Carcasonne Ch. 04bybad_hobbit©
Carcassonne, Chapter Four – To Hell and Back
© Bad Hobbit
Rodrigo arose early the next morning, and made straight for the battlements. Less than ten minutes later, he returned, breathless. "Don Carlos," he called, urgently to me as he burst in through the bedroom door, "the signal!"
We had passed the night before we arrived in Carcassonne at a small, rather humble auberge in the foothills of the mountains, which stood atop a cliff with an impressive view of the citadel. From there, the road took a circuitous route down to the valley and the city beyond; a day on foot or walking a horse, or a fast ride of perhaps four or five hours – although, should one have wings, the distance could be crossed in less than an hour. Rodrigo had become very friendly with the maid – so friendly in fact that I had to disentangle their bodies when I came to rouse them in the morning. He had agreed with the girl a signal – a white sheet to be hung from an upstairs window if riders in the Duke of Bilbao's colours should arrive; two sheets from two separate windows if they had already passed through.
"How many sheets?" I asked.
"One. They are still there, or so it would seem."
"Good. Still, there is no time to lose. Prepare for our journey, while I set up our Toulouse excursion."
"Journey? Toulouse? What is happening?" Eleanor asked, still a little sleepily.
"My dear, there are some men half a day's ride from here who wish us ill. We must depart, but we mean to return. Rodrigo and I would like to entrust our belongings to someone who we know will care for them. Do you have a safe hiding place where they will not be found?"
"I – I have several such places, and I am flattered that you place your trust so much in me."
"My dear Eleanor," I said bending to kiss her and caress her face, "last night you trusted me, and I hope I did not disappoint. I believe that you and Marie are the only people in this city I can trust, and I need you to help me. The men who follow me will kill Rodrigo and myself if they catch us. If they arrive here, you need to tell them we stayed but left again early. That we spoke of travelling to Toulouse, and then possibly north to England. That is all you know, do you understand?"
"Don Carlos, I understand, but is that what you intend? Will we ever see you again?" Eleanor looked worried. I kissed her again.
"God willing, we will be back. More I cannot say, as it would put you both in mortal danger. This is all you know, this is all you can tell them, so you should have no fear. We were just guests at your inn, which we chose – obviously – because it is discreet and allowed us to be incognito. We were just passing through, do you understand?" I was moved by the very real concern in her eyes. Twelve hours ago we had just been paying guests.
"Don Carlos, I will do as you say. Show me the belongings you wish hidden, and I will keep them safe for your return."
First, I went to the gatekeeper at the North Gate and gave him some instructions and a small consideration. I was wearing my best cloak and leading my mount, a distinctive grey mare. I then headed for the nearby stables and saw the usual group of riders, waiting around for messages to take, errands to run. I selected two men who could be said to bear a passing resemblance to Rodrigo and myself, and drew them to one side.
"I need you to take these two letters to Toulouse. Hand them to the Captain of the Watch when you arrive. Make good speed, but do not overtire your horses. If you are overtaken by men in blue and yellow livery, then there has been a change of plan, and you are to deliver the letters to them. Do you understand?"
"Why do you need both of us? Why can't one of us take both messages?" the younger of the two men asked.
"I need you to keep each other honest. I want the messages delivered, unopened, to the Captain of the Watch, who will give you the second half of your reward. Here is the first," I gave them each two francs, "Another three each when you deliver."
"What if the men in blue and yellow reach us first?" said the older one.
"Then they should also reward you. If they do not, do not press them – they can be difficult people. Return here and I will leave instructions with the gatekeeper to recompense you. Now, I need you to take these horses," I indicated mine and Rodrigo's which I'd retrieved from the stables, "and to wear these cloaks and hats." I handed the garments to the two men, who put them on appreciatively. "You may keep them once your errand has been completed."
"This is strange, monsieur. Why the disguises? And what are we to do with the horses on our return?"
"They must be returned to the stables here, where I have made arrangements. Failure to do so will result in consequences – and not good ones, do you understand? As for the disguises, well, I have my reasons, and this," I gave them a further franc each, "should preclude any further curiosity."
Shortly afterwards, two men, both dark, one tall and broad in the shoulder, the other slighter, riding fine horses and wearing fine cloaks, galloped through the North Gate and away towards Toulouse. The gatekeeper watched them go, and wondered what the strange Spanish gentleman wanted when he left the sealed envelope and then rode off with his companion to the north west.
An hour later, three wagons and a string of pack horses left the city, bound for Narbonne. Once around the first curve and into the woods, two men clambered from among the cargo, offloaded the burdens of two horses – too fine for pack animals – and after a short exchange of coins and farewells, rode off rapidly to the east.
We arrived in Narbonne before sunset, and stayed only to trade horses and quaff a little ale, before setting off again. If our ruse had failed, and the Duke's men were not now galloping towards Toulouse with all speed, we did not want to be surprised inside a walled city, unable to run without our pursuers knowing our every move.
The journey took us five days of fairly hard riding and camping rough in the woods. On one occasion along the road, some ruffians tried to relieve us of our possessions. Rodrigo is expert with the throwing knife. I, for my part, have some skill with the sword. My blade is from the East, originally the tool of choice of a Samourai of Cipango, who lost it, and his life, it would appear, to a pirate in the Malacca Straits. The pirate, in turn, was hanged by a sea captain of my acquaintance, who lost the sword and its shorter companion to me in a not entirely crooked game of cards. It is the strongest and sharpest blade I've ever seen, and it made short work of two ruffians armed with clubs. With Rodrigo's knives in two more, they soon understood they were not welcome and left us in peace.
We finally made Marseilles with no hint of imminent pursuit, and immediately set about the next stage of our plan. Don Felipe de Velez Mendoza is a tenacious bastard, and I knew he'd arrive sooner or later with his men-at-arms; in fact, I was rather counting on it. I was determined to be ready for him, and finish this episode once and for all.
The eight men in blue and yellow livery rode into Marseilles two days after us. The boys I'd set to watch the gates did their job well, and earned their franc apiece. Yes, they said, the leader was an ill-favoured fellow with a scar on his nose, who wore his sword to the right. Don Felipe used the left hand, a sure sign, they say, of the bastard line. Certainly the rumours about the Duke and Felipe's mother were rife when I was at the ducal home. But bastard is as bastard does. Whatever the facts of his birth, Don Felipe and his henchman Valdez had boasted in my hearing of torturing and murdering peasants accused of withholding taxes from the Duke, so his reputation was an evil one.
Felipe discovered, to his immense annoyance, that we had lately taken ship for the Levant, by way of Naples, Palermo and Iraklion. The story was widely known around the waterfront taverns, where we had been scrupulous to ensure that our garrulous drinking companions knew on which ship we had sailed. Indeed, we were seen to board the very ship the previous evening and sail on the tide. No one saw us return, in disguise, on the pilot boat an hour later – well, no one who would mention it, thanks to some judiciously-dispensed coins.
So Don Felipe went from tavern to tavern with his men, seeking a ship in which he could pursue us. The next was not due to depart for a week, by which time our trail would be cold. So, as he and his henchmen threaded the narrow alleys around the harbour, I set the second part of my plan into action. Without warning, his group were set upon by a large group of thugs armed with clubs and knives, and were scattered in several directions. Don Felipe and Valdez, separated from their men, scurried down one alley, only to find more men coming towards them. They turned left down another narrow lane – and encountered me.
Even in the faint moonlight and the glow of a torch from a bracket on the far corner, I made sure that Felipe would know me. He did, telling Valdez to guard his back as he gleefully drew his sword to deal with the quarry he thought had escaped. "I am reckoned one of the best swordsmen in all Spain," he hissed. "I shall be delighted to prove it to you."
I said nothing. What serves for swordsmanship in the patios and courtyards of palaces, when you are judged on the lightness of your step and the flourish of the tip of your foil or epée, is one thing. On the mud of a battlefield, when your next blow may, if struck well, keep you alive for the few seconds you need to prepare to strike the next blow, swordsmanship is another thing entirely. In the dark, fetid alleyways of a Marseilles night, I know which type of swordsmanship prevails.
Don Felipe, his fine, slim Toledo blade held in his outstretched left hand, edged toward me. The lunge, when it came, might have taken many opponents by surprise. I, who have stared into the eyes of men I had to kill to save my own life on battlefields from Mexico to the Malacca, saw the blow coming, and sweeping the cudgel in my left hand across my body, parried the blow, striking down with my Samourai sword to sever Don Felipe's outstretched sword arm above the wrist. The blade is sharp and strong, and the arm presented no problems for it. Felipe's eyes were wide with shock, pain and terror – as well they should have been, since I then used the cudgel again to stove in the side of his head. An ignominious death for an evil man, and one that would raise few questions; ambushed by thugs in an alley, clubbed to death, his hand cut off so that the thieves could make off with his rings.
Valdez, hearing his master fall, turned. His last sight was of my blade as it plunged into his chest. With master and chief henchman dead, there were now none left in the party who would know me by sight.
I wiped my blade on Valdez's surcoat and sheathed it. The leader of the group of hired thugs came up to me for his payment. "One dead, two wounded, the rest fled carrying their injured comrades. Of mine, two have taken hurt and I shall require extra payment." I looked into his eyes, knew he was lying but chose not to contest the matter. I tossed him the bag of coins we had agreed, and reached for another I had beneath my surcoat.
Good. So at least three could return to the Duke with the story that we had sailed to the Levant and probably beyond, now out of his reach, whilst his poor Don Felipe and several of their party had fallen victim to dastardly thugs in the back-lanes of Marseilles.
The thug looked at me and said "And I'll have the rest."
"As we agreed, you can take whatever you like from the dead men. And I have some extra coin to recompense your injured comrades."
"Not enough. I'll have that pretty sword of yours and all. And whatever else you're hiding. Better hand it over or me and my pals will take it off your body."
From the shadows behind him, two more thugs appeared on either side; big, ugly men holding clubs and blades. There was little likelihood of me leaving the alley alive, whether or not I handed over my treasures. My sword was sheathed, and they would be upon me before I could draw it.
I cried out in Spanish, as if in despair. "Madre de Dios! I go right!"
With that I dived and rolled to my right. I heard the buzz of the crossbow quarrel pass over me almost immediately, and the groan of the erstwhile leader as it struck him in the chest. The knife that struck the man on the left followed barely a second later, as I rose like a cat. The Samourai keep two swords – I'm told that the second is used for ritual suicide should the unfortunate knight be captured or dishonoured. A man like me would never be so foolish. I keep mine strapped to my back, and I can retrieve it easily with my left hand by reaching up and behind my shoulder. As I rose up, I plucked the short sword from its scabbard and brought it in a high arc into the neck of the man on the right.
As I turned to face the next opponent, I saw that Rodrigo had done his work well. The third man's body was slumped against the wall with one of Rodrigo's knives in his chest. My companion emerged from the shadows behind me, hefted his crossbow across his shoulder and retrieved both knife and quarrel. I used Don Felipe's blade to widen both wounds. This should look like a melee in which the two Spaniards were worsted by a much larger gang of thugs, after giving good account of themselves.
We checked the corpses and removed any money and treasures we could find, including several valuable items secreted about the person of the thug leader. We also removed boots and any finery from the dead Spaniards – this needed to look like a violent robbery rather than a carefully planned assassination. I borrowed Don Felipe's cloak, as my clothes were heavily bloodstained, but once I'd changed in our rooms, my surcoat, the cloak and their boots and gloves ended in a weighted sack in the harbour. We wanted nothing to suggest that the killers had ever left Marseilles, and we were on the road at first light.