Beginning, Next Section
Posted on: 2014-03-11
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in the kingdom of Pemberlea, the king and queen gave birth to a son, whom they named Fitzwilliam. Young Prince Fitzwilliam was a cheerful boy, and kind to all the servants.
The young prince became good friends with two boys his age, Charles and George, both sons of servants in the castle. The three youngsters would often pretend to be soldiers fighting great battles, turning large sticks into swords. In this way, they became quite good at swordsmanship.
When the prince was fourteen, his mother died, leaving both the boy and his father sad and withdrawn. In his grief, the despondent king seemed like easy prey to his enemies, and the neighboring country of Aurora soon invaded. The vicious soldiers of Aurora burned down entire villages, looting all the gold and any other precious metals they found and killing all the inhabitants except the young women, whom they sent back to Aurora to become wives of the Auroran men.
The war continued for years, and as a result, young men from all the villages and towns of Prince Fitzwilliam's land were sent off to fight. When Charles and George joined the army at age eighteen, the prince asked his father if he could join as well.
The king looked at him sadly. "My son, you are all I have left. If I lose you, how could I go on living?"
"Please, Father," Prince Fitzwilliam begged. "I cannot sit back and do nothing while my people are being slaughtered. I must fight for our country and people!"
Hi father sighed deeply. "I will consult Thumpin."
Fitzwilliam nodded, thinking of the old tailor he had met but once, who was his father's most trusted advisor.
When the letter from Thumpin arrived a few days later, the prince pressed his father, eager to know the response.
The king beheld his son, his eyes etched with sorrow and his lips pressed into a thin line. "He writes that I cannot withhold a young man from his destiny."
Grateful but aware of the pain he was bringing his father, Prince Fitzwilliam embraced him tightly. "May God bring you back to me safely," the king whispered in his ear.
About this time, a young maiden of twelve named Elizabeth lived in a small village in the prince's kingdom. She was the second of five daughters of a farmer and his wife.
Despite the worried talk among the villagers, Elizabeth was a happy young girl, for her village had not yet been invaded and she had no brothers fighting in the war. She enjoyed taking daily walks into the forest, where she would pick wildflowers and watch the small animals scamper. Occasionally she was thrilled to spot the lovely sight of deer.
One day, she heard a whimpering cry among the trees, and she sought out its source. She finally spotted a young fox kit, caught in a hunter's snare. "Oh, you poor thing," she cried, immediately taking pity on the pup.
She knelt down and gently stroked the kit to calm it, and then carefully pried open the trap in order to release its leg. She removed her apron and soaked it with water she carried in a flask, and then applied it to the kit's leg until it stopped bleeding. Under her tender ministrations, the fox soon seemed to recover its spirits, licking her hands with its small tongue.
She cuddled the young fox to her chest. "Do you know where your home is? I must take you back to your mother!"
She startled when the fox answered her. "I live under the root of a large oak tree," it said. "If you take me there, I will give you a treasure, to thank you for your kindness."
When Elizabeth recovered from her surprise, she stood up with the fox in her arms and followed his directions to his home. When she arrived at the large oak tree, the fox scampered to the ground, where he was warmly welcomed by his mother and brothers and sisters. As the young kit nuzzled his mother, he said, "She is the one, Mother. I have found the young maiden worthy of accepting the treasure."
The mother fox approached Elizabeth. "Thank you for caring for my son. Please, lift the large rock near the base of this tree. Under there you will find the most valuable of treasures."
Elizabeth lifted the rock and saw a small wooden box. She opened the box and saw within it four small acorns. She was puzzled, but decided to accept the gift. Who knows, she thought. Perhaps to a fox, this is indeed treasure.
"Those may look to be ordinary acorns, but appearances can be deceiving," the vixen said, as if reading Elizabeth's thoughts. "Look closely at each one. Do you notice something special?"
As Elizabeth examined the acorns, she noticed that although all were brown, each one had a slightly different tint, especially when held up into the light. One appeared somewhat green, the second red, the third silver, and the fourth gold. "They're different colors," she said.
"Yes," the mother fox replied. "Now I know that you are without doubt worthy to receive this treasure, for an ordinary human could not distinguish between these acorns. Each one has a special purpose. Three of them are for you alone to use, and the fourth you are to bring to a man of greatness. The green acorn is the acorn of courage. When you find yourself afraid, rub it and you will receive bravery without measure."
Elizabeth peered at the green acorn and nodded.
"The red acorn is for discernment," the fox continued. "When you fear you are being deceived, rub it and the truth will become known to you."
Touching the red acorn, Elizabeth nodded again.
"The silver acorn is for love. Rub it when you want love to come to you or your family. And finally, the gold acorn is for peace. This is the only one you cannot use yourself. Instead, you must bring it to a man of honor, the only man capable of bringing about peace."
Elizabeth exhaled, overwhelmed. She could scarce believe that these small acorns could have so much power--but until today, she never would have believed that foxes could talk. If the vixen's words were true, then she truly held the world's most valuable treasure.
"One thing I must caution you," the fox added. "Except for the man to whom you give the gold acorn, you must never tell anyone about this treasure. And you can only rub each acorn once, so choose the time to use each one with great care."
Elizabeth carefully placed the acorns back in the box, and curtsied to the mother fox and her children. "You have honored me with this treasure. I will use it well."
When she returned home that evening, Elizabeth laid the acorns in a small cloth sachet and tied it firmly. Then she tied the sachet to a string, which she placed around her neck. She knew this was a treasure she must always protect.
Eight years later
The sun had barely begun its ascent, not yet high or bright enough to burn off the fog that shrouded a cluster of hide worn tents. As a gentle whit-whit-whit sound broke the early morning silence, a tall man lying in one of the tents began to stir.
The birdsong repeated, and the man awoke with a start. Cupping his hands over his mouth, he repeated the call of a quail seeking a mate.
A few seconds later, his song was rewarded by the raindrop-like patter of fingertips against his tent. Opening the fold, he admitted a thin, handsome blond man.
"Captain Darcy," the man saluted.
"Charles," the captain replied. "What news?"
Their voices roused the three other men in the tent, who sat up to hear the report of their company's best spy.
"It's bad, sir," Charles answered. "The last of the southern villages has fallen to the Aurorans. Only the fortified capital city remains."
The men in the room met these words with curses.
The captain exhaled. "And the king?"
"Heartbroken. Word is he has taken ill, and is considering surrender."
More curses followed from the soldiers. Only the captain was silent, his face betraying no emotions.
Charles looked at his friend with sympathy. In the entire army, only he and George knew that this young officer, who had risen in rank quickly as a result of his intelligence and leadership, was the kingdom's prince. Fitzwilliam hadn't wanted special treatment, so he had enlisted under the name William Darcy--William being a common enough name among Pemberlean boys, and Darcy being an old family name on his mother's side. When he begged his friends to keep his secret, Charles had joked that it would be easier to revert to calling him Will, as they had as young children, than it had been to start calling him "Your Highness," when they reached adolescence.
The men in the tent soon grew silent as they waited for word from their commander. Captain Darcy sat on a small wooden stool and tapped his temples with his fingers--a habit he had adopted from his brief meeting with the old tailor Thumpin.
Although the castle employed dozens of tailors, seamstresses and weavers to make the royal family's clothing, the king trusted only one man to stitch his regal sash. Each year he paid a visit to a village in the northlands, where a man known as Thumpin Taylor lived.
Shortly after Fitzwilliam's thirteenth birthday when he was due to receive his first sash, his father brought him to visit the tailor, accompanied by several members of the royal guard. On the carriage ride from the southern capital city, the prince asked his father what made the man's sashes so special. "It is not the fabric or the thread," the king replied. "It is the stories his sashes tell."
When Fitzwilliam protested that he didn't understand, his father only said, "You shall see."
When they arrived at the small thatched roof hut in the village of Lambton, the prince's confusion grew. This man could scarce be but a peasant, he thought. Why would one so grand as the king pay such a man a visit?
The small man who answered the door and bade them enter appeared ancient, his face so brown and wrinkled his skin looked like bark, and his head sparsely covered with only a few thin white hairs. But his green eyes were clear, bright and shining. Although several of his teeth were missing, his smile was wide and inviting.
The small room was furnished with only a bed, a table with one chair, a cabinet and a loom. Despite the lack of luxury he was used to, Fitzwilliam was surprised to find himself at ease. A cackling fire filled the room with warmth, and he inhaled the delicious smells of pine and mutton stew.
The old man took one of Fitzwilliam's hands in his own, his grip surprisingly strong. He bowed toward the prince. "At last I meet you, your highness," he said. "You father has told much about you."
Fitzwilliam could only nod as the man led him to sit on the bed, while the king took the chair. Feeling strangely comfortable with this funny little man, he asked, "Is Thumpin your real name?"
"Shh, Will!" his father scolded.
The little man merely laughed. "No, it's Thurman. But this..." he paused to tap his fingers against his temple, "... is how I think."
The prince grinned in understanding. "You thump your head. Thumpin!"
Will smiled slightly, remembering how shortly after that visit he had begun to do the same whenever he needed to think deeply. He placed his hand in the pocket of his waistcoat and massaged a small piece of fabric, what little remained of that very first sash Thumpin had sewn for him. He was supposed to receive a replacement each year, but after his mother's death and the invasion, his father never again visited the old man. Still, now and then the king would send word to the tailor when he was in need of advice.
The piece of fabric held one of many images the old tailor had stitched into the sash--a small gold acorn. This was the one image on the sash the boy had disliked. The sash was to represent not only the royal family, but the prince's character, according to the king. So the prince had hoped for images of power like those on his father's sash, such as fierce wolves and soaring falcons.
An acorn was a pitiable substitute for such glorious figures. Although he didn't speak these thoughts aloud, the old man seemed to recognize his disappointment. "A small object," Thumpin had said, his finger tracing the tiny nut, "but holding the seed of the mighty oak tree within it. And a gold acorn is even more special, for it can bring forth the power of peace."
"Peace," Will thought grimly, beginning to thump his temples again. Would surrender bring peace? After twelve years of fighting, he knew that his soldiers and the people of Pemberlea were weary of war. But with so many dead, so many villages destroyed, so many young women stolen from their homes, surrender would mean accepting that fate. He shook his head. His father was not thinking clearly. There could be no peace in surrender.
"Send word," he said to Charles, "to all the commanders and to the king. We will not surrender! We will come up with new strategies. There must be a way to regain our lands and win this war. And I will find it!"
Posted on: 2014-03-14
Jenna's anxious bleating greeted Elizabeth as she entered the barn. The speckled goat began to nuzzle her young mistress' apron pockets, searching for food scraps saved from the previous night's soup.
Elizabeth laughed and stroked her rough fur. "Excited as always, aren't you, girl?" She allowed Jenna to eat her fill, and then settled on a stool to milk her swollen teats.
As she tugged in a familiar rhythm, filling a wooden bucket with warm liquid, the young woman found herself sighing. She wished she could rise as eagerly as Jenna. But the days had grown tedious, filled with chores, bad news, and not much else.
Without thinking, Elizabeth's hands reached for the sachet around her neck, causing Jenna to bleat in protest. Her mistress smiled softly and returned to her milking, murmuring an apology to the goat.
The sachet, Elizabeth knew, was a large part of her discontent. From the age of twelve, she had thought herself heir to great destiny, one that would bring peace at last to their war-torn land. Yet here she remained, as did all her sisters, on this farm, tending the gardens and animals and praying that the fighting remained far removed.
Of course, "far removed" only meant that thus far their village had been spared from invasion. No community in Pemberlea was untouched by the war. Metal and fine goods, which traveling traders used to bring, had become scarce. In the place of the traders came couriers, telling of yet another defeat.
Far worse, many young men with whom Elizabeth had grown up had gone off to fight, some never to be seen again. Sadness filled many households, and her mother despaired ever finding husbands for her daughters.
Jenna's teats now emptied, Elizabeth rose and lifted the bucket in one hand. Her other hand touched the sachet again. In the years since the strange meeting, she had searched the forest repeatedly, but had never again spotted the fox family. She had always been imaginative, and would no doubt have begun to think her encounter with the kit and his mother was merely a dream, were it not for what lay within the soft cloth.
Her family thought her odd for carrying a cluster of acorns with her always. When Elizabeth became distraught one day after bathing to discover that her mother had attempted to discard the acorns, her sisters had laughed at her. But they no longer teased; they had come to accept that for some unknown reason, Elizabeth valued the small, brown nuts. For that is all they appeared to be to her family.
Elizabeth knew better. When she was alone during walks in the woods, she sometimes opened the cloth to gaze within. Over the last eight years, the acorns had changed--but only to her eyes. The faint hints of color had become brilliant shimmers, the nuts now appearing to be rich gems, glimmering stones of emerald, ruby, gold and silver. Their surfaces had become as smooth as the most polished of swords. Yet they were not cold to the touch, as she might expect. Holding the acorns filled her hands with warmth and radiant energy.
Elizabeth had no doubt that the acorns were as magical as the vixen had promised. But what was she to do with them? At times, she considered disguising herself as a man and traveling to the battlefront. Her sensible mind always quickly discarded that foolish plan. And so she waited, day after day, year after year, for her destiny to begin.
Walking carefully to not slosh the milk, Elizabeth entered her family's cottage to discover the home in uproar, her parents and sisters babbling noisily. "What is it?" she inquired of Jane, her eldest and most levelheaded sister. Perhaps the war is over? she wondered.
"Mama has news," Jane answered. "I think I'll let her tell you."
Elizabeth looked about in curiosity. From her sister's smile, it seemed that for once good news had come to Merrytown. "What is it, Mama?" she asked.
"Oh, Lizzy!" her mother cried, her freckled cheeks pink with excitement. "I brought eggs to the baker this morning, to trade for bread you know--"
"Of course we know, my dear Fanny," her father interrupted. "It's what you do every morning."
"Oh how you vex me!" her mother scolded. "Lizzy must first hear where I heard this news before I tell her what it is!"
Lizzy's father chuckled. "Then please proceed, my dear."
"Lizzy, I have heard that the Widow Burg's field is let at last!" her mother declared triumphantly.
"Her nether field, near the woods?" Lizzy asked. "Who would let a field in a small village like Merrytown during wartime?"
"A single man, that's who!" cried Lydia, Lizzy's youngest sister. She and Kitty, the next youngest, began to giggle in glee.
"That's wonderful for the Widow Burg, but what has that to do with us?"
"Oh, Lizzy, how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of you girls."
"Is that his design in settling here?"
"Design! nonsense, how can you talk so!" Her mother shook her head in exasperation. "But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of you, and therefore we must visit him as soon as he settles in."
Elizabeth sighed. "Mama, I am sure this young man, whoever he is, will be very busy replanting the widow's fields that have lay fallow ever since her sons died in the war." She placed the bucket of milk on the table. "Besides, if he is in want of a wife, Caroline or Anne would be more than happy to fill that need."
"Foolish girl! The Widow Burg's daughters are not half as beautiful as my girls!" Her mother sniffed. "Although, you, Lizzy, are not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humored as Lydia. And those silly acorns you carry! I am sure he will find you much too odd to consider in marriage."
"Now, now, my dear, Lizzy has the most quickness of our daughters," her father defended. "But if it is beauty this young man wants, perhaps you should stay away, for as you are as handsome as any of them and this young man might like you the best of the party."
With this comment, the conversation turned away from Elizabeth, much to her relief. She cared nothing about the coming of this stranger. She had a destiny to fulfill.
Two steeds snorted in contentment, finally having a chance to eat and rest after a long night of riding. Charles grinned up at his friend as he knelt to refill his flask with water from the nearby stream. "Look how clear the water is, Will! And I do believe that the air is fresher here in the north!"
Will's grunt matched that of the horses. He hadn't spoken since they had dismounted.
His eyes peered around the clearing. The forested northlands were indeed beautiful, but his dark mood prevented him from appreciating their surroundings.
"What's on your mind?" his friend finally asked.
"Is this truly the right plan? I worried before that I was endangering our men. But now... are we putting innocent people at risk, too?"
"Fine time to ask that question, isn't it, now that we have scattered our soldiers far and wide?"
Fitzwilliam exhaled heavily, thumping his forehead. Charles was right. The soldiers had already been sent out to villages all over the northern lands, his grand strategy to defend the north against the invaders. After the loss of the southern lands, he had written to Thumpin, asking desperately for advice. Thumpin had written back, "Observe nature. Neither predators nor prey expose themselves openly. They all use disguise."
The prince had interpreted that as a suggestion to abandon the usual warfare tactics of sending large troops out to battle. Instead, he would disperse his troops around the towns and villages of the north, disguised as traders, farmers and the like, dressed in the clothing of ordinary people, not soldiers. If soldiers were already present in the villages, they could better help the people defend themselves. Indeed, with rapid communication provided by a network of spies led by Charles, the soldiers could easily re-gather to plan sneak attacks on the Aurorans. Will's plan was to slowly retake the southern lands, one village at a time.
He and Charles would be stationed in a small village called Merrytown, ideally placed near the border between the north and south, but obscured by the dense forest that surrounded it. Charles assured him the widow from whom he had let a field in the village was deeply loyal to the Pemberlean cause. Her late husband had been knighted by Will's father for his service to the king many years ago, and her two sons had been killed by the Auroran army.
"You're thinking about that girl, aren't you?" Charles interrupted his rumination.
Will grimaced. Indeed, a young girl had been much on his mind the last few weeks.
After eight years on the battlefront the prince had become hardened to death and suffering. But that hadn't prepared him for the horror he had felt when a peasant man had come to their last encampment, screaming in anguish. "You! You and your men did this to her!" the man cried.
Several of his soldiers restrained the peasant and asked the Will if they should kill the man for his accusations. "No," the prince replied. "He's obviously grieving. Let's find out why."
The bitter man spat out his story. His only daughter, a girl of sixteen, had been violated by one of the soldiers.
"Are you sure it wasn't an Auroran, sir?" Prince Fitzwilliam asked. "Their barbarism is legendary. Our soldiers would never do anything like that!"
"No, it was one of you!" the man screamed. "He wore the coat of the red stripe like your soldiers, not the purple stripe of the Aurorans!"
The prince was deeply disturbed by this news, but certain there must be some explanation. Perhaps an Auroran soldier had stolen the uniform of one of his men and violated the girl in disguise. He asked the peasant to take him to his daughter.
Fitzwilliam's heart was pierced when he saw the young girl, whose name was Georgiana. She was small for her age and beautiful, with golden hair and blue eyes. Yet her expression was filled with sorrow and when she spotted the uniforms worn by the prince, his friend Charles and another soldier who accompanied him, she cowered behind her mother in fear.
"Which one was it, Georgiana?" her father cried. "Which one did this to you?"
Trembling, the girl pointed at the prince. "YOU!" the man snarled, and lunged for him, only to be restrained by Charles and the other soldier.
The girl began shaking her head wildly. She pointed to the prince again and touched her hair, and then ran her forefinger across her right cheek several times. "I think she's saying he looks like the man, but isn't him," the girl's mother said.
The prince's thoughts flew rapidly. Looks like me but isn't? Who would that be? Suddenly he realized what the girl's gesture meant. Like Fitzwilliam, his childhood friend George was tall and had dark, curly hair. Unlike him, he had a scar across his right cheek, borne in battle. His worst fears were realized. It was indeed one of his own men responsible for this outrage.
Charles recognized the truth an instant later. "It was George," he said softly. "But why? There are plenty of girls coming to the camps."
There were. Lacking husbands and often food, many of the young women from the southern villages visited the army camps, offering themselves to the soldiers in exchange for a meal. There was no need for George to cruelly harm a young girl if female companionship was what he wanted. Will burned with anger. "We know the man who did this, and we will make sure he is punished," he vowed to the girl and her parents.
They were too late, however. By the time the prince and Charles returned to camp, George had already fled.
"I would like to think our men have integrity, Charles," he said slowly. "But I was deceived by George. What if there are others in our army like him? I am sending them to live in the towns and homes of people like that peasant family. People with daughters."
"You're doing this to protect their daughters, Will! I know what George did was terrible. But it was an exception. Meanwhile, think of the hundreds of young women who have been stolen by the Aurorans!"
Will's nose flared and his brown eyes darkened in determination. "You're right. We will win this war! The Aurorans--and George--will pay for what they've done!"
Posted on: 2014-03-18
Lizzy's sisters were all aflutter. The Widow Burg was throwing a party for her new tenants! There wasn't just one young man, but two. Apparently, the one who'd let the field had brought a friend with him.
Her sisters were excited about the prospect of two single men in the neighborhood, but Lizzy's only thought was that they were smart to come together. The field, fallow for three years now, would be too much work for one man alone.
Of course, if the Widow's situation had been different, she wouldn't have needed to let her field in the first place. The Burgs had once been the wealthiest family in their village, Henry Burg having been knighted years ago for some service to the king. He and his sons were strong and hardworking, which was good, since Lady Burg, as she insisted upon being called, had chosen to become a woman of leisure after her husband attained nobility status. Her elder daughter Anne had always been sickly and unable to help on their farm. Her younger daughter Caroline decided she would become just like her mother, certain that she would never be required to do a day's work and that some fine, wealthy man would one day marry her.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the family three years earlier. The two sons joined the army and both were killed in battle. When the news came to Merrytown, Lord Henry's heart stopped and he died.
The fortune of the widow and her daughters had slowly disappeared, and now they were in dire straits. Yet they continued to act as though they were still the community's leading family. Caroline especially was wont to put on airs. Most of the other villagers tolerated this behavior, concluding that it was the only way Widow Burg and her daughters could handle their grief. Secretly, they slipped food and other goods onto the family's porch at night so that they wouldn't starve.
Lizzy knew that most of the village would contribute food to the feast the widow was planning, but she nonetheless would act as if the entire meal resulted from her riches and generosity. Caroline would be even more boastful. Lizzy sighed. She knew she should be compassionate, given what the family had suffered, but sometimes it was hard. They weren't the only ones in the village who had lost brothers and sons.
As expected, her mother was screeching for her girls to help with the preparations. "Jane, how is the cheese coming along? Lydia, have you started cutting the onions for the stew? Mary, the cabbage! Lizzy, have you finished skinning that rabbit? Oh, and where is Kitty?"
The dirtiest jobs always went to Lizzy, Mama assuming that her most tomboyish of daughters had the strongest stomach for it. She did not know that anything to do with killing an animal pained Lizzy to her core. Realizing that rabbit stew would provide a tasty welcome for the newcomers, however, Lizzy suffered through the job without complaining.
Her father busied himself polishing and tuning his fiddle. He was a skilled player, and had hoped to pass on the gift to his sons. Having no sons, he guarded his instrument jealously, although Lizzy suspected that her sister Mary sometimes sneaked a few strums when Papa was out in the field.
When the food was prepared, Mama began rushing around, barking at the girls to get ready. Kitty had picked wildflowers, and four of the girls were threading them into their hair. Kitty turned to Lizzy and offered her a bunch.
Mama slapped Kitty's hand. "Your sister does not need it! She has her acorns to adorn her!"
Kitty looked at Lizzy in apology, but Lizzy just smiled and shook her head. She had no interest in attracting the young men anyway.
The family finished dressing, and carried fiddle and food to the party. Along the way, they met the family of Lucas the Blacksmith, whose daughters, Charlotte and Maria, were good friends of the sisters.
Charlotte stepped in between Lizzy and Jane, looping her arms in their elbows. "I am so eager for this party! Young men at last!"
Jane laughed. "Yes, but there are only two of them, and many of us. They will be exhausted from dancing tonight, I am sure."
"If the mothers do not tear them limb from limb first, each one trying to snatch them for her daughters!" Charlotte quipped. All three young women laughed.
They arrived at the Burg home, the largest in the village, but now fallen somewhat into disrepair. Widow Burg stood by the front door, greeting her guests. To save the widow embarrassment, the mothers and daughters carried their food offerings around back, while hearing Lady Burg cry out, "Ah, Blacksmith Lucas and Farmer Ben, welcome!"
After placing food on the large table just inside the back door, Mama and her sisters returned around front to enter, but Lizzy remained in the kitchen to help set up. She could hear shouts and laughter, and her father beginning to play.
A while later, her mother came into the kitchen. "It's supper time, Lizzy, don't be lazy! Start bringing out plates of food!"
Jane and a few of the other women joined her as they began to serve plates and bowls and carry them to the guests. While the guests of honor sat at the main room's dining table with the Burg family and leading men of the village, most others found seats on chairs, stools or benches.
"Have you seen them yet, Lizzy?" Jane asked when she finally took a seat on a bench between her and Charlotte.
Lizzy looked over at the two young men at the table. One was slender and blond-haired, the other muscular and dark. The Widow Burg's younger daughter Caroline was leaning over the dark-haired one, placing her hand on his arm and shoulder repeatedly. He appeared to be trying to avoid her, but as he was seated beside her at the table, the task was impossible.
Lizzy chuckled. "I assume Caroline is staking out her claim?"
"She's certainly trying," Charlotte noted. "But wait until he and his friend see Jane. Caroline will be no match for our village beauty."
Jane blushed, crying out, "Oh, no!"
Lizzy patted her arm and smiled. "I would not be surprised if one of those men falls in love with you." Jane was indeed the most beautiful young woman in their village, but very modest.
Charlotte went on. "The blonde is named Charles, and the dark-haired one Will. Many have speculated that they are wealthy, but I have heard that their village and farms in the southland were burned. They likely came here with not much more than some coins and the clothes on their backs."
"Ah, but when men are few, scheming mamas will not be choosy," said Lizzy, "as long as they have riches besides money, such as youth and vigor and good looks."
Charlotte grinned. "Of that, these men have riches aplenty!"
When supper was finished, Lizzy and some of the other women gathered the dishes and returned to the kitchen to wash them. She heard her father's fiddle begin again, along with the rhythmic sounds of feet dancing and hands clapping.
A while later, she heard a screeching sound from the fiddle, and the dancing apparently coming to a halt.
Her father entered the kitchen. "Come quickly, Lizzy, you must save us all!"
"What is it, Papa?" she asked.
"I put my fiddle down to take a short break, and your sister Mary picked it up! She is attempting to play and she cannot! The Widow Burg has begun to disparage our family, claiming she could play better had she ever learned!"
"And what am I to do?"
"Sing, Lizzy! You must sing! No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think anything wanting."
Reluctantly, Lizzy nodded and wiped her hands on a towel. When she returned to the main room, he father announced, "My daughter Elizabeth will now grace us with a song!"
Several applauded and Mary, biting her lip, lowered the fiddle and sat down. Lizzy felt awful, seeing her sister's embarrassment. But everyone was looking at her in expectation, so she began to sing.
Winter comes, the seeds find sleep,
Their life seems o'er, but do not weep,
Spring returns and the buds will flower
Harvest comes at its appointed hour.
As she continued to sing about the cycles of nature so familiar to country life, people began to dance again. As she had expected, Jane appeared to have caught the eyes of one of the two newcomers. The blond one was now dancing with her.
The dark-haired man remained seated, however, despite Caroline's tugging at his hand as if to convince him to dance.
He was staring at Lizzy, which made her nervous. Did he dislike her singing? No matter. Her courage always rose with every attempt to intimidate her, so she stood tall to finish her melody.
Everyone clapped and she curtsied. Dishes done, family shame averted, Lizzy decided that it was time to take in some night air. She left the house and began to stroll beneath the stars.
Will and Charles spent their first few days in Merrytown discovering the lay of the land in their new home. The widow's house was the largest in town, on what appeared to have once been fine property. But the yard on which the house stood and the adjoining field had become overgrown with weeds and berry bushes.
Otherwise, the location was ideal. From the back of the widow's house, the yard sloped downward abruptly; someone had accommodated the incline by building a set of stairs leading down to the nether field. A small hut abutted the back of the field that had probably served as a place of rest for tired farmers during harvest season. Charles and Will would live in the hut during their time in the village. Beyond the hut lay a vast forest, an excellent spot to explore and gather wood and stone for weapons. A barn on the property, unused due to the family having sold their animals some time ago, would serve to stockpile weapons as well as to stable their horses.
Many men in the neighborhood stopped by to introduce themselves. Charles and Will observed each man carefully, trying to determine which of them could be trusted to enlist in protecting the village. Although they wanted to assume that everyone was supportive of the war efforts, they realized that they had to be careful.
They decided that the local blacksmith, Lucas, would be one likely supporter. He had three sons, ages 10, 12 and 14, who would soon be old enough to join the king's army. Metal was scarce so Lucas had little work these days, and thus had time on his hands. He also had a skill that might prove very useful in fashioning arms for battle.
His friend who came with him, a farmer named Ben, was a less promising prospect. He had only daughters, so no one to send off to war. He spent his entire time during their meeting describing his fiddle, as if that were his only care.
The widow and her daughters invited the young men to sup every evening. Charles and Will did not want to refuse their hostesses' hospitality, but it quickly became apparent that the family had not much to share. What little they did have seemed to have been provided by their neighbors.
As such, the two men were very surprised when Widow Burg announced, a few days after their arrival, that she was throwing them a party.
Will's initial reaction was to refuse the offer, but he could see that giving them the feast was a point of pride for the widow. Moreover, it would provide them with an opportunity to scrutinize the entire community.
Yet as the evening of the party drew near, Will's apprehension grew. He had begun to suspect that the community considered this party less about welcoming them to the village, and more about placing them on the local marriage market for the many young women around. He and Charles were the only single men in their twenties in the entire neighborhood who were not feeble in mind or body. All the rest were married--or dead.
What was worse, the widow's younger daughter, Caroline, seemed to believe that he had come to the village for her sake. She spent every mealtime smiling at him, attempting to touch him, and babbling eagerly about how they would soon dance together. Well, he would end that wishful thinking quickly. He would dance with no one, allowing no speculation about him and any young woman in Merrytown.
Nevertheless, Caroline positioned herself next to him at the party, describing each of the neighbors as they arrived. As much as he wanted to move away from her, her gossip could prove useful in identifying who each person was.
"And that," she was saying, "is Farmer Ben. He and his wife Fanny have five daughters between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two."
Will nodded, remembering meeting the man. "He's a fiddler, correct?"
"Yes, and a rather talented one actually. It's a good thing his daughters are hard workers, or his farm would be ruined, since he spends so much time practicing."
He almost laughed at the irony of Caroline's statement, given the condition of her own family's field.
"Ah, and those are his wife and daughters. All the silliest girls you will ever meet, except the eldest one, Jane, who is quite sensible."
"You said there are five daughters. I see only four."
Caroline rolled her eyes. "The missing one is Lizzy, the oddest of the bunch. She has for years carried this strange sachet of acorns around her neck. She has a tendency to wander away for hours at a time." She leaned toward him and whispered, "Some suspect her of going off to be a camp girl."
Will looked at Caroline in shock. "How does a girl like you know about such things?"
Caroline laughed. "I am not a child, you know. My brothers were in the army, and they wrote about those immoral women in their letters. Not that they ever partook, of course."
Will frowned. A camp girl in this community could be a problem.
Caroline's gossip proved right in many ways, as Farmer Ben's daughters proceeded to behave in very silly ways throughout the party, the youngest two coming up to him and Charles repeatedly, giggling and then running away. Worse, the middle one picked up her father's fiddle and attempted to play, but clearly lacked her father's gift.
When Farmer Ben announced that his daughter Elizabeth would sing, he sat up on alert. This must be Lizzy, the odd one Caroline had described. He watched her carefully, trying to determine whether he had seen her visiting any of the men in his company, but she did not look familiar.
As the most beautiful voice he'd ever heard came forth from the young woman's mouth, he continued to stare. How could a dissolute camp girl sing so sweetly?
Caught up in her music, he did not notice that Charles had joined the dance floor, Farmer Ben's eldest daughter in hand. Will spotted the two after Lizzy stopped singing and Farmer Ben returned to playing. The one called Jane was a lovely young woman, and Charles continued to dance with her, song after song. What was that fool thinking?
He fumed as Caroline kept trying to persuade him to dance, and finally snapped, "I have no intention of dancing. Now please excuse me."
Will stormed over to Charles. "I need to talk to you," he said through gritted teeth.
Charles looked at him as though baffled. Reluctantly, he asked Jane to excuse him, and the two men walked through the kitchen and out the back door.
"What are you doing?" Will demanded as soon as they were outdoors.
"Enjoying our new neighbors."
Will hissed in frustration, "If I can't trust you, Charles, how can I trust the men I've sent to other villages? You have a mission to complete! You are not here to court the farmers' daughters!"
"Will, there are almost no marriageable men left in this village. Of course these people are going to look at us as potential mates for their daughters! And they will become very suspicious if we act uninterested!"
"Camp girls aren't enough for you?"
Charles was silent for a moment, his expression livid. "That's a rather harsh insult. I'll admit I have enjoyed a few camp girls in my time, but I'm a man. I have needs, and I won't apologize for them. Not everyone is as self-controlled as you are!"
Will glowered back. Charles knew he couldn't risk siring any offspring, creating scandal at best or leverage for his enemies at worst if illegitimate children of the prince were discovered.
Charles sighed. "While I'm here, I fully intend to stay focused on our mission. But I also want to enjoy the company of a beautiful and sweet young woman." He placed his hand on Will's shoulder. "You should, too, Will. It will do you good to relax for once. Why don't you get to know Jane's sister, the singer? She's very pretty."
"You mean the odd one? I've heard she is a camp girl. And I want nothing to do with other men's dregs."
"Ahem," they heard, and turned to see a young woman approach. Lizzy was standing near them. How long had she been out here? Will wondered. Had she overheard them talking about their mission?
"I'd like to go indoors, if you'll please allow me to pass," she said quietly.
They stepped aside and she opened the door to the house and entered. Charles shook his head. "Very nice, Will. You're making a fine first impression on this community." He followed the girl into the house, slamming the door behind him.
Posted on: 2014-03-21
Charles visited Jane often over the next month, and Lizzy became convinced he was falling in love with her. Jane's feelings were less clear. She tended to closely guard her emotions, even from Lizzy.
Lizzy often wondered whether things might have been different had she never met the foxes. Unable to tell her dearest sister about the treasure, Lizzy knew that Jane suspected her of withholding something important. While as the two eldest girls they continued to spend a lot of time together, they were never as close as they had been before that day eight years ago.
Lizzy had passed the morning spreading manure in the gardens and was returning to the house to wash when she spotted Caroline approaching. Strange, for Caroline had never visited their home as far as Lizzy could remember.
Caroline wrinkled her long, thin nose in disgust when she saw Lizzy. "Aren't you the clean one," she sneered.
Lizzy pursed her lips as she thought of a retort. "Caroline! How lovely to see you! Come, let me give you a hug!" She held out her arms and ran toward her.
Caroline screamed. "Get away from me! Don't touch me with those filthy hands, you misfit!"
Lizzy couldn't help but laugh. "Why not, Caroline? After all, these filthy hands will help ensure an abundant harvest for the entire community."
Caroline glared, catching Lizzy's meaning. "I'm just here to invite Jane to supper tonight."
"Well, we certainly wouldn't invite you! Mama has apparently noticed Charles' fondness for Jane and thought it would a kindness to our guests to have her over."
"You mean your tenants."
"Our guests. Make sure you let Jane know." With that, Caroline pivoted on her heels and departed.
Shaking her head, Lizzy walked over to the well to draw water. She poured it over her hands, scrubbing them with soap, and then entered the house to tell Jane of the invitation.
That afternoon it began to rain gently, which didn't surprise Lizzy as she had seen the clouds gathering. Soon the rain grew heavier and Mary cried out, "The animals!" She and Lizzy rushed outside to herd the horses, goats and chickens into the barn. Before they had finished, the downpour had turned into a fierce summer storm.
Jenna, stubborn as always, resisted coming in as she had discovered a bush of ripe blackberries that she was thoroughly enjoying. Lizzy had to tug and prod the goat until she finally forced her into the barn. She then ran back into the house, completely soaked.
Only after she had dried off and changed her clothes did she notice that her eldest sister was not there. "Where's Jane?"
"Off to join Charles for supper, of course," her mother said.
"You let her go in this weather?"
"Let her go?" Lydia laughed. "Why, Mama practically forced her out the door."
"Mama, what were you thinking?" Lizzy cried out. She pointed out the window where trees were swaying wildly in the wind. "Look at this! It's a long way to the widow's house. Jane could get hurt!"
"Nonsense!" her mother said. "Jane may not roam about as much as you do, but she certainly knows how to get to Widow Burg's house."
Thunder cracked, and Lizzy looked outside again in trepidation. She had spent far more time outdoors in rough weather than Jane had. "I'm going out to find her."
"How can you be so silly," cried her mother, "as to think of such a thing, in all this rain! You will not be fit to be seen."
"And Jane will be?"
"Why, that's my lucky idea, Lizzy! Jane will arrive soaking wet, and Anne or Caroline will have to give her one of their fancy dresses that the old Lord, rest his soul, purchased in the capital city. When Charles sees her in that finery, he'll be sure to ask her to marry him!" Her mother smiled in satisfaction as if her plan were anything other than absolute insanity.
"Risk her life on the off chance that she might wear a pretty dress?" Lizzy shook her head in disbelief.
"Well, dear Lizzy," said Papa, "if your sister should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Charles, and under your mother's orders."
Infuriated that her family was so flippant about Jane's safety, Lizzy declared, "I'm going." She grabbed a cloak and set off to find her sister.
Lizzy ran along the road, avoiding the trees but unable to miss the muddy puddles in her path. When she could see the widow's house in the distance, she stopped to catch her breath. There was no sign of Jane.
Worried, she decided to leave the road, crossing through the near part of the widow's nether field and arriving at the back door more rapidly than it would take her to follow the winding path to the front.
Despite her desire to reach the house quickly, she stopped short when she arrived at the field. She looked around, stunned. The two men from the south had arrived in late spring, when there was still time to start some planting with starts offered by other farmers. Yet more than five weeks later, they had done nothing. No overgrowth had been pulled, no ground had been plowed, and no crops had been planted. The field looked unchanged from what it had been before they had arrived, except that the weeds had grown higher.
Why had Charles and his friend come to Merrytown? They were no farmers; that was for certain. So who were they and what were they doing here?
Fear suddenly gripped Lizzy's heart. Her sister. Her sister might be in love with a man who was not what he seemed. She had gone to sup with him, as part of Mama's plan to get him to marry her. She was possibly with him at this very moment. Lizzy started running again. Jane might be in danger, and she had to save her.
Lizzy arrived at the widow's home and banged on the back door in order to be heard above the sounds of the storm.
After a few moments, the dark-haired man, the one who had insulted her so abominably the night of the widow's party, answered the door. He looked over her disheveled appearance with disapprobation. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"I am here to see about my sister."
"She arrived here a short while ago as dripping wet as you, but she had an invitation."
Lizzy looked straight into his eyes to let him know that his glower did not scare her. She knew he thought badly of her, but she did not care; she had no reason to desire his good opinion. "Invitation or no, she should not have gone out in this weather."
"And you should have? Your parents allowed it?"
Before she could answer, she heard Lady Burg call out, "Who is it? I must know who you are talking to!"
Charles' friend sighed and gestured for Lizzy to enter. "Remove your boots," he said before leaving the kitchen, most likely to report her arrival to the widow.
Lizzy stepped into the kitchen gingerly, taking off her boots and placing them just inside the door. She looked up as she heard Caroline enter the room.
"Oh for heaven's sake, Lizzy, look at this mess you're making!" Caroline shrieked. "And your skirt is covered in six inches of mud! What in the world are you doing here?"
"I've come to see Jane."
"For what purpose?"
Lizzy ignored the question. "Where is she?"
"Upstairs with Anne, changing her garments."
At that, Lizzy turned to walk up the rear staircase. Caroline called out after her, "You can't go up there! You'll track mud everywhere! Lizzy!"
Lizzy had never been upstairs in the widow's house before, so she was uncertain which room was Anne's. However, only one room on the upper floor had the door closed, so she knocked.
"Who is it?" she heard Anne say.
"It's Lizzy, Jane's sister," she answered.
Anne opened the door, looking at Lizzy with surprise. "Oh, you're wet, too. Come in, quickly, before you catch cold."
"What are you doing here, Lizzy?" Jane asked.
Lizzy stared at her sister. She was wearing the most beautiful gown she had ever seen, made of a rich red brocade fabric decorated with flecks of golden thread. "Oh, Jane, you look like a princess!" Lizzy exclaimed.
Anne smiled, her thin, wan cheeks brightening a little. "Doesn't she? Goodness knows I have no opportunities to wear this, so I am glad I can give it to Jane."
Lizzy's eyes grew large. "You're giving her this dress?"
"Lizzy, I asked what you're doing here," Jane repeated.
Lizzy turned toward her usually serene sister, puzzled at her angry tone. "I... I was worried about you. Because of the weather."
"I'm fine, as you can see."
"Lizzy," Anne interrupted, "you need to dry off."
She handed her a towel, and Lizzy began to wipe her hair and face. She regarded the elder Burg daughter for a moment. Anne seemed to be to be a kinder person than her sister. She was about five years Lizzy's senior, while Caroline was the same age as Jane. Lizzy had rarely interacted with Anne despite living in the same community their entire lives. Although Caroline had often joined the other children in playing on the village green, Anne always remained indoors, too weak, her mother claimed, to be exposed to the elements.
"Here," Anne said, "try this one on, Lizzy." She handed her a silky gown of emerald green.
Lizzy smiled. "It's beautiful and you're very kind, but I couldn't possibly accept this."
"Please take it. You need to change into something dry before you get sick."
Lizzy nodded. "All right. Thank you." She touched the dress, noting that this gown, too, was adorned with images sewn with gold threads. She caught her breath as she made out the pattern--acorns. Golden acorns.
"I'm going downstairs," Jane stated.
"Wait!" Lizzy looked up with some alarm. She didn't want her sister around Charles unless she was present to observe them. "Will you wait until I have changed, too?"
Jane pressed her lips together for a second, but then seemed to soften. "All right, Lizzy."
Lizzy finished changing into the gown, the finest garment she had ever worn. It was a bit tight in the bodice, but would have to do, as Jane clearly did not want to be kept waiting. All three women then descended the stairs, Lizzy and Jane in their stocking feet.
As they walked down, they could hear the voices of the occupants of the Burg's main room.
"So crude, that family," Caroline was saying, "they let their girls run wild."
"Because they have no heirs, they allow their daughters to act as sons, instead of young ladies," the Widow Burg added. "I have tried to advise Fanny again and again on how to rear them, but she will not listen!"
Anne looked apologetically at Lizzy and Jane. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.
"It's not your fault," Lizzy whispered back.
"And what could Lizzy possible mean by coming here to see her sister? To walk three miles, or four miles, in a thunderstorm, to invade someone's home uninvited? It shows an abominable sort of conceited independence!" Caroline went on.
"It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Charles.
"You observed her, Will, did you not? I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition."
"Certainly not, but it's a moot point, as I have no sisters."
They had reached the bottom of the stairs. Anne looked as though she were dying of embarrassment, and Jane appeared on the verge of tears, so Lizzy took the lead to enter the main room.
"Good evening, Lady Burg, Caroline, and your guests," she announced, curtseying as she walked in.
Charles alone greeted her, standing and bowing and telling her she looked quite lovely. Widow Burg and Caroline appeared apoplectic as they eyed her in the gown, while the dark-haired man's expression was inscrutable.
Charles' smile widened when Jane walked in, which seemed to brighten her sister's mood. He took her by the hand and led her to the seat beside him.
Lizzy watched them carefully. Charles seemed to truly care for Jane. If only she knew who he really was and what he was about!
Anne looked around the room. "Please, let us go to the table and sup."
"We have a quandary, Anne," said Caroline, "for we have only six settings for supper. Perhaps Lizzy should return home, since she was not invited."
"Caroline!" Anne scolded. "Regardless of how she came, Lizzy is now our guest. And she cannot go home in this rain."
"She arrived in the rain; why can she not leave in it?"
"If it's all the same," Lizzy said, "I'd rather stay until my sister is ready to depart, but I do not need to eat."
"She may have my meal," said the dark-haired man.
"Oh, no!" Caroline patted his arm. "You have much work to do in the field, Will. You need your strength."
Lizzy looked at the man pointedly. "Yes, I am sure you are working very hard in the field. I insist that you eat." With these words, she had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing.
The man's dark eyes seemed to bore into her. "No, I insist," he said firmly. "I would have no appetite for supper knowing that a young lady goes hungry."
"Then it's settled!" said Anne quickly, as if sensing the tension. "Lizzy, you will eat here tonight, and Will, we are all grateful for your generosity."
Supper was a strange affair, with Charles and Jane talking in soft voices to one another, Caroline striving to the do the same with Charles' clearly uncomfortable friend, and the Widow Burg opining about all and sundry, while Lizzy and Anne exchanged amused looks with one another. By the time they finished, the rain had stopped, and Charles and his friend offered to walk Lizzy and her sister home. Anne handed them their wet clothing, which she had folded and wrapped in towels.
Charles had hoped to trail behind with Jane, but his friend was as forceful about making them lead the way as he had been about giving up his supper. Charles seemed to defer to the other man, perhaps because he was such a big, tall fellow. Lizzy looked at the man curiously. He appeared to want to keep an eye on the couple as much as she did.
As they walked, she took the opportunity to probe him.
"Your name is Will, is it not?"
"So how is the work in the field going, Will?"
"I would imagine it would be quite difficult, given how long the field had lain fallow."
"We are managing."
"This is a community of farmers. There are many who would gladly lend you a hand, if you ask."
"I said we are managing," he snapped.
Lizzy pursed her lips. Caught you, she thought.
"Where are you from?" she went on.
"I know, but where in the southland? What was the name of your village?"
He seemed to hesitate and then said, "Lambton."
"Curious," Lizzy answered, "there is a village in the northland named Lambton."
He paused and stared at her for a few seconds. "There is one in the south, too."
"And that's where your farm was?"
"What did you grow there?"
"You're very inquisitive."
"I'm a farmer's daughter; it's a topic of interest to me. And it's not a difficult question." She scowled at him, having grown rather irritated with this man who was clearly hiding something. She considered rubbing the red acorn, but did not want to waste its power. She would keep trying to find out the truth on her own.
He continued to ignore her question, pointing instead to the couple ahead of them. "Your sister and my friend seem quite taken with each other."
"Yes, they do. Do you approve?" she asked, suspecting he didn't.
"It's not my place to approve. She seems like a sweet girl."
"But not to your liking? You would prefer Caroline perhaps?"
The man snorted and emitted a sputter of laughter, making Lizzy almost like him. He was still smiling as he asked, "Why all the questions?"
"You're newcomers. Of course we are going to be curious about you. But I can't help but notice that you are having a hard time answering."
He stopped and looked right into her eyes. "Trust me, Lizzy. There are some things you are better off not knowing."
He would not speak to her again except to say goodnight when they arrived at Lizzy's home.
Posted on: 2014-03-24
After the fierce storm, the sun had returned bright and hot the next day. By the afternoon of the second day after the heavy rains, conditions had dried out enough that Will had decided to enter the forest again to gather more raw materials for weapons. It was to his good fortune that he was already kneeling in the brush when he caught sight of the purple striped uniforms. He crouched into as small a position as he could, holding his breath and watching as two enemy soldiers passed by. After nearly six weeks in Merrytown with no sign of the adversary, they had finally arrived.
Once the two men were safely past him, he rose and resumed moving. Will crept swiftly but lightly, his eyes rapidly scanning around and down, trying to avoid both footfalls and any additional Auroran spies who might be in the vicinity. He needed to return as fast as possible to the village to warn everyone and prepare for battle. He couldn't be sure how many Aurorans were around, or how soon they planned to attack.
A sudden glow amid a patch of trees caught his eye, as bright as sunlight but much closer to the ground. He lowered himself behind a fallen birch and peered between the leaves to get a better look into what appeared to be a small clearing where a few large trees had been chopped down.
He frowned when he spotted Lizzy sitting on a tree stump. The girl had raised his suspicions with her questioning the other night, making him wonder whether she threatened to make trouble for their mission. To his dismay, her appearance had been a bit distracting--she had looked exquisite in the dress she wore--and he had been unable to respond as nimbly as he should have to her sharp inquisition.
And now, what was she doing so deeply in the woods, and what was creating that glow? He looked closer. The glow was coming from her hands. He watched her for a moment until she opened her fingers, revealing the contents within. He sucked in his breath.
Gemstones. She held what were clearly gemstones of gold, silver, and if he were not mistaken, ruby and emerald. Yet these gems were more brilliant than any he had ever seen in the castle. His heart began to beat rapidly as he noticed their shape--that of acorns.
And one of them was golden. Like the symbol on his sash. Like the images on the dress she had worn at the Burg home.
How had a simple farmer's daughter acquired such valuable jewels? Had she stolen them? And from where? And what did it mean that one of them was a golden acorn?
His next thought was more pragmatic. He had to hurry back to Merrytown to sound the warning, but couldn't in good conscience leave the girl here. As long as she remained in the woods, she was vulnerable to encountering the Aurorans and whatever nefarious actions they might have in mind. He had to get her to safety.
He slipped as quietly as he could through the brush until he stood only a few feet behind her. Hearing a noise, Lizzy turned and spotted him, a startled look on her face. Before she could speak, Will rushed forward and grabbed her firmly, wrapping his left arm tightly around her torso and covering her mouth with his right hand.
She squirmed in his grasp ferociously. Saliva drooled down his hand from her clear attempts to bite him. He needed to calm her down, and quickly.
"Please, Lizzy," he whispered, "I intend you no harm. But there are Aurorans in this forest, and I am sure that they do."
She trembled, but ceased to struggle.
Will looked around and noticed a patch of oak trees about twenty feet from them. Turning the girl to face it, he asked softly, "Can you climb that tree, the second one from us?" The tree in question was tall and sturdy, with boughs that branched out enough to allow a climber some leverage. Furthermore, its upper limbs were well-hidden by the neighboring oaks.
"All right. I am going to let you go, but first, you must promise me that you will move fast but neither run nor scream. Then you must climb that tree as high as you can, and I will be right behind you. Do you promise?"
She nodded again.
Will inhaled and released her. Instead of moving immediately toward the tree, she knelt down. He thought that she was in fact planning to run, but no. She had bent over to gather up the gemstones in a cloth that lay on the stump.
Clever girl--not wanting to leave something so valuable behind, especially something that could reveal their presence to the enemy.
Jewels in hand, she moved quickly toward the tree and began to climb. She was limber and fast, and as he watched, he noticed she wore knee-length men's breeches underneath her skirt. Unexpectedly, he blushed, realizing what he might have seen had she not worn trousers.
There was no time to worry about embarrassment. As soon as she reached the upper branches, he too began to climb. He settled into a strong fork between two limbs, slightly below Lizzy.
She stared down at him, her frightened eyes as large and round as saucers. They were hazel, he observed, framed by dark lashes and a few auburn curls that had escaped from the ribbon that held her hair. Her skin was a golden hue from the sun, with freckles lightly dusting her small nose. Her lips were pink and full. A vision of her in the form-fitting emerald ball gown flashed through his mind.
Will tightened his fists. He should not be noticing her this way at a time like this! He turned his attention away from Lizzy, scanning the forest from their high perch, hoping to spot the enemy spies.
Lizzy tapped his arm with her foot. He turned toward her, and she pointed. The spies were nearby, scarcely seventy feet away, and heading in their direction. He placed a finger over his lips, and she nodded. As the men walked closer, their voices became audible.
"...very few young men in this village..."
"...so isolated, we can take it easily..."
The girl gasped and immediately covered her mouth with the hand that held the jewels. As she did so, two of them fell to the ground, making a distinctive plopping sound.
The Aurorans froze and looked around. Sweat began pouring down Will's face. The gold and red gems had fallen in the grass beneath them, and were shining as brightly as if someone had lit a small fire where they lay. His mind frantically raced as he tried to determine how he would fight the two men and protect the girl, since he was certain they would soon be spotted. The spies were already looking in the direction of the gemstones; all they had to do was approach and look up.
A warm summer breeze started to blow, creating whistling sounds as the trees swayed. Several acorns dropped from the tall oak trees around them.
One of the Aurorans chuckled. "Nuts falling, that's all. To be expected when your land is full of forest."
How had they not noticed the gems?!!
The two men began to walk again. Will and the girl watched until the Aurorans became specks, striding in the direction of the stream.
He waited for some time before he motioned to the girl that it was time to descend the tree.
When Lizzy reached the ground, she covered her face and began to cry. Understandable, and amazing that she had held back her emotions this long.
He shifted awkwardly, wanting to comfort her but not knowing how. He finally decided that if he could touch her to restrain her, he certainly could touch her to provide solace. He gently rubbed her back and said softly, "It's all right, Lizzy. You're safe now."
It seemed to help; she wiped her face first with her hands, and then with her apron. Then she bent down and recovered the fallen gems.
The gems! It was time to find out where they had come from. He grabbed her hand that clutched the jewels. "Where did you get these?" he demanded.
"They're acorns," she answered. "Look around, they're everywhere! To be expected when your land is full of forest," she mimicked the Auroran.
Did she think he was an idiot? How could she tell such a ludicrous lie! "Those aren't acorns, those are the finest jewels I've ever seen! Where did you get them?"
She laughed. "If they were fine jewels, don't you think the Aurorans would have noticed? And don't you think it's more important to return to Merrytown and warn everyone about what we've seen, rather than standing here interrogating me?"
Will wasn't used to dealing with insolence, and his temper flared. "Who are you, a thief?"
"Just what I appear to be, a farmer's daughter who has never been far from my village. The real question is, who are you? And why are you here in Merrytown?"
"Our village and farms in the south were burned, so we fled--"
"That's the story you've told everyone, but it's a lie! You and Charles have never farmed anything in your lives. You're lucky Widow Burg is too old, Anne too sickly and Caroline too lazy to check on you! But everyone will soon know when you produce nothing for the harvest. So why are you really here?"
Will wondered what to say. Tell her the truth? Ha! Trust this odd girl who might not be a camp girl--too far from the battlefront, he reasoned--but most certainly was a thief and a liar?
He suddenly noticed that she had begun to rub one of the gemstones, the red one, between her thumb and forefinger. He watched the gemstone gradually lose its color and shine, and turn into the simple brown acorn she had claimed it was all along. How had she done that? Was she a sorceress, too? A chill swept through him. Who was this girl?
"You're a captain in the king's army, and you've come to protect us!" she declared. "And you're something more, too, but it turned brown before I could see..."
Suddenly her face broke into a huge smile. "I know who you are! That's why you could see the gemstones! You're the one I've been waiting for!"
Lizzy began to laugh in delight. He had come at last! This was the man who would bring peace! She was surprised that it was Will, especially after their exchange while walking back from the Widow's house, but it made sense. He was tall; he was strong; he was obviously a leader. Others would listen to him.
She was almost dancing with joy. She had never imagined how the man of honor would be revealed to her, but now she knew. Will could actually see the acorns' gleaming! It had to be him!
He was looking at her strangely. She stifled her laughter, certain that he must think her crazy. But he would understand as soon as she explained about the magic.
"This one," she said breathlessly, holding up the now-brown acorn, "it was red before. You saw it, right?"
He continued to gaze at her apprehensively, but nodded.
"This is the acorn of discernment. It showed me who you really are. I can only use it once, that's why its color and shine have disappeared."
He looked bewildered, so she began to explain quickly. "When I was twelve, I rescued a fox kit from a trap and returned him to his mother. The vixen could talk--yes, I see your look, Will, but it's true! She could talk, and she gave me a treasure to thank me. It was these four acorns, all slightly tinted, and over the years they have become brighter and brighter. And no one can see it but me! But you can! That means you're the one! She said I could tell no one except the man who would bring peace, and she didn't say he would be able to see the gems, but it makes sense that the man of peace could see them! Each one has the power to do something special, give truth or love or courage or peace, but the vixen said I could only use them once! And I never used one until today, when the red one showed me who you are! So it's true, it's true, it's TRUE!"
She laughed again gleefully, spinning in a circle.
"You're insane," the man shouted.
She stopped whirling abruptly. "I know it seems crazy, but you have to believe me. Here, the gold one is the acorn of peace." She held out the golden acorn to him, and he jumped back as if she had offered him poison.
"Please take it," she pleaded. "The vixen told me that only the man of honor can use the golden acorn. When you rub it, it will at last bring peace to our land. I can't do it. You are the only one who can."
"This is ridiculous," Will muttered.
"No, it's not. I have known how powerful these acorns are because I watched them grow brighter year after year. And now that I've used one, I am absolutely convinced of their magic. So many people have died, and you have the power to stop it. Please, please take it!"
He shook his head. "That's not possible."
Lizzy was confused. Why wouldn't he take the acorn from her? Wouldn't the man of honor want to bring peace? Maybe he just doubted that acorns could be magical. She would have to convince him.
She held out the set of gemstones toward him. "Here, look at them. You see them. You called them the finest jewels you'd ever seen. But to everyone else, they are naught but simple acorns. You know this," she emphasized. "You and I both watched the Auroran soldiers overlook them. They wouldn't have if they could see what you and I see."
His look of skepticism suddenly vanished, replaced by something that seemed more like fear. Just as quickly, he hardened his face, banishing the fright from his eyes and replacing it with a more menacing expression.
She swallowed hard, but would not allow him to intimidate her. He was the one; he had to accept it. "These acorns are truly magic, Will. How did I know who you are? Because the red acorn showed me!"
"You're a clever girl. You knew we weren't farmers. You could certainly figure out what we were instead." He paused to glare at her. "Or perhaps you discovered the truth some other way. Maybe all this babbling about magic acorns and talking foxes is a ruse to cover up your sorcery."
Lizzy laughed nervously. "I'm no sorceress. I have no power on my own. Besides, aren't sorceresses evil? Why would I want peace if I were evil?"
"If you want peace with the Aurorans, then yes, you are evil," he spat. "There can be no peace with those barbarians!"
Lizzy bit her lip. Had she misunderstood? This man spoke of peace with contempt, his heart seemingly filled with bitterness. She tried one more time. "The Aurorans are now here, and you have the power to end this before anyone else dies. You're a soldier. Don't you want the war to end?"
"Not until every last Auroran is destroyed. Then and only then will peace come--if such a thing even exists."
She fought to hold back her tears. She didn't understand why Will could see the gemstones, but one thing was clear. He was not the man of honor. Not only that, but she had perhaps ruined any chance to find the true man of peace by telling this charlatan about the acorns. She breathed in to control her heartbreak. "Well, since you're so bent on destruction, let us return to Merrytown to warn my family and neighbors about the soldiers we've seen."
"That's the first wise thing you've said, Lizzy."
In silence, they ran swiftly through the woods back toward the village as the sun, now a bright rose, began dipping in the sky. When they arrived at the beginning of twilight, Lizzy cocked her head to the left. "I will warn everyone who lives in this direction. Please sound the alarm for everyone who lives that way."
"You're brave, I'll give you that, but insane and foolish. You're a girl. These are dangerous times. You need to return to your home and stay there!"
Having lost all respect for him, Lizzy no longer cared to speak politely. "I'm a woman. And this is my village, and these are my neighbors. I will be a part of helping to save them!"
Apparently he realized she wouldn't be swayed, because he nodded. Lizzy ran from house to house, telling everyone about the presence of Auroran spies with plans to take the village. At Charlotte's home, Blacksmith Lucas also admonished her to go home. "You've done well to warn us, child, but this is men's work now. Go home and be safe, and let the men gather supplies and weapons. We'll alert the rest of the neighborhood."
On another day, Lizzy might have listened to the blacksmith, but today she was still furious at that bitter, dishonorable man. She knew the forest better than anyone, and loved the people of her village, no matter how left out she sometimes felt. There had to be something she could do to protect them.
Posted on: 2014-03-28
Within two hours, Will's appointed local "officers"--Lucas the Blacksmith, Philip the Miller, and two farmers named Alfred and Jeffrey--had helped him to assemble most of the men in the village at the barn on the widow's property. Word had gone out for all women and children to remain indoors. Soon after the group gathered, Charles arrived with about two dozen men. He had ridden to some of the villages farther north, calling in other members of the king's army who had been in hiding, as well some villagers those men had been training.
Since their arrival in Merrytown, Will and Charles had instructed the four men they had identified as leaders to have conversations with their neighbors about the importance of preparing for possible invasion. Those who were receptive met the men at night in the nether field, where they had engaged in war exercises. In this way, about half the men in the village had been trained for battle. For the other half, protecting their families and homes would have to be their motivation.
During the past several weeks, Charles had worked with the sons of the four men, teaching them how to act as spies and lookouts. In the forested community, all were excellent tree climbers, which would come in handy. Charles had taught them how to communicate using various bird calls.
Inside the barn, Will and Charles began to hand out the arms they had been amassing since their arrival: wooden shields, bows and arrows crafted from pieces of timber, crude swords fashioned from rusted tools found abandoned in the barn, spears formed with handles of wood and tips of stone. As they had anticipated, Lucas had indeed proved to be a fine weapons-maker.
Will and Charles also retrieved several swords and daggers made from the finest steel. The entire arsenal was a shock to many of the male villagers, but the latter weapons especially. "Where did those come from?" asked one wide-eyed adolescent, still willing in his youth to admit ignorance before the assembled group.
"They brought them with them," answered Lucas. "These men," he pointed to Will and Charles, "are soldiers in the king's army. This is Captain Darcy and his Lieutenant Charles. They will be our commanders tonight."
Will stepped forward. "As you know, Aurorans were spotted in the forest today. It's possible they are planning to invade tonight. They have used stealth and ruthlessness to capture the southern lands, attacking unprepared villages at night. Their assaults stop here and now!"
He began to give instructions for the plan they'd come up with: each of their officers would lead a "troop" of men to different sections of the village. Everyone would remain in hiding, behind structures or trees, or crouched behind bushes. Eight boys would hide in very tall trees, able to observe any enemy soldiers coming from various directions. The boys had been instructed to provide certain bird calls as alerts. Owl hoots would mean men were entering from the stream; the nightingale's song meant from the south; a warbler call meant east; and robin, from the west. The length and repetition of the bird call would indicate how many enemy soldiers had been spotted, calculated in tens.
Will girded himself with his scabbard and dagger, which he had not worn continually since they had arrived in Merrytown. He strapped a bow and a quiver of arrows across his shoulder. He wished he could carry a sword as well, but it was not possible, as they had to distribute the weapons so that each man had two.
The night was cloudy as the men set out to take their positions. Will pressed his lips, grateful for the small blessing. The lack of moonlight would make seeing difficult. However, it would be just as hard for the Aurorans and likely harder. The Merrytown men knew their community well; the invaders did not. He just hoped that the lookout boys, the youngest of whom was Lucas' twelve-year-old son John, would be able to correctly identify shapes in the darkness.
Will took his place alongside the barn on the nether field property and waited. He heard a few owl hoots, but they were short in duration; actual birds, he concluded, not the lookouts.
Several hours passed. Before leaving the barn, Will had impressed upon the men that the wait might be long, the invaders might not even arrive that night, and that they must hold their positions despite the uncertainty. Thus far, all was silent; no one seemed to be returning to their homes.
A short while later, he heard it: the sharp whistle of the nightingale. It repeated. Twenty men, from the south.
An owl hooted in the distance, once, twice. Twenty men, from the direction of the stream.
Another sound, the gentle cheep of the warbler. Two times. Twenty more men, from the east. Will waited, but no other sounds came through the night. Sixty were invading this village, from three different directions. With the local men and the soldiers Charles had gathered, the Merrytown defenders had a little more than sixty. They were evenly matched, but stealth and readiness would be their best advantage.
A bright orange light appeared in the distance. Fire in a field, he guessed, one of the Aurorans' tactics. Suddenly he saw them: about a dozen men in Auroran uniform, creeping into the nether field from the forest. Along with Will, there were four other Merrytown men in this field, so each would have to take out two to three men. Silently, he removed an arrow from his quiver, positioned it on his bow, and waited.
An arrow shot into the night, a direct hit in the chest of one of the Auroran men. The man cried out, and his compatriots began firing their own arrows in the direction from which the arrow had come. Will aimed and shot, taking out another Auroran. Arrows began flying from different directions, and soon, all twelve enemy soldiers were dead.
One of the Merrytown men ran out in the field, shouting in celebration, perhaps thinking the fight was won. Will gritted his teeth and aimed an arrow just past the man. The man dropped to the ground as the arrow whizzed by his head. Will ran over to him, kneeling and whispering, "This isn't over yet! If I had been an Auroran, you would have been dead!"
The man looked up at him in fright. Will reached out his hand to help the man stand, and then whispered, "Let's move on." He looked up. The flames he had seen in the distance were gone.
The fighting raged on for the next several hours, with the Merrytown defenders managing to hold off or kill most of the invaders. As he became certain an area was clear, Will moved on to new sections of the village to reinforce the other fighters.
The battle sounds were diminishing. Had they driven the invaders off? Will had begun to slink back toward the widow's barn when he spotted an Auroran soldier climbing a tree. He caught his breath. It was one of the lookout trees, the one in which young John was positioned. Had the soldier spotted the boy?
Not waiting to find out, Will burst from his hiding place, ran and grabbed the man's legs, pulling him to the ground. The man swung his legs out and side-kicked Will, causing his knees to buckle. The prince held his ground, however, and drew his dagger, aiming it at the man's chest. "Have mercy!" the man shouted. Will grunted and thrust the dagger. He withdrew it, wiped the blood on the grass, and re-sheathed it.
A sound came from the nearby trees. Will knelt down and began to peer around. Another Auroran in hiding? He drew an arrow and began to creep toward the woods. He moved quickly from tree to tree, searching, but saw nothing.
When he was certain no more enemy soldiers were in the vicinity, Will returned to the tree where John had been hiding. He could hear the boy whimpering. He stood below the child, whispering, "You're safe now. Come with me."
John did not move, so Will started to climb. When he reached John, he held his hands out. The boy placed his arms around his neck, clutching him. "Do not tell Luke," his voice quivered. "He will call me a coward."
Will began to descend the tree carefully with the boy in his arms. "I will not tell your brother, but you are no coward. You neither screamed nor ran. There is nothing cowardly about feeling distressed by the death of another. It means you have a heart."
Will carried him until they were well past the corpse of the Auroran, and then asked John if he were ready to walk. The boy nodded, and Will put him down.
Will held the boy's hand to keep him close as they moved quickly back to the widow's barn. John's father was there, along with about twenty Merrytown fighters and Charles. The boy released Will's hand and ran into his father's arms.
"What's happening?" Will asked.
"The Aurorans have retreated," said Charles. "They're heading north."
"Take the soldiers from the other villages and pursue them," Will ordered. "We need to stop them before they reach any other parts of the northlands."
Charles nodded and mounted his horse, setting off into the night.
Slowly the Merrytown men began to regroup in the barn, looking at him uncertainly. Will set aside his bow and arrows and took reports from various men. He announced the outcome to the group. "You've done well. You've saved your village."
A cheer when up from the assembled men.
Will held up his hands to silence them. "Don't start celebrating yet. We have more to do. We have to get rid of the bodies before the women and children come out in the morning. I need as many of you as possible to start digging graves here in the nether field. We may need to work all night."
"And the blood on the ground?" one man asked.
Will shook his head. "Nothing we can do until the next rain."
Some men began to disperse to cart dead bodies back to the field. Others began to dig. A loud cry of anguish went up as one body was brought back. The corpse was that of Philip the Miller, and the cry came from his fifteen-year-old son.
Will pressed his lips together grimly. They'd had casualties.
Lucas placed his hand on Will's shoulder. "I'll go with him to tell his mother." Will nodded his thanks.
Another cry arose, this one from the fiddler, Ben, who came running over to him. "My daughter is missing!" he shouted.
"What?" Will asked, alarmed.
"I just went home to check on my family!" Ben cried. "My wife says that Lizzy has not been home all night!"
Will swore, and turned to the grave diggers. "Ben's daughter is missing!" he shouted. "I need at least five of you to start searching!"
Several of the men dropped their shovels and took off in search of her. Ben grabbed Will's arm and pleaded with him. "You have to find her. She is very special to me!"
"Do not worry," he reassured the man. "I'll join them in searching. I promise you, we'll find her."
As Will embarked on his mission to find Lizzy, he asked himself where she would go. From seeing her in the afternoon, he felt certain the forest was a hiding place for her. That's where he'd start. Branches scratched his face as he navigated through the dense woods, wondering if he were on a fool's errand. He thought about their argument and how she'd refused to go home. He was angry at himself for not forcing her to obey him. Lizzy was obviously stubborn, and as Caroline had told him, she had a reputation for wandering off. She was probably already on her way home while everyone was looking for her.
His heart thumped. What if that wasn't the case? What if she'd been spotted by the Aurorans? They might have killed her, or abducted her. He couldn't stop searching, not until he knew she was safe.
He came to a clearing, and could suddenly see. The clouds had floated off, revealing a nearly full moon. He paused, listening. Should he call her name, and risk the possibility that any Aurorans might have remained in the area and could hear him?
A crunching sound came from the nearby brush. He crouched down and froze, his hand on his dagger. Something was moving in the woods. A creature, a man, or was it the girl? He held his breath as a shape began to emerge.
It was only a fox. He exhaled in relief, and rose to continue his search. As he began to walk, the fox ran toward him, stopping a few feet away. It paused, leg lifted and head tilted as if it were studying Will. Strange. Will continued moving, thinking the animal would go on its way. Instead, the fox gave a short, high-pitched bark, making Will stop again. "Do you want something?" he asked, and then realized he was almost expecting the animal to answer. The stress of battle and the girl's madness were now affecting his mind.
The animal, of course, did not speak, so Will walked on. The fox followed and barked again. "What do you want with me?" Will demanded.
The fox ran a few feet in the opposite direction, then turned and ran back again. He repeated this motion two more times. Will had the strangest feeling that the creature was trying to get him to follow him. He shook his head, muttering, "If you know where the girl is, lead the way."
The fox began to run, and Will followed, striving to match the animal's speed. The fox would stop now and then to look back, as if giving Will a chance to catch up. Finally, they arrived at a very large oak tree, and the fox entered through an opening at the base of the truck.
Will exhaled in frustration. Had he spent all this time chasing a fox only to be led back to its den?
A moment later, the fox re-emerged and barked sharply. He entered and exited three more times in succession. Will almost laughed. The fox was definitely trying to communicate. It wanted him to follow again. "All right," Will said, "but I'm not sure I'll fit in your home."
He knelt down at the base of the tree and shook his head. The opening was too small for him to enter. When he hesitated, the fox nudged his shoulder with its head and began to lick his face.
Will grinned. "All right, all right, I'll go but don't lick me anymore."
He had to lie down on his belly and crawl to enter. Once inside, he reached above his head to see how big the space was. He fingers felt nothing, so he slowly rose to his knees, and then to his feet. He soon found he was able to stand up with room to spare. How was that possible? Was he inside a hollow tree?
He looked around, his eyes struggling to adjust to the dark. He could no longer see the entrance to the den--or the fox. He stumbled around, touching what seemed to be walls on either side of him. The walls felt like damp stone, not tree bark. Where was he, and what foolish thing had he just done?
He breathed in deeply to prevent himself from panicking. There had to be a way out.
He started to walk slowly, holding on to the walls to keep his bearings. A light soon appeared in the distance. Will didn't understand how there could be distance, but apparently he had entered some sort of tunnel. He began to walk toward the light.
As he drew closer, he could make out the form of the one he was searching for, sitting on the ground with her knees raised. Her arms were wrapped around her legs and she had bent her head into them, hiding her face. The light was coming from her lap, partly obscured by the fabric of her skirt.
He called out to her, "Lizzy?"
The girl looked up and stood quickly. "Stay away from me!" she cried out. "I want nothing to do with you!"
He approached anyway. "Everyone is looking for you. Your father is worried. Come, I must take you home."
"I will go nowhere with you!" she shouted.
He paused, confused by the terror in her voice. "Why not?"
"I saw you. I saw you stab that man. He begged for mercy, and you killed him!"
Now he understood the noise he'd heard in the trees. "This is why I told you to go home! A battlefield is no place for a woman!"
"You were supposed to be a man of peace!"
Will felt his temper burn. "I have already told you, I am not that man! I'm a soldier! What do you think soldiers do? We kill our enemies before they can kill us!"
"He asked you for mercy!"
"He wanted to survive! Do you think he would have shown mercy to me? Or to young John, whom he was about to kill before I grabbed him?"
"That's right; the blacksmith's son was in that tree. The Auroran had his weapon drawn. John is but twelve years old. Should I have allowed the enemy to have his way with him?"
She said nothing, her breathing ragged as she stared at him.
"John is your friend, is he not? A member of your community? Now do you understand why I do what I do?"
"But where does it end?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
"When every last Auroran is dead. Now, come with me so I can take your back to your family. If I have to throw you over my shoulder and carry you back, I will."
"No," she said defiantly. "I'll walk." She held out an object in her hand, which revealed the source of the light. It was one of her gemstones, the silver one.
He took a few steps and then stopped. "Uh... do you know the way?"
"I assumed you did, since you're so determined to take me home."
He exhaled loudly. "Where are we, Lizzy?"
Her defiance seemed to wither. "I... I do not know. My friend led me here."
"The fox. The one I told you about? I had not seen him for eight years, but I saw him tonight. He asked me to follow him here. Once I was inside, I did not know which way to go."
Will shook his head. "I'm joining you in your insanity."
"It's not insanity, it's true! I saw him!"
"I know," Will said quietly. "He led me here, too."
"I knew it!" Lizzy cried. "I knew you were the man!"
He covered her mouth with his hand. "Speak no more about this, Lizzy. I now believe that there is something to this story you tell, but I am not a man of peace. However, what's important at the moment is that we find our way out of this tunnel and set your father's fears at rest."
Lizzy nodded, and the two began to walk in silence. The stone in her hand was amazingly brilliant, brighter than any torch he'd ever held, and they could easily see their way. Despite the light, however, they continued to wander, not finding anything that looked like an exit to the outside world.
After several hours, Lizzy stopped. "Will, I can't walk anymore. I feel as if we're going in circles."
"That's because you and I were stupid enough to follow a fox into a hole."
"My friend would never lead us into harm!"
"Then why are we stuck here? Why hasn't he reappeared to lead us out?" Will sat down in frustration. The ground beneath him was cold, hard and damp, like well-packed mud.
After a minute, Lizzy sat down beside him. "I'm sorry," she said. "I was upset about what I saw, so I ran off. If I hadn't, we wouldn't be here. There are no doubt people worried about you as well."
He glanced at her, his irritation suddenly dissipating due to her genuine tone of regret, and shook his head. "No need to apologize. I became a soldier to protect the citizens of Pemberlea. You're one of them." Whatever else Lizzy might have been, she was one of his people, and he was duty-bound to look after her.
He paused for a moment. "Why were you out tonight anyway? You could have been killed."
"The Aurorans had set fire to my neighbor's field. I was drawing water to put it out."
The fire he'd seen. "A foolhardy action, but a good thing, I suppose. I have seen many fields and villages burned to the ground, leaving the people with nothing." He followed this comment with a very large yawn.
He nodded. "Exhausted."
"Why don't you sleep? I can keep watch."
"I can't allow you to do that. I'll keep watch while you sleep." He nodded his head toward the stone. "Do you think that will scare animals away?"
"I don't know, since as far as I know, only you and I can see its brightness."
"Your fox friend can."
"That's true. So let us assume the best, that other animals can as well."
He chuckled. "Do you have another? It might be good for me to have a light, too."
She reached into the sachet around her neck and retrieved the golden acorn, holding it out to him.
"Not that one."
She frowned but put it back, pulling out the emerald one instead.
"What's this one for?"
"I'll take it." Reaching for the glowing object, he whispered, "Sleep well, Lizzy. I'll be watching."
The young woman rested her head against the wall and closed her eyes.
Posted on: 2014-04-01
"Will, wake up!" A hand shook Will's shoulder and he jerked awake.
He felt disoriented, unsure where he was or how he had come to be there. "What... what's going on?"
"I think it is morning. I can see a light."
Will blinked. Lizzy's face came into focus and the previous night's events returned to him with a jolt. He grunted as he stretched, attempting to relieve his body's soreness from battle and sleeping on the hard ground. "How long have I been asleep?"
"I don't know. I've only awoken myself."
He slapped his hand against his thigh. "I should not have let myself drift off! Anything could have happened to you!"
"Will, it's all right. You were very tired, and we're safe."
"No, it's NOT all right! I neglected my duty!"
"Well, perhaps you can do your duty now, for I see a way out of here." She pointed to a source of light that was not the gemstones, not very distant from where they were sitting. It indeed appeared to be an opening, letting daylight into the tunnel.
Seeing a possible exit lessened his anger. He stood and offered his hand to Lizzy. To his surprise, she took it as she rose.
Her hand was strong and calloused, no doubt from farm work, but still felt feminine in his. He held on to it as they began to walk. He hated to admit it, but being trapped in the mysterious tunnel had unnerved him, and holding on to her gave him great comfort. If he understood nothing else, he at least knew that Lizzy was real.
As they approached the light, the opening became bigger, and they could hear noises in the distance. "How did we miss this last night?" Will asked. "I know it was dark outside, but the gemstone should have revealed it."
"Maybe it wasn't here last night," Lizzy answered matter-of-factly. "I'm pretty certain this tunnel is magic."
He started to scoff, but stopped himself. So many strange things had happened; he couldn't doubt the existence of magic anymore.
As they drew closer to the opening, Will released her hand. "Here," he handed her the green gemstone, "You should put these away."
She nodded and loosened the string tied to the sachet around her neck, dropping the emerald and silver acorns in, and then tightening it again.
"I'll go first," Will said when they reached the exit. He stepped out and looked around. He had entered what appeared to be an alley of some kind, a narrow passage behind several sandstone buildings. A grayish-brown cat nibbling at a dead rat looked up at him and ran off.
"What's out there, Will?" Lizzy asked, no doubt eager to get home.
He would have to disappoint her. "I don't know, but we're not in Merrytown anymore."
Lizzy gasped and rushed to his side. "I knew the tunnel was magic! But where are we?"
"A city," Will answered, the only thing that was apparent to him.
"Yes, but where? Do you think we are in the capital city of Pemberlea?"
"Perhaps we should walk around. I'll recognize it if we are."
"Of course! You're from the southland. You must have visited the capital hundreds of times."
He did not mention that he had grown up there. Lizzy took his hand this time, perchance feeling as apprehensive as he did about what awaited them. They walked out of the alley and found themselves on a busy street. It was still early morning, but signs of the city awakening were everywhere. He inhaled the warm scent of bread baking, mixed with the fetid smell of horse manure. He heard the shouts of vendors beginning to hawk their wares.
Nothing looked familiar. He didn't know every street of the capital city, but this looked like a main one, and he should have recognized it. The buildings also looked different than what he was used to--made of stone rather than brick or wood.
More frightening were the sounds of voices. He recognized the words--it was his language--but the accents were not those of Pemberlea.
"Is this--" Lizzy started to say, but he gave her a warning look that silenced her.
He pulled her over to a doorway, away from others on the street. "Lizzy, I need you to be very quiet. Something is very wrong."
"What is it?" she asked.
"Shh! Whisper only." He dropped his own voice even more. "Lizzy, this isn't the capital of Pemberlea. This isn't Pemberlea at all. I think that we are in the kingdom of Aurora."
"Aurora! But how?"
He tightened his grip on her hand. "How many times do I have to tell you to lower your voice? Do you know what kind of danger we're in?"
"I'm sorry," she said softly, glancing downward. "How do you think we got here?"
"Your blasted magic tunnel, that's how."
"Of course!" she cried, and then covered her mouth. When she spoke again, she whispered, "The magic tunnel led us here, so we must be here for a reason! We are here to bring peace."
"Stop talking of peace! What we need to do is find a way out of here before we are killed!"
He grabbed her hand and started dragging her back toward the alley from whence they came.
When they located the place where they'd first entered the street, Will groaned. The alley had vanished. He spat in frustration, "I knew this was sorcery. Only wickedness could have led us into the den of our enemies, with no way out!"
Lizzy gripped his hand, looking at him sorrowfully. His anger faded, and he squeezed back. He didn't want her to think he considered her to blame. No, she was just a na•ve young woman who had believed a talking fox.
"What should we do now?" Lizzy finally asked.
"I don't know, but safety must be our top priority until we can find a way out of here. That means first, that you cannot talk to anyone."
"No one?" Lizzy asked. "But we might need to ask someone for help."
"No one is likely to help us, especially if they realize where we are from. If talking to anyone is needed, allow me to do so. I know how to imitate the Auroran accent."
She looked at him in surprise. "And how do you know that?"
Will hesitated before answering. "My mother... she was a good mimic. And she had a tutor as a child who was from Aurora. She learned the accent from him, and taught it to me."
"Your mother had a tutor? You must be rich," Lizzy smiled.
Will blew out his breath. He had revealed too much; he needed to be more careful. "The other thing, Lizzy, is that we have to blend in. You cannot look around in wonder, like a country rube on her first visit to the city. We must take in our surroundings carefully, but act like we know what we're about and where we are going. Can you do that?"
"Stay close to me," he said softly. "I don't want you to get lost or hurt."
"I will. I don't want to lose you either."
For some reason, her words made him blush.
They began to walk again, speaking only when necessary to prevent anyone they passed from overhearing their Pemberlean accents. Lizzy would make a good soldier, Will observed. She walked purposefully but naturally, and did not act fearful. He could see that she was following his instructions. She kept her head focused on the road in front of them, but her eyes were taking in everything in all directions.
They trudged through the streets for many hours, becoming familiar with the layout of roads and alleyways, making notes of which streets were busy and which were not, and which neighborhoods seemed dangerous and which appeared safe. Will hoped they would spot something, anything, that would reveal an opening back to the tunnel, but nothing materialized.
On one busy roadway, dozens of people seemed to be walking uphill in one direction. Will scanned ahead and saw an elaborate building made not only of stone but also of marble, carved with intricate patterns and surrounded by a rampart on which soldiers were posted. The castle, Will concluded, fury building inside him. They were in the Auroran capital, and this was where his greatest enemy resided. Lizzy seemed to sense his anger; she looked at him with concern and squeezed his hand.
His rage had subsided by the time they sat down in late afternoon on a bench in a small park to rest. Lizzy removed her boots and rubbed her feet, which appeared red and blistered. He looked at her in admiration. He knew she had to be greatly fatigued, but she hadn't once complained. "You did well today," he told her.
"Walking?" Lizzy grinned as she put her boots back on. "Yes, I'm a great walker, and I have no pleasure in anything else."
Will smiled back. "I doubt that's true. I suspect you have pleasure in many things.''
She suddenly lowered her eyes as if bashful, and he felt his face flush. The comment had sounded more forward than he had intended.
They were both quiet for few moments, until Lizzy said softly, "The company was pleasant."
He raised an eyebrow skeptically. "The gruff, silent army captain was pleasant company?"
"We are lost, we are tired and we are hungry. You have good reason to be gruff and silent." She smiled at him. "Yet because someone else now knows about the magic, I felt much less alone today than I have in a long time."
Not used to sharing his feelings, Will didn't know how to respond. He was touched that she considered him anything near to agreeable, given how much his temper had been on edge. Moreover, he too had felt less alone that day than at any time since his mother's death, perhaps because he and Lizzy had had to be so reliant on one another. They had been forced to do oddly intimate things, such as take turns relieving themselves in a filthy alley while the other one, back turned, kept watch. The experience had to have been unpleasant for her, but again, she had not complained. After that, thought Will with a laugh, it's no wonder I feel close to her.
"What are you laughing about?" Lizzy asked.
He started to blush again at the idea of sharing his current thoughts out loud, and by his awareness of how much he liked her. To hide his embarrassment, he shook his head. "Nothing important."
"Well, then. Speaking of hunger, what will we do for food?"
Will realized that his stomach was growling. "I have a few coins with me, but they're all Pemberlean." He thumped his forehead for a moment. "Perhaps we can sell one of your gemstones?"
"No one else can see them, remember? Not that I would ever sell them."
"Point taken," he said. "I suppose that leaves us with only one option: theft."
"Will, we can't steal!"
"Why not? Would you prefer to starve?"
"Because it's wrong!"
"It's not wrong to steal from Aurorans."
"The fact that they're Aurorans doesn't make it right. They're people, too."
"They're not people, they're monsters."
"We've passed hundreds on the streets today, and I have seen no monsters."
"That's because they don't yet know who we are. Let just one of them realize where we are from, and you will see their barbarism revealed."
"Will, I don't understand you," she said. "I may not have been in the army or to the capital city like you have, but I have experienced enough to know that there are good and bad people everywhere. Certainly you've known some bad people in Pemberlea, have you not?"
Thinking of George, he nodded.
"So why is it hard to believe that there might also be good people here in Aurora?"
"The wicked people I've know in Pemberlea are exceptions, but the Aurorans are uniformly corrupt."
"You can't know that. Have you ever met any Aurorans, let alone all of them?"
Her naivetˇ was maddening. "No, but I don't need to! I've seen the outcomes of their barbarity: men, women and children killed, villages and lives destroyed. You haven't, Lizzy, so do not question me on this."
She went silent. Angry at himself for creating another rift between them, he looked away, and noticed that the sun was starting to set. He knew they should get up and walk again, but his legs refused to move. As they sat in stillness, Lizzy began to nod off, and he soon felt his own eyes closing.
The next thing he remembered was hearing a gurgling sound coming from Lizzy's throat followed by her scream. He woke up with a start.
Night had fallen, and they were surrounded by four young hooligans. One of them had snatched Lizzy's sachet from her neck and was searching the contents.
The young man threw the pouch down in disgust. "Just a bunch of nuts! Where's your money?"
As Lizzy gripped his arm, he eyed the young men warily. Did they have any weapons? He didn't think so, or they would have shown them already.
He had to move carefully, before they realized what he was doing. He flexed the arm Lizzy clutched, hoping she would feel it and get the message. Smart girl, she did, lowering her hand to free his arm.
In the next instant, he jumped up, drawing his dagger which had been concealed beneath his tunic. The youths turned and fled.
"Come," he took Lizzy's hand to help her stand, "we have to go."
She nodded and quickly recovered the acorns, clutching them in her hand since the string that had held them was now broken.
They walked back out to the street, which Will scanned quickly, looking for a place to hide. After a few blocks, he spotted several barrels in front of a storefront that were big enough to conceal them.
When they had settled behind the barrels, he said, "Lay your head against my shoulder and sleep. I'll keep watch."
"Will, you need sleep more than I do."
He lifted his tunic to reveal the dagger again. "Do you intend to use this?"
"Then let me to do my duty."
She frowned but rested her head against him. Watching her eyes shut, her face so near to his, brought out every tender feeling in him. He had to protect her. As soon as he was sure she was asleep, he unsheathed the dagger and used it to make a cut in his forearm, not deep enough to bleed out, but enough that the pain would keep him awake. He had already failed Lizzy once that night; he would not fail her again.
When Will gently shook Lizzy awake, she was still leaning against him. "How do you feel?" he asked as she opened her eyes and looked around. The gray sky indicated that night had passed but dawn had not yet broken.
"Better," she answered, "not as tired. And you?"
"Satisfied. We made it through the night."
She looked at him with concern. "You didn't sleep at all?"
Will shrugged. "That was the point." He started to rise to his feet. "The sun will be up soon. We should start moving before anyone sees us."
When he offered his right hand to help her stand, she noticed blood on his left forearm. "Will, what happened?"
"Nothing," he said quickly. "It's fine."
"I don't think so. That's a pretty bad cut. Sit down and let me have a look."
"Lizzy, we have to go," he said firmly.
"Not until I look at your arm." She watched his face turn severe and angry, just as it had when she first told him about the acorns. She wanted to laugh--didn't he know by now that she wouldn't let him intimidate her? "Will, I can be just as stubborn as you can, and then some. Now, sit!"
Will was still frowning, but she saw amusement flash through his eyes as he sat back down. Lizzy removed her apron, flipping it over to its cleaner side, and began tearing it into strips. "May I see your flask?" she asked.
Will unhooked the flask from his belt and handed it to her. She opened it and began to pour water onto one of the strips of cloth.
"Lizzy, don't!" he scolded. "We don't have much left."
"I have seen cuts like this become quite red and swollen if they are not cleaned, and the bearers of the cuts become very ill soon thereafter. I don't want that to happen to you."
He gave in reluctantly, holding out his arm to her. She took it in hand and pressed the damp cloth against the wound, causing him to wince for a brief moment. Lizzy realized that she felt no awkwardness in tending to him this way; it felt natural.
She had been truthful the day before when she told him she found his company pleasant. As long as she did not allow herself to think of the battle--and reminded herself that at least John's life had been spared--then she could block out the memory of what she had witnessed Will do. When she did so, she found that she actually quite liked him. He was steadfast, determined to look out for her in this peculiar situation in which they found themselves. Because she had felt alone for so long, having someone to rely on was an immense encouragement to her. Furthermore, she had to admit she was charmed by the touches of vulnerability he revealed beneath his tough exterior, such as squeezing her hand now and then as if to reassure himself that she was still with him.
When she had finished removing the blood and dirt from Will's arm, she took a dry strip of her apron and wrapped it snugly around the injury. "How did this happen?" she asked.
He did not look at her as he answered, "I did it to stay awake."
Lizzy peered at him, a little stunned. He had done that for her sake? "Thank you," she said softly.
Before Will could respond, they heard a voice yell, "You two! What are you doing there?" A red-faced middle aged man, probably the owner of the shop with the barrels, had approached and was staring at them.
Will stood up, and the shopkeeper backed a few feet away. Will was a big man, and perhaps scary looking to him. "Our apologies, sir. We'll be on our way."
As he took her hand to lead her into the street, Lizzy thought, Impressive. Will was very good with the Auroran accent, sounding not very different at all than the man who had yelled at them.
They began another day of walking, this time much more difficult. They were weak from hunger and their legs felt heavier. Although the Auroran night had been cold, the days were hotter than in Merrytown, and their throats had become quite parched. As Will had warned, the water in his flask was nearly gone.
"We should head for the city's central marketplace," Will said. "That will be the safest place for us. We can get lost in the crowd and not appear suspicious in our wandering."
They reached the area about an hour later. "Will you steal?" Lizzy asked, almost hoping he would say yes, the sight and smell of food in the market lessening her scruples.
"No," he answered. "At this point, I wouldn't be able to run fast if someone saw me, so I'd certainly get caught. I won't put you at risk like that, Lizzy."
As they walked, she tried to ignore the pangs in her belly by looking at the goods of various non-food merchants: a boy selling scarves, a young woman vending flowers, an older woman standing at a cart filled with clay objects. A small old man, his back to Will and Lizzy, was talking with the older woman.
Will halted when they spotted the old man and woman, and watched them carefully for a while. Lizzy found his behavior strange, since he had warned her about acting suspicious in any way. When the woman said her goodbyes, the man turned around, and she heard Will catch his breath. He motioned for her to draw closer to the old man, whose skin was deeply wrinkled and whose head was nearly bald. Suddenly, Will called out, "Thumpin?"
Lizzy watched in amazement. Did Will know this man?
The old man smiled a gap-toothed grin. "Ah, you must mean my cousin, Thurman. If you know him, then you have come from far away. You must be hungry and tired. Come, come and lunch with me today."
He turned and began walking, not looking back, as if he were certain they would follow. Will hesitated, but Lizzy tugged at his hand. "He knows someone you know, Will," Lizzy said. "And I am very hungry."
Will frowned but nodded. The man led them out of the marketplace and through narrow cobblestone roads until finally they came upon a small cottage.
The man smiled and turned toward his guests as he opened the door. "Come in, come in," he said.
Inside, the one-roomed cottage was warm and clean, containing only few pieces of furniture: a bed, a table and chair, a small cabinet, and a loom. "Here, my dear." The old man pulled out the chair at the table and gestured for Lizzy to sit.
"You may sit on the bed, my friend," he said to Will.
When they were settled, the old man walked over to a large pot hanging over the fire. He pulled down two small clay bowls that rested on the mantle, and began to ladle soup into them. Will, she noticed, watched the man's every move warily.
The old man brought the bowls to his guests. His hunger apparently greater than his suspicion, Will ate as ravenously as Lizzy did and accepted a second filling.
"This was delicious, sir," Lizzy said upon finishing. "Thank you."
The old man smiled again. "My pleasure. Anything for friends of my Pemberlean cousin."
"You know that we're from Pemberlea?" she asked.
"Of course. How else would you know Thurman?"
"And you welcomed us into your home anyway?"
"Our countries were not always at war, you know. When I was a boy, Aurorans and Pemberleans traveled freely back and forth across the border. Although my cousin's father was from here, he met Thurman's mother on a trip to your homeland. He stayed with her in Pemberlea, and there Thurman was born. Yet we grew up together because we saw each other during yearly visits."
Lizzy was amazed. She had spent her life hearing how awful Aurorans were, even before the war; she never would have imagined such a time of friendship in her country's history. What interesting stories this man must have to tell!
"Oh!" she suddenly cried, standing and curtseying to the old man, whose name she realized she did not even know. "I have forgotten my manners. My name is Elizabeth, but most people call me Lizzy."
The man's green eyes twinkled. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Lizzy. My name is Truman." He turned toward Will. "And you are?"
"Her husband," Will, who did not stand, replied tersely. "Will."
Lizzy looked at him uneasily. Why was he lying?
"Well, Will and Lizzy, I am honored to have you as my guests. But as you can see, my home is very small. If you are staying the night in our city, I have a good friend with extra room."
"We have a place to stay," Will said quickly.
"No, we don't," Lizzy answered.
"Yes, we do."
"No, we DON'T, Will!" Lizzy turned back to Truman. "We were set upon by thieves last night, and then slept behind barrels on the street. It was frightening."
"I protected you," Will snapped.
"I know, Will, but you shouldn't have to, not when a kind man is offering us a safe place to stay!"
Truman chuckled. "Young man, I know how hard it is for men to accept help sometimes. But by allowing my friend to shelter you, you are protecting and caring for your wife. I do not think your lady will find you any less of a man by doing so. Isn't that right, Miss Lizzy?"
Lizzy nodded. "That's right. I already know what a brave man you are, Will. You don't need to scare off ruffians again to prove it."
Will snorted gruffly, but a quick smile crossed his face. "All right, Truman. I'll let you take us to your friend tonight."
"Thank you, my friend, she'll be honored."
Lizzy laughed. "It is we who owe you thanks."
She looked at the loom, and the various fabrics, needles and threads lying about the cottage. "Are you a tailor, Truman?"
"Ay, that I am, and I think I can say a good one. I even sew for the king."
"You're a tailor to the king? How wonderful! But I would have imagined the king's tailor living in the castle."
"The castle does employ many tailors, but I only do one task for the king, sew his royal sash. The rest of my work is for the people of this city."
The presence of clean, dry cloths gave her an idea. "Truman, do you have any spirits?"
He appeared a bit puzzled by her request, but answered affirmatively. He walked over to the mantle and reached for a bottle, which he brought to her.
"And would it be possible to have a large piece of your fabric? To keep, that is?"
"Of course, Miss Lizzy." Truman selected a soft piece of cloth for her.
"Now," Lizzy said, turning to Will, "we can really clean that wound of yours."
Will's eyes widened in alarm. "Oh, no, you won't!"
"Are you planning to be a baby about this?"
He glared at her, and she laughed. "And now you are offended because I called you a baby? You, of all people?"
Will tried to maintain his glower, but soon enough his face broke into a smile and his eyes danced with laughter. Lizzy wondered how much of his life he had spent hiding his sense of humor beneath stern expressions.
Will sighed and held out his arm to her, his lips still curved up in amusement. She removed the strip of apron she had applied earlier, making Will hiss softly since it had become stuck to his skin. She then dampened a piece of Truman's cloth with the spirits and used it to thoroughly cleanse Will's cut. He gritted his teeth as it no doubt stung fiercely, but otherwise did not react. She somehow knew that it was a point of pride for him to bear the pain with strength.
When she had bound the wound again with a new piece of fabric, Truman remarked, "She takes good care of you, I see."
"That she does," Will said with a smile. "My own personal physician."
A little embarrassed, Lizzy sat down in the chair again. "Truman, please tell me more about your childhood and your cousin," she requested, eager to learn more about their host and turn the attention away from herself. Truman's voice was deeper than she might have imagined given his short stature, and it rumbled like the patter of raindrops against a house. She liked listening to him.
She continued to chat with the older man for a while until a loud cacophony interrupted them. Will, thoroughly spent by two nearly sleepless nights and lulled by a full belly and warm room, had sprawled across the bed, snoring loudly. She and Truman both laughed.
"Well, young lady," Truman said, "I think that's my signal to get back to work. I'll leave you two here while I deliver goods to some of my customers."
After Truman exited the cottage, Lizzy sat on the chair, watching Will sleep. As his snoring gradually dulled to a minor hum, she studied his face. Two day's worth of black stubble had grown above his lip and on his chin. With his eyes closed, she could see that his dark lashes were very long. His jaw was strong, and he had a dimple in his chin. He was, she thought with a smile, quite handsome.
But he puzzled her. He was a good man in many ways, loyal, giving, and even gentle at times. The fox, the fact that he could see the gemstones--all this suggested he was the man she had been waiting for. Yet he was filled with such anger and hatred for the Aurorans. How could such a man bring peace? She felt down to her bones that that was why they had come, but what did it mean that Will was unwilling?
She suddenly thought about how he had cut himself to stay awake and protect her, an act which had moved her deeply. This was a man willing to sacrifice himself for another. The man of honor was in him somewhere; she just knew it.
Truman returned later in the day as the sun was beginning to set. Lizzy, who had fallen asleep also, woke up with a sore neck from resting her head in her arms on the old man's table. She turned her head from side to side to relieve the stiffness, and then gently nudged Will awake. They each ate another bowl of Truman's delicious soup before joining the small man for the walk to his friend's house.
As they made their way through the narrow streets at twilight, Lizzy finally took the time to enjoy looking around her. The previous day, she had been anxious to follow Will's instructions and not appear the wide-eyed country girl. Yet that was what she was; this was her first visit ever to a city. The bumpy cobblestone roads were hard on her feet, accustomed as she was to fields and forests, and she missed the variety of animals and plant life. The wide assortment of people, however, fascinated her; she had never seen so many in one place! She wished she could stop each one and learn about his or her life. She smiled to herself as she considered that Will would certainly have a fit were she to do so.
They finally came to a house about the size of Lizzy's own, made of multi-colored stone and surrounded by a fence. Truman opened the gate and led them to the door. He knocked, and the door was answered by the plump, gray-haired woman they had seen Truman talking with in the marketplace earlier in the day. She was elderly, but did not appear to be anywhere near as old as Truman. Her skin looked dry and soft, rather than leathery like his. She was taller than Truman by a few inches. Her eyes were blue, and like her friend's, they were shining and alive.
The woman beamed when she saw them. "Why, good evening, Truman! Come in!" She ushered them in the door, asking, "Who have you brought to visit me this fine evening?"
"These are my friends, Will and his wife Lizzy. They are strangers from out of town, and need a place to spend the night." Truman introduced the woman to them as Dottie.
"Well, of course they can stay here! I have plenty of room. Where are you from, Will and Lizzy?"
"Not from here," Will answered sharply, again in a pitch-perfect Auroran accent.
"Oh," Dottie said softly, perhaps taken aback by Will's abruptness. However, she quickly recovered, and gave them a warm smile. "Welcome to our city! I hope you enjoy your time here."
"Thank you," Lizzy said quickly, wanting to soothe any hurt feelings the woman, who was so generously opening her home to them, might have had.
"I think they're quite tired," said Truman. "I came home this afternoon to find them both sleeping soundly."
"I'm sure you must be. I will go prepare your room now!" Dottie said to her new guests before bustling away.
Truman smiled. "Dottie's daughter is gone and married, and her husband and son are dead. She is lonely in this house by herself. She loves to have guests."
"We're happy to be here," Lizzy said. "But she should know that we're not--"
Will grabbed her hand and squeezed it hard. She glared at him, but said no more.
Dottie soon returned. "This way," she said, leading them down a corridor to a small bedroom.
The room was chilly but a fire, likely recently lit by Dottie, had begun to cackle. The room contained a bed that was piled high with quilts and pillows.
"I will let you rest," Dottie told them. "Please let me know if you need anything." She exited the room.
Lizzy looked around, burning with anger. "There's only one bed here," she said accusingly.
Will avoided her eyes. "I'll sleep on the floor. There appear to be plenty of blankets."
She pulled several blankets off the bed and threw them at him. "You were rude out there, Will. And why did you say we were married? Why did you lie to them?"
He caught the bed linens before they hit him. "I don't know whether we can trust these people."
"They're very kind."
"Kindness can be deceptive. And they're Aurorans. None of them can be trusted."
"You still could have been polite, and you should NOT have put us in this situation," she said crossly.
Will began to spread the blankets on the floor. "Lizzy, we just spent the last two nights together. I think we can handle sharing a bedroom. Besides, I want to keep you close, to protect you."
Lizzy didn't answer. She wanted to argue that being together in the discomfort and danger of the tunnel and street was very different than sleeping side by side in this cozy room, but his words about protecting her held her back. She knew she'd feel more secure with him next to her.
Uncertain what to do next, she sat down on the bed and removed the ribbon from her hair.
"You look very pretty with your hair down."
Startled, Lizzy glanced at Will, who was now lying on his makeshift bed.
He started to blush, and stammered, "I mean, I always think you're pretty. But now with your hair... I just..."
Lizzy couldn't help but smile. How could he be so infuriating one second, and so... sweet the next?
To ease both their embarrassment, she changed the subject. "Who is Thumpin? Or is it Thurman?"
"A tailor in the northlands of Pemberlea."
"How do you know him?"
He paused before answering. "When I was thirteen, my father and I traveled to have Thumpin make me ... some clothing."
Lizzy grinned. "Now I know for certain you are rich, because who but a rich family could travel to another part of the country to have clothing made?"
"That's humorous to you?" From his position on the floor, he was frowning.
"I didn't mean to offend you. I am only smiling because you don't seem like a rich man."
"How does a rich man seem?"
"Like Caroline or Widow Burg."
"They're not rich."
"They used to be, and they never let anyone forget it. But you--you seem ordinary."
"Ordinary?" he grinned, revealing a dimple in his cheek to match the one in his chin.
She laughed. "No, you're anything but ordinary. But you are not afraid to get your hands dirty, or to work hard. And you do not set yourself up above other people. That's all I meant."
He was gazing at her with a look that made her stomach jump. Nevertheless, she was feeling more at ease. She wanted to continue to get to know him better. Perhaps that was the key to overcoming her discomfort about sharing the room.
"What is your family like, Will?"
He didn't answer. "Will?" she said again after a few moments.
"I don't want to talk about them."
"Because my mother is dead, my father is ill, and I'm an only child. Now stop asking."
Lizzy exhaled, embarrassed and a little hurt by the break in their camaraderie.
"I didn't mean to snap at you, Lizzy," he apologized a few seconds later. "Why don't you tell me about your family instead?"
"You've met them."
"Yes, but I've never heard about them from you."
She thought for a moment. "My family is loving, but... I am the odd one. I wasn't always, but ever since I met the foxes and received the treasure, they have known something was strange about me. My mother is embarrassed by it, and so she is very critical of me. With so many young men off to war or dead, she and my sisters spend most of their time thinking about how my sisters will ever find husbands, while I am busy wondering how to save the world. My father escapes from all the female madness by playing his fiddle."
"You and Jane seem very close."
"We are... and we aren't. We used to tell each other everything, but she knows I am keeping a secret from her. It has erected a wall between us that I have never been able to bring down. And so, even though I have a large family, I am very lonely."
He was looking at her that way again. "I understand, Lizzy. I have felt isolated for much of my life, even though I too am surrounded by people."
"And you also have secrets."
His admission made her feel sad. His secrets formed another wall, like the one between her and Jane. For some reason, she didn't want any barriers between her and Will.
She immediately chided herself for this thought. No mother, no brothers or sisters, and an ill father. He had far more reason than she did to be lonely, and to keep his feelings to himself. She looked at him to communicate her compassion. As she did, she was struck by the thought, His eyes are very beautiful.
"I was fourteen," he said, startling her out of her musing about his eyes.
"When my mother died, I was fourteen years old. Nothing was ever the same for my father and me afterward. That's why it's difficult to talk about."
"I'm very sorry. You must miss her a great deal."
"Yes, I do. I am sorry for you as well."
"That you have had to go through such pain with your family. You are much too loving a person, Lizzy. You deserve better."
Lizzy didn't know how to answer. She had never told anyone how solitary her family had made her feel. Her troubles were nothing compared to his, yet to have Will wish for something better for her after what he had been through almost brought tears to her eyes.
The sensation of thirst a few moments later made her realize she was staring at Will, and he at her. She stood up. "I'm going to ask Dottie for some water. May I get you anything?"
Will stroked his chin with his hand. "As a matter of fact, yes. This is becoming quite itchy. Will you ask Dottie, and Truman if he's still here, if either of them has a blade so that I can shave?"
She nodded and left the room. In the corridor as she approached the house's foyer, she heard Dottie and Truman talking.
"...is him?" Dottie was saying.
"Ay, of that I am quite certain," Truman answered.
"I can scarcely believe it, and here in my home! Why have they come? Do you think their intentions are peaceful?"
"I feel very strongly that they are. They have an air of goodness, these two."
They were talking about Will and her, Lizzy presumed. Had Truman just informed Dottie that they were from Pemberlea?
"What shall you do?"
"I have already sent word to King Thomas, requesting a meeting with him. If he answers affirmatively, I will take the young man. That way, he can fulfill his purpose."
Lizzy stopped and placed her hand over her mouth, her heart thumping. Were their hosts planning to hand them over to their king?
"You won't let them come to harm, will you, Tru?"
"I will do everything in my power to protect them. I promise you, Dottie."
Lizzy breathed a sigh of relief. Truman and Dottie were truly their friends. But their talk of a purpose for Will made her wonder. Did they see something special in him, they way she did? They must, she thought. For if they meant them no harm, for what other reason would they take Will to see their king if not to try to make peace between their countries?
Truman began saying his goodnights to Dottie, so Lizzy decided to enter the vestibule.
"Ah, there, love," Dottie said when she spotted her. "Do you need something?"
"Yes, please. I'd like some water, if it's not too much trouble, and Will asks for a blade to shave with."
"No!" Truman shouted. "You must not allow him to shave!"
Lizzy looked at him, mystified at the odd overreaction to her request.
The old man walked toward her and took her hands in his own. "Do you trust me, Miss Lizzy?"
"Yes, I do," Lizzy answered truthfully, remembering his promise to protect them.
"Then please accept that what I am asking is important. He must let his beard grow as full as it can. Will you help me in this way?"
Lizzy nodded, although she was still puzzled. "Of course, but I will miss seeing his handsome face behind the hair."
Dottie hooted in laughter. "Young love! So beautiful!"
Lizzy found herself blushing. She would soon need to enlighten them that she and Will were not married. But not tonight. She had to return to the room to convince Will that he would not be able to shave.
By the time she arrived at the bedroom, it was unnecessary, at least for that night. Will lay amid the blankets on the floor, fast asleep.
Posted on: 2014-04-05
Will awoke well-rested for the first time in days, and thus was in a good mood when he asked Lizzy whether she had acquired a blade for him.
"Oh! Truman said no shaving. He said you must let your beard grow long."
"I'm not sure, just that you must. Perhaps to blend in?"
Will furrowed his brow. "We have seen plenty of clean shaven men in this city." He bent down to pick up his scabbard from the floor, from which he withdrew his dagger.
Lizzy's eyes grew big as she watched him turn the weapon over in his hand. "Will! What are you doing?"
"Considering whether I can use this to shave."
"That's madness! A dagger can kill you."
"A blade can kill me, too, but I'm very good with a blade and my dagger. I think I can make this work."
Lizzy reached over to touch his arm, withdrawing a little as she eyed the weapon's long, sharp edge. "Please, Will, don't. I don't know why it's important to Truman that you not shave, but it is."
"Why should I care what Truman thinks?"
"If you won't do it for him, will you do it for me? Please?"
She was giving him a very earnest look, one he couldn't say no to. He pressed his lips together and re-sheathed the dagger. "All right, Lizzy. For you."
She then asked to check his cut again, to discover that it had scabbed over. "It can remain unwrapped today," she told him.
Watching her tend to him, Will was suddenly filled with emotion. He placed his hand over hers before she removed it from his arm, and she looked up. His heart skipped a beat. He was certainly now no stranger to touching her hand, but this felt different somehow.
He took a deep breath in order to say what he intended to say. "Lizzy, thank you for taking care of me."
"You're welcome. As I told you yesterday, I do not want you to become ill." Her eyes sparkled mischievously. "For selfish reasons, of course; I enjoy having you around."
Emboldened by her smile and her teasing, he began to gently stroke her fingers. "I also apologize for behaving badly yesterday, to you and to Dottie."
A look of--was it surprise or something else?--crossed Lizzy's face. She withdrew her hand and stepped a few feet away from him. "I appreciate that. And now, we should probably join her."
Will nodded, his face flushing as he realized that he had made her uncomfortable.
Soon thereafter, they were seated at a table with Dottie, who had prepared a breakfast of bread, jam and sausage for them. Will greeted her warmly and thanked her. "You do not set yourself up above other people," Lizzy had said. That wasn't true; he had with Dottie. He was determined to show Lizzy he could behave in a more gentleman-like fashion. Auroran she might be, but Dottie was an old woman and most certainly harmless. Moreover, Will had to acknowledge that she had shown great kindness to a pair of complete strangers.
As they broke their fast, Dottie asked about their plans for the day. Will wanted to say they would continue to walk about the city, but before he spoke he concluded that it was a hopeless strategy. The entrance to the tunnel would reappear when it was ready, if at all. Meanwhile, there might be other possibilities to find their way home.
Lizzy watched Will for a moment, and then answered, "We have no plans."
"Good! Will can spend the day helping Truman, and Lizzy, I would love to have your company today."
Lizzy smiled brightly. "I'd like that very much."
Will frowned. Being separated from Lizzy was the last thing he wanted, much less spending the day with Truman. Yet Lizzy was so enthusiastic about the prospect that his resolve seemed to weaken.
Perhaps it was for the best. If Truman, like his cousin, advised as well as sewed for his king, Will might be able to probe for information about the Auroran kingdom. Furthermore, he could keep an eye on the man in case he planned to betray them.
Dottie and Lizzy walked him to Truman's cottage before returning to Dottie's home. The little man seemed excited to see him, escorting him in quickly and asking him to stand beside the chair. The Auroran climbed up on the chair, dangling alongside Will's body a long rope covered in knots tied at even intervals. He then stretched the rope across his back.
Will knew what he was doing--measuring him--but he didn't know why, so he asked.
"I noticed that you and Miss Lizzy came without bags, and your garments are quite soiled. I am going to make you some clothing."
Will blinked in surprise.
The man stepped down from the chair. "Now, how tall would you say Miss Lizzy is, compared to you?"
Will held up his hand a couple of inches below the top of his shoulder.
"Yes, yes, that seems about right, and she is slender."
Will smiled suddenly, recalling a vision of Lizzy in the emerald gown.
The man sat down at the table where different colored cloths, a cutting knife, needles and thread lay. "Please, sit down on the bed, young man. Talk to me, entertain me! I so rarely have company while I work."
Will sat down, a bit bewildered. The old man wanted him to talk, but the less shared about Lizzy and him, the better. He would ask Truman about himself instead.
"So, you work for the king."
"Just on the sash," he answered, as he set about measuring and cutting cloth. "It is, you might say, a family specialty."
"Is that all you do for him?"
"Yes, that's all. I have not the wisdom of my cousin Thurman. The king would hardly consider me a counselor."
Will regarded him with suspicion. Why had he brought up the possibility of being a royal advisor?
He searched around for other questions to ask about his relationship with the king, and came up short since the man claimed not to be his advisor. He asked about a different relationship instead. "Is Dottie your lady friend?"
Truman smiled as his nimble hands pulled needle and thread through fabric. "Well, let's see. She is a lady, and she is my friend, so I would say yes."
The old man was toying with him, and Will grew annoyed. "That's not what I meant."
Truman chuckled. "I know, young man. But I do not know how to characterize my friendship with Dottie. I asked her to marry me, oh, had to be about thirty years ago, and she rejected my offer."
"It's a long story. Dottie is a gifted potter, and one of the most loving people I have ever known. She and her husband had quite the romance, but he died before their children were grown. Her husband left her with enough that she could survive on her own.
"I knew Dottie and her husband from their business in the marketplace. She was always so happy and lively, even after her husband died, and I misinterpreted her good nature as special regard for me.
"But one day, her smile disappeared. I wanted to know why, and learned that her son had been killed in the war. Her seeming joy after her husband's death had been an effort to stay strong for her children, and now that her boy was gone, too, she could no longer keep up the ruse."
Something puzzled Will. "Wouldn't her son have been too old to fight in the war?"
"Not this war, young man, the earlier one, started by your King Archibald."
"My--" Will stopped himself before he said the word grandfather. "King Archibald never started a war. He fought back against unprovoked attacks by the Aurorans. And it was short-lived, for he easily repelled them."
Truman arched his eyebrows. "That's what you've learned, eh? I suppose that's not surprising. Each nation is the hero of its own story. I'm certain we don't know the whole truth here in Aurora either."
"What are you talking about?"
"The border conflicts. Aurora and Pemberlea have argued over the lands on your southern and our northern border for generations. King Archibald decided to take it into his own hands to settle the dispute."
"Are you trying to say that King Archibald invaded Aurora?"
"That he did. In fact, some of the lands seized from Pemberlea in the current war were once a part of Aurora. Although our king Thomas has gotten greedy in his success..."
Will wasn't sure how to respond. Was the man intentionally deceiving him? Or did he just believe a collective lie, that the Aurorans were the heroes? Before he could protest that the man's words were false, Truman went on.
"Where was I? Oh yes, Dottie. She was very sorrowful after the death of her son, and I, still mistaken that her kindness to me was affection, thought I could cheer her by proposing. She let me know just how wrong I was!"
Truman stopped sewing for the first time, as if lost in a memory. "She reproached me for my arrogance, my conceit, and my selfish disdain of the feelings of others. And she was right. I did not care about her grief for her beloved husband, or her sadness about her son. I wanted her to be happy not for her sake but for my own, because that made me feel good."
Truman picked up his work again. "After I finished nursing my wounded pride, I vowed to change. Dottie had showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased. I decided that if she allowed me to even be her friend, I would be unselfish and think only of her wishes."
"She merely needed a friend, not a man to care for her?"
Truman waved the air, as if dismissing the idea. "I couldn't possibly compare with the memory of her husband, whom she loved deeply."
Will found himself perplexed, with thoughts of Dottie and Truman, Aurora and Pemberlea swirling in his head.
"Now you, young man," Truman shook his finger at him, "you're much more fortunate than I, for you have found a good woman who also finds you worthy."
Not likely, thought Will, remembering how much he had disappointed Lizzy by his refusal to consider peace. The realization pained him deeply. He wanted her to respect and admire him, but he knew he wasn't the man she wanted him to be.
As if reading his mind, Truman said, "She does, young Will. I see how she looks at you. She finds you very worthy."
Because of Truman's words, Lizzy never left Will's thoughts the rest of the afternoon, and he was eager to see her when they supped at Dottie's house that evening. Will glanced at her throughout the meal, wondering whether she truly held him in esteem. Yes, she considered him a better person than Caroline; but that was faint praise. She enjoyed his company, but was he more to her than that?
Lizzy was thrilled with the new dusty rose colored tunic and skirt Truman had made for her. She asked Will to step out of the bedroom so she could change before they retired for the night. When she invited him back in, he smiled in admiration. "You look lovely," he told her. "It goes well with your hair." He wanted to work up his courage to reach out and touch her dark reddish brown tresses, but remembering her withdrawing from his touch that morning, he refrained. Lizzy thanked him for his compliment.
As they began settling in, she shared excitedly about her day, describing how Dottie had taught her to use a potter's wheel. "I failed on several attempts, but I finally made a small bowl. She allowed me to bake it in her kiln as well. Approaching that was the hottest heat I'd ever felt, but it was marvelous to create something like that."
Will smiled. Her joy was infectious.
"Best of all, I loved talking with Dottie. I'd always wished I could share my heart with my mother that way."
"I'm glad," he said. She was such a sweet, vibrant woman, and the description of her loneliness the night before had troubled him a great deal. She deserved a life filled with love and friendship.
She asked about his time with Truman. He was too confused by the conversations of the day to answer, but he brought forth a cloth package and handed it to her.
"Something I made for you. I asked Truman to show me how. It's not very good, I know."
Lizzy grinned as she opened the bundle. "Why don't you let me judge for myself?"
The package contained a cloth belt covered with several pockets. The stitching was uneven, but Will was relieved to discover that it fit her.
"The pockets are for the acorns," he said. "I thought it might be better to carry them around your waist than your neck, after what happened in the park."
"I love it, Will," she said with a smile. To his surprise, she embraced him.
"Wait." She released him. "I have something for you, too."
She turned back to him with her sachet in hand, from which she pulled out the golden acorn. For the first time, he didn't recoil. "Will," she said gently, "I know you have not wanted this, but I believe with all my heart that you were meant to have it. Besides, you can always use it to light your way in the dark."
He smiled and took the acorn from her, its warmth filling his hand. He gazed at the gemstone in wonder, appreciating what it meant that she was still willing to give it to him, after watching him kill an Auroran soldier and hearing him so often disparage the idea of peace. This, he now understood, was the most profound gift Lizzy could bestow, a sign of her faith in him. His heart swelled with tenderness as he realized that she considered him to be a man of honor.
He looked up and held out his hands to her again, and she came to him. He embraced her tightly for several minutes, savoring the feeling of her in his arms and sensing their hearts beating together. He wanted to see her eyes, so he lifted her chin to gaze into them. They were shining, and filled with warmth and affection. He leaned closer, as though she were drawing him in.
"Are you going to kiss me, Will?" Lizzy asked. "Because I would like that very much."
Hearing those words, his lips instantly met hers. Her mouth was as soft as rose petals and as sweet as honey, and he lost himself in exquisite sensations.
Lizzy suddenly pulled back and giggled. "Forgive me," she said quickly. "I liked it, I really did! But I have never kissed a man, and I did not know your whiskers would tickle."
Shame filled him unexpectedly as a memory returned. "Lizzy, that night of the Widow Burg's party... what I said... I am so sorry."
She smiled softly. "It's all right. I forgave you a long time ago. You have never treated me like another man's dregs. Even if I were a camp girl, I know you still would treat me with respect."
If his heart hadn't already melted, it would be a puddle right now. He cupped her face with his hand. "You are a most extraordinary woman."
"Not a girl?" she teased.
He laughed. "Not a girl. Most definitely a woman." He could feel his face burning.
"You blush a lot."
"Only around you."
She rose to her toes, pulling his face toward her and kissing his lips tenderly again. "I think it's adorable."
His heart beat wildly. He had to fight every instinct to say his next words. "Lizzy, I think that you and I should go to our separate beds and sleep, before..."
"Before we do something an unmarried man and woman should not do?"
She took his hand and squeezed it. "You are right." She glanced at the bed. "Shall we switch? I can sleep on the floor tonight."
"Absolutely not," he said, more forcefully than he intended. "The floor is mine." The way he was feeling at the moment, he needed the discomfort of the ground to make it through the night.
Lizzy didn't seem to take offense to his tone. Instead, she climbed into the bed, giving him one last smile as she pulled the blankets over her shoulders, and was soon deep in slumber.
He lay down on the floor on his back, his arm resting under his head, listening to the soft sound of her breathing. His body was too full of energy to sleep, alive with the touch and taste and scent of Lizzy.
As a child, his mother had taught him how to dance, telling him that starting at age 16, he would attend balls to meet noblemen's daughters, from whom he would select a wife. After his mother's death, however, the war had begun and his father had become a near recluse, seeing only his advisors and the servants. Will had never attended a ball, and so had had very little contact with women.
In the army, he had avoided the camp girls to protect himself from scandal. That decision was agonizingly difficult when he was younger. After a few years, he had hardened his heart so much that he had ceased to think much about women at all. But Lizzy had roused sensations that had long lay dormant, and he didn't know how he would repress them again. Her presence just a few feet away augmented every desire he had. She had been right; it had been foolish to think they could handle sharing the room.
The force of his loneliness suddenly overpowered him, matched only by the depth of affection he was feeling. He tried to squelch his feelings by mulling over the reasons why a relationship with Lizzy would be imprudent. They had to find a way back to Pemberlea, and there was still a war going on. Even if all that were resolved, she was a commoner, one whom he could never marry. He had to push away these desires, stuff them back inside, before he broke her heart, and his own.