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"I could help," Nan Markham said. "I could." Even to her own ears her voice was plaintive and young, the voice of a neglected baby. "I could carry the water for you. In my pail."
Nan lifted a dull-red plastic sand bucket and waggled it tentatively toward her brother's unfeeling back. But Cecil was absorbed in his digging, the castle's trench a widening perfection of scarp and contrascarp, the turrets rising wetly against the blue-black of the surf. He had worked at the fortifications for days--each afternoon when school was over, and now for the bulk of Saturday. What the tide and the weather destroyed in the hours of darkness, Cecil patiently rebuilt, in a determined contest with time and the sands. The two children were always out-of-doors, despite the gloom of the deserted beach, the fitful showers of chill rain. Even immersion in this dispiriting spring was preferable to being at home.
Nan brushed back a strand of bright-red hair and hugged her sweatered arms closer to her body. The wind scoured her cheek with stinging grains.
"Mummie said to let me help."
The last resort of the tagalong: the invocation of Mummie.
Disgusted with herself and her eight-year-old weakness--disgusted with her brother and his silence and his solitary building--she kicked at the nearest rampart. "Stupid. Stupid old castle. I hate your castle, Cecil!"
Her wanton destruction left him unmoved. That was Cecil's way. He did not react like other boys--with a shove or a blow or the careful plotting of revenge. He did not offer curses. He merely looked at his little sister, incomprehension and tedium filling his face, and said, "Go away, Nan. There's going to be a battle."
And so Nan turned disconsolately from the rampart she had ruined and trudged off toward her secret place in the dunes, there to sit on a piece of driftwood and arrange a tea party. She used shells for teacups and her thoughts for friends. And Satchmo--her beloved Satchmo, his fur matted from repeated bouts with sand and salt water, his huge body shapeless from lying too long on the kitchen floor, his legs dangerously arthritic as he stepped each morning into the pounding surf--Satchmo settled down in the dune grass opposite her and waited eternally for his tea.
A gull cried from its perch a few feet away, and Nan turned to stare at it: malevolent dark eye, cruel mustard beak. It lifted one reptilian claw and flicked an orange peel her way.
What do the gulls do, she wondered, when flying is not enough?
The clouds were lowering on the rain-swept horizon, but before the iron grip of storm closed the sun's eyes forever, a faint glimmer of light shafted across the turbulent sea. Lord Cecil of Trevarre raised a hand to his brow and gazed intently at the enemy fleet and its forest of billowing black sails. In salute to the vanishing sun, a fourteen-pound gun roared from the flagship's bow, a challenge and a curse in its orange flare; and seconds later the ball whistled past Trevarre's noble head.
"Get down, my lord!" his lieutenant cried, and gripped his ankle in desperation.
"We shall not prevail by skulking within doors," Lord Cecil shot back, his expression both proud and bitter. "The castle can avail us nothing now. To the fore, lads, and show a brave face! Or die in the attempt!"
He sprang down from the breastworks, his feet finding soft purchase on the sand below, and raced to the water's edge, his standard raised high. The first of the enemy's landing boats were racing toward shore, filled to their gunwales with scores of men; in a matter of moments his own would be outnumbered. To die, then, and die nobly in defense of what he held most dear--this was his last, his only, destiny.
Gordon, his faithful retainer, appeared suddenly at his side holding the reins of his stallion, Satchmo; the mettlesome beast pawed the ground, his iron shoes ringing sparks--(no, not sparks, since the beach was sandy, not rocky like the beaches in England). The mettlesome beast pawed deep furrows in the shore's wet sand. Lord Cecil took hold of Satchmo's mane and swung himself into the saddle, his eyes fixed upon the enemy boats. As with one voice, the black-clad invaders cried aloud and jumped into the shallows, their brutal faces intent upon one man and his destruction--Trevarre.
A wave furled and crashed, mightier than its fellows, racing ahead to storm the beach's heights. But Lord Cecil and his small surviving band stood ready.
Water poured into the gap between Cecil's sneakered feet, foamed and swirled across his shoelaces, licked at the cuffs of his faded jeans. He gave a ferocious yell and thrust out his strong right saber arm, his invisible horse rearing high; then he tore down to the edge of the surf. The wave retreated in routed terror. Victory was in his very grasp.
Cowards. They had turned tail and taken to their boats, beating desperately against the tide to their black-sailed ships, rather than face his heroic band. Lord Cecil of Trevarre raised his saber arm in scorn and triumph and cried aloud. As if in answer, Satchmo neighed.
He looked over to the dunes, exhilaration torn by annoyance. "What?"
Nan's bright head, crowned with a wreath of the first daffodils, emerged from the fringe of beach plum that fronted the derelict homes of Codfish Park. January storms had swept several houses out to sea, and the remaining few looked likely to follow. Nan had probably scavenged the flowers from some abandoned front steps, like a camp follower rifling a battlefield's dead. As she scrambled up, the dog Satchmo groaned, a sound from deep in his blasted frame. He turned to stare at Cecil, something caught between his jaws, and then slowly, creakily, he trotted in Nan's wake. She ran pell-mell down the beach.
She was offering Cecil what looked like a twig--strange, since twigs came from trees, and there were none so near the beach. He took it from her fingers, his brow furrowed.
"I found it," she said, breathless. "In the sand, while I was digging. There are lots of others if you dig far enough."
And as he listened and turned the twig in his hand, Cecil felt the beginning of an inner excitement--something that seemed to spread from Trevarre's sea-drenched socks until it reached his noble heart.
For what Nan had found was a bone.