Hello Everyone! I'm back, and the story can continue! Thanks for being patient. Part 2 of this installment will be posted later this weekend, hopefully by Sunday. It's still being edited, but for now, you can catch up with Rene. If you recall, the last time you saw him, he was thrown in jail...
The stench of his cell made him want to wretch. He could feel tiny vermin crawling all over him, but with his hands still tightly bound, it was impossible to scratch every itch. A single hanging lantern, suspended from the ceiling by a rusty chain, provided a dim light, but it seemed better not to see clearly. It was wretched enough to smell his prison room. He didn’t need to see the details of it. He could hear the sounds of mice and rats...their hideous squeaks and their nails scraping the beams overhead. Never in his life had he been in such a hellish place.
But even in the midst of his captivity, his mind was working fast.
Other prisoners might have been content to sit in fear and submission, praying for a miracle. What good was that? No one was coming to help him...so he would just have to help himself.
There was only one sentry outside of the cell. Since his captors had imprisoned him, he hadn’t seen or heard a soul, except for this one guard. He was a stout, short man with a nasty temper, which he’d already unleashed several times. At the slightest disturbance, he would rap the bars of the door and shout a threat, usually with an expletive.
Rene realized what an advantage that could be, if he played it just right.
Rising from the wooden bench, he went to the door and stuck his chin between the bars. Pursing his lips, he began whistling...and was instantly answered with a nasty reprimand.
“Shut your hole before I shut it for you! And get away from that door!”
A moment of silence passed. Until Rene began again. The angry guard got up from his chair, and using his baton, he slammed it at the bars.
“Get back from this door and shut your mouth, unless you want me to come in there and thump your skull!”
Rene stared him in the eye, challenging him. “You lack the stones.”
The guard’s eyes flashed with growing fury.
“Do not tempt me, boy.”
With a tiny smirk, Rene’s words were spoken in a low, taunting voice. “Was your mother a goat, or just a common whore?”
The key turned in the lock. Moving back against the wall, Rene waited for the moment to strike. The door flew open, and he didn’t hesitate. Flinging his bound hands around the guard’s neck, he yanked the rope tight. They struggled violently for several minutes, until Rene hit his captive’s head against the wall. The body went limp. He let a few moments of caution pass before dropping the guard to the floor. It was unlikely he was dead. He would soon wake with a horrific headache, and the shameful realization that his prisoner had got the best of him.
But there was no time to think of that now.
Working quickly, he searched the guard’s clothing, hoping to find a knife or dagger. He found a blade in the guard’s belt, and holding the hilt between his knees, he sliced his rope bindings in two. There was little time to rejoice in his freedom. Quickly, he traded his own clothing with the guard’s. Lord, the smell of the garments was pungent and disgusting. But he would endure it. He knew he had to. Dragging the body over to the wooden bench, he hefted it up and rolled him on his back, giving him the appearance of being asleep. Taking the keys, he let himself out and locked the door behind him, looking about to see if the commotion had brought any attention.
All was still and silent in the corridor.
He moved along carefully, hoping he wouldn’t come across anyone. He had no way of knowing his surroundings. Was it day or night? Which direction should he take? There was no way of knowing. But there had to be a way out, and he intended to find it. By the time his captors realized he was gone, he would be well on his way home.
The torch-lit corridor seemed to go on and on, eventually reaching a hub that branched into two passageways. Rene looked from one to the other, struggling to make a decision. And then from the darkness, a dark-haired serving girl appeared, carrying a bucket of water. She was startled for a moment, but recovered quickly and tried to pass him, keeping her eyes lowered. She was a young woman...perhaps fifteen or sixteen. She had a pretty face and a slim figure, and in an odd way, she reminded him very much of Evelyn. But this girl had none of Evelyn’s sunshine. He knew something of servants, particularly those of low status, who were often called upon to do much more than carrying water. As she passed him, he reached for her arm. She did not flinch, but as she slowly looked up at him, there was an expectancy in her eyes. He wondered if she thought to be used by him, as she had probably been used by many men. In speaking to her, he was kind in his manner and tone.
“Are you quite familiar with this place?”
For several moments, she said nothing. She just stared at him, her large brown eyes full of suspicion, searching his face. Sensing her uncertainty of him, he tried again, gently.
“I will do you no harm. Tell me, quickly. How do I leave here?”
Still she said nothing. Still studying him, she put down her bucket. Moving towards the left passageway, she gave him a curious look. But at the entrance she paused as if to wait for him. As he followed her, he wondered at her behavior. She seemed so wary of him. And yet she was giving him aid. Curious, he intended to ask questions of her. But to his surprise, she spoke first.
“You are not a guard.”
He was stunned by her declaration. She moved rather quickly down the corridor, and he tried to keep up with her. He was intrigued, and asked her, “What prompts you to say I am not a guard?”
She glanced over her shoulder at him. “I know all the men who are in employ here. You are not one of them.”
A slight smile came to his lips. “Perhaps I am new.”
Her reply was a shake of the head. “You are not forceful enough to be a guard.”
“What am I, then?”
She shrugged. “I am not quite certain. But if you seek a way to leave these walls so hastily, you must not have come here willingly.”
They descended a stairway, and she paused at a partially open door. As she put her eyes to the opening, Rene spoke in a whisper, aware that there might be others near.
“Since you seem to be both clever and helpful, tell me. Where am I?”
Turning her head slightly towards him, she answered. “Avignon Castle.”
Avignon, he thought. That meant, he needed to take a southwest route. Home was roughly ten miles in that direction. He could not be sure which road to take. But perhaps his young guide would know.
“I need to go southwest,” he said. “Which way is it?”
She turned to him. “The kitchen door faces the south. From there, you can determine your path, can you not?” He nodded. But then, a problem presented itself.
“How do you propose to reach the door? Will we not be seen?”
She gave him a half-hearted smile. “You are dressed as a guard. If you keep your eyes lowered, I doubt you will be noticed.”
For a long moment, he let his gaze linger on her. He owed her a debt, and he wished he could give her something in return for her assistance.
“If I could repay you, I would. But I fear I must leave you with only my heartfelt thanks.”
She looked at him with a curious expression. “Where will you go?”
He started to say. But decided against it. “Perhaps it is best I do not say. If you are questioned, I would not wish you to be implicated.”
“I will not be. Because you will take me along.”
Her words threw him completely off guard. “What?” He stared at her, giving a slight shake of his head. She looked him directly in the eye, her expression fierce and determined.
“As I helped you in your quest, you will help me in mine.”
He was stunned by her boldness. “And your quest is?” he asked.
“Merely to leave this place. I cannot travel alone...not in the night, especially.”
She had used him for her own purpose. Had there had been no graciousness in her actions at all? He was not comfortable with being bested by a woman, and he narrowed his eyes at her. “What if I refuse to have your company?”
Her answer was quick and sharp. “I will scream and bring the castle guards upon you. Then where will you be? Drawn and quartered? Or perhaps you will want your head removed and displayed upon a pike?”
Her nerve was appalling. But he had no time to argue, and he could not risk capture by refusing her. He muttered an angry response.
“Fine! I will bring you along, but once we arrive at my destination, we will part company. Is that understood?”
She shook her head. “Take me by the arm,” she said, her voice still hushed. “Walk through the kitchen with me, pretending to use a rough manner. The servants have seen me with other guards in such a way. They will not suspect your actions to be unusual.”
It seemed like the scheme of a mad woman. But there was no alternative. Using one hand to grasp her arm, he threw open the door with the other. He dragged her along quickly, more out of a need to rush than a need to give a great performance. Before he knew it, they were outside. As he stepped into the night air, he released his hold on her and stepped further and further into the open field around them. He dropped to his knees to take in the clean air, forgetting for a moment about his companion...until she slapped the back of his head.
“Rise, you fool! We may already be hunted! If you wish to live, get up off of your knees. Or stay, if you would rather die. Your choice does not have to be mine.”
She is an audacious wench, he thought. But she spoke wisely. And he was not a fool. He hurried to his feet, and together, he and his companion fled into the night.
Rene quietly led a horse out of its stall, in a barn far off of the main road. As he came to where his companion was standing in wait, she gave him an inquisitive look.
“It appears you are no novice at stealing,” she observed. “Was that the reason for your incarceration?”
He shook his head. Thinking of Evelyn...how his deep affections for her had led him here...he sighed. “My only crime was being a fool.”
There was a tone of regret and sadness in his voice. But his companion’s reply was sharp.
“So you are a liar, as well as a thief,” she remarked.
He couldn’t help being amused. He looked her over, seeing the way she stood with her hands on her hips. She was no fool, he had to admit. It was clear that she would not be taken in by a tale of woe. She saw past that, seeing him for what he truly was, and she was not afraid to tell him so.
“Are you always so shrewd?” he asked.
She corrected him. “I would rather you say I am ‘forthright.’ It has a more pleasant sound to it.”
As they neared the road, he looked at her again, more curious than ever about the little sprite who had granted him his freedom.
“Speaking of names,” he asked, “What is yours? I would like to know who it is that reads me like a finely scribed document.”
She did not look at him as she answered. She was too busy looking about, perhaps to be certain they were not being watched. “I am Marie, if you must know,” she replied. “And what of you, horse thief? Do you have a name? Or do you go by more than one? In your profession, aliases are a job requirement.”
She was so damned direct. And it was impossible not to be entertained by her. A smile twitched on his lips. “I am Rene.”
Now she looked at him, and her eyes searched him up and down. “Lovely!” she said, with mock enthusiasm. She then became more serious. “Now that we know one another, let us end the chatter and move on before we are found out.”
It was a reminder of their precarious situation, and he heeded her words. Climbing up on the unsaddled mare, he reached down for Marie’s hand. She was small and light, and swung up behind him with ease. When her arms went around his waist, he felt a familiar little thrill...one that always came to him when a woman was so close. But any ardor he felt was quickly cooled by her sharp tongue.
“God’s nightgown, you are foul smelling. Wherever you land, do the world a courtesy and take a bath.”
He shook his head, wondering where on earth such a spirited creature came from. He gave the horse his heels, moving on. It would not be a long journey home, but perhaps in that short time, he would learn something about Marie before they parted ways. If anything, she was an interesting creature.
One he was certain he would not soon forget.