The young lord slowed his horse and dropped behind the rest of the hunt, sickened by his discovery of what their quarry was. His companions glanced at him with little curiosity, no doubt assumed he was feeling the after-effects of last night’s drinking, then went on without him. He took a circuitous route away from the hunt, in no hurry to return to their starting point. He stopped at a convenient stream to water his horse and then sat on the bank lost in his own thoughts.
Gradually he became aware he was being watched. It took him a few minutes to spot the source. There was a child lying along a branch low over the water all but hidden in the leaves, one hand dangling in the stream. All he could make out were her eyes, large and dark in a dirty face.
“You're not safe there,” he said. “Come back to the bank.”
The child laughed, surprising him. “Your kind hunts mine,” she said. “This is as safe as anywhere.”
His guilt intensified, cutting him to the core with her apparent easy acceptance of her role as prey.
“Not me,” he said. “I left the hunt.” He tried another approach. “Are you hungry? I have food in my saddlebag.”
She hesitated, clearly thinking it might be a trick. He stood up, fetched the food and placed it on the ground between them before returning to his seat. With little sound, the child disappeared from her perch and materialised on the bank. Seen out in the open she was about eight or nine years old, dressed in rags and so filthy he couldn't be sure of either her skin or hair colour.
She studied him for a moment then dashed forward and grabbed the food before retreating a pace or two to squat and eat, still watching him, her body poised for flight. He held still, trying to appear unthreatening. Slowly she sank into a sitting position, legs crossed, licking her fingers and ensuring she got every last crumb.
“You're the one the Lady expects to marry,” she said between mouthfuls.
That was true enough. As probable heir to one of the other ruling Great Houses, his alliance with the daughter of this Great House would be welcomed on both sides. The details were still being hammered out between their High Lords but he was supposed to formally ask for her hand on this visit.
“No,” he said impulsively, “I won't be aligned with those who think you should be used as prey.”
The child grinned at him, mischief now dancing in her dark grey eyes. “She’s planning to run off with the stableman anyway, soon as she can. Her father thinks marrying her off will stop her.”
He stared at her, trying to take it in. This brat knows more than I do? That was the underlying reason for what he was being asked to do? He – and his House – were about to be tricked? As most of his mind processed this, some part noticed that the brat was shivering. He shrugged out of his coat and tossed it towards her.
“You're cold,” he said. “Take this. Put it on.”
She paused, uncertain, then slipped it on and wrapped it round herself although it dwarfed her. He was aware of her eyes following him as he paced up and down by the water’s edge thinking about his next action.
“I'm not putting up with this," he said more to himself than to her, “I'm leaving. Now.” He turned to the child who was sitting watching him, the food now gone. “Come with me, I'll take you somewhere safe. You'll be safe at Taylor House.”
She shook her head and scrambled to her feet to back away from him.
“If you stay they'll hunt you, too,” he told her but she shook her head again.
“They won't catch me,” she said as she backed further away and then disappeared into the trees.
He went after her but he couldn't see her. He closed his eyes and reached out with his mind, looking for the spot of light in his head that indicated the presence of another human. The spot flickered – he still hadn’t fully mastered this skill – and when he opened his eyes there was nobody there.
“Taylor House,” he shouted into the empty space around him, in the hope that she would hear. “Remember Taylor House.”
He didn't continue to search for long knowing that carrying a reluctant, struggling wild child wouldn't be practical with what he needed to do next. He didn’t understand why she mattered so much to him, why he felt so hurt that she’d rejected his offer. Telling himself that he was being silly, that saving one child would make no difference at all, he returned to the House he was visiting, told the High Lord of his decision, packed his belongings and left.
To himself, he swore that he would be back to find and rescue this child.
The child watched him from a perch high in one of the trees. Like many of her pursuers, he hadn't thought to look up. As soon as he was out of sight, she scampered down the tree and hurried back to her nest, a makeshift shelter deep in the forest. The other children clustered round her; despite her age, her skills at finding food and building shelter made her the natural leader.
“I met an angel,” she told them, eager to distract them from the fact that this time she’d returned without food. “He gave me this coat.”
The other children pestered her. “What’s an angel? Tell us!”
They snuggled into a pile with her at the centre, sharing body warmth, one or two of the smallest huddling into the coat beside her.
“He was tall,” she said, “a bit like a grown-up, only much nicer. Angels look after people. They’re never mean. They give you food and warm things.”
“Did he give you food? Did you bring us any?”
“Yes, he gave me food.” She felt a flare of guilt that she hadn’t saved any for her nestmates. “He watched me eat it. When angels give you food, it’s just for you, you have to eat it then. But we can all share the coat.”
“What was his name? Where did he go?” The other children were insistent.
What was his name? she thought. What was that name he’d called after her? Taylor, that was it.
“He was called the Angel Taylor,” she told them. “He said I could go with him, but he left before I could come and get you all. I couldn’t go without you. I don’t know where angels go. I’m sure it’s somewhere warm with plenty of food and other kind angels to look after us and be our family.”
The littlest child burrowed more deeply into the coat. “Will he come back?” he asked.
She smiled down at him. “I hope so. We’ll all have to hope so and look out for any angels. There might be others around. But we’ll have to be careful they aren’t grown-ups trying to trick us.”
She made up new stories about the angel every night to help the children sleep. Angel Taylor became the nestlings shared symbol of hope. Gradually the stories took over in her mind and merged with the real experience until even she could not distinguish between them.
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