Chapter 2: Den of Liars
Without a light of her own, Joan stumbled her way over the furrows in the field and tried to keep up. The lantern vanished into the trees when Joan was only half way across. She began to run now for fear of losing the light. She’d never find anything in the darkness of the night forest without that guiding spark. Tripping and falling, Joan aimed for the place where she had seen Rose enter the woods. There she found a wide footpath and glimpsed the glow among the trees ahead. Joan hurried as best she could until she was sure not to lose sight of the lantern again.
After about a mile, Rose turned off the path. Joan turned off too, pushing through some bushes to discover a small deer track. The light floated further along the trail, but the footing here was more difficult in the dark, and if Joan failed to keep pace now, she’d be lost for good. The terrain became rough, and large boulders rose up about her. She stumbled, looked around and realized she couldn’t see the lantern anymore. She had no idea where she was. There were fewer trees in this rocky area, so more of the silvery starlight showered onto the ground. Going back in the darkness made no sense, so Joan continued forward among the stony shapes.
Then she noticed it, not the lantern, but a soft glow on the rocks. It came through a window from the strangest cottage she had ever seen. The front wall was built right into a grotto. A door stood in the middle, and to one side rose a smoking chimney. To the other side of the door, a circular window leaked light out into the night.
Joan peeked inside. The little cave had been turned into a comfortable room. Two or three utility tables were placed around the sides, a few tapestries hung on the walls, and candles stood in the many nooks and crannies. A small number of chairs and benches occupied the middle of the room where sat about a dozen people.
No one in the hovel looked like she expected. As she had listened to the king, her imagination painted these people as depraved criminals with dark circles under their eyes and angry, twisted faces. What she saw here matched none of her previous notions. Everyone seemed serene, peaceful. They were speaking calmly among themselves but didn’t appear dangerous at all. In fact, many of them were crying.
Joan pressed her face to the window to see the far side of the grotto, and the window pane creaked. The faces inside all turned toward her, and Rose stood up abruptly with a shocked look on her face. Joan stepped back but didn’t move. Where would she go? Run blindly into the unfamiliar forest at night? She stayed put, waiting for whatever would happen next.
The door squeaked open and the light spilled out.
“Won’t you come in?” said a male voice, but it wasn’t harsh or sneering like most she was familiar with. It was kind and soothing.
Joan didn’t know how to respond and remained motionless.
“There’s always room for one more,” persuaded the voice.
“I’m not sure you’ll want me,” Joan finally said.
“You’re here aren’t you? That means you belong here.”
She couldn’t stand there all night; there was no point in trying to hide, and she couldn’t run, so she gave in. She thanked the young man and stepped through the door into the light. Despite his gentle tone, Joan felt uncomfortable. Never had so many eyes stared up into hers.
Rose was still standing in shock, but found her voice. “That’s the king’s scribe!”
The room suddenly filled with the waspish buzz of nervous conversation.
“Wait a minute,” said the young man, trying to calm the growing panic. “If we were in trouble, I’m sure we’d be visited by the royal guards, not the king’s scribe. Am I correct?” he asked Joan.
“Yes,” Joan confirmed. “No one knows I’m here. I think I’d be killed if they found out.”
“It is the same risk we all take,” said a voice.
She told them how she became curious about stories and how she thought Rose might know something about them. The girl’s head drooped in sorrow and shame when Joan described her careless behavior. Looking a royal family member in the eye and then speaking out usually led to death. Grief made her careless, and she was lucky it had been Joan who suspected her.
“I know nothing about stories,” Joan concluded. “I guess I wanted to know what would make someone die for them.”
“We lost Robert today, a beloved colleague,” said one. “But I think even he would celebrate a new member to our society. There are so few of us.”
“Yes,” said another. “You are welcome here.”
They drew in closer to her. There was an even mixture of men and women, and they all wore the simple clothing of servants or workers. There were certainly no guards present. Joan was the best dressed and the highest ranking person in the assembly. She understood why they had been anxious about her.
The young man who met her at the door spoke up. “Perhaps we can celebrate Robert’s memory by telling the stories he loved the most.”
Others nodded their consent.
The young man turned to the scribe. “Take a seat Joan. My name is Tim. I’m the storyteller.”