Robert waved to her as soon as they came in sight. He was standing beside a heap of sitting guards, their backs to the wall, heads flopped backwards or forwards, mouths gaping open in deep sleep. He put his finger to his lips and brought out a huge metal key. It rasped in the lock and he froze, waiting to see how the guards would react. Nothing. They were out cold. Slowly, Robert pushed the iron gate forward, wincing every time it groaned on its hinges. When it was open a crack, he motioned for Rosalyn and Jason to slip through behind him and led them up and over the narrow brick-paved bridge that spanned the river. There was another gate on the far side but this time he was faster unlocking and opening it. Once through, he turned and locked it. They looked at each other and smiled in relief.
Jason was getting heavy and Rosalyn slid him off her back. He didn’t stand up, but sat cross-legged on the ground and put his head in his hands. “Say hi, Jason. This is Robert.”
He looked up, squinting. “Hi.”
“Hello, little fellow. You’re the cause of all this commotion, you know.”
“I am?” He sounded too tired to care.
“Well, I guess we’d better get going,” said Rosalyn.
“Stay just off the path so you can easily duck and hide, and remember, if you’re going down, you’re going in the right direction.”
“And how long is it supposed to take again?”
“Three-four hours. You’ll be there before sunset in any case. Good luck!”
“Thanks for getting me out of there.” She shivered. “And here.”
“It was my fault you got in that mess to begin with.”
Before the moment could get mushy and awkward, Rosalyn bent down and shook Jason’s shoulder. “Up you get. Or those bad men might find us again.”
He sighed. “All right. But my head hurts.” He allowed himself to be pulled to his feet and stood, swaying slightly, holding her hand.
“Just a little further, then we’ll be almost home.” She gave Robert a shy wave as they moved toward the forest. Even half a foot shorter than her, he was still embarassingly cute. “Bye.”
“Wait!” she turned around and began fumbling with the knob that held Jason’s sash tight and the dozens of tiny buttons on the front of the robe. “Take this back, it’s too restrictive, and too bright.”
“Are you sure? Won’t he get cold?”
“Cookie gave us cloaks. But he’ll be too slow in this thing. Why did they dress him like a girl, anyway?”
“A girl? That’s a perfectly normal boy’s outfit! What do you mean? It’s so much easier for little ones to run around and, uh, stay clean, if you follow, if they’re wearing a dress.”
She was almost down to the last button. “Stay clean? Oh, I get it.” She realized that what she had thought was a little girl lifting up her dress toward the wall in the market was probably a little boy doing his business.
She had to give the robe a good tug to get it off Jason’s shoulders. He sighed with pleasure and swung his arms. “Now I can breathe again,” he said. Perhaps that was the only thing bothering her brother after all. And maybe that’s how people used to get their children to be seen and not heard—they simply trussed them up in clothing so tight they could hardly move.
With the robe over one arm, Robert strode back to the gate. “Good luck!” he called in a stage-whisper, just in case the guards were coming to.
The path into the forest was a wide dirt trail, muddy in places and completely overarched with bright green foliage. Smelly brown straw-like clumps indicated the frequent passage of horses. She felt apprehensive about the long walk ahead of them. The longest walk she had ever taken had been a two hour hike on the Bruce Trail, and they had gone slowly because Jason was only five and often stopped to rest. Four hours of non-stop walking in woods that she had no map of, no clear directions except “downhill”? She guessed the trees would not be marked with bright rectangles of paint to show the way.
“Feeling better?” she asked Jason, who was at least keeping up. “Let’s boogie.” She tried to quicken the pace, but he held back.
“We have to go a little further before we can stop for a drink.” He must have sensed the urgency in her voice because he didn’t argue for once and tried to keep up with her longer stride.
Under the canopy of trees, it was humid and calm. She had always loved the forest for the layered smells of the wood and leaves, the cycles of growth and rot both vibrant and musty. The light was always dimmer, the air cool, shaded by the tree branches vaulting upward. They hugged the right hand side of the path, partly out of habit, partly to avoid the worst of the mud in the middle and partly to be able to hide quickly if anyone should come after them. She tried to explain the plan to Jason as they went along. “So you’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open.” When they stopped to drink from the metal gourds, Rosalyn pulled out the cloaks. They were warmed up from walking, but the farther they got into the woods, the more uneasy she felt. They hadn’t yet reached the first fork which concerned her. She felt tense from constantly looking over her shoulder and straining her ear for the sound of hooves or voices. At least with the dull green cloaks on they wouldn’t be as easy to spot as they were now, little white and pink beacons in a sea of dark green. They plugged the gourds back up and walked on.
When Jason started limping, Rosalyn looked down and saw that he was now only wearing one of the black satin slippers. “Where’s your shoe?” she said accusingly.
“I don’t know. Back there somewhere.” He still sounded out of it, unfazed by the loss.
She turned around to look but it was nowhere in sight and they couldn’t afford to retrace their steps. His unshod foot was filthy, the white stocking hopelessly soiled.
“Oh great. They’ll totally know we went this way. Well, now we really have to hurry.”
“Can I take off the other one?”
“What if you step on something sharp?”
He peeled off the other slipper and both white, or not-so-white stockings and wiggled his toes.
“Watch where you’re stepping.” Grimacing in disgust, Rosalyn stuffed the remaining slipper and the dirty stocking into the clean one and put them in the outside pocket of the backpack. Barefoot, Jason seemed to perk up even more. He kept pace with her, and, she admitted, without shoes, the advantage was he could get as dirty as he liked. The back of the bloomers he was wearing were spattered with little flecks of mud, which was too bad, but the important thing was that he could keep up. She relaxed a little, enough to notice that the birds had stopped singing.
As they came around the next curve in the path, she saw the fork at last. Sure enough, the left fork went slightly uphill and the right fork went visibly downhill. “Okay, we made it!” she said.
Suddenly, far in the distance, she heard the wail of a dog, as chilling as the howl of a wolf. “Jason! They’re after us!” Her heart began to race and she looked around for the easiest way through the underbrush into the heart of the woods. How would Jason manage without shoes? He grabbed her hand tight and they scrambled off the path. For a few minutes they didn’t hear anything as they crunched and crashed through the underbrush. It would probably be completely obvious where they had gone, but for now she just wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the dogs. Then came another wail, this time much nearer. She ran forward blindly, pulling Jason along. Small branches whipped at their arms and faces as they plunged into the dense darkness of the forest.
Just then, Jason pulled back on her arm. “My cloak!” He began to whimper, unable to extricate himself from the arching branches of a bramble-covered bush.