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Rowena pressed her slim body into the cool shadowy corner of the high wall in the empty courtyard. Shaded by the towering building behind her, her wavy copper-colored hair seemed to take on a more auburn hue. A determined glint deepened her lively, celery-colored eyes into a stormy blue-green.
Furtively glancing back at the towering manor that was her home, she saw one of her eleven sisters, Eleanore, peer out from a high, narrow window. Even from this distance she could read the look of longing in her sister's expression. Prickly though Eleanore could be, Rowena still sympathized with the trapped restlessness she knew her sister felt. Still, she couldn't take the chance of being seen, and she shrank back farther into the shadows.
Rawkeeeee! Rowena's hand suddenly flew to her heart as she whirled toward an open kitchen window on the first floor of the manor. The panicked squawk of a captive pheasant had made her jump.
Helen, the cook, appeared in the window with a small axe held high over her head and the bird clasped firmly in her other hand. She ended the struggling creature's life swiftly with a strong, well-placed blow to its neck against a chopping board. Then she strode away from the table by the window with the beheaded pheasant in her arms, setting about the business of preparing the bird for roasting.
When Rowena turned her attention back to the upper window, Eleanore was no longer there. In the next minute, Helen reappeared at the kitchen window, but only for a second, to pull the shutters closed.
Rowena waited, barely breathing, for several minutes more. Soon she felt confident that things were finally as she had hoped they'd be at this hour. Her sisters would be busy with their weaving and embroidery. Their father, Sir Ethan of Colchester, was reviewing his monthly accounts, a process that usually took hours. Most likely he wouldn't lift his head from his books until Mary, the head housemaid, summoned him for dinner.
Reaching into the cobalt blue velvet cape she wore against the late spring's still-cool breezes, Rowena withdrew a small iron cleaver that she'd smuggled from the kitchen. Even in this shadowed spot, its blade gleamed. Her father's military past had left him with a love of rules, order, and efficiency. Among his many dictates to the servants was his insistence that they regularly sharpen all the household blades on a whetstone.
A scuffle at her feet caused her eyes to dart downward. She immediately jumped back, startled by a tiny gray field mouse that had scurried in through the narrow opening that rose from the base of the wall in an inverted v-shape. The creature paused for a moment to stare up at her, then zigzagged its way across the courtyard, probably headed for the kitchen.
When her heart had settled, Rowena turned again toward the wall. With eager fingers, she traced the lines of a crack that traveled from the top of the break in the wall halfway up to the top. Several fissures snaked out from the main fracture, further weakening this section of the enclosure.
The day before, when Mary had ordered two of the house boys to remove a brown, dead, potted treeone of the many potted plants adorning the slate-tiled courtyardfrom this corner of the courtyard, Rowena had first noticed the break in the wall. She instantly recognized the opportunity she'd been hoping for.
With the cleaver in her firm grip, she attempted several slow practice passes to be sure that when the moment was right, her aim would be accurate. Then, wrapping her fingers around the cleaver's iron handle, she waited, her back pressed against the wall.
In the next moment, the bell from the monastery outside the nearby town of Glastonbury chimed as it always did at this hour, calling the monks to prayer.
Now! Rowena thought wildly. She smashed the cleaver's blade down into the line of the crack, the deeply satisfying crash masked by the resonating bell.
The cleaver stuck fast into the wall. With two hands, she frantically yanked it out and struck again.
Again and again, she savagely wielded the blade into the cracks, straining every lean muscle of her lithe body. With each blow her joy mounted as the crumbling powdery stone tumbled to her feet.
The bell ceased its summoning toll.
Dropping to her knees, Rowena took a quick moment to recover from her violent effort and then pushed the debris away from the opening. She lay flat on her stomach and rolled onto her right shoulder. From this vantage point it was immediately apparent that even if she managed to get her head through the opening, her shoulders would never make it.
Rowena rolled back up into a crouch and then slowly stood, resolving not to give in to disappointment. The monastery bell would chime again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, just as it had rung at the same hour on every day of her life. There would be other chances to chip away at this wall, the cursed barrier that had closed her off from the wide, glorious world for the past twelve years, since the time when her mother had left them.
Copyright © 2005 by Suzanne Weyn