Here it is as promised! Special thanks and recognition go to my co-author Christina Lewis known as Jazzcat on fanfiction. Thanks so very much for your patience. More is to come! Enjoy!
It was raining – pouring from the sky in sheets of gray silk. Shivering and chilled to the bone, I scowled through droplets that clung to my lashes and gripped a fistful of my drenched skirt, dragging the hem out of the mud and slogging miserably through the wet forest.
Shelter. I just wanted shelter – a place I could wait for this relentless storm to lighten up.
I pressed a muddy hand against the damp bark of a tree, and then I saw it: The outline of a small cottage nestled cozily in an oak grove.
I blinked the water out of my eyes, and I stared to make sure I wasn't imagining things. The cottage was real.
Shaking strands of dark, wet hair out of my face, I hitched up my ragged skirt and dashed toward the grove. I threw myself against the solid door and my trembling fingers scrambled at the door handle. Wonder of wonders, the handle turned, and I stumbled with a gasp and a shudder into the dark cottage interior.
I stood there, dripping on the wooden floor and breathing heavily in the sudden peaceful quiet. I'd been in the midst of pounding rain for so long that the relief of shelter, of a roof over my head, was overwhelming.
Weariness swept through my thin body. I shivered in the wet clothes plastered to my skin. Cold pierced me to the bone, and my stomach growled. When was the last time I'd eaten?
I started to close the door when a shadow on the wall moved, like a ghost coming to life. I leapt backwards with a gasp and threw my balled fists up, ready to fight.
"Who are you?" I demanded, hating the way my voice shook. "Show yourself!"
The figure emerged, revealing a blond young man who looked about as shocked as I was.
He spoke hesitantly. "Actually, I was about to ask you the same question, seeing as you've intruded into my cottage without so much as a knock."
I ran a hand through my soaked hair. My cheeks flushed from cold and embarrassment. "I…I'm sorry," I began. "I didn't…know anyone lived here."
Mustering my courage, I turned and faced the pouring rain in preparation to leave.
"Wait!" he hissed pleadingly. He too seemed apologetic. "Please, don't go out there again. You'll catch a cold. Please, follow me. But try to remain quiet. My caretakers are asleep."
He reached across me and closed the door, and a warm flush of weary gratitude swept through me. The boy beckoned me through a doorway and into another room where a small fire cast an orange glow on the bare wood walls.
"Stay here," he insisted quietly. "I'll be right back."
I nodded mutely and moved to the fireplace, longing for a little heat to calm my increasingly violent shivers. I sank to my knees, then looked up and caught his glance at me before he left the room. I heard his footsteps running up the stairs.
The meager warmth of the fire barely had a chance to thaw the numbness from my mind before the boy returned, holding several items in his hand.
"Here." He handed me a towel and then a blanket. "I brought you a shirt, if you'd like to change into something dry. I'm sorry I don't have a skirt you can borrow." He grinned at his own joke. "I can leave if you'd like to change."
"Umm…oui. Merci." I smiled lightly.
Soft blue eyes rose to mine, and we stared at each other for a long moment. I studied his eyes: they seemed kind, innocent and curious. I wondered what he saw in mine. Abruptly he averted his gaze and left the room, closing the door behind him.
I dried myself off and changed quickly into the long dry nightshirt, leaving my sodden, muddy dress in the corner. It was somewhat strange, wearing a man's shirt, but it felt good to have dry cloth against my skin for a change.
I took the blanket, wrapped it around my shoulders, and sat next to the hearth again. Warmth enveloped my senses like a pleasant haze. For the first time in weeks, I felt comfortable – and safe.
A tap came at the door. The familiar voice called softly, "May I come in?"
"Yes," I replied. The door swung open and the young man strode in. In one arm he carried a bundle of dry wood; in the other he hoisted a burlap sack. He pushed some of the wood into the grate, then turned and handed the sack to me.
"What is this?" I wondered, though curiosity had already gotten the best of me. I pulled open the sack to find a small round of cheese, a cut of bread, and an apple.
I'd never seen or smelled anything so wonderful in my life!
"You looked hungry," he explained, glancing over his shoulder with a smile as he stoked the fire. "I'm sorry it isn't much…"
"You've… no idea," I gasped gratefully, shoving a piece of bread into my mouth. I spoke around the food. "Merci…" Then I blushed at my lack of manners and gulped uncomfortably.
"Non, please." He set aside the poker and smiled – a very kind smile, I thought. "Don't mind me. You look famished, if you don't mind me saying. Just eat."
I needed no second bidding. I wolfed down the rest of the delicious bread before I started on the soft, mild cheese.
The young man sat across from me and watched me carefully, his face full of questions. "What's your name?" he finally asked.
I pushed the apple from my mouth and wiped away the juice that poured down my chin. This time, I waited until my mouth was clear of food. "Élisabeth," I answered, then finished off the apple. I threw the core into the fire and watched as it sizzled and popped, the edges curling and gradually turning black. A pleasant apple aroma wafted through the small room.
"Élisabeth," the young man breathed. His blue eyes grew so intense that I could no longer concentrate on the fire. "Where are you from? Why are you out all alone? Where's your family?"
I shook my head, finishing off the last of the cheese. "I have no family, nor a place to call home. My parents died when I was very young, or so I was told. I don't remember them." I said it without any sense of emotion. This wasn't the first time I'd had to answer this question during my travels, and although my words evoked sympathy in the listener, it did nothing for me. How could I miss parents I didn't remember?
"I grew up in a small orphanage," I continued, "but I ran away about two years ago. At least, I think it's been two years. It's been some time since I've seen a calendar. I've been living on my own, moving from place to place, looking for food and shelter."
He stared at me in shock. "How old are you?"
"Oh, we are the same age!"
Warmth spread through my chest. We shared a smile until a blush rose in my cheeks, driving my gaze to the floor.
He bit his lip thoughtfully, then frowned. "So, you've been on your own since you were twelve? Where are you going?"
I shrugged, my gaze shifting back to the fire. That was another question I'd heard before, and it bewildered me when a tiny wistful ache surfaced in my chest. "I don't know."
That puzzled him. His voice softened. "What are you looking for, Elisabeth?"
I hesitated, the ache in my chest swelling. "I…I don't know."
Silence fell between us. I swallowed hard, blinking at the unfamiliar swirl of emotions washing through me. At least when I was traveling, I didn't have to think about the future – my future. I simply existed in the here and now, placing one foot ahead of another, concerning myself only with how I would find my next meal and a warm place to sleep.
"How are you able to survive?"
I looked up at the young man again, grateful for a question I could answer.
"At first it was hard," I admitted with a sigh. "There were days when I went without food and shelter until I—"
I broke off, staring at him. I didn't want to say any more.
"Yes?" prodded the boy with an innocent curiosity and a profound lack of guile.
Maybe…maybe I can trust him.
"I fell in with a caravan of gypsies," I confessed.
His eyebrows shot up. "Gypsies! I thought they were—"
"Tramps and thieves?" I interrupted with a smile. Then I sobered. "Maybe. But they were kind to me, and one of the women showed me how to gather food in the woods. She taught me which plants to eat and which were poisonous. That knowledge has saved my life more than once, especially after I—I struck out on my own."
I wasn't about to reveal the circumstances that caused me to leave the gypsies behind. He must have sensed my determined silence on the subject, and - to my relief and gratitude – he pursued the issue no further.
"So I traveled through the woods. When I lived at the orphanage, they barely fed us enough and most of the food was hardly edible, so I resorted to 'hunting' for my own food. There was a farmer's field across from the orphanage, and though we weren't allowed to go there, I would sneak over at night and pluck all sorts of things."
"You were a thief?" he frowned.
"No, I…" I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, frowning in my own turn. "I…I don't like stealing, but I was starving. So were the other children, and I…I brought them whatever I could." I bit my lip, then cast an imploring look at the boy. "I had no choice. We were desperate. You do understand, don't you?"
At first, there was no answer. Then, slowly, he nodded and offered me another warm smile. "Though I've never had to find my own food, your actions were those of a noble heart, Elise…"
Elise. That was the first time I had ever been called that, but I loved the way it sounded — especially from him. But why? What was it about him that made me feel the way I did?
My throat tightened, and I had to clear it twice before I could go on. "I prefer begging to stealing, and I haven't stolen anything in a long time. I haven't had to," I added with a touch of pride. "I can gather my own food, or…I can beg, when I must. I can work as hard as any boy," I lifted my chin a little higher, "and I can earn a decent meal and a place to stay for the night – providing I find a farm willing to hire me."
The boy looked bemused. "Aren't you afraid of meeting ruffians on the road?"
I choked down a laugh, then smiled. "No. I'm very good at hiding."
He smiled back at a me – a smile that warmed me clear down to my toes. "You're a regular wood nymph, aren't you?"
I tilted my head. "What's a wood nymph?"
It was his turn to choke down a laugh. "Never mind. So you wandered here, entirely by chance?"
I nodded vigorously and shivered. "Tonight was miserable! I couldn't find a dry spot anywhere and I actually got lost. I was thankful to come upon your cottage. What about you?" I took a deep breath, suddenly curious about my companion and aware that the entire conversation had been focused on me.
He raised his eyebrows, his blue eyes alight with silent laughter. "You want to know how I found this cottage?"
I blushed. "No, no. Not exactly. What's your name, and why do you live here?"
The young man seemed entranced by my story, and he did not respond for a long time. The fire crackled and snapped in the grate, and I pulled my blanket closer, staring at the boy.
Finally he drew a breath and spoke. "I am called Philippe. I've lived here ever since I can remember, and I have no knowledge of my parents. I was told by my caretakers that my father died before I was born and my mother passed away during childbirth."
Struck by the similarities between us, I could only smile. Abruptly I realized that he might have expected sympathy from me – the same sympathy I experienced whenever I related my own tale – and I scowled away the smile.
"I'm sorry," I offered.
I stared at Philippe, who looked as white as his shirt. Before I could ask what was wrong, his blue eyes jolted upward and fixed on a point above my shoulder. I twisted around and looked in the same direction.
Two people stood at the door, half-hidden in the shadows – an older man and a woman. Both were as pale as Philippe. Both stared at me.
They looked angry.
Philippe stood up slowly.
"Who is this?" the man demanded, glaring at me.
"She…her name is Elisabeth," Philippe answered with trepidation in his voice. "I…she needed help."
"Young lady," the man boomed at me, "come here."
I stood up slowly and clutched the blanket in my small hands. The man was tall, and his gray hair crowned a bald spot on his head. His features were sharp and angular, and his clothing was black. Especially now that he was angry, he made an imposing figure in the semidarkness. The woman was much shorter and heavyset. Her face was etched with wrinkles and I could spot loose gray tendrils of hair flowing around her face. The shadows made her look like a witch.
I trembled in their presence, my heart beating hard in my chest – hard enough to drown out the rain pounding against the roof. I faced the man who addressed me. "Is something wrong, monsieur?" I asked cautiously. "I'm…I'm sorry for barging in, but I was so cold and hungry and—"
"Come here!" the man ordered again then turned on Philippe. "We will deal with you later."
I glanced at Philippe, who looked down at the floor as if he'd committed some kind of crime. I felt my face burn. I took a few more shuffling steps toward the man, my head lowered.
"Please, don't punish him on my behalf. I let myself in, and—and he was gracious enough to let me stay. I didn't realize anyone lived here. I just wanted to get out of the rain."
The man and the woman looked at each other for a long moment, then abruptly relaxed. I looked nervously from one face to the other, wondering why their demeanor had changed so suddenly.
Philippe's voice broke the tense silence. "Please, Alard, Mae. Please don't throw her out! At least let her stay until the rain stops."
The woman, Mae, glanced at Alard, who looked back at Philippe. "Very well, but I want to ask some questions of you." He glanced over at me.
Swallowing hard, I nodded. "What do you wish to know?"
Alard ushered me into the kitchen and closed the door behind him, which vaguely frightened me. I felt trapped.
"Sit down," he commanded, pointing at a chair near the table.
Willing my legs not to shake out from under me, I did as I was told. The man took a seat across from me, then leaned forward intently. He folded his long, bony fingers and regarded me with steely gray eyes beneath dark, bushy brows.
"Who are you, girl, and where do you come from?"
Trying to keep my voice steady, I gave him the same answers I'd given Philippe. But I left out the gypsies, hoping he hadn't caught that part of our conversation.
"How long have you lived in France?"
"All my life."
He went on. "Who is the current king of France?"
"I—I don't know."
The man stared hard at me. "Have you ever been to Paris or seen the royal family?"
"No, monsieur," I answered quietly, hopelessly bewildered. Would this man throw me out of the cottage, simply because I didn't know the king?
"Very well." Apparently satisfied, he leaned back in his chair, then rose to open the door. He stopped abruptly and glowered at me, those terrible eyebrows lowered like thunderclouds.
"Oh, and one more thing, Elisabeth. When you leave this cottage in the morning, you are not to utter a word about what you have seen here or discussed with any of us. And you are never to return here again. Is that understood?"
I stared at the man incredulously, and my heart wrenched. Why did everything have to be a secret? Why wasn't I allowed to return? I wanted to see Philippe again.
"Do you understand?" Alard asked again, this time in a harsher tone.
Pleading with him would get me nowhere, and I knew it. Swallowing down a lump in my throat, I nodded. "Oui, monsieur."
"Good." The man opened the door and signaled for Philippe and the woman to enter.
"I have brought down a small pallet," declared the woman, making it sound more like a command than a generosity. "You will sleep there tonight."
"Merci," I whispered to the table. In truth, I was afraid to leave the chair without permission.
Fortunately, I didn't have to. Philippe sat beside me, but we spoke little while his caretakers prepared supper – in between suspicious glances at me. The atmosphere in the kitchen stifled me until I couldn't breathe.
The meal was an awkward affair, and although I was famished, I was grateful when it was over.
"Would you like me to help with the dishes?" I asked Mae politely.
She gave me a sour look. "No. Go to bed."
Despite the long nightshirt I wore, I managed a slight curtsey. "As you wish. Goodnight."
She didn't respond as I moved to the other room where the pallet lay near the fire. When the caretakers finished cleaning the kitchen, they marched past me with candles and made their way to their own rooms.
The light of the candles faded, leaving me in the semidarkness with only my thoughts for companions. The fire faded to glowing orange embers in the grate, and I sighed and rolled onto my side to stare at them. There were so many questions I had about Philippe and his caretakers, but no answers. It was like a puzzle – a mystery with too many obscure clues. And I couldn't sleep with them swirling through my head.
The floor creaked behind me, and I sat up with a startled gasp.
"Who's there?" I whispered nervously.
"Shh! It's me, Philippe."
I breathed a sigh of relief as the boy cautiously scooted closer, and I could hardly discern his form from the shadows. He knelt down beside me.
"I'm sorry if I scared you," he began hesitantly.
I smiled wryly. "You're the least frightening thing in this cottage," I whispered back. I nodded meaningfully at the stairs. "Why are they so secretive?"
Philippe looked shocked. "Secretive?"
"Well, yes. And very suspicious." In a hushed voice, I shared with Philippe how the man had interrogated me and what he instructed me to do.
Philippe's face fell. "So… we will not see each other again?"
I suddenly shook my head. "It doesn't have to be that way, Philippe. I could always come back; I'm really good at hiding." I smiled.
For a moment, his face lit up. Then he frowned. "No, I don't want you to get into trouble. If the father finds out…"
"The father?" I questioned. Then it dawned on me. The man was a priest. "Why would he punish you for helping a stranger? I would think that a priest would not frown on such a thing."
Philippe shrugged. "I don't know. But I have been punished before for leaving this house without his permission. He doesn't usually stay here; he just stayed tonight because he didn't want to travel in the rain."
A tendril of hope sprang to life inside of me. "Where does he go?"
"I don't know, but he often won't return for days."
That was exactly what I'd wanted to hear. "Well, how will he know I'm here if he is not around?" I grinned deviously.
"Mae will tell him," Philippe sighed.
"Mae? Oh, the woman," I mused.
Philippe turned his kindly gaze on me. "Please do not think them cruel. Mae and Father Alard really have been good to me for my whole life. I just wish I knew why I haven't been allowed to see anyone besides them."
I stared. "You mean that they are the only ones you have ever been in contact with?"
I shook my head in confusion. Why would someone want to keep him hidden? As if searching for answers, I scanned the room around me. The walls were barren, save a couple small paintings of flowers. I observed them carefully in the dim orange light.
"Did you paint those?" I wondered.
"No, Mae did. She is a decent artist. She actually made those and a few more to brighten up the walls with. And she is teaching me how to draw." He smiled.
I smiled back. "I would love to see your drawings sometime."
We shared another smile.
I rubbed my fingers through my damp, tangled hair. The rainstorm had done awful things to my dark brown locks. Catching a knot, I frowned.
"Do you have a mirror? I was hoping to straighten my hair out."
"M…mirror?" Philippe asked with a trace of confusion.
I stared at him curiously. "You do know what a mirror is, don't you?"
Philippe clamped his mouth shut and looked down, as if embarrassed.
I stared at him in shock. This boy didn't know what a mirror was? Such a simple thing had been withheld from him all these years? I'd thought myself poorly treated by the orphanage, but at least they gave us mirrors!
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
My heart ached for him. He wasn't allowed to see anyone outside his two caretakers, he had no knowledge of his past, and on top of that he was not even privileged to look upon his own reflection.
"Merely a trifle," I assured him. "It's fine, really." I smiled kindly, though inside I grew more and more suspicious of Mae and Father Alard.
"I should probably get to bed before I get caught," Philippe said abruptly, rising to his feet. With a gentle smile, he made me a courtly bow, then turned to leave.
"Before you go…" I rose from my palette and moved toward him, embracing him in a hug. "Merci Beaucoup! We will see each other again, Philippe — of that I promise you. And I also promise you that I will not allow us to be caught!"
He smiled at my promise and received me in an awkward hug, then bid me goodnight. As he disappeared into the darkness and his footfalls faded on the stairs, I made my way back to the pallet and grabbed the blanket. I wrapped myself tightly in its warmth and curled up in a ball.
The warmth of Philippe's presence remained in the room, as if he still lingered, and my thoughts were occupied with our recent interactions. There was something about tonight that was different than any other of my wanderings.
For tonight, fate had brought us together. I was certain of it.