The entire household is in an uproar by noon. Those that will accompany the family on the journey north have been told. I’m among them, as I hoped. I almost cried with relief when I found out. I’ve been with Olivia for five years, and the thought of leaving her to her fate on the open road was torture. Now I don’t have to.
The servants staying behind have been given an option: remain working in the household or take their wages for the rest of the year and move on the best they can. Most of the staff I’ve spoken to have elected to take the money and try to reach their families, wherever they may be, or go to Paris to find new employment. I’ve said goodbye to a lot of friends.
The servants’ quarters are packed with people, and I have to dodge rushing maids and scurrying stable boys as I head back up to Olivia. I have a leather pouch clenched in my fist. It’s filled with knives. I went back to the kitchens after finding out I’d be traveling with my mistress, and Leanne happily offered me some of her best-balanced kitchen knives when I told her I would use them to defend the family, even going so far as to sharpen them herself. She understands that we might never return, and she’s as loyal to the Marquise as I am to Olivia.
Out of the entire staff, Maryse and I are the only female servants accompanying the family north. The men who have been chosen are in their twenties and thirties, strong and hale, and at one point or another, served under the Marquis in the army. All of them know how to handle a sword and shoot a pistol, and knowing we won’t be defenseless on our journey has given me some measure of comfort.
I make my way quickly out of the crush and up the rear servants’ stairs to the second story of the house. The stairs deposit me in the family’s quarters, but instead of going to Livy’s room, I search out Jacques, still of a mind to ask for pistols of my own. He needs to pack too, after all, and one of the footmen told me that he was still up here when I asked after him.
I pause just outside his door and take a deep breath before knocking.
“Come in!” comes his muffled shout.
“My lord,” I say formally, stepping into the room. I freeze just over the threshold, eyes wide. My carefully planned speech flies from my head. His room looks as though someone ransacked it. Drawers are pulled out of his gilt-chased mahogany desk, chairs overturned, and his entire wardrobe must have been emptied onto the floor.
“My lord?” I ask, lifting my gaze to Jacques.
He stands in the middle of this disaster with his hands on his hips, dressed only in his trousers and a loose linen shirt. The top buttons of the shirt are undone, and I have to force myself not to stare at the triangle of his exposed skin as I make my way carefully towards him, weaving around the detritus that litters my path.
“Isabelle? What are you doing here?” he asks. Then he catches sight of my expression, and his shifts to what might be embarrassment. “Don’t mind the mess; it seems I’ve managed to misplace everything I own.”
Where is Pierre? I wonder, thinking of Jacques’ manservant. I saw the valet downstairs as he rushed past me, and now I have to assume that his absence means he’s taken the money offered by the Marquise. He could have at least remained with Jacques until we left. He better hope we don’t cross paths again today because if we do, I’ll give him the tongue lashing he so badly deserves. I’ve never liked that seedy little man.
“It’s fine, my lord,” I say. “I was just wondering if there was a spare pistol I might carry on my person while we travel.”
Jacques frowns. “A pistol? Why? The men will be armed.”
“Yes, my lord, but there will be times when a man cannot accompany the women. Say, for instance, if we stop at an inn.” Or if we have to relieve ourselves along the journey,but I’m not saying that to him.
“Do you even know how to shoot?” he asks.
“Yes, my lord. My father taught me.”
He’s old enough to have taken lessons from my father as a boy. Having taken them myself, I’m sure he remembers them well.
“He did?” he asks, his face lighting up. Even his small smiles are a thing of beauty, and my heart gives an involuntary flutter to have one directed at me.
I nod in answer.
“Hold just a second. You’ll need something small if you’re to carry them on your person,” he says, moving from the one clear space on the floor to step over an overturned footstool as he heads toward his bed.
Somehow he makes even navigating through his disaster of a room seem graceful. His breeches fit him like a glove, and I watch the lean muscles of his legs flex as he vaults an overturned chair, his hair swinging out behind him as he goes airborne. He disappears behind the curtains of his large four-poster, and I try to dampen the stupid giddy feeling in my stomach. What an utterly inappropriate time for my crush to rear its ugly head again.
I take a deep, calming breath through my nose as he rummages around beneath his bed, and thankfully, by the time he reappears, I have control over myself. Until, of course, he reaches me, and I see the dust in his now disheveled hair. It makes him look all the more alluring, like he just rolled out of a hayloft. Like he’s not a future lord but someone actually attainable for a peasant like me.
Oh, for heaven’s sake. I press my lips into a thin line to keep from smiling. I respect Jacques, and even though I’m in awe of him most of the time, I’m not blinded by his good looks. His temper is a fickle thing, and one day he might be able to laugh as someone teased him about, say, having dust in his hair, but the next, he might snap for the same thing. I don’t want to risk his irritation before I get what I came for.
“Your hair, my lord,” I say, straight-faced.
“Eh? Oh, dust?”
He reaches up and hastily brushes it off. I glance away, my eyes casting down to the thin wooden box in his hands. It has a similar layer of dirt on it and is maybe nine by eight inches, surely too small to hold any sort of pistol.
He extends it to me. “Here, these will do. They’re English, though. Father got them off some prisoner just before he came home from America.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I say with a curtsy, taking the box from him as I rise. It’s much heavier than I expect, and I nearly drop it. “Sorry,” I mutter, brushing off the worst of the dust before tucking it under my arm. “If that will be all, my lord, I’ll leave you to…ah…to your…rummaging.”
Jacques shoots me a self-deprecating grin. Today is a day he can be teased, it seems. “Yes, yes, go on then, you minx. And don’t spread tales about what a messy beast I am.”
I bob another curtsy and throw over my shoulder on my way out, “I make no promises!”
He tosses a pillow after me, and I let out a yip and let my excitement take over as I sprint toward his sister’s room.
She rushes to my side the second I’m through the door. “Did he give you one?”
“Yes, my lady,” I say, smiling at her enthusiasm.
Her brows draw down as she takes in my full hands. “Are they in the box or the bag?”
“The box,” I say quickly.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Just some spare thimbles and needles,” I lie, praying she won’t press me. I still haven’t told her my plan to find some way to strap the knives all over my body like some sort of highwayman or hired cutthroat, and I feel a little silly.
“Can I see them?”
My face pales. “The thimbles?”
“No, the guns.” She frowns. “Are you all right?”
I nearly sag in relief. “Yes, of course. Apologies, your brother’s quarters were in a right state. Come, we’ll go to my room. The box is dirty.”
She nearly trips over my heels in her haste to follow me, and I can’t help but smile. She’s caught in that brief stage between becoming a woman and remaining a girl, surprising me with her intelligence and rationale at times, and then others, like now, behaving with childlike wonder and innocence.
A few months after rioters stormed the Bastille, her governess left the household, embracing her new liberty and status as a free citizen of France. There was so much upheaval in the country that the Marquise hadn’t been able to replace her right away, and she’s long since stopped trying. Olivia and I found a rhythm of our own, one that works for us, as I’ve filled the role of handmaid, governess, and protector. I’ve watched over her, guided her transition from girl to woman as best I can, and in all this time, I suppose I’ve become overly protective of her. I miss my sisters, and I think a large part of me has adopted Oliva in their stead. My affection for her is more like that of a sibling than a charge or even an employer.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how many more months will pass before these childlike moments are gone. I hope they never are. I hope she can maintain some manner of innocence even into adulthood. It hurts to think of her as one of the jaded, gossip-mongering ladies we met at court.
I set the box on the bed and surreptitiously place the bag at the far end, hoping she’ll forget about it. It emits a metallic clatter as it settles, and I wince. Thankfully Livy doesn’t seem to notice, all her focus instead on the gun case. I brush the box off more vigorously and see the top of the wood carved in intricate scrolls. My fingertips trace over the pattern. Such luxury is surprising. Did Jacques accidentally give me the wrong pair? The latch is gold gilt, and it slips free with a twist of my fingers. I flip the lid, and both Livy and I drag in surprised breaths.
“Oh, my,” Livy says, leaning over it for a better look.
He couldn’t have meant to give me these. Nestled in the blue velvet interior of the case are two of the finest weapons I’ve ever seen. They’re small, perhaps only seven inches long, with darkly stained wooden handles that curl at the ends.
I reach down and carefully pull one from the case. It must weigh less than a pound. My eyes go wide as I turn it over. It’s a flintlock pistol, the hammer located on top of the gun and in the middle of the lock, with the flashpan just in front of it. The entire length of the muzzle is made up of gleaming, intricately carved silver, and when I turn it fully upside down, it’s to see that the underneath is carved with swirling scrolls, much like the case. Even the bottom of the gripstock is silver capped, a grotesque mask carved into it as if to intimidate enemies.
Livy picks up the gun’s mate and inspects it with equal awe. “Townshend,” she reads. I lean over to where she points, and sure enough, the name is inscribed on the left cover plate. “Who is that?” she asks.
“It could have been the owner or the maker. Jacques said they’re English,” I tell her. “I have to give these back; they’re too fine.”
“No, Belle. Jacques prefers French or Dutch weapons; he’ll never fire English. Keep them,” she says, setting her gun back into the case.
I carefully set mine beside it, in the niche carved to cradle it, as I contemplate her words. She’s likely right about Jacques’ refusal to use them. A lot of our countrymen can’t stand the English. Even the pride of defeating them in the colonies hasn’t helped them overcome their anger over our many defeats during the Seven Years’ War. How men like Jacques, who weren’t even alive when it was fought, can hold a grudge over it is beyond me. I don’t hate the English, especially not since they’re now sheltering our fleeing nobility and fighting against those who executed our king. From Jacques’ comment earlier about fleeing to London, he must be coming around as well. I should be glad he was still happy to part with such well-made weapons.
I close the lid and turn to Livy. “Let’s start in on the dresses.” We still have a lot of work to do today.
Livy nods and leaves my room. I’m just about to follow her when I recall the chaos of the servants’ quarters. Lord only knows how much finery will go missing from the house during the staff exodus, so with quick hands, I slide the gun case far beneath my mattress, the leather pouch of knives following behind it. Lastly, I latch my other door, the one that leads to the servants’ stairs, before following Olivia out.
A few hours later, Livy and I have the dresses we’re bringing pulled out of the trunks as we work to remove every bow and hint of lace from them. There’s a noise from the hall, and then Livy’s mother is there, sweeping into the room unannounced. We stand, and I curtsy.
The marquise is wearing a beautiful morning gown of pale peach silk. Livy gets her coloring from her, her blonde hair and pale blue eyes almost a mirror of her mother’s. At forty-six, the Marquise is still beautiful, lean, and strong where most of her counterparts have lost their looks and half their teeth, their bodies displaying the gluttony of their lives. Her blonde hair is a shade lighter than Livy’s, and her pale face is still youthful, with only the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes marring its smooth agelessness. She nods as those eyes take in our task.
“Jacques told me he spoke with you this morning,” she says, looking towards her daughter, her voice light and lilting, almost girlish.
Livy nods. “Yes, mama.”
The marquise moves to Livy’s side and gazes at her for a long moment. “I’m sorry that we didn’t involve you in our planning. I didn’t want to disturb you with such knowledge.” She reaches out to curl a wayward lock of Livy’s hair around her finger. “I wanted to spare you from this harsh reality for as long as possible.”
Part of me understands what the Marquise is saying. I can accept a parent’s desire to protect their children, and as Livy is both the youngest and the only daughter, I can imagine that desire is amplified. Yet another part of me is irritated. Doesn’t the Marquise know her daughter? Doesn’t she realize how Livy’s mind works and what being kept in the dark would do to her? Sadly, I have to admit that the answer is no. Even though I respect the Marquise and am loyal to her, I can still recognize that like most ladies of her rank, she’s had little to do with her children and their upbringing, was focused instead on herself and her own dramas. She’s made up for it some while we’ve been stuck here in their country estate, but she obviously still has a long way to go.
“Will you please include me in our plans from now on, mama?” Livy asks, meeting her mother’s eyes. “I prefer to know what’s coming ahead of time. I can think about it, prepare myself, and respond accordingly. It’s much better for me than surprise after long periods of ignorance. And I’m sixteen. If I’m old enough to be married, I think I’m old enough to be let in on our family’s plans.”
Inside, I’m beaming, beyond proud of her for pleading her case so eloquently.
Her mother drops her hand and seems to consider Livy a moment. “Of course. I suppose it’s time you grow up,” she says with a Gallic shrug.
“Thank you, Mama,” Livy responds, her eyes flitting to mine and away again. I catch the flash of triumph there and work to suppress the smile that threatens.
“Isabelle,” the Marquise says, turning to me. “You’ll be riding in the carriage with myself, my daughter, and Maryse. Jacques told me he gave you a pistol?” She’s never been one to mince words, and her blunt nature is one of the many reasons I’ve enjoyed serving in her household. If she’s displeased, she’s quick to say it, but she is also uncommonly fair and compassionate to those who serve her loyally.
“Yes, my lady,” I say, declining to mention that her son gave me two of the small weapons. I also keep to myself the well-balanced kitchen knives Leanne provided, but from the gleam in her eye, I suspect she might be in on the secret. Almost nothing happens within this house without her knowing about it.
“Do you know how to shoot?” the Marquise asks.
“Yes, my lady.”
Her lips quirk. “No doubt your father taught you?”
“Yes, my lady,” I repeat, recalling the rumors of her and my father from when I was younger.
“Good,” she says. “I always thought that man was the best shot I ever saw. Hopefully, he taught you well.”
“He did, my lady.”
“Well, I’m happy to see that you’ve decided to remain with us,” she says, her voice softening as she grins.
I bob a curtsy in response and smile back at her.
With a nod, she turns to her daughter. “Olivia, I’ll see you at dinner. The least we can do is have one last decent meal before we leave.” Her gaze comes back to me. “See to it that you eat well tonight too.”
“Yes, my lady,” I say, just as Olivia says, “Of course, Mama.”
With that, the Marquise leaves us to our alterations.
Much later, Olivia departs for dinner dressed in her finest gown. We decided she might as well wear it since we don’t know when she’ll get another opportunity for such finery. I even dress her hair as if for court, first using the curling rod and then piling her blonde locks on top of her head, pinning it all up in an intricate mass.
I watch her from the doorway until she disappears around a bend in the hall, and then I turn and sprint back through our rooms, down the rear stairs, through the servants’ quarters, and out of the house into the warm night air. I race towards the kennels, where I’ll find Charles, the Marquis’s hunting master. I burst through the door of his small hut a few minutes later, my lungs burning and sweat trickling down my spine.
“Oh, thank God,” I wheeze, seeing Charles seated by the hearth, a spoonful of stew paused halfway to his lips. His thick eyebrows nearly reach his receding hairline as he eyes me. I want to set him at ease right away that there’s no emergency, but I need to catch my breath first.
“Isabelle…?” he says, slowly setting the spoon down.
“Sorry, sorry,” I pant. “I need holsters. Jacques gave me two small pistols, but I don’t have holsters for them.” On my second inspection of the gun case, I found a button that released the false bottom, revealing spare shot, a small powder horn, and primer. I realized then why it was so much heavier than I’d first assumed.
“You’re going with them?” Charles asks, standing from his dinner. Though only my height, he’s wide through the shoulders and has a barrel chest. His dark hair and short beard are flecked through with grey, and I can’t help but wonder when he started showing his age. Had it just now crept up on me? In my mind, I still see him as I did when I was a girl: as a burly, black-haired soldier full of good humor.
He and my father are close friends. When papa comes to visit me, he stays here, in this very hut, the two men staying up until the wee hours as they drink too much wine and recall their glory days, when they roamed the continent and then America in the wake of the Marquis. Charles has been like an uncle to me my entire life, but he’s been a lifeline since I arrived at the chateau on my own five years ago.
“Yes, I’m going with them,” I say. “I have a letter here for father and my sisters.” I pull the wax-sealed paper from one of my pockets and lay it on Charles’ threadbare table. There’s a rustling noise behind me, and I turn to see he’s pulled open the doors of the tall bureau in the corner. Hanging inside it are innumerable weapon accessories.
“What else? Powder? Primer?” he asks.
“No, I have everything else I need.”
“What size are the guns?”
“Just over seven inches. They’re English and very fine.”
He snorts and starts muttering epitaphs about the English under his breath as he rummages through the bureau. At least he’s of an age to have a reason to dislike them.
“These should do,” he says, plucking two leather belts with smaller holsters from where they hang.
“Thank you,” I say, taking them. “Do you have any spare knife sheaths as well?”
He snorts again, this time with humor, and shoots me a sly look. “And just what would you want those for?”
“Knives,” I said drily.
He lets out a laugh, a great burst of it, congratulating himself for successfully riling me. I shake my head as he turns back to the cupboard, rolling my eyes for emphasis. He knows my skill with a blade; he’s helped me practice all manner of weaponry since we fled here from Paris. He and I both knew a day would likely come when I would need the skills.
“Here, take these,” he says, turning back to me with a handful of scabbards.
Knife hilts protrude from three of them. I loop the gun holsters over my shoulder and take them from his hands. The handles are leather-wrapped, with finger indentations to provide a better grip. I unsheath one of them and see six inches of gleaming steel before shoving it back in and looking up at Charles.
“I can’t take these,” I tell him. Like the pistols, they’re too fine.
“Of course you can,” he says. “You think I want to tell your father I sent you out poorly armed?”
I loop the rest of the scabbards over my arm as I consider that question. Actually, no. No I don’t think he’d enjoy doing that at all. “Thank you,” I say. “For everything.”
My eyes prick with the threat of tears, and Charles, seeing this, pulls me in for a rib-cracking hug.
“You be careful on that road,” he says, his gruff voice unusually soft.
“I will. You be careful here,” I tell him, hugging him back as hard as I can. “And if it gets too dangerous to stay, you can always take the hounds and go visit Papa. You know he’d welcome the company.”
“That’s not such a bad idea,” he says, pulling away.
I want to stay here for longer, tell him all the things I want him to tell my father and sisters if he sees them, but I have too much work left to do tonight, and if I start talking about my family, I might break down.
I hug him once more before moving toward the door. My fingers wrap around the handle, and I turn to him, wondering if this is the last time I’ll ever see him. “Farewell, Charles.”
He nods at me solemnly. “Farewell, Isabelle.”
I slip from the hut and run back through the trees towards the light of the chateau, swiping at the tears that leak from my eyes.
The next morning, I walk into Olivia’s room dressed and bristling with weapons. The pistols are strapped to my thighs. I have knives secured all over my person. The heaviness of the weapons is both new and a little uncomfortable, and I’m sure it’ll take me a few days to adjust to it.
Maybe I should rearrange them again to better even out their weight distribution, I think. But no, I’ve already done that twice, and I don’t want to turn obsessive. This is fine. It’ll have to be fine.
I was awake most of the night, sewing until my eyes started to cross. In that time, I stitched hidden pockets into my dresses and trimmed the leather harnesses of the hunting knives so I could wear them strapped to my calves, the sheaths held in place by my sturdy boot tops. Then I altered the belts of the gun holsters. I have a pistol strapped to each thigh, and it makes me feel like some sort of pirate queen ready to board an enemy ship.
I tested everything out last night, jogging up and down the servants’ stairs to make sure the weapons stayed in place as I moved. It took several readjustments to get everything right, but now I’m confident that I won’t leave a macabre trail of knives in my wake if I’m forced to run.
The thought makes me grin, and of course it’s then that Livy catches sight of me. She’s awake, standing by her open windows, watching the sun rise.
“Morning Belle,” she says. “You’re in a good mood.”
I school my face. “Just a stray, silly thought, my lady.” She is obviously not in a good mood, and who could blame her? “Couldn’t sleep?” I ask, moving to her side. She looks exhausted.
“No,” she says. “It was too hot, and I couldn’t seem to quiet my mind.”
“I had the same trouble.” It’s the truth, after all. I was well and truly exhausted after my late-night antics and the stress of yesterday, and I thought I’d fall dead asleep when my head hit the pillow, but I laid awake for a long time, my mind turning over everything that had happened and worrying over everything that still might.
“Aren’t you frightened, Belle?” Livy asks, her voice small.
“A little,” I say. “But we’ll have your brothers with us, and the men escorting our party all served your father. They’re well trained. I trust that they can protect us.”
She nods. “I know that. I do. It’s just that I can’t stop picturing that mob in Paris. What if we encounter one like it? We’ll be swallowed whole.”
My memory of that mob comes swimming up, just as it did last night, and a shiver wracks my body despite the heat. “I don’t think you need to fear that happening,” I say to comfort her. “We’ll be sticking to the less-traveled roads and the smaller towns, avoiding Bordeaux and Nantes entirely. Those would be the only places you might expect a crowd so large. Besides, we’ll be dressed as peasants, same as everyone else, and your brothers know enough of the revolutionary rhetoric to convince anyone we encounter that we’re nothing more than travelers, loyal to the republic.”
“I hope so,” she says, her expression still troubled. “I just have this terrible feeling…” Her gaze moves past me, out toward the coming day.
I’m not sure if it’s her ominous tone or some distant sound I’m only half aware of, but I find myself thinking of my dream. Of the wolves and the monster who led them.
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.