Excerpt

 

About twenty minutes later, Anne and Collin were shadows no longer. They were now dressed in the guardsmen’s clothes, minus the armor. Together they had scurried over the top of the outer wall using a large length of rope, which Collin had previously hidden behind a tree.

Once inside the compound, they ran alongside the elliptical wall, slowing down at a point where it neared the two-story manor house.

Collin, now draped in the rope they had used to scale the wall, began to count windows. At his side, Anne sniffed at the sleeve of her “borrowed” sentry uniform, wrinkling her nose at the smell of sour ale combined with weeks of sweat. Awful, she sniffed. “What’s next?”

“Shhh.” Collin held a finger to his lips.

Suddenly, Anne felt herself being shoved against the wall, Collin covering her mouth with his hand, as another guard, dressed in sparkling armor, rounded a corner of the manor, then did an about-face and flawlessly marched back out of sight.

Anne turned her head away from Collin’s hand to be able to speak. “I thought there were only two guards.”

“So, maybe I lied a little. Now come with me and be silent.”

He headed for a tree towering over the house. It had a large limb that reached out toward a window on the second floor. She watched silently as Collin began to climb. Reaching the branch, he looped the rope over a higher limb and tied one end around his waist. She realized that he was planning to use the lower limb as a bridge to the manor house.

“All right. C’m’up here,” Collin said to Anne, standing below.

“Why, exactly?”  

“See the window over there? In there is what we’re after.”

“Why don’t I just stay right here and keep watch?”

“No! Get up here or you get nothing and you and your family can starve for all I care. I’ll tell you right now that you don’t make for a very good thief.”

“I’m not supposed to be a thief. I’m supposed to be a lookout, remember?”

Anne rubbed her hands together nervously for a few moments and, then, began to slowly climb the tree, one branch at a time. With each heave up, she clamped her eyes shut, her knuckles going white. When she reached the overhanging branch, Collin silently stuffed Anne’s long hair into a very snug leather skullcap, flaps hanging over her ears on the sides.

“Here, keep this cap on your head. If anything should happen, play it off like you’re a boy. Got it?

“If anything should happen! Did you just say that? How risky is this?”

“Oh . . . It’s not. This is a small country manor with a guard or three. That’s all. Nothing to worry about. And afterwards they’ll be looking for two men, not a man and a woman.”

Despite her feminine curves, in the guard’s outfit Anne actually looked the part of a slender boy, but not a man.

Collin tied the rope securely around her waist and around her chest. What happened next occurred too quickly for her to react. Without warning, he heaved her off the branch.

Anne gasped, covering her eyes with both hands as she spiraled downward. Collin, still holding on to his end of the rope, pulled hard, nudging Anne and the rope into small circles between the trunk of the tree and the house.

“You need your hands to latch on to the window,” he said in a hushed, but intense, voice. “Take them from your eyes.”

“No! I’m going to fall! You didn’t talk about swinging into a building.”

“Hey look . . . we had a deal.”

 “Get me down! Pleeeeeeease.”

“Shhh! I can’t believe this. Okay . . . I’m going to bring you back.”

Anne whimpered as Collin began to pull on the rope.

“Look, I’ll do it and you can go back to being the lookout.”

Anne was hauled back into the tree. She opened her eyes, looking straight at Collin. Contempt was all over her face. “Really? A Lookout?”

“Sure,” said Collin, a smug expression on his face. “Now look out for the wall.” And, with a very firm shove, he again sent her flying toward the house.

At the top of the arc, she was still below the window’s height. Collin now pulled furiously on the rope elevating Anne’s arc as she swung back toward the tree. She reached out to grab a higher tree branch, but missed it and, again reaching the top of the arc, felt herself flying back toward the manor house.

Now Anne saw a window ahead of her, open to catch whatever breeze the warm night would provide. The opening would be at the top of the rope’s swinging arc. She reached her arms out ahead of her in a feeble attempt to cushion herself against hitting the wall hard.

At just the right moment, Collin let the rope go slack, and Anne flew through the open window, hitting the wooden floor inside and rolling to a stop against a very old oak desk. She sat up, rubbing her head, and looked around at what appeared in the moonlight to be an expensively furnished drawing room. Gilt tapestries adorned the walls and, as she stood, she saw that the desk was finely carved, a jar of curing feathers sitting on its surface.

Disdain was written all over her face as she stood and tiptoed to the window, leaning out toward the tree where Collin waited.

“You fool! I can’t believe you did that!”  

“Hey, We’re almost there. Now look for a red box with a snake painted on it. It’s locked up somewhere in there.”

Shaking her head in disbelief, Anne untied the rope at her waist and began to look on every table and behind the drapes. Leaning back out the window, she said in a hushed voice, “I don’t see it anywhere, Collin.”

“It won’t be obvious, but it’s definitely in that room.”

She walked slowly around the drawing room, still not seeing anything remotely resembling a red box. She decided to rest a moment and think about where it could be.

Sitting on a bench draped in red cloth by one wall, she heard and felt the dull clunk of metal against the back of her legs. Bolting upright, she pulled the cloth to one side, revealing a chest instead of a bench. It was held shut by an enormous iron lock.

Glancing again around the room, Anne spotted a pair of crossed axes adorning the far wall. She withdrew one axe and carried it over to the chest, raising it high and letting it fall against the lock, producing a loud clanging noise and little else. Looking closely at the lock, she could see that barely any damage had been done to it.

“Anne!” called Collin in a hushed, but urgent, tone of voice.

“What, Collin?” She held the axe high over her head, preparing to strike the lock again.

Gesturing with a finger back and forth across his lips and a how-dare-you look on his face, Collin said, “Not with the axe! Pick the lock, Anne. Or else, you’ll bring a small army on our heads.”

“Small army? There you go again, Collin. You said there were two or three guards!”

“Yes, but I didn’t say these two or three were the only guards.”

Pinching her lips together and shaking her head in disbelief, Anne spun around and returned the axe to its wall hook. She went back to the window. Looking across at Collin in the tree, she asked quietly: “How do you pick a lock?”

“Look around for anything that’s long and thin.”

Glancing around the room, Anne spotted a thin stiletto knife on a small table. She turned toward Collin and held it up, an inquiring look on her face.

“Yeah. That’ll do it. Stick the pointed end in the lock and jiggle it about. You’re new to it, so it may take a while.”

Though doubtful, she pushed the end of the knife into the lock and wiggled it. To her utter surprise, the lock easily came open. Anne turned her head to look across at Collin, a triumphant look on her face. He bowed his head deferentially.

She began to rummage through the large chest and under bundles of parchment rolls, locating the red box quickly. There was a gold dragon painted on its lacquered lid. Remembering Collin’s earlier description, she imagined that the box was filled with gold and exerted all of her strength to lift it. However, its contents were much lighter than she had anticipated and she pulled upward with far too much force, losing her balance and stumbling backward.

Groping for some support, her hand gripped a tapestry against the nearest wall. It promptly tore from the wall, its brass posts clattering loudly on the wooden floor.

When quiet finally replaced what seemed like interminable noise, she sat motionless, listening. And heard the voices of people stirring within the manor house.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Collin said, across the gap between the tree and the window.

Anne rushed to the opening. “Collin! Get me out of here!”

Collin was already nearing the bottom of the tree, half descending, half jumping.

The voices were getting louder, closer, and torchlight began to stream through the crack under the drawing room door. Anne heard Collin calling from below the window. “Unless you’re fond of torture, I suggest you move quickly, Anne.”

She fumbled for the end of the rope that had carried her from the tree in the first place, locating it beneath the window where she had tied it to the leg of a chair. Quickly undoing the knot, Anne re-tied the rope to the leg of the solid oak desk, the other end still dangling over the windowsill to the outside.

Climbing out the window, the small box held tightly under one arm, she tried to inch her way down the rope. But her progress was much too slow, hindered by the box.

Her head was barely below the level of the window when she heard the door to the drawing room swing open, its latch banging against one wall. Then she heard the sounds of several soldiers in armor, storming the room. “They’ve taken it!” came a shout.

“Throw the box down,” Collin called from below. “Hurry! And then I’ll catch you, as well.”

Anne dropped the box. Collin caught it easily.

“Look outside!” called one of the soldiers from within the drawing room.

Anne slid down the rope, now level with the top of the first-floor window, her eyes tightly shut, refusing to look down. She was ready to let go. “Okay, Collin, here I come. Please don’t drop me.”

No response.

“Collin?”

Above her, a guard raised his sword, bringing it powerfully down on the windowsill, neatly slicing the rope.

Anne plunged to the ground, a gathering of bushes breaking her fall. Looking up, she saw two guardsmen pointing down at her through the window above.

“Collin?” she called again, looking around the now-empty expanse between the manor house and the estate’s perimeter wall.

He was nowhere in sight.

As she fainted, her mind briefly caught sight of six sentries in armor, swords drawn, and running at her from both sides.

1


Tuesday June 16, 1424 – Late Afternoon
Near the Shore at Burnham-on-Sea

 

              Only a few stray fish in her vicinity underwater could see the dismay draping the face of Anne du Lac as she ascended toward the rowboat above her. She gasped for air as her head broke the surface of the water. Her long tawny hair, tied with a bit of stained twine, wound like a snake behind her as she reached for the edge of the roughly hewn craft, out of breath.

              “It’s too deep, father,” she said to the man sitting alone in the boat.

              The man pulled a few strands of his white hair from over one eye. He turned his head toward the bow of the boat. “We haven’t the money to buy another net, eh? Come into the boat. There is nothing further to be done here today.”

             Anne glanced at her father’s hands. Ronay du Lac’s fingers were deftly knotting small pieces of rope together to form the beginnings of a new net. The sorrow she felt during her dive now turned to anguish as her gaze shifted upward to his eyes, which somehow locked onto hers, as if he could actually see her.

              She had been a child when the blindness spread across his vision. If he could see her now, he would know she had evolved into a beautiful fifteen-year-old. Anne knew that didn’t matter. Her father would love her no matter how she looked.

             “Get in here with me. We’ll row for home.”

He began feeling around for the boat’s oars.

              Still clutching the side of the boat and treading water, Anne rested her head against the old wood, biting her lip, thinking. After staring briefly at the water, she inhaled with a rasping sound and plunged back into the deep.

              Hearing the splash in the water, du Lac smiled and shook his head. He understood his daughter’s persistence.

              Underwater, Anne followed the boat’s anchor rope, her eyes searching for the net. To her right, a large school of fish turned quickly away from her as she descended. Like an underwater wave, the movements of the fish were precisely synchronized. An eel nipped at her from the left.

              Down she swam through the cloudy water, her long legs and bare feet kicking strongly behind her.

              Then she spotted it, draped over the rocky ocean floor and tracing every crack and crevasse like a death shroud. Her simple pullover dress, bound at her petite waist, billowed like a mushroom cap as she fought her buoyancy and tried to swim deeper. On her face was a look of fierce resolve.

              Anne grabbed the net and pulled hard, but instead of yielding to her strength, the net became taut, obviously caught on something. Her lungs were now beginning to scream for air. Anne pulled harder, stretching the net to its limit, when it suddenly recoiled from her hands and floated to an even deeper part of the seabed.

              Straining, she tried to lower herself further and was able to bring her fingertips to within inches of the knotted cords before the pain in her lungs forced her to scramble back toward the sunlight above.

              Anne broke the water’s surface and began to cough, the seawater in her eyes now mixing with tears.

              “I can’t reach it. I am so sorry, father.”

              “Come into the boat, Anne. Look here. I’m making a new net. It will be stronger and finer.”

              Anne climbed into the boat as her father felt about for a wool blanket. He draped it over Anne, who was trying to stifle her sobs.

              She fingered the small section of knotted cords that would become a new net. It was only the size of a small purse.

              “This will take at least a week or more to finish, Papa.”

              “It could be worse.”

              “I don’t see how.” She grabbed the boat’s rudder.

              “We could be oyster farmers, you know, and then we wouldn’t even need a net,” du Lac said.

              A smile spread across Anne’s face and she chuckled briefly at his words.

              “Sometimes, the blind see better, eh?”

              “Oh Papa,” she sighed. “What are we going to do without a net?”

 

◊◊◊

              It was early evening. In their northern latitude, summer’s daylight persisted quite late. Anne guided her father as they wearily climbed a gentle hill leading to their cottage.

              “What is that?” he asked, pausing to listen to something in the distance. His blindness had caused him to rely more upon his other senses, so they had become heightened well beyond those Anne possessed. “Do you hear that?”

              Anne strained to hear the shouting coming from the direction of their cottage. Then she let go of her father’s arm and bolted toward the sounds, knowing he could safely navigate the path from memory. “Not again!” She bounded between the rocks along the way. “The bloody fool!”

              “Watch your language, Anne,” her father admonished.

              “Sorry, Papa,” she called back as she disappeared over the rise at the top. “I meant to say ‘the idiot!’ I’ll see you at the house—if it’s still ours.”

 

◊◊◊

 

              Anne rounded the topmost rocks and stopped short to take in the scene before her.

              “You really don’t have a choice, woman!” Collin Rogers shouted, standing in front of the du Lac cottage. He was addressing Anne’s mother, Goody du Lac, who was behind the kitchen window, one shutter closed. Huddled behind her was Anne’s younger brother, John, a skinny boy of seven, his hands intertwined in his mother’s apron strings.

              As she approached a side door, Anne looked back and forth between the burly Collin and the plump Goody.

              “Mother?”

              “You will not touch him, you mongrel!” Goody barked, her anger still focused on Collin. She punctuated her demand by hurling a small tomato at him. He dodged it with the scowl of a man about to lose his patience—or his nerve.

              In his late teens, Collin was tall, muscular, and darkly handsome, and was known to have both the charm and the ethics of a corrupt politician.

              “It will be one night’s work,” Anne heard him say, as he ducked another tomato flying by, which barely missed his head. “And it will save your home!” 

              “What are you talking about?” Anne stepped closer to Collin.

              “You’d better talk some sense into your mother,” he replied, without directly answering Anne’s question.

              “Sense?” Goody du Lac asked. “Does your father know that you petition his tenants, Collin Rogers?”

              “My father knows that you can’t pay to stay on the land.”

              “It will be only days before we’ve enough money from the market. Won’t it be, Anne?”

              “I’ll take my offer and leave you then! You’ll be gone soon enough.” Collin was now slowly retreating from the flying vegetables.

              Anne stopped him with a hand on his arm. Surveying Collin’s clothes, she realized that he had failed to dodge several of the edible projectiles, somewhat lessening his charm.

              “You said you had an offer?” she asked softly.

              “Ah, at least one ear finds my message.”

              Goody du Lac leaned over the window ledge, waving a large wooden spoon. “I’ll not waste any more of our food on you, Collin Rogers, so you’d best be moving along before I use stones.” Suddenly, little John ran from the side door and began to collect rocks in a large basket.

              “Mother, please stop!” Anne turned to face Collin. “Talk just to me. And quickly.”

              “This month’s rent. Forgotten. Along with the debt your family owes.”

              “Well, thank you! What did we do to deserve this?”

              “No! It is for what you will do.”

              “He wants to take little John, Anne!” shouted Goody du Lac, overhearing part of the conversation between her daughter and Collin. “Who knows what he’s involved with? Don’t you speak to him!”

              “It’s my family’s land, woman!” Collin turned back to Anne and dropped his voice to a near whisper, trying hard to be persuasive. “All I need is help with some of my work.”

              Anne raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “We all know you don’t work, Collin. So what do you really want?”

              “I need your brother to be a lookout. Is that so hard?”

              “But he’s barely seven, Collin!”

              “Have it your way, then.” Collin turned as if to leave. “I really don’t have time for any more of this.”

              “It’s not right to force anyone into doing something wrong, Collin.”

              Collin looked back. “It’s not something wrong. Look, a nobleman was robbed of his chest of gold and he wants it back. Your brother will simply be helping him.”

              Anne looked disgusted. “Noblemen make their own justice.”

              At that moment Anne saw her father arriving, hunched and out of breath.

              “What’s going on here?” Ronay du Lac asked in an uncharacteristically irritated voice.

              Goody du Lac’s face brightened as she saw her husband arriving. “It’s Rogers’s son, husband. He’s come to collect our boy instead of the rent.”

               “What?!”

              “He’s already leaving, Papa,” Anne interjected.

              Collin threw up his hands. “Fools! All of—”

              Anne grabbed Collin’s shirt, pulling him away from her father and drawing his ear close to her mouth. She whispered, “Three hours. By the largest elm tree.”

              “What?” Collin replied, and then understood. “Ah . . . smart woman!”

              Anne continued in a hushed voice, “Now, Collin, you will walk off in a huff or the offer is off.”

              Collin gritted his teeth. “If this is some sort of trick, Anne, it’s you who will be off—off our land in less than a fortnight!” He turned, let out an angry expletive for show, and stomped down the path leading away from the house, kicking up dirt with his heels. In a few moments he was out of sight.

              Little John put down the basket of stones he had gathered to throw at Collin and ran to his father’s side.

              Goody du Lac walked briskly from the house to Anne’s side, glancing down the pathway that Collin had used to leave them. Once she was sure he had gone, she asked, “What did you tell him?”

              “He’s gone, Mama,” said Anne, without answering her mother’s question.

              “Good for you!” said her father to Anne. “Shifty fellow, if I ever saw one,” he said, pointing to his cloudy eyes.

              “Oh, very funny, Ronay,” said Goody, aghast at her husband’s joke. “Now, inside! All of you!”

              She held her husband closely and they entered the house, Anne and little John trailing behind.

              “Ah, wife,” he said. “Sadly, there was no catch to be had today.”

              A smile broke across her face. “Good! Then you won’t smell of fish tonight, Ronay.”

              Now he was also smiling. “Aha! A bright side to everything, my love.”

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© 2016 by Lewis & Carmen.