Steiffa wished with all her drumming little heart that Drakon were with her. He was good with books, all those pretty letters and words, perhaps even better than some of the teachers. And she was best at getting those strange books that started his eyes gleaming. Together, they made a well-working gang. Also, he never talked down to her – and she no high-born, only a town girl. And, though she would never admit it, she liked his face, felt it as fine as a silvery prince’s profile on a coin.
But Drakon wasn’t with her. Though alone, feeling it as never before, Steiffa knew she couldn’t waste a moment, not hiding in the walls and feeling sorry for herself. Madame was trusting in her.
She hurried through the ancient school. All the small ways she knew as well as the lanes of the lower town. The many many tight squeezeways between stones where the grouting broke away. The gigantic canyon that was the great drain, which smelled so, but where she always found cheery company.
“Thar y’go again, girl – Any tasties t’tell us of, then?” said the silvery matron, who lived at the top of the great drain.
“The girl who helps Cook spilled peas tonight,” said Steiffa, “and she wasn’t long enough, and not quick enough, with the broom after them. I had one myself under the sideboard just now. There are many more.”
“Thang’ou, lots, girl – Peas, indeedie do!”
“Thang’ou!” – and - “Thang’ou!” Rattie chittering echoed down the great drain.
And then, the one who was not as cheery, who was not once as cheery, the big black, sitting on his cut-short tail:
“Girl, y’be mindful of those big feet about the place. Y’might best stay ‘ere, wiv’us. They never com’ down ‘ere.”
“I am mindful. Thanks.”
“See what they done t’Madame. Careful now it no be done t’you!”
“I am careful, Thanks. I must ask you all a favour—“
“You’ve visited Madame—“
“Always some of us wiv Madame, girl.”
“I’ve left her the silvering. Remind her, when she’s able.”
“We’ll lead her down the great drain, girl.” Said the Matron.
“Thanks.” And, with rattie well-wishes tailing her, Steiffa squeezed through the wall further into the school, instead of following the great drain down, which would have carried her safely out by the swift river and the vast forest.
She had decided to search for the old healer.
She was careful. The school was mostly asleep, so the school was mostly dark. And the darkness was always best for her. And she crept in the open places only along the walls, only underneath furniture. Always listening, twitching her whiskers.
But when the giant’s hand caught her, lifting her by her tail so high, Steiffa squealed – and not in her little rat’s voice.
The shadowed woman whispered – “Hello, little girl” – and dropped her like a coin in a leathery pouch and cinched her in.
The strange woman was so very quiet. She ran and leapt, and climbed, and swung, just like a circus acrobat might.
The soldiers dragged the healer through the quiet school, downstairs, to one of the larders where onions were kept. It would do: at his silvery age, the quiet brought him greater benefits. And the sour onion’ness cleared his sinuses, as well as his head, assuring him he would not bore of them, not fall asleep, which should only upset them so; and he needed very much to concentrate on the unpleasantness he would allow them to do him.
Two brawny bullies pummeled him. They believed they pummeled him. A runty corporal grew paler and paler.
Eventually, they killed him. And they believed it, too.
His body taken away from the school in the dead of night in a cart.
They even believed they lifted him by hands and feet and flung his apparently murdered corpse in the river so it should carry him away.
After they and the cart rattled away, the healer tentatively stood himself up in the forest outside lower Magusford. That twinge in his shoulders, again. He sighed. This was a young man’s game.