His ma said this sort of thing was fun. Berach was a good boy at heart, and he loved his ma and did his best to listen to her … er … most of the time. But sometimes … well, sometimes he had no choice but to throw his hands up and admit that ma was wrong.
Playing chess with someone else was bad enough — but playing chess by yourself was no fun at all.
But he had some thinking to do, and before he began his thinking, he ought to practice the whole process. Oughtn’t he? His ma said that chess was good for thinking — it limbered up the mental muscles, got them strong, ready to face any problem that came their way.
The problem, though, was that while his ma might be right about the effects of playing chess on logical thinking, logical thinking wasn’t the only kind of thinking there was. Logical thinking might help you outsmart the bailiff or figure out just what in Brother Tuck’s sermons was worth listening to, but logical thinking wouldn’t help you much in affairs of the heart.
Then again, given his ma’s marriage, Berach couldn’t blame her for wanting to forget that there was such a thing as an affair of the heart.
He sighed. His elbows moved to rest their weight on the chess table —
It was too much for the flimsy board, for before Berach could blink, it upended itself and rained chessmen.
He managed a small smile. Well, if that ain’t a sign from the good Lord ter ferget logic — dunno what is.
He sighed and went to the window. His eyes found themselves on Joyce’s cottage before he had even properly lifted the curtain. He watched the busy shadows dance on the ground below, then sighed and let the curtain fall again.
Well, Berach? Are ye gonna find a way ter axe her ter marry ye or ain’t ye?
Logic would do him no good in this. Logic told him to ask her. Logic told him that he needed a wife, Leah needed a mother, Joyce needed a man to watch out for her. Logic said he could solve all three problems at once, with one ceremony. Logic told him that she’d be a fool to say no, considering that there were too many men out there who now had the same opinion of her virtue that Clarence, damn his eyes, had.
But logic didn’t tell him where he could find the courage to put his heart on the line for a second time. And logic didn’t tell him how he would manage to pick up the pieces of himself if she said no.
Berach sighed. He leaned his forehead against the cool curtain and closed his eyes. How he would manage to —
A scream took the quiet sounds of the night, ripped them in two, and let the two pieces float to the ground in the shocked silence that followed.
It sounded like Joyce.
Berach only paused to check on sleeping Leah before he was running across the square.
It was a short run, and Berach had barely shimmied down the ladder and fought his way past the fruit stall when he saw that Joyce’s door was open — slightly, but open. The flickering of the torches on either side would have masked it for everyone who wasn’t looking.
He listened, even as he ran, for the sounds of other footsteps following him. He wasn’t the only able-bodied man on the square, and even if he was the one who knew Joyce best — surely there had to be other men coming with him? Women didn’t scream like that without having a damn good reason.
But his feet were the only ones pounding across the cobbles.
He would think about that only later. In the meantime, he applied his shoulder to the door — unnecessarily — stumbled into the room as it flew open, and shouted, “Joyce!”
Then, seeing who else was in there, “Clarence!”
His old lodger stood in the worst possible place — between Berach and Joyce. Clarence’s sickly turning grin told him that he knew it, too.
“Hullo, Berach. Here ter join in on the fun?” Clarence chuckled. “There’ll be plenty left fer ye when I’m done. I promise. That’s the nice thing about sluts. Ye can always come back fer more.” He turned back to the cowering Joyce, whose eyes had found Berach and hadn’t let go. “Ain’t that the truth, love?”
Berach coiled, tense as a bow ready to let its arrow fly — there was only one thing that could have stopped him —
And that was Clarence finally getting the look up Joyce’s skirts he had been craving all these months.
Unfortunately for him, it was followed by Joyce’s foot making its acquaintance with his face.
“Bitch!” Clarence exploded.
He reached for her with the hand that wasn’t holding his cheek —
Joyce darted jackrabbit-like away from him —
His weight was enough to send Clarence teetering, an oak about to be felled. Only about to be. Clarence grabbed his shoulders and threw him to the ground. Berach scrambled back from the towering man, felt a hand on his shoulder helping him up — something was flashing, making the firelight dance around the room in a dizzying reel —
“Joyce! Joyce, get out o’ here, I’ll hold him off — run fer the guards –”
“Get out of here, Clarence,” Joyce snarled, even as she helped Berach up.
And then Berach saw what it was that made the lights dance so. A knife. In Joyce’s trembling hand.
Pointed at Clarence.
Clarence laughed. “Ye think that’s gonna scare me? Ye don’t think I’ve got another?”
To answer, Joyce grabbed Berach’s hand and stuck the knife inside it. She glanced again at Clarence. “I’ve got a whole kitchen full o’ knives. And I know where each one of ’em is kept.”
“He’s holdin’ the knife like a fish,” Clarence laughed, or tried to. The knife in Berach’s hand was certainly sending the light dancing more than it had in Joyce’s.
“An’ there’s still two o’ us, an’ one o’ ye. Looks like luck’s with me tonight,” she squeezed Berach’s arm, “ye really want ter see how far that goes?”
Clarence looked between them, one to the other to the other.
He bounded toward them — Berach grabbed Joyce and thrust her behind him —
And Clarence bounded around them, and out the door. Berach heard his hobnail boots clatter across the cobblestones out of the square.
Berach ran after to him, slammed the door and locked it. He threw the table in front for good measure. “Wright Almighty,” he muttered, his forehead against the rough wood. “Joyce? Ye all right?”
Where was the mutt — wasn’t the point of the big dog to protect Joyce? “What about her?”
“He — he did somethin’ ter Sable –”
Oh, Wright! Maybe the dog had tried to protect her! Berach spun around, saw the dark patch of fur on the dirt floor, and knelt by her. His fingers searched for wounds as much as his eyes did.
He found nothing. “She ain’t hurt none.”
“He did somethin’!” Joyce gasped. “Somethin’ — somethin’ ter her food!”
Later, when he’d had time to think, that statement would provide him all the fuel for nightmares he would ever need. But for now, he patted the dog and felt her slow, steady breathing. “I think — I think whatever it is, it jest made her sleep. But we can bring her …” Where could he bring a sick dog? “The Wesleyans,” he decided. “Since my sis is nursin’ their little one, the least Master Wesleyan can do is look over yer sick dog.”
“Ye — ye think he’d be able ter do somethin’? Fer Sable?”
Something about the way her voice shook … Berach looked up. “Joyce? Ye all right?”
Her fingers trembled as she brought them up to her face. “Joyce?” Berach asked. He approached her as he would approach a scared horse, slowly and carefully. “Ye all right?” he asked again, putting his arm around her shoulder.
“He poisoned me dog!”
Wright Almighty, can’t she stop worryin’ over the damn dog fer five minutes? “She’ll be fine.”
“Why would he do somethin’ like that?” she squeaked.
Joyce never squeaked. She said what was on her mind and roared when she was angry and laughed — no half-hearted titters for her! — when she was happy. Squeaking was what women who were weak, who were trying to impress, who were somehow less than Joyce.
But sometimes, when she was sad, she would …
“C’mere,” Berach whispered, gathering her to him.
Joyce at first only hiccupped. However, it was not long before her shoulders were quaking. And from there, it was only a matter of seconds before she was sobbing.
“There, there,” Berach whispered into her hair. He had not the heart to lie to her and tell all would be well, though.
“Sable!” Joyce gasped.
STILL the damn dog!
“Who does that?” she sobbed. “Who does that ter a poor puppy?”
He stroked her hair, fingering the silky wayward strands, the strands that would never stay up no matter what she did, between his fingers. “Right bad men who ain’t ever gonna get back in here again.” Berach glanced at the door. Good, strong locks and a bar ought to do the trick. If nothing else, it would buy Joyce enough time to run out the back, hop the fence, and find a guard while Clarence was trying to get in. “I promise.”
“Sable ain’t never hurt no one! She’s a sweet dog, she is! She jest lies there while Leah crawls all over her and pulls her ears and everything!”
“I know,” Berach replied, for that was more tactful than saying what he was thinking.
Damn right she’s a sweet dog, too sweet, if she’d been a proper guard dog she’d have bitten Clarence’s dick off the first time she caught the scent o’ him. Dirty bastard.
“If somethin’ happens ter Sable –”
“Nothin’s gonna happen ter Sable. She’ll be fine.”
“But what if he comes back? He might not jest give her the — the — hush puppies!”
Berach froze. “Hush … puppies?”
Joyce swallowed and nodded.
“Joyce — what d’ye mean, hush puppies?”
“That’s what he said … that’s what he said when he came in …”
Berach swallowed. The wool and linen of her dress felt rough under his hand as he stroked her shoulder. Rough and far too flimsy.
“Berach, what — what is it?”
“Jest … jest that I’ve heard that thieves use hush puppies, when they … when they want ter steal somethin’ from someplace where there’s dogs. They’re the folks that … that use that term.”
Joyce sagged against him. “Thieves?”
“Aye, Joyce. Jest thieves. Cowards, folks who wouldn’t have the guts ter hurt a fly if ye — if ye handed ’em a fly swatter an’ a suit of armor! Not — not –” He swallowed. “Not nobody who would hurt ye.”
“Berach, there ain’t nothin’ in this house worth stealin’.”
“Nothin’ — nothin’ ‘cept –”
“The dog!” Berach interrupted. “She’s a big dog, a fierce-lookin’ dog, a thief would want ter have a dog like that guardin’ his store!”
“Berach! I ain’t stupid! He as good as told me what he was gonna do!”
“He said he only brought the knife,” she whispered, “so-as I’d be able ter tell meself, later, that it was rape.”
“Joyce, Joyce! He ain’t comin’ back. I swear he ain’t comin’ back. He’d — he’d have ter be a fool ter try –” But Clarence ain’t never had near enough bricks ter make a full hod!
“He ain’t comin’ back,” Berach forced himself to say. “We’ll — here’s what we’ll do. We’ll go right now, ter the guards, an’ we’ll tell ’em ye thought ye heard noises. Scratchin’, like someone was tryin’ ter get in an’ steal yerself. ‘Cause, ’cause, Joyce, ye do got stuff in here that someone desperate might try ter steal. An’ — an’ we’ll axe the guards ter keep an eye on this place fer a while.”
Joyce was still.
It’s workin’! “An’ — an’ ye can eat dinner at me place fer a while. Fer as long as ye feel ye need ter. An’ I’ll walk ye home, at night, an’ make sure there ain’t nobody in here when ye get in. An’ — an’ we’ll get ye a real strong lock fer this door, an’ a bar — an’ a lock an’ bar fer the back door, too –”
“Berach, I won’t need a lock an’ bar if the guards have him.”
Berach blinked. “What?”
“If — if I told the guards what happened. They’d arrest him. Wouldn’t they?”
She looked over her curled hands, across the room.
“He broke inter me house. He poisoned me dog. He tried ter attack me. Ye saw him tryin’ ter attack me.”
“I did, but –”
“But what? That’s enough fer the guards ter lock him up fer a bit, ain’t it?”
“It … it would be, but …”
Joyce looked up. “But what?”
“Joyce … what if the guards don’t believe ye?”
“Don’t believe me? Me dog is still poisoned! An’ ye saw!”
“I — well, I guess that’s true.” It would take a particularly thick-headed guard to ignore all of that. However, some of the guards were remarkably thick-headed. It apparently helped them when breaking up bar fights — made them very hard to knock out.
“An’ — an’ he could break into some other girl’s house, an’ do this ter her, even if he don’t try nothin’ on me again! I can’t let him do that!”
“Joyce, even if the guards believe ye — an’ try ter find Clarence, an’ arrest him — the whole square’s gonna know about this. An’ they might … they might say that things with Clarence didn’t happen exactly as ye say.”
Joyce sidled away from him. “Meanin’?”
“Meanin’, they might say that ye invited him in, fer … fer, ye know, an’ things didn’t go quite as ye planned.”
“If I invited him in, then who poisoned me dog?” Joyce snapped.
“I know! I know, it’s stupid — but ‘it’s stupid’ ain’t never stopped no gossip from a-waggin’ her forked tongue! Clarence might get arrested, but it’s yer reputation that’ll be blacker than black if ye go through with this.”
Joyce huffed and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Why? I’ve told Clarence ter stay away from me on this very square! The busybodies saw! An’ — an’ somebody must’ve heard me screamin’! They should know better than that I’d let him in, or want him!”
“They should, but they won’t. Or — or even if they do … they’ll say ye were axin’ fer it, Joyce. By livin’ here on yer own, with no man ter protect ye, if nothin’ else.” An’ yer dancin’, too, Berach thought, but did not say.
Joyce blinked. “But, Berach … if nobody ever tells on men like Clarence, then won’t they keep attackin’ innocent girls, who are all too scared ter tell because it’s them who’ll get trashed? How’s that gonna keep him from goin’ after some other girl?”
“Joyce …” He touched her shoulder, and turned her around, and pulled her closer. “Joyce, it ain’t yer responsibility ter keep men like Clarence from attackin’ other girls.”
He felt the limp weight of her head come to rest on his shoulder, where it belonged. A finger reached up and began to stroke her spine. Joyce sighed.
“That’s it,” he whispered. “That’s right, love. Ye don’t go worryin’ about everyone else. Let them that’s — that’s supposed ter do the worryin’ worry.”
Joyce pulled away, sizing him up with one eyebrow raised. “An’ who’s that, Berach?”
“I … the lords? The Church? The king? Folk like that.”
“Folk who ain’t got no clue that Clarence is out there, an’ might go after another girl.”
She pulled away. “Ye should get back ter Leah. What if the poor mite wakes up an’ ye ain’t there?”
She scratched the sleeping dog behind her ears, then bustled about for her cloak. “There’s bound ter be a guard around here somewhere. If they come ter ye, in the mornin’ or like, then ye’ll tell what ye saw, won’t ye?”
“Joyce! Ye’re not –”
She spun, her heel stomping against the earth. “If I don’t, no one will! An’ then he can get some other girl! Fer Wright’s sake, Berach! Ye’re a father! Don’t it scare ye, thinkin’ that there’s a bastard like him on the loose, goin’ after innocent girls!”
Berach blinked. “Leah ain’t …” He swallowed. “Joyce, wait.”
“No! I ain’t gonna cool my heels while he’s –”
He touched her arm. “Joyce. Lemme — no — let us wake up Leah, get her dressed. Then we’ll go get a guard, an’ ye can tell yer story.”
She gasped. “Ye — ye mean it?”
“Aye, I do.”
Joyce pounced on him.
When she finally let go, she rested her head on his shoulder. “Wright, Berach, but I do love ye.”
“I know. I love ye too, Joyce.” He swallowed. “That’s why I ain’t lettin’ ye go fer no guards alone.”