I found myself growing hypnotised by the sound of the horses' hooves as we galloped along at full speed. And I do mean full speed. Once or twice I was certain that I was about to fall off, my lack of riding history catching up with me at last. And when I had woken up in the morning at the inn, I had felt like I would never walk again, so sore was I.
"Clara!" That was Marie, sounding agitated. "You look like you're about to drop off. Wake up! You cannot fall asleep when you are riding, especially somebody as inexperienced as you." I was indeed about to fall asleep, and I was grateful for her intervention. The rest would have been horrible indeed if I had woken from it when I hit the floor.
"Didn't you sleep last night?" asked Annette, looking very sorry for me. "I do not think Emmanuel understands how we feel. It is because we are women, of course. We require more sleep."
"Nonsense," I replied, forgetting that I was young, an urchin with no status. Here, we were equals, and we would talk as such. "When I was still living on the streets it was I that could keep going for the longest, travel the furthest and steal the most, and I was the only girl among us."
"You stole?" said Annette, seeming at first shocked. Then she realised that perhaps her outburst would have offended me. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound so judgemental. I am willing to bet that we have all done it ... but you are so young."
"It is because I am young that it was necessary. I had no money and no way of making any money, so I had to steal. And yes, steal I did. I only took what I needed and what would keep me alive. I never took luxuries. None of us did." It made me uncomfortable to talk about my past, but at least the horses had slowed down slightly so that we could hear each other. Now the danger of my falling off had passed slightly.
"You speak as if there was a group of you. Who were you with?" There was Marie, perceptive as usual. I was glad to have a story to tell, so that I could return Annette's favour. She had, after all, kept us entertained for much of the journey so far.
"There were ten of us at one point," I said. "But that was the biggest we ever got, and usually it was more like five. One was killed, drowned in the Seine. Another was taken away one night and we never saw him again. It is quite likely that he died too. Two were my cousins, also orphans. We were the only three left alive of our entire family, as far as we could tell."
I paused and thought for a moment. "Three of the others were related -- brothers. One was eight, one was eleven and one was fourteen. This was two winters ago, so he was a little older than me. We were good friends.
"We stayed together because it made us stronger. Every two or three days we would divide forces and travel in pairs to somewhere where we could take food without being noticed. We liked to split up, you see, because it meant we were not taking too much from each person at once."
"And what happened? Why were you alone when the Blanche found you?" asked Marie.
"Shhh!" replied Annette. "Do not say the name so loudly. We may be travelling at speed but there are still people to hear us."
"I was alone because they left me," I said, as though there had been no interruption. "They said that I could not keep up because I was a girl, even though I was stronger than them. One was dead, one was missing. The three brothers had left to try and find their parents. There were very few of us ...
"And one night they all slipped away, leaving me behind."