Waltz Of The Crows
THE BIRD LAY dead among the tall grass.
Its last moments ones of pain. Leila Hale stooped and picked it up in her gloved hand. Even with thick leather between her skin and the bird’s feathers she could feel the stiffness of rigor mortis. This bird had not died many days ago.
Leila dropped it into her bag, searching between the tall blades of grass. Another bird lay only two paces away. Gracious, when had a calm country hill in southern France turned into a morbid stage for the dances and songs of the nearly-dead?
The second bird slipped into her bag same as the first. Leila suppressed a shudder. She’d promised her superiors she was up to this task, and was determined to conduct herself in a noteworthy manner on this, her first assignment.
But gathering birds who had gone insane and then died from the unknown disease ravishing the land . . . well, it was all becoming a bit much.
The cry of a black bird echoed over the hilltops. Leila looked up. The bird twisted one way and then the other in an odd, painful waltz. Its song was a chilling mix of light, happy melody and mournful, minor tones. With one last twist and caw, the bird plummeted to the earth.
It hit the ground with a soft thud. Leila breathed out and looked away. The poor bird would be dead within the hour. She would circle around, picking up other birds scattered on her left, and then retrieve the freshest corpse before returning to the castle.
Tall grass swished as Leila moved across the hillside. The smell that normally graced this part of France—the sweetness of flowers and orchards—was overpowered by the stink of rotting animals. Today she and Edgerton, one of the castle groomsmen, were charged with gathering all the dead birds and rodents they could find. With any luck, the heavy scent would dissipate once the carcasses were removed.
Sweat trickled down Leila’s brow. She lifted an arm, planning to wipe away the moisture, but caught sight of the dark stains along her gloves. With a grimace she dropped her arm once more. The further she kept her gloves away from her own person, the better.
Her burlap sack weighed down against her back and the sun’s heat was making her stomach roll.
Edgerton, standing nearer the top of the hill, waved down to her. The clear blue sky behind him silhouetted his rotund waistline and balding head. Beyond him was the black, billowing smoke of Conques’ first factory.
“Mademoiselle,” he called, his French so thick Leila could hardly understand him, despite years of learning the language from a well-respected tutor. “Do not stop. Think of the birds, how they must feel.” Though his words held censure at her hesitancy, his tone was kind. “We will save the young by ridding the hillside of the disease.”
Leila only nodded her agreement and turned once more to the task at hand. It was a sweet sentiment—saving a bird’s chicks by burning the contaminated bodies of the dead. However, if that was all that was required to rid Conques of the disease, it would have been accomplished months ago. But it wasn’t so simple. Those who were sick manifested a variety of symptoms, too puzzling to understand. Leila had seen everything from red cheeks, to patients who suddenly couldn’t walk. Everything from blood dripping from ears and mouths to lazy eyes.
Worst of all was the inevitable insanity—patients who believed fish dug in the earth, or that they were birds and could fly. The end always came soon after. The patient would collapse, fall comatose, then die.
The next bird Leila found had blood down the side of its head and neck. It joined the others in her bag.
She shouldn’t be out gathering dead birds. What would her superiors think?
She was only following the orders of the nursing supervisor, Martha Hamon, who believed Leila to be a nurse like all the other young women who’d recently come to Conques to work. But she was far more concerned about her superiors in London. The ones she had spent days convincing that, though she had not yet finished her training, she was ready to embark on her first assignment as an undercover operative. Her objective for this assignment was simple enough; had it been any more complicated they never would have given it to her—a recent recruit—with so little experience.
Leila was to make contact with Victor Winstone, who was working undercover as a patient, and be his liaison, handing off messages from him to her superiors back in London.
A large rat joined the birds in her bag. Leila sighed. Victor, who was undercover as a patient, would not be waiting to make contact with her out on some random hillside.
Edgerton coughed. It started raspy, but soon turned thick. Leila glanced at him, just as he crumpled to the ground.
Blast. Unstrapping the bag from her back, Leila raced up the hill.
Edgerton had solemnly sworn to Martha only that morning that he was fine and up to the task. He certainly hadn’t seemed to be going mad. Nonetheless, he shouldn’t have been out in the sun and heat if he’d been feeling the effects of the disease himself.
Leila dropped to her knees beside him. He convulsed, as blood oozed out of his ears. Leila’s hands hovered above him, opening and closing.
Blast. Blast. Blast.
She had no idea what to do for him. She was only a spy. She had no actual education as a nurse. Moreover, having only arrived at Conques a few days prior, Martha and the other nurses had not yet taught her what to do when people succumbed to symptoms.
But if there was anything Leila was good at, it was analyzing the current situation and making a sound judgment call. That skill alone was why Victor and his wife, Inez, had agreed to submit her name to their superiors in London, recommending she be trained as a spy.
Leila took in a deep breath and forced the horror in her stomach to ease. She would be repulsed later by the man’s rolling eyes and twitching limbs. For now, he needed her help.
What did she have? Two bags full of dead and diseased carcasses. That wouldn’t do her any good. She had no medicine to ease his pain or stop the convulsing.
The castle, which was more hospital than living space now, was a good three miles away. Leila herself was petite, and Edgerton most certainly was not. He had to be over twice her weight. How would she ever be able to carry him all on her own?
Leila closed her eyes. She could think her way through this.
A low rumbling rolled between the hills. A motorcar.
Leila jumped to her feet and sprinted down the hill. She would beg, plead, anything to convince the driver to carry Edgerton back to the castle. Her flat skirt prevented her from flying pell-mell toward the road.
She could raise her skirts high and get there that much faster. But her end goal was to convince the driver, whomever that may be, to aid her. Tearing down the hillside less than properly attired would probably not prove a benefit. The ground below her evened out and Leila’s boots hit the ground with a heavy thud. Skidding across the pebbly road, Leila pulled herself to a halt just as a sleek, deep blue motorcar tore around the corner.
Leila waved both arms above her head. The motorist was not getting by her.
The motorcar sprayed pebbles as its brakes whined. It pulled up directly beside her and a tall, thin man hopped out of the open top.
He rattled something off in French that Leila didn’t understand. He didn’t seem angry, only concerned.
Stupid French tutor; why hadn’t Leila learned the casual French spoken by the majority of people instead of the stiff, proper form? It was a clear hole in her education that she couldn’t fill fast enough.
Leila opened her mouth to speak, but her body refused to do more than suck in a deep breath. Placing a hand on her stomach she leaned over, drawing more air in. When her superiors had urged all in her class to begin the odd practice of regular physical exercise in an effort to make them more fit, Leila had only given it a passing thought.
Now she wished she had paid better attention.
The man walked directly up to her. Though he didn’t touch her, he stood quite close, his brow creased in concern.
He had light brown hair and a handsome face. For a split second, Leila forgot about Edgerton on the hill. More than handsome, this man was stunningly good-looking.
Then her side stiffened from her urgent sprint and she winced.
“There’s a man.” Another deep breath. “Up the hill. He needs help.” She spoke her best French, though no one would ever assume she was from anywhere other than England.
“Are you all right?” he asked, slower this time, making him easier to understand, much to Leila’s relief. At least they would be able to speak and understand one another.
“I’m quite fine.” She stood straight. “Only a little winded from my run.” She pointed up the hill. “He’s up this way. We need to get him back to the castle as soon as possible.”
Together, they bolted up the hill. Halfway up, Leila found herself outpaced. Whoever this man was, he was more accustomed to physical labor than she was. Then again, before being recruited a few months prior, she’d been the pampered, youngest daughter of an earl.
And pampered, youngest daughters of earls rarely did anything more strenuous than take a leisurely stroll around the garden.
“Further up?” the man called to her over his shoulder.
Not trusting that she had much breath, Leila pointed toward where Edgerton had collapsed.
The man sprinted, his long legs outstretching her close-together steps. The man stopped suddenly. He must have found Edgerton. Had the convulsing ended? The unknown disease brought with it many seemingly unconnected symptoms. She’d only seen a patient convulse twice in the past few days. Both times had not lasted long.
Both times, the patient had been suffering for weeks, but had died within hours.
Leila finally reached the tall man and Edgerton. The latter was still trembling, but the shaking was less prominent.
“What is the best thing to do?” the man asked her.
No doubt, due to her uniform, he assumed she was well versed in how to handle the ailing elderly. Too bad his assumption missed the mark.
“We must get him down to your motorcar and back to the castle,” she said.
“I’d hate to drag the man, and we cannot lift him while he flails about like a fish on the sand.”
Another problem—another one she knew she could solve. Leila glanced around, then grabbed at the bag she’d lugged across the hillside earlier. Pulling on the top, she wrenched the rope out of the casing which held it to the bag.
“We’ll tie him up. That will keep his limbs from throwing us off balance as we carry him down.” Working with confidence, Leila wrapped first his arms and then his legs. She kept the bindings loose enough to not hurt Edgerton, but tight enough his continuous convulsing would not throw them off.
It was one of the few things she knew how to do well, securely tie up an individual with a rope.
She probably had Uncle Brinker to thank for that. Leila’s sisters had not made much time for his antics the one summer he lived with them, but she had.
More than one sunny afternoon had been spent, just him and herself, tying up planks of wood to make their tree house. Leila may not have finished all her training but working with a rope had been one thing she’d picked up with very little tutoring.
Leila took a step back. The tall man also seemed surprised at her ability to quickly subdue Edgerton, and he eyed her with one eyebrow raised.
Tying up a man was probably not part of a typical nurse’s education. Leila silently berated herself. She ought to be more careful. Victor had told her more than once, it’s the little things that give a person away, the little things that would put her life at risk.
“Let’s get him down before he grows worse.” Perhaps if she redirected his mind to the task at hand, he would forget to notice her unusual skillset.
“Lead on, mademoiselle, lead on.” He hefted Edgerton under the arms and Leila took his feet.
Together, they trudged down the hillside and placed Edgerton in the back of the motorcar.
Hot summer breeze whipped by Leila as they flew toward the castle, but it did nothing to loosen her tight bun. Every nurse kept her hair secured tightly back; it was one of those ‘little things’ Leila was trying so hard to emulate.
Gears above, if her cover was blown before she could even make contact with Victor her future as a spy was over. They pulled directly up to the wide, elegant staircase leading to the front door of the castle. The tall man hopped out of the motorcar much quicker than Leila could in her plain, white nurse attire.
Nurses and patients filled the side and back lawn. Leila knew they filled the rooms inside the castle as well. Monsieur Claude Martin was a generous man, having opened his family’s two-hundred-year old mansion to all who were ailing with the unknown disease, commonly called the waltzing flu.
Holding tight to Edgerton’s boots, they lifted him out and up the stairs. Passing through the main doors, Leila directed the tall man to help her carry Edgerton into a side room.
It had once been a morning room, best Leila could tell. But the walls had been stripped bare and it now held rows of utilitarian beds.
A nurse Leila had only worked with once before hurried over and directed them toward an empty bed.
Leila helped to heft the large Edgerton onto the bed as the other nurse shouted orders to several others nearby. As Leila stood once more, she caught sight of a single patient sitting in the corner.
Finally, she’d found him. Relief, mixed with confidence, coursed down her arm. Leila opened and closed her fist multiple times to help release the bubbling excitement inside her.
The moment her eyes landed on him, his gaze wandered casually off to another place in the room. Ever the expert, had anyone been observing Victor, there’s no chance they would have known he recognized Leila.
Dropping back against his bed, Victor tugged on his ear.
Leila froze. That was the sign. He had a message for her to retrieve. All right. This was it. His next movement would tell her where.
The head nurse of the room moved between her and Victor, blocking Leila’s view. “How long ago did he collapse?”
“Almost an hour ago.”
The head nurse continued to pepper her with questions. Leila answered the best she could, while angling herself slightly to the side.
Victor was laying, eyes closed atop his bed. He didn’t seem very sick.
The tall man beside her answered the nurse’s next question. Leila gave him a quick glance, grateful for his willingness to step in and help, then returned to watching Victor.
He was tapping the thin, metal bed post with his foot. Two taps. Pause. Two taps.
That must be it then. He’d hidden information for her to pass on to their superiors in the post of his bed. It was going to be tricky getting to it unnoticed.
But Leila was determined she would. That’s what being a spy was all about.