Jane Hayward woke, and knew at once what the cause had been. Raising three children of her own had made the sound of a crying baby all too familiar to her. For a few moments, she tried hoping that this was only a brief outburst, but it soon became clear that the child was not to be easily calmed. Giving up all hope of sleep, she staggered to her feet, threw a shawl round her shoulders, and went in search of the source of the noise.
The cottage had so few rooms that her quest was a short one. She found the old man sitting on a chest, the baby – his granddaughter, so he'd said – in his arms. He had set what must be a lamp on the chest beside him, though it looked like no lamp Jane had ever seen. The light did not flicker like an oil lamp or a tallow candle; it was a steady glow, cold and greenish.
"Is there something the matter?" Jane asked, in a brief interval while the baby was drawing breath.
"I wish I knew, madam." As usual, the man's words were polite, though there was a hint of peremptoriness in his tone. "She surely can't be hungry so soon after her last feed, and she does not require changing."
"Shall I hold her for a little?" Jane suggested.
"If you could, madam."
Jane received the red-faced, screaming bundle into her arms with practised ease. For a moment, the child fell silent, adjusting to her new situation; then she redoubled her shrieks.
Vainly rocking the baby to and fro, Jane looked at her guest. As she had done ever since he had arrived the previous evening, seeking shelter from the snow and milk for the baby, she tried to place him. His white robes, covered by a dark cloak, had suggested that he might be an itinerant friar – though of no order she had previously seen. But there was no trace of a tonsure in his carefully-combed white hair. His clothes showed no signs of a long journey, so he must have come from somewhere close at hand. But where?
And, of course, there was the question of the baby. She could imagine ways in which a friar might have a baby granddaughter, but not why he would be carrying her about with him.
"Easy. Easy." She placed a hand on the child's forehead. "What's her name?"
"Names have power," the old man said. "Her true name should not be spoken, not here, not now. Call her what you will."
Jane looked down at the lustily bawling infant once more. The stranger's remark had sent her thoughts down a different path – to half-remembered tales of the Fair Folk. Was this child a changeling? Or was the old man a creature of magic, who had stolen her from somebody's cradle? The walls of the cottage felt no more than gossamer-thin, and she was acutely conscious of the cold and the night and the snow outside. There were wolves roaming the fields, and a more deadly peril lurking close at hand...
She blinked, and shook her head. Had she dozed off? It hardly seemed possible, given the racket the baby was making. Looking up, she found the old man's gaze fixed closely on her.
"Are you quite well, madam?" he asked.
"Perfectly. But I thought–" Jane broke off, dismissing her half-formed fears.
"You thought what?" He had jumped to his feet, moving with a surprising quickness.
"It was nothing."
"I very much doubt that." His hand closed on Jane's shoulder. "Tell me."
"I thought there was something outside. Close at hand." As she recounted her impressions, Jane found herself picturing the walls thinning away again, and the grey, shaggy wolf-pack stalking over the snow. And, close at hand, the other threat, approaching slowly and with stealth.
"Yes, yes, I see." The traveller retrieved his staff from where it lay beside the chest. "Do you know, I think you could be right. Yes, I suspect you have every right to be concerned. I shall go and attend to the matter directly. You'll be all right while I'm gone, won't you?"
The last remark seemed to be directed equally between Jane and the baby; she answered for both with a nod.
"Now, you stay here with the light until I call you, hmm?" he added, and vanished into the shadows.
Jane perched herself on the chest, and once more tried to quieten the screaming child. Lullabies were of no use, nor was rocking the little girl. She once more rested her hand on the baby's head, and found herself imagining she was outside – the snow under her feet, a knife in her hand. Moving swiftly, confident that she could not be heard over the baby's cries, she forced the door open and stepped forward into darkness. Something tripped her, and she fell headlong...
She sat up with a jerk and shook her head. How she'd managed to fall into a reverie with the baby making such a noise–
Except the baby wasn't making a noise.
Once more, she looked down at the child in her arms. She was awake, certainly, but not making so much as a gurgle. Hardly daring to move for fear of disturbing the baby, Jane sat where she was until, in a few moments, the old man returned.
"Ah, there you are," he said. "It's quite safe now."
"'Now?'" Jane repeated.
"Yes, now." He picked up the lamp. "Would you mind coming with me, my dear? There's something I think you should see."
They made their way to the front door of the cottage. Just as in Jane's dream, or reverie, or vision, the lock had been forced. Lying just inside the door was the motionless figure of a man. Most of him was covered with a dark cloak, but one hand protruded, still clutching a knife.
"Don't worry," Jane's visitor said. "His neck's broken."
"He..." Jane looked from the body to the stick propped against the wall. "You tripped him."
"Would you like to suggest a better way an old man like me could have dealt with a dangerous vagabond? Hmmm?"
"And what if it wasn't a vagabond? What if you've killed my husband or my son?" Cradling the baby in her left arm, Jane knelt down, pulled back the cloak, and looked at the dead man's face.
"Have I?" the old man asked.
"No. His name's Ranulf, I think. They always said he was a ne'er-do-well, but I never thought..."
"There you are. Nothing to worry about, then."
"Nothing to..." Jane rose to her feet once more. "What right had you to strike him down?"
"And if I hadn't, what might he have done? Robbed you? Killed you? I think you should be grateful to us, madam."
"I suppose that's so." Jane handed the baby to him. "We can talk about this in the morning."
Jane woke with the dawn, but the old man must have woken before that – or, perhaps, never slept at all – and left, as if he had never been there. His footprints were clearly visible in the snow, heading for a nearby copse; Jane traced them until they were lost under the trees. After that, who could say where he had gone?
It would be best, she decided as she made her way to the village, not to mention the old man's part in the previous night's affair. Simplest just to explain that Ranulf had tried to break into her house, tripped on the threshold, and broken his neck. However unlikely that sounded, if she told the truth, she'd be suspected of consorting with the Fair Folk, or with devils. When it came down to it, she couldn't be sure that those suspicions would be unfounded.
In the future, she hoped, travellers seeking shelter would find it somewhere else.