Pain, I’m learning, is a jealous mistress. One moment she might let the bliss of unconsciousness take you, but the next, she wants you back.
I come to moving through a hallway filled with soft candlelight. I’m either floating or being carried. From the agony lancing through my shoulder, I’m still in the world of the living, so that means it’s the latter. I crane my head up and see the familiar visage of Jacques.
Feeling me move, he glances down and meets my eyes. “You fell asleep. The doctor’s arrived.”
I nod and turn my head away, taking in our surroundings. In front of us is a broad back, belonging, I must assume, to our host. Surely there can’t be another man of such stature within this house. He moves on silent feet with more grace than a man his size should possess. The way he walks is almost predatory, a rolling glide like he’s using different muscles than the rest of us.
I slide my gaze past him, unnerved by the enthralling way he moves. Instead, I take in the wealth on display in the corridor. The walls are papered in red and gold damask. Beneath our feet, a long Persian carpet extends nearly the length of the hall. Tables, gilded chairs, massive urns, and all the other cluttered decoration that is so fashionable these days is spread out down the hall. The walls are hung with oil paintings in gold gilt frames. At first, I think the paintings are nothing more than traditional hunting scenes, but something in the nearest one catches my eye, and I take a closer look.
Oh, it’s a hunting scene, all right, but instead of victorious men standing beside their kills, it’s wolves lording over the images. In one, three work together to bring down a bison. The next shows a large pack trailing a deer through a dense forest. Another shows a lone wolf howling at the moon. I’ve never seen paintings like these, where wild beasts are celebrated over the might of men, and they’re so realistic that for a moment, it feels like their amber eyes track me as I pass.
I shudder and look away.
Lord Giroux pauses in front of a door and turns to us. “Here we are,” he rumbles, pushing it open to let us precede him inside.
I don’t look at him as Jacques carries me by, turning my focus to the room instead. The walls are done in forest green. Darkly stained shelves line them, stocked full with the gleaming, gold-embossed leather spines of books. It looks like a study, or what should be one. The furniture is pushed against the walls, including a massive, ornately carved mahogany desk. Leaning behind it in a corner are two rolled up rugs. In the center of the now cleared room, a heavy white sheet covers the floor, on top of which sits a long table, draped with another sheet, this one thinner.
“Ah, here is my patient,” an unfamiliar but kind voice speaks.
It must be the doctor. I turn and find an aging man standing near a small table, on which I see the gleaming metal tools of his trade spread out. Beside him is a woman near his age, pulling more tools from a leather case. The man looks to be in his late sixties, with short silver hair. Spectacles sit on the bridge of his nose, framing blue eyes edged in laugh lines. The smile that splits his face as he comes around the table is welcoming and warm.
“I’m Doctor Roschfile,” he says, his voice pitched low in a gentle way that’s likely meant to put me at ease. “You must be Isabelle, the brave young woman we’ve heard so much about.”
I nod, wondering how long I was asleep. Long enough for the story of our journey to spread, it would seem.
“It’s nice to meet you, sir,” I manage as gracefully as I can while being held like an invalid.
“Set her down over here, please, Lord Descoteaux,” he instructs Jacques, motioning to the sheet-draped table.
Jacques does as he’s told and is careful as he lets my legs go, steadying me with his hands as I find my balance. I manage a weak smile up at him in thanks before pain distorts it into a grimace. He looks worried as he regards me.
The doctor appears at my side. “Let’s get you out of this coat. Annie?”
The woman joins him, and Jacques steps back, out of sight, I’m guessing, to join Lord Giroux somewhere behind me. Together, the doctor and his assistant help me out of my thin traveling cloak. I’ve kept my injured arm free from the sleeve, holding it cradled beneath the jacket at my stomach while we traveled. The doctor and Annie still have to pause several times as I take deep breaths around spikes of pain as the wound protests being jostled.
When the jacket’s gone, the doctor gets his first sight of my bandaged arm. It’s in a sling, and I can’t help but wonder how my dressings got so dirty. My blood has soaked through the bandages again, and I have to look away.
The doctor clucks as Annie hands him scissors, and then he begins to cut the linen away. As he does, Annie moves closer, carefully pulling my dress’s once blue cap sleeve further down my arm, away from the stained bandages. With all the road dust on it, the garment is more of a slate gray now. I watch the two of them work together in silence, their efficiency reminding me of myself and Livy.
“You said the bullet is still lodged within?” the doctor asks, looking past me to Jacques.
It’s irritating that he didn’t ask me the question – I’m the one with said bullet lodged into their shoulder – but it also makes me wonder why he didn’t. Is it because he sees women as inferior, is he deferring to Jacques’ rank, or do I just look too out of my wits to answer properly?
“It was a ricochet,” Jacques confirms. “From a tree. We dug out all the splinters we could find.”
The doctor nods and resumes his work. In a moment, my outer bandages fall away, leaving only those that bind the wound.
“Careful now,” the doctor warns, his warm fingers on my hand as he slowly straightens my arm. Tears prick my eyes as pain arcs from my shoulder to my fingertips, setting my skin and muscles on fire. Finally, the limb is straight. “Can you wiggle your fingers, please, my lady?” he asks, his kind blue eyes meeting mine over the rims of his spectacles. The inflection in his voice sounds like one you’d use on a frightened child; he must have spoken to Jacques because I really do seem that bad.
I nod and look at my hand, doing as he asked. Or trying to. My pinky and ring fingers refuse to move.
Fear turns my voice shaky. “Is that bad?”
The doctor’s eyes are troubled when he lifts his head. “We’ll have to get that bullet out right away.” It can’t be good that he chose not to answer me. He turns, looking past my shoulder. “I’ll need scotch, Henri,” he says, surprising me by using our host’s first name. “And you, Lord Descoteaux, need to leave.” His face brooks no argument as he turns his focus to Jacques.
If I wasn’t in so much pain, I’d smile. Jacques hates to be ordered about by anyone.
He makes a low sound of disbelief. “Excuse me, sir?”
“No arguments, cousin,” Lord Giroux says, his deep baritone pulling yet another shiver from my pain-laced body. “You shouldn’t see this.” He strides into my line of sight a heartbeat later, holding a bottle of scotch and a short glass.
“What about you?” Jacques demands, following him. His face is a thundercloud. He looks so much like his sister when she’s being stubborn that I almost laugh, but I stifle it, worried it might come out hysterical.
Lord Giroux casts a baleful gaze on his cousin. “I’ve been a soldier almost my whole life. I’ve had bullets torn from my skin and held down my fair share of men as the same happened to them. Besides Annie here, I’m the only one that has assisted our good doctor before. They’ll need my help keeping her still.” He eyes the smaller man in assessment. “Tell me, could you hold her down while she screams and cries?”
I blanch at his words. Jacques pales as well, a haunted look in his eyes as he meets my gaze. We stare at each other for a long, silent moment, and I see his decision before he speaks.
“I’ll be just outside,” he tells me.
I nod. Even before he became my brother by law, he always treated me more as a sister than a servant, scolding me like he did Livy, watching out for me amongst the men of the staff. I can’t blame him for leaving. I’m not sure I could hold him down through this same ordeal.
Jacques nods in return, turns on his heel, and walks through the door, closing it behind him and leaving me alone, surrounded by strangers.
“Have you ever been intoxicated?” the doctor asks, catching me off guard.
“Of course not,” I tell him. Do I look like some sort of lout?
“Good,” he says, taking the scotch from Henri and pouring me a glass. “I need to extract that bullet from your arm. I don’t have any laudanum on me, and it will take too long to fetch any. This is going to hurt, my lady. There’s no getting around that. The drunker you are, the less you’ll feel it, and the less likely you’ll move. The less you move, the faster I can work to get that iron ball out of your arm. Drink this,” he instructs, handing me a too-full glass.
I eye it with distaste. No, I’ve never been drunk before, but I’ve had scotch, and the once was enough. I’d prefer almost anything else. I let out a sigh as I stare into the amber liquid, accepting that this will be awful no matter how I drink it. Might as well get it over with fast.
I put the cool glass to my lips and tip my head back, tossing it down in two gulps. I splutter for a second afterward and cover my mouth with the back of my good hand. The liquor burns down my throat and into my empty stomach, which instantly heaves in revolt. I swallow convulsively, somehow managing to keep it down.
“Well done,” the doctor says. “Now another, my girl.” He pours me a second.
Behind him, Lord Giroux leans against the doorjamb, arms crossed over his massive chest. It was a mistake to look at him. I’ve been purposely avoiding the man, fighting with myself at every step. Ever since I regained consciousness, my gaze has kept sliding inexplicably back toward his dark frame. I’ve caught myself again and again at the last moment, wrenching my eyes away before they fall on him.
But I’ve lost the fight this time, and now I can’t seem to pull myself away. His black eyes are shadowed as he watches me. I can’t determine what emotion they hide, but I feel their intensity in a way that is almost…visceral, like his gaze is a living thing stroking over my pain-ravaged body.
“Drink,” the doctor says, nudging my hand up, and it finally breaks the spell.
I take a deep breath and down the second glass. This time it takes me longer to regain my composure afterward, and I squeeze my eyes shut in an effort to focus all my energy on keeping the contents of my stomach where they are.
Scotch is a vile, evil thing, I decide.
“We’ll need to cut her out of that sleeve,” the doctor says as I set the glass down.
Annie retrieves a pair of scissors from the smaller table and comes toward me.
“It’s one of only a few dresses I have,” I tell her, not wanting to have it ruined. I have no idea when we’ll be able to replenish our wardrobes, and I need to make each dress last.
“If I pull it down over the wound, it will still be ruined, my lady,” she responds in the same hushed tone, her accent apparent.
“You’re English,” I say, surprised.
She grins. “Yes, my lady. I can cut along the seam. That way, it can be repaired.”
I nod, and she begins to cut very carefully. Lord Giroux is still watching me. I don’t know how I know it, but I do. His large form seems to fill this small space in a way that’s unnatural, and for some reason, it’s as if I can feel…something…his essence maybe, crowding against me.
“I may be English soon too,” I tell Annie in her native tongue if only to distract myself from our strange host. “Does it get very cold there?” All I’ve ever heard of England is fog, rain, and cold. It’s a stark contrast to the warmth and sun of southern France.
“Sometimes, my lady, but the summers are lovely in the country,” she says, switching to English along with me.
“That’s good to know.” I finally smile back at her, feeling the warmth in my stomach spread. With no food to absorb it, the alcohol is working quickly, and I’m grateful for it because the pain in my arm is beginning to fade.
“There we are,” Annie says, and my sleeve falls away. I grab the material with my good hand to keep it from dropping down and exposing my chemise to the men.
“The rest of the dress will have to come off as well,” the doctor says.
So much for my attempt at modesty. A blush steals over my face as I realize the first men to see me unclothed will be an elderly doctor and a lord that I’m not sure is entirely tame.
“You can leave her in her corset and chemise, Annie,” he adds, heading toward the door. “As long as they won’t get in the way.”
He and Lord Giroux leave the room, and I shoot a desperate look at the other woman.
“I don’t want them to see me,” I whisper.
“Don’t worry about the doctor,” she says, coming over to help me stand. My knees wobble, and I have to lock them to keep from crumpling to the floor. “He’s seen it all, my lady. Nothing to fear from him.”
She turns me to face the table. I clutch it with my good hand to steady myself, my injured one dangling uselessly at my side. “Not the doctor,” I say. “Him. I’m still not convinced he isn’t some blacksmith posing as a nobleman.”
She chuckles and starts unlacing my dress. “He is who he says he is, dearie. Lord Giroux, son of the Baron de Bisclavret. And I suppose you’ll be the only lady in France who doesn’t want him to see her undressed.”
I shudder at the thought of those strange eyes moving over my bare skin, inspecting me with the same intensity from a moment before. Annie leans closer, and I can feel her warm breath on my ear. “Rumor has it he was a spy for your late king, God rest his soul. He’s one of the officers in the rebellion here. Leads all sorts of dangerous raids. His father, the baron, is still alive too and looks nearly as young as his son, what with that same dark hair and those black eyes. He’s gone down to Nantes. It’s why he couldn’t greet you. He’s off fighting those red-coated bastards, pardon my language.”
“It’s okay,” I say as she pulls my other sleeve down now that my stays are loose. “I agree with the sentiment.”
She tugs the dress over my hips, and when she speaks again, her voice is a near whisper. “I heard you killed some of them.”
I close my eyes, trying not to remember. “I did.” And that’s all I say. I don’t want to tell the tale. I don’t think I’ll ever want to tell it if I’m honest. Shooting at pigeons and deer didn’t prepare me for killing a man. I’ve barely slept a wink since, but when I have, my dreams have been haunted by the events of that fateful day. Every time I relive it, I’m still too slow to save Antoine, and I wake up with heartbreak and grief choking me.
“You must be very brave indeed,” Annie says, coming around to help me step out of my petticoat. I’m left in my chemise, corset, and stockings, all of which look travel worn.
“I suppose,” I tell the aging woman. Really, I think I did what was necessary, what anyone would have done if they wanted to save the people they loved.
Annie goes still, staring at my thighs in confusion, and I realize she must see the outlines of my holsters and guns. I glance down, and yes, they’re easy to spot beneath my thin chemise. Her gaze falls, and her eyes flash wide. Er…right. She’s probably not used to seeing young women with dagger sheaths sticking out of their boot tops.
“The road was dangerous,” I say.
She smooths her expression as she meets my gaze. “I see that. Now let’s get you back up.”
Once I’m sitting on the table, she hands me a heavy sheet. I wrap it around my body, covering myself as best I can while leaving my injured arm out. Thankfully, it drapes low enough to hide even my shoes. I look like a roman senator, or maybe an actor dressed as a ghoul, but Lord Giroux will be back in this room soon, and the thought of him seeing me in such a state of undress is unacceptable.
A spy. No wonder he so unnerves me, seems to look into my very soul with those black eyes.
“She’s ready,” Annie says, cracking the door.
I drop my gaze as the men enter, feeling another blush threaten.
“No need to be shy, my lady,” the doctor says, striding toward the table.
I watch as he removes my final bandage, peeling the blood-soaked cloth from my skin with care. The wound is revealed in increments, and I can only take so much of it before wrenching my eyes away. God, it’s terrible, a small, mangled crater in my arm with jagged edges and a gore-filled center. Now that I’ve seen how bad it is, it’s as if the pain has increased, pushing through the alcohol.
“It’s as I feared,” the doctor says when he’s finished. “It flattened out some on impact. You’ll need more of this.”
He pours me another scotch, and I take it from him, ignoring the bloody fingerprints he leaves behind on the glass. This time, it doesn’t burn as much going down.
“Here,” Lord Giroux’s deep voice cuts in as I start to set the glass aside.
His hand is already extended in wait when I turn toward him, and I have no choice but to pass it over. I’m clumsy from drink and pain, and push it at him with more force than I meant. Our fingers bump together, mine frigid, his feverishly warm. The moment seems to stretch between us, and I stare at where we touch, unable to look up at him looming over me. Annie bustles around the table, busy with some task. The doctor sorts through his tools. Lord Giroux makes a low noise that might be a hum, then takes the glass and turns away. I stare at his back, my fingers tingling where he touched me, heart hammering in my chest.
I better not drink anymore.
“I need you to lie back,” the doctor says.
“I’ll need help,” I say, and Annie is at my side in a heartbeat.
Together, we manage to get my legs up onto table, all while keeping the sheet wrapped around me. I think I get in her way more than anything else – the alcohol has turned me clumsy – but finally, I’m lying down on the unforgiving wood.
“Pick your head up, dearie,” Annie says, sliding a pillow beneath me when I comply.
The table’s cold on my back, and goosebumps erupt on my arms even with the sheet covering me. It’s an unpleasant feeling because it tightens the skin around my wound in a way that makes me wince. Funny, a few days ago, I would have given anything to feel cold.
Annie must notice my discomfort because she finds a heavier blanket and drapes it over me, taking the time to tuck my legs in. I smile at her in thanks, and she returns it before bustling away again. Doctor Roschfile appears at my other side, Lord Giroux just behind him. Both men carry wide candelabra toward the table, no doubt so that the doctor will have better light.
The doctor sets his down and turns to me. “This is going to hurt, my lady. Remember what I said. The better you can keep still, the quicker this will be over. Henri’s going to hold your shoulders to help you stay steady.”
No! I almost blurt. I don’t want him touching me. But Lord Giroux is already there, towering over me, half his face illuminated by the light of the candles, the other half left to shadows. There’s no expression in his gaze now, and if he sees my alarm, he does nothing to reassure me.
“First, I’m going to clean the wound,” the doctor says, unaware of my panic as he lifts my wounded arm and places it over a shallow basin. I wrench my eyes from the half-feral lordling’s as he moves it, holding my breath to keep from whimpering in pain. “Brace yourself.”
I squeeze my eyes closed and grit my teeth, and that’s when Lord Giroux’s fingers find my skin, pressing down on my shoulders, close to my neck. I nearly gasp at the contact. His callused fingertips are rough on my skin. And how on earth can someone be so warm?
Agony explodes through my left arm, and I let out a strangled yelp, my eyes flying open as I turn back to see the good doctor pouring scotch directly into the wound.
I wrench my head back and slam my eyes shut again. I shouldn’t have looked. Oh, God, I shouldn’t have looked.
The doctor told me this would hurt, but I’ve been in so much pain the last few days that the thought of facing more seemed like nothing more than an idle threat. I was already in the worst pain of my life; how much worse could it get? Now I want to slap my past self for such a thought. It can always get worse. The revolution has taught me that. Silly of me to think the same logic wouldn’t apply to my pain.
I want to move. I want to wrench my arm away and shake Lord Giroux’s too hot fingers from my skin. I don’t want this pain. Can’t the doctor just leave it where it is? I’ve heard all sorts of stories about men surviving with bullets still lodged inside them. My own father has one in his thigh. Sure, it makes him walk with a limp and pains him when it’s cold, but at this point, anything seems acceptable if it stops this torture.
And it’s only going to get worse. How in the name of heaven am I going to keep still?
“I have to do that two more times,” the doctor says as the pain eases.
I whimper before I can stop myself. When the second round starts, I manage to keep still, my right hand balling into a fist, fingernails digging half-moons into my palm. By the third, I’m taking deep breaths through my nose to hold back a scream. I refuse to let it out. I killed three men, and all I incurred was a gunshot wound. If this pain is God’s punishment for my actions, then I should accept it, face it.
“Well done,” the doctor says. He lifts my arm to pour the wasted scotch from the tin.
I take a harsh breath and hold it, willing myself to calm down and enjoy this respite while it lasts, but it still burns too much for me to relax. The wound pulses with every beat of my heart. It’s as if the rest of me has stopped existing, and only that one point on my body makes up my entire being. How do soldiers do this? Get hurt time and again only to keep fighting? They must all be mad.
“Here comes the hard part,” the doctor warns. “Hold her still, Henri.”
I clench my jaw and pray for the scotch to kick in. Part of me is afraid it already has. If so, it’s not enough to take away all the pain, and it makes me wonder what facing this without alcohol would be like. I don’t have long to dwell on that thought before the first lance of agony shoots through my arm.
Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move, I tell myself, searching for something, anything to focus on instead of my wound.
Lord Giroux’s hands shift, and I zero in on them as they slide fully down so that his palms push against my collar bones, pressing me to the table. With such large hands, it leaves his fingers scandalously low over my chest, nearly reaching the edge of my corset as they slip beneath the sheet. Even consumed with pain, a blush steals over my skin, and I’m thankful my eyes are closed. I can’t help but be embarrassed; no man has ever touched me like this.
When the next stab hits, I make his fingers my entire world. God help me, but I need their distraction if I have any hope of getting through this ordeal. I turn my face to the side, so close to Lord Giroux’s wrist that my nose nearly brushes it. His scent hits me so hard it’s like I buried my face into his shirt. He smells like pine and leather. Beneath that, there’s something more, something muskier, spicier, but I can’t think of what it reminds me of. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever smelled anything comparable. I take deep breaths around the agony and pull more of him in with every one.
I manage to spend the first several minutes of the operation trying to determine what exactly this strange, enticing scent is. I end up naming things like cinnamon, wet leaves in the fall, dirt when it’s just been turned, ermine and sunshine. It sounds both ridiculous and completely unappealing when one imagines those ingredients combined, but the reality is that he smells rather good, like something wild that belongs beneath the towering pines surrounding this chateau.
“You’re doing well,” his voice tumbles down around me.
As if to reassure me, his thumbs begin to rub back and forth over the skin of my neck. My eyes almost flash open. Surely this isn’t proper? Neither the doctor nor Annie protest, likely blind to everything but the operation, and I can’t open my mouth to do so because a scream might escape instead, so I have to endure it.
His callouses scrape over me gently, and it’s not an uncomfortable sensation. It’s anything but. I feel tingles in their wake, like little lightning strikes over my skin. Suddenly, I’m not sure which I want to do more: scream or moan. I will never drink again. No wonder it leads women to sin. I’m already struggling to keep from imagining what such a touch would mean on other parts of my body, and this man frightens me half to death. I can only imagine how much worse it would be if he were someone I actually wanted.
The doctor does something to my arm and the pain spikes. Any lustful thoughts flee from my mind, and I nearly choke holding in a scream.
“I cried like a bloody child the first time I had a bullet pulled from my flesh,” Lord Giroux says. He must have seen my shift to panic. “I was seventeen, and it was in Algiers.”
I focus on him again, on his words as I did his fingers and then his scent and then his fingers again.
“My regiment was bogged down, the Ottoman troops at our backs, and a hostile people behind the city walls ahead,” he tells me. “I thought I would die. We fought like dogs for two days. Near the end, I took a bullet through my right shoulder and nearly bled out before I was dragged to safety. I didn’t have the benefit of good scotch and a clean sheet beneath me, and it took three men to hold me down, though I was nothing but a skinny boy back then.” I find it hard to believe that this giant was ever a skinny boy. “Later, I learned there’s a trick to keeping the pain from mastering you. You have to find a way to escape it, to separate part of your mind from the rest. Try to picture someplace where you’ve felt safe, where you’ve been happy. Imagine yourself there, away from this place and this pain.”
I do as he says, desperate to escape this room, if only in my mind. I picture my father’s small stone house just outside the massive woods that border my family’s property. Memories filter in, and I pull an old favorite to the forefront. In it, my older sister, Louise, chases me beneath the trees, our little sisters’ laughter falling farther and farther behind as they fail to keep up with us. I force myself into the scene as I am now, leading a merry chase of children. Beneath my thin shoes, dried leaves crunch, and above, squirrels natter down at us to quit disturbing their peace with our shrieks.
Skin tears near my wound, and I’m wrenched from the scene, gasping against the pain. My right hand comes up of its own volition and clamps around Lord Giroux’s wrist, barely finding purchase on its breadth.
Good God, the man is enormous.
“It’s all right,” he says. “It will help. Squeeze and go back to that place.”
The vision comes slower as metal grinds against metal in my arm, yet somehow, I get back to that laughter-filled forest. The hounds are with us this time, bounding around us and nearly tangling in our legs as we run. I scoop up Louise, nothing but a child in my arms as I swing her around. When I set her down, we both fall dizzy to the forest floor, and then our sisters reach us, collapsing to the ground and sharing in our laughter. Shafts of sunlight pierce the canopy, falling in splotches on the exposed roots of the trees.
Another tear in my arm threatens to pull me back, but I fight against it, shoving the pain aside as I struggle to remain with my family. The pull becomes stronger, and a dull moan slips from my lips when the scene disappears.
“My God,” I pant, squeezing Lord Giroux’s wrist.
His hands push down harder, grinding me into the unforgiving wood of the table.
“I’ve got it out,” the doctor says after another wrench of agony.
I hear a clink of metal as he drops the bullet onto a tray. It makes me think that the worst of the pain must be over. Then fire explodes through my arm, unlike anything before, unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and the shriek I’ve been fighting finally rips from my throat.
It hurts! Oh, God, it hurts!
I whip my head around without thinking and see the doctor pouring the last of the scotch into my open, gaping wound.
So much blood, I think before I faint dead away.
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.