Content Warning: Child endangerment
“It would be a shame to execute such a hero as yourself,” he said. “If you can demonstrate your legendary skill as a marksman, I will let you and your son go free.”
Laying his hands on the shoulders of the two soldiers nearest him, he pulled them apart and reached out to take Walter’s hand where it still clutched her shirt. The boy looked up when he felt the stranger’s touch, and the Vogt smiled at him, beckoning him out of the circle of soldiers.
“Come, son, help your father,” he said. “You can save a life and gain him honor all at once, if you just be a good lad.”
Walter’s terror cleared a little at this, and he allowed himself to be led away to the corner of the square, where stood an apple tree. She watched his progress, helplessness and fear once more welling up inside her, while she calculated the odds of their survival if she began the unbridled slaughter of the Austrians for which her fingertips so desperately itched.
The Vogt picked an apple from the tree and held it out before Walter’s eyes. “Pretty, isn’t it, son?” he said. “Let’s see if you can hold this on the top of your head. Stand nice and still, there’s a good boy.”
Positioning Walter with his back against the tree, he balanced the apple on the crown of the boy’s head and turned to look at her.
“Give him back his crossbow,” he said to the commander of his men. Then, still smiling, he made his offer. “Shoot this apple from your son’s head, and you will win both your lives.”
Her heart twisted within her, but she could read in his face that she and Walter would certainly both die if she refused. Slowly, deliberately, she drew a bolt from her quiver and slid it into the groove, then pulled back the bowstring with her hand to latch it in place. Gasps and murmurs drifted around the gathering crowd at this, but she paid no attention. As she raised the crossbow to shoot, another thought occurred to her, and she reached back for another bolt. Tucking it into her belt, she raised the bow again and aimed it at her son’s head.
“Papa!” called a voice from the edge of the trees, and she turned to see Walter racing out from the woods to meet her. She ran to meet him and lifted him off the ground into her arms, hugging him tight and close, tears running down her face.
“He arrived at my house not an hour ago, out of breath and unable to speak but terrified,” said the man with him, the old man who had visited her two days before. “It was a long time before he could tell me about you and the Vogt.”
“You did well, son,” she murmured in Walter’s ear. “You will be stronger than other men.”
“Thank you, Herr Fürst,” she said then, looking up at him over Walter’s shoulder. “We are once more in your debt.” She buried her face in Walter’s hair again and closed her eyes, breathing out a prayer of thanks for his safety and swearing to herself that she would never again let either anger or fear determine his fate.
“I’ll swear your oath,” she said at last, setting her son’s feet back on the ground. “I’ll lend you my strength, and we’ll drive these intruders from the land, but you must never reveal my allegiance.”
“But your name is worth many men,” protested von Melchtal. “With it we could rally the whole of the Swiss people to our cause.”
“You will have to make do with me alone,” she said, shaking her head. “No one must know I am part of this plot, and I do not want to hear any songs about my deeds that mention my name.”
“Then whose name should they mention?” asked von Melchtal.
She looked down at Walter again. “Let them use his father’s name, for he was brave and fought to defend his land and his family, as I would not. I care for his son now, so I will also care for his name. They may call me William Tell.”