EXTRACT OF THE ORIGINAL FINNISH NOVEL
'KUN KUULET LAULUN VARJOJEN'
BY ANNMARI DANNEBEY
PROLOQUE, CHAPTERS 1, 2, 5 and 6
(PUBLISHER: MYLLYLAHTI, FINLAND, 2015)
FOREIGN RIGHTS: ANNMARI DANNEBEY
TRANSLATION from FINNISH to ENGLISH by HANNA HAKKARAINEN, 2015/2016
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Everyone has a guiding star,
their cross to bear,
and their fears to face.
Hardest in life is to decide one's fate,
and with whom to share it.
Lorient January 14, 1943
Smoke stung the child's eyes and made her cry harder. The crackling and roaring of the burning house drowned out her wails. Despite the fire nearly caressing her face she felt cold. A wind of loss was blowing through her. Mother and father had been sleeping upstairs. A bomb had blown out the windows and a sea of flames was surging within the two-story house. The girl hugged her knees, paralyzed with fear.
Only moments earlier she had climbed out of her window and run away as soon as darkness had enveloped their street. She had been playing in the forest and returned as fast as she could when she heard the first explosions. The girl found it hard to understand that now her mother would never scold her, even if she played in the forest every night. The front door was blown open, and she could see roof beams falling one by one. They prevented her from sneaking back to her bed.
The world was filled with smoke.
The girl felt someone pick her up like a wet cloth. There were explosions everywhere, shaking the ground. She could feel them in her heart. Soon they reached the forest, which was now full of people, all escaping the bombing. Someone wondered bitterly why the alarm had not been sounded, and why the whole city had to be destroyed. Strong hands lowered the girl on the ground next to other crying children. The small boys were freezing in their pajamas. The girl did not cry anymore. She followed Morgan's every move fearing she would lose her brother as well as it was so dark in the forest, and so many people. Smoke was swirling around the trees and writhing into her mouth and nose.
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1. Silver Gray
Saint-Saëns, Upper Normandy 1959
The wind blew yellow leaves up in the air, and they floated back down like snowflakes. Fall stripped the landscape of light and color. A small horse stood at the edge of the forest. Its mane had a silvery sheen, and it looked at Enora who had stopped to stare. The horse was standing in an open field, and Enora figured it must be a runaway. She looked around wondering where the horse had come from. Usually animals that ran away stayed close to their homes — at times they did not go further than to graze on the other side of the fence. The Duval estate was near, and Enora knew they had several horses. When she turned back, the horse had disappeared. Enora climbed to the side of the road to get a better view, but in the fog only the dark trees of the forest edge were visible. She continued on her way to the factory and the day's work.
During lunch Enora told the other women sitting on the lawn about the horse she had seen. The sun was visible through the clouds, and it was getting warm in the factory courtyard. The women were feasting on the warmth of the sun as much as their lunch parcels. Marie-Elizabeth spat and cursed the rich, although silently, so the men seated nearby could not hear her. She blamed the rich for everything. They had so many horses it did not matter if one ran away. Louise laughed and told Enora she had seen a wild forest horse; they had always lived in Eawy forest. Louise could not recall anyone else who had seen a forest horse, but all the locals knew a song about them from their childhood. She hummed the simple melody until the words found their way to her lips.
A white horse cantered out of the woods,
a black horse followed in its wake,
black and white.
Tell me, where are you going,
it is dark already.
I leave and I arrive,
as shadow I come and as memory I go,
on a great white cloud
to the land of wind I travel.
From the Lord of the Forest's lands I come,
and when he cries,
the earth laughs.
In his palace under the trees
he flies a kite.
I come and I go,
as shadow I bring and as memory I take,
I canter on the edge of night and day,
and of love and death.
That evening, before Enora's shift ended, mister Moreau had asked to see her. They stood at the courtyard's gate as dusk was falling. Enora fiddled with the strap on her bag trying not to seem nervous. Mister Moreau watched as a close-by watermill moved steadily, and coughed.
"Enora, may I call you by your first name?"
I would rather you did not, Enora thought but nodded.
"You have been working with us since last fall, and the quality of your work has always been impeccable. My father and I have been very pleased with you."
He smiled flatteringly, and for a moment Enora thought she might end up liking this conversation after all.
"But I think that you place is not in the tannery. I would like to propose something better."
"I like it very much here. I don't need anything else." She knew what mister Moreau was going to say, and she decided to not let him get there. "I have to go now. See you tomorrow, sir," Enora blurted and left work, her mind a blank. The managers' house keeper had been fired for some unknown reason, and they were looking for new blood to staff their dusty old mansion. Of course they had graciously thought of Enora, an orphan and unwed.
The next morning Enora did not look back when she walked out the gate of the tannery. She had been let go because of her constant tardiness, according to the younger mister Moreau. Enora smiled at the thought. She had rarely been late, and she had always had a good reason, albeit fake. At least the senior mister Moreau had hinted at it not being the real cause. His eyes gave it away when he counted out Enora's final pay.
Enora shook her head and marched out to the muddy road. She did not get far before she slipped in the mud. Her bag was open and her lunch had fallen out. Enora grabbed a red and green apple and scraped off the dirt. She climbed to the field surrounding the road and wiped the mud from her hands and feet on the wet grass. She decided to take a short cut to town through the field.
The damp cold did not feel as bad as the insecurity gnawing at her. She had been tanning leather for a year and enjoyed the work and the rhythm it brought to her life. She had felt like she belonged. She didn't celebrate in the everyday chores of the factory, but the others had treated her as an equal. It was the first time since the innocent and carefree days of childhood. A childhood that had ended on the awful night the Allied airforces bombed a German submarine base in Lorient, her hometown. A bomb had strayed from target and destroyed her life. Enora had often wished that she had died with her parents.
Enora had no one she could turn to in time of need. Besides herself the family consisted of a mentally ill aunt in a home in Guerande, where Enora had never even visited, and a long list of names on tombstones. A life struggling in orphanages and working as a maid had made her shoulders slumped. Enora had not enjoyed school either, and she admitted with bitterness that she could have made something of herself if only the classroom had been more appealing. But Enora had always been the student that was blamed for everything. Wild and undisciplined, inefficient and lazy, cheeky and bad-mannered. If Morgan had been there to look after her, she might have done better in life. Two orphans were always better than one, but the last time she had seen her brother was on the road from Lorient to Rennes, when Morgan and a couple of other boys had jumped off the truck and disappeared.
An unemployed young woman could only rely on herself.
Enora looked around her. The rain had turned into a drizzle. Farther away, she could see a herd of cows. Enora liked Normandy. It was like a dream after stuffy Paris. A horse whinnied somewhere. Enora knew it was easier to find work in a big city, but she did not want to return to Paris, which was full of bad memories.
Enora had ended up in Saint-Saëns because she had been able to get a ride for free from her employer's fish deliveryman. Loïc was originally from Brest, but the war had driven him from his home. He caught fish and sold his catch directly to the housekeepers of the rich, and it was from him that Enora got the idea to leave the capital. Loïc drove to Paris once a week, and one Friday morning Enora had hopped in his van with her few possessions, and they had driven towards Dieppe. On the road Loïc had told of his cousin who had found work in Saint-Saëns, and that was where Enora hopped off. The fisherman had been more than friendly, but that was common amongst people from Brittany.
The Moreaus had welcomed her and offered her work without asking for references. That night, sitting in her rented room, Enora had known she had made the best decision of her life. She had learned only weeks later of the fire that had killed an employee and wounded two others at the factory just days before her arrival.
She frowned and told herself that she couldn't find another job in a town as small as this one — the economical situation was worse than a year ago. The factory owners and others well-off were like a family and would not hire her, no matter what the reason for her being let go was. Enora had a few francs in her pocket. She could afford the bus fare to Dieppe and a few nights in a hostel. Maybe Loïc could help her again.
Enora heard wet footsteps behind her. She was afraid someone had followed her from the tannery, and she spun around threatening the assailant with a muddy apple. A small silver gray horse stared at the apple in her hand.
"Hello horsey," Enora said with a shaky voice and offered the horse the fruit. It stepped closer, and its warm muzzle probed at Enora's hand before greedily grabbing the apple and turning away. Enora watched the horse's swinging gait as it approached the forest. It stopped and looked back at her. With its thick mane, the animal looked more like a child's pony than an adult's mount. Enora stared at it for a while and then followed the horse into the forest. At least the trees would offer some shelter from the rain.
Mushrooms. She had never seen so many chanterelles. They covered the mossy roots of trees and glistened on the forest floor like huge yellow flowers. Sales figures flashed in front of Enora's eyes as she thought of all the housekeepers who would rather buy mushrooms from her than the market with its worm-ridden produce. She should fetch a basket and figure out where to hide her stall to avoid paying the market place tax. Enora was startled by the horse nudging her. It was so close that she could feel its breath on her face. It was not completely unpleasant, she thought and stroked its silky head.
The red and yellow canopy let in a suprising amount of light, even though she could barely see the gray sky. There was life everywhere. Birds sang wistful autumn tunes. Flashy orange snails as thick as a finger gathered on tree roots. A scared boar burst from the bushes and ran away. Enora took a deep breath and felt better. The frustration and anger were gone. She followed the horse on a path that wound through the forest to an unknown destination. Enora did not care where she spent the day. She decided to look for the best mushrooms spots and return the next day with a basket. Dieppe could wait as long as there was free food to be found in the forest.
She felt as light as a child.
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2. Neverending Forest
Enora's lips were dark from eating blackberries. She had munched on them while the horse stood next to the bushes like a patient guide. She got a baguette from her bag and offered a piece to the horse. Enora sat on a fallen tree to eat her share and watched a nearby creek that ran to the bottom of a dell. The blackberries grew on the surrounding slopes. Enora estimated she had walked for two or three miles. The truth was she had followed the horse much deeper into the kingdom of giant oaks and beeches. The horse drank from the creek and and started grazing on the grass growing on the banks. Enora leaned back on the mossy tree trunk and closed her eyes.
As a small girl she had loved playing in the forest so much that a day had been too short for her wanderings. At the age of six she had learned to fool her parents and climb out her window after bed time. Anything Morgan did, Enora soon followed suit. The siblings had the same tricks but for different reasons. While Morgan met other youth from the village, Enora sneaked to the forest to to play by herself. Bark boats and pine cone people were her friends. She protected them from the carvings of the great stones. That had been the most exciting of her games. Morgan had not believed her when she told him of her adventures. He had just wiped the dirt from her face with his sleeve and laughed.
Then war had broken out and brought an end to their games. Enora had snuck out to play in the forest on that awful night — even though she had not gone there in months.
Something made Enora look up. She glanced at the horse who was staring intently at the slope on the other side of the creek. It was thick with brambles and snapping sounds were coming from behind them. A pheasant or a boar, Enora thought and yawned. She grabbed her bag and stood up intending to return to town before nightfall. Enora made her way back to the path, but loud noises from the thicket made her stop. It was like a herd of animals or a very large creature was running down the slope. An odd rustle and whooshing sound filled the air. The horse ran to Enora and neighed. It wanted something. Enora thought of running, but the horse blocked her way and nipped at her thigh.
Enora grabbed the horse's mane with both hands and jumped nimbly on its back. The small mare galloped to the path, bouncing Enora from side to side. Little by little the crashing was left behind, but the horse kept going as fast as its short legs could carry them. Enora clung to its mane and let it take her deeper into the forest. Something had terrified them. Enora had not seen what it was, but it had felt so terrible that she did not want to know. There would be another way to town.
Much later, when the silver gray horse was too tired to even trot, Enora climbed down and they stopped. Enora's hands were shaking and she was exhausted. She caught glimpses of the setting sun through the trees. A blackbird was singing and dew drops glistened on the moss. The forest was calm once more, so they continued on their way. The path had vanished, but the horse seemed to know where it was going. Enora followed it from one hassock to another, over fallen trees and around thickets. Before dusk turned to darkness, they made their way to a clearing where a herd of horses was grazing. They were small, like the silver gray mare, although some were of a heavier build. They all had wise eyes and attentive ears on their slender heads. The mare ran to meet the herd, and touched muzzles with the other horses. Then it started grazing as well.
Enora wolfed down her last apple. She had found the forest horses of legend. She was so tired she was ready to believe anything. She decided to spend the night with the horses and find her way back to town in the morning.
The moon was two nights away from being full and lit the clearing like a distant engine headlight. The horses were only ghostly figures. Most of them had lain down, but a few walked around the clearing like guards. Enora had gathered dry grass and made a bed for herself. She lay down as well, with her bag as a pillow. It was cold and soon Enora was shivering. To her surprise the silver gray mare got down next to her, and Enora pressed herself against its warm side.
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5. A Path out of the world
Eawy forest, 1745
Leaves on the tall trees rustled in the wind. Gray splotches of sky were visible here and there. Something flew past Gwendal’s blurred vision. He tried to sit up, but a throbbing pain made him freeze. He was still alive, maybe, Gwendal thought and rolled to his side. This made the falcon jump further back.
”At least I’m not alone in this,” Gwendal said and pushed himself up. He managed to sit, but did not even try to stand, for the whole world spun without warning and bile rose in his throat. Gwendal vomited and stayed put, eyes closed and gasping for breath, until the worst had passed. He tried to decide which hurt more, his shoulder or the back of his head. Carefully he crawled to the side of the rocky road and looked around while leaning against a tree. The falcon’s black eyes watched him from a few feet away.
The events of last night were running through his head, but they were so strange Gwendal did not want to believe them. Demons had attacked them. He had heard of cursed forests and tales of witches and wolves, told to frighten children. The twig creatures he saw last night did not at all resemble the monsters in faraway legends of the Bible. A shudder ran through him when he thought about the eyes, gleaming silver in the darkness.
The forest was as quiet as a forest could be. The wind carried with it the song of sparrows and chaffinches, nothing more. There was the expected crackling sound trees make, and behind them only spruce and oak, bushes and the occasional fern could be seen. The young stablemaster realized he was thirsty just as he was starting to fear that he was all alone in the forest. That everyone else had escaped. ”Oh dear”, Gwendal mumbled and tried to stand up. On foot he would not make it back to civilization until the middle of the night. The thought stung as badly as physical pain. The falcon took to the sky when Gwendal started to slog along the road in the same direction as the many hoofprints and the trail from carriage wheels led. Either direction would take the same amount of time to exit the forest, too long in Gwendal’s opinion.
At midday the sun was fully covered by clouds, and there was a fog as thick as smoke hanging over the forest. Gwendal was shivering with hunger and exhaustion, but with a determination brought by fear and pain he kept walking along the road that had now turned into two parallel paths. Tall hay was growing between them and Gwendal predicted that even the tracks would soon vanish. He pondered if he should turn around and head in the direction the proper road lead. He did not like this narrow path flanked by brambles at all. According to maps the road should lead across the forest in a nearly straight line, and Gwendal was just cursing the cartographer when a chestnut horse appeared around the next bend. It was calmly eating hay in the middle of the path and lifted its head when it noticed Gwendal. The stablemaster stopped and calmly spoke to it. The horse pricked its ears and let Gwendal approach it. The saddle was hanging underneath the animal and the reins were broken, but Gwendal re-saddled the horse in no time. Then he led the horse to a rock, which he climbed on while trying to hold the horse steady, and threw his right leg over its back. The journey went considerably faster on horseback. Gwendal felt relieved, almost saved. The falcon had descended to sit on his better shoulder, and it was watching their back, or so Gwendal hoped.
The paths had disappeared some time ago. There were only the tracks of broken branches and jumbled vegetation left by the carriage and who knows what other things. Gwendal was almost happy he had not been in the carriage. The going had been unspeakable based on the tracks. The horse stopped in the middle of the brush. It tensed its body and neck, its ears and face stiff from anxiety. Gwendal stroked its shoulder. He could not hear anything except his own breath. The chestnut gelding groaned nervously and took a step back. It too had unpleasant memories of last night. The fog snaked around the tree trunks and caught the horse’s muzzle, forming tiny droplets of water. Somewhere beyond the thicket, weak and far away, a faint neighing could be heard.
Calmed by the presence of his kind, the horse walked through the copse on to a clearing. It was wide as a field and flat but for a huge depression in the middle. There were rocks of different shapes and sizes spaced evenly around the depression. They had clearly been placed there judging by the symmetric circle they formed, but instead of the rock formation, Gwendal’s attention was caught by a shape crouching between two of the stones. A man, whose torn and dirty clothes distantly resembled a white linen shirt and silken breeches. His socks were filled with holes, and the man was wearing only one shoe. Getting up during the night, the marquis had slipped on his heeled shoes instead of boots, believing he would be back in bed soon. The fact that the only sign of the carriage were the tracks left by its wheels, did not struck Gwendal’s mind at first. He only noticed that the lonely marquis seemed to be talking to someone.
“No. Leave them alone,” said a grumpy whisper. It was Valbert. The dishevelled cook was sitting at the edge of the forest holding his tiny white cat. Further away a group of horsemen was idling, some of them raised a hand lazily to greet Gwendal. He dismounted and sat down next to the cook. They looked at each other for a while as if wondering what madness to discuss first. Nevertheless, Gwendal was relieved.
“The devil himself has imprisoned us in this forest,” Valbert mumbled.
“Imprisoned?” Gwendal gasped and wondered how badly the cook had hit his head. “We can make Saint-Saëns by night fall if we don’t stall.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” the cook said stroking the purring cat, and stared with moist eyes at the young marquis sitting in the clearing.
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6. The Carriage of the Duchess
A dense fog covered the clearing and a damp cold got under the skin. The falcon was balancing on Gwendal’s hurt shoulder, but he let the bird stay for the pain reminded the stablemaster of their situation. The hunting party had lost most of their gear, several horses and six men. There was no trace of the duchess’s carriage and of the marquis only a fog-eaten ghost was left.
Gwendal concluded that the cook had suffered a severe blow to the head and had lost his mind. Of course they would leave the forest as soon as the marquis was feeling better. Despite Valbert’s protests, Gwendal started towards the seated Jean-Philippe. He thought of how to explain to his father and his uncle what had happened in the forest. No one would believe them. He would most likely be sent to jail. If the marquis was hurt, he might be executed. Hunting accidents were common, but usually the cause was bad handling of weapons or too much wine, often both. Gwendal had been lucky so far. The Belleroys were excellent hunters and they did not need looking after as if they were children. Maybe that was the reason why he had always done his job as well as he could. His days were filled with caring for the horses, training them to be trustworthy mounts, and taking care of tack. Everyone would blame him since he was the stablemaster.
The marquis did not move when Gwendal called him by his honorific before walking to the edge of the sag. Only now could he properly see the depression. It slanted down toward the center, and in the end the inclination became so steep that he could not see the bottom of the sag from where he was standing. He stepped closer to see better. No movement from the marquis. A second step, and a third, but the depression only got deeper. When he finally saw, he let out a yelp, because Jean-Philippe had jumped up and was pointing his sword at Gwendal’s throat.
“Go away,” he croaked and waved the sword closer.
Gwendal backed away looking in turn at the sag and the enraged face of the marquis. “My lord,” he sputtered. “I don’t understand.”
“I. Said. Go. Away!” Jean-Philippe yelled waking the whole foggy forest.
”I will. I will go away, my lord.” Gwendal backed away quickly, but tripped over his own feet. The marquis jumped on him slashing the air with the sword. Gwendal closed his eyes and did not dare to open them again, even though he knew the aristocrat had missed. He lay on the ground, quiet, barely daring to breathe. His shoulder hurt, but he swallowed the pain with his tears. His lord was crouching next to him breathing heavily. He heard the man pull his sword from the ground somewhere close by and then stand up.
“Come,” the marquis beckoned.
Gwendal got up and followed the young marquis to the edge of the pit. He peered down and gasped in surprise when he saw a huge black hole. It looked like it had been cut in the ground with giant scissors. A terrible stench rose from the depths and it made Gwendal lean back. Then he heard a lamenting voice. It called and moaned. It was a woman crying. The stablemaster fell to his knees and stretched his upper body towards the hole to hear better.
“We have to help her,” Gwendal said.
“I agree, but how?” asked Jean-Philippe. “Valbert and the horsemen want to leave the forest, but I cannot leave Charlotte here to die alone. And the beasts said that we cannot do anything… That if we try, they will attack us again.”
The marquis stared at him with a strange look in his eyes and explained what had happened during the night, waving his sword here and there. “They drove us to the clearing. I couldn’t see a thing. Valbert had fallen ages ago. The horses had gone wild. I thought we were back on the road when the trees disappeared and I rushed the horses onward!” The marquis rolled his torn sleeves and showed Gwendal the bloody scratches on his arms. “They tore me off just before the carriage fell. I heard the horses scream, and then there was a big crash. It is unthinkably deep…that cave, or whatever well Satan himself has built.” He took a deep breath and stared at the darkening forest. “Then they approached me, crackling and crunching. It was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. Their bodies were like those of men, but made of branches and black twigs. And the wind. I don’t know, it felt like the beasts were creating the wind themselves. The Devil’s breath, that’s what it must have been. And their eyes…” the man sputtered while shivers ran up and down his body.
“What did they want?”
“Nothing,” the marquis said. ”They didn’t say anything, but I could hear their voices in my head.” Jean-Philippe was clearly trying not to think about something. “The beasts wanted me to understand that the only way out of the forest was the well, but…”
“But what?” Gwendal demanded.
The marquis narrowed his eyes. He did not like being addressed in that manner, even under exceptional circumstances.
“My lord,” the stablemaster added humbly.
“I do not know, but a magic force or something about that well is stopping us from leaving this damned forest and its ungodly creatures. And Charlotte… all of her limbs are crushed. I don’t know how she could have survived the fall.” The man fell silent and bit his lip. “She… I can’t bear to hear her begging. How can we help her, Gwendal? Those twig devils will kill us all if we try.”
“But why? Why us?” Gwendal could not remember ever being warned of the forest of Eawy. On the other hand he understood that if something evil had decided to settle down in the forest, it would not want everyone to know of its presence. The clergymen would have come to exorcise it with their crosses and prayers. Or the whole forest would have been burnt to the ground.
“They won’t help.” Jean-Philippe pointed his sword at the group of men sitting at the forest’s edge. ”Maybe the two of us can weave a rope using the reins and use that to descend into the hole.”
Gwendal knew that by ”we” the marquis most certainly did not mean his noble self, but they had to do something. Madame de Ribadeau kept wailing at the bottom of the pit. The poor woman was in excruciating pain.
“My lord, let us try, and even if the beasts attack, damn it, nothing will stop them from doing that anyway,” he snapped and walked towards the forest. Gwendal asked Valbert to quickly dress his shoulder, which had a purple bruise decorating it. Then he removed the bridles from the horses. The objections from the men around him were weak enough for Gwendal to just ignore them. Finally one of the men helped him carry the bridles to the well and Valbert joined them dragging a long tree trunk behind him.
The forest waited in complete silence.
They joined the reins to each other forming a leather rope dozens of feet long. Gwendal did not feel like hanging in a well reaching Hell from it. Despite his doubts, he threw one end of the rope in the well and tied the other to the tree Valbert had placed behind two rocks, like a door bolt. The marquis handed him one of the two rifles they still had. Though Gwendal did not know what use it would be at the bottom of the well. He checked that the flint was still there, and fastened the gun to his back with a strap. He stepped to the edge of the depression, checked for movement in the forest and grabbed the rope. His injured shoulder was making the descent difficult and Gwendal hesitated, looking at the supportive face of the marquis. After all the well was maybe the best way out of this world, he thought, and clenched his teeth.
The darkness swallowed him. He could barely make out the walls of the pit, although Gwendal sensed they were close. The sound of his breath was amplified as if it was shut in a small box. He could hear odd rustling from down below in addition to the faint voice of the duchess. Gwendal counted the reins. When he reached twenty, he got so dizzy he could not move. With trembling arms he let his body slide down the final feet and fell to the floor of the cave. The stench was so pungent that the young man hid his face in his scarf and felt around on the ground. It was covered with sticks, rocks and something slippery. He stood up and called for the duchess. After hearing her voice he tried to move towards it. The ground beneath him suddenly rose and Gwendal fell to his knees. He was arms deep in sludge that clung to his skin. Despite feeling sick, he tore himself up and climbed the mound. It had formed across the years from the debris that had fallen into the cave.
Every now and then something crunched under his feet, and he tried to push away the thoughts of carcasses and splintering bones. The voice of the duchess grew louder and Gwendal noticed a dim light ahead. It was one of the carriage’s oil lamps. The glass sheltering the light was broken and the flame danced in the breeze, almost going out every now and then. The young stablemaster hurried to the carriage and noticed two horse-shaped lumps, one on top of the other. The carriage, or what was left of it, was lying on its roof behind the horses. The body of the carriage was flattened and three of the four wheels were scattered on the ground. The contents of madame de Ribadeau’s travel trunks had spread on top of everything, ghosts of cloth and accessories. Letting the destruction sink in, Gwendal did not immediately notice the maimed body of the duchess on the ground next to him. Her eyes were the only part still recognizable as human, and they were staring at Gwendal so intently that he felt the gaze on his skin before he cried out from terror.
“Sho…” the woman mumbled and Gwendal got down on his knees. “Sho…shoot,” the duchess managed and shook from the pain of the effort.
Gwendal took the rifle from his back and swallowed. He did not want to shoot the woman although he knew there was no other way of helping her. All of her limbs formed unnatural angles and bends. Her white skin was broken by three open fractures, and her night gown was covered in blood. He looked her in the eye and tried to swallow the heavy lump in his throat
“It’s a miracle you’re still alive Madame,” he whispered in her ear. “I beg of you, don’t ask me for that.”
Her breath rattled as she drew in air to her punctured lungs, but instead of sound only red foam came out. The duchess closed her eyes and Gwendal thought she had let go of life. He felt relieved. It was shameful, and the stablemaster pressed his head in his hands. He felt very tired.
A cold breeze made Gwendal look up. It was as if a door had been opened somewhere. He squinted and combed the cave with his eyes. He could hear a humming in the darkness. Fear crept into Gwendal’s mind and he loaded his weapon. The clink of metal on metal made the duchess open her eyes, and Gwendal started at the woman’s croak. He pointed his weapon at the darkness, and glanced down at the pleading eyes of the duchess. They were cruelly beautiful. Somewhere down below a ragged sound was heard, something was scratching the walls of the cave. The young man stood up, and aimed in the direction of the sound. He shot and for the blink of an eye the cave was illuminated by the gun’s flash. Gwendal saw the mound of bones he was standing on. He saw the duchess at his feet. He saw the rope at the foot of the mound and the wall of the cave behind it. He did not see anything else, but after the bullet had hit the opposite wall, Gwendal could have sworn he heard laughter.
After hearing shots fired the marquis shouted something from the mouth of the cave. Gwendal did not even lift his head, he just shouted a reply. “There’s something here, and it….” He didn’t get to finish the sentence when he heard steps crunching very close. Gwendal stood frozen in place and grabbed his rifle with aching fingers. He felt something at the back of his neck and jumped to the side with fright. Gwendal swung at the air and prayed out loud.
Go away, Celt.
Gwendal was certain he had not heard a thing, but the voice was loud in his head. It was speaking odd words he did not know although he understood what was being said. He loaded the weapon with shaking hands and backed to the duchess’s side.
”Madame is still alive, but I cannot move her. She wants to die, my lord.” Gwendal shouted as hard as he could. His voice echoed in the misshapen cave. When there was no answer, Gwendal shouted again and stroked the hair clinging to madame de Ribadeau’s forehead. Tears were streaming down her dirty cheeks and also filling the young stablemaster’s eyes. The wait was agonizingly long, and Gwendal started to fear the marquis and his men had left when he heard a weak reply. “Come back up from there.”
“But what am I going to do with madame?”
“Come back up, or they are going to kill us all,” the marquis commanded.
“I can’t,” Gwendal moaned. He did not understand, he furrowed his brow and looked at the woman lying on the ground. Her dark eyes were staring at his weapon, and the footsteps in the dark were getting closer. Gwendal pointed the muzzle at her chest and closed his eyes. One of the horses behind him suddenly kicked him, and the young man rolled off the mound with a loud clatter. Gwendal was lying at the bottom of the cave still holding the smoking gun.
Did I shoot her?
He listened to the silence while blood was rushing in his ears, and he got to his feet. Gwendal wanted to call for the duchess, but he could not get a word out of his mouth. The rifle in his hand was heavy as an anvil. He felt something brush against his cheek and swung at it with his fist, but his hand only met the rope made out of reins. He grabbed it with both hands not caring about the pain. The rope lifted him up, and the mouth of the cave approached rapidly. When he got back out into the open air, Gwendal lay on the edge of the depression gasping for breath and stared at the sky. He could only see the last rays of the setting sun through the clouds. That an army of dozens of twig monsters had surrounded the well and the marquis with his men did not move him. Something had broken inside, and he felt that he had lost a part of himself – maybe all of him.