FRANCE JANUARY 1921
Madame Fanchot watched in triumph as the child entered the world in a mess of slime and blood. However, her feeling was short-lived as she turned to its mother. She was dying.
Her labour had been long and hard, and the months of carrying had taken their toll. No one would care what became of her or her child. She'd been foolish and careless and her behaviour had brought shame to her family. For herself, she could have little reason left to live, but Madame Fanchot knew that she feared for her child.
"Where is she?" The woman's voice was barely more than a whisper. The blood drained out from between her thighs, sluggish and thick. Madame Fanchot gave up any attempt to staunch it. She believed nothing more could be done to help the woman, or perhaps she was either too indifferent or too ignorant to try to save her. "Let me see her…just once."
"She is beautiful, Madame," Madame Fanchot said. She laid the small bundle in the mother's arms. The child was wrapped in nothing but the shawl the woman had been wearing when they'd found her wandering in the woods some hours earlier. "You have a lovely daughter."
"I want to call her Elena," the mother said. "Her name is Elen…"
The rattle of death caught in her throat, causing her head to fall back against the pillows.
"She has gone," a man said from the doorway. He spat on the floor of the filthy cottage. "So perish all such whores as they deserve."
"You are too harsh, Jean," his wife said. She took the squalling child from its mother and held it to her breast to quiet it. "How can you know who or what the poor woman was? She has scarcely spoken a word since we found her wandering."
"No decent woman would be alone in a wood in her condition," he muttered sourly. "If she came of good family they threw her out—and she isn't wearing a wedding ring."
"That doesn't mean she was a bad woman," Madame Fanchot gave the dead woman a pitying look. "What are we to do with her now?"
"I'll bury her in the wood. I've no money to pay the priest for a proper burial for a stranger?"
"But shouldn't we tell someone? Supposing someone comes looking for her or the child one day?"
"We never saw her."
"What of the child?" she cried in horror at his callous words.
"Get rid of it…" He growled deep in his throat . "I don't mean kill it—take it to the church. Leave it near the altar. The priest will know what to do. It won't be the first time he's had to deal with an abandoned bastard I'll swear. I don't care what you do with it, just get it out of the house."
"The shawl is hers. Was there nothing else—no ring or trinket of any kind that might help them to trace who the child's mother was?"
"Nothing," he muttered in a way that immediately told her he was lying. "Nothing at all."
She scowled at him. If he'd stolen something from the woman, he would likely keep it until he thought it was safe to sell. She would not receive the smallest part of his ill-gotten gains, even though she was the one who'd gone through the trouble of attending the woman.
"I'm going to take the child," she told him. She hated his brutality; she hated the poverty of her life. She wished she dared to leave him and take the child with her. It was impossible. Poor as her life is, it was still better than starving on the streets. "If you mean to bury the woman, Jean, be careful. If anyone sees you there could be trouble."
"No one will see," he shrugged. "No one ever comes to the woods these days. Not after what happened up at the chateau."
Madame Fanchot crossed herself as she hurried out into the bleakness of a cold winter evening. The chateau remained empty for the past five years, save from the crazy old woman that owned it.
The last of her family, she had lived there alone, hardly seeing anyone since the tragedy. Madame Fanchot's mind shied away from what had happened all those years ago.
Indeed, she did not truly know for sure what had happened at the chateau. She'd only heard the rumours, but it was certain three people were brutally murdered there.
Shivering, she ran all the way to the church. She looked about her, but could see no one. Hurriedly, she deposited her bundle behind the priest's pulpit. He would surely see it there when he came to take evening confession.
Afraid and guilty for leaving the child, Madame Fanchot made the sign of the cross over her heart and then ran from the church hastily. In her anxiety to get away, Madame Fanchot failed to notice the figure sitting quietly in the shadows.
Nor did she ever know what happened after she'd left, though there would be times over the years when she wondered what had become of the child. Times when she believed she knew…