Excerpt: Chapter 8: The Crossroad
The beggars were out in force, waving their stumps imploringly. Ordinarily, Opal would have brought an extra loaf to distribute among them — especially today, since they were an important part of the plan. But she had only the one loaf, and she needed to persuade the guard to let her into Bethany’s cell. Everyone at the prison was fond of her; they considered her simple-witted, and her innocence of the horrors they lived among appealed to them in an odd way.
Opal hated the smell that surged up from the prison basement, redolent of sweat and terror, excrement and pain, urine and blood. Holding her nose, she clung to the guard’s jacket.
“Oh please, Dirk, sir, I’ve only one loaf today — could I take it to the Marshlander? Aulk,” she gulped in a manner associated with people who were wanting. “Puleesee, kind sir, sweet sir.”
No one ever called Dirk sweet. He rather liked it; it made a change.
“Haveta lock you in with him, aren’t you scared?
“Aulk,” Opal exclaimed excitedly. “Puleese,” and drooled a bit for extra effect.
No harm from this one, he thought, opening the door and shoving her in.
“Not long,” he added, hoping the Marshlander wouldn’t attack her benefactor. “Scream if he tries anything.”
Opal saw something huddled in the corner of the dark, reeking cell. Pulling at a shoulder she muttered
“Bethany of Cedar Haven; hark. I am Opal, a friend of your Mother. Be alert — turn quick, grab my loaf, and eat while I talk.”
A head of tousled gold brown curls emerged from the cloak. A filthy small hand reached for the bread.
“Plan of rescue, now heed.”
Hazel eyes flecked with gold gleamed eagerly.
“Don’t just stare; eat. They’ll be dragging you to Daniel’s mansion — probably tomorrow, maybe tonight — to be tortured by his wife. That’ll be our chance. There’s a crossroad connects to the drove up there. It’ll be blocked by a peddler’s wagon; there’ll be beggars all over the place. When the soldiers shout at us to get out of the way, we’ll let a flock of sheep loose — that’s your chance. Watch for the ram — has curly horns, a collar and bell and an unshorn pelt — roll under him, grab his wool, wrap your legs around his belly. Keep your arms and legs inside his wool and hang on like a burr while we drive him to the cart. Don’t stick your head out, and don’t let go of him until we tell you.”
“But what if my hands are bound,” queried a croaky voice.
“That’s the rest of the plan. When they come for you go all limp and talk like this. Say “aulk,” like this, gulp too, and drool. They’ll think the fear has driven the wits out of you. If you fight and struggle they’ll bind you, but if you act simple there’s a chance.”
“Time,” yelled Dirk, opening the door.
Clare buried her face in the loaf and gratefully gnawed at it.
“Thank you, missus,” she intoned with as much stupidity as she could manage. “Aulk, gulp, thank you kindly.”
The next time the jailer came to the door, which seemed hours later, Bethany made herself go loose all over, even though she felt like stiffening up in anxiety that Opal=s plan might have gone awry and that she was about to be tortured or raped in the prison corridor. But it was only Dirk. As he had to come across to where she sat limply, she was able to get in a few aulks and neck lollings
“Gawd!” he exclaimed, Alook at you! Sergeant scared you witless, did he? Or did you catch it from our Opal? I’d be scared to death if I were you,” he mumbled as he locked the door, for he was not entirely without compassion.
Lolling loosely in case anyone should look through the slit, she ran the plan through her mind. Her stomach seemed to have settled down, and she was cheered by the discovery that she had friends out there. But at the thought of what she might bring upon the rest of her friends and relations her spirits fell. It was a new and horrid feeling, impulsive as she had always been and oblivious about the effects of her actions on other people.
But, she thought,iIf they don’t put shackles on my wrists, if the beggars confuse them enough, Opal’s plan is a good one. She went over it again in her mind — watch for a ram with curly horns, throw myself under him, hang on like a burr, and don’t let go until someone tells me to. We might be clear of Brent by then; I might get away.
“Prisoner! Stand to,” shouted the sergeant.
Bethany just lolled there with a grin on her face, which was hard to maintain when she saw that one of the soldier was carrying chains.
The sergeant slapped her across the face. She winced, realized she should cry out, and did so.
“Uh. Don=t hit me, kind sir! Aulk! Don’t hit me again,” she pled, managing to gulp and get some drool running down her chin. “I’ll come.”
The soldier with the chains, who had stepped forward, looked to the sergeant for clarification.
“Standin!” he yelled, and two other soldiers took their places on either side of Bethany, who craned her neck at each one, smiling in as silly a way as she could manage. She’d best not overdo it, though; her life, and the life of her community, depended on her acting convincingly.
So far, so good, she thought, as they marched her unchained out of the prison. Then there was a chorus of yells and curses and something struck the pavement with a splat.
“Filthy Marshlander,” screamed somebody, as a chunk of pavement came flying through the air. The soldiers, she was relieved to see, closed around her, but she=d best look scared, so, putting a frightened look on her face, she screamed in terror.
“Wait until they get the hot knives up your tender parts, you’ll be screaming then,” yelled a woman near naked through her rags and with stumps for hands, but they were on the road uphill. Bethany, stumbling along looking terrified, prepared herself for action. The first crowd of beggars had fallen back, but they were suddenly surrounded by a fresh mob, shouting imprecations.
“Who’s he think he is, the bastard,” yelled a hoarse voice.
“Worse’n us, and he says he owns a deed to the weaving house,” jeered a skeletally thin man with no legs, at which dozens of beggars began pouring from the side streets and alleys, weaving in and out of the march, those with no legs scooting themselves along on the ground to tug at the soldiers’ trousers. It was full dark, and the torch bearers were at the head of the procession, so when more beggars poured into the middle of the column they took Bethany’s two guards by surprise.
“Stand in,” yelled the sergeant, “March!” But the soldiers in the rear were tangled up in tattered, reeking bundles of clawing hands, pummeling stumps, and even teeth; though they laid about with their swords they could not move forward. Bethany’s guards had only managed to move slightly uphill when the march came to a halt again at the crossroad; the torch bearers at the head of the procession were blocked by a flock of sheep.
Enraged, Major General Hugh ordered his soldiers to cut through the sheep with their swords, but the flock suddenly wheeled to scamper in and around everybody’s legs until the soldiers were flailing away at a bleating muddle of straggling sheep and fresh crowds of yelling beggars.
“Ram,” thought Bethany, “where is the ram?”
She was terrified that she could very well miss her one chance of escape; the sheep were all ewes, none big enough to get a purchase on and carry her weight. The guards had their backs to her for a moment so she crumpled to the ground and rolled herself into the middle of the melee. She was grabbed from behind and she turned to fight, but it was someone on all fours wearing a sheep pelt
“It’s me, Opal,” it hissed. “Follow, quickly.”
Pulling Bethany along and warning her to stay crouched, Opal butted sideways between sheep and beggars until she ordered
“Ram — grab on!”
Beth confronted the broad shoulders and tossing horns of a very angry sheep indeed. She moved around to his side, threw herself on her back, wriggled underneath and with one heave dug her fingers into his fleece around his shoulders and her legs around his hips. Much perturbed, he bucked and flailed, heaving and shuddering, to get this wolf or dog or whatever it was off him before it could sink its teeth into his belly. Then a strong, low voice of his shepherd was commanding him and, being a sheep, he thought best to obey him. Surely, he wouldn’t let a wolf devour him from underneath, would he?
Bethany’s mouth was full of stinking fur. She needed to retch, nauseated by the rank smell of sodden pelt and old sheep urine, but she held on fiercely. The ram was moving forward purposely now and seemed to be led by a shepherd, who must be part of the rescue. Then her ram’s hoofs pounded on wood and plunged upward.
Sweat pouring off him, eyes alert in every direction, thinking no time to waste, by no means safe yet, Joshua was pushing his ram up the ramp when he realized there was another sheep trying to climb in after it. But it wasn’t a sheep; it was a fleece with people legs under it.
“I’m Opal, Clare=s friend,” it declared. “I led Bethany to your ram. They’ll know it was me as told them to bring her to Daniel=s mansion so=s you could use the crossroad. Please, master, take me with you.”
Joshua knew this could be a spy, but he had heard of Opal so he grabbed her by the shoulders and told Modreck to have a good look at her.
“Opal,” exclaimed Modreck.
That was enough for Joshua, who dumped her in with Bethany.
“Get under the bundles, out of sight, and stay that way,” he ordered. “Don’t move or talk to each other, not one word,” he called back over his shoulder as he turned the extremely disgruntled ram around and led him back down the ramp.