t had snowed for the first time just two nights before Christmas. Everything around the Chateaux was blanketed in white, the trees hung with ice and snow. A shroud of mist made everything glow with an ethereal blue-white light.
The forest was a kingdom of ice, my horse and I trod carefully among the ancient oaks and evergreens, weaving along where I thought the trail might be, the snow coming easily to the fetlocks of my mount. It was not a deep snow, but judging by the sky and the scent of moisture in the air it was clear that more snow was on the way.
On the Fortunate Island, we never have snow. But in England as well as Scotland and France, snow comes every year. Somehow it seems that everyone hopes for the innocent blanket of white to symbolize the anniversary of the coming of Christ. All the while everyone around me both at Court and in the countryside was preparing for the Christmastide festivities, my heart was as cold as the snow. It was nearly a year’s anniversary since the death of my husband-to-be. While matrons and maidens wore red and green and gaily coloured frocks trimmed in gold, I had wrapped myself in the greys and blacks of mourning. No friends were to be expected at my door this night, nor was I expected anywhere else. This night would come and go as all others had gone, quiet and alone, with only a glass of Bordeaux and a book to keep me company. I rode for what seemed to be at least two hours through the woods, going deeper and deeper, until forest surrounded me in all directions.
It was the red bird that flew by my horse that spooked her. If I had been paying attention, and wrapped my hands within the reins or my legs about the beast properly, I would not have been so easily dumped from my saddle onto the snowy ground. The beast wasted no time and galloped off into the woods, back toward the stable no doubt.
Inwardly I cursed myself for making a mistake that I had not made since I was a child. I was only six the last time I had been thrown by my mount, and this time after landing in a heap, I sat up, a tangle of my heavy skirts and cloak. My face and garments were covered in white. I would have a long way to go to make it back home. As I pulled myself to my feet, I heard a loud crack of a dry branch being broken. I froze, standing stock-still, trying to find the source of the sound. It could have been my horse returning to where she dumped me, or something or someone else. No matter, I thought. I would be prepared. Moving very slowly I drew my main gauche and listened intently to the sound of snow-laden footsteps that came ever-nearer. Pressing myself against the trunk of a very large tree I peered through the trees where the sound had come from. I could see their breath and the breath of their horse before they came into view. I reminded myself that I could just as easily be spotted and so I wrapped my cloak over my face and around my shoulder so that the warmth of my breath would go inside and not be detected upon the air.
The rider was swathed in black cloth as dark as a moonless night, his Andalusian stallion was equally so. The recognition hit me, but for whatever reason, I was not ready to be seen. I had withdrawn from Court for the most part of the year, but I put even greater distance between myself and those whom I had interacted before. One of the rules within the hallowed halls of power is to avoid the unhappy and unlucky. I knew that rule just as surely as the man on the back of the horse did.
The horse must have sensed my presence, for it reared sharply back and then spun tightly on his hindquarters away from the trail. The rider, an experienced horseman, held fast, keeping both himself firmly in the saddle and the freshly slain doe that was draped across the front of his saddle in place. The hiss of a rapier leaving its scabbard cut through the cold air and the horse and rider ventured further toward me and stopped just short of the tree where I had hid myself.
“Show yourself,” the Comte de Rochefort called out in a loud voice, “you are trespassing on these lands!” he had his sword at the ready and clearly I was disadvantaged, even with my main gauche in hand, his rapier most certainly had a greater reach.
I stepped from behind the tree, my face and body still swathed in my woolen cloak, my main gauche in my hand, concealed, “It would be very hard for me to trespass upon my own lands, your Grace.”
“I would ask you to show your face, Madame,” he said, “but I would know those eyes anywhere, Lady Faelyn.”
I looked up at him, “I know that I gave you permission long ago to hunt here,” I revealed my face but I did not push the hood back, “ but I confess I was not expecting you.” I must have looked less than noble probably still covered with snow and without a horse in the middle of the woods.
“Nor did I expect to see you out here in the forest,” he smirked, “Would you like a ride back to your home?”
“My legs work. I can walk, your Grace,” I said, trying to keep the annoyance of being in the predicament in the first place out of my voice.
The corner of the Comte’s mouth twitched in amusement and he held out a gloved hand to me, “You have no mount, Lady, and you are at least an hour from home. Nightfall is not long after. Sheathe your weapon and come with me. We can make it before dark. Otherwise you might freeze and I could not have that upon my conscience.”
“Perish the thought,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm,” By my estimation there should have been much upon his conscience, “but your Grace’s horse is already laden with yourself and your game.”
“Then I will leave the game for the wolves, my Lady,” Rochefort let the dead beast slide to the ground in a heap. Again he offered his hand. “Rather to leave it behind than yourself. Besides, you weigh even less than the deer, so we will get you to your home that much faster.”
I knew that the Comte Sebastien Guillaume de Rochefort would brook no further argument on the matter. I sheathed my main gauche and took his extended hand. With ease, he placed me in the saddle in front of him and spurred his horse forward with a bolt. Within two breathfalls, the stallion had broken into fall into his stride, taking us dodging through the forest trails as if he knew exactly where he was headed without any guidance from his master. The snow slowed him very little if at all. The cold air rushed sharply past us, and again I pulled my cloak over my face to keep it from stinging my lungs.
It was only a short distance from the Chateaux that the horse began to flag. Rochefort let the animal slack its gait as it willed until we had at last slowed to a trot. As we cleared the next rise the main house was clearly in sight. When we were within a few hundred yards of the walled courtyard, I heard a cry go up that we had been spotted. There was a scurrying from the house and outbuildings as we galloped into the courtyard with the clatter of hooves upon stone.
“My Lady!” Lizette, the eldest of my waiting women, came running from the portico, her skirts flying behind her, two young grooms following closely in her tracks, all with anxious looks.“When your mare came back home without you, we feared the worst!” She crossed herself quickly, “Glory be to God that you are safe!”
Before I could slide from the saddle to the ground, the Comte was giving orders to my servants. “Cease your prattle, woman and see that ample fire is stoked in the hearth for her to warm herself, and bring hot meal!” he growled, “There is more snow on its way,” he said sliding out of the saddle first so that he could properly help me down.“You, boy…” his one eye flashed at the eldest of my grooms, “make sure that my horse is cared for.”
Lizette pursed her mouth and looked to me. The matron was not in the least bit intimidated by the Comte de Rochefort. “My lady?”
I took the Comte’s hand and let him help me dismount, my legs were cold and unstable beneath me as my boots touched the ground. “If you would, Lizette,” I said moving toward the house. I then turned to Rochefort who was but two steps behind me, “and please prepare a plate for his Grace as well. We will take it and warmed wine in the library.“
After we had taken our wine and meal at a table that had been set beside the fire, indeed the winds picked up and the snow began to fall heavily. We spoke little, in spite of the fact that at one time, Sebastien and I had been what many might have thought of as close friends. There were too many unanswered questions over the course of the year that were spinning in my head, and my heart. At last, over our second game of chess and his rook overtook my queen, I looked up from the board at him.
“There are those who have whispered that it was I who had hired you to kill Athos,” I began.
“Anyone who would say such a thing does not know you,” he rumbled from deep within his chest, “ nor I daresay, could they have known Athos or myself. If such were spoken in front of me, Lady Faelyn, they would soon know that the wage for waggling one’s tongue so foolishly would result in it being cut out.” he moved his bishop two spaces to the left on the chessboard.
“Would you then cut out tongues on my behalf or yours, your Grace?” I asked moving a pawn out of the way of his bishop, “Foreigners in Court of France are viewed with not only disdain but suspicion. Wouldn’t the missing tongues of idly gossiping courtiers be viewed as even more reason to be suspicious?”
“There are many reasons for such unfortunate losses of either speech or life at Court, my Lady. It is a dangerous place for some,” he brushed a finger over his eyepatch thoughtfully, but did not take his gaze off the chessboard.
“Of course, I want to dispel the rumours, your Grace, “ I said. “But how can I? You are here even now, having brought me home and likely to weather at least the night in this storm.”
“Would you rather I have left you on the trail or for me to go out in this storm? Is that the usual hospitality of your Country?” His lips curled into a smirk, and he moved a pawn one space to the right,”come now, lady. We’ve not spoken in a year or so. Let us at least finish our game and let my horse finish his oats in peace before sending both of us back out into the cold.”
I drew a long sigh and let my rook take the pawn he had just moved. I took a sip of my brandy and settled back into my chair watching him as he studied the board. “Shall we make a wager, your Grace?” I asked.
“I was not aware that you gambled, Faelyn,” he murmured absently, “but if you insist. What do you propose?”
“I want to know once and for all how things fell out that night, and you will tell me the truth, I answered simply.
“As if I’ve lied to you before, Lady,” he moved and took out my rook with his bishop, leaving my king fully exposed, “Check,” he said non-challantly, “In the instance that I win, then I will tell you the truth and you will not send my horse and I into the night..”
I shot him a look, and took another larger sip of brandy, “You know perfectly well that I was not going to send you out into this blizzard tonight, Sebastien!” I moved my king behind a knight and well out of reach of his bishop. “Surely there is something else.” As soon as I had spoken the words, I wanted to bite them back. But it was too late, they had been spoken aloud.
“One can never tell. If my Lady were displeased enough, I imagine that even she might be inclined to send me into the night. But since you ask, “ he paused to move his bishop forward taking out another pawn, “I would ask but one thing of you.”
“What is that?” I asked, holding my breath.
“A kiss,” he said, his one dark eye glittering as he raised it from the board to mine.
I am no blushing maid. I have in my life have at other times wagered a kiss and lost only to have to pay it. But this was different. Comte Sebastien Guillaume de Rochefort was at one my friend, possibly responsible for the death of my fiancé, and now a year later, he asked me to grant him a favour he could have gained from any coquette at Court! Seeing a clear move upon the board, I took it without any further deliberation, “Done, and I do believe this time I have you in check.”
Rochefort sat quietly and stared at the board for some time. After several minutes, his fingers caressed one carved chess piece, then another, until he at last settled upon a knight that entrapped my king at last. “Checkmate, my lady.”
In the minutes that followed, after more brandy was poured, the Comte stood beside the fire and recounted how on the night Athos was killed he had killed his own men who had dared take Athos’ life before the appointed time of their duel. He went on to speak of killing them even to the last man in order to insure their silence.
“ I believe you,” I said nodding slightly, “but did you not think for one moment, a note, anything from you would have eased my grief, erased the doubts more than…..silence?”
“You went into seclusion, you, in this chateaux with your ladies and whatever family of yours that inhabits these lands. I had thought that when the time was right, you would reach out and let me know that you wished me to come. But weeks stretched into months, and I had my duties to Cardinal Richeleau. However, if you would wish an apology for my oversight, I now give you one.” He bowed his head to me slowly, Rochefort then raised it back up again to look at me, pulling me from the overstuffed wing chair to stand next to him by the fire. “Tell me, Faelyn, in all this time, the rumours that you spoke of – the ones that said I might have a hand in your beloved’s death, why did you wait until now to ask me?”
“Time and proximity, your Grace,” I wanted to turn away but he took my arm, holding me fast. Slowly I dragged my eyes up to his one eye that shone in the dim light of the fire and the candles that were interspersed throughout the room “There is a decent and an indecent time for everything,” I said slowly, focusing on his face. I could feel his warmth almost as tangibly as the fire in front of us, “You saved me from freezing to death this night, and for that I owed you some kindness.”
At that moment, his face changed into something else other than the mask of indifferent watchfulness that he always wore so well. His eye, suddenly alight with wonder, slowly, ever-so slowly he raised a hand, palm open the fingers spread, lifted my chin to his, “I did not come to collect any debt, and neither will I collect on the wager that was made this night, unless you desire it.”
I felt my heart prick as I pressed my face into the palm of his hand. The church bells in the village rang out in the distance, marking the midnight hour. I closed my eyes for an instant. The truth was, I did desire it. I opened my eyes once more and looked back into his eye. At last, I leaned forward and brushed my lips gently over his, “Then let me be the one to collect it from you.”
Muse: Fanny Fae / Faelyn © Ma’at Publishing
Fandom: Original Character / Folklore & Mythology/ Three Musketeers
Word Count: 2865
OOC Note: Special thanks to all_forme and his amazing mun for the dialogue and input. 🙂