Authors: Laura E. Williams
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I want to thank Christy Ottaviano, amazing editor, wonderful person.
I'd also like to thank the Ryskiewicz family. Without their friendship, the research would have been close to impossible.
And thanks to Sherrilyn Kenyon for knowing so much.
This one's for Rick Kiernan, my husband.
He knows why.
Lily loved early morning best of all. The time before the sun rose and melted away the mist. The time before even her parents stirred in the far side of the cottage. The time when only she was awake and free to wander without anyone making a fuss.
In the warmer months, she roamed the edges of the forest for plants to renew her father's supply of medicines. This morning she gathered yarrow, agrimony, horsetail, and wild lettuce, carefully laying the sprigs and leaves in a wide, flat basket she carried over her arm. Walking along, she found herself looking at the sky as much as at the ground. Her mother said that was why she was clumsy and fell so often.
Above her, the trees rustled in the late summer breeze. She shaded her eyes against the glare of the sun, watching the slender shape of a dove circle above her before winging out of sight. She loved doves, as did her mother. Their mournful call and their gentle ways. Lily smiled, imagining herself flying free.
When the high walls that hid most of the town came into view, she stopped. Only the church spire and Lord Dunsworth's castle on the far side could be seen above the turreted barricades. Lily didn't care for the town or the dirty moat. Nor for the narrow roads that twisted and turned like a pit full of serpents. She stayed away as much as possible, preferring the solitude of the forest, though she had to be wary of the cutthroats and thieves that hid in its murky depths and assaulted travelers. But even the fields where the farmers now threshed grain, or the meadows where animals grazed and shepherds kept watch were too crowded for her.
“There it goes!” someone shouted in the distance.
Lily whirled around, her outer tunic catching a puff of air and billowing around her legs. Those boys again! Town boys. And they were headed across the meadow in her direction. In another moment they would see her. Fear left her mouth dry. Lily took a giant step toward the bushes, nearly tripping over her skirts, looking for a place to hide. Without time for thought, she flung herself into a thicket of brambles. She winced as she landed on a sharp stone. Thorns scratched her face, but at least she was hidden. And just in time, too.
A rabbit raced by, the boys not far behind. The animal dodged left then right and suddenly disappeared. The boys nearly fell over each other, stopping so suddenly. They stood in a gasping huddle right next to her hiding place. Lily barely dared to breathe.
“It got away,” one of the boys said, still trying to catch his breath.
“It can't have gone far,” the smallest one said. “I jabbed it good, right in the leg.”
A third boy laughed. “I'm sure you missed it, John. You're always thinking you've killed the rabbit or cornered the pheasant, but you never catch a thing.”
All the boys laughed now. The littlest one stomped his foot. “You'll see, sodheads. I'll get that rabbit and have it for supper, too!”
“Enough,” one of the older boys said. “This isn't fun anymore. Leave it and let's find something else to do.”
“But I stuck it good and now someone else'll get the rabbit,” the one named John protested.
The boys looked about. Lily didn't move, not even to brush aside a spider crawling up her arm.
“Come away,” the first boy said, throwing down his stick. The others did the same, all except John. “There's no one here to find your skinny rabbit.”
The smallest boy blinked back tears and glanced around, staring a moment too long into the thicket. Lily felt like he was looking straight at her, but then he turned away.
“Let's go find Maggie and Eunice,” the tallest boy said.
“But I thought you wanted to play with me. What do you want girls for?” John asked, twisting his stick between his small hands.
“They make good targets,” Tom said with a grin. “Come with us if you like. If you can keep up.” The boys laughed and trotted off toward the gates of town.
After one last look into the thicket, John gave up on his rabbit and ran after his friends.
Lily waited till they were out of sight before she moved. Better they should pick on Maggie and Eunice than a poor rabbit, she thought as she pushed her way out of the brambles and undergrowth. She brushed dirt from her palms and plucked some thorns and twigs from her tunic. Before she retrieved her basket of herbs, she picked up the deserted sticks the boys had sharpened roughly on stones, cracked them in half over her knee, and tossed them aside. With her basket over her arm, she bent down and looked closely at the grass, peering this way and that until she found what she was looking for.
With her first finger, she dabbed at the blood on one of the leaves. The little boy had stuck the rabbit after all. Slowly, carefully, she followed the scattered red trail to a mound of brush not ten lengths away. Quivering behind a barricade of dead branches, a small brown rabbit twitched its nose at Lily as she got down on her knees and reached forward. She grabbed the animal by the scruff. The rabbit kicked feebly, and then went still.
Lily cradled the injured animal. “I'll make you well,” she crooned. “Don't worry about those evil boys. I won't let them harm you again.”
“That's my rabbit,” a sharp voice called behind her.
Lily turned. John the youngest stood there, feet wide, pointed stick gripped in both hands. He jabbed it toward Lily as if she were an animal to be tamed.
Lily dodged out of the way. Fear tightened her throat, and her voice sounded squeaky. “I thought you went with the others.”
“I tricked you,” the boy said. He kept his gaze lowered to the tips of her shoes. “Now give it over. 'Tis mine.”
Lily shook her head. “You left it here to die and I found it. 'Tis mine now.” She glanced around nervously, wondering if the other boys were far behind but she didn't see them. One small boy couldn't hurt her, not the way a crowd of them could, like the last time they'd cornered her.
The boy's tousled brown hair stuck out at odd angles, and his leggings were held up by a rope tied around his waist. And though he scowled at her feet, his dirt-streaked face puckering above his brows like an old man's; Lily saw the tremble of his lower lip.
She clutched the rabbit closer and lowered her voice to a raspy growl. “Do you know who I am?”
The boy's eyes flickered up at her, but he tried to set his quivering lips firmly. “You're Lily White as Bones,” he finally managed. “Gallows Girl. You're the executioner's daughter, but”âhe took a deep breathâ“but I'm not afraid of you.”
“Foolish boy!” Lily stared at him hard, till she thought her eyes might have crossed, giving her a truly evil glare. He took a step backward, holding the stick in front of him. “You should be afraid of me,” she went on. “If I ever catch you againâ¦” She let her voice trail off menacingly, waiting for the waif to run away, crying.
But he only took another step backward and said, “I want my rabbit. I've got to show Tom and the others. Show them I really did stick the rabbit like I said. They'll never believe me else.”
“I'll not give it over!” Lily rasped louder.
John's eyes filled with tears.
Forgetting to give him the evil eye, Lily snorted with disgust. “Do boys always cry so much?” she demanded in her usual voice. She tried to ignore the pinch of pity she felt for him as he blinked back his tears. He was a town boy, same as the others, cruel and heedless. How many times had children just like him brought tears to her own eyes? But no more. Her tears had only meant harsher taunts, so she had learned not to cry. Never to cry.
The boy hastily wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “I'm not crying. 'Tis dust, is all. Now give me my rabbit.”
“Nay, you'll not have it,” Lily said. With that, she turned and ran as fast as she could, cradling the rabbit in her arms.
She took a shortcut through the forest, dodging trees and leaping over fallen branches. Her basket bounced on her arm, scattering its contents as she raced on. Lily glanced over her shoulder twice. The first time to see the boy trailing behind her. The second not to see him at all. She turned abruptly north, away from the direction of the town gates, and followed a path she'd made from her frequent walks in the forest. At last she slowed her steps, catching her breath and taking a look at the rabbit in her arms. It lay limp, blood staining its hind legs, but Lily felt the delicate thrumming of its heart beneath her hands. There was hope yet.
At last she reached the small cottage she shared with her father and mother outside the town walls. Her father had built their home in the midst of some willow and ancient evergreens, which kept it sheltered and out of sight from all but the most curious. The wattle and daub walls were sturdy, and the thatch roof overhung the sides all around to better shed the rain. Beyond their patch of land spread out fields of wheat to the front and side, and forests to the rear. Not far away on the right rose the tall, thick stone wall that circled the town like protective arms.
Their cottage contained one room with a trestle table near the hearth, a few benches and stools, cooking utensils, a bed to one side, and a curtained-off corner for Lily. Attached to the cottage, her father had built a small chamber, which he called his apothecary. Here he kept his herbs and remedies and special tools. Often she found her father and mother there, side by side, working without speaking.
Lily scattered the chickens and ducks out of the way as she neared the cottage door. Her dog barked a greeting, straining on the rope that kept her in the yard.
“Hush up, Blossom,” Lily said. “I'll let you go in a bit, I promise.” She entered through the back door, directly into the apothecary. “Look what I've found.”