The Comtesse with a Devil’s Tail
As far as it concerns me, “running away” is a grossly inaccurate term.
First of all, I’m not running; I’m riding. My horse Dauphin has done his share of running this night, along with plenty of trotting, cantering and galloping. Mostly galloping. When the biting spring wind whips through my hair and stings my wide-open eyes, it helps erase the more painful memories and feelings that have taken their residence somewhere behind my ribs. The stars blur in the sky as we rush through the dark fields and the cobblestone streets. I can hardly hear the chirping young frogs in the ponds, and I can’t hear my thoughts at all. I’m not Juliette Durand, the 16-year-old Comtesse de la Marche whose father is missing--I’m just a girl, riding fast. Yes, galloping is lovely.
Secondly, I’m not running away. No doubt my stepmother thinks I am, but you can’t be running away when you have an exact goal in mind. I’m running to my Papa. I merely haven’t discovered where, precisely, I’m going to find him.
Though it is late, the streets of Calais, the first stop on my journey, haven’t yet given themselves up to slumber. Yellow light spills down from the iron street lamps like butter over a bun. It sends macabre shadows, flickering and gyrating, over the last few people and travelers still awake, along with the rats and other night creatures just beginning their missions in the dark. The swinging sign boards over the doors to the inns and public houses beckon to the straggling population, encouraging them to gather within: to find a bed, a friend, a drink of ale. Outside the doors, drunken men stagger dizzily out.
I’m surprised to hear the voices of children playing at this hour; I ride toward the sound, around the edge of stone buildings and into a dark alleyway where the light from the streetlamps cannot reach. Only the moon, full and bright, lights the scene before me.
There is laughter, yes, but no playing. Three boys of eight or nine years crowd around an even younger one, forcing him into a dank corner under a water spout, their barefoot kicks holding him captive while foul-smelling water drips onto his dirty head. If there was ever someone who should have been running away, it is this boy.
“You there!” I yell, hoping I look impressive and authoritative in my red velvet riding jacket. “What do you all think you’re doing?”