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The Road to Beaver Mill Chapter 8: The Crossroad

Bethany huddled in her cloak and crouched against the stone wall. All night long, there hadn’t been a sound from the prisoner in the next cell. What had she felt, underneath all of those pounding soldiers? Was she still alive? She knew all about pleasuring, having watched the barnyard animals and listened to older girls boast about their exploits, but what had happened to the girl in the next cell seemed just the opposite. How could so much horror and pain come out of life’s great joy, which was how lovemaking had always been defined for her? Worse, this might very well happen to her. If they hadn’t thought she was a boy, she would have been raped too. She shuddered at the realization.

Well versed in her community’s teachings about survival, she pulled herself from her terror to consider her situation. They thought she was a boy; she’d best stick to that, or else. If anyone asked, she’d be Ben, a Marshlander raised by the Fisher people. But not a word about Cedar Haven; that must remain a secret, no matter how many finger nails they pulled out. It was hard to make these resolutions when she was so cold; the chill penetrated her damp clothing until she was shivering and shaking all over.

Just as the cell window turned grey and the long night drew to a close, her door rattled and a squared jawed, rough looking soldier stuck his head in.

“Haven’t got to you yet, haven’t they? Tired out after taking their pleasures with your next door neighbor? Come over here, take your grub.”

She had barely got her hands around the bowl when he was seized at the neck by a tall soldier in an elegant blue uniform with red stripes down beautifully creased trousers. He fixed her with a baleful glare, and began to shout at her.

“Can’t understand it — I had plans for you, young man. I was going too chain you to the ceiling on a wall where the rats like to feed —always hungry, they are — but Major General Hugh says no. He’s keeping you for Elaine and the Minister to toy with. Whatever your secrets, they’ll get them out of you. Excruciating, the torment they invent. She’s visiting friends in Breck, so you’ll have a day or two to think it over; maybe you’ll tell me all about yourself before she gets her hands on you. She’ll use white hot metal wires on parts of your body that’ll make you wish you were that girl in the next cell ten times over!”

When he slammed the door and left, she was wracked with fear. She’d never save herself if she gave in to it. First, she must eat this awful greasy broth; she needed nourishment. That done, she sat back and pondered her situation. She had always enjoyed being contrary. Breaking the rules of games, insisting on coming first, inserting herself between Mother and William — disobedience filled her with a heady feeling. It had always been just in fun. She’d never hurt anybody, except for the children she’d pushed out of her way. And she’d always accepted her punishments as just. There was nothing just about enjoying cruelty like the soldier said her stepmother did. Nor had she herself done anything to deserve prison and torture. It was what she knew that they wanted. Unless she could keep silent while being stuck with hot needles, she would put everyone at Cedar Haven in danger. She was afraid for herself, but truly horrified that she had so endangered her family and all of their friends and allies. For once in her life, Bethany was genuinely repentant.

She wolfed down her broth and then stood up, shakily, to evacuate in a painful liquid stream. Then she examined the iron lock and the door. It was built of heavy oak and fit tightly against its jamb. Even if she had had a thin blade she couldn’t have wedged it in anywhere. How about the window? Iron bars crisscrossed in a way that she could never squeeze through. Her only chance for escape could be when the door opened, but this prison was full of soldiers. Despair like hot steel burned down her throat and stomach; she could feel her guts twist with a pain that sent her rushing to the corner once again. She put her head down on her knees and sobbed. Then she remembered that boys her age didn’t cry. She hushed herself and huddled despairingly, all morning long.

Opal loved spring and this first morning in April looked like a perfect day for hanging out the wash. When it was warm enough, this was one of her favorite chores. It got her outside, for one thing; for another, the sheets and linens, shirts and night clothes, smelled deliciously fresh. She liked making order out of the line, with clothes pins set just so—shirts here, cotton stockings there. Best of all, she loved to stand back and see the laundry dance until the trousers kicked up their heels while the bodices flaunted their bosoms in the first soft winds of spring.

She had her head in a sheet, nose snuffling its fragrance, when a voice, so low its whisper seemed like a bit of a breeze, spoke right through it.

“Hisst, Opal. Keep working, it’s Modreck.”

Looking down, she could see his muddy boots beneath the sheet, moving with hers as she kept on pinning.

“Peril to our friends! Clare needs you!”

“Is she here, will I see her,” Opal gasped.

“No, it’s her daughter in peril. You heard about the Marshland boy they caught here yesterday morning?”

She had been at the fish market and missed all the fuss.

“Thank God they think she’s a boy — actually, she’s our Clare’s Bethany. She was sent to her Fisher people cousins but she stowed herself away, along with all of our secrets, apparently for the adventure.”

“And they have her in the prison,” exclaimed Opal. Modreck reached through the laundry to place his hand over her lips.

“Plans afoot; we need you for her rescue.”

Opal finished hanging her laundry in a higglety pigglety fashion and rushed into the kitchen.

“Near forgot,” she exclaimed breathlessly to Cook. “Missus wants me to take bounty to the prisoners.”

“She’s back; ask her permission.”

“You know she always lets me.”

“Makes her look good, doesn’t it, to cosset the very wretches she means to torture,” remarked Cook bitterly. “Could’ve told me sooner,” she grumbled, proffering a loaf of stale bread for Opal’s basket. “There’s some fruit as is going off, take some too.”

“Special prisoner, that boy. I’ll take it to him.”

“Our Clare’s by-blow, didn’t you know? What’s he done to them, for Gawd’s sake — and him just a child. ‘Twas all our poxie Alexander’s doing.”

Cook would have elaborated further, but Opal was already heading down the hill.

The beggars were out in force, waving their stumps imploringly. Ordinarily, she would have brought an extra loaf to distribute among them — especially today, since they were an important part of the plan. But she had only the one loaf, and she needed to persuade the guard to let her into Bethany’s cell. Everyone at the prison was fond of her; they considered her simple-witted, and her innocence of the horrors they lived among appealed to them in an odd way.

Opal hated the smell that surged up from the prison basement, redolent of sweat and terror, excrement and pain, urine and blood. Holding her nose, she clung to the guard’s jacket.

“Oh please, Dirk, sir, I’ve only one loaf today — could I take it to the Marshlander? Aulk,” she gulped in a manner associated with people who were wanting. “Puleesee, kind sir, sweet sir.”

No one ever called Dirk sweet. He rather liked it; it made a change.

“Haveta lock you in with him, aren’t you scared?

“Aulk,” Opal exclaimed excitedly. “Puleese,” and drooled a bit for extra effect.

No harm from this one, he thought, opening the door and shoving her in.

“Not long,” he added, hoping the Marshlander wouldn’t attack a benefactor. “Scream if he tries anything.”

Opal saw something huddled in the corner of the dark, reeking cell. Pulling at a shoulder she muttered

“Bethany of Cedar Haven; hark. I am Opal, a friend of your Mother. Be alert — turn quick, grab my loaf, and eat while I talk.”

A head of tousled gold brown curls emerged from the cloak. A filthy small hand reached for the bread.

“Plan of rescue, now heed.”

Hazel eyes flecked with gold gleamed eagerly.

“Don’t just stare; eat. They’ll be dragging you to Daniel’s mansion — probably tomorrow, maybe tonight — to be tortured by his wife. That’ll be our chance. There’s a crossroad connects to the drove up there. It’ll be blocked by a peddler’s wagon; there’ll be beggars all over the place. When the soldiers shout at us to get out of the way, we’ll let a flock of sheep loose — that’s your chance. Watch for the ram — has curly horns, a collar and bell and an unshorn pelt — roll under him, grab his wool, wrap you

r legs around his belly. Keep your arms and legs inside his wool and hang on like a burr while we drive him to the cart. Don’t stick your head out, and don’t let go of him until we tell you.”

“But what if my hands are bound,” queried a croaky voice.

“That’s the rest of the plan. When they come for you go all limp and talk like this. Say “aulk,” like this, gulp too, and drool. They’ll think the fear has driven the wits out of you. If you fight and struggle they’ll bind you, but if you act simple there’s a chance.”

“Time,” yelled Dirk, opening the door.

Clare buried her face in the loaf and gratefully knawed at it.

“Thank you, missus,” she intoned with as much stupidity as she could manage. “Aulk, gulp, thank you kindly.”

The next time the jailer came to the door, which seemed hours later, Bethany made herself go loose all over, even though she felt like stiffening up in anxiety that Opal’s plan might have gone awry and that she was about to be tortured or raped in the prison corridor. But it was only Dirk. As he had to come across to where she sat limply, she was able to get in a few aulks and neck lollings.

“Gawd!” he exclaimed, “look at you! Sergeant scared you witless, did he? Or did you catch it from our Opal? I’d be scared to death if I were you,” he mumbled as he locked the door, for he was not entirely without compassion.

Lolling loosely in case anyone should look through the slit, she ran the plan through her mind. Her stomach seemed to have settled down, and she was cheered by the discovery that she had friends out there. But at the thought of what she might bring upon the rest of her friends and relations her spirits fell. It was a new and horrid feeling, impulsive as she had always been and oblivious about the effects of her actions on other people.

But, she thought, If they don’t put shackles on my wrists, if the beggars confuse them enough, Opal’s plan is a good one. She went over it again in her mind — watch for a ram with curly horns, throw myself under him, hang on like a burr, and don’t let go until someone tells me to. We might be clear of Brent by then; I might get away.

Elaine had arrived home that morning to be met by her sons bursting with the news of their putative half-brother with his deed to Father’s House of Weaving, and by a message from the minister to come to his mansion immediately. Before she could set off she was approached by an imploring Opal.

“Oh puleese,” Missus, she begged, “can’t you torture the Marshlander here so we can see how you get the truth out of him?”

She could see Elaine was tempted by this idea, and was probably trying to figure out how to persuade the minister to come to her house rather than to his, which was their usual practice.

“We’ve all heard how good you are at getting the truth out of prisoners,” (here Opal licked her lips salaciously) “but Mildred said not so and I said yes you could; you can get anything out of anyone, I said, but she just sneered and said it was all the minister’s skill but I said no it was you but she made fun of me, called me a donkey for saying you could get what you wanted out of the Marshlander all on your own.”

For their plan to succeed, Bethany needed to be brought further up the hill than the Minister’s Mansion, which was below the crossroad.

“We could use the Great Hall, Missus, Wouldn’t it put you in charge, like? Then everyone can see I’m right about what you can get from anyone, even a Marshlander, and Mildred’s wrong that you can’t never.”

That did it. Opal took Elaine’s chilling orders to set up a big oak table on the dais, fetch straps to hold the Marshlander down, and a rope long enough so she could vary his torment by hanging him from the rafters. With defiant anticipation, realizing that in her own home she had a better chance of directing the proceedings, Elaine ordered Opal to see that a messenger went down to the jail with orders to bring the prisoner during the dinner hour. Then she must go around the neighborhood mansions to request that everyone come to see the spectacle, including their servants. She’d get the truth out of Clare’s disgusting Marshlander bastard; everyone would admire her cunning.

Opal shuddered at the prospect, but dispatched a reliable house boy to the minister’s mansion and then dashed around the boulevard summoning the neighbors for the sport. Finally, she ran down to the crossroads to alert Joshua, who was crouching by a damp fire pit, indistinguishable from a pathetic looking group of beggars around him.

It was full dark when Bethany heard the pounding of boots on the corridor, a ritual Major General Hugh had devised because it frightened their prisoners, softening some up sufficiently that they might break down and confess the moment their cell doors were opened. Terrifying as their approach sounded, it gave Bethany time to go limp and loll her neck convincingly.

Full of hope the prisoner might have hung himself, Dirk threw the door open, but the boy still huddled was in the corner, and grinning at soldiers so tall that several of their heads brushed the stone ceiling.

“Prisoner! Stand to,” shouted the sergeant.

Bethany just lolled there with a grin on her face, which was hard to maintain when she saw that one of the soldier was carrying chains.

The sergeant slapped her across the face. She winced, realized she should cry out, and did so.

“Uh. Don’t hit me, kind sir! Aulk! Don’t hit me again,” she pled, managing to gulp and get some drool running down her chin. “I’ll come.”

The soldier with the chains, who had stepped forward, looked to the sergeant for clarification.

“Standin!” he yelled, and two other soldiers took their places on either side of Bethany, who craned her neck at each one, smiling in as silly a way as she could manage. She’d best not overdo it, though; her life, and the life of her community, depended on her acting convincingly.

So far, so good, she thought, as they marched her unchained out of the prison. Then there was a chorus of yells and curses and something struck the pavement with a splat.

“Filthy Marshlander,” screamed somebody, as a chunk of pavement came flying through the air. The soldiers, she was relieved to see, closed around her, but she’d best look scared, so, putting a frightened look on her face, she screamed in terror.

“Wait until they get the hot knives up your tender parts, you’ll be screaming then,” yelled a woman near naked through her rags and with stumps for hands, but they were on the road uphill. Bethany, stumbling along looking terrified, prepared herself for action. The first crowd of beggars had fallen back, but they were suddenly surrounded by a fresh mob, shouting imprecations.

“Who’s he think he is, the bastard,” yelled a hoarse voice.

“Worsen us, and he says he owns a deed to the weaving house,” jeered a skeletally thin man with no legs, at which dozens of beggars began pouring from the side streets and alleys, weaving in and out of the march, those with no legs scooting themselves along on the ground to tug at the soldiers’ trousers. It was full dark, and the torch bearers were at the head of the procession, so when more beggars poured into the middle of the column they took Bethany’s two guards by surprise.

“Stand in,” yelled the sergeant, “March.” But the soldiers in the rear were tangled up in tattered, reeking bundles of clawing hands, pummeling stumps, and even teeth; though they laid about with their swords they could not move orward. Bethany’s guards had only managed to move slightly uphill when the march came to a halt again at the crossroad; the torch bearers at the head of the procession were blocked by a flock of sheep.

Enraged, Major General Hugh ordered his soldiers to cut through the sheep with their swords, but the flock suddenly wheeled to scamper in and around everybody’s legs until the soldiers were flailing away at a bleating muddle of straggling sheep and fresh crowds of yelling beggars.

“Ram,” thought Bethany, “where is the ram?”

She was terrified that she could very well miss her one chance of escape; the sheep were all ewes, none big enough to get a purchase on and carry her weight. The guards had their backs to her for a moment so she crumpled to the ground and rolled herself into the middle of the melee. She was grabbed from behind and she turned to fight, but it was someone on all fours wearing a sheep pelt.

“It’s me, Opal,” it hissed. “Follow, quickly.”

Pulling Bethany along and warning her to stay crouched, Opal butted sideways between sheep and beggars until she ordered.

“Ram — grab on!”

Beth confronted the broad shoulders and tossing horns of a very angry sheep indeed. She moved around to his side, threw herself on her back wriggled underneath and with one heave dug her fingers into his fleece around his shoulders and her legs around his hips. Much perturbed, he bucked and flailed, heaving and shuddering, to get this wolf or dog or whatever it was off him before it could sink its teeth into his belly. Then a strong, low voice of his shepherd was commanding him and, being a sheep, he thought best to obey him. Surely, he wouldn’t let a wolf devour him from underneath, would he?

Bethany’s mouth was full of stinking fur. She needed to retch, nauseated by the rank smell of sodden pelt and old sheep urine, but she held on fiercely. The ram was moving forward purposely now and seemed to be led by a shepherd, who must be part of the rescue. Then her ram’s hoofs pounded on wood and plunged upward.

Sweat pouring off him, eyes alert in every direction, thinking no time to waste, by no means safe yet, Joshua was pushing his ram up the ramp when he realized there was another sheep trying to climb in after it. But it wasn’t a sheep; it was a fleece with people legs under it.

“I’m Opal, Clare’s friend,” it declared. “I led Bethany to your ram. They’ll know it was me as told them to bring her to Daniel’s mansion so you could use the crossroad. Please, master, take me with you.”

Joshua knew this could be a spy, but he had heard of Opal so he grabbed her by the shoulders and told Modreck to have a good look at her.

“Opal,” exclaimed Modreck.

That was enough for Joshua, who dumped her in with Bethany

“Get under the bundles, out of sight, and stay that way,” he ordered. “Don’t move or talk to each other, not one word,” he called back over his shoulder as he turned the extremely disgruntled ram around and led him back down the ramp.

“Now listen,” he said to the Delta Company crammed together on his driver’s bench, “no mercy on Bethany. She’s got to realize what she did, and not to do it again. The only way is for her to get her blemish. But she’ll have to be severely punished first, made to see the error of her ways; I think the man for the job is The Beaver.”

“What about Opal,” asked Modreck.

“Can we leave her at Dunlin,” said Margaret. “Might she be sought there?”

“Don’t want her at Beaver Mill. She’ll make friends with Bethany, and we don’t want any solace at all for that one,” replied Joshua disgustedly.

“She’s no Marshlander,” exclaimed Modreck, “We can’t take her there any road. She’s an Uplander as might catch the ague.”

“She’s been a true friend to our Clare and our Bethany both,” said Margaret. “Can’t they hide her at Dunlin? They’ll need every hand they can find to build it up from such ruins.”

“Only thing,” agreed Joshua, “but she’ll have to stay away from Nidden and keep alert to hide when visitors come.”

“And change her name,” added Modreck.

“And her sex as well,” suggested Joshua. “For now, she’ll have to do like our Mog.”

Since the Company did not trust Bethany to know they were there, Joshua, having brought the cart to a halt, ordered her to stay under her sack, but told Opal to walk down the way with him.

“Well done, back there. Without your cleverness and bravery, we’d never’ve got her out of that crowd. Now, you mustn’t say anything to Bethany — about me, nor these folks here, nothing. She’s done a terrible thing; no way can we trust her.”

Joshua took her to the front of the cart and introduced her to Margaret and Rory, explaining with a wink that that this peddler, here, was Clare’s mother.

“What a roil that was! All arms and legs and sheep; wasn’t it, our Mog?”

“Seemed hopeless to me,” answered Margaret, shuddering, “Praise God she’s safe!”

“God is as God does,” replied Joshua irreverently, “and I thank’im for the good brains he gave Opal here that’s what!”

“You are still in a dress,” remarked Rory to Opal. “You’d best change now. We’re for Dunlin soon enough.”

“There may be a hue and cry out for you, and word can reach Nidden, the closest settlement to Dunlin,” explained Margaret. “Climb back there,would you, Modreck. Pick something that will fit her.”

“I’d better be the one to fetch the clothes” said Joshua, “Bethany might recognize Modreck from long ago in the Piney Woods.”

“And she’s know Rory all of her life,” added Margaret.

After fetching some breeches, a tunic, and a jacket, Joshua opened a wooden cage, took out a dappled pigeon, wrote some runes on a parchment and attached it to his leg. The pigeon, who had been wondering if he would ever see his friends and relations at Beaver Mill again, flew delighted through the last of the night and into a rosy April dawn.

As they took their places, Joshua kept himself alert in every sense, including the eyes he was reputed to carry on the back of his head.

“Opal can’t compare to your figure,” he bantered to Margaret, “all pale and skinny; nothing like your curves and pulchritude.”

“Enough of that kind of talk,” she exclaimed, though she tingled all over with remembered pleasure.

“Tis, alas,” signed Joshua, “It’s the end of pleasuring for both of us, my dear,” he signed. He stood up to get a view over the meadows where he could just make out the coast.

“Dunlin soon.”

When he made out the faint indentation in the grasses marking the overgrown drive to Dunlin, Joshua drew the mule to a halt and fetched Opal from the cart.

“No more Opal, you are Oliver now, say that, Oliver.”

Opal, dressed in long upland breeches with a shirt and old jacket, had her hair tucked up into a cloth cap of the kind street urchins wore in Brent.

“Oliver,” she squeaked uncertainly.

“Make your voice lower, girl! Do you want to get yourself raped and crucified by the Crocodile Militia!”

“Oliver,” said Opal in a lower, frightened voice, “my name is Oliver.”

“That’ll do for now. Walk down the drive here but keep low, and if you hear a dawn guard behind or before, hide in the ditch. Find Carl — Dunlin’s all in ruins, but he’s in the second hutch you come to. Go right in, tell him Joshua sent you; tell him the whole story. He’ll be glad for your work if you approach him right. Get him to cut your hair off. Don’t tell anybody else your name or that you are a woman unless he thinks it’s safe enough.”

“Yes, Sir,” replied Opal. “My thanks, master, for what you’ve done for me and Bethany and all.”

“No more sirs and masters for you, my dear,” replied Joshua feelingly: “you are free now, not a servant — try to act like it!”

And so it was that Opal, so full of joy at being free of Brent and Elaine and the Minister and servitude that she had to remind herself not to hop and skip, made her way down the old Dunlin drive through the brisk April morning.

“Gets steep now,” said Joshua to Margaret as he took up the reins to guide Percy downhill. “Landing’s at the bottom, you’ll see the Beaver there, sure as not; big stout hairy man, fierce enough to shake up your Bethany!”

“I can’t say goodbye to her, can I,” asked Margaret sadly.

“Nothing tender for her,” answered Joshua. “I’m going back to get her ready”

oUnder bundles of clothing ready for sale, Bethany was deeply asleep. She screamed when Joshua pulled her out by the shoulders and shook her awake, clapping his rough hairy hand over her mouth.

“Want to get us tortured and killed as well as all your friends and relations, do you,” he spat angrily at her, in a voice filled with such fury that she froze in terror at what this fierce old man was going to do next.

“Would have gotten every last person on Cedar Haven tortured and killed, you would’ve — your grandmother Margaret, your mother Clare, your father William, your old friend Rory, and Janet and Riven and Materly and Rivelin — every last one of them who fed and raised and loved you and harbored you.”

“Didn’t do that,” rejoined Bethany, “Didn’t! Didn’t!”

“Did,” spat Joshua, the full force of his anger right in her face. “Had to go to Brent, did you? Had to find your father, did you? Had to boast about Bess’s cursed deed, did you? Who did all that, if it wasn’t you, thinking of nobody but your own self?”

“I wouldn’t have told.”

“Wouldn’t have told, wouldn’t have told,” simpered Joshua mockingly. “Would have told in five minutes if your stepmother had driven her white hot needles into your tenderest parts while she had you hanging from her great room ceiling, you would’ve! And when I remember Clare at your age it just disgusts me.”

His spat his words right in her face. “Your mother was a brave and honest Marshlander, she was; wouldn’t have even considered such disobedience!”

“Now listen,” he concluded his scolding, “this is your only and your last chance: I’m turning you over to the Beaver to do what he wants with you. Tell him your whole story and leave nothing out or he’ll worm it out of you anyway and trust you less. It’s up to him whether you ever see your family again, so do what he says.”

The wagon slowed and stopped. Joshua crammed a sack over Bethany’s head, hauled her onto her feet, and peered through the morning fog to see if The Beaver was waiting. He gasped when it was not his great stomached old friend he saw but a tall gaunt man shrouded in fog by the landing, the plump dark face Joshua remembered fallen into thin cheeks etched with sorrow.

“How can I have forgotten,” he moaned as he urged the horse uphill, “the hunger, the starvation, his family killed and all? He looked terrible!”

The Beaver had been sitting at the oars of a dory which was wide abeam; in case this Bethany was a struggler, they would be less likely to capsize than in his longboat. He had been waiting for an hour, straining to hear the approach of a cart through the muffle of Marshland morning fog, ready to slip away should an enemy come near.

“Shouldn’t care, myself, what they did to me, I shouldn’t,” he muttered to himself, as had become his habit these long months since “that day,” as he called it. “Must listen, must hark,” promised Rebecca “I’d carry on and that’s that, though I shouldn’t care for myself, not really, not at all, anymore.”

At autumn harvest time it had been, though more fast than feast since the Crocodile Militia had been lopping off the hands of Marshlanders who ate their own catch rather than sell it for scant coins at Nidden prices. It was on a day Rebecca and the Beaver and their grown daughter Barbara and her twin boys had sat themselves down to some mackerel and roast potatoes bought dearly at that same market, when Rebecca had made him promise that if anything happened to her he would take good care of himself else she would come straight back from wherever she was and haunt him good. He had roared with laughter at the very thought that his young wife might die before him, but she had held to her insistence and made him promise to live on after her, right out loud.

Just after Samhain one of those crocodile prowed boats had drawn up to the Mill and soldiers had spread all over the place before they had even got their clothes on to see what was up. Why hadn’t he insisted that Rebecca and Barbara and the children go with the Marshlanders the last time they had encountered them during the September fowling? But she never would have gone, not ever have left him.

The next thing he knew he was held by a sergeant against the wall while five soldiers, all drunk, dragged Rebecca and Barbara into the hall and fell upon his dear wife and daughter, all five raping them over and over until they stopped screaming and lay still in their own wombs’ blood.

“Now listen, Mr. Beaver Miller,” the sergeant sneered. “That’s for sneaking flour to the Marshlanders — we know you did it — you mill for Nidden now and nobody else or we’ll do much worse to your grandsons. We’re taking them with us to make soldiers out of, but one more word about goings on here and we’ll bring them right back here and it will be long, slow, painful deaths in front of you for the both of them!”

“Shouldn’t care, really,” The Beaver muttered, a phrase he repeated every time the vivid pictures of his wife and daughter being raped filled his mind. But he had promised to care for himself, and now he had Rafe and, great God, this Bethany under his charge. Rafe was a slow-witted boy — so slow they had nicknamed him Turtle in Nidden. The Beaver always called him his true name — sent out by Bryan the shoemaker who knew that since his family had been killed the Beaver kept watch at all hours. Rafe made an excellent watchman because he never slept at night. Since Rafe’s arrival, the Beaver had gotten some sleep, and he had eaten better, too, for the boy had a prodigious appetite. The Beaver’s sparse income from milling wheat for Nidden, much reduced by the tithes the Burghers insisted upon, went to food bought in town, which he carefully prepared for them both, always stashing away anything storable against winter, when everyone starved down to sticks these days, no longer allowed to fish, fowl or forage in the abundant Marshlands which had sustained them for hundreds of years.

Sitting at his oars, ears cocked, The Beaver wondered about Bethany. The sparse runes on his pigeon had of necessity left questions:

“Freed Clare’s Bethany Brent Prison. Danger! Not Blemished! Do so. Ran away from Fisher folk. Watch landing. Joshua.”

The Beaver knew he should feel joy that Clare lived and that her daughter was coming to him. Pictures of Clare and Foxy romping on the sands and Clare at her coracling flashed through his memory, though unaccompanied by the fondness he once felt. All affection had fled his heart where the only warmth these days sprang from anger. He was angry about Rebecca and Barbara, shamed and slaughtered so horribly, and about his grandsons’ fates as enemy soldiers. Who would be Beaver after him? It was not an hereditary office, but often went that way, as with The Heron and now his son Ned, who became the Heron after the Crocodile Militia — damn them — had crucified his father. Fresh fury at that long ago insult to the great old Rookery leader flared up in his heart, and it was in that state that he heard the clop of a horse and creak of the wagon muffled in the fog.

“Thing is,” said Joshua, who greeted his old friend with an affectionate one-armed hug while holding tightly onto Bethany with the other, “don’t know you can do anything with this one. Danger to all of us, she’s been, everybody back in Cedar Haven as well. Got hold of old Bess’s deed to the weaving house from her Eastern cousins, whose lives she has put in terrible danger, you can see how. Took it into her head to stow away on one of the coastal schooners, marched in full Marshland gear up Brent Hill to Daniel’s mansion and announced she was his heir. They called the militia and would’ve raped and killed her then and there if they’d thought she was a girl, but they took her for a boy, and kept her for her stepmother to torture. No blemish. No sense of responsibility, either. Stubborn as a mule from a child, I’m told.”

Bethany hadn’t eaten anything since the bread yesterday morning and scantly for days before that, only the hard tack and water she’d taken on board the sailing ship. She’d slept little since the night she ran away, and was at that point of utterly lowered spirits brought on by fatigue and hunger. Joshua’s recounting of her behavior was the final blow. He was right. She had brought her entire world and everyone she loved into jeopardy. Never much of a crier, she tasted the saltiness of tears pouring down her face and into her mouth but did not make a sound, too afraid of Joshua and this Beaver person into whose hands he was delivering her. Was he a real beaver? Was he some kind of a half-human being at whose mercy, she now fully realized, she deserved to be?

She felt herself thrust into the arms of someone tall, hairy, and smelling of fish, raw wheat and chaff.

“Watch your step,” commanded a very angry, very deep voice as she was lifted into what she thought was a boat. “Sit there. Don’t move.”

Beth sat still but not stiffly, adjusting herself to the sway of the boat, as she had always been taught to do. Water began to chortle along the sides of the skiff and the oarlocks chocked rhythmically as The Beaver pulled into the current. In the distinctness that fog lends to sounds, her hearing heightened by not being able to use her eyes, she heard the creak of the wagon and clop of hooves as her rescuers left her to her fate. Why did she think she heard her grandmother’s voice calling out to her in the saddest of farewells? Was it her ghost? Had she killed her, too?

She felt the scratchy sack pulled off. She was on the stern seat of a fat little dory, looking directly into the saddest eyes she had ever seen. As the Beaver rowed on they continued to stare at each other, both taken aback. Bethany was moved by all that sadness, while the Beaver, looking at the woeful face of a child— surely not more than eleven — with tears still coursing through layers of dirt down to her chin, couldn’t bring himself to deliver the blistering scolding he had planned. Then, too, he hadn’t talked to anyone sensible for so long that he had forgotten how. Instead, he muttered as if to himself.

“Nother mouth to feed! And Rafe hungry for eel. Need to pull up the traps I set on the way out. Won’t do to be caught at it. But what about this one?”

The speed of the dory picked up with the seaward rush of the tide. Unwilling to pass traps he was reasonably sure held one of the big eels that came up the river to spawn in the spring, he turned around, eased himself to the bow, and leaned over. His weight pulled the bow low to the water, but he felt the boat right itself so he could haul up his trap. Turning to drop it in the middle he saw that Bethany had seized the oars, held the bow in line, and steadied the boat. Then they repeated the whole procedure for the second trap.

Both of them stared into the traps, each with a good long eel thrashing angrily about, for eels can breathe air and do not drown in it like fishes do. Bethany and the Beaver glanced up and saw the satisfaction in each other’s faces.

“How it works is, Crocodile Militia’ll cut your hand off if you eat your catch,” he explained as he took up the oars, “but aren’t none about now, are there?” He glanced in every direction.

“If they don’t hove into sight before we tuck into it, and we’ll eat it out on the porch to make sure, we’ll dine on the one and sell the other. That’s another secret you’ll have to learn to keep, so heed! Think you can keep secrets, now?”

“Not if I’m tortured, I don’t guess,” gulped Bethany.

“Just so,” declared The Beaver.

“I’m not telling you any more secrets, not now” said The Beaver sternly as they drew up under the Beaver Mill Porch “just the eels, plus everything you know about your people and where they have been living. Not until I see if I can trust you, I’m not. Up with you, sharp now.” Weak in the legs but heartened in spirit, Bethany scrambled up the ladder to her new home.


Dear Reader,

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sample chapter from The Road to Beaver Mill.   If so, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to my blog mailing list so you can be the first to hear about the book’s publication and special discounts, and also to receive a free chapter from my new novel Fly out of Darkness.

Thank you so much for your interest,

Annis Pratt

 

 

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