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She was a creature of mud and dirt, and though from time to time light glinted in her corner of the alley, she did not see it directly. Sometimes the light would catch the edge of her blade and it would startle her, stirring a faint memory. It would stir something around her heart. But it hurt, this remembering, and she would push it away into a dark part of her mind.
Instead, she scrabbled for what food she could take from the rats when she could not find a dropped coin, and tried to avoid notice. Occasionally, she received kicks from passersby if she strayed too far from her corner, but the pain from this was only slight, nothing compared to the pain she felt when she saw pain in others. So she closed her eyes and tried to sleep when she was not searching for food.
She did not know what day it was, only that light and darkness passed one after another, and that it was very cold. When it became too cold, she was forced from her corner in the alley to the church, where she could sit in a far corner of the sanctuary and look at the light of the candles when she was sure no one was looking. This was more comfortable than the alley, to be sure, and sometimes she would find a piece of bread that someone must have dropped on their way to confession. And . . . it eased the pain in her heart to be there, and she did not bleed from her hands, and her back did not ache when she slept underneath one of the pews. But a church was not for one such as herself.
It was on one such cold morning that she awoke to the sound of the priest yawning and opening the sanctuary. She stayed still underneath the pew until she was sure the priest had passed by, and she crept--she thought--noiselessly out the door.
"You, boy, stop!"
She looked wildly about her and stared for a moment at the plump, black-frocked priest who had called to her. He looked surprised, then shook his head.
"Are you the one who has been sleeping here at night?"
Fear clutched her heart, stopping her voice, but she nodded slightly. "I am sorry, ma Pere," she managed to whisper after a while. "I will not do so again." She looked away, fear overcoming her once more, but this time the fear gave her legs motion and she ran.
She would not wait. She knew what waiting would do. Waiting led to a place where she had no way to escape except through more pain. She ran to the alley that was her home, her sheathed blade tapping against her hip, hoping that no one had claimed her corner.
But just as the street she followed turned into the alley, she stopped abruptly. Tears began to build beneath her eyelids and she drew in a deep, harsh breath as she looked at the scene before her: a young girl sobbed while a man hit her across her face and another man shoved her against the wall and pushed up her skirts.
Pain sliced across her back, making her gasp, and her hands prickled with the first flow of blood from them. She pulled out two strips of cloth from her pockets and tied them around her shaking hands. She slowly, carefully pulled out her sword while rage built underneath her ribs, rapidly pulling the air into her lungs.
It was the only way. The only way to stop the blood, the pain, and the rage.
She ran to the girl and to the men, snarling in her anger and at the almost blinding pain that surged across her back. It was the sound of fury, the sound of a cornered animal. The men turned, and she lashed at them with her sword.
"Get away from her." Her voice was a growl. "Get away, or I will kill you." She could feel the cloth at the palms of her hands dampen with blood, and pain grew there, as well.
"Stupid boy. Go away--unless you want some, too." One man--short and dark--sneered and the other, taller, man turned back to the girl, leaned down, and thrust his hand underneath her skirt. The girl screamed.
The scream lashed at her, and she jerked as if whipped. She gripped her sword tighter, then her hand lifted and the blade's tip scored the back of the dark-haired man's neck. His scream lessened the pain in her hands and he released the girl, putting his hand to his neck and then looking with disbelief at the blood on his fingers. The man's scream made his friend loosen his hold on the girl; she fell to her hands and knees, than scrambled out from between the men's legs. She ran, screaming and weeping, as the taller man tried to hold her by her apron skirts, but her apron came off in his hand. His sneer grew into a frown, then he rushed with a knife at the intruder who had spoiled his sport.
Her blade sliced at his hand and knocked the knife from it. He cried out, and the pain on her back began to fade. She almost let down her guard in relief, but the other man came for her, as well, more cautiously. He, too, had a knife. "Jesu, Marie," she whispered. She had not ever taken on two men before. She had the advantage of a rapier that was longer than their crude knives, but her pain slowed her, and she knew if she were not swift enough, the strength of these large men would overcome her. She hoped her skill would be enough, as little as it was.
The second man circled her, and she could see he was trying to maneuver her so that her back was to his friend. If she could keep both of them in sight--
She turned the other way, but it did no good; both men had their knives in their hands now, and she was not sure she could deal with both of them. At least her back was to the street, not the alley. It would be possible to run if she needed to, cowardly though it was.
The thought of the two men raping another girl made her stomach turn, and the pain across her back increased. No. No, she could not let these men go free.
The men lunged as one at her, and she had no choice. She ducked under the arm of one and thrust her rapier, clumsily, at the other. A roar from the man on whom she'd used her sword told her that she had cut him. She glanced quickly at him and saw that he was clutching his stomach, his clothes showing a spreading blotch of blood. Good.
She turned to the other. This man still had his dagger, and now had a large stick in his other hand. She bit back a groan--the rapier felt heavier to her now, and she had not the rage-induced strength she had long ago before she--before she . . . She shook her head, trying to dispel the mist over her memory . . . in the beginning of this fight.
She raised her rapier again, flexing her knees as she should, put her other hand behind her back to reduce fatigue, and wished she had learned to fight with a dagger, two-handed. But she had not learned, and her dagger was still strapped to her leg.
"Come, cochon, you pig," she called out. "You can fight me now or later, but either way you will die. Make it quick, so you will not bleed slowly to death like your friend." She jerked her chin toward the other man, who groaned and vomited blood on the cobblestones.
The ruffian looked uncertain, but only for a moment before he rushed at her. She was not so quick this time, and his dagger sliced her arm before she had a chance to move to defend herself. Fatigue washed over her, and she was glad her hands had stopped their bleeding and that the pain in her back had faded with the dispatching of the first man. This remaining man was wily and stronger than the other . . . and what was worse, looked more well fed than she. Hunger gripped her stomach at the thought, and her knees trembled.
Relief showed in the man's eyes--he had seen her trembling. He struck.
Again she put up her rapier in defense, and she whipped her blade at him--too slowly, for she barely escaped another cut of his knife. Blood dripped from her arm and sweat stung her eyes. At least it was not her hands that bled, or her back that stung now.
Her arms and legs ached, and the breath wheezed from her lungs. She could not stand much longer, she must fight with all the strength she had left. She swallowed down a sob, and made a desperate lunge.
She missed and fell to her knees, her sword rattling on the street from her fatigue-numbed hands.
She would die now. It would be a blessed relief. She closed her eyes and waited.
The killing thrust did not come, only the thud of a body hitting the ground. She opened her eyes to see a different man, cleaner, better dressed than the two she had fought, and frighteningly handsome. She looked blearily around her--the man she had fought was on the ground, a knife sticking out of his throat.
"Damned shoddy fighting," he said. "Bravely done of you, boy, but shoddy." He spoke French well, but she could hear an accent--English, she thought. "Not that my method was particularly elegant--a thrown dagger, you see." He grinned suddenly. "Fine aim, though, if I do say so myself."
He peered at her, then offered his hand. She could not seem to stand--her legs would not move. But she would not touch him. She sat, then willed herself to push up to her feet and take a step away from him.
The Englishman's eyebrows rose, but he gave an elegant bow. "Sir John Marstone at your service." He smiled at her, and his eyes were kind.
She closed her own eyes briefly. It was a long time since she had seen kindness. She remembered her mother had been so before that good lady had died, and had been gentle in her words and her touch. Remembering the kindness made her remember something else, as well.
"I . . . merci, monsieur," she said, and sank into as much of a precise curtsy as she could, though she knew it would never do for a formal curtsy at the king's court. But this was not the court, or even her . . . home. The Englishman's brows rose higher. "My name . . . my name--" A sob escaped her. "My name is Catherine de la Fer." Pain, old shame, fatigue, and hunger sliced through her, and her sight grew black. "Dieu me sauve, my name is Catherine de la Fer," she whispered, and fell into darkness.
Jack Marstone gazed at the still form before him and frowned. Damme, but this was inconvenient. It'd be best if he left this alley; he'd hardly want to be caught with two dead bodies should anyone in authority decide to come down this alley. However, if he left the girl here, and said authority found her alive with the two ruffians--with a bloodied sword, no less--then she'd be as good as sentenced and dead. It'd be a waste of his efforts, and he disliked wasted effort.
Then, too, she was a mystery; he was curious about her, and he rarely resisted his curiosity.
He nudged the girl with his boot. "Up, girl, 'tis morning and no time to sleep. Indeed, we need to be awake on the moment if we're to get away with our skins."
The girl did not move, and Jack grunted in annoyance. God's blood, it looked like he'd have to carry the child. . . . The girl looked not much more than a child, with her thin, delicate face. He bent over the still form and felt sticky wetness when he touched her arm. Blood. Worse, the girl was wounded.
Jack sat back on his haunches and shook his head. Good intentions were a damned nuisance. Well, there was nothing for it but that he'd have to take the girl to his lodgings. He'd patch her up, get some food into her, and send the girl on her way to her mother, with a warning against playing with knives.
It was easy to pick her up and carry her over his shoulder--the child was as light as a feather, her bones easily felt through her clothes. He wrinkled his nose. She also stank. She'd be better for a washing. If he brought her back to her family in this state, they might just think he was less than a good Samaritan . . . and he intended to be a well-paid Samaritan.
Unless she was an actress and trollop and stole the clothes from some patron, she could very possibly have come from a good family. There was nothing coarse about her voice, her refined curtsy, or her manner, and that she displayed them even in the midst of extreme circumstances showed that she must be from a noble family. If so, then there had to be money in her return, and he was never behindhand in acquiring funds where he could.
The thought of money cheered him, and he whistled a tune between his teeth as he made his way through the narrow alleys to his lodgings. He garnered a few startled looks from passersby, but his rueful grin and response of "He's as drunk as a louse in a whore's bed" gave him a few chuckles, as well.
His landlady only rolled her eyes at him when he entered the hotel, and he winked at her. "Yes, yes, Madame Felice, yet another one of my charity cases, but this one will bring me into funds, you'll see." He jerked his chin toward his room upstairs. "I'll need some water for a bath--this one's filthy and possibly full of vermin."
"And you say this boy will bring you into funds, monsieur?" The plump landlady wrinkled her nose. "No doubt he will bring fleas into my house, and I will not stand for that!"
Jack grinned. "Aye, the faster the bathwater's brought up, the better. And it's a girl, not a boy, possibly run away from her family."
Mme Felice frowned and put her hands on her hips. "En vrai, she will bring you trouble, not money. Her family will not want her if she looks like this."
"True." Jack hefted the girl more comfortably on his shoulder. "Therefore, I must have the bath." Mme Felice shook her head and threw her hands up in exasperation, then bustled off as he went up the stairs to his room.
From the Paperback edition.