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Authors: David Michael

Gunwitch (5 page)

BOOK: Gunwitch
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Only as part of the festival, of course. Because burning witches had been made illegal by an act of Parliament more than fifty years before. London was a long way away, though, and no act of King or Parliament could stop neighbors from talking and looking back on the “old ways” with a fondness they no longer expressed for the eldest daughter of the once-respectable Bainbridge family.

In the Bainbridge home, Father and Mum did what they could to bring their little Elsie back to her old self. They encouraged Rosalind’s increased social interaction, and thanked her again and again for bringing Elsie home with her honor intact. Then, because Elizabeth requested it, they asked Rosalind to move her things out of the bedroom the two girls had shared for eleven years, and had been Rosalind’s bedroom for her entire life, into one of the unused servants quarters.

The week before the summer solstice, once again the invisible Bainbridge daughter, Rosalind came down from her remote bedroom to find the rest of the family eating dinner.

She had heard Elizabeth laughing, and burst into the dining room, excited, because she had not heard that sweet sound in too long. When she came in, though, Elizabeth stopped laughing and looked away from her.

Father met her gaze, but looked uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Mum said. “Did Cook forget to tell you it was dinner time?”

* * *

“Why aren’t you getting ready, Rosalind?” Mum asked from the door of her new bedroom.

Rosalind did not look up from her needlework. “I was certain that my presence was not wanted,” she said. She pushed the needle through the material and pulled the thread. “By the–by everyone.” She swallowed against the lump in her throat, and paused to regain control of her voice. “Or by you.”

“That’s not true, dear,” Mum said. She moved into the bedroom and stood over Rosalind. “We want you to come.”

“Really?” Rosalind still did not look up.

“Of course we do. I know,” she went on, “it’s been hard these past few weeks. But we’re just doing what we think is best for Elizabeth. And for you. For all of us.”

Rosalind could hear the apology in Mum’s voice. And something else. A beseeching, maybe, beyond the typically unspoken request for forgiveness. She wanted to forgive Mum, and Father. And she desperately wanted Elizabeth to talk to her again. But that
something else
in Mum’s voice made her stubborn.

She pushed the needle through hard enough to
tink!
against the thimble on her finger. “I believe I will stay in,” she said.

“You will do no such thing,” Mum said, the beseeching taking on an air of desperation. “It would not be right to–to have you in the house tonight.” Mum paused, then continued in a less frantic tone, “You will not sit in here, whiling your life away. You will get dressed for the festival tonight. And you will meet us downstairs after tea.”

“So I am not invited to tea?”
“Don’t be impertinent, Rosalind.”
Rosalind nodded. “Yes, Mum.” She gripped the point of the needle with her fingers and pulled it through.
“Well don’t just sit there, Rosalind,” Mum said. “Get dressed, and be down. After tea.”

“Of course, Mum,” Rosalind said, but Mum had already turned and left the room. As she continued her needlework, she wondered why Mum would insist to such a degree. Her lips pulled into a tight smile when she considered that maybe Mum and Father had agreed to deliver her for burning at the stake, and would be
so
embarrassed if she stayed home and missed the appointment.

“Rosie?”

She looked up, her heart in her throat. “Elizabeth!” she said and stood. She threw the needlework on her bed and rushed to her sister.

Elizabeth stood at the door, head down. She did not respond to Rosalind’s hug and did not lift her cheek for the kiss Rosalind wanted to give her. But she did not push Rosalind away, and that was almost as good to a lonely big sister.

“Don’t go,” Elizabeth said, her face turned so she was speaking to Rosalind’s arm.
“What?” Rosalind asked.
“To the festival tonight.”

Rosalind put her hands on Elizabeth’s shoulders and held her at arms length. Now Elizabeth met her eyes. Rosalind could see the girl had been crying. “What’s the matter?”

“Don’t go to the festival tonight. Stay … stay home.”
“Why?”
“I can’t …,” Elizabeth looked down. “Just don’t go.” She brought her eyes up to Rosalind’s again. “For me. Please.”

First Mum insisting she go, now Elizabeth insisting she not go. Irritation set the muscles of Rosalind’s jaw. “What? Is this another part of making Mum’s Little Elsie happy again?”

“No,” Elizabeth said. She looked away from the angry glare in Rosalind’s eyes. “It’s not … I can’t …” She shrugged off Rosalind’s hands and stepped back out of reach when Rosalind tried to grab her again. “Just don’t go. Please. I’m sorry, Rosie.” Then she was gone, running down the hall.

Rosalind stared after her sister. Mum had seemed insincere. Elizabeth had seemed earnest. Elizabeth had looked at her. For the first time in weeks.

The stubbornness rose in Rosalind, and she decided she would go to the summer solstice festival. With her family. Because it was her family. And her village. She could go if she chose. And she so chose.

During tea, dressed and ready with Cook’s reluctant help, but refusing to be where she had not been invited, Rosalind sat in her bedroom torturing her needlework. She thought she heard her mother shouting, and maybe Elizabeth. That Mum and dear little Elsie were arguing gave her another cold smile. She heard the carriage being brought around from the back of the house.

When she came down half an hour later, giving both the argument and tea service plenty of time to be put away, she found only Cook and Agnes, the maid, sitting in the kitchen sharing a pot of tea.

“Oh, they left already, Miss Rosalind,” Agnes said. “They left word you should catch them up there.”

Almost Rosalind went back up to her room. Almost. But if her family could be cold, she could be colder still. She would meet them at the festival and be the dutiful daughter. Polite, dignified–

She sniffed to cover the tightness in her throat. Whatever she was going to do at the festival–and she had not decided yet–it would not be considered polite. She would have time on the way there to consider her options. And to not cry. The family had taken the carriage. She would have to walk the whole way to the green.

She nodded her good-bye to Agnes and Cook, not trusting her voice with words, and left through the front door.

The late afternoon was quiet around the Bainbridge house. Rosalind took a deep breath to calm herself. Then she adjusted her bonnet against the brightness of the sun and set out along the path to the front gate.

She heard the running footsteps on the far side of the front hedge before she reached the gate. Then a man’s voice yelling, “Stop!” and a girl’s scream.

“Rosie!”

Elizabeth.

Rosalind grabbed her skirts and lifted them so she could run to the gate. She hit the gate with her shoulder and it opened, spilling her into the lane.

A man in the uniform of the King’s Army held a kicking and shouting Elizabeth by the arms, keeping her from running to Rosalind.

Before Rosalind could regain her balance, hands grabbed her arms and pulled her backward, off her feet. A smelly bag was pulled over her head. Rosalind pulled against the restraining hands, but they held her fast. She shook her head to get rid of the bag, but a drawstring was pulled, cinching it closed around her neck.

The hands pulled her arms behind her. She drew in a breath to scream, but the bag covered her mouth, blocking her mouth. She gagged and coughed.

She felt cold metal bands on her wrists, and the clicks of multiple locks. The hands let go of her and she staggered because she could not move her arms to catch her balance. She could still hear Elizabeth’s screams. She lowered her head and charged toward her sister.

More hands grabbed her and her legs were pulled out from under her. She hit the ground roughly on her left side. She felt the weight of a man across her hips and more hands on her legs.

“Rosalind Bainbridge,” a man’s voice said, “you have been accused of the crime of witchcraft. In lieu of a trial, in accordance with the laws of England, you have been conscripted into the King’s Army to serve at his decree.”

“Is all this really necessary, Leftenant?” Father’s voice. “You are upsetting my wife and daughter.”

Rosalind wanted to scream that he had more than one daughter upset, but she could not get the words past the bag pushed into her mouth. She choked.

“We are doing the King’s duty, sir.” A different man’s voice. “Please stand back. And please control your daughter.”
She tried to kick at the hands grabbing her legs, but could only bend her knees a little.
“She has been properly served as required by the law,” the first man’s voice said.
“Very good, Sergeant.” The Leftenant again. “Give her the sap and let us be on our way, if you please.”
“No!” Mum’s voice. “You can’t take–”
“Rosie–!”

Something hard and heavy struck Rosalind in the back of the head, right at the top of her neck, and Mum’s plea and Elizabeth’s scream were cut off.

Chapter 3

Ducoed

 

Fort Gunter

1742 A.D.

 

Thomas Ducoed resisted the urge to smile at the combined looks of disbelief and disgust Rose sent him across the table. How many years had it been since they last saw each other? Fifteen? Nothing had changed. She still hated him, and he still found her stubbornness amusing, almost endearing. The muscles of her jaw tensed as they always did when she was refusing to admit he was right. She would come around, but not if he smiled and showed that he knew.

“No,” he said, “I’m not suggesting a march across sixty miles of swamp, or what you so quaintly call ‘bayuk’.” He glanced at the native girl. Rose had given the girl’s name as Chal and said nothing more about her. Ducoed did not like unknowns. He hoped to draw the girl out, learn something about her. “Bayuk” was a native word, from one of their numerous languages and dialects. Chal returned his glance. But if the word and his patronizing tone meant anything to her, she showed nothing on her face. He turned his attention back to Rose. “I will admit you have the advantage of tramping through the brush several years longer than myself, but I’m not a colonist just off the boat.” He risked a tight smile.

Rose ignored the smile. “The river is the fastest route to the fort,” she said, repeating the point she had made before. “If we left tomorrow, we would pass the contingent of reinforcements within three days and be at the fort by sundown on the fourth.”

“If we were moving an army, or a gaggle of colonists, I would agree.”

“These girls are hardly seasoned travelers.” Rose gestured to where Janett and Margaret still sat. At the mention of the girls, Janett started to say something, but Rose continued. “You can’t expect them to slog sixty miles through the mud.”

“We are willing to pass through the gates of Hell itself if we have to,” Janett insisted. Beside her, Margaret nodded.

Ducoed looked at the girls and flashed his most winning smile. “Of course, my dears. No one questions your loyalty and dedication to your father.” He turned back to Rose, without the smile. “If we were moving an army, I’d agree. But we’re not moving an army. Nor colonists with all their attendant supplies and baggage that the river and its roads would help us carry. There will be fewer than a dozen of us, with only such necessities as will fit in our packs, moving quickly. If we follow my path, we arrive in three days, and with no one the wiser about our whereabouts until we set foot in Fort Russell.”

“It’s hard to move quickly through the mud.”

It was almost over now. Rose was running out of arguments. “But you know where there is no mud,” he said. “Nine years you’ve spent in these swamps. You know where the water is deep enough for a canoe–”

“Pirogue,” Rose interrupted.

“–and where the ground is firm enough to walk. You know the dangers and how to avoid them. Between the two of us, I have no doubt that we could find a path that brings the girls to the waiting arms of their father with hardly any signs of the road on their shoes or even the hems of their skirts.”

“Skirts?” Rose looked at Janett. “In the bayuk?”

“It’s just an expression, Rose,” Ducoed said.

Janett met Rose’s gambit, though. “What else would you have us wear, Miss Bainbridge?” she asked. “Trousers? Like common laborers?”

The matching looks of shock and disgust that the two women exchanged, and Rose’s quick glance down at the trousers and knee-high moccasins she wore, almost made Ducoed laugh. He pressed his lips together and made not a sound. Beside him, Major Haley coughed to suppress a chuckle. Even the general’s normally impassive face showed a touch of amusement.

“This is the route I propose,” Ducoed said, leaning over the map to hide his face as Rose turned back to the table. He placed his finger atop New Venezia on the map. “We will go by boat across Lake Patrizio.” His finger traced a straight line to the lake’s westernmost shore. “We can use the larger streams to reach Lake Mancino, carrying the canoes–” He held up his hand forestall Rose’s correction–”pirogues, of course, when we must bridge a gap between waters. Then we will proceed across Mancino to this north channel, the Amicizia.”

Now Rose leaned over the map. “And then to the Comite, here,” she said, pointing to the junction of the two rivers. “I see where you’re going. That might get us there faster.” The admission did not come out easy, Ducoed noticed. “Though,” she added, “we would be rowing against the current almost the entire way.”

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