Francine was dizzy. Her head felt thick and it pounded as though a child were beating on it with a shoe. Her mouth was full of cotton and fire and her throat burned all the way to the pit of her stomach. It seemed like days passed as her mind fought for purchase, in and out of consciousness, willing the webs to clear so she could awaken. She groaned against the band in her mouth, but her hands wouldn’t move and her eyes wouldn’t open. She tried to remember what had happened, but couldn’t remember anything beyond the ball.

She clenched her eyes, trying to clear the thickness that lay in front of them. It was like the time she’d tried on her grandfather’s coke-bottle spectacles—she couldn’t see. She also couldn’t move and she couldn’t speak, but she could feel, and what she felt was a clammy hand drifting up her leg toward her hip, underneath her skirts. The movement jerked her body awake abruptly and she kicked out, then heard a howl and a rain of curses.

She felt for the edge of the seat and pushed up. She pulled at the piece of fabric in her mouth, dragging it down and then rubbing her eyes. She realized her hands weren’t just working in tandem, but that they were actually attached to each other.

“Sonofabitch!” she screamed, looking around until her eyes settled on the angry troll cowering in the seat across from her. The carriage bounced hard and she thought they were moving swiftly down a deeply rutted country road.

“You worthless fuckwit! What the hell are you doing?”

He straightened his jacket. “What does it look like I’m doing, you ingrate? I’m claiming what’s mine, what always has been mine. I’ve waited more than ten years for your tutelage to be complete. You think I’ll sit aside and let some damnable duke ruin you?” he yelled. He shook from his core, his loose skin flailing around his face like that of a drooling bloodhound.

Francine tore angrily at the binds on her wrists. Her skin scraped against the hard ropes as she twisted and pulled, making them raw and bloodied, but she wouldn’t give in to her bondage.

Hepplewort watched her. His eyes widened with heat and she shuddered, her vision blurring from the anger coursing through her. She couldn’t remember what to do. The self-defense class she’d taken didn’t include being tied up and trapped in a carriage. She kicked at him, pushing her back against the wall to steady herself as she lashed out.

He was like a rat trapped in a cage with a pissed off cat. The binds didn’t immobilize her; they only inhibited her movement, making her more violent. She kept kicking.

Hepplewort screamed, the noise pealing from his throat, making him sound like an frightened thirteen-year-old girl.

The carriage ground to a stop and the door swung open. Hepplewort fumbled his way out and a man so large and unwieldy that he had to squeeze through the carriage door entered, one arm and leg at a time, silencing her struggles with a glare. He pressed in next to her and Hepplewort rejoined them.

Hepplewort stared at her, then reached out and slapped her, slamming her face into the side of the carriage. She winced, her bound hands flying to her cheek.

“I guess you won’t be trying that again,” he said with a triumphant snort.

She felt a hot, sticky rush of blood to her lip and sat still, crushed against the side of the carriage by the brute next to her. She started running various escape scenarios through her mind, closing her eyes tightly as each vision failed.

The carriage ride was long and arduous. Every bump in the road–of which there were many–threw her alternately into the side of the carriage or into the structure of man to her left. She drifted into sleep occasionally, even as she tried to fight it off, but every movement of the carriage set her body aware and her mind reeling, wondering where Gideon was.

Sometime late the next day she saw a large, patchwork manor come into view as the carriage rocked and the curtains swung open and shut. It loomed on the horizon, surrounded by a great open field. The manor appeared to be a misshapen assembly of outbuildings that extended and built upon the main house in multiple architectural styles without regard for the existing structure.

They rolled up the long drive toward the ugly manor and she looked for signs of anyone who could help her. She didn’t see any houses or a town nearby. Her heart sank when she realized that this was their destination, in the middle of nowhere.

The carriage lurched to a stop in front of the dark entrance and the giant of a man squeezed out, dragging Francine behind him before tossing her over his shoulder. She squealed as he carried her up the steps after Hepplewort.

The butler opened the door. “Your mother is in the parlor.”

Hepplewort turned to the large man. “Take her to her room. Do not leave her alone.” He watched as Francine bobbed against the man’s back limply and then turned to the parlor.

He found his mother sitting straight-backed on the divan, her hands in her lap as she peered down her pointy beak at her son. Her dark grey hair was drawn to the back of her head in a severe knot. It pulled at her wrinkly features, giving her a cat-like appearance.

“Is she here?” came the shrill voice, buried under years of stern complaints.

He walked over, sat on the divan next to her, and patted her hands.

She jerked away from him, continuing to stare.

“Yes, Mother, she is here.”

“Good. Did you send for the priest?”

“Yes, mother.”

Where is she?”


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