As I wait for my cover artist to finish, an author friend of mine suggested posting my first 50 pages to give you a taste of my book. So, here they are. If you like it, tell your friends!
Within a couple of weeks, my book should be available for pre-order.
FROM THE DROP OF HEAVEN
By Juliette Godot
The story is fiction
but is based on my family line,
de la Goutte de Paradis,
From the drop of heaven
The shouts came from the valley. Martin crept to the precipice of a hill, crawled under a pine branch, and peered down.
Claude! His favorite professor from the University of Geneva stood shackled between an executioner and his assistants while a cleric shouted the verdict, “Sedition.”
A chaplain shouted scripture above the fracas while an ornately robed judge astride a white horse led a procession to the far end of the courtyard.
Claude struggled and screamed as guards dragged him, his heels leaving draw marks in the dirt. They bound him to a stake with piles of straw and branches at the base. A hush fell over the crowd when the chaplain repeated his prayer, and the flame was set.
With shaking hands, Martin wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. That could have been me! Weak from revulsion, he laid his head on the ground until screaming from below erupted again. He jerked up, and his heart leapt as Claude, with clothes aflame, ran through the crowd, dragging the smoldering ropes. He didn’t get far. Guards threw him to the ground to extinguish the flames consuming his clothes, carried him back to the pyre, and threw him into the blaze.
Bile rose in Martin’s throat as he scrambled from under the branch, then sat motionless, trying to catch his breath. How could the world get thrown off balance in just a month?
Thoughts took him back to his first day at the university when Claude, philosopher of the skepticism movement, held up the Bible and said, “This book has caused more death than any disease in history. Leaders have no problem sending their soldiers to fight and die, but they themselves will change sides in a heartbeat when it comes to money or power.”
As Claude’s reputation grew, so did the groundswell of opinions until, without warning, a group of Calvinist fanatics raided the school, arrested him, and burned the books in the name of God. Martin and the other students fled. The master was not so lucky.
This book has caused more death. . .
Martin’s horse flicked its tail, bringing him back to the present. His eyes focused on his satchel revealing the outline of the book, Montaigne’s Theologia Naturalis. Should he toss it under the tree? Would it make a difference? His name was on the list of heretics. If caught, he’d be a dead man either way.
Gathering his courage, Martin mounted his horse, raised the hood of his cloak, and headed toward Paris. If he could make it to his parents’ home, he would be safe.
Ten years later
Catherine Cathillon turned her eyes to the heavens and grumbled, “What did I do this time?”
Her sister, Anne, was four years older than Catherine, though she ordered her to work as if she were her mother. All Catherine could do was silently stare at her sister’s perfect complexion, perfect hair, perfect. . . Anne.
“Besides suggesting this outing? Who in their right mind would want to traipse all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere, just to pick berries? You know I hate the out-of-doors. I think you just wanted to get out of doing your chores.”
Anne was right. Catherine wanted to get away from the house. She would much rather be outside than under her sister’s thumb, but she couldn’t say that. Instead, she settled on, “No, I wanted to get away from you. I didn’t think Mémé would make you come with me.”
Anne snapped her handkerchief toward Catherine’s head, but she spied it out of the corner of her eye and ducked and giggled at the near-miss. “Do stop complaining. Since you are so worried about getting dirty, just stand there and look pretty, and I’ll pick.”
After twenty minutes of listening to Anne’s complaining, Catherine’s bucket was full. “Are you ready?”
“I was ready before I came.”
Catherine led the way down the path while Anne carefully placed every step and quickly fell behind. “Wait for me.”
“You whine like Beatrix,” Catherine said, turning in time to see Anne tumbling to the ground. Panicked, Anne squealed and fluttered her handkerchief in front of her face.
Unable to stop herself, Catherine laughed aloud. “What are you doing?”
Another squeal. “Something is attacking me!”
With a smirk, Catherine said, “I told you insects are attracted to those flower sprigs, but you insist on carrying them. There are no suitors out here. Who are you trying to impress?”
When she didn’t receive a reply, Catherine continued to the valley where the brook that wound through their farm fed into a small pond, perfect for a swimming hole. Brilliant sunlight dappled on the surface, so calm and clear she could see tadpoles swimming along the edge.
A naughty smile crossed her face. “Do you want to take a dip?”
Anne gasped in horror. “You fool. There are snakes in that water.”
“Oh, please.” Catherine lifted her skirts and skipped across the narrow inlet, but just as she suspected, her sister didn’t budge.
Instead, Anne held out her pail, and her voice rose like a child’s. “Take this and help me.”
Catherine took it and peered inside. “There are maybe ten berries in here.”
“You win the prize. Now help me.”
Not usually having the upper hand, Catherine wasn’t about to waste it. “You will draw the water tonight.”
“Oh. . .” Anne huffed before accepting the assistance. “How much farther?”
“The road is just up that bank. Come on and stop whining.”
A grove of blackthorn bushes stood between them and the road when a noise arose from the other side, just out of view. Catherine ducked and pulled Anne down beside her.
“What is it?”
“Shh, I hear something.”
“Stop teasing me,” Anne whispered.
Long, sharp thorns protected the sour purple fruit as though they were precious gems. Careful to avoid the barbs, Catherine moved a branch aside and peered through. Three saddled horses grazed near a rock formation just beyond the road. She stretched a little more and caught sight of three men sitting on the rocks.
Anne tugged on Catherine’s sleeve. “What is it?”
“Will you be quiet? There are three men over there. Let’s go back.”
“Oh no, I’m not going back,” Anne said, pushing Catherine as if she planned to barge out and reveal their hiding place.
“Wait! At least let me see if they’re vagrants.”
At that, Anne’s eyes shot open, and she dropped down again.
The rocks limited Catherine’s view, but when one of them turned his head, she recognized him and gasped. “One of them is. . .” She crinkled her nose. “That man from the stable. You know, the lame one with the scar. We should go back.”
“Ha, I thought you weren’t afraid of anything.” Anne chuckled.
Catherine stiffened. “I’m not afraid of him, but. . .”
Though their mother had always told them to cover their hair in the presence of men, Anne tended to do as she pleased. She removed her coif, fluffed her honey-gold hair, and licked her lips. With her father’s fine features, Anne turned heads and always seemed to know what to say.
With a disgusted frown, Anne grumbled, “Look at you.” She pinched some color into Catherine’s cheeks. It wouldn’t help. Catherine had her mother’s dark hair and plain face. Nobody ever noticed her.
“Dust yourself off and come on.” Anne stepped out of the brush and onto the road. She raised her chin and approached the men with a big smile. “Gentlemen.”
Catherine slipped off her coif and fluffed her hair before lowering her head and following. As they approached, she heard the scuffle of the men sliding off the rocks to stand, a rare show of respect, and she lifted her gaze. Better dressed than the average villager, these men wore embroidered doublets with long sleeves, matching breeches, hose, and leather jerkins.
The tallest one nodded. “Good afternoon, ladies. Have we met? I’m Jean de la Goutte de Paradis. This is my brother, Nicolas, and our friend Martin.”
The mayor’s sons. The one who had spoken, Jean, the tallest man Catherine had ever seen, went by Le-Chêne—The Oak. He had a strong but friendly face with thick brown hair and brows. Anne flashed him a bright smile, but Catherine thought he was married.
Martin ran the town stable. Older than Le-Chêne, he had sandy hair and a deep scar running from his forehead to his nose, then straight across his cheek, as if someone had tried to cut a slice from his face. Shorter than the other two, Martin stood about the height of her papa but had a slight frame and walked with a noticeable limp. His firm, square jawline suggested command, yet she had never heard him speak.
The youngest one, Nicolas, looked about the same age as Anne. He was long and lean with wavy brown hair like Le-Chêne, except he had a slightly crooked nose. Mischievous hazel eyes glinted as Nicolas raised an eyebrow at Catherine with an expression that made her blush. She dropped her gaze to her feet and kicked a stone.
With a small curtsy, Anne replied, “My name is Anne, and this is my sister, Catherine.”
Le-Chêne nodded in greeting. “What brings you ladies out by yourselves?”
Always the flirt, Anne gave a sly grin. “If you must know, we were picking berries.”
When Anne proudly held up her nearly empty pail, Catherine looked away in exasperation.
“On a Sunday?”
A gentle wind blew. Anne turned her head, and as naturally as the breeze, her hair lifted from her shoulders, billowing behind her as if she were an angel. When Catherine tried to do the same, the wind shifted, and a dark lock blew across her face and stuck to her lip.
“Picking berries isn’t work,” Anne told them. “Why are you here?”
With an air of excitement, Nicolas slipped a book from inside his jerkin. “We were reading.”
Martin shot him a furious glance, and Nicolas stiffened.
Why was he hiding that book? What’s in there that he doesn’t want us to see? “May I see it?” Catherine asked.
Nicolas held out the book to her, but Anne had already set her pail on the ground and snatched it for herself.
Although peasants were rarely educated in the Vosges, the girls’ papa had been lucky to learn from their former parish priest, Father Brignon. Determined to pass along his knowledge, Papa had taught her brothers, but he didn’t think women needed to learn. He made sure the girls could write their names, but Catherine thought even that was a chore. Still, these men had snuck all the way out here just to read. There had to be a reason to do something so tedious.
Anne pretended to read the book and then handed it over to Catherine. It was filled with nothing but a jumble of letters. “Why would you read in the middle of the forest?” she asked before handing it back to Nicolas.
Le-Chêne swung his arms wide. “It’s such a beautiful day; we went for a ride.”
As Nicolas slipped the book into his bag, he stepped back, accidentally kicking Anne’s pail and spilling her ten precious berries. As if it were a great loss, she gasped. His face reddened, and he dropped to his knees to retrieve them, catching Catherine off guard. Most boys would have let her gather them herself while trying to catch a glimpse of her ankle.
Catherine bent to help Nicolas, prompting his face to light up, and he smiled at her again—a strange, crooked smile. As if the berries were valuable, he diligently collected the spoils while keeping one eye on her.
“There’s one more,” he said, reaching between two stones, then he flung himself backward and shouted, “It bit me!”
Something moved—a zigzag, a flash of a tail. Catherine jumped back and shouted, “Viper!”
Anne screamed and scrambled up on a rock to escape while everyone else high-stepped, but the snake was already gone.
Le-Chêne pulled Nicolas to his feet. “Let me see.”
But Nicolas jumped and shook his hand furiously until Martin grabbed it and held it still. Catherine bent in to see too.
The injury looked like two minor thorn pricks on the back of Nicolas’s hand. What would Mémé do? Catherine slipped the handkerchief from her sleeve, wrapped it tightly below his elbow, and tried to calm him. “You’ll be all right. Snake bites aren’t fatal.”
Nicolas’s eyes widened. “People die of snake bites.”
“No, not that snake. Relax and breathe normally.” But he didn’t relax—he gulped air and staggered sideways.
Le-Chêne fetched his horse and pulled Nicolas up. “I’ll take you home.”
“I think he needs help now. Mémé will know what to do,” Catherine said. “Come, Anne.”
“But the snake,” Anne screeched, refusing to budge.
Frustrated at her sister’s ridiculous actions, Catherine blurted, “I think it’s on the rock behind you.”
“Oh!” Anne squealed again, but instead of jumping down, she pulled her legs up and squeezed her knees.
Martin reached his hand toward her. “Zee snake is gone, mademoiselle. Giff me your hand.”
What did he say? Confused by Martin’s strange tongue, Catherine hesitated. Aside from the scar, he didn’t look any different from anyone else, but that accent. . . Whatever he’d said, it convinced Anne to take his hand, and he helped her down.
“Take Nicolas’s horse,” Le-Chêne said to Catherine.
Catherine swung herself up and reached for Anne, but Anne followed Martin, who stopped as if afraid to touch her. She held her arms out for him to help her onto his horse, and after a quick glance for approval from Le-Chêne, Martin lifted her to sit sidesaddle in front of him. He seemed uncomfortable, but she was all smiles.
Papa will not be happy with this stranger’s arms around my sister.
“You said you know someone who can help?” Le-Chêne asked.
“Yes, my grandmother.”
When he and Martin nodded in agreement, Catherine took off down the embankment and across the stream toward the farm.
Nicolas tightened his grip around his brother’s waist. His hand felt as if it were on fire. Nothing looked familiar as the landscape passed by them. “Where are we going?”
Le-Chêne replied, “I’m not sure. Catherine said her grandmother would know what to do. Are you all right?”
“No, I think I’m going to faint.” Nicolas’s head was too heavy, and he rested it against Le-Chêne’s shoulder.
“Hold on. This must be their farm.”
Rolling fields and a barn appeared in the distance, and as they descended the hill, a small stone house came into view.
“Mama, come quickly,” Catherine shouted.
A woman wearing a rag tied around her head rushed out of the house.
Catherine jumped from her horse and pointed at Nicolas. “A snakebite.”
“Snake? What did it look like? Triangular head? How big?”
“Its head was flat. It was brown with a zigzag and smaller than my foot.”
The woman dried her hands on her apron and mumbled, “An adder.”
When Nicolas slid from the saddle, his head was swimming. He lost his balance and staggered against the horse. Le-Chêne dismounted and helped Nicolas to the house and, at the woman’s direction, onto a massive wooden table. As Nicolas stretched out, his brother gasped, and Nicolas leaned on his elbow to see another older woman enter the room—the witch!
That’s why he didn’t recognize this part of the forest. He’d always avoided Le Petit-Courty. Everyone did. The girls withheld their family name on purpose. Nicolas’s heart pounded, his body heaved, and he vomited on the floor. “Sorry,” he sobbed as he lay back, trembling.
Though few had ever seen the witch, her description was well-known: petite, her white apron contrasting with darker skin than he had ever seen, and large, lined eyes, which were fierce, black, and knowing. He had assumed she lived in a cave or hovel. How could she be those girls’ grandmother?
Calm down. Martin says there is no such thing as a witch. Besides, she must weigh less than a bag of rye.
The old woman’s eyes brightened at the kerchief around Nicolas’s arm. She tightened the knot and ordered the other woman, Catherine’s mother, to massage down to his hand, now swollen to twice its normal size. Turning to Le-Chêne, the witch pointed to a bunch of weeds hanging above his head and said something, rolling her “R”so thickly that Nicolas could not understand. Le-Chêne appeared confused as well.
“Qué o-rrreg-an-o,” she repeated slowly.
“Can you reach the oregano?” Catherine said. “Snakes are sent by the devil. Mémé wants to scare the demons away by burning oregano in the fireplace. Demons are afraid of oregano.”
Nicolas inhaled sharply and squeezed the wooden table. Did she say demons?
Le-Chêne handed the bunch to the witch, who crumbled it between her palms, mumbled an incantation, and tossed half into the fireplace. After mixing the rest with oil, she wiped it on Nicolas’s arm. He tried to pull away, but she glared at him with such intensity he resigned himself to her care. It’s just oregano, just oregano. Without a word between them, Catherine fetched a stick that the witch used to splint his arm, wrapping it with a long piece of cloth.
“Too tight?” the witch asked.
It was tight and it ached, but Nicolas couldn’t think of a reply.
She pinched his fingers, appeared satisfied, and stroked his cheek, whispering, “Rrrelax child, brrreathe easily. You will be fine.”
Catherine’s mother patted his hand reassuringly and placed pillows under his head and knees. His breathing slowed, and he fought to stay awake.
Martin and Anne arrived, and Le-Chêne went outside to speak with him. Nicolas tried to sit up, but the old woman pushed his shoulder down and growled, “Stay still.” Before Nicolas could wrest himself free, Le-Chêne returned, alone.
Then a stocky man who must be Catherine’s father raced into the house and stopped before stepping in the mess on the floor. “What’s happening here? Who is this?” he said.
“Sorry to disrupt your day,” Le-Chêne said to him with a bow. “We’re the mayor’s sons.”
“Humbert,” the man said, nodding in greeting.
The witch ignored protocol, shooing them away from the table. “Your brother needs to rest. Show our guest outside to the bench,” she said to Anne, who motioned toward the door.
As Le-Chêne moved to follow her, Nicolas panicked. My brother is leaving me here—alone? Nicolas’s heart raced, and he tried to rise, but the iron hand of the witch held him fast. Thankfully, Le-Chêne retreated only a couple of steps and leaned against the doorframe.
Humbert took stock of the situation and called Catherine to the side. Nicolas strained to hear the exchange.
“Did I see you straddling that horse? Have you forgotten yourself? You’re too old to straddle a horse.”
“I’m sorry, Papa, but it was an emergency.”
“Emergency or not, you’ll not do it again! Do you understand me?”
Humbert’s eyes softened, and he went to speak with Le-Chêne, but their voices were muffled. Relieved, Nicolas lay back on the pillow. He would close his eyes for just a moment. . .
Nestled in a valley of the Vosges Mountains lay the town of Vacquenoux. Along the main street, the buildings were larger, mostly constructed of wood with pine-shingled roofs. Behind them stood rows of smaller houses and merchant shops, mostly wattle-and-daub with thatched roofs. But Martin barely registered these details as he rushed to fetch Nicolas’s parents, arriving breathless at the La Goutte de Paradis estate in the heart of Vacquenoux.
He caught a glimpse of Nicolas’s father, Jean, reading in the shade of the house. At Martin’s shout, Jean dropped the book. “What is it, Martin?”
Fighting to catch his breath, Martin held up his finger. “A snake has bitten Nicolas. We took him to the Cathillon farm in Le Petit-Courty—I think you should come.”
At the mention of the Cathillon farm, the lines around Jean’s eyes deepened. Behind him, Nicolas’s mother, Elisabeth, emerged from the house and rushed toward them.
At the sight of her, Martin whispered, “Alone.”
The stiff damask of Elisabeth’s skirts made her progress difficult, and she arrived out of breath amid the scent of roses. Refined brown eyes peered into Martin’s as she touched her fingers to her ruffled lace collar and huffed. “Did I hear someone shout?”
Martin lowered his gaze. He had hoped to fetch Jean without informing Elisabeth to avoid upsetting her. Luckily, Jean came to his rescue.
“Nicolas has been injured, and I must go to him.”
Her puffy sleeves crinkled as she grasped Martin’s arm. “Nicolas is hurt? How badly? Where is he?”
Jean kissed her cheek. “We’ll be right back.”
Her grip tightened. “I should come too.”
“There is no need for you to bother yourself. I’ll not be long.”
Still clinging to Martin’s arm with one hand, she touched her husband’s shoulder with the other. “Wait, I will join you.”
Jean replied, “You can come if you promise not to get upset.”
Martin winced. Just what I had hoped to avoid.
Worry flashed across Elisabeth’s face as she nodded and whirled. “Let me fetch my cloak while you hitch the cart.”
Minutes later, the wagon barreled past the last house on the edge of town, heading into the countryside.
“What kind of trouble has that boy gotten himself into now?” she asked, twisting her fingers.
Martin took Elisabeth’s hand and said, “I may as well tell you. A snake has bitten Nicolas, and we took him to Le Petit-Courty.”
She shivered, and the color drained from her face. “You took him where?” She ripped her hand from his. “I thought you only wanted to spare me the sight of blood.” Her voice rose. “Oh, I have heard stories. Of all the places in the world to take him, why in heaven’s name did you take him there? That woman is a witch.”
Jean frowned. “You promised.”
Shaking his head, Martin exhaled. “There is no such thing as a vitch.”
“You should have brought Nicolas home.”
“Can you cleanse a snake bite?”
“Well. . . no.” She rubbed her forehead. “Nevertheless, that woman does not belong here.”
Jean pulled the reins, brought the cart to a stop, and turned to her. “Francisca was not born in Salm, but she is no less welcome here than Martin.”
Wide-eyed, Elisabeth turned to Martin. “Yes, but Martin is—”
Martin smirked. “Pale?”
Jean’s nostrils flared. “We do not involve ourselves in gossip. Now, should we continue, or shall I take you home?”
Though her face reddened, she raised her chin and folded her hands in her lap. “Please continue.”
With a slap of the reins, they proceeded toward the Cathillon farm. Aside from a breeze rustling the treetops, the only sounds were the clop of hooves and the grinding of wheels on the dirt path. Eventually, the trees became sparse, and fields of rye and barley replaced them.
The farm, Le Petit-Courty, shared its name with a stream that wound its way down the hillside and past the barn. Following a fencerow, the narrow path led them to a tidy house situated on the sunny side of the slope.
Most homes in the countryside were of wattle-and-daub, but this one was somewhat of a surprise. Though constructed of the same brown sandstone as the estate, it was much smaller. Diamond-shaped glass panes covered two of the windows, and the others were protected with skins.
As Martin helped Elisabeth off the carriage, she whispered, “I thought these people were poor tenant farmers.”
A bright-faced woman with smiling blue eyes came to the door. A cloth wrapped her head, and an apron, wrinkled and wet as if from drying her hands, covered her dress.
“Monsieur, madame, my name is Marie. Please come in.”
While Jean stepped forward to greet her, Martin stopped at the doorway with Le-Chêne.
Elisabeth pushed past them and rushed into the house, toward the wooden table in the center of the room where Nicolas lay. She brushed his hair back and said, “I am here, darling.”
Just then, an old woman emerged from a back room.
Marie nodded toward her. “This is Francisca, my mama.”
Clearly, Francisca was the one presumed to be a witch, but why? She had no disgusting growths on her face, nor was she hunched over, as Martin had heard. In fact, despite her age, Francisca was a handsome woman, though her dark complexion made it obvious she was not Marie’s biological mother.
Jean cleared his throat, startling Elisabeth, who forced a smile. “Pleased to meet you.”
“And I am pleas-ed to meet you,” Francisca’s French was laced with a heavy accent.
Jean bowed slightly and joined Elisabeth beside the table. “How do you feel, son?”
Nicolas awoke, leaned on one elbow, and said with a raspy voice, “Mama?” The moment his head lifted from the pillow, Francisca shoved a mug in his face.
“Drink this.” Nicolas turned his head away, but she growled, “You must drink,” and started to pour. Half of the contents spilled out the corners of his mouth. He coughed and gasped.
Elisabeth reached out. “What are you doing? He is choking.”
The old woman was curt. “He must drink.” She pushed his shoulder until he lay back.
With a whimper, Nicolas folded his arms across his stomach, but Francisca returned his swollen hand to the table. “Be still.”
The old woman’s sass reminded Martin of his own grandmother, and he choked down a chuckle, but when he glanced at Le-Chêne, he saw eyes brimming with anxiety. Trying to defuse the tension, Martin elbowed Le-Chêne, grinned, and raised an eyebrow toward Nicolas. Le-Chêne exhaled and softened his expression.
“It would be best if he lies still,” Marie explained. “A bite from an adder could make someone sick.”
Elisabeth cringed. “What do you mean, lie still? For how long? He cannot stay here.”
Martin followed Elisabeth’s gaze around the house. Bunches of dried flowers, herbs, and weeds hung from the exposed ceiling beams, reminding him of an apothecary shop in Geneva. A spinning wheel sat by the fireplace, and another smaller table separated the food preparation area. The thick wooden table where Nicolas lay stood in the center of the room, surrounded by wooden benches.
Martin’s eyes lingered on Anne, who held a little girl about three years old. The child looked like a younger version of Anne, who reminded him of his former betrothed, Alix.
A middle-aged man came to the door, followed by a young boy. The stout, rugged man had sandy hair, tanned skin, and a scruffy beard. The boy seemed to be about seven or eight, with a dirty face and dark, unruly hair. His smile showed missing teeth, with those remaining too large for his mouth.
“Joseph, fetch our guests some seats,” said the man.
Jean nodded. “We’re fine, thank you. I’m sorry for this inconvenience. Our son is in your way.”
“The boy was hurt and needed help,” Humbert said.
“No need to worry, madame,” Marie continued. “He’ll be good as new in a day or two.”
Elisabeth placed her hand on her heart. “What are you saying?” As her gaze dropped to Nicolas, tears came to her eyes. “I’ll not leave my son here.”
Martin wrung his hands. Nicolas should stay. How can I help?
He approached Elisabeth. “If it would ease your mind, and if Monsieur Humbert agrees, I shall stay with Nicolas.”
All eyes turned to Humbert, who replied, “You’re welcome to stay.”
Nicolas raised his head, but Jean held him fast. “Lie still, son.”
With a grin, Martin said, “What do you think, Nicolas? Shall we stay?”
Though the boy’s eyes were wide, he didn’t reply.
Jean stared at the swollen hand for a long moment while everyone awaited his decision. Finally, he raised his head and patted Nicolas on the shoulder. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” Jean nodded to Martin, then turned to Humbert. “Thank you for your hospitality and your kindness.” Jean bowed to Marie and Francisca.
Before Elisabeth could protest, he took her by the elbow and led her toward the door. Le-Chêne nodded to Martin and mussed Nicolas’s hair before taking his leave.
Martin followed them to the door and waved them off. Though he didn’t believe in witches, he knew nothing about these people. He avoided social situations whenever possible, but Nicolas needed him. Martin turned to find everyone staring, and he swallowed hard. What have I gotten myself into this time?
Martin joined the Cathillon family for dinner in the courtyard while Nicolas slept on the table. After a pleasant meal of pottage, fresh brown bread, and rye ale, Humbert touched Joseph’s shoulder. “Would you fetch the pruner and twine, son?”
The boy responded with a toothless smile and ran to the barn.
With a nod toward a ridge in the distance, Humbert asked Martin, “Have you ever seen a vineyard up close?”
Leave Nicolas? Martin glanced through the doorway. The boy was still sleeping soundly, but. . . Would Humbert be offended if I decline?
Joseph had returned and was waiting for his response.
A struggling farmer probably only has one or two vines anyway. Surely, they wouldn’t be long. “I would enjoy that. Thank you.”
But the path went on and on, much farther than Martin had anticipated, and his hip started throbbing. He must have been limping worse than usual because Humbert slowed his pace, adjusted his boot, and stopped to point at a rabbit or a bird. Joseph ran ahead to catch crickets and gather pebbles to toss at Martin, who took advantage of the pauses to rest.
At the crest of the hill, winding rows of carefully manicured vines spread down the sunny slope before them. Martin stared at them, shocked. He’d had no idea there was a vineyard like this in Vacquenoux. The men ambled through the rows and into the valley, with Humbert occasionally pausing to attach a tendril to a rail, prune a wayward branch, or touch a cluster on the twisted, gnarled vines.
“Do you make wine?” asked Martin.
Humbert nodded and pointed toward a barn in the distance. “That was my Uncle Pierre’s farm, where I was raised. We tended a small vineyard, and he taught me to make wine that he sold each year at the spring fair in Senones.”
“You must make a lot—”
The sharp reply caught Martin off guard. Most men would love to brag about such a notable display.
Almost as an afterthought, Humbert added, “We make preserves.”
“Very impressive, monsieur.”
“Humbert,” Martin repeated.
Upon their return to the farm, Humbert and Joseph headed toward the barn while Martin hurried inside the house to check on Nicolas. A straw mattress large enough for the two of them now lay by the fireplace, and Nicolas was sitting up on the big table. His eyes looked glazed and his skin sallow.
“How do you feel?”
“I’m not sure.” Nicolas rubbed his good hand over the splint and winced. “My whole arm is killing me.” With a sigh, he slid off the table. “I have to go outside for a minute.”
“Lean on me.”
Once Nicolas relieved himself, he gave a silly grin. “Martin, Catherine is the girl that. . .”
Martin chuckled. The boy must not be too sick to be telling another story about a girl.
“. . .that barefoot girl I saw kicking around in the stream. Remember? I told you last week.”
Shocked, Martin whispered, “Dare not say a word.”
“I won’t.” Nicolas swayed and clutched Martin’s arm. “I feel dizzy.”
They barely made it back to the mattress before Nicolas fell asleep.
Martin’s hip ached. He plopped onto a bench by the door and stretched out to rest when the rattle of horse and harness drew his attention. He leaned forward and peeked out the door.
A cart traversed the path, and Martin recognized the man driving: thin, stiff, curly hair, arrogant brown eyes, and a nose pointed like a beak. It was the parish priest, Father Michel. As he pulled up to the house, Humbert rushed from the barnyard, his face red, jaw clenched, and nostrils flaring.
“Monsieur Humbert, Madame Elisabeth asked me—” The rest of Michel’s protests were muffled as Humbert dragged the priest down and around the side of the cart and out of view.
Another person who dislikes Father Michel. Martin returned to his seat, but before he settled, he heard the priest leave and the hushed voices of Humbert and Marie just outside the door.
Humbert peeked into the doorway, bowed slightly to Martin, and announced, “Pardon me, but I have to run an errand.” He left on horseback.
With aprons full of their pickings, the women filed to the worktable, and while Nicolas slept, the place buzzed with hushed activity. Francisca pulled hot ashes onto the hearth to set the pot, Joseph drew water, and the girls whispered arguments over whose turn it was to dice the onions. Marie brought a piece of salted pork to the table. She smiled weakly at Martin and shook her head in resignation before picking off bits of meat and fat to season the stew.
Martin lowered his head and chuckled.
Francisca sat beside him with a huff. “These achy old bones. . . Would you like some muskroot tea before supper? It helps with the aches and pains.”
Heat rose in Martin’s face. Is my weakness that noticeable? “No, I am fine.”
The old woman stood and patted his arm. “The tea helps Humbert’s back. Let me give you some.”
“Please do not trouble yourself.”
To his surprise, her voice lowered, and her black eyes narrowed in anger. “I will make it, and you will try it.”
He had not meant to offend her. “Thank you, madame.”
He drank the tea, and everyone chatted, but no one mentioned Humbert’s hasty departure. Though Martin knew it wasn’t proper, curiosity got the best of him, and he asked, “Was that Father Michel?”
The nonchalant expression Marie returned looked forced. “Yes, but he had to leave. He probably forgot something.”
Whatever Humbert had said to the priest must have made an impression, but Martin couldn’t glean anything from Marie’s face. Though he and Jean had often discussed the sullen little man, whom they both considered more of a troublemaker than a man of God, most of the villagers, Elisabeth included, believed everything that crossed his lips. Perhaps Humbert is a Protestant? Either way, manhandling a priest was not a good idea.
Humbert returned in time for supper.
After the meal, the family filed outside and knelt by the door while Marie led them in praying the rosary. Martin bowed his head out of respect for his hosts, but his mind swirled. If Humbert was not a Protestant, why had he mistreated the priest?
When nobody was looking, Martin peeked at Anne, comparing her to Alix: same soft voice, same quiet grace. Once, Anne lifted her gaze, caught him staring at her, and smiled. His face flushing, he returned an awkward grin and lowered his head.
The family dispersed. Martin stood, unsure of what he should do, when Anne beckoned him, pointing to red streaks forming in the evening sky. He followed her to a fence, where they admired the brilliant colors of the coming sunset.
“Tell me more about your travels, Martin,” she said.
After not speaking with a woman since Alix, Martin swallowed hard before replying. “Well, Strasbourg is a beautiful city. The cathedral is the tallest building in the world. The pink stones seem to touch the sky. Even the air feels alive.”
“Oh, I can imagine,” Anne said, touching her hand to her throat. “Someday, I want to see it, and oh, I would love to see Paris.”
Martin frowned—Paris—but her eyes flashed with excitement. He didn’t want to destroy her dreams, so he chose his words carefully. “Sometimes a city’s reputation is misleading.”
Though he was standing with Anne, beautiful Anne, he thought of Alix, and that familiar pain stabbed his heart. Besides, Anne was just being a good host. Surely, his scars repulsed her.
Humbert cleared his throat behind them; it was improper for them to be alone. Though she shot her father a look, Anne nodded, and Martin followed her to a bench beside her father. They settled while Humbert enjoyed a pipe in the crisp evening breeze.
A few minutes later, Catherine joined them.
Never good at small talk, Martin struggled to think of something witty to say.
Catherine looked sideways at him. “How did you get that—”
“So, Martin,” Anne cut in. “I noticed a bit of an accent.”
“Switzerland is my birthplace. My father was a musician and opened a shop where he made a newer instrument called the viola for arms. The French call it a violin.”
“A violin is like a lute, except you play it with a bow. My father was one of the first violin makers in this part of Europe.”
Catherine leaned in with excitement. “Do you have one, a violin? Will you play for me?”
“Yes, if you like.”
Anne remained composed, her hands clasped on her lap, her tone even, like a fine lady. “What brought you to the small town of Vacquenoux?”
Suppressed thoughts jammed Martin’s mind. Just give an overview, enough to satisfy their curiosity. “I studied to be a professor in Geneva, but Calvinists replaced the liberal professors. . .” They burned my teacher and were coming for me. No. Finish it, quickly. “I had to flee.”
Catherine cocked her head. “What’s a Calvinist?”
Humbert shot a warning glance. “Catherine.”
Martin thought of another explanation that might not scare her, but he glanced at Humbert for approval. At his nod, Martin turned to Catherine. “Calvinists are strict Protestants, and they rule Geneva.”
She frowned in confusion.
He began again. “Strict Huguenots. They believe dancing, music, and drinking wine are immoral and that certain books are illegal. My father made forbidden instruments, so they accused me of Catholic sympathies, and I fled before they could arrest me.”
“Well.” Catherine’s face pinched. “What’s a Huguenot?”
With a glance toward Humbert, Martin said, “I am a Huguenot. Does that bother you?”
Humbert raised an eyebrow. “Should it?”
“No,” Martin said, wishing he could take back his words.
The confused girls turned to each other and then to him. Silence hung in the air until finally, Anne said, “Why did you come here instead of going back to Switzerland with your family?”
“Time for bed,” Humbert said, standing and shooing the girls toward the house. Once the girls were out of earshot, he said, “I have no problem with you being a Huguenot, Martin.”
At Martin’s blush, Humbert touched his shoulder. “You didn’t have to join our prayers if it made you uncomfortable.”
Martin gave up trying to place him. “The chanting is soothing. Besides, this is your home.”
“And you are our guest,” Humbert said in a fatherly voice. “You needn’t humor those girls with their meddling questions either.”
“Thank you, monsieur.”
Humbert gestured toward the house, but Martin said, “I would like to stay out here a while.”
“Of course. Let me know if you need anything. Good night.”
Martin walked to the fence where he had stood with Anne as the sun faded behind the pines. Why did he always want to debate with people? Why couldn’t he keep his opinions to himself? Though it had taken years to forget Alix, Anne brought back her memory: pale blue eyes, high cheekbones, and hair the color of ripened rye.
A slight chill displaced the warmth of the day, and an icy breeze brought Martin’s attention back to the present. After all these years, angry tears still burned his cheeks, and he brushed them away. With a heavy heart, he returned to the house, where a rushlight had been left burning for him. Nicolas was still sleeping comfortably. Had he slept all day? Martin had promised to keep his eye on the boy, but. . .
He blew out the flame, closed his eyes, and tried to think of something else. Though he enjoyed the political conversations regularly held with his adopted family, he missed the intellectual give-and-take with his old friends and philosophers. How much more advanced the world would be if only. . .
As his mind quieted, the ache roared back into his hip. Francisca’s tea had helped. He wished for another mug now. To occupy his thoughts, he tried to identify the myriad of dried greenery above his head as he drifted off to sleep. He shivered and pulled the blanket. . .
. . .his collar, tightly against his neck. He was floating on a morning mist above the streets of Paris as the bells of Notre Dame pierced the quiet, announcing the Feast of Saint Bartholomew. As he flew around the soaring cathedral, other people floated with him. He landed on the bridge over the Seine, but the people with him were not floating in the mist, they were in the water, bobbing and turning with the current, catching in the arches of the bridge.
“No,” he moaned.
He ran across the blood-soaked ground, tripping over bodies, dead horses, and toppled carts. Lost in the fog, he ran and ran, slipping on vomit and emptied intestines. Finally, Martin found his parents’ house and flew up the stairs. The door opened, and his mother was there, reaching for him. He fell into her embrace, but she was stiff. Her dress was soaked in blood from a gaping slash in her throat; her eyes were fixed and staring.
Above the fireplace, where embers still glowed, his father’s head sat on the mantel, his face distorted and eyes wide open. The rest of his body hung from the chandelier. The severed head said, “Martin.”
He couldn’t move. Someone was holding his arm!
“Martin, Martin, are you all right?”
He awoke with a start and sat up, gasping for air, his eyes darting frantically around the room. Francisca repeated his name. His head cleared, he remembered, and he was safe.
“Let me make you a warm drink,” she said, patting his arm.
A blush that began in the pit of his stomach inflamed his entire body. “Sorry that I woke you.” He exhaled. “I. . . I need some air.” Jumping to his feet, he stumbled toward the door. The cool night jolted him awake. He took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut.
Why? Tonight of all nights, why?
Francisca brought two steaming mugs that smelled like the concoction she had been forcing into Nicolas. She handed Martin one, placed hers on a bench, and wrapped a blanket over his shoulders. Her eyes were gentle, concerned.
“You are too kind, madame.”
She retrieved her mug and stood beside him. The moonlight had broken through a cloud and brightened the courtyard, casting everything in muted shades of silver. Occasionally, an owl screeched over the chorus of frogs and the burbling water of Le Petit-Courty. The two stood in silence for several minutes, sipping from their mugs.
“What troubles you? I know I am a stranger,” she said, “but telling me might help.”
Martin turned to her. Her swarthy skin shimmered in the moonlight that intensified the lines on her face. “No. I cannot.” he replied too quickly and lowered his gaze, ashamed of this weakness he could not overcome. Still, she stood there, watching him. He needed to change the subject. “Perhaps,” he said, “your story could help me deal with mine a little better.”
She raised her brows in surprise and gestured to the bench where they settled. She stared into the black void in front of them before saying, “My family traveled through Spain, living off the land, selling things we made.”
He had no trouble understanding her—one of his classmates had the same accent.
“Mercenaries took me, my mother, and six other women from our family. They needed us to work for them, cooking, sewing, other things. . .” She stared at her hands, her voice monotone. “Whenever they needed supplies, they would steal them, and one day I was able to slip my hands from their bindings. When they attacked this farm, I saw my chance to escape. Marie was wandering alone, and when I ran to hide in the woods, I grabbed her and took her with me.”
Martin nodded. Francisca had answered so quickly—perhaps too quickly, too rehearsed. “Yes, I have heard that story. I was hoping you would tell me the rest.”
She adjusted her shawl and squared her shoulders. “Why do you think there is more?”
He looked into her eyes. The fiery spirit was gone, replaced by melancholy.
She tapped her fingers on her mug, stood, and stared into the distance as if watching a scene play out in her mind.
An owl called, hoo-hoo-hooo.
“Nothing else happened,” she whispered, and she left him sitting there.
Nicolas awoke at first light, his hand still swollen and throbbing. The shadow that was Humbert silently donned his boots and slipped out the door. A few moments later, another shadow came down the ladder from the loft and paused above Martin, who whispered something. From the reply, Nicolas guessed it was Joseph. Martin got up and followed him.
Nicolas remained quiet. He would wait for Catherine.
He smiled in the darkness. He had seen her before—from a distance. With her skirts pulled up to her knees, she had been kicking and splashing in the stream by the bridge near where the snake had bitten him, and those legs had filled his dreams ever since. Now he pictured her in her entirety: thick hair, brows, and lashes, the color of the dark, rich mountain earth, creamy skin, and the bluest eyes—no, more of a gray, perhaps silver. And here he was in her house.
The room lightened, and Marie came in from the back. The crisp tawny linen of her kirtle and apron matched the cloth that bound her hair.
“Nicolas, you’re awake. How do you feel this morning?”
He rose to greet her. “I’m not sure. I’m not as dizzy.”
Though he tried to raise his arm, the splint held it fast. “This thing hurts. May I take it off?”
She pinched his fingers. “The splint doesn’t hurt; the bite hurts. Hold it still, and I will get you some tea to help with the pain.” She nodded to a bucket and towel on the corner of the table. While he freshened up, she fetched him a mug.
Nicolas hesitated before taking a drink, then realized with amusement that he had been drinking it for quite a while now. If they’d wanted to poison him, he would be long dead.
She spread out the coals, placed an already-risen loaf of rye on the hearth, then excused herself outside. Overhead, the girls stirred in the loft.
When Catherine started down the ladder, Nicolas hid the mug behind the bucket, lay back on the pallet, and closed his eyes.
The scratching of slippers on the floor indicated she was approaching him, and he pinched his leg to keep from laughing.
She leaned over him and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. Her breath felt warm on his neck. “How do you feel?”
Opening his eyes slightly, he moaned, “I’m dying. Kiss me. I don’t want to die without ever being kissed.”
She checked his forehead. “You have no fever; you’re not dying.”
“My stomach,” he moaned and rolled side to side. “I’m going to die. Please kiss me.”
Soft fingers touched his arm, and she spoke in a soothing voice, “No, you’ll be fine.” The sweet smell of bracken and straw enveloped him as her hair tickled his neck. He couldn’t help himself, and he opened one eye to peek at her when a chuckle escaped.
Blushing, she gasped and pulled away.
“Oh, come now, is that any way to treat a dying man?” He puckered his lips and leaned on his elbow.
Catherine’s eyes flew open, then narrowed. “You fool!” She squared her shoulders and marched to the table, banging the wooden bowls as she set each place.
Still chuckling, Nicolas got up, smoothed the blankets with one arm, and sat back down on the pallet to watch her. Occasionally, she peeked at him from under her hair. He would smile, wink, and watch her blush again.
Francisca came and pulled the baked loaf from the fireplace. The aroma made his stomach growl. Aside from that awful tea, he had not eaten since yesterday morning.
When Humbert returned, Marie called everyone to the table, and Nicolas wasted no time seating himself in front of the warm bread. But that wasn’t all. There were fresh raspberries and honey, two things that rarely graced their own table. What a treat.
At the sight of the honey, Humbert cast a questioning glance at Marie, who responded with a nod in Martin’s direction. While Nicolas pondered the exchange, Francisca approached him.
“How does that arm feel?”
Drawing a pained face, he raised it slightly. “It’s heavy, and it hurts.”
Nodding, she patted his shoulder. “I will make you a sling, and you will rest today. When you finish eating, Catherine will escort you outside for some fresh air.”
Catherine looked appalled. “Mémé, I—”
Ignoring her, Marie spooned some berries into the bowl and handed him a piece of bread. “You must be starving.”
He was, but as he devoured his bread and berries, he glanced at Catherine, who was sulking. When she did raise her head, he winked at her. He didn’t think she noticed, but her father did.
“Feeling better, I see?”
“Yes, monsieur,” Nicolas replied, wiping the smile from his face.
When her father finished eating, Catherine motioned for Nicolas to follow her. He thought Martin would join them, but Martin’s eyes were fixed on Anne, who was clearing the dishes.
“Are you coming, Martin?”
When Martin stood with a sigh, Nicolas rushed ahead to open the door for Catherine and bowed as she passed. She shot him a dirty look.
Once outside, Martin joined them, and the three simply stood there, staring at one another. A few moments of uncomfortable silence followed before Nicolas blurted out, “Would you like me to read to you?”
Catherine brightened. “Yes, very much.”
“What happened to my bag?” Nicolas asked.
Martin’s eyes widened in shock. He looked around suspiciously and whispered through clenched teeth. “What are you thinking? That book is illegal.”
“Do you think anyone would know?”
As if he had been eavesdropping on their conversation, Humbert came out of the house, waving the book. “Are you looking for this? It must have fallen out of your bag.” His eyes bored into them. “Who is Ronsard? Is this book banned?”
Nicolas squirmed. “I—”
Martin stepped up. “I am sorry, monsieur, it was a mistake bringing it here.”
At that, Humbert seemed to calm, and he patted Martin’s shoulder. “Just be careful.”
Good old Martin. Always there when I need him.
“Can Nicolas read it to me, Papa? Please?”
“Daughter, you can’t keep a secret. This is no game. People have been killed for less.”
“No, Papa, I can keep a secret. I promise I can. Please?”
Stern eyes shifted from Catherine to Nicolas. But when they landed on Martin, Humbert sighed in resignation. “Go ahead, or she’ll pout for weeks. But you can never talk about anything in that book, Catherine.”
“Thank you, Papa.” She kissed his cheek.
Humbert spoke over his shoulder as he turned toward the barn, “Martin, would you like to come with me or stay with them?”
Before following Humbert, Martin gave Nicolas a dirty look.
Smiling triumphantly, Catherine led Nicolas to the bench. He plopped down beside her, turned to a marked page, and read:
“Do What Thou Wilt;
because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant. . .
break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved.
For it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden
and to desire what is denied to us.”
He omitted part of the passage that would be difficult for Catherine, and her reaction made him glad he did. Her eyes sparkled. He read other passages, and she asked him questions, but just as he began to feel comfortable with her, the dizziness returned. He leaned his head against the wall.
As if waiting for exactly this, Francisca appeared. “Come, lie by the fireplace.”
This might be my last chance to spend time with Catherine. “But I’m fine, madame.”
Without replying, Francisca eyed them and went inside, but a few moments later she was back with a blanket and a mug of tea. She nodded to a nearby oak.
Once they settled in the shade, Nicolas continued reading, noting the wonder in Catherine’s eyes. With his back against the tree and the pretty girl sitting beside him, time passed swiftly. Eventually, her younger siblings wandered over, and he closed the book and told them stories from memory. By late morning, he was exhausted from speaking too much, and all four of them lay on the slope and tried to find shapes in the clouds until Marie called them.
“Lovey, have you seen your papa?”
“No, Mama, Nicolas has been reading to us.”
“Come in and set the table. Joseph, find your father.”
Not wanting to be left sitting there alone, Nicolas said, “I’ll help you search.”
While Joseph looked around the barn, Nicolas headed for a small utility building near the tree line. The back of the shed disappeared into the heavy underbrush at the base of the mountain. There were no windows, and the heavy door stood slightly ajar. He stepped inside.
Humbert slammed the door on a closet that extended the length of the shed and spun to face Nicolas. In the dim light, Humbert’s expression looked as if he had seen a ghost. “Are you spying on me?”
Nicolas flinched. “No, monsieur. Madame asked me to fetch you.”
Humbert approached him with a furious expression. “Well, you shouldn’t be here!”
Tensing, Nicolas backed out, “Yes, monsieur, I’m sorry.”
While Nicolas was preoccupied with reading to Catherine, Humbert and Joseph showed Martin the workings of the farm, and he followed them like a child. Humbert taught him how to tan a pig’s hide, scraping off the hair and stretching it on the rack. Joseph showed him how to milk the cow and accidentally shot a squirt his way. For the first time in his life, Martin gathered eggs, proudly holding up his full basket. Humbert chuckled, and Joseph burst out laughing when they realized Martin had collected the whitewashed wooden balls used to teach the chickens where to nest. Even as he had been picking them up, he’d thought they looked like strange eggs, but such things were not in any of the books he had read.
The midday meal came to a close when the sound of a carriage drew Martin from his seat. From the door, he said, “Nicolas, your parents are coming. . . and it looks like Father Michel is with them.”
Humbert’s face reddened, and he cursed under his breath as he stormed past them. Outside, though, he stopped and turned, his face bright with excitement as he shouted, “He’s here!” And everyone rushed to the courtyard.
Nicolas’s parents had arrived with a priest that Martin didn’t recognize. Jean helped Elisabeth down, and she immediately ran to Nicolas and kissed his cheek.
“Oh, darling, I have been so worried about you.”
“I’m much better, Mama.”
Humbert lifted the elderly priest down and hugged him so hard he lifted the man off the ground. “Papa, you got my message. I’m so happy you could come.”
The priest said, “Ah, ‘Papa.’ I’ve missed that title.” He beamed and threw his arms wide, hugging Marie and Francisca at the same time.
Martin stared at Humbert. Yesterday, he had accosted Father Michel, and today. . . He whispered to Elisabeth, “Is that a priest? Did he say, ‘Papa’?”
“That is Father Brignon,” said Elisabeth, “our former parish priest. He arrived on the coach this morning, and Jean offered him a ride.” She squinted down her nose, casting accusatory glares between the priest and Humbert. “I have no idea why these people call him ‘Papa.’”
With a curtsy, Marie said to Elisabeth, “I’m sorry, we’ve not seen Father Brignon for a long time. Please come in.”
They filed into the house and gathered around the big table.
Father Brignon sat in a nearby chair. His stark white hair and ruddy complexion contrasted with smiling brown eyes and accentuated deep crow’s feet. “You must be Catherine and Joseph.”
Catherine nodded, and Joseph sat cross-legged on the floor at the priest’s feet. Little Beatrix wandered to them and stumbled over Joseph’s leg. Joseph puckered his lips to yowl a complaint, but his mother caught his eye and he sobered.
“And you must be Beatrix.” The priest lifted her to a comfortable spot on his knee and turned to Catherine. He must have noticed Elisabeth’s disapproving stare, for he added, “You know, your father came to live with me after his parents died. Of course, he couldn’t stay with me, so he went to live with my brother, Pierre.”
Elisabeth stiffened and clasped her hands while Martin scratched his nose to hide a smirk.
“Yes, I remember Uncle Pierre fondly,” Catherine replied with a smile.
Marie brought Jean and the priest bowls of raspberries, and Anne brought them ale. Martin followed her with his eyes as she poured a round for everyone and took a seat beside her mother. Laughter brought his attention back to the group. Beatrix was standing on the priest’s lap, feeding him berries. The chatter continued about memories and stories from the past until Jean looked at Nicolas.
“Are you ready? The Cathillons have their hands full.”
Nicolas’s face puckered, and he placed the back of his hand on his forehead. “I still feel a little weak.” He did look pale, but his mischievous eyes revealed his deception.
Jean rose and said, “You seem fine to me,” forcing Nicolas to sigh in defeat.
Bowing to Humbert, Martin said, “Thank you, monsieur. I have enjoyed my stay.”
“You’re welcome here anytime,” Humbert replied.
Jean motioned Humbert to a corner of the room, probably offering compensation.
While Nicolas took his leave, Anne helped Martin gather his things. Did she flirt with him? No. Why would she? He tried to think of something to say to her, but his mind went blank.
Francisca handed him a cloth-wrapped bundle. “Steep one root in water for about ten minutes to make the tea. Come back when you need more for the pain.”
He bowed to her. “Thank you, madame.”
When Martin climbed into the carriage, the others were already settled, and Elisabeth was fussing over Nicolas. Everyone waved goodbye.
As soon as they pulled away from the house, Elisabeth fanned herself and said, “Oh, I have been so worried about the two of you.”
Jean shook his head. “Do you think Father Brignon would stay there if he thought they were doing anything sinister?”
“I have no idea.” Elisabeth raised her chin. “But explain to me how he knew to come now.”
Martin replied, “After Father Michel left yesterday, Humbert said he had to take care of some business and left on horseback. It was early enough that he could have sent a note with the coach driver.”
As Elisabeth continued to fling reprimands, Nicolas leaned his head back against the seat and pretended to be asleep, and Martin stared at his hands, occasionally clenching his teeth. The final affront came with Elisabeth’s question, “Was Francisca dancing last night? Were there any lizards or toads about the house? Father Michel told me they could be fine and crafty, and their hospitality should not fool us.”
Heat rose in Martin’s face. He would not take it any longer. “Would you like to see Francisca burned?”
Nicolas’s eyes flew open as his mother inhaled in shock and replied, “Why would you suggest such a thing?”
Martin exhaled sharply. “Francisca has an accent. I speak with an accent. If they come for her, it will not be long before they come for me.”
Jean added, “Father Michel is an agitator. Please be careful what you say to him.”
Elisabeth folded her hands on her lap. “Father Michel is a man of God. I should think you would appreciate that.”
Still angry, Martin said, “I appreciate your concern for Nicolas.”
Her face went stiff, and he thought she would burst into tears. “There have been so many stories about her. Some of them must be true.” She fingered her handkerchief. “And where do they get their money? They are poor farmers. Others struggle to survive, yet they have enough money to improve their home. Did you notice they even have glass panes in some of their windows? And that woman obviously is not Marie’s mother—”
“Their money is none of our business,” Jean said a little too loudly. “And I know how Francisca became Marie’s mother. I was there.”
Everyone turned to him. With one last glare at his wife, he began, “A week before I left for my apprenticeship, a stage driver told us about a big battle in Renty during the Italian Wars. A couple of days later, we were working in the stable when a troop of the Spanish Cavalry marched through the town. They shouldn’t have been this far southeast. Papa said they were deserters.”
“The last cart was full of women like I had never seen before.” His brows pinched. “Their hair hung loose, and they wore only torn dirty chemises with a piece of blanket wrapped around their shoulders or with their shoulders bare. Some villagers shouted at them, calling them whores, but one of them caught my gaze. I’ll never forget her face—vacant. Her hands were tied to the cart, and she had a black eye. I assumed she was a criminal.”
Jean’s voice lowered to a monotone. “A couple of hours later, someone rode in shouting that Le Petit-Courty had been sacked, and everyone rushed to help. Those soldiers had killed everyone, even the children. The eldest boy, about my age, they’d sliced his neck so deeply they nearly cut off his head. His eyes were open and staring, and his younger brother—they’d sliced his stomach open.”
Jean raised haunted eyes, reminding Martin of the horror of his own family’s end. Elisabeth shuddered and slid her hand around her husband’s elbow. Jean added, “Agnes and her mama had gone to sell chickens and were not home at the time.”
Nicolas asked, “Agnes?”
“You know Agnes, from the inn—she’s Marie’s sister.”
“I knew Marie looked familiar,” Elisabeth whispered, almost to herself.
Jean nodded. “When they returned, well, they found everyone except baby Marie. Her mama was hysterical. She thought the soldiers had abducted her. We searched until dusk.”
“What the soldiers didn’t steal, they destroyed. The family was destitute. Grandfather organized donations. Papa offered a horse from the stable—my horse, Belle. He would say, ‘When you give, you give your best.’ I loved that horse, but he grew angry with me—they had nothing.”
Though Nicolas’s eyes were half-closed from drowsiness, they were glued to his father, who continued, “I was ashamed and gave them my saddle and bridle as well. That was the first time Papa said he was proud of me.”
Jean’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “But when I took my beautiful Belle to them, I found Father Brignon trying to talk to Francisca, who was holding baby Marie amid a crowd of people. Francisca kept saying something like, ‘Puede ayudar a los demás?’ Someone said she was summoning demons, and people screamed. Father Brignon said it was Spanish: demás, not demons. She was asking to help the others, but who—what others? Everyone was dead. Luckily, she understood a little Latin and told him she was one of the women in the cart but had escaped, found Marie, and hid in the woods.” Toward Elisabeth, his voice raised, he said, “Francisca saved Marie.”
Elisabeth adjusted her seat and fiddled with her fingers under the scrutiny.
The story became dreamlike. “Until that day, I couldn’t wait to leave this mountain, but the massacre changed me. I realized how fragile life is and how important family is. Grandfather loved it here, called it his drop of heaven, la goutte de paradis. He said the phrase so often it became part of his name. Eight long years later, I returned with my beautiful bride”—Jean squeezed Elisabeth’s hand—“and saw the mountain again, and I knew Grandfather was right.”
Misty-eyed, Elisabeth replied, “And here we are.”
“Yes, here we are.” The tension left Jean’s eyes, and they rode in silence for a while. He then added, “These rumors about Francisca have lingered all these years and need to be stopped. I’m glad you took Nicolas there.”
Leaning his head against the seat again, his still-wrapped arm on his lap, Nicolas said, “I’m glad you took me there too. They treated us kindly.”
Elisabeth lowered her head in resignation, but Martin could not let it go. “Why has no one spoken out about Francisca’s bravery?” His voice was more accusatory than he intended.
Jean frowned. “Some of us have, but superstitions run deep. Francisca doesn’t fit into the community. She looks and talks differently, speaks her mind, and has no patience for formality.”
As she held her eyes on her clasped hands, Elizabeth mumbled. “They never attend Mass.”
“They used to; I remember when Father Brignon was here—”
“Yes, we have heard that story.”
They rode the rest of the way home in silence.
Francisca watched the cart disappear down the path. After her discussion with Martin the night before, she had returned to bed but had not slept a wink. Since arriving at the farm, she rarely spoke about her past, but now the memories flooded her mind. Deep in thought, she jumped when Father Brignon placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She gave him half a smile. “Padre, it is so good to see you again.” She turned away and replied flatly, “Nothing has been the same since you left.”
“Oh, Francisca, you exaggerate. Would you like to talk about it?”
She lowered her gaze and allowed her shoulders to slump. Last night, she had suggested Martin relieve his burden. What would Father think of me if I confess?
The priest gestured toward a bench by the barn, and she nodded. As they walked, she recalled the day they had met. Father Brignon had been her first friend in Salm, the only person with whom she could communicate. Over the years, he had visited often, watching helplessly while Marie’s mother stared into space until she wasted away. He married Agnes to Sebastien, son of the local boardinghouse owner, and admitted that he was thrilled to officiate when Humbert, the boy from the other side of the mountain and his adopted nephew, asked Marie to marry him soon afterward.
At the bench, Francisca pulled her rosary from the pouch of her apron, wrapped it around her hand, and kissed the crucifix. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts, before she said, “I am not who you think I am.”
He frowned. “Go on.”
“My family traveled—they called us Gypsies. . . The soldados killed my papa, my brother, and all the hombres in our family, and they abducted the women who survived. These men were brutal, like animals. If we resisted, they beat us without mercy. Mi madre told me to do whatever they wanted—to stay alive for each other until we could escape.” She lowered her head and fingered her beads.
Father Brignon placed his hand on hers. His gentle eyes gave her strength. “Trust me.”
“Mi madre and I were. . . I was fourteen years old.” She shuddered at the thought. “Many hombres, many different hombres, sometimes two at a time, abused us until we could barely walk. This continued for a long time, more than a year when they ran from a battle.”
Her heart pounded as if she were still running. She had been running for so long; it was time to confess. She exhaled deeply, trying to calm herself. “I had a bebé. . . a little girl. A bebé would have held the soldiers back. They would have killed her. Madre stole her away and left her at an abbey.”
A moment passed while Francisca considered her next words. She pulled her pendant from under her chemise and showed it to him: it was cross-shaped, with a heart in the middle and an anchor on the bottom. When she flipped it over, it revealed an engraving, Fran.
She continued, “Madre had one that said Rita. She left it with the bebé. Mi padre made these crosses to sell.” She rubbed her thumb over the name. Papa was so proud of these.
The priest nodded. “Beautiful.”
“Madre might have escaped that night, but she came back for me. The day before we arrived in Vacquenoux, a soldado beat her so badly she died in my arms. They just dumped her beside the road as if she were nothing—they would not even let me bury her.”
The rosary around Francisca’s hand burned like the bite of the ropes that had bound her as she watched her mother’s crumpled body getting smaller and smaller behind the cart. Choking back a sob, Francisca turned to his shoulder and wept while he held her, then she pulled away, embarrassed, and wiped her face with his handkerchief. “I am so sorry.”
“What sin have you committed, child?”
“I was a whore. I had a bebé, and I abandoned her.”
“You were forced.”
The trembling in her hands subsided, and he wiped a leftover tear off her cheek.
“And either way,” he continued, “the abbess would never have given a single woman a baby. Surely, the sisters treated her well, or perhaps a loving family adopted her. Nothing you have done needs absolution.”
Several moments passed in silence before the priest asked, “I knew you could live off the land, but when did you learn to cleanse illness?”
“While we were captives, Madre taught me. She traded remedies for food, treated the young soldado who helped her hide my bebé, and she also helped the other women, healing them, delivering their bebés. Occasionally, she could stop—”
She clenched her lips, having said too much.
He scowled. “Your mother taught you ways to cast infants from the womb?”
Francisca rolled her beads between her fingers in hesitation before replying, “I know the plants that will prevent them. I did not think it was a sin.”
He shook his head. “It is against the pope’s teachings, and I think you do know that.”
Defiant, she raised her chin. “God created the plants I use. Why would He give us the ability to use nature’s gifts if it were wrong?”
His eyes bore into her. “I haven’t all the answers, and I’ll not preach to you, but promise me you’ll be careful whom you give it to. Any suggestion that you have slain an infant in the womb or hindered a woman from conceiving will surely bring an accusation of witchcraft. I cannot protect you if you get caught.”
The crucifix dug into her palm, and she forced herself to loosen her grip before whispering, “Would you help me find my daughter, Padre?”
The lines on his forehead puckered even more deeply. “These people are your family. Do they know of her?”
“No, I have never told anyone.”
He rubbed his chin in thought. “How old would she be now? Marie’s age? What if she’s married with children of her own?” He turned to her. “I will search if you want—”
Francisca looked into his eyes, then turned away. A long moment passed. “No, I cannot disgrace this family. It is best if nobody ever knows.”
As if he could see into her soul, he asked, “Is she the reason you make your birth prevention? Had you taken it, do you think you would be spared this heartache?”
Another tear rolled down her cheek. Mama thought I was too young.
When she didn’t respond, he continued, “Perhaps those terrible things happened for a reason, Francisca. If not for you, Marie would be dead, and this family would not exist—they are alive because of you.” Sweeping his hand in front of them, he said, “You are responsible for all of this.” He gathered her rosary and placed it in her palm, surrounding her hands with his own. “Keep this close to your heart, Francisca. If God wants you to meet your daughter in this world, you will. If not, you will be together in the next.”
She gazed into his calming eyes and took a deep breath. “Gracias, Padre.”
That evening, as Catherine combed the braids from her hair, she asked Anne, “Have you wondered how Martin got that scar?”
“Yes, but you cannot ask someone such a thing.” Anne pulled Beatrix’s robe over her head.
Catherine narrowed her eyes and threw her comb onto the table. “You’re smitten.”
The moonlight shone through the window, brightening Anne’s golden hair, but her gaze seemed far away. “He’s smart and sophisticated.”
Catherine rolled her eyes and fell onto the pallet. “But that scar. . .”
“Hush. That scar is not important. He must have been handsome before. . . Well, it doesn’t matter.”
Why would Anne prefer Martin, despite his scars, when Nicolas is her age and so handsome? Catherine scrunched up her nose. “He speaks strangely.”
“He’s worldly.” Anne combed the baby’s thin blond hair, slid her under the blanket, and lay beside her. “Do you even realize Nicolas is smitten with you?”
Catherine’s eyes opened wide, incredulous that anyone would be interested in her when Anne was so much prettier. She rose on her elbow to stare at her sister, considering telling her about the attempted kiss. Instead, she said, “No, he just acts the fool.”
“He seemed to enjoy reading to you.”
Easing herself back onto the pillow, she said, “I enjoyed it too. I’m going to ask him to teach me to read.”
“Ask Papa to teach you,” Anne said, fluffing her pillow.
“I did. Papa said he’s too busy.”
“Well, women don’t read, and men like to feel important. Let Nicolas read to you.”
Catherine frowned and crossed her arms. “Why don’t women read? I want to—”
“Oh, you’re hopeless,” Anne said, rolling away from her. “Go to sleep.”
Catherine studied the back of Anne’s head. What does she know? Why can’t women learn to read? But rather than falling asleep to dream of letters and pages, Catherine closed her eyes, recalling every detail of Nicolas’s face—his laughing hazel eyes, crooked nose, and thin mustache and beard, barely starting to grow.
And he could teach her. . . everything.