Chateaux Devaneaux, 1548
Marielle Devaneaux awoke - choking.
Blinking through watering eyes, she sat up; attempting vainly to see what had woken her. Her room was darker than usual, and it took her several moments to realize that the absence of light was due to smoke billowing and obscuring the window. The astringent aroma of charred wood filled her nostrils, stinging the delicate membranes, and bringing fresh tears to her eyes.
Marielle threw back the covers, and swung her feet out, onto the floor. Gasping, her chest heaving as her lungs struggled for fresh air, she stumbled blindly towards her bedroom door. Her groping fingers fumbled for, and finally located the doorknob, and she pulled. For a second or two, the door refused to open, and Marielle feared that it was locked, but after a second, harder tug, the wood shrieked, and the door swung inwards.
The air was fresher in the small hall, but not by a great amount. Marielle took a moment to lean against the wall, and gain some much needed air. Then, pushing herself erect, she forced herself into motion, making her way towards the rooms her uncle used, as both study and bedroom.
'Uncle?' Marielle's voice was hoarse; scarred by smoke inhalation and rising panic. 'Uncle Henri?' She banged a fist against his door. 'Uncle Henri; please - are you awake? There's smoke - a fire.' No sound came from beyond the thick wood, and, after calling a few times more, Marielle put her shoulder to the door and pushed.
Her uncle's rooms were empty. Marielle checked the bedroom and returned to the small study. Everything was as neat and tidy as it always was; everything in its place. Her uncle's desk was clean, devoid of ornamentation; holding nothing but his treasured inking quills and pots.
Back in the hallway, the heat was stronger, and Marielle wretched, unable to see through streaming vision and the thick, cloying smoke. Dropping to her hands and knees, she crawled towards the stairs. Her grasping fingers found the top rung, and she pulled herself towards the lip, her waning strength barely adequate for the task.
Heat blasted Marielle's hands and face, scorching air propelled up the narrow stairs from below. Even through the smoke filled gloom, she could detect a muted flickering glow of flames, somewhere around the bend below her. Marielle hesitated a long moment, terrified of what lay below her.
Yet, there was no other way out of the chateaux. Marielle took another moment, to gather the shreds of her courage, before throwing herself convulsively over the lip, and into the stairwell. Half-crawling, half-sliding low, Marielle made her way down through the rising heat, to the ground floor.
The library was ablaze.
Smoke billowed from the open door, thick and choking, and Marielle could see through tear streaked eyes, the flames gorging greedily upon the bookshelves and their combustible contents.
'Uncle?' Marielle licked her parched lips, and tried again. 'Uncle Henri?' She swiped at her eyes, and tried to see into the library. 'Uncle Henri?' Her only answer was the ever louder crackle of flames.
Unable to stand the intense heat any longer, Marielle turned towards the front entrance. Mercifully, the flames had yet to escape the library, and Marielle reached the massive front doors. Praying that they were not locked, she grasped the large handle and pushed, laying her shoulder against the thick wood. The door swung slowly open, and Marielle gasped, as cooler, fresh air swept into the chateaux.
Marielle stumbled onto the marbled steps of the chateaux, flinching reflexively at the sudden explosive shattering of one of the library windows. She was at the end of her tether; most physically and emotionally. Only the instinct to survive kept her moving, her feet shuffling towards the portico stairs.
Another window blew out, and instinctively, Marielle turned towards the noise. Her shell-shocked gaze took in the flames, leaping out of the library windows, seeking the heavens, and she opened her mouth to scream.
The sound never came. A thickly muscled arm snaked around her neck, and a massive hand clamped itself across her mouth, cutting off any sound. At almost the same instant, another arm reached around her midriff, just below her breasts, and lifted her off her feet. Franticly, Marielle kicked, her feet pistoning back and forth frenetically. One heel impacted against something solid behind her but, apart from a sudden hiss of fetid breath, there was little response. Silently, Marielle was carried away from the conflagration.
Several minutes later, the stables faded into view out of the darkness. Despite carrying her for so long, the person carrying Marielle had not spoken, nor did he appear to be breathing heavily, even with her added weight. Marielle's captor carried her through the doors, and inside a little way, before throwing her unceremoniously to the earth floor.
Marielle landed awkwardly, upon one foot. She was unable to contain a small cry of pain, as her ankle twisted beneath her and she fell to one side.
'We missed one.' The voice behind and above her was gruff - the accent strange to her ears. 'Serving wench, maybe.'
'I think not.' The second man sounded more educated, if only slightly. 'I was told the old man had a niece living with him. Looking at what she's wearing, this is her most likely.' The voice adopted a more thoughtful tone. 'It's possible she knows where it is.'
Marielle twisted onto her back, and peered up into the gloom. Her captor stood a little distance away, just out of reach of her feet. Of the second man, there was no sign, in the darkness.
'If she does, then it'll be fun getting the information out of her.' Marielle shivered at the sudden change in her captors tone. 'She's a pretty little thing. I take it, the old man wouldn't talk?'
'He insists that he has no knowledge of it.' The other man replied absently. He paused for a moment. 'Insisted, that should be. His days of insisting anything are over.'
'Maybe it's not here.'
'If he said, it is here - then it is here.' The voice in the darkness was calm. 'He was most certain of this. This is why he instructed us to burn the place to the ground.'
'I remember,' Marielle's captor grunted. 'He also said he would know, when it was destroyed. What sort of nonsense is that?'
'Do you really care, as long as you are paid?' The second voice asked. 'I know that I do not.'
Marielle's captor laughed, a coarse, terrifying noise. 'Damned right I don't care.' He leered towards the cringing girl at his feet. 'As long as I get to play a little, he can say and do as he pleases.'
'Girl,' the shadows shifted slightly, and Marielle realized that the man was somewhere over by the far wall. 'You have a name?'
Despite her terror, Marielle clamped her lips tightly closed. The shadows shifted again, as they resolved themselves into the dim outline of a slender figure.
'Do you have a name?' The man repeated. 'Speak, and it may go easier with you.'
'Marielle.' Her whispered words were laced with terror and defeat. 'My name is Marielle.'
'Devaneaux?' Marielle nodded. A single tear ran along her smoke-stained face; leaving behind itself a cleaner trail of skin as it fell.
'Your uncle had, in his possession, a book.' The shadowy man continued. 'Perhaps you have seen it? It would have been written in a language you would never have seen before.'
Marielle immediately shook her head, but an image of the book her brother had taken flashed across her mind. She attempted to block the image, but the man must have seen something. He leant slightly closer. Marielle caught the soft gleam of his eyes in the gloom.
'Think you well, girl, before you answer.' He advised. 'Your very life may well depend upon your answer. Do you know of this book?'
After a moment's hesitation, Marielle shook her head. 'I know of no such book,' she lied, 'my uncle keeps many books, and never, am I allowed to read any of them.'
A sudden resolve took hold of Marielle. If she had to die, in order to protect her brother, she thought, then she would die. Max would be safe if these men thought that the book, whatever it was, had been destroyed in the fire. She felt a sharp pang of regret, at being unable to say goodbye to him.
The man studied her silently from his place in the shadows. After several minutes contemplation, he shifted slightly, as he turned to Marielle's captor.
'Put her with the prisoners, and watch them.' He ordered. 'I will go and get the others, and then we will see what these people really know, and what they do not.'
'This one is mine.' Marielle's captor grumbled truculently. 'I caught her; I get to have fun with her.'
'I care not.' The man made a barely seen throwaway gesture. 'I merely care that we ensure the destruction of the book. It is all that he wants.'
'And do you always do what he wants?' There was a tinge of derision in the bigger man's tone.
'I do - as should you, if you wish to continue your life.'
The caution appeared to temper the man's mood somewhat. With a grunt, he reached down, and grabbed Marielle's injured ankle. Then he straightened and, still grasping her ankle, he began to drag her along the floor, towards the rear of the stable.
Marielle screamed at the sudden sharp stabbing pain, and vainly attempted to kick at her captor with her free foot. Her struggles however, seemed merely to increase the man's level of enjoyment. Her nightdress rucked, as it rose above her knees, and she flailed vainly, as she tried to prevent any further rise.