See where your soldierin's put you?
"Da?...Are you not...dead, Da?"
Aye, sonny, deader than 'umble pie. And come t'say I told you so, now's your foolish ambitions all done, and crossed you my way. Can you not see your pitiful Ma already, wailin' over you when she knows it? And a pathetic end, too! But not adventure enough for you if you'd stayed home, eh?...and stayed but a tinker's son!
Starry night glared before his opening eyes.
"Heaven, Da?" — but the words would not come from Mecho Tinker's insufficiently strangled throat.
Near enough, sonny.
Then the stars went dark. He could not move even to flinch. A shape passed over the former corporal. A woman. Her hair long, and tasting of the river, swept his face.
The witch, sonny.
She seemed to settle upon him, like some feeding thing. He saw the fletchings of the arrow struck through her shoulder. Felt her hands wringing his heart.
"Da! — Make her stop!"
Best then, son, that you sleep... .
"I have need of you, child." said the witch then, a kindness strange yet unmistakably there in her whispering.
Close your eyes, sonny...and sleep.
The stars glittered again, when next Mecho the incompletely executed returned from sleep. The trees whispered all around them. She was there still, kneeling by him, and her hands warming his heart.
He saw it immediately, her shoulder glowing beneath the night, the arrow gone.
She hasn't killed you then, sonny.
"Da! —" Mecho rasped.
"Da, I believed I'd dreamt you."
Nonsense, boy. I've always been near.
She was staring. Her astonishingly bright eyes stared, as if she might see inside him.
They always are...Vagari women. But don't be stupid, sonny.
"Come out, come out, little girrrl."
The acrobat sprang atop the blanket chest. It creaked, only the once, over Steiffa's head.
"Did y'hope I would not know your little friend was not you, little girrrl?"
Her back hard against the wainscot footing, and her small rattie heart tumbling and tumbling, she could no longer stay silent, calling out, "Did you...hurt him?"
Steiffa peered, saw a shadowed foot swing out, and THHOMMP the chest again.
"You hurt me, little girrrl. Why should your rrrich townies pay t'stare in on one dead rat? Silly little girrrl. I looked in on you this morning, out of plain kindness, I did. Well, you woulda known that, if you were there, in your cage. But you weren't, nawww, y'weren't. You were here, just as I guessed. Gave your breakfast carrot to your friend, instead. Grateful, he was, too, though he couldn't say so. And...my'my'my, little girrrl...your old man, Quant, he seemed surprised as I. Kindly old soul, your Quant. How he must worry over you...and all his little ones here."
Steiffa knew this game. From the taverns her Ma, and Madame, should never guess she had...smelled inside of. Lessons those gamblers taught her. And the drunkards and boasters. She giggled, loudly. Were she snake, she would whip out and strike that THHOMPING foot! Being but little rattie Steiffa, she struck at that circus girl as only she could.
"Threaten again my old Quant...and I will tell these gentle men, here, you did them —"
"Come now, little girrrl —"
"K...Kill these — if y'dare — I will tell their friends You did it —"
The game very suddenly ceased to be any more fun. With one great THHOMMP, the acrobat leapt to the floor. The blanket chest SQUEEEALED on its legs, swung away from the safe dark wall. She hadn't even time to scream. Steiffa bore away, directly along the wall, galloping for the door bottom of the next room.
Behind her — "HAHH!" — then an odd THHOMMP'THHONNKK and SKKRAESSSHHH, like somebody dragging their clothes over a wall. The surge of the haldan turned her tail straight over her back. Still, Steiffa only paused when she had reached the edge of safety the instant later, beneath the next door over.
Peering, she comprehended. Her screak became snicker, then splutter, and for hilarious reason. The circus girl become an amusement in the gloom, even though fitted in thief's black: striking a most unexpected acrobatic pose, flattened against the shadowed ceiling, and her arms and legs splayed-out like a very big spider.
"Don't...be...stupid, Steiffa...Run." said Byell, barefoot and in her shift, and stepping over the pair of broken men groaning, heaped before her door.
"I did you a service there, girrrl." came the annoyed mutter.
Byell not once let slip her gaze fixing the acrobat against the ceiling.
"Run, Steiffa...or should I...let her loose?"