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 along the interior side of 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 the sentry uniform she had borrowed from Perkins. Just wonderful, she sniffed, wrinkling her nose at the smell of sour ale combined with weeks of sweat. “What’s next?”
“Shhh.” Collin held a finger to his lips.
Without warning, Anne felt herself being shoved against the wall, Collin covered her mouth with his hand, just as another guard rounded a corner of the manor. They both held their breaths. The guard looked up, as if he was checking the weather, then did an about-face and marched back out of sight.
Exhaling, 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 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’mon up here,” Collin said to Anne, standing below.
“See the window over there? In there is what we’re after.”
“Why don’t I just stay right here to 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 for a few moments, and then began to climb the tree, one branch at a time. When she reached the overhanging branch, Collin removed his leather skullcap and placed it on Anne's head, stuffing her long hair under it.
“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?!"
“Oh . . . There's nothing to worry about. This is a small country manor with a guard or three. That's all. And afterward, they’ll be looking for two men, not a man and a woman.”
As he spoke, Collin tied the loose end of the rope, which was still draped over a higher branch, around her body and under her arms. “This will protect you in case you should fall off the tree.”
What happened next occurred before she could react. Without warning, he heaved her off the branch and immediately started to rein in the rope, causing her to swing back and forth from the higher limb over which the rope was draped.
Anne instinctively covered her eyes with both hands as the rope played. Collin, still holding on to his end of the rope, pulled faster, nudging Anne and the rope into small circles between the trunk of the tree and the house, rising to the level with the window.
“You’ll need your hands to grab onto the window,” he said in a hushed, but intense, voice. “Take them from your eyes.”
“No! 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.”
Collin began to further pull on the rope swinging her back onto the limb with him. He needed to calm her down. “Look, I’ll do it, and you can go back to being the lookout.”
Anne was hauled back into the tree. He placed both hands on her shoulders as she faced him, in a feeble attempt to soothe her. At first she didn’t move, then she opened her eyes, looking straight at Collin. Calm contempt was now written on her face. “Really? Me? A lookout?”
“If that’s what you want,” said Collin with a smug expression. “Now look out for the wall.” And, with a very firm shove, he again sent her swinging toward the house like a pendulum rod of an upside-down metronome.
At the top of the arc, she was still below the window’s height. Collin pulled feverishly on the rope, elevating Anne’s arc as she flew back toward the tree. She reached out to grab a branch, but missed it and felt herself swinging 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 in a feeble attempt to cushion herself against hitting the wall.
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, rubbed 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 a finely carved desk with a jar of curing feathers sitting on its surface.
She stood and tiptoed back to the window, leaning out toward the tree where Collin waited.
“You fool!" she hissed furiously, “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 from her waist and retied it to a chair so it wouldn’t slide out the window and to the ground below. She then began to look for the box on every table and behind all the drapes and tapestries. 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.
As she sat down on a bench draped in red cloth, she heard the dull clunk of metal and felt something strange against the back of her legs. Startled, she pulled the cloth to one side, revealing the bench was actually a chest. 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. She raised it high as if she was preparing to let it fall against the lock, but was reconsidering, afraid the resulting noise would be too loud.
“Anne!” called Collin in a hushed, but urgent, tone of voice.
“What, Collin?” She held the axe high over her head.
“Not with the axe, Anne! Pick the lock. The axe will bring a small army on our heads.”
“Small army?! 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 in irritation, 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 whispered: “How do you pick a lock?”
“Look for anything that’s long and thin.”
Glancing around the room, Anne spotted a stiletto knife on a table. She turned toward Collin and held it up, with an inquiring look.
“Yeah. That’ll do it. Stick the point 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 came open. Anne turned her head to look across at Collin triumphantly. He bowed his head in admiration.
She began to rummage through the large chest, and, under bundles of parchment rolls, located a red box large enough to hold a small melon. There was a gold dragon painted on its red lacquered lid. Remembering Collin’s earlier description, she imagined that the box was filled with gold and therefore exerted all of her strength to lift it out of the chest. However, its contents were much lighter than she had anticipated and she pulled upward with far too much force, lost her balance, and stumbled backward.
Groping for some support, her hand clutched a tapestry, causing it to tear from the wall, its brass posts clattering on the wooden floor.
When quiet at last replaced what had seemed like interminable noise, she sat motionless, listening . . . and heard the voices of people stirring within the manor house.
Anne rushed to the window. “Collin! Get me out of here!”
Collin was already nearing the bottom of the tree, half climbing, 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!”
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. Anne undid the knot and retied 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 box barely held 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 scarcely 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,” called Collin from below. “Hurry! I’ll catch it. And then I’ll catch you, as well.”
Anne dropped the box. Collin caught it easily.
“Look outside!” She heard 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 shut, unwilling to look down. She was ready to let go. “Okay, Collin, here I come. Please don’t drop me.”
Anne plummeted 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, she caught sight of several sentries in armor, swords drawn, and running at her from both sides.