"Are those the same shoes from this morning?"
Mother was waiting for us as we returned to Seventhill. She had an amused smile as she looked carefully at my old shoes that were not just scuffed but now also covered in grime.
"Yes, but we got new shoes," I told her. "Simila helped me choose them!"
Why was mother here, waiting for us?
"Did she now?" Mother said looking over at Simila, the amusement disappearing from her expression, "she helped you choose them, and not have them made?"
I thought I had gotten mother's attention away from my shoes that were grimy from South Gate, but instead, her strange emphases told me I was just feeding the fire.
"I mean have them made, yes. The cobbler had lots of uh, different types of shoes for..."
I trailed off at mother's gaze.
"Tilly, put your new shoes on," she commanded.
"He-" I started to ask but the answer was obvious.
I sat down on a wooden chair and Simila brought over a small box so that I could put my foot on as she unlaced the dirty shoes.
I had long stockings underneath that went up most of my calf but they were thin, for the summer. The new pair of shoes only fit very loosely. They were a light brown, rounded at the tip, overlayed with a hole filled pattern in the shape of a curved T.
"Where did you go?" Mother interrupted as soon as the first shoe was tied.
Simila stood and bowed, "My lady, we-"
"I am not asking you Simila. I am asking my son."
I wondered what kind of witchcraft mother used to find out what had happened. Simila said it would be fine if I just stuck to our story, but mother seemed to know.
"I thought it was the envoy," I started saying, "there was a note from the party and then we went to see, and it was the orphanage."
Mother just stared at me.
"My lady," Simila tried to speak again. Her tone of voice had changed this time. She seemed somewhat dejected.
"Where did you take my son, Simila?"
"It is as he said, my lady," Simila spoke up for me. "There was nothing dangerous. I was with him as we went to the orphanage where he met Giacob, a boy from the Count's celebration at the Elafoz's palace. He thought the note he received was from the Klisimian envoy who he met there, a friend of your family's?"
"Why would you go to spirits know where because of a note? Don't you realise you have put us in enough trouble as it is by embarrassing yourself in front of the envoy with that book last night? Why would he want to meet you? Did you think about what could have happened to you?"
Mother had gotten really mad.
"And what orphanage... do you mean that horrid place down in South Gate? What did they call it? Simila, how could you take my son there?"
"No. Get out. I will talk with you later." Mother shouted when Simila was about to respond. "You are supposed to be Tilvrade's shadow, to keep him safe, not take him into disgusting places like that."
Simila bowed and left the room.
"Tilly, Tilly..." she shook her head. "What am I to do with you?"
She came up and now hugged me, scowl turned to loving embrace within a heartbeat.
I hesitated to put my arms around her shoulders as she put her chin on mine.
"I worry about you Tilly. You are too smart. Doing things without me knowing every time I look around," she sighed. "I should never have let you go out today. I thought it was strange, that you didn't really need new shoes. They looked fine yesterday. But I thought you would just get a new pair and maybe look in the other shops in lower town for something related to your artwork, or whatever it is you are collecting those things for."
I should have known mother had realised I was lying. She had frowned and hesitated when I brought it up at lunch and been waiting for us when we came back. She let me go with Simila because she didn't realise the whole of it.
"I'm sorry mother," I sobbed. The warmth of mother and her worry melted my own tension from the past couple days. I shouldn't have gone to South Gate, even with Simila. When I realised it wasn't what I thought, that the Black Rat was not the Klisimian, I was scared.
It could have all so easily been a trap. Of course, I know Simila could have done something, but would it have been enough?
"I know boys don't want to share everything with their mothers, even if you are a bit young to be so secretive. Your father and I both promised not to treat you like our parents did us. But you can't do this again, you hear me? You have to tell me."
I nodded into mother's neck. Why didn't I tell her in the first place about Pricel and Geran?
It was thanks to Sam that I learned so many things, that I was more than just a child, but
"There was a boy attacking Pricel," I told mother, "Geran Clous".
I told her about Geran and about Sambron and what Giacob told me about the Trams. I also told her what I thought about how it was aimed at father.
"And that boy in black was this Black Rat, you say?" Mother asked at the end.
"Yes. Giacob from The Rookery. He gave me a map," I told mother, "Simila has it now. He said it was the places that the people who want father out of the way go."
"Thank you Tilly. Just leave it to me and your father. We will make sure everything is all right."
"And next year? Can I go see Giacob and the other kids at The Rookery again?"
"Hmm," mother pat me on the head, "I just want you to be safe Tilly. We should talk about that again next year, okay?"
The next morning, Simila didn't say very much. It was a bit awkward as she prepared my riding clothes and then helped me tie up the heavy boots downstairs.
"I'll go take Cinder out then. I shouldn't be long." I said as I walked over to Saul who was in the kitchen.
Simila nodded and let me go to Saul's supervision.
"Give us a couple sausages too," Saul was telling the chef who was putting together a small bundle for the horse's satchel. The whole kitchen smelled good, from the oatmeals and sausages cooking on the heavy 2 meter metal stove for the breakfasts upstairs.
"Can I have a bone?" I asked the chef who smiled and brought out a large sheep bone for me. I recognised it from the cured smell of the sheep ham that I had enjoyed with slices of fruit yesterday night, despite the grim and silent dinner.
As I walked out the door to the yard, I had to duck under a couple of onion braids that were hanging right there. The onions were one of the first signs that the harvest season was beginning, one of the first crops to ripen. Of course, these ones came from a manor out in the country somewhere, but the chef preferred to get the braids early from the market in West Gate and dry them out himself.
I looked at the bone as I walked behind Saul, remembering the story of Osbec that the lady, Phienna told me two days ago. Did the king there really have an army of skeletons? It would either have to be some elaborate ritual magic or a series of runes engraved on each one that keyed into a control device set up with a unique array.
Ritual magic would have to be redone every time they needed them though and the synchronised runes would have been a huge undertaking even for Sam's era, let alone what seemed to be the level of magic in Farand.
A nuzzle between my legs alerted me to Fafi who came up to greet me.
She was quite old now, rarely leaving the stables for too long. My heart always ached when I saw her here. It was already a full year since Sir Barker had died.
I had spent a lot of time with Sir Barker and Fafi in the few years before he died. He didn't only teach me to ride, but helped me with questions about alchemy, metal and wood work, which I had developed an interest in recently.
Perhaps I would have also chosen to retire from knighthood in peaceful Olwick if I were Sir Barker's age. It definitely seemed to suit him well, allowing him to focus on hobbies in woodwork and handicrafts. He did some of the chores, had a small house in father's property and could spend time hunting with Fafi or carving as he pleased.
Then, when he went off again for a month for a second summer, we received the sudden news of his death and mother's father's.
I still remember mother breaking down in tears when we heard. We had gone shortly after to visit mother's brother and their family who lived in a small residence in Westhill. It was only after that that I started to see Pricel and Dilthimay more regularly, mother saying she regretted that she had kept such a distance until so late.
The funeral still hadn't happened yet. It would be this fall, a detour to Bridgewater for us as we returned to Olwick.
Fafi's hair was somewhat stiff and matted, like the hairs on Cinder's brush that I could see hanging off a nail behind her, but I scratched her behind the ears and gave her the sheep bone, which she wagged her tail over.
It was a bit sad, to see her ageing and lonely, but I suppose there wasn't really a better fate for a domestic animal than to live out their final years in peace and warmth. It was definitely a different life than the sheep and birds served on the dinner table.
Saul returned, bringing his horse between the carriage I would ride this afternoon and the other stalls. The stablehand was following him with Cinder who was stomping on the ground, eager to be outside.
I waved Fafi away and pat Cinder on his long nose.
Even now, he didn't like getting pat much on the snout, but since he always pushed his nose towards me when I saw him, I'll just continue doing my best to say hi and show him I care.
Cinder was still young, but Sir Barker had helped me over the years to learn how to ride on the pony and teach me and Cinder both how we would work together as a horse and rider pair. It was a bit abrupt when he died, considering he had never actually seen me ride Cinder for any distance. Even when I was 6, he would only let me up on him for short trots around the training yard.
Saul decided it was time though, when I showed him the techniques Sir Barker taught me. I knew how to guide Cinder by the pressure under my feet and knees, to jump and kick and even respond to my calls.
"Thanks Rinse," I told the stablehand who passed me the reigns, dyed red to match cinder's mane.
Cinder also thanked Rinse, leaning out to sniff at him.
It was Rinse that took care of Cinder here in Seventhill, giving him hay and rubbing him down whether or not I had gone riding with him. On days like this, however, I would make sure to care for him myself.
Sir Barker's advice that you had to treat a horse like a squire always stuck with me. So I made sure to feed him and rub him down and pick his hooves after a good ride but also made it clear to him when I wanted something done.
He was already saddled up right now, so I put my foot in the stirrup and kicked him with my heels, following Saul outside.
I enjoyed the riding, it was wonderful to feel so high up on top of Cinder, to feel him change direction when I tugged the reins or veered with my knees. I just hoped I would be riding home this year instead of stuck in the never-ending bumping carriage home again this winter on the cobbled and mud roads.
I saw Brendal as we passed by the training yard swinging his sword. We didn't stop there to run around in the yard though. Saul led us around the path through the trees to the side of the mansion and down the road to the gate.
We started riding through Seventhill, which was mostly just fences and trees from the road. We didn't ride on the main road that went from West Gate all the way into the duchy, but on the roads that skirted the mansions here.
There was only one carriage that passed us and one other rider as we made our way down the road. It would have been a lovely summer morning ride except for the ever-present smell of woodsmoke in this city.
When we had gone some fair distance outside of Seventhill, Saul stopped ahead of me and then dismounted.
"Do you think this is a good spot?" He asked, pointing to a rocky outcrop.
He took out two ropes, looped at the end, and we hobbled Cinder and Pony, Saul's horse, given his name when Sir Barker picked him up from a field he was passing through to use as a packhorse years ago. Pony was a beautiful horse, fully trained as a destrier. The name was an irony, perhaps, that the only pony they had at hand to carry their satchels would be him.
"Let's first spar, and then we can eat." Saul said, throwing me one of the wooden blades. "If you think you're going to fall, shout or slap your thigh so that I can help."
I got into position at the bottom of the outcrop, facing Saul who had climbed to the top. It was important not to always train in the yard where the footing was flat. Real battles happened in the field or the forests where there were more things to pay attention to.