“Eleanor, are you sure this boy is worth it?”
Eleanor Descoteaux bristled at the question, narrowing her golden-brown eyes at her older brother. Her mare sensed her frustration and let out a soft nicker. She ran her hand over the horse’s sleek gray neck and soothed her back into silence.
“I’m all for stealing the Marquis’ gold but kidnapping his son…you know if they catch us they’ll hang us for this,” Remy spoke again, his voice soft but jovial.
“It isn’t kidnapping, for God’s sake. Benoit wants to marry me. It’s his father who’s bribing the Catholic Church to make him a cardinal. As for the money, we’re going to need it if we hope not to live in crippling poverty for the rest of our lives. Stick to the plan and we’ll be long gone before there can be any talk of hanging. Now hush up. They could be here any moment.”
She retrained her gaze on the thin spot in the trees several yards ahead of her where she could make out the dirt road. The forest’s sounds were all around her, birds singing, leaves rustling, twigs snapping as animals moved through the underbrush, but Eleanor blocked it out, her ears straining to pick up approaching hoof beats.
“Fabian is always late. We won’t see the coach for another hour or more,” Remy replied. He lounged in his saddle, his musket slung over his back, somehow as comfortable on his horse as he was at home in bed.
Eleanor did not share his comfort and grimaced. The idea of another hour waiting astride her mare made her thighs scream in protest. But she agreed with Remy. The sunlight trickled straight down from the canopy, and with hours of daylight left Fabian would be in no hurry. With a sigh she dismounted, adjusting her new dagger to keep it from digging into her flesh. She walked up to the wagon they had hidden on the side of the road. Strategically placed tree branches obscured it from the view of those passing on the road but left it exposed on the forest side. Inside were several bags filled with clothes and other necessities they had taken from their home that morning. She brushed an errant lock of blonde hair out of her face and tucked it back into her braid as her eyes passed over the bags. The reality of these bags holding her only possessions hit hard. With a little luck by tonight they would all be holed up in an inn across the border between France and Spain, on their way to a new life together.
Eleanor glanced back at Remy. With his wavy brown hair, warm eyes, and dashing smile, he’d often been the hero of her childhood years. Even before their parents died they had only provided the necessities. Remy and Eleanor had filled the need for affection with each other.
A low rumble caught Eleanor’s attention and she whipped around in time to see Marquis Sauveterre’s coach along with four mounted guards come around a sharp curve in the road. Eleanor and Remy both cursed and she ducked down behind the wagon.
“I thought you said he was always late.”
“I’ve known the man for twelve years and he’s never been on time once. Sauveterre’s guards must be setting the pace. Get back on your damn horse,” Remy said.
Eleanor stayed low as she darted back over and mounted her mare.
“I’ll give the signal as they pass and Fabian will steer the coach into the rut we dug. You stay hidden until I lure the guards out into the woods and then you and Fabian can deal with Father D’Aramitz.”
Eleanor barely heard the words, her entire attention on the coach closing in on them. It was a black lacquer behemoth towed behind four shining white geldings, the Marquis’ crest emblazoned on the side in a brilliant splash of scarlet and white. The guards wore the Marquis’ red livery and carried swords, surrounding the coach as it thundered towards them. Curtains covered the windows to keep anyone from catching an unearned glimpse at his Lordship or his family. Her vision went red as the Marquis’ voice sounded in her head:
I can understand a dalliance, Benoit. No one expects you to be a saint, but marriage is entirely out of the question.
Lord Sauveterre hadn’t known she stood outside the door to his audience chamber, hands fisted into the skirt of the best dress she owned, swallowing back her tears.
“Dammit Eleanor, focus,” Remy scolded, giving a sharp jerk on her reigns.
She flushed and nodded. No point getting stuck in the past. Benoit had chosen her.
The coach was mere feet away now and Remy stood up in his stirrups, his eyes sharp as he calculated the right moment. Seconds before the coach passed in front of them Remy let out a long, piercing whistle. One of the guards glanced in their direction but the coach itself kept right along, steering clear of the rut they had dug to break the wheel.
Remy let out a vile string of curses and Eleanor’s chest constricted till she gasped for breath.
“He didn’t stop,” she said in a strident whisper.
“I can see that,” Remy snapped.
“How do you expect me to know? Fabian probably can’t hear a damn thing over the sound of those horses.”
The coach shot down the road, carrying Benoit away from her. Shock coalesced into anger and Eleanor rounded on her brother.
“Shoot one of the wheels,” she demanded, grabbing Remy’s arm hard. He’d brought his hunting musket for an added show of force but she’d never dreamed they would use it. Still, she’d seen him shoot before. He was an excellent marksman and she couldn’t watch her future slip through her fingers.
“What? Do you know the chances of making a shot like that?”
“We have to do something!”
Remy’s brown eyes went wide and Eleanor thought for a moment he would refuse but the desperation in her face convinced him and he grabbed the gun off his back.
“Stay there,” he commanded. “If I miss, you get the hell out of here, understand? Don’t worry about me.” He urged his big bay stallion through the trees and up onto the road.
Eleanor gripped her reigns until her knuckles went white. Remy raised the musket and lined up his shot, the muscles in his shoulders bunching under his blue shirt. The gun’s blast shocked the forest into silence and up ahead one of the guard’s horses squealed in fright. The musket ball hit the back left wheel, shattering it in an explosion of wood. The horses tried to bolt and Fabian hauled on the reins until the coach teetered to an abrupt stop. When the chaos settled, the four guards had wheeled around and pinned Remy in their sights.
“I meant for you to stop back there, gentlemen,” he cried out, his musket still trained on the coach.
They unsheathed their swords as one and Eleanor covered her mouth to keep from shouting for Remy to run. The guards pounced, giving their mounts the spurs. Remy lowered the musket and gave a great roar, spurring his own horse forward, racing toward a head on collision. At the last moment Remy turned and shot off into the trees. The guards pursued and a din of shouts and crashing hoof beats trailed off through the forest.
Eleanor said a silent prayer for her brother’s safety and then urged her mare into a trot, tree limbs tugging at her clothes until she broke free onto the road. The coach had ended up perpendicular to the road and now sat utterly still, only the horses showing any sign of life, stomping their hooves and jangling their harnesses. Fabian sat in the driver’s seat, facing away from her, his body posture notably stiff even from a distance. Eleanor almost called out to him, the words parting her lips until some instinctual sense quieted her. Her hand went to her dagger, fingers curling around the handle as she clicked her tongue to command her mare forward.
The lack of movement made Fabian appear lifeless, and as Eleanor approached her body’s alarm system sounded, making her heart pound and slicking her palms with sweat. Each of her mare’s steps clanged like a hammer against iron in her ears. If someone was lying in wait for her they would have no trouble gauging her approach. Eleanor frowned and directed her mare back into the tree line. She dismounted and looped the reigns around a branch, murmuring a soft reassurance before setting off on foot.
Each step had to be calculated to keep her approach silent and Eleanor was glad she’d taken Remy’s advice and borrowed some of his clothes. Trying to move stealthily in a skirt would have been impossible.
At last she came level with the coach and spotted a fifth guard, his body pressed tight against the side of the coach, the sword in his hand jabbed under Fabian’s ribs while they spoke in whispers. He must have been lurking inside the coach. After the Marquis had foiled their first attempt to elope he’d taken no chances of having Benoit escape his duty again.
“Do you see her?” the guard asked. He whipped his head around and peered into the trees and Eleanor froze, sure he would spot her.
“I haven’t seen any sign since she went back into the woods. Maybe she got spooked and fled,” Fabain replied. “Now would you kindly take your sword out of my side before you puncture something?”
The guard laughed, and thrust the sword harder against Fabain’s side. A dark red stain began to spread over the fabric.
“This is to ensure your loyalties don’t change again. As for your friends, you’d better pray we find them. If that little guttersnipe and her brother get away then you’ll be the only one on the hook for this farce. We’re here to kill two birds with one stone, get the young master to his future as a Cardinal and make sure Mademoiselle Descoteaux and her brother are no longer a thorn in the Marquis’ side. If we fail I’m sure his Lordship won’t be in a forgiving mood.”
“I told him what they were planning. It’s not my fault if they get away,” Fabian argued.
“I doubt the Marquis will see it that way.”
Eleanor clenched her hands together until her nails bit into her palm. Of course Marquis Sauveterre wasn’t content with destroying her and Benoit’s dreams of a life together. She’d had the gall to love his son despite her ignoble birth and to think Benoit deserved a say in his own future, and for these insults she was to be killed. Her chest burned at the injustice of it. And now Fabian had betrayed them. He’d been Remy’s closest friend for years, ate at their table, slept in their home, and with no thought of loyalty had doomed them to failure and death. Eleanor shook and leaned against the trunk of a large elm tree to keep from sinking to the ground. It was all falling apart even though she stood mere feet from Benoit. She considered calling out to him but the guard would have his sword buried in her belly before he could set foot out of the coach. Eleanor took several deep breaths and then straightened. She would not give up. Her intention had been to extract Benoit and the gold with as little damage as possible, but they had come to take her life, and that changed the rules. She unsheathed her dagger and took a step forward when her boot scraped over a large rock. Her eyes shot up but Fabian and the guard gave no sign they’d noticed.
Looking back at the stone, an idea struck her. She replaced the dagger in her leather holster and picked it up. While she searched for some way to divert the men’s attention the shrill scream of a horse in pain reached their ears. All heads turned off towards the eastern woods where Remy and the other guards had disappeared.
Eleanor’s insides went cold at what that scream could mean but her chance was here. She lifted the stone high above her head and charged toward the guard. He caught sight of her as she burst from the tree line and his hand dove for his sword but he was too late. A gut-churning crunch sounded as she brought the stone down hard against the side of his face and he crumpled like a wet paper doll.
“Oh my God, Eleanor!” Fabian gasped, but he seemed frozen by the violence she’d done so she turned her attention back to the guard, prepared to whack him again if he so much as twitched. His chest rose and fell, so he was alive but unconscious, blood seeping up from the battered side of his face. She dropped the rock on his chest and scrambled up next to Fabian slapping him with all the force she could muster.
“You snake! You rat!” She hit him again then removed her dagger and poked the tip against his throat. “If anything happens to Remy or Benoit because of you…” She left the threat hanging.
“You think I wanted to betray you? I had no choice,” Fabian said. His voice was hollow and despite her anger Eleanor let him explain.
“Sauveterre figured you wouldn’t give up on Benoit and he knows we’re friends. He questioned me. When I told him nothing he had me whipped.”
Eleanor gasped and lowered her dagger from Fabian’s throat.
“Afterward when I still wouldn’t talk he poured salt water over the wounds. He threatened to do worse and the pain was already unbearable. I’m sorry Eleanor.”
Pity coated the back of Eleanor’s throat, making it hard to swallow. She slid her dagger back into its sheath and then set her hand on his arm.
“I’m sorry too, Fabian.”
A sudden loud thumping startled Eleanor out of the moment and her eyes flew to the guard, but he remained prone on the ground.
“What is that?” she asked.
“It’s Benoit,” Fabian replied. “His father knew he would try to get away.”
Eleanor didn’t stay to hear the rest. She leapt down and threw open the door of the carriage. The midday sun rushed into the darkened interior and Eleanor saw a tall, hawkish, gentleman with his hand raised to shield his eyes. His expression was one of utter astonishment. On the seat across from him sat her beloved. Benoit had a black hood placed over his head, and judging by the unintelligible moans coming from him he’d been gagged too. His arms were restrained behind his back and his ankles had been tied together. Eleanor reached for him but the Father barred her way.
“Who are you and by what right do you enter this carriage?”
“I’m sorry Father D’Aramitz, but I have an urgent confession to make.”
“I’m in love with this man and I’m here to take him away.”
She pushed past the priest who gaped at her like she’d spoken in a foreign tongue. Her fingers grasped the soft fabric of the hood and lifted it off. Tears sprung into her eyes. Benoit’s short-cut black hair was mussed from the hood. There was a cut surrounded by a dark purple bruise on his left cheekbone and a red scarf had been used as a gag, but the moment his clear blue eyes met hers they filled with love.
“My love, let me help you.” With nimble fingers she reached around and untied the scarf, pulling the moistened material out from between his teeth.
The first words out of his mouth were, “Ellie, are you hurt?”
“I’m fine. Though I see the same cannot be said of you.” She laid her palm gently against his wounded cheek.
“You know how Father hates to be defied. I’m alright.”
“Here, let’s get you untied.”
Eleanor went to work with her dagger and in seconds the restraints fell away. Once freed, Benoit’s arms came around her. For a moment she laid her head against his chest, starving for the reassurance of his heart beneath her ear, then she pulled away.
“We don’t have much time. Remy lead the guards away so we need to get the gold and get to the cart.”
Benoit nodded and pulled a medium-sized wood chest from under his seat. It was wrapped in iron bands and a heart-shaped iron lock sealed it shut.
“Now wait one second,” Father D’Aramitz said, recovering his wits. The rest of the priest’s sentence was cut off as a harsh voice outside barked an order.
“Come out nice and slow, girl.”
“No,” Eleanor whispered, cold dread trickling down her spine. Her hand reached back and found Benoit’s.
“You can come out on your own or I can slit your brother’s throat and come in and get you. Makes no difference to me.”
“Eleanor, don’t–” Remy shouted, but his voice cut off in a low moan.
The blood drained from Eleanor’s face and she wobbled out of the coach. Her eyes found Remy and she cried out, the world beneath her tilting dangerously. He was down on his knees, a broad-chested guard holding a sword to his throat and a hand over his mouth. He was covered in blood. It stained his shirt and arms and splattered over his face. Fabian was nowhere to be seen and she feared the worst. A roar grew in her ears until it drowned out everything else. The other guards grabbed her and Benoit, forcing them to join Remy with their knees in the dirt. Her captor bent down to remove her weapon and Eleanor hung her head, unable to meet the eyes of the others. No doubt she and Remy were about to join Fabian in an anonymous roadside grave. Benoit would bear witness to his father’s ultimate retribution and then be shuffled off to a life of guilt and misery. She cursed herself. She had brought this upon them, her actions ensuring the Marquis was well within his rights to kill them.
“What is going on here, Durand?” Father D’Aramitz asked.
Eleanor gazed back to where he stood pressed against the exterior of the coach, one hand against his chest and a stormy look gathering on his face. The only guard without a prisoner stepped forward and Eleanor gathered from the air of authority around him that he must be the leader.
“These people are wanted by the Marquis, Father. They’ve been causing trouble for his Lordship back at home and we were sent along to make sure they didn’t interfere with your journey back to Saint Stephen’s.”
“That’s a lie,” Eleanor snapped and the guard holding her cuffed her hard. “One of your men said it himself. The Marquis knew about our plan to free Benoit but he let it happen because then he’d have the right to execute us.”
“Durand, is this true?” Benoit cried. He began to struggle in the guards grip.
Durand approached them and fisted his hand into Benoit’s black hair, jerking his head back until his eyes watered.
“I answer to your father, not to you, and his orders were to get you to Saint Stephen’s. By any means necessary,” he sneered.
“I hope you both burn in hell,” Benoit shot back, then he spit in Durand’s face.
Eleanor closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable retaliation but the blow never fell.
“You let them go or I’ll bleed the Father here like a pig.” Fabian’s command came out in a rush. Eleanor’s eyes flew open. Fabian stood behind the priest, holding a razor sharp piece of the broken wheel against Father D’Aramitz’s throat. He was shaking and covered in dirt. He must have hidden under the carriage when he’d heard the guards coming back. Father D’Aramitz tried to pull away only to feel the bite of the spike, which made his face turn an ashen gray.
Durand went still, his beady eyes lethal as he measured Fabian’s resolve.
“I’ll do it,” Fabian screamed. “If you don’t let them go now I’ll splatter the Marquis’ hopes right here in the dirt.”
“Release them,” Durand growled, his upper lip lifting in disgust.
Eleanor jumped to her feet the moment the guard freed her. She ran straight for Remy.
“Where are you hurt?” she cried.
Remy held a hand to his side as he stood. “Just a scrape. Most of the blood is my horse’s, he broke his leg. It’s how they caught me.”
The pain darkening his face was answer enough for what had followed. Still, she couldn’t help the wave of relief which flowed through her. She kissed his cheek and they both turned to collect Benoit, only to find him nose to nose with Durand. Eleanor immediately tensed.
“You are nothing but dog and the man who holds your leash is a soulless villain. I swear even if it takes till my last breath I will see you both pay for this.”
“Let’s see if I can help you with that,” Durand replied. He lunged forward, driving Benoit to the ground beneath him, his massive hands closing around Benoit’s throat. Benoit bucked like a wild horse, hitting and clawing Durand to little effect. The breath was ripped from Eleanor’s body and she rushed forward, a silent scream of rage coming from her open mouth. She hit Durand, sinking both hands into his hair and yanking with all her strength. She managed to unbalance him but his grip on Benoit remained tight. It was then Eleanor recognized the hilt of his sword digging into her belly. Without hesitation she grabbed the blade from its scabbard and drove it deep into Durand’s back. He let out a bellow of pain and rolled off Benoit, hands scrabbling at the sword handle. His blood ran out in a great gush until at last he was still. Eleanor collapsed, tears blurring her vision as her arms wrapped around herself. Benoit coughed in great spasms, drawing breath with a ragged moan.
“Why you–” another of the guards shouted at them, but Father D’Aramitz broke free of Fabian’s hold and stepped in front of him.
“Enough!” he shouted. “There has been enough bloodshed.”
A look of malice passed between the guards but without Durand’s leadership they were adrift. Father D’Aramtiz spoke to her from over his shoulder.
“I want no more part in the Marquis’s plans. Take what you need and get out of here. All I ask is you leave me a horse and the crucifix from inside the chest. It’s a sacred relic stolen from the Church by one of the Marquis’ ancestors. I would like to return it.”
Eleanor nodded. She stood on watery legs and held out her hand to Benoit. Together they made their way to the coach where Benoit had left the chest. He removed a key from under his shirt and fit it into the lock. It opened with a soft click and he lifted the lid. Eleanor stared in shock at the bounty before her. Inside lay more gold coins than she had seen in her entire life, enough for them to be comfortable for the rest of their lives. On top laid a gold crucifix, longer than her forearm, studded with rubies. She picked it up and held it in front of her.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” Benoit asked softly.
“My father could never see its beauty, only the power it could buy him. I think it’s a worthy sacrifice for our freedom.”
Eleanor had to agree. She smiled, then turned and captured Benoit’s mouth with her own.
Alicia lives with her husband and two kids and has been in Colorado since before it was cool. Find her on Twitter at @AAringdale.