We keep our distance from the other riders for the rest of the journey, staying close enough that I feel a glimmer of their collective energy but far enough away that I’m not in danger of being invaded by other people’s thoughts.
This time I see a figure as large as Henri raise its hand in the front of the column – the baron? – before the horses slow to a stop. Movement erupts down the line as the torches are extinguished. Henri follows suit, plunging us into darkness, and I blink, momentarily blind. My gelding stops without my urging, no doubt as sightless as I am.
“Here, give me your reins,” Henri rumbles, and I see his dark outline leaning toward me.
I hand them over, straining my eyes, wondering what the other men are doing. The sounds of moving horses, hushed conversation, and rattling weapons fill the night. Is this our ambush point?
Henry leads my horse up the embankment bordering the road – I think we’re heading in the opposite direction as the rest of the men – and then we’re inside the tree line. My eyes were starting to adjust, but I see almost nothing in these deeper shadows, just the outline of trees rising out of the gloom like sentinels on either side of me. Leaves crunch beneath the horses’ hooves. Somewhere nearby, a night bird calls, low and mournful.
The scent of pine fills my nose as Henri leads me onward. We walk a good way into the woods, far enough from everyone else that I can’t hear them anymore. With their energy gone, the cold creeps back in, and I tug my cloak closed and pull my hood up to try and trap my body heat. Finally, Henri stops the horses.
“Now comes the hard part,” he says, and I think I hear him dropping from his saddle. “We wait.”
I squint into the darkness, barely able to distinguish his bulky frame as he leads his horse to a low-hanging branch. He ties the reins to it and comes back to me, arms reaching. “Here, I’ll help you down.”
I cling to the pommel as I swing my leg over the saddle, terrified of slipping and breaking an ankle in this godforsaken gloom. Henri’s hands land on my hips, and I tip forward, planting mine on his shoulders and trying desperately to ignore how broad they are, the way I can feel his dense muscles flexing even through layers of clothing and the leather of my gloves. His grip tightens, and then I’m airborne, descending gently to the ground.
“Stay here,” he says, leading my horse away.
“Not like I could go anywhere,” I grumble. I can’t see a damn thing, and I don’t like it. I’m still unsettled by what just happened – I heard someone else’s thoughts – and even Henri, a man who is most likely some sort of mythical creature, was visibly shaken by it. That can’t be good.
At least I got one questioned answered: I’m not turning into whatever he is. But that fact doesn’t do anything to soothe me right now because if I haven’t been infected by some supernatural ague, then what’s happening to me would still be happening whether I came here or not. This isn’t a foreign force corrupting me; it’s been inside me all along.
My breath hiccups and I can feel panic fighting its way to the surface. I grab at Henri as he returns from securing my horse. “Turn it up.”
I don’t have to explain what I mean. His big hand palms the back of my head, pulling me into him even as his energy flares, soothing me. My cheek lands on his chest, the itchy wool of his cloak abrasive on my skin. I shove it out of the way and bury my nose in the softer fabric of his jacket. It smells like him, like sunshine and pine and musk, that particular wild scent that makes me think of deep forest in the middle of summer.
I wrap my arms around his thick waist and breathe him in, and his come up to band around my shoulders, pulling me even closer. I feel him exhale beneath my cheek, chest concaving and muscles loosening as the tension leaves his big body. My own begins to drain away with it. It’s hard to panic when I’m wrapped up in his embrace. I feel shielded by him, protected, like the forest could erupt into violence, and I’d be safe here, sheltered in his arms.
His chin lands on my head, and he lets out a deep sigh. “Of course, you fit perfectly.”
I close my eyes and stroke my hands up his back, reveling in his warmth as I explore the broad expanse of muscles beneath my fingers. I do fit perfectly, tucked into him like a puzzle piece that finally found its mate. His energy flows around me, sinking into my psyche even as it warms my body. I’ve never felt so safe, so cherished in my life, and I think I understand what the marquise meant when she talked about losing her head over her husband. I’m standing in the middle of a forest in the dead of night with a man (creature?) I barely know, waiting for our compatriots to ambush enemy soldiers, and I am perfectly content to stay here for as long as possible.
“Thank you,” I say.
“For what?” he asks, and pressed so tight to him, the words rumble through me.
“For making me feel better.”
He shifts, dropping a kiss on my hair. “I think I needed this as much as you did.”
My heart softens at the confession. “Is it safe to talk here?”
Another sigh, this one filled with regret. “No. My father is very quiet when he wants to be, and I’m afraid of him overhearing something that might give him a reason to act foolish.”
“Like taking your choices away from you and finding some way to force you to stay here forever.”
I shiver. Why did the way he just said the word forever make it sound so literal? Like it was an actual possibility and not a hypothetical statement thrown around for dramatics in the way most people use it.
“I’ll find some way to speak to you safely tomorrow,” he says. “I swear it. But for now…” His arms unwind from around me, and he grips my shoulders, holding me in place as he pulls free.
The urge to cling to him is strong. It was impossible to think of anything else but Henri when I was so wrapped up in him, and I’m worried my anxiety is about to return with a vengeance. But then I remember what he just said about his father being quiet, and if the baron caught us in such an intimate embrace, it might be grounds for a forced engagement.
I step back, relieved when the warmth of Henri’s power lingers, and I don’t immediately go tumbling into panic.
“We could be out here for some time,” he says. “I’d like to spend it improving your pugilism skills. It’ll keep you warm, and our minds occupied. Can you see well enough for that?”
I nod up at him. My eyes have adjusted in the past few minutes, and with the aid of his energy, the shadows have lifted enough that I should be able to train without tripping over my feet.
We untie our cloaks and masks to allow for more freedom, hooking them over a broken branch on a nearby tree.
“Hands up,” he tells me.
It’s easy to push aside everything that just happened and focus on his palms with his power still roaring through me like a deluge. I raise my hands as instructed and curl them into fists, tucking my elbows close. Thinking of all our previous boxing lessons, I slide my right foot back to improve my balance and turn a little to the side, making myself a smaller target.
He nods, checking over my form. “Throw.”
I shoot my right fist into his right hand, hitting his palm with a smack. It feels like a solid punch, and I pull my hand back quickly, protecting my center. When I first started training, my technique was atrocious, and I lost count of the times I almost rolled a wrist or jammed a finger. Now my body moves almost of its own volition, settling into the stance, loose, limber, and ready.
“Again,” he says.
I throw my fist out, hooking around to smack his left palm.
I settle into a rhythm – jab, jab, hook, uppercut. After my eighth rotation of strikes, he moves quickly, swinging an arm out to swat at me. I duck, keeping my fists up and my face protected.
“Good,” he says. “You’re getting faster.”
We work like this for maybe twenty minutes, me keeping a steady pace and focusing mainly on form, not force. The other night he told me that once I’ve mastered the basics, he’ll start teaching me how to put more power into my punches.
“Now blocks,” Henri says, dropping his hands and shifting into a more aggressive stance.
I ignore the shiver that rolls through my body in response to him looming over me in the darkness. It’s probably not healthy to be turned on by the thought of how easily he could manhandle me if he ever put his mind to it.
I take a defensive stance, and he moves forward to attack me, albeit at a snail’s speed, giving me plenty of time to deflect the blows with proper form. We’ve practiced them hundreds of times already, but Henri says it takes thousands for them to become second nature, for your body to move into the forms when attacked without your mind needing to be involved, leaving you free to think about more critical things like strategies for winning the fight.
I catch his attacks on the outside of my forearms, where a line of bruises already marches from wrist to elbow. I’ve taken to wearing long gloves during the day, telling the marquise and Livy it’s to keep warm in the chill air. Henrietta has noticed them, but she hasn’t said a word, just as she’s remained quiet about my other bruises, my pained expressions when forced to move too early in the morning, and the fact that I’m beginning to show a decent amount of muscle in my lean frame. I don’t know whether or not that means she knows what occupies my nights or if she’s true to her word and is just so hell-bent on being a good, loyal handmaid that she doesn’t want to pry.
Henri and I practice for a while longer, maybe half an hour, but I can’t be sure. Time seems to move slowly this deep in the forest, and between Henri’s energy and my need to focus on my movements, I don’t have any space in my mind for troubling thoughts.
We stop when he’s satisfied with my blocking and move on to practicing the more difficult intricacies of hand-to-hand combat.
“Choke,” he warns, coming forward and putting his large hands around my throat. The leather of his gloves is warm and abrasive on my delicate skin but the power that flows between us is seductively smooth.
I stare up at him in the darkness.
His fingers tighten infinitesimally, and suddenly I’m transported to the study he dragged me into earlier, his hand on the back of my neck, pulling me into his erection. Instead of fighting free, I go utterly still within his grip.
He groans and loosens his hold on me but doesn’t let go. Between one heartbeat and the next, his eyes shift from brown to amber. One thumb lifts, stroking up my neck. “You can’t look at me like that right now.”
“I know,” I say, taking a step back. His gloves scrape over my skin as I pull free. “Your hold on me reminded me of…”
A low sound, like a frustrated growl, thunders out of him. “Me too.”
Thinking of earlier brings back memories of what happened after dinner, and I make a snap decision. “If I tell you something, will you swear to keep it from your father?”
He frowns, amber eyes bleeding back into brown, and doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Yes.”
I drag in a breath. God, he sounds so sincere, but can I trust him? “Do you swear it?”
He closes the distance between us, tilting my chin up to stare into my eyes. “I swear it, Belle.” His lips twitch into a lopsided grin, revealing a flash of teeth. “If you only knew the secrets I keep.”
“Even from your father?” I press.
He nods, humor fading. “Especially from him.”
Something settles into place inside me, my mind made up. “The Duchess de Vergeronne warned me away from you earlier.”
His hand disappears from my chin, and his expression turns cagey. “What did she say?”
“That I should run screaming from you and your father. That my very soul is at risk.”
He huffs out a breath. “A bit melodramatic. Trust me, we’re not a threat to your soul.”
“But why would she say something like that to me? Why all this effort to scare me away?”
He breaks eye contact, searching the woods over my shoulder as if he’s looking for someone.
“Are we being watched even now?” I ask him.
“I don’t believe so, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I thought I heard…” He shakes his head and turns back to me. “There’s bad blood between de Vergeronne’s family and mine. Her aunt married my uncle and went mad. They blame her madness on him.”
“Were they right to?” I ask, thinking of flashing eyes and spies and their uncanny abilities.
Henri grimaces. “Unfortunately yes. She saw something she wasn’t ready for and her mind…broke. She went back to them raving of angels and demons, and they believed her. Maybe not literally, but they believed that something terrible happened to her and my uncle was to blame,” he holds up a hand when I open my mouth, forestalling my next question, “which, yes, he was, technically. Ever since then, their family has had it out for ours.”
“Then why was she invited to dinner?”
He sighs. “My father believes that adage about keeping your enemies close. He thinks that if –” His head snaps to the right, and he goes perfectly still. “It’s starting.”
My heart leaps into a gallop as I turn, following his gaze. Adrenaline hums through me, re-energizing my tired limbs. I strain my ears, peering into the trees, hearing and seeing nothing for long minutes. Then I pick up what might be a scream. A gunshot rings out, then another, and more screams slice through the darkness, and is that… snarling? Soon the sounds of battle fill the forest, so many gunshots going off that it reminds me of fireworks, so much yelling that the voices are starting to twist into one discordant voice. I swear I hear someone howl – maybe one of our men to drive home the wraith narrative?
It sounds like hell just broke out in the forest, like pure chaos, and I curl my fingers into fists and try to control my racing pulse, breathing heavy like I’m right there in the thick of it even though I’m not.
“Fuck,” Henri bites out, and I jerk. He’s never cursed in front of me before. “Stay here.”
“What?” I hiss, but he’s already moving, padding forward into the trees on silent feet.
His power retreats with him, slowly, like he’s trying to ease it away from me as gently as possible. I’m still left shaking when it’s fully gone, the fear I’ve pushed aside for the past several hours rising up to claim me. I almost call after him out of desperation – don’t leave me like this! – but I bite my tongue in case there’s someone close enough to hear.
I watch until his shadow blends in with the trees and he’s gone from my sight. What happened to make him abandon me like this? Are we somehow losing? Has the fighting crossed the road into our side of the forest? I jerk my gaze side to side, scanning the woods, looking for any deeper shadows that might indicate I’m not alone out here. I see nothing, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t enemy soldiers slinking closer and closer to this little clearing.
I turn and head toward the horses, crouching low in some vain attempt to blend in with the undergrowth. There has to be a weapon in Henri’s saddlebags. He wouldn’t come out here unarmed. Damn it, why didn’t I think to demand some sort of pistol or knife?
The horses are on edge, ears flicking, eyes rolling as they listen to the fighting. With the closed air of the forest, it sounds like the battle is taking place all around us, but I know it must be some ways off, just as I know I shouldn’t flinch every time pistol fire rings out, expecting to hear a bullet whiz by me, but I do anyway. I really don’t want to get shot again. I really don’t want to die.
Henri’s stallion is bearing it all better than I am, having been bred and trained for war. He still snorts at me when I reach him, stamping his hoof in displeasure. I try to soothe him with a pat, but he must sense my panic because he dances away. I’m reaching for him when I see motion out of the corner of my eye and freeze. There’s a shadow there, deeper than the rest, and as I stare at it, I realize its moving closer.
I’m just about to hide when warmth settles over me like a second skin, my terror abates seemingly without reason, and I know it must be Henri.
“We need to move,” he says as his form coalesces out of the darkness. His voice is just above a whisper.
I drop mine to match it. “Are there men on this side of the road?”
“Yes. Come on. Away from the horses.”
“I want a weapon,” I say.
He pulls a knife sheath free from his boot top and hands it over when he reaches me, hilt first. I hold onto it for dear life, clutching it close, ready to yank it free and stab anything that moves. I can’t get the memory of being wounded out of my head, not even with Henri’s calming presence at my side, and my arm gives a phantom twinge of pain as I relive it.
A gunshot rings out close by, much closer than the others. Henri grabs my arm and pulls me into a crouch as we slink from trunk to trunk, further into the forest, away from the fighting. He slides his hand down to mine, using his grip to guide me over reaching tree roots and past grasping brambles. We’re maybe a hundred feet from the horses before he slows us to a stop. A moment later I realize why when I hear someone crashing through the woods to our right.
I expect Henri to leave me again so he can go deal with them, but he uses his grip to pull me close before urging me into kneeling. I don’t miss the way he puts me behind him, as if ready to use himself as my living shield.
“Help!” I hear a man choke out, the sound of his approach getting louder. “Someone help me!”
I clap a hand over my mouth to hold back a whimper. He sounds terrified, tortured by his fear. It’s horrible, a reminder of the terror I saw the eyes of the sans cullotes I stabbed as his life drained away. Then I hear something else: whuffing, growling sounds right on the man’s heels. I huddle behind Henri, feeling small, prey-like, like a rabbit caught in a snare. What is that? And why is it so familiar?
My spine goes rigid as my thoughts cast back to the night Mallory pulled me out of the hallway into a side room and held me there while something prowled past the door, making that same whuffing noise. Are there…monsters in the forest with us? Did the baron unleash that unseen nightmare on the republican soldiers? No wonder the screams have sounded so desperate, no wonder I thought I heard howling.
“Help!” the man shrieks again, racing past our hiding spot, close enough that he might have noticed us if he wasn’t in such a blind panic.
I bury my face into Henri’s back, listening as something much larger goes bounding past us after him. Something that sounds like it’s running on four feet instead of two, and from the way the ground shakes beneath me, it must be massive, at least as heavy as a warhorse.
“Make it quick,” Henri hisses.
Who is he talking to? The thing?
I hear a grunting growl in response, and then a strangled, blood-curdling scream. I rip my fingers from Henri’s and clap my hands over my ears, trying to drown it out. My gloves don’t keep out the stomach-turning crunch that follows, but after that, everything goes quiet, and I know that man is dead.
Henri turns to me and gently pulls my hands from my ears. “We can’t stay here. We must keep moving. There are more of them nearby.”
More what? I almost ask. Enemy soldiers, or monsters?
Instead of pulling me to my feet, Henri scoops me off the ground and takes off at a run into the trees. I cling to his jacket, curling in on myself, trying to make it easier for him to carry me, burying my nose in his shirt to try and distract myself from what just happened and the tapering sounds of the battle. He comes to a standstill a moment later, looking one way and then the next, swearing under his breath before changing direction and sprinting into a stand of towering pines. He skids to a halt halfway through it and sets me down, shoving me behind him.
A man steps out from the trees to our right, pistol rising, and I tug on Henri’s jacket.
“I know,” he says, but he doesn’t turn. His gaze is fixed ahead.
I risk a glance around Henri and go still. There’s another man ahead of us, and something about him is…wrong. He’s clad in black from head to toe, standing with his hands hanging loose at his sides, tall and slender and slightly disproportionate, like his limbs are longer than they should be, his torso shorter. His hair is a blond so pale that it shines like silver in the moonlight. Huge, owlish eyes stare out at us, so black I can’t see any white of sclera to mark their edges. An icy wind seems to blow from him, slicing through Henri’s warmth to bite at my exposed skin with frozen teeth.
What – the fuck – is he?
A low, baritone growl rumbles out of Henri, lifting the hair on the back of my neck. It’s too close to the sound that thing made a moment ago, and I almost take a step away from him before I remember that a man is still to our side, gun pointing, and I probably shouldn’t do anything to make myself into an easier target for him.
I hear what sounds like sighing before I notice the definitely-not-human’s mouth is moving and he’s speaking. “Who is the woman?” The words sound like wind rattling through a tomb: dry, desiccated.
“No one,” Henri says. “Just another of our agents.”
The thing wheezes out a humorless laugh and tilts his head, eyes searing into mine, flashing bright, arterial red in the moonlight. I jerk back behind Henri, hiding from sight. What the hell is happening right now? What the hell is that thing?
I glance to the side, toward the gunman, not knowing which of the two poses the greater threat to us. Behind him, something huge lumbers out of the forest. I can’t make out what it is, only that it’s so tall the shape of it towers over the man, making it look like some macabre shadow swelling to life behind him. It stalks closer as I watch, so silent that the man has no idea it’s there until it’s too late.
I choke back a scream as it lunges, catching the flash massive claws, a huge muzzle. It tears the man’s throat out and then bounds back into the trees so fast, I would have missed it if I blinked.
A hiss sounds from our other side, and I snap my head around to see another man there, gun rising, face set in grim, murderous lines. Henri shoves me down so hard that I go sprawling at his feet. I hear a horrible noise as two bodies slam into each other and have just enough time to see the not-human-man-thing and a monstrous furry body go rolling into the undergrowth, snarling and spitting as they tear into each other.
I snap my gaze back to Henri as he rushes the remaining soldier. Time slows. I’m back on the road, watching one of the sans culottes turn his weapon and fire point-blank into Antoine’s chest. No. I can’t do this again. I can’t watch someone I care about die in front of me. I can’t stand the thought of bearing witness to Henri’s lifeforce leaking out to soak the forest floor while I’m helpless to save him.
Incandescent rage sparks to life inside me, catching fire, roaring through me until I feel like I might melt from the heat of it. I lift my hand toward the gunman, screaming wordlessly as he pulls the trigger, gun pointed straight at Henri’s chest.
The bullet explodes mid-air halfway between them, and the man is so stunned that Henri hits him full-force, bowling him over. I slump to the ground, black dots dancing across my vision as I fight to stay conscious. This is like the day I screamed at the baron, only so much worse. It feels like I got run over by a carriage. Everything hurts, and the exhaustion spreading through my limbs feels unnatural, dangerous.
I have just enough strength left to turn my head and watch Henri land a vicious blow to the gunman that knocks the man out. He races back so fast that I lose track of him, scoops me off the ground, and runs us even further into the trees.
“I knew you weren’t fully human,” he says.
It’s the last thing I hear before I pass out.
next chapter coming soon
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.