The shopkeeper, as she had anticipated, was a pleasant enough man, as long as that pleasantness was not expected to extend as far as lowering the prices of his overpriced goods. He was delighted, he told her, to meet a new neighbor, and one who had travelled so far. He gave only the briefest of glances at her gown, whose ragged state revealed how far her journey had taken her.
Linnet smiled easily back at him. "I'm afraid I arrive here as much of a beggar as I was when I left my own barony. I've heard, though, that it isn't hard to find work here."
"No, indeed," said the shopkeeper, who was clearly trying to assess how low her previous work had taken her. "We have need of maid-servants in the Barony of Goldhollow, and I believe that our baron's guardians are always in need of scribes, if your education extends that far. And if you are in need of . . . more vigorous work, I'm told that there is a house near the end of this road where—"
"I've done scribe-work in the past," Linnet interrupted, before the shopkeeper should begin telling her on what days he visited that house. "I've also done some tutoring. Are there any children at the baron's keep who are in need of a tutor?"
"Aside from the baron himself?" the shopkeeper said in a light manner, then turned to glare at the boy who had edged into the shop and was staring with greedy eyes at the cherries in the window. The boy took one look at the shopkeeper and hastily backed out of the door, though his gaze lingered upon the sweet-smelling fruit as he did so.
It was a lazy May afternoon, and the streets outside were crowded with richly dressed shoppers, and also with boys dressed in clothes even more ragged than Linnet's, as though they were in competition with her. As Linnet turned her head to watch, one boy snatched a dead pullet from a woman's basket and dashed off with a cry of triumph. He was quickly surrounded by a group of boys, darting into one line like a rivulet attached to a stream; one of them cried out to the boy standing by the shop. The boy bit his lip, clearly longing to join the feast procession, but after a moment he shook his head and returned his attention to the shop window.
Linnet looked back at the shopkeeper. He was muttering something under his breath about thieving children, but cut off his invective as Linnet said, "The baron is too old for tutoring, surely."
"Old enough in body, at least." For the first time, a sadness entered into the shopkeeper's expression. "You'll have heard about our poor baron? They say that when he was a boy he was as normal as those boys out there, but after he had that bad fall of his— Still, he's better off than most men of his kind would be. His guardians look after his affairs, and they even allow him freedom to go where he wishes, as he wouldn't harm so much as a spring chick. If you ever meet him, you must act as though he's a normal man. He prefers it that way."
Linnet nodded, keeping her eyes fixed on the shopkeeper's face, but her mind was on the smell of the cherries in the window; she could feel soft water forming in her mouth. Pushing this thought aside, she said, "Even with jobs plentiful, I'm sure it must be hard for people in this barony to find good, honest workers. In this shop, for example, you have all this food lying about . . ."
To her satisfaction, the shopkeeper immediately launched into a speech about the lack of honest men and women in the world. Thieving street-boys, he said, were the least of his problems; even decent men and women weren't above stealing a fruit or two when his back was turned. And when it came to finding honest workers . . . Why, his last assistant had pocketed and spent half his earnings before the shopkeeper had discovered the boy's deception.
"Just so," said Linnet soothingly. "And I don't suppose he was even much use to you in stopping the thefts. A boy like that, brought up in a decent home, couldn't be expected to know the wily ways of the street-boys who snatch food from your store. What you need is a boy who is honest to the core, yet who knows the street-boys' methods and can keep them from thieving your merchandise."
The shopkeeper's gaze drifted over to the boy standing by the window. The boy's tongue travelled over his lips, licking up some saliva which threatened to drool out of his mouth; then he noticed the shopkeeper watching and jumped back a space from the window, as though confronted by a cudgel.
"You must be mad," said the shopkeeper. "A boy like that would steal all my earnings on the first day."
"Not at all," replied Linnet, who had spent the pause in conversation calculating whether she had enough money left to buy a full day's meal. "He only runs with the street-boys because his family is so poor that they can't afford to feed him properly. If you were to pay him regular wages, you'd find him to be just as honest as a decent boy—more honest, in fact, since he knows that this is his only chance at a decent job."
The shopkeeper's looked again the boy, now chewing on his thumbnail, and then at Linnet, smiling as sweetly as though she had offered to buy the man's shop. "Tell me," said the shopkeeper, "what caused you to leave your barony?"
Linnet's smile never wavered. "The baron threw me out," she said blithely, "for making a nuisance of myself among the merchants, in the same manner as I'm making a nuisance of myself here. Your baron's soldiers are on the streets; I'm sure they'd be happy to take me away for judgment."
For the first time, the shopkeeper's hard face cracked into a smile. It was plainly an effort he rarely made, and for a moment Linnet felt her breath grow still. It was the eyes, she told herself with anger: the blue eyes and the Goldhollow accent. More than once since her arrival she had heard this accent, and more than once she had seen the blue eyes which were so rare in her own barony. Each time she had been forced to remind herself that this was his barony and these were his people; she should have expected to meet men who looked and sounded like him.
"And who would judge you, our soft-hearted baron?" the shopkeeper asked. "Even his guardians are of a tender sort. No, I won't trouble the soldiers by having them haul off a troublesome wench—but neither will you be able to convince me that a dirty-faced boy like that could be turned into an honest worker."
"These boys may seem dark on the surface," Linnet replied, dismissing the past from her mind, "but hidden inside each one is a golden boy, waiting to be released. Some golden boys are so deeply planted that it would take more skill than I have to coax them to the surface. Other boys, though—like the one outside your shop—need only a chance to show that they are more faithful and self-sacrificing than the decent boys who make off with half your earnings."
"Mm." The shopkeeper glanced at the boy again, who was now biting his filthy thumb. "And if you're wrong and he absconds with my money—what then? Who will pay for the thievery of this golden boy of yours?"
"I will," said Linnet, sighing inwardly. She had known that it would come to this. "I'll place money as a token of my faith in him."
"I'll need the money beforehand," said the shopkeeper promptly. "Twenty gold pieces, that's how much my last assistant stole. You'd need to give me that before I'd be willing to take the boy on."
Linnet, who had just decided that one meal was all that she could afford to buy at this shop, felt a heaviness grow inside her, but she responded, "Done. Just give me a few days to gather in the money. In the meantime, sir, I cannot resist the sight of those cherries—"
She emerged from the shop a few minutes later, her basket filled with just enough cherries and bread to keep her strong until the next day. The boy, who had begun watching the food-laden passersby with a hungry and practiced eye, quickly slid up to her side. "Well?" he said, in a voice that contained little hope.
"Not yet," said Linnet, without breaking her stride. "He wants me to place bond on you first; I'll have to earn the money somehow. In the meantime, you're not to go about thieving—that's your half of the bargain."
"Can't promise that," the boy said at once. "I have to eat, Mistress Linnet."
"Here." Linnet stopped in the midst of the street; a goods-deliverer driving a mule-cart cursed at her before curving his path around her. Linnet quickly divided her food in half before holding the basket out to the boy. "You come every day and see me," she said, "and I'll feed you till I find you a job."
The boy snatched the food from her basket with all the skill that he had learned and darted off, weaving his way among passersby in his usual manner of escape. Linnet watched the smudged-faced boy go, a smile lingering upon her lips. Then she looked down at her basket and sighed. Half a meal—that was all that would keep her going until she found a job. And once she had found a job, how could she earn twenty gold pieces at the same time that she was feeding herself and the boy? Yet even as she thought this, she set her jaw in a stubborn manner that was familiar to all who had ever known her. She turned in her path in order to depart. It was in this way that she first caught sight of the man.
He was staring at her with the blank expression of a schoolboy who is caught dreaming, and his jaw hung open slackly. As she watched, saliva drooled from his mouth and crawled its way across his chubby chin. His dull blue eyes were deep-set in the folds of his bloated face. Atop his head, like the thin covering of moss on a massive rock, wisps of white hair surrounded the bare crown of his head. His clothes were finely made, but they clung to his obese body in an unappetizing fashion, and the only feature of him that could truly be said to be attractive was the jewel hanging at his breast.
For a moment more, he stared at Linnet with bleary eyes. Then he seemed to jerk awake, and he hastily rubbed his wet mouth against his sleeve. By now, Linnet felt more than a little embarrassed to have been caught watching this plump man. She quickly covered her chagrin by saying in a cheerful voice, "Good evening to you, sir! It's a fine day, don't you agree?"
The man did not reply immediately. Too late, Linnet realized that this richly dressed gentleman might not appreciate being addressed by a woman in a tattered gown. But when he spoke, it was in a voice soft and hesitant. "Good—good evening to you, mistress."
Linnet felt the blood thump at the base of her throat, and she furiously willed her heart to stay still. Those sweet-cursed eyes and accent, she thought to herself. At least this time it took no effort to wrench herself back from the past. Never before had she seen such a grotesque parody of her memory of him.
"I am Linnet," she said quickly to cover her confusion, and walked forward to offer forth her hand.
The man took it, but seemed not to know what to do. He held her hand awkwardly for a moment before letting go and saying, "I'm—I'm Stewart."
"Oh!" This was an unexpected twist in the road, but right or right, as she had once been told, and somehow she would make this path come to a right end, despite her bad start. She smiled at the man with as much sweetness as she had shown toward the shopkeeper. "I am delighted to meet you, baron. I'm newly arrived in your land but am already much impressed by your barony."
Her smile was having the opposite effect that she had intended. The baron Stewart took a few hasty steps backwards, and for a moment Linnet wondered whether he could read her mind and knew that she had been most impressed by the poverty of some of his people. But after a minute spent wiping more drool off his chin, he replied, "I'm glad—I'm glad you like it here."
Linnet was beginning to think that she had held more sensible conversations with the street-boys, and she was about to say so in her usual forthright manner, when she remembered in time the shopkeeper's advice: she must act as though this man was normal and not draw attention to his affliction. She forced a smile again and said, "I like that jewel you're wearing—it's quite lovely."
Stewart looked vaguely down at the chained jewel, as though not quite sure what Linnet was referring to. As he did so, Linnet caught sight of a scar atop his head—the legacy, she guessed, of his childhood fall. Perhaps he had been climbing a tree in boyish fashion? She had a sudden vision of the baron as a ten-year-old, trying to cram his fat belly against the trunk of a tree, and she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.
"Yes, I—I inherited it from my father," Stewart said finally. "I've always thought it was pretty. My guardians don't like me wearing it here on the streets, because they're afraid one of the street-boys will try to snatch it, but I've always thought the boys here are—are really nicer than they look. Don't you think so?" He looked up at her with an expression close to pleading, like a schoolboy hoping for good marks.
"Certainly," said Linnet, pleased to have found a sensible topic for conversation. "Most of them are golden at their core, despite their appearance. In fact, I'm sure that with a little help, they could lead much better lives." Despite her best efforts, the final sentence came out as an accusation.
Stewart's face, which was already the color of dough, turned even paler, as though he had already heard Linnet's full speech on rich folks' laxness in fulfilling their duties to their poor neighbors. He stood chewing his lip as shoppers continued to jostle past them on the wooden pavement, brushing past their baron with as much carelessness as though he were a street-boy. Linnet cradled her arms around her basket, hoping that the remainder of her meal would remain un-thieved by the end of this conversation.
"Yes, I—I thought so too, when I was young," Stewart said finally, in the same hesitant manner as before. "I thought it would be nice to help the street-boys, but—but when I told my guardians, I don't think they understood. I'm not very good at explaining things," he added in a rush.
For the first time, Linnet realized that she was talking to the wrong person. This awkward, balding man held no power in this barony, despite his title; all the power was held by his guardians. Clearly it was to them that she must go for help, and she was wasting her time talking to the soft-headed man before her. Yet something—perhaps it was his boyish expression—held her in her place and caused her to say reassuringly, "You'll find a way to help them in the end, I'm sure. Everything will work out the right way."
"Yes, right or right."
The spring day was warm; the sun stroked her with its rays as though she were being held in its arms, yet in that moment Linnet felt as though the whole world had been gulped into darkness. "What?" she whispered.
Stewart looked alarmed. Perhaps her face revealed more than she intended it to. "I—I only meant that everything would turn out right, as you said. Right or right. That's—" He stopped, swallowed, and said, "That's something a kinsman of mine used to say. He meant that if you find one path blocked, the next path is sure to take you in the right direction."
"A kinsman?" As she spoke, Linnet felt a light touch on her arm, a sure sign that her evening meal was about to be snatched, but she could not have moved her eyes from Stewart's face if her life had depended upon it.
Stewart was beginning to look miserable, as though he sensed the bleak confusion into which he had plunged her. "Yes, he—he was a distant kinsman. I didn't know him well. Sometimes I'd—I'd meet him on the streets, though, and he'd say—"
He stopped. For a moment, Linnet was aware of nothing but Stewart's dull blue eyes and the cry of the street-boy behind her as he snatched her supper. Then Stewart said, in a softer voice than before, "I'm—I'm sorry, but I'm not very good at remembering things. Did you say that your name was Linnet?"
Linnet had a ball in her aching throat now that blocked all speech; she nodded silently. Stewart, with an apologetic look, said, "Oh, then—then you knew Golden. I remember he mentioned you once, when we were both in the Barony of Dale End. Our army had gone there to fight, you see—"
"I know." Linnet's voice came out harsher than she had intended.
"Oh. Yes. That's where you came from, I suppose? I'm sorry, I should have realized— I'm not very good at thinking fast and—"
"What did Golden say about me?" Linnet was aware as she spoke that several passersby were casting glances her way, no doubt curious as to why she was questioning their baron in such a peremptory manner.
Stewart seemed embarrassed by the attention too, and he waited until several shoppers had walked past before he said, "Not—not very much. He said that he was going to marry you."
The ache in Linnet's throat had spread to the rest of her body; she felt like a soldier lying wounded on the field. As though the speaking of the words would heal her, she said, "Yes, he was going to. But then he died."
"Oh." Stewart seemed uncertain how to follow up on this remark; after several tries, he said, "I'm sorry, I—I forgot. I don't have a very good memory, you see."
Linnet decided that she had been wrong: this path had taken her so far into the darkness that it would never twist right again. "Well," she said, gathering up her skirt in preparation to cross the dirt-filled street, "I am glad to have met you, baron. I must be getting back to my chamber to prepare my evening—" She glanced down at the empty basket and quickly said, "To prepare for bed. If you will excuse me—"
His mouth was continuing to work up and down, obviously waiting for a belated message from his sluggish mind to arrive there. Linnet, who wanted nothing more now than to flee to her sparsely-furnished chamber, was tempted to leave the baron standing where he was, still thinking of something to say. A lifetime spent with boys, though, forced patience upon her, and she waited the minute it took for the words to finally arrive at Stewart's mouth.
"I was wondering—" Stewart paused, as though the words he had spoken so far would cause Linnet to flee, and then said, "I was wondering whether—whether you needed work."
Right or right. With a feeling of deep gratitude that she had followed her training in patience, Linnet said, "Do you know of any work that might be available?"
"I—I think so. That is, I'm not sure, but my guardians might be willing to give you work if you come and see them. They really are very kind, and I'll tell them how—how nice you are."
If Linnet had been in a mood for amusement, she would have smiled at this speech. As it was, she said gravely, "Thank you. I very much appreciate your help, and I will come to your keep tomorrow." Then she turned—
—and immediately regretted that she had done so. For there, spread before her, was the fire of evening: the scarlet shades of sunset burning the trees at the horizon, while above the flames, under the dark belly of night, were gilded clouds drifting toward the west.
"Oh, Golden," Linnet heard herself whisper, "why didn't you keep your promise?" And then, without turning to see whether the baron had overheard this long-held thought, she stumbled forward into the evening, watching the fires of the sunset dissolve in the mist of her tears.
Crows mocked her in the trees as she grubbed under the fallen trunk for the piece of house-wood she wanted. It had been a good house, before the tree fell on it; the quality of the wood attested to that. She wondered for a moment, with bitter irony, what its rich owner would have thought if he had known how she would make use of his leavings.
The crisp leaves under her knees crackled as she shifted her position, straining to pull out the plank. Her hand caught at one unvarnished edge, and she gave a yelp as several splinters drove into her palm. With a sigh, she sat back on her haunches, plucked out the splinters, and sucked at her hand as she surveyed the valley below her.
Like black fish entering the broad entrance to a river, men and horses still poured into the valley from the mountain pass below the rising sun. Pulling her cloak further closed against the soft autumn wind, Linnet stared at the relatively tiny force that was meant to protect the town above her. If she had been any other woman, her thoughts would have been on the women and girls huddled behind the town walls, whose lives would end in slavery or death if the army below failed in its task. As it was, though, all that she could think as she reached down once more toward the plank was, "All those dark boys who will never grow to be golden."
Several minutes later she extracted the plank from its grave, but she saw that it was hardly worth the effort, for the plank was cracked in the middle. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge her failure, she rose wearily to her feet and began to stagger toward the wood-pile with her find. It was then that she saw the man.
He was leaning against one of the wild apple trees nearby, with his cloak tossed back to reveal the scarlet clothes beneath. Fine gold along the edging matched the color of his hair, which shone like sun-gilded water. His body was slender and youthful, and his eyes held a blue brighter than the mid-morning sky. They sparkled now with laughter.
When he spoke, it was with the accent she had heard many times in recent days. "Fair maiden," he said, "you seem somewhat burdened with your labor. Might I assist you in finishing your task, and then, perhaps, escort you to a place of greater leisure where, if your favor extends so far—"
"You can save the rest of that speech." With an effort, Linnet turned and cast the plank onto the pile before her, then stood breathless for a moment, trying to calculate how many days it would take her to gather the remaining wood.
"Ah." The man, whom she was no longer facing, seemed more amused than before. "You have heard this approach on a previous occasion, I believe."
"On more than one occasion. The answer is no."
"Perhaps if I were to approach your father in the proper fashion . .."
"Go right ahead." Linnet pointed toward a fenced area further down the hill. "You'll find him there."
"Ah," the man repeated. He came over to stand beside her, and she saw that his expression was now properly grave. "A soldier, perhaps?"
"That's the trade which all the men in our barony lay claim to these days—those who are alive."
The man nodded, continuing to stare down the hillside with his sparkling blue eyes. Then he looked her way suddenly, and as though he had indeed received a proper introduction from her father, he said, "My name is Golden."
Linnet was wondering whether, if she wielded a plank against him, this gadfly would leave her alone, but she said with all the politeness her parents had taught her, "I am Linnet."
Golden took the hand she offered him, but his gaze never left her face as he slowly raised her hand and kissed the back of her fingers in a manner that made her body tingle. "Well, fair maiden," he said. "I am deeply sorry to hear of— You are a fair maiden, aren't you? I'm not wasting my time on someone's wife, am I? Not that I'm above that sort of courting if the pickings are lean."
Linnet laughed then, turning her back on the cemetery below. "Fair and sixteen, as the song goes," she replied. "And you?"
"Nineteen and golden, as the same song says." The young man offered her a sweeping bow.
"Is your name really Golden?"
"It's what the girls call me, anyway. I think it's quite apt, don't you?"
"As long as one doesn't look under the surface," Linnet remarked dryly, and she walked past him to the remains of the fallen house.
Silence drifted past her like mist. Linnet, unwilling to crawl on her knees in the presence of a stranger, pulled up a loose plank this time, one of the carved window frames. As she turned, she discovered that Golden had fallen back against the trunk of a tree and was clutching at his breast.
"What's wrong?" she asked with alarm.
"I'm nursing a wounded heart," he said in a matter-of-fact manner, standing straight once more. "I'd heard that women in the Barony of Dale End were hard to catch, but no one warned me that I'd encounter someone like you. Still, right or right."
Linnet, heaving the heavy frame onto the woodpile, said with annoyance, "What does that mean?"
"Oh, it's an old phrase I found in a book once. It means that if the path you are travelling upon is blocked, you'll find another path that takes you to your destination. Unfortunately, some of the alternative roads make for a rough journey." He moved closer, his smile lighting the finely curved bones of his face like sunlight on the curves of sweet hillsides. "Speaking of rough work, do you mind telling me what you are doing?"
"Building a house."
"Ah. A maidenly activity indeed. Do you intend to live in this house alone, or are you seeking chambermates?"
Linnet turned away from him and strode back to the ruins. "It's for the street-boys."
"The street— Oh, you mean those dirty-faced thieves who stole my coin-purse yesterday. What have they done to deserve such honor?"
Linnet knelt down. The earth was moist and flaky, but still did not yield its treasure easily. She had to pause from prying up a board before she had breath enough to say, "Most of them steal because they find theft more pleasant than having empty bellies. The others steal because they're bored—they have nowhere to play. I thought that if they had a house of their own where they could come on wet days, they might spend more time here than on the streets."
"And your baron? What does he think of this idea?"
"He thinks it's a foolish notion." The plank was determined to remain half-buried in the ground, where it had been covered in mud on the day that the storm-winds blew the tree down. Linnet tugged at the end of the board, vaguely aware that Golden had come over to stand by her.
"So you ignore the advice of your betters. Well, that's one characteristic you and I share."
Linnet gave one final, exasperated tug, then collapsed back onto the dirt and leaves. Pushing her hair away from her sweat-moist face, she looked up at Golden and said directly, "Who are you? Are you a soldier?"
Golden smiled. "With my accent, I'd hardly be a native, would I? Yes, I'm a soldier of sorts—though at the moment I'm with the army, rather than in the army."
"What do you mean?"
Golden held out his hand. Linnet, ignoring it, stumbled her way back up onto her feet. She rose too quickly and found herself swaying with dizziness, then moved hastily away from Golden's hand, which had grasped her elbow.
Golden gave a low laugh before he turned and pointed toward the valley. "What do you see?" he asked.
"Soldiers, of course."
"How many soldiers? Four thousand? Five? My love, the enemy army—when it condescends to invade this valley—will have three times that number of troops. Your baron was a fool to start this war, and our baron was a greater fool to agree to defend your barony. But even if the rest of the world is going to play the fool, Golden is not. I'll not waste my life in a battle that can only end in defeat."
Linnet turned her head to look at the young man beside her. His gay expression was gone, and his cerulean eyes were hooded by his low-drawn brows. He looked over at her, saying nothing.
"If you desert the army," Linnet said, "your officer is likely to have you hanged."
Suddenly his smile was back, warm as the late-morning sun. "Oh, I doubt that my father will execute his only son and heir," he said lightly. "In fact, I pointed out to him that it's only reasonable that I should be left alive after this battle, in order that I can inherit his money and spend it on my lovers."
"And what did he think of this idea?"
Golden's smile remained, though there was a tinge of darkness to his expression as he turned his back on the valley. "'Fool' was the kindest name he called me. I thought it better to keep away from him after that conversation. I'm staying with a man I met at a tavern in town; I suppose he's what street-boys turn into when they grow up, but I find him amusing. His house is—oh, about the size that I expect your house will be when you've finished building it. The rats complain because I take up the floor-space that used to be theirs, but we settled the matter by deciding that they could crawl over me any time that I'm sleeping."
All this while, he had been prodding with his foot in an idle fashion. Suddenly, in a manner Linnet could not understand, the plank she had been pulling at rose out of the ground. With a smile and the lightest of tugs, Golden plucked the plank, walked over to Linnet, and held it out for her inspection.
After a minute, the smile faded. Golden tossed the plank aside and said, "Mistress Linnet, you have a most disapproving look on your face. What should it matter to you if a single soldier is missing on the day that your barony is conquered?"
"It doesn't," said Linnet, "but it matters to you."
Golden took a step backwards and stared down at her for a long moment. The autumn wind rustled through his shimmering hair, and an apple plopped to the ground nearby. Finally he said, "I think that I will tell my father that I've found a better fighter for his troop, with a much keener blade than my own. In the meantime—" He took another step backwards. "In the meantime, I'm told that wine is a good cure for battle wounds. I don't suppose that I could persuade you to let me spend a little of my inheritance on you."
Linnet cocked her head to the side, considering him. "Would you be willing to spend that money on the tools and nails that I'll need for this house?"
A quirk of a smile appeared on Golden's face. "Would it further my suit if I did?"
She hesitated before saying in a steady voice, "No."
"An honest woman—I admire you all the more. Thank you, my love, but I think I will invest my money in causes that bring me greater return." He turned toward the sun, and for a moment Linnet's eyes were dazzled by the reflection of the light on his hair. Then he looked over his shoulder and smiled.
"Right or right, my love," he said. "I'll find the right path to you in the end."