Another one of those stories that's been bouncing around in my head for a while. And yes, there are more where this came from. Whether that's a good or bad thing, you have to decide. Anyway, this is just the prologue, and it took me a while to write, so don't be too surprised if I take a long time updating. Of course, this chapter also happens to be very long, seeing as how I wanted to fit this whole scenario into one prologue. So the chapters themselves might end up being shorter. Okay, that's enough talk. Read and enjoy.
Disclaimer: I do not own Les Miserables or Great Expectations, they belong to Hugo and Dickens (even if they are not copyrighted).
The trees creaked and groaned in the wind. They waved their black, naked limbs recklessly, threatening to double over and crash upon any creature that was unfortunate enough to find themselves in one of their shadows. Blowing on my chilled hands, I tried not to think of the unnerving motions of the monstrous plants while looking at the gray, weather-worn tombstones that stood before me. As usual, I read the inscriptions aloud.
"Mme. Jean Valjean, also known as Jeanne. Beloved wife and mother. M. Jean Valjean. Dearest husband and father."
The second tombstone did not mention that the deceased man had been a pruner, and had broken his skull and neck in a fall while tending to an unruly tree. Neither did the first say that the woman had died while giving birth to her only son. Tombstones usually did not say such things.
I was fulfilling the duty of delivering freshly-picked flowers from a nearby meadow, carefully placing them on the grave of the mother I had never met. I had decided some time before that my father would not appreciate the flowers, since he had seen so many in his lifetime and was probably sick of them.
The wind had grown so cold and unbearable that I finally resigned to kneeling beside my mother, hoping that making myself smaller would help me to keep a bit warmer. My outer most garment was nothing more than a sorry excuse for a coat. I did not blame my sister Jeanne for this, or Henri, for our family had always struggled with money matters, and it was all we could do to survive one day at a time. Besides, a good deal of what had once been mine had now been bequeathed to my little nieces and nephews, all seven of them. I especially felt sorry for the girls, who often were forced to go about in trousers and shirts that were a size or two too large. They were particularly dismayed when they glimpsed at other girls from slightly better-off families who wore simple but decent dresses. It was hard for all of them, though, since old clothes wore through more quickly than new ones, and there was very little opportunity for Henri to afford new clothing for his children or brother-in-law.
It was, to say the least, a bleak situation, and one I was eager to escape from as often as possible. That was why I maintained this little ritual of bringing flowers to the churchyard and paying respect to my unfortunate progenitors. There was no real emotion attached to these visits. My father had died when I was still quite young. I could remember him a bit, but the faint images I had stored in my memory evoked no sentiment. It was better that way, I suppose. It was easier for me. I liked to pretend that even though they were dead and buried, they could still hear the living who passed by their resting places. I spoke to them as other people might speak to a pet, allowing my thoughts, fears, dreams, and concerns to flow without worrying about what the listeners thought. On most visits, though, I preferred the comfort of silence.
On this day, however, the sharp whistle of a late autumn wind, the rustling of dried leaves, and the groaning of aging, craggy arbors robbed the occasion of its usual serene quietude. There was something strangely foreboding in the air, and it made me more uneasy than normal when I visited churchyard. I was no more thrilled about death than the next sane fellow, but I had hardened myself a bit to the idea. Considering our situation, death was not too far away. Both home and the graves bore a similar gloom that savors of mortality. What I felt now was much more than that. It was like a warning, a feeling of immediate peril. It made no sense, but every instinct began to cry within me, "Get away from here! Fly now, while there's still time!" I told these thoughts to hush up, convincing them and myself altogether that it was merely paranoia.
The impulse did not leave me, so I allowed myself to believe that my visit had been long enough, and it was now time to go home. I picked myself up off the ground and turned to leave, when I was suddenly pounced upon by what I initially thought to be a ghoul or goblin. I cried out in fright, only to have a hand firmly clap over my mouth.
"Keep still, you little devil," snarled the creature, her voice like an old hag's and her face partly hidden behind a black mane, "or I'll cut your throat."
"No, please, no!" I pleaded, halting my terrified cry and attempting to not seem as frightened as I so painfully felt. It was, needless to say, difficult. I felt only slightly easier when she pulled her hand away and instead placed both of them on my shoulders. She shook me roughly.
"Tell me your name. Quick!"
"J-Jean," I stammered. "Jean Valjean."
I momentarily hoped that I could escape the savage woman's grasp, but I had underestimated her power. She held my shoulders with the strength of a tiger. "Tell me where you live," she ordered.
"Th-there," I gasped, for she now gripped my collar fiercely, and I was having a bit trouble breathing. I pointed over the small stone wall that encircled the cemetery, and past the fields that stretched toward the distant woods. A humble dirt road ran between two fields and cut through the woods. This same road led to the heart of Faverolles, and two miles beyond that was my home.
I was taken unawares by the woman's quick, seemingly premeditated movements, and before my mind could fully comprehend what was happening to me, she had brought me to the ground, onto my stomach, roughly tore off my coat, and kept what felt like one knee firmly planted on my lower back. "Remember, one false move . . ."
I did not risk it. I tasted my own fear, its flavor overwhelming my mind and robbing me of any capacity for strategy. I could think of no way to escape, therefore leaving myself to merely listen and observe the hag that trapped me like a naïve baby rabbit. I could hear her searching my coat, then feel her rough, bony hands rummaging through my trouser pockets. She even began to move up toward my shirt; she must have thought better about it, though, and halted the action.
She seized my collar again and twisted me around, bringing me into an awkward sitting position. She kept herself above my eye level and leered viciously into my face. Her cracked lips were pulled back so as to reveal a set of large, yellow teeth that seemed capable of chomping off my head in one bite. I was nearly prepared to believe that was what she intended to do as her large jaws opened, but instead they took a bite out of an apple that I had picked and put into my pocket as a small snack. She seemed to enjoy ingesting my apple before my eyes. I was both repulsed and fascinated by the way the juices dribbled down her mud-encrusted chin, as if they had a special ingredient for abluting the filth on her face. Her skin still seemed relatively dark under this layer, but the difference was hard to miss at such a close proximity. She was halfway through the fruit when she spoke once more. Little bits of juice and food spewed out of her mouth as she spoke."Now, where's your mother?"
I jerked my head to the left, trying to indicate that she was resting behind me. "Over there."
The woman had misinterpreted my gesture and began to walk toward my left and away. It was only then that I noticed the shackles and chains fettering her ankles. "No, ma'am," I called, "over there." This time I pointed to the tombstone. "'Also Jeanne.' That's my mother."
"Ah," replied the woman in a hoarse voice. "And is that your father along with your mother?"
"Yes, ma'am, him too."
The woman took a few steps toward the graves and me, her gaze fixed upon the headstones, then looked at me once more and gripped my collar. "So who do you live with? In case I might need you again if I decide to let you live, which I haven't made up my mind about yet."
I swallowed the growing lump of anxiety and fear in my throat, knowing the possible repercussions of giving such information to not only a stranger, but a dangerous one in chains who had already threatened me twice. That last comment might have counted as a third one, but I was not quite sure. I decided that I had no real choice but to cooperate. "With my sister, ma'am. Mme. Henri Leblanc. Wife of Henri Leblanc, the blacksmith."
The woman drew her dark brows into a pensive scowl. "Blacksmith, you say?" She allowed her tongue to run over her dry bottom lip as her eyes drifted away from my face. Her mind was thinking as quickly and clearly as possible, I could tell. There was no missing that spark of cunning mixed with desperation flickering in her otherwise unreadable eyes. She snapped her glance at me once more, then pushed me backward until I could feel my lower back pressing into a headstone. Although I could not move further away, she continued to push me back, so that I was awkwardly bent backward over the gravestone and struggling not to feel nauseated.
"Now, listen carefully. Do you know what a file is?"
"Do you know what vittles is?"
"Then you bring me a file and vittles here, at dawn tomorrow, or I'll have your heart and liver torn out."
Queasiness and dizziness together made me thoroughly uncomfortable, and although I could understand her well enough, I meekly asked, "If you would not mind, ma'am, perhaps you could keep me upright so that I may not be sick, and then I may be able to attend more."
Despite the deepened scowl, she acceded to the request and brought me upward again. The loss of blood in the head made me faint for a moment, but the sensation passed and I focused on my molester more than ever. Being certain of every order she gave was what would determine whether or not she would spare my life.
"Now," she continued, her voice growing more angry and animalistic by the second, "you get me the things I asked you for, and do not tell another soul of your having ever seen someone like me, or else your heart and liver will be ripped out. And roasted. And ate! There's young wench hidden here with me, and you can trust me when I say that in comparison with her, I'm an angel! She has mastered the black arts, and can place any sort of hex upon you as she pleases, from bleeding boils to slimy toads leaping out of your mouth! But that is only for play. When she's finished with all that nonsense, she'll use her tiger-like claws to rip open your chest and belly and eat your innards with delight! A boy may hide in his bed, but that young witch can find him anywhere, then softly slip into his room and tear him open! Say, 'Heaven strike me dead if I don't!'"
I felt no desire to argue. Shaking terribly, I echoed while gazing upward, "Heaven strike me dead if I don't!"
Only now did the savage fire that possessed this devilish creature die down, and with it the ferocity of her grasp. She only relinquished her hold with a rough shove, ordering me to get on home. No one had to tell me twice. Throwing her a frightened, "Thank you!" and "Goodnight!", I rushed home.
Jeanne was far from pleased at my having slipped out without telling her where I was going. I explained that I had only been to the churchyard. "Churchyard, indeed!" she cried exasperatedly. "You would have been at the churchyard long ago and stayed there if it hadn't been for me! It's bad enough I have seven mouths to feed, plus a husband; the last thing I need is another child who is more concerned with play and not the least concerned about chores. After your supper I want you to clear the table and wash the dishes. I don't have enough plates to feed everyone at once."
She had reminded me of this several times, but I did not argue. There was no point in fussing about such things when nothing could be done to change them. I submissively sat myself down besides Henri and we both began to consume our small supper. As we ate, I detected the sound of a cannon firing in the distance. I looked at Henri. "What was that firing, Henri? A cannon?"
"Yes, apparently there's a convict off."
"What do you mean?"
"Escaped, boy!" snapped Jeanne in frustration. "Escaped!"
"A convict escaped last night, and they fired a warning of him," explained Henri quietly. "This must be a second one."
My curiosity was aroused. I kept picturing the shackles on the wild woman's ankles, and the request for a file. "Where does the firing come from?"
Jeanne beat Henri to the answer. "Lord bless me, Jean, from the hulks, of course!"
"Oh, I see," I answered uneasily. I was unsure of asking the following question, but I was left so ill at ease by not asking that it had to come out. "So . . . what are hulks?"
My sister gave another exasperated cry. "Lord, answer the boy one question, and he'll ask you a dozen more! Hulks are prison ships. They sometimes come up the river, just beyond the meadows, when criminals have escaped and the Law has to go searching for them."
My thoughts were still with my newest acquaintance. "I cannot help but wonder . . . what kind of people are put into prison ships . . . and why they're put in them?"
Jeanne felt no motherly urge to shelter my callow mind; she gave it to me point-blank. "People are put into prison ships because they murder, rob, forge, and do all sorts of bad things. And do you know how they start?"
I dumbly shook my head.
"By asking too many questions. Now hurry up and finish your supper."
It was well into the night before I was able to retreat to the safety of my tiny cupboard of a room. I was exhausted from putting down each and every child of my sister's, and we were both thoroughly joyful at having gotten all our chores out of the way. It did not last long, for Jeanne took the time to remind me that there would be a whole slew of new chores tomorrow. I went to bed with lead in my feet.
Despite how fatigued I felt, I slept very little. The woman's warnings constantly returned to me, both when I laid awake and when I managed to sleep. When I woke up suddenly for the third time that night, I accepted the fact that I would not be able to go back to sleep. I sat up in bed and gazed out the window. It was nearly dawn. I wanted so badly to forget the promise I had made the day before, to believe that there was no way either the woman or her companion could find me, even when I had pointed out the general location of my abode.
Fear and panic suddenly flooded my thoughts and senses as I once more recalled her words: A boy may hide in his bed, but that young witch can find him anywhere, then softly slip into his room and tear him open! It was intolerable! But there was nothing left to do. Giving myself a few more minutes to think it over, I braced myself for the wretched task ahead of me, then slipped on my proper clothes and silently tip-toed out of the room.
The house was as quiet as death, which made me relieved for a moment. As I descended the stairs, however, I felt that each creak and grunt from the aging wood was amplified in this silence, and would surely wake up either my sister or her husband. Nothing happened. I snuck into the pantry undetected and selected a half-empty bottle of brandy and a loaf of pumpkin bread. Before laying my hands on the latter, I remembered that Jeanne had just baked it the other day, and it was possible that she would miss it very soon. But I had to give the woman something satisfying enough so as to make her feel more willing to sparing my life. As I picked up the pumpkin bread, my eyes met those of a dead rabbit hanging by its feet. I know I had only imagined it, but I was nearly certain that I had heard the dead rabbit squeak, "You're a thief, Jean!"
My next stop was in the smithy at the back of the house, where I selected one of Henri's iron files. He had a good number, and he could be forgetful at times, so the chances that he would miss one were far less likely. He was also innocent enough to believe that I would never steal anything from him.
I wouldn't have, either, if I hadn't felt that my life was on the line. I was desperate, after all.
The morning was even chillier than the previous afternoon; fortunately, there was just the lightest breath of a breeze, which I was thoroughly grateful for. I ran as quickly as I could, my heart pounding frantically and beads of cold sweat moistening my temples and back. My hands shook violently, even as I clenched them and held the wanted items under my coat and close to my chest. I spotted a few cattle in the fields, and as I ran past, I felt their gazes land on me. I almost thought I could hear them as I had heard the rabbit: "You're a thief, boy! They're going to send you to the hulks! Look at that! A boy with someone else's brandy! And someone else's file! And someone else's pumpkin bread! Somebody stop him!"
At one point I could not help but pause and stare at a steer that looked over at me. "Hello, young thief," he seemed to call.
Anxious and fearful, I shouted, "I couldn't help it!" and dashed off.
The sun was nearly over the horizon by the time I reached the cemetery. I wanted to find the female convict quickly (I was quite sure by now that she was one of the convicts who had escaped) and flee with my life. After stepping over the stone wall, my eyes caught sight of a figure sitting in a slump atop one of the tombstones. I immediately thought it was the woman I had met before, but as I drew closer, I realized that this could not be the same one. She was in fact a woman, but her hair was a good deal fairer, though caked with mud and debris. It also seemed thinner, and did not appear to be the wild mane I had observed on the first woman. Perhaps it is the wench she spoke of, I thought. A brief wave of terror passed through me, but I pushed it aside and decided that giving the items to the woman's friend was just as good as giving them to the convict herself. Having never addressed her before, I thought it better to approach her directly and tap on her shoulder. I did, and was quite surprised by what I saw.
The new woman, thoroughly startled by the contact, whirled around and stared at me wide-eyed. On her face was a long, white scar that started almost in the middle of her forehead and sliced over her left eye and across her cheekbone. The eye under the scar was squeezed shut.
However startled I might have been by her appearance, she seemed even more afraid in seeing me, and she quickly ran off while anxiously looking around, as if she expected some terrible thing to leap out at her at any moment. Confused by this, I decided to wander for a bit more to see if the woman I had met the previous day was determined to keep the appointment.
Sure enough, shortly after meeting the "other" woman, I saw the darker one again, this time standing behind a tree and rocky forward and back on her heels. Her fists were tightly clenched at her side. It was only in this stance that I saw how tall and gaunt she was. She looked like she hadn't eaten anything for months (excluding my apple from the previous afternoon, of course). Still fearful and uncertain, I waited several moments before I timidly called out, "M-ma'am?"
She turned sharply toward me, then was by my side in a blink and pulled me down to my knees. She mirrored the same movement. "Are you alone?"
"You gave no one the word to follow you?"
This was enough. She grunted in approval and took the items that I pulled out and revealed to her. "What's in the bottle, boy?"
I suddenly occurred to me that a woman, even in her state, might find such a drink distasteful, and I felt my face grow warm. I was more surprised than relieved, however, when I watched her down the bottle without a second thought. There was also a hint of wonder at the sight.
Then she took the pumpkin bread and eagerly wolfed it down. Etiquette was beyond any concern of hers. Feeling slightly awkward at watching another person eat, especially in such a savage way, I felt the urge to alleviate my discomfort by becoming a touch more civilized than usual. "I . . . I'm glad you're enjoying it."
"I said I'm glad you're enjoying it."
This statement seemed to catch the woman off guard. She took a moment to stop chewing in order to look at me in bewilderment. After a moment of having our eyes locked, she answered, "Thank you, dear, I do." Then she commenced with her meal.
I allowed another minute or two pass before speaking again. "Are you . . . going to leave some for her?"
"Her?" inquired the woman, her mouth still crammed with bread. "Who's her?"
"The wench that you spoke of."
A strange grin came over the woman's face, as if she were relishing a private joke. "Oh, her? Oh, no, she doesn't want any food."
I thought this comment strange, having not understood everything about the situation at the time. "She . . . she looked as if she did."
This made the woman stop suddenly. "Looked? When?"
She grabbed my collar in the same manner as yesterday. "Where?"
"Over there," I answered, pointing with my head to where I had seen her. The woman was back to her usual ungentle ways and roughly jerked me to my feet. "Did you notice anything about her?"
"She . . . she had a large scar on her face."
I thought I heard a small gasp. "Not . . . not across her eye!"
"Yes, the left one."
Her eyes narrowed and she pursed her thin lips tightly for second. She finally said, "Hand over that file, lad." I eagerly gave it up, and she sat on a nearby boulder and began to grind as the black chains. When I saw that her entire attention was now fixed upon this task, I saw my hope for escape. "Umm . . . pardon me, but if you no longer need me, we have guests coming for dinner tonight, and my sister will be up early. If she notices I'm gone . . ."
"Go, go," she answered absently. I was immediately swept away by relief, and with a lighter feeling in my heart for having finally been freed from this wretched business, I flew from the churchyard.
I disliked company, especially when it consisted solely of adults. Not only was there no one close to my age to converse with, but the older persons that graced the dining table seemed to obtain a sadistic enjoyment out of looking down on me and criticizing me for not being grateful enough for what I have. Granted that what we had was extremely modest, I was still reminded that there were plenty of people in the world who had even less than me, such as wild savages and Gypsies who did not have the privilege of living in a "civilized" society.
Dinner conversation amongst my sister, brother-in-law, their friends and our neighbors mostly consisted of these critiques. "Why is it the young are never grateful for what their elders do for them?" asked a long-time school friend of Jeanne's.
"Naturally vicious!" threw in M. Picard, the local cobbler who lived near the heart of Faverolles. He was neither married nor had children of his own, which was awfully convenient for my sister; unmarried guests meant no extra mouths she would be obliged to feed. Looking back, I think I can see more clearly now why Jeanne and her friends fell into the habit of speaking so poorly about children at such gatherings.
Although the conversation left me in a silent funk that only permitted me to half-listen to what was being said while I slowly nibbled on my meal, I did not begin to feel significantly ill until Jeanne announced, "Now, everyone, tonight I have a special surprise for dessert. It is an untouched loaf of pumpkin bread."
While the rest of the company was quite thrilled by this news, I was praying that Heaven would strike me dead at that moment. My crime would be revealed. What then? I wondered if I should excuse myself from the table in that instant. It was terribly rude, but I could see no other route of escape unless I dashed out the front door without a word. Perhaps that option was more probable; after all, the adults might not have even noticed my absence until sometime later. I was, at the time, being ignored, and the plan to slip away unnoticed sounded very tempting. I waited, though, and watched apprehensively as Jeanne left her seat and slipped into the kitchen, and then into the pantry, to retrieve the dessert that would not be there.
It had probably been only a few seconds, yet it seemed such a long time to me. Far too long, surely, for her to be searching for that bread and convincing herself that it had not vanished. I surreptitiously scooted toward the edge of my seat, preparing to make a run for it. My pulse quickened, I was primed for the sprint. I waited, and finally, after a few minutes, Jeanne's head poked out from behind the kitchen door, confusion and concern written across her face.
I hastily turned away, hoping she had not noticed my seeing her, then quickly stood up and ran for the door. I managed to get it open, but neither of my feet stepped a foot outside with the intention that I had at that moment.
What stood in my way looked like a high ranking member of the municipal guard, or perhaps one of the wardens from the hulks. Either way, he wore a tall hat and a blue and white uniform. I jumped back in astonished fright. "Now, there, my boy!" boomed the tall, slightly husky man before me. "Where do you think you're going?" Then he looked up and acknowledged the company. "Please forgive me, good citizens, but I am here on business in the name of the King. I need the blacksmith."
"And what do you want with him, may I ask?" This was Jeanne, who returned to the scene in time to examine the guard with an inquiring, distrustful gaze.
The guard was all politeness, a touch too flattering and cocky for my taste. "Speaking for myself, Madame, it is for the honor and privilege of making his lovely wife's acquaintance. Speaking for the King, just a little job to be done."
The uniformed man turned to Henri again, and this time pulled out and revealed a pair of malformed handcuffs. "You see, monsieur, we've had an accident with these, and it is important that they be repaired immediately, as we are pursuing a pair of dangerous persons."
"Convicts, monsieur?" asked M. Picard.
"I'm afraid so," the guard answered, "and two, no less. None of you have seen either of them, have you?"
"Oh, Heaven preserve us, no!" cried Jeanne, quite certain that everyone would answer the same. I refrained from speaking at all, or drawing any attention towards myself. I was not certain what the law did to thirteen-year-old boys who assisted female convicts under threat, but I was fairly certain that the result would be dismal for all parties concerned. One can only imagine how thankful I was that the adults continued to ignore me at this point.
The handcuffs were soon mended, and our neighbors M. Picard and M. Jerome, also a good friend of Henri's, decided that it would be a capital idea to follow along with the guards to see exactly how circumstances would unfold. They were terribly curious, as Henri was (it was his eagerness that persuaded me to come along), and the lieutenant conceded to this request so long as none of us interfered with their duty, and that they were not held responsible for any harm that might befall us during this pursuit. Jeanne seemed to share the same attitude, for as we walked out into the chilly November air, she called out, "If that boy gets his head blown to pieces by a musket, don't look to me to put it back together again!"
I pulled my thinning coat tightly around me, caught between wondering why on earth I was putting myself through this and hoping that the wind would by merciful. Henri shoved his large hands into his patched-up pockets, and we made the effort to stay close to one another so that neither of us would lose track of the regiment. At one point, when he saw me trembling, he placed a warm, comforting arm around my shoulders and remarked, "Don't worry, lad, I'll bet a franc that they'll catch these vagabonds in no time, and then you can warm yourself by the hearth."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was not really shaking from cold.
The overcast of the day had broken up a bit around the horizon, emitting a glow of red and orange that contrasted against the shadowed pastures of Brie. Whenever I cast my eyes toward this phenomenon, I was momentarily convinced that the edges of the world were on fire, that we were trapped in a ring of fire, with no chance of escape. Then I thought of the woman convict, and shifted my gaze toward the ground. "I hope we don't find them," I muttered at one point.
"What's that?" asked Henri, who had not quite heard what I said.
I gasped slightly at my slip and felt my cheeks begin to burn. "Nothing," I answered quickly while keeping my head low.
The terrain rose and dropped many times under the trudging of the regiment before there seemed any hope for an end of this pursuit. The signal came in the form of a frantic cry that sounded a mile or two ahead of us. "Help! Convicts escaping!"
The lieutenant ordered his men to hasten, and we followed in kind. The cries continued and gradually grew louder and clearer as we sprinted across the grassy slopes and vales. Finally, after surmounting another hill, the regiment, the men, and I beheld an extraordinary sight.
The hill we were standing on descended into an area of bare earth, which has been altered into a wide, shallow mire due to recent rainstorms. There were two women, both somewhere in their early thirties. One with fettered ankles, and both dressed in grey, faded, dirt-stained rags – their prison attire. The shackled woman was striving to flee while the other did everything she could to stymie her attempts. It was not until after we had spotted them that the second woman managed to bring the first to the ground, partly aided by the slippery texture of the mud underfoot. The guards quickly descended upon them and tore the pair apart.
I felt a hard lump in my throat. The unshackled creature was the convict I had fed. When the guards laid their hands on her and separated her from the other one, she growled, "Remember this: I caught her for you. She would've gotten away if it hadn't been for me. You'll do well to remember that."
The other woman, whom I recognized by the chilling scar on her face, looked up with a widened eye and stammered, "Sh-she . . . she tried to murder me!"
My acquaintance laughed harshly. "Me try to murder her? That's a good one! I got away ahead of her. And I would've gotten clear, too! Then I discovered she was here. You think I'd let her go free, just to make a fool of me again!"
Rage briefly overcame the darker woman as she lunged at her companion, and seemed capable of strangling the more fragile-looking wench had the guards not hauled her away. "Leave me alone!" cried the scarred one fearfully, and nearly retreated into the secure grasp of her captors.
Both prisoners were brought to the lieutenant, who had two pairs of irons ready for his prey. I was somewhat surprised by how quickly my acquaintance returned to a state of calm, as if the act of fury she had just performed had been just that: a performance for her audience, including the very woman she seemed ready to tear to bits.
However calm she seemed to appear, I grew anxious when we came into close proximity with one another, and even more so when her eyes locked with mine. I instantly informed her, with my eyes and head, that the lieutenant's being here and capturing her was no fault of mine. Her gaze was shortly after averted toward her jailer, therefore preventing me from reading her response and assuring myself that she understood me.
After both women were handcuffed, we followed the regiment on a long march toward the river. As we walked, I continuously sought out the dark-haired convict with my gaze, observing the way she behaved when in the hold of captivity. I was awed by the way she carried herself – tall, straight, chin leveled and eyes downward. There was a strange sort of dignity in her manner, and she seemed determined not to be wounded or angered by her capture and return to the hulks. It was a mix of pride and humility that I was certain I would never encounter again.
I had nearly forgotten about my own fears – Jeanne's response to the missing bread and brandy – until we arrived beside the river and the two runaways were forced into a waiting rowboat. My acquaintance went down first. She seemed ready to climb in when suddenly she stopped and looked up toward the lieutenant. "If I may be permitted to speak."
"Oh?" snapped the lieutenant after a sharp snort.
"I wish to alleviate any possible suspicion another might suffer due to my deeds."
Her captor sighed. "Go on, then."
She stood a little straighter and put her shoulders back. "I stole some food from the village blacksmith. Some bread and a bottle of brandy."
I turned to see Henri's jaw drop wide open. "Do you recall missing such items, monsieur?" questioned the lieutenant.
"Why, my wife did just as you came in!"
"Oh," said the convict, her voice just a bit softer and remorseful, "so you're the blacksmith. Well, monsieur, I'm sorry to say that I've eaten your bread."
"Oh, you're as welcome to it as ever it were mine!" cried Henri, his innocent concern shiny genuinely and splendidly in my eyes. "We don't know what you've done, but we certainly wouldn't have you starve to death for it. Wouldn't we, Jean?"
"All right, that's enough," announced the lieutenant gruffly. "Get in, you."
The convict boarded the boat without another word. As the boat departed, however, I saw her turn around furtively and look me straight in the eye. I couldn't discern what she was thinking, though I was fairly certain that I needed not to fear her for a while. Her gesture had been my assurance that she did not blame me for her capture. I was grateful, but still uneasy. I still believed myself somewhat in her debt, for I felt, in a way, that I had failed in protecting her from the law.
It does not matter now, I told myself. You are gone out of each other's lives, never to see the other again.
"Come on, Jean," called Henri gently as our company turned homeward. "Remember the hearth?"
I followed without a reply, but my mind was still beside the river. When I crawled into bed that night, I resolved that it was best not to become entangled with any more criminals for a good, long while.
So . . . what do you think? Do let me know, so I can decide whether or not to bother with this. I'm pretty much fixed on writing the whole story in first person, but if you think it should be switched, feel free to tell me. Other suggestions are welcome, just restrain yourself from flaming. :)