All around me is dark, the candles not even beginning to pierce the blackness that I feel. A sob is rising in my throat, and I fight to hold it back. All I need is for my captors to see my weakness.
Half-drunken laughter breaks into my thoughts, and I cannot help a shudder, though the ropes dig into my flesh. They have so tightly bound me to the bedpost that I can scarcely breathe – even without the length they have twisted around my neck.
Such a cruel reminder. Tears start to my eyes, and I blink them hastily away. But not hastily enough.
“Aww… The girl is cryin’ for her da. Thinkin’ about this?”
The soldier’s red coat is blurry in front of my eyes, but the tug he gives the rope is clear enough, and I jerk involuntarily as the air is cut off from my lungs. He does not let go, and I feel panic setting in as the seconds tick by.
“Leave her alone, Tom!” The young voice is indignant.
“Tom? Call me sir when you speak to me, laddie!”
The rope releases with a final yank, and I gasp for breath, my lungs burning, as the soldier turns toward the boy who had spoken. He wears the red coat, but he is so young; he must be a drummer boy. He glares at the man he called Tom, and I flinch – though he does not – when Tom cuffs him sharply.
“Here, lay off the boy. What’s he done?”
That voice is new, and I turn my head towards the door, as do the men that fill my small room. A young man is standing there, one hand resting lightly on his sword’s hilt. His boots are muddy, his blonde hair falling out of the customary short braid, but all I can see is the red he wears.
“Jaime! Not on time at last!” one of the men cries, and laughter follows, though it is the laughter of friends.
Tom, however, does not seem pleased to see the young man standing in my doorway.
“He’s an impertinent imp, and deserved it,” he grouches, turning away.
I see the glance the newcomer sends the boy, and am surprised by understanding in it. One does not often receive such a look from those who don the scarlet jacket.
He says no more about it, though, stepping into the room and flashing a smile at his mates. “Sorry I’m late, boys – Vince threw a shoe, and I had to walk half the way. How’s the plan…”
His voice dies away, and something in the silence that follows makes me raise my eyes to meet his. They are green and blue at the same time, swirled like the sea after a storm, and they are fastened on my face with something like horror in them.
The instant our eyes meet he pulls his away, swinging around to face the others. “Must you needs tie the girl?”
“I thought it necessary.” The captain, who has said not a word to his men about their rough handling of me except to admonish them to tie the ropes tightly, rises to his feet, his voice dry.
Jaime clicks his heels together, saluting. “But sir–”
“But nothing. The man is a dangerous outlaw, and I will not take any chances. The girl is all we’ve got, and there is no way I’m loosing her.” He moves towards the door.
“Watch her, men. I’ll be downstairs.”
He leaves the door open on his way out, and Jaime leans against the edge of the desk in the corner of the room, glancing at me again, then dropping his eyes as if almost ashamed.
The boy walks over and leans against the desk as well, crossing his arms carelessly. Somehow the idolization on his face hurts. That was how Robbie looked, before he left to join the army. He’d been killed, of course – the rebellion never had a chance.
Any more than my father had a chance now. How they knew he was coming to fetch me at dawn I did not know – I would die sooner than breath a word of his whereabouts. But they knew he was coming, and they were ready for him. I was all my father had left, and they knew as well as I did that he would surrender without a fight when he saw they had me.
There are tears in my eyes again, and I turn my face away from the flickering candles, feeling the darkness grow, draining any spark of hope from my heart.
It is Jaime’s voice, and I start at his nearness, shrinking against the bedpost. He steps back slightly, raising his hands to show he means no harm.
“I was just wondering if I could get you anything? A glass of water?”
I shake my head mutely. The last thing I want is favors from them, any of them.
But there is compassion in his eyes, and he does not turn away. “Are you sure? It is a long night, and it will be no trouble for me to get you something.”
The drummer boy jumps up suddenly. “I’ll get you some water,” he says, sending me a smile as he heads for the door.
“There. See? It will be no trouble for me at all.” There is a smile on Jaime’s face as well, and suddenly I want to slap him. He is too kind to be a soldier – to be the man who will kill my father.
His smile disappears then, as if he knows what I am thinking. “I am sorry this is necessary,” he says softly. “But it appears to be the only way we can catch your father, and he must be caught.”
“Why?” I hear myself asking. I have not spoken in hours, but somehow I cannot help myself now. “Why must you hunt him like an animal, hang him like a common criminal?”
He bites his lip, and suddenly I realize there is actual pain in his eyes.
“He rebelled against the king,” he says, gently, as if explaining it to a child.
“He pled for my brother’s life,” I say, the words breaking from me. “He begged on his knees for a fifteen-year-old boy who was momentarily led astray, who never even fought against the king! They brought him out and killed him, in front of my father. And you expect my father to be loyal, after that?”
He looks at me, but does not reply.
The boy is back then, a glass of water in his hand. He holds it out, wordlessly offering to help me drink. I turn my face away – I will not ease their guilty consciences.
“Please – drink,” Jaime says.
“Ha. Stuck-up little snip wouldn’t accept anything from you if she were dying in an African desert.” It is Tom again.
“Please,” the drummer boy whispers, and I shut my eyes. He reminds me of Robbie far too much.
At last they both move away, and I am left alone with my tormented thoughts, the only sound in the room the sputtering of candles and a quiet game of cards that has begun in one corner.
Through my window I can see the night sky darkening. Even the stars are disappearing early, not wishing to see how this night will end.
“Should we have lights in this room? Won’t that warn him something is wrong?” Jaime says suddenly, and I hate the fact that there is even a sliver of disappointment in my heart that he is the one to suggest it. What else was I expecting? He has just taken the one, tiny chance that there was for my father’s life.
Grumbling follows, but the men must agree. The candles are blown out, and now the darkness surrounds me, inside and out. I can do nothing but pray as the tears the soldiers now cannot see begin to flow.
Suddenly there is a hand over my mouth and cold steel against my neck, and I freeze. The pressure of the ropes slackens abruptly and I feel myself falling, my numb limbs unable to hold me up.
The hand at my mouth disappears and strong arms catch me, supporting me as the blood again begins to flow, sending pinpricks of pain all along my arms and legs. I cling to his arm until I can stand alone, and then I pull away, but he does not release me. Instead I hear Jaime’s whispered voice close against my ear.
“My father died for me – yours shan’t die for you if I can help it. Now run! Quietly!”
So I do, and as I drop to the ground outside the window at the end of the hall, it is not the blackness that surrounds me, nor the hated scarlet that has divided our land, but the colors of the sea after a storm that I see before my eyes.