As I walked away from the burning abbey, Master bleeding beside me, me bleeding beside him, I could not help but wish I was back home. I did not fear or regret my own death, but Master was a servant beast and therefore innocent. If some other Father had bought him for his little girl, he would be in a pasture somewhere, cropping the grass and snorting and stamping at some mare across a fence. He would be fat and lazy and happy. He would not bear a single scar inflicted upon him by violence. He would not have a spearhead sitting an inch off his heart, and a hole in his side that gushed blood so red it was almost pretty. At that moment I felt what I can only describe as perfect regret. I walked my boy down the rocky slope toward the road, unsure of what that would accomplish, for he would never reach help in this state. I was injured too, though I don't recall thinking about my own wounds until much later. I had my new sash jammed up against Master's side with one hand, the other tugging gently on his halter, guiding him forward. Each new hoof fall was a lesson in horror for me and I almost couldn't bear to walk him further. But on we went, little-by-little. Slowly struggling behind me was the preacher, Father McLean, whose first name was Stephen. He was still dressed in the garb of the custos and carried three books bound in leather, clasped with brass hinges and locks. One had been on fire when he grabbed it and it had scorched his hand terribly. He bore numerous other cuts and scrapes and his face was blackened. He wept as he walked for his compatriots left behind, and the lost work of a lifetime. Though I disliked his religion, I felt badly for the man and thinking about this made my own wound ache less.
We had escaped from the insane captivi of the Abbey of St. Christopher. I had gained the only scrap of knowledge about the Beyond that I could strangle from the nearest wretch as a raging fire broke out and engulfed the ancient timbers of that godless church.
We descended the last few feet to the wide dirt road below. Master stepped so gingerly and hopped off his foreleg in a piteous way. When we reached the road, I pulled off my shirt, balled it up, and pressed it hard against the gash in Master’s ribs; the sash having soaked through. He stepped away and began to spin his body away from the pressure, but I kept at him. We were spinning in circles and I looked for the preacher to help, but he only collapsed on to the road in a heap, sobbing.
“Father!” I called at him, but he did not hear me. “Father McLean!” I tried again, but he just heaved and sobbed like he could not get enough air into his thin body. “Stephen, for Gods’ sake help me!” I shrieked at him. He finally startled and stared at me as I did a dance with Master, shirtless, with blood running down my side and Master splashing little red flowers of blood all over the road.
The preacher finally picked himself up and jumped to my aid like he was struck by lightning.
“Sorry my Lady, beg forgiveness.” He grabbed hold of Master’s halter and looked hard into the horse's eyes like he was trying to send a message through the air. Master immediately calmed and let me press hard into his wound. I tried to push my fingers into the opening, which sickened me, but I knew it had to be done. Life on a ranch is full of sick and injured, dying and dead animals. Poachers shot a bolt into one of our cows once, and to save her papa had driven a cloth deep into the wound until it staunched.
I tried to focus on the present and not let my daydreaming cloud my judgement. The wound was hot and thick with blood and I could feel the broken wooden shaft of the spear that was buried into my friend’s chest. Just beyond the shaft I felt the clasp end of the spear head and the overall wound was a hand's height deep. I tried to avoid the thought, but it entered my head anyway, not with force like a thunder, but as gently as a raindrop. Master is going to die.
My journey had only just begun. I had been away for less than a month, though it felt so much longer. I shouldn’t have left and I shouldn’t have taken Master with me. I should be at home, finishing my school, learning to be a governess, riding the bounds with Ginny, and fighting off boys. Master's death was my fault. I had done this. I had killed my own best friend.
“Lady Stanton,” the preacher said quietly.
I looked up at him and he looked down at me and Master took a deep breath and his forelegs buckled. He drove his knees down hard into the dirt and the preacher and I both yelped at the same time. We tried to steady him, but it was useless. He collapsed onto his side and lay there, dying.
“No!” I screamed or I think I did. I can’t remember much of those moments. The preacher and I were utterly impotent. I recall the preacher bowing his head and beginning a prayer. I looked away and saw my hat laying upside down in the dirt and then I heard hoof fall coming from behind us as riders fast approached.
I turned to face them, picturing Harkour’s men or bastard bandits who would chop up Master for meat and hoof glue. I skinned my gun and aimed it down the road at the bend where the noise came from; I had two chambers left, a very little sword, and my own small body. I would expend them all to defend my dying horse.
I waited, breathing sharply, and probably crying, and I thought about squeezing the trigger. Squeeze, don’t pull, don’t press, don’t slap. Smooth trigger. Smooth trigger. The first shape rounded the corner; a big man on a skinny bay, his entire face painted a deep blue colour. “Bandits.” I heard myself say. A moment later a second rider blew around the corner, his horse winding while the rider checked behind him.
The first bandit raised a spear and held it sidelong over his head, as if to throw it. He was well out of range when another group of riders rounded the corner behind him, all slapping hard at their beaten mounts.
I waited, willing them forward to my patient bullets.
The riders galloped on, four, maybe five men now and more than a few looking back over their shoulders. They all had the same blue paint on their faces, the mark of the tech-sucking highwaymen that plagued Angland.
I waited, wishing for a full load of powder, wishing that Master was beneath me.
Now more riders, ten or fifteen, rounded the pretty bend in the wooded road and galloped hard, their horses snorting, branches whipping past, sunlight twinkling off of their spear heads and swords and bits of iron armour.
The big one was in the lead by several lengths. That skinny bay of his moved like a gale and with such a pretty stride. Don’t hit the horse, I thought. Smooth trigger, I thought. I closed one eye and I squeezed. The crack shook the leaves and the big man dropped his spear, but kept his saddle. The horse sensed something was wrong and ground to a stop twenty paces ahead. The big man had wild eyes and was so hairy I could not tell if I had hit him square. He stared hard over top of me, like I was a wisp in the road that he could merely ignore, and then he slumped forward in his saddle, dead. The preacher gave a gasp and muttered something. He stepped up beside me with a thick branch in his hand and I looked him in the eyes. He did not speak to me, but his eyes said he would commit his mortal body to the defence of my dying horse. That gesture instantly made him my friend.
I switched my aim to the fast approaching group and I cocked my big gun to set the last round in place, but my hands were covered in so much blood that the hammer slipped and the round fired wild.
I threw the gun towards the woods and plucked my little sword from my back. I pointed it heavenward, beheld it shine and glimmer and I longed to make it filthy with the blood of these bastard bandits.
The group of three blue-faced bandits rode right at me. I swung Prick, but I didn’t time it well and completely missed. Something smacked me hard on the shoulder and I was stunned for a moment. I spun around and saw two bandits had ridden right past us down the road. The third was being dragged by a stirrup, back and forth across the road, with the preacher chasing behind and smacking him with a long branch, screaming something like a wild man.
I left the preacher to his bloody deed and turned to face the next group of attackers. While Master still breathed I would not abandon him. I held my sword high in the manner of a duelist, awaiting the time to strike. But this next group was strangely dressed. Yellow cloaks on metallic armour. My mind was so addled that they were right on top of me before I realized these were not bandits, but custos! Gatewater’s custos had come at last. Better late than never, as Papa would have said.
I stood tall before them, covered in Master’s blood and my own; my little sword gripped tightly, my hair blowing and my eyes wild. The custos were absolutely astonished and wide-mouthed. Finally, from the back of the group came a familiar face, followed by another. Charlie and Bernard both dismounted and stepped toward me with a cautiousness I did not expect. As I watched them approach I finally started becoming myself and the veil of red that had overtaken me was losing its power. I lowered Prick and somewhere, distantly, heard it clang to the ground. Charlie hugged me and I let him. Bernard slung a coat over my shoulders and I sighed heavy and long. I did not cry, though I wished to, and my hands shook and I gripped Charlie tightly to make them stop. I was suddenly reminded of something Papa had once said, and I heard his voice as an echo. “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Nothing probably makes you live longer, of course.
Charlie released me and I pulled Bernard’s coat closed, suddenly aware of my nakedness. Bernard had knelt next to Master and clicked his tongue in disapproval. I knelt next to him and stroked Master’s flank.
“He’s dying.” I choked.
He spun his head at me and said, “Dying isn’t dead.”
He pulled a dagger out of his belt and began to bark at the other custos to help him. In a flash, hands were everywhere on Master and I was being led away by Charlie. I pulled away from him and barged into the center of the men who now worked feverishly following Bernard's orders. The preacher returned and stood at my side.
“Lady Stanton, I pray for that beast’s safe recovery.” He said.
“He needs more than prayers.” I whispered.
I knelt down at Master's head and patted him as he snorted and struggled to move. Bernard shouted for the men to hold him down firmly. I tried to focus on something, anything else that would keep the sounds of Master's agony from my ears. Minutes passed as I stared into Master's eyes and whispered nice things to him. When I dared to look again, Bernard was wrapping yellow cloaks around Master’s body. Everyone had donated their dress for my horse. He was wrapped so tightly with so many cloaks that his whole body was draped in gold. The blood seemed to stop and only a red spot on the yellow field marked the horrible wound. His breathing was ragged and through his mouth, but he was no longer bleeding.
“Now, we must coax him up,” said the big man. Master picked up his head and looked at me, and for the first time I felt he might survive. Hands slid underneath him and began to lift him up from the road. His foreleg’s kicked at the air and he tossed his head in pain, but he kept kicking. The men strained to pick him upright, grunting at the effort, but they spoke softly and sweetly to him.
“Come on, boy. That’s a good boy.” One said, and another, “Who’s a handsome lad?” Ever so slowly his body was lifted upright until both of his forelegs were under him. With a gigantic effort he paused and breathed and then pushed. His legs wobbled terribly and he cried out and pushed again with every man to help him, and before my heart tore itself in two; my beautiful horse stood upright. I was so amazed and relieved that I was filled with uncontrollable emotion that washed over me, and I sobbed and grabbed my boy around his furry neck and hugged and kissed him, my oldest and truest friend. That moment I will hold forever in a place that time cannot touch.
It took all night to get my boy back to Gatewater where we boarded him at the same stable and the same stall that I had taken when I first arrived at the town. I spent the night sleeping beside him or laying awake rather, on blankets brought from Charlie's house. Bernard had gone up to Richmond to fetch the eques. That's a horse doctor. Bernard swore he was the finest in Angland and when he arrived in the morning he introduced himself as David and instantly fell to work. He gave Master a huge pill wrapped in sticky molasses, which made him lay down groggy within an hour. I waited outside the stable for a gruelling afternoon while the eques went about removing the spearhead.
I passed the time pacing the doorway of the stable, daydreaming about what terrible things were happening to my horse. Charlie came by to pass the time with me, and brought me the Professor, which he'd picked up out of the woods after Master was up and moving. I thanked him, but refused his offer of a meal, not wanting to leave Master for even a moment. By and by he took his leave and I took to daydreaming again, recalling the fire that started in the abbey.
When the captivi rammed our barricade, we all pressed against it as they rammed away, using stolen swords and axes to splinter the thing to pieces. Weiss was frantic and crazed; he grabbed a torch and shoved it through the opening, right into the face of a green tag. They stopped for a moment or more, and we almost believed them beaten when black smoke billowed out from the cracks and holes in the door. They were fanning the flames! The preacher called for water buckets and Weiss screamed that it was useless and he, instead, threw another pew into the doorway. At first I thought he meant to block the smoke, but then the preacher screamed at him and pulled at his shirt. The pew caught quickly and the flames engulfed the door until it drove us back. What could we do? Peters threw a bucket of water, the preacher's sacred water, onto the flames, but the bucket may as well have been a thimble for all the good it did. The beams overhead caught next, and before we could even think, we were surrounded by smoke and fire; such an ancient place, dry as kindling, just waiting for a spark. Weiss bolted for the main door and was buried under a crash of falling stone and flaming wood. Peters grabbed me and dragged me away to an antechamber as the preacher disappeared into another.
With a clang and squeal the stable door slid open and wrenched me from my daydream. Bernard and the eques emerged, carrying a folded stack of yellow cloth that I did not recognize, at first.
I looked at them imploringly and David smiled and said, "Your boy pulled through, but you're going to have a hell of a time getting the blood from these frocks."
I jumped at him, hugging him, though he wasn't expecting it, and then hugged Bernard, who was. David was not used to affection and looked embarrassed as he blushed and stammered, "You're welcome."
He took me inside to see Master, who was still down, but breathing slow and regular. "If I hadn't seen it for myself, I would have refused to believe he'd been wounded as bad as you described. His wound was already closing when I went in to get the spear. I have never seen that before. Here," he bent down into the hay and picked something up, "this is for you."
He handed me the spearhead, still bloody. Six inches of iron and the top of the shaft, splintered off. I thanked David in abundance for his help and I handed over my whole coin purse, telling him to take what I owed. He took only three quints for the visit, which he said would buy him a meal before he set out for home. I walked him out and he gave me a recipe for a salve to apply to the wound each day until it closed. When it scabbed over, and if there was no proud flesh, I was to walk him a little and give him lots of time to recover. If I had any sense at all, he continued, I would take Master home and stud him. With that he departed for Richmond, pacing his gray spotted gelding and riding soft.
I was faithful as faithful could be in applying the stinking mess of leaves to Master’s flank as the eques had suggested. Master was brave in allowing me to poke at his wound, which I did to make sure it was closed and not growing fat with infectus or proud flesh. For two nights I slept in the stall and woke to the slightest shift in Master's bulk. I checked the wound whenever I woke and it was always fine. On the third day, after cleaning my gun for the fiftieth time, I noticed the stack of yellow cloaks left neatly in a corner of the stable and I decided to set about cleaning them. I heated up a bucket of water, took a pumice stone, and fell to work scrubbing. Mama would have been proud or she might have dropped to the floor in a dead faint. Scrubbing led to thinking and daydreaming and without quite meaning to, I was back in that choking abbey, being dragged by Peters into a little room with no windows.
We barred the door by the light of a few candles and I was about to ask which way we were expected to go next, with no window and only one door. Peters put his hand up for silence and I heard a low sound, under the crackling of fire from outside the door. It sounded like a wulf's howl; a long, low wailing sound that chilled my bones. Peters grabbed a candle and made for the corner of the room, for what purpose, I knew not. I just stood before the door, with the Professor in hand, waiting for the crash of splinters and battle with the captivi.
"Help me!" said Peters in a sharp whisper. He was knelt down in the corner of the room, pulling at a large piece of the stone floor. "Here, get your blade into the crack and pry it." I must have given him a strange look for he grabbed my sword arm and pulled me down to the floor. He had three fingers in a very shallow depression in the floor and he strained to lift the stone. There was such a crash behind us then, and I spun, expecting to see the door in pieces, but it held fast. Instantly, there was another crash and a piece of the door busted away and a face pressed through the opening. It was Billy's face. Billy Brown rammed his blackened face through the gap in the door and he shrieked and wailed and I could only think that my nightmare had come to life. Billy's fingers pried at the opening and I leapt up and slashed with my sword. He screamed in fury and pressed his face into the opening again, but this time he had the face of an old man. He had a wild, gray beard and a thin green collar just visible underneath. He threw his injured arm into the growing hole in the door, swiping for me with a fingerless hand.
"Lady Red!" called Peters. I saw that he had pried up the stone by a few inches and struggled to keep it up. I ran over and jammed Prick into the opening and we both pulled hard on the hilt. The stone was moving; little-by-little it was lifting out of its place. Finally, it popped free with a spray of dust and rocks, revealing a dark hole into the basement of the abbey.
"Ladies first!" he barked and half threw me toward the hole. I tried to lower myself down gracefully, but I fell, my body twisting, and I smashed my ribs onto a large rock. It winded me and I coughed and rolled myself out of the way so Peters could come down. Instead, I heard the stone being dragged across the floor above me.
"Hey!" I screamed, "You get down here! You'll be killed!"
Peters looked down at me through the narrowing hole. "Your papa will be so happy to see you again. If you're ever near Apfelstead, look in on my little ones." He smiled, looking oddly satisfied with his decision.
"You'll look in on them yourself! Get down here this instant! Peters!" I called, but the stone slid over until it fell into place with a thud that echoed all around me in the darkness.
A moment later I heard the door above crash open and through muffled yells and curses the final moments of Peters' life. It was an eternity down there, listening, helplessly listening. Why did he do that? I thought and sighed deeply to shake away my tears. Why did he do that for me? Why would he save the life of a girl he barely knew when he had so much to live for? I had no answers, except that his life purchased my own in a currency I could never repay.
I blinked hard a few times to clear the image from my head. My hands were deep in a bucket of warm soapy water, scraping away at my horse’s blood, and feeling heartsick. When I could get no more of the stain from them I wrung them out and hung them to dry in an empty stall. One of them was ruined, but the others could likely be salvaged. As I went to dump the water out, I heard a cough behind me and saw Charlie standing by the stable entrance, leaning up against the wall, trying to look casual.
"Hi there," he said." I thought I'd come by and check on your horse."
"Oh, well, thank you." I said, hoping he had come to check on me too.
"What were you thinking about?" He asked with a note of concern in his soft voice.
"I was trying to get the blood out of those cloaks. Master and me, we both appreciate it." I led him into the stall where they were hanging and pointed to the ruined one. I tried to avoid catching his eye. At that moment, I wanted him there and I wanted him to leave at the same time.
For his part, Charlie caught on and didn't pry into my thoughts; instead, he tugged at the ruined cloak and saw the number scratched on its interior. "This one belongs to Chalmers. He's getting a promotion, I think."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"His has the biggest stain, which means he was first to donate his cloak."
"Everyone was just wonderful helping Master like they did. I couldn't possibly repay you all for what you've done to help."
"I'm having a banquet at my house tonight and you are our guest of honour. The men who helped your horse will be there and you can give them back their cloaks and give Chalmers the good news."
"Wait, why would I be the guest of honour? That's silly." I walked over to Master's stall and checked his wound, feeling a flush of embarrassment in my cheeks.
"Well," he replied, poking his head into the stall, "from what Father McLean tells me, you volunteered to stay and help secure the abbey when you knew the odds were stacked against you. You saved his life. That's pretty heroic." Charlie smiled, but I only felt a lump in my guts at the thought of that cursed abbey. So what if I stayed? A fat lot of good that did for them. Poor Peters! I bet he wished I'd never set foot in that place.
"What do you say? My cook can make anything you like."
I set about checking over his saddle as his wound was healing fine. "I'm not feeling well." I replied coolly.
"I see." Charlie dropped his smile. He looked down at his boots and scraped one against the other. "I see." He said again. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, Lady Stanton." The way he said my name was quick and forced. I struggled with a ragged strap and buckle and finally I let it go in frustration. I turned to apologize, to tell Charlie it wasn't him I wished to avoid, but he was gone.
I sighed and stamped my boot, more out of self-pity than anger. Master picked his head up at the sound and looked at me.
"Now why can't they all be like you, boy? All listen and no talk. You're the real hero, boy. I'm just a girl with a borrowed coat and a stolen gun." Master nickered and sighed out a big breath. "Just a silly girl on a silly adventure."
I went for a walk that turned into an amble and then a trek that lasted most of the afternoon. It was sunny and hotter than normal with no wind to cool me off. I had just crested a little hill, clearing the heavy woods, and I entered a bald patch on the hill's peak. I sat myself down on a log facing Gatewater. I could see the little river that fed the town and then wound its way toward the sea. I followed its path and imagined I could see Hudson's Landing near the river's mouth; a dozen tiny houses nestled between little cliffs and the wide blue waters. My stead was closer inland and I guessed its location, staring intently at a patch of little wood next to a clearing that may have held my childhood home. A brown hawk screeched overhead and I looked up as it soared past the glaring sun in a long, slow circle. It screeched again and I called back, "Hello to you too!"
It circled lower and I watched him float without effort upon some invisible wind. What it must be like to see the world from such a heavenly height. Everything, even the biggest mountains, would look like pebbles. Watching that hawk reminded me of something Papa often said when I would tell him about my troubles. "If you stand with your nose touching a pretty painting, you're not seeing the whole picture." That hawk had all the perspective I wished for; how all my problems would look so small if I could just get some height over them. What I needed was a birds-eye-view. Master was alive, the preacher too. And I was alive. My papa was out there somewhere and I was going to find him.
The sun was dipping low in the sky and I decided I'd best be getting back to town. As much as I wanted to stay away, especially until after the dinner, I needed to check on Master's wound and scrounge up something to eat. I started down the hill toward town while the lengthening shadows of the great trees darkened the woods and a chill wind began to blow in from the sea. This was not my first time in the woods and I knew better than to worry while there was still daylight. I stopped to dump a rock out of my boot, and when I stood back up there was a flurry of motion from a nearby bush as a flock of birds scared up into the sky. It startled me and the little hairs on my arms stood up as I scanned the trees for whatever spooked those birds.
Several moments passed and I finally settled myself. Who knows why birds spook sometimes. It was probably just me that scared them. I began to walk on down the hill. A few moments passed and out of nowhere a small rock fell from the sky, landing just a few feet in front of me. I looked up and saw my friend, the hawk, circling above at the tree tops. I watched him circle and he dropped another rock, this one fell into a tree on my left and knocked its way down the branches to thud on the ground. The sound caused a bird to scare up out of the tree and the hawk was on him in a moment, diving out of the sky and snatching the little bird in his talons. He was hunting! I had never seen a bird hunt like that before and I scanned the sky for another hawk as sometimes they hunted in pairs.
I looked all around, but saw no more birds and I was about to leave when another rock plopped down in front of me and I looked up, smiling, hoping for another hawk hunt. My eyes traced a line from treetop to treetop when I saw something that made me pause. The sun was just dipping behind a tall brimcone pine, making it near impossible to see the top clearly. I lifted my hand and shaded my eyes and after a moment of confusion my heart began to pound and a sudden terror gripped me. Near the top of a big brimcone pine, just a few yards from me, was the shadowed figure of a man. He was crouched on a little branch, his arm outstretched and motionless. My disbelieving eyes met his cold gaze and I gasped and bolted down the hill, racing for home. I must have fallen because I remember rolling and getting up, my hat hanging by its string while the branches of the forest whipped at my face and grasped for my clothes.
I don't know how far I got running like I did, but eventually I settled down and my wits came back to me. "What the hells was that?" I asked aloud.
"Charlie!" I yelled into the woods "You son of a whore!" Who else could it be, stalking me up that hill, climbing up some tree, and then throwing rocks to scare me. He was still the boy I remembered from Westphalia, governorship or no governorship! I felt better after yelling at him and stormed back to town, all trace of my improved mood wiped from my mind.
I was still in a huff with heat in my face when I threw open the door of the stable to see the place packed with people, all nicely dressed and smiling at me. I felt a flush of anger fill my face at this intrusion into what had become mine and Master's little sanctuary, but when Bernard and the preacher came out of the crowd I calmed down a little.
Bernard threw a big arm around my shoulders and said, "The Governor prepared a feast for you, but said you wouldn't leave your horse's side, so we brought the feast to you!"
The preacher gave me a fleeting half-smile, which was the happiest expression I had ever seen him wear. I meant to speak to him, to tell him that I didn't ask for this party; that I was not a hero and I had failed at the abbey, failed everyone, but he seemed to look through me. Bernard pulled me away through the crowded barn, laughing and pointing out the different people in attendance, most of whom I do not recall. I looked back for the preacher who shuffled away, tipping a cup, and shaking his head.
I was pulled along, getting slapped on the shoulder by every custos we passed, offering me congratulations. I smiled as best I could, and said thank you anyway, after all, Mama had taught me manners. Bernard half carried me to the far end of the barn where there was a big table of food and a big wine keg tapped, and who should be standing there serving drinks but my old friend Charlie, somehow having made it back to the barn before me.
"Here is the guest of honour!" he called to the crowd and they cheered, which made my face red and hot.
"I'll have a word with you, Charlie." I said in as calm a voice I could muster.
"Certainly, Lady Stanton." He said and he passed the serving duties to one of his custos. We stepped into a vacant stall where I thought I could probably knock him flat and cover him with hay before anyone noticed.
"I know you're mad about the party," he began. "These people wanted to thank you for getting rid of Harkour anyway, and they were very impressed when I told them how you volunteered to help at the abbey. When they saw you standing down those bandits in the road..."
"I'm not mad about the party!" I interrupted, louder than I meant. Charlie looked confused and a little hurt. "Well, I'm mad about that too, but mostly I'm mad because you scared the hells out of me in the woods, you rat!"
"Just now! I went for a hike and there was an eagle and you were up a tree throwing rocks at me and you scared me."
"I've been planning this all day, Sam. I've been here. You can ask anyone. Look, these men won't stay long. Just have a glass of wine, let them have a toast to you, give Chalmers his promotion, and then you'll have the stable to yourself and Master. Facio?"
He used the official term for striking a deal, probably trying to impress me. I gave him by best squint and curled up my lips so he knew I meant business. I don't know how that rat had beaten me back to the stable, but I'd just have to get him back in my own way. "Fine." I said.
"Good! Now smile, you're at a party." He said with a grin. I could have punched it right off his face.
True to his word the party was short. The guests were most gracious and said kinds words to Master to which he replied politely by eating everything that was offered to him. I gave Chalmers his promotion and to get back at Charlie I decided to inform the crowd that it was the custom in Hudson's Landing to seal a gift with a kiss, much to the approval of the attending custos. Chalmers, who was a little older, but nice looking, flushed crimson and said he would be honoured to uphold the customs of my hometown. I kissed him on his cheek and peered at Charlie out of the corner of my eye. Hoo boy, was he mad! He ducked his head down and kicked one boot off the next. His ears were hot red and I thought, that will teach you to cross Samantha Stanton!
When the guests began to clear and he had recovered himself, Charlie offered me a room in his house so that I could get some rest, now that Master was out-of-the-woods. Bernard gave Charlie a hard look, which instantly sank his attempts to invite me to stay.
“I just meant,” Charlie stammered to Bernard, “that she would be welcomed.”
“I know what you meant!” Yelled Bernard and Charlie’s custos began to shift at the tension brewing. “She’ll not sleep within a league of your bed chamber!”
Charlie's face flushed and I could see him clenching his jaw to keep from saying something foolish, but one look at Bernard and he spoke anyway. “Why you overgrown lump! At least in my house there’s someone near her own age!”
“How dare you!” Bernard raged. “I only wish to save this young girl from your filthy mitts! She’s like a daughter to me!” Bernard squared his big shoulders to Charlie, making him seem even larger, but Charlie only did the same and would not be cowed.
“She is a governess and I am a governor! It’s my place to offer her lodgings.”
“Oh yes, I think we all know what you want to lodge and where!”
“You’ll pay for that!” Roared Charlie, who stepped back and drew his sword; a sabre with a silver hilt, which he tossed aside for a custos' to catch. Bernard puffed out his chest and raised his enormous sledge to his shoulder and then tossed it to another custos'. He made a good try to catch it, but took the weight of the hammer head in the guts and doubled over, winded.
I had these events relayed to me later by the preacher who was watching. For my part, I was standing right there, but I was not paying much attention for my mind was far away. Finally, one of the custos’ tapped me on the shoulder and I came to realize that Bernard was about to pummel Charlie into the ground, or so I thought. Charlie was faster than he looked and dodged the big man’s first two swings, returning little jabs to Bernard’s expansive stomach.
I gave them my best two-finger whistle and they snapped to. "This is not a school yard!" I barked. "And my boy needs his rest. I will stay at the inn and that is final." Both men grew red in the face and stammered out their apologies, and though this was not a school yard, they sure looked like a couple of school boys.
Neither man would leave until I had agreed to dine with them on separate nights, and to let them split my tab at the inn, which I pretended to dislike, but I was secretly thankful as I had very little money.
It was like this for the next month until Master could walk without pain, but he came along tremendously well. Spring was in full bloom, passing to summer, and the days grew longer, but no less rainy. My boy and I spent the days building up his strength so he could ride and jump and slide like old times, and I was having a grand old time practicing shooting from horseback and learning to shoot Charlie's rifle, which was easier than falling off a log until I got up close, and then it was better turned around and used as a club.
Bernard and Mrs. Garrett were as cordial as they had been before, more so perhaps, but I was sure to not leave them with the impression that I would be staying in town longer than Master needed. Bernard's younger son even joined us for a few meals and I chatted politely with him, though he just stared at his plate and said little; an awkward young man to be sure with none of his father's graces or speech.
Every day Charlie sent me flowers from his garden and I would come to my room each night with a fresh crop of foam flowers, bloodroots, jack-in-the-pulpit, and turtleheads. He was really quite gentlemanly, but I refused his earliest offers of dinner. I was afraid of 'pulling the sled' as it were. Well, in the Landing that’s what we call it when a lady feeds into the desires of a man so he follows her around, even though she does not intend to make it official.
When the time of my departure was drawing near, I was bedding down Master when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped and spun around to see Charlie there with a curious smile on his face. "You startled me." I began to say, but he just grabbed my hand in his and led me out of the stable to the edge of the woods behind the inn.
"There's something I want to show you." He said and I let him lead me into the darkening woods. His hand was strong and rough and he looked over his shoulder at me and flashed those soft, brown eyes of his and smiled, and I admit it was difficult not to smile back. After a few minutes, with the sky beginning to reveal its stars and the full white moon showing, we arrived at a clearing that was dominated by a large pond. It was pretty in the moonlight with the gently rippling water and the far-off splashes of the fishes and water-birds.
Charlie stopped and stared out over the pond, watching something or nothing at all. I stood next to him, holding his hand, wishing I was not, but glad that I was.
"This was my favourite place as a young boy, before I left for the Capitol. I would sit at this bank on moonlit nights and watch the fish jump. I would watch the stars turn and blink and I would try to pick out the machs… you know, the little lights that streak across the sky so quickly, but never twinkle or burn out.”
"I would wonder about the world above and think that I have no more knowledge of that world up there than the jumping fish have of my world." I did not follow his meaning, but the place truly had some magic for I was falling under its spell. "What if a man could travel to those stars?" He continued quietly. "What would they be like? I will never know, not ever. And I can live with that, Sam. But, I cannot let you leave until I know something from you."
"What would you like to know?" I asked in a small voice.
He turned towards me and I saw the moonlight sparkle in his eyes and I felt warmth radiate from his body. His hand came up to touch my cheek. I moved my face away and looked down, but he caught my chin with his finger and drew it up so I was once again lost in those deep and soulful eyes. He was so close and I wanted so badly to be there and to be somewhere else at the same time. My guts were spinning and I could not make them stop. My heart was pounding and his face came closer and closer to mine.
"Please, don't." I said and he drew back, his face filling with hurt. He turned away quickly as his voice trembled, "You don't feel the same?"
"It isn't that." I stammered, unsure of what to say or what to feel.
"Then why do you deny it?" He demanded.
"Because I can't stay, Charlie! I can’t stay with you, and I can’t ask you to come with me. If I say yes to you it would be for but a moment and I will not say that."
"I could go with you."
"Don't say it!" I barked at him, but he was already turning and I recall the next few minutes only in feeling. Like a warmth from my boots that chased a shiver up my body. It poured over me as Charlie grabbed the front of my coat and pulled me hard towards him and kissed me with his perfect lips. Passion flowed through his body and his whole being coursed through his lips; I was transported. His hands were in my hair, his body pressed against me, and my arms found themselves around his waist and we kissed. We kissed like two lovers who would part soon after, never to see each other again. And when it ended, when I had my breath and he had his, he finished the sentence he had begun and held me closely for a time that I did not want to end.We did not meet again for the duration of my time in Gatewater, though whenever I put Master down at the stable I lingered overlong by his stall in the hopes that I would feel another hand on my shoulder. When it came time for me to leave, I decided once and for all to leave my feelings behind and forge ahead to the crux of my great adventure. I wouldn't let any man stand in my way, and I couldn't let any man hold me back either, l-word or not.