Market day was always exhausting.
Joyce rolled her aching shoulders as she unlocked the cottage door and wandered inside. First, there was the dancing. It was always good for the troupe to set up a mat wherever they could find room; folk were much more willing to toss a few coins in their direction when the purse was already out and getting lightened. Or heavier, in the case of those who came to sell, not buy. So they made sure to put on a good show.
Then, there was the shopping.
Shopping for her was one thing — easy, really, since there was only one of her, and Sable. Shopping for her ma … that was not so easy. And she had to be the one to do the shopping, at least, it had to be either her or Meg. Her ma was too big around the middle and too exhausted to do it herself these days, and while her father and brothers were able of body and able of mind in theory …
Well, in actuality, sending them to the market would be like sending the Reman army on a fact-finding diplomatic mission. They’d both come back with something, all right, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be what you asked for.
The slanting light of the setting sun turned her earthen floor a deep shade of red — or at least, it did until she shut the door behind her. She ran a hand through her hair and took a deep breath. It was a good thing Berach had left Leah with his brother, today; she was too tired to deal with the four-year-old’s running about.
Aye, ye, think about it like that, an’ not about how ye won’t be baby-sittin’ her no more, once she starts up school an’ starts goin’ home with her cousins in the evenin’. An’ then ye an’ Berach won’t have an excuse ter see each other no more.
“Fer Wright’s sake,” she muttered to herself, to shut off her whirling thoughts by giving them something else to focus on.
“Sable!” The dog ran up to her, tail a-wagging, pink tongue a-lolling. “Silly brute,” Joyce chuckled. Sable flopped onto her back and pawed the air; the look in her eyes could only be described as “sad puppy.”
Joyce scratched the coarse fur; the deeper her nails dug, the more the dog’s paws pedaled in ecstasy. “Ye know, if I’d been a burglar, I could have already walked off with the … er … tinware, the coppers, an’ yer doggie dish before ye had a chance ter bark.”
“No, not now, silly!” Another scratch behind the ears and Joyce stood up. “Ye’re a silly pup. But a good one.”
Sable’s tale thumped against the straw twice, her eyes still wide and hopeful.
“No more o’ that! I gotta get dinner on soon. An’ I can’t do that with yer fleas crawling all over me.” She rubbed her hands and glanced at beam of light coming in from the window, growing longer and rosier every second. “Still, it’s gettin’ chilly in here. What d’ye say I put the fire on, eh?”
Sable turned her head and her ears flopped this way and that.
“What am I askin’ ye fer, ye’ve got a fur coat,” Joyce murmured as she laid the fire. “An’ ye can’t talk, neither.”
“Or is it that ye can talk, but I jest can’t understand what ye’re sayin’?”
The flames caught; Joyce stepped back with her hands before her. “I’ll take that as a yes,” she muttered.
And sighed as she wiped them on her skirt. “Wright Almighty … it’s a good thing ye’re not a cat, Sable, or I’d know that I’ve cracked. Cracked fer good an’ certain-sure.” Joyce turned her neck to one side until the cramped bones popped. “… Not that talkin’ ter a dog is that different, when ye think about it, than talkin’ ter a cat. But cats …”
Cats, they said in Glasonland, were the inveterate companions of spinsters and widows. They were somehow supposed to replace the men in their lives — though how exactly that worked, Joyce wasn’t sure. Maybe it was that cats gave a woman someone to talk to, someone with the specter but not the substance of intelligence. Jest like a man, the old wives who repeated these truths would say, and cackle.
Joyce glanced sidelong at Sable. But if ye really want jest somethin’ that seems intelligent an’ it ain’t really … wouldn’t a dog fit the bill better? Cats had never seemed dumb to Joyce. Their eyes with their slit pupils and their whiskered smirks were too knowing for there to be only fluff between those ears. Dogs, on the other hand …
She glanced at Sable, expecting the dog to cock her head at her and whine, as she so often did when Joyce disparaged the species, even if it was only in her thoughts. Sable, however, stood very still, tail and nose a-twitching.
“Ye hear somethin’, girl?” Joyce whispered.
Sable looked up and whined.
“Or are ye jest hungry? Come on. I’ll get ye somethin’.” An’ then I’ll get me somethin’. An’ make Meg do the shoppin’ fer Ma next week!
No, that wouldn’t work, Joyce realized as she opened the cupboard. Meg was spending every morning puking her guts out into the privy, and that could only mean one thing. At least she had a mother-in-law to do her shopping for her.
Sable barked, and jumped, and whacked Joyce’s legs with her tail as Joyce rooted through the cupboard. “Would ye stop that? Lord! Ye’d think I only fed ye but once a week, the way ye’re carryin’ on!”
“I know, I know, ye’re hungry.” She took out the meat leavings, frowning. They felt … stickier than they ought. But they looked all right, and she couldn’t smell anything off about them.
“Here,” she tossed a scrap to Sable, “yer nose is better than mine, ye notice anythin’?”
Sable gobbled the scrap up and barked for more.
Joyce snorted. “As I thought.” She swept the rest into Sable’s bowl, set the bowl down, and went to wash her hands.
She almost didn’t notice the thud when Sable hit the ground.
“What was — Sable!” Her wet hand reached for her skirts, her feet lifted from the floor —
The door flew open.
Joyce scarcely had time to turn around before a low voice said, “Where I come from, they call ’em hush puppies.”
“Hush –” Joyce’s head snapped to Sable. “Sable! What the hell did ye do ter my dog?”
“What ye should be askin’, Joyce hon, is what I’m gonna do ter ye!”
Joyce scarcely had time to gulp before he slammed the door behind him.
The thud awoke her sleeping courage.
“Ye ain’t gonna do nothin’ ter me!” Joyce snapped. The dirt floor usually didn’t carry sound, but she made her feet stomp along it like hobnail boots on church tile. “Ye’re gonna get yer scrawny ass out o’ here, before I call the guards, that’s what ye’re gonna do!”
“Ye ain’t gonna be callin’ fer no guards, hon. Ye’re gonna be nice an’ quiet-like, an’ do what I say.” He fingered his belt, she could see his fingers darting toward metal —
“Ye keep yer hands away from that belt-buckle!” Joyce snarled, no, scolded, channeling every frustrated mother she had ever heard in her life. Surely, surely nothing would kill the will of a man like thinking of his mother — surely? “Ye’ll be lucky if I let ye get out o’ here without callin’ the guards fer what ye did to me dog! Ye don’t want them leadin’ ye off in chains with yer pants ’round yer ankles an’ everyone on the square laughin’ at yer sorry excuse fer manhood!”
“Now, now, Joyce,” he soothed with a voice as smooth as poisoned honey. “Ye don’t want ter go kickin’ up a fuss. That won’t go good fer ye at all.”
“Fer me? Fer me? Ye broke into me house an’ poisoned me dog!”
“An’ if ye call fer the guards, all the good folk on this square will now jest what ye really do fer money, even though ye say ye’re a dancer,” Clarence replied with his own inexorable, inexplicable logic. “The guards ain’t gonna work out a dispute between a whore an’ her client — or if they do, they’ll side with the client. Now, sweetie, there’s a whole silver in this fer ye if ye –”
The force of her slap sent Clarence stumbling back. Oh, the boys from the troupe had taught her well! “Now get out!”
Clarence stood still. He rubbed his cheek. And when he glared at her —
Joyce did not step back. But if she hadn’t been remembering that her legs could send her whole body two feet in the air, that her arms could swing her around one of the burlier boys from the troupe, that she could kick and twirl and leap and smile without losing her breath …
If she hadn’t been remembering that, she would have been running, and running would have meant leaving him at her back. So she stood her ground, and put her hands on her hips, and shimmied her hips so that her skirts hid her feet — her feet that were arching onto her toes, the better to move in one direction or another.
“If I were ye,” Clarence whispered, “I wouldn’t ‘a done that.”
“Aye, if ye were me, I’d already be lyin’ on that bed, waitin’ fer ye ter do what ye wanted an’ prayin’ ye’d do it fast.”
Clarence chuckled. “If I was ye, ye’d be right smart, ye would.”
“No, I’d be a coward is what I’d be,” Joyce snarled. “Breakin’ in ter a good girl’s house! Poisonin’ her dog! Bringin’ silver with ye, ’cause there ain’t no way a self-respectin’ girl is goin’ ter go near ye otherwise! Ye’re disgustin’. Even if I were a slut, don’t ye think I would have better than taste than ye? Even if ye were bearin’ gold, there’d be no way I’d crawl inter bed with ye!”
He laughed. “Ye know, ye’re cute. But so innocent.” He leaned closer to her. Warm breath, smelling of onions and rotten meat, washed over her face. “Ye think ye’re the first girl ter say that ter me?”
No, but if I ain’t the last, I’ll be damned!
She balanced on her toes, muscles coiled. Where to hit first? Matt from the troupe had told the girls lots of places that would do damage — the groin or stomach, if they just wanted to get away; the instep, if they didn’t want to be followed; the nose, if they wanted to be sure that the man never forgot that messing with them was a bad idea —
Clarence mistook her indecision for fear, and lunged for her.
“Get off o’ me, ye son o’ a bitch!”
Was it fear? Was it just strength? Whatever it was, it coursed through her arm and sent Clarence stumbling back another two steps. “Now get out, before I hurt ye more!”
“Ain’t ye adorable,” he chuckled. His hand went for his belt-buckle again. Except this time Joyce was watching it, and it was no belt-buckle he was reaching for —
But a knife.
Her heel slammed into his instep, and Clarence yelped.
But it didn’t work! She had pounded with all her might, and it didn’t work! His foot was as whole and sound as before! “Bitch!” he howled, grabbing her waist.
“Whore! Slut! Ye’re gonna pay fer that, ye are! Who do ye think ye are?”
His hands on her side, nails digging into the soft flesh — she could feel their sweaty warmth from the wool of her dress; his fingers were tracing toward the laces —
But if his hands were on her waist, they weren’t on the knife.
Joyce grabbed it — the edge caught against his leather armor — but before he could do more than gasp in surprise, she flung it across the room.
“There,” she whispered as Clarence gaped at her. “Ain’t so tough without a bit o’ steel, ain’t ye? Now, what do ye say ye jest leave here, quiet-like, an’ I –”
He darted forward and she darted away.
“Bitch! Heathen bitch! Oh, ye’re gonna pay fer that! Ye think ye’re so strong, so wise, ’cause ye can grab a man’s knife? Whore!” He grabbed her shoulders and shook. “Listen ter me — the knife weren’t ter make ye do what I want. Oh, no. Ye’ll do that anyway.”
He leaned forward, sending not only the stench of onions and decayed meat onto her face, but also some spittle. “The knife? It were a kindness, really. Ye see, if I waved the knife around a bit, then it’d be easier fer ye ter tell yerself that it were rape — ye see?”
“If I were a slut, like ye say I am,” Joyce whispered back, “then why do ye care if I think it’s rape or not?”
“Because, sweetheart, ye are a slut — ye jest don’t know it yet.” Clarence smirked. “Me, I’m jest here ter learn ye that.”
There was one other thing Matt had told the girls from the troupe to do.
Joyce leaned back, let the weight of her head tip her neck back —
And slammed her forehead into Clarence’s.
But it didn’t work! Or not the way she thought it should. For shouldn’t it have sent him sprawling to the ground? Instead it made him stumble back, yes, but it also made her stumble, and wobble, and trip over Sable’s prone body as she tried to back away —
She barely had time to scramble to her feet again before Clarence recovered and glowered at her.
“That was a mistake, missie,” Clarence murmured. “A very — big mistake.”
Then his fist went flying toward her, and Joyce filled her dancer’s lungs with air before sending a shriek echoing into the night.