Rufus stands there, staring at me, waiting.
I clear my throat and break eye contact. “Forgive us the intrusion at such an early hour, my good sir. Would you mind putting your shirt back on?”
He snorts. “It’s my forge. You’re the ones barging in here at this ungodly hour. Why should I?”
I jerk my head behind me, where Livy still shelters. “She’s sixteen.”
He lets out a rough sound, but I see him set the hammer down out of the corner of my eye. His long legs carry him swiftly to the chair where his shirt hangs. I nearly sigh in relief as he jerks it on.
“Forgive me for my state of undress,” he says, but the words are wooden, and he clearly doesn’t mean them.
I glance at him to gauge his mood and wish I hadn’t. He might not look like them, but he reminds me of the baron and Lord Giroux. What a strange refuge we’ve found, one filled with large men with glittering eyes that frighten me nearly as much as the sans culottes.
“What can I help you with?” the blacksmith asks, taking a seat on the rickety chair. Somehow, it holds his weight. He scoops up a wineskin propped against the chair leg and takes a deep pull.
I meet his eyes over the top of it. “I need eight well-balanced throwing knives, two rapiers light enough for women, and two blunted practice swords.”
He splutters in response, wine spraying the dirt floor between us. Livy and I hastily step back to avoid staining our cloaks.
“What the devil for?” he says, wiping his mouth.
Livy finally pops out from behind me. “That is no way to speak to a lady!”
He places his hand on his heart. “My apologies.” His gaze returns to me as he stands, looming over us in the forge light. “What the devil for, my lady?”
“Well, I never,” Livy says, and I can feel the thunderhead developing beside me. This situation is rapidly deteriorating. “When my mother hears of –”
She cuts off mid-sentence as Rufus clears the distance between us in two long strides. I slip my hand into my pocket, not taking my eyes from his shockingly green ones as my fingers unhitch my holster. Even furious, he’s heart-stoppingly beautiful, but what in the name of heaven has made him so angry?
He stops so close to me that his boots touch the hem of my dress, and I have to crane my head back to look up at him. I’ve met men like him before, who use their size and strength to intimidate anyone smaller, anyone they perceive as weaker. Too bad for him it won’t work on me. Not after everything I’ve been through.
“We were nearly killed while traveling here,” I tell him, meeting his gaze head-on as I slip my pistol from its holster. My heart slams against my ribs, but somehow, I manage to keep my voice even. “My sister doesn’t want to remain helpless if there’s a next time. I’ve agreed to teach her how to fight. Would you leave us defenseless in the hands of republican troops?”
He frowns. “Are you Isabelle?”
Shock ripples through me. How does he know my name? I fight the urge to step back from him. He’s still too close, and I can feel the heat radiating from him as if he’s a forge himself. His eyes search my face, still shaded by my cowl.
“I’ll make what you need,” he says, turning away.
My exhale is shaky from relief. “How much for the work?”
He gives me the amount, and it’s half of what it should be. I slip the gun back into my holster with trembling fingers, glad his back is to me, and he doesn’t see it.
“Sir, I can afford to pay you a fair price.”
“And I can afford to give a brave woman a good deal when I feel like it,” he growls, reaching again for the wineskin.
I blush at his words and fumble at the pouch of coins tied to my dress. Damn this man for unnerving me so much. Livy sees my trouble and helps me free it from my side.
Rufus sucks down a gulp of wine and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, watching us. “Put your money away. You can pay me in three days, when the work is done.”
Livy lets out a low sound of annoyance and ties the coin purse back in.
I shuffle my skirts to resettle them before closing my cloak again. “Thank you, sir.”
He grunts in response and turns back to the fire, effectively dismissing us.
I frown at him. “Please, keep our order to yourself.”
“Sure,” he says, flicking his fingers at us as if shoeing a fly.
Livy goes red in the face, and I drag her outside before she explodes.
“Well, I never!” she rages as we stride toward our horses. The sun must be close to breaking the horizon because it’s gotten markedly brighter in the few minutes we were in the smithy. “Can you believe the way he spoke to you? And he sat down in our presence. I even thought for a minute he might attack you. That is no way to treat a woman. What a beast!”
From behind us, I think I catch a note of low laughter. It seems the smithy heard her, though why he now finds her humorous and not infuriating like a moment ago is beyond me.
“He’s used to addressing soldiers, Livy, not ladies,” I say. “That was probably him being polite.”
“I’d hate to see him when he’s rude.” She unhitches her horse and pulls herself into her saddle, turning to glare behind us. “And how did he know who you are?”
“I’m not sure,” I say, but I can guess. Most likely, our men gossiped, and it spread to the soldier encampment and on to the village. I untie my horse as I ponder this and throw the reins back over her head. The saddle is so far up; there’s no way I can manage getting into it one-handed. With stitches still in my skin, I’m not supposed to lift my arm over my head, let alone strain it.
I sigh, ducking around the horse’s head. “Livy, I’m going to need your help.”
Her face is pale as she looks over my shoulder. I turn to see a shadow materializing out of the trees not two meters behind me. My hand is in my pocket in a heartbeat, reaching for my gun, but then the figure gets close enough to make out, and I recognize who it is: Lord Giroux. Damn it. There goes our secrecy.
“Good morning, my lord,” I say with a curtsy, my voice sounding thready to my own ears.
He bows in response. “Good morning, ladies.”
When did he return? Does this mean that Jacques and Emanuel are back as well?
“We were j-just…” Livy trails off, clearly frightened.
Lord Giroux looks from her to me.
“We needed to see the blacksmith,” I tell him, finishing for her.
He nods and stalks toward me out of the shadows. “Here, I’ll help you up.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I say, unable to find a good reason to protest. I do not want him to touch me, but to say that would be uncommonly rude. Instead, I round my horse’s head, catching sight of her wide, rolling eyes as she stares at him. Her breath comes in short snorts, as if she’s been running.
She’s afraid of him, I realize, my heart leaping to my throat. I force myself to keep moving. My God, my horse is afraid of him.
Instead of the foot up I was expecting, Lord Giroux crowds in close. The horse is at my back, and I have nowhere to go as his hands slide into my cloak, circling my waist in a damn-near indecent gesture. His hands tighten, and then he’s lifting me into the air as if I weigh nothing. I have to put my good hand on his shoulder to steady myself, and my palm feels branded by the heavy muscle beneath it. I can’t avoid meeting his gaze now; we’re too close. Though his expression is polite, a fire burns within the depths of his black eyes, and I feel like I’m one wrong move away from being scalded by it.
He sets me easily into my side saddle, but his hands linger on my waist a heartbeat longer. My horse decides she’s had enough of him, dancing away, pulling me clear. It breaks the spell his eyes cast on me, and I suck in a breath and drag my gaze from his.
“Thank you,” I manage.
I see him nod in my periphery and step away from my horse, turning toward the small smithy. Without a word, he strides to the shop, moving with that strange rolling grace of his, and disappears inside.
I turn my horse’s head and angle her toward the road, careful to keep her at a walk. She was so docile when I rode her before, but Lord Giroux has gotten to us both, and she tugs at the reins, wanting to bolt. Livy pulls even with me as we head out of town. More people are out and about now, and cook fires are sparking to life in the soldier encampment beyond the houses.
The women we pass smile warmly or call out a greeting, and the men doff their caps if they’re wearing them. If not, they incline their heads, recognizing our rank in the gleaming coats of our horses or the shine of silver on our saddles. Their eyes flash strangely in the dim light as they do, and I stop counting how many pairs when I reach ten. We’ve been to the village a handful of times, but always in the middle of the day, and I’ve never noticed anything odd before. Now I have to stop meeting people’s gazes, afraid I might scream, shattering the peace of the early morning.
We pass the last barrier of houses and beeline toward the forest road. Livy looks over at me, and I turn my head just enough to see her ghostly visage beneath her hood, her blue eyes large in her face. I jerk away, knowing my fear must be showing and not wanting to frighten her more.
I kick my horse into a gallop when we pass the tree line. Livy follows suit. Neither of us speaks as we race back. The pace rattles my teeth and jostles my shoulder something awful, but I ignore the pain, desperate to leave the village behind.
Denis is waiting for us by the side door. Livy pulls up right next to him and all but falls from her saddle. He lunges as if to help her, but Livy shies away, and I kick free of my stirrups and jump to the ground. A low oof slips from my lips. Drat. I think I just tore a stitch loose.
“I’ve got her,” I say, grabbing her around the waist with my good arm. “Thank you, Denis.”
We turn and shuffle toward the door. A thought strikes me then, and I pause and glance at the stable master. “Did you tell anyone where we were going?”
“No, my lady,” he says, concern etched into his features as he looks down at the swooning girl in my arms.
I believe his words; he’s always been an honest man. Our run-in with Lord Giroux must have been accidental.
“Is she well?” Denis asks.
I plaster a smile on my face. “She’ll be fine. Just had too much excitement this morning. Please take the horses and say nothing of this.”
He nods and steps away, and I pull Livy to the door. I have to prop her against the wall to get it open. She must be in shock.
I go to scoop her back up and pause. She’s staring out at the coming dawn with dread, as if waiting for something to creep out of the forest and gobble us up. It’s so alarming that I glance over my shoulder to make sure there’s nothing there.
“D-d-did you see them, Belle? Th-their eyes.”
I’m torn between concern and relief. She saw it too. I haven’t been hallucinating.
My God, what does it mean?
“I saw,” I tell her, pulling her through the door and setting her down on the bottom step of the stairs just inside. I shut the door behind us, and we’re dropped into darkness. My skin crawls. Are we being watched right now? I don’t know how we could be, surrounded by these unadorned stone walls, but my fear is getting the best of me, and I swear I feel eyes upon us.
“So many,” Livy says, her voice faint. “What are they, Belle?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know.”
“Are we in hell? Did we die on the road?”
I lean back against the cold wall and try to calm down. I have to admit that in my darker moments, I’ve asked myself that very question.
“No, Livy,” I say. “We’re alive. We’re just in a strange place with strange people.”
“We have to get out of here. We have to tell Mama.” An edge of panic laces her words as she pushes to her feet.
I step forward and grasp her shaking hands. “We can’t tell her, Livy. She wouldn’t believe us.”
That familiar stubborn expression sweeps across her face. “She will.”
“No. She won’t. We’d sound insane if we told her what we saw.”
She bites her lip, thinking it over.
“What would you do if someone came to you with such a tale?” I press.
She huffs out a breath. “I’d think they’d gotten into a bad batch of ale.”
I squeeze her hands and let them go. “Exactly. Can we swear to keep this to ourselves?” Some instinct tells me that we must, that terrible things could happen if we speak of what we’ve seen.
“Fine,” she says after a long moment. Her gaze moves past me, taking in the shadowy alcove. Her voice comes out in a whisper. “I’m afraid.”
“I know,” I say. “I am too. But if they meant us harm, wouldn’t we have come to it by now? The baron watched over me while I slept, helpless and drugged. It would have been the ideal time to hurt me, and yet here I am. He leads the rebellion, shelters the wounded and the persecuted. We must believe that there’s good in him, in these people.”
“Good?” she repeats.
“Yes. Strange, but good,” I say, trying to convince the both of us that my words are true.
She shakes her head. “Jacques and Emanuel, even Mama, they’ve had to notice something.”
“Perhaps they have, and they know the reason behind it. Perhaps it’s just an affliction of the eyes, common to this area, and we’re making it into something sinister.”
“Perhaps,” she concedes.
“Do you think you can walk unaided? We can’t linger here.”
“I think so,” she says. It’ll have to do.
Together we hurry back upstairs. This time we’re not as lucky on our flight through the chateau, and we pass two maids. One of them is Mallory. Her lips twitch up in a subtle smirk when she meets my eyes, as if she knows my darkest secrets and intends to sell them to the devil himself.
I leave Livy at her bedroom door and rush into mine. My new handmaid, Henrietta, is waiting for me inside. She’s just a few years older than I am, with pale blonde hair and grey eyes. Her nose is splashed with freckles, lending her a youthful appearance. She looks relieved to see me. I am to see her as well, for her eyes have never flashed in that strange way, and she makes more than enough noise when she walks.
“Oh, thank heavens,” she says. “I didn’t know what to think when I found you gone.” Her gaze falls to my heavy cloak. There’s no hiding that I’ve been outside.
“Olivia was having trouble sleeping. We decided to go for a walk. The grounds are so pretty as the sun rises.” The lie falls from my lips easily; Livy and I practiced it in case we were caught. “Too bad it was foggy this morning.”
I pull the cloak off, and she takes it from me. She returns after hanging it up and helps me from my morning gown. I wash up with warm water and a towel, shivering even as I stand by the fire. It’s been overcast and rainy this last week, and a chill is in the air that hints at seasons’ changing. Funny, this time of year, it’s still sweltering back home.
When I’m clean, she drapes a heavy blanket around me and leads me to the bed, where we begin the process of getting me dressed for the day. She hands me stockings and undergarments, and I slip into them beneath the blanket. Next is a thin silken chemise and then my corset. She laces me up as I hold the bedpost with my good hand to brace myself. As usual, she gives me breathing room, and I’m thankful for it.
Next are my heavy petticoats, and lastly, my dress, a pale blue cotton gown that she altered to fit me. It takes some time to get it over my head, thanks to my bullet wound, but eventually, we tug it into place, and she laces me in. She has me sit at the vanity afterward, and I watch her in the mirror as she combs out my long hair and pins it up. I’ve always lamented my hair. It’s brown. Not chestnut or chocolate or any other lovely descriptive used to define a prettier shade, just brown. But even I have to admit it looks nice when she finishes. Her fingers are defter than mine, and she served the baron’s wife in Paris, so she knows the latest fashions. I’ve never been able to do Livy’s hair to this degree, let alone mine.
“You’ll have to teach me how you did this,” I say.
She grins at me through the mirror. “Ah, but then you’ll have no use for me.”
I smile back, shaking my head. She and I get along rather well for having known each other for such a short time. A month past, I was in her shoes, and it didn’t take me long to convince her to treat me more like a fellow maid than a liege woman. I told her it would be too bizarre for me otherwise.
She arches a brow at me and leans in. “Are you ready to try the rouge today?”
I purse my lips, mulling it over. “Just a touch,” I tell her. “And you’re taking it off if you can’t make it look natural.”
She claps her hands and moves toward the dresser. “I love a good challenge.”
I’m unmarried, so heavy cosmetics aren’t allowed. So far, I’ve only let her darken and define my brows. If asked why I’m saying yes to the blush now, I’d probably claim that I was feeling brave, but Lord Giroux’s face flashed through my mind when she mentioned it, and God help me, I think a large part of my change of heart has to do with his return.
At first, it seems like she might fail the challenge I’ve set her, but her fingers smooth the rouge into my skin until it looks like my cheeks have been kissed by the sun.
“You’re a sorceress,” I tell her, turning my head this way and that as I inspect her work.
She lets out a laugh and flips open my new jewelry box. Inside is a necklace of pearls and matching earrings the marquise gifted me last week. She hands me the earrings and moves behind me to fasten the chain as I slip them into place. When she’s done, she steps back to admire her handiwork.
“You look wonderful,” she says, a conspiratorial look in her eye. “Pretty enough to catch a husband.”
I whip around and slap at her arm, but she dances away, laughing, and gathers my discarded clothes. She pauses at the door and turns to me. “Are you feeling brave enough to wear the red one tonight?”
“For dinner with the family?” I ask, picturing the crimson ballgown she speaks of. “Heavens, no.”
She frowns. “Dinner with the family? Not tonight, Belle. With the men back, the baron has invited half the rebellion to dine in situ. There will be war heroes and young, single noblemen in attendance.”
I blink at her.
She throws me a wink. “There’s no way you won’t catch a husband if you wear the red.”
“You’re incorrigible,” I say.
She sashays out the door. “I know.”
“I changed my mind,” I call after her. “Come back here and take the blush off.”
“Neverrr!” she yells back, and from the way the prolonged response grows quieter the longer it goes on, I can tell she’s fleeing down the hall.
A soft sound comes from the side of my room, and I turn to see Livy standing there. She frowns at me. “Why do you get the fun maid?”
“Because I used to be the fun maid,” I tell her.
Her brows climb up her forehead. “That’s news to me. From what I recall, there were far too many lessons involved for you to be labeled fun.”
“Heaven forbid I try to impart some life lessons on my young charge.”
She grins and strides forward, joining me on my bench seat. “I’m glad you’ve left off lecturing me.”
I bump her shoulder with my good one. “Me too. It’s much nicer not having to worry about your horrid manners day and night.”
“Har, har,” she says, rolling her eyes.
I meet her gaze through the mirror and smile. “You look lovely, by the way. Are you feeling any better?”
Her face sobers. “I am, thanks. You look lovely too.” She scoots closer to me, and our skirts mingle on the floor, my blue with her lavender.
I watch her as she inspects the pots lining my vanity. She lifts her hand and flips open the lid of the nearest one, peering into it with open curiosity. Her blonde hair is pulled up, too, but she doesn’t have the fetlock over her shoulder as I do. Pearls adorn the ends of her hairpins, peeking through her curls becomingly. She’s on the cusp of turning into a beautiful young woman. It’s good that she wants to learn to defend herself. With the men so rarely here, anything could happen in their absence. The lines of the Royal Catholic Army might be overrun. A troubled man might steal away from the soldier encampment in the middle of the night, looking for an easy victim. If I have anything to do with it, she’ll never be one again.
“I have a question,” she says, her hands flitting over the jars. She seems nervous, and I hope she knows not to ask a question about anything better said out of doors. “It’s about the blacksmith.” A flush steals over her face.
Oh. I know where this is going.
“What about the blacksmith?” I ask, keeping my amusement out of my voice.
“Well, I was just wondering if all men look like him without their shirts on?” She tries to turn her face from me, but I catch sight of it in the mirror. She’s positively scarlet.
The urge to tease her is too strong to resist. “Just why do you think I’ll know the answer to that?”
“Oh! I didn’t mean!” she starts, her eyes flashing to mine.
The panic on her face is too much for me, and I laugh, covering my mouth with my good hand.
“I’m sorry, Livy,” I tell her, trying to stifle my mirth. “And I imagine that if all men looked like the blacksmith without a shirt on, very few married women would ever think of straying.” It’s a blunt statement, but it’s time she starts to learn such things.
“He was handsome, wasn’t he?” she asks. “Frightening, but handsome.”
I sigh. “I wish you’d been spared the sight of him in his skin.”
She frowns. “Why?”
“Because, no, most men do not look like him, and I worry that he set the standard too high for you. Don’t expect that in a husband, Livy. Most noble men’s statures are more like your brothers.”
“Except the Bisclavrets’,” she says, voice soft.
Yes, I imagine that Lord Giroux and his father resemble the blacksmith more than Jacques or Emanuel.
“Except them,” I agree.
“Belle, the way Henri looks at you…”
I shush her, not wanting to think about it, let alone talk about it while surrounded by these walls. I stand and hold out my hand. “Come, your mother must be wondering where we are. We should have been at breakfast ten minutes ago.”
Reluctantly, she places her hand in mine and rises, and together, we make our way downstairs.
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.