Two days later, I’m back in the swaying carriage, my head leaned against the rear wall as I cry. The pain in my shoulder is atrocious, but that’s not why I’m crying. I’m crying because we just buried our men in an unmarked grave in the woods, and now we’re leaving them behind.
We lost five to the sans culottes: Michele and Jean-Luc in the first assault, Antoine in the scuffle I started, and then Maximillien and Ferdinand in the forest as they fought the remaining revolutionaries. Though my heart aches for them all, it’s Antoine’s face that fills my vision. He was just a few years older than me, and with his kind manners and laughing nature, he reminded me more of his father than either of his brothers do.
In all the time I knew him, I never heard him utter a mean word. He was so very different than the other men of his rank, possessing neither the witty sarcasm nor the bored rakishness that seems to be the popular attitude of his peers. He’d been intent on joining the army, on following in his father’s footsteps even though he wouldn’t inherit the title. I’d seldom seen him in the past few years, as he spent most of his time at the Prussian military school where he was studying in Paris, but since we fled to the Beauchene’s ancestral home, I’d seen him more often. Even then, it seemed he was always striving towards his goals, his nose pressed into the pages of military histories, treaties on war, or the memoirs of famous generals.
But now he’s dead, and I wish I’d spent more time around him. Yes, I’m a servant, and, no, we didn’t interact directly very often, but whenever we did, he always had a kind word for me or asked about my father or sisters. Now he’ll never ask again. He won’t follow in his father’s footsteps; he won’t become the great man he was destined to be. The sans culottes robbed him of that future as they had so many others.
Beside me, Maryse does her best to stifle her own tears. She’d wisely hidden when the first shot rang out and only came back to our party late that night, the marquise and Livy trailing in her wake – as I’d hoped, they’d found each other. I gaze across the carriage at mother and daughter now, their arms wrapped around each other as they cry. The grief in their sobs is enough to break my heart all over again.
My gaze falls to the right side of Livy’s face. It’s an ugly collage of purple, green and blue, swollen from where that man hit her. It has to hurt, having her face so scrunched up in grief, but she doesn’t even wince at the pain, so much worse is her heartache. I tear my gaze away from her; every time I see her bruises, rage mingles with my sorrow. I’m mad at the sans culottes, but I’m also mad at myself. At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing by waiting until the perfect moment to strike, but if I had been quicker, she might not wear these bruises.
The carriage jolts as we hit a rut in the road, and I cringe and close my eyes, gritting my teeth. God, the pain. Jacques was right; I was shot. One of the men with us used to treat soldiers on the battlefield, and he told me I’m lucky, that the bullet must have hit the tree first and ricocheted into my upper arm, where it’s now lodged. I asked him how that made me lucky, and he said, “Because it didn’t kill you right away.” He smiled afterward like it was funny.
Soldiers, I’ve learned, have a macabre sense of humor.
The marquise wanted to stop in Couron so I could see a doctor, but Couron is close to Chollet, the city the republican and Royal Catholic armies have been drawing ever closer to. I told her I could wait until we reached her cousin. We’d faced enough danger already, and I couldn’t stomach placing everyone in more just to have my arm looked at in a town that would soon turn into a battlefield. Plus, if we maintain our current pace, we’ll reach our destination in two days. I told her I could hold on until then, but with each new jostle of the carriage, I’m beginning to wonder if I was a bit optimistic. My shoulder throbs, and my whole arm feels hot and tight like I stayed out too long in the sun.
The carriage drops out from under me as a wheel finds a rut in the road, and I barely manage to bite back a groan.
Forty-eight hours. Surely I can last that long, I tell myself, breathing through the worst of the pain. And then my mind goes to what must come later. Twice a day, my bandages have to be changed, and though that grim-humored soldier is as gentle with me as he can be, I still end up with my face shoved into my skirts to muffle my screams, Livy wringing her hands with worry beside me.
The road evens out a few moments later, and I’m given a respite. Silence descends upon the cabin and holds, each of us lost in our own grief as we travel further and further away from the men we left behind. I turn my gaze out the open window and watch the peaceful countryside roll past. Gentle sunlight dapples through trees heavy with green, birds sing in the distance, and a soft breeze wafts in through the window, carrying the smell of late summer to my nose. As time passes, my grief is replaced by slow, burning anger. The peaceful scene outside is such a lie. There’s no peace here, only madness. Surely nature should mirror the turmoil in our country. Surely God’s anger should be reflected all around us.
I blink, and my vision seems to swim as the blue sky overhead turns an angry black, filled with roiling clouds. Rain pelts the roof of the carriage and lighting tears through the heavens.
What in the world?
I blink again, and the scene disappears, the storm-ravaged sky effervescing to leave behind the bucolic reality of the forest. It’s so beautiful and serene that I have to look away from it.
“Isabelle,” the marquise whispers some indefinable amount of time later. It’s the first time I’ve heard her speak all day.
“Yes, my lady,” I say automatically, pulling my eyes to her. The tracks of her tears have cleared tiny rivulets down her face, the dirt of the road that built up on her skin over these last weeks obvious in comparison. It reminds me of the blood that fell from Antoine’s lips.
His mother looks as though she’s aged ten years in two days. The crow’s feet by her red-rimmed eyes are deeper, her hair is a disheveled mess, and her mouth is thin and drawn in sorrow.
“I want to thank you for saving Olivia and myself,” she says, a determined expression replacing the grief from a moment before.
“You already have, my lady. Please don’t fret,” I say, leaning forward regardless of the pain to take one of her hands in my good one. It’s incredibly forward of me, but I feel like I must do something to comfort her. She’s thanked me thrice now, and I’m not sure I can hear it again because every time she says those words, I feel a stab of shame. Doesn’t she know that Antoine would be alive if I shot a different man? If I’d thought to reload my spent pistol, I could have shot two of them and saved her son. I’ve tried explaining this to her, but in her grief, she hasn’t heard me.
“I want to make you my ward,” she says, and I blink at her in stunned silence. “Mine and the marquis’.”
My fingers go numb from shock, and her hand slips from mine as I lean away. I’m so caught off guard that I barely feel the pain lancing through my shoulder when my back hits the seat.
“Your ward?” I ask, looking from her to Livy, who sits there smiling at me as best she can with her swollen face. She doesn’t look surprised, and I take it to mean that the family has already discussed this.
Their ward, I repeat in my head. I’ll no longer be Livy’s handmaid. I’ll have one of my own, most likely. I’ll no longer be a servant at all or even a peasant but a woman attached to one of the most powerful families in France. If she makes me her ward in full, I’ll have a dowry. I can marry. Servants don’t marry, at least not and remain working in the household. I gave up on that dream when I chose to serve Livy, accepting that I could live vicariously through her and my sisters instead.
“Yes, our ward,” the marquise says. “You risked your life for this family, saved this family. The least I can do is make you part of it.”
I know the look on her face because it’s the same stubborn expression her daughter gets when she’s determined to have her way. I can try to argue against her, but between my pain, my grief, and my shock, I just don’t have the energy to do so. And I would be a bloody idiot to say no anyway.
“I accept, my lady,” I tell her.
At my acquiescence, Livy lets out a little squeal of excitement and sits forward to hug me, carefully, avoiding my injured side.
“We’ll be sisters now,” she whispers into my ear, her cheek warm against mine. She’s always wanted a sister, has been looking forward to her brothers getting married so that she could have one.
She releases me, and the marquise comes forward next, kissing me on each of my cheeks. “I can never thank you enough for what you did,” she says.
I nod, still stunned by my sudden catastrophic shift in position. She sits back in her seat, and I glance at Maryse, who I’ve worked with for five years. She’s fifteen years my senior, and though she taught me everything I know, we’ve never been close. It’s not like she is ever cruel or difficult, just…distant, closed off in some way it’s hard to put my finger on. She lifts her brown eyes toward me and gives me a small, rare smile. It’s so fleeting I almost don’t catch it, but it was there just long enough for me to think she might be happy for me, in her own way.
“Oh, I cannot wait to have you at my next party or ball,” Livy says, and I can tell from her forced smile that she needs this, needs some distraction from her grief. “Though God knows when that will be.”
Her mother makes a tsking noise. “Now, now. You’re not to use Belle as a social crutch.”
I plaster a smile on my face and join the conversation, but it’s hard to drown out our sorrow, and soon we fall silent again. Once more, I turn toward the window, staring out with unseeing eyes as I try to come to terms with everything that’s happened the past few days. I’ll be a lady, one step removed from being a noblewoman.
The carriage jolts and I suck in a harsh breath.
That is if I survive the next two days.
I’ll never step foot in a carriage again. Not unless forced. I’d much rather walk for the rest of my life. Or ride. Anything but sit and sweat and suffer inside a closed box that’s starting to feel more and more like a coffin.
I lean my head against the window as we round a curve in the road and try to tell myself that it will all be over soon. Night is falling, bathing the towering trees in blues and grays, and I can see torchlight coming through the heavy pines up ahead. We’ve been traveling through these woods for the better part of the afternoon, having reached the border of our destination, the Foret du Gavre, just after three.
It’s a strange wood, much different than the one I grew up in. The forest from my childhood was of broadleaf, whereas these trees are mostly conifer, and where I was nearly deafened by the sound of birds, squirrels, and insects in the one I roamed as a child, this one is almost eerily quiet. Every now and then, I see a flash of color amongst the dark green of the pines, hear the calling of a jay as our carriage rattles beneath the bows. Those calls seem to blare forth like a warning in the silence.
The trees around us fall away, and I pull back the window curtain with my good hand, ignoring the way my fingers shake. I’m treated to the sight of a massive chateau, its towers rising above the nearest trees, at least four stories tall. Candlelight spills forth from the windows, illuminating the house like a beacon in the darkness. I breathe a sigh of relief; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more welcome sight.
Across from me, the marquise begins to weep again.
Livy leans over and hugs her fiercely. “We made it, Mama.”
“We did,” her mother agrees, though her voice is weak. She lifts her hands and hides her face in them as she dissolves into sobs. I have to fight back my own. Between the pain in my arm, the loss of Antoine, and this overwhelming sense of relief, I’m afraid I might collapse.
Maryse, quiet beside me, reaches out and squeezes my hand. I try to squeeze hers back, but that’s my bad arm, and my fingers don’t seem to want to work anymore. She lets me go, only to lean halfway over me to peer out at the stone façade looming up above us. The chateau’s front door is thrown open, and I can see shadowy outlines of people waiting for us on the steps, backlit by the golden light. I shudder as we near, searching for their faces as a strange sense of foreboding snakes up my spine.
Are these the distant cousins we’ve come to find?
“Henri,” Emanuel calls from outside. He’s recognized someone in the gloom and sounds both eager and relieved. Hearing his tone, I let out the breath I was holding.
One of the figures on the steps raises a hand in greeting, and Emanuel spurs his horse forward. His older brother follows, close on his heels, and I lose sight of them as our carriage turns in the driveway, the wheels crunching over the stone beneath us. We stop, and shadowy figures spill forth from the house. By the efficient way they collect the horses and begin handing down luggage from the carriages ahead of us, I know they must be the servants of the household. I glance around and see that Emanuel and Jacques are off their horses, but I can’t find them amongst the crowd, and it worries me. I know we must be safe, but I just can’t stand not having everyone in sight. These weeks on the road have changed me, altered me in a way I don’t think is for the better. Was I ever so filled with worry and dread before?
The door to our carriage is suddenly yanked open, and everyone in the carriage flinches; clearly, I’m not the only one still on edge. The footman that greets us is tall, as most are, and handsome, his face smiling and polite.
“No, no,” the marquise says when he reaches for her hand. “Take Isabelle. She’s wounded.”
I stand on wobbly legs, but before I can take a step toward the door, Jacques appears behind the footman.
“I’ll get her,” he says, coming forward.
The footman nods and moves aside. I reach my good arm out for assistance, but Jacques surprises me by stepping in and scooping me bodily from the doorway. Pain lances through my shoulder, down my arm, through my chest, everywhere. I stifle a groan as I settle in, and I have no choice but to wrap my uninjured arm around his neck as I cradle my throbbing left one in my lap. My heart doesn’t even flutter at being held in his arms, and I wonder if these last weeks have also robbed me of the ability to feel joy. Didn’t I use to dream about being held by him in such a way? I can still see the fantasy in my head, me dressed in a beautiful gown and the both of us smiling and clearly in love.
Perhaps I’m just too exhausted. The last two days have been pure agony as we rattled over the scarred roads, and I’m beginning to think I only managed to stay conscious by sheer willpower alone. Maybe in a few days, when I’ve recuperated, I’ll be able to look back on Jacques’ obvious care for my welfare, and my heart will give the appropriate flutter.
“Belle,” Livy says from beside me, now out of the carriage. I look over to see her bruised face creased with worry.
“I’m okay,” I say, but I can tell from her expression that she doesn’t believe me.
The marquise appears on the other side of her, and Jacques leads our small party the short way to the wide front steps. As I sway in his hold, my eyes skim the shadows around us, all of which seem to be moving much too quickly. I can feel the weight of the guns on my leg and realize the one on my right must be digging into Jacques. Watching so many strangers move around us makes me want to stand, to be able to draw a weapon if I have to.
“I think I can walk,” I say.
Jacques scoffs. “You can barely speak. And you’re not a burden.” He frowns down at me. “You’re far too light, in fact.”
I blush at his words. All of us have lost a bit of weight. Even he has; I can see it in his face.
“It’s good to see you, cousin,” a painfully deep voice rumbles from ahead. “We expected you a week ago.”
My eyes immediately snap to the speaker. In his voice is a tone of authority, of command, which I’ve never heard before, not even from the marquis. Emanuel stands beside him, and he towers over the youth. He must be well over six feet, and judging by the width of his shoulders, he’s surely a blacksmith, not a lord.
“We found trouble on the road,” Jacques tells him, carrying me up the stairs. “Thank you for taking us in.”
“Of course,” the shadowy man says with what sounds like real warmth. He turns to address the rest of our ragged party. “We’re more than happy to shelter family.” God, that voice. It’s so low that it rumbles like distant thunder. I almost glance to the sky, waiting for the next flash of lightning to strike.
Jacques lifts me a little higher. “Lord Giroux, might I introduce my mother, the Marquise de la Beauchene, and my sisters, Olivia and Isabelle, the ladies Descoteaux,” he says, indicating each of us with a nod of his head. Warmth spreads through my chest at his words. He called me his sister. “Our brother, Antoine, was lost on the road,” he adds in a softer tone.
Any warmth I felt dissolves at the mention of Antoine’s death. Some part of me still doesn’t believe it or accept it. I keep thinking that I’ll turn around, and he’ll be there, smiling that easy smile of his and teasing his sister and me. The blood pouring from his chest will be nothing but a feverish nightmare, and our lives will go on as they should have, as God intended them to.
Our shadowy host turns to Livy and the marquise, his face finally finding the light. My heart slams against my ribcage as fear floods my veins. His eyes. What’s wrong with his eyes? They just caught the light like an animal’s. I saw it, I swear.
I jerk my gaze up to Jacques, but he watches the scene in front of us passively, telling me he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Even his heartbeat, which I can feel against my side, is a slow, steady rhythm, so in contrast with my now discordant, racing one.
I turn back as the marquise and Livy curtsy as deeply to our host as they would the king. I study not the women, but the face of this man named Henri, Lord Giroux, who, judging by his words, is the very cousin we’ve come to join.
Even through the fear that’s nearly choking me, I notice that he’s handsome. Not beautiful, no, his face is far too rough for that. His jaw is square and covered with the stubble of a two-day beard, something I’m sure the marquise will find unforgivable. His thick, wavy dark hair is uncovered by a wig and frames a face almost too masculine to be attractive. Only his full lips save it from being so. I focus on his dark eyes, framed by thick lashes and heavy brows, waiting for another strange flash of reflection, but nothing happens.
Did I imagine it? Perhaps my pain and paranoia have reached a crescendo, and I’m applying sinister characteristics to even noble men. Or maybe I’m feverish. It would explain the hallucination, surely. But a fever could mean my wound is infected, and I send a silent prayer to God that it isn’t so.
“We can never repay you this kindness, my lord,” the marquise says, her head still bowed. It takes me a moment to focus on her, which worries me even more.
“Please, my lady,” the giant of a man says, bowing to her. “It’s our honor to shelter you. I am so sorry for your loss.”
His voice seems to snake around me in the darkness, and I shudder in Jacques’ arms. His head snaps down in response, his eyes roaming over my face.
“Ah, Henri, Isabelle has sustained a gunshot wound,” Jacques says rather awkwardly. I suppose there’s no polite way to tell someone a lady has been shot. “Do you have a surgeon in town?”
“Of course. Please come in. I’ll summon him immediately,” Lord Giroux says, ushering us in. His dark eyes find mine, and I look away, unnerved.
Then we’re moving again, and Jacques carries me up the stairs and through the open double doors into a well-lit entryway. The floor beneath us is made of black and white checkerboard marble that must have cost a fortune. My eyes rise as I take in the circular room, seeing an exquisite staircase climbing each side of the walls to curve up and meet in the middle, the next story up. The wrought iron banister is gilded, and the steps are white marble. It’s finer than the grand staircase in the marquis’ house in Paris, and I wonder what a mere baron has done to acquire so much obvious wealth.
Jacques paces to the left side of the room and sinks onto a wide, red cushioned couch, still cradling me in arms that are starting to shake with strain. The marquise and Livy follow us over, their faces worried as they study me. I must look as poorly as I feel. My left side is a throbbing mass of pain, and I’m not able to keep it from showing any more.
Livy sinks to her heels in front of us, and I turn and try to smile at her. My shoulder muscles clench in protest, and my expression turns into more of a baring of teeth. Over her shoulder, our host is relaying instructions to two men, Emanuel still at his side. One of the servants takes off at a sprint out the front door, and the other turns with a bow and moves sedately up the stairs. Judging by his dress and demeanor, I’d say the latter is the house’s butler.
“Belle,” Livy says, her hands fluttering over me as if she wants to do something to help but is too afraid to touch me.
“I’m all right, Livy. Just tired now that we’re safe.”
Jacques makes a low noise. “You’ve been very brave these last few days. Not one complaint. I imagine if it had been Emanuel who was hit, we would never hear the end of it,” he teases as his brother and our host reach us. Though the words are light, they feel forced, and I can still hear the heavy weight of grief in his tone.
“Not Belle,” Emanuel says, exhaustion, sorrow, and what might be respect all showing in his eyes as they meet mine. “She’s far too polite to say that if not for her, we’d all be dead.”
Why do people keep saying that? If not for me, Antoine would still be alive.
Lord Giroux turns to me, and I meet his eyes once more. Another shudder runs through me, and I have to look away again, unable to hold his gaze. There’s something in those brown orbs, something lurking beneath the surface. I can almost see it, stalking just behind him as it studies us all.
Infection. I must have an infection, I decide, stopping the deranged trail of my thoughts. Dear God, please let me survive this.
I close my eyes to clear my head for a moment, but darkness is there, waiting to swallow me whole.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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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.