After passing the hedge that sheltered the village, Afton walked resolutely to her house. “I’m sure no queen lives here,” the boy said, tilting his head and peering at the rustic cottage. “My father says only villeins and a few free men live in the village.”
“Your father didn’t know about the pool of the twin trees, and he doesn’t know about the queen of Sheba, either,” Afton replied, grabbing the boy’s hand. “Come on in, and I’ll show you.”
The boy allowed himself to be led inside. Afton waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and she wondered why he looked so curiously at the furnishings: a table, a bed, several straw mattresses on the floor, chickens, and a huge presence over in the corner of the room.
“The queen of Sheba, our sheep,” Afton answered, taking the wreath from his hand. She placed the wreath gently over the ewe’s head and watched while Sheba began to nibble contentedly on the flowers. “See? I told you she loves flowers.”
The boy sat uneasily on a small wooden stool and looked around. “You live here?”
“You left the feast to come here? Why?”
“Because I was tired of taking care of my brothers.” She tilted her head and gazed at him. “Why did you leave?”
Calhoun shrugged. “I wanted to find some excitement. Maybe a fight. I’m a good fighter.”
“I’m not going to fight you.” Afton walked over and stroked the soft nubby wool of the newly shorn sheep. “Don’t you think Sheba is wonderful? I love her. My father loves her. She’s going to have a lamb, you see, and that’s good for us, my father says.”
“I want to find a real queen and pledge myself as a knight. I want to fight battles, maybe even in Jerusalem, and kill the infidels.”
Afton turned blank gray eyes on the boy. “What’s an infidel?”
“You don’t know? Why, they are heathens who are not Christian,” Calhoun said, pounding his palm with his fist. “The enemies of the church! My uncle the abbot tells me about them all the time.”
“Oh.” Afton grew quiet and sat on a bench. “I don’t want to kill anybody. I want to stay here with Sheba and the chickens.”
“That’s because you’re not a man,” Calhoun said, standing up. He stretched to make himself as tall as he could, and Afton was impressed, even if the boy would not swim.
“We ought to return to the castle,” Calhoun announced.
“Yes,” Afton agreed. They left the house, where Sheba munched contentedly on her wreath of poppies, berries, and daisies.
The next morning when he opened his eyes, Wido knew something was wrong. Flies that usually attached themselves to the shredded ferns Corba hung in the corners of the room were swarming in the darkness. There was a strange odor in the room, too, something more than chickens and sheep and eight people.
He rolled off his hay mattress and slipped on his tunic. Over in the corner, not far from where his children lay sleeping, Sheba lay on the dirt floor. With one touch Wido knew she was dead.
Wido dragged the carcass out of the house without waking Corba. Around the ewe’s neck were the remains of one of Afton’s floral wreaths. Wido fingered the usual flowers, then pricked his finger on an unfamiliar leaf with a sharp tooth. There were berries on the branch, and Wido knew instantly what had happened. “Baneberry,” he muttered under his breath, silently cursing the field where it had grown. The berries, highly poisonous, had killed not only the family’s ewe, but the lamb that was owed to Perceval at Michaelmas, only four months away.