Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  The sky began clouding up midway through the afternoon. They wound their way up a hill. The wind strengthened, sending spurts of rain into their faces as they looked out over the land at farmers busy in the fields or climbing all over the thatched roofs of longhouses. The farmers worked in teams, beating the lifted thatching, stripping the roofs of winter moss, and repairing. Sheep and cows wandered meadows fuzzy with new growth.

  I hoped the sight of those cows meant relative quiet, after all the trouble of the latter years of the Revolution. For the millionth time I wished I could have known that this was going to happen to me. I could have prepared. I had to rely on memory; I knew that the farther away you got from Paris, the less governmental control over the provinces.

  Napoleon was just beginning to change all that, but so far, his reorganization was little in evidence.

  “Here’s a sizable village,” Mord said as they spotted rooftops clustered around a central spire. “We will try to earn our meal, as these coins won’t last long. Citizen René, you were very useful yesterday. As long as you continue to attract the stray centime, why, you may stay with us, share and share alike. Is that fair?”

  “Yes,” Aurélie said. Her fingers were stuck in her armpits to keep them warm.

  Aurélie followed them as they tried first one inn, were turned away, then a tavern. The owner said, “Let’s hear you first, citizens. If you draw custom, there will be a meal in it and anything you can earn. But if you turn away custom, I’ll throw you out into the road.” He flexed brawny arms roughly the size of beer casks.

  Aurélie watched as the two set things up. They were fast from long habit. Several local urchins wandered in to watch, a couple of them holding rotten vegetables in hopes of fun. Mord pulled out his violin. “I have to tune it.”

  He drew the bow across the strings, drawing a whining note that dwindled to a groan. A couple of smaller kids snickered. Then he made the violin mew like a cat, and bounced the bow over the strings like a yappy dog. More laughter, and a few more kids crowded in.

  “Show us a horse,” someone said.

  Mord’s bow drew out a fair enough whinny.

  “A cow!”

  That was easy. He drew the mournful note out, making them laugh, as the crowd grew bigger. His nimble fingers twitched the pegs until he got it tuned, then he sang a patter song about a series of revolutionary animals who called one another ‘citizen,’ but the song was clearly far older than the Revolution.

  Jaska set up the regal for Aurélie, and included his twine-to-boot pump arrangement. He fitted a new reed into his hautbois, and on a nod from Mord, they swung into “Ça ira,” which drew more of an audience.

  The hat remained barren of coins, but at least the rotten vegetables stayed in aprons and pockets. Then they launched into a Breton melody that I recognized from modern folk music, “Tri Martolod.”

  Aurélie did not know it, but she picked up the main chords very fast, which permitted Mord to riff improvisation as a counterpoint to the melody played by Jaska.

  They were joined by an old man’s thready voice, the words Breton. He was hastily drowned out by some young people singing a new set of verses in French, a revolutionary adaptation, as quick, defensive looks went round. When no one emerged from the woodwork to arrest the old man, a couple of teens took hands and danced around the benches and tables.

  That prompted people to clear a space, and the trio went straight into a refrain. The audience began stamping and twirling and clapping, skirts flashing, faces red with effort, dust rising in the humid air. Aurélie played unerringly.

  After a range of dancy folk tunes, Mord offered the Eastern European one that had first caught my attention. After that, Jaska answered with a Russian folk piece, and Mord countered with a Polish tune, then Aurélie plunged into one of her fae pieces, flushing with pride at the audience’s stamping and clapping.

  The few coins they earned were all centimes with a few decimes—no livres, which were only about the equivalent of a dime or quarter. It was plain from the patched clothing and their listeners’ lack of shoes that nobody had much money to give. The tavern keeper showed his approval by the generous meal waiting when at long last the evening drew to a close.

  After they’d eaten, he said, “You can sleep in the cow byre. And if you are going to Yvetot, be sure to stop at my cousin’s inn…” He gave them directions.

  As they went through the kitchen to the back, Mord looked less mournful than usual. Once they were in the byre, he said to Aurélie, “A recommendation, you will find, is sometimes better than gold coins. We’ll have a place to go in Yvetot, and we’re less likely to find trouble with the prefecture.”

  Jaska found an empty bucket and turned it upside down. He reached into his haversack for last night’s candle stub. Aurélie had been yawning continuously. She swept together a pile of chaff to sleep on and curled up. The candlelight gleamed in her eyes as she watched Jaska pull from his pocket a small book.

  The gilt lettering flashed briefly in the weak light, La Monadologie.

  “Leibniz?” Aurélie asked sleepily, then closed her eyes. She didn’t see the surprised look Jaska sent her way, but I did, for my own surprise kept my focus ‘awake’ for a few moments, as I had not expected a scruffy bum of a deserter to be reading a German mathematician-philosopher from the previous century.

  NINETEEN

  LIGHT FLARED. Noise. The tavern keeper appeared, a lantern swinging from one hand and in the other, a loaf of hot bread and a wedge of cheese that looked mouth-watering even to me, without a mouth.

  No doubt he wanted to be sure they didn’t make off with his belongings, but the fellows accepted his friendly, “okay, move on” hint as business-as-usual. Aurélie slipped away while they were eating, then returned to take her share.

  They set out in the direction of Yvetot under clear skies and balmy air. Aurélie began walking with interest in the early flowers, but she was soon wincing as if her feet hurt. She persisted in going barefoot, the shoes tucked through either side of her cross belt.

  After a time, Jaska flashed her a quick look. “So you went to school?”

  “No.”

  “You had a tutor, then.”

  Aurélie ducked her head and mumbled something about cousins, muffling the second syllable, which in French differentiated between male cousins and female.

  Mord squinted at Aurélie as if she’d grown an extra ear. “What is that, bantling? You and a cousin read Leibniz? A pair of prodigies, are you?”

  “No. Aurélie scowled at the muddy path. “We merely wished to discover…”

  “What?”

  “How magic works.” She looked up, her expression mutinous.

  “Sa-sa,” Mord exclaimed, the fencer’s acknowledgement of a hit.

  He sent a mocking glance at Jaska, whose expression was bland. “What inspired this direction of study, René?” Jaska asked.

  Aurélie visibly struggled, then said, “If I say, you must promise not to laugh.”

  Mord placed a hand at his heart, his eyes smiling, his mouth mock-solemn. Jaska gestured with his walking stick. “Say on.”

  “A few years ago. When we were small—” She glared. “You promised not to laugh.”

  “It was only at the idea of your being smaller than you are now. My pardon.” Jaska made an airy gesture better suited to a palace drawing room than a muddy road.

  Mord’s brow wrinkled as if he were trying to bring Aurélie into focus. “What age are you, ten?”

  “Old enough,” Aurélie said, her husky voice dropping a note lower—she was clearly regretting having said that much. But she pushed on. “We saw the fae. We wanted to know why some people see the fae, and some don’t.” She glowered in challenge.

  Mord flung up the back of his hand. “Tchah! Do not waste your time, is my advice. Where is the supernatural of whatever type or degree when your home is invaded?” His tone sharpened. “Did you hear that noise?”

  They looked right and left, but t
he lane was thick on either side with leafing greenery.

  Jaska said, “So what did you find in Leibniz about magic?”

  “Nothing about magic. But we thought, between the Law of Continuity and that of Plenitude—”

  A woman screamed. Jaska stilled, head lifted.

  “Came from that way,” Mord said in a form of German. No, it was Yiddish.

  The two took off through the trees, Aurélie toiling determinedly behind them.

  The scream was followed by raucous laughter. Mord and Jaska faltered, then shot off to the right. The noises were closer, no longer echoing through the trees.

  The two burst into a cleared space before the husk of a burned cottage. Nearby a cow bellowed in distress; her calf lay dead a few paces away, hacked up with a sword. Trampling an overgrown kitchen garden were five or six youngish men in tattered remnants of the revolutionary uniform. They shoved a teenage girl between them as she wept and made futile efforts to defend herself. One of her hands was sticky with blood.

  A man slapped her then grabbed at her bodice, half-ripping it. From the state of her clothes, they’d been playing this game for a while.

  The bodice tore, causing another roar of laughter that nearly smothered the hum of Jaska’s walking stick.

  Crunch! The stick thudded into the side of the nearest of the men. The rest of them whirled, grabbing for weapons. They froze when they saw Mord with two pistols leveled at them, and Aurélie next to him, her pistol in both hands, aimed at the leader’s head.

  “Giles, get up!” One of the men roared, kicking the one who’d fallen.

  Giles only groaned.

  The leader said, “That leaves five of us against two. Three shots, if the brat knows how to shoot.”

  “He’s the best shot of us all,” Mord said.

  The girl they’d been tormenting had fallen into the cabbage row, cradling her cut hand against her half-bared breast.

  Everyone was still, except for the cow, who went to her dead calf, sniffing the little creature, then raising her head and lowing.

  The first move was by one of the gang. He brought a pistol out of his ragged coat.

  Mord shot him.

  The man staggered back, screeching on a high note with his hands pressed to his ribs.

  Jaska advanced, the stick whirling.

  The gang turned and bolted, one bending down to grab the dead calf before joining his fellows.

  The girl looked up in fear.

  “I shall shoot the next rascal who touches you,” Aurélie said fiercely, taking up a stance next to her. “You are safe.”

  “There might be more of them,” Jaska said. “Let’s get back to the road.”

  Mord made a rude sign. “They know we are armed, and they can see there’s nothing much to steal.” But he kept the other pistol at the ready as Aurélie helped the girl rise. With shaking hands, the girl did her best to straighten her bodice. She went to the cow and tried to soothe her.

  “Is this your home?” Aurélie asked.

  The girl shook her head. Making soft noises, she tugged at the rope around the cow’s neck, until the animal began to lumber. The girl then turned her face to Aurélie. “I stopped here with my cow and calf. I spied the garden and thought to gather some vegetables. Those wolves were foraging.” She sent a look of loathing after the men. “They killed my calf.”

  Her chest heaved on a sob, and she looked down as she walked. “I will stay by your side,” Aurélie said. “I have a sword.”

  I don’t know how long the four walked. Time blurred until they were sitting inside a storage shed of some kind. Roof tiles were stacked against one end and bales of cotton at the other.

  They built a fire in the middle of the hard-packed dirt floor as rain pelted on the roof overhead. They sat around the fire, Jaska feeding it twigs one by one, and Mord toasting bread over it, stuck on the end of his sword. Aurélie was slowly rubbing her grimy feet, her wide eyes gazing at the fire. The girl sat like a statue, the light picking highlights from her tousled brown braid.

  The cow let out a long moo, and the girl jumped up. “I must milk her.”

  That seemed to stir everyone. First a pail must be found, and that meant a search, which meant lighting the candle stub, which had about an inch of wax left.

  A bit of time passed, and then they were sharing the warm milk and hunks of the bread, which—judging from the way they chewed—were so stale that toasting didn’t improve it much. Aurélie dunked hers in the milk and sucked on it.

  The business of milking the cow and eating seemed to rouse the rescuee, who, other than mumbling her name (“Charlotte”) hadn’t spoken at all. She’d walked like a zombie until roused by the cow’s need.

  Aurélie said, “Charlotte, where are you from?”

  The girl whispered back, “My village was near Cailly.”

  “What happened?”

  The girl drew up her knees under her chin and clasped her arms tightly around her legs. She gazed into the flames as she said, “I know I was born somewhere north of Rouen, but I never knew that place. I was given to the convent when I was very small. How I loved the convent! I had charge of the chickens, and very proud I was if I could bring a full basket of eggs to Sister Benedict.”

  Charlotte had taken the question in the widest possible sense. Though she’d been silent all day, now she wanted, or maybe needed, to uncork. Under cover of her low, fervent voice, Mord addressed Jaska in German. “How did we end up here with a train?”

  “…and I had turned nine. You must understand that they gave us a saint’s day as our own, and we could count it as our birthday…”

  “Ah, Mordechai, would you have left either of them?”

  “…but it was in the Year Three. Year Three!” Charlotte’s voice thickened with loathing. “I spit upon their ‘years’ and their Fructidor and their ten-day weeks. Reason! Was it Reason that brought them to murder the nuns, who never harmed a living being? Who gave homes to their unwanted children, and nursed the sick, and laid out the dead? There was no one to lay them out, I can promise you, after…”

  Jaska was checking his pistol. “No. But we were agreed we were not to draw attention.”

  “…then Sister Margareta tipped over the butter churn and pushed me into it, and they did not think to look inside with the butter spilled all around…”

  “We haven’t drawn any attention,” Mord said. “Any significant attention.”

  “…crawled out to find the convent on fire, and everywhere the sisters lay dead, their robes in disarray, so I covered them as I could…”

  “Significant. Yes, that I grant you. But those crapauds are out there.”

  “…ran into the woods after I heard terrible noises from the sanctuary, and I do not remember anything else, but running and running…”

  “I know,” Mord said. “We’ve our weapons. We can set up a defensive barrier if you like, but they did not look like the sort to mount a well-planned assault.”

  “…called upon my Saint Catherine, my patron saint, over and over, and she guided my steps near to Cailly…”

  “Mord! You’re not going outside.” Jaska looked askance, then started up.

  “…very old, and they needed a girl to help them, for the mob had killed their daughter, and—”

  “Stay.” Mord raised a hand. “Stay here. It’s merely that I wish to sleep tonight.” He shrugged into his greatcoat.

  “—by the time I was twelve, I could do all the indoors work…”

  “Sleep, is it?” Jaska cracked a laugh. “Nothing to do with the sun setting?”

  “…when Grandmother Agnes died while I was out planting seeds…”

  “And here you are, your Friday-meal meatless, mon ami! Spare your breath! I know it is perforce. We are faithful apostates, you and I. Off I go to clear the perimeter, and to argue Talmud with the ghosts.” Mord picked up his cavalry sword and his pistols.

  Charlotte stiffened, looking up in fright as Mord passed her close enough for his
greatcoat to brush against her shoulder. She shrank away, fists under her chin, but he did not look down as he paused near the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness beyond the shed.

  Charlotte turned back to Aurélie. “There was nothing to stay for, with them both dead. After the burial, I heard from the cutler’s wife that there is a new convent all the way north. She said that there is a nun who is secretly gathering women to start a convent far away from Paris and all its devils. She said they will take any women, not merely daughters of the noblesse or the bourgeoisie, but I am thinking, it will be easier for Sister Mary Magdalen Postel to take me if I bring my own cow and calf. And I can prove my worth, for I am a very good worker. Work is good,” she murmured in a low, fervent tone.

  “I hope you may find her,” Aurélie whispered back.

  “If you were a girl, I would say to come with me,” Charlotte responded.

  Aurélie’s quick smile was more lopsided than usual as she began pulling handfuls of cotton from the huge wicker baskets and patting them down into a nest. “You rest. I will guard you.”

  “You are but a child,” Charlotte murmured.

  “One with a pistol. And a very fierce temper,” Aurélie said sorrowfully. “It is not right to kill, and I wanted to, oh, much. Now I think I understand what my Tante Mimba said to me once, long ago. Oh, don’t mind me. You rest. You’re safe.”

  Charlotte curled up on the puffy cotton, her head resting near Aurélie’s knee. She gazed up at Aurélie in puzzlement. “Your French, it’s foreign. But very pretty. Are you from the Languedoc, then? You’re very brown. I hear the people are brown, in the south.”

  “I come from the islands. Do I have an accent, then? To myself, I sound ordinary.”

  Charlotte whispered, “I like the way you speak. Do not grow into one of those wicked men, René.”

  “I will not,” Aurélie said with a husky laugh. And then more seriously, “I’ll try not to be wicked.”

  Charlotte squeezed her eyes closed, her mouth twisting. Tears sparked between her lashes and dripped down her face as she cried noiselessly, except for the quick gulping breaths of suppressed sobs.

 
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