A short story from The Colony
“Miss,” came an urgent whispering.
Rebecca pulled her gaze away from her favorite tapestry. It hung from the floor to the ceiling. The woven colors of thread depicted the countryside she loved to escape to, both in her mind in her hours of solitude, and also upon her favorite horse every chance she could slip away.
She glanced across the room, seeking the source of the whisper, hoping for news of anything that could detract from the boredom that was ever present. She was past the age that most young ladies were courted and married, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want a husband. She wanted a life filled with adventure, not matronly duties nor idle repose. If she was sure she would get away with it she would cut off all her hair, dress in men’s clothing, and ride to Malplaquet. But that much adventure she was sure, was nothing more than a childish wish at best.
“Vivie,” Rebecca whispered back, deciding it would be best to focus upon the life before her instead of the one she could never have. “What is it?” She’d been confined to her room yet again, for disappearing to those very fields her tapestry depicted, and that meant solitude, except for the brief and necessary visits from her maid. Her only window overlooked the gardens behind the house, and her only means of information, of knowing if and when any visitors should happen to stop by, was through Genevieve, her maid.
“The Duke. He’s back,” Vivie whispered back to her. “And he’s making an offer.”
“All the stars in Heaven,” Rebecca murmured, while crossing herself. That man could not possibly be interested in marrying again, she thought. He’d already buried two wives. Was I to be number three? "Why is he doing this to me?”
You know why though, don’t you, came the voice. It was her voice, that much was clear. The words though at first, were confusing, as always. And as always, they seemed to come from nowhere as though they’d floated upon the air from someplace else to land inside her head, but eventually their meaning always made sense.
She had no idea how long the voice had been whispering its words of wisdom and reason to her. But it helped her see the truth of any matter, and so she welcomed its presence.
And perhaps it was because of the voice inside her, that she knew why the Duke came calling. Somewhere deep inside, she knew what the Duke’s motive was. For there were whispers about him throughout the town, whispers no one dared repeat out loud.
Rebecca didn’t want to disappear, not like the others. For it wasn’t just his previous wives, there was talk of maids and gardener’s daughters who’d mysteriously left and were never heard from again. But the Duke wanted her in his house. He’d talked of it often. However, she was well above the station of help, and his only choice was to marry her. She would then be his property. But what he planned to do with her… well, she wasn’t sure she wanted that answer. Perhaps, he was in need of someone to run his household - a lie, she knew, but the imagery it evoked helped assuage the anxiety inside.
At least, there would be no more confinement, she told herself.
She sighed and resigned herself to the idea. After all, his house was lovely. The estate was large. She could do worse. And at the very least, she may learn what had happened to the girls who’d come before her. She waited for the voice to respond, but this time it remained quiet.
And within the week she was married. It was a small affair on the Duke’s estate. She was glad her father allowed Vivie to stay with her, for she had no other friends or acquaintance. Her room was off to one side and near the back of the house. It was a grand room, quite comfortable, with a small side-room for bathing and such, and a separate boudoir for dressing. Best of all, Vivie’s room was right next door. She had expected to be installed in the Duke’s rooms, but she was grateful when her wedding night came and went, in both peace and solitude. And, somewhat with relief, the night after that, and every night that followed, was the same.
During each day, she barely saw the Duke except during meals, and so she spent her time exploring her new home. It wasn’t long however, before she found her favorite room. A library filled with the most fascinating books of every genre, and some in languages she couldn’t recognize. But it was Shakespeare that she always gravitated to. And the Duke had them all - every play, every poem, printed and bound with elegance, in every form.
As the weeks and months went by, Vivie passed on to her, the gossip from the other maids. She wasn’t normally one for gossip, but the whisperings that she’d also heard - of the infamy of the Duke’s parties - had confirmed their every disloyal word. And it wasn’t long before he announced to her that at least a dozen guests were expected, nobles every one. And they were to stay the week. She’d never been to a party that lasted for more than one evening, for her father never hosted such affairs.
But as they arrived, it turned out to be a gathering of mostly men, complete with their rifles and hounds. Only several of their wives had accompanied them, and they mostly looked down upon her with barely a word. Their garments and jewels however, were the most exquisite she’d ever seen.
One man in particular, rather large and fearsome looking, and more than twice her age, grasped her hand upon greeting, in a tight possessive grip, before presenting her with a gift. She gasped when she opened the box. For inside was a necklace of fine gold woven around a multitude of small gems, it seemed, of every color. At first, she refused the gift, but her husband scowled, and insisted she take it, or risk offending the giver.
And that evening at dinner, was the most uncomfortable she had ever spent. The Duke had insisted she wear the man’s gift, explaining the Comte Viscante was a very influential man, and he was in great need of the Comte’s loyalty. Never had her husband spoken so much to her. And wanting only to please him, she agreed. During the meal however, the Comte watched her every move. His eyes never left her, as they traveled over her face and body. She had hoped her husband would rescue her, but the one time she managed to catch his attention, he only smiled back at her as if in encouragement. She wanted to escape, back to the comfort of her library. But every time she attempted to excuse herself the Duke would stop her, insisting she remain. And remain she did, for after all, she was his to command.
You need to leave, the voice came. Her voice. Her voice of reason. You need to leave before the evening ends.
How? she asked herself. It’s impossible.
Be patient, the voice answered.
She knew she was talking to herself, but it was comforting just the same. And Vivie was nowhere to be found. She hadn’t seen her confidante since she'd left her room, dressed to greet her husband’s guests for dinner.
“I hear you are a master of the sword?” drawled a voice across from her.
She looked up to see who was speaking, and found him, the Comte, still staring at her. And when she didn’t respond, he rose his eyebrows at her, with a slight lowering of his head, in expectation of her response.
She glanced about, wondering if the question had been for her.
“Yes,” she said back to him, hoping she wasn’t speaking out of turn. “My father taught me. He always wanted a boy, but instead he got me. Well, at least for sixteen of my years that is, until he remarried, and then he got his wish, several times over.”
“Do you still practice?”
“I do,” she responded, and almost wanted to smile at him. His conversation was not what she had expected. “When permitted, of course,” she added, with a glance toward her husband.
“Why, you should be permitted to practice anytime you choose. In my house, it would be so.”
Rebecca glanced back at the Duke, wondering how he would take such a declaration. But her husband only beamed back at the Comte, and with a nod he declared that she may be permitted to do as the Comte suggests.
What is going on? she asked the voice in her head, but no response came.
“Tomorrow,” the Comte stated as he stood. “You and I shall duel. In the friendliest of ways, of course. And you shall show me all you’ve been taught.”
She lowered her gaze with a bow of her head, in respect of his wishes. She expected more conversation from him, or from anyone, for the room had silenced itself as though to witness their exchange. But as she lifted her head, he was already walking away.
That night, she took Vivie’s whispered advice and locked her door. But she could barely sleep. She couldn’t understand why the Comte would want to meet her on the field with the sword. She knew she couldn’t hurt him, they would most likely behead her if she did.
Oh well, she thought. If I hurt him, it’s his own fault.
But the following day, as she stood before him on the field, she struggled to maintain that strength within her. She tried not to show him, and all of their spectators, all she had mastered, just as her father had taught her to do. However, the Comte let her win anyway, she knew he did. And he seemed to enjoy watching her fight. But as long as he maintained his distance, she was fine with being a mild source of entertainment.
However, throughout the evening, the Comte’s eyes remained upon her once more. And she tried to ignore it as best she could, while responding to his small talk with simple, unaffected answers. And once more, she couldn't wait to escape back to the safety of her room.
At the end of the evening though, as the guests were making their drunken way to their rooms, her husband grasped her arm.
“You will not lock your door tonight. You can expect a visitor,” he said, in a thick voice. His breath was heavy with wine.
“You?” she asked confused. He’d never before wanted to share her bed. She was convinced that event would never happen.
But he laughed at her question. And didn’t respond.
However, once back in her room, she got her answer.
“It’s the Comte,” Vivie whispered. “He plans to do as your husband will not. The Duke has given his blessing. And in return, the Comte has provided considerable payment.”
Rebecca didn’t know what to say. This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening. She’d been married off to a man who would sell her to be used by other men. She crossed herself and prayed not only for her safety, but also for forgiveness.
Run, came the voice in her head. It was her voice, she was sure of it, anything else was madness. Her words however, came from that place of strength she was sure was within her, trying to break through the plateau of shock, forcing her to confront the reality, urging herself to act.
“Help me,” she whispered to Vivie. Fear shook her heart, her hands trembled, and her voice quivered as she spoke. But she gulped it all back, she couldn’t be weak now. “Help me get away.”
“Where would you go?”
“Anywhere. I don’t care. Anywhere but here.”
“If they catch you, you will be treated far worse than you could imagine. If you do this, you can never come back.”
“Why would I come back?” Rebecca asked in disbelief. “I refuse to be my husband’s whore," she choked on the words. "There’s nothing to keep me here. Nothing.” She wrung her hands, trying to control her raging emotions, and then looked up at Vivie. “Except for you, my dear friend. You’ve been my sister all through these years.”
Vivie nodded in agreement, a tear escaping her eye. “I shall miss you.”
Rebecca wrapped a few small valuables into a cloth, careful not to take anything her so-called husband had given her, and then tied it around her waist. They waited until the hallway was empty, and quietly, they tip-toed down the servant stairwell, down to the kitchen, and out into the gardens behind the house.
“Run,” Vivie urged her, pushing a wrapped bundle of food into her hands. “Run fast.”
And run, she did. Across the back fields, over several fences, past several peasant houses, and toward the forest. She almost made it. But the field before the forest was as wide as it was long. And the moon was too bright. They would easily see her.
It wasn’t long before her fears were realized, for the sound of dogs barking reached her ears, followed by the rumble of horse’s hooves. Soon after came a trumpet loud and clear, sounding the chase. And she was the hunted.
Run to me. Come to the city. I can protect you, came the voice in her head.
“What?” Rebecca asked in a loud exhale. Confused by the words, she stumbled upon the grass, panicked at the insanity that filled her. For again, it was her own voice, but this time she had no idea what she was trying to say to herself, or if perhaps someone else had spoken.
She tried to look behind her in case there was someone close, but her eyes remained facing forward when pain erupted within her chest and traveled throughout her body. But the pain, she was sure, was from her tight corset, she could barely breathe as it was.
And in that moment of pain and confusion, she stumbled again, as her foot found a hollow in the grass. She stretched out her arms to stop the fall, but the pain coursed through her like a hundred pins, before numbing her every sense, and cutting off her breath. Her eyes darkened, and she felt herself collapse upon the cold, hard ground.
Gasping for air, she forced her eyes open. She couldn’t linger upon the cool grass, she knew she had to move. After picking herself up, she continued running, as fast as she could. The horn thankfully, had stopped its blaring, as had the sound of the dogs. But the rumble of hooves hadn’t. She glanced behind her, but she couldn’t see the horses, instead there were people, many of them, and all were running toward her.
The city, she thought. She had to find the city. But there were no cities near, the Duke’s estate was endless countryside, rolling hills and forests. She couldn’t fathom the voice’s meaning, the only city she knew was over a hundred miles away. She dove into the nearest copse of trees and wound her way through them. But then stumbled once more in confusion, for she’d found it. The city lay protected behind a great wall that traveled in either direction, as far as she could see. She ran alongside the wall hoping to find the gateway, an entrance, but she was tiring, she knew she couldn’t keep up the pace. The many rumbling feet were still behind her, they were getting closer. Right behind her. She feared she would be caught.
Without warning, pain burst through the center of her upper back. It felt like a giant fist had forced its way through her. It pushed her forward, and she fell to the ground once more. She knew she was lost. The Comte would have his way with her, and after that she had no idea what her fate may be. She gasped cool night air into her lungs, closed her eyes, and prayed her death would be swift.
But death didn’t take her, she was sure, not at first anyway, and neither did the Comte. Instead, she found herself inside the city, surrounded by men and women, soldiers all of them. They were coarse and bulky, savages at best. They trained her day and night. And at times, she felt herself compelled to action, compelled to move, to fight, or use a weapon. The voice within her head changed more often than she could keep track of, as though there was more than one person communicating with her. But she resisted the voice’s commands. There were even moments where she was sure she could feel another person inside her, taking over her thoughts, moving her body for her, she felt squished, moved about, as though someone was pushing her aside to make room for themselves. But she pushed back every time. She didn’t like this, not one bit, not the presence inside her, nor the voice, nor the commands to do another’s will. It was the devil, she was sure of it. She crossed herself often when she had control of her limbs, and she fought the beast every step of the way.
Some days she could keep the voice out. She found that with practice, she could control all she did. But there were also days where she felt her own will slipping away. She felt her mind drift into a nightmarish dream of darkness and pain. She couldn’t bring herself to believe that her waking moments were real. She refused to acknowledge all she did, the pain she was forced to inflict upon others, and all that was done to her. She was violated, abused, beaten, crushed. The men were crude and rough, forcing her to fight them, and hurting her when she didn’t. There were no rules, it seemed, no morals, no law. She wished for her sword, if she had it she would cut them all down and make her way back to the wall. This life she lived just couldn’t be hers. If only the Comte had caught her, she would have preferred the torture he would have dealt than the life she was forced to endure.
But amongst the days of days of darkness and pain, there were days of tranquility and silence. Those days were spent lost, were perhaps weeks or months, unsure of where she was. She was everywhere and nowhere. Floating from one thought or memory to the next, as if in a dream. She had no limbs, no body, no physical feeling. She didn’t breathe, or eat, or see, or hear. She just existed. There were people that came and went as they swept by her, moved through her. She felt them through their thoughts, their feelings, and their memories, they touched her and filled her with that sense of who they were.
There were memories she sensed that filled her with love. Memories she was drawn to, as though they called to her, as though she belonged amongst them. Memories of a land not far from where she was raised, and of a man trapped in loneliness and pain. She felt his sorrow, his loss. He was a gentle man, a kind soul. Whenever he drew near, she felt only safe, and calm, and at peace with all that moved through her. And she wished for a way to give that feeling back to him.
But each time he reached for her, she was pulled from the serenity, to be confronted once more by the harshness of her waking life. She fought being pulled away, with everything that was within her. She wanted the peace. She wanted to reach out to the man once more, in the hope that he was more than a dream. In the hope that she could escape the torture that stripped her mind bare of every sense of who she was.
For it was insanity. Living one day in Heaven, and the next in Hell. She had to have died on that field near the Duke’s house. She had to be living in purgatory, and while awaiting her judgement, the angels and devils fought over her soul. She never knew what was coming, nor when.
But one day, the man disappeared, along with his memories, and that sense of home, of belonging to someone or something, faded along with him. But the peaceful place, the place she was sure was Heaven still comforted her, calmed her, welcomed her.
And as the time passed, it became easier, resisting the voice in her head, repelling the presence that tried to control her. Her days in Hell became fewer, until one day it stopped. All of it. The good and the bad.
She wandered in the early morning light, across a grassy plain. She had no idea how she had gotten to the field, nor how long she’d even been there walking, without direction, wandering. Her mouth was dry, parched, she needed water. But she couldn’t bring herself to hope that any reprieve was on its way. Her body ached, inside and out. Her feet were bare, raw, and her shoulders shivered from cold. She couldn’t think about all that she’d gone through, for it had been a war it seemed, a fight over her soul. And neither side had won. Perhaps neither side wanted her. Instead, she was now somewhere in the middle, back on the earth that she’d been born unto. But there was nothing before her. No people, no houses, no water. Only the endless field, the endless walk across the cold, grassy plain.
“You’re ok,” came a voice. A voice, not inside her head. It was beside her, and she turned toward it. But it was a man. Another man she’d no doubt need to defend against. She tried to scream, but no sound would leave her. She wanted to run, but there was no movement left within her. She wanted to put up her hands and fight him off, but he didn’t move toward her. Instead, he stood still, staring at her, his arms up, his hands out in an offer of peace. But there was no peace, not for her. Her head felt heavy, and she felt the world swim.
Stay on your feet, she told herself, her own voice, her own words, she was sure. You need to move. You need to run. But none of those things happened. Her knees felt the ground first, followed by her hip. Her head however, was caught in the man’s arms, and before the darkness took her, she almost said thank you.
She awoke to a beautiful room. It was a lovely, warm home, complete with a courtyard beyond. The people were pleasant, their manners were quaint, and they seemed to want to ensure her comfort. Aleric, the man who’d found her on the field, reassured her that she was amongst friends, and advised her that while she stayed inside, she’d never have to worry about the place she called Hell, ever again.
Confined once more, she told herself, but she pushed that thought away. For she’d rather be confined for the rest of her days, than walk the halls of Hell ever again.
There were others that helped her through the most crushing days, when the memories of Hell would return. A healer named Haize, righted the pain in her body, and soothed her mind as she worked, but it was Hammond who saw to her every need, he made her a lovely home, brought her beautiful dresses, made sure she ate even when she was sure there was no point.
Occasionally, voices would take over her mind, some pleasant, some not. Voices inside her that she knew were not hers. They filled her head, making her think things that she would never think, making her feel things she didn’t think possible. Hammond did all he could to shut out the noise, but it came, and it went on its own.
From the moment he first came to her, Hammond seemed familiar, as though she’d met him before, but he wasn’t from her father’s village, and he was most definitely not one of the vile men from within the city. In time, he explained that he’d lived across the channel that had separated their countries. He talked of his farms, of his horses, and she knew without a doubt that she’d seen and felt his memories in Heaven. She was sure, beyond any doubt, that it was him.
He always smiled and read poetry she’d never before heard. He encouraged her to read with him, to remember all that she could of her youth, of her life before she came to the city. And he wrote it all down, the silly man. Why he would need to, she didn’t know. She didn't ask, and he didn't explain. But every line from every story, every Sonnet she’d ever remembered, the people, the places she knew of and met, it all went on his parchment. Including her life with the Duke, which she didn’t care to speak of, and before that her family, Vivie and her father. It all came back, and the city was almost forgotten, not quite, but almost, as though it was a bad dream, fading away.
It was during one of those serene, tranquil days that she noticed her hand. The back of it was smoother than she remembered. It was free of all marks and blemishes, and her palms and fingers were no longer calloused. She couldn’t remember a time, not even when she was child, when her skin felt and looked, like soft silk.
“Hammond?” she asked. “What happened to my hands?”
“What do you mean?”
“My hands,” she said, moving them toward him. “Feel them. They’re soft and smooth.” She caressed the back of her hand again, in an effort to show him. But it didn’t feel right. It didn’t look right. Something was missing. Something was wrong.
“The back of this one,” she pointed to her left hand, “Was covered in freckles. I remember. When I was little, my mother always told me, that not long after I was born, the star faeries, kissed my hand and left little spots. They lined up almost exactly with the stars in the sky, three of them larger than the others, almost in a row. Just like the stars. I know that was real. I would know my own hand,” she tried to protest, as her voice rose with each word. “And this,” she said, forcing her hand further away from her. “This is not my hand.” She was sure. “Hammond, how? How? How? What happened to my hands?”
She could feel the terror rising within her, choking her, as her mind gave way to the darkest of her memories, until it all overflowed. She stared at her hands as they shook. Her hands, that had tried of their own accord to hurt other people. Her hands, that had felt their very skin peeled away, her fingers bent, her bones crushed as she was held while they hurt her. Everything that had occurred in the city was real. She’d lived in Hell. They’d tortured her, killed her, over and over, and then sent her to Heaven, and then brought her back from its safety, only to endure the pain over and again.
And neither side had wanted to keep her. And she realized where was. She was stuck in between, awaiting final judgement. That had to be right. It had to be.
“Shh,” Hammond tried to calm her.
“We’re dead, aren’t we?” her voice was a strangled whisper. “Don’t let them take me back to Hell. Please. Don’t let them take me.”
He pulled her into his arms and cradled her against him, rocking her as though she were a child. He was strong, but he was gentle. His voice soothed away the thoughts that trampled her sanity. And she felt safe in his arms.
“Shhh,” he continued, as he slowly released her. “It is your hand,” he said, and picked it up to show her. “When Aleric brought you here, you were dehydrated, rather terribly, and you wouldn’t wake up for days. Haize rubbed one of her very special serums into your skin to help you get better. And, I guess, it had an unfortunate side-effect. It removed the blemishes, the calluses, the freckles. I am sorry for not telling you sooner. I should have told you, but I didn’t think such a little thing would matter.”
But he stammered as he spoke the words, the way her father used to when he wasn’t completely honest with her. But she didn’t question him, not the way she would have confronted her father. Instead, she let him continue. It felt good not to question, and instead just to accept what was said.
As he held her hand, he gently rubbed it as though he could magically make the spots reappear. And when they didn’t, he looked up at her, with hope, and she was sure, with love. He wanted only to soothe her, to quiet her raging thoughts, as he always did when the darkness got too close. He pulled her back from whatever ledge awaited her stumbling steps, he stopped her descent, and brought her back to life, back to the light.
With time, her mind became calmer, her thoughts no longer jumped from one terrible scream to the next. No one in this village called the Colony, now her home, had hurt her, not in any way, and she knew beyond a doubt that Hammond never would. He only cared for her. And there were moments where she could almost feel him, the way she had when they were in Heaven. She knew now who he was. He was the kind man, the gentle soul. And she was sure there were many people in Heaven he’d brought comfort to, and reassured with his sense of calm and peace. But if he’d been in Heaven with her, she was sure he’d also been in Hell. For why else were they both stuck in between?
But she couldn’t bring herself to speak these thoughts to him. He didn’t seem to be aware of where they were. And after all he’d done for her, she felt a need to spare him the truth. And why not? Who knew how long they would exist where they were. It was a waiting game. Just one more.
And if the time came for final judgement, she couldn’t deprive the good-natured people of the world of the love, the compassion, and the solace that he could fill them with, such as he did for her.
No, she would plead for his return to Heaven, even if it meant her return to Hell. She was strong. She always was, always had been, always would be. And there was no voice, no devil, no man or woman from Hell who could change who she was, no matter how they tried. For her adventure was just getting started.