Malfait lead Isabel out of the grotto down a cavern different than the one by which she had entered. Even if she could escape his hold, could she find her way out? They had taken many turns. And if she reached the surface, would not Jacques or another servant capture her?
Before Isabel could come to a satisfactory answer to these questions, Malfait stopped. Reaching into this coat, he produced a taper which he lit using a nearby torch ensconced in the rocky wall. He held the taper out in front of them. The light from the flame was not great but it was enough to reveal a narrow opening in the wall that had been hidden from Isabel’s eyes by shadows.
“I promised you a breath of night air,” the Comte said, and, as if upon cue, a gentle draft of air issued forth from the black opening. The taper flickered but did not go out. Malfait entered the darkness pulling Isabel behind. In the faint candlelight, Isabel discerned a spiral of stairs leading upward.
The pair proceeded to climb and climb for some time. Just as weariness was about force Isabel to speak and ask the Comte to stop, the two reached a solid wall. Malfait looked down at Isabel, smiled and then blew out the taper. The absolute darkness drew a short cry from Isabel’s lips. Then Malfait released Isabel’s wrist.
Without thought, she reached out trying to discover the wall or where Malfait had gone. Before she found either, Isabel heard stone grating against stone, and then the small landing upon which she stood with Malfait was illuminated by star and moonlight. A cool breeze caressed her face.
The thought of escape flickered in Isabel’s mind, but the thought was quickly extinguished when the Comte’s again seized her wrist.
“Here we are my young signor,” Malfait said. “A most perfect place to learn the mysteries of the great god Bacchus.”
Gently, Malfait lead Isabel up three steps, out of the cavern, and into the night air. Looking around, Isabel found herself in midst of the ruined abbey. They had exited the side of the alter, one side of which was a disguised door.
The two proceeded down the nave of the abbey. The windowless arches framed the night sky and Isabel reflected how perfectly the star-strewn heavens replaced the now long-lost stained glass. The occasional sound of nocturnal animals and the fragrance of night-flowering plants completed a scene which overwhelmed Isabel to such a degree that for a moment she forgot her present peril.
However, when Malfait stopped and faced Isabel the full knowledge of the danger of her situation washed over her like a monstrous wave engulfing a small boat.
Malfait released Isabel’s wrist. “Come, sit down upon this rude seat,” he said, indicating a large piece of fallen masonry.
“My lord,” Isabel began, trying her best to mask her voice as her face was masked. “I am afraid there has been a terrible mistake.” Isabel paused while she tried to invent some story that could save her from certain discovery and disgrace, or perhaps a worse fate. Then a ploy came to her. “Yes, a mistake, my lord,” she began again, “You see, my friends have played me for the fool. They invited me to a dinner and gave me directions here – to your villa. Clearly, they meant to embarrass me by having me enter your party uninvited.” She quickly added, “And for my intrusion I am truly sorry.” Isabel hazarded a glance at Malfait. He had sat down on another large piece of masonry opposite to her. “I assure you that I do not make a habit of engaging in such rude behavior. And I shall now take my leave.”
Isabel tried to walk passed Malfait but he took hold of her arm. “My young signor, you look warm from the long climb. Let me help you.”
With nimble fingers the Comte undid her cravat. Taking hold of the collar of her shirt, he pulled it open, his fingers tracing her collarbone as he did so. He next took her coat, slide it off her shoulders, and let it fall to the ground. With the lightest touch, he guided her to the piece of stone he had pointed out earlier. The back of her knees met the stone and Isabel sat down involuntarily.
Malfait said, “One of my guests pointed you out of me. He declared you to be a very handsome youth. Indeed, he expressed a sympathy for the men of antique Greece, where, as I’m sure you know, men of standing would take young men like yourself as lovers.” Malfait paused and carefully considered Isabel from the top of her heard to the soles of her shoes. Then he continued. “And I heartily agreed with his sentiments. Truly, I see no reason why not to revive the tradition. What say you to that my young signor?”
Isabel looked up and saw Malfait looming above her.
She reached behind her in a desperate attempt to escape and her hand found a loose stone. Taking hold of the it, she threw it with all her might at the Comte, who dodged the missile but not quickly enough. The stone grazed his left temple.
Malfait let out a cry and a curse. Touching his hand to his temple and looking upon his hand, he said, “You have drawn blood!” The Comte sat back down on his makeshift seat.
“My lord,” she said. “You forced me to resort to such means. I shall not take part in such, such pagan sports.”
Malfait looked up and laughed. “You are a woman unlike all others. My dear Isabel, you are the descendant of some warrior queen!”
Isabel started violently. My voice gave me away, she thought.
“You seem surprised,” Malfait said. He move forward and knelt before at her feet and took her hands in his own. “Do you think I could forget your delicate hands?” Malfait slowly drew the tips of his fingers over the underside of Isabel’s wrist and then across the palm of her hand. Looking up, he caught Isabel in his gaze. “Do you think I would not know your beauteous mouth?” He laid his hand lightly upon her cheek and then drew his thumb across her lips. Isabel shivered in the cool night air.
“Then you did not think me a young man?” Isabel asked.
“As I led you through the cavern?” he asked. “No, but I was not being false when I said you made a very handsome young man, and that I admired the antique Greeks.”
“I suppose my feminine pride should be hurt at such a remark – that I look like a man.”
“Not at all,” Malfait said. “Did you not seek to disguise yourself as young man?” The Comte continued without waiting for an answer and said, “you achieved your goal perfectly.”
The pair were silent for a time, and then Isabel said, “Are you going to permit me to leave?”
“First there are a few things we must discuss.” Malfait sat back down on the stone opposite Isabel. “You see, I am in a very vulnerable position.”
“You in a vulnerable position!” Isabel was incredulous.
“Yes, truly,” Malfait replied. “If you were to reveal what you saw here tonight my life would hang in the balance. You witnessed the debaucheries taking place. With a French army approaching Villefranche and France being my native land, there are certain functionaries of the Kingdom of Sardinia who would happily imprison me – or even execute me as a spy.”
“Well then it seems best if I return to my home and we both forget this entire evening,” Isabel said. Feeling she had the advantage to pushed forward. “Indeed, perhaps it would be best if you quietly slipped back into France. It seems it would be safer for you.”
The Comte du Malfait laughed but it was not a jovial laugh. Indeed, the sound made Isabel shiver.
Malfait moved and sat next to Isabel. “My sweet Isabel. Why do you shiver and blanch with fear?” he asked. “Am I not to be your husband?”
She did not respond, and Malfait put his fingers under Isabel’s chin and caused her to look into his eyes. He said, “Is it not the duty of a husband to protect his wife?”
“Yes,” Isabel replied. She said no more as she was afraid of how he might use her words against her.
“However, I am horribly vexed,” he said and took a firmer hold of her chin. “You have disguised yourself and come uninvited to a private gathering with the sole purpose of finding some grounds to condemn me and prevent our marriage – and I am compelled to remind you our marriage is the wish of your family.”
The Comte stood and paced about. “Truly, I have solids grounds to be deeply wounded by your actions. For, doubt it if you wish, but you possess the entirety of my gentler affections.”
A moment of silence passed. Isabel could not fathom how a man who engaged in such wild reveals could talk of gentle affections. Then Isabel asked, “What do you intend to do with me?”
Malfait stopped his pacing and stood before Isabel. “I feel there are but two courses of action,” he said. “I can take you home this instant, rouse the entire household and tell your father all that you have done this night.”
“No! I would be ruined!” Isabel cried out. “What of your silken words of protection and gentle affections,” she demanded with some heat.
Malfait held up his hand. “Then we must choose the second option.”
Isabel silently waited.
“You must be initiated into the Villa of Mysteries,” Malfait said.
Isabel thought of all the dis-arrayed clothing and bare skin and decedent behavior she had just witnessed. “What…what do you mean? What would you have me do?” Her voice trembled.
Malfait held up one of the pine-cone-tipped staffs that had been secreted somewhere upon his person. “Merely this,” he said, and brought the staff down upon his open palm. “Bare your flesh and receive the touch of the staff of Bacchus.” He waved his hand. “I shall dispense with the requirement that this be done in view of the rest of the community. We can do it here.”
“How will that satisfy anything but your peculiar and debauched appetites?” Isabel demanded.
“If you are an initiate into the Villa of Mysteries, into my humble Temple of Bacchus,” Malfait began. “Then if you condemn me, you will condemn yourself for you will have partaken in the Bacchanalian festivities as well.” The Comte examined the staff. “It is up to you my sweet Isabel. You can become one of us, or I can take you home to your father and inform him of what you have done.”
Isabel took off her mask and sighed heavily. Finally, she said, ”Lightly.”
Malfait said, “Pardon?”
“Promise that you shall leave no marks upon me,” Isabel said. “And I shall be initiated.”
Malfait offered his hand to Isabel. “I accept your bargain. I shall initiate you into my Temple of Bacchus, I shall leave no marks, and we shall tell no one of the events of this evening.”
Isabel took the Comte’s hand and the two shook to seal the agreement. Then Malfait motioned for Isabel to stand which she did. Turning around so that her back faced Malfait, she began to awkwardly unbutton her masculine garb.
Before she was able to undo two buttons, Isabel felt Malfait against her back. His arms, like serpents from some benighted forest, entwined her waist and held her tight. Malfait craned his head down and whispered, “Allow me to help you.” Isabel closed her eyes, but then opened them as Malfait undid the buttons of her breaches and then slipped his hands inside the waistband. She had expected them to be cold, but surprisingly they were hot like a stone bench that had stood in the summer sun.
In one slow motion, Malfait lowered Isabel’s breaches. Then, feeling the lightest touch upon her shoulder, Isabel looked behind her, and found Malfait motioning for her to lean over. He smiled and said, “If you please.”
Keeping her gaze upon Malfait, Isabel leaned over the piece of fallen masonry. Malfait clutched the hem of her shirt and pushed it up exposing her back to the chill air. Isabel was awash with sensations: The chill night air on her naked flesh, the rough rock under the palms of her hands, and the sight of the handsome Comte looming over her. And he was handsome. Isabel had sought to deny it, but at this moment she admitted to herself that he was indeed very handsome.
The Comte du Malfait raised his hand that held the fennel staff and then stopped.
Isabel’s hands grasped at the rock and she bite her lip in anticipation of the coming blow. An eternity seemed to pass. What was he waiting for? His cruel torment knew no bounds.
And then she noticed that the Comte seemed to be struggling to say something and that his eyes were no longer upon her, but somewhere in the distance. Isabel followed his gaze and beheld a figure encased in antique armour which shone brightly in the moonlight.
Both Isabel and Malfait were transfixed as the figure approached, and when it was but a few paces away it held out its hand to Isabel and spoke: “Isabel, I have come for you.”
The sound of the voice was like none Isabel had heard before. Indeed, if she had been asked to describe it, she would have said it was more akin to a wailing wind than to a human voice. It was then that Isabel realized that a curtain of clouds had hidden the moon, and thus the livid, green glow emanating from the figure came from itself and was not reflected moonlight.
The figure was now next to Isabel and it spoke again: “Isabel, it is I, your beloved Philippe! Come, I shall take you away from this place.”
Isabel cried out and the ability to move returned to her. She straightened up and sought to recoil from this spectre. However, her lowered breaches caused her to stumble. She would have surely stumbled to the ground, but the spectre reached out and grasped her wrist. The hand was so cold it cause Isabel pain.
The deathly cold grasp was not unlike the grasp of the creature of shadow that had attack her in her very own bed chamber. How she had labored to convince herself that the shadow creature had been a dream, a mere fancy invented by overwrought nerves. But now Isabel was wide awake, and the creature’s touch was palpable.
It pulled her close, and through the closed helm it said, “Ah, my most beauteous angel!”
The voice was a chill wind upon her face. “Philippe unhand me!” Isabel said, but the ghostly figure did not ease his hold upon her. Rather the opposite. It inclined its iron head and Isabel felt its icy breath upon her neck.
Isabel struggled even more vigorously and was able to look back. Malfait still stood transfix in a now ridiculous pose with his raised arm still holding the fennel staff. But his face was a twisted mix of horror and rage. The armoured arms now dug into her back, and she cried out, “My lord! Help me!”
Presently, Malfait threw open his arms and spoke in a language Isabel did not know. A gust of wind rushed down the nave of the ruined abbey and the curtain of clouds parted to reveal the moon. The spectre wailed and then released Isabel and staggered backwards. In one motion, Malfait placed himself between Isabel and the ghostly suit of armour, and, pronouncing more words in that mysterious tongue, brought the staff down upon the helm of his foe.
A great shower of sparks erupted from the end of Malfait’s staff, and a great wailing cry shook the very ruins.
Isabel fell to the ground, covering her eyes and ears, and was presently embraced by a merciful darkness.