Secret Thrust: The Decoy Ch. 03-04bygottschalk03©
D'Audierne rode west as the shadows of evening began to fall. The road seemed to roll away under the hooves of his bay horse. It was sixty miles to Brussels; a comfortable two-day ride, or a hard one for a single long day. He knew better than to press the beast at a gallop that would break it before he reached his destination. But he set a brisk pace, cantering along at a rate to devour the miles without straining the gelding's heart. The countryside was virtually invisible around him beyond the pale gray ribbon of road before him, but he knew from experience that it formed a vista of gently rolling plains, broken with wide strips of forest that divided each village's fields from the next -- woods that were far deeper and darker in his day than they are in our own.
He planned to ride through the night, and find his way to some village inn at dawn, rest some part of the day and set out again while the afternoon lasted. He did not want to linger in Liege, as the entire point of his service to Mme de la Corte seemed to be to divert attention to himself from the real messenger; if her enemies' ambush fell upon him in the town, they would know their mistake too soon and the entire game would be up. But he had no wish to get himself killed unnecessarily, either; if they had to charge their horses at full speed all night to catch up with him, so much the better when they finally met him. He kept to an easy canter and let his own beast conserve its strength.
Idly, he wondered who the real messenger might be. The de la Tour family was a wealthy one in the southern Netherlands, and practically ran the episcopality of Liege in the bishop's long absences. Some sniveling priest, perhaps? A common servant? Or had Mme de la Corte called on another of her many lovers (for her reputation was well-established) to perform the task? There was the Polish mercenary - what was his name? Pietrczak? - and that judge's son, Cheval. D'Audierne wondered if he would ever find out. In the meantime he rode on into the night.
Around midnight the road dipped down into a dell cloaked with dense trees. The moon disappeared overhead behind their thickly interwoven branches and d'Audierne was swallowed up in darkness. Then, suddenly, there was a flash in the gloom like lightning, to his right, and a hissing sound like a snake drawing breath. Another flash followed, and two more. D'Audierne felt a streak of fire pass across his thigh and he doubled over the horse's neck; but at the same moment the horse screamed in pain and collapsed forward, sending his rider hurtling forward. The thick underbrush broke his fall, but d'Audierne was stunned, and lay still, hearing only the horse thrash and cry out, and then become silent.
Lights appeared then; lanterns, which had been shuttered, now opened. Four of them, two on either side of the path. They must have fired at the sound of hoofs and the pale color of the horse, and now that he had fallen clear of it, they couldn't tell where he was. For a moment d'Audierne thanked the Blessed Virgin that he had defied fashion and chosen a dark doublet to wear that day. He lay still and waited. For the moment he could see where they were and they could not find him; but once he moved, he would be a man in the dark with no light, and they would hold all the lanterns.
Two of the lanterns came together in the road and hovered over the body of the horse while the other two held back at the edge of the wood. Then, having established that their true target did not lie with his mount, they began to sway back and forth, searching the area around the road. D'Audierne slowly, softly slid his rapier free of its sheath at his waist.
He sprang when the lantern came near to the bush which had broken his fall. There was no efficient way to strike lying flat on his back; d'Audierne rolled sideways, coming up into a crouch, and then dove forward again, somersaulting with his sword held out to the side. He came up practically on the ankles of the man with the lantern, whose features were hidden in the shadow behind its light. Too close for the blade - d'Audierne struck out above the light with the guard of his rapier, felt the crunch as the blow connected, and reached behind his back for the parrying dagger he carried there. It flashed golden in the lamplight and stabbed forward, and then d'Audierne felt the weight of his hunter collapse against him and something warm and wet soak his left gauntlet.
The man screamed as the dagger blade went into him and collapsed into the bush. D'Audierne felt the light of the other three lanterns swing toward him. He dropped the dagger and dove for the lantern at his feet. It was an iron box with a single hinged shutter and a handle on the top. There was no time to sheathe the dagger properly - the lantern would have to do for a second guard. D'Audierne wheeled, rapier raised, to face the others.
They came towards him at a run, but then halted quickly at the sight of his naked blade. He could see only shadowy forms behind the light, in spite of the illumination his own lantern now cast toward them, but he heard a swishing sound as each of the three drew swords of their own, and spread out to either side to face him. D'Audierne thanked the blessed virgin with a thousand profane oaths that none of the ambushers carried a second gun, or had taken the time to reload after their first fire. His own pistols were still holstered in the saddle of his fallen horse.
One remained in front of him, the others crept gradually out to the right and the left. To wait for them to attack was suicide. To attack the one in the middle would mean being surrounded, which would probably also be suicide -- but also not the move they would expect. The black-haired duelist did not really think this through, but felt it instinctively. He feinted to the right, pivoted on his toe, and lunged straight forward.
The assassin in front of him stumbled back and raised his own rapier to parry, but d'Audierne caught it on the hinge of his lantern and shoved it aside, spun to his left and swung around hard. The pommel of his sword caught the man on the side of his head and he stumbled. D'Audierne stepped back lightly and thrust, taking his opponent on the ribs. He fell with barely a sound.
The other two stepped back, wary now, having seen the speed of his movement. D'Audierne wheeled around, as his attack had carried him right through the center of his assailants. Then they took the attack, lunging toward him simultaneously, one striking high and the other low. He dodged backwards out of reach of both blades, sweeping his own in a wide semicircle to deflect them away. They came on again, thrusting forward almost identically, and d'Audierne gave ground. But their forward motion had brought the two of them together in the space he vacated, and their movements began to hinder each other.
D'Audierne leaped to his left, circling around the two ambushers, quickly enough that one blocked the other before he could follow the motion around. Then he charged to attack himself, striking high, to the right, and high again. The other was forced onto the defensive, parrying with heavy grunts. Not in good shape, this one. Now the other was free, stepping out to the right and lifting his sword clear. But he thought the swashbuckler's attention was only on his short-breathed companion. Before he could completely raise his guard, d'Audierne shuffled his feet and struck sideways. The heavy one took the opportunity to attack, but d'Audierne just managed to catch the thrust on his lantern as his own rapier lashed out and ran the other assassin through.
As the dying man's body fell, it pulled d'Audierne's rapier downwards, pulling him off-balance before he could pull it free. The heavy ambusher's sword was blocked by the swashbuckler's lantern, but his own lantern was unhindered. With a hammering blow, he swung it down on d'Audierne's head.
D'Audierne staggered under the blow. The man was strong, if not swift. He felt the other's sword -- no rapier, but a heavy broadsword that -- whisk by him, only missing because the black-haired swordsman stumbled back several steps. D'Audierne was swaying on his feet -- there were two men facing him - three - then two again...they were charging him....suddenly, wildly, d'Audierne swept his rapier in wide arcs, left and right -- there was a satisfying clash of steel on steel as he somehow caught both of these swinging broadswords on his own - and then he felt, rather than saw, a gap open, and threw his entire body forward into it.
Somebody was screaming, screaming over the pain in d'Audierne's skull, and then all that he knew was that he was falling downwards, head over heels into a bottomless dark chasm...
In the pale light of morning, a carriage clattered over the country road, and descended into a forested glen. Inside, Elise grew drowsy... it was entirely unfair, she thought, that her mother had insisted that she rise before the crack of dawn, complete her toilet and dress and hustle off into the carriage with Pierre and her maidservant, Annabelle, all before the sun came up. And for what? So that she could breakfast with the Comte de Hainault without giving up her dinner with that ghastly merchant the night before? Would her mother ever tire of seeking profitable matches for her? Elise was becoming decidedly tired of the entire matrimonial enterprise, especially if it was to interfere with her sleep...
She pouted into the mirror that hung over Annabelle's brown curls, attached to the back wall of the carriage. At least she didn't seem to have such dreadful bags under her eyes. No, her eyes looked all right, still wide and blue, fair colors to match the fair blond hair which framed her face in a pretty brace of ringlets. She sat up straighter and stretched her neck high. No one would say that it wasn't a pretty neck, and indeed she knew no man would fault the generous bosom that opened under it. She was seventeen, a girl with many suitors and still no match. She knew her mother was growing desperate, but Elise had acquired a reputation for being headstrong which too few of the simpering courtiers had the stomach to deal with... headstrong, and a little more knowledgeable than most seventeen-year-olds as to a woman's pleasures and how to fulfill them. She had lured enough serving boys into private quarters to know how things worked. And that, too, was doubtless a stain on her marriageability. Elise didn't care.
Abruptly the carriage ground to a halt, as Pierre reined the horses in far too sharply for comfort. What the devil was he up to? They were in the middle of some forlorn wood. She heard him hop off the driver's bench and walk away, muttering. Something was wrong. Elise drew back the curtain from the carriage window and looked out upon a shocking scene of carnage.
There was a dead horse in the road. The team hitched to her own carriage were snorting and pawing the ground anxiously at the smell of it. Strewn about the ground, on the road and off it, she counted at least three or four human bodies... perhaps five.
"Annabelle," she said, "I'm going to see what this is about."
"Yes, mistress," Annabelle murmured. She opened the door, and Elise stepped out.
Pierre was walking from one body to the next, probing one with a foot, bending over to listen at the chest of another. He straightened up as she approached. Most of the bodies seemed to belong to common ruffians, their faces bland and rough, hands calloused, clothing patched and stained with things besides blood. One, however was different -- not so elegant as a courtier, but tastefully dressed, with a rapier, still in his hand, sporting a guard of sweeping metal that seemed a work of art in itself.
"You shouldn't be out here, mistress Elise," Pierre was saying, "This is no matter for a lady."
"Are they all dead?" she asked. Strange, she had always thought she would be more horrified at the sight of dead men, but all that she felt was a melancholy curiosity.
"They're all cut up pretty badly, mistress," he told her. "But a man can take some cuts without dying. I think three might live to see tomorrow if they get some care."
"Well, we should see that they get it, then," she said. It was all she could think of.
Then, as though in response to Pierre's diagnosis, one of the men groaned pitifully. It was the one she had noticed, in gentleman's clothes. Pierre and Elise rushed to him as he pushed himself up awkwardly to a sitting position. His hands gripped his head as though to hold it on his shoulders.
"Are you all right, sir?" Pierre asked him. "What happened here?"
The man shook his head, long black hair shaking in the morning breeze, and only then seemed to notice them. He clenched his teeth against some pain and closed his eyes. "Brigands," he said. "Ambushed me in the night. I thought the last one killed me at the end, there."
Elise looked grimly at the body of a massive man with a heavy sword still in one hand and a great bloodstain on his chest. "You should come with us, sir," she said. We can deliver word of these to the bailiff of the next town. Can you stand?"
The man made a halting effort at it, but Pierre took him by the arm and hoisted him up. "Let's get you into the carriage, sir, and then I'll see to bandaging them as is still alive. Have you taken any cuts?"
The black-haired gentleman paused, taking stock of himself. "No, I don't believe so," he said. "Just a lump on the skull, I think. I don't know if these assassins are worth the cloth to bandage them with," he added bitterly. "Still, it wouldn't be becoming for a gentleman to leave them to die in cold blood, if their lives can be spared. Perhaps they'll think better of their profession after this."
Pierre assisted the dark-haired stranger into the carriage, where he slumped heavily into the seat Elise had occupied opposite Annabelle. Elise herself climbed in next to Annabelle as Pierre went to attend to the fallen bandits.
"May I ask your name, sir?" she inquired.
"I am Bertrand d'Audierne," he answered her, "a gentleman of Brittany."
Elise's eyes sparkled when she heard his name. "Are you the same Bertrand d'Audierne that held the bastion of Reutlingen against the Swedes single-handed?"
He grimaced through the ache in his head and nodded slightly. "I seem to remember being there."
"And who dueled with the Duc de Creusot at Armentieres?"
"The good duke was a fine swordsman. Your ladyship honors me."
"You have a reputation, sir," she beamed at him. The reputation she had in mind, however, had little to do with his martial exploits. "How do you come to be here?"
D'Audierne briefly recounted the battle which had ended with himself senseless in the road, omitting mention of the mission given to him by Serena de la Corte. As he finished, Pierre appeared at the window.
"If you please, mistress," he said, "I've bandaged the wounds of the living, and piled some stones on the bodies of the others. I've also left some water and food by them should they wake. I'd say we should find the bailiff of the nearest village to pick them up, we can't carry so many ourselves."
"That will certainly make us late for my breakfast with the Comte de Hainault, will it not, Pierre?" Elise asked with mischief in her eyes.
"Oh, I'm sorry, mistress," Pierre said, confused, "I - I hadn't thought of that. If you wish, we could... uh..."
"Not at all," She said with a slight giggle. She was recovering from the shock of the scene in the road and her innate wickedness began to assert itself. "The good count can wait. There are lives to save, and ruffians to punish!"
"As you say, mistress," Pierre bowed.
"And you, M'sieur d'Audierne, where were you bound, before these vagabonds waylaid you?"
"I was on my way to Brussels, milady."
"Perfect!" Elise cried. We shall deliver you there ourselves. Brussels should be, say, about four hours' drive, Pierre?"
"Well, then, the good count can entertain us for dinner. When we reach the bailiff, have him send a messenger to the count and to my mother as well."
Annabelle, who had been sitting silently throughout this conversation, grinned and nodded knowingly. Elise could never understand why Mama had never dismissed this girl, who had always been such a willing accomplice in her naughtiness. "Oh, that will please your mother a hundredfold, I'm sure," the maidservant stated dryly.
Annabelle and Elise both looked at d'Audierne, then at each other. When their eyes met, the two of them burst into gales of giggles.
"Whatever is the joke, good ladies?" d'Audierne asked innocently, as Pierre cracked his whip and the carriage clattered back into motion along the muddy road.
They found a village a half-hour's drive along the Brussels road, where Pierre located the bailiff sleeping off the prior night's carousing and, with much shouting, explained to him that there were two wounded bandits and two dead ones in the wood to the east. With a great deal of grumbling, the surly officer finally gathered a band of men to investigate, and after a generous bribe, also sent a boy on a pony to carry Elise's apologies to the Comte de Hainault and to her mother. In the meantime the spoiled princess peppered d'Audierne with questions about every topic she could think of - what the fashion had been at his latest visit to Paris, his military exploits, whether all Swedes really were blonde, whether she appeared Swedish, and so forth.
Finally, Pierre climbed back aboard the driver's bench and the carriage took once more to the Brussels Road. By then the morning sun had climbed well on its course into the sky and the air had warmed. D'Audierne felt the throbbing of his skull subsiding as they drove westward.
He carried on idle chitchat with his rescuer, part of his mind preoccupied with reliving the struggle of the previous night and another part with the jiggling of the girl's splendid cleavage as the small, crowded carriage bounced over the rough country roads. She wore an elaborate necklace of silver and pearls that hung heavily over her collarbone and down into the valley between her breasts. He barely noticed when Miss Elise nodded, smiling, to her maidservant, who proceeded to lean over and loosen the cords that held back the window curtains. Suddenly the small space became dim and close around him.
The young blonde continued chattering gaily... what was she saying now? He forced his attention back to their conversation.
"I find that it is most profitable to a girl's education to take lovers, don't you agree, m'sieur? There are of course those of a less pleasant temperament, who would deny the benefits of such a course, but for my part I feel that a girl is really rendered much more serviceable to society if she partakes of the manly vigor of so many paramours as she can manage..."
"Yes, of course," d'Audierne murmured, only vaguely aware of what he was agreeing to.
"Indeed! And should Providence place a man of exceptional vigor into a young lady's path, then naturally it behooves her to make the most of this dispensation with all alacrity." The young aristocrat shifted forward on her silk-padded bench, bring her animated bosom even closer into d'Audierne's view. Annabelle leaned back behind her and began unlacing the ties at the back of her green satin gown, which slipped slowly lower and lower off her creamy white shoulders. Annabelle reached the bottom of the dress, and with a winsome shimmying movement, the slender young blonde slipped out of it altogether. With a few more tugs at various ties and buckles, the supporting apparatus of the skirt fell away and Annabelle neatly tucked it all under the bench.
"Madamoiselle, what are you..." d'Audierne started to ask, but she leaned forward and held a silencing finger to his lips.