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Authors: Laura E. Williams

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BOOK: The Executioner's Daughter
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Her mother shook her head. “This is not his home.”

“But he likes it here. Why can't I keep him?”

“Blossom will tear him to shreds as soon as you untie her.”

Lily frowned. That was true. Though her dog was sweet and dear to her, she was a hunter. “I could keep him in a cage.” But even as she said the words, she knew how wrong they were. All creatures deserved to be free.

“What can I do?” she said. “I took him far away this morning.”

“The kit loves you, so you must make him hate you,” her mother said.

“What do you mean?”

Allyce paused for a bit, catching her breath. “You must scare him away. Chase him. Throw rocks at him if you must.”

“Nay! I could never do that.”

“If you love him, you must set him free even if it tears you apart,” Allyce said. She closed her eyes as though the conversation were too much for her.

Will put a heavy hand on Lily's shoulder, shaking his head to silence her. “Put him in a cage for tonight. You can set the fox free tomorrow.”

*   *   *

The next morning, Lily went about churning the goat's milk and making dough. She swept the hearth, brought in a new pile of wood for the fire, then scrubbed the largest of the kettles.

“Lily?”

Lily dashed to her mother's side. “What is it? Are you chilled?”

With a weak smile, her mother waved away her words. “What are you doing?”

Lily sat back on her heels. “I'm doing my chores.”

“You're stalling,” Allyce said.

Lily bit her lip. “But there's so much to do…”

“Go,” Allyce said. “Take the kit where he belongs. 'Tis what you must do.”

Lily sighed. With one last pleading look, which only got her another wave of her mother's hand, she went outside to the cages. She took the young fox in her arms, as she had the last time, and made her way through the forest, taking care to stay off any paths. The closer she got to the clearing, the slower she walked. The light from the clearing became brighter and brighter, as though the sun shone down only on this small patch of land and nowhere else. And no matter how much she dragged her feet, she came at last to the edge of the small meadow.

Lily rubbed her cheek against the kit's head and he nudged her with his nose. Laughing sadly, she set him down. This time he didn't bound off into the tall grass; he sniffed around her shoes, scooting under her skirts and winding between her legs.

“Go on,” Lily said. “Be off with you.” Gently she nudged the animal away with one foot. “No, fool, I'm not playing. Go away. This is your home now.”

The little fox tilted his head and looked up at her.

Gritting her teeth, Lily pulled a stone out of the sack she had tied around her waist. “Please go,” she begged. Then she shouted, “Go! Leave!” The fox jumped away from her. Lily threw the rock, and then another, and again and again until her sack was empty and the bushy tail of the fox was nowhere to be seen.

With an aching heart, Lily ran back into the woods, feeling as though she'd just smashed her soul into pieces.

*   *   *

“I cannot!” Lily exclaimed the next day.

“You must,” her father replied.

From her bed, Allyce said softly, “You can, child. You went with me every year, and now you will go alone.”

“But all those people,” Lily said, “they'll taunt me.”

“You'll wear a cloak and hood to shade your face as we always do,” her mother interrupted. “No one will look too closely.”

Lily stared beseechingly at her father. “Can't you go?”

Will shook his head firmly. “Lord Dunsworth has called for me. I must go to the castle.”

Lily turned to her mother, but one look at Allyce's frail countenance stopped her tongue. She couldn't ask her mother to come with her, not when it was still such an effort for her to simply sit up.

Lily bit her lip. She could see her parents were firm on this. She must go to the town fair and buy goods. Her father had already listed the needed items, among them wool cloth, leather for boots and pouches, and secretly he'd told her to get a ribbon for her mother's hair. Something to help cheer her.

Lily put on her cloak and pulled a hood over her head. Taking a deep breath, she stooped next to her mother and tried to smile bravely.

“I go now,” she said, trying to sound confident. She didn't want her mother worrying about her while she was gone.

Her mother stroked Lily's cheek. “All will be well,” she assured her.

Lily placed her hand over her mother's even though terror coiled in her stomach. She stood up and turned quickly to the door. Her father nodded to her as she left.

The autumn air swirled briskly through the trees and clouds scuttled across the sky, piling up on the eastern horizon. Lily was glad for the cloak for more than one reason. She decided to take a different path toward town so that she'd have a better chance of arriving unrecognized. She could blend in with the others attending the fair and, with any luck, no one would know who she was.

Farmers and travelers from nearby towns made their way through the gates. There was much gaiety as friends and families reunited after many months since the last fair. This was a time for laughter and games and goodwill toward all.
Toward all except me,
Lily thought, burrowing deeper into her cloak.

She walked quickly, keeping her face down. The dirty, winding streets finally led her to the center of town, where the merchants had set up colorful tents to display their wares. Jugglers wended through the crowds, making people laugh. A group of musicians played while the audience finished off a bawdy ditty.

Not far from the musicians, Lily had to skirt a large crowd. She couldn't see what was going on, and she didn't care to, she told herself. She would do her errands quickly as she and her mother always had, and then she'd hurry home to where she belonged.

Lily came across the wool merchant first, where she bought a length of soft wool. Then she followed the stench of newly tanned leather to the leather seller, where she bought enough for three new pairs of boots. Nearby, she picked up some tallow candles and at the tinker's she bought a small pan her father needed.

Once she was loaded down with goods, she carried them in a sack under her cloak. Lily was intent on leaving, but along the way, the scent of baking pies distracted her. Her father had given her a spare coin from their meager allotment, as though he'd known she'd be tempted by some mulled cider or a piece of gingerbread. It all smelled delicious. Lily walked back and forth between the many stalls selling food and drinks, trying to decide what to buy.

“Lily?” a hoarse whisper said.

A lump of dread weighted her stomach. She had been recognized.

CHAPTER SIX

Lily stood as still as a tombstone. She didn't know if it would be better to run or hide.

“Lily,” the voice said again.

Without moving her head, Lily looked around, her gaze finally falling on John standing near her. Relief loosened her clenched hands.

The boy moved closer and looked up, giving Lily half a smile. “What are you doing here?”

She glanced around to make sure no one was watching them, then she quickly showed him the sack that held her purchases. “Now go away before you draw attention to me,” she said.

“Nay, I'm allowed to be here same as you.” He scowled at her. “Besides, I'm here to buy some gingerbread. Only I think the cakes over yonder look fine, too.”

“Cakes?” Lily said. Then she bit her tongue for sounding interested.

John grinned. “Aye, with sugar and cinnamon and whole nuts and—” He licked his lips. “Come on, I'll show you.”

Reluctantly, Lily found herself following the small boy. But before they got to the cake seller, their path was blocked by a large crowd. John jerked his head for Lily to stay close as they threaded their way through the people. She'd never felt such a press of bodies. It was both frightening and exhilarating. A bit guiltily, she thought of the people's reaction if they realized who was pushing by them. They would not be pleased to find themselves so close to her.

Before she knew it, she was in the center of the crowd, staring up at a large bear dancing on his hind legs. An iron cuff circled his neck and a long, thick chain was attached to it and held by a man dressed in crimson and green.

Lily glanced around at the laughing people, wondering what humor they saw in a shackled bear. She longed to set it free.

“Come on,” John said, tugging on her cloak. “The tumblers are this way. You'll like them better.” He led her back out through the crowd and to another group of people who were clapping and cheering as boys dressed in tight leggings climbed on each other's shoulders and tossed each other through the air.

Lily marveled at their performance. When the misty rain blew in, she barely noticed. When the rain fell harder, the tumblers bowed and the crowd dispersed. With no more to distract them, Lily and John tramped from one stall to the next, trying to decide what treat to buy. She finally settled on a warm piece of cake, which she ate in the pelting rain, laughing when it got so soggy that she had to shove nearly half of it into her mouth before it fell apart. John laughed, too, huddling his nose and hands over a cup of hot cider, the steam blowing in his eyes. For a moment she forgot who she was.

“John!” someone called.

The boy jerked his head up. His face turned red, and without even a glance at Lily, he hurried toward his pack of friends. Lily recognized them as the boys with the pointy sticks. They talked to John and he shrugged uneasily. One of them gestured toward Lily, and she turned away, dread replacing happiness. Rain seeped through her cloak and muddy water oozed into her worn shoes.

Sloshing through the puddles, she reached the edge of the fair before she remembered one last item she had yet to get. How could she have forgotten the ribbon for her mother's hair? She should be home tending to her instead of out playing in the rain.

Quickly she found a woman selling brightly dyed ribbons. Lily chose a deep blue color to match her mother's eyes. She tucked the ribbon under her cloak as she hurried through town and out the gates, taking the shortest path home.

Her hood fell back and the driving rain stung her cheeks as she ran. Lily burst into the cottage with so much on her mind, so much to tell her mother!

Allyce was not on her bed.

Lily hastily threw off her cloak and dropped her purchases on the floor. “Mother!” she cried. “Mother!”

No one answered.

She ran into the apothecary. Her mother lay next to the table, one arm stretched out as though she had been reaching for something. A quick glance told Lily that her mother had been preparing a concoction when exhaustion must have overtaken her and she'd fallen.

Lily bent down and put her arms around Allyce, noticing that her mother's clothes felt damp. She half lifted her mother, half dragged her back to the bed and laid her there, piling blankets on top of her. Lily stoked the dying fire and added logs until it raged fiercely, but not as fiercely as the guilt that burned inside her.

*   *   *

Many hours later, Lily lay on her own pallet behind her curtain. Her father had come home, only to find Allyce burning with fever once again.

In silence, he had bled Allyce and fixed a dozen remedies for her, but her fever stayed high, and she moaned and twisted.

Lily was unable to sleep. Afraid to sleep. Afraid of what she might wake to. Eventually her eyes closed against her will. When she opened them again, the storm was gone and the sunlight spread through the cottage like a widening puddle.

Her father sat on a stool, staring down at his wife. Lily's breath caught in her throat until she saw the faint up and down of her mother's chest. She was still alive! Lily scrambled out of bed and hurried to her side, eager to apologize for taking so long at the fair. But her mother didn't even stir when Lily took her hand and kissed it.

“Lily,” her father began.

She shook her head. She didn't want her father to tell her what she knew deep in her soul.

She and her father sat beside her mother for hours. They did not speak or eat. They simply waited.

*   *   *

The end came peacefully for Allyce, though it tore Lily apart. The tears she had buried for so long bubbled to the surface. They came soft at first, like a gentle rain. Then she cried as hard as she could, wishing her tears would wash the pain away, but they did nothing more than dampen the front of her dress.

Lily looked at her father. He sat as still as stone, and his eyes were dry. “Don't you care?” she asked through her tears.

He turned to her, his gaze bleak and dark. “Far too much,” he said in a hoarse voice.

Lily wondered if he had buried his tears the way she had. And perhaps by now he had forgotten how to cry.

She went to him and put her arms about his broad shoulders and cradled his head against her neck.

“Why did she leave us?” Lily asked. “Is it because we are cursed as everyone says?”

He embraced her. “Everyone must die. 'Tis our fate, child.”

Lily bowed her head in defeat. One could not argue with fate.

*   *   *

Because she was the executioner's wife, Allyce was not allowed to be buried in the churchyard, or even have a service and funeral procession. Besides, Lily thought bitterly, who but herself and her father would be there to mourn her?

Together, Lily and Will prepared Allyce for burial and carried her into the forest. Will dug a grave. They set the body in the hole, and before they covered it with dirt, Lily lay a dove's feather on her mother's breast.

“You are free now,” she whispered, then she dropped the first clods of earth into the grave.

In silence, her father packed the ground until there was only a slight mound to show where Allyce was buried. He left, and when he came back he struggled to carry a large stone, which he dropped at the head of the grave. He turned it carefully.

BOOK: The Executioner's Daughter
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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