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Jeanette knew it was wrong to be out after dark, away from the village, heading to the one place girls were forbidden to be, yet she kept moving forward. One last outing with Addy before the royal caravan came to festival, that is all she wanted.
“I can’t see where I’m going,” Addy whispered. “Slow down.”
“Stop dragging your feet and you’ll be able to keep up,” Jeanette replied, her trim frame and long, black hair gliding between the trees. Of all the excursions she had talked Addy into over the years, this one took top prize.
“Why did I let you convince me this was a good idea?” Addy asked between breaths, her plump cheeks red from exertion, and her long, wool frock clinging to her from the humidity.
“I didn’t talk you into anything you didn’t want to do. It was your idea in the first place.”
“You are the one who wanted to see Rendall, remember?” Jeanette said. Addy groaned and wiped the back of her hand across her brow, attempting to move the sweaty, burgundy curls from her face.
“Get down,” Jeanette said, the dancing light of a fire coming into view.
“What do you see?” Addy asked, kneeling next to Jeanette in the brush.
Jeanette raised her head to get a better look. “There’s lots of tents…and it looks like a bunch of boys around the fire.”
“What are they doing?”
“Oh, Addy” Jeanette said with a hint of amusement,” even under the noblest of missions – such as training to protect the kingdom – if you put a bunch of juvenile boys together what do you expect they would be doing?” She pulled Addy up to see the young soldiers in their undergarments, holding drinks, dancing around a bonfire.
“They look like a bunch of imbeciles,” Addy said.
“I don’t know how we’re going to pick Rendall out of the crowd.”
“This was a bad idea, Jeanette,” Addy said, squirming. “There is no way we’ll find him. Please Jeanette, let’s just go.”
“Maybe we just need to call out to him,” Jeanette said with a grin. “Oh, Rendall, we have come to call on you,” she cried out, fluttering her eyelashes, imitating Addy’s voice.
“Are you out of your gourd? Stop it!”
“I hope you are ready to hold me in your big, manly arms and make me blush.”
“Enough, Jeanette. Please!”
“All right, all right,” Jeanette said, turning her attention back to the camp. “But we’re not going yet. Let’s see if we can find him.” She was happy to help Addy pick out Rendall, but Jeanette personally had little use for boys. She comprehended that boys and girls were supposed to be attracted to each other. In fleeting moments, she would admit that maybe some of the boys in town noticed her. Perhaps one day they would not be so immature and she would be willing to notice them, too. If Addy wanted to fantasize over potential husbands, like the rest of the girls in town, that was her business. If there were someone for Jeanette, he wouldn’t be a boy dressed in his undergarments dancing around a campfire.
“Come on, let’s go back home.”
“We already made it this far and our parents don’t know. We are perfectly safe, unless you are worried about being attacked by Red Eyes?”
Jeanette had meant to be flippant, but as she surveyed the surroundings – alone, in the woods, the middle of the night – she realized her words were poorly timed. She did not believe in the Red Eyes, or Rogues, the savages that supposedly lived in the forests and scavenged village after village to stay alive. Everyone knew the stories, but she had never heard of them coming near Emerleigh. Old folk tales to keep the children minding their elders; that is all they were.
“Everything is fine,” Jeanette promised. “Besides, we made it this far and I want the full tour.” Jumping up, she grabbed Addy’s hand and began running, the leaves and brush rustling underneath their feet. Jeanette’s pace quickened as she entered a small clearing. On the next step the earth beneath her instantly gave. Still holding tight to Addy’s hand, they fell through a hidden barrier of limbs and leaves.
Jeanette landed flat on her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She drew quick, short breaths and rolled onto her back. They were at the bottom of a pit.
“Are you okay?” Jeanette asked, wiping dirt off her face.
Addy rolled to one side. “I don’t know,” she said wincing, grabbing her leg through the skirts of her dress. “I landed on my knee.”
Jeanette stood and jumped a couple of times, trying to reach the top of the hole. It was just out of reach. She looked down at Addy and could see the fear welling up in her face.
“There’s nothing to grab for me to climb out,” Jeanette said. She tried jumping one more time to no avail. She paced for a moment and then kicked the tomb of dirt in frustration. How was there a pit in the middle of the forest? Who would have dug it?
Jeanette stopped in place, ears perked, listening. It was quieter. “Do you hear that?”
Addy listened. “Hear what?”
After a few more seconds, fear building, Jeanette said, “I don’t hear anything…that’s the problem.”
Both girls craned their necks. The sounds of the young soldiers reveling at the camp had ceased.
“We can’t just sit here,” Jeanette said, “we have to try to get out. If I stand on your shoulders, can you lift me up?”
Addy massaged her knee. “I don’t know if I can put any weight on it.”
“Well let’s find out,” Jeanette said, helping Addy up. “The only other option is to stay here all night and have our parents not find us in the morning and send everyone looking for us. Or wait to see if…something else shows up.”
Addy limped over and crouched down, placing her back against the earthen wall.
“Do you think you can stand?”
“I think so,” Addy said, bracing as Jeanette stepped up on her good leg and then onto her shoulders. When Jeanette tried to stand to full height, Addy’s knee gave out and Jeanette fell down beside her.
“What do we do now?” Addy asked.
“You don’t have to do anything,” a male voice responded from outside the pit. Addy cowered to the corner. Jeanette crouched next to her.
“If you try to hurt us we’ll scream,” Jeanette proclaimed. “The men from that camp are from our village and they will protect us.”
A silhouette appeared at the top of the pit. Jeanette searched the face, trying to see the eye color, but the figure remained in the shadows. Her fists tightened.
“Well, you can scream if you like, but I don’t think you want more men over here. And I use the term men loosely.” The voice was familiar. Jeanette stepped away from the corner to get a different angle. The light from the moon brought the young man’s face into view.
“Corwin!” she yelled, relief and anger somehow coexisting inside.
“Really, Jeanette, you pay them far too high a compliment by referring to them as men.” Corwin paused for a response and when there wasn’t one, he laughed.
“Get us out of here, now!”
Corwin looked behind him, “What do you think Rendall, should we get them out?”
A towering figure appeared behind Corwin, chuckling. “Hmm, I don’t know. Looks like they are in quite a mess. But at least we know our trap worked. We’ll get points for that with the boys, won’t we? Oh, I’m sorry, points with the men.” They both laughed.
Jeanette wanted to curse them, but she knew it would only feed their immaturity.
“Ah, there are so many questions, Jeanette, so many questions,” Corwin said, his shoulder length, dirty-blond hair messy from days at camp. Sometimes the young men would hold drill in town and she would see him in his fighting tunic, with the dark green colors of Amarin and the kingdom’s seal in gold. Tonight, he wore a simple work shirt and breeches.
More than any other boy in the village, Corwin always seemed to be nearby. Wherever Jeanette was Corwin would be in her peripheral with a gleam in his eye, as if he knew something about her. Something he wouldn’t share.
“Yes, Corwin, we fell in your big, manly, secret trap! You got us good. Now can you please get us out of here?”
“I guess,” Corwin said, “but you’re spoiling all my fun.” He nodded to Rendall who left for a short time and came back with a ladder. “Move out of the way,” Corwin said. “I’ve already hurt your pride; I don’t want to hurt anything else.”
Jeanette groaned in frustration. “Why are they all alike?” she mumbled to herself, turning to Addy. “Is your knee feeling better? Will you be able to climb up the ladder?”
“Yes, I think so,” she said, walking over to start her ascent. As she put her foot on the first step, she looked straight up to see Rendall’s outstretched hand waiting for her.
“Don’t worry, Miss Addy, I’ll help you if it gets shaky.” There was a pause. Addy started to wobble and then fell backward onto Jeanette. They both hit the ground, again.
“What’d you do?” Corwin asked.
“I didn’t do nothing!” Rendall answered. “She just…fell.”
Corwin looked down and saw Addy sprawled out, unconscious. “I think she’s fainted.”
“Addy…Addy, wake up,” Jeanette said, gently tapping her on her cheek.
“I don’t think this could get any better,” Corwin continued, almost cheerfully. “But, unfortunately we need to leave before the camp sends scouts. Rendall, get in there and get her up.” Rendall climbed down to get Addy.
“Be careful of her knee,” Jeanette warned.
“I will, Miss Jeanette,” Rendall said, lifting Addy off the ground and over his shoulder with a heave. He looked at Jeanette, pointing to the ladder, “After you.”
Jeanette made her way up the ladder and out of the pit, happy to breathe the fresh air of the night again. She stood straight up to see Corwin in front of her. He almost spoke, but she turned around before he could say anything.
“I’m coming up…a little help…with the ladder…please!” Rendall begged from below, trying to carry Addy and balance on the rickety rungs.
Jeanette and Corwin each grabbed a side of the ladder to steady it. Corwin looked at Jeanette. “Are you okay?” he asked, speaking sincerely for the first time.
“I think so.”
He smiled. “No more night trips to the training camp?”
“We would have been fine if it wasn’t for your ruddy pit.”
At the top of the ladder, Corwin and Jeanette carefully took hold of Addy and laid her on the ground. Rendall knelt beside her and took his water pouch off his belt. Pouring some onto his hand, he sprinkled Addy’s face. “Miss Addy, wake up now.”
She started to groan a little, her head wavering back and forth. Slowly, her eyes opened. “Oh good, you’re here with us again,” Rendall said. “You fell down, Miss Addy.” She remained perfectly still on the ground, frozen. “Aw, it’s just the nerves. Fainting is never much fun.”
“Are you feeling okay, Addy?” Jeanette asked.
“I…I think I’m okay. How did I get out of the hole?”
Corwin grinned. “Rendall was kind enough to help you out.”
Addy turned and stared at Jeanette. Jeanette shrugged. “Can we please go now?” Addy asked, slowly getting to her feet.
“Are you sure you can walk?” Jeanette asked.
Addy took a few steps, favoring her healthy leg. “I think so.”
Jeanette turned to Corwin. “Thanks for making the pit for us to fall in and thanks for getting us out, but we’re going to be on our way.”
“We can’t just let them go back by themselves Corwin, can we?” Rendall asked. “The festival is coming up soon; there’s more traffic than normal and what about the…” he paused. “Other dangers. It’s not safe.”
Corwin looked at Jeanette. “You will head straight back to the village?”
“Yes, of course.”
Corwin pondered for a moment. “They found their way here; they can find their way back.” Jeanette sensed Rendall wanted to argue, but Corwin’s tone did not invite debate. Addy turned and started walking towards home.
Jeanette looked at Corwin. Her body moved forward, slightly, as if propelling her to speak; to say something else. He cut her off before she could. “Please be safe. If you make good time you should be back before dawn.”
“Are there any other secret traps we need to know about?”
“No. That was the only one,” he answered with a smile, then motioned for Rendall to help him start covering the pit again.
Jeanette walked as quickly as she could to catch up to Addy, who was moving briskly, albeit with a small limp. With each step, the night seemed more still.
“I am so sorry, Addy. I should have never brought us out here.”
Addy sighed. “If I didn’t have you to push me into trouble, my life would be pretty boring.”
“Oh my dear Addalynn, what would I do without you?”
“You would have gotten yourself killed a long time ago.”
Jeanette grinned and added, “True. And in the case of my demise, I am more confident than ever that if I’m not around to push you, it looks like Rendall is certainly able to carry you wherever you need to go.”
Addy reached out to push Jeanette. Jeanette lunged out of the way, laughing, as they moved farther from the camp and closer to Emerleigh.
After a while, Addy spoke. “Corwin seemed happy to see you.”
“Don’t you ever say that again,” Jeanette said. There was a warm feeling in her cheeks. It was the last thing she wanted; one of the boys in the village having feelings for her. Or worse, having the boy think that she had feelings for him. But with Corwin, avoiding that kind of trouble was just a waiting game. The festival started in a couple of days and all of the boys Corwin’s age who had been training locally would be sent to the Royal Academy, their last stop before seeing the battlefield.
She would not see him again for years.
“We certainly didn’t have to worry about finding Rendall,” Jeanette said, changing the subject.
“Did you hear what he said?” Addy asked. “He didn’t want us to be by ourselves! Do you think he’ll ask me to dance at festival?” Jeanette shook her head and kept her gaze forward, drowning out Addy’s gushing as a strange feeling came over her.
Guilt because she had not told her best friend that, regardless of what happened at festival, they would not see each other for a very long time.