A high-pitched whistling sound woke her when the room was still dark. It took her a moment to realize it was the wind, coming through the window she had left open a crack. She eased out from under the warm and heavy blankets and tiptoed across the cold floor to close it. The silence that descended when the sash hit the sill was a relief. However, the wind had done its work, and even in the half light she could see the sky was cloudless.
A door clicked shut somewhere down the passage. Someone else was up. Two seconds later there was a knock at her door. Before she could answer, it opened and there, silhouetted against the light of the hall, was a giant.
“Aaah,” screamed Rosalyn, pressing herself backward against the wall. Who was coming to get her? What was coming to get her?
“What’s the matter, dear?” said an anxious voice. It sounded vaguely like Marcella, but deeper, like a tenor sax, instead of an alto.
“Is that you, Marcella?”
“Yes, of course, it’s me. Who did you think it was?”
“I didn’t know. What happened to you?” She was shivering, partly from the cold, partly from the shock of seeing a giant first thing in the morning.
“I’ve only grandified. Perfectly normal on a beautiful day like today. Perfect traveling weather, fair and breezy. We thought you’d best wear this.” She entered the room and laid a frilly white dress and a matching baby bonnet on the bed.
“Since you’re as small as a baby, it will look less suspicious if you dress like one.”
Rosalyn fingered the clothes. They were soft, almost worn out. It was hard to imagine a baby this big. “Won’t people wonder whose baby I am?”
“We’ll say you’re a poor little orphan from the village we can’t afford to keep and we’re taking you to the Orphan’s Home. Not that we would. I’d go on half-rations rather than leave a helpless infant there.”
“Row upon row of babies lying in filthy cots, staring blankly, not even crying.” Her massive shoulders shuddered. For a brief instant, Rosalyn wondered if that’s how her parents had found the orphanage where she had spent a few months. Then a thought struck her.
“Do they only have babies? Would Jason have been taken there?” Based on Marcella’s description, she didn’t know whether to hope or fear they would find him there.
“I’ve no idea, but we can ask, or send someone to. They say the place is just crawling with lice and I’d sooner avoid any contact with it. But you hurry and get dressed. We’re just finishing packing and we’ll be off as soon as you’re ready.”
Rosalyn put on the oversize baby dress and tied up her hair in a loose bun on the top of her head so she could hide it under the frilly cap. She slid on the flat velvet slippers she had worn yesterday, shouldered her backpack and headed out, feeling ridiculous in these clothes and nervous and excited they were leaving at last.
Downstairs things were hopping. An eight-foot Gaétane was lacing up heavy walking boots with one large foot on a high bench that Rosalyn had thought yesterday was a shelf. In the kitchen, Nora and Marcella were wrapping sandwiches made of loaves of bread in wax paper and placing them in a wicker carrying basket.
“Good morning,” said tall Nora, covering a yawn with the back of her huge hand. Rosalyn tried not to gawk at the height of the woman who only yesterday had barely come up to her shoulder.
“Miss Nora was up until the wee hours finishing the last piece of lace,” explained Marcella disapprovingly. She handed Rosalyn some tea, holding the rim of the normal size teacup between two fingers, and pushed a large bowl of oatmeal toward her. She wasn’t sure she could eat that much—had they given her one of their bowls by mistake?
“That’ll stick to your ribs until noon,” Marcella said, as if in answer to her unspoken objection, though Rosalyn only managed to finish half of it.
“Well, dear, we’re all ready to pack you,” Marcella said.
“Your little legs wouldn’t be able to keep up with us. Besides, as a baby, you’ll have to travel like a baby.”
Rosalyn looked from one sincere, kindly face to the other searching for the twinkle in the eyes that would give away the joke. Their large eyes gazed down on her in placid honesty.
“We’ve padded one of the baskets and you’ll have a little seat inside. We’ll leave the lid off or as long as possible. Although you can certainly close it if you feel like a mid-morning nap,” said Nora with a smile.
“Will I fit?”
“Let’s find out,” said Gaétane from behind her. She sounded impatient. “It’s getting late.”
In the cloak room, Rosalyn tilted the tall basket toward her and saw it had been lined with thick flannel and half-moon wicker stool had been placed at the back so she could perch or lean on it. “How am I going to get in?”
“How do you think babies get in? I’ll lift you.”
“If you’re ready.”
“One second.” She retrieved her running shoes from the mat by the door and ran to get her clothes from the line. Everything fit in the backpack which she slung across the front of her shoulders, carrying on on her chest. “Okay,” she said to Gaétane, raising her arms.
The woman’s large strong hands gripped her under the arms and she was hoisted high in the air before being lowered into the basket. So far so good. No claustrophobia yet. The lid was off, hanging down to the front, and if she stood she could hold her whole head above the basket. If she perched on the seat, she could still see out between the wicker slats.
“How’s that?” asked Gaétane.
“Fine. Better than I thought.”
“Good.” The woman crouched behind her and put the straps over her shoulders. “Here we go.”
“Oh!” gasped Rosalyn, suddenly tilted backward as her carrier leaned forward to stand.
“We’ll be outside,” Gaétane called down the hall.
Outside, the sun was breaking over the horizon. Gaétane took in a huge lungful of the morning air which lifted Rosalyn in the basket. As Gaétane adjusted the shoulder straps she got jostled around.
“Hey! she protested in fright.
“Next time I’ll warn you.”
Facing the house, Rosalyn could see the usual flurry of departure. The scramble to find shoes, scarves and walking sticks when the rest of the party realizes the others are already out the door was amusing viewed from the height of the basket and when Nora realized she had forgotten something else and had to take off her wicker pack to rush upstairs for it, Rosalyn was reminded of her own family attempting to leave on time for dinners at Grandma’s or for camping trips. Nora had not yet re-emerged when Gaétane said aloud to no one in particular, “She’ll catch up with that light load,” and set off at a brisk pace. Just as they rounded a corner, Rosalyn saw Nora duck out of the cloakroom and turn to lock the door behind her.
They walked single file, many pace-lengths separating them, in silence, though Gaétane hummed tunelessly under her breath. Rocked side to side with every step of her carrier’s, Rosalyn stared at the peaked roof of manor house and felt less seasick watching this fixed point recede into the distance. She vowed to herself that if ever she got back home she would never complain of any discomfort in the car on even the longest drive. Heat or air-conditioning, music to listen to, room to stretch her legs, glass windows to block the wind, suspension, plush seats, smooth roads, were all comforts she’d never take for granted again.
However, after some time, Gaétane’s rocking gait made Rosalyn sleepy. A warm breeze ruffled the frill on her cap, bringing with it a sweet scent of flowering trees. She pulled the frill further down her forehead and closed her heavy eyelids.
She woke up with a start when she felt herself being lowered to the ground. Gaétane’s giant face grinned down at her and she smiled sheepishly back. “I guess I did have a morning nap.”
“Care to stretch your legs?”
“Yes, please.” She reached up her arms so Gaétance could heave her out of the deep basket.
“We all needed a little pause,” said Nora who had settled down in the shade of a tree beside her basket and was fanning herself. Marcella was pouring hot tea from a flask into enamel mugs and opening a tin of buns.
After this stop, the trip began to be more interesting. They were walking along a well-worn dirt path, avoiding the muddy ruts by walking on the strip of grass down the centre. Newly planted fields sloped gently up and down on either side. In the distance, blue hills and the red roofs of a small village could be seen beyond the stand of trees where they had stopped to rest.
Rosalyn felt that Gaétane was tiring. Her pace had slowed and she could hear her breathing. “Do you want me to get out and walk?” She didn’t want to be the cause of any bad temper on Gaétane’s part.
“No, that’s all right,” panted Gaétane. “We’re almost at the top of the hill and besides, we’re nearly there.”
Nora and Marcella had fallen back out of view behind a curve in the road, so she reasoned she couldn’t have been too heavy if Gaétane was still able to stay so far in the lead. To her right was a patchwork of green fields in orderly squares bordered by small woodlots. A forest curved over the nearest hill like a head of curly hair. A propsperous farm was built on on the edge of the escarpment they had ascended, its tall stone buildings set far back from the road, terraced orchards and ancient retaining walls buttressing the upper ledge.
As the road curved closer to the farm, they passed its wrought iron gates. Far down the drive, Rosalyn thought she could see a fountain bubbling in front of the main house and a person with a stick playing with a dog. Even from this far away, she could tell he was at least six feet tall, but the energy and playfulness with which he moved was that of a child, not an adult.
At the crest of the hill, Gaétane turned around so Rosalyn was facing the direction they were headed and told her to have a look because the town was now in sight. There it was, stretching out below, its bridges criss-crossing what appeared to be a wide river at regular intervals. The red and brown roofs of the houses contrasted sharply with a cream-coloured stone structure separated from the town by a stretch of woods. “What’s that white building?” she asked as Gaétane walked on.
“That’s the castle.”
“Where the king and queen live?”
“When they’re in town. They have a few other residences, too.”
“Are they there now?”
“Of course. Tomorrow is the Renewal of the Search.”
“Will you be going?”
Gaétane laughed bitterly. “Not I. We’ve been cut off from our former friends and relations.”
“But why? You didn’t have anything to do with it, did you?”
“There was a mad rumour that my brother was somehow involved, yes.”
“But he wasn’t?”
“I can’t believe he would be capable of such cruelty. If anyone could have pulled off such a stunt, it would be our cousin, Edward, Marquis of Scalamandre. He’d get away with it and shift the blame onto someone else, just as he always did.”
“Marcella told me about him.”
“We don’t always agree, old Marcella and I, but on that point we do: once a scoundrel, always a scoundrel.”
“So you think he’s behind it?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him, that’s all.”
“Doesn’t anyone else suspect him? I mean, hasn’t anyone else noticed he’s cruel?”
“You would think. But when you can charm people with a gentleman’s manners and fine words and host such lavish parties that everyone wants to be your friend, there are few who would believe any wrong of you. And when you’ve got others to do your dirty work for you… Besides, he has wormed his way into the king and queen’s good graces, passing off any misdemeanours as the follies of youth, and portraying himself as a respectable gentleman.”