Under normal conditions, the firing of a musket was a relatively fast experience; but under duress, it seemed to take an interminable length of time. The hammer fell painfully slow, leisurely striking the flint, which then ignited the powder; and only after all that, did it finally resume its normal speed. The weapon forcefully expelled the deadly, little black ball. Even before it left the barrel, I knew I’d missed my target. It sped down the alleyway but not far enough. The ball blasted into a side wall, in front of the charging horse. However, despite my poor aim, the shot still devastated the soldiers. Fragments of rock and mortar peppered the horse’s head. The deafening roar and smoke from the black powder proved too much for the poor creature. It slid to a stop and reared up in terror, tossing its head and very nearly its rider. The soldier dropped his sword and desperately clung to the saddle in an effort to avoid falling off and possibly under the hooves of the panicked animal.
With no time to stop, the second mount charged straight into the hindquarters of the still rearing lead horse, causing its master to launch over its neck and into the front horseman. The momentum toppled the first horse backward and onto the second; and the whole group of them came crashing down onto the hard, stone street in a chorus of crunching bodies, snapping bones, and screams of pain.
Not wanting to watch the ghastly wreck, and desperate to get away, I continued my flight. Street blended into street and I prayed that I was traveling in the right direction.
“Over here! I see him!” cried a soldier somewhere behind me.
I turned at the next street and sprinted down it, only to hear the clamoring and cursing of soldiers at the other end. I slid to a stop, and desperately looked for another route. There were no side roads or alleyways, and there was no going back the way I had come.
With nowhere left to run, I braced for a fight, with a spent musket as my only weapon. Fortunately, it still had a lethal bayonet attached, and a very solid butt that had already proven useful.
A long, moonlit shadow of a soldier passed across the homes at the far end of the street. At any moment, a soldier, or soldiers, would appear at both ends.
A hand grasped my clothing. I jumped in surprise. However, before I could whirl and attack, I was drug back through a door that I hadn’t noticed.
“Shh,” said whoever it was, while silently closing the door. An old man, with a shaky but cheerful voice, said, “Very lucky ya ended up here—very lucky indeed.”
He was wearing a nightshirt, and had a shock of long, white, scraggly hair jutting out from under a cap.
“Looks like they just about had ya.”
“A few times,” I muttered.
He gave a quiet but jovial laugh. “Well, yer not out of the woods yet, young John. They’ll know ya disappeared inta one of these doors, and they’ll be a goin’ house to house looking for ya anytime now. We best getcha out, before they get here.”
“How… how’d you know my name?” I asked, astonished.
“Got some friends workin’ the gate, which means a lot of people know yer name now; and after tonight you’ll be a big hero fer some.”
“You’re not going to tell are you?” I asked, suddenly worried.
“Relax,” he said. “They ain’t findin’ out from me; but everyone will suspect. Quite a coincidence—the nightcha show up, a big commotion with gunfire and everythin’ happens. Not sure whatcha done, but I’m sure it was spectacular.”
“I’m confused. Why would that make me a hero?”
“Plenty a folks don’t like it much here. Anythin’ bad that happens to them is good news to us.”
“So why doesn’t anyone do anything?”
“They’re all too powerful and we ain’t got no organization or leader. Now, I’d love a chat, but we best get ya off.”
He hobbled over to a shelf and withdrew a small hammer of sorts from behind a few books. Returning, he stooped down and pried some floorboards up from their nails. Beneath lay more old rotting planks. Those, he simply lifted and revealed a deep hole dug in the dirt.
“Down inta the tunnel with ya. Follow it ‘til it ends, and you’ll come up in an old, burnt-out house. From there, ya ain’t far from yer destination.” He then gave me the directions and added, “Ya best not be found with that musket, or they’ll know for sure it was you. Leave it down there; we’ll take care of it.”
“We?” I queried.
“A small resistance,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Not much, quite pathetic really, but it’s all we got. Most folks are just plain too scared to join us—consequences and such.”
A banging could be heard from the house next door.
“Now off ya go,” he ordered. “And do be quiet, woncha? I ain’t got many days left, but I’d rather not spend ‘em rottin’ in a cell.”
I slithered down the hole and called up softly, “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Simon.”
“Yes, yes. Think nuttin of it, my boy. Now do be quiet.”
I remained unmoving and silent in the small tunnel, which was barely large enough to crawl through. A few rickety boards were the only support keeping the whole thing from caving in on me. The only light came from above, and that disappeared rapidly as the old man replaced the planks and the floor. No sooner did he finish, than a soldier pounded on the door, which rained dust and dirt down onto my head.
The soldier demanded, “Open up, you filthy scum! And be quick about it, or we’ll break the door down.”
“Comin’, comin’,” replied the old man.
The sound of the door unlatching drifted down and soldiers rushed in. They ran through the house. Vibrations from their boots continued my little rainstorm of filth. Occasionally, there was the sound of something being knocked over. After a few minutes, I heard a soldier declare, “He’s not here,” followed by the sound of boots scurrying out. A moment later, the same orders to open another door, almost word for word, could be faintly heard.
Not wasting any more time, I half crawled, half slithered my way through the dark, miserable tunnel. My hands pawed over the dirt. From time to time, I would touch an object which I was glad I couldn’t see—a few of them squeaked and scampered away. Progress was determined by the different boards and beams that collided with my head, which in turn caused more dirt to fall down on top of me. Each time, I gritted my teeth and kept going, doing my best to keep from cursing—albeit it was unavoidable at times.
The tunnel was longer than expected, and I found it quite tiring to travel in that dog-snakelike combination. Nevertheless, I made good progress and found the end, or more specifically my head discovered the end when it plowed into a hard-packed dirt wall.
Reaching up, I felt for the opening. Using my fingers, I checked for any protrusions that may cut or give me any more head knocks on my way out. Finding nothing, I gave the obstruction a push. The heavy lid only budged slightly before falling back down. With a deep breath, I gathered my strength and sprang up, giving it a hard shove. This time it moved, but not as expected. The door, or whatever it was, swung more sideways than up, but it was enough to escape. I crawled out and into a grimy mess. Briefly studying my surroundings, I discovered that only two walls remained of the decrepit building I found myself in. There was no roof. Debris and ashes were scattered everywhere. The object blocking the entrance to the hole turned out to be a wooden board covered with a filthy, molding rug, or perhaps a dead animal…I didn’t care to find out. With a few good, squishy shoves from my boot, it fell back in place.
I briefly shook off as much dirt from my hair and clothes as possible. The blackness of the night was fading. On the horizon, a line of light began to penetrate the darkness. The sun, again, waged its epic and eternal battle against the dark night—both relentless in their pursuit of the other.
Following the directions given to me by the old man, it wasn’t difficult to find my way back. Before long, I crept into the house. Jane waited in the dim candlelight.
“Where have you been?” she demanded. “You’ve been gone for hours! Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be out after dark?”
“Yes, I’m somewhat acquainted with the dangers now,” I mumbled. “I’ve been trying to find a way out of this town.”
“And did you?”
I shook my head; more dirt particles floated down.
“Good heavens, have you been rolling around on the ground? You’re filthy.”
I opened my mouth to reply, and she cut me off.
“Never mind, you can tell me about it later. With all the commotion you’ve caused, they’re sure to check to see if their new citizen is at home.”
“You could hear that?”
“I believe it’s reasonable to assume we would notice when the whole hilltop blows up in musket fire,” she said with just a hint of sarcasm.
“Where are the others?”
“Hannah can sleep through most anything. I doubt she could be roused, even if the gunfire happened right here in this house. And I just sent father to bed. Now we’d better get you cleaned up in case they come, or they’ll know for sure it was you. So off with your shirt,” she ordered, and left.
While she disappeared into the other room, I did as I was told. She returned with a pair of breeches, a shirt, and a wet cloth. Without a word, she ran her fingers through my hair and shook out what dirt she could. With the water, she cleaned my face, neck, ears, and hands. To be truthful, I enjoyed it, and silently wished it could go on a moment or two longer.
Jane’s face remained unreadable.
Taking the clean clothes, she tossed them at me and said, “Put these on and be quick.” Then she turned and again strode into the other room.
I stripped down to my undergarments and pulled the clean shirt on; at which point, Jane returned.
I let out a small cry and covered myself with the clean pair of breeches.
She rolled her eyes. “For being so swift, you sure are slow sometimes.”
“When else have I been slow?” I demanded.
She again rolled her eyes and walked back into the other room without replying; leaving me to get my pants on and figure out what else she meant.
I finished dressing as quickly as I could and called, “Ready.”
She returned, took the dirty clothes and, with the wet rag, she smothered the candle. Then she wrapped my soiled garments around it.
“Best if they don’t smell a freshly extinguished candle,” she explained unnecessarily. “Lie down; and for heaven’s sake, pretend you were asleep. Better yet, if they don’t come, try to get some real sleep; you look like you are in need of it.”
Without another word, she swept out of the room, and I obeyed her command. Sleep came easily. The moment my head touched the blanket that made up my bed, I was already out.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
It felt like I’d just barely closed my eyes when a mighty pounding at the door, and a shout from an angry soldier, jarred me from my sleep.
I groaned, rolled over, and heaved myself to my feet. It was a difficult task, and more difficult yet to pry my eyes open.
“Open up! Or we’ll break the door down,” demanded the soldier.
“We’re coming,” cried Mr. Wolfe, as he scurried down the stairs and into the room. Jane and Hannah were at his heels. Unlike me, I noticed that the others were fully dressed. How odd, I thought. When did they have time to get dressed?
The pounding continued more vigorously. Hannah rushed over and unlatched the door. Light streamed in and I was surprised to discover that at least a few hours had passed; though, to my tired body, it had only felt like minutes. The sunlight blinded me as I tried to blink away the sleep from my eyes.
Two soldiers rushed in, ready to give combat to anyone daring to make the slightest move. No one did. The sight of the next man sickened me. Lyman strode in with a bit of a swagger, all dressed up in his soldier uniform. I wondered if he slept in it.
“Ah, Mr. Casey, have a late night did we?” he asked in that greasy voice of his. Walking around the room, he wiped his finger across the table inspecting it for dirt. He then eyed everything as if it were painful to see such poverty; until at last, his lustful eyes fell on Jane. “Miss Jane, always a pleasure.” They lingered on her far too long and a tad too low.
She looked at him blandly and said nothing.
Finally, he pried his eyes from Jane and turned them to me. Instantly, they changed from lust to hatred. The feeling was mutual.
“Well?” he asked.
Maybe it was because of exhaustion, but I felt confused. “Well, what?”
“My goodness, you are a slow one, aren’t you?” he said with a contemptuous look. “I asked you a question. Now let me state it in a way even you can comprehend.” Then, accentuating every word, he said slowly and loudly, “What were your actions during the night?”
Mimicking his tone and voice, I replied, “I was sleeping.”
It wasn’t the smartest thing that’s escaped my lips and his face turned red. Contorting with rage, he rushed over and slammed me against the wall, jamming his forearm onto my neck and under my chin. He spat through a clenched jaw, “You are a bloody fool to mock me. Do you think I’m daft?”
I really wished he hadn’t asked me that. He had a way of making me drop my senses and say whatever came to mind. Hannah sensed the same thing, and with her eyes, she relayed the message, “Now would be the time to KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!” I took her silent advice and resisted the temptation to reply frankly.
Lyman continued, “I know you were at the garrison last night. I expected you would try something that stupid.”
He leaned hard on my throat, choking off my air supply. Then, putting his mouth to my ear, so that only I could hear, he hissed, “I do not know why my father insists on bringing you to dinner, you pathetic little boy. If it were up to me, I would kill you now; a pleasure I may still enjoy after tonight. So, if I were you, I would hold my tongue and show some respect. Who knows? I may even decide to be merciful and permit a quick and painless death.”
Through his eyes, I could see he truly hated me, which was no surprise, but this was intense—so fierce that I could feel he desperately wanted to kill me. And there was something else that accompanied the loathing…it was tremendous fear. Why he felt so afraid and angry would be a mystery that I wasn’t going to find the answer to just yet.
To emphasize his point, Lyman released my neck, grabbed my hair, pulled me a few inches away from the wall, and then violently slammed my head back against the hard surface. Stars obscured my vision and pain shot through my skull. The process was repeated once more, and I nearly blacked out.
He released me and snapped his fingers. A short, wiry man scuttled into the room carrying new clothes and boots. Pretending to resume composure, Lyman said, “A gift from my father. I will return later this afternoon to escort you to dinner.” Then, wrinkling his nose, he added, “And do clean up; you smell like a pig.”
With that, he turned and walked briskly out into the light. The little man left the clothes and bustled away, followed by the soldiers.
When they had all left, Jane closed the door and checked my head to make sure it hadn’t been cracked open. “I really wish you would stop pushing him like that,” she said.
“So do I,” I muttered.
Hannah walked over to me and sniffed. “He’s right. You do smell like a pig.” Then darting well out of my reach, she added, “I’ll go fetch some water for your bath.”
“What did he whisper to you?” asked Jane, after Hannah had left the room.
“Nothing much,” I replied. My head throbbed and it was painful where she parted my hair in an effort to get a better look.
“Since you won’t tell me, it must be something bad.”
“Is anything Lyman says good?”
“No,” she confessed quietly.
She finished her inspection and revealed a blood-stained hand.
Reading the expression on my face, she assured, “Don’t worry; it looks worse than it is.”
“Very comforting,” I replied.
Mr. Wolfe broke his silence, “Did you find a way out last night?”
I shook my head. “I’m certain that our horses are being held in the fortress. And from what I can tell, there isn’t any easy way in.”
His shoulders dropped. “No, I wouldn’t think so.”
Sounding more optimistic than I really felt, I suggested, “Perhaps there is still a chance. If I can slip over the wall and sneak around the back side of the hill, a way may present itself.”
“Perhaps,” he said, but he didn’t believe it. To tell the truth, neither did I.
Hannah returned with the water. Seeing our downcast expressions she observed, “I missed something, didn’t I?”
“No, not really,” said Jane.
“Then why all the sad faces?”
“Because we are still trying to figure a way out of here,” replied Jane.
“And not just here,” I added. “First we have to get our horses out of the garrison.”
“Why don’t we just leave the horses and go on foot?” suggested Hannah.
“Absolutely not,” retorted Mr. Wolfe.
“Why? We’ve done it before.”
“Because that was then and this is now,” he barked. “We are not taking such a risk!”
Jane and Hannah both looked taken aback. I was too, for that matter. Even though I agreed with him, his agitation still surprised me.
“He’s right,” I confirmed. “I don’t think there is any way Lyman will just let us go—at least not me. If we’re discovered missing, they will most certainly give chase. On top of that, we still have to evade the Brean. Without horses, we won’t make it far.” And, though I didn’t say it, I felt sure Lyman wouldn’t let Jane go without pursuing her, especially with me. He wanted her for himself. I tried not to think about it, finding myself growing angry at the thought.
Jane added, “Since they’re expecting John tonight, we wouldn’t have much of a start on them.”
Hannah’s optimism deflated a bit. “Then we don’t have a chance.”
“You never know,” I said encouragingly. “Maybe I can convince Lord Wright to let us go. At the very least, I won’t have to figure out a way inside the fortress.”
Mr. Wolfe spoke up, “I’m sorry. Short of Lord Wright’s permission, and without an actual plan of escape, I’m afraid I can’t allow the risk. There are other alternatives.”
“Such as?” asked Hannah skeptically.
“We can continue as we always have. There is no reason why we have to flee right away.”
“Except that John is about to go up to the garrison tonight,” blurted Jane uncharacteristically. “Who knows what will happen to him?”
It made me feel wonderful to have her support.
“I know you’re concerned, Jane,” he said with growing frustration. “But I think we are being too quick to judge. We don’t know why he was invited. Perhaps he will be offered some government position. If not, then I’m sure a strong, young man like John can get stationed as a town guard, or even as a soldier to the lord. Why else would he be given new clothes and invited to the garrison? They could have killed him by now if they had really wanted to.”
“You saw how Lyman treated him. You can’t possibly believe he will be treated fairly,” she argued.
“But it’s not entirely up to Lyman is it?” snapped her father. Then, rubbing his forehead with one hand, in an effort to regain some composure, he added, “Now, tomorrow we will go to the minister of housing and find John permanent living arrangements. That is my final decision.” Turning to me, he added, “You are, of course, welcome to stay here until then.”
It was pointless to argue. Besides, the fight had gone out of me. My hopes were dashed and my heart sank. The thought of having to stay any longer, to simply exist without reason, was smothering. Even though I’d been living my whole life without aim, at least it was my choice to make. Here, there was no choice, no hope. Like the pierce of a venomous thorn, the despair of Marysvale poisoned my soul, slowly decaying my will to live. I could see no escape from the place that had become my cage.