In the high forests of France, just before the hills crack open and shoulder into the clouds to become the snow-capped alps, there is a small town called Roussard-en-Lac.
In the small town of Roussard-en-Lac, there is an olive grove, situated on a rocky shoulder of a hill overlooking the small farming village.
In this olive grove, there is a funeral.
The first tendrils of smoke from his father’s pyre had just reached the tips of the olive trees when the rain began. It was a light rain and Alain, who stood beside his grieving mother, took insult at it’s leniency. His father is a giant, a man of silent honor and capable of love beyond the works of Shakespeare; if it was to rain as he burned, let it be a hurricane and not a weak spattering of cold April droplets.
A grumble ran through the small funeral party; their neighbor M. de Travailleurs shifted from one foot to the other, squinting sourly at the iron-grey sky, beginning to darken over the pine trees to the east. A woman in a sober dress adjusted her wide-brimmed cap gingerly, clearing her throat with a small surprised ahem. Even pere Richards, who had come on foot from Saint-Martin-des-Clelles to preside over the simple ceremony winced as the first droplets splashed on his gleaming pate and black frock.
Alain stood still as a statue, holding his mother’s hand. He stared at the flames, and at the long bundle of cloth atop them. An orange firelight danced among the twined and twisted stumps of the olive grove, holding them in a cradle of warmth.
The olive grove belonged to his uncle, standing gravely beside his wife and son.
After his father had been found in the heart of his barley field, Alain knelt beside his bed and wept with bent head for an entire hour. Then, he had composed himself, kissed his father’s hands, and went to speak to pere Chantilly about a funeral plot in the church graveyard. The priest had refused, saying that his father had borrowed too much from the church, and was in arrears concerning his tithes.
So they had been forced to have a pyre in his uncle Richard’s olive grove, like his father was a filthy protestant or non-believer. The disrespect and shame breathed a flush into the Alain’s cheeks that had nothing to do with the heat from the fire.
After a few minutes the rain strengthened, splattering in heavy drops that guttered the flames. It was the beginning of a spring storm, early for the season. The grove around the pyre came alive with the paper-rustling of rain on grass.
“That’s enough for me.” Pere Chantilly said, making a hasty sign of the cross before turning and leaving. He was followed by M. de Travailleurs and the woman with the hat, who bowed their heads to Alain’s mother and made their mumbled excuses. Alain stared icily after them, but said nothing.
A few moments later, Uncle Richard sputtered a sigh and mopped his face, now dripping.
“Bon, I’m going too.”
“Uncle–!” Alain gasped, recoiling as though his uncle had produced a viper from his pocket. The man shook his head and held up a calloused palm.
“No, don’t look at me that way Alain, I’m soaked through and so is your mother. She’ll catch her death out here. The rain will put the fire out. Marie, come on. I’ll put a kettle on, and we can have a cup of tea.”
The small woman in black beside Alain stirred and made as if to go with the farmer.
“Mother.” Alain implored, holding onto the hand that was secured around his elbow.
She sighed. “Alain, your uncle is right. This weather shows no sign of improving. Your father was a practical man, he would understand.”
Hearing his father referred to as someone who ‘was’ made Alain feel so small he could float away on the next breeze with the ash that rose from his father’s pyre. His mother kissed his hand and pressed it to her cheek. She cast one last look at the blazing pyre before turning and following Uncle Richard down the alley of olive trees, towards the farmhouse. Now it was just Alain and his cousin Michel.
“Well?” Alain demanded of his cousin. “Everyone else left, why don’t you?”
“Would you like me to?” Michel asked, folding his arms.
Alain opened his mouth and found that words had entirely deserted him. He took a shuddering breath.
His father had been everything. He filled every room that he was in with his booming laugh and cheering voice, ever since Alain was a baby. He was unfailingly happy and always in good spirits, despite year after year of hardships and struggle, of terrible harvests. And now he was just…gone. A part of him didn’t believe it. Couldn’t. He couldn’t fathom a world without Pierre Dubois.
And still his father burned in front of his eyes.
“I didn’t think so.” Michel said. “I’ll stay. Someone should watch after you anyway. You know, in case you do something foolish.”
Alain laughed in spite of himself, a brash and boisterous noise that sounded something like a goose being surprised. The first fight Alain ever had provoked was because of his laugh; Gascon Theiruoux had mocked him for it in front of Sarah Michelles at a harvest celebration when they were both seven. Alain had bloodied the boy’s nose, and had received his first black eye in return, the first of countless.
“What foolishness could I possible get into over my father’s pyre?”
“I’m not sure.” Michel said. “That’s why I’m staying.”
The two young men stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the rain, watching the fire take lazy, smouldering bites of the linen shroud. Here and there bits of a hideous frame were exposed, charred skin and shockingly white bone. Alain swallowed against the lump in his throat and didn’t look away. He would watch until the end. It was what a musketeer would do.
Alain had wanted to be a part of the famous musketeers since he was four, when a corps of them had stayed in Roussard-en-Lac for a night on their way to the alpine forests of Vercour to deal with the notorious bandits that crawled through them. To young Alain, they had been bigger than life. Larger, dare he say it, than even his father. They laughed so loud it sounded like boulders cracking, mocked with vicious wit, drank and ate to excess and quarrelled incessantly with each other, rattling their rapiers and brandishing fists at the slightest offense.
The next morning, Marie Dubois had pulled her son from beneath a pile of saddlebags and demanded exactly what he thought he was doing, whereupon the young Alain announced his intention to ride with the musketeers to the bandit encampment. He displayed the wooden stick he had selected for this auspicious occasion, stuck into his belt (to his immortal disgust there wasn’t a single scabbard in the house–he vowed to borrow one from a fallen bandit so that he would be better attired in the future.) Delighted, the musketeers had clapped him on the back and cheered before they departed. Every day forth for Alain Dubois had been working towards the ideal of his youth; becoming a king’s musketeer.
His father, upon hearing of his oldest son’s passion, was ecstatic. He swept Alain immediately off his feet and carried him, giggling, into the field for his first riding lesson. They had a lesson every Sunday morning after that.
“Follow your dreams, Alain my boy.” He would say, lifting Alain up and placing him on the saddle of their plow-horse for another lesson. “Without them, life will slip past you without you having any chance at it.” Only a young boy of seven, but Alain thought he could see a hint of sadness in his father’s eyes. Only for a second, and then his cheerful, bouncing father would come back and he would ruffle Alain’s hair and slap the horse on the rear, shouting for the boy to steer with his knees.
Ah, but now his father was gone. Just like Remy.
Tears threatened in his eyes and he wiped them with the back of a hand. A musketeer did not cry.
“Ah, I thought I heard your donkey-braying, Alain.” A drawling and snide voice carried through the rain. “I’m surprised that your watch still stands. It’s a miserable day out.”
“What are you doing here, Gascon?” Alain’s hands curled into fists.
The owner of the voice, a tall and handsome youth with a head full of a black curls and a hand clenched around the neck of a wine bottle, ducked around the limbs of a tree and raised his arms wide. There were two other boys his age behind him, silent and still-faced.
“I’m here to pay respects.”
“And you needed to bring two others with you?” Michel asked dryly.
“They’re here in case your cousin does something characteristically stupid.”
“You dare to insult me at my father’s deathbed? Haven’t you done enough to my family?” Alain nearly choked on the sudden wave of choler that gripped him. He took a quickstep towards Gascon but Michel caught him neatly, pulling him back.
“You see?” Gascon sneered. “That’s why these two are here.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Alain said pulling out of Michel’s embrace. He struggled to maintain his patience, but he could already feel the blood beginning to thrum in his palms–the first sign of a fight beginning to brew. “You have no right to be here, Gascon.”
“I’m here to pay my respects to the departed.” Gascon repeated stubbornly, meeting Alain’s hostile gaze evenly. “Our quarrel aside, your father was a good man, a kind man, and I owe him my life, and therefore have earned a place at his pyre. I would have a moment.”
The youth’s face was white despite the mostly-empty bottle he clutched in a death grip, and there were deep purple circles under his eyes. Michel placed a hand on the crook of Alain’s elbow.
“Peace, cousin. A musketeer remains dignified, n’est pas? A funeral is no place for a brawl, eh? Give him a moment, for the sake of your father. You may not like it, but he’s right.”
Alain inhaled sharply, clenching his jaw. After a moment he nodded, but Michel was right; he didn’t like it.
Gascon approached the pyre, ignoring the Alain’s glare. He bowed his head, and lifted the bottle over the snapping flames. His lips moved silently, forming words that only God heard. For a moment, the olive grove was silent.
Gascon lifted the wine to his lips and drank deeply.
“Satisfied?” Alain spat. His face, too, was white, save two circles of scarlet that burned high on his cheekbones.
The black-haired man upended the bottle, pouring what was left in front of the pyre.
“For you, Pierre. For a debt that will never be paid.” He spun on a heel, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “Think fast, boy.”
The bottle whistled through the air, nothing but a silhouette against the dark that was rising from the base of the olive trees, but Alain seized it before it shattered over his face.
A measure of expression had returned to Gascon’s face; a far cry from the withdrawn and pale man who had approached the dead man. He was flushed, arrogant.
“It would be a low day for the musketeers when they allowed a pup such as you into their ranks.”
“A fine thing for the third son of a butcher to say.” Alain retorted. “Tell me, what inheritance will be left for you after your brothers take their cut? Perhaps you’ll be able to scrape together enough for a room in Lyon to become a court lackey for Monsieur Jessieu. I’m told that being the mistress of a Jessieu cousin comes with a pretty allowance.”
Gascon, whose acquaintances with one of the distant cousins attached to the noble house of Lyon was the subject of much teasing and gossip in Roussard-en-Lac, bared his teeth.
“The wrong Dubois died six years ago. It should have been you, at the bottom of that lake. Your stupidity killed your brother.”
“That does it! You go too far, connard!” Alain broke the wine bottle over a tree limb and took a step towards Gascon, brandishing the splintered remains. Michel was right behind him this time, his hands clenched into tight fists and the glow of the fire in his eyes.
“That’s enough!” A voice thundered through the olive grove, stopping the young men in their tracks. Richard stood beneath a lit torch, the disgust on his face illuminated in harsh shadow. “Alain, put that down. This is your father’s pyre, for the love of God. Gascon, step back. Have some respect, the two of you.”
Neither man moved. They stared at each other with naked dislike.
“I said step back!” Richard bellowed. “Or so help me I’ll beat the both of you.”
Gascon spat onto the ground and took a step back. Alain growled in inarticulate anger and threw the broken wine bottle away.
“That’s better.” Richard grunted. “Gascon, have you had your say to the departed?”
“I have.” Gascon said through clenched teeth.
“Then be on your way. Take your louts with you. Alain, Michel, with me.”
“But the fire–”
“The rain will take care of it.” Richard interrupted. “Your mother needs you now. Go.”
A muscle in Alain’s jaw flexed and his eyes were hot, but he did as he was bid, Michel right behind him.
“Mommy’s calling!” Gascon called with false cheer, waving over Richard’s shoulder. “Until next time, pup!”
Alain whirled, spouting curses, but Michel put a shoulder into his side and forced him backwards a step. Together they disappeared into the darkness.
“That boy’s recklessness is going to get him killed.” Gascon said, tutting with disapproval and shaking his head.
“If I wasn’t standing at the grave of my brother, boy, I’d crush your head like an egg.” Richard growled, and there was a vicious snarl of anger in his voice that almost forced Gascon back a step.
“As it is, don’t think I’m not planning on going to Peychaud’s to pull your father’s head out of his drink to inform him of what you’ve done. I would imagine he’d want a word when you got home.”
The snide smirk on Gascon’s face curdled into apprehension.
“Now get off my land.”
The three young men turned and skulked away, leaving the farmer alone with the smoldering remains of the bonfire.
“He’s right you know.” Richard sighed, rubbing a hand along his face. He suddenly looked twenty years older. “He’s your son, through and through. And unless he learns a little temperance, he is going to get himself killed.” He huffed a sudden sob, blinking tears that mirrored the dull coals. “And I’m getting tired of going to family funerals, eh?”
There was no answer but the gentle moaning of the wind, and the patter of rain against the olive trees.
Too many things turned on Alain’s mind to allow him to sleep that night. The gaping loss of his father, first, lurked in the back of his mind–every now and then his troubled thoughts would turn to something else and it would surge back, tripping him into that dark hole of grief, only to fade again.
He was also furious with that bastard Gascon, for the scene that he had caused at his father’s remains. They had been rivals since they were seven, but it was the death of Remy that turned their childish dislike into a bitter feud, evolving from a pair of boys rolling in the dirt to two young men seeking to do more serious harm. Alain had broken Gascon’s forearm the summer when they were both fifteen, and the sallow-cheeked filth had once sunk two inches of a shovel blade into Alain’s calf–he had only learned to walk without a limp the previous autumn. They were locked together, he and Gascon, two vipers with tails intertwined, writhing and snapping at each other with no end in sight.
But what he thought about most, what tormented him and kept him from sleep, was what he was supposed to do now.
With his father dead, the running of the farm fell to him as the only living son (there was a crack of grief in that statement, too, a crack that could turn into an abyss if he thought about it too much) and spring was almost upon them. He would have to purchase seeds and plant the fields, whilst milking the two goats, caring for the plow-horse, and checking the chickens for eggs. Come May, it would be time to reap and re-sow, taking the barley to the market in Saint-Martin-des-Clelles to find a good price for it at the market, supplemented maybe by the cheese his mother made from the goat’s milk. The same routine, plant, tend, feed, reap, scratch a living…year in and year out. The farm was, to him, a monster that was poised to swallow his dreams whole, to consume every one of his waking days.
In a flash, he saw himself as an old man–married to a faceless wife, father to faceless children. Would his children have the same dreams as he? Would he encourage those dreams, if only for the sake of being unable to live his own? Would his own children, as he had, see the single flash of regret and sadness on his face as he had seen on his father’s? It was a bleak thought.
And yet, how could he not accept that responsibility? His poor mother was every bit as practical and capable of his father (although the lovely woman would protest and demur against that description), but she couldn’t be expected to handle the everyday chores of the house–cooking, cleaning, ironing, sewing–as well as maintaining the fields and animals. It was a two-person bargain. And now there were only two of them left.
Was his dream even viable anymore? He didn’t know, but a deeper and darker part of him–the part that sneered at his attempts to improve himself, the part that whispered doubts in his ear, said no. A post in the musketeers was one of the most sought-after in the King’s army; any man could join if they proved themselves worthy. It was the only posting that didn’t require the weight of a family crest or noble blood. All a soul needed was the courage to stand in front of the sword that was falling upon the innocent, and the pride to take a stand against those that would threaten the health of his Majesty, Louis XIII.
Also, a letter of recommendation from a close friend of the King’s, five thousand livres to afford equipment and the performance of a meritorious service that personally caught the eye of the king. But Alain dismissed these as minute details that would come in time. What mattered was that he had the necessary character–he believed that with every fiber of his heart. His father had believed it too.
It was the soulless part of the night, moonless, dark and a long way before dawn, when he decided upon a plan of action. He dressed swiftly, stuffing a few items of clothing into a leather pack sack. He sat at the desk that stood in front of the window looking out into the goat-field and wrote a hasty letter to his mother beneath the light from a single candle, folding it and sealing it in an envelope with a kiss.
Twenty minutes later, the letter was on the kitchen table, the single plow-horse was saddled, and Alain was leading it out of the yard. He had one more stop to make tonight. Every knight needed a squire.
“Michel! Psst! Michel, are you awake?” Alain pressed his face to the narrowly opened window that looked into his cousin’s bedroom. No answer.
“Michel!” He hissed again.
“What?” His cousin groaned. He couldn’t see, but Alain imagined him lying in bed, face pressed into the pillow wishing desperately that Alain would go away.
“Come here. To the window!”
Michel heaved a heavy sigh, which was followed by sleepy footfalls and the window opening wide enough to allow a very irritable face to poke out. His black hair stuck up around his head in little towers, and he yawned, shivering in the cool air.
“What do you want, Alain?”
“Pack a bag. We’re going on a trip.”
His cousin sighed again. “Goodnight Alain.”
“No, no wait!” He stuck his arm into the closing window. “I’m taking my father’s ashes to Grandfather’s plot in Plan-de-Baix!”
Michel paused, halfway to the bed.
“That priest–may God be good and grant him piles–refused my father a proper burial. So I’m going to take his ashes to the family plot. By law, he has a place there.”
His cousin turned back towards the window, skepticism sketched on his face.
“That’s a week-long trip, by the shortest route.”
“And that route happens to run through the spine of the Vercours Massif, where bandits have roosted for the better part of a century.”
“Your point?” Alain asked.
“My god, boy, have you lost your mind?” Now it was Michel’s turn to hiss, drawing closer to the window. “You’re talking about wandering blithely through the most treacherous passes this side of France armed with nothing but what? Your wits?”
“Don’t be preposterous.” Alain scoffed. “We’re going to borrow your father’s sword. The one he brought back with him from the Spanish campaign.”
“Absolutely not.” Michel said. “No way. That sword sits on our mantel for a reason.”
“Why not?” Alain demanded. “The planting isn’t for another two weeks, at least. Uncle Richard and mother can handle the chores for a week. I left her a letter, explaining. She’ll understand. And we’ll have the sword back to your father before he even misses it.”
Michel slapped one of his cheeks. “This is a dream. I have to be dreaming.”
“Michel. Please.” Alain dropped his gaze to look at his hands. They were like his father’s hands–large, callused, clumsy. But strong. “You know as well as I that his soul belongs in heaven. You really think it’s going to find it’s way there from your father’s olive grove?”
For once, Michel didn’t have a witty retort. He looked at his cousin, his expressions clear on his painfully honest face. Dismay, skepticism and amusement battled for dominance…but there was also a softness beneath it all. A softness that Alain had seen many times. A tiny smile curled the corner of his mouth. He almost had him. He tried one more tact.
“I’m asking you for help. Man to man. I don’t want to do this alone.”
Silence. Michel stared at him, his arms folded and face a scramble of emotion. Alain waited with bated breath. He had been here before; the place where his cousin either threw in his lots with him or chose sense and sensibility.
“What do you plan to eat?” Michel threw his hands in the air.
Alain’s grin widened.
They rode out of Roussard-en-Lac two hours later, as the sky above the pine trees to the west was beginning to show the first signs of grey. Pierre’s ashes rode in Alain’s saddlebag, safely tucked into a wooden box he had stolen from his mother’s spice drawer.
Michel had purloined what was left of a cured ham and two loaves of bread from the kitchen, which, combined with the crock of butter, small wheel of cheese and dried apricots that Alain had in their saddlebags, both boys agreed they could eat comfortably for two days, three if they stretched their rations–by which time they would be in Plein-en-Baix. Besides, they were both experienced with setting snares for rabbits and squirrels. They wouldn’t starve.
The shallow valleys shot through with cultivated fields of wheat and barley began to rise and crumble, exposing faces of white limestone as they rode west. The unbroken facade of pine forests fractured and floated apart, split by rolling green hills. Soon, they turned off the main road to a narrow horse track that took a turn and rose, steeply switching up the face of a valley ridge before plunging down the other side. They paused at the top, giving their horses a much-needed break. Some hundred feet below them, the valley of Roussard stretched to the Avignognet Lake in a patchwork of golden and greed fields. A clean, wind soared through the pine boughs.
Behind them were the first peaks of the Vercours Massif, dark and heavy with clouds. Distantly, the roar of a waterfall could be heard. Alain inhaled, a wide grin stretched on his face. Excitement buzzed in his ears, and his heart beat quick with adventure. He was in his element; this is what he was born to do–travel, experience life with nothing but a friend at his back and a sword wrapped in his saddlebags. In the future, ideally, he would be the owner of the sword instead of his uncle, but still.
“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” He asked.
Michel leaned an elbow on his saddle, one eyebrow raised. “Amazing. It’s almost like we don’t live three leagues down that way, right?”
“Michel, I’ll have no more of your negativity. Come along.” Alain clicked his tongue and urged his horse forward.
They rode all that day in high spirits, swapping stories and cracking jokes, following the network of narrow dirt paths that criss-crossed the valleys of the Massif, headed steadily west. They ate a light lunch on horseback, and when the sun dipped below the ridges that rose steeply to the west, casting blue shadows that pooled and slunk along the valley floor, they tied their horses to a sturdy oak and made camp. There was plenty of dry wood about, and soon they were taking turns toasting pieces of ham on sticks over a snapping fire.
“See now isn’t this a grand piece of adventure?” Alain asked, blowing on a sizzling piece of ham.
“It’s not bad.” Michel admitted, reclining against the trunk of an oak tree. Overhead, the sky was a slowly darkening shade of navy, and the first glittering stars were beginning their dance in the spaces between the black silhouettes of leaves. He pulled the heavy wool blanket over himself, squirming a bit to get comfortable. “It’s not bad at all. I’m going to get some sleep. Wake me in a few hours.”
“Who decided you get to sleep first?” Alain protested, stifling a yawn. “This trip was my idea, I should be the first one–”
But Michel’s breathing had already slowed, his head lolling comfortably against the oak tree. He was already asleep.
Alain snorted and ate the last of his ham, getting up with a stretch to stow the rest of the food. His uncle’s sword was leaning against a tree beside Michel, and he picked it up, admiring the way the light of the fire played against the steel edge. It was a plain sword, devoid of decoration or filigree. A half-basket extended from the hilt, designed to protect the wielder’s hand during a fight while not compromising the movement of his wrist.
He swung it experimentally. It was heavier than it looked; he had to hold it with two hands to keep the tip from dipping towards the dirt.
He gripped the sword a little tighter and swung it again, this time diagonally across his body. It felt awkward and unnatural. He supposed that he just needed practice–he had never swung a sword before. He went through a few more practice swings, just in case.
The watch passed peacefully. He fed the fire to keep the early spring chill at bay, and after a while he woke Michel for his turn. He rolled himself in his blanket, and soon fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Trouble came for them the next day.
They were properly in the Massif now; mountains overtook the horizon in jagged, cracked peaks. Cliffs of white limestone choked with green weeds jutted from the steep ravines which dropped thirty meters to white-water rivers. The two young men were riding on a narrow strip of road, bordered on one side by forest and a valley on the other that fell steeply to a river below. It was early; the rising sun painted the peaks of the Massif in a wash of orange glow.
“Ho there!” Some distance up the path, a man was seated on a small boulder. He waved gaily.
“Who’s that?” Michel reined in his horse. A cart missing a wheel was pulled over to the side of the road, balanced on a large boulder.
“Someone who needs help, clearly.” Alain said. “Come on, let’s see if we can get him on his way.”
“What if he’s a bandit?” Michel asked. He looked worried. Alain peered at the stranger; he was young, perhaps a few years older than they, and dressed in the unassuming garb of a common merchant. The back of the wagon was loaded with small barrels. He shook his head.
“He’s just a merchant. See his wares there? He’s probably just in need of assistance. Come on.”
“Alain, I don’t like this.” Michel said. He cast a wary glance into the forest, but there was nothing but the chirp of birds. “It feels like a trap.”
Alain scoffed, rolling his eyes. He was used to his cousin’s streak of over-cautiousness, but fortune favored the bold.
“Stay here if you like, ninny. I’m going to help him.” He clicked his tongue and urged his horse forward. “A musketeer never hesitates to offer aid to those in need!” He called over his shoulder.
Michel’s mouth puckered into a frown, but he squeezed his knees and followed his cousin.
“Ho there, goodman.” Alain called in greeting, raising a hand. “How do you fare today?”
“Not so well, as you can see there.” The stranger pulled a face and gestured towards his wagon. He had a round, jovial face shadowed by the hint of a beard and green eyes that seemed to glow in the early morning sun. “My horse took a turn too fast and my wheel fell prey to these god-forsaken rocks.”
Alain nodded sympathetically. They had been forced to stop twice already that day to remove rocks from their horses’ hooves.
“I’ve a spare in the back of the wagon, but I’m not strong enough to hold up the weight of the wagon myself and install it.”
“Would you like a hand?” Alain offered genially, jumping from his saddle. “My friend and I there can hold the weight of the wagon while you bolt on the new wheel.”
“Would you really?” The merchant’s face lit up as he looked from Alain to Michel. “You’re my saviors, true as the sun that rises in the west!” He stuck a hand out.
“Philippe Noel, at your service, and a thousand thanks.”
“Alain Dubois.” Alain said, shaking. “The grump up there on the horse is my cousin, Michel. Please, think nothing of it. Michel, planning to help out, or are you going to continue sitting on your horse looking like you just took a bite from a lemon?”
Michel frowned but slid from his saddle, walking his horse beside Alain’s.
“Please, sir, I absolutely understand your hesitation.” Phillippe said to him. “I myself was tremendously wary of strangers in these woods. And why not? They’ve been the home to bandits for almost fifty years now. If it would make you feel better–” He laid a hand over his heart and smiled. He seemed to radiate a sense of peace and tranquility. “–I swear to you on my son’s life, I mean you no harm.”
¨There, see?” Alain said before Michel could open his mouth. “Sorted. We’ve always time to lend a hand to our fellow man. Monsieur Phillippe, grab your wheel. Michel, you take that corner and I’ll take this one. Ready? On three. One, two…”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop you right there.” Phillippe pulled a musket from the depths of the wagon where it was hiding beneath a blanket. He was still smiling. “Sorry, boys.”
Michel dropped the wagon and started swearing.
“You scoundrel!” Alain cried. “We were just trying to help!”
Phillippe’s smile widened. “A most admirable job you were doing, too, sir.” He whistled sharply.
Two men stepped onto the road from behind the stout oak trees, where they had been hiding. Another dropped lithely to his feet from the limbs above. They clapped and whistled, like the curtains had just drawn on a stage drama. Alain felt a flush beginning to creep along his collarbone. They had been suckered.
“Bravo, Phillippe!” One called as they made their way over. “Your best performance yet!”
A long dirk was strapped to his thigh, and a basket-hilted sword hung from his waist.
“You’re an inspiration, honestly.” The man who dropped from the tree said, shaking his head in admiration. A longbow was slung over his back, inside a quiver of arrows. His lean face was puckered with scars from an old disease that Alain wished had been incredibly painful at the time. “The last time Claude played bait they smelled him for what he was from twenty yards!”
“That can’t possibly be my fault.” The third man–Claude, presumably–snorted. “You sneezed loud enough to wake the birds.”
“Gentlemen, may I introduce our first course for the day?” Phillippe said. He gestured with the mouth of the musket. “This is Michel, and if he had been alone I have no doubt he would have recognized our little trap here. But this–” The musket moved, pointed at Alain’s face. “– is Alain, and it’s owing to his sense of generosity of general do-goodedness that they stopped to help a poor merchant.” He pouted obscenely.
“You would be the bandits of Vercours Massif, then?” Alain asked between clenched teeth.
The bandits laughed. Phillippe made a mock-curtsy–but the barrel of the musket didn’t waver so much as a centimeter. “Quite so. Actually, we have the honor to be second-generation. Guidry there–” He nodded towards the bandit with the sword at his belt, who bowed ironically. “–his father and mine plied their trade over most of the western valleys in their day, God rest them.”
Alain had his own thoughts about the state of the bandit’s father’s soul, but he kept those to himself. Betrayal, wounded pride and anger all roiled inside him, hot and ready.
“But…you swore on your son’s life.” He said, and even to him his words sounded weak and feeble–the protestations of a boy, not a man. And certainly not those of a future musketeer.
His flush deepened. The bandits roared with laughter.
“He doesn’t have a son, Alain.” Michel said from behind him. His cousin sounded bitter and angry.
“It’s true, I don’t! Oh you sweet boy!” Phillippe said. “You’re like–like a little rabbit. All white and fluffy and trusting!” The bandit was actually blinking away tears now, his substantial frame shaking with laughter.
Alain acted on instinct, borne on a flash of white fury. He grabbed the barrel of the musket with both hands and shoved as hard as he could.
Phillippe, not expecting the strike, staggered backward and flailed for balance. The other bandits went for their weapons but Alain was already moving. He struck the man with the basket-hilted sword in the face, hard. He felt the bandit’s nose crunch beneath his knuckles, followed by a wet, warm flow of blood. Beside him, the archer yelped with pain as Michel kicked him.
Alain backed up, readying his fists, and heard an annoyed nicker as he bumped into his horse.
He turned and drew it with a cry, swinging it wildly. The third man–Claude–jumped back, his eyes narrowing warily. He held a iron mace in one hand.
“Ah so our rabbits have a bite to them, don’t they?”
“Get back!” Alain cried, swinging again. He felt a slight twinge in his shoulders from the sudden weight. “Get back or I’ll–”
The cool morning air rang with a steely rasp as the bandit Guidry drew his sword. His nose and mouth gleamed a brilliant red in the golden sunlight.
“A duel, then, boy.” His teeth flashed white in a bloody smile.
“Alain, don’t.” Michel muttered beside him. “Look at him, he clearly–”
“I accept.” Alain said, ignoring his cousin. A musketeer never turned down a duel–to do so meant humiliation.
Guidry’s grin stretched. “Come along then, child. Today is your first lesson.”
Alain lunged forward, swinging the heavy sword diagonally. His anger was up in full force. He had been tricked, embarrassed, made a fool of. It could not be taken any longer–he must defend himself, yes of course but more importantly he must defend his pride.
‘Pride is all a man has, boys.” His father had told him and Remy once. “Fame, riches, good fortune…they all come and go, fickle as the east wind And when they do? Pride is all that’s left. Do you understand?”
Alain understood now, better than ever.
The bandit, much to his dismay, simply sidestepped the clumsy strike. Alain stumbled and barely managed to catch his balance, bringing the sword en guarde.
“A valiant effort.” Guidry said. He turned and spat a wad of blood-shot spittle onto the dirt of the path. Alain hoped he broke the man’ nose. “But too much. Learn what your opponent is capable of–”
His words hung still in the air as he suddenly shifted, darting forward and to Alain’s left. A loud rip, and suddenly Alain’s doublet sagged from the clean six-inch slice along his ribs…and then the bandit was standing on his other side, blade held almost negligently. With an ugly shock, Alain realized the man could have gutted him with that movement. But he didn’t–he was being toyed with.
“–before you fully commit. Lesson one; patience.” The bandit finished with a roguish wink.
Alain growled and leapt forward, thrusting blindly at the bandit’s face. The bandit slapped his blade away easily and surged forward, moving inside Alain’s reach. Suddenly the boy was off balance, his sword behind the man, attempting to awkwardly spin around him. Guidry bared his teeth in a hungry smile and put a shoulder into Alain’s chest, sending the boy sprawling into the road.
The bandits raised their voices in a cheer.
“Lesson two. Never attack so recklessly you lower your guard.”
Alain got up, spitting with rage. The bandit said something else, but the young man wasn’t listening. He lunged at him, hammering at the bandit in a series of wild, furious strikes, moving closer and closer. Guidry parried each thrust but with increasing difficulty; the strength of Alain’s blows were getting harder and harder to deflect. For a split second, Alain thought he saw the arrogant smirk on the Guidry’s face flicker into uncertainty as they locked blades, and he felt a surge of triumph–
and then Guidry kicked him in the balls. Pain shot through his gut in a flash of white, so intense he felt acid bile shoot up his throat. He dropped the sword and collapsed to his knees, clutching his crotch. His testicles retreated upwards, hard as rocks.
“You bastard!” Michel cried, leaping forward, but Phillippe stuck the barrel of his musket into his side and he subsided, outraged.
The bandit knelt down, face to face with the boy.
“You cheated. You won without honor.” Alain managed through the pain that threatened to choke him. He had the man–he had seen it that flicker of uncertainty. Or, if he didn’t have a chance at victory, he could have at least acquitted himself well, defended his pride.
“The third lesson.” The bandit said. “Honor goes to the victor; there is none in defeat.”
He wiped the blood dripping from his chin and regarded it briefly before flicking it casually in Alain’s face. “You’ve a hell of a bite for a little rabbit, though, that much I’ve got to give to you.”
He stood. “What have they worth taking?”
Claude and the archer began gleefully rifling through their saddlebags, throwing their clothes and other personal possessions into the road. Michel moved to stop them, his face coloring with anger once again.
“Ah ah ah.” Philippe tutted, prodding him backwards with the musket. “Another move and I’ll put a hole through you, boy. Stay still. We’ll not be killing you today, not if you don’t do anything stupid like your friend.”
“Not much.” Claude said. “A bit of food, some odds and ends.”
“Not even worth the effort to rob.” Guidry turned back to Alain, pulling a face and tutting. “I thought as much. Another poor village boy, off to make his fortune, eh?” He prodded Alain with a boot and laughed.
Alain stared at the road. His testicles aches with hot fire, and shame flushed his face.
“Ooh, what’s this?” The archer pulled the wooden box from Alain’s saddlebag. “Looks like–”
“Don’t touch that!” Both boys shouted in unison. The archer’s eyebrows rose and he looked at Guidry.
“Well, well, well.” The bandit said, walking over to the horses. “Clearly something of value, here. What is it then, boys?” He held out a hand and caught it deftly as the archer tossed it.
“Spice of some kind?”
“My father’s ashes, actually, you utter cow.” Alain spat. The pain in his crotch faded momentarily in the face of this fresh insult.
“Oh?” Guidry asked. He snapped the lid shut and weighed the small box in the palm of his hand, frowning. “It’s quite light. Was he a small man, your father?”
The bandits laughed. Alain and Michel did not.
“Oh, here take it.” Guidry tossed the box to Michel. “We’ve no use for ashes. Tie up the horses, Claude, we’ll take them along with the food. As for you two–”
He turned and looked at Michel and Alain with a sort of amusement.
“There’s a small hunting village about five leagues down that road there. Keep heading east, following the river. They’ll give you a bed and food for the night, and you can begin making your way back to whatever cow-shit spread field you´re from. Oh, and I’ll be taking this. A little souvenir, n’est pas?” He winked and retrieved Richard’s sword from where Alain had dropped it in the dirt. “Besides, I wouldn’t want you to trip and hurt yourself on the walk today.”
The bandits mounted up.
“Consider this first lesson free, farmboy.” Guidry said from his saddle, tucking uncle Richard’s sword into his saddle. He didn’t even bother to look at Alain. “If you seek another, the cost will be more dear, I assure you. Hup!” He dug his heels into his horse’s side.
“Goodbye, rabbits!” Phillippe called as they set off down the road, the boy’s horses and supplies in tow. “And welcome to the Massif!”
Soon, all that was left of the bandits was echo of their cheerful banter echoing on the still morning air up the valley.
Alain stood slowly, glaring after them. A fury burned in his chest, hot and ugly.
Pride is all a man has, boys. His fatherś voice echoed in his ears.
He would have his revenge. A musketeer never forgot a debt to be paid.