Rosalyn struggled with the branch that had somehow poked its way through the cloth, her fingers clumsy, every fiber of her being saying “Now’s not the time to be stopping! Go! Go! Go!” Forced to pause, she realized they could never outrun a pack of trained hunting hounds. Their only chance would be to do something the dogs couldn’t do. The thorns finally released their hold on Jason’s cloak, though not before pricking Rosalyn’s fingers. She sucked on her bleeding thumb and urged Jason onward.
“We have to climb a tree,” she said. “Give me your cloak for now.” She stuffed the two cloaks hurriedly into the pack. The voluminous lengths of fabric barely fit shoved in like that, but it was better than tripping as they climbed. “Over there!” pointed Rosalyn to a tree with a wide trunk and a number of thick branches low to the ground. She gave Jason a boost up to the first limb, then swung herself onto it. From there, it was a fairly easy climb, the branches laddering up to the top. When the branches began to get significantly smaller and more flexible, they stopped, each of them on their own branch, holding on tight to the trunk, like sailors in a crow’s nest. Sailors, however, had the advantage of an unobstructed view. For her, there were too many leaves in the way to see how close their pursuers had come, or how tight a circle they had drawn around them. She knew dogs could smell anything. How on earth could they fool them into thinking they weren’t there? Their only chance would be to blend in as much as possible with the canopy of branches so that anyone looking up would question the hounds’ instincts.
“Hold on tight to the trunk. I’m going to get out our cloaks and then we’ll be really invisible, I hope.” Too bad they weren’t really cloaks of invisibility, she thought, but if that was the case, their pursuers might have certain other powers. Getting the cloaks out was easier said than done. Jason was swaying to and fro, causing her own branch to shake. “Stop that!” she hissed. “They can see if the tree is moving. You have to be completely quiet and still. Otherwise you’ll have to go back to that bad man and I’ll never see you again.” He looked at her, eyes wide with alarm.
Behind and below them, Rosalyn heard the baying of the dogs drawing near. Contorted as she was with her backpack over her right shoulder, her left arm hugging the trunk, and one foot up on the branch above, she was able to pull out Jason’s cloak with adrenaline-propelled dexterity and wrap it over him like a barber’s cape, back to front. “Tuck it under your legs,” she whispered.
The dogs were so close she could hear them whining to each other in the underbrush. She whipped out her own cloak and hugged it tight around her, pinching it closed at the neck and pulling the hood down over her face as far as it would go. Perhaps the cloaks would mask their own natural smell, or at least confuse the dogs.
Now they could hear men’s voices. “Heel, Titan!” One of the dogs returned to the group of men who were coming in view to lead them forward. Another dog had his paws up on the tree and was alternately wailing and barking. A third dog was running circles around the tree in a frenzy of yapping.
“Found something, have you, Toby?”
The men tramped toward the tree. Rosalyn hardly dared breathe. She peeked out from the thick wool hood, trying to keep herself motionless. There were three or four men, from what she could see through the many layers of leaves and branches.
“Do you see anything?”
“No, but then again, the sun’s in my eye. It’ll be good to grandify soon.”
“Come around this side.”
The men moved around the tree, while the dogs whimpered.
“Might be a squirrel. He’s only just been trained.”
Rosalyn prayed for a squirrel to dart out of a hole in the tree trunk and make a mad dash for the next tree, but she suspected they had probably scared away any resident critters long before the dogs had arrived.
“Well, they’re kids, so they’re bound to get tired of hiding sometime. We’ll wait around for a bit and see what nuts fall out of this tree.” The man guffawed at his own joke.
The search party stood around, chatting and smoking pipes. The sweet burning leafsmoke wafted upward and for a brief moment it was almost pleasant, like listening to the uncles talking around the firepit after a summer barbecue. These fellows were discussing politics, specifically the scandal of the Marquis of Scalamandre.
“I still can’t believe he thought he could pass off another child as the prince. I mean, does he really think his own mother won’t recognize him, even after four years?”
“The poor queen. What if she hadn’t thought to check his birthmark? She’d be happy, and the boy would be raised a prince and Scallymandre would be covered in gold. Would have been a win-win-win.”
“You think Scalamandre having more influence would be a win?”
“Nooo, I didn’t say that. A win for him and the royals, is all.”
A new voice joined the conversation. “A win for him is a loss for us, I can tell you. My cousin’s friend worked for him for three months before he even collected one month’s wages. It was always promises, promises, while he could see the Marquis spending freely on his own pleasures. I tell you, if he tried to run the country like that, we’d soon be taxed to death with nothing to show for it.”
These men really did sound like her uncles.
“Well,” concluded one, “We need to get these youngsters back to safety anyhow. You know what they say about this forest after dark.”
"There's no rush, mate," said another, "Patience is a virtue. Those are just superstitious tales."
There was a lull in the conversation as the men puffed on their pipes and settled down with their backs against the trees. Rosalyn stroked Jason’s hand to get his attention and silently put her finger to her lips. He mirrored her gesture gravely and she gave him an affectionate pat. At least he was cooperating. Perhaps that was the problem in their daily life—not enough danger. He never really had to do anything. Everyone was always expressing preferences to him that he didn’t happen to share. Did he have to go to bed at eight? If he didn’t would he be in any danger? No, not really, but the rest of them would be annoyed. Did he have to put away his toys? You could make a case that he would be endangering anyone who ventured barefoot across his Lego-strewn floor but maybe he liked having everything within arm’s reach all the time. Some kids were too smart. They knew just when to push back against the arbitrary rules of their elders. And others, like her, couldn't not do what they were asked without feeling terribly guilty. As much as she knew they were doing the right thing, she still felt slightly wrong about hiding from the adults below.
She shifted her weight onto her left foot and circled her right ankle to relieve some of the stiffness. When she did the same for her other leg, the tree branch creaked.
“Did you hear something?” one man said.
Both children hardly dared exhale for what seemed like an hour.
“Must have been the wind in the trees.”
Now that they mentioned it, Rosalyn did notice the wind was picking up. She wished she could fling off her hood and let the breeze ruffle her hair and cool her neck. She began to wonder how long they could possibly out-wait the men below. And how long before Jason’s stomach began complaining, or worse, some other bodily need clamoured for attention? And was it her imagination or was it starting to get darker? The men showed no sign of tiring, but her legs were definitely starting to ache from standing in one position so long. The small of her back felt sore and she longed to bend over and stretch it out.
Beside her, Jason stirred. Afraid he would speak, she put her finger to her lips. He mimed drinking from a cup. She made what she hoped was a “I know how you feel--I’m thirsty, too” face. He looked like he was about to cry. She gingerly reached around and hugged him with the tree trunk between them. He gave her a squeeze back and they stood like that for some minutes, the rough bark against their cheeks. Finally she dared whisper, letting each word fade away before the next, “You. Are. Being. Very. Brave.” She felt him nod and sigh.
Then, through the dusky woods, they heard a sound that made goosebumps stand out on Rosalyn’s arms. A child was laughing somewhere far away, a long, high laugh that lingered in the air like mist.