All For One (Chapter One)
1. The Death of Anne de Breuil
Anne de Breuil slowly woke up mounted on her horse with a slim noose encircling her neck. It was an unusual position for a sixteen year-old girl to find herself, but Anne was anything but a usual sixteen year-old girl. The last thing she remembered was traversing through the forest with her husband and lord, Olivier, the Comte de la Fère, over his lands. Her horse must have been spooked or stumbled on a root, some quirk of fate, and bucked forcefully. Being a novice rider, she slipped from her saddle and tumbled to the soft ground, hitting her head. She could still smell the slight decay of the forest floor in her nose. She groaned as she attempted to evaluate her current predicament.
“Ah, you are awake now,” she heard her husband harshly say. She blinked, and the blurry world slowly came into focus. She became acutely aware of her situation. Her slim hands were tied behind her back and her dress ripped from her body. She could see the lacy pink frock carelessly discarded in the dirt. Her blonde hair, formerly tied in a bun, now hung limply in front of her eyes. Clad in only her chemise and boots, she sat in the saddle, a simple rope snaked from her neck up to the branch of a tree.
She looked at her husband, Olivier, sitting stiffly in his saddle, his eyes hard, but blinking. He was a handsome man, with long wavy black hair, and smartly trimmed beard, but in this moment, she hardly recognized him. The man she married was a kind, warm-hearted gentleman. The man, who gazed at her now, while inhabiting the same body, was cold and distant. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why am I…?”
“Quiet,” he barked. “I have no patience for thieves.”
Thieves? She turned her head, which pulled against the tight rope around her neck, glanced at her left shoulder. The chemise was ripped, exposing her skin. To her horror, she realized the secret that she had worked so hard to conceal was now revealed. There was no denying the raised scars of the fleur-de-lis so painfully branded into her flesh identifying her as a thief. She had with some difficulty managed to hide the brand from her husband for so long she had almost forgotten it existed. She should have known she couldn’t hide it forever, but she had hoped she wouldn’t have to explain the presence of the brand for many years.
“It’s not like that at all,” she pleaded. “It was a mistake.” While she talked she twisted her wrists, scraping the tender flesh against the hard fiber. Fortunately, the rope binding them behind her back wasn’t tied as securely as it should have been. She had room to work her hands. Given enough time, she could slip one of her small hands through the loops. She would have to slide the right hand through the ropes because she still wore her husband’s ring on her left. A sapphire surrounded by diamonds. She worked the ropes, folding her thumb to her palm, making her right hand as small as she could. Her mind raced, she knew she still had a chance. After all, she wasn’t dead yet. She could still talk her way out of this situation. She also knew that the lie most likely to be believed was one laced with the truth.
“My brother was the thief,” she continued. “You know him as a priest, but he was disgraced. He stole Holy relics from the Church. I was accused by association, and branded as a result. I am completely innocent.” The rope slid as far as the joint of her right thumb, the fattest part of her hand. Only a few moments more…
Oliver was not moved. “I trusted you,” the Comte de la Fère said sternly, hiding the emotion in his voice. “I fell in love with you and married you. I was a fool.”
“You were no fool, Olivier,” she said sweetly. She twisted still, the rope searing into her hands. “You found a simple misguided girl and transformed me into a lady, your lady. A poor, foolish girl nearly destroyed by circumstance, whom you reclaimed.” She leaned in to him as much as the rope would allow, allowing her cleavage to fall towards him. Blinking her pale blue eyes, she smiled alluringly. “Your nobility saved me. Your love purified me, made me whole, and gave me everything I ever wanted. I was a damaged soul, forced to steal to ensure my survival. I would never disgrace you, my dear husband. Let us forget about the past and look forward to a happy future together.”
He held her gaze for a long moment. He spurred his horse towards her until they were face to face.
“I loved you with all my heart. I was as happy as a man in love with his wife could be. I thought I knew what I had. I find now that what I had was a lie. Everything I knew was a falsehood. For that, I could never forgive you,” he said. He slapped the rump of her horse.
The horse bolted from under her, and slipping from the saddle, she plummeted towards the ground. The cord tightened around her neck and she stopped with her feet dangling two feet from the forest floor. She was almost blinded by the pain, the fibers burying themselves into the delicate skin of her neck. The Comte de la Fère watched her struggle for a moment, then turned his horse around and galloped away, unable to watch his wife jerking like a marionette a second longer. She struggled to breathe, the rope cutting off her air, but she frantically continued to twist her hand, the fibers ripping into her flesh. She had only seconds before her life was choked out of her body. Finally her right hand slipped from the line and came loose. Her hands grasped the taut rope above her head and pulled herself up, hand over hand, inch by inch, relieving the pressure on her neck. She was able to inhale and life surged back into her body.
She couldn’t hold herself up for very long. Already she felt the strength draining from her arms and her shoulders were starting to ache. She had only one chance. With her right arm she pulled harder, bending at the elbow. She released the line with her left hand and bent her right leg in front of her as high as she could. She clutched at her right boot, slipping her small hand between her leg and the boot. Her fingers found the handle of the knife she had stashed there. She slipped it out of her boot and quickly brought the blade to the rope above her hand. Furiously she slid the blade back and forth across the line. The cord started sliding through her right hand, burning her palm and tightening around her neck again. She continued to cut even as the world grew black around the edges of her sight. She could hear the thick fibers of the rope splitting with each pass.
She hit the muddy ground like a lifeless sack. She grabbed at the rope still around her neck, loosening it. She coughed as she gasped for air. And as she lay half-naked on the ground, the sixteen-year-old girl cried. Everything she had risked and labored for was shattered in one moment. She had been so careful to conceal her shame from her new husband. She had fooled herself into believing that her days of running were finally done—that she was now the Comtesse de la Fère. All that was gone. They only thing that saved her from mortality was the slim blade she always kept in her boot, for just such an emergency. She had even considered forgoing the blade that morning, so secure she felt in her position.
Her eyes shut, images flooded unbidden into her mind. She thought of her home in Flanders, once a place of happiness. She never knew her mother, for the woman who brought her into the world left that world by the very same act. How different she would have been had her mother lived. How much she could have taught the young Anne. She was fortunate that her father had money as he was a farmer who became rich from the sale of Tulip bulbs. Tulips were highly prized, and their bulbs were often used in place of gold, as many farmers were engaged in bulb speculation. The Tulip is not native to Europe, but rather Persia. It arrived in Europe late in the sixteenth century, and a man named Charles de l’Ecluse cultivated the flower and shared his enthusiasm for the Tulip with all of Europe. While he was a member of the medical faculty at the University of Leiden, he established both a teaching garden and his own personal garden full of Tulip bulbs. In 1596, one hundred Tulip bulbs were stolen from his garden in a single raid. Coincidentally, a hundred miles to the south, Armand de Breuil celebrated a bumper crop and married a beautiful local girl who died leaving him one daughter
She was a beautiful child with sunny blonde hair and bright blue eyes. The location of her home in Flanders, located so close to France, the Spanish Netherlands, and across the Channel from England, exposed her to many languages at an early age. She was smart, mastering French, Spanish, English and Flanders while still in her formative years. In an age where girls receive little education, she was fortunate enough to have a private tutor, her father’s wealth securing her education. She excelled, the lessons were easy for her. Had she been a man, she would have been a renowned scholar, possibly changing the course of learning forever. Her brain was quicker than the average mind, able to process information more rapidly.
The age of twelve changed her life forever. As swift as her mind was, her body grew rapidly as well. She found herself taller than her peers, and her body transformed early, developing a woman’s body while her friends still looked like children. The little girl developed into a tall, graceful and voluptuous woman. This early physical maturity was not a blessing. She would have welcomed the change had it occurred years later, or if she attracted one of the many handsome boys in town, but she found unwanted attention at home from a lonely and perverted father.
Lying in the mud she shuddered to remember the day that he made improper advances on her. She was alone. Had her mother been there to protect her, how would her life had changed? She was confused. How could a man who was supposed to love and protect her hurt her so? She ran. She found herself in Lille, and had few options. The convent provided safe haven. It was a Catholic convent in the southern part of the Spanish Netherlands, long promised independence from Madrid. Her linguistic talents were put to use, translating texts, but she soon grew bored. A mind such as hers could not endure the endless tedium. As she grew into a woman, she also found herself growing restless. Her incestuous experiences with her father had forever destroyed any sense of a normal, healthy physical relationship. Her sexuality became tragically linked with her self-respect. She was confused. She didn’t know what she wanted. At fourteen, she craved the male attention denied her in the company of nuns. The sisters tried to help her spiritual growth, but they could not replace a mother’s sage advice when the girl truly needed it.
There was a priest, a young priest, the youngest son of a local nobleman, who had no more inclination of being a priest than she had of being a nun. She wanted out and he wanted her. She allowed him to touch her, to see her unclothed, and finally allowed him to satisfy his carnal desires. For the first time, she was in control of a man, and she found that she liked having power over someone in contrast to someone having power over her. She learned that men would do anything for her, and she learned she could manipulate them to do what she wished. For the first time in her life, she had power. She convinced the boy to run away with her. They had no money, so she convinced him to steal the Holy Vestments from the Church. In retrospect, it was a foolish idea. Who could they have sold them to? The priest, for all his enthusiasm, was no thief. They were caught and sentenced. The Executioner of Lille was called upon to inflict their punishment. A cruel task, for, in one of those rare coincidences that occurs in small villages, the priest was his younger brother.
She knew she had to escape. While she was sitting in prison she was guarded by a young man. He was dull, and not very handsome, but she was willing to try anything to escape. She started by crying, loud enough so that he could hear every sob. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him gazing at her. When she would glance in his direction, he would turn away, and pretend he was looking at the wall. She knew he was interested. On the second day she spoke to him. She asked about him and pretended she was fascinated by him. Soon he brought her food, much better food than the other prisoners got. She understood her power. She had not been sentenced yet, but she had heard that the young priest had been branded and sentenced to ten years in the galleys. By the fourth day of her imprisonment, she told her captor all about her dreams of sailing to the New World and starting life over again, and he was dreaming as well. On the sixth day she let him kiss her, and she proclaimed herself lucky that she had found him. She was scheduled to be tried on her ninth day of captivity, but on the eighth day, her jailer let her out and they ran away together. She understood the power a woman can have over a man.
She was soon to discover the power of vengeance. The priest’s brother, the Executioner of Lille was determined that his brother should not bear the penalty alone. He tracked her movements, for she and her guard had almost made it to Calais. One more day, and they would have been in England. He caught her and punished her himself.
Three men roughly held her down in the local blacksmith’s shop while her left shoulder was exposed. The Executioner himself pulled the glowing metal from the hot forge. She felt the intense heat even before it touched her. The pain was indescribable as the brand sizzled into her flesh and the foul aroma of her own skin cooking made her sick. She kicked and flailed about, but the men were strong and they held her fast. She screamed herself hoarse and passed out from the sheer overwhelming pain. The Executioner was acting outside his bounds, and therefore branded her with the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France. He knew that she had no trial and he could not brand her with the mark of Flanders, but no one in Flanders would question the mark of France.
Soon after, she was rejoined by the priest, who had escaped as well. Destitute, the branded pair crossed south into France, finding them near Berri. The priest managed to find himself a curacy. She pretended to be his sister. She went to seek the lord of the land, hoping at least to find a domestic position. The master of the land was Olivier, the Comte de la Fère. His face was beautiful and noble and when they met all thoughts of her priest melted away. She knew that she could smile and bat her eyes in order to get little things from foolish men. She never suspected the Comte would fall in love with her. She considered herself lucky. A tall handsome nobleman wanted her, and after all she had been through she was not going to turn her back on such an opportunity. She didn’t know if she was in love with the Comte, or just in love with the idea of what the Comte represented, but she gave her heart to him. The Comte married her and gave her that sapphire ring that once belonged to his mother. The ceremony was presided over by her spurned priest, who would soon depart for parts unknown.
For the first time in four years, she was happy. She was the Comtesse de la Fère, with a loving husband. With one slip, it was all over. Only a very lucky string of coincidences enabled her to survive. Her husband failed to remove her boots, and the hidden blade within. He didn’t tie her wrists tight enough so she could slip her hands free. He didn’t make the drop far enough, so she choked rather than her neck snapping. Most importantly, he left right away. Had he seen her successfully pull a knife from her boot, he would have stopped her. If any one of these small things had not occurred, she would be dead. She didn’t know if she owed her life to God, to fate, or to her own tenacious will to survive.
She had a chance at redemption. She knew that she had ruined the poor priest’s life, but there was nothing she could do about that now. She wondered about that ugly boy who worked as her jailer. To her shame, she couldn’t even remember his name, but she wondered what his punishment was in her escape. Maybe she didn’t deserve the happiness that she had with Olivier, and her true punishment was to have paradise first, so that she knew what it was, only to have it ripped away, making her miss it all the more.
She knew she just couldn’t lie on the muddy ground, naked from the waist down. She pulled the rope until it was loose enough to slip over her head. Her neck, hands and wrists were red and raw. She spied her discarded garment and slowly crawled over the decaying leaves to it. She slipped it on and tried to cover herself. She saw where her husband had sliced it open, no doubt to ascertain any injury. She managed to amble to her feet and started walking. Her ankle throbbed; she must have hurt it in the fall. She didn’t know where she would go for this was her husband’s land and soon her tale would spread throughout the region. There was nowhere to go for help.
In the distance, she heard the sound of hoof beats. Fearing that her husband had returned to inspect the body she limped into the woods and tried to disappear behind a tree. Tense seconds passed as she peered down the lane. The rider presently came into view. She was relived, for it was not her husband, but a man dressed almost entirely in black. He was a tall man, about thirty, with black and piercing eyes, a pale complexion and a carefully trimmed black mustache. She was of course wary of this man. She did not know him, and who was to say if he was any better than her husband. He could be a highway man or a murderer. He was certainly an imposing figure, but she had very few options. She stepped out from behind the tree holding her dress closed. She kept her knife in the palm of her hand with the blade hidden by her arm. She considered her choices. As long as he stayed on his horse, he was protected from her. It was possible to wound the horse, but she would need the horse. If she could get him off the horse, she could stab him and steal his ride. She didn’t relish the idea of stabbing this man, for she was no killer, but she was desperate. She knew of one sure way to get him off his horse, and once he was in her arms, that embrace would be his last.
He stopped in front of her and gazed down at the pathetic figure below him. Even in her disheveled state, she was striking. A beautiful face with long fair hair and blazing blue eyes rested atop a luscious womanly body with alabaster skin.
The tall, mysterious stranger took a long look at her. “Are you in trouble, my lady?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you very much.”
He reached in his saddle bags and handed her a flask of water. She thanked him and accepted it with her left hand. Her right hand held her knife and she couldn’t let him see that, so she had to allow her sleeve to fall back open. She drank, for she didn’t know where her next sip of water would come from, but each swallow was agony.
“How did you come to find yourself here?” he asked.
“I was robbed,” she said, quickly thinking up a lie. “Those villains absconded with my horse and my purse. I am fortunate they did not ravage me.”
His face was blank. “I find that hard to believe,” he said. “How many thieves did you say?”
“Two,” she said.
“And you say they did not molest you?” he said. “Such gentlemen.” His stone like face betrayed no emotion. His eyes darted to her neck. “You were hung,” he said. He then looked at the sapphire on her hand. “Or you were robbed by careless thieves. And please,” he continued. “If we are going to continue this conversation, I must insist that you drop that knife.”
Dropping the knife in her right hand, she cursed to herself, but then stood tall, taking a new tactic. “I am the Comtesse de la Fère.”
“If you like, I can take you to you home,” he offered. When she did not immediately agree, he nodded. “You are not the Comtesse.” His gaze next fell on her left shoulder, exposed by the work of the Comte. “You are a thief.”
She shook her head. She couldn’t deny what her flesh betrayed. “I was a thief,” she said. “But that was a long time ago. I become the Comtesse when I married the Comte.”
“And did the Comte do this to you?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes.”
“So he was the one who hung you?” he asked.
“Were you unfaithful to him?” he asked.
“Then why did he hang you?”
She indicated her brand. “Because he found this.”
The man nodded. “So he never knew.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“How did you manage to keep that hidden from him?” he asked.
“I would make up excuses to have my arm bandaged,” she said. “Insect bite, kitchen incident, a fall from a horse. I would also keep my chemise on when…” she trailed off.
“And when he found the brand?” he asked.
“He was not pleased.”
“Obviously,” the man said. He appeared to think for a moment. “So he hung you because you were a thief. Are you any good?” he asked.
She was surprised. This man seemed to have a different set of values than her husband. “I never thought of the quality of my work. I stole when I needed to steal, out of necessity.”
“Well, Comtesse, I have a feeling your luck has changed recently,” he said, looking her disheveled state.
She could not lie to this man. He saw through any fabrication she could invent. “I confess my situation is rather dire.”
“What else can you do?” he asked.
Hope filled her heart. “I can do many things,” she replied. “I am fluent in Spanish, English, and Flemish…”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?” He smiled. “I think I know a man who could put your skills to good use, and perhaps return you to the level of comfort to which you have become accustomed to living.”
“And if I refuse?” she asked.
“By all means,” he said airily. “I doubt, however, you would get such an offer from anyone else.”
She considered her options and found them wanting. Perhaps this was Providence. “What should I call you, my savior?”
He smiled for the first time to her. “I am the Chevalier de Rochefort,” he said, extending a hand to her.
She accepted his hand and climbed into his saddle, sitting in front of him.
“And shall I address you as the Comtesse de la Fère?” he asked.
“The Comtesse de la Fère is dead, and so is Anne de Breuil,” she said. “For now, just call me Milady.”
- All For One (Chapter Two)
The next chapter in the prequel to the Three Musketeers