Colonel Gabriel de Laurent departed for the war intending to die.
The flintlock pistol felt slicker than ink against Gabriel’s weathered palms. Lost to severe thought, he tentatively rotated the firearm between thumb and forefinger. Overhead, light from an oil lamp reflected off the slender barrel and penetrated the darkness of his soul. The illumination spilled across the sleet-covered cobblestones, emitting a faint golden ring through the dense haze of the River Seine. Seduced by the movements, water lapped against the embankment in a mockery of waves.
Broken and entirely alone, Gabriel had returned from the battlefield months earlier. And he’d departed for the war fully intending to die.
But things hadn’t gone according to plan.
A decade of his life had flashed by in a blood-spattered mirage. And now that he was back on Paris’s soil, his home felt more foreign than anywhere on earth. It was a blinding, soul-deep agony that rose from the shadows and came for him in the night. The memories would coil around his throat in a deathly embrace and echo in the haunted cavern of his mind.
But tonight would be different. Tonight, he would free himself.
He exhaled a shaky breath and two of his fingers fell from the pistol and settled upon the navy material of his uniform. The rhythm of his heartbeat felt strong and willfully defiant beneath his touch; the gold epaulettes decorating his shoulders trembled in time with his pulse.
Instead of dying alongside his men – dying as a war hero – new scars had been added to the old. External now reflected the internal.
Instead of meeting his maker, as the Catholics so eloquently phrased such things, he was decorated with an abundance of medals and applauded by Napoleon Bonaparte for his bravery.
Indeed, Gabriel mused, bravery is a rather easy feat when a man has so little to live for.
A solider with nothing to lose has everything to sacrifice.
He should have died countless times across countless battlefields. Day and night, his men were slaughtered before him, behind him, beside him … and yet no bullet had been spared for their commander. Death had a cruel sense of humor in that way. France’s emperor had been exiled to Elba, and Gabriel was isolated within the seventh ring of hell.
And now, standing along the River Seine on this harsh winter’s night, Colonel Gabriel de Laurent felt more cowardly than brave. Far more dead than alive. Whatever remained of his spirit had faded away since his return. His body had been degraded to a cold, numb shell. And he was empty.
Distant, rolling thunder wrenched Gabriel from his thoughts. A storm was moving in. A low blanket of clouds shadowed the horizon and obstructed heaven from earth. The scarce trees that lined the Seine quivered, their skeletal limbs shaking with the damp chill.
By this time tomorrow, Paris would be weeping for her fate.
Gabriel’s breaths grew labored, short, strained. Each one misted the night air and swirled tight coils against the engulfing black. Another volley of thunder shook the silence and roared like a caged beast. His eyes shut as he remembered the bellowing cannons that had dominated so many bloodstained grounds. Twisted nostalgia reared inside his gut. Indeed, the chaotic heat of the battlefield was preferable to the cold stillness in his heart. The war had offered a distraction, a purpose … a chance to conclude his legacy with a semblance of grace and integrity.
Gabriel lifted his face to the bruised sky as hard raindrops clubbed his cheeks. They streaked down his skin in lieu of the tears he refused to shed. The nearby oil lamp shuddered and flickered, threatening to wink out. A strange fog blew across the iridescent cobblestones, cloaking everything beneath an aura of hopelessness …
The night was expanding. And he was content with that.
Silent calm filled Gabriel’s heart as he inched dangerously close to the river’s edge. The front half of each boot hung off the cobblestone slab, waiting in eternal limbo. Even the air thrummed with breathless anticipation.
Down below, budding ice caps peeked out from the water’s glassy surface and glistened beneath the moonlight. They quivered within the unforgiving darkness, bobbing about like buoys at sea. Strangely mesmerized by the vision, Gabriel twirled the pistol, spinning it with the ease of a baton – stopping only to gaze down its throat. That slender chamber was a mouth into hell. Black, crude, infinitely bottomless.
It was an escape.
And he knew the release it offered would be bittersweet. The silver barrel gleamed with malicious intent, illuminating the engraved words de Laurent. Gabriel traced each letter with an aching heart. His gold signet ring, which he’d worn on his pinky finger since boyhood, shimmered like a beacon.
The wind moaned and shifted directions, plastering a damp forelock across his brow. A chill seeped inside his bones, numbing them to the marrow. It was a chill that had nothing to do with the piercing cold … a chill that was nearly eleven years in the making. The chill rooted itself much deeper than his skin; it lurked inside his chest, far beneath flesh and bone, within his very soul.
And he was drowning beneath the cold.
His pulse reached breakneck speed. Painful memories flooded his mind and body in one fell swoop –
A ring of blood encircling her neck like a macabre necklace. The sound of approaching footsteps. A storm of tears cascading down pale cheeks. The thrust of a blade. The caress of flames as they melt flesh from bone …
Gabriel tracked callused fingertips over his satchel’s worn leather, stroking the precious keepsakes within. The bag hung at his side, its strap draped across his shoulder in a viselike grip. A shiver traversed through his body as both eyes squeezed shut, remembering … reliving.
He longed to fade away, to simply dissolve into the darkness of his past forever. But there was no hiding – not even within the deepest shadows.
Sighing, he forced away the ghosts of his past and jolted himself into the present. Over eleven years had passed since that wretched time, and relief was finally in hand’s reach.
Now there would be no more pain. No more nightmares. No more agony.
There would be no more turning back.
Without sparing another thought, he slipped the pistol’s barrel between his lips, prayed to the God he’d never believed in, and deftly pulled the trigger.
Rachel endeavors to defy conventions by blending elements of romance, suspense, and horror. Some themes her stories never stray too far from: forbidden romance, soul mates, the power of love to redeem, mend all wounds, and triumph over darkness. Her dream is to move readers and leave an emotional impact through her words.
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