The blood drains from my face as I watch the baron slip through the nearby doorway and disappear down the stairs. My fate lies at the bottom of them, and I can only guess what it may hold.
I’m about to commit robbery. The only thing I ever stole was sweets from the kitchen when I was younger. If it’s an arms shipment we’re intercepting, then the men delivering it will likely be soldiers and have weapons on them. I could be shot again. I could be killed.
“Isabelle,” Henri croons as he glides toward me, his full lips dominating his face because of the mask. “Don’t be afraid.”
I nearly laugh. I’m about to put my safety in the hands of two men I was just told to run screaming from, but what choice do I have?
Henri crowds into me, fingers rising to skim across my cheek. They slide into my hair, his palm cupping my face, and I go still as our gazes meet. De Vergeronne’s words ring in my ears, warning me away, but my pulse flutters as the warmth of Henri’s touch seeps into me, and something low in my stomach clenches when I drag in a breath full of his scent. I should probably be petrified right now, frozen in terror, but there goes his thumb, stroking across my lips, and instead, my body begins to relax.
His gaze is steady on mine, brown eyes appearing black because the mask is shading them. They look baleful, troubled. “I’ll keep you safe,” he says, the low words wrapping around me. “I swear no harm will come to you tonight.”
The same gut feeling that made me believe the duchess has me believing him, and I don’t resist when his hand drops from my face and his fingers thread through mine. Sparks fly up my arm from the contact, a shock followed by a wave of heat that drives the lingering tension from my limbs. It was so easy to be distrustful of him down in my bedroom, to be confused and conflicted, but he takes up so much space that everything else gets shoved to the side when we’re together. Is it some by-product of his magic that has me dropping my guard? Or am I simply blinded by lust?
He leans down and presses a fevered kiss against my forehead. “Let go, Belle. Let me help you like that night we ran home.”
Home, I think, releasing a shaky breath. I doubt this godforsaken place could ever feel like that to me, but I can’t stand the thought of upsetting him when it’s so obvious he’s trying to comfort me. I quirk a brow at him. “You mean when I nearly collapsed after you withdrew your aid?”
One corner of his lips twitches up. “I still blame that on you.”
I shake my head, huffing out a laugh.
His expression turns serious. “I’ll be more careful this time. Expend more of myself to make sure you stay within its reach.” Its reach meaning his power.
“So you can control it?”
He winces, realizing he just gave another puzzle piece away, and then nods.
I’ve spent the past hour disconcerted and worried and indecisive. I don’t want to be any of those things right now. Distraction on a night like tonight could prove fatal. I need clarity, a clear head, and I know from experience that if I let Henri’s energy infect me, everything else will be diminished enough that I can think and, most importantly, act. So I close my eyes and do what he asks, giving myself over to his sorcery. The baron would be so proud, thinking it’s submission. It’s not; it’s more like desperation driving me on.
“Well done,” Henri rumbles.
I open my eyes and meet his gaze. I feel better already, calmer, more rational. At least until he tilts my chin up, and I realize that while his power might diminish my fear, it does nothing to reduce my desire for him. His eyes roam over my face, landing on my lips. I sway forward in his grip.
“We need to talk about what happened earlier when we get back from this little excursion,” he says.
I squeeze his hand. “I know.”
“We don’t have all night!” the baron’s voice echoes up the stairwell.
I cringe. Did he hear all that? Is this yet another performance on Henri’s part? From the way he grimaces and steps back, I think he might have forgotten himself for once.
“Come,” he says, pulling me toward the shadowy mouth of the door.
I follow him through the threshold and into the murky stairway. The last time I took these steps, I had both hands on the railings and moved with all the grace of an arthritic octogenarian. With my cloak and gloves in one hand and the other trapped in Henri’s grasp, I don’t have the luxury of using a handrail this time. Somehow, I don’t need it. Henri’s power seeps into my limbs, making me loose and limber. The stairwell seems brighter, the stairs less rickety. I ease down them in his wake, not even watching where I place my feet as we descend with what should be alarming speed.
He lets go of me when we reach the bottom, but even without skin-to-skin contact, his energy remains. A line of horses crowds the path in front of us, twenty at my guess. Sitting atop them, wearing heavy black cloaks like the one in my hand, are an army of wraiths. Their hoods are up, and I think they must have masks on because the only thing I see from inside the dark maw of their cowls is row after row of predatory eyes reflecting the torchlight.
I can feel my fear trying to break through this manufactured calm, but I shove it away. I can’t lose myself right now, not as I stare down these strange men. They’re absolutely bristling with weapons, each wearing a small armory. Sword hilts stick up behind shoulders; knife sheaths peek out from boot tops; throwing axes dangle from belts; bows hang beside saddles. I shiver and tear my gaze away, pulling on my cloak and gloves.
“We’ll be in the rear of the column,” Henri says when I’m done, his hand landing on my lower back before he pushes me gently forward.
Another wave of energy rolls through me, and it’s enough to drown out the mounting threat of fear. Still, I keep my eyes from the men as I pass beneath them, unsettled by their uncanny silence. For some reason, they remind me of one of the mythical Greek creatures that Hercules fought: the Hydra. It’s as if the column we’re passing is made up of the many heads of a single beast, and if I look up, I might see them turning as one to watch us.
We pass the last row of men without incident and stop by a black-cloaked figure holding two horses for us. Before I realize what’s happening, Henri’s hands encircle my waist and he lifts me onto the nearest one as if I weigh nothing. I swing my leg over the pommel and take my seat as he releases me. The cloaked figure hands me my reins while Henri pulls himself onto the same stallion I saw him ride before. He’s not so far above me this time. Tonight, my horse isn’t my usual docile mare; it’s a gelding as black as coal.
No one speaks a word after we’re settled. I shift in my saddle, staring at the column of hooded backs in front of me, feeling strangely out of body. It’s like I’m an unwilling participant in the Wild Hunt, Odin at my side, gods and monsters ready to wreak havoc against humanity.
On some invisible command, the column starts forward. I prod my gelding into a walk when it’s our turn and feel his muscles bunch beneath me. We move like ghouls into the forest, the only sounds that of creaking leather, muffled hoof falls, and the snorting exhalations of our mounts. The moon hangs half full in the heavens, and the night is cloudless, giving us just enough light to see by as we wind our way into the trees.
About half a mile from the chateau, we stop again on some invisible command. I see a spark up ahead, and then suddenly a lantern splutters into life at the head of the column. One by one, more lanterns flare, and soon we’re illuminated by their glow, a small sphere of light in the forest’s gloom. The men hang them on short hooks that swing away from their saddles, similar to what I’ve seen on traveling coaches at night.
Even Henri has a lantern, and he talks to me as he sets about lighting it. “We’re going to stay to the rear so that you’re out of harm’s way most of the night. My father was so impressed by how people responded to your story that it gave him an idea. He wants you to start accompanying us on these raids, coming in toward the end to be glimpsed by enemy soldiers. We want them to spread the tale that a woman rides with a force like ours. It will embolden our men, give them a myth to tell, a story to spread around campfires. In time, it’ll spread amongst the republicans as well. They’ll come to fear transporting goods through our territory and think twice before planning raids across our borders.”
“Why not have someone who already knows what they’re about fill the role? Why not Mallory?” I ask as he hangs his lantern.
“Mallory’s talents lay elsewhere,” he says. “You’re a better fit for this. You’re gently bred, well-educated, beautiful, and deceptively delicate. People here still believe in the supernatural, and soldiers, even enemy ones, are a superstitious bunch. They’re more likely to fear an unknown, mystical force that only strikes at night than a normal band of soldiers attacking them in daylight. We need the men we encounter to believe you could be some vengeful specter leading a band of phantoms against them.”
It makes a strange sort of sense. I certainly wouldn’t want to go anywhere near an allegedly haunted forest filled with a ghost army. “What do you expect me to do?”
“Very little, at least at first. We just want you to walk amongst the survivors, preferably in a graceful yet creepy way.” A grin tugs at his mouth, and he shoots me a wink that I catch thanks to the torchlight. “Shouldn’t be too hard for you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask, but I know from the glint in his dark eyes that he’s only teasing me, trying to set me at ease.
“Take it as a compliment,” he says. “For once, your particular skillset will come in handy.”
I shake my head, trying to think of some witty comeback, but my anxiety gets the best of me. “So I’m not going to fight?”
He shifts his mount closer to mine and squeezes my knee. “Not unless something goes terribly wrong, and even then, I’ll probably just pick you up and run you to safety before turning back.”
My eyes move over him as his words sink in. Be afraid, de Vergeronne warned me, but even with the threat of battle looming, I feel safe with his hand gripping my leg. He’s so large, bigger than almost all the men ahead of us, and even though I’ve never seen him in a real fight, I’ve witnessed enough of his skill in the training room to know how deadly he must be. The thought triggers memories of the sans culottes from the road, and I feel a slight pang of…something in response to learning that I won’t play a more active role.
Am I disappointed? I wonder as the column begins moving again. Henri gives me one last squeeze and straightens in his saddle. After four years of this chaos, of witnessing and reading about the atrocities committed in the name of liberty, I have to admit that the darker part of my mind might be spreading out to infect the rest. An increasingly large part of me wants revenge against the republic, wants retribution for all the innocent lives they’ve stolen, for all the blood they’ve spilled and the lies they’ve told. What started as a noble desire for freedom and self-governance has since become twisted into something unrecognizable and deeply corrupt.
We heel our horses into a trot, the lanterns providing enough illumination that it’s safe to travel at a faster pace. My eyes turn from the trees to the pack of men ahead of me. The rumor of a wraith-filled forest will no doubt spread like wildfire once our enemies get a look at us. With their cloaks flapping as they ride and torchlight glinting off the steel of their weapons, they truly look like specters on the prowl for mortal souls. Thank God for the false sense of calm Henri’s energy causes, or I might be afraid of them myself.
I glance over at him, and feeling my regard, he turns to me, his eyes catching in the lantern light. Are they all like him? Supernaturally fast, able to see clearly in the dark, possessing the strength of ten men? If so, our enemies don’t stand a chance. I almost pity them.
White teeth flash as Henri shoots me a toothy grin. I shiver, using the excuse of pushing my hood back to break eye contact. There’s no one to see me with it off beside him, and the wind was halfway to ripping it free anyway. Funny, I was cold not too long ago, but maybe the density of the forest holds the heat of day better than the open road because the air doesn’t feel so chilly anymore.
Another wave of warmth rolls over me a few minutes later, and I shrug my arms free of the cloak. It’s easier to relax without the cold nipping at my heels, and I sit my saddle better now that my limbs are loosening up. Even my horse seems to feel it, settling into his stride, trotting over the hardpack with sinuous grace. I shift the reins to one hand and lean forward to pat his shoulder. He tosses his head and bugles into the night, a sound of joy echoed by several of the mounts ahead of us.
I grin over at Henri and find him already watching me, his own hood thrown back, admiration and excitement and the thrill of the hunt turning his expression into something hypnotic. My worry about what’s to come evaporates, and his words from earlier fill my mind.
“I’ve seen you at night. You come alive in the training room. You’re more yourself with a knife in your hand than you are a sewing needle… Think about how it could be, racing through the forest together at night, stealing into enemy strongholds.”
He wasn’t wrong. Even the thought of facing armed republican troops isn’t enough to dampen my excitement right now. I’m the sole woman in a company full of strange, dangerous people who may not even be human, about to rob carriages in the middle of the night like a band of highwaymen. I should be afraid; I should protest against this. But I don’t think I would even if Henri pulled back his power. My blood is singing. I’ve never felt so alive, so powerful, like someone to be feared.
It’s a heady feeling when most of my adult life has been spent crammed inside the small cage of femininity society erects around women. Don’t ever be alone with a man, speak softly, remain calm and docile, go here, do this, be that way, no, not too much that way. It’s enough to make me want to scream sometimes. Now, racing through a night-drenched forest, I’m breaking all the rules, and I feel free and unruly and half-feral, a match for the man at my side.
I am young and strong, and the republic should fear me, fear the steal of my blade and the bite of my teeth.
I shake myself, wondering where on earth that thought came from. I’m not carrying any weapons. And the bite of my teeth? Ew. I’d rather chew soap than put my mouth on a strange enemy soldier who probably hasn’t bathed in several days.
The declaration felt wrong in my mind, foreign. Goosebumps march over my skin and a strange sensation follows, like ants crawling over me, burrowing into my body, my mind. I shake my head, trying to clear it.
I want to tear, to rend. Hot blood. Crimson spurting copper on my tongue. I’ll drink it down and howl my victory.
I clutch my head and lean forward over the pommel. What the hell is happening to me? Am I going mad?
Henri reaches over and grabs my reins, hauling back on them, slowing both our mounts. The men in front of us turn, eyes flashing. “Ride on!” he tells them.
I heave in deep breaths, my head pounding, feeling like my mind is trying to break free from my skull. All at once, the chill of the night creeps back in, getting colder and colder the farther we fall away from the main party.
Oh God. The night wasn’t ever warm, was it? It was the collective energy of all those strange men washing over me, setting my skin on fire with their power, infecting me with it, and invading my mind.
I force myself to uncurl, staring after the column as it nears a bend in the road. Those thoughts felt so foreign because they were foreign. I know it with the same certainty that I know the sky is blue. Were my earlier musings correct? Can you turn into whatever those men are, whatever Henri is, simply by being around them for too long?
“What just happened to you?” Henri asks.
I turn to him, panic burning through the false sense of peace. “I think I heard someone else’s thoughts.”
He frowns, opens his mouth, and shuts it again.
“How?” I demand.
“I don’t know,” Henri says, and from the troubled look on his face, I think he’s telling the truth. “But now isn’t the time to try and figure it out. Come, we can’t let them get too far ahead of us.” He still has hold of my reins and drags my gelding forward with him as he heels his stallion back into a walk.
“Am I turning into whatever you are?” I blurt.
He growls at me, eyes darting forward as if to judge the distance of the others and whether or not they might have heard. “Later, Belle.”
“Am I?” I demand.
“No. Now come on.” He tosses my reins back to me and urges his horse into a trot. I have no choice but to follow him or risk being left behind in the woods without a light to see by.
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.