Then he turned to Wilf. “Look, boy. You go tell your Da that I want a word with him. And your Uncle Ducky as well. And maybe that Molly.” As Wilf hustled off Old Farley turned back to Rafe. “You’ll stay a bit, aye? I’d just as soon make sure no one got the idea to go prospecting in the night.”
Rafe nodded. “Whatever you need. I’ll just get a few things from the forge.” She moved toward the shore, alternately building speed and sliding on the leather soles of her boots.
The last slide brought her to the snow at the edge of the river. Blade stepped forward to meet her and Rafe laced her fingers through the halter, turning him back toward the town. “It looks like we’re not through with winter camping, yet.”
Once in the forge, Rafe packed up a clay tub with coals from the fire that was kept smoldering all winter. She entered the stall Blade used and retrieved the tent she used in bad weather, and her bedroll stuffed with gear. There was a puff of dust as the trap door in the floor of the alley opened and Wilf’s head appeared. Sticking up, from behind his head, was the pommel of Rafe’s sword.
“Hangman’s Drawers! Did you invade my quarters?”
“To get your harness and bring it to you.”
“And did you enjoy the admiring looks of the young ladies as you made your way through the Common?”
“No, Auntie. My hands were full and it just seemed easier. And I thought you might need, you know, a weapon or two.”
“For what? We are just making sure no one gets overcome by curiosity and accidentally tumbles through the hole in the ice.”
“Old Farley mentioned prospecting.” Wilf slid the harness off his shoulders and rested the tip of the scabbard on the toe of his boot.
“Old Farley is a worried soul. I can’t imagine the wagon or the skull did anything to cheer him up.”
“Give over my harness and go fetch a pail of stew and a loaf of bread.”
“Molly’s got that taken care of. She said she wouldn’t let you starve, though the rest of us could go to perdition if we didn’t have enough sense to bring our own dinners. Da told her if she’d taken over the job of provisioning you, she could provision us all. I think she weasled a pie as well.”
Rafe looked past Wilf to see Harland Grott poke his head through the trap door. When he was high enough to lean on his elbows, he swung a pack to the floor and stopped. “I wonder if you can use an extra pair of eyes tonight?”
“What’s in the pack?”
“I thought I’d dust off my winter camping gear, and maybe bring a small beverage. Relive old times on campaign.”
“That gear must be fair to mouldering, even if you retired after they carved this smile in my face.”
“Oh, I keep my hand in. Especially late winter when the game starts moving about. A bit of hunting. Fresh meat for the pot, makes a fellow welcome. You know.”
“Fine, then. But take the bottle back. This is no time for a frolic, just a bit of watching and then to sleep.”
Harland removed two bottles from his pack and tucked them into last fall’s straw in the byre. He hitched one strap over his right shoulder and sauntered out the open door without stopping at the waiting sledge.
Rafe glanced at her nephew. “What is wrong with you, boy? You got worms crawling around under your face?”
“Are you just letting him join us?”
“And why not? Is there some reason he shouldn’t share in making sure no one falls into the hole at night?”
“Auntie, I thought we were going to talk about what happened to the river water, what we were going to do about it?”
“You think just our family can decide that? If it were a decision thing like that, surely your good mother would be part of this. No, this is about the Foals and their kin, making sure they don’t get to market with goods that weren’t theirs to begin with.”
“But Harland Grott. You know he’s from away, don’t you, even though he’s made a home here?”
“So’s your Uncle Barton. What of it?”
“But he married Auntie Finn, and he’s family.”
“There’s a lot of ‘buts’ in your head, boy. Now we’re back to family. You’ve heard the saying ‘keep your friends close…’?”
“And your en…”
Wilf stopped when Rafe held up a finger, moved it to her temple and winked. She retrieved the bottles and moved them to the byre across the aisle. She strapped on her harness and moved outside to finish loading the sledge. Molly came across the yard from the Pig and Toad, carrying a pail in each hand and a pack on her back. Rafe sniffed and smiled, wedging the stew in amongst the camping gear. Wilf removed the pie, still steaming, from the top of Molly’s pack and set that in one of the pail lids. Rafe nodded at her nephew. “Duck inside and grab that sack of winter mash for Blade, and we’ll be off. The others will join us at the river.”
That night, as they sat in front of the tent, Rafe missed fires under the night sky, sparks flying up to merge with the stars. The stories they told were no different than the ones told around the central fire in Winter Home, or Winter Quarters with Graven’s Guard, for that matter. But the cold air and hot stew, the smell of the pie mixed with smoke, knowing there would be toasted bread for breakfast, and even the thin sound of Blade whuffling in his oats, felt more like home than she had found since standing next to the Memory Oak that first day when she had dumped Wilf on his back.
They set up three watches. Wilf with Ducky took the first watch, Harland and Molly, the second. Rafe took the last watch with Boyl.
The second watch started as Hopeworth’s Mill rose above the horizon. Molly rose quietly and squeezed through the tent flap, taking a blanket and leaving Rafe bundled in her furs. Rafe heard the girl crunch through the snow and greet Harland, already at the fire. After a few minutes, Harland said something in an encouraging tone and Molly laughed nervously and objected. Harland spoke again, reassuring. Molly acquiesced. There were more footsteps, and the tent flap opened and Molly squeezed through again.
“Just as you said, Auntie. He said there was no need for me to be up sitting in the cold and dark. Night watch was not near as glamorous as I thought.”
“Sleep tight, then. I’ll see to this.”
Rafe shrugged into a a heavy white sweater. She traded her red hat for a white one and rolled out under the back wall of the tent. She loosened her joints and wormed her way to the corner where she had a good view of the fire. Harland was sitting with his back to the fire, but pointed toward the tents instead of the hole in the ice. She waited and he waited.
When he rose, it was only after Molly had started to snore. To Rafe it sounded like a girl practiced at sneaking out at night, but it seemed to satisfy Harland. He dusted off his seat and knees and started to stroll toward the edge of the river.