To None But Me

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Branded

Brigid chewed her stale bread, musing, still shackled in her cell. No one bothered to speak with her again, and she wondered if the offer from the Duke had been a fantastical nightmare, for marriage was part of her deepest fears. She’d decided to eat, not because she’d been given hope for freedom, but because she wanted strength for her journey. Strength in which to fight her way back to Ireland.

As soon as she set foot in the New World, it was her only purpose. To find a way to return home. She would live out her days as a widower working in a tavern or inn. She cared not about money or fine things, and had never desired children. No, she only wanted raw, pure freedom.

She broke off a small piece of bread, holding it out to her little grey mouse. He scurried away at the clang of her shackles, but once all threats had disappeared, he crept back to her, and with a greedy grab plucked the morsel from her fingers. She smiled.

“Yer gettin’ fat, wee shite.” She said. The mouse stuffed his cheeks before he inched closer, whiskers twitching in search of more.

“What will ye do when I’m gone, eh?”

She gave him another hearty scrap before she leaned back against the frigid wall, staring out the long, thin window. It was nothing more than a slat with a pane slapped over it, not large enough for even a shoulder to escape. She’d have broken the glass and hung herself long ago if that had been the case.

Brigid didn’t fear pain, a notion that had begun to frighten her late husband. Her fingers danced over the raised skin of her long scar, reminiscing. It had been a dreadful night, one in which she’d refused his advances, as she always did. His usual backhanded slaps across her face and hair pulling had done nothing to beat her into submission. Enraged, he’d broken his empty whisky bottle, gripped her ankle, and yanked her nude body to him. She’d thought for sure that would be the night she died.

She’d kicked him in the jaw, angering him further, and he’d swung the jagged glass blindly, catching her hip and tearing her skin in a curve past her ribs. It had been a fiery sort of pain, and it had hurt like hell, but she’d sneered at him all the same, obstinate and stubborn as ever.

He’d left her alone for a few weeks, then, as the town doctor had dealt with her injuries. But none had ever sought to help her, not the maid staff, or the stable boys, or the man-servant. The doctor had bought her husband’s story with ease, that she’d tripped and fell. On what? She had asked with bitterness to the men. Her question had earned her a slap that rang her ears for hours after the doctor had left.

Brigid sighed, anxiety coursing through her. A steady tremble took root in her core, spreading like a noxious weed throughout her broken body. She knew not what to expect of her new husband. It was just one more hurdle, though, and she could handle that. She hoped.

She coaxed herself into a fitful sleep, her mousy friend keeping watch.

***

The Bastille was a looming fortress, the likes of which the world had never seen before. Its bones were old—almost four-hundred, to be exact, and Erik wondered how many hopeless men it had seen over the centuries. The thought was fleeting, however, as he was shuffled nearer the grinning, gap-toothed man holding a hot branding iron.

Screams pierced the dark corridor, and the smell of burning flesh tickled the back of his throat. Most vomited, but Erik had an iron will, and he’d known the scent well before his time here.

“Move along, scum!”

The prison guard prodded at the man behind Erik, who then bumped into his bare back. He’d been here a fortnight, and the thought of Anna was never far from his mind. Erick shuffled forward, next in line.

Two days ago, a man in a pompous white wig had read his verdict and convicted him: rape and murder. He’d sneered but said nothing. What could he say against Paris’ elite? They’d failed to send him to Norway, too, for the boy he had murdered had been of high social standing. Apparently, the law meant nothing when the wealthy were involved.

Erik moved forward, tattered shirt balled in his large hands, his tendons standing in stark contrast to his skin. He grit his teeth as he sat, willing his mind to be blank. He’d not give them the satisfaction of hearing his screams or pleas for mercy.

The man, with short, stringy hair and rotted teeth, grinned all the wider, slapping Erik’s left shoulder blade.

“Got a big fellow over here! They usually cry the loudest!”

His jest was met with dark cackles, but Erik stared the man down, not wavering once. His grin faded, and Erik saw the flicker of fear in his gaze.

“Crimes?”

The man asked.

“Rape and murder.”

The other guard read from parchment by light of a small candle flame. The irons were white hot in the coals, and Erik had to steel himself once more. He’d been burned time and again at the blacksmith’s shop, and he knew the pain like an old friend.

Wielding the first iron, the man crept from his view. The end was shaped into a letter—M—so all would know for the rest of his life that he was a murderer. Erik was ill prepared for the onslaught of pain roving around his shoulder blade, for the sizzle of his skin, but only his eyes flinched and watered as he gnashed his teeth together to keep his screams behind his teeth. It was over as quickly as it had started, but the pain festered and simmered, lingering, as he knew it would for quite some time.

Panting, he watched as the man replaced the first iron, trading it for the second with a malicious sneer on his grimy face. He had been disappointed in the big man, for he very much liked to make a spectacle of their weakness. Erik’s shoulder felt as though the iron was still pressed to his skin.

The men in line behind Erik crowded closer together, stunned into silence at the quiet strength of the brute.

His torturer waggled the next iron in front of his gaze, taunting him, but Erik kept his composure. Anna had died, and he’d exacted revenge. If this was all he had to endure, then so be it. Even if more pain was to come, he would face it with quiet, steady strength. He prayed to his ancestors in his mind, chanting over and over and over.

The sizzle of his skin met his ears before the pain coursed through him, the letter R now etched into his skin forever. It was a vile accusation, an act he would never even dream of doing to a woman, but now it would haunt him, would follow him everywhere, and no explanations from his tainted being would rid their eyes of fear in his presence. He loathed the brands upon his skin as much as he admired them. They would always remind him of the lengths he was willing to go to avenge the ones he loved.

“Put him in solitary!” The man yelled, angry that his show was over with not so much as a tear. Erik smirked as he stood, sweat trickling down his neck and back. He towered over the man, his glacier gaze penetrating his weak soul.

No matter what they did to him, however horrific, they would never have the satisfaction of breaking him.

***

Erik stared out the barred window of his cell, wind whipping in through the open square and rifling through the straw and debris on the stone floor. His shoulder burned with every minute movement, and he worried idly about infection in such a filthy place. He watched as storm clouds played in the distance, thunder cracking and rolling to greet his ears, the sound muffled by the thick walls surrounding him.

He gripped his own hands until they whitened, a surge of fury overcoming him as he thought of Anna once more. She was never far from his mind. She never would be.

He worried they’d not given her a proper burial, that she’d been tossed into an unremarkable grave with no one there to shed any tears or say any prayers. She deserved to be buried in Norway, under the midnight sun and the northern lights. Not here. Not this city with its abominable inhabitants and fetid air and irreverent passerby.

Burying his head in his hands, he began to blame himself once more for her fate. No matter which way he approached this, it was his fault. His burden would forever be her death. His shoulder burned as he wept, though no tears came this time—only a wracking of his large frame, no sound escaping his lips. His grief was too deep for words, for sounds.

Shouts resounded through the hall, metal doors grated and clanked open, and Erik wiped his nose across his sleeve. He’d never let these dogs see him cry, and though these sounds were nothing new, there was a hint of panic to them, a sense of urgency that wasn’t typical. His ears perked up at a familiar voice, and he found himself standing, something similar to hope gripping his heart like a vice as the door to his cell was thrown open.

There, much to Erik’s shock, stood a harried Duke d’Orleans, his powdered wig quite askew, his cheeks blotched as though he’d rolled in poison oak.

“Come quickly, dear friend. The king has sentenced you a pardon on my behalf, but I’m afraid word has reached your country as well as Great Britain.”

The Duke held out his hand toward Erik, who eyed it with suspicion. He had no reason to distrust his former employer, but something about this situation felt too simple—too easy. Leave, after he’d been sentenced and branded? He knew a king’s word was powerful, but there was always a limit to such instances.

“What?” Erik asked, incredulous, the wind leaving his lungs. The Duke pressed his lips together before turning to glance over his shoulder and into the hall. Looking once more to Erik, he leaned in, lest his dangerous words be overheard.

“There is not much time to explain. You are free now in France, but you killed a British subject. You have two countries who want your head. Come with me now, and I can promise you gold and land in the New World. A fresh start.”

The Duke’s eyes were earnest, glossy with apprehension. He was risking much to save Erik, but it still felt too simple, and Erik wanted to know why. Why was he receiving such a gift, when the Duke seemed to want nothing in return? A crow called in the distance, a few others echoing its caw and joining the first’s chorus. Erik’s shoulders slackened, agony taking root in his very core.

“Anna—” he began, thinking of leaving his sister behind. She was dead, but he still felt a duty to stay by her for eternity.

“I had her buried in our family’s plot.”

The Duke’s quick words pulled Erik up short, a wave of emotion crashing over him. What had he done to deserve this kindness? The Duke’s eyes found the ground for a brief moment before returning to Erik’s awed face.

“It was the best I could do, considering the circumstances. I assumed you’re Lutheran…” he trailed off as Erik nodded, jaw clenching and unclenching as he held back every emotion he felt all at once.

“Good, good. Now, come along. The Bastille will claim you once more if you don’t.”

Erik stepped forward, hesitating.

“What do I have to do?” He asked, brow furrowing, sensing the underlying reason for his friend rescuing him. The Duke sighed in annoyance, rubbing his forehead, before staring the Viking down.

“Well, you’ve no time now to court the damn woman who chooses you for marriage, so I’d say you have little in the way of what to do.”

The Duke gave Erik a wry smile, the corner of his mouth tilting up as his eyes glinted with a playfulness reserved for his wealthy friends. A jest, Erik realized. He felt his face redden, felt the burns on his shoulder throb with his heavy heartbeats. Marriage?

The Duke stepped forward, leaning in ever closer as he slapped Erik’s good shoulder.

“If I may give a suggestion, make it last as long as possible. You don’t want your new bride left unsatisfied.”

With another slap and a wink, the Duke turned and strolled out. Erik stood, wavering on the precipice of a multitude of possibilities. His options were slim to none. Stay here and rot away into nothingness, wasting his life and the possibility of something more, or leave and venture into the vast unknown. One option scared him more than the other.

His keen blue eyes roved around his stone cell, shouts of agony oozing from the cracks in the foundation. Anna’s memory on the forefront of his mind, he set his jaw and strode past the guard stationed at his cell, the very one who’d inflicted his heinous burns.

The Duke gave a satisfied smirk, tugging on his riding gloves, nodding to one of his men.

“Fifty lashes a piece by the cat of nine tails to the men who branded my friend here. His innocence will be known by their screams.”

The guard’s eyes widened, his face paling in a flash. It was Erik’s turn to smirk at this turn of events, as the small man was dragged begging down the hall. His smile faltered, however, when the realization of what lay ahead settled upon his shoulders.

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