Fast approaching hooves rumbled against the damp earth of the long, tree-lined dirt road. Emilie Basseaux glanced back at the sound. Two men on horseback cantered towards them. Mon Dieu, non, Emilie thought, not them again.
Her heart raced. A momentary lapse distracted her from possible danger. She had allowed her thoughts to wander to her pending nuptials to Robert Lanzille, the miller of Pointe-du-Lac. They would marry in three days. Lost in her daydreams, enjoying the pleasant walk down the shady lane amid towering maple and pine trees, she had lost track of time. Emilie hastened her step, but the two men slowed their horses to a walk beside her. She looked up from beneath the brim of her straw bonnet.
The youthful Seigneur Richard Tonnacour gazed down at Emilie from the lofty perch of his well-muscled, black gelding. Impeccably dressed in a dark blue coat, white shirt and hose, tendrils of his brown hair curled onto the nape of his neck below his white wig. Once again, the heated interest in his eyes made her cringe.
Seigneur Richard’s presence disturbed the calmness of the day. To Emilie’s right, rays of sunlight danced upon the calm waters of Lac Saint Pierre. Upon its serene waters, an Abenaki Indian guide paddled two voyageurs in a fur-laden canoe. To her left, ships with billowed white sails rode the placid waves of the mighty Saint Lawrence River enroute to destinations unknown.
Next to him rode his cousin, Seigneur Pierre Robillard who had been with him yesterday when she encountered them on this very same lane.
Granted the title deed of a vast fief of at least a dozen miles squared with frontage on the great Saint Lawrence River by King Louis of France, Seigneur Richard commanded the fealty of almost all the habitants and colony folk. He even owned the mill, which her betrothed, Robert, operated. Emilie's late father, a fur trader, had purchased their home in the village outright, and Emilie and her mother were not under obligation to either of the overlords whose estates bordered each other.
“Bonjour,” Seigneur Richard said with a smile. He tipped his tricorne, its ostrich feather dancing in the gentle breeze. His grey eyes roved her body from face to breast to hip and back again.
His blatant attention stirred her annoyance. “Bonjour,” she replied, her voice deliberately curt. Common sense told her she should respond, not only because he was the seigneur of Pointe-du-Lac, but also because he was Robert's overlord, and one whom everyone feared. She averted her gaze and refrained from saying anything more in the hopes he would ride away.
“And where might a lovely young woman like you be going at such an odd hour?” The resonance of his deep voice seemed at odds with the tranquility of the day. She frowned and quickened her stride.
“Come, come,” he said. “Surely you are not going to ignore me like you did yesterday?”
“I mean no offence to you, Monsieur, but I am betrothed and it would set tongues wagging were I to linger in conversation with another man. I'm certain you can understand my wish to preserve my good name and virtue.” She met his gaze without wavering.
Rumours of his lasciviousness abounded and Emilie knew that even a brief conversation with the man could tarnish a young woman's reputation.
“Betrothals can be broken.”
“Not so, Monsieur, especially when one's family and the Church has already given their blessing.”
“Ah, but if your destiny should lie in another direction, you would be powerless to avoid it,” he said with a grin.
Emilie wiped her sweaty hands against the coarse material of her homespun gown. She disguised her clenched fists in the folds of her gown so that he could not see how his words affected her. “I know well where my destiny lies. It's my own will that keeps me firm upon its path.”
Seigneur Pierre chortled. “Have a care, young lady, for a man like my cousin Richard is easily stirred by a spirited woman. Brazenness adds spice to the chase.”
His words rang true and Emilie resolved to avoid Seigneur Richard's questions. She could not allow him to goad her into more talk. She must discourage him and send him on his way as politely as possible.
Seigneur Richard cast his cousin a stern glance, turned his attention back to Emilie, and smiled. The sun shone through the leaves behind him, casting an eerie halo around the white wig on his head. “I'm a man who knows well how to carve his own destiny, Mademoiselle Basseaux. It's a rare occasion when I do not succeed. A poor girl like you would do well to remember that. I have much to offer.”
Emilie ignored him, her eyes focused straight ahead as she continued walking, praying for the men to leave.
Undaunted, Seigneur Richard and his cousin followed, but from a greater distance. Their voices drifted to her although she could not make out everything they said. Then she heard Seigneur Pierre bellow out a laugh.
“You shall see, my friend, you shall see,” Seigneur Richard said in a voice clear enough for Emilie to discern the fury within it.
She threw a swift glance back to see him kick his horse into a canter, his face scarlet.
Seigneur Pierre laughed even more and followed.
Emilie watched Seigneur Richard ride away, his hair flowing against the nape of his neck. She expelled a pent-up breath hastened her step.
Emilie fell into her own thoughts, troubled, unable to dispel the bad feeling that arose within her. She prayed that the seigneur's attention meant nothing and that her upcoming wedding would end the man's interest. Judging by the comments she overheard between the two men, however, she sensed more trouble. What form would it take? More importantly, how could she prevent it?
She pondered whether to tell Robert, but decided against it. Robert, her handsome and gallant devotee. His love for her held no bounds, as did hers for him. If he knew of this, Robert would become angry and might confront Seigneur Richard in her defense. That would mean certain trouble because Robert owed his livelihood to Seigneur Richard. He could cast Robert out of his mill and deny him the work in which he took such great pride. What then of their future? Non, she could not take any risks. She must find a way to deal with this herself.
A vain hope arose that perhaps her mother could advise her, but she dismissed it almost immediately. Although her mother possessed a shrewd mind, she also had a tendency to over-react and might complicate matters. Emilie knew that once stirred, her mother would be relentless towards finding a resolution. She might even accost Seigneur Richard herself. This too would bring trouble for Robert. Non, she must not breathe a word of this to her mother either.
Only one man could help her – Père Marc-Mathieu, the Jesuit priest who lived on the outskirts of Pointe-du-Lac in a convent with several of his brethren. Revered for his kindness and wisdom, Emilie trusted him to give her sound advice. He had the ability to deal with Seigneur Richard without further agitation or provocation. She would speak to him tomorrow at chapel.
Even though this second encounter with Seigneur Richard disturbed Emilie as much as that of the day before, she was secure in the knowledge that Père Marc-Mathieu would help her put all this trouble to rest. For now, she decided to cast the overlord from her thoughts, dismissing the encounter as the actions of a spoiled man whose opinion of himself was higher than that of those around him. She entered her home with a lighter heart, refusing to allow it to dampen the happiness of her approaching wedding day.
Morena stepped into the cell. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark, but then she saw him. Her heart lurched with alarm. Amoro lay on his back in blood and filth curled upon the straw with a ragged cloth around him, chained to the wall like a wild animal. He shivered like a rousing cat and babbled something indistinguishable as he held up his arm to shield his face.
His face, half-turned into the shallow light that filtered into the room from the tiny barred window, was a mask of filth and bruises. One eye was swollen shut above a bruised and swollen cheek. He cradled his arms to himself in an effort to keep warm. His good eye widened in surprise at the sight of her. He blinked as if in disbelief, as if she were too bright, like some sudden, sharp burst of sunlight.