"Who's there?" cried the man, and then repeated it in a language that the sisters understood. "Qui est là? Who's there?"
He looked toward Marcelle and Coco and must have seen two skinny, flash-eyed little girls, wild as kittens born under stables, the taller dressed in her brother's hand-me-downs, the smaller rumpled as a street urchin - but then he looked to the moldery soil and up into the trees, and behind himself toward the distant sea. . . . He scrambled backward in the dirt, covering his knees in mud. "Who is there?" he asked again.
Marcelle and Coco stared. . . . "It's just us," said Marcelle. "No one else."
The man stopped scrabbling and became very still. . . . "I can't see you," he said nervously. "I'm blind. Who are you?"
. . . The girls, emboldened, peered more closely at their discovery, stepping from the shadows like fawns. They saw that the man had untidy brown hair and that his face was rather dirty. Coco, who had a sparrow's quick eyes, saw that he held something silver and enticing in his palm, something that twinkled and gleamed. . . . "I'm Marcelle," she told him. "I'm ten. This is my sister, Coco. She's eight. Her real name is Thérèse, but everybody calls her Coco."
. . . "Are you a soldier?" asked Coco unexpectedly.
The man hunkered against the tree. "Why do you ask that?"
"Well, you are a bit like a solider. You have a soldier's blanket and a soldiers' boots. And once there were soldiers who slept a night in our village and they spoke in a funny way, the same way you do."
"It's called an accent," said Marcelle with superiority.
The man was fidgeting, casting his blind gaze about. The fascinating silver thing remained closed in his hand, gleamy as a fishhook, hidden as a jewel. He said, "I am a solider - well, I used to be. I'm not one anymore."
Excerpted from The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett. Copyright © 2007 by Sonya Hartnett. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.