14th Century, France On the edge of an ancient forest, two lives are about to change. One a wandering minstrel, the other a young boy, his new apprentice. Join them as they travel through France visiting villages and entertaining the townsfolk.
Amos Questerly, a wandering minstrel in fourteenth century Europe, takes on a mysterious young apprentice. But his new protégé, Richard, carries a deadly secret. A secret someone is willing to kill for.
To reach safety they must earn their way to England by telling exciting stories of magical swords, princesses and dragons, while danger follows on their heels.
By the time Amos learns Richard’s secret, it’s clear even England may not be safe. The two, trapped in an adventure as thrilling as any of the Minstrel’s tales, must follow a perilous path that leads straight to the royal palace.
The plane touched down four times, like a flat rock skipping across the surface of a lake. Each separate thump shuddered through my feet and up the back of my seat. I gripped the armrests, and glanced out to watch the trees race away as if frightened by the roar of the engines. Buildings sped past, rumbling to themselves before settling back onto their foundations. Everything stilled as our plane rolled to a stop.
I was fourteen the summer we visited my father’s ancestral home in France. His parents had passed away years earlier and left him their old house. Up until now, Mom and Dad said we couldn’t afford such an extravagant trip, yet now we were going to live in the house all summer.
Dad told me the house had been in his family for generations, and was hundreds of years old. I expected the old place would be haunted, or maybe filled with rats and snakes. I wondered what other horrors might befall a home left empty for so long.
The plan was to sell the house, but after Mom received her big bonus last Christmas, Dad insisted we vacation in it first. “You never want to pass up the chance to see a different part of the world,” he told us.
I could understand coming for a visit, but the whole summer? Especially this summer; Kevin Zachary had just asked Rhee about me! Now, here I was stuck half a world away.
Dad confiscated my cell phone before we boarded the plane. He muttered something about “international roaming charges.” I suspected I wouldn’t be getting my best link with the rest of the world back, until we came home. I still had my laptop, so I knew I wouldn’t be completely out of touch.
Dad might have grown up here, but he seemed a little lost. He relied on the GPS navigator in the tiny Renault we’d leased to get us out of Poitiers-Biard Airport, and we headed east into town. The farther we got from the airport, the more we seemed to step back in time.
Everything here looked so old. In Phoenix, buildings over fifty years old were torn down and rebuilt. The buildings we drove past in France, still stood after hundreds of years, maybe more. They were all crowded together into a jumbled mess. Tall glass buildings squeezed between squatted stone structures. Haphazard one-way roads snaked between old stores and new offices. Dad turned off the irritating voice of the GPS, slowed down, and pointed out sites that he remembered from childhood.
Dusk fell just as Dad stopped the car in front of one of the oldest buildings we’d seen yet. I thought the place looked as if Hollywood had built it as a set for a horror movie. Broken gargoyles—yes, gargoyles—were stationed along the roof of the huge, rambling stone house, as if waiting to terrorize anyone foolish enough to dare step inside.
“Why are we stopping here? We’re not staying here, right?” I asked.
“Sure we are, Anna, this place is great. You’ll see. I grew up here.”
“Dad, just look at it!”
Mom offered no help. “Give it a chance, Anna.”
“Let’s stay in a hotel, Mom. Dad can stay here if he wants.”
Mom gave me her best no look. “Let’s help your father with the bags.”
We heaved our luggage from the trunk and I stood on the front walk while Dad searched for the key.
“Ah, here we go!” He fished a key out of a clay pot beside the door. “Right where René said it would be.”
Mom and Dad went in. I waited until lights blazed in the windows before I dared lug my two bags inside. Okay, I’ll admit it, the inside was pretty nice. No cobwebs, not even a hint of a rat. In fact, the house seemed freshly cleaned. I quickly calculated the potential profit Dad could make when he sold it. Plenty to move us to Scottsdale, I thought, with enough left over to buy me a convertible for my sixteenth birthday. I could just see Kevin Zachary’s face when I drove into the school parking lot with the top down, and the wind flowing through my long, dark hair.
“René has done a great job taking care of the old place,” Dad said, looking around. “I’ll admit, I was worried about what shape we would find it in.”
I dropped my bags by the door, and wandered through the rooms on the ground floor. I paused at the opening of each darkened room, still not quite certain of the safety in the darkness beyond.
Icy fear gripped my belly as my fingers fumbled for the light switch, anything could be inside, waiting to strike. Every time I reached inside, I was sure I would feel the soft plop and scurrying, furry legs of a spider landing on my hand. My white-knuckled grip on the doorjamb only relaxed once light flooded each room.
The ceilings hung lower than I expected and the stone walls were thick. Every window held a ledge deep enough to sit on. The hardwood floors creaked so loud, that if I stood still, I could tell which room Mom and Dad were in, just by listening.
The warm, familiar scent of books drew me into the next dark room. I turned on the light and smiled in delight at the library. Hundreds of old books lined the shelves from the floor to the ceiling. The walls of books were broken only by an enormous fireplace. Two overstuffed chairs sat facing the hearth, and I imagined myself curled up inside one reading all summer. My heart fell when I read the titles on the spines. I searched every shelf before I realized they were all in French.
“Where’s my room?” I could hear the whine in my voice, but I was tired from my long day of travel, and didn’t care.
“Come on, Princess,” Dad already had my bags in his hand. “Follow me.”
I trudged up the stairs behind him. The long hall at the top, veered off into two directions, each branch lined with closed white doors. Dad pointed with his free hand. “René had the first two on the left cleaned for us—take your pick.”
I knew tomorrow, I would explore each room. Tonight, I opened the closest door and waited while Dad placed my bags inside. I slammed the door.
Sunlight flooded my room. My eyes needed a few moments to adjust. Usually, dark purple drapes kept the sun out until I opened them. I saw no purple drapes here though, and groaned as I realized they were an ocean, and most of another country away…along with the rest of my life.
Seeking something familiar, I decided to power up my laptop. I searched for that European adapter thingy Dad had bought for me. I emptied my bags on the bed and found the odd-looking plug, connected my laptop, and waited for the link to my friends. Hopefully, Rhee knew some fresh news about Kevin.
Nothing. I tried searching for another connection, but nothing would come up. “No Wi-Fi, that’s just great!” I yelled at the room. I stomped downstairs to let Dad know, being cut off from my digital comfort was just not going to work.
The smell of fresh-brewed coffee drew me into the kitchen. Mom stood over the stove.
“Where’s Dad?” I filled a large cup halfway with coffee, added lots of milk, and a little sugar to it, and wondered, did Kevin like lots of milk in his coffee?
“Good morning to you too,” Mom said. “He went to meet René.”
Unable to confront my father and therefore stuck in web limbo, I flopped into a chair, “Who is this René anyway, and why does she care so much about this house?”
“René is the caretaker.” Mom whisked something in a bowl on the counter. “Your grandfather set up a trust for the house before he died, and each month René earns a fee for making sure the place stays in good condition. And, just so you know, René is a he. He was nice enough to stock the fridge for us, so we could enjoy this breakfast.”
“That’s weird, René is a girl’s name.”
“Not in France. Want some waffles?”
My stomach moved my head up and down, so she filled my plate with two of the fluffiest waffles I had ever seen her make. “These aren’t from the freezer,” I said through a mouthful of whipped cream and fresh strawberry topping.
“No, I made them from scratch,” she beamed. “Good?”
Mom loaded her plate and joined me at the table.
“There’s no Wi-Fi here. Mom, what am I going to do?”
“I’ll see if I can get that hooked up this week. I think I saw a cyber-cafe on our way into town last night. You can go there until we get you set-up.”
“Okay, thanks.” I jumped up to put my plate in the sink.
“Where are you going?”
“I want to see all those rooms upstairs.”
“Wait, I’ll come with you, I’ve been dying to explore this place.” She threw the towel on the counter.
We climbed the creaky wooden steps together. I couldn’t help but notice, Mom seemed so relaxed here already. I wished she could stay the entire summer; I knew Mom really needed the break, most of the summer it would be just Dad and me here. Dad was a writer and he could work from anywhere. Mom’s situation was quite a bit different.
We started exploring the room next to mine. We found the furnishings covered with dust-filled sheets. I peeked under each one and found them similar to what was in my room, painted antique wood chests and a double bed. Except in my room the wood was painted white with gold trim, here it was green with silver trim. The curtains and bedspread were the same flowery design, but different pictures hung on the wall.
“How many kids did they have, Mom?”
“Just your father. This used to be a bed & breakfast.”
“Oh, I guess each room will be the same then.”
Mom picked up on my disappointment. “I don’t know, this is a big place. We may find some surprises.”
We inspected each room on the second floor. Like I thought, they were all pretty much the same. We almost missed a second staircase at the end of the hall. It was tucked behind the last room, which was tiny, really more of a closet.
Mom followed me upstairs, where we found even more rooms. Like those on the second floor, these rooms lined each side of the hall, but were smaller with only one twin bed and a chair inside.
The last room was packed floor to ceiling with old trunks and seemed much larger than the other rooms. Mom peeked over my shoulder and yelled, “Jackpot!”
Old pirate-chest type trunks stacked on top of one another, created a crazy web of staircases inside the room. Mom was already climbing. She opened the first one and pulled out old clothes. I climbed up beside her, and raised the lid on a different chest.
I found a pile of pictures still in their frames. “Look at these. Think they’re part of the family?”
I held up a picture I figured must be over a hundred years old; the people in it were not smiling. I wondered why nobody ever seemed to smile in old pictures.
“I don’t know,” Mom said, “look at this.” She held up a beaded dress that looked like the kind women wore when they danced the Charleston. I knew I was right when she said, “Must be from the 1920s.”
We worked our way deeper into the room, stirring up dust clouds. Each trunk we opened seemed to take us further back in time. Most were packed with either pictures or clothes. “We should be careful. Some of this stuff should be in a museum,” Mom said.
I laughed. “Yeah, my drama teacher would kill for these clothes.”
Mom stood up and wiped her face with her arm, “Phew, I need to grab a shower. Your father is bringing René and his wife for lunch. You should get ready, too.”
“I will. I want to look at this stuff some more.”
“Don’t be long.”
As soon as she left, I climbed over the remaining trunks to get to the farthest corner of the room, where by my reasoning the oldest trunk should be. I tugged and slid the trunks, like those silly puzzles where you slide the tiles around to make a picture, until I had the one I wanted, the one on the very bottom in the far corner of the room, uncovered.
I opened the lid and found more clothes. I pulled out a patched-up mess of a coat, full of gaping holes. As I held it up, some of the material tore. It was so rotted the stitching practically turned to dust in my hands. I gently laid it across another trunk and turned back, hoping to find more than just holey old clothes tucked inside.
To my disappointment, I found another patched-up old coat. I was more careful with this one, draping it over my arm, and setting it beside the first one.
Sweat poured down my face, and I knew I must be covered in dust. I imagined the dust was ancient, probably here from long ago. What if there were terrible germs in these old trunks? In biology class, I learned that some strains of viruses and germs can last hundreds of years lying dormant, just waiting to attack. I felt the sudden urge to take a hot shower, with lots of soap.
Curiosity forced me to peek inside the trunk once more. This time I found a stack of three identical red leather books. I lifted them out one at a time. I was surprised by how light they felt, for they weighed almost nothing, but were as big as any of my textbooks. I stacked them on a nearby trunk.
I reached back into the trunk and felt around. My fingers closed on a small tube of rolled up paper in the corner. I scooped it out, and closed the lid. I picked up the stack of books and had to fight my way back through the maze of chests, now stacked haphazardly around the room. By the time I made it though, I was hot, sweaty, and dusty, and couldn’t wait to get into the shower.
The shower felt great. I hurried to dry and dress; all of today’s exploring made me ravenous. I ran downstairs where Mom was setting the table. “When’s lunch?”
“Your father will be here any minute. Help me with this, would you?” She handed me the silverware and nodded to the table.
I put all of the silver into its proper place. “Mom, why are we eating in the kitchen? Where’s the dining room?”
“This is what they call a country kitchen. There isn’t a separate dining room. So, did you find anything valuable up there?”
I shrugged, “Not really, I did find some old books.”
“Dunno,” I shrugged again, “I had to take a shower. I was getting the heebie-jeebies. I’ll bring them down after lunch and we can take a look at them.”
Dad walked in and introduced us to René and Rene’s wife, Celeste. They seemed nice enough for old people. I guessed both to be over sixty. Celeste did not speak English, but smiled at Mom and me a lot. Dad would interpret what she said and Mom would nod. René’s accent was as thick and heavy as the mustache that hung above his upper lip, and I really had to pay attention to understand him.
“René, where is the TV?” I asked. I realized I hadn’t seen one in any of the rooms so far.
He shook his head and shrugged, “No, no TV.”
This was just great; trapped here all summer with no phone, no laptop, in a house full of books I can’t understand, and now no TV. This was shaping up to be the most boring summer of my life.
We sat down for lunch and René opened a bottle of wine and poured some for all of us. He even poured a glass for me, and added a bit of water to it. I couldn’t help feeling mature sipping the dark red wine and savoring the pasta Mom had made. The wine made my head spin a little, but not in an unpleasant way.
I cleaned up the dishes while Mom and Dad talked with René and Celeste. I knew my effort would score me points later. I had a feeling I would need to accumulate a lot of points here, if I was ever going to be able to talk to Rhee again.
I already knew Rhee would love this place. She loved anything vintage, anything old, and things didn’t get much older than this house and all the stuff in it. She’d been my best friend since she moved to Phoenix in fourth grade and I really did miss seeing her. I don’t think we skipped more than a few days talking to each other in all those years. This summer wouldn’t be so bad if she could be here too.
I climbed to my room to see if by some miracle my Wi-Fi connection would work. No such luck. I resigned myself to being bored and decided to check out one of the old books. The pages were amazing. The letters, although faded, were in a beautiful flowing script with curlicues and flowers drawn within the first letters of each page. At first I couldn’t read it at all; it seemed to be in a foreign language. As I studied it closer, I recognized some words—English words and numbers.
A date leapt off the page: 1376! My hands shook with excitement as I realized the book must be over six hundred years old! Being as careful as I could, I turned the pages until I found another word I recognized: Questerly—my last name.
Carrying the book, I hurried to show Mom and Dad. René and Celeste were just leaving. I tried to be patient while I waited on the stairs, mentally forcing the two old people out the door.
When the door closed, I rushed into the kitchen. “You’re not going to believe this!”
“What?” Mom and Dad both said at once.
“Look what I found in one of those old trunks!”
Dad frowned, “You didn’t go in the attic storage room did you?”
Mom and I exchanged guilty looks.
“Allan, it’s my fault. Anna and I were both up there rooting around. Don’t worry, we didn’t damage anything.”
Dad shook his head from side to side. “But those trunks have been there forever, no one ever goes in there, no one is allowed in there.”
“Allan, this is our house now. We can go in if we want. Didn’t you ever wonder what was in those trunks?”
“I did until Dad’s belt met my backside, the first and last time I tried to find out.”
Certain that Dad wouldn’t apply any belt to me; I couldn’t hold back my excitement any longer. “Come on you guys, look what I found!”
I showed them the book, and opened it to the first page, “Look at that date!”
Dad’s eyebrows shot up. “Thirteen seventy-six, that’s before Columbus even thought about sailing to America. He wasn’t even born yet.”
“Wait, there’s more.” I flipped to the next page I had marked with a piece of paper.
“Questerly?” Mom asked. “Does that really say Questerly?”
“Let me see that book.” Dad bent down over the pages trying to read the words. Then like me, Dad lifted the book as if he thought it would be heavier. “It’s so light; all of the moisture must have evaporated. I’ve held old books in the library that were feather- light like this.” He gauged the weight as he spoke hefting the book up and down a few times.
He carefully turned the pages. “I think this is written in Old English or maybe Middle English, I’m not sure which.”
“It looks ancient.” Mom agreed.
“It must be about my ancestors,” he mused.
I knew exactly what needed to be done. “We need to translate it, Dad!”
He thought about my suggestion for a moment, “I think we can do that. It will be a great summer project for us, Princess. Who knows what we’ll learn about our family?”
Somehow, the summer that stretched ahead of us didn’t seem quite as boring to me any longer.
Dad and I labored most of the summer on the translation. It was slow work. We used a copy of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in dual language format for most of it. Some we had to research further at the library, and other parts we just had to guess. I think for the most part we got it right.
Anyway, our translation of Amos Questerly’s journal is included in the following pages, and you are not going to believe what my great, great, great (Dad says there are probably twenty-five greats total) grandfather did. I could barely believe the story as it unfolded. My ancestor was a minstrel. The tales he told? Well, you’ll just have to read them for yourself…
I have sworn an oath to uphold the secret, a great and terrible confidence that changed the events of the world. Yet I find the guilt of my own contribution to the horror, gnawing away at my innards. I have thought of little else these past years. Whilst my life wanes and the end draws near, I find I dread living with this wrenching guilt more than I fear the grave. And so I will take pains at last to share the awful truth; may God have mercy on my soul.
He has locked me away in this wretched tower. I am allowed no visitors. He does allow me parchment, quill, and ink. I am compelled to use these instruments for confession, and find in the exercise a feeling of release that eases the pain of the finality of my imprisonment. I shall set down this tale as faithfully as I can recall it from the beginning.
The boy’s name was Richard and our paths first crossed twenty years ago. The night I met him, he was filthy. Once bright clothes hung from his bony frame in tatters. His hair was knotted in tangles so dense, they stood straight out from his head. He looked as wild as a bear awakened from a long winter’s sleep.
It was the Year of Our Lord, 1376, and I had been traveling the road from the English province of Aquitaine, north to Orleans, France. Although I was in good health and had not yet reached my fortieth year, I began to feel the creep of aging seeping into my bones. I recall the time as the middle of summer, but even so, dusk brought a chill as its darkness cloaked me. I built a fire just off the road at the edge of the Forest of Foltiers, and arranged a hare on the spit. Fat dripped into the flame, sizzled and set off an aroma that triggered my mouth to grow wet.
I heard a crash in the trees, and was surprised to see a young boy stumble into my camp. “Help me! Please sir, hide me!” he panted, his round eyes white with fear.
I motioned him to the other side of the camp where the light of my fire met the dense darkness of the forest.
“There, don’t move,” I whispered, quickly covering him with brushwood and leaves from the forest floor before returning to my seat by the fire.
My backside only just touched the ground, and I reached to turn the spit, when four armed men burst through the trees on horseback. One of them challenged me, “Did you see a boy come this way?”
“Y—yes,” I pointed them north. Without dismounting, they carried out a cursory search of my campsite. The hooves of their horses raised enough dust to set me coughing. Finding no sign of the boy, the search party headed up the road in the direction I sent them.
At last, their shouts faded away, and the woods grew silent once again. Certain they were gone, I pulled the lad from his hiding place and invited him to share my meal. He ate with a fury, while his eyes darted around in search of any sign of the men returning.
“Thank you sir, for the meal and the hidey hole,” he said through a final bite. He wiped his greasy hands on his dirty breeches. “Good travels to you.” He rose to leave.
“Wait!” I called to him, for he was already well on his way back into the forest. “You may stay by my fire tonight; you look like you need to rest.”
I normally tried to avoid ruffians and rogues no matter how young they were. The four horseman were likely hunting the boy for some crime, and I could not be sure he would not rob me as I slept. Nevertheless, I believed the fear in his eyes to be genuine, and his manner of speech did not appear to be that of a scoundrel.
“I am most grateful, sir, but I’ll not see you come to harm for your aid.”
“I think they’ll not be back this way tonight,” I assured him. “Rest now, for a time.”
He nodded and laid himself at the far edge of the camp. Soon he was fast asleep. I lay by the fire and we passed the night without further incident.
At dawn, I boiled an egg for each of us. We ate them along with a few mushrooms and some berries I found in the woods. The boy’s leg fidgeted while he ate as if eager to be on its way.
“Where are you heading?” I asked him.
“Westminster in England. I have family there, sir,” he explained. I did not expect the smile that broke through his dirt-caked face, until I realized that he had noticed my patched and brightly colored cloak.
“You’re a minstrel!” he cried. “I’ve never met a traveling minstrel before; I’ve only seen them from afar.”
“Yes, and I’m going toward England myself, although not as far as Westminster. ‘Tis quite the journey you have in front of you, my boy.”
“I suppose I do have far to go.” His young shoulders slumped and his brow furrowed as if he were trying to figure just how far it might be to Westminster. His belt empty of even a small knife, was proof he was ill-prepared for such a journey.
“Let’s travel together a while,” I offered as I extended my hand to him. “My name is Amos Questerly.”
He gripped my forearm in a firm manner for one so young. “Richard,” he said. “Thank you for your kind offer, Amos, but as you can see I’m in quite a bit of trouble. I do not want to see you put in danger. No thank you, sir, but I’ll try to make my own way.”
To this day, I am still not sure how I sensed the boy would never make it to England alone—or why I needed to be the one to help him. “Richard,” I ventured, “I can understand your worry, but I may have a better notion than running and hiding all the way to Westminster.”
“What sort of notion?” His worried gaze followed my every move as I cleared away the remains of our meal.
“Many minstrels, when they get to be my age, take on an apprentice. What if you were to travel with me as my apprentice? Whoever is searching for you is looking for a young boy alone, not a minstrel and his lad.”
He appeared to consider my offer for a moment. Then he shook his head. “No, by the bones of Judas, I wish I could join you, Amos, but they will recognize me sooner or later with this yellow hair.” He pulled at one of the tangles. Through the dried mud, I could see his hair was indeed a sun-gold hue.
“What if we cut it and darkened it?” I suggested.
His young face brightened with the first sign of hope I had seen in his fearful eyes. “Can we do that? It might work!” he agreed and began tapping his fingers rhythmically against his thigh in what I took to be a habit of the nerves.
I took out my hunting knife and cut through the tangles until his hair was shorn as close as a monk’s. Then I sent him to the stream to clean up, while I gathered black char from the cooled fire pit. Fortunately, I was able to find a few walnut husks. I broke them open, scooped out the gall, and mixed it with the char until it turned into a black dye.
I waited some time for Richard to return before I felt the need to check on him.
I heard him singing and followed his high, clear voice to a small bend in the stream. There I saw him, sitting in the middle of the stream with his back to me, without a stitch of clothing on, the water barely covering his backside. Using the flat of his hand to slap the water in time with his tune, he was oblivious to my presence.
“Apprentice!” I yelled loud enough to be heard over the din he made.
He looked back over his shoulder and I waved him ashore.
I headed back to our campsite, where I waited for him to join me.
He finally settled himself on the ground, “That was refreshing; it’s been days since I have had a bath.”
“That’s not so very long.”
“I usually take one every morning.”
Of course, I did not believe him; no one bathed every day, but I did not see the point in arguing about it. I began layering the pasty soot into his wet hair. His foot tapped out a worried rhythm, while I worked the mixture into each strand. I began to think the boy never sat completely still. When I was finished, his newly blackened hair emphasized his pale face, and deepened the color of his large eyes to a midnight blue. He looked entirely different, and I could see no reason he would not pass easily as my apprentice.
We packed up our camp and set off north for the village of Claremont.