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.

2

 

              Anne was lying on her pallet, doing her best to ward off the fatigue that normally resulted from a day on the open water, filled with swimming combined with the sun and sea air. She waited for Collin’s return, regretting her plan to replace John. She was only going to offer herself in order to ensure peace for her parents from Collin’s threats.

              She sometimes wondered whether her family could ever be free of the limits imposed by their station in life. The boundaries of her life had felt oppressive to her for as long as she could remember. Since the blindness had overcome her father, each day was more or less the same.

              Ronay du Lac had a unique sense of humor, where others in his condition would only convey bitterness at the state of their lives. Anne’s young brother would not be ready to assist their father for some years yet, and their father could not fish without a set of working eyes at his side. So it was up to her.

              Except in the worst weather, Anne and her father were on the water each day, leaving her little time for friendships.

              Anne loved her parents, and especially appreciated the way they could provide for the family’s needs with so little to draw upon from their meager existence. Most of all she loved her father. As she often did, Anne absently caressed the golden ring on her right finger that he had given to her when she turned thirteen years old. “This belonged to my mother and, before my mother, to her mother,” he had said. “It has been passed down through our family for many generations and now I give it to you. Wear it in remembrance of the many who have gone before you. Treasure it, as we treasure you.”

              From time to time on market days, Anne would join her father in the nearby village. It was the only time that she would see young people of her age. She also saw the wealthy gentry strutting around in their self-importance. She was amazed at the extravagance of their lives.

              She had one true friend: Bernadette Baker. As her last name implied, Bernadette’s father owned the village bakery, a place of wonderful smells and tastes, a feast for senses that were too often limited to the smell of fish. Bernadette’s mother was a seamstress who was often employed by the nearby landed gentry eager to show off new wardrobes with every changing season.

◊◊◊

              A few days earlier, Bernadette had seen Anne at the market and invited her to her home above the bakery for lunch. There, over a luncheon of tea and delicious cakes, Bernadette and Anne had taken time to dream together. Nearby, Bernadette’s mother, whom Anne called “Auntie,” had been sewing a gown to be worn at a village ball.

              “And who is that for, Auntie?”

              “It is for the governor’s daughter, who will wear this at the harvest ball in a few months.”

              “And what is she like?” Anne had continued to prod.

              “Ah, Anne. The governor’s daughter has always received everything she has asked for, and she is never afraid to ask. Her position in life makes this possible.”

              Anne’s eyes had brightened at this, and she had smiled mischievously. “But Auntie, does my position in life permit me to ask anything, and have it from you?”

              “Anything? Why don’t you try me?”

              “Here goes: May I have another piece of cake, Auntie?”

              Bernadette’s mother had chuckled and replied, “Of course you may, your highness,” and Anne reached for another pastry. Bernadette couldn’t keep from laughing, and the other two joined in.

◊◊◊

              Later that afternoon, Bernadette had accompanied Anne part of the way back to the du Lac cottage, which was about an hour’s walk from the village. The dusty path was little more than a trail and meandered beside meadows and ponds and through dense woods. Kicking random rocks ahead of them as they walked, Anne hummed a tune she had heard played by a troubadour in the village.

              “You like music, don’t you?” Bernadette remarked, her dark brown eyes studying Anne. Berdie’s long black hair flowed over her muscular shoulders and arms.

              “Yes. I’ve often thought that if I had a recorder or a flute, I might be able to practice on the water while my father and I are waiting for fish to swim into our net.”

              “Is that all? Wouldn’t you want something more to come from your practice? Wouldn’t you want to be in some orchestra that entertains the gentry?”

              “No. I would never be accepted,” said Anne.

              “And why not, I ask you?”

              “Because people of our station in life never have a chance to do such special things. You know that.”

              “But you can wish. You can dream. Can’t you, Anne?”

              “I suppose so. But what’s the point? No, Berdie. Dreaming about a different life is a waste of time. Besides, people of noble birth care little about us. I think I shall never know the type of adventure that comes so easily to them.”

              The two girls walked on silently. A summer breeze flowing from the west had broken through the heat of the afternoon, making the walk more pleasant by sweeping the road dust away like an invisible broom.

              Also riding the breeze was the sound of horses’ hooves. The road was generally considered safe for those journeying on foot. But this section of the trail was wedged between the banks of ponds on both their left and right sides and provided almost no space off the path.

              “Wait! Be still.” Bernadette’s index finger touched her lips as she listened intently. “Do you hear that? Riders are coming very fast. Move ahead quickly! We must get away from the narrow banks or we could be struck by the horses!”

              Instantly, Anne and Bernadette lifted their dresses from the path so they could run more easily. They sprinted forward as the hoofbeats grew louder behind them. But Anne knew instinctively there wouldn’t be enough time to get past the ponds.

              In seconds, two riders were right behind them, racing along the narrow straightaway, not even slowing though the riders saw the two girls in the road.

              Anne looked back briefly as the front horse closed the gap between them. The rider sees me.  Why doesn’t he rein in the horse? Is he trying to kill me?

              She ran out of thinking time. “Jump, Berdie!” she called, and grabbing Bernadette’s wrist, yanked her friend off the path. As both fell into the pond, the two horses raced past them.

              “Idiots! Fools!” Anne called after the riders as she regained her footing.

              Standing up in water up to their thighs, Bernadette studied Anne. Her wet hair fell on all sides, water dripping down her back. Berdie saw tiny red rivulets trickling down Anne’s arm. “Your arm’s bleeding, Anne. And your dress is soaked.”

              “Well, so is yours, Berdie.” Anne lifted her arm to see what damage there was. “I’m cut,” she said in a matter-of-fact way, splashing water on the wound. Probably, she thought, the scratches were the result of scraping her arm along the stony bottom of the pond when she fell into the water.

              She brushed off her friend’s concern. “Nothing to worry about. I always mend quickly.”

              The two friends made their way back onto the path. Anne reached down with both hands, and lifting her dress, twisted the fabric tightly in her hands, squeezing out water from the pond. Bernadette did the same.

              “Did you get a look at the riders?” Anne asked.

              “Yes. A man in uniform followed by a very well-dressed woman in riding boots. I’m sure they saw us being pushed off the track.”

              Anne wrinkled her nose in contempt. “So there it is. Just as I’ve said. Nobility cares little for us common folk. The riders didn’t even return to find out whether we were hurt.”

              Both had fallen silent as they began walking again along the path. Anne listened to the noise caused by unseen insects in the trees above them. The high pitched squeal of cicadas grew louder as they approached each infested tree, then softer after they passed it by. As raucous as the noise was, Anne somehow appreciated the monotonous sound, broken from time to time by the croak of a frog or two in nearby ponds. Her dress was drying quickly in the warm breeze of the early summer afternoon.

              “I can’t get that gown Auntie was sewing out of my mind,” said Anne, breaking the silence. “Even though I know I shall never be able to afford something so beautiful.”

              “I see these noblemen and their wives only from a distance,” Bernadette said. “But sometimes I think that’s for the best.”

              “Why?”

              “Because I hear my mum and dad talking about the way of life of the nobility, and I often wonder whether I would ever want to be part of their reality. They know no bounds.”

              “Oh, it can’t be that bad,” Anne remarked.

              Living right in the village, Bernadette’s parents heard many stories and frequently talked about what they heard, especially after a few cups of wine, even when their daughter was present.

              Bernadette looked at her friend, wondering whether she should tell Anne some of the details she had heard, about what happens after the balls and the parties ended at night. She decided not to.

◊◊◊

              Now, lying in bed, Anne contemplated her life. Hers was a life of purpose and loving relationships. But it was also a life without excitement. She often wondered what it would be like to be swept up in doing new and interesting things.

              Ah, well. Even if I wanted to be, I shall never be in a position to meet those of higher station, or be thrilled by new adventures and events, so why should I even be thinking about it at all?

              Anne remembered the good times she had with her father before and after the blindness set in. She always admired his ability to stay the course, no matter the task or hardship at hand. Even when their net was lost in the water that day, her father was immediately ready to fashion a new one without a single complaint.

              She was eight years old when her father announced that she was old enough to accompany him in the boat for a day of fishing. It was at dinner one early spring evening.

              “Tomorrow, Anne, you will help me cast our net upon the water.”

              The feeling of excitement was memorable. Goody had protested that her daughter was still too young to leave her mother’s side.

              “No, my love,” Ronay had replied. “She can swim like a fish, and she’s more intelligent than most girls of her age. It’s time she experienced life in the elements. She’s ready.”

              To Anne, it had seemed like she could climb any hill as long as she had her father’s confidence.

              And so she would accompany him on the boat frequently, listening to him and learning about nature, life, people, and empires. He taught her simple things, like how to tie rope together to form a net that would test well against the weight of a very large catch of fish. He also taught her how to outwit predators of the deep that might attack a lone swimmer far away from shore. And he used nature’s own examples—sharks, eels, pilot fish, and more—to teach her about humankind.

              Then one day his eyes began to cloud over, perhaps the result of an illness that no one could explain. Anne felt great personal pain at the onset of her father’s blindness, as she took over more and more of his daily duties. One day she asked her father why the story of their lives was punctuated by painful experiences.

              She never forgot her father’s reply. “Experiences in life, daughter, are just like the fish nets we use on our boat. The water flows through the net, leaving us with the catch. Similarly, each painful experience is like a net. The pain flows away, but leaves us stronger so we can face greater challenges.”

              Anne could never have imagined at those times that one day she would hold the fate of a nation in her hands.

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© 2016 by Lewis & Carmen.