Early August 1793,
Morcenx, South Western France
I come to in darkness, fear squeezing its villainous fingers around my heart. The bedsheets are drenched in sweat and tangled around my legs. In my panic, they feel like the grasping fingers of the newly dead. I struggle free from them and fall to the floor, scrambling away on hands and knees until it hits me. The floor. Of my bedroom. I’m not in the forest. Some huge, hulking creature doesn’t have hold of me.
It was only a dream.
I stop crawling and flop over onto my back, trying to get my traitorous pulse under control. Sweat Heavens, it seemed so real. The smell of fur and musk still fills my nose, the cloying scent of wolves thick enough to choke on. My ribs burn where that creature held me, and when I reach up and tentatively touch them, they feel bruised.
What the hell?
The stone floor at my back is at least ten degrees cooler than the air, and I decide to stay where I am, relearning how to breathe as the sweat dries on my skin. What a bizarre dream. That will teach me not to sneak a second glass of wine before bed again.
What dark corner of my mind conjured that demon? Half man and half wolf, like a creature birthed from hell and spat onto earth to put the fear of God into sinners. It’s silly to dwell on it, but I can’t help but wonder why it chased me. Where did that stray thought about it haunting me come from? As if I’ve been running from it for years? Is this a recurring nightmare that only my sleeping self remembers?
Speaking of my sleeping self, that woman is a force to be reckoned with. I barely know how to ride a horse, but in my dream, I sat my saddle like I was born in it. My god, I fired a gun at full gallop and actually managed to hit my target.
It’s only when the roaring in my ears subsides and I can think past the lingering terror that other things penetrate my mind. An orange glow undulates over the cracked plaster of my ceiling. Men’s voices echo through my open window. I cringe when a loud screech rends the air like someone ground a metal tool over the stone exterior of the castle – what a godawful racket.
Frowning, I get up from the floor. My knees wobble ominously, and I have to steady myself against the wall until my legs solidify beneath me. Stupid dream. I must have been thrashing in my sleep because I feel utterly spent, like I’d really been on that hellish road. I stagger over to the window and grip the wooden frame carefully, wary of splinters as I lean forward into the night. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the blazing light of so many torches, but when they finally do, my confusion only deepens.
A strange tableau fills the courtyard below. The three coaches owned by the family I serve have been pulled from the stables, and men are stripping them of their finery. Each carriage once proudly displayed a coat of arms in the middle of its door, but now they’re missing. Mud is smeared in their places. The once-gleaming black lacquer is pockmarked and dented. As I watch, a large man scratches an iron tool down the front of the smallest carriage, and the shriek of protesting wood splits the night air as he mars it further.
My fear comes roaring back. It looks as though we’re under attack, but I can’t understand why these men are targeting the carriages of all things. The chateau is filled with priceless antiques and treasures. Shouldn’t they be storming the doors instead?
Just as I’m about to raise an alarm, one of the figures turns towards the light, and I recognize the unmistakable features of my mistress’s older brother, Jacques, the future Marquis de la Beauchene. The air I gulped in to scream with whooshes out of my lungs deflatedly.
What on earth are they doing? I wonder, catching sight of his two younger brothers, Emanuel and Antoine, alongside him.
I need to find out what’s happening. In a year of bizarre events, this is almost too much to fathom. I turn from the scene and snatch my dressing gown from the back of a chair. After pulling it on, I slide my feet into my slippers and open the door that separates my room from my mistress’s. Her name is Gabrielle, and she’s the only daughter and youngest child of the current Marquis de la Beauchene, one of France’s most revered generals. Well, at least he was before the revolutionists overthrew the monarchy. Now he’s a fugitive.
Gabrielle’s windows are thrown open to let in the night air. She’s a notoriously light sleeper, and I’m not surprised to see her already sitting up in bed, her blonde hair tumbling around her as she struggles to light a candle.
“Allow me, my lady,” I say, taking the implements from her.
Her voice comes out choked with panic. “Is something happening outside?”
“It’s your brothers,” I say, lighting the candle with ease.
Amber light washes over us, revealing her heart-shaped face, large blue eyes, and finely wrought features. She lets out a deep sigh of relief. “Oh, thank God. For a moment, I thought that-”
I watch her, wondering if she’ll finish the sentence, but she bites her bottom lip and holds it in instead. No matter. I know what she was about to say. Like me, she must have woken up to the noise and feared that a band of revolutionaries had come to burn the chateau down around us.
I wait until she descends from her bed before speaking again. “They’re stripping the coaches.”
“They’re what?” she says, her already high-pitched voice gaining a squeaky edge.
I fetch her dressing gown and hold it out for her. “Here, come see.”
She tugs the garment on and strides over to her wide bank of windows. At sixteen, she’s barely five feet tall, nearly nine inches shorter than my own, unfashionable height. I assume that it’s her diminutive stature and fairy-like appearance that causes her family to treat her as though she’s still a child, but I know better than to make the same mistake. A sharp mind sits beneath all that beautiful blonde hair, and those big eyes of hers miss nothing.
“It looks as though the mob has finally reached us,” she whispers into the night.
I grip the windowsill hard. She isn’t speaking of some hypothetical mob, but the one we narrowly escaped while still in Paris last year. My vision swims as I’m dragged back to that fateful day. Instead of the courtyard below, I see the cobbled streets of the city, crowded with the dirty, angry faces of rioting peasants. The threat of violence clings to them as they scream at us, pressing around the carriage. Fire burns in the distance. It was a miracle we managed to escape.
I turn to Gabrielle, my eyes landing on the ragged, pale line that starts at the top of her forehead and disappears into her hairline. Yes, we escaped, but both she and I still carry scars from that day, some visible, others lying unseen over our psyches.
A shudder wracks my body. I shake off the horror of those memories and refocus on the men below us. “Something must have happened.”
Gabrielle turns to me. “Let’s go find out what.”
I knew she’d want to know what this is about; it’s why I came in here to wake her instead of going down on my own. I’m curious by nature, but she has me beat by a long shot, and she would never forgive me if I didn’t take her with me.
I push off from the sill and stride into the room. “Let me put you together first.”
“Just braid it,” she says, knowing I was going to fetch her hairbrush.
Noblewomen past marrying age only wear their hair down in bed, and there are other men in the courtyard beside her brothers. It would be improper for them to see their beautiful young mistress with her hair falling freely around her.
I hesitate. “My lady –”
“Do it, Belle. I’m too impatient for anything else.”
“And don’t you dare laugh at me or try to turn this into a learning moment about impatience being a sin.”
I nearly choke trying to follow her order. She knows me just as well as I do her.
She shoves her hair over her shoulder, and I rake my fingers through the long strands, careful not to tug too hard when I find a knot. I quickly plait it into a braid, pausing when I finish to reach my free hand into the pocket of my nightgown. My pockets are always full of knick-knacks because I never know what I might need to assist her. I’ve learned it’s best to be prepared for anything, so it takes me a few moments to locate a piece of string amongst the fodder.
She taps her foot as she waits, growing more impatient by the moment.
“Done,” I say, releasing her hair.
We break apart. I turn and fetch her slippers, and she moves to find a candle for me, lighting it using her own. We’ve spent so much time together in the last few years that this unspoken synchronicity occurs between us quite often. That she deigns to help at all is uncommon for ladies of her rank, and I thank God every day for my luck in serving her.
She hands me my candle before sliding her small feet into slippers, and together we leave the room. I take the lead, lighting our way through a warren of hallways and staircases. Our slippered feet whisper over priceless Aubusson carpets. The flickering candlelight dances over oil paintings framed in gold leaf.
Thankfully the rest of the household is still asleep or sticking to their rooms, and we pass not a soul in our states of undress. When we reach our destination – an unfinished, stone-lined doorway in the bowels of the building – I motion for Gabrielle to remain behind. She nods and stays put, knowing she can’t be seen like this. I turn from her and tug on the heavy wooden door. It lets out a godawful squeal that makes both of us grimace, and with one final yank, it grinds open on rusty, seldom-used hinges. I slip out into the night as soon as I have enough room.
No one in the courtyard noticed the noise of the door. They were too busy tearing the expensive velvet from the seats of the largest carriage. I slide unnoticed past several torch-lit figures, my feet making not a sound on the dry earth below. Jacques is at the far edge of the men, his back to me, hands on his hips as he surveys the work of the others. I beeline for him, knowing he’s best suited to answer Gabrielle’s questions.
At twenty-eight, he’s seven years older than me. He inherited his height and build from his father: short for a man but broad through the shoulders.
“My lord, your sister would like a word with you,” I say when I reach him.
He jerks at the sound of my voice and spins around to face me. I dip a quick curtsy to hide my amusement. Having been raised in the forests near Morcenx, my youth spent running barefoot as I chased butterflies and birds over layers of leaf litter, I learned how to be quiet. It pleases me that I still retain the skill so many years later.
I rise from my curtsy and lift my gaze to Jacques. His dark blond hair is pulled back from his aquiline face, tied at the nape of his neck. The torchlight makes his eyes look like sapphires. Years ago, I fancied myself in love with him, but he’s always treated me like nothing more than a trusted servant, and my infatuation has waned considerably. Only when I see him like this, unaffected and unbalanced, do I think some flame might remain.
“Isabelle? What are you doing out here?” His gaze falls to my dressing gown. “Dressed like that?”
“I couldn’t have sent Gabrielle out here, my lord.”
“You shouldn’t be out here,” he says, wrapping his hand around my upper arm and all but dragging me back toward the door. “Please tell me my wayward sister isn’t lurking just inside.”
“I’m not lurking!” she hisses from the darkness.
I bite my cheek to keep from grinning. Jacques sends me a look like she’s somehow my fault, but from the spark in his eyes, I can tell he’s amused.
He releases me as soon as we step inside, and I do my best to ignore the small, unwelcome pang of displeasure that comes from the loss of his touch. His hand felt so warm and firm on my arm, somehow comforting in this moment of stress and worry. Without the distraction of our contact, my anxiety returns, and innumerable questions fill my head. I hold my tongue against them, knowing that this conversation must occur between my betters.
Olivia pounces as soon as Jacques turns to her. “What are you doing?” she demands. “Mama is going to kill you.”
“She’s not going to kill us. It was her idea to strip the coaches and make them look as though they’re hired,” he says. “We’re leaving in the morning. The Convention has declared a levee en masse. It seems the military conscription wasn’t enough. They want all able-bodied men from nineteen to twenty-six to join the army of the republic.”
Olivia lets out a gasp and covers her mouth with her hands. “What?”
“Don’t worry. We’re not going,” Jacques says. “Breton, Maine, and Loire are already rumbling, and the Vendée has flat out refused to give them any more troops. The peasants there are rioting again. Mother’s cousin, the Baron de Bisclavret, is one of the leaders of the Catholic Army. They live just north of Nantes, near Le Gâvre, and we’re leaving to join his household.”
“We, meaning you and Emanuel and Antoine?” Olivia asks.
Jacques shakes his head. “All of us.”
I stare at him with wide eyes. The family I serve is about to join a rebellion against the revolutionary government. They’re declaring themselves monarchists, which means they’ll all be outlaws. I stumble back and land hard on a stone bench opposite the door. Gabrielle sinks down beside me a heartbeat later, her eyes as wide as saucers.
I’ve never heard of the Baron de Bisclavret before, but I’m well aware of the Catholic Army. All of France is. The papers have been publishing stories about them since spring, when their movement began picking up momentum in the northwestern corner of our country. Back then, they had still been called the Breton Association.
It all began with the military conscription Jacques mentioned. The National Convention, France’s new governing body, had called for 300,000 men to enlist in their army. Like most of northern France, the province of Vendée had been rumbling ever since the Convention took over the Catholic Church two years earlier and abolished many of its practices. Their priests had been taken away shortly after and replaced by government-appointed curés, adding insult to injury. When the military conscription was declared in March, and revolutionary representatives started arriving in the area to gather the men, the rumbling turned into outright rebellion. Why should they fight for a government they don’t support? One that took away their beloved priests and replaced them with strangers who did nothing but preach the revolution’s rhetoric?
Four months later, those rebels have swelled in numbers and won numerous battles against the republic, structuring themselves into the Royal Catholic Army. They’ve become organized and well-armed, capturing abandoned cannons that the fleeing republican troops left behind. Rebel generals, many of whom served alongside Jacques and Gabrielle’s father during the American Revolution, have joined their ranks as well. Following them are the peasants and nobility that fled the guillotines of Paris and still support the abolished monarchy. Their goal is to overthrow the National Convention and put the heir to the throne back in power.
The last article I read explained how this burgeoning rebellion among the common people in the Vendée goes deeper than conscriptions and replaced priests. When the revolution first began four years ago, and peasant mobs started storming the chateaus of their absentee lords in the south, east, and west, their cousins to the north were rallying around their nobility instead. Northern lords have always had the unfashionable habit of remaining on their lands, of actually governing their people instead of following the court of the recently beheaded Louis XVI from Versailles to Paris and back again. Because of this, their people weren’t starving; they had stable, steady incomes and enjoyed some of the lowest taxes in the country. I can understand why they’d want to fight to remain as they were.
But us? What do we have to do with any of that? Why can’t we stay here and ride out the rest of the revolution quietly?
“Jacques, we’ll be fugitives,” Gabrielle says. “Our lands will be forfeit.”
“Father has already sold most of our land, and our money has been in English banks for nearly a year,” he tells her. “We’ve been planning to join the rebels for months.”
Gabrielle sucks in a sharp breath, and I clamp my hands together to keep from reaching out to her.
Jacques doesn’t notice her panic. His beautiful features have turned hard in the flickering light. The revolution has changed us all. It’s making a man out of him, one who will someday inherit his father’s title and wealth. I can recognize that this new hardness might be necessary, but I can’t help but miss the gentle way he used to deal with his sister.
“We’ll be among friends,” he says, “and more importantly, we’ll be near the rebel-held ports so we can flee to England if need be.”
“I feel as though the world is ending,” Gabrielle says, her voice nothing but a quavering whisper.
“I think the one we grew up in is,” I respond, speaking out of turn. Neither of them scolds me. My role has changed so much over the last four years that I’ve become more like Gabrielle’s companion than her servant.
“I’ll leave you to ready yourselves,” Jacques says. His eyes flash to mine. “We’re traveling disguised as peasants. Pack accordingly and sparsely.”
I manage to nod. It seems enough to satisfy him, and with a swift bow, he leaves us.
Months. They’ve been planning this for months. And yet this is the first time Gabrielle hears about it. Anger burns in my belly. She hates surprises. She needs time to wrap her mind around new things, time to prepare herself for change. Springing this upon her out of the blue is the worst way her family could have handled the situation. Do none of them know her at all?
“I’m so sorry,” I say, my voice echoing over the stone.
She dashes at her face, wiping away a stray tear. “It’s fine. What’s done is done. We must ready ourselves, as he said.”
I push myself up. She needs time to process. When she’s ready, she’ll vent her anger and her worry. Until then, I’ll do what needs to be done. “Shall we return to pack?”
She nods and gets to her feet. Several minutes later, we’re back in the sanctuary of her rooms, where the two of us have hidden out from the revolution together these past years, losing ourselves in books and games and silly frivolities. Anything to keep us distracted. Anything to keep the anxiety at bay. That peace is denied us now; the sounds echoing up from the courtyard continue to tumble in through the open windows, and I doubt we’d be able to muffle them even if we shut the glass and pulled the curtains.
Gabrielle pauses by them and worries her lower lip between her teeth.
I follow her gaze, staring out into the night, my thoughts turning to the road we’ll soon be traveling and the tales of what’s happening in the towns between the Vendée and us. If the rumors are true, we’ll be lucky to reach our destination alive.
“I don’t even know how to fire a pistol,” Gabrielle says, her thoughts aligned with mine.
“I do,” I tell her. “I’ll ensure Jacques gives me one before we leave.”
Gabrielle turns toward me, frowning. “You know how to shoot?”
I nod. My father, once the arms master for the Marquis, and a man who can handle any weapon with expertise, taught me to shoot as a child. It’s been years since I fired a pistol or musket, but I’m certain I can still do so.
“I grew up in the forest, Gabi,” I say, using her informal nickname now that we’re alone. “With nothing but sisters. Father was worried we’d be an easy target for brigands and thieves, so he taught us how to defend ourselves.”
Her eyes go wide as she looks at me. I wonder if I can get her mouth to pop open if I confess that I can also wield a sword and know how to throw a well-balanced knife. As tempted as I am to tell her and find out, I hold my tongue, not wanting to distract her from our task. Her mind can be as fickle as my own, and if I explain myself, we might very well lose an hour to the discussion that would follow.
“We need to get ready,” I say instead.
She shakes her head as if to clear it. “Yes, of course.”
I set her to light the candles while I go and gather her luggage from storage. I choose just a single traveling trunk, thinking of Jacques’ direction to pack sparingly. Once I haul it upstairs and clean it off, we begin to pack. I place our necessities in the bottom of it – hairbrush, undergarments, soap, and the like. Gabrielle pulls a few of the plainest dresses from her closets and piles the garments on her bed. I pick through what she laid out and select just two of her cotton gowns, resolving to pull all the ribbons and lace from them. The two warmer dresses I add are both woolens from the previous winter and will need to be let out some to fit her more womanly form. The fact that I’ll be pulling ermine and mink from them seems almost sacrilegious, but it has to be done.
“We’ll have to alter a few of these to fit you,” I say. “And we’ll have to pull the finery from the rest.”
Gabrielle nods. “That’s good. We’ll need something to keep us occupied for the rest of the day. I can’t imagine having our normal lessons now.”
She paces to her closet and pulls out a heavy wool cloak. It’s late summer, and the sun has been so strong this week that it feels like it’s giving a last hurrah to the season, but I know it can’t go on forever. Soon, the weather will change. It can be quite cold up north from what I’ve heard, and if we aren’t to spend the winter with these cousins Jacques mentioned, then we might spend it in England. We’ll need warm clothes in either case.
My mind races as I work. The Marquis has three carriages, and that means there’s only room for so many travelers. Most of the household will be left behind to either defend the manor or fend for themselves. Gabrielle and I have been operating under the assumption that I’ll be going with her, but ultimately that decision will be up to her mother, the Marquise. If I’m left behind, I’m stealing a horse and fleeing back to my home. Olivia’s family won’t need the steed after they leave, and if anyone can stay alive through the hellscape our country has descended into, it’s Dad.
The last letter I had from him bore ill news, speaking of mobs ransacking the countryside to the east. I doubt the peasants surrounding this chateau or those near his humble home will riot. We’ve had steady weather and bountiful harvests the last few years. They’ve had more than enough to eat, unlike their brethren in the cities. But what of the roving bands of revolutionaries I’ve heard of? They call themselves sans culottes, ‘without stockings.’ The title is a smear against our noblemen’s preference for knee-breeches and stockings, and it denotes both their humble origins and their hatred of the aristocracy.
If the rumors are to be believed, they’re constantly on the move, sniffing out royalists where they hide in their chateaus, razing their properties, and putting them to the ax if the nearest guillotine is too far away.
Thinking of them, I amend my potential thievery to include a few pistols as well. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe I’ll be left behind; Gabrielle and her mother are the only women in the household, and I’m almost positive that the Marquise will insist on including me and Maryse, her own handmaid, on their journey north.
Once Gabrielle’s belongings are packed, I place my own inside, selecting only two dresses and a riding cloak. There’s still a small bit of room left in the trunk, and I add a spare pair of boots for each of us. With that done, I test the lid. It closes easily, thank goodness. I throw it open again and unpack every item inside, slowly, triple checking them against a register in my mind, ensuring I haven’t forgotten anything.
The sun has been rising while Olivia and I work, and it spills through the eastern windows to fall on the carpet in thick, golden shafts. Dust motes drift through the rays. I watch them float lazily past me as I fight back a wave of anxiety. It’s quiet in the room, I realize. Too quiet. I turn and see Gabrielle sitting on her settee, her gaze unfocused as she stares down at her hands. With nothing to occupy her, she’s collapsed in on herself, as she is wont to do, and I chide myself for forgetting her propensity for introspectiveness.
I kneel down in front of her and clasp her hands. “Gabi,” I say, knowing it might take several moments for her to surface from her spell.
She looks at me with confusion, her brow furrowed, her cupid’s bow mouth turned down into a delicate frown.
“Gabi,” I repeat, giving her hands a shake.
She snaps out of it. “Sorry, what were you saying? My mind must have drifted.”
“I was going to fetch you breakfast,” I tell her. “But mayhaps you want to accompany me? It may be your last chance to visit with Leanne and the girls before we leave.”
I’m speaking of our cook and her kitchen staff of scullery maids. Under normal circumstances, it would be highly inappropriate for Gabrielle to venture down into the servants’ quarters, especially since she still isn’t dressed for the day, but I can’t risk leaving her in her current state, and I know she’s always harbored a soft spot for our cook, and Leanne one for her as well.
To hell with propriety, I think. They should get their chance to say farewell.
A slow, shy smile spreads over Gabrielle’s face. “Yes, I would like that very much.”
I lead her through my room and open the small door on the far side of it. The stone stairwell beyond will deposit us conveniently near the kitchens. I pause and snatch up one of the still-burning candles, holding it aloft as we begin the descent. There’s no railing, and though I’m so familiar with these steps that I could run them in complete darkness, they’re a far cry from the grand staircases that Gabrielle’s feet normally tread, and I worry the narrowness and steepness of them might unbalance her.
“Isabelle,” her whisper echoes from behind me.
I nearly jolt out of my skin. The way my name wraps around me harkens back to my dream – that creature taunting me out of the darkness. I shudder and turn.
Gabrielle sinks to the stairs just behind me, her face in her hands.
I kneel in front of her. “What is it?”
She lifts her head, and a single, fat tear rolls down her cheek. “I was to be a lady in waiting to the queen herself.”
I brush the tear away. “I know. She’s still alive, and as long as she and her son live, there’s hope that all this madness will end and the young king will retake the throne. Do you think she’d want you to give up on them?”
As far as we know, Marie and her son are still imprisoned and haven’t yet been put to the guillotine as King Louis was a few scant months ago. News has been slow to reach us, and I can only pray that the heir to the now non-existent throne is still alive and well.
Gabrielle takes a deep breath. “She would want us to continue on.”
“Then we must continue on,” I say. “We must do what we can to make her proud.”
She stares at me a moment, expression shifting as she rallies her nerves. Slowly, her fear falls away, replaced by a stubborn streak that has only recently emerged. I welcome the sight of it.
Together we stand and make our way to the kitchens.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.