Meg was tall, with long brown hair and narrow green eyes and a bored expression. Today, though, her expression did not look so bored.
Shock was etched onto every tendril of her face. Her heart was beating faster than the rain drumming outside.
In front of her in the barn was an empty pile of straw, the shape of a cow molded into it. But there was no cow there, only the cat purring as she pranced across the ground.
Meg stood there for what seemed like centuries as she turned the problem around and around in her mind: Someone had stolen the cow. She should tell Father, but Father was busy. She should tell Mother, but Mother would pin her down with tasks of sewing and spinning the moment she came into sight. She should tell ANYONE, but there was nobody else to tell.
She crouched down to take a closer look, but there was no sign of the thief, only the cow’s own hoofprints.
Oh well. No clue there. She let out an inaudible sigh. They would have to get on without their cow.
It was an old cow, with skin hanging off its bones, worn bald in places, giving only about a droplet of milk every two weeks. Meg couldn’t imagine why anyone would want it. It wasn’t like it was worth much or anything.
She would have to get her work done without it, then. Skip milking the cow. What was next on her list of duties? Oh, yes. She had to go to the market to sell those tapestries that Mother had woven. She would set off at once.
And so, the bundle of vivid fabrics tucked under one arm, dressed in her warm brown cloak with its hood shadowing her face, she began walking at a brisk pace to the market. The path was narrow as it wound through the forest; it was bordered by twisted dark trees, their spidery black branches snagging in Meg’s hair.
She saw another person coming towards her up the path, a blurry silhouette against the horizon. Then, as the distance between them narrowed, she could make out the person’s features enough to tell that it was Simon the Blacksmith’s son, obviously on his way back from the market.
Suddenly a thought entered her mind without her permission: Could he have been the one who had stolen the cow?
Oh, she realized. Deus! — if she was going to wonder that about every person she met, then going to the market wouldn’t be any fun at all.
“Hello,” Simon called out to her. “Meg! I see thou art going to the market. I am going there, too — I am just returning home for an instant to fetch some fresh milk to sell. Tell me, please: How art thou today?” He smiled warmly in greeting.
“Badly,” she replied bluntly.
“What are thine troubles?” he inquired sympathetically.
It is very hard, you know, to walk and have a conversation AND try to subtly interrogate a potential suspect, all at the same time, so of course it was no surprise when Meg fell and landed hard right smack on her face. “Deus!” she cursed as her lower lip tore on a needle-sharp stone. Blood dripped down her chin. With shaky hands rubbed raw from the fall, she slowly and carefully stood up.
“As I was saying,” she went on, “I’m afraid that somebody has stolen our cow, our only cow — but we’ll have to get on without it. Still, at the same time, I just don’t see why anyone would do such a thing.” She sighed.
Simon winced as he looked at her. He quickly turned away, looking pale, the skin under his eyes almost green in the light. He shivered, hunching his shoulders. “I-I am sorry about thine cow,” he managed to stutter, his knees trembling as he glanced once more at her face. “I-I am sure — umm….I’m sure whoever stole it, um, I’m…sure they’re very sorry now?” His skin had turned a sickly shade of gray.
With that, he fled.
“Hmm,” Meg intoned as she watched him go. “Suspicious.”
She resumed her walk to the market. Once there, she positioned herself in the center of the rows of people searching for customers, and began to shout out praise for the things she was selling and insults to the wares of others, her voice fusing into the chorus of so many others.
She caught sight of a tall, unusually well-dressed man frowning at everything and wondered who he was. A small boy, his face streaked with dirt and wearing nothing but rags, saw her looking and sidled up to her. “That there’s Charles the Former Peasant, and best bargainer in town,” he informed her.
She arched one eyebrow at him. “Former Peasant?”
“Yeah, and best bargainer in town. Why, he brags that he can sell a half-dead cow for five dozen pieces o’ gold! Also has light feet, they say. Why, he brags that he can walk without leaving footprints! Also quite a snob.”
“Suspicious,” she murmured.
“Yeah, an’ it’s funny, ‘cause before today he was poorer than a beggar, an’ now suddenly he gots real gold in his pockets!” the boy agreed enthusiastically. “So, now…how ‘bout somethin’ for my troubles?” He held out his hand expectantly, but Meg clearly wasn’t paying attention.
“Suspicious,” she repeated, already striding away.
She marched straight up to the man and was about to say something, when a commotion on the other side of the market caused her to turn around.
“Ouch!” came a screech. “I am BLEEDING!” There was Simon again, his knees quaking as he stared at the blood that smeared his hands, staining his fingers a dark reddish-black. His face was turning green, his eyes seeming to bulge out like a frog’s.
A thought swaggered into Meg’s mind and wavered there: Was Simon afraid of blood or something? Suddenly she realized: Yes, he was.
That was it! It made perfect sense. Before, when he had started to stammer — it wasn’t because of the cow, it was because of the blood.
And then, if Simon wasn’t the thief, that would make Charles the Former Peasant the perfect suspect. There had been no footprints in the barn, and that would have been fitting, as Charles was obviously known to have light feet. And if he was such a good bargainer he could sell a half-dead cow for five dozen pieces of gold, then it would make sense that he suddenly got rich after stealing her cow. He would have been able to sell it for quite a lot, she reckoned.
She turned to stand before Charles, her eyes glinting fiercely. “You stole my cow,” she hissed at him.
“Hmm?” he peered down his nose at her. “I have not even met thou before.”
“Yes, so I’ve noticed, and thou stolest my cow.”
Seeing that she was not about to give up, he flung himself down onto his knees as the coward that he truly was. “Please, I beg forgiveness! Would thou be ever so merciful and kind, as thou must knowest that I was just about to return the payment from it to thou and thine family! Please, would thou be ever so merciful and kind!”
“Return the payment now,” she commanded.
Miserably, he did so, handing at least twenty large pieces of gold over to her, and she strutted smugly away, satisfied.