All was dark. Somewhere far away, Isabel heard a woman singing. The music of her voice came nearer and nearer until it seemed to be right next to her although in the darkness Isabel could not discern its source.
Suddenly there was light. Isabel had opened her eyes and found herself in a large bed. Four dark wooden posts help up a burgundy canopy. Along one wall a fire crackled, its orange light contrasted sharply with the dark wood-paneling that covered the rest of the walls.
“Ah! You’re awake.”
Isabel now knew where the singing was coming from: A woman was seated next to the bed.
The woman continued, “You poor lamb. I’ll have you know I gave Henri a severe lashing with my sharp tongue – well truthfully I cuffed him about the ears.” She laughed and then patted Isabel’s arm. “He knows he acted like a villain. He’ll make amends.”
For a moment, Isabel wondered who Henri was. Then she remembered her wedding when the Comte had spoken his full name for the first and only time. “Where am I?” Isabel asked.
“Oh! There I go forgetting my manners,” the woman said. “I’m Marie. I was sweet Henri’s nurse. And when Henri left home to make his place in the world my husband Pierre and I became the caretakers of the Chateau – such as it is.”
“So I am in the Chateau Malfait?” Isabel said.
“Yes you are my lamb,” Marie said and pointed at the tapestry that hung above the head of the bed.
Looking over her shoulder, Isabel saw an ornately embroidered coat of arms. It matched the one she had seen at the Comte’s villa in Villefranche.
“Don’t worry my dear, ,” she said. “He’ll make amends, he will.”
“I feel as if I do not know the man who is my husband,” Isabel said and shook her head. “When we were married not a fortnight ago he appeared to the eye a smartly dressed soldier. And now he wears the guise a bandit king!”
The elderly woman reached out and touched Isabel’s hand again. “There, there my dear,” she said and then tottered over to the fire and returned with a bowl of stew. Handing the bowl to Isabel she said, “Eat this, and while you do I shall tell you the story of how my poor Henri went from dashing cavalry officer to bandit.”
Marie settled into her chair and began her tale:
* * *
Henri’s father was a mean man. Mean with his affection and mean with his money. Tight-fisted he was. Lord knows what the Comtesse saw in him. I used to whisper when the Comte was away that my mistress could find good in Lucifer himself.
A merchant the Comte was. Why he was the greatest merchant that ever lived in Bayonne. He worked everyday. Yes, including Sundays. And he drove a hard bargain. He was none too loved by his fellow merchants I can tell you. When I was down at the market I’d talk to the other domestics, and oh they’d tell me how their masters bellowed. What curses they’d call down upon the Comte, my master.
But they always came back to the Comte. Yes they did. You see the Comte never lost a ship at sea. Not a one. And his ships would always return to port before any other merchants’ ships had landed. And they would be filled with the best, most exotic spices and goods.
Wealthy he was. Oh you would not believe the wealth. He owned a house in the town full of the most expensive furniture, and his stable was well provided with horses and carriages. Mind you, that I said carriages. Yes indeed, more than one he owned, he did. And of course this estate here. He called it his hunting lodge – although he never hunted. Not once.
Now you may wonder why was he so possessed with gathering all this wealth into his hands? Well, that’s where my sweet, little Henri comes into my tale. You see, the Comte wanted Henri to be a soldier. He knew the great notables of the kingdom in their palaces would never respect a merchant. But the Comte would get that respect for his son. He used almost every coin he earned to buy Henri an officer’s commission in the King’s army. Now Henri had always been an active lad. Riding horses, running through the woods around the estate, hunting. And Henri took to the soldier’s life he did. I’d see the joy on the Comte’s face when he would receive a letter from Henri. The first time I ever saw him smile truth be told.
But everything dies. It’s the way of the world. And the poor Comte. Well his dream died cruelly. Henri was home on leave after the late war. He regaled us with tales of his adventures. How his bravery had put to shame the sons of more noble families. Happy days.
Until the letter came. It was from Henri’s commanding officer. The long and the short of it was this: Henri’s commission had been given to another. Someone of better birth. The worst of it was that the letter finished by telling Henri that he should be a merchant like his father. That he would not be destitute and that he should be thankful for that.
That letter killed the Comte as sure as if it had been a knife into the heart. He was lost. For many days, he just sat and did nothing. When he finally roused himself and tried to make another fortune, he found his fellow merchants of Bayonne less willing to do business. But they did loan the Comte money. It wasn’t generosity. Oh no. They knew he had spent his fortune and like vultures they were just circling waiting to pick the bones clean.
And of course the Comte’s luck had run out. When his first ship was lost, the creditors swooped down upon him. They marched into the grand house in the town and took all its furniture and silver. And when the second ship failed to arrive they seized the house itself. When the third ship didn’t reach port at its appointed time, they took all the land surrounding the house we’re sitting in now.
The Comte set sail in a small boat to find the third ship. He declared it was merely delayed and not at the bottom of the sea. He never returned nor did the third ship ever arrive.
There was dark talk then. They said all the Comte’s success had come from a deal the he had made with the Devil. And the Devil had finally taken what was due him. They called this place the Dark Chateau.
The Comtesse did not see the first snows of winter. I swear she died of a broken heart. The people were heartless. No one offered the slightest word of comfort for fear of the evil they said haunted this house. The priest wouldn’t even come.
Forgive my tears! But it was a cruel day – cold and wet – when my husband Pierre and poor, poor Henri dug a grave for the Comtesse and buried her. That was the mortal blow for Henri. He had loved his time in the army, but he would have contented himself with taking over his father’s business. He might have even been content to live out his days here. But the cruelty the town showed to his dead mother. Not even allowing her a decent Christian burial. My sweet little boy died that day. And the bandit you lately met was born.
* * *
Isabel sat in silence as the old woman wiped the tears from her face. Indeed, she thought at any moment she might add her tears to Marie’s.
Finally, the old woman spoke. “If my dear, sweet Henri is a bandit, it’s because cruel nobles have forced that trade upon him!”
Silence again fell upon the two women. Isabel was not terribly hungry but finished the stew. Marie took the empty bowl and said, “Well you probably need a breath of fresh air. Follow me.”
Isabel did so. The two crossed the wide room to a small door opposite the large bed. Marie produced a large key and unlocked the door. With some effort, the older woman pulled it open, the door groaning louder with each inch it was moved. The now opened portal revealed a gallery, the left side of which was pierced by a series of narrow windows. The light these windows provided was weak and green as if the pane were stained by some artisan, or by nature herself with mosses and ivy. Isabel could not tell. They traversed the gallery and more than once Isabel looked over her shoulder convinced that she heard someone following them. But she did not see anyone and decided it must have been an echo.
Finally they reached the end of the gallery and another door the twin of the one they entered. Another key and another struggle with a groaning door and Isabel found herself on a narrow balcony. In front of her the grey sea spread out to the horizon. To one side of her, the walls of the chateau followed the line of cliff that Isabel now discovered the chateau was perched upon. Opposite the sea and on the far side of the chateau, Isabel could see the mountains towering above the man-made dwelling, the peaks shrouded in mist.
Marie lightly touched Isabel’s arm. “It was much grander long ago. The winter after,” the older woman paused and after taking a deep breath continued. “The winter after the Comte had disappeared at sea there was a great storm and some of the cliff below the chateau gave way. That part of the house is unsafe now. You must stay close to your room. Wouldn’t do having you falling into the sea, now would it.”
Isabel shook her head. And then shivered.
“You must be cold,” Marie said. “It’s this mountain air. Always a chill in it even in the summer months. Come let’s go inside and get you a hot bath.”
They returned to the room. Marie summoned her husband Pierre, introductions were made, and then Pierre was set to the task of bringing water for the bath. It did not seem long before the bath was ready and Marie helped Isabel into the warm water.
“I must go to the kitchen to see about dinner. Henri – well the Comte I suppose – has given instructions for a special meal. But I shan’t be too long,” Marie said and then left Isabel alone.
She watched the steam rise from the water and thought about what she would say to Malfait. Or Henri. Maybe she should start by calling him by the name he was given at baptism. She sighed. Precarious was not the word for her situation. Isabel had known from the start that Malfait was a man of questionable appetites, that he was the model of the decadent aristocrat. But if she had initially feared for her virtue and good name, she now felt her very life might be at risk. Who was to say what violent crimes Malfait had committed before he settled in Villefranche? Would not those acts haunt him now and in the future? Why a rival bandit or even soldiers of the King could burst through the very bedroom door seeking vengeance or justice. If they did burst into the room at this very moment would not their vengeance or justice be visited upon her? Despite the warmth of the water Isabel shivered.
And yet, Malfait had shown her kindness. In the case of her stealing into his late night debauchery, Malfait had kept his word and not betrayed her secret.
Was Malfait a villain or a victim of cruel Fate? Isabel did not know for certain. However, her Fate now depended on discovering the answer to the mystery of Malfait. When he appeared, she would subtly question the Comte and by careful observation of his words as well as his demeanor she would attempt to ferret out his true nature.
Thus being resolved, Isabel sank down into the bath until her chin just touched the surface of the warm water. And then she closed her eyes.
* * *
Philippe opened his eyes. A grey mist surrounded him. All he could see was the evidence of a tumbled ruin all about him. Endeavoring to recall how he came to be among these collapsed pieces of cyclopean masonry, he cast his mind back in time. He remembered finding the forbidden books and casting the spells he had found therein. He remembered his arrest and the great storm. Then there was darkness. The next thing he could call to mind was finding himself on a strange shore arrayed in antique armor. Upon this strange shore, he was confronted by a demonic creature that called itself Lotan. Darkness followed and when Philippe had given up all hope of ever seeing anything – let alone his angelic Isabel – a wan green light revealed that he stood in a ruined church still wearing the antique armor. As the light grew stronger, before him appeared the villain Malfait who was about to befoul, his poor, sweet Isabel, in some lascivious ritual. Outraged Philippe had charged forward and struggled with the malignant Malfait until a blinding flash of light – most probably lightning – has knocked him senseless. And that was the last he remembered.
Philippe felt a wind on his face and on the wind he heard the sweet voice of his Isabel. “Isabel!” he cried. He strained to hear a reply and was rewarded by hearing her voice again, but what she said he could not comprehend. It did not matter what the words were. She was clearly in distress. Philippe ran toward the sound of Isabel’s voice, crying out to her again, “Isabel!”
Then the ground gave way beneath him and he was falling and falling. Until he found himself in water. He felt himself sinking and he kicked violently, but he still slipped further beneath the surface. Redoubling his efforts the antique armor he was encased in started to fall away from his body. His lungs burned and there was a horrible pounding in his head. He gave a final kick and mercifully broke the surface.
Gasping for breath, a strong wave seemed to pick Philippe up and carry him onto a rocky shoal just above the surface of the water. When the pain in his chest and head receded and when he had wiped the salty water out of his eyes, Philippe looked around. He was not on a shoal, but rather on a rocky outcropping at the base of a cliff. Seeking a path to a safer, drier place, Philippe noticed the opening of a cave. Believing it was safer in the cave than risking being swept away by the next large wave, Philippe entered the darkness.
He immediately stopped. Someone, or something, else was in the cave with Philippe.
“Welcome Philippe,” said a voice from the darkness.
Philippe immediately recognized it. The voice belonged to the demon Lotan.
“Do not worry, Philippe, I mean you no harm,” Lotan said. “Indeed, I am here to help you. Although, I shall admit that by helping you I shall be helping myself.”
“How could you possibly help me?” he said. “You tricked me and failed to honor our bargain.” Philippe peered into the darkness trying to see the dreaded creature, but could not see anything in the shadows.
“My dear Philippe,” the creature said. “It may have appeared that I did not honor our bargain, but you are merely impatient. I am now about to fulfill it. You see, Malfait’s games are becoming tiresome to me. The Comte thinks he is clever, taking Isabel and hiding in his ancestral chateau where he knows I cannot reach him.”
Philippe grasped his head with his hands. “No!” he cried. “That devil has Isabel?”
“Be still!” The cave shook and Philippe heard rocks tumble down the sides of the rocky enclosure. When the last of the rocks had come to rest, the creature continued. “I cannot enter his chateau because of its eldritch protections. But as a mortal man you can enter it Philippe.”
“What must I do?” Philippe asked, not bothering to hide his desperation.
“There at you feet is a dagger envenomed with poison from the deadliest creatures of the sea.”
Philippe looked down and indeed there was a dagger less than a pace away from his feet.
“Pick it up,” Lotan said.
Philippe slowly bent down and reached for the blade.
“That’s it my boy,” the creature said. “Now, look in the direction the dagger was pointed.”
Doing so, Philippe made out a grey light. There was an opening in the wall of the cave.
“Follow that opening,” the voice in the dark said. “It will lead you into Malfait’s dark chateau. And once inside, if you stab Malfait, none of his dark magics shall save him.”
“I will do it,” Philippe said, and stated up the narrow passage way.
Philippe did not see it, but in the dark there was something like a smile on Lotan’s monstrous visage.