Fifteen-year-old Leonard has been given the duty to keep watch of the new anointed king's son and nephew. Young boys, especially those now in a hereditary line of power, can get you in trouble.
“I give you my oath, also, to always be your loyal man.” His words went far beyond the required, and Karl’s regard showed he knew it. Leonard looked directly into Karl’s clear blue eyes, perceptive enough to realize he might be swearing to his future king, but a flicker of doubt deepened his voice, which promptly cracked into a higher pitch. Both boys laughed. He glared at them through his embarrassment. Their humor at his expense ceased.
Karl’s smile widened further. “Follow me.” He took fast steps toward the main building. Nithgard ran after Karl’s longer stride. Leonard sighed, wondering what trouble he had agreed to.
“You swore to be quiet!” Karl warned as he slid between two wooden portico slats. “No, I swore not to tell,” Nithgard replied, lowering his shrill child’s voice to a whisper.
What was an adequate space for a large nine-year-old was a tight squeeze for Leonard. He pulled his body between the wooden slats hiding the understructure of the porch. He ducked low to avoid hitting his head on support beams, swore softly, and followed the boys as they squirmed their way through the debris beneath the porch flooring. The strong scent of earth and human waste assaulted his nose. Karl and Nithgard were quickly far ahead of him down the length of the building. Crawling, he swore again and saw the boys’ shadowed shapes disappear. He hurried forward, sometimes in a hunched-over walk and sometimes in a near crawl using his hands on supports to help pull himself forward. The light from between the slats diminished as he turned the corner where the boys had disappeared. He watched their shadowed movements through the foundation supports of the building. It took his eyes a moment to readjust to the near pitch darkness, but some light filtered in from the floor slats overhead. Losing sight of his charges, he followed the whispers ahead of him. A hand pulled him to the side, and he let out a low squeal at the assault.
“Quiet!” Karl hissed in his ear, “just a little further.”
They crawled down what seemed a crack in the earth and piled into a small space between support beams. Leonard flopped down, supporting his back against one of the beams, and saw the boys only as dark outlines except for the dim light’s reflection in their eyes.
“Here,” Karl whispered. “We can listen to the council meet.”
Leo’s heart tripped in fear. How had he let himself be dragged into eavesdropping on his leader’s private conference? If caught, he would be whipped. He could feel the lashes. Although he had never been whipped, he had seen it done.
It was too late to retreat. Footsteps sounded on the floor planks above their secluded spot. From the sound, he judged several men stood overhead. Hearing the voices above him, he dare not speak. He swallowed in panic, recognizing his father’s voice. Leonard knew he was committing an act of treachery. He glared at Karl, who must have seen his look, for he shrank back against the opposite beam.
“I cannot see anything, what...?” As Nithgard’s near-normal voice broke their stillness, Leonard quickly grabbed him and put a hand over the child’s mouth. Nithgard did not squirm for release but held deathly still. The enlarged gleam of the boy’s eyes showed his shock. Nithgard faced no punishment for his actions. Most likely Karl did not face discipline either, but Leonard knew as their guardian, he would suffer the consequence if anyone discovered his charges’ location. If not by Pepin’s order, by his father’s hand, maybe both. With what he hoped was a blood-curdling whisper, he demanded, “Quiet."