It’s been two weeks since we left the chateau behind, and I’ve never been so miserable. Or dirty. I just had to relieve myself beside a tree – again – using leaves to clean myself as best I could. Now I face a long walk back to the carriages, having used the excuse of us stopping to really stretch my cramped legs. Part of me hoped I might find some small stream to clean my hands and face in if I only ventured far enough, but luck isn’t on my side today.
I’m back in the dress I started our journey in, as it’s the least filthy of those I brought. We’d naively thought there’d be a chance to wash our clothes at some small village along our route, but we haven’t stopped at a single inn, choosing instead to move the carriages into the woods at night and sleep within their shelter. I understand the decision, even though I’m beginning to long for a bed with the fervor of a drowning man praying for a raft.
The first town we rode through outside the Marquis’ land had a well-used-looking guillotine in the main square, and the inhabitants all seemed suspicious and slightly murderous. We didn’t even stop the carriages; we just moved past as they watched us with feverish eyes.
We still had to stop to resupply, and we’d chosen to do so at larger farms along the way. Jacques and a few of the servants would go forth heavily armed, searching for bread, cheese, or meat, while the rest of us waited and prayed for their safety. We’ve been blessed so far; Jacques paid the peasants well and came back laden down from each trip, even bringing fresh milk and eggs on several occasions. Unlike eastern France, we’ve had plenty of rain this summer, so the larders are full and the animals healthy.
The men also gained valuable information on their excursions, learning which towns to avoid – most of them – and which roads bandits frequented. If we’d taken a direct route north from Mont-de Marsan through Bordeaux and then Nantes, we would have reached our destination, the Foret du Gavre, in just ten days. But because of the stories we’ve heard, our journey has been a maze of lesser-traveled roads, most small and poorly maintained. Olivia’s gotten sick about every other day, the constant jarring and swaying too much for her. It’s nearly too much for me at times, and in just a fortnight, I’ve lost noticeable weight from my already thin frame. We all have.
Livy would be better if she could get out of our too-hot carriage and up onto a horse, but the men don’t want to risk a woman being in the saddle if we happen upon bandits. I can’t blame them, though part of me wants to. The days have been sweltering, and even with the windows open, we’ve sat and sweated inside the stifling confines of our wooden box. No one would guess the marquise’s rank now; she’s as dirty and disheveled as the rest of us.
I grumble and lift my skirts as I step over a log, wondering why I even bother. The bottom of my dress is dirty four inches up from the hem, and I’m pretty sure the stain I just noticed is a splash of Livy’s dried vomit. I snap my head up and keep moving, not wanting to think about that. If we ever reach our destination, I’m going to spend a whole week in a tub, and, God, at this point, it’ll take that long to scrub away all the road dust. I never realized how much I took cleanliness for granted before.
I vent my irritation as I walk, planting my feet heavily and pushing branches out of my way to let them whip back once I pass. It’s childish and petty, but I need an outlet for my anger right now. The last thing I want is to bottle it up, only to lash out at someone.
There’s a small branch in my path, and instead of stepping over it, I stomp on it hard, snapping it in half with my heel. The sound reverberates through the forest, so loud that it shocks a flock of birds up out of a nearby tree. I freeze, staring down at the branch beneath my heel.
How could such a small thing make such a noise?
I realize my mistake a heartbeat later when a second gunshot roars in the distance.
I haul my skirts up and sprint toward the road. Fear floods my veins as I race through the forest. Someone screams up ahead, and my fear explodes into full-blown panic.
No! I want to howl, throwing myself forward, running as I haven’t since I was a girl. The trees turn into a blur around me as I sprint past them, skirts bunched up high to keep them out of the way of my pumping legs.
I run flat out for a full three minutes before my muscles begin screaming at me to slow down, to stop. My adrenaline and fear are the only things that keep me going until finally, over the sound of my labored breathing, I hear men yelling. The road must be just ahead.
I force myself to slow and then stop, remembering all the lessons my father and then Charles taught me. Running head-first out of the trees would likely get me shot if bandits have finally found us. Once I’m sure I’m not going to be sick from exertion, I begin to walk, placing my booted feet carefully, rolling them from heel to toe in an attempt to stifle my footfalls even as I try to calm my still ragged breathing.
I’m almost at the tree line when the men’s voices coalesce into something understandable. It sounds like they’re arguing. Jacques is the only one I recognize as he demands we be allowed to pass unharmed. Someone else responds to him, their voice too low to make out the words. A chorus of rough laughter follows, and a pit of dread opens where my stomach once was. Bandits. They’ve finally found us. All that planning, all that avoidance has been for nothing.
“Here’s a pretty little one,” I hear another man announce, closer to where I’m hidden.
A shriek splits the air, and I fist my hand in my mouth to stifle the sob that wants to break free. They have Livy.
If they hurt her, I’ll kill them all.
I’m not sure where that declaration comes from. I’ve never had such a vicious thought in my life, but the idea of someone harming her has turned me savage.
She screams again, and I can’t stay where I am anymore. I slip around a few more trees and reach the road’s edge. Carefully, I brace my hands on the rough bark of an oak and peer around its trunk. I’m near the rear of our carriage line. At the front, at least ten men surround our own, larger force, pistols out and pointing. Two of our men are on the ground, bleeding and motionless.
Dear God, please don’t let them be dead, I pray. How did these men surprise us so badly? Were they that good? Or had our endless days of relative safety lulled us into a false sense of security?
I tear my gaze from the motionless bodies and inspect our attackers. My blood runs cold as I realize they’re not bandits. They wear long breeches and red caps. It marks them as sans culottes, and it means we’re in much greater danger than if they’d been simple brigands. Brigands might hurt us, rob us, and even rape or kill a few of us. Sans cullotes hunt aristocrats down like dogs. If they find out our identities, we’ll be dragged through the streets to the nearest village, tortured, and then put to the guillotine.
Livy shrieks again, and I finally find her amongst the crowd. She’s in the grasp of a large, brutish man.
“I caught her. I get the first go with the wench,” her captor bellows.
The other sans culottes laugh in response. They laugh.
I thought I was mad before. I was wrong. At the sound of their raucous laughter and the various suggestions they fling in Livy’s direction, the bottom falls out of my anger, and beneath it I find a pit of black rage.
“Don’t you touch her, you bastard!” Emanuel, the youngest of her brothers’ yells, taking a step in her direction.
A bear of a man reaches over and hits him on the head with the butt of his pistol. “Shut up!”
Emanuel’s eyes roll up into his head as he sinks to the ground. The men erupt into yelling. And all the while, Livy is being dragged into the forest. There’s no confusing the man’s intentions with her. She has to be my priority. The men will have to take care of themselves for now.
Shaking with fury, I lean down and slip the long hunting knife from the sheath on my calf, my eyes never leaving my ward. As I watch, she slaps the back of her captor’s head, and I feel a brief thrill of pride. It’s extinguished when the man turns and slaps her back, the force of the backhanded blow stunning her into submission. No one has ever hit Livy, and she has no idea how to react.
“You can’t do this,” I hear Jacques say. “She’s just an innocent girl. We have money. Take it and let us pass.”
I slink after his sister, wanting to tell him to save his breath. My father taught me that you might be able to ration with men, but not monsters. He also taught me how to judge the difference between the two. These are clearly the latter.
“No!” Livy screams, her voice high with panic.
I follow the sound, knowing nothing has happened to her yet because her shouts tell me she’s still moving deeper into the woods. Pale blue fabric flashes through the trees up ahead, and I spot her, her thin wrist clutched in the hand of the much larger man as he pulls her forward.
Behind me, the Marquise lets out a scream of her own, and I slow for a second, torn between the two. Where was she hiding that they just now found her? Had she abandoned Livy to her fate and sought safety for herself alone? No. That was the anger talking. She would never be so selfish. I must have missed her in the crowd, or she was being held out of sight.
I don’t know where she is or who might have her, and if I backtrack now, Livy will be raped. The danger to my ward is likely more imminent than that of her mother, and I know the Marquise well enough to be sure she’d want me to help Livy before herself.
I firm my resolve and stalk from tree to tree after my quarry, my father’s lessons flooding my mind. Even though every fiber of my being wants to shoot this man and have done with it, I leave my pistols where they are, knowing that the silence a knife provides me is of better use. The road is just a short sprint away, and a gunshot would alert the rest of the sans culottes of the threat. I have to do this as quickly and quietly as possible.
So I wait for the opportune moment to present itself as I stalk closer to Livy and her captor. A sort of strange detachment comes over me, a low buzzing filling my ears as my mind blanks. I watch the man stop and strike Livy so hard he sends her sprawling on the ground. Instead of rage, I feel something almost like anticipation. He doesn’t hear my silent footfalls creeping up behind him as he drops his weight on top of her, pinning her to the forest floor. She screams and thrashes, but he manages to shackle her hands over her head with one of his. She looks like a broken doll beneath him, so small compared to his mass. Bless her, she fights him anyway, turning her hips to try and throw him off. His free hand falls to his breeches, and I know my time has come.
I step out from behind the nearest tree and stride toward them, Livy’s screams masking any small sound I make. Each step brings me closer to the man, but it also sends me farther from my humanity. This man would rape her? Those who he held council with would laugh about it?
I float beyond rage, in a place of calm intent as I reach them. Peripheral sounds and colors fade away, yet at the same time, those closest to me are amplified. Is my heart really beating so slowly? Are my breaths really so quiet and even?
The man fumbles at Livy’s skirts, shoving aside her kicking legs so he can position himself over her. I step behind him and grab his hair. The strands are thick and greasy beneath my fingers, as black and oily as his soul.
You will never laugh again, I think, and with a strength I didn’t know I possessed, I wrench his head back. He doesn’t even have time to shout before I plunge my knife into his neck. The ease with which it penetrates his skin is shocking, even in my strange calm, and I feel the blade bounce off what must be his spine as I push it in to the hilt.
I wrench it out just as quickly, pulling it forward to do as much damage as possible. Blood sprays from the wound as I shove him sideways, and a few warm droplets land on the skin of my arm. He falls to the ground, gasping like a fish while his hands try to staunch the blood spurting from his ruined neck. I turn from him and reach for Livy. She’s still screaming, and her dress is torn at the neckline. She fumbles between trying to close the tear and wiping the sans cullotes’ blood from her face.
“Livy,” I say, shaking her shoulder. “Livy, run, hide!” I try to pull her up, but she’s lost to her panic or horror at what I just did. “Livy!” I hiss, and it’s then her eyes seem to focus on me. Her screams turn to sobs as she scrambles to get her feet beneath her. Instead of fleeing, like I told her to, she flings her arms around me.
“Thank you. Oh, dear God, thank you,” she cries, clinging to my neck so tightly she’s nearly choking me.
I move the knife out of the way just in time, pulling it behind my back as I hug her hard with one arm. I feel the warmth of blood and sweat on my skin where her cheek presses against my neck. If I lost her…no. No, I can’t think about that. Not yet. I have other things to do, other terrors to visit upon our enemies.
“Go, Livy,” I say, pushing her from me. She releases me after another second and nods through her tears, though she still looks terrified. Of me?
She stumbles as she turns to run, falling to her hands and knees. The dying sans culottes is right in front of her, and a short scream escapes her mouth as she scrambles away. I watch until she disappears into the woods, and as soon as she’s out of sight, my hands begin to shake so bad that I drop the knife. My gaze lands on the man I stabbed. He gurgles, the sound getting quieter as his fumbling hands become erratic and twitchy. They fall away from his neck, and dark arterial blood pumps out of him to stain the ground crimson. His black eyes meet mine as if looking for help, and in them, I see not the monster I stabbed but a man. A terrified one. I heave as I realize what I’ve done, doubling over to vomit what little I have in my stomach.
Somewhere to my left, I hear the marquise scream over my retching. It sounds like she’s in the woods too, and coming closer. I can’t do this right now, can’t lose myself to what just happened. Later. Later I’ll pray for myself, pray for forgiveness as I fall apart.
I force myself to swallow against my still-roiling stomach, wiping my mouth as I straighten. The knife lies discarded nearby. I scoop it up and make my way over to the now still sans culottes.
My God, I’ve killed a man, I think as I stare down into his slackened face. His eyes are still open, and they stare unseeing up into the heavens, to a place I doubt he’ll ever reach. My father’s lesson on never putting away a dirty blade floats to the surface, and I lean down and wipe the blade off on an unbloodied edge of the man’s shirt. My hands shake so badly that I nearly cut myself.
“I’m not sorry,” I tell the corpse. I might be scarred for life after what I just did, but given the choice, I wouldn’t change my actions. If a man like this would laugh while raping a woman, God only knows what else he would do, or already had done, in his life. Most likely, I did the world a favor by removing him from it, and I cling to that idea as I turn from the body and stumble back toward the road and the sound of the marquise’s intermittent shouts.
This time I decide not to get as close. I re-sheath my hunting knife and wrench a throwing one from a pocket, pulling it from its binding as my legs solidify beneath me, and I pick up the pace.
I find my target quickly because the man dragging the marquise into the woods is smaller than the one I just… murdered – oh, God – and is having difficulty controlling her. She shouts and spits at him, cursing his name, cursing his entire bloodline. Words pour from her mouth that I didn’t even think she knew. She sounds more like a fishmonger’s wife than a noblewoman.
I take refuge behind a tree and risk a glance around it at them. She pulls back one delicate fist and punches the man in the eye with more force and form than I would have thought her capable of.
“Whore!” he swears, one hand covering his bruised socket, the other cuffing her on the side of the face hard enough to snap her head around. Blind hatred floods my system, pushing my nausea and shock aside as that strange clarity takes over once more. I welcome it, need this emotionless state to do what I must.
“Duck!” I shout as soon as I’m past the closest tree, trying to draw his attention away from the marquise and command her both. It works. She drops to the ground as the man turns to me in surprise, and I stop and throw my knife in one fluid motion, sending up a desperate prayer that I hit my mark. If I miss, I could very well hit the marquise, but it seems that God hears me because the knife suddenly blossoms from the man’s chest. He roars in pain and moves to pull it out. He isn’t fast enough. The marquise is there first, snatching the hilt free and then plunging the blade into him again. Bloody circles appear and expand over his shirt, and he stares at her with wide, disbelieving eyes. I’m just as shocked as he is, frozen a dozen feet away as she rips the knife free and starts stabbing him like a woman possessed. Somehow, the man’s hand is moving, seemingly of its own volition, toward his pistol.
“His gun!” I yell at the marquise, but she doesn’t hear me, too caught up in her macabre frenzy. He’s going to shoot her, and she won’t even see it coming.
I wrench my skirt up and tear a pistol free from its holster. The man is slow from blood loss and shock, and I bring my weapon to bear before he can his. My shot takes him in the stomach, jarring the marquise out of her madness. She watches as the man’s gun falls from his hand, and he drops to his knees, screaming. I lose a moment, wondering why it took a gunshot wound for him to scream, when the image of the marquise stabbing him so many times makes me want to never stop screaming.
“Laurent!” someone bellows from the road, drawn by the commotion.
“Run,” I tell the marquise. “Livy is out here somewhere hiding.”
She picks up her skirts and turns to flee without comment, still clutching the bloody knife.
The sound of men crashing through the undergrowth rings out through the forest. Too many for me to face alone. I turn and run away from them, thinking of circling back to the road. Branches whip at my skin, tug my hair free from its braid. I barely feel it. I just killed two men. Dear God, I just killed two men. The one I shot might not be dead yet, but he would be soon enough; no one could survive all those stab wounds, let alone a pistol shot to the gut.
You did it to save Livy and her mother, I tell myself. They’re free somewhere, hiding in the woods, safe for now. It gives me hope that the rest of us will survive. It makes it easier to fight the tremors threatening to overtake my body.
I hear more shouting from the road as I near it. Maryse is still out here in the woods somewhere. Like me, she needed to relieve herself during our stop, and I have to assume that since I haven’t heard her screaming, she’s safe somewhere, too, hopefully gathering Livy and the marquise to her so they can band together and put up a greater fight if they have to. My duty now is to our men on the road.
I manage to shove my pistol back into my pocket and holster it as I run, snapping the button to keep it firmly in place. More men are running through the forest behind me, and it makes me wonder how many have been left to guard our own. It shows their lack of proper soldiering that they split their force without knowing how many of us are sheltered within the trees, and I thank God for that.
I reach the tree line for the second time, almost at the exact same place as before. This time, when I peek out of the forest, it’s to see three men guarding our twelve. Idiots. If I can find some way to distract them, our people could easily overtake them.
I don’t have time to come up with a plan. The men from the woods could return at any moment, and my father taught me to grasp at whatever strings I have available and weave the best cloth I can from them. He taught me to think on my feet, to adapt to all situations. And so, as the men in front of me yell and push at each other, I slip my second gun out and transfer it to my better hand, my right hand. With another desperate prayer, I take aim at the brigand closest to me. He’s nearly twenty yards away, a long shot for a gun so small. Thankfully, he’s somewhat removed from the others, standing with his pistol trained on the brewing violence. With my hand trembling the way it is, my shot might go wide, and I might hit anyone too close. Since he stands in his own little bubble, the only thing I risk hitting is a carriage. I don’t need to shoot him, though, just draw their attention toward me and give Jacques and the others a fighting chance.
I take a deep calming breath and then another, desperately trying to ignore the chaos that rages around me. That strange dream from two weeks past comes back to me, and I think, Breathe in on the rise, out on the fall. Now fire!
I pull the trigger. My shot hits a sans cullotes in the head. Not the one I was aiming for, and I clamp a hand over my mouth as blood and brain matter explode over the party, and everyone turns in my direction. Oh, God, I could have killed one of our men! What was I thinking?
It’s my shock that condemns me. My initial target, his gun already raised, turns to me and shoots before I realize he’s moving. The tree beside me explodes in a spray of bark. Something slams into my shoulder with so much force that it knocks me backward a step. Pain roars through my arm, but I ignore it, more concerned for the rest of our men than with the bark that’s probably lodged in my skin.
Antoine and Jacques are using my distraction to their advantage. They lunge forward almost as one. Jacques takes the man closest to him, the one who shot at me, while Antoine goes for the man covered in his companion’s blood. Antoine isn’t quick enough, and I scream out a useless warning as the man’s gun rises, and he fires into Antoine’s chest point-blank.
“No!” I shriek, more screams ripping through my throat as I run into the road, my left arm dangling uselessly at my side. No one moves for a moment, everyone staring with wide eyes at Antoine, who stands there, stock still, blinking down at his ruined chest as though he doesn’t understand what just happened. His head comes back up to look at the man who shot him, and it’s like someone had severed the strings of a puppet. He crashes to the ground in a heap of limbs.
I race toward them as the rest of our men snap out of it, their training overriding their shock. They quickly silence the surviving sans culottes and then start pulling weapons from the dead and from a pile stacked nearby. A large force of them runs into the woods, likely in search of the rest of the men who assaulted us. Those that remain behind crowd around Antoine.
I gasp his name as I skid to the ground beside him, barely feeling the hard scrape of the road on my knees. “Oh, please, no.”
He’s going to die. The hole in his chest is larger than I thought possible, larger than anyone can survive, and blood is pouring out of it. I try to staunch it with hands quickly going numb. Blood, hot and viscous, pours over my fingers. Antoine blinks up at me, his grey eyes confused at first but then quickly losing focus.
“Cold,” he says, blood bubbling out of his mouth. He chokes out another breath, still more blood pouring out to run in red rivulets down his dirt-stained cheeks. He doesn’t breathe in again, and I feel my heart shatter as his falls still.
“No,” I moan, bending over him, careless of the blood. I try to say that word of denial again, but all that comes out of my mouth is a strange keening.
“Move,” Jacques says, pulling me off his brother only to see him already dead. His unbelieving eyes come back to mine and then drop to my shoulder. “Isabelle, you’ve been shot.”
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.