I sighed into the tankard of cheap ale, alone in the corner of the noisy, turbulent alehouse. Jacques was supposed to have met me here, but he had not come, and though I had waited long beyond the time he should have come, he was yet not here.
It was a frustrating dilemma. While I did not particularly care for Jacques, he had enough wealth for me to live in comfort. A widow now for more than a year, and with Paris in upheaval, I had been ousted from my home, had lost what little I had owned, and had been forced to live on meagre wages made washing laundry. My new home was, charitably, a hut. It was more a hovel.
Wedding Jacques would have been an escape, but the man had not even come to finalize the deal.
Finishing my ale, I set the tankard down and stood, pushing my way through the crowd to stumble out into the cool night air.
It must be just after the midnight tolling, I realized; I had remained longer than I thought.
Pulling my ragged, threadbare shawl tight around my shoulders, I began the quick, brisk walk home, keeping a wary eye out for danger. This late, anyone could be about. I had not expected to be walking home alone without an escort, and this further deepened my unhappy thoughts.
Lost in them, I stopped watching as close as I should probably do; after all, who would go after a threadbare, starving waif? The answer awaited me in the alleyway between two leaning, old and decrepit buildings.
As I passed on the dark street, hands reached out from the alleyway, grabbing me by the arm and hauling me back. The start of a startled scream was abruptly hushed as a hand, grimy with dirt, was clamped over my mouth.
I twisted, trying to pull free of my captor and he let me go, though it was only to wrap an arm around me and haul me deeper into the terrifying darkness between the two buildings.
I saw the flash of a grin, and felt a second pair of hands on me, on my breasts, tearing open the thin cloth of my dress. Under the filthy hand over my mouth I wailed and screamed, though the sound was muffled; in the vise of my captor's grip, I twisted and turned and kicked, but didn't escape.
The second man's disgusting mouth closed over mine and forced a kiss, thrusting his tongue into my mouth. I bit down on him, and the coppery taste of blood flooded my tastebuds. My attacker reared back, roaring in pain, and he swung his fist, connecting hard with my face, causing me to see stars. The first attacker let me go and I fell, crawling a few paces until I found the wall of one of the buildings.
Still reeling from the blow, I wasn't able to stand, not even with the wall to lean on, and I collapsed and futilely awaited my fate as the two men closed in on me, barely seen in the dimmest of flickering light.
I thought I heard a hawk cry out, though it was wrong; maybe it was an owl? There was a woosh and then a matching pair of very final-sounding thuds as my two attackers collapsed to the dirty alley floor, a single attacker on top of both.
Where had he come from? I stared at my hooded saviour in both fear and shock, trying to figure out what made no sense. Had he come from above?
“Mademoiselle, are you hurt?”
His voice was soft, spoken with care and concern, and I felt my fear ebb away. As it did, it was replaced with overwhelming upset, and as much as I loathed it, I began to sob. My saviour left the bodies of my erstwhile attackers, coming to crouch before me.
His hand was soft on my bruising cheek, tender from where one of the brutes had struck me. My saviour made hushing sounds and waited for me to calm down, alternately holding one of my hands or soothingly stroking my hair.
As sense returned, I realized my dress was still torn open, revealing my breasts without any shame, and I drew my shawl around me as best I could. Taking that as a sign I had regained my senses, my saviour stood, offering a hand to help me up.
I took it, still a bit woozy.