That statement has been playing through my head over and over again since arriving here. Because how could I have possibly dreamed about Henri before meeting him? Logically, I know it’s impossible, but the way my mother knew when we were about to receive an unexpected visitor had nothing to do with logic or reason, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m more like her than I realized. What I wouldn’t give to be able to speak to her, ask her about her uncanny abilities, where they came from, and what they meant. Are prophetic dreams all I should expect, or is some other strange power about to rear its head?
Has it already?
I think about how my voice sounded when I screamed at the baron to let me go, how it was deeper, louder than I’d ever heard it. He was two paces away before I knew what was happening, like I’d shovedhim off me with my mind, and I felt so drained afterward, as if I’d used some other reserve of energy to do it.
My thoughts cast back to last night, when I went into that cold, detached place that heightens my senses even as it deadens my emotions, and the way Henri responded to me just like his father did, as if both perplexed and fascinated. He said I changed. How? I want to ask him, demand he explain what is happening to me, but from the look on his face last night, I don’t think he knows either.
I shift my gaze from the road to the forest. Does it have something to do with this place? Is there some strangeness here that infects everyone who resides inside its boundaries? Will I progress from simply having better aim to heightened hearing? Sight? Am I turning into the same kind of creature sitting on the horse in front of me? I shake my head against such thoughts, thinking of Henrietta. I’ve never seen her eyes flash, and she served one of Henri’s sisters before me. Clearly, if it were catching, she’d be infected.
I must have come here with my own oddities, and they’ve simply chosen now, of all times, to make themselves known. Maybe I can write to my father and ask about Mother. I’ve been mulling the idea over for days, but I keep hesitating. What if the letter gets intercepted? Knowing the baron, every note and missive that leaves the house is probably inspected first. Any such letter I send could be destroyed well before reaching Father, and I’d never know.
I need to face it: I’m on my own. Whatever is happening to me, I have to figure it out for myself, though I have no idea how to do it. It’s not like I can practice screaming at inanimate objects to see if I can move them. I’d be committed to a mad house. And I have no idea how to prompt another prophetic dream. The first one seemed to come out of nowhere. The only thing I can control is my ability to hyper-focus. That, at least, should be easy enough to practice, and now is as good a time as any to start, I suppose.
I drag in a deep breath and try to go to that place in my mind. My saddle creaks, and somewhere to my right, a nightbird calls out. Henri’s large form sways in front of me, a black-clad figure astride a black horse. He looks like a wraith again, like Death out to collect his nightly souls. I shake my head and close my eyes against the sight of him, pushing forward with my mind into that odd sense of calm. The sound of the horses’ shoes clopping over the road is loud in my ears, another distraction, and the harder I push, the more elusive my focus becomes.
I huff out an annoyed breath. How did I achieve it before? Sheer desperation? No, wait. I didn’t force my way into it; I surrendered to it.
Relax, I tell myself, rolling my shoulders to loosen them. I curl forward a little in my saddle, eyes still closed, trusting my mount to follow the stallion and avoid any road hazards. My confused feelings about Henri, I push aside. Same with my fear, my anxiety, and all the other thoughts and worries cluttering up my mind. I take deep, even breaths filled with the scent of pine. Beneath that is the warm smell of my horse, tinged with hay and leather. I hear her breathing, feel her muscles bunching and flexing beneath me as she walks. My focus intensifies, and I become more connected to her, or maybe more aware of her. I straighten my spine and shift with every step she takes, making myself an easier burden for her to carry. Tension ripples through her, everywhere I touch, and I open my eyes to see her ears twitching toward the forest as if hearing something mine can’t.
I pull in another breath and smell more than just pine: rich, dark earth, decomposing foliage, and somewhere not too far away, water. I cant my head sideways, toward a soft rushing sound dissimilar to the wind through the trees.
“Are we near a river?” I ask.
Henri throws a look over his shoulder. “Yes.”
He doesn’t elaborate, but he does inspect me for a moment before turning back around. I wonder what he’s thinking. His face was shadowed, giving nothing away.
I surrender more of myself, and the night seems to brighten, the light of the moon intensifying. Or maybe my sight is just sharper. I look from Henri back to the forest, able to see past the first few rows of sentinel trees lining the road and into the depths beyond. This is…almost unbelievable. I’ve never seen so well in the dark before. Not that I’ve noticed, at least. Looking back, nearly every time I achieved this sense of calm has been during the day. Last night was one of the few exceptions, but I was so focused on my target that I didn’t notice if the shadows in the training room were brighter. Have I had this ability for heightened sight all my life?
I shake my head, frustrated. How many times did I trip down the back servants’ stairs in Morcenx and nearly break my neck in the middle of the night? And all along, I could have simply slipped into this altered state and seen into the shadows.
Movement darts at the edge of my peripheral vision. The mare twitches her ears again and takes a dancing step sideways, whinnying. I didn’t imagine it. She saw it too.
“Ah, Henri?” I say, my voice little more than a whisper.
“Yes?” he drawls, slowing his horse.
My mare matches his pace, wanting to keep as much distance between us as she can. Something moves in the forest, dashing between trees. My eyes widen at the dappled flash of a furry body.
“There’s something in the woods,” I whisper.
“They won’t bother us,” Henri calls back, picking up his pace again.
My mare lets out another whinny, and I lean forward to pat her neck, making soothing noises. “It’s all right.”
Fur flashes between the trees again, closer to the road. A dark body follows after the dappled one, and then I see a glimpse of tawny and brown. At least three wild animals are trailing us in the woods, and if my dream can be trusted, they’re wolves. Great. I’m probably two minutes away from living the whole nightmare out.
Right on cue, a howl rips through the air. My horse decides she’s had enough. Her cry of distress bugles through the night, and I’m not ready for it when she rears. Unlike in my dream, my waking self is far from a skilled horsewoman. My feet slip from the stirrups, and only my grip on the pommel keeps me from falling. My arms shake with strain as I hold on for dear life, feet scrabbling for purchase on empty air.
“Isabelle!” Henri calls.
As soon as the mare’s front hooves touch the ground, she’s up again. Maybe I could hold on longer if I wasn’t so sore from last night, but as it is, my body just doesn’t have the strength left for such a feat. I cling to the pommel until I’m dangling nearly vertical before letting go, hoping to drop straight to the ground. Instead, I bounce off her hindquarters and sprawl sideways on the road. Hooves flash over me, and I wrap my arms around my head and roll away from them. The mare either catches sight of me on the ground or feels the weight gone from the saddle because now that she’s free from her burden, she turns her nose toward the chateau and takes off at full gallop.
My God, all it would have taken was one hit from those hooves, and I might be dead right now. Disbelief and shock sluice through me in an icy wave as I lay on the ground, clutching my side. Of course, I found a rock when I fell, but at least I’m not about to relive my dream after all. Maybe it was less about prophecy and more a warning of danger to come.
I struggle up to sitting and adjust the number of rocks I landed on to several. My ribs are screaming, but so are my healing shoulder and thigh. From the stinging in my palms, I must have scraped them up pretty good. I’ll have to keep my gloves on around Livy and her mother tomorrow. Hopefully, none of the other bruises or scratches I just earned will be visible in a short-sleeved gown, or I might need to make up some lie about falling out of bed in the middle of the night.
Clods of dirt fly from my horse’s hooves as she races into the night. Poor thing. At least the wolves aren’t chasing her; she should reach the chateau unscathed. Another howl rends the air, and I turn and see a pair of glowing eyes staring out at me from the undergrowth nearby. My focus shatters in the face of it, fear taking its place. No need to chase the horse when they have easy prey sitting right in front of them.
“Henri?” I squeak, rising to my feet.
He reaches me before I’m all the way up, leaning down to grab the back of my cloak and haul me bodily onto his horse. I gag as the fabric tightens around my neck like a noose. He releases me only to manhandle me into position in front of him. Or more like half on top of him. His saddle is made for one, and I’m crammed between the pommel and his hips. His chest is a wall of muscular heat at my back, and meaty thighs bracket mine, pushing me forward hard enough that the front of the saddle rubs me in a very sensitive area.
He turns his horse back in the right direction and nudges him into a brisk walk. “Are you all right?” This close, the words vibrate straight through me.
“I’m fine.” I try to shift backward, away from the grind of the pommel, and end up pressing my backside into his crotch. “Sorry!”
He wraps a heavy arm around my waist and scoots back, opening space between us. “Just relax.”
Yeah, that is not going to happen.
Another howl rises from the trees, followed by a second, and soon a haunting chorus batters at my ears.
“Enough!” Henri roars, making me cringe.
The howls cut off.
I crane my head back to stare at him in stupefied silence. Did he just command a pack of wolves? From this angle, his features look sharp enough to cut. His dark eyebrows slash in a hard line, and his jaw muscles stand out through his stubble as he clenches his teeth. He looks furious. At a pack of wolves. Who just stopped howling because he told them to.
“Are they tame?” I ask, dropping my gaze back to the trees.
“No. They’re merely more intelligent than the average dumb beast.” His voice is loud enough to carry, and I swear I hear a low, angry growl in response.
I think back to Mallory dragging me into that dark room, keeping me there until the thing in the hall moved on. Are there wolves in the chateau? God, Livy. She’s there, unaware, totally helpless in her drug-induced sleep.
“Tell me Livy is safe,” I say.
Henri’s arm loosens around me. “Of course she is.”
He sounds so sure, but I’m not convinced. “You swear it?”
I feel him stiffen behind me as if he’s offended or annoyed that I’m questioning him. His voice comes out clipped. “Upon my honor, I swear she is safe.”
I’ll have to take that for now. If anything happens to her after everything I’m doing to keep her out of harm’s way, I will find some way to pull the chateau down on our hosts, even if it spells my doom.
“Where are we going?” I ask, desperate for some distraction from the wolves, from our nearness, from the fact that we’re still pressed together shoulder to ankle. “What’s the purpose of traveling so far?”
“Shooting,” he says. “There’s a target circle in a dense part of the forest. The closeness and height of the trees muffle the sound, so we won’t bother anyone with our practice.”
I nod. That makes sense. If the marquise woke to nearby gunshots, she might panic and wake the rest of the house, only to find Henri and me gone. The distance will also mean no one would hear me if I scream, but I can’t focus on that right now, or I might decide to race off into the night after my horse.
“How dangerous will it be in Foneteley-Comte?” I ask.
“That depends on how many risks the men feel like taking,” Henri says.
“Very dangerous then.”
His chuckle rumbles through me.
I ask him another question and then another, keeping up a steady stream of inane chatter to distract myself. It’s impossible. He’s too large, too warm. I’ve never been this close to a man, let alone this close for so long. God help me, I like the weight of him behind me. I barely know him, and I sure as hell don’t trust him, but somehow, I feel safe nestled in the curve of his body, like he’s become my living shield. Not even the continued noises of pursuit in the forest bother me as they should. He said they won’t attack us, and I believe him. If anyone could protect me from a pack of wolves, it’s the man at my back.
At some point during our discussion, his arm tightens on my waist again, pulling me flush against him. I drop a hand to it, ready to push it off, but end up curling my fingers into the fabric of his sleeve.
This is mad, I think, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to crawl out of the fog clouding my mind. Maybe I could manage it if it were only his body crowding mine, but his strange power has come out to play again, and I have no defense against it. The feel of it is something I’ve never encountered before. It’s like being submerged in a large, warm body of water, the current curling around my exposed skin, tugging at the hems and seams of my clothing as if looking for a way inside, and all while a lightning storm rages overhead. It’s exhilarating, and I know it’s dangerous, but maybe I’m more reckless than I realized because I can’t get enough of this feeling. My stiffness from last night vanishes, and it’s like I didn’t just tumble off a horse. My limbs are infused with energy. I want to leap from the saddle and run through the night, howling back at the wolves in challenge.
“Isabelle,” Henri says, his voice low and gravelly and full of heat.
I smile, tilting my head back even farther, leaning my full weight against the strength of his – wait. What the hell am I doing?
I freeze, realizing that I’ve been rubbing back against him like a cat in heat. God in Heaven, what is wrong with me? I try to shift forward, but the arm around me is like a vice, and I can’t move. Rough stubble scrapes against the sensitive skin of my neck, and I feel Henri’s lungs expand as he drags in a deep breath. Pressed against my low back is the evidence that I’m not the only one affected by our proximity, and I have to fight the urge to grind myself against it.
“I shouldn’t have pulled you up here,” he says, speaking the words into my skin and making me shiver.
“No,” I say, hating how breathy my voice sounds. “You shouldn’t have.”
The arm around me shoots up, and I let out an embarrassing squawk as it bands across my chest, his hand digging into my armpit. Then he wrenches me off him, and I’m airborne for a second before my feet hit the ground. I sway when he lets me go, my traitorous body still trying to lean into him.
“You can walk the rest of the way,” he says, the words crashing over me like a bucket of ice water.
The lust clears from my limbs as I take my first stunted steps to keep up with his horse. Thank God he can’t see my face way down here because there’s no hiding this blush. What just happened? What was I thinking? I’m supposed to be a young woman of virtue, not…whatever I was up in the saddle with him. I’ve never acted that way in my life, and the fact that I went from terror to desire so quickly is more than a little alarming.
Now that I’m back on my own two feet, the fear I should have felt returns with a vengeance. I glance toward the forest, wondering if the wolves are still lurking there, just out of sight. I can’t hear them, and there’s no way I can focus enough right now to try and see them.
Maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe Henri is some sort of incubus sent here to tempt God-fearing women into sin. He’s certainly succeeding with me, despite my best efforts to resist him.
Liar, a low voice whispers through my mind.
I wince. Fine. I could have done more to protect myself. I’m not some helpless victim in this situation. That’s clear from the way he just kicked me off his horse. All I had to do was push his arm away, or, you know, not writhe all over him, and he probably would have left me alone. At least I learned something from the situation: I can never get that close to him again. Because even now, face flaming with embarrassment, I don’t feel the regret I probably should. My life has been nothing but fear and anxiety for months on end. Who could blame me for wanting to snatch a moment of pleasure for myself?
All of society, you idiot.
Yes, there’s that. And if they found out, then I’d have no choice but to marry Henri and tie myself to him and his heinous father. Forever. Is a little bit of fondling worth that? It certainly shouldn’t be, yet there I’d been, up in that saddle, losing my damn mind the first time I got so close to a man.
I berate myself as I walk, listing out all the reasons I should regret what just happened. It works, a little, though some mulish part of me points out that men of my new rank act this way toward women all the time, so why shouldn’t I?
Because life isn’t fair, and society is even less so. I shouldn’t have to remind myself of this. I’ve been aware of the differences between how men and women are treated my whole life. I even tried my best to explain to Livy why things are the way they are when she noticed the discrepancies too. She was unsatisfied with my answers, but then I’ve always chafed at the restrictions placed on our sex, so I probably didn’t do so well.
I pick up my pace to keep even with Henri’s mount. Maybe I don’t regret my actions as much as I should, but that doesn’t mean I plan to repeat them. I can’t if I have any hope of leaving this place. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself of all the consequences I face so I don’t repeat that little performance where someone could see us. If Henri is satisfied with my shooting tonight and tells his father he thinks I’ll be useful, the baron might resort to drastic measures. I wouldn’t put it past the man to manipulate his son and me into a situation that gets us caught in a delicate position. It would be the easiest way to tie me to their family.
I worry my lip as I mull everything over. Will I be able to remember all of this if there is a next time? None of these thoughts are new, yet all of them fled from my head the moment I landed in Henri’s lap. Something about the breadth of his body and the heat of his power licking over me turned me from a rational woman into a being of pure feeling. It was like the conscious part of my mind simply stopped working, and my instincts took over.
I roll my eyes at myself. Apparently, I have the instincts of a harlot.
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.