The Frenchman and his Lady

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CHAPTER ONE

She missed her step, hitting her foot hard on a gravel stone. “Ouch, ça fait mal,” she hissed. “Just like me to trip on something!!” she murmured to herself.

Drawing her scarf closer to her face, she winced, as the blood oozed from the raw wound.

She crouched on her knees to have a look at the bleeding foot.

Seeing that the cut was deep, she tried to stop the flow of the blood with a handkerchief she had in her hand. The red of the blood soon stained the thin fabric of her white handkerchief.

Maria winced again at the tenderness of the cut.

"Did I have to do this, NOW??" she groaned, inwardly wincing once more as the pain increased.

She looked around in the dark and sat down on the pebbled street. She tightened the handkerchief around the bleeding wound, put her sandals back on, and gave herself a few more minutes to compose herself before continuing her journey to meet Morabad.

There were no streetlights to her village, and the curfew was still in effect.

Now and then, a siren could be heard breaking into the silence of the quiet night, coming from someplace close to the army camp located nearby the village.

The rays from a huge searchlight would inevitably scan the surroundings, creeping stealthily on anyone who dared to trespass the area surrounding the army camp.

Even if peace was declared between the warring sides, the tensions remained, sensitivities waiting for an excuse to erupt and put an end to the newly signed peace accord.

Maria was glad that for the moment, the war was over. However, to rebuild a country torn as a consequence was a “monumental task”.

It would be a long-drawn progression to get the country restored back to its glory days.

More importantly, how long would it take for people to trust one another again? There was so much uncertainty and suspicion everywhere, Maria acknowledged.

People were fearful about what to expect in the coming days.

No one was in the mood to celebrate the victory of war when the truce was announced. Instead, all they could focus on were the trails of destruction that were everywhere they looked.

Undoubtedly, the devastating loss of lives was something that will weigh heavily on the people. Many of the young men who had gone to war were still missing.

Now, people lived with the hope to see their loved ones back home again.

It was the time to rebuild lives, and yet for those who had lost everything to war, it would be a dreadful time to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and move on.

“There is so much brutality in war,” Maria sighed, sick by the very term that “war” represented.

As always, the people who suffer the most are the innocent ones, those amiable, peace-loving people!

“Are there any real winners in a war?” Maria questioned, the wound delaying her meeting with Morabad.

She flinched, as the pain from her raw wound intensified.

Mustering a little courage to ignore the pain, she hurried to her destination.

She was to meet Morabad at their usual meeting place, which was halfway between the army camp and her village, about an hour from her home.

Maria thought fondly about her feelings for Morabad. What had attracted him to her?

He was good-looking with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and had a great sense of humor, one that had her in stitches whenever they were together.

He was tall, sturdy, and being a soldier, had a masterful authoritative way of speaking. Plus points where she was concerned!

Maria had noticed from the first meeting that he was stern, never letting his guard down when he was with his men, always conducting himself as an authoritative leader.

In return, his men had the utmost respect and honor for him.

She recalled with a smile, the day they met. It was amusing, to say the least.

Morabad would tease her each time they reminisced about it.

“But my love, you were naked when we first met," he would remind her cheekily.

Maria would blush a crimson red, feign ignorance and brush away his teasing words.

The army had just moved into town right after the peace declaration.

Word had got around that insurgents were hiding in their small village with links to the underworld and secret societies, trying to create tension between the present government and its adversaries.

Due to the danger they posed to the villagers and the surrounding areas, the army was stationed in their town to maintain order and peace.

Maria had been livid at their first meeting, full of loath and dislike for Morabad, she thought a little sheepishly.

It was about mid-afternoon. The sun was relentless and burning hot.

Morabad had come with some of his men into their village to inspect every household and area surrounding the village.

In the sweltering heat, Maria thought that she would take a bath in the stream which ran alongside her house. Maria loved that there was a stream so close to her home. It was her favorite recreation place.

Every day, her mother and she loved watching the sun’s rays glisten on its waters from their kitchen window, while busy with their cooking or washing up, and over the years, they had grown a garden of rose bushes parallel to it.

The roses were of every color and created a picturesque setting.

The whole place had turned into an intriguing, captivating landscape that only nature’s beauty could provide, Maria conceded with pride.

Their very own paradise.

In the evenings, they would sit outside the verandah, sipping tea or coffee, relaxing in a stately fashion.

The blissful atmosphere always made them feel the grandness of unwinding in nature's midst, wedged in the magnificence of wild exquisitivity.

“Well, it is coffee, us and the world,” Maria would declare proudly to her mama each time they sat down to have a cuppa amidst the panoramic view.

It was an effortless way to escape the monotony of their lives.

On the day she met Morabad, not envisioning that anyone might intrude on her privacy, she had taken off her clothes to swim in the cool waters of the stream.

She had done it countless times before, and so, was confident that no one would catch her off guard or spring a surprise on her.

While blissfully enjoying the cool waters, she suddenly heard her mama calling out to her in a shrill, frightened voice.

“Maria, Maria where are you. The soldiers are here to inspect our house - Maria where are you?” Où es-tu Maria?

“I don’t know why! Ohh!! Where are you, Maria?"

Her mother’s voice sounded louder this time.

Maria looked up, startled, to see her running towards her.

There were a couple of soldiers following behind in swift strides.

Maria panicked when she saw her mother’s flushed face, and watching her mother running towards her with an exasperated look on her face, made her even more petrified.

What was happening?

The soldiers looked daunting with their guns and stern faces.

Maria felt a sudden iciness creep up on her. They looked like they were searching for something urgently!

Quite suddenly out of nowhere, Maria heard someone shout,

“Turn your back boys, the lady is swimming, and is not in a position to come out of the water right now.”

Then, the same person cleared his throat, and to make the situation clearer to his men, said, “Her clothes are hanging on the branch here. Let her put something on before we check this end of the place.”

Maria looked in the direction from where the voice came, then back to the soldiers who were right behind her mother.

Another order in French startled her again, “Soldats prennent un moment, la mademoiselle n’est pas habillée et dans l’eau. Lui donner peu d’intimité!”

"Soldiers, one moment, the lady is not dressed and in the water. Give her some privacy please."

Maria looked in the direction of the voice again, totally unprepared, screaming in fright when she saw Morabad standing by the red rose bush where she had her clothes hanging.

Embarrassed, she took note of the soldier’s red face, who was trying to keep a straight face!

“He has a bemused look on his face,” Maria thought, cringing inwardly. "Oh God, no!!"

Flustered at the untimely invasion of her privacy, Maria tried to duck further into the water. However, in her confusion, she stood up instead!

She quickly ducked into the water once again, shouting at the soldier.

“How dare you? Have you no shame standing there watching me!! You stupid idiot!! What are you doing?”

Morabad was taken aback by her outcry.

Noticing Maria in her state of confusion, a now totally bemused Morabad tried hard to suppress his laughter instead, and said, “Sorry mademoiselle, we are on official duty here. We had no idea that you would be taking a swim, and that you would choose to take a swim exposed like that!”

He then pointedly stretched out both his hands towards her to exemplify his statement.

Looking even more amused, Morabad went on “I will now attempt to slowly pass you your clothes if you can just stay in the water, and I promise you that my men and I will avert our eyes, mademoiselle, to give you a few minutes to put your clothes back on again."

Looking in the direction where his men stood, Morabad saw that his men had turned their backs.

Morabad told his men in a curt voice, "the girl is embarrassed, so I would appreciate absolute civility on your part!"

The amused soldiers shifted uneasily in their shoes, a trifle uncomfortable, shouted back, “Oui! Monsieur!”

Morabad turned back to Maria, saying curtly, “My men have turned their backs. They are looking the other way, so there is nothing for you to worry about mademoiselle! Please put on your clothes as it is wasting our time. I need you for questioning without any delay.”

Maria stared hard at him, seething, trying to cover her bare torso by hugging herself. She fumed at his insolence and was close to tears.

Morabad moved towards the rose bush to take Maria’s clothes when he suddenly heard her mother scream, hysterically,

“Non! Non! Monsieur!! You will do no such thing, Monsieur! Get over to the other side, I will give her the clothes, go away and come back only when she is dressed!”

By this time, Morabad had Maria’s clothes in his hands.

Her mother grabbed the clothes from his hands and glared at him. She shouted a few more expletives when she saw that he wasn't moving.

Then shooing him with her fingers, she said “Can you please move to the other side over there with all the other men, while my daughter puts on her clothes?”

"I hope you can understand the situation she is in?"

Morabad didn’t move an inch. He just stood there with a grim look on his face.

He shook his head, totally unfazed by her mom’s outburst.

He slowly explained that he would have to remain where he was, as it was his duty to make sure that no suspicious persons were hiding in the vicinity, and that he would give Maria three minutes to get out of the water and get dressed!

“Suspicious persons???” the mother asked a little concern in her voice now.

“She is my daughter who is taking a swim right now! And, I can assure you that no suspicious characters are lurking around here!”

Then, turning to Maria, she said “Oh my child, be fast for me, please!"

When she saw Maria hesitate in the water, she repeated once again in a much louder voice, “La vite, sil vous plait!

Realizing that Morabad was not going to budge from where he stood, she told him firmly, “Now, you look away while my daughter gets dressed!”

“Fool!” she muttered angrily inwardly.

She rolled her eyes upward when she saw the bemused look on Morabad’s face.

Frustrated that she wasn’t able to convince Morabad to turn his back while Maria got dressed, she spoke in a barrage of French about how soldiers cannot be trusted, and how Maria should have had better sense than to wade into the water without any clothes on, especially in these dangerous times, when “they” were practically everywhere!

Morabad heard the mother, looking a little sheepish, he felt uncomfortable at her outbursts.

He thought Maria’s mother was ill-informed.

“Well, what about the insurgents and trouble-makers lurking around then? Would this lady be okay with them lurking around, watching her daughter swim?” he muttered loudly, annoyed.

Maria's mother pretended not to hear him.

He turned to his men standing a little away from the old lady and suppressed another smile.

It took all their effort not to burst out laughing as they listened and saw the expression and antics of the two ladies!

“Well, we are duty-bound to do what is right,” he spoke up a little louder for the mother to hear.

“Now get dressed fast, Maria, I don’t understand why you do this!” Maria’s mother continued her tirade while passing Maria her clothes.

Maria, embarrassed and helpless, told her mother, “Rapide! Passez-les à Moi, mama.” (Quick, pass them to me, mama.)

By now, Maria’s mother shaking with rage passed her the clothes.

Keeping a close watch on the soldiers, she stood angrily blocking Morabad’s view as much as she could.

Morabad looked away while Maria dressed.

When she was ready, within the three minutes too, he said to the two ladies, “Please follow me inside your house, mademoiselle, madame. I have some questions for you if you don’t mind.”

He marched ahead of them and waited outside the entrance for everyone to enter the house before following suit. He saw Maria and her mother look at each other, a puzzled expression on their faces.

Maria glared at Morabad, folded her arms, her clothes dripping wet, stood fuming next to her mother.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw a soldier stifle a smile and she glared at him angrily. The soldier quickly looked away.

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