‘I know what’s happening.’
Inside Keiran’s hut, it was warm as usual. Round the table sat an unfamiliar red-haired man she took to be Gideon, Jaques, the dark-haired Ridley, and Keiran. At Beatrix’s entrance, they all looked up; some in bewilderment, others in irritation- but only Jaques smiled to himself.
Keiran stood up slowly. ‘Beatrix-’
‘No, don’t look at me like that. I know what’s happening. I need to be here.’ She spoke so forcefully that everyone was visibly taken aback.
‘Look, what we’re discussing in here is highly confidential-’
‘Oh, yes - so highly confidential that the whole village knows of it by now. You learn a lot from listening to gossips.’
Keiran frowned, but Jaques laughed. ‘Leave it, Keiran. She might as well be here as not.’
‘I need to know what’s happening. You need my help.’
But this arrogance was taking it too far for the normally gentle Keiran. ‘No, we don’t! We don’t need your help - you need ours. You’re a normal girl, a farmer’s daughter by the looks of things. We are outlaws. There is a big difference.’
‘But I’m not just a farmer’s daughter!’
Beatrix faltered, and in that moment she knew she mustn’t tell him. Who knew what he would say to her, do to her? She’d be thrown out of the village for sure - and then where would she go, what would she do? She needed a horse and a guide to get her to Tidtarna. Going on foot could take weeks.
Keiran made a disgusted noise and turned away. ‘Never think you are, or can be, more than you are,’ he said, his voice coloured with bitter experience. ‘If you aren’t born with a title, you’re nobody, nothing. You barely count as alive. There’s no such thing as talent, inherent goodness, or quality of man. Everything comes down to some name and a tiny scrap of land fought over like dogs to a bone. If you’re born a peasant, you’ll die a peasant, and no amount of money can change that.’
The silence that followed was long and sad. Beatrix had never heard Keiran speak in such a tone. Never heard anyone speak so ill of the Erldoms before. Was the system really as bad as all that? Despite the heat of her anger, she suddenly felt it retract, to be replaced only by a cold emptiness. She couldn’t even tell which was worse.
‘You hate nobles,’ she whispered, but it was loud enough for Keiran to hear.
‘Yes.’ He too spoke quietly, his anger vanished as suddenly as it had come. ‘Yes, I do. Because although they know what we suffer, although they know inside them that some peasants are more talented than them, although they also know that you don’t have to be born an Erl to be noble, true and good - they see all this, and yet do nothing. If they had any sort of decency...’ He shook his head. ‘Round and round I’ve gone. But I’ve not yet found any evidence to sway me in my feelings towards them.’ Suddenly, he smiled: ‘I’m sorry. I don’t mean to rant.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Beatrix began, but she knew it was not within her power to forgive him. And it wasn’t what he wanted, either. ‘I’ll just... go now.’
‘No, you might as well stay now,’ he slumped back into his chair. ‘I’m tired of hiding all the time. Sometimes I just want to act, and to hell with the consequences.’
Beatrix flushed, hearing herself in those words. That was how she’d acted in refusing Aaron, in running away, in siding with the Erls. In coming here.
She had done lots of acting. But now she needed to stand still and face the consequences.