“This is a true story, one that happened to me. But first, let me tell you about the Feral Sheep. It is said that she is an old woman, always a stranger in town, and always in the marketplace. She is on the lookout for particularly nasty little boys and girls, to steal away, fatten up, and sell to the highest bidder, for whatever purposes they have for small, fat, ill-behaved children. It is said, she particularly likes those who are greedy, because it is easiest to lure them into her traps. She arrives in town, early on market day, parks her wagon and sits quietly in the shade and observes. She looks like any other old lady, in from the country. Hunched, with an apron and either a cap or a kerchief. She has curly white hair and chews spruce gum. It is said this is why she is called the Feral Sheep, because of the white hair and the chewing. But also because she seems mild mannered. And she never sleeps in town.
“After noon, she starts hiring boys and girls to run little errands for her. She gives them a penny, or some toffee divine, or some other little treat. And before they know it, they are bringing over friends to get a share of the Feral Sheep’s offerings. She sends them off to buy things for her, and she sits, chewing her gum and knitting, or crocheting, or tying knots in a cord — little things she can drop in a heartbeat. She watches the children, sees how polite they are, sees who in town likes them, sees if they are kind or mean, if they play dirty tricks. Then by the end of the day, she asks the ones she has picked, to come a little closer, just carry a little something to her wagon. And one by one, without anyone being the wiser, they disappear, under the hay, into the false bottom, made all sleepy and comfy by something in the toffee.
“We used to play this when we were kids, Jenna and Ducky and me. But this story isn’t about when we were kids, and it isn’t about the real Feral Sheep, because yes, she was real. This story is about the time I played the Feral Sheep when I was doing some spying for the King of Alorium.
“The King suspected he was losing tax money…”
“What’s ‘tax money’?” piped a small voice off to Rafe’s left.
Rafe had the questioner nailed with her glare in a heartbeat. “Makes no difference what that is. The King needed it and didn’t have it. And it was my job to find out why. That’s all you need to know.”
The King was losing tax money, which he badly needed to press the war he wanted to start with Phelonius. Since he’d hired Rafe’s cadre to fight on his side, she was particularly interested in seeing he had enough money to pay them. And a little extra poking about on either side of a war was never a bad idea, so she started to prepare.
Rafe snagged the long-haired goatskin from the chair in her chamber as she headed to the encampment to get help from Zoral, trimming off a strip at the edge of the belly as she walked. The hair was yellowed-white from years near the fire, and not terribly coarse. She tied it around her head, covering her hair line, and concealed the cut edge with a kerchief. “What do you think?” she asked Zoral as she approached his cook fire. She adjusted her stride so elbows and knees stuck out at awkward angles. “Will I do for a little game of Feral Sheep?”
“The hair will do if you tuck it in a bit. But if it’s ancient you’re going for, stick your face in the smoke for a minute and let’s get you covered with the dust of ages.” Zoral got an egg, cracked it open, and let the white flow into a bowl, cupping the yellow center in his palm. “Now, let’s make some wrinkles.”
He held out his hand. “Do you want the yolk?” Rafe shook her head and Zoral slurped it down. He beat the white with a little water and started smearing it on Rafe’s face, stretching the skin taut before before applying the mixture. He dipped his hand into a different pot. “And maybe a little oatmeal to add some warts. What does this Feral Sheep look like anyway.”
“Who knows. What does any legend look like? She’s supposed to be old, and wily. Ugly enough that no one wants to look too closely.”
“Do you have clothes?” Zoral looked down at Rafe’s leather breeches, eyes traveling up to her jerkin and sweater held in by a harness filled with knives. “The sweater will do. It’s grubby enough around the cuffs. But you look somewhat dangerous to be masquerading as a gnarly old lady.”
“I’ve got skirts and a bodice and apron from the castle kitchen. Alorium said I should take what I needed.”
“Hence the mutilation of the poor goat.”
“Needs must. You’d better get the backs of my hands. I don’t think the Feral Sheep would put on so many airs as to wear gloves. I’m thinking she’s work-hardened.”
Zoral applied the goop to her hands and blew paprika on her. “That will darken you up a bit, and sink into the crevices. Make you look a little worn out. I’d rather use cinnamon. Better color but you’d smell too nice.”
Rafe hunched and hobbled around the cook wagon. Zoral looked at her and nodded. “You’re still a bit damp, but will wrinkle up well by the time you get to the market. How are you getting there?”
“I’ve got a dog cart I’ll use. I thought I’d take Snarge.”
“You won’t feel naked without your hardware?”
“I’ve got a staff. That will have to do. And a short knife up my skirts. And a hook knife for the vegetable basket. And I’ll take my knitting. I’ll be fine.”
Some time later Rafe had made her way past the customs inspections to enter the market and was sitting in the shade of her dog cart knitting. A small child ran up with three apples and handed them to her. Rafe made a great show of examining them, and pushing a grubby fingernail into a what might have been a soft spot. She took the hook knife and made a show of slicing into one of the fruits.
“You’ll need to pay me for that one whether you like it or not,” said the child mimicking the shrewd look his mother must give when she dealt with vendors.
“I’ll pay, no doubt. Don’t you worry about that.” Rafe took a small bite of the white flesh and sucked it from between her teeth. “That will do. Here’s your penny for the apples, and a hay-penny for your time.”
“You got anything else for me to do, old lady?”
“Cheeky bugger. Yes. And for two friends as well.” The lad was away and back shortly with another boy and a girl their same size. Rafe made a show of looking them over and testing their grips. “You want us to steal something?” asked the first boy.
“Not right yet, I want you to count some things for me. Quilts and two handled jugs. Maybe follow a person or two. See that man with the mustache? And that one with the gold tooth. Follow them. Can you do that?”
“How much do we got to count? Gel here runs out of fingers after ten.”
“That will be plenty.”
“And if we get asked, mum’s the word, right.”
“Mum’s the word the first two times you get asked, but after that you let them know that someone’s paying you for your eye skills. Two more asks and you can tell them it’s me.”
Rafe sent them out twice and had them following and counting different ones before they started getting asked what they were about. By then she noticed that she had competition on the edge of the square, on the other side of the orange tent. Another old woman was hunched over a pile of wool, working her spindle. Three colorful quilts were draped over the side of her wagon. She’d made a big deal about asking her neighbor for help un-hitching her horse. Rafe’s own poor pony stayed hobbled to her cart. There was a steady stream of small children running back and forth, bringing fruits, vegetables, and bread to her and storing it in the wagon behind the quilts.
By the time the noon rush was over, Rafe had gone through three sets of kids. Some of them, she noticed, were also working for the other old woman. Rafe tucked her knitting in a pocket and heaved herself off her stool. Slowly and painfully she shambled past the orange tent and nodded to the old woman sitting in front of the wagon. There were a couple of kids sitting near her sucking on sweeties. One had worked for her earlier in the day. Another, with eyes quivering to stay open, was climbing into the back of the wagon. There were no more children around, but Rafe wondered without letting the wonder reach her face.
She continued on around the market and hobbled back toward her cart, moving through the center alley still piled with potatoes and artichokes. The meat vendor had only a few strips left hanging from his hook, and a goat head, horns sticking out and brown hair shining between the buzz of flies. She felt eyes on her and saw a couple of men, arms crossed, paying more attention to her than their stalls. Rafe had collected some interesting news from her small troops and, she hoped, stirred up some interest from those she had followed at her behest. Her disguise was good but would not stand up to close inspections and that was what she was trying to give her targets on the walk. She hoped they would send someone to confront her when she was well outside town.
On returning to her cart, Rafe packed her purchases in the back of the cart and struggle onto the seat. The dog turned reluctantly and they headed toward the road back out of town. She noticed that the other old woman, now bereft of children, had found someone to hitch up her horse. Rafe admired the step stool fastened with a long rope handle which the other woman pulled up after herself as she settled in her own seat and started her horse forward. Rafe squinted. Surely this old lady was neither the spy nor embezzler Rafe was looking for.
The old woman’s horse was lively, however. He hadn’t been standing in his traces all day as Rafe’s dog had. As the old woman’s cart drew even with Rafe’s it was clear there was only one quilt left folded tidily in the bottom of the wagon among the baskets of produce. Then the wagon passed and Rafe was pulled aside to have her own cart inspected by the tax men.
“What about that one?” Rafe grumbled, pointing at the old woman’s wagon, now starting to cross the bridge. “She sold all her quilts and you didn’t even check her out. I came in with nothing and I’m only leaving with what I bought, and here you are pulling my cart apart.”
“The King will have his due, mum. You just settle now and we’ll be done soon enough.”
Rafe kept an eye on the old woman’s wagon and the people streaming out of the gate after her. She started to hum in annoyance. There went the two men who had been eyeing her at the end of the day. Rafe’s smile could be mistaken for a grimace as she continued to hum. The wagon bounced over a rock and there was a crack and a squeak as the bottom dropped out and three boys fell on top of it, sleeping in a pile. The old woman laid her whip on the horse as townspeople converged, some on the boys and others to follow the wagon. This was just the sort of mayhem that would make Rafe’s own departure most comfortable. She would meet up with those two men soon enough.
“And that, my friends,” Rafe finished in traditional style, “is the story of when I played the Feral Sheep for the King of Alorium.“But wait a minute.” It was the same child who had asked about what taxes were.
“I had to wait more than a minute with those tax men, let me tell you.”
“No. Not that. Did they catch the old woman? And did you find who was stealing from the King? And what happened with those men who had been looking at you?”
“Ah. That. Well, it all got sorted out, and I found out what I needed to know. It’s late and time you were in bed. And time I had some tea.”