Rafe sat on the floor, feet stretched out, ankles crossed, leaning against a roof support polished by centuries of backs and shoulders rubbing against the stout wood. She passed her dinner plate to her niece for return to the Pig and Toad.
“You know, Ma would love it if you ate with us,” said Maud, looking down at her aunt. “Or at least the Old Soldiers back there on the bench. She says it’s bad for the digestion to eat alone. No conversation to help pace the food going down.”
Rafe shook her head. “She’s right. I am an old soldier. But a real one, not just someone gone walkabout and returned after a life of doing whatever it is they choose to lie about. And I’m not as decrepit as that that lot against the wall.” She didn’t need to turn around to see the bowls of soup in shaky hands or the feet propped on the warming bench near the line of braziers.
“Ma said you had a special name for that lot.”
Rafe chuckled. “I called them a grumble of geezers.” She looked up at Maud and reached to take the offered coffee mug. “I’m sure I don’t use the fancy manners I’m sure your ma expects.”
Maud rolled her eyes and headed back to the Pig and Toad.
Rafe faced the middle of the cavern that was Winter Home. Little had changed from her last season here forty-four years ago. A ring of twenty tree-sized roof supports defined the public space. Beyond those were the workrooms, defined by carpets, mats, and occasional screens or curtains. Tapestries lined the outside walls and framed the doors that opened into the private family quarters. Some things had changed. But the carvers had moved to the place next to the weavers, who still had the prime space next to the Pig and Toad. Maybe because it was easier to cart the chips to the fire, but maybe because Molly Preen’s grandmother had married outside her trade. The potters occupied the opposite side, with easy access to the fire from Jenna’s forge. The bakery was inside the Pig and Toad, kept away from the dust and traffic.
For now Rafe was relishing the solitude beyond the outside edge of the crowd. The fire pit was surrounded by the circle of family hearths. Neighbors were exchanging words and sopping up their evening meals with stone cooked bread. Camaraderie was the one thing about Winter Home that Rafe enjoyed. It reminded her of evenings spent listening to stories and songs. Every battle cadre she had known was the same. On campaign they would sit around a low built campfire, the light barely extending beyond the inner circle of heat seeking boots. Old habits died hard, she thought, flexing her own feet. Between jobs, when they were at headquarters, they would congregate in the great room below the dormitories, sconces lit with firebrands and hearths blazing just as they were here. This sense of nostalgia was unexpected, both for troop headquarters, and for her childhood. She saw Jenna looking her way and raised her mug.
Rafe would be inundated with children once dinner was over. It had been years since a sojourner had returned home, and some of the children had been hearing the same tales from the grumble their entire lives. The first of the tiny horde was on its way already. Jenna got up from her seat and sauntered over, arm in arm with Penelope. A few other adults joined the crowd. Rafe guessed that they were tired of the same old stories as well.
Rafe took a sip. “What will it be tonight then?”
There was murmuring and a couple of squawks as her audience tried to focus. “Remember the games we used to play when were were kids?” Jenna’s voice cut over the din.
Rafe smiled and nodded. “How about a tale of the Feral Sheep?”
“The Feral Sheep? What’s that?”
“That sounds dumb.”
“How can a sheep be feral?”
“Must be a sucky shepherd, let’s his sheep go feral.”
Rafe interrupted, “You don’t play the Feral Sheep any more? That was one of our favorite games when we were coming up.”
“But we don’t want a kid story. We want an adventure. A soldiering story.”
“Well, this is a soldiering story. But about the Feral Sheep as well.”
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 thought he was losing tax money, which he badly needed to press the war he wanted to start with Phelonius. Since he’d hired my cadre to fight on his side, I was particularly interested in seeing he had enough money to pay us. I was quite happy to do what I could to see who was siphoning money from his coffers.
You all understand how the King collects his taxes, right? Farmers pay something for the right to grow crops, and crafters, what we call the trades here, have to pay a bit for each thing they sell. Some went to the market and some to the King. The King thought he was missing out on his share.
The question was, where was the money going, and who was getting it instead. That was my job, to figure it out.