Chapter 3: The Last Storyteller
After a long while, when the trail began to wind up a steep rocky hill, Joan realized her mistake. A tight knot twisted her insides as she noticed the morning sky growing lighter. Frantically, she hurried back the way she had just come. Would she make it in time? Maybe she should go to Tim’s, but Joan knew she’d never find it by herself.
Her heart sank when she got to the fields; the guards where already on duty overseeing the workers. Joan moved off the trail into the brush and looked out at the scene. A strip of forest had been freshly cut to extend the field, and peasants were cleaning the debris: roots, stones, stumps and branches. The workers moved about like untethered shadows, and every once in a while one would simply cease to move until prompted with the end of a stick by a guard.
Just in front of her, four shadowy workers pushed senselessly at a tree stump. Joan could see they’d never move it like that; the shovels, prying poles and picks lay about uselessly. A guard returned his attention to them and prodded them with his stick into using the tools again. Another peasant wandered nearby, and the guard yelled to him.
“Hey you!” shouted the guard. “Get over here.”
The specter didn’t appear to hear and continued floating on its way.
“Don’t ignore me!”
The frustrated guard began to make his way toward him when the wafting peasant paused in his meandering tracks as if just now realizing he had been addressed, but it was too late. The guard had already decided to beat him. One of the stump workers looked up and waved the peasant over, evidently hoping to spare the ghostly worker from the impending punishment.
“Wow!” shouted another soldier. “Did you see that?! He waved!”
“What!” The huffing guard twirled back toward the laborers. “Which one?!”
The soldiers converged on the group of men and grabbed the offender.
“What’s the big idea?” they asked him. “You think you’re one of us? Bossing people around?”
“Which hand did he use?” asked one.
“His right,” answered another.
They pushed the man to his knees and pinned his right arm across the flat surface of the stump. One of the guards pulled out his sword and raised it over his head. The peasant did not resist. The sword came down, and the severed hand fell into the mud. Joan expected a scream, but he simply curled up on the ground, cradling his stub and leaking blood into the dirt.
She gasped, and two of the guards looked in her direction.
“Did you hear that?” said one.
They made their way to the edge of the forest just as Joan ducked behind a bush.
“It came from right here,” said the other.
Joan could see them just a few feet away trying to peer into the foliage. She was too afraid to breathe. The guards shifted on their feet hoping to see something.
Her stomach jittered, and her head began to feel dizzy. She had no explanation ready for when they found her. She would be dragged to the dungeons and killed; the king had said as much. The situation suddenly felt like a nightmare she had no control over, a nightmare that would end with her own death.
“Must’ve been a pheasant or quail,” said one. “Clear-cutting always gets ‘em stirred up.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “Maybe.”
The guards returned their attention to the stump, and Joan snuck away still feeling faint and breathing heavily. She stumbled to another spot at the forest edge. Here a number of field workers gathered bits of roots and branches and put them in a nearby cart. Joan pulled the hood over her head, picked up a few sticks and hugged them to her, pinning the book underneath her cloak against her body. When she thought no one was watching, Joan stepped out from the cover of the woods. None of the peasants looked up, of course, and none of the guards seemed to notice. Joan intended to work her way across the field, posing as a laborer.
She stepped past the near cart and made her way toward one closer to the castle.
“Hey, you. What are you doing?” A guard approached.
Joan began to raise her head; it was so natural for someone in the royal household to look at others. She saw him step into her view and noticed his heavy leather boots. Her eyes continued up to where his breeches were tucked into the boot tops. Not until she saw his belt did she remember. “Don’t look up,” she commanded her gaze back down. “No matter what.”
“Where are you going with that junk?” he asked. He pressed the tip of his stick against her shoulder and shoved. Joan lost her balance. As she stumbled, the book shifted and fell to the dirt at her feet. Joan froze.
“Hey. What’s this?” another guard nearby spoke up. He walked closer. “Looks like you got a real brainer there, Seth. You gotta learn her to work right.”
Looking down, Joan noticed the long cloak concealed the book.
“You’re going to the wrong cart,” said the guard named Seth. “You passed the rubbish wagon. Take that mess back.”
Joan didn’t dare move; she could not uncover the book.
Joan remained frozen.
“Are you stupid? Move it!”
Joan dropped the bundle.
“That does it!” shouted the guard.
Pain burst in her shoulder as he smashed the stick down upon her. Joan crumbled to her knees. A cry rose in her throat, but she managed to stifle it. The man who lost his hand had not uttered a sound, so Joan thought it best to do the same. Tears filled her vision. She fumbled on the ground, reached beneath the cloak and grasped the book. She tucked it up into her stomach, gathered the bundle and stood.
“Jeez, Seth,” said the other guard. “They just get stupider and stupider every year. You should just let her dump it in the other wagon. She’s almost there already.”
“I suppose you’re right, Henry. It’s just not worth the trouble trying to get ‘em to do something right. Suppose I should be happy they just know how to walk. Go on idiot,” he addressed Joan. “Dump that mess, but don’t even think about dropping it again.”
Joan continued, stumbling over clods and divots with her watery vision. The pain in her shoulder blossomed like a violent red flower, spreading its reach up her neck, down her arm and across her back. The wagon rested in the older field where workers hoed the furrows. Joan tossed in her bundle and picked up a hoe. She dabbed at the dirt when she thought a guard was watching, but gradually made her way toward the garden gate. As she moved near she noticed it periodically open and then shut again. She wanted to run toward it, but peasants never ran and there were too many guards standing nearby. Joan positioned herself closer to the gate. When it opened again, she saw the shock of red hair. Rose looked out at the field, and Joan caught her attention by looking up. Rose raised her hand to her mouth to hide her surprise as she recognized her.