"FIRE HEAD! GET THE water. Put out the fire!"
"Ugly, you're ugly. Why don't you cut it all off, then maybe we could stand having you around!"
"Let's cut it off for her!"
Tara ran behind a tree, panting. As usual, her siblings and their friends were making fun of her bright red hair. One of them had a knife; she was afraid this time they were going to try to cut it off. In a minute or two they'd find her, she had to do something. Taking a deep breath, she concentrated.
Just then some of her taunters peeked behind the very tree where she'd been hiding. But all they saw was a little red fox running away into the underbrush. Unable to find their victim, they soon tired of the game and went home for dinner.
The fox poked its nose out cautiously. Yes, they were all gone. Tara slowly followed her brothers into the house. Her mother scowled briefly at her; she was late again. She knew better than to relate what'd happened; her brothers would deny everything and she'd be punished for making up stories.
Her parents were serfs; they tilled land they didn't own and were allowed to keep enough of what they grew to feed their family. The Duke wasn't a hard taskmaster and tried to gain the loyalty of his people with his beneficence. Tara didn't know if her parents felt loyalty, they rarely confided in their only daughter. She was grateful they had enough to eat and were even given occasional holidays.
The following day was one of those holidays. There'd be no work for them tomorrow; they'd travel to the town for a festival. It was the anniversary of the birth of the Duke's eldest son; he'd declared it a permanent holiday. There'd be games and food and general merrymaking. The Duke would make a speech; perhaps he'd give prizes to the game winners. The family always looked forward to these good days.
* * * *
THE NEXT DAY The family was up early. After a quick breakfast they started their journey to the town of Boorda. Along the road they were joined by countless other families. Late in the morning the procession reached their destination.
Boorda was decorated gaily; the Duke's banners flew from many windows. The streets had been swept, the house fronts cleaned. Everyone made their way to the large public park, built especially to celebrate this birthday event.
Tara's family sat together on the grass. Today her brothers were on their best behaviour; except for making occasional faces at her, they left her alone. She watched the goings on.
First there were horse races, for those lucky enough to have a horse. The winner was given a blue ribbon. Next the men competed in a footrace. Her father competed, and finished near the middle of the men. The girls were called out next.
Tara joined the other girls in the center of the park. Some rope was brought out, cut into short lengths. The girls were told to stand two by two. Tara stood next to another girl. Their inner ankles were tied together. They were going to run a race this way! They were given some time to practice. Tara and her partner worked out a rhythm, one-two, one-two. She supposed the others were doing the same thing. The girls were gathered in a line, told to run to the big oak tree. They were off!
Tara and the other girl counted out loud. "One-two, one-two." They walked as quickly as they could, but never tried to run. They could see that those who tried to run ended up falling. Tara and her partner did their best. At last they reached the tree. People were cheering: they'd won! Tara and the other girl were each given a sweet. Both immediately popped them into their mouths; neither wanted to share her prize with a whole family.
The ropes were untied and taken off their ankles. Tara returned to her family. She knew there'd be no praise for her win, but she was surprised at the renewed hostility they showed her. She sucked on her prize, letting its sweetness caress her tongue as long as she could.
Shortly there was an obstacle course for the boys to run. Both her brothers competed, but they were fat and out of shape. They couldn't even finish the course. Nevertheless, when they returned their efforts were praised.
Free food and drink was made available, the family had a fine lunch. After some more merrymaking, they started out for home.
After dinner the children were sent to bed. As always, Tara not only endured the hostility of her brothers, but her father and mother only spoke to her when necessary. Their tone of voice was only slightly less hostile than that of her siblings.
Tara had a hard time going to sleep that night. After a day's work, everyone usually fell asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow. So her parents assumed she was as sound asleep as her brothers.
"Henleer, I suppose we have to continue to keep her?"
"We couldn't let the baby we found die, now everyone thinks she's ours. You can't turn your own daughter out!"
"Could we sell her?"
"She's getting old enough, isn't she? Do you think anyone'd buy her with that hair?"
"Anything we got'd be more than we have now, and we wouldn't have to feed her anymore."
"Let's make a decision soon."
"I think he'll be around in the next day or so."
Tara let her breath out slowly. She was a foundling! These people weren't her parents, her tormentors weren't her brothers. They were thinking of selling her into slavery! She had to get out of there tonight. She waited for the adults to go to bed. She planned to leave later that night, but it's a hard thing for a little girl to stay awake. Despite the best intentions, she fell asleep.
Her father's rough hand was shaking her. She poked a sleepy head out of the blankets. It was light out, she'd slept through the night!
"Get dressed. Now!" He left her room, closing the thin door.
She heard voices in the kitchen.
"How much will you give me for her? She healthy, strong; she can do a good day's work."
"But that hair! Don't know if anyone'd buy her."
Tara didn't wait to hear more. Quickly she pulled on her clothes. She pulled a comb through her hair and stuck it in her pocket. She opened the window, messed up her bed, as if she'd been standing on it. She became a gnat and listened.
Shortly her mother came in to see if she was ready. (No, those people weren't her parents.) The woman took one look and let out a shriek. "She's climbed out the window, the little sneak!"
The man (not her father!) ran into the room. "Call the boys, let's go look for her!" He and the man with him (the slaver?) ran outside.
Tara flew out the window unobserved and became a crow. She picked a vantage point in a nearby tree to see what would happen. The two men, the woman and the two boys (not her brothers!) ran around, calling her name. The man she'd thought was her father tried to call her with sweetness in his voice; she cringed at the falseness of it.
The slaver noticed the crow and raised a gun to take a shot at it. The serf man grabbed his arm and pulled it down. "You want to arouse the whole area? It's illegal for us to have a gun, much less shoot one!"
Tara the crow took a deep breath. That was too close! It was time for her to leave. As soon as the people's attention was elsewhere, she rose into the air. Best if she flew in the opposite direction from the town.
She circled high and looked around. She saw a forest and headed that way; it would make it more difficult for anyone to find her. She hoped they wouldn't look for her too hard. They'd be cheated out of the money they could make from her sale, but on the other hand they wouldn't have to feed her any more. And she supposed the slaver had to be on his way.
She flew until she reached the forest, then perched in a tree. Exhausted, the crow put its head under its wing and slept.