We meet the Bilton siblings and establish a bit of background
“It just isn’t fair!” Isabelle was the very image of her Mother, even making the same exaggerated pouty face her Mother often used on their father.
Malcolm rolled his eyes. “Not this old song again, Isa.”
“Well, it isn’t. Continuing her complaint. “You get to become a Duke, running the company and serving in the government”
“Not until Father dies.” Malcolm shook his head ruefully.
Isabelle wrinkled her nose in displeasure at the thought of Father dying. “Let’s not hurry that day along. It will come in time, I suppose, but at least you’ll have a purpose. And Hy, he gets to have adventures in space.”
“An honor I would indeed trade with you, Isa,” Hiram answered without even looking up from the text he studied. “I would much prefer a career helping people as a priest than traveling through a black, cold void searching for people to kill — or waiting for someone to find and kill me.”
“That’s just it.” Making the pouty face once more, Isabelle continued, “ever since the Edicts declared women unfit for the Priesthood, we’re condemned to spend our lives in convents, serving no one.”
With another eye roll, Malcolm said, “you’ll be serving God and our Empire, just as Hiram and I will. And your duty Hiram is to serve the Empire as an officer in its navy. None of us have a choice.” Impatiently adding. “Now, let’s finish breakfast in peace for a change.”
As mercurial as her Mother, a mischievous look formed in Isabelle’s dark eyes. “It’s almost time for school to restart; we should have an adventure —”
That snapped Hiram’s attention from his Engineering text. “An adventure?”
“Oh no,” muttered Malcolm.
“Yes.” Isabelle was excited now. “A hike in the forest, we could have Mary pack us lunches and make a day of it.”
Hiram weighed losing a day’s study over a pleasant day hike with the sister he adored. He factored in sharing that day with the irascible Malcolm. Reaching his conclusion, “okay, I’m game for a hike; let’s do it.”
“I have far too much to do tod—”
“You are an old fuddy-duddy Malcolm. You’re outvoted, we’re going for a hike, and that’s that!” Mirroring another of her Mother’s traits, she gave them their marching orders. “Malcolm, since it takes you so long to get ready, straight upstairs and get dressed for a hike. Hy, you find our canteens and clean and fill them, grab a day pack also. I’ll speak with Mary about our lunches.”
Malcolm felt a bit put off by not having a job. “Shouldn’t I be getting our supplies? I am the oldest.”
“No!” Isa and Hy answered at once. Isa finished. “We want to take this hike today, not at some well-planned date in the future.”
The fastest way to the estate’s deep forest was through the formal gardens. The perfume of late summer flowers filled the air as they passed through it, a riot of colors reflecting the bright sunshine. Isa and Hy were chattering while Malcolm grumbled about “only fools would hike in this infernal heat.
As they passed the gardener, they could hear him cursing, that is until he saw them. “Ahh, pardon me, Miss Isabelle, I didn’t see you comein’ this way.”
“That’s quite alright, Thomas; I’ve heard far worse at school. We girls do have foul mouths when we gather.”
Anxious to change the subject, Thomas asked. “And where are you three headed this fine, sunny morn?”
Isabelle answered brightly. “A day hike in the cool forest!” Frowning at the still grumbling Malcolm.
Thomas nodded. “A good day for a hike, it is, woods’ll be alive with wildflowers, and the birds’ll be feasting on berries.”
As Thomas went back to repairing the damage caused by some animal rooting in the garden the three adventurers headed off into the glade, passed the garden gate. He looked up to warn them about the animal, but they were already out of earshot.
The woods were cool, dark, and filled with the earthy smells of plants and trees. Sunlight filtered through the tall oaks, and maples dappled the ground in a mosaic of dancing light. Isabelle chose a circular path that she knew would lead them, meandering, eventually back to the garden gate.
They settled into a comfortable silence, enjoying the songs of birds, the gentle whisper of the breeze in the trees, and the occasional mysterious grunts and snufflings in the distant brush to either side of the path.
A small gurgling stream provided the perfect place to stop for lunch, and they watched as the trout made a feast of the nymphs hatching into flies as they ate. The peace and tranquility of the forest settled even Malcolm into a better mood.
After lunch, their hike resumed. The looping path was now leading the trio back out of the woods. Hy and Isa were walking side by side, still not talking, both enjoying this last touch of freedom. Isabelle, having finished school, would enter the convent to begin her religious studies. Hiram, always the overachiever, would be entering Imperial College, starting his engineering studies. Malcolm, of course, would continue his business studies, ready to step into his father’s footsteps.
None of them noticed the snuffling grunts getting closer. The sudden appearance of a squeaker, on the path, startled then delighted them. Isabelle rushed forward, dropping to one knee to pet the wild boar pup.
Looking around, Hiram called out. “Isa no, don’t go near —
The brush around them erupted in chaos as a full-grown sow crashed through it. Hiram pulled Isa to her feet, out of the way of the charging boar. The sow seemed intent on getting to its pup, ignoring the human invaders until Malcolm yelled. “Run!” He headed into the thicket, despite the brush clawing at his face and arms.
“Malcolm, no, don’t run.” Hiram’s plea was in vain. The sow seeing what she thought was an attack, began chasing Malcolm. Hiram pushed Isabelle down the path towards home. “Go, walk slowly.”
“But, Malcolm, that beast is after —”
“I’ll get Malcolm, and you get to safety.” She was surprised at his tone; he had never spoken to her like this before, a command. “Now go!” Pushing her harder towards home. “Go!”
Hiram ran into the brush after the boar and Malcolm, pushing branches and brambles out of his way as he ran. He could hear the two crashing ahead of him. He yelled for Malcolm, “climb a tree, get up a tree; the beast can’t climb, a tree Malcolm!
Hiram caught sight of them just as Malcolm tripped over a tangle of vines, falling headfirst to the forest floor. The fall knocked the wind out of him; he lolled about, tangling his feet deeper in the vines. The sow closed in, almost ready to pounce on her target.
Hiram began to yell, trying to get the boar’s attention; he succeeded too well. The beast turned towards its new enemy and charged, a headlong rush that caught Hiram square in his legs, knocking him to the ground, carrying the sow past him. But not before its teeth had opened a long gash in his leg. The brambles hampered the sow’s turn, giving Hiram a chance to stand, grasping a large rock as he rose. Charging again, the boar veered away as he brought the rock down on its skull, drawing blood from the sow in return. The boar gathered itself for another charge, aiming to kill its attacker.
A loud explosion and an acrid puff of smoke stopped the boar in mid-charge. A second shot rang out, sending the confused animal off into the deeper forest. Isabelle stood in the bramble, holding a large pistol over her head, smoke still rising from its freshly fired barrel.
“You brought a gun Isa?” Looking at her quizzically.
“Seems we needed one little brother.” A look of concern filled her face. “You’re bleeding!”
“Umm, yes, it seems to the boar took a bit of a bite —”
Just then, Malcolm called out. “Could we please get me untangled from these vines before that dreaded pig comes back?”
As they moved towards Malcolm to untangle him, Isabelle said softly to Hiram, “that was a courageous thing you did, making the pig attack you, saving Malcolm.
“Well, I can’t very well let a pig eat the Earl of Lymington, can I.”
She laughed. “No, I suppose not, and because you the hero here, I’ll be as gentle as I can when I clean and dress that wound. From the looks of it, you’ll have a glorious scar. I don’t think we should tell Mother about the scar — or the gun.”