As Niki Ballantyne had told herself many time before, risk was something to manage, not fear.
She squatted on the wooden platform, firmly gripping the zip-line handle in her gloved hands, hoping for a moment of exhilaration. High in the tall pine forest of Aquitaine, in the south of France, she waited for the all-clear signal from Paul, Parc-en-Ciel’s owner, before launching.
Once Paul had seen her search and rescue credentials, and her IRATA rope access certification, and she’d signed the release of liability waiver, she was finally good to go. She could ride and climb and jump circles around most people, but her petite build and girlish features threw them off. That could be fun too, though. Catching people off guard with her agility, skill and strength gave her an edge that made up for being small.
She sought Parc-en-Ciel because she’d heard about the extreme zip-line runs, but it had taken some effort to persuade Paul that she was up to it. At forty-five meters in height, with a total length of 470 meters, they normally reserved the run for stunt professionals and certified club members. It was this extreme height, speed and relative risk, however, that she found appealing.
“‘You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist.’”
Paul’s assistant Aziz, an agile youth with skin the same rich blue-brown tone as the bark of the pine trees where they perched like tree sprites, mumbled in French and touched his headset. “All set, Niki?” His English wasn’t half bad, though strongly accented with his native Moroccan French. Anything was better than her broken French, they’d been quick to inform her.
Lifting her face, she filled her lungs with the fresh tangy air of the evergreen forest. Not quite as majestic as her own North Shore Mountains in British Columbia, it was still a cool refreshing break from the hot summer sun and dust of the winding country roads she’d been cycling this past month.
She nodded, winking, and pushed the play button on her iPod, releasing a blast of EDM into her earbuds. “You bet, Aziz.”
He grinned, his white teeth flashing brilliantly against his skin. “Trois, deux, un, ALLEZ!”
She gripped the trolley handles tighter and leapt from the platform into the trees, shutting her eyes and drawing cool forest air through her teeth for the first few moments, feeling the breeze whipping against her face and throat. Her pulse quickened as her speed built, the canopy of green whizzing by in a fifty-five kilometre per hour blur; the high-pitched whine of the cable hummed in her ears as much as into her hands and arms.
Part of the risk involved stopping unassisted at two intermediate platforms high in the trees and re-hooking her gear from one line to the next. As a certified rope access tech, this was something she could manage in her sleep. In the two-and-a-half minutes she took to reach the final platform, she had time to acknowledge that, however invigorating a good zip-line run was, the cheap thrills were wearing thin. It fell far below her threshold for true excitement.
As the ride ended, she prepared for her landing. She twisted her body to align with Paul, who braced himself to catch her. Landing with the agility of a flying squirrel, she laughed and gave Paul a kiss on each cheek as he unhooked her harness from the line, and then from her body.
“Merci buckets, mon ami.” Laughing, she let the harness drop to the platform and spun away from Paul, crouching and springing off the edge of the deck into a double back flip, landing on the soft thick layer of needles at its base.
“Mon Dieu!” Paul’s voice echoed through the forest. “Niki! You could have killed yourself!”
She cussed in French and faced him, grinning, craning her neck to look up the fifteen feet or so to where he bent and peered down at her.
His wry expression told her she’d done it again.
“‘Shit of the bull?’ You cannot keep translating English expressions literally.”
She shrugged. “You knew what I meant, right?”
Paul shook is head. “I told you no monkey business on my gear, you crazy girl,” he said.
“I thought you were in the monkey business.” She laughed. “I’m not on your gear anymore, Paul. I’m on Mother Earth and she gave me a nice soft landing, thank you.”
“It’s a good thing you have ten times the training I do.”
“Admit it. You’re impressed. Anyway, if you’d fainted you know I’m qualified to save you.”
“You give me hives. Heal that!” He liked to put on a grumpy face, but she knew he was teasing.
Aziz drifted to a stop beside her on his ATV with a spray of dirt and pine needles. Paul snorted and scampered down the ladder to her side. “That’s it. No more rides for you. You’re trouble.” Belying his stern words, his grin stretched wide.
Aziz did a poor job of hiding his amusement, too.
“S’okay, Paul. I gotta go anyway.” She’d already spent the better part of the day climbing and riding all over Parc-en-Ciel with these guys. She threw her arms around each of them in a quick hug and hoisted her pack onto her shoulders. “Hey, can you tell me the closest village where I can find a bed tonight?”
Paul made a face. “Le Village de Petit Bergeron is a few kilometres to the West, but I don’t think you’ll find a vacant room. The Medieval Festival starts tonight.”
“Thanks, guys. That’s where I’m headed then. See you!” she shouted as she leapt onto her bike and careened down the path toward the road, waving with one hand.
“Adieu Niki!” called Aziz.
“Good riddance!” she heard Paul tease as she pumped hard on her pedals, riding into the low rays of late afternoon sun. The further west she got, the sooner she’d be home.
She missed the sense of purpose, urgency and involvement that her usual rope access and search and rescue work both provided. The challenge and unpredictability of dealing with real high elevation rope work, and especially HETS rescues, were the only thing that made her feel alive, and could drive the darkest thoughts from her head. Both chief, who’d started all this by forcing a leave of absence on her, and her boss, would be happy that she was well-rested, at least. Thankfully, she was almost at the end of this enforced break, and would fly home from Bordeaux in another couple of weeks.
* * *
Upon cresting the rise, the vista opened up again, oaks, maples and sweet chestnuts parting like velvet theatre curtains to present an extravaganza of rose, orange sherbet and lavender. Niki placed one foot on the fine gravel verge by the narrow country road and sat back on the saddle to catch her breath. After weeks of cycling, she felt at one with her bike, and at ease in the French countryside.
When Chief Brian had suggested, or rather insisted, she take an overdue break from her search and rescue work, she was really pissed off. She didn’t need a break. She loved her work. She lived for the riding and climbing in the pristine Coastal Mountains. The weekly quest of their ground and chopper searches, dropping on a line when they finally had located their target, invariably some inexperienced hiker or skier who’d lost the trail and fallen, the technical challenge of extraction, was hardly work to her. Every day of her search and rescue work brought surprises and thrills and made her feel incredibly useful.
But, she had to admit, she was grateful now that Chief had forced her to take this break. While she could have kept up her rope access work and just stepped away from search and rescue for a while, it was probably best she took a real vacation away from all of it. Brian had been right. She’d been long overdue for a change of pace, and after her weeks of adventure and relaxation, she felt wonderful and alive. She’d made this holiday her own. Despite her fear of excruciating boredom, she’d found enough to entertain and challenge herself traversing the south of France.
First, she’d been able to connect with some of the best parkour traceurs in the region, and had some incredible runs. Urban environments in Europe, with their stone lintels, balustrades, arches and classical details provided an exciting and very different world for her to explore, and it was all the better for having met some awesome practitioners in the country that had invented her sport. Between parkour, the challenging long distance cycling itself, and occasional detours, such as galloping on horseback on the Camargue beach, and her side trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls in mid-July–that had been a blast–it wasn’t turning out to be such a bad holiday. And now she could add zip-lining to her list of satisfying ventures. Now she had to decide how to fill her final two weeks.
The light had changed again. There were times, cycling along, that the soft, buoyant quality of the light in the south of France made it appear she were floating, carried by an invisible force that rendered the peddling effortless—no, more than that, infused her and her bicycle with extra energy, a part of something larger than herself and infinite—the unnamed something that had inspired both writers and painters through the ages. Sometimes the air seemed to comprise lucid shimmering greens and blues, sometimes hazy almost-grey lilacs.
Now, as she rested at the apex of a small rise, she gazed down across a broad green and gold valley. Across cornrows strongly shadowed in the fading light, the maritime pines, willows, oaks and fruit trees were now swallowed into the dark throat of the gently rolling landscape, bowing out, stepping back to make way for the spectacle in the sky. A sky in which the benign afternoon cumulus clouds bunched, cracked and rolled into violent brushstrokes of vivid cobalt blue and violet shadows. She let her eyes rove over the colours.
In her rope access work, she was always way up in the sky, on a bridge, a tower or tall building, so she’d seen more than her share of spectacular sunsets. But this was something else.
Underlit by the sinking sun, the clouds reflected jarring pink, oriental orange and painful, glowing gold that made her think there was a god. She drew a deep lungful of cooling afternoon air, felt her face crack open in a broad smile of delight, and rubbed her moist hot hands across the cool dry skin of her face, smelling sweat and earth and the ripe peach she ate a while ago, chafing and massaging her skin back to warmth and life.
Music snaked upward, carried on a gentle breeze beyond the valley where a small, typical French hamlet perched on a gentle knoll, shadows gathering in the low light, gold glinting off of glass windows facing the setting sun. The music, however, came from dreams and memories, not modern or expected, but ancient, Medieval music, pipes and lute strings, and the lyrical voices of balladiers.
Intrigued, she pushed onward. It would be good to rest. A festival sounded mildly entertaining. If this were a nice town, maybe she’d even stay a few days and catch up on her beauty sleep.
* * *
The village on the mound turned out to have a steep approach, so by the time Niki pedalled partway up, to the outside edge of the ancient town walls of Petite Bergeron, she was breathing hard.
Now she understood what Paul had been saying as she left. It was like arriving during a circus or passing through a time portal. Or both. A bigger production than she’d expected, they’d built makeshift stone piers and a wooden gate and portcullis from plywood and expertly painted, creating a sense of arriving in a Medieval town. Beyond the fake gate though, and the knight in full shiny tin armour being photographed with throngs of tourists, the town was real enough, and Medieval enough, to be convincing. Colourful banners with coats of arms hung from the golden limestone buildings, and yellow and blue pennants flew, competing with the riot of red geraniums that tumbled from window boxes. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people hiked up a steep cobbled avenue beyond the gate. Building anticipation filled the air. She’d seen many French cities and towns so far this summer, but this was by far the prettiest.
She pressed on up the ramp that wrapped the village walls, following the music. Even as she’d approached the walls, she passed people in costumes. Now she was entering the town, there were more people dressed in Medieval clothing than modern.
Soon, smells joined the sounds, drawing her onward and upward. Winding up a long cobbled street that bent around the walls, between the curving facades of two and three-story stone houses and a wide limestone baluster overlooking the countryside below, were rows of small white tents and market stalls. She pumped her bicycle over the cobbles, past farm produce, averting her eyes from a pile of oranges gleaming under lanterns lit to enhance the sinking sun. Instead, she admired small smelly cheeses and withered saucisson sec, and displays of clothing, toys, leatherwork and armour. To her left, narrow twisting cobbled streets lead uphill. A ghost image of the oranges lingered in her mind, but she shoved it away. There was no point in wishing that Sam were here, sharing this adventure with her. But he surely would have loved this Medieval fair. History and circuses always fascinated him, and this felt like a marriage of the two.
Everything had been more fun with Sam. A perpetual child, his excitement had fed her desire to maximize the joy he felt every day and had measurably enhanced her own experience. Despite the hard times, they’d had the best of times together. That old familiar heaviness in her chest hit her. She missed him as much now as ever, and felt a hollow sorrow every time she wished she could share something new with him, and see his sweet face light up.
The best part of doing anything with Sam was that he always had wanted to share. He always cared as much about how she felt as he did for his own pleasure. No one else had ever replaced him in this way.
She paused at the entrance to an even narrower lane that led uphill, past a few shops selling jambon-beure sandwiches and ice cream cones, wondering if the town square were up there somewhere. The path teemed with people, some tourists, others locals who were as much a part of the spectacle as participants in it. She’d need to save enough leg strength to hike up there and see what was happening.
“Where shall we have lunch, Sam?”
Winded, she nearly stopped to dismount when another cyclist surged past from behind her, shredded, cut legs driving forward, his lean butt raised from his seat, waggling in the air. Except for the padded crotch of his cycling shorts, he held no secrets. Here was a heart-stopping, beautiful specimen of manhood. And she wasn’t going to cack out while he could see her, so she pushed up on her own pedals and strove to keep pace.
Thankfully, in another dozen strokes he stopped and dismounted just ahead of her, so she followed suit, breathing hard, her heart pounding with the extra effort. He tugged off his helmet to expose short dark hair mussed and spiked with perspiration and scratched his scalp roughly with a gloved hand. She knew that feeling, how itchy her head got, after a few hours of cycling, especially in this heat.
She should have pushed her bike past him. She should at least have pretended to ignore him. Instead, her eyes raked the man’s lean, ropey cyclist’s body, right past his lycra-clad hard-as-rocks buttocks to his sinewy calves. This was without a doubt one perk of cycling, and her pulse quickened at the thought of tangling between the sheets with someone as hard and fit and energetic as she was herself, liquid heat pooling in her belly. He was an excellent match for her, and she was even ripe for a dalliance after weeks on the road. Not that she got any regular action back home. But this was a holiday. His head turned in her direction, and their eyes caught. She slid her gaze away, but he’d seen her checking him out, and his sexy mouth had quirked in amusement, his bright eyes flicking up and down her body in reply. Her overheated face flushed hotter. Damn. She turned away and angled her bike toward the narrow uphill street to escape his knowing stare.
“Are you just arriving in Petit Bergeron?” His voice was as sexy as the rest of him, his caramel-toned tenor wrapping around the French syllables like a magic spell, drawing her in.
She groaned inwardly, stopped and turned. “I’m passaging through.”
He tucked his chin and pulled back. “Where’re you from?” He switched to unaccented English, surprising her. There’d been no hint in his French he wasn’t a native speaker. Not that she was qualified to judge.
“Same. Vancouver.” He opened his fanny pack and pulled out an orange.
So not Quebec. “No shit. Me too. Small world.” She rolled her eyes at the inane cliché, mentally tripping over the orange. Don’t open it. Please don’t open it. But he did. Of course he did, spoiling the moment.
A brilliant white grin split the handsome taut planes of his beard-shadowed face, and his intelligent blue eyes conveyed all kinds of naughty, flirtatious thoughts that made her stumble on the rough cobblestones beneath her feet. His teasing smile told her he could read her thoughts. Though he couldn’t know all of them.
She swallowed, watching his strong tanned fingers puncture the pitted skin of the orange, breaking the brittle flesh. Frost vaporized into the hot afternoon air and dissipated, carrying the strong scent of citrus to her nose. Her stomach pinched and her head felt light and buzzy.
She recoiled, averting her gaze, suddenly needing to escape. “Uh–can you tell me where the town square is?”
“The Place des Arcades is straight up there.” A toss of his chin indicated the narrow street while he pocketed the peel from the orange and slipped a section into his mouth. He even chewed sexily.
Her throat worked, unable to swallow again, and she cleared her throat. “Why put the town square on the top of a hill? Kind of inconvenient, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “That was the idea. To make it difficult for the enemy to get to. These small fortified towns were built during the Hundred Years War, nearly six hundred years ago.”
“You sound like a teacher.”
He lifted one shoulder. “Maybe I am.” He offered her a chunk of his orange.
“Humph.” She shook her head, no, and blinked at him. She wanted to enjoy a pleasant conversation in English, after a month of struggling in French, but she fidgeted, needing to move along. “Good for you.”
His bark of laughter surprised her. “Do you want a hand getting your bike up the hill?”
Her smile faltered. “No. Thank you.”
He pointed at her loaded bike. “But… It’s no trouble.”
“I’ve got it.” She put up her hand, palm out, and moved ahead, shouldering her bike, saddlebags and all, and trudging up the steep slope, her quads burning with every stride.
“All right then. See you ‘round.”
She tossed one last glance over her shoulder, shaking her head and smiling at his attempted chivalry. Too bad. Delicious as he was, it was a good thing she was moving on so soon. The last thing she needed was a stupid fling with a guy from home, however tempting. She pushed on, feeling his sharp eyes following her progress up the hill, painfully conscious of her own lycra-wrapped butt.
* * *
A few minutes later, she emerged into a large open square, surrounded by stone arcades at the ground floor of its framing buildings. The music grew louder, the aromas of delicious foods stronger. Her stomach growled as she anticipated choosing her evening meal from the wonderful choices laid out. Past the throng, in the centre of the square, stood a large roofed and pillared shelter. She’d seen one or two like it before, in other Plus Beaux Village, all of which they’d designated heritage resources, and popular tourist destinations. It was easy to see why. They were very picturesque.
She cast her gaze around the perimeter. This one though, had achieved a particular harmony in the balance of two and three-story buildings, in the elegant shapes of the arcades around the square. Painted wooden shutters, overflowing window boxes, and banners accented plainer buildings in just the right places.
Spilling out from under the open-sided roof, folding wooden chairs flanked rows of paper-covered folding tables. People young and old, costumed and not, sat at the tables eating, drinking and talking. It was difficult to navigate through the dense crowd with her bike, so she looked around for a place to tuck it safely away. Under the arcade, she found a railing surrounding a small ice cream shop with tables nestled under the stone vaults. She leaned her bike against it and locked it. Then she exchanged her stiff clip-on cycling shoes for the pair of pliable parkour sneakers she kept in her saddlebag.
Free to move, she plunged into the throng, smiling at the onslaught of stimuli. She still hadn’t located the source of the music she heard, but she passed jugglers, a fire-eater with a crowd around him, and a marching procession of Knights Templar in bright white and red tunics, carrying spears. It was a spectacle, spread out through the village.
More booths and tables ringed the square, selling food that people could buy and eat right there. Her nose filled with the scents of roasting meat and spices. She stopped to admire a gigantic forty inch diameter pan of paella, filled with chicken and seafood, the rice glowing vermillion with saffron, and salivated. Soon, she told her twisting belly, soon. There were local wine vendors, too, and people selling gorgeous glazed pastries and breads, soap, textiles, candles and sweets. She walked on, admiring the craftsmanship of wood carvers and silversmiths. The merchants were friendly, to tourists and locals alike.
Admiring a colourful display of melons, tomatoes, strawberries, grapes and other local produce, a gnarled hand darted out and tightly gripped her arm. A tiny old woman, a printed kerchief tied over her grey hair, her face wrinkled and brown like old cowhide, had a hold on her and was pressing an orange toward her face.
“Orange?” she croaked in a heavy accent and gravelly voice.
“Ouch!” Niki backed away, trying to escape the claw-like hand that pinched her. “Non, merci.” What was it with the oranges today? Her arm slipped out but was grabbed again by the insistent old woman, who peered intently at Niki with black eyes clouded by cataracts.
“Prenez!” She insisted. “Prenez!”
“No, thank you, Madam. I don’t like oranges.”
The old woman curled her lips and swayed her head sadly. She set the orange back on its pile and pulled from her dirty apron pocket a bound bundle of twigs and pressed it against Niki’s stomach. “Vous devet vous preparer au changement.”
Prepare for change? What?
“C’est l’heure.” It’s time.
Reluctantly, Niki accepted the herb charm and smiled tightly, backing away from the annoying crone as she repeated her cryptic warning, which meant absolutely nothing that Niki could decipher.
Slipping into the crowd, she sniffed the twig bundle suspiciously, thinking it was likely infested with bugs. It’s smelled nice though, of lavender and sage, so she tucked it into her pack. Who knew? Hopefully, the old Gypsy had given her a good luck charm and not a curse.
Under another of the stone vaults, a small group bent industriously over low benches. She moved closer to discover that people were learning how to carve designs into blocks of buttery limestone from a man with a canvas apron and white beard. The ground was dusted white, as were their skin and hair, making the entire tableau appear carved of stone.
A sudden burst of applause drew her attention, and another song started. Interested in the music, she followed the sound until she came to another small square off of a narrow passageway. People sat under patio umbrellas on a raised platform, overlooking a lower level where five musicians played.
Stone stairs led up to the cafe where people dined, and Niki sat on a stair, leaning against the stone wall, warm from the afternoon sun, to watch and listen.
A woman in a long, green dress with flared sleeves sang a sweet melancholy song. An elegant twist of velvet and satin cloth wrapped her head. Four men in tunics and tights played various instruments, a lute, pipes and percussive things she couldn’t name. One guy, short and sturdy, with a couple days' beard and a conical suede cap, played a long oboe, and stamped his feet to the rhythm, the bells tied to his leather, curl-toed boots jingling with every step.
He began to sing with the woman, but appeared as much Shakespearian clown and court jester as he pranced around, bouncing in front of the audience, drawing them into his performance. His band mates jiggled and weaved as they played their instruments. They took turns harmonizing. He continued to tap his bell-trimmed feet, adding complex rhythms to their voices.
She gazed at the musicians and watched them play their instruments. It was uncanny, how authentic their costumes were, and more than that, their manners. The fantasy absorbed them as they smiled and danced, and they clearly loved what they were doing. She tried to imagine a group of twenty-first century friends getting together to practice this early music in someone’s living room or garage but just couldn’t picture it. They were so much a part of the illusion.
Niki closed her eyes for a moment and luxuriated in the exotic atmosphere. It was music unlike any she’d heard. She caught a hint of cinnamon and bitter orange rind on the warm air, as though flavoured with melancholy. She felt transported back in time to the year 1415. It would have been interesting, although harder, without modern technology and medicine. But in some ways society had evolved little in six hundred years. An image of Sam rose unbidden in her mind, and she wondered what life would have been like for him back then. People would have branded him the village idiot, no doubt, but would they have been kind, or cruel?