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Germinal, Year II (March 1794), Picardy, France
Silence surrounded her, an eerie music more haunting than that of any chamber players. It soaked into her pores and chilled her blood.
Isabelle surveyed the shadowed trees of northern France, so different from the wide fields she'd grown up with in Burgundy. The woods lay still, most animals caught in winter's slumber. Her breathing and the crunch of her shoes against the road formed the only human sounds amid acres of forest and earth and animalsor the only human sounds of which she knew.
She clutched her cloak and glanced behind her. Did someone follow?
Her feet stumbled over the hard dirt road, her body trembled with cold, her gloved fingers stiffened until they nearly lost their grip on her valise and her vision blurred. Fatigue washed through her like waves lapping higher and higher on a shore. The long periods of dark through which she had traveled stretched into one another until the ninth night seemed no different from the first but for the growing blisters on her feet and cramps in her arms. One more day.
She was close, so terribly close. If she could just survive tonight, she'd nearly reach her destination.
A whisper. A crackle. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. Something's out there.
A rustle in the bushes ahead.
Isabelle reached to her waist, clasped the handle of her dagger and unsheathed it.
Was it an animal? A person? Please, no, not a person.
The bushes rustled again.
Her hands slicked with sweat. Low to the ground, two reflective eyes appeared in the brush.
A wolf? She held its gaze, her heart pounding a savage cadence for each second the creature glared back. Fear licked its way into her chest. She sped her pace and clasped the dagger so tightly her fingers would surely leave imprints on the leather handle.
Her hand began to shake. She'd kill him if he rushed her. She must. But where to stab him?
As suddenly as the eyes appeared, they vanished.
Dropping her valise, she clutched her throat with her free hand and forced herself to take a breath.
She wiped her damp forehead, then groped for her elegant cross pendant and slipped it from beneath her dress. The silver glinted in the moonlight, but the shadows turned the emerald at its center a sullen black. Like her, the pendant survived, the only remaining fragment of her life before the Revolution.
In her mind, she could still see the light from the stained-glass windows that had slanted down on her six years past, when her father presented the cross for her sixteenth birthday. Even now she could feel his thick fingers as they fumbled to fasten the clasp at the back of her neck.
But was He still there? The God of the cross she wore?
"Holy Father? Give me strength?" More a question than a plea, nevertheless she uttered the words into the night. There had been a time, before the Revolution started five years ago, when her words would have been strong and sure. Now they floated into the gloom, a glimmer of hope swallowed in an abyss of doubt.
Through the wind's filter, a distant noise teased her hearing.
A trickle of voices? She turned her head. The faint sound whirled and dissipated. She scanned the road toward the west and then the east.
Silence. Only the primitive night surrounded her.
Then a group of men burst from the woods, the four or five soldiers sprinting toward her.
Father, no! Don't let them catch me. Not when I'm so close.
"Look, there's a girl," a voice rang out.
A hot explosion of fear seized the base of her spine and spiraled upward. Enacting a plan she'd rehearsed thousands of times in her head, she gripped her bag and ran into the woods opposite the men.
"Stop, in the name of the Republic."
She sped toward the darkest places within the shadowed forest, seeking a large fir tree, a thick clump of saplings, anywhere that might shelter her for a moment. Perchance her pursuers would lose sight of her or trip over a log.
She didn't want to die. Not here. Not at the hands of those who'd already killed her family. She could die the moment she reached her destination. A carriage could run over her or an illness take her. She'd accept death by another means, but not at the hands of the armee.
Her bag caught on a branch. Leave it, her mind screamed, but she couldn't let these beasts find, tear through and claim her belongings. They had no right to her bag, no right to her.
"Stop, you vixen, or we'll make you pay."
"Come here. We want to tittle-tattle, that's all."
The shouts rang closer. Her pursuers' panting grew louder than her quick inhales. The men stumbled over rocks and saplings she evaded. They trampled the dead leaves across which she flitted. But still they gained.
She tripped on a rock, twisting her ankle. She cringed and bit back a cry as pain seared up her leg and her shoe gouged into a blister. Still, she pressed forward.
"Quit running, wench! We won't hurt you."
She veered to the right, following the thickest trees. Surely she could duck into some spot and let the beasts run past her. But the ground here was flat and barren beneath the trees. Not even a fallen log to hide her.
"Get her, fool."
"Where'd she go? I can't see her."
"By the tree."
Heavy footfalls from behind sounded as though they would trample her. Or was that her heart thumping its erratic rhythm? Hot breath teased her neck and ear. No. They couldn't be so close. It must be the wind swirling her hair.
"Faster. If she escapes, I'll send you all to the guillotine."
Isabelle burst into an unexpected clearing. Moonlight illumined her movements as she raced toward the nearest trees.
"We have you now!"
Something pulled her bag. She turned to wrench it free, but one of the men gripped the handle. He sprawled on the ground, as though he had lunged for her, only to catch the bag instead.
"Come here, sweetheart," he growled. His forearm, the size of a young tree trunk, rippled as he clenched the leather.
Let it go. They'll find the money and be happy.
Defiance surged like a flood inside her. She'd not surrender so easily. She yanked the handle. The lock sprang, her bag yawned open and her clothes spewed upward, raining down like her shattered life.
"You get her?" a man called out.
Isabelle glimpsed the silhouettes of others running toward her. Releasing her bag, she screamed, though it sounded like little more than a gasp for want of air, and stumbled forward toward safety. If she made it to the stand of firs ahead, she could lose the men in the thick branches. Seven more steps. Then five, then four.
An arm, strong as an iron band, clamped across her waist and pulled her back against a hard chest. She screamed and fought and kicked. Her captor tightened his hold, pinning her arms against her breast so forcefully her necklace dug into her flesh.
"Let me go!" Waves of hair spilled across her face. She scratched and twisted, but the more she fought, the firmer her captor's hold grew.
"That's right, girl. Fight until you're spent. We can wait." A second man towered before her. He jerked his chin, his leadership of the band evident in the simple movement, and the five men formed a circle around her. The soldats all wore bloodred liberty caps and those horrid tricolor cockades.
The leader stepped closer and yanked a handful of her hair, forcing her head back and her teeth to grit against the pain.
"What do you think?" Her captor spoke from behind her. "Is she an aristocrat?"
Aristocrat. The word burned fear into her gut.
"Does it matter?" Someone sneered. "We got her. Only one thing to do with her now."
The soldiers hooted in laughter, and gooseflesh rose on her arms.
The leader seized her wrist, ran his finger over her hand and grunted. "No calluses, but not smooth, either."
Isabelle shrank away, but her back met the solid wall of her captor's chest, leaving her no choice but to stare at the leader. The man possessed arms and hands so burly he could snap her in half. A thin scar twisted around his right eyebrow and bunched into an angry fist, and his powerful chest, clothed in an ill-fitting blue National Guard coat, rose and fell with each heavy breath.
The other soldiers crouched on the ground, searching her clothes and tattered bag.
Isabelle blinked back tears and lifted her chin. She'd been so close. One more day to the Channel. "Please, let me go. I've done nothing wrong."
"Nothing wrong? Now, that depends on whether you're an aristocrat. Where are you from?" Even in the gloom, malice shimmered in the leader's eyes.
"Arras." It wasn't a lie. She and Marie had lived there since her family's massacre five years earlier. "I'm a seamstress."
"A seamstress?" The leader's eyes ran slowly down her body, lingering so long her cheeks grew warm. "And what would a seamstress be doing alone? At night? So close to the shoreline?"
"I'm visiting my aunt. In Saint-Valery-sur-Somme."
The leader laughed, a chilling timbre that sent fear into her heart. "Sure you are. Everyone travels in the dead of night when visiting an aunt."
Isabelle licked her lips. "She suffered apoplexy, and we just received word. She needs someone to care for her. I'm traveling as quickly as possible, even at night." She'd rehearsed the story a hundred times, even told it a time or two during the course of her journey. So why did her voice quaver?
"Hah. A likely story." The leader's gaze darkened. "She's an aristocrat, men. Has to be."
Isabelle dropped her gaze and clutched at the hard arm around her chest. "Non, please!" They had to believe her. It wasn't a lie, not all of it. She was a seamstress. She was from Arras.
The leader smirked and took a strand of her hair between his fingers. Isabelle stiffened, bile churning in her stomach as he toyed with a curl.
"Pretty as you are, you're not worth the trouble of dragging to a trial." The leader separated her hair into little sections between his thumb and middle finger and stroked it. "We'll take care of you here."
The breath clogged in her throat. So they wouldn't cart her to the nearest guillotine or to Paris. They'd kill her in the middle of the woods with only the trees as spectators. Better than the alternative. But if she could get free somehow and make it to the shrubs, she could still hide in the tall grass. All she needed was a distraction. Something to make her captor lose his hold. But what
The arm around her middle loosened. Her captor's hand slid up, and he brushed his thumb along the base of her rib cage. "We got time to have this one before we kill her. She'd be worth it."
The air left her lungs in one hard whoosh. Please, Father, don't let them rape me. After five years of prayers falling on deaf ears, if there was any prayer God deemed fit to answer, surely this would be it. She didn't move or even breathe as she focused her eyes on the man in front of her.
If You've any shred of mercy, Father, spare me. Her hands, still held against her chest, sought the familiar outline of the cross beneath her dress.
The leader's eyes darkened, yet the fury embodied there shot past her and speared the man who held her. "You've a wife at home, Christophe."
She tried to suck in a relieved breath, but her captor's arm cut so tight she couldn't inhale.
A low growl escaped from the throat behind her. "You never let us"
"I said no!"
The arm around her vibrated with tension, though the man remained silent. But the leader's attention slipped back to her.
"Who are you, wench? Truly?" The massive soldat pinned his eyes to hers, as though he already knew the truth.
"I told you."
"Don't feed me another lie about Arras." He dug the heel of his boot into the ground. "Quel est votre nom?"
He wanted to know her name? Her eyes fought the malevolent black of his gaze. Isabelle Cerise de La Rouchecauld, second daughter of the late Duc de La Rouchecauld, Louis-Alexandre. And after my sister was captured last week, all the province of Artois is searching for me.
The words burned inside her, though why after years of hiding she should desire to confess her identity to a band of soldats, she didn't know. Her jaw trembled as she opened her mouth to recite the familiar story. "Isabelle Chenior. The daughter of a cobbler traveling to Saint-Valery to see her aunt."
Her chest grew tight. What if he forced the true answer from her? The man carried enough power, he could make her talk. And if he learned of her heritage, he'd take her to Paris, where she'd be executed before the raucous mob. With her ancestry dating back to the tenth century, the crowd would be wild for her blood.
As the mob must have been for her sister's. A sob welled in Isabelle's chest, but she shoved it down. She'd not think of Marie now, nor of her role in her sister's death.
The leader snorted. "Isabelle Chenoir, daughter of a cobbler? You lie again, but your name matters not. You all end up at the guillotine."
Yes, let him think her name didn't matter.
One of the soldiers trotted over. "Found the money."
The leader held out his hand for the pouch of coins and bundle of assignats she'd hidden in the secret pocket of her valise. Her stomach clenched. Five years of her seamstress's wages, and the man palmed it as though she'd earned it in an hour.