Authors: Bev Stout
Tags: #Young Adult, #Adventure, #Historical Fiction
SECRETS OF THE REALM
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Bev Stout
All rights reserved.
Bev's author page on Facebook at
Cover design by W. R. Stout based on the painting
Ship at Sea, Sunset
by Edward Moran (1829-1901)
To my husband, Dick. He's my rock, my biggest fan.
Special thanks to Kody for your endless enthusiasm. Kelsey and Emily, two of my earlier readers. Deanna for her gentle push. Vicky and Kathi for being there during the whole process. Thank you Bill, Sydney, Carter, Chrissy, Paul, Sean and Morgan. Mom and Dad. Mike and Margaret, there at the beginning. Mark, for his inspiration to get Secrets in print. Love to all my friends and family, now and always.
Annie ran her fingers through what was left of her black hair. "You sheared me like a sheep, you did."
"Keep your bloody voice down." Erik motioned toward the thatch-roof cottage. "Don't want to wake her."
Fifteen-year-old Annie shivered at the mere thought of waking Aunt Mary. Annie doubted she could survive another whipping.
For eight years, Aunt Mary blamed Annie for any troubles that happened to their family. She was nothing more than a nuisance, another mouth to feed. But this was worse, far worse. Uncle William was dead, and Aunt Mary blamed Annie for it.
Holding the lantern close to Annie's face, Erik studied the hair he had cut just below her ears. His eyes then shifted to his younger brother's clothing now hanging loosely on Annie's slim frame. "Not much we can do 'bout that," he said with a shrug.
While her cousin brushed the tufts of hair from her shoulders, Annie pulled up on the breeches. "You really think I can pass myself off as a boy?" she asked.
"Never thought you looked much like a girl."
"I beg your pardon," Annie said as she slammed her fist into Erik's stomach.
He grabbed her wrist before she could land another blow. "And you certainly are no lady," he whispered. "But that's good, 'cause on the streets of London, you need to fit in with them other beggars looking for work."
"I can do this," Annie said, trying her best to sound convincing.
"You have no choice."
"Come with me, Erik," Annie said.
He shook his head. "This is the only life I have ever known, taking care of the Spencer's grounds with my…my father."
In the lantern's glow, Annie saw tears welling in Erik's eyes. She took his hand. "He's dead, Erik. There is nothing for you here."
"I know you will never understand, but I can't leave my family, especially now with Father gone. They need me."
Unfortunately, Annie did understand. Aunt Mary was still his mother, and James and Thomas, his brothers. Nothing would change that.
"Promise me you will be careful," she said. "If Aunt Mary learns you helped me, her whip will find your back as well; and please keep Abigail from finding out for as long as you can. I can't risk the Spencer's searching for me."
"If Abigail comes around looking for you, what should I tell her?"
"Tell her I am grieving. That won't be a lie." Annie thought a moment. "When she learns I'm gone, do you think she will cry or just start throwing things?"
"Abigail has quite a temper. I'll be sure to duck," Erik said while he tenderly draped the coat over Annie's shoulders. "I put some biscuits in the pockets for you."
"I will never forget you, Erik" Annie said before hurrying down the moonlit road.
Two days of begging on the streets of London netted Annie one moldy crust of bread and a swat from a shopkeeper's broom. She didn't fare much better during her nights in a garbage-strewn alley. Bolting upright every time rats invaded her space, she got little sleep.
But it was the drunkards and thieves stumbling through the alley that concerned Annie the most. Hoping she wouldn't be discovered, Annie tried to make herself one with the wall she huddled up against while she listened to their profanity-laced voices.
When light broke through the morning fog, Annie hugged her knees close to her chest. Her stomach began to rumble.
Annie stood up and shoved her hands deep into her pockets finding only remnants of the biscuits Erik had given her. She turned the pockets inside out. Crumbs rained down on the rats scurrying at her feet. "At least you won't go hungry today," she said.
To obliterate the soft lines of her face, she scooped up handfuls of dirt and rubbed it into her forehead and cheeks. Satisfied she could carry off the masquerade, Annie hiked the breeches above her waist and strode out of the alley. She zigzagged her way across the narrow cobblestone street, dodging horse-drawn carts and scavenging dogs.
She had heard word on the street that Captain Hawke needed a new cabin boy. Making her way to the wharf, she wandered past a group of foul smelling and equally foul talking lads who would be vying for the same job as she. Looking at the boys, Annie believed her small size would be more of an asset than a liability.
But Annie's fascination wasn't on the boys or the sailors hauling supplies, it was on the ship moored at the dock. While she gazed up at the Realm, Annie felt someone yank her coat sleeve. "Let go," she said.
The youth yanked even harder. "Make me," he taunted her.
Annie attempted to knee him in the crotch, but he shifted his nimble body out of range. "Did you hear me? Let go my sleeve," she again yelled.
The smaller bully was joined by a larger one who grabbed Annie's other sleeve. They jerked her back and forth in a lopsided game of tug-of-war. When her slender arms bent sharply behind her back, the coat slid off. The boys then tossed their ill-gotten prize into the air.
"Give me back my coat!" she shouted. The coat was more than buttons and wool to Annie. It was Erik's last kindness to her, a final hug.
Distracted by the new game of keep-away, she didn't see yet another boy racing behind her. He rammed the heels of his hands into Annie's shoulder blades knocking her to the ground. "You jump like a bloody girl," he said.
"Girl?" Annie muttered under her breath, "I'll show him
Springing to her feet, she ignored the throbbing pain in her back. She whirled around, giving the boy an uppercut to his square jaw before kicking him in the shin. He tumbled to his knees groaning while Annie dashed behind a broad-shouldered teenager who showed little interest in the tomfoolery of his shorter competitors.
Peering out from behind her brawny fortress, Annie yelled at the injured boy as he nursed his sore jaw and aching shin. "You scurvy little vermin, I have come too far to let the likes of you stop me!"
* * *
On the larboard deck of the Realm, Captain Jonathan Hawke surveyed the boys on the wharf. Their antics did not amuse him.
A sailor since the age of thirteen, the captain began his life at sea as a bosun mate in charge of rigging and sails. Ten years later, he was England's most celebrated merchant ship captain.
He had never been a cabin boy and found them to be more of a bother than anything else, but Mr. Montgomery insisted he employ one. To keep his fastidious first mate and best friend happy, Captain Hawke would again hire one.
While the captain observed the boys on the wharf, one ruffian grabbed his attention, the one who had delivered an impressive kick to his assailant's shin.
Mr. Montgomery pointed to the same street urchin the captain was looking at. "What do you think of that one?"
"He's a spirited one. I will give him that. But unless he can gain a few inches in height and girth before we set sail, he shan't be my cabin boy," Captain Hawke said with a chuckle.
* * *
Glancing over each shoulder, Annie prepared for another attack; but the unruly boys had become as still as the stone lions that guarded Lord Spencer's manor home. Annie followed their gaze to the two men marching down the gangway.
"That's 'im—Cap'n 'awke!" one boy shouted in a heavy cockney accent.
Oh my, he is a fine looking bloke
Annie thought. The uncommonly tall gentleman she gawked at wore a well-fitted waistcoat and tan linen breeches. He sported a neatly trimmed mustache, and a ribbon tied back his sandy blond hair.
Annie soon realized it was not the well-dressed man who mesmerized the boys. Their interest was on the other, the one who stood slightly shorter than his shipmate. She smiled to herself. Captain Hawke certainly didn't look like any gentleman she had ever seen before.
Unlike his impeccably groomed first mate, Captain Hawke's tangled black hair fell below a scarf peeking out from beneath a weathered tricorn hat. While a single button fastened his shirt at his trim waist, stained trousers disappeared into black boots that came up to his knees.
Annie mused how seventeen-year-old Abigail would have described the captain as wickedly handsome. Days earlier, she and Abigail had sat on the edge of Abigail's four-poster bed while Annie listened to her friend's favorite subject—men. She wondered what Abigail would think if she knew Annie might be spending her days and nights in the company of men, only men. Scandalous, she thought.
Annie twisted a button on her shirt while she watched several boys doff their caps in respect and eager anticipation. Chosen or not, she knew Captain Hawke's decision would set the course for each of their lives.
With a jaunty bounce to his step, the first mate walked down the gangway. Reaching the wharf, Mr. Montgomery stopped to inspect casks and barrels destined for the American colonies while Captain Hawke consulted with several sailors about the goods secured in the cargo hold.
As the captain and his first mate drew closer, the boys gave them a wide berth. "Form a straight line. Stand at attention," Mr. Montgomery ordered. He motioned to Annie to follow suit. He then took one step back, legs slightly apart and arms behind his back.
While Annie and the others jockeyed for position, she could not help but notice how much bigger the boys were than she was. Ha, she thought
they do not stand a chance of being hired as a cabin boy.
The captain strutted back and forth. He paused in front of the lad wearing Annie's coat. The boy's arms jutted out from its sleeves while split-opened seams accommodated his hefty size. Captain Hawke called to Annie, "Want your coat back, boy?"
Annie looked at the captain out the corner of her eye. While gnawing on her lower lip, she shook her head. "No."
"Suit yourself," he said as he proceeded to look over each boy from head to toe.
One boy rolled up his sleeve, flexing his arm to show off his scrawny muscle. Another displayed hands callused from manual work. When Captain Hawke stopped in front of Annie, she exhibited nothing.
He raised his eyebrow at her. "What is your name, boy, and how old are you?" As intimidating as he looked, Captain Hawke was surprisingly soft spoken.
Annie had expected the captain to inquire about her age. He had asked everyone that question. But he asked the name of only one other youth, the broad-shouldered lad Annie had earlier hidden behind, Lawrence.
She nervously shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
"What's the matter, boy, you gotta piss?"
"No, sir." Annie stopped fidgeting and stood straight. Yes, she decided, her great great grandfather's name would become her name. She remembered the stories told about how he had sailed with the ill-fated Spanish Armada. In 1588, the fishing village of Staithes, on the rugged North Yorkshire coast of England, became his salvation. In 1726, it became Annie's birthplace.
Captain Hawke stopped her in mid-sentence. "Look at me when you speak."
She gazed up into the dark eyes peering down on her. "My name is Andrés de la Cruz, sir, and I am fourteen years old." She hated lying about her age, but Erik had reminded her often how she didn't look fifteen.
"Fourteen, you say." The captain stepped back and stroked his stubby beard. "You barely look thirteen. The truth now, how old are you?"
"If it pleases you, sir, I am thirteen."
The boys on either side of Annie snickered.
"It neither pleases nor displeases me." He pointed toward the boys. "Have you noticed that these fine chaps are bigger than you are? So, why should I hire one as puny as you and not one of them?"