The fog hung low over the hillside, resisting the rays of the morning sun. Instead of fields of green, only gray could be seen. A few farmhouses could be seen through the haze and the trees, blurred monuments to the pastoral French countryside. Ravens cawed from the woods instead of the pleasant cries of songbirds. It was not a dead morning, not entirely, merely full of gloom, as if the land was mourning a lost loved one than dying itself.
It was a far cry from Paris. It was even a far cry from Nancy and the Lorraine province, only a few leagues north. Charlotte Miller surveyed the hillside, lips pursed as she tried to see beyond the haze. The town of Aubellet was said to have spectacular sunrises, but the gloom of this morning made her doubt that. She had arrived in the evening, catching only a glimpse of the ruby sunset, and had hoped to meet the morning in its full glory. So far she had only been met with disappointment.
“Still as gloomy as it was five years ago. Shame really.”
Charlotte peeled her gaze away from the gloom to look at her fiancé. Geoffrey Dryden stood behind her, sleeves rolled up and vest unbuttoned. With his crossed arms and direct stare he was the picture of English severity. Yet, even with his focused look, she could tell that the gray morning had left a mark on him. She noticed things about Geoffrey that others missed. For all of his severity, there was something broken about him. Then again, she felt the same way about herself.
“We were here for a week, Geoffrey, hardly time for a lasting impression,” Harry Brett retorted. “Besides, we are standing next to a damn river. That makes things a might foggy.”
To Harry’s left, James Fletcher nodded in agreement. Harry and James were an interesting pair. The two Americans seemed almost inseparable, at least for as long as Charlotte had known them. They had apparently met on the Army’s boat to Europe over a game of cards, and had stuck together since, despite their differences. Harry was the chatter, always ready to throw in a satirical comment or two, while James was far more dour and taciturn. They were Geoffrey’s friends, and she had known them as long as she had known him.
“Such a shame really, you boys were looking forward to this,” Elizabeth said. She clung to Harry’s arm, but her gaze was directed at James. Elizabeth Pollard was a siren; there was no other way around it. Ever since the war, Charlotte had watched her friend toy with the men around her, and the Americans were no different. Charlotte had heard some stories in Paris, but it was only on this trip that she had truly seen how Elizabeth could string men along.
“It’s nothing more than a memory of the past,” James said, looking back at Elizabeth.
“Come on,” Geoffrey said, turning away from the gray dawn and walking back to the country road. “There’s no point in staying here.”
Geoffrey walked solemnly down the road, the others trailing behind them. As the sun rose behind them, the land around them shifted from a foggy gloom to a lazy haze. On either side of the road, worn down by wagon wheels and carts, vines of grapes rose up. Aubellet was a town of vineyards, dotted by the occasionally chateau; ancient masters to the wines of the area. The sense of history in the area seeped through everything. For Charlotte, Paris was an old city filled with life; the new trends, the Brits and Americans looking to escape everything. Aubellet hung with the weight of its age on its shoulders.
They rounded a turn in the road and found themselves facing an old vineyard. The yards were withered, the grapes dead, and awash in the morning haze. Yet, farther away from the road and vines a rose garden flourished. It was filled with bright colors, standing vibrant even in the gray haze of the morning. The garden was a stark contrast to the chateau it surrounded. Standing tall on a rolling hill, the house was faded, its masonry worn and smoothed away. The spires of its roof were dilapidated and laced with cracks. Curtains hung in all the windows, and even the tiniest crack between them exposed nothing but blackness. It seemed abandoned, a twilight maw surrounded by a circle of life. When Charlotte saw it she stopped, shocked by the painful contrast of it all. Her eyes swept over the desolate manor, only to find a figure standing in the doorway.
The man was looking at the rose garden, not moving. He was too far to see in detail. Charlotte could see his clothes; he was dressed in an immaculate dark suit. She spotted a cane in one of his hands. His face was hard to make out, but his hair was pale, almost white. Without warning, the man turned, looking directly at Charlotte and the others. At that moment he came into detail. She could make out a glare on the man’s face and it sent a shiver down her spine. She stood frozen, unable to look away.
“Charlotte, are you okay?” The words snapped her out of her stupor. Geoffrey stood there, looking at her with concern while the others waited a farther up the road.
“I’m fine. Let’s go,” she said. She took one last look at the chateau before following the others. The man was gone.