wandering in here willing to put down gold for even the worst stuff I’ve got.” She held up her hand, which was now stained red from the bloody blanket. “Is this more bear blood?”
“That’s probably from the man who died.” I realized with a start that I hadn’t checked Isidore for injuries. “Is she all right?”
“She’s marinating in her own pee, but otherwise, yeah.” She stopped as she was about the throw the blanket aside. “This is silk. This is expensive. No one from here would have a blanket like this. It’s a bearing cloth for a squire’s child, at least. What was this man like that you say you found her with? Did he look rich?”
“Hard to tell by the time the bear got through with him.” I felt the weight of the gold bag on my belt, but didn’t mention it.
She put the blanket aside, then sharply sucked in her breath. “What?” I said, concerned.
“Who would do this to a baby?” she said, appalled.
She held her so I could see. Across her tiny back, someone had tattooed—on a baby!—an elaborate circular design. I didn’t recognize it.
“Damn,” I said.
“It must’ve been done right after she was born.”
“‘Awful’ is the word you’re looking for.”
I knew a lot of organizations and societies used tattoos to mark alliances, relationships, even social castes. All of them, though, waited until youngsters reached puberty, or at least were walking around on their own. I knew of no group that marked its members this way from birth.
“Well, at least she doesn’t seem to be suffering from it,” Audrey said, and began work on the more pressing problem of the baby’s wet bottom. “And she’s definitely not a local girl. If anyone tried this on their children around here, they’d end up on the business end of a burdizzo.”
“What’s a burdizzo?”
“Keeps the male sheep under control. Works just as well on male shepherds.”
“Ah. Well, she’s a local girl now. See ya.” I started for the door.
“You just wait right there, young man,” she ordered. She’d already wiped Isidore clean and was fastening what looked like a dishrag around her. “This child may not have sprung from your loins, but that doesn’t mean she’s not your responsibility.”
“Yes, it does,” I insisted.
“Look at her. You want her to go back to the people who used her like a sheet of vellum? Who the hell’s going to take care of her if you don’t?”
“I’m too old, I told you.”
“Well… where’s the nearest moon priestess?”
“Two weeks to the south,” she said.
I raised my hands. “Look, this is not my problem. I’ve done my good deed, okay? Do whatever you want with her.”
And that might’ve been it. That should’ve been it, and it would’ve been, if four grim men on horseback hadn’t appeared outside the tavern and dismounted.
Experience told me they were trouble. Instinct told me they were trouble for me.
Two of them came into the tavern, while two stayed on guard outside. They all had the same haircut, which marked them as military despite their attempt at civilian disguise. But whose army? Not Altura; all their soldiers were gathered at the king’s castle preparing for war, which was where I wanted to be, too. I’d hate it if they started without me.
Despite the noise from the festivities, the tavern seemed to grow silent, and the air thickened. I eased into a shadowy corner and stayed very still, waiting to see what would develop. It seemed unlikely they were Otsegan soldiers sent to retrieve me after I deserted, but you could never tell. Old Colonel Dunson didn’t care for quitters at all.
The second man looked at me. The light was dim enough that he couldn’t make out the blood splattered on my clothes or, more important, that I was armed. He nodded once to say, I know you’re there, then resumed staring at whatever his boss looked at.
“Hey, barmaid,” the first man snapped at Audrey. His attitude told me he was used to being obeyed, and having his questions immediately answered.
Audrey was equally used to not putting up with such nonsense. “When you talk to me like that, smile. Who are you?”
“I’m Arcite. Mr. Arcite. Remember that, if you know what’s good for you. We’re looking for a man carrying a baby.”
“Men don’t carry babies,” she said. “They’re not tough enough. Get your father to explain it to you.”
The second man laughed. It was high and loud, like a donkey.
This was going to escalate fast, I realized. Arcite said, “Look, bitch, I’ve been here for five minutes and I’m already sick of the stink of sheep. So answer my goddamned question. Have you seen a man with a baby?”
“I dare you to say ‘sick of the stink of sheep’ three times fast,” Audrey shot back.
I couldn’t figure out why she was deliberately antagonizing this guy, until I suddenly noticed that Isidore had vanished from the bar. Where the hell had she gone? It’s not like she could’ve gotten up and run off. Could she? I’d had so little experience with babies that I wasn’t totally sure.
Arcite strode to the bar and slammed his hand on it. It sounded like the snap of a gallows trapdoor. “I don’t like bitches who don’t know their place. You’re a fucking barmaid, and I’m a goddamned soldier. You better learn to respect that.”
“And I don’t like goddamned soldiers,” she fired back without flinching. “You all act like serving your country gives you an asshole license.”
“Well, tell you what, maybe I’ll drag you out back and show you my battle lance, see if I can’t change your mind.” He turned to his henchman. “Strato, grab her.”
I didn’t want to get involved. Really, I didn’t. I was still kicking myself for trying to save the guy from the bear. Nothing good ever came of sticking your nose—or whatever—in where it wasn’t invited. But before I’d even made the conscious decision, I heard myself say, “Ease up there, pal. You’re in the lady’s bar, after all. Show some manners.”
Arcite slowly turned to me, his eyebrows going up in a slow burn that would be hysterically funny if I lived to tell this story. “Look, sheep dip, if you don’t want your insides handed to you, run back to your farm and stay out of what don’t concern you.”
“ ‘Doesn’t,’ ” I corrected. “What doesn’t concern me.”
Now he gave me a look that said he was amazed I was so stupid. “Farm boy, I will end you so fast, your shadow will wonder where you’ve gone.”
“That’s a good one,” I said. I realized he still couldn’t see my sword belt in the shadows. “I’ll have to remember that.”
He strode toward me, intending to slap around the local boy, the soldier–civilian dynamic at work.
I calmly kicked him right in the balls. Much harder than I needed to, just because he pissed me off.
He folded like a battlefield observation chair.
Instantly I whirled to face Strato. I didn’t go for my sword, and neither did he. His expression told me that Arcite had deserved this for a long time, and could get himself out of it.
I looked down at Arcite. He’d landed in a shaft of sun that came through the door, and his face was bright red. “My balls!” he squeaked.
I said, “You’re not as tough as you think you are, and you’re a terrible judge of people. It’s probably better that you can’t pass those traits along.” Again I looked at Strato. “You got anything to say?”
“He holds a grudge,” he said, but showed no inclination to continue the fight.
Arcite’s eyes were watering now, but his hatred was unmistakable. I said, “Then maybe I should just gut him where he lays so I don’t have to waste my time looking over my shoulder.”
“Not in my tavern, you don’t,” Audrey said. There was still no sign, or sound, of Isidore.
“Your lucky day,” I told Arcite. “Our hostess doesn’t favor cleaning up a bloody mess.” To Strato I said, “Who is this baby you’re looking for? Why is she so important?”
“We don’t know. Our commander told us to go find a man who’d run off with a baby. We picked up the trail and followed it to a dead man and a bear. Another trail led us here.” He could see the blood on my clothes now, but didn’t mention it.
“Looks like you made a wrong turn somewhere,” I said.
“That’s true.” He put his fingers in his mouth and whistled. His two friends came in from outside.
Every muscle from my brain down to my fingertips strained to reach for my sword, but I held back. They didn’t know how good I was, but I knew just as little about them.
“Arcite here opened his big mouth again,” Strato said. “This time somebody closed it for him. Get him out of here and back on his horse.”
Arcite whimpered as his compatriots grabbed him under the arms. They dragged him out with less care than I’d show a bag of potatoes. Guess they didn’t like him any better than I did.
Strato casually saluted. “Enjoy the rest of your festival,” he said, then followed the others outside.
When they were gone, I turned to the bar. “That was close. Where did you—?”
Audrey was gone.
I rushed behind the bar. There was no sign of Isidore, either. There was, however, a pile of dishrags on the floor with a baby-shaped indention, and beside it, another rag whose corner had been dipped in ale. It explained why Isidore kept quiet.
I couldn’t explain the panic I felt. After all, getting rid of her was exactly what I wanted to do. But I ran out the back door into the street, looking around wildly for them, as if I’d lost some great treasure.
I slid in the mud created by years of tossed kitchen slop and slammed into the stone perimeter wall. To either side were the backs of other buildings, and all I could hear was the sound of the festival. She couldn’t have gotten over the wall, so she must’ve gone into the crowd.
I ran around the corner toward the noise, smack-dab into a man painted entirely green down to his navel. He was also naked below the waist, trying to pull on a pair of green pantaloons.
“Whoa, there, youngster!” he said. He wore a kind of headgear made of bright green leaves and vines through which only his face peeked out. His beard was also stained green, and decorated with twigs and flowers. The odor of ale engulfed me as he said, “Take a deep breath and smell the flowers. The festival’s just getting started; I haven’t even yet made my grand entrance.”
I tried to disentangle myself from his clumsy embrace. “Thanks, I appreciate that. Have you seen a lady with a baby?”
“Sure, she’s right around the corner. But you shouldn’t chase after her, there’s plenty of young ladies just waiting to blossom tonight. Try one of them, why don’t you?”
I didn’t want to hurt him, but his grip was stronger than I expected. “I don’t have time to—”
“Behold!” he bellowed in a full-throated theatrical way that made me jump. “I am the Green Man, I bring the coming of life after the dead time of winter! The time for sad tales is over!” Then he grinned. He’d even painted his teeth green. “‘Coming of life,’ get it? ‘Coming’? And you, young man, let whatever drives you melt away with the winter’s snow. This is the time for love, and frolicking, and frolicsome love!”
I wrenched loose and ran into the crowded central court. I hopped up on a wagon to get a better look, but saw no sign of Audrey. When I climbed down, I grabbed the arm of the next person to pass me. “Excuse me,” I said, “but have you seen a lady with a baby?”
It was a beautiful young woman holding a baby of her own. I guessed she was about seventeen or eighteen. She had soft blond hair in a braid down her back, and a gown that left her shoulders bare. Good shoulders were a particular weakness of mine. She looked me up and down, made a skeptical face, and asked, “Is this a trick question?”
“I’m sorry, not you. Another woman with a another baby.”
“Your wife ran away, eh?” She touched a spot of blood on my tunic. “I don’t blame her. You seem to be nasty.”
I took her by the arms, careful not to jostle her grip on her infant, and said very deliberately, “Please, I’m looking for a woman from the tavern over there. Her name is Audrey. She has a baby with her. Have you seen her in the last few minutes?”
“Get your blood-nasty hands off me if you don’t want to draw back two nubs,” she snapped. “You might be able to bully your wife, but you damn sure can’t handle me.”
I was getting desperate. “This isn’t her blood, it’s from a bear. Please, can you help me?”
“Aren’t you a little young for Audrey, anyway?”
I started to reply, but suddenly I felt a rush of what I could only call perspective. Not only was I too young for Audrey, I was too young to be running around like a headless chicken in search of a baby who was no doubt better off wherever she was than she’d be with me. Audrey had saved her from the bad guys and spirited her away; my job was done. It was like a weight came off, my misplaced idealism melting away just like the green man said. “You know what? Yeah, I am. Way too young. My name’s Eddie. What’s yours?”
“Beatrice, are you married?” Experience taught me that in these isolated little towns, the presence of a baby did not always mean there was a husband, or even a boyfriend.
“I beg your pardon?”
I nodded at the baby. “If you are married, I apologize, but I’m new to town. If you’re not with anyone, I’d really like your company.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, not at all. For the rest of the day, and for however long you can put up with me tonight, I’d be honored to escort you.” I smiled my best winning, totally harmless smile.
A teenage boy nearly knocked me into her as he ran past, pursued by a girl who seemed determined to hit him with a handful of flower petals from the basket on her arm. Another young man, far more sensible, stood nearby and let his girl shower the petals down on him. As they settled, he leaned in and kissed her.
Beatrice and I were very close now, looking into each other’s eyes. Her annoyance began to crumble, but she wasn’t an idiot. “How dumb do you think I am? You’re covered in blood. You say it’s bear blood, and I almost believe you. But it’s still blood. And you think you can just swap one woman with a baby for another?”
It did sound a bit loopy, so as calmly as I could, I said, “I found a baby abandoned in the woods. I saved her from a bear. I gave her to Audrey to keep safe until somebody comes to claim her.” That last bit was a stretch, but not a total lie. The next thing I said, though, surprised even me with its truthfulness. “I just wanted one last look at her before I left town.”
“Is that the baby’s name?”
“That’s a boy’s name around here.”
“Well, it’s her name, and she’s definitely a girl.”
She shifted her own baby to the other shoulder and continued to look at me, measuring me with the same level of scrutiny a commander might use in selecting someone for a suicide mission. She had a gorgeous way of thinking, and the way she pursed her lips while doing it implied that kissing her would be worth the wait.
One of the basket-bearing girls paused beside us, and Beatrice grabbed a handful of petals. She raised her hand over my head and showered them slowly down.
“Looks like I caught you,” she said. “You’re supposed to kiss me now.”
So I did, leaning forward so we wouldn’t pin the baby between us. And it was worth the wait. I decided that if she wanted to catch me again, I would not be hard to snare.
She said, “All right, then. One drink, and enough time for you to convince me you’re not a dangerous lunatic. Let me get rid of my baby sister here.”
“Oh! So this is—she’s not—”
She laughed. “No, she’s not my daughter. This is my sister Cassandra. One of four younger siblings, I should warn you. Follow me.”
I did, admiring the way her skirt swayed with her walk. And everything would’ve been fine if I hadn’t, completely accidentally, glanced at the face of the baby peeking over her shoulder, gazing back at me with that blank, pudgy baby look. Suddenly all I could see was Isidore’s scrunched-up little face, looking at me with the open trust of someone helpless but safe under the protection of someone strong.
Then movement across the courtyard caught my eye. I gently stopped her and pointed. “Uh-oh. I should get out of sight.”
Beatrice looked at the four soldiers, whose grim demeanor was in such contrast to the joviality around them. “Oh,” she said. “They do look like trouble. Except for the one who’s walking funny.”
“No, he’s trouble, too. I made him walk like that.”
“Really? Good grief, how long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe an hour?”
“If you stayed for a whole day, there wouldn’t be a building left standing, would there?” She took my hand and said, “Come on.”
She pulled me around the fringe of the crowd. I stayed low and tried to avoid attracting Arcite’s attention. I guess my blow to the groin had not done as much damage as I thought; well, either that, or his target was a lot smaller than most, which also explained his attitude.
Flies and dust danced in the sunlight, stirred up by all the frolicking, stumbling folk cutting loose after a winter locked indoors with each other. Bits of clothing had been trampled underfoot; by nightfall, it would be crazed.
We reached a woman seated on an overturned basket, keeping a close eye on the containers of raw wool for sale in front of her. The family resemblance was clear even before Beatrice handed her the baby.
“Eddie, this is my mother, Bianca Glendower.” Beatrice passed her the baby. “Here, Mom. She’s fussing again.”
Her mother, who had the same general look as Beatrice but with the signs of her difficult life, took the baby. As she undid her dress and let the child begin to nurse, she said, “And where are you from, young Eddie? I don’t recognize you.”
“He’s some traveling ruffian who wants to pull me into a dark corner and do unspeakable things to me,” Beatrice dead-panned.
“The man that gets you in a dark corner better be well armed and well rested,” her mother said.
“Mom!” Beatrice cried in outrage.
“My daughter’s strong-willed,” Bianca said to me. “That’s spinster-bait around here. If she has any sense at all, she’s looking for a husband while the men aren’t thinking clearly.”
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Beatrice said dryly. “She’s content with a view of sheep, rocks, and grass. She doesn’t care that there’s a world out there.”
“I’ve seen the ocean, young lady,” Bianca fired back. “And the great houses of Boscobel. I’m just content with my lot.” To me she added, “And that’s what drives her crazy.”
Beatrice took my arm. “Come on, if we keep this up, I’ll end up being sent to my room. Oh, that’s if I had my own room,” she added in annoyance.
I nodded to her mother, who grinned. “Get married if you want your own room!” she called after us.
When we were safely away, I stopped Beatrice and began, “Listen, before we—”
She kissed me the way I’d always wanted to be kissed, only I hadn’t realized it until that moment. She smiled up at me, knowing exactly how good she was.
I waited for my head to stop spinning. “Wow. Okay, look, that was great and everything, but—”
“But?” she repeated in disbelief. “There’s a ‘but’?”
“I really want to find out what happened to Isidore. Look, everything I told you is true, it’s just… I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
“You said she was with Audrey.”
“Then she’s safe.”
“But with those guys around—”
Beatrice rolled her eyes. “All right, come on. I’m pretty sure I know where Audrey took her.”
We reached a barn with small flocks of sheep crammed into corrals around it. Beatrice knocked on the door.
A young boy opened it. “Hey, Beebee,” he said.
“They call you, ‘Beebee?’ ” I said.
“Yes, they do. You, however, may call me Beatrice. Or ‘Miss Glendower’ if you’re nasty.” We went inside. Beatrice asked, “Angus, did Audrey Fencinger bring a baby in here a few minutes ago?”
“Yeah,” he said, and sneezed. “Man, I hate crib duty.”
It was dark, and my eyes took a moment to adjust. Sunlight found every crack in the roof and western wall, making bright shafts outlined by dust and pollen. It was warm, and the smell of wool, manure, milk, and hay was overwhelming.
Beatrice squinted and said, “Audrey? Are you in here?”
“Nah, she just dropped off the baby and left. Said not to tell anyone.”
“I see you listen as well as always. Which baby is it?”
“Hell if I know. She put it in a crib and vamoosed.”
By then my eyes had adjusted enough to comprehend what was in the barn. The stalls were filled with cribs, and most of them held babies. To me they all looked identical. “Shit,” I muttered.
“I’m just watching them until my sister gets back,” Angus said defensively. “She had to go make out with Cletus Snow.”
“Do you farm babies here?” I asked.
Beatrice said, “No, but a lot of the mothers are young, and the festival is their one chance to pretend they’re still girls. So which one is she?”
I looked at enough of them to confirm that I couldn’t tell them apart any better than Angus. Audrey understood the basic strategy of hiding in plain sight. “I don’t know.”
“Men,” Beatrice said in annoyance.
I was about to mention the tattoo when someone pounded on the barn entrance. Arcite bellowed, “Open this goddamned door right now!”
He Drank and Saw the Spider © Alex Bledsoe, 2014