Isabel awoke with a jolt. The coach had come to a stop. She looked around the interior of the compartment and the memory of her circumstance broke through the sweet nepenthe of sleep. She was deep inside a foreign country, a country that was at war with her own. And her husband had ridden ahead to prepare for her arrival, and left her to journey across Southern France alone. Isabel could not remember how many days she had been traveling. The coach seemed never to stop. The light outside seemed to vary only slightly from grey to black.
Before Isabel could call out to Jacques the driver, the coach door opened. “Ah, my lady, you are awake,” he said. “I’m afraid I must make some adjustments to the reigns. It might be a benefit if you were to come out of the coach and walk around. Have a bit of a constitutional as they say.”
“Thank you Jacques,” Isabel said as she struggled out of the coach and onto the cold, wet ground. She looked around and found herself in an alien land. In every direction, to the limit of her sight, a grey sky cloaked dun mountains. White mists pooled here and there in the space between the highway and the horizon. She felt an unease rise within her. For the first time in her life, Isabel could no longer glimpse the sea. She was surrounded by earth, buried by it. Her mind conjured up the memory of the time she had crept into her older brother’s room and secreted herself in his wardrobe hoping to spy on him. He had locked the wardrobe with her in it. Despite her best efforts, Isabel had quickly succumbed to panic, and began to pound on the door with her fists while crying out for help. After what seems like days, her brother had swung open the door, and Isabel had tumbled out onto the floor. For his part, her brother had stood over her and laughed.
Returning to her present situation, Isabel cast her eyes once more in every direction in some vain hope of perceiving the sea. As she did so, her eyes fell upon a distant town. It was situated on the other side of a broad valley perched upon a gentle rise. At the highest point, stood a church in the romanesque style. To Isabel, its stone walls and small windows made it appear more like a castle than a church. Indeed, without the prominent bell tower, Isabel would not have known it was a church at all.
Just then Isabel heard Jacques approach. “Pretty view is it not, my lady?” he said.
Isabel raised her hand and pointed to the town she had been studying. “Do you know what town that is Jacques?”
“As it happens, my lady, I do indeed know of it,” Jacques said. “I say ‘of it’ because while your lord and mine has told me its history, I’ve never set foot in it myself.”
For a moment, Isabel was confused by Jacques’ reference to “her lord,” but then realized he meant Malfait. She pushed aside the feeling of unease this caused and said, “The Comte has told you if its history. Is there some family connection?”
Jacques straightened up and said, “Why yes there is my lady. You see that town is Béziers. In the days when the chivalry of France rode into battle in shining armor, it was a stronghold of the heretic Cathars. And the Papal army surrounded the city and put everyone to the sword and then burn it down.”
“Everyone?” Isabel asked and pulled her cloak more tightly around her.
“Every man, woman, and child.”
“How horrid!” Isabel exclaimed. “That is the opposite of chivalry.”
Jacques shuffled his feet and looked at the ground. “Beg your pardon my lady,” he said. “I didn’t mean to cause you distress.” He paused and then continued. “It’s just that, the Comte. Well, one of his ancestors fought with the Papal army.” Seeing the blood retreat from Isabel’s face, Jacques pressed on. “You must understand. The Cathars believed the the body was evil and that only the soul was pure.” Jacques shrugged, “And, well, you know the Comte and how he worships the – that is, whenever he tells the story the Comte takes great pleasure in quoting his ancestor thus, ‘If the Cathars believe the body is evil, I shall gladly separate their soul from it.’ He always laughs at that point in the story, he does.”
Isabel swayed and reached out for the carriage.
Jacques took hold of her arm and said, “I’m so sorry I’ve troubled you. Tis just a story my lord likes to tell. Probably not a grain of truth in it.” He helped her in to the carriage. “My lady, please forgive me.”
“Of course Jacques,” Isabel said. She was very tired. “I do not think you meant any harm.”
“I didn’t. I didn’t,” he quickly agreed. “And my lady would not mention this misunderstanding to the Comte. He’ll make me sleep in the stables if he knows I troubled you.”
Isabel reached out and took his hand. “I promise Jacques,” she said. “And you promise not to tell him that I was like a foolish girl who was frightened by a dusty family story.”
Jacques smiled, “You have my word, my lady.”
He closed the door. Isabel heard him climb into the driver’s seat and call out to the horses. The coach lurched forward and soon it was once again racing along the highway.
Isabel heard Jacques call out to the horses to slow, and the coach dipped forward. The sudden change is speed almost threw Isabel out of her seat. After an apparent sharp turn, the coach came to rest. Isabel wondered if they had arrived at the Chateau Malfait. She threw open the door and beheld not a chateau, but rather a rustic inn.
Jaques appeared and helped her down. “Our journey is almost over my lady,” he said.
“Are we close to the chateau?” Isabel said.
“Indeed we are my lady. Very close,” he said. “I must see if the Comte has left me any messages or instructions,” he continued. “Why don’t you go inside the inn and warm yourself by the fire. I shan’t be long.” Jaques walked across the courtyard and approached a tall man in a dark cloak and hat. A long scarf obscured the lower part of his face. The two greeted each other and the stranger lead Jacques into the stables.
Left alone, Isabel entered the inn. As the door closed behind her, she paused while she became accustomed to the dimness of the inn’s common room. Presently, a woman approached her. “You just arrived in the black coach?” the woman said. “I’m sorry, I believe your driver made a mistake. This is a simple inn. We’ve no private rooms.”
Isabel looked around and realized the patrons of the inn were clearly rustics. Their clothing announced their status. She looked down and realized her finally woven cloak with its fur collar announce her as a member of the aristocracy. “Oh, that won’t be necessary. My stop will be short. I’ll be continuing on to the Chateau Malfait presently.”
Immediately, the patrons nearest Isabel stopped their eating and drinking. Then, like a gentle wave the silence washed over the rest of the room. Isabel felt her face burn. She had to say something quickly. Being so close to the chateau, some of these rustics might very well work the Comte’s lands. If she didn’t announce herself it could prove very awkward at some future time.
However, the woman, who was the innkeeper’s wife, spoke first. “Visiting the ruins are you? English touring Europe are you?”
“Pardon?” Isabel said, but then realized her accent marked her as an outsider. “Forgive me. I am on my way to meet my husband, the Comte du Malfait.”
The room instantly took on the sound of a bee hive. Everyone seemed to be asking each other if they had heard what she had just said. The innkeeper’s wife scoffed. “My lady,” the woman said with a sneer. “There hasn’t been a Comte du Malfait in –“
“Silence woman!” A large man had appeared. It was the innkeeper. “Go fetch a bottle of the best brandy.” His wife scowled at him and then disappeared. Turning to Isabel he said, “My deepest apologies my lady, follow me. We’ll get you a seat by the fire.”
The innkeeper lead the way. As they arrived at the table nearest the fireplace, the two men who had been sitting there stood up and vacated their seats, practically tripping over each other in doing so. “Here we are,” the innkeeper said. His wife had returned with a bottle and a glass. The innkeeper took them from her and then shooed her away. Filling the glass he said, “I’m very sorry we weren’t prepared for your visit.”
“That is quite alright,” Isabel said. Her arrival – indeed this whole journey – was conceived in such haste it was no wonder. Isabel briefly considered trying to explain, but was sure that it would be foolhardy to even attempt such a thing.
“Then you’ll tell the Comte you were received properly?” the innkeeper asked. He seemed very nervous. Isabel found it strange that such a stout man in his own home would be nervous about anything.
“Of course I shall,” she said. “You’ve been very kind.”
“Thank you my lady,” The man smiled, bowed awkwardly, and then retreated.
Isabel took a sip of her wine. As she set the glass down she perceived that most of the patrons of the inn were staring at her, but they quickly averted their eyes when she would look their way. She did not know what to do. It was true that she had grown up in a house with servants and they had attended her needs, but her father’s servants had never shown fear while in her presence.
She greatly desired to leave the inn and return the coach. But what if Jacques had moved it? Merely entering the common room had causes such consternation, what uproar would she cause if she went out into the courtyard in search of Jacques and the coach.
She took another sip of her wine. They were still furtively staring at her. Isabel looked into the fire and tried to seem at ease. She finished her wine and looked toward the door. Jacques was not by the door, or anywhere else in the common room. Looking back into the fire, Isabel silently berated herself. How foolish this all was. She had prayed to God asking him why she had been born with a thirst for adventured and had seemed destined to never leave Villefranche, while her brother had always evinced a desire to never leave the confines of the villa yet found himself fair away in the army. Somehow, it was all a cosmic mistake.
Isabel took a deep breath. This was neither the time nor the place to surrendered to womanly tears.
“Ah, there you are my lady.”
Isabel looked up. It was Jacques. “Jacques!”
“Come my lady. We must be off,” he said. “The Comte has everything ready for your arrival.”
Isabel quickly stood up. “Of course.” Isabel followed Jacques out of the inn. The way the Comte had left her alone, the story of the barbarous medieval ancestor, and the way the rustics seem to fear the name of Malfait spoke to something cruel in the line of Malfait. But in this moment of utter loneliness, Isabel would have willing forgiven him for making her travel alone and gladly accepted the embrace of her Comte.
She climbed into the carriage and settled into the seat.
Jacques smiled at her. “Not long now my lady,” he said and secured the door blocking out the view of the rustic inn.
Resting her head against the velvet covered cushions of the coach, Isabel closed her eyes. The long journey across France would soon be over, and she would be safely ensconced in the Chateau Malfait. It was true that she longed for the blue water and sky of Villefranche. But as the Comte had said, they would soon return once the danger had passed, and once they had returned, she would take up her place in society as the Comtesse du Malfait.
Perhaps she had been hasty to marry the Comte. Perhaps her childish dreams of adventure had overthrown her good sense. However, even if that was true, it was clear she was safe. When the rustics discovered who she was they were afraid to look at her. No one would think to molest her in any way. And there were worse men she could have married. Isabel thought of all the young men her father had invited to dinner. All they could talk about was money and how many pounds of spice or indigo their ships could hold. Oh, how they would go on as if the sound of their voice was the sweetest sound in all of Creation. Not even when Isabel carelessly allowed her shawl to slip and exposed her delicate shoulder would their attention be diverted from trade.
Malfait was very different. The way he would look at her was thrilling. And he was very generous. He had given her this lovely cloak and the necklace she was wearing at that very moment. The most important thing, however, was that he was still a mystery to Isabel. She had discovered some dark secrets about him. Namely, that the most notable residents of Villefranche came to his villa for the most outrageous and scandalous revels. Another person could had been satisfied to let their mind’s eye conjure up images of what she had witnessed, but Isabel wanted to know more. How had the Comte come to be involved in such things in the first place? Who taught him such things? Many mysteries still surrounded the Comte du Malfait, and Isabel would discover their answers.
A sound like thunder brought Isabel out of her reverie. The coach came to an abrupt halt and Isabel heard an unfamiliar voice shouting.
“Stand down driver, or you’ll be food for the crows!”
Isabel moved to the door of the coach and was about to push the curtain aside to peak outside when the door flew open. In the day’s dying light her eyes fell upon a group of men clad in dirty, drab cloaks and hats. They carried a variety of pistols and swords.
Isabel was transfixed. Then one of the ruffians grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her from the coach. “Where is Jacques?” she demanded. “The driver? What have you done with him?”
“Don’t you worry about Jacques, my pretty,” said the one who had removed her from her conveyance and still held her wrist in an iron grip. “Spare a thought for yourself,” he said with a laugh.
Another one came up behind her and took off her cloak. “I’m sure you won’t mind if I take your cloak, my lady,” he said. “My Mademoiselle Depeche is in need of a beautiful cloak and I’m sure you have another.” The cohort laughed as one.
“Villains!” she cried. “I am the Comtesse du Malfait. Unhand me. The Comte will see you hang for this!”
The banditti, for clearly there was no better name for them, laughed all the louder. Isabel started to protest again, but was interrupted when yet another one of the robbers took hold of the hem of her dress and lifted it up to his face. “I swear upon my life this is the softest material I’ve ever felt,” he proclaimed rubbing Isabel’s dress against his ill-shaven, dirty face.
Isabel was endeavoring to remove her dress from the banditti’s hand when one of the rogues who had yet to speak took hold of her free wrist. “And I swear upon my life that she has the softest skin I’ve ever felt,” he said and dragged his calloused hand along her collar bone. Isabel recoiled. “And look what a pretty thing she wears about her pretty neck.” Here he engulfed the necklace that her husband had given her. Isabel was sure he was going to rip it from her neck.
There was another crack of thunder, or rather the crack of a pistol being fired. For it was now clear that what Isabel had thought was thunder was in fact a pistol firing. All eyes were drawn to the figure who had fired. He slowly returned the pistol to a wide sash tied around his waste. He walked over to the villain who had taken hold of Isabel’s necklace. After striking him across the face he said. “She is for Le Roy Rouge. Not for us.” The banditti looked at the ground and stepped away from Isabel.
No longer retrained, Isabel started to run, but she did not get far. The apparent leader of this collection of villains caught her about the waist and Isabel found her feet no longer touched the ground. Next she felt her arms pulled behind her back and rope bite into her wrists. She was lead to a group of horses and was unceremoniously hoisted onto one, and then the group rode off.
Before long, they left the road and entered a dense pine forest that blotted out the last of the day’s light. The banditti slowly climbed the rocky path. Somewhere in the darkness, Isabel heard the cascading of water – the water of a hidden stream falling on its way to the ocean.
Isabel could not help but think of the worst horrors she overheard sea captains tell her father, tales of what befell sailors marooned on savage islands. She knew a horrible fate awaited her. She just prayed that it would be over soon. As she silently wept, she cursed the day she had met the Comte du Malfait.
Finally, the band stopped and Isabel was taken off the horse and shoved forward. The opening of a cave appeared before her. Inside the cave some torches burned and their light outlined the rocky entrance. Into the cave they went, Isabel stumbling along. She barely had the strength to stand. After several twists and turns, they came to a heavy red curtain hanging from one side of the cave to the other.
The bandit lieutenant parted the curtains and led Isabel through. He pushed her into a chair and untied her hands. “Here she is my King. Unharmed as you commanded.”
Isabel looked up. Across this rough-hewed chamber a tall man stood with his back to her. It appeared as if he was reading something. He wore threadbare clothing like the others, but unlike the others, his clothes were clean.
Without turning he waved his hand and the man left. As the curtains fell back into place, the bandit king closed the book he had been reading and placed it on the table.
Somewhere Isabel found some reserve of courage, and with a shaking voice she said, “My, my husband. The Comte du Malfait. I swear he shall make you curse the day you were born.”
The man turned. “My dearest Isabel. I am sorry for the theatrics. I assure you they were necessary.”
Isabel rose up from her seat. A cry died on her lips as she gazed upon the face of the man she knew as the Comte du Malfait. Then all was darkness.